The woman is right. It’s one of the simplest dishes in the Serbian repertoire, but it isn’t and doesn’t need to be boring. Essentially the same thing as grits or polenta, Serbs usually eat it as a sweetened porridge for breakfast. Other varieties turn the cornmeal into a firm cake or a kind of hardened, simple bread. Some recipes use milk or yogurt instead of water, and a lot of cooks add cheese, lard, ham or bacon to the mixture. The most common addition, though, is potato – it’s what separates Serbian kačamak from other polenta-like dishes.
We wanted a cake that was flavorful, vegetarian, savory and distinctly Serbian. This is a non-traditional dish that mixes ingredients and elements from a handful of traditional varieties: tomatos from the greenhouse, coarse paprika, leeks, parsley, sheep cheese. Also, beautiful, pink-skinned fingerling potatoes.
The main divisional line between types of kačamak is drawn by comparing the fineness of the cornmeal. Finer, white meals are typically used to make more-breadlike versions or very uniform mush. Coarse, yellow corn is used for gruels and cakes. It cooks easily. It's a tactile process. You can tell when it's done by the movement of your spoon.
The next step is to ruin everything by dumping in a quart and a half of water (color diluted, heady scent diminished, bits of pepper and parsley floating palely). With the water, add two cups of loosely cubed potatoes (skin on or off, it’s up to you). Bring to a boil and then simmer rapidly for half an hour or so until the potatoes are very tender when pricked with a fork – they should be cooked, in other words.
The cornmeal should soften and begin to congeal within a few minutes, the whole pot should be orange with tomato and spice, the bubbles should become bigger and more purposeful (volcanic, maybe) as everything thickens. If there’s not enough water, add a little. If, after about twenty minutes of stirring, the mixture seems nowhere near thick enough, add a quarter cup more cornmeal (and more if that’s not enough). When you sense that it’s done enough, add in your cheese.
Pour or scoop everything into a greased, pre-head pan and cook over high heat for a few minutes until it seems the underside might be about to begin actually frying. Then, remove from the heat altogether and let cool for an hour. Carefully flip the kačamak cake out onto a plate when you think it’s hardened enough. If it’s too soft, it’s not really a problem – it’s still good if it’s broken up or a little loose.
Here’s the recipe:
3 cups coarse, yellow cornmeal
2 cups chopped fingerling potatoes
2 medium tomatoes, cubed
1 leek, cut up
4 cloves garlic, diced
¼ pound semi-soft sheep cheese
1 cup de-stemmed fresh parsley
Spices derived from peppers
Olive oil or butter
1 ½ quarts water
-In a large pot, sauté leeks in oil for a few minutes with the spice. Add tomatoes and garlic when onions are cooked. Cook at a nice simmer for a while until everything is sweet, thick and delicious. Add the parsley.
-Add potatoes and water. Bring to a boil and then cook at a rapid simmer for about half an hour, or until potatoes are very fork-tender.
-Stir in cornmeal. Break up potatoes with a wooden or slotted spoon, or lightly with a masher. Keep stirring as meal breaks down and thickens, making sure to keep the bottom of the pot clean and un-stuck. If the mash thickens too quickly, add a little water. After about twenty minutes, begin adding cornmeal until the mixture becomes very thick and seems about to become cake-batter like. Use good judgment and trust yourself to guess. Stir in the cheese.
- Serve the kačamak as is, as a hot polenta, or pour into a greased saucepan and cook over high heat for a minute or two, until it seems the bottom might be about to begin frying. Remove from heat and let cool for about an hour, or until firm enough to slice or plate.
Before we found kačamak, it seemed impossible to cook Serbian vegetarian dishes. Serbs themselves might dismiss it as peasant food, but we were in love - it's both decadent and light, flavorful and versatile. The cake reminded us of a savory, moist corn muffin made large, something you could use for a hearty sandwich or a starch alongside a meat, fish or salad.
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Check out all of our recipes.