Sumptuous full-flavored tortellini. Veal scaloppine. Spaghetti with subtle sauces. Stuffed peppers.
But what truly had me drooling were the mussels. Three of us dove into a seemingly endless pot of the delicious crustaceans. Three others who don’t eat shellfish watched as we plundered the pot.
The mussels were a meal to themselves but were just the first act for an entree that featured dorado, a tasty white fish our cook, Nenad “Neno” Creno, 43, had briefly soaked in a tomato sauce before grilling in a heated frying pan.
“I like to cook,” Nano explained during a break from the tiny kitchen aboard the Linda, a cozy 102-foot long wooden motor yacht that held 24 passengers and a staff of seven, including two Croatian guides who led our group of bicyclists on daily rides on a series of Adriatic Sea islands.
Each day began with hearty breakfasts followed by two-course lunches and dinners, which were followed by never-twice-the-same desserts. At times I wasn’t sure if we ate to store energy for the often challenging bicycle rides or pedaled like hyperactive gerbils to burn off the calories from Nano’s incredible meals.
For the past seven years, from April through October, Nano has prepared meals for an ever-changing cavalcade of island-hopping bicyclists. During the season, he works seven days a week, often 15 hours a day. On Saturday afternoons, when one week-long cruise ends and another set of cyclists arrives, he’s in local markets shopping for the next week’s groceries.
Fresh Ingredients, Passion for Cooking
“I go to the supermarket and see what I find. And what is good, I buy,” explained Nano, who speaks English as a second language.
The ability to buy fresh products means an ever-changing variety of food and varied menus, which he says is better “for me, for the crew, for everybody.”
Because it was late summer during my bicycle cruise, the meals feature fresh fish, wild mushrooms and fresh, large bell peppers. Along with being used in sauces, the mushrooms were used for a subtle, delectable crème of mushroom soup. Like the mushroom, after being used in salads and other side dishes, one night the colorful bell peppers were hollowed and stuffed with spices, eggs, half-boiled rice, and tomato sauce blended with ground beef. The boiled peppers were paired with mashed potatoes that were flavored with sauce from the pepper concoction. Delicious.
Neno spends long days perfecting his meals. He begins early each morning and doesn’t stop until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, after the compact kitchen is scrubbed clean and preparations are made for the next day’s meals.
“I organize it very good because you don’t have much space,” he explained. “My first year was terrible. I wondered, how can I prepare things here?”
He’s a bit of a perfectionist because cooking is part of his family’s DNA. As he matter-of-factly explained, “Because my father is a cook, and I follow him.”
Nano was 17 when began cooking while working as a cabin boy on a cargo ship.“Where I started to learn … Mostly I learned on the boat and in school,” he says, referring to three years in a cooking school. His interest and talent eventually led to ongoing promotions and full-time work in the kitchens of large cargo ships, something he did for 22 years.
“I have been everywhere in the world, but I missed New Zealand,” he said.
The cargo ships had larger kitchens and staffs, which allowed him to indulge in his preferred style of cooking, baking. “I like to prepare the cake and everything. Here (on the Linda) you don’t have the space.”
He left cargo ships because economic cutbacks reduced the cooking staff and increased the time at sea. Instead of 10-day stays in harbors, the ships now have shorter visits and with an increased number of inspections. “There was less time to see and enjoy. You are always on the ship, on the sea … It drives you crazy.”
Since taking over the Linda’s kitchen he spends winters, when Croatia’s tourism dwindles, he usually stays close to his home in Rijeua, sometimes kicking back or helping with maintenance tasks on the Linda.
“Usually I stay at home because it’s wintertime,” he said. “It’s rainy, it’s cold, it’s snowy, it’s windy.”
He enjoys the time off, but, fittingly, savors his time in the kitchen.
The Linda, with its compact space and seven-days-a-week seasonal rush, has its challenges.
But, as Nano explained, “Here is a little bit harder work, but it’s more fun. Every evening you are at harbor so you can get off and go get coffee, or relax.”
And maybe taste test others cooking. — Story and photos by Lee Juillerat, RFT Contributor
Nano’s Succulent Stuffed Peppers Recipe
Because Nenad “Nano” Creno prepares meals for 30-plus people, he’s short on the details but trusts his instincts, and taste buds. Without being specific his prepares what I call “Nano’s Succulent Stuffed Peppers” by habit. Here’s the process:
Cut off the pepper tops and open the peppers.
Add a mixture of meat, garlic, parsley, eggs, olive oil, salt and pepper and half-boiled rice to the peppers. Nano doesn’t operate by set amounts but recommends blending and tasting continuously.
In a frying pan, using a tomato sauce base, add salt, pepper and small amounts of sugar (“It gives a nice taste”), then add the mix to the peppers.
Place the stuffed peppers in a large pan of water. Begin at a hard boil, then reduce the heat to a light, steady boil for 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
“You must watch and test,” he says of knowing when they’re done.
Nano says the best side dish is mashed potatoes made with white potatoes. Sauce from the peppers can be poured atop the potatoes. —LJ