The Healing Power of a Traditional Bulgarian Spice

Tomorrow will be 20 years since the tragedy of 9/11. It’s hard to believe that a new generation has made their way to adulthood since the horrific day. This is a solemn time in our country, a time to honor the lives of the thousands of people lost in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania to terrorism. I still remember the disbelief I felt when a co-worker told me the news. I was certain he was playing a terrible joke. Nelly, too, was horrified and shocked at the news like the rest of the nation. She was working the night shift at Middlesex College. For me, that autumn holds an even more personal tragedy. My mother suffered a stroke and died the following month. The pain of her loss remains with me even today. My wish is that the nation can put aside its differences on September 11 and honor those who died on that day, and remember that we all suffer and want to keep our nation safe. I wish that the herbs you’ll read about below could heal our nation of its great divide.

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The aroma of freshly baked bread and “sharena sol” (colorful salt) always transports me to my childhood. Using it on Bulgarian cuisine is an irresistible tradition. The taste of oregano, savory, fenugreek. The aroma of freshly picked organic herbs from my baba’s garden. This is how I describe this authentic Bulgarian spice.

What Is “Sharena Sol”?

Colorful salt is a spice that contains several herbs. Our grandmothers and mother have known the power of herbs and have planted them in gardens to use in everyday life.

Let’s look at the individual herbs in the spice and what their health qualities are.

None of what follows is medical advice. Always consult your physician or health advisor prior to using any herbs in your diet.

Herbs

Savory

Garden savory has a fragrant, pleasant, spicy aroma. The main health benefits of savory are for the digestive system. This herb not only helps digestion, but it also prevents gases from forming. Years ago, a healer taught me a recipe for helping to cure canker sores in the mouth. Take one spoonful of honey mixed with a pinch of savory, chew for a minute, and spit it out. Don’t drink water for about five min. It works miracles.

Fenugreek

Fenugreek stimulates the generation of estrogen, helps lowers cholesterol, and improves the microcirculation of blood. All this makes fenugreek a great herb not only for your health, but for supporting feminine beauty. It’s believed to reduce the risk of heart attack.

The Miracle Thyme

Thyme is one of my favorite herbs. My grandmother gathered it every year from a pristine sunny location in the mountains. It was one of the main herbs in her kitchen. It’s not only aromatic, but also a useful herb in folk medicine. Tea made from thyme is believed to ease symptoms for people suffering from respiratory infections, obesity, menstrual cramps, insomnia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, upset stomach, and constipation. If you have a cold or the flu, consider drinking a cup of hot tea made from thyme and sweetened with honey. This is a great way to strengthen the respiratory system to deal with colds. If you have a high fever, it will promote sweating to help your body cool off.

Tea from thyme is particularly good as an expectorant, to help clear lungs and respiratory tract from accumulated secretions and mucus. It’s also praised as a tea that helps with weight loss because it can suppress your appetite, while still stimulating energy and providing nutritional substances, which prevent overeating and snacking. Also the compounds in this tea can improve metabolism, which helps you burn fat quicker to lose weight.

Some people use thyme as a remedy against heartburn. And, not least of all, it helps strengthens your immune system. I’m sure this alone will get this herb added to your favorite list.

Recipe to Ease Heartburn

Pour three teacups full of boiling water over three or four teaspoons of thyme stalks and leave for 3 to 4 hours. Boil the mixture again for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the stove, strain, divide into three parts, and drink three times a day before meals.

Oregano

Folk medicine healers (znahari) say that oregano is an excellent antioxidant which has a powerful reinforcing effect on the immune system. I read somewhere that it has twelve times the antioxidant capacity of oranges and is forty-two times that of apples. Oregano also has antiseptic and soothing properties. It’s used for soothing coughs, severe colds, influenza, bronchitis, and asthma. It’s also used to relieve constipation and stomach and intestinal cramps, liver and bile diseases. Because it has a calming effect on the central nervous system, people have used it to ease nervous excitement, insomnia, and headaches. My grandmother combined oregano, honey, and ground egg shells to ease bronchitis, asthma, and coughs.

Pumpkin Seeds

Many cultures use pumpkin seeds for their nutritional value. They are used in folk medicine to treat urinary tract and bladder infections, high blood pressure, blood sugar, and kidney stones. Raw seeds are used to remove parasites like worms.

I’m sure some of you sprinkle them on salads. Modern science confirms that pumpkin seeds have nutrients beneficial to your health. They are a good source of zinc which helps the body fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Zinc also helps to protect the lining in our digestive tract. Pumpkin seeds contain vitamin E which is a powerful antioxidant, essential to protect our body. They’re rich source of protein, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, including cancer. When you buy a pumpkin to cook a pie, don’t throw the seeds away. Clean and bake them. You can also buy them from a grocery store.

How to Make Sherana Sol at Home

In different regions of Bulgaria, ingredients vary. The recipes are transmitted from generation to generation, with each person modifying it to their own taste.

I don’t use pumpkin seeds in my recipe, but if you want, you can bake some, grind them, and add to the other spices in the mix.

  • 1 Tablespoon spoon salt (sea salt or your favorite salt)
  • 2 Tablespoons sweet red pepper (paprika)
  • 1 teaspoon lightly roasted (and finely milled) dry sweet pepper seeds
  • 1 Tablespoon ground fenugreek
  • 1 teaspoon powdered thyme
  • 1 Tablespoon powdered savory

Mix all ingredients into a uniform mixture and place in a glass jar. In Bulgaria it’s placed in a special shallow clay dish as shown in the picture.

Sharena Sol

Nothing is tastier than a simple meal of warm, homemade bread with butter and fragrant sharena sol. You can also sprinkle it on a toast with butter. Think of it like garlic bread, but this is even better. I also use the spice on feta cheese.

I hope you can find the ingredients in your garden or in the store and try the taste of Bulgaria with this easy-to-make spice filled with so many powerful herbs. You can make the recipe without salt if you want to use it on feta cheese or other salty food.

If you enjoy herb lore and want to learn more about herbs used in Bulgarian folklore and folk medicine, keep an eye out for our new book about the 77 1/2 herbs of Midsummer’s Day. We hope to publish it early in 2022.

Sources:

https://novinibg.net/rigan-za-kakvo-pomaga-tazi-bilka-e-istinsko-sakrovishte/

https://medpedia.framar.bg

https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-pumpkin-seeds#1

https://www.lifefood.eu/eu_en/blog-how-to-protect-yourself-from-coronavirus-with-these-5-superfoods

Bulgaria Day

We recently donated copies of our cookbook to the “Health & Home Cooking” class at Augustine Christian Academy, an interdenominational classical school in Oklahoma, to give them a taste of Bulgaria. At the end of the 2021 school year, close to a dozen thirteen- and fourteen-year-old middle-graders (seventh and eighth grades) put on a “Bulgaria Day” and in class made several recipes from the book: Banitsa, Tikvenik, Rhodopean Klin. Their teacher, Mrs. Merrill pre-made Lazy Koledna Pitka at home and brought it into school, because there wasn’t enough time to make the bread and let it rise during class time.

Kids with booksnewsletter august 2021

Banitsa is considered the queen of all dishes, a tasty delight stuffed with a feta cheese and egg mixture. You’ll find it a common staple throughout the country. You haven’t experienced Bulgaria if you’ve never had banitsa. Tikvenik is a type of banitsa that has a pumpkin filling. Rhodopean Klin is another type of banitsa with a filling of rice and spinach, in addition to the feta and egg mixture. And the bread, Kolenda Pitka, is lazy only because this is a more modern version for today’s busy world.

As the cooking progressed, students in surrounding classes could smell the aromas drifting into their classrooms, eliciting groans of hunger and perhaps envy. The cooking students, however, shared their treats with upperclassmen and teachers, and it was a big hit! Mrs. Merrill managed to snag some samples before the students devoured it all and took them to the office. The staff and teachers were loving it and talking about it all morning.

maps and food newsletter august 2021

The Kolenda Pitka was devoured quickly, and students had fun reading the fortunes hidden inside. They toasted and buttered bread, and sprinkled the Bulgarian spice, Sharena Sol, onto it. Several teachers asked for the name of the spice so they could order some online, as it wasn’t available locally. Mrs. Merrill commented that next time she’d have to bring more bread and spice.

So many of them said they loved the Rhodopean Klin. Several students told their teacher they’d never had feta before, and they really liked it. One of them thought rolling the banitsa was like rolling a long, coiled snake.

Everyone wanted more of everything. One student commented:

“My favorite was the Tikvenik. I could have ate the whole pan!”

Another said:

“This was so much fun! I’ve never worked with filo dough before.”

Their teacher, Mrs. Merrill, said, “I was jumping around trying to snap photos in between all their questions. And they were devouring the food before I could get good pictures!”

“Needless to say,” she remarked to me later, “you’ve converted a bunch of students and staff to Bulgarian cuisine! This was so much fun! Thank you for sending the cookbooks!!! I think we need a trip to Bulgaria now.”

Photos: by Erin Merrill

Mediterranean & Bulgarian Cuisine is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or by request through any book store or library.

Summer Reading – A Magical, Cultural Trip to Bulgaria

Learning about your heritage and preserving your traditions in your own family is a great way to teach your children about the family’s cultural and religious history and to add to their personal identity. Observing, preserving, and creating new traditions are ways of honoring your ancestors and also welcoming new members in.

This is the reason a few years ago I started writing books inspired by Bulgarian mythology and folklore, and tales learned from my grandparents in Bulgaria. What better way for the whole family to read, do activities and learn more about their heritage, or learn about another culture?

My Dragon Village series is not an exception. It’s inspired by the mythological village called Zmeykovo (Dragon Village) where all mystical creatures live. It’s a perfect summer read. As soon as book one was published, it became an Amazon #1 New Release in Children’s Multicultural Literature. In book two, readers will meet new exciting creatures and learn more legends while taking a journey of a lifetime. Book three will be available later this year.

I didn’t forget about summer reading for parents. My novel Mystical Emona, set in Bulgaria, is an inspiring story about love. It takes place in Emona, a small village on the coast of the Black Sea. It’s a place where wild horses have roamed the land since of the time of King Rez and the Thracians. In the novel, Stefan is a widowed artist from Boston, Mass, with a young daughter. He hopes moving to a secluded village on the Black Sea coast will ease his pain, and the wild, untamed beauty of this surrounding will inspire him to take up his art once again. He meets a mysterious woman and his life changes. He is drawn to her by some unknown bond, but cannot give his heart to her fully because his memories refuse to release their hold on him. Then the dreams begin. Some delightful. Others terrifying.

Bulgarian culture is rich in folklore and traditions surviving since the days of the ancient Thracians. As pagan and Christian religions collided, many celebrations merged into one. Light Love Rituals will take you on a journey to discover these unique festivals.

Light Love Rituals not only describes the rituals, but also makes them interesting and understandable to people of all ages. The book is divided into four seasons, beginning with winter. It includes activities where you can learn how to make martenitsi, survachka, and Easter eggs dyed with natural colors.

A short quiz after each season lets you test your knowledge of what you’ve read. To help you engage in the traditions in the book, you’ll meet Maria and her family. They’ll open the doors of their home so you can participate in these celebrations along with them. For an added taste of Bulgaria, try some of the traditional recipes at the end.

Everyone loves food. It brings friends and family together around the table. Even during the pandemic, cooking and family have become more important.  I grow up in Bulgaria and let me tell you, no finer tradition exists than making Bulgarian cuisine, which is as rich as the soul of the people. The meals, like the colors woven into the nation’s rugs, represent the hospitality and rich spirituality of its people. From the mystical Rhodope Mountains, the birthplace of Orpheus, to the Thracian Valley, known for its roses, whether the dishes are light or hearty, they will always be savory. Learn about the queen of the Bulgarian cuisine “banitsa.” Traditionally, lucky charms are put into the pastry on certain occasions, particularly on New Year’s Eve. These charms may be coins or small symbolic objects (e.g., a small piece of a dogwood branch with a bud, symbolizing health or longevity). More recently, people have started writing happy wishes on small pieces of paper and wrapping them in tin foil. Wishes may include happiness, health, or success throughout the New Year.

Happy reading and enjoy your summer fun!

You can discover all of our books here and the various retailers who sell them: Ronesa’s Books.

Bulgarian Easter Traditions

Easter for many of you was this past Sunday, but for the Orthodox, it will be on May 2 this year. In recognition of this holy day, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from my book, The Wanderer, my memoir about my experiences of being an immigrant, and how our customs and traditions influence our lives. At the end, I’ve also included a traditional Easter recipe: Lamb with Dock. Enjoy!

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Since the majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, many of us celebrate Easter twice—once on our own holiday, and again to honor friends and new relatives with different backgrounds, or just to make our children part of the surrounding culture.

Easter holidays in Bulgaria start with Lazarov Day (Lazar’s or Lazarus’ Day) and Tsvetnica (Flower Day) and culminate on Easter. This year Tsvetnitsa is on April 25. These are the best spring holidays when nature wakes and everything comes back to life. People open windows, clean their houses, and go to church every Sunday. When I was a student, we were forbidden to attend church. Back in the Communist era, we were told we had to forget religion and traditions so as not to undermine the authority of the Party. Even so, we hid and walked to attend the service secretly, so we weren’t expelled from school. The world is small, as we like to say, and one year, I stood side by side with my French teacher in church. She looked away from me with candles in her hands and pretended she didn’t see me. I did the same. We both knew we needed to keep the secret.

egg_knocking_colorIn Sofia, the measures were quite strict, but in small villages and towns people were able to celebrate and attend church more easily. In the years when I studied in Sandanski, a small town in southern Bulgaria, a friend invited me to the holiday in one of the neighboring villages so that I wouldn’t be alone at the boarding school. The alley was pretty: white houses stained with colored rugs, and yards arranged with flowers and greenery. The church stood at the entrance to the village on a small hill with a view to the nearby Struma River. After the liturgy, young and old went out and, instead of the traditional “knocking” of their colored eggs (that is, tapping them end to end), they began to throw them over the church roof. Then they went outside the church yard, set food on picnic tables, and the fun began. The people of southern Bulgaria were warm and hospitable, and I always felt at home during my school years. It eased my nostalgia.

Bulgaria is a small country, but every region, village, and town has its own rituals and beliefs. It was interesting to observe traditions by visiting families and places that were new for me. I think we all need to be open to new experiences and appreciate the beliefs of others. Each ritual or custom has a reason behind why it’s performed.

Some of these traditions are regarding eggs, one of the most common foods at Easter, for Bulgarians and other nations as well. From ancient times, the egg has been a symbol of birth, resurrection, and eternal life—life and death—with a belief that the world was born from the golden egg, that is, the sun. The parts of the egg represent the four elements. The shell is symbolic of earth: the membrane represents air, the liquid is water, and the yellow yoke is the sun and thereby fire.

The time to celebrate in secrecy eventually passed, and after the change of government in October 1989, democracy brought back freedom. Everyone then had the right to practice their religion. Easter and all other holidays are impeccable for Bulgarians not only today, but also in the past.

When I was a child, from time to time I stayed with my grandparents in a village in northern Bulgaria. Easter in my memories was about colors and flowers. I remember Lazar’s Day and the lazarki, a group of cheerful girls who walked from door to door to sing for the prosperity and health of the occupants. The girls carried baskets and dressed in traditional costumes, wearing wreaths made from flowers. At the time, I badly wanted to join them, but I was too young. When they arrived at our house, Baba went to the cellar and brought eggs, honey, and walnuts as gifts for the girls.

On Tsvetnica, the next day, we went to church to pray. For us, it was a double holiday because my grandmother’s name was Tsvetana (which means “flower”), so we also celebrated her name day. On Flower Day she made me a wreath from willow branches and flowers so I would be slender and playful like the tree. After church, people came over to celebrate her name day. The feast was not as it is now. Back then, the doors were open for all guests—those expected and unexpected alike. They came in happy, bringing gifts and wishing her good health. Baba gave them red wine and home-baked bread and other meals she had prepared for her special day. Since it was Lent, people fasted and kept other prohibitions.

My grandmother used natural dye to color the eggs: beets for the red, onion pills for the orange, and gold from the seeds of the dill. She also used these natural colors to dye wool and cotton. She told us we needed to color the eggs before sunset on Maudy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). If we couldn’t color them on that day, we had to dye them without telling anyone. The reason for this was that we had to make sure the devil didn’t discover us dyeing eggs on Friday or Saturday. If he did, he’d destroy the healing and protective powers those special eggs held.

I still generally dye the eggs on Thursday and always make a red egg special for God. Traditionally, this is the first red egg. It has magical, healing power; on Easter morning, I rub the egg against my children’s cheeks and make a cross on their foreheads for health. We keep this red egg set aside for a whole year. Sometimes our kitten forgets it’s a holy egg and breaks it early. When the kitten doesn’t break it, we don’t throw last year’s egg away. Instead, we bury it in the garden for fertility.

The culmination of the Easter festivities happens on Sunday. In Bulgaria, we went to church and on the way back visited the graves of our closest relatives to give them food, eggs, and wine.

Now and in the past all our Easter festivities are filled with light and love. Nature wakes up, and everyone is looking forward to the coming summer and long, sunny days. People are craving light, joy, and love.

A major part of the festivity is the meal. In addition to the traditional bread called kozunak and the colorful eggs, Bulgarian cook lamb.

lamb-with-dock

Lamb with Dock

Lamb with dock or spinach is one of my favorite meals during this season. This delicious dish is suitable for Easter and to welcome Spring.

I’m not a gardener, but I have few spices (mint, parsley, fresh garlic) in my garden that are a traditional part of Bulgarian cuisine. Dock is one of these plants, but you can substitute fresh spinach or even kale if you like to experiment. There’s nothing complicated in preparing lamb with dock.

Dock – commonly known as broadleaf dock, cushy-cows, butter dock, kettle dock, curly dock, and smair dock – is a species of flowering plant in a buckwheat family Polygonaceae. It’s native to Europe but is also available in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.

Since ancient times, dock has been known as a medicinal plant and used in traditional remedies. It possesses various antiscorbutic, astringent, cholagogue, depurative, homeopathy and laxative properties which have beneficial effects to maintain one’s overall health.

To prepare lamb with dock, you need:

2.2  pounds boneless, trimmed, lamb shoulder, diced
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 midsize onion or a green fresh onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1  1/2 Tablespoons sweet paprika
2 cups water
25 grams butter, cubed
1  1/2 cups from the water where the meat was boiled
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
1 bunch of dock or replace with spinach, trimmed and roughly chopped
Salt & pepper

  1. I always precook my meat. Start with making portions of the meat, put in a pot and cover with cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Boil the meat for about 1 hour on medium heat.
  2. Sprinkle diced lamb with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Place a large pot or casserole dish over medium-high heat and drizzle in half the olive oil. Add half the lamb and cook for 4–5 minutes until meat is golden. Transfer browned lamb to a plate, and repeat with remaining lamb and oil.
  3. In the same pot add more oil, then add the onion and garlic and cook a further 3–4 mins, until the onion begins to soften. Once the onion has softened, add the rinsed rice.
  4. Transfer browned lamb to the pan and mix and stir paprika through it. Add water (from the water that the lamb was boiled in) and bring to a boil.
  5. Add the chopped dock or spinach and mix thoroughly.
  6. Place the pan in the oven (non preheat) on 375 F (no need to cover) and bake for 1 hour, until rice is cooked and lamb is very tender.

Enjoy this delicious spring meal made with gift a from nature.

Summer Fun – A Tradition and Recipes

In the northern hemisphere, July means summer, beach, happiness, sun, school vacation, and travel. Also in July there’s a unique, modern Bulgarian tradition unknown to the rest of the world. It’s called July Morning.

People from all over the country travel to the Black Sea on June 30 and meet the first rays of sunshine on the morning of July 1. They sing, dance, talk, and share thoughts. It’s like a festival filled with love and friendship. They believe the sun rays purify and recharge them with new energy. The holiday is not pagan or religious. It’s just fun!

July Morning painting by Nelinda
July Morning – by Nelinda

Many beliefs exist about why and how this tradition began.

One version is that it stared from a pure love story.  In Varna, on the evening of June 30, 1984, a boy and a girl holding hands were walking on the city streets lost in love. They missed the last bus to their village. The lovers decided to wait together for the first bus in the morning. However, it was dangerous to remain in the Varna Sea Garden. A policeman rode along the pathways on a motorcycle, always on the lookout for stragglers. And he had a vicious police dog. The young people decided to leave the garden and hide at Varna’s pier. There they meet other young people who sang and danced all night. Together, they all greeted the sunrise. Since then, it’s become a tradition.

Another version, which became almost legendary in Bulgaria, is that in 1985, soldier Stoyan Georgiev – Tyanata promised himself on the night of June 30 that he would never meet the sunrise alone again. The following year, 1986, he made arrangements with some Varna friends to meet in a meadow in the Sea Garden to watch the sun rise. The following year, they met at the pier. And so the tradition continued.

In another, much simpler version, five young, progressive, free-spirited people, with long hair and denim jackets, gathered spontaneously at the pier in Varna in 1986. Maybe for the simple reason that there were no nightclubs at the time. They unintentionally began the tradition of July Morning.

This modern-day ritual is also associated with a song by a British rock band, Uriah Heep, called “July Morning,” which has became its symbol. You can listen to the song here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qVobQTaoV7s.

Gradually, “July Morning” became the first unofficial social festival in Bulgaria – a place where you can meet new people, talk about everything you can think of, do literary readings, and sing and dance.

I always was told that July Morning was a movement that started in Varna in 1986 to protest the communist government. According to participants, it symbolizes dissatisfaction and the desire for personal freedom. Maybe this is true, because censorship was prevalent during communism, and it was forbidden to listen to Western or American music, have long hair, wear short skirts or jeans, and drink Coca-Cola.

No matter what the story, welcoming the sunrise is seen as a new and better beginning.

According to the Nova Varna newspaper, even this year, hundreds of people have welcomed the first rays of the sun on Kamen Bryag, where the ritual has been held for years. People don’t go anymore to the pier of Varna for the simple reason that it’s too commercialized and has lost its look and romance since 1986.

Happy summer and don’t forget to look at the sun and say hello. July has 31 days so there are still many days to wake up early meet the sunrise and bathe in its rays and rejuvenate.

Summer Fun Recipes

During these hot summer days, many people eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer heavy meals. Bulgarian cuisine is not any different. Some of my favorites summer dishes are made with yogurt.

Did you know Bulgarians created yogurt? Truly, they did. Way back in the time of the Thracians. I kid you not. You can find more than three hundred varieties in the country, and many popular dishes are made with yogurt. The good bacteria in the yogurt is called Lactobacillus bulgaricus.

Yogurt is a favorite ingredient in summer drinks, cold soups, salads, desserts, and main dishes. Another main ingredient in almost all of them is garlic.

Here are some of my favorites.

Airan (Айран) –  a refreshing drink

Mix yogurt into a glass of water. Add a little salt and stir well to obtain a consistent mixture. I add one or two ice cubes. It refreshes, saturates, and hydrates.

Tarator (Таратор) – cold cucumber soup

This will help you cool down in the hot summer.

Ingredients:

* cucumbers – 1 larger European or 2 medium sized

* yogurt – 32 oz (2 lb)

* walnuts – 1 handful crushed (optional)

* garlic – 2 to 3 cloves or to taste

* water – 2-3 cups

* fresh dill – to taste

* olive oil or regular – 3 to 4 tbsp.

* salt to taste

* black pepper – freshly ground to taste

* white pepper – 3 pinches

Peel the cucumbers, leaving only thin slices of the dark green part, which will give a more pleasant look to the tarator. Grate it or cut it into small cubes. I prefer to grate, because it tastes better.

Beat 2 cups of yogurt well and pour them into a saucepan. Add enough cold water to get the tarator to the density you want. Add cucumbers, as well as grated or finely chopped garlic, some crushed walnuts, finely chopped dill, black and white pepper to taste. Finally, mix with olive oil / other oil and salt to taste. Put in the refrigerator to chill. If you don’t have time, put an ice cube in each bowl. I like to serve in bowls and garnish with crushed walnuts and a sprig of dill and serve.

Snow White Salad – (Snejanka) a delicious milk salad

During the summer or even in the winter, my kids like this salad. I use the same products that are described for Tarator, but I don’t add water. If you have time, you can let the yogurt drain to make it thicker. Mix all products and serve cold like a salad. Add some pita bread and you have a dinner or lunch. It can be used as a side dish for BBQ meat or gyros.

Zucchini with Yogurt – A simple, but yummy salad

Here is another salad you can make easy with fried zucchini.

Ingredients:

* 1/2 cup plain yogurt

* 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill

* 1 small clove garlic, grated

* 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

* salt

* freshly ground black pepper

*  1 lb (500 g) zucchini

* 1 teaspoon olive oil

Zucchini with Yogurt

Cook under broiler.

Prepare Dill Mixture

* In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, dill, garlic, and lemon juice. If necessary add a few drops of water to make the mixture of pourable consistency.

* Season to taste with salt and a pinch of black pepper.

* Set aside.

Prepare Zucchini

* Trim the ends off the zucchini and cut it into thin slices or strips (circles or long strips).

* Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

* Place the zucchini in an oven-proof skillet or pan and broil, flipping occasionally, about 10 minutes until slightly charred and tender, but not mushy.

Final Steps: Remove from broiler. Serve zucchini warm or chilled, covered or dipped in the yogurt-dill sauce.

Alternatives: If you want a richer taste, coat the zucchini with flour. Place the pieces (circles or strips) into a frying pan with about a half inch of heated oil. Fry the zucchini pieces until they are golden brown and crispy. In the summer, you can use a grill instead.

Eggs over yogurt – a light and quick dinner

After a busy day, you can prepare a quick Bulgarian dinner.

Ingredients:

* eggs – 2 to 3.

* yogurt – 4 to 5 Tablespoons

* red pepper – 1/2 k. (spicy or sweet)

* salt to taste

* oil – for frying

* chopped garlic

* small spoonful of butter to add some twist; we love butter!

In heated but not hot oil, add each of the eggs. Fry them like you do sunny side up. I do mine medium, to make sure they’re soft. On a plate on which you’ll serve the eggs, pour the yogurt, salt to taste, and garlic. Remove the fired eggs from the oil with a slotted spoon or spatula and place on the yogurt. Sprinkle them with paprika and pour a teaspoon or two of melted butter on them. Serve with toast and green garlic or onion.

Yogurt with honey and walnuts – a tasty dessert

Last, but not the least, it’s time for dessert. If you don’t like honey, you can replace it with strawberries. It’s a delicious dessert that’s healthy and easy to make. Your kids will love this no-bake treat that’s full of protein.

Tip: When buying yogurt, make sure the Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria is listed in the ingredients.

Ingredients:

* 1/2 cup yogurt

* 1 Tablespoon crushed walnuts

* cinnamon to taste

* 1 Tablespoon honey, more or less, to taste.

Spoon the yogurt into a small dessert dish. Sprinkle crushed walnuts on top. You can toast the walnuts lightly in a hot skillet if you’d like, to bring out more of their natural flavor. I like to put them in water, then rinse and sprinkle them with brown sugar. Next, put them on a paper towel and bake them for one minute in a microwave. Once they’re cold, sprinkle the nuts over the yogurt. Then top it with cinnamon and drizzle with honey. Serve and enjoy! And don’t forget to make a tea with a spoonful of honey.

 

For more traditional Bulgarian recipes, get a copy of our cookbook, Mediterranean and Bulgarian Cuisine: 12 Easy Traditional Favorites.

Herbal Remedies for Health

NOTE: The following information is not meant to be taken as a cure for any illnesses. If you’re sick, always contact your health-care professional. The information that follows is common folk medicine, which people have used from generation to generation.

In these times when people across the globe are stressed and anxious about the future, it’s important to maintain and strengthen our immune system. Look around your kitchen and you’re certain to find products that are beneficial to your health: fresh vegetables, fruits, spices. The kitchen, the garden, the meadows are gifts that are good for our health.

Every culture and every household have beliefs and recipes passed down from generation to generation. A number of herbs and products in Bulgarian folklore are believed to help us achieve this. Here are some of my favorites, plus a couple of tasty recipes with simple ingredients you can easily find.

Ingredients for Healthy Living. Photo by Nelinda.

Honey

Bulgarians honor bees and in the summer, on July 8, pay tribute to their patron, Saint Procipius, or Prokopia the Beekeeper. On this day, early in the morning, people who raise bees go to the hives to remove the first honey of the year. They burn incense, allowing the smoke to enter the hives. The beekeepers bring two pitkas (ritual bread) to the hives – one for God and one for the saint. They take the honey and the bread to the church, where the priest consecrates them with a special prayer. The beekeepers then spread the honey on the bread and give them to neighbors to ensure the health of both the family and the bees, so the bees will produce even more honey. The rest of the consecrated honey is used as a remedy for mumps, measles, and other illnesses throughout the year.

Honey is a delicious immune-stimulator! It’s rich in many vitamins, including B and C, and has iron, calcium, zinc, and more. Honey acts as an antioxidant, much like fruits and vegetables. Using it regularly will stimulate your body’s organs, helping to improve your physical and mental state.

Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm. Photo by Nelinda

The herb is native to the mountainous regions of Southern Europe, but you can buy it in the spring at Home Depot and other chains or local flower nurseries. The leaves of the lemon balm are well-known in Bulgaria and used in herbal teas. I have a few plants in my garden because its lemon smell keeps away mosquitoes and other insects.

Ever since ancient times, it’s been used to cure diseases resulting from the nervous system. The plant has a calming effect, it stimulates appetite and digestion, and suppresses nausea and vomiting. In folk medicine, the leaves are used to treat high blood pressure, dizziness, headache, vision problems, and tinnitus. Gargling with water infused with lemon balm also gets rid of bad breath.

Yogurt

Yogurt is an integral part of many Bulgarian meals. It’s served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I was a child, my grandmother used to make yogurt with jam and call it “ice cream.” It was a much healthier option than regular ice cream.

It’s good for the digestive system, bones, and teeth, but it also helps strengthen the immune system, fighting disease and helping the body resistant to infection.

Walnuts

Walnuts are rich in vitamin B, vitamin E, fiber, magnesium, iron, and mineral salts. They are also high in calories, so limit them to no more than 42 grams a day. Even walnut leaves are a natural remedy, often used in tea to help prevent atherosclerosis, goiter, and skin problems such as eczema.

Nettle

Nettle is also a gift from nature that appears in the spring. If you pick it yourself, make sure to wear gloves, because nettle is not a friendly plant; it “bites.” My grandmother used to say that if you pick up nettle with your bare hands, it’ll prevent you from getting arthritis, but I never tried this. You don’t have to go and look for it in fields, though, because you can buy dried nettle online or in your local farmer’s market. You can drink it as a tea or add it to soup. I like to add fresh nettle to cream soup.

Recipes

Honey-walnut elixir

Combining walnuts with honey creates an elixir that boosts the immune system, and fights colds, exhaustion, and anemia. The elixir is suitable for children, because it naturally increases the body’s defenses.

You’ll need medium-sized jar, about 24 oz. like the ones used to make jam. Cut a handful of nuts into small pieces. Then peel a medium-sized lemon and cut the fruit into small pieces. Add the nuts and lemon to a half jar of natural honey. Stir the mixture well.

Take 2 or 3 tablespoons once a day.

Tip: Don’t throw away a used lemon after the juice has been squeezed out. You can use it to clean your cutting boards. If you add a little baking soda inside the peel, you can use it to clean pots. It works like magic. I even like to massage my hands with lemon peels and yogurt. It makes them soft and cleans the germs naturally.

 

Dessert

Here is one of my favorite desserts using yogurt, walnuts, and honey. If you don’t like walnuts you can omit them.

400 g yogurt

4 Tablespoons honey

50 g walnuts (or other nuts)

Divide yogurt into individual bowls, one per person. Pour honey over it. Sprinkle with the chopped nuts.

Tip: You can bake the nuts for about 5 minutes in a preheated 220 degrees C (about 430 F) oven and then crush them and sprinkle them with milk. The dessert works well if you replace plain yogurt with strained yogurt. It’s best to look at the label and make sure it has Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria in it. You can substitute honey with liquid chocolate or your favorite sweet.

5 Entertaining Activities for the Whole Family to Learn about Different Cultures

January 19, 2019

Why is understanding culture important?

If you take away all the national pride, political agendas, and religious (not spiritual) dogmas, you have the core of who we are. Not that these ideals are wrong when properly understood and implemented, but they can promote so much hate and antagonism by extremists that they really don’t define who we are as individuals or as a community.

Think of all the wars started on the premise of each of those three ideologies.

Learning about cultural diversity can be such a wonderful adventure. The common experiences that people share influence their perception of the world and consequently how they behave with each other and those outside their community.

Learn about other cultures

Learn about other cultures

Since we live in a world without borders, maybe you can go outside your comfort zones by learning about different cultures!
I write about Bulgarian mythology, folklore and cuisine, so I can offer a few ideas for the summer.

Dine at an ethnic restaurant

I’m sure your first idea is to dine at an ethnic restaurant and this is perfectly fine, we all love food. This is your chance to expand your palate! See if there are any ethnic restaurants nearby that you’ve never been to. If you can’t find a Bulgarian restaurant, you can prepare your own ethnic Bulgarian meal.

My favorite is called banitsa, but since it’s summer, I think you need to try my other favorite for the summer: Zucchini with yogurt-dill sauce

Also yogurt is a known Bulgarian specialty, healthy and tasty.

Visit Maria’s Kitchen to explore more recipes and learn about different Bulgarian and Mediterranean dishes; try the taste of Bulgaria and the Balkans. To discover more recipes, you can get a copy of my book: Mediterranean and Bulgarian Cuisine: 12 Easy Traditional Favorites.

Experience ethnic music and dance

There are plenty of ways to learn more about music in other countries. Here are some suggestions:

  • Sign up for a dance class to learn flamenco (Spain), polka (Scandinavia), or the jig (Scotland or Ireland)
  • Attend a concert or music festival that showcases music from different parts of the world
  • Check out CDs of ethnic music at the library

Bulgarian Music and dance

Bulgarian folk music and dance are quite different from what Americans are used to. Dances are performed by men and women in lines or circles (horo).

Bulgarian Horo

“Na Megdana” by Nelly Tonchev-Nelinda (Nelinda.com)

I’m sure you’ve heard about some in the movie 300 (Message for the Queen) and other Hollywood movies.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-Uxqt1Hai4&index=3&list=RD6PP-c_-lxus

“Go down, go down, bright sunshine
Go down, hide your light
Mourn for your leafs, you forest”

To learn more check my article on Bulgarian Music and Dance.

In my book Light Love Rituals, you can learn more about the Horo and also when the dance is performed.

Learn about your heritage

Doing a little genealogical research with your family allows you to spend time together and reach out to distant family members. Creating a family record is a pursuit you can work on for a long time, and you never know what you might discover!

Even if your heritage is not Bulgarian, maybe you have a friend who is and you want to learn more. Visit my blog or my author page where you can find different books inspired by the rich Bulgarian traditions and mythology.

You can see all my books and the various retails to purchase them from here: Ronesa’s Books.

My latest book, The Unborn Hero of Dragon Village, is a good summer read to travel to the mystical world in Zmeykovo (Dragon Village) and also learn about different mythological creatures.

Learn about Mythology and Folklore of other cultures while making crafts

Bulgarians celebrate name days, birthdays and they observe and practice many more rituals and traditions. In my Baba Treasure Chest series, I’ve described some of them.

My favorite tradition is making a Martenitsa, the white and red amulet of friendship. In the short story The Miracle Stork, I have activities and also steps on how to make your own.

If you’re traveling, some of my book are available on Audible, a perfect way to entertain the entire family until you get to your final destination. You can have an awesome trip while learning about another culture.

Coloring Books for the entire family

Coloring can reduce stress and be fun for the whole family! When you’re coloring, you’re not checking your smart phone, flipping channels or tweeting. In addition, my coloring books (Mermaids Around the World and More Mermaids Around the World) can help you learn more than 50 different mermaid legends.

Do you know any other ways to learn about different cultures?

Mermaids Around the World coloring book   More Mermaids Around the World coloring book

Mom’s Favorite Reads eMagazine December 2018

Hannah Howe

Earlier this year, in partnership with authors Ronesa Aveela and Denise McCabe, I created Mom’s Favorite Reads, one of the highlights of my publishing year.

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What is Mom’s Favorite Reads?

*It’s a community of book lovers

* A monthly magazine featuring some of the biggest names in the entertainment world alongside the best in modern publishing

*A book catalogue containing over 400 books, including many bestsellers and award-winners

*A website with dedicated author pages

*A reading group where readers can discover new authors

*A partner to major businessness including The Fussy Librarian and chess.com

* A fun way to promote books with items like our Advent Calendar and nominations to the Apple News Channel

* A community to support literacy amongst adults and children

This weekend, we published our December magazine. The magazine is available from all major retail platforms, including Amazon. You can also read the magazine, for free…

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Tikvenik: A Little Taste of Bulgaria

October 1, 2016

If you ever travel to Bulgaria, be sure to try a banitsa, one of the country’s most popular dishes. In our book Mystical Emona, this is one of Maria’s specialties. One reason for the dish’s popularity is that it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Another is that it’s simple to make. Traditional banitsa is made with filo dough, feta cheese, eggs, and yogurt. However, since autumn has arrived, we’d like to introduce you to a special variety called Tikvenik (teek-vah-neek), pumpkin banitsa.

Tikvenik (pumpkin-pie)

Tikvenik (pumpkin-pie)

The recipe for this scrumptious meal follows, but first we’d like to tell you about an interesting tradition involving banitsa. To celebrate New Year’s Eve, Bulgarians make a banitsa with fortunes. The mother of the household makes lucky charms or fortunes (small sheets of paper on which wishes are written then rolled up and wrapped in foil). She places them inside the banitsa before it’s baked.

At the evening meal, each member of the family takes a piece that contains a fortune. An additional piece is reserved for God, to keep the house safe from bad luck. Each charm tells the person his fortune for the coming year: perhaps a new job, a new house, health, a wedding, and so forth. Bulgarians have many customs that focus on health and fortune, and protection from evil. Similar to this tradition is the more common one performed at Christmas. A coin (and sometimes fortunes) are baked into a bread (pitka). The person who get the coin will have good luck throughout the year. If the coin is found in the piece set aside for the house or God, then the entire family will be healthy and have good luck. The ritual is included in our book The Christmas Thief.

Banitsa is made with homemade or commercially made filo dough pastry sheets, sugar, nuts (optional), cinnamon, and butter. You can also sprinkle powdered sugar on top to make it a little sweeter. And, of course, don’t forget the pumpkin.

Ingredients:

1  1/2 lbs pumpkin

1 cup sugar (or brown sugar)

2 ounces chopped walnuts

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 lb butter, melted

1 (1 lb) package filo pastry

2 – 3 Tablespoons powdered sugar (for sprinkling on top)

Directions:

  • Cut the pumpkin into large pieces grate it. The seeds and guts should have already been removed. You want to use only the meat of the pumpkin.
  • Add the sugar, walnuts, and cinnamon; mix with the pumpkin.
  • If you decide to use the butter, melt it and pour over the pumpkin mixture.
  • Open the package of filo dough and spread it out.
  • On the top layer, sprinkle vegetable oil (not more than a teaspoon), and spread it out so it coats the filo.
  • Spread 2 – 3 Tablespoons of the pumpkin mixture evenly over the filo (so it slightly covers the surface), then sprinkle some of the leftover sugar on top of that.
  • Take up 3 of the filo sheets and roll them together to form a log.
  • Place this on the outer edge of a greased baking dish, with the open end down.
  • Repeat the process with the remaining filo and pumpkin mixture, placing the log rolls in a circular fashion on the dish until it is filled.
  • Sprinkle vegetable oil over the top, coating all the filo so it doesn’t become dry.
  • Bake for about 15 – 17 mins at 350 F or until crispy and golden on top.
  • Remove from the pan immediately after baking and let it cool.

It’s best to place the pieces of banitsa flat while they cool, rather than stacked. If you stack them, the ones on the bottom won’t be crispy. It’s fine to pile them up on top of each other once they have cooled.

Banitsa is delicious as a dessert or for breakfast with your morning coffee or tea. We hope you enjoy it.

Here is a video showing a variation of the above recipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfrRdCxFECE

We have more authentic Bulgarian recipes in our book Light Love Rituals- Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore, and you can learn about the customs as well. Or, if you prefer, you can get just the recipes in Mediterranean and Bulgarian Cuisine: 12 Easy Traditional Favorites.

Eniovden (Еньовден)

July 7, 2016

Eniovden (Еньовден) is an old Bulgarian holiday, celebrated annually on June 24. It is believed that its roots lie in the Thracian tradition. There are many legends and beliefs about the mystical power of this day.

A proverb states that an herbal remedy exists for every malady, injury or ailment. In folklore 77 and a half illnesses exist. Herbs are more powerful when picked and gathered at dawn on Midsummer.

It was believed that water acquired healing power after the sun had bathed in it. People wake up early on this day to see how the sun “turns three times” and whoever manages to “bathe” in the dew will be safe from illnesses until next Midsummer Day.

Light Love Rituals book
Light Love Rituals

Eniovden is one of many wonderful rituals and celebrations surviving today.

As humans we grow, learn and discover ourselves by maintaining family traditions and collecting memories to understand the present and connect to the future.

Image by Nelinda: facebook.com/NelindaArt