In the Kitchen With Zlata Sabo

European influences and fresh produce come together in flavorful combinations.

Simple, plant-based dishes full of garden-fresh and seasonal ingredients are the focus of the meals retired music teacher Zlata Sabo prepares for herself and her husband, Joseph.

Since retiring several years ago, she discovered how much she enjoys growing a vegetable garden at their southwest Ocala home. Situated across the backyard from Joseph’s more than 100 flowering camellia bushes, which bloom in the winter, her produce patch is currently brimming with organic kale, celery, green beans, peppers and squash.

“I cook a lot of vegetables,” Sabo says. “I do eat a little bit of meat here and there but my husband eats only vegetarian. I have a lot of friends I like to have over for lunch. I make some nice soups. Whatever I have in the refrigerator and from the garden I try to incorporate.”

She’s “still learning how to cook,” says Sabo, who likes to watch TV cooking shows for inspiration and is usually accompanied in the kitchen by her adorably fluffy, white Maltese dog, Obi. These days she’s becoming a little more adventurous, she says, experimenting with different ingredients and new flavor combinations after mostly sticking to tried-and-true recipes since she learned to cook as a young bride-to-be in the late 1960s.

“I went to my mom and said, ‘How do you cook?’” Sabo remembers. At the time she was a busy student at a music conservatory in her native Yugoslavia (now Slovenia). Her mother helped her put together a little book of recipes she still has today. After living in Ocala for nearly 50 years, she still enjoys preparing dishes she learned from her mom, such as plum dumplings and kohlrabi, and swapping recipes with her sister for pastries such as börek and baklava.

The entrée she’s prepared most often over the years is her go-to for lunch guests or a quick meal for two. Crepes, whether filled with savory ingredients or fruit and sweet cream, bring back fond memories of school-day lunches with her mother and sister, both of whom still live in Slovenia.

“It’s a basic recipe,” she insists. “Here, when you think of crepes, you think it’s time consuming, French, hard,” she says with a laugh. “It’s so easy—anybody can do it. It’s really simple.” And the best part, she says, is the recipe works with practically any substitution or modification.

“If the recipe calls for two cups of milk and you only have one, use a cup of water,” she advises. “If you don’t have three eggs, put two—whatever you have, whatever you want to put in.”

Having a bounty of her own homegrown vegetables plus more time to spend in the kitchen has inspired Sabo to discover new favorites, such as the Hokkaido squash soup she developed when she substituted the pumpkin-like gourds that flourish in her garden for the potatoes in her favorite recipe for cream of celery leaf soup.

“If it turns out, we’ll eat it,” she says with a smile. “If it doesn’t, no big deal.”

Crepes with Creamy Strawberry Filling

Makes 12, 6-inch crepes.

4 cups strawberries, sliced

2 cups milk (or replace some milk with water)

1 1/4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup heavy cream, whipped

3 eggs

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons grape-seed oil or melted butter

1 tablespoon sugar 

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

Blend eggs, milk, oil (or butter), flour, sugar and salt in a blender or mix by hand until smooth. › Let the mixture rest for 30 minutes. › Blend the cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla with an electric mixer or wooden spoon until smooth. › Gently fold in the whipped cream. › Heat a lightly oiled nonstick 9- or 10-inch skillet over medium heat. › With a medium-size ladle, pour the batter in the middle of the skillet and quickly tip and rotate pan to spread batter and cover entire pan thinly. › When the edges begins to brown, flip it over with a butter knife or spatula and cook until the other side begins to brown. › Stack finished crepes on a plate and cover with a cloth or food wrap. › To serve, put 1/3 cup of cream cheese mixture and 1/4 cup strawberries in each crepe and roll up. › Top with a small dollop of the filling and strawberry slices.

Savory Mushroom, Spinach and Cheese Crepes

Prepare crepes as above and fill with this savory mixture.

Makes 12, 6-inch crepes.

1 1/4 pounds (about 8 cups) any mushroom variety or combination, rinsed, trimmed and thinly sliced

2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded (or any hard cheese of your choice, such as gruyere or asiago)

1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

1 10-ounce package fresh spinach, washed, stemmed and coarsely chopped

5 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. › Heat the oil in a large skillet until hot enough to sizzle a slice of mushroom. › Add the mushrooms all at once and cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until they begin to brown, about 10 minutes. › Stir in the parsley, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. › Cook for 1 minute. › Reduce heat to medium and stir in the spinach. › Cover and cook until just wilted, about 2 minutes. › Uncover and add the goat cheese, stirring until melted. › Spoon mixture down the center of each crepe. › Roll up crepes and arrange side by side in a baking dish. › Sprinkle with shredded cheese. › Cover pan with foil and heat until cheese melts, about 15 minutes. › Serve warm.

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