When I found out I would be coming to Bulgaria, my friend Nancy had me over for dinner to meet her husband Ron, who had been here a few years before. Ron waxed rhapsodic about Bulgarian food, about street markets shining with fresh local produce, restaurants that always spilled out onto sidewalks and gardens in summer, and about one of his favorite dishes, gyuveche. He and Nancy made it for me and the dinner and conversation did much to grow my excitement about my upcoming travels.
Gyuveche (pronounced “GYOO-vech-ay”) is the name of both the dish and the pot it bakes in. It’s essentially a casserole, but what makes it unique is its being built around a big block of sirene, the feta-like Bulgarian cheese that I will miss dearly after I leave this country. It can be made any number of ways – most often involving salami, which is why I end up giving it a pass at restaurants – but in this version I added lentils, since I wanted something a little more substantial than just cheese and vegetables. I’ve never heard of it being done this way, but it worked out really well. I just made sure to put them on the bottom of the pot, and the liquid that the sirene and vegetables gave as they baked was enough to give them something to simmer in. This is great comfort food – warm and mushy, but with a little chew from the lentils and just enough brightness from the veggies to make you feel healthy. Most Bulgarians would insist on adding savory, which here is called chubritsa, but I’m not such a fan, so I left it out. You can, of course, correct this grievous cultural error – a quarter teaspoon should cover it.
I often put potatoes in my gyuveche, but I ran out of room this time! The variations are endless as long as you put the cheese in there – beets and potatoes? Broccoli and cauliflower? Sun-dried tomatoes and oxtail? Go for it. I would recommend, however, to pre-cook anything that would let off a lot of water, like cabbage. Then you just get soup with cheese in it. (I still regret that lunch.) If you are using feta crumbles and tomatoes that are a little on the dry side, I’d recommend putting a quarter cup of water or broth in the bottom of the baking dish before adding the ingredients in – otherwise, the lentils won’t get enough liquid to cook in.
One note on the pictures: last time, on the falafels, I got all kinds of great natural light. Not so much the case with this one, and all the steam coming out of that straight-from-the-oven gyuveche kept fogging my lens. I did get a fun shot with a flash, though, something I usually sneer at, but this time I’d like to think it looks Hip and Postmodern. Please tell me if I’m being delusional.
1/4 cup brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
100g (about 2 ounces) sirene or feta
1/2 a small onion, chopped
a small handful chopped green beans (I used frozen)
2 mushrooms, sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small tomato, cut into big chunks
1 small bell pepper, seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces
salt and pepper
a drizzle of sunflower or olive oil
1/4 teaspoon dried savory (optional)
Preheat to 350F. Spread lentils in the bottom of an individual gyuveche or 1-quart covered baking dish. Top with cheese, vegetables, salt and pepper, oil, and savory. If you’re using a gyuveche dish, cover as normal; otherwise, leave the lid tilted open just a bit. Bake 30-45 minutes or until lentils are cooked.