Recipes

The Family Table: Memories of Albania: Simple Dishes, Beach Picnics, and Food Rations

Readers share their treasured recipes
TIMEJanuary 12, 2022

Submitted by Elda Capuni-Lemmon, Apalachin, New York

My childhood food memories are of simple cooking, big and small family gatherings and celebrations, and food lines and rations.

I was born in communist Albania, which remained so until 1991. Food diversity was limited, so every family cooked very similar dishes. Climbing my apartment building’s stairs, I could often tell by the smell what each family was cooking.

Some smells, such as that of white or red bean stew (a cheap weekly staple in every household), I didn’t find inviting. Other smells I found lovely: fried green sweet peppers stuffed with feta, baked chicken and potatoes, byrek with feta or other fillings, warm cornbread (nonsweet), and the rare beefsteak! Most of these dishes only required a few ingredients, directed by necessity.

Then there were the desserts: baklava and kadaif (a shredded phyllo dough pastry), homemade bonbons and fruit cakes, and shendetli (a walnut cake soaked in sugar syrup). Baklava and kadaif were made only in the days preceding New Year’s. This secular celebration was the biggest family celebration in atheist Albania and also the only time you could find delicacies such as oranges, tangerines, nuts, and turkey (sometimes kept and fattened in our one-bedroom apartment for several days). The menu for that whole week was something we looked forward to all year!

The women would recruit the help of family members or neighbors for a whole day in order to roll the large paper-thin pastry dough layers for baklava. The living room (which also functioned as the kitchen) turned into a battleground of rolling pins flattening each piece of dough into submission. I tried my hand at rolling the pastry alongside the women, while also trying to sneak handfuls of the scarce walnuts into my mouth before they made it in between the layers.

Today, I prepare gourmet and simple dishes from various cuisines for my family of five. But I derive the most pleasure from having my three children enjoy the dishes I grew up with.

They have their favorites, some of which also happen to have a special meaning for me. These are simple and non-messy dishes that were convenient—yet delicious—to take along on school field trips or weekend day trips to the beach with my high school class. They take me back to school picnics amid the ancient ruins of Apollonia (a Greek colony half an hour outside of my home city, Fier) and on the shores of the Ionian Sea, where my three best friends and I would share our simple lunches before plunging again into the clear blue water.

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A generation later, the author and her three children swim in the Ionian Sea during a family trip in the summer of 2017. (Courtesy of Elda Capuni-Lemmon)
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The author’s three children in Albania, during a family vacation in the summer of 2017. (Courtesy of Elda Capuni-Lemmon)

Here, I’ll share two recipes: pite with feta cheese (similar to a calzone, but stuffed with just feta cheese and fried) and qofte (meatballs), with my personal twist.

The smell of fried pite and the occasional oozing feta reminds me of the weekend mornings of my childhood. Although I do cook them, my children prefer my mom’s touch, and so it’s a special treat whenever Grandma visits or we visit her.

The qofte recipe is a modification of the traditional recipe, which uses no cheese. These meatballs were part of every celebration, but were also made whenever rations allowed for ground meat. During the summer of my junior year in high school, I participated in a youth program with Catholic Italian university students. It was the first experience of its kind for me, with its community involvement, hikes, and exposure to faith. A couple of the students came to share a meal at my house, and one of them loved our meatballs. She also shared the way she made them in southern Italy, which adds grated parmesan. As a feta cheese fanatic, I also added that to the list of ingredients.

pite with feta
Fried pite stuffed with feta. (Courtesy of Elda Capuni-Lemmon)

Pite With Feta Cheese

Note: If you don’t have yeast, you can substitute it with 1 tablespoon of baking soda, mixed in with the flour before adding to the wet ingredients, and substitute the water, sugar, and milk with 12 ounces plain Greek yogurt, mixed in with the eggs.

Makes 16 to 17 pite

  • 1/2 tablespoon yeast
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 3/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 3/4 cup lukewarm milk
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 3 to 4 teaspoons oil or melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 cups flour
  • 2 pounds feta, crumbled, or more to taste
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Dissolve the yeast for a few minutes in the lukewarm water with a pinch of sugar.

In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, yeast mixture, milk, oil or butter, and salt. Add the flour. Knead the dough until it becomes soft and supple. Cover and let sit for an hour or so to rise. After 1 hour, you can also refrigerate it overnight to use the next day.

Separate the dough into 16 to 17 small balls. Roll out each ball into a circle of medium thickness, about 6 inches in diameter. Fill half of each dough circle with about 2 ounces of crumbled feta cheese (3 ounces if you are a feta lover), then fold the other half over it, pressing the sides together.

Heat 1/4 inch of vegetable oil of your choice in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add as many stuffed pite as you can fit without them touching. When golden brown, turn them over. Turn them sideways, also, to give a quick browning to the edges, then remove them from the pan and serve! You can choose to pat them with a paper towel to absorb some of the oil (although they’re not as oily as fried dough).

You can also cook them in the oven for a less oily and less time-consuming option: Brush the stuffed pite with a thin layer of oil or butter and bake at 400 degrees F until golden brown. 

qofte
Qofte, Albania meatballs. (Courtesy of Elda Capuni-Lemmon)

Qofte (Albanian Meatballs) With Feta Cheese

Makes 18 to 20 meatballs

  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 slice bread (can use gluten-free), made into small crumbles
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2 green onions, finely minced (or some other type of onion)
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley, or 2 teaspoons fresh
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil, or 2 teaspoons fresh
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 cup grated pecorino (my choice) or parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup finely crumbled feta cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together and form medium-large-sized meatballs. Cook in oil of your choice (I prefer olive oil) over medium-high heat in a pan until browned on both sides. They can be served with tzatziki sauce, called yogurt sauce in Albania, for added flavor.

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