May 302010
 

My Serbian neighbor and friend for many years, Dragana, moved away today, for good.

They had moved to California from Ohio in 2005, and we stayed behind. Our frequent telephone conversations consisted mostly of her trying to explain how wrong we were to cling to ice and snow, when we can have the land of eternal sunshine. She talked avocados, citrus, pomegranates, cheap produce at a local Persian store. Her Lorelei song was very seductive.  Things happened, our lives changed drastically, and all of a sudden, a move anywhere became a focal point. Why not the land of eternal sunshine? And who does not love avocados?

Of course, several other reasons contributed to chosing California, but we arrived, on the last day of August 2008, which was Husband’s birthday, exhausted and weary, completely broke and desperate, to share a big pot of Serbian beans and warm bread with Dragana and her family.

They had secured an empty apartment next door to them for us. We had nothing when we moved in, our household kept safe in storage back in Ohio. They gave us furniture, refrigerator, and blow-up beds on which to sleep. They shared their food every day with us, until the first paychecks appeared.

I remember one occasion in September when we needed to pay $40.00 for the older Beastie’s field trips to come – it was as big as a million at the time. Dragana gave us the two $20.00 bills as if she picked them from her young lemon tree on the patio.

With time we managed to get on our feet. And we settled into a comfortable routine. She would usually yell “Hey, friend/sister, put some coffee on!” while coming home from work or store. I would yell back a greeting, without bothering to leave my chair in front of the computer. Or she would just come over, sweep our patio and yell “Coffee is ready! What are you waiting for?”

The coffee had to be just right, not, as she called it “the Serbian swill” I like, but hard-core Arabic blend purchased at our local Persian store. We would settle on her patio, or mine, drink coffee and gossip, reminisce,  give advice to one another, and laugh

In the neighborhood she was known as Mom. All the little Mexican kids called her that. She fed them, hugged them, kept them warm, all in her brusque, intimidatting and to-the-point way. The food from her kitchen went out anywhere a hungry mouth existed, platters of food– but if you did not remember to return the platter, your ass was fried!

Since the day she told me they were moving, I felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest. Yes, we’ll see each other at work Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and any other day for coffee. And, yes, their new place is only 3 miles away from us – in American distances  a spit away. But I will miss her presence. I will miss her reliability. I will miss her generosity and her commanding way of running a day. I will miss having at least a couple of her plates and bowls on the kitchen counter, full of samples from her daily menu, and I will miss the opportunity to fill those same plates and bowls with something I made and return them to her (I think they throw you in jail in Serbia if you return a plate empty – squeaky clean is not enough.)

We had our last Turkish coffee together today. She walked away in long strides, as usual, toting behind a vacuum cleaner and an armfull of cleaning supllies, with her visiting Serbian mother in tow. She waved goodbye, I waved back, as if it were just another day. I went back to the house, and I cried. I cried for our friendship, I cried for all the goodness of this woman, I cried for  all the memories.

And for Dragana, I post a very simple, but essential “recipe” for making  Turkish coffee, Serbian way.

arabic coffee, dzezva and "cuturica" (chu-tu-ri-tza), serbian flask, contaning slivovitza, many times a necessary accompaniment to coffee

You need a Turkish coffee pot, aka dzezva. Measure up the right amount of water, using smallish cups which will hold the coffee. If taking coffee with sugar, add it now so it dissolves (I omit the sugar, but Dragana likes hers just a little sweet). Leave the dzezva on high heat until the water boils. Take off the heat and measure 1 teaspoon of very, very, very finely ground coffee per cup  into the pot. Stir well and return to the stove. When the foam on top starts rising, remove from heat, and spoon a bit of foam into each cup (skipping Dragana’s, she does not like the foam).  Pour some coffee into the cups, little by little, going around, so that consistency is equal in all. Find a comfortable spot on the couch, and share a cup of Turkish with a friend. And remember, sip and enjoy, and do not drink the dregs on the bottom, no matter how emotional this post makes you!

a cup of Joe (or should it be Jovan, if it is Serbian?)

May 292010
 

Husband’s Offspring No.1 moved in with us at the end of March. She is a vegetarian (of the most undemanding kind, though) which gives me the right to change the Weekly Menu and add another meatless day! My oldest, the College Kritter, is another story. For her brief and rare visits from the lands of North California, ample amounts of animal protein, preferably in a big chunk, have to be present. I always think that we need to book an ashram or at least a spa in Palm Springs to undergo a total and comlpete de-tox after she goes back to the People’s Republic of Berkeley.

I was a bit worried in the beginning because the Offspring No.1 is a true born-and-raised Georgia peach, and I cook from all over the world, inspired by a song, a smell, a story.

I cure my own sauerkraut (my father praised the results; and yes, we live in Southern California), I render lard, I gather bones, feet, carcasses and shells to make stocks (my neighbors know better than to come home from the store with freshly cleaned trout, without their heads in a separate bag for me), I make yogurt and ricotta and mayo. A couple of years ago I had a vegetable garden and a definite plan for a compost bin. Living in a tiny apartment now is the only thing preventing me from raising a couple of chickens… damn the fine print in that lease.

I was afraid that the Offspring No.1 would find me pretty strange, at best, some kind of a hippie-peasant. But, so far, she has embraced the change; she is willing to try different things, and maybe, just maybe, does not really wonder why her father married some relic from the 19th century.

She has returned to Georgia for several days. We don’t have to abstain from meat. But, I was completely floored when Husband suggested we try the mung beans we purchased several days ago at a Persian ethnic store! I pointed out that, unlike “normal” beans or split peas, these are cooked as a “dal”, with vegetables and spices only, omitting any yummy porcine products. He didn’t flinch and mung beans it was. I went to work, leaving detailed and illustrated instructions for the dish, after I soaked the beans overnight. When I came back I finished the meal, made some naan and we ate so much that afterwards Husband was groaning and complaining that he felt as if it had been Thanksgiving! And all that without meat, he he.

raw mungs, in their legume glory

MUNG BEAN DAL, adapted from www.buzzle.com

Ingredients:

  • 1½ cup mung beans or lentils, dry
  • 9 cups water
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • ½ tsp mustard seeds
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp coriander powder
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp sea salt or rock salt
  • ½ tsp curry powder, mild
  • 1 tbsp ginger root, fresh, minced
  • â…› tsp black pepper
  • ½ green pepper, chopped
  • 2½ tbsp lemon juice

Directions:

Soak beans overnight and next morning drain them.  Transfer them in large pot with 9 cups of water and cook for 40 – 50 minutes, or until quite soft. In a small frying pan heat oil and put mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds pop, add turmeric and warmed spices to the cooked beans. Add all remaining ingredients, mix well and cook for 15 – 20 minutes over medium heat. Serve hot with rice (I didn’t make rice, because we had freshly baked naan! Heaven…)

not even capturing the steam can make them photogenic!

but their inner beauty - delicious!

NAAN, recipe from allrecipes.com

Ingredients:

  • 1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic (optional)

Directions:

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let stand about 10 minutes, until frothy. Stir in sugar, milk, egg, salt, and enough flour to make a soft dough. Knead for 6 to 8 minutes on a lightly floured surface, or until smooth. Place dough in a well oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and set aside to rise. Let it rise 1 hour, until the dough has doubled in volume.

Punch down dough, and knead in garlic. Pinch off small handfuls of dough about the size of a golf ball. Roll into balls, and place on a tray. Cover with a towel, and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 30 minutes.

During the second rising, preheat grill to high heat. At grill side, roll one ball of dough out into a thin circle. Lightly oil grill. Place dough on grill, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until puffy and lightly browned. Brush uncooked side with butter, and turn over. Brush cooked side with butter, and cook until browned, another 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from grill, and continue the process until all the naan has been prepared.

May 262010
 

Last March, for my birthday, the College Kritter took me to this store. It was a surprise, and I had no clue where we were going; she drove and when we arrived, I was in heaven! We were transported into a different world, and spent over three hours browsing, exploring, admiring and trying to figure out what you would do with some of the stuff. We bought a cart full of groceries for about $40.00 and left happy, dreaming of all the meals we would make…

It is an Asian store, with tanks of live lobsters, crabs, shellfish and fish, with an aisle devoted exclusively to bean curd, with more varieties of noodles than in a Mediterranean market, with fruit and vegetables that we had to put on our Google search, just to be able to remember, let alone use. Most of the articles we bought still reside happily in my pantry, and I am proud to say, I managed to cook with all of the ingredients, including tamarind paste and banana sauce!

In the meantime, we ran out of red rice (we used to buy Himalayan red rice at a stall in Westside Market in Cleveland, but have not found source for it here, yet) and I took the Husband on an adventure, to the 99 Ranch Market!

I grew up in a country where fish is served with the eyes looking at you, where tripe, kidneys, liver, brain and tongue find their place at the dinner table more than occasionally, where chicken you are eating was clucking and gobbling up worms just a couple of hours earlier, before grandma wrung its neck, pluck the feathers and dumped it into a pot.

I was perfectly comfortable with chicken feet, pork liver, and goat’s testes, but I had to chuckle and envision a Fear Factor episode when we encountered duck tongues, boneless duck feet and pig uteruses! My American Husband, although somewhat seasoned by being fed in my mother’s  kitchen, and my culinary explorations throughout the years, asked me nicely not to buy anything with eyes, and to, please, keep on moving past the black sea cucumber, nicely packaged as it was. I obliged and remarked that next time I would have to come with the younger Beastie, who is going to appreciate completely what this store has to offer.

We bought: pork liver, frozen whole baby squid, maitake mushrooms, bunapi mushrooms, black rice, garlic-chili sauce, shrimp paste, frozen banana leaves, dark soy sauce, panko breadcrumbs, and coconut milk (it was dirt cheap!)

Our loot.

Bunapi (aka Beech mushrooms).

Maitake mushrooms.

May 232010
 

I’ve been a wannabe blogger for more than five years. And if I were an elephant, my baby born at that time would be ready to embark on a joyous trip to adolescence. But, I waited, I procrastinated, I gave myself promises that I would master the art of digital photography, HTML, and graphic design, before publishing a single word. I have carried the cross of a perfectionist and overachiever throughout my life… And as a result, I made sure that I would stay stuck in the limbo between wanting and doing. I read many blogs, sighed with envy over mind-blowing photos, bit my nails with frustration while everybody else, it seemed, launched their personal diaries on the web, and went to bed every night with a  firmly cemented notion that “tomorrow will be the day”.

In the meantime, my very functional camera passed into the very busy hands of my children, aka the two Beasties and the  College Kritter and became a tool for making movies about stuffed animals and Barbies, taking random shots of TV shows, of immortalizing 1000 poses of our two cats, Macey and Dixie,  and capturing the emerging talents of  local metal and ska bands. Oh, yes, I received the book on digital photography as a birthday present from the College Kritter, some three years ago, and managed to conveniently misplace it after the move from Ohio to California. She nagged. I made excuses. And the poor blog patiently waited…

I’ve written journals since I was in grade school. And destroyed them one by one, because they just didn’t measure up to my stylistic standards.  Oh, what would I do now to take a peek into my 10-year old or 12-year old soul! I started “the first sentence of the blog”, just for practice, hundreds of times, and each one was highlighted and sent into oblivion, sharing the destiny of  ”it was a dark and stormy night” in some celestial recycling bin.

Every now and then, when I decide that my grey cells are slowly dying out, I come up with an idea of writing a book, something to connect my children to their Serbian ancestors and the land they live in, a memoir of my life on two continents, a collection of stories and anecdotes told and retold by my Serbian relatives and friends, something that my future grandkids could read to remember me. The “book” morphs into different shapes, gets melodramatic one day and seriously pragmatic the next, its purpose shifts from “a centralized source of all the things my kids will need from this day onward” to loose-knit embroidery of romantic, nostalgic, tragic and eternally funny things that happened in the past and keep on happening, because the life didn’t slow down conveniently for me, to start writing about it, which sucks.

The reality struck and threw me into a panic attack; the Husband was fed up with me whining about not writing, not being able to comprehend the magic of uploading a photo from files to a site, and not being artistic enough to capture the world as I see it and win the Gold Medal Awarded To The Best Photo On Earth ever – I am a perfectionist, after all!

He said: Pick a name for your blog and be done with it. Pressure was on me. I cracked the knuckles, I bit my nails, I rubbed my eyes (my contact lenses didn’t appreciate that), I whined, I tried to weasel out, I used all 300 excuses in my book, but he was relentless and I received, as a result, a blank page of this blog, all adorned beautifully, in my favorite hues of green, orange, and brown, inviting me to ruin it with writing… I didn’t have a choice, peeps. I was pushed into a corner.

The empty spice rack is a symbol. I just love it; I cannot wait to fill it, to label it and use it.  Join me on this tumultuous  ride, help me fill my metal jars with spices of life. And  to tell the truth, I have another empty one waiting to be filled! How fun is that?