Paleo-plācenīši (caveman croquettes)

Though I don’t really follow a diet, my general attitude is stay away from processed, and highly refined carbohydrates. I stick mostly with fresh vegetables, fruits, leafy greens, lots of dairy, and good meat and seafood. Coincidentally, the layout of my dining habits happens to correspond to a lifestyle people have been talking a lot about lately – the paleo diet.

Apparently, eating like a paleolithic caveman has numerous health benefits. The theory is that metabolic evolution does not take place apace with intellectual and technological development, and the energy content of our modern diets has long since outstripped our bodies’ processing power. This has led to the so-called obesity epidemic, and countless other modern health problems. Paleovores assert by eating only foods for which our metabolisms have been evolutionarily calibrated, we will experience a newfound sense of vigour, and do wonders for our health. On a basic level, the idea makes sense.

 

Though my indecorously excessive dairy habit disqualifies me from paleo in the minds of the strictest adherents of this diet, I’d still say my thinking about food, and my own metabolism roughly lines up with the philosophy of other paleovores. I’m just unwilling to be excessive about dietary dogma, and giving up cheese, and yogurt, and the use of electricity to prepare food seems that way to me. To deny ourselves every and any modern culinary convenience, just because caveman wouldn’t have had access strikes me as an odd form of gastronomic neo-luddism.

But, let’s put dietary doctrine aside, because, like I said, I don’t really have a diet, so much as general ideas from experience about what works as healthy eating for me.

The only foods that really pose a problem are chocolate and ice cream, and I’ll admit it, a life without ice cream would be a barren and sad affair indeed. But, both chocolate and ice cream can be made simply, naturally and with fresh enough ingredients that I’m still willing to consider them healthy, whole foods, and compromise infrequently on the sugar front. Plus, do we seriously think Ug, the homo-habilis could have possibly resisted the lure of honey-lavender gelato? Please! He would have clubbed you for it, and scarfed down the whole pint, cardboard and all!

There is one more pitfall though. My culinary nostalgia is often distracted with a number of carb-laden treats from childhood. High on this list  is something from the Latvian kitchen, biezpiena plācenīši, or, cottage cheese croquettes.

Whenever I was hungry, or bored, or, um, well, whenever, my grandmother would fry up these simple, crunchy, crispy, creamy delights for me – and in a flash. It goes without saying that I would devour them with relish, and soon be asking for more. No wonder I was such a jolly child, after all, eating countless fried balls of cheese and flour is not the best regime for staying svelte – but who could have ever said no to dear Omi’s love?

Authentic biezpiena plācenīši are a morsel of classic Latvian culinaria; an example of simple, hearty, farm fare, made from what was close at hand. The principle ingredient in these croquettes is biezpiens, or a kind of cottage cheese. And it makes sense, because Latvians have always consumed an enormous amount of dairy. So important is the dairy industry in Latvia, that exporting butter alone we managed to net consistently strong positive trade balances in the 1930’s. Our bacon did pretty damn well on foreign markets too. Dairy is so big in Latvian cuisine, if there is a way to use a milk product in cooking, we have done it.

These croquettes are just that sort of recipe. The authentic version has you combine biezpiens with flour, and salt and pepper, or honey for a sweet version. Then form the mixture into patties, and fry. My stomach growls just thinking of that first cheesy, crackling, crunch of a bite. For a long time, though, that is all I would let my tummy do, growl, as the flour in the traditional recipe is high on my list of avoided foods.

Long and short, I’ve really missed these little croquettes. So, it was with quite a bit of excitement that I discovered a way to bring them back into my life – almond meal. Of course, the end result is not exactly the same, but it is independently delicious, and vaguely similar enough to satisfy.

Almond meal really is fantastic stuff. Every kitchen needs some. It is very low in carbohydrates, extraordinarily high in protein, and has all kinds of the healthy fats & oils of the sort so often found in nuts. It makes a fantastic substitute for flour, and in many applications tastes even better on account of its complex, nutty flavors. It might not work for 100% substitutions in full-on baking applications, but for breading purposes, and other paleo, or low-carb applications, it is perfect.

For making paleo-plācenīši, or, caveman croquettes, or savoury almond cakes, or whatever you want to call them, it is ideal.

The basic recipe lends itself to innumerable variations in spicing and flavoring, as the almond meal and biezpiens make for such a pliable palette.

Regular cottage cheese will work, and even better if you drain it for a bit beforehand. This can be done easily in a colander lined with a double layer of cheesecloth. However, the biezpiens that goes into the original recipe has much less whey than typical American cottage cheese. In the United States, a Mexican cheese called requezon makes an ideal biezpiena substitute.

I like to make plācenīši with green garden herbs. Not only because they come out tasting fresh and bright, but it also seems appropriate to use fresh garden herbs as an homage to the Latvian cooking traditions supporting the recipe – especially considering the serious departure from norms I’ve taken with my use of almond meal. I am convinced however, that even the most diehard farmhouse kitchen conservatives would be won over with their first bite.

Paleo Plācenīši:
(Caveman Croquettes)

  • 1 lb biezpiens or requezon cheese (cottage cheesed drained for a little bit in a colander lined with a double layer of cheesecloth will work)
  • 2 1/3 cups almond meal
  • 1/ 4 cup flax-seed meal
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 bunch green onions
  • 1 large bunch of fresh thyme, 30-40 sprigs
  • 1/4 bunch of fresh dill
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 red, hot-sweet pepper
  • 2 tsp of honey
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • enough light frying oil to fill a pan to 1/2 inch

Place the biezpiens in a bowl for mixing, and break any bigger clumps down into small curds with a fork.

Remove the thyme leaves from their sprigs. This important step is tedious, and a bit of a chore, but the superiority of fresh thyme over the dried stuff makes it worth it. With a little good music, and a glass of wine, it goes by quickly.

Chop the dill. Mince the garlic and hot pepper. Add the thyme to the cutting board, and chop slightly more, just enough to rough up the thyme leaves and release some of their fragrance.

Chop the green onions thinly.

Add everything but the flax and almond meal to the biezpiens.

Mix well. The result should be a fairly thick and smooth, almost  like a batter. Now, mix in the almond and flax meals a little bit at a time.

Continue adding almond meal little by little, until the mix is a smooth, even consistency that holds together well enough to form into patties.

Make the plācenīši by forming the almond-meal – biezpiens mix into patties.

Heat the oil in a good non-stick pan almost to the point of smoking. Put the plācenīši into the very hot oil, and reduce the heat to medium.

Fry the first side for about 5 – 10 minutes, or until golden.

Then, flip the plācenīši over and cook the other sides.

Remove from the oil, and place on a plate lined with paper towels to cool.

Sit down enjoy a healthy serving of nostalgia.

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