Eat pie for dinner and get a taste of Macedonia with Zelnik 614
Ryan Miller’s savory creations can be ordered for home delivery two days a week
Sometimes I wonder what lasting lifestyle changes might result from having endured a long, still ongoing pandemic. Because staying home every single night hoping that my TV will be sufficiently entertaining isn’t something I’d like to continue once the coronavirus finishes terrorizing humanity.
But pie for dinner? That’s a pandemic adaptation that I could see being a keeper.
I’m not saying that I’ve been gobbling desserts for dinner (at least not routinely). No, I’m talking about enjoying a beautiful and delicious handcrafted savory pie for a major meal. I’m talking about a zelnik — a Balkan-style pastry that originated in Macedonia (modern-day North Macedonia borders countries such as Greece and Serbia) and is traditionally filled with rib-sticking ingredients like eggs, cheeses, meats and vegetables.
The only way to currently purchase one in Columbus is to place an order on the @zelnik614 Instagram account of local zelnik king, self-taught chef-entrepreneur and enthusiastic family-and-food historian Ryan Miller. Bonus: Until May, when he transfers his operation from his South Side home to a Downtown pizzeria, Miller will deliver his handsomely packaged zelniks, paired with flavorful dipping sauces, right to your door.
All you need do is order by the day prior to Miller’s Tuesday and Friday bi-weekly delivery dates, pay (most zelniks cost $30 and feed two to three adults), follow concise reheating instructions (this takes about 15 minutes), and then enjoy a memorable meal that’s built for comfort but far from boring.
A 33-year-old Canal Winchester native who studied engineering at Ohio University, Miller launched this home delivery zelnik enterprise while underemployed as a delivery guy in November (he recently became an extreme multitasker with a full-time job). His business blossomed quickly via social media.
“With pandemic culture, lots of people were ordering out to support local businesses. I hit the market at the right time,” Miller told me in a late March phone conversation that led to email exchanges.
His signature zelnik, called Baba’s Original, is made from a recipe that Miller’s zelnik-mentoring father painstakingly transcribed from the coffee-cup measurements of the recipe’s originator: Miller’s Macedonian great-grandmother (“baba” is “grandmother” in Macedonian).
The Baba’s Original I sampled tasted as great as it looked: A golden-brown, flaky and multilayered crust — which was hefty on top, impressively braided along its thick edges and rather snappy on the bottom — encased a rich-yet-tangy filling of eggs, feta-like Bulgarian sheep's milk cheese, cottage cheese and sauteed-to-sweet leeks.
The hearty not heavy, deep-dish-quiche-like creation’s lovely crust tasted even better when dunked into the provided ajvar — a smoky, slightly sweet and addictive condiment Miller makes with roasted red peppers and eggplant, and that seems related to baba ghanoush and romesco.
Cincinnati chili, which was created by Macedonian immigrants and is related to the meaty masses found in moussaka and pastitsio, is the inspiration for Miller’s other regularly available dish, the Spiced Beef Zelnik. Accompanied by ajvar, as per usual, the killer meat pie featured a robust filling of cinnamon-scented ground beef and roasted tomatoes inside its terrific zelnik shell.
It’s no accident that the Baba's Original and Spiced Beef zelniks have Macedonian roots. Miller’s heritage has been a longtime source of pride and obsession that prompted travels to the Macedonia region and a consuming study of all things Macedonian.
Macedonia is also honored when he stretches his wings to dabble in special-occasion fusion cuisine — a la the zesty rice-andouille-and-chicken Jambalaya Zelnik and bittersweet green-pepper ajvar that were the stars of my pandemic Mardi Gras.
“Food is culture and vice versa,” Miller said while ruminating on Macedonia’s ancient Greek (Alexander the Great was Macedonian) and modern Slavic leanings. “Identities can shift quickly and cultures can get erased. I love exposing more people to Macedonian culture, and this zelnik thing is a step in the right direction.”