September 30, 2020

Bonnie Tawse

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A Taste of the Balkans in Michigan

The Videnovich family has been growing peppers near Bridgman since 1962

Late September is peak pepper season here in the Midwest.

On the Videnovich family farm near Bridgman, Michigan, that means hand-picking, sorting, hauling and hustling a stunning array of chiles: fire-engine-red peppers with names like Super Shepherd and Carmen, elegant banana peppers in shades from pale yellow to sunset orange, and Italian bells with the gloss and glow of a new Ferrari.

The farm is best known for its horn-shaped ajvarski peppers, which, true to their name, are ideal for the beloved Balkan condiment, salad, dip, and spread ajvar (“eye-var”), a rich paste sometimes called “Serbian caviar.”

I recently walked the fields with Vera Videnovich—fields that have been in her family since her father, Bozin, purchased this twenty-five acre spread and the house on it in 1962. He cultivated the vegetables that he had eaten growing up in the mountains of eastern Serbia: peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, onions, cabbages, and more, sometimes from seed stock that his brother brought from the Balkans.

A Taste of the Balkans in Michigan - Quote

Fire-engine-red peppers with names like Super Shepherd and Carmen, elegant banana peppers in shades from pale yellow to sunset orange, and Italian bells with the gloss and glow of a new Ferrari.

The five children worked the land, taking on responsibility for much of the farm’s production when they were young because their father struggled with heart disease. “If we wanted to eat it, we had to grow it,” Vera says. She and her brothers George and Rade continue to work the land, harvesting many of the same vegetables their father did. “This is my wealth,” Vera says. “This is what my value system is.”

The siblings have carved out their own plots, their own customers, and their own styles of farming: Vera grows all of her vegetables organically. George grows his conventionally. Rade grows more commodity crops—corn and soybeans. Each has a day job: George and Rade are mechanics, which explains the cars and farm equipment in various states of repair that flank the gravel driveway. Vera is a consultant for a horticulture program that helps disabled adults in Chicago.

Vera is also committed to seed saving and growing heirloom crops. Her plots are brambly but diverse, full of plants with backstories. She shows me a slender pepper that looks like its red skin has been stitched with yellow thread and tells me that she first discovered it when she was in Turin, Italy, a few years ago, as a delegate for Slow Food Chicago. “It’s a Macedonian pepper called ‘Vezeni,’ which means ‘embroidered,’ because of the way it looks,” she says. We both agree that it is oddly gorgeous. She tells me that it’s good eating, too. “A bit of heat, but not too much.”

The Videnovich siblings maintain a connection to the local Serbian community. It’s not unusual for a carload of Serbs to show up this time of year—sometimes unannounced, almost always coming for bushels of peppers, plus whatever else looks good. On my visit, George was sorting through buckets of red Super Shepherds. He was picking out the best. He would deliver six bushels of them the next morning to the Nativity of the Mother of God Serbian Orthodox Monastery in nearby New Carlisle, Indiana, where they would be cooked for a Slava, a traditional religious feast.

Vera is planning to host cooking classes on the farm eventually. That day, she had prepared a pepper-focused feast for a small group of friends who happily sampled roasted pepper salad, banana peppers stuffed with a luscious combination of sour cream and feta, and a gloriously simple but refreshing salad of cucumbers, onions, peppers, and cucumbers called shopska. Feedback was full of superlatives, with one happy eater proclaiming that it was the best meal she’d eaten since before the pandemic. A few pepper-shy participants went home new converts, cradling multiple varieties in their arms.

“There’s something about peppers and daylight, for the best flavor, you really have to wait until after Labor Day for them to start to turn,” Vera tells me. When I ask George about the admiration his longtime customers have for the Videnovich peppers—for roasting them, pickling them, transforming them into ajvar, and serving them at feasts, he shrugs, “Well, they could buy peppers at the store, and they can buy the ajvar already in the jars, but it’s just not the same.”

Vera’s Yellow Peppers Stuffed with Sour Cream and Feta (Paprike Punjene Pavlakom i Feta Sirom)

Serves 8-10 as an appetizer or side

This is a simple but decadent way to use up the bounty of peppers that show up in gardens and markets in late summer and early fall. The creaminess of the feta and sour cream contrast nicely with the crunch of the peppers. The salt in the feta starts to “pickle” the peppers as they sit. Vera uses whatever sweet peppers are most prolific in her own garden at the farm, but she says you can use hot peppers as well, as the dairy mixture works nicely to cool down any heat.

8-10 yellow peppers, such as banana or gypsy
16 oz. feta, preferably Bulgarian sheep’s milk feta
16 oz. full-fat sour cream
Kosher salt, to taste

Cut the stem end off of each pepper. Using a small paring knife, seed, core and cut each pepper in half. Sprinkle a healthy pinch of salt onto each pepper half and spread it around with your fingers. Place the salted pepper sections in a colander, with the open side of the peppers facing down and set over a tray to catch the liquids. Let peppers sit overnight. The salt helps drain the peppers of excess liquid and softens them a bit.

Add the sour cream and feta to a small mixing bowl. Whisk them together until combined. Spoon the sour cream-and-feta mixture into the shallow cavity of each pepper half. Add “stuffed” peppers to a small rectangular glass or plastic container, with the cream mixture facing up. Repeat, stacking the stuffed peppers on top of each other. Use the extra sour cream-and-feta mix to spread a thick layer over the top of the pepper stack. Cover with plastic wrap and store in the fridge for at least four days. The feta will start to “pickle” the peppers and give them the desired texture and flavor.

Note: If you want to be more traditional with this recipe, you can keep the tube of the pepper intact, rather than halving it. You will still remove the stem, seeds and core, salt the inside of the peppers, and let them sit overnight to drain and soften. It is a bit more time consuming (and messy) to stuff the mixture into the cavity of each pepper (a long iced tea spoon is helpful) but it is more attractive when plated. The larger the pepper, the easier it will be.


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