Jun 292010
 

My Father’s father and grandfather and so forth for at least five generations back were orthodox Christian priests. They all attended the Academy of Theology where they studied history, geography, Old Church Slavic language, Latin, and Greek.  In addition to achieving academic success, they had to be  able to carry a tune, sing well, and have a good voice. In the 18th and 19th century Serbia, having a child accepted into priesthood was not only an honor, but a relief to the family. The youngster would get an education and be well fed. And unlike Catholic priests, orthodox priests have to get married and have a family before taking the oath, unless they choose the life of a monk.

My Father broke the magic circle and became a surgeon. We were not raised in religion, but we followed the traditions and rituals of orthodox faith. On Christmas Eve and Good Friday we abstained from red meat, eggs, and dairy. Throughout the year, Wednesdays and Fridays were the days we ate fish, seafood or altogether meatless dishes. Mother’s menu planning regularly included dishes that just happened to prolong the lives of the beasts of the field anyway, so this constriction did not cause any rebellion among the family troops.

One of the most anticipated accompaniments to pan-fried trout* was this baked bean dish, called “prebranac” in Serbian. Plump butter beans sweetened by caramelized onions and paprika, with a bay leaf or two for an edgy contrast, were baked in an earthenware dish until its peaks and ravines became barely blushed.

Sure, it can be made with any meat, or on its own with a couple of eggs fried sunny side up, but for me, its taste reaches the most sublime level when served with fish. The beans melt in my mouth and my heart melts in my chest, remembering all the Fridays of my childhood as my family came together over this comforting dish.

I am entering this great bean dish to My Legume Love Affair, founded by Susan of The Well-Seasoned Cook and hosted by Diana of A Little Bit Of Spain In Italy.

*The continental cuisine of landlocked Serbia drew its resources from the rivers and lakes where trout, catfish, and bass swam for their lives, often without success.  It should also be noted that, after the ingestion of three or more adult beverages, the fine members of the porcine community also count as “fish.”

"tetovac" beans grown by my cousins in northern Kosovo

PREBRANAC – SERBIAN BAKED BEANS

This is my mother’s recipe, but variations of this dish are common all over the Balkans.

Ingredients:

  • 250gr (1/2 lb) butter beans (“tetovac”)
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 3-4 medium to large onions, sliced thinly
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • 2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 2 bay leaves

Directions:

Soak the beans in cold water overnight (if you forget, just put the beans in a dutch oven, or 5 quart pot, add enough water to cover, heat to boil, and drain). Add 2 quarts of water and garlic, and heat on high until it boils. Turn the temperature down and simmer until the beans are soft but not falling apart, 2-3 hours.

Heat the oil in skillet on medium temperature and add onions, salt and pepper. Caramelize until nicely brown, about 45 minutes, stiring frequently to prevent scorching. Add paprika.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

When the beans are cooked, drain the water, but reserve half a cup. Mix in the onions and  reserved cooking water, and pour into an earthen ware dish (or any oven-proof dish). Taste and adjust the amounts of salt and pepper. Stick the bay leaves inside the beans and bake for 45 minutes, until golden on top. Remove the bay leaves and serve.

Variation: After mixing beans and onions, puree with a fork, or potato masher (I have never tried the food processor and can only assume that the consistency would be similar to hummus), pour into the baking dish and bake.

Jun 232010
 

Somehow it seems wrong to announce the arrival of  summer to Southern California. I am still not fully acclimated to my surroundings, and I think in “seasons”. I can always pretend the sky was not cerulean blue back in March, just like it was this morning. I have to justify the presence of my brown leather boots – I am not willing to part with them yet. And the bag full of  scarves, mittens and winter hats sits in the closet, buried behind a tower of neatly folded teeshirts. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, sweating from anxiety, aware that I have not finished (nor started, for that matter) the seasonal wardrobe switch. I go back to sleep, smiling, remembering that now I live in the state of infinite spring.

Last weekend Husband and I visited South Coast Farm in San Juan Capistrano (does anyone still remember the song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”? I better send the link to the Mother who just adores Pat Boone). We hoped to score some heirloom tomatoes, but we were out of luck. Next week, folks, they said! Fresh from the vine tomatoes mark the beginning of summer for me. The lonely cherry tomato planted in a pot on our patio brings forth two or three minuscule globes a week – just enough for the kids to remember the taste of their red goodness. I know I can think on my toes – spontaneous is often a necessary adjective in my life. I invoked a Serbian summer meal, sans tomatoes. Freshly made bread, “cevapcici”*, chopped onion and “”urnebes”** spread, paired with cold beer and California breeze, define the summer in any language. A nice dollop of “kajmak” (Serbian version of clotted cream) would have elevated this meal to yet another level, but we do not have access to cows, or unpasteurized milk (where is Milorad, the milk-man when you need him?). I cannot take any credit for “cevapcici” (che-vap-chi-chi), because they arrived frozen, from Cleveland, craftily made by Boro the Macedonian. But mastering the art of making this delicacy is on my list.

While the bread was proofing, I sat outside and watched the signs of summer emerge. Little birds flew out of their nest under a post over the patio. I could hear children splashing in the pool, screeching, imagining their fingers turning to prunes. My plants spread their greenery over the pots. Even the side of the hill across from the apartment was brimming with life. And then there was the sky – uninterrupted deep blue that warms your soul and assures you everything is going to turn OK. California sky does not allow desolate thoughts. There is no room for despair, for hopelessness. You may leave your home feeling desperate, but once you are out of the door, facing the sky, the bad and the ugly disappear – only the good lingers. The smell of eucalyptus and budding citrus trees welcoming you in the morning does not hurt, either.

Even though I sometimes get melancholy  imagining the smell of fallen leaves raked into a pile mingling with the smoke from the fireplace, I have not been here long enough to wish for something different. I do not miss the huge, dirty snow drifts along the roads. There is no nostalgia throwing me in a sentimental mood if my car does not house an ice-scraping tool. I am at peace with the eternal spring, with infinite blue skies of California. I have found my home away from home. And if I ever find an urge to dig out the scarves, mittens and skiing hats, Big Bear Mountain beckons with its slopes, and snow, and the promise of real mid-western winter. In the meantime, we’ll do summer, Cali-Serbian way.

*”ćevapčići” or “ćevapi” are ground meat finger-shaped kebabs, originally introduced to the Balkans by the Ottoman Turks, spreading their empire westward; they are a specialty of the Balkans, particularly Bosnia, where they are made with ground lamb and beef, and Serbia, where pork is also included in the mix.

**”urnebes” is a spicy spread, or a condiment, originating from southern Serbia, the area famous for its peppers; there are several variations of this dish, but mostly all contain older, white cheese similar to feta, red pepper flakes and roasted red peppers.

LEPINJE

This bread is similar to middle-eastern flat breads, like pita. In Bosnia, it is called “somun”. If you ever visit Sarajevo, eating one of these filled with “ćevapi”, strolling down cobble-stoned BaÅ¡-ÄŒarÅ¡ija is a must. (Lepinje, pronunciation leh-pee-nyeh)

Ingredients:

  • 1 envelope (7gr)of  yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 300ml (1 ¼ cups) warm water
  • 500gr (4 cups) all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur or Five Roses, if I can find it)
  • 1 tsp salt

Directions:

In a large bowl mix yeast, sugar and a ½ cup of water. Let it sit until it foams up. Add the flour, salt, and water. Mix with the wooden spoon (the dough will be very soft) until it all comes together. Cover with a clean towel and let rise on room temperature about 30 minutes. Mix again. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and dust with flour. Cover the working surface with flour. Get some flour on your hands and divide the dough into 5-6 pieces. Form into balls, rolling them in the flour and flatten to ½ inch thickness. Place the disks into the cookie sheet and dust with a bit of flour. Preheat the oven to 450F and let the bread rise in the meantime. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden. Let rest, covered with a kitchen towel for 5 minutes.

This post is going to 12 Days of Bloggie-mas, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life.

Jun 192010
 

Sorry to disappoint the fans, but the King will not be taking the stage in this Pre-Fathers’ Day Drama.

An employee’s father went berserk today at work, throwing us all off kilter and causing some outrageous emotional responses. He walked in riled up, with his daughter in tow. Unbeknownst to them,  she was scheduled for 86-ing due to her incompetence.  Unbeknownst to us, he felt entitled to unmask the “conspiracy” against her and straighten things around. The manager came out of the office and met them at the entrance to the kitchen. The girl’s father started his tirade, hissing, eyes mere slits, nostrils flaring, lips taut. He leaned his tall and muscular body towards the manager, his index finger gun-shaped inches from her face. We were all milling around, in and out of the kitchen, feeling the pressure slowly rising. I was working in the section closest to the developing drama, and when his words became audible, louder with each menacing phrase, customers started fidgeting and the air became heavy with foreboding. His voice intensified in volume and malice. He loomed in the entrance to the kitchen, ready to pounce on the manager, who seemed to grow smaller and paler with every horrible second.

I had just put an order in the computer for a Daddy and his 9-year old, when the lunatic’s crescendo reached its peak. He bellowed at the manager, accusing her of ruining his darling daughter’s young life.  He threatened to beat her down and mop the floor with her useless body. We were petrified, stunned, unable to say a word. He roared and pounded his fist in the air. In a voice shaky with swallowed tears, the manager repeatedly asked him to leave the restaurant. He would not budge. He was not going anywhere until he was finished. In a corner booth, two small boys huddled closer to their parents; an elderly couple decided to get out of there, barely touching their food. Daddy and his little girl were not there and I set their food on the empty table. I apologized to all the remaining customers with a quivering voice, while my hands were shaking.

The ex-employee daughter finally convinced her father to let her talk this out by herself, in the office. She left, and he leaned against the post separating two booths facing the kitchen, crossed his arms across his heaving chest, while his eyes machine-gunned anybody who dared meet his glance. I went looking for the little girl and her Dad, and found her, face swollen after crying for ten minutes in the bathroom. Her father put his arms around her shoulders, apologized to me for leaving, having lost their appetite. And much more, I suspected.

My whole section cleared out amazingly quickly. Inside the office, the manager reached for the phone to dial 911. The girl laughed in her face and said: “My Dad is the cop!” She left to go sit in the car and wait. But this little piece of information added a big note of hopelessness and despair to our frightened crew. For a while the psycho-father-officer of the law guarded the entrance to the kitchen, armed with a swelling fury ready to be unleashed, his business evidently not finished. I was the official scout, while the manager hid in the office in tears, terrified and unable to endure the abuse of the unhinged brute.

When he finally left (we watched the car drive away to make really, really sure he was gone), I heard an audible communal sigh from all over the restaurant. People hesitantly picked up their utensils and started eating their semi-cold food. A giggle was heard, then another. We started joking, while the adrenalin was crawling to normal levels. The manager called the corporate higher-ups and the sheriff’s department. Following the company’s procedural policies, she handed us a notebook to write our individual official statements. I wrote three pages in one breath, prose flowing in catharsis, while my co-workers chuckled and begged me to inform them the minute my script goes into production. Ha, ha. I tend to be melodramatic at times. This scene awoke my reptilian emotions and I needed a valve to release the pressure.

Just before I left for the day, the manager took me aside and told me that the HR bigwigs suggested some therapy for the two of us mostly affected by the episode. An attorney customer gave her a business card, just in case she decided to press charges for harassment and abuse. We joked about joining a group for the emotionally traumatized and cursed the maniac for causing so much stress, not only to warrant a visit to a nearby loony bin, but to send a surge of cortisol that in an instant added pounds to our waistlines. As I was leaving I looked at her, grinned, and said, “Therapy?  I’m thinking liquid therapy.  There is nothing in this world a good Cosmopolitan won’t fix”.

COSMOPOLITAN

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz good quality vodka of your choice (Stolichnaya would be my drug of choice)
  • 1 oz cranberry juice
  • 1 oz Triple Sec orange liqueur (Cointreau if you want to make it top shelf)
  • 0.5 oz lime juice (Freshly squeezed… meaning the juice was still in the lime when you poured the vodka)

Directions:

Place 7-8 ice cubes in a shaker. Add all the ingredients and shake vigorously for several seconds. Pour through the strainer into a martini glass, kick back and let the healing begin.

Jun 182010
 

I am not a big sports fan. Growing up, we always watched the Olympics, especially the winter games. We spent winter breaks on ski slopes fighting the ice patches and getting the adrenalin rushes from uninterrupted downhill runs. Alpine skiing held us glued to the TV sets while our heroes accomplished what we could only daydream about (our favorite was Sweden’s legendary Ingemar Stenmark, who won all his trophies using Elan skiis, made in Slovenia).

I played some tennis in high school when the first courts in our town were built. My enthusiasm waned when, time after time, my coach would leave me alone to practice a thousand backhands while he was observing from the patio of a near-by restaurant, drinking beer and yelling between the sips, “What do you think Chris Evert Lloyd would do now?” These days I like to watch the big tournaments, particularly now that some of the (good looking) Serbs are in the top.

Father was a doctor and a president of one of our town’s basketball teams while we were growing up, and he took us to all home games religiously. The best thing I remember were the freshly roasted peanuts the Gypsy Peanut Guy was passing around, yelling “Kikiriki, leblebije!” We rooted for our guys, screamed when appropriate, booed the referees when necessary (and it was always necessary), and jumped in the air for every well-deserved victory. We even spent one summer vacation with the team on the Adriatic island of Hvar when they were preparing for the upcoming season. We were just goofing around, being kids. I was a very shy soon-to-be a seventh grader surrounded by these tall, macho guys around the clock. It did some wonderful things for my ego. When I was fourteen, the basketball team from Granville, a sister town in France, arrived for a series of friendly games. I reluctantly went on a bus field trip organized to show our guests some of our history. Father sat in the front with the adults, leaving me frozen in my shyness, incapable of uttering a word. I shared the seat with  seventeen year old Marcell. He didn’t speak English. I couldn’t speak French. So we still spent all day, quietly, stewing in uncommunicated chemistry. Later that night, at the party thrown for the players, managers, and town dignitaries (delectable food, intoxicating beverages and more intoxicating music), I experienced my first French kiss, under a starlit sky, kissing a French boy who was as naive and timid as I was.

But, I am going to forget for a moment the excitement of skiing, the elegance of tennis, and the romance of basketball. I have to talk about soccer, the game that is practically a religion in every country on the globe except for the U.S. I never cared for national leagues, European tournaments, or even World Championships. I have to confess, though, that my sister and I collected the stickers and filled an album for the 1972 Mundial held in Munich. We knew all the teams, the names of all the players, and rated them not by expertise, technique, or speed, but by, of course, their looks. We watched the games starring our handsomest men with the excitement and trepidation of pre-teens. Later on, if I could not avoid it, I would succumb to the national frenzy if Yugoslavia, and later Serbia, would find itself in some internationally important soccer challenge.

Serbia managed to get a place amongst sixteen best national teams in the 2010 World Soccer Championship. I had the Husband tape the games for me, and I, nodding in and out, watched bits and pieces of the match against Ghana. We lost 1:0. Oh, well. Today, Serbia played Germany. My sister lives in Frankfurt and her adorable husband is German. She got infected by his soccer-loving bug, and became an avid fan. But, it’s easy to wrap yourself in black, red, and yellow when Germany is playing  bitter rivals, like the Netherlands, or Spain. Today, their household was not a harmonious one. An additional unbalance was my College Kritter, visiting in Frankfurt for three weeks. My brother-in-law, Thomas, is Numero Uno on her personal list of cool people, and she watches every game with him.

I was at work when a customer told me that Serbia unexpectedly won the game. Serbia beat Germany? I was skeptical. Not believing my source, I called the Husband. Of course, he had no personal knowledge of any sports results past or present, but was able to perform a competent Google search and confirm. So we sent our condolences via Skype to the victimized souls in Frankfurt. I still have not received an answer. The pain is, evidently, too deep or, perhaps, the victims are still in the initial stages of denial.  I’m certain that there must be a slew of support groups and therapy options available in Germany for just such a disaster.

And Mexico beat France.  I imagine that my co-kisser from that long-ago summer is pouting somewhere, his tears flooding the Seine.

But for me, this game was an opportunity to make a dish that is unequivocally and totally Serbian, with parts that are in the same time unequivocally and totally German. Serbia won, and the slant is purposeful. I have to take advantage of this situation and gloat. Who knows, in a couple of days I might have to make Sauerbraten and Spaetzle…

PODVARAK (Serbian Sauerkraut)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp lard*
  • 3-4 rashers of smoked bacon, chopped
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 lbs sauerkraut, chopped**
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 5-6 peppercorns

*I had some home-rendered lard on hand, but if I had not, I would have used bacon grease. Duck fat woul work fine. I never made this dish with oil, so I cannot suggest a substitution.

**I brined my own sauerkraut, but the store-bought stuff works, too. Just avoid buying vinegar-brined, and opt for barrel-brined .

Directions:

In a heavy oven-safe skillet melt the lard over medium heat. Stir in the bacon and onions, and saute until onions become soft and transluscent, about 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Add the sauerkraut, and continue cooking, stirring often, until it shrinks almost by half, and becomes darker. (If it shows sighs of burning, add some water, or even better, sauerkraut liquid). This will take about 30 minutes. Mix in the bay leaves and peppercorns and put in the oven for another 30 minutes. Before serving take the bay leaves out. Serve with whole roasted chicken, braised chicken, roasted duck, roasted goose, or roasted pork. Corn bread is highly recommended. Serves 6 western Europeans or 4 Serbs or 2 Americans.

shades of brown deliciousness: crispy-skin chicken thigh, podvarak, corn bread

Jun 172010
 

I first met Mishko and Natasha when I was fifteen. In our group of seven or eight friends I was the youngest, and when everybody left to conquer the frontier that was the University of Belgrade, I was still in high school. They all returned home for the holidays and summer breaks, and I ventured into our capital a couple of times, starry-eyed, to visit them and experience the big city lights.

Two years later I received my own University  ID and began the frighteningly exhilarating life of a freshman. We spent a lot of time together, in their dorms, apartments, and my Aunt and Uncle’s home where I lived. We played cards, board games, went out dancing,  got drunk on anything that was available, had passionate arguments about (dis)advantages of primitive cultures who lived on tropical islands and probabilities of parallel lines meeting in the future. We planned picnics by the streams, grilled huge piles of  succulent pork, went on long bike rides and came back covered in mud; we dressed in our best to welcome every New Year together, attended four-day Italian neo-realism movie marathons, and lost our voices singing at full blast at concerts. We spent our summer breaks together, camping on the Adriatic, and our winter breaks skiing in Kopaonik, where my Father had a cabin. We were the “brat pack”, the inseparable bunch, fused together for eternity.

Natasha and I were roommates when she was a senior. One day in late April, just before she graduated, she told me that she and Mishko were getting married in July.  We hugged each other, cried, danced a silly dance, and cried some more. That summer I spent in Granby, Colorado, on a student exchange program, arranged months before, working as a waitress in a Best Western (anybody stayed at “El Monte” recently? It is on the continental divide). The invitation for their wedding, addressed to me in the USA,  went all over the world, before I finally received it in Belgrade, in December, after one of my American managers graciously forwarded it to me when it reached Granby.

That summer decided my future. I skipped continents a couple of years later, made America my home, and my friends stayed behind, got married, had children, celebrated holidays, went on vacations. I was never there, but I was always there. I missed most of the weddings. I was not present at their children’s births and birthdays.  And I suffered. But, for thirty years our friendship endured. It overcame the distances, the war, the sanctions, the bombing. The world around us changed, we changed, but the strength of our friendship did not. And “going home” every summer not only cemented our friendship, it brought our kids together. The new generation discovered each other, and formed their own connections.

Just before the year 2005 turned to 2006, Mishko and Natasha’s 16 year old son flew from Serbia to Cleveland, to spend a month with us. He and the College Kritter were good friends since they were peanuts. She took him to school with her and introduced him to her strange, geeky and amazingly creative friends. I took him ice-skating with the rest of the kiddie crew. Husband took him to a Cavaliers’ game and to Jacob’s Fields. We went to outside shopping malls, mega-bookstores, all kinds of different restaurants, including Hoggie’s, House of Blues and Metropolitan. We explored downtown Cleveland fighting the freezing winds that made our nostrils stick together. If he were not there, we would not have visited The Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. So, thank you, Damjan! I cooked Mexican, Thai, Chinese, American, French, Italian, anything to please this very picky eater, and to make his stay with us memorable. He went back to Serbia with, I hope, a lot of fond memories of our family.

A couple of days upon his return I spoke with my friend Natasha about his experience here in the USA. She chuckled and said: “Do you know what he said when I asked him what his favorite American meal was? Ajmokac!” We both burst out laughing.

Damjan is 21 now, studying Philosophy at University of Belgrade. College Kritter is in Germany, making detailed plans for a July trip around Central Europe with her best friend, Damjan. Some things change. Some things stay the same. And some things return in a loop.

AJMOKAC (I-mo-kutz)

This dish is, I believe, of Central-European origin. Mother is from the northern part of our country, Vojvodina, which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a long time. When she married the Father, she brought with her a lot of recipes not familiar to Serbia. Damjan has never had “ajmokac” before, and he just assumed it was an American dish! This was one of my favorites growing up, and now my children love it. I post the recipe for this simple dish, for the friends and friendships, for love continued.

Ingredients:

  • ½ large onion
  • 1 whole chicken breast on the bone
  • 3-4 carots
  • ½ parsnip
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 1-2 bay leaves
  • 3-4 peppercorns
  • 1 quart chicken stock*
  • Sauce:
  • 2 Tbs oil or butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 2-3 Tbsp red wine vinegar (according to taste)
  • 1 ½  tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper

*You can use homemade stock, or store-bought;I always keep chicken bones, necks, gizzards and livers in a baggie in my freezer, and I add use them to enhance the flavor of the stock

Directions:

Turn the burner on medium-high and roast the onion half, flat side down, until charred. Fill the stock pot with a quart of water. Add charred onion, chicken, vegetables, spices, and chicken stock. Heat until it boils, skimming the scum as it appears. As soon as it boils, turn the heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes.

Take the chicken out and let it cool. Cook the soup for another 30 minutes. Strain (you will need 1 cup of stock; save the rest for another  occasion) . Heat the oil or butter in a skillet on medium heat. Add the flour and stir to incorporate. Add the garlic and stir to infuse the flavor. Gradually whisk in mik and chicken stock (use the strained stock from earlier) until smooth. Add the vinegar, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly. Take the chicken off the bone in large chunks and add to sauce. Add the carrots, cut in halves or quarters, depending on size. Simmer on low heat until sauce thickens. Serve with pasta, mashed potatoes or rice.

Jun 142010
 

Once upon a time, in my previous life, we had a nice house with a big expanse of grass sloping down towards the lake. A wooden fence separated us from the neighbors on the right and in front. Along the “L” shape that fences formed, I had my father, a retired Ob-Gyn, turn the dirt over for a vegetable garden. Sure, here is a picture of me, in the midsts of freezing November gales, forcing a weak, old man to manually attack the clay-infused dirt of Northern Ohio. But he wanted to be helpful, and he was mostly bored while visiting. And away he went, digging for several days, with me dragging him in the house from time to time, dangling a high-ball glass from the deck in lieu of a carrot, afraid he would die of exhaustion (I don’t remember many childhood scenes with my Father doing menial work). You don’t know the wonders a stiff drink can work for an obstinate, proud, stuck in his 30s, and obviously in pain grandfather.

In the end I had a rectangular plot of freshly turned dirt, 30×20 feet. Before I even attempted planting, I researched for months, wrote notes and reminders, read garden blogs and studied. I am the Ant, not the Grasshopper – story of my life. We decided to go natural in fertilizing, and I started to get acquainted with compost bins. My neighbors’ son, a high school senior, promised to build me one if I kept him in constant supply of my chocolate chip cookies. That sounded like a very favorable deal to me, especially after he threw in snow-blowing our sidewalks in the winter.

A lot of unexpectedly sad things happened to our family that fall and winter. But, spring arrived with hope, lifting us up from the sorrow and self-doubt. We brought bags of fertile, dark soil from our neighborhood home-and-garden store, which were strewn on top of the dirt. All over the house I had miniature greenhouses nestled close to the heating vents and windows, to get the maximum results. Some seeds I brought from Serbia – mostly red, triangular peppers, pale-green zucchinis, and tomatoes. The majority I bought locally. I nourished the baby plants from the first cotyledons, brushing the dirt off the leaves, nudging the crooked ones towards  the light, and watching them grow, stronger and bigger, every morning.

When the dangers of the frost disappeared, I planted the seedlings, following a detailed plan I made during the winter months. Tomato plants went along one fence, the peppers along the other. Zucchini took over the middle, joining the eggplants, while the beets and swiss chard guarded the edges towards the grass. Basil seedlings were carefully positioned in between the tomato plants, and a few bean seeds were thrown in, just for the heck of it. The mint already grew wild along one side of the house, and I planted lavender and thyme next to the steps leading to the deck. All the lettuces, garlic and spinach went in another, small plot, between the house and the sour cherry tree.  We threw hay all around the plants, to keep the heat and moisture down, and prevent the weeds from taking over. The garden looked amazing.

And from the first day of planting, until everything had to be turned over and buried for the incoming winter, my routine rarely changed: after feeding all three daughters breakfast, and fixing lunches, I’d make some coffee, see the Husband off to work, and saunter off to the garden, to welcome new leaves and the first little fruits. I would snip off a yellowish sprig, hand-pollinate the zucchini flowers, pile the hay tighter around the stems; as the summer days grew longer, I harvested several types of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, chard and zucchini (that is, until the vile vine borer implanted itself in my gourds and destroyed them). The rabbits became the enemy, completely annihilating my gourmet lettuces and spinach, and the barbaric hordes of Canadian geese with their goslings trampled the new and fragile vegetables, pecking the leaves off my pepper plants, and leaving little piles of guano all over the yard, garden, and the grass.

I learned every day.  I despersed depressing thoughts in constant fight with the pests and animals trying to feed off my labor. I came into the house holding armfuls of chard, thinking of the ways to use it, and for the moment putting aside the other, more painful thoughts. My garden kept me afloat, not only by its abundance, but by its ever-changing beauty. It was my first encounter with dirt under my nails, and its intoxicating aroma took me far away from the every-day worries. It was my escape, my drug of choice, my Disneyland.

—–

Things happened and we changed latitudes. Now we call Southern California our home. No more November gales, no more snow-blowers. Hello sunshine, 365 days out of the year (yeah, yeah, I know, sometimes it does rain) . We don’t have room for a garden. A concrete patio meets the dirt slope planted with mimosas and other desert-favoring vegetation. But the railing of the fence that separates the concrete from the dirt houses beautiful pots, brimming with life. My “garden” is small, but I can still saunter out of the kitchen with my scissors and pick some basil, rosemary, sage, mint, lavender, shallots, or thyme, and hear my heart singing. It’s all it takes to bring a smile to my lips.

Posted by Lana at 11:05 pm
Jun 132010
 

My love affair with the chicken started later in my life. In the beginning of my gustatory adventures, I did not care for some amazing things: tomatoes, potatoes, all kinds of melons, smoked meats and chicken.  But I did not have a lot of choice in expressing my reluctance to eating undesirables; our household definitely was not run like a democracy.

I don’t remember when I started liking poultry. But I can recall the feeling of superiority when I realized that I was the only one who went for the white meat. Oh, poor, ignorant, unwashed masses! Mother would predictably go for the wings and the neck, if my younger sister didn’t beat her to it; Father would reach for the thigh and the pope’s nose. My brother would grab a leg. And the whole breast would be left unclaimed, the skin on top glistening and crunchy. The infatuation endured mostly because of my laziness.  I have never been a gnawer and eating chicken breast allowed me to concentrate on things more important than dinner, like finding a perfect rhyme to a poem I started in school, or wondering why our neighbor’s baby had such a big head.

It all changed once I discovered the allure of the dark meat, when a cousin convinced me to try grilled boneless chicken thighs. The succulent morsels enveloped in the smoky aroma of natural wood chips sent my budding-gourmand soul into a different dimension. My chicken horizon burst wide open and I realized I was the only ignoramus in the family.

Chicken breast (on the bone, preferably, to add the flavor or to be used later for soup) has not been forgotten. It makes its appearance to star in an episode of Chicken Piccata, or Chicken Francese. And we applaud loudly and send it home to bask in its luscious  glory. But most often we opt for the humble leg quarters that yearn to please and have us discover the versatility, tenderness and juiciness that lurks just underneath the skin.

But tonight, I did not want to play favorites.  Dinner sang an ode to the whole chicken. We had the bird roasted. I usually don’t get excited over roasting a chicken. It is an easy, cheap, quick, and fool-proof meal that everybody likes, and as a bonus, I get to play with the leftovers for the next day. This time I decided to spatchcock, or butterfly the chicken. Husband commented: “That sounds like something Anna from ‘V’ would say - Spatchcock him!” I chuckled, turned the youtube on, and after a couple of videos, I considered myself an expert in the art of spatchcocking.

HOW TO SPATCHCOCK A CHICKEN:

Necessary materials:

  • 1 chicken (4-5 lbs), gizzards, liver and neck removed and saved for soup
  • Cutting board
  • Kitchen shears
  • Chef’s knife
  • Latex gloves (optional)

Directions:

Place the chicken on the cutting board, breast down, legs facing you. Holding the “pope’s nose” with your left hand as a guide, cut along the right side of the back bone first, then along the left. Save the back bone for soup. Turn the chicken around, breast still down and facing you. Cut a small nick in the keel bone and dig it up with your fingers. If necessary, cut along the bone to make it easier to pull out. You can leave the chicken butterflied whole, or you can cut it in half through the breast (only the wish bone needs to be removed if you decide to cut).

BUTTERFLIED CHICKEN RECIPE (based on a recipe by Jamie Oliver)

Ingredients:

  • 1 sprig of rosemary
  • 3-4 sprigs of thyme
  • 3-4 basil leaves
  • 1-2 mint leaves
  • small handful of parsley
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • ¼ cup of olive oil
  • 1 chicken, butterflied, cut in halfs
  • 1 lemon, cut in slices (I used the lemon previously zested)
  • ½ cup of white wine

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425F.

Using mortar and pestle make a paste with herbs, salt, pepper, garlic, lemon zest, and olive oil. Place the chicken halves skin side up in a roasting pan. Rub the marinade into the skin and pour the rest on the bottom of the pan. Let it marinate for 20-30 minutes on the counter, while the oven is heating up (if you like, you can marinate it longer, even over night, in the refrigerator).

Roast on the rack in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. Remove, and baste with the juices. Add the wine to the pan, place lemon slices on top of the chicken, and return it to the oven for another 20 minutes, until the juices run dry. Let it rest on the counter for 10 minutes.

Jun 092010
 

Reading a post on ham salad on Simply Recipes got me thinking. Elise is talking about her parents trying to be frugal and offering tasty and nutritious meals to their children, without having to rob their piggy banks. Therefore potato salad, egg salad, ham salad…

In our house, just like in almost every Serbian house at the time, the only salad containing ham was the ubiquitous Russian Salad*. And this salad was not a poor country cousin. This salad had a standing reservation for the most distinguished place on the celebratory table, the first among the appetizers; perfectly balanced in flavors, colorful, glistening in yellowish hues, it was the centerpiece of every New Year’s dinner table.

I carried the tradition overseas. I cannot imagine a New Year’s dinner without this salad. It’s nostalgia calling, sending me back to the years of my youth, when everything seemed possible and we were all on the top of the world. As far as I know, only the Serbs in diaspora make it these days, trying to keep the connection alive.

We welcomed the new 2010 year with my sister and her husband, who live in Frankfurt, Germany.  I  decided that we were going to grill fine beef tenderloin, in the spirit of America. On the menu was freshly made bread, of course, baked potatoes with all the trimmings, cream of cauliflower soup and a green salad.  I asked my sister how she felt about Russian Salad, and her eyes glistened. It was the spur of the moment decision made after we ditched the kids and went to Laguna Beach for the luxurious afternoon spent walking in the sand, climbing some really slippery, moss-covered rocks and eating gelato. And the Russian Salad made the menu, accompanied by deviled eggs, and a meze plate, with different cheeses, olives and cold cuts.

In no time we gathered the ingredients, set the pot of water boiling and an hour later started mincing, taking care that everything was cut even, cubes no larger than 5 millimeters  per side. I made mayonnaise, even though Mother was not there to supervise or criticize (I believe she would somehow know and declare it high treason if I had swapped Hellman’s (Best Foods out here in the west wing of the country) for the “real thing”.) We assembled the salad and put it in the fridge to cool, while we continued with cocktails, music, and merriment of all kinds in the anticipation of the big night.

We set the table with the finest we had, brought the appetizers out and announced the beginning of the festivities. Everybody was dressed up, and the College Kritter was in charge of the music – now, that is a scary thought, I know, but she was aware of the mood, emotions and diversity of our small group, and she managed to satisfy us all, which is not an easy task (Husband cannot stand heavy metal, and The Kritter is a metal head; German brother-in-law abhors the 80s music, and loves hard rock and metal; neither of the men listens to or understands Serbian music;  and my sister and I needed an infusion of local tunes, because you just cannot cry, get drunk or break glasses listening to Blondie, Dylan or Lady Gaga  - Marianna Rosenberg is a story for another post).

The spirits were high, music was working its miracles, and the kids looked splendid all dressed up. We toasted each other and started eating. The men went for sausages and “prsuta” (pork tenderloin or loin, cured and smoked, a present from our friends Dragana and Milan, “imported” from their relatives in Cleveland, Ohio). The kids emptied the deviled eggs platter in a second. My sister and I spooned some Russian Salad into our plates, looked at each other, raised our wine glasses and without uttering a single sound we traversed the ocean and found ourselves, just for a moment, in our parents’ house, twenty some years ago. The moment was somewhat blurred by tears, but our smiles carried us over, to the happy times of present, to the sparkling eyes of three gorgeous girls and the thought that every day can become a memory, enclosed in a smell, a sound, or a taste.

*Even though we call this salad Russian, in Russia they call it Salad Olivier, or Capital Salad.  There are numerous variations in ingredients, but what my heart recognizes, is our Serbian, probably bastardized version of the Eastern European classic.

MY MOTHER’S RUSSIAN SALAD

This dish is extremely versatile and the ingredients can be adjusted in quantity.

Ingredients:

For Salad:

  • 3-4 russet potatoes, unpeeled
  • 3-4 whole carrots, scrubbed clean
  • 1-2 (1/3lb) whole parsnips, scrubbed clean
  • 1 smaler chicken breast
  • 125gr (4oz) peas (“tradition” calls for canned peas, but I prefer frozen, a bit blanched)
  • 200gr (7oz) ham
  • 3-4 bigger dill pickles
  • 3-4 hard boiled eggs (only whites, save 1 yolk for mayo)

For Mayonnaise:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 hard boiled egg yolk
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp mustard (I prefer European, darker mustard, or Dijon)
  • a pinch of sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 500ml (about 2 cups) neutral oil, like sunflower

Directions:

Salad:

In a soup pot heat half a gallon of water with one or two tablespoons of salt, until it boils. Add the potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and chicken, and cook, at a barely simmering temperature, for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are fork tender. If the chicken is not done, take the veggies out and cook the chicken another 5 minutes*. Let everything cool off. Save the broth for soup.

Peel the potatoes. Dice all the vegetables, chicken, ham, pickles and eggwhites  in even sized cubes, about 5-6 milimeters a side. Add the peas and mix in mayonnaise. Transfer into a serving bowl and chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, or until serving. Decorate with a few sprigs of fresh parsley.

Mayonnaise:

I usually use a recicled yogurt container (2lbs) for my mayo making, but any dish with tall enough sides will do.

In a suitable container break the eggs, add the hard boiled egg yolk and puree with fork. Mix in the lemon juice, mustard, sugar and salt until blended. Process on the lowest setting of your mixer and start pouring the oil, in drops in the beginning, in a thin trickle later, until it emulsifies and sets. Chill in the refrigerator for one hour.

*I prefer to make this salad out of a roasted chicken – the meat is just so much more tender and juicy. But even boiled, with all the other ingredients, it tastes great.

My pretty baby! And the Russian Salad is in the middle of the table.

Welcoming the new year! My sister and I.

Jun 062010
 

When I was growing up in Serbia, during the 70s and 80s, eating locally grown, seasonal food was not a matter of choice. That was the only choice we had. Not that anybody spent numerous sleepless nights pondering the reasons. We bought our bread and pastries freshly baked every morning. When rye bread became available, a small revolution ensued…

My mother would get up every morning, really early, like 5:30, and run over to the corner grocery store to get bread and yogurt (I still remember with nostalgia those plump glass bottles topped with foil caps). She would choose the clothes for my Father, and put them out on the bed. She’d make breakfast for the three of us, and after Father left the house for the hospital, and we were dispatched to school, she’d meet Milorad, the milk man, who brought two liters of freshest dairy gold to our door, emptying it with skill and flourish, never spilling a drop, into her pot from a huge metal canister. She would go through the ritual of offering him some coffee, which he would invariably refuse, rushing to get to his other customers. After he left, she would heat the milk on the stove, keep it on low simmer, until it started to bubble, and then move it to the pantry to cool off.

On Fridays, Milorad’s wife, Vinka, would appear in the morning with him, bringing cheese and young “kajmak” (I have to devote a whole post to “kajmak”; it deserves more than a fleeting mention). She would stay and have coffee with Mother, while Milorad went on his route delivering milk. We loved this middle-aged, shy woman, who smelled like fresh grass and milk. She had the most beautiful cornflower-blue eyes I have ever seen, her hair hidden by “marama” (what’s in these parts known as a “babushka”).  On Fridays when the school started in the afternoon, my sister and brother and I would run to her and she would embrace all three of us together with fierceness and abandon, and hold on for a long time, tears sparkling in her sad, beautiful eyes. Only later, when we were teenagers, did Mother tell us that Vinka had  lost her only son to leukemia when he was 12 years old.

- – - – - – - – - -

With the essentials out of her way, Mother would don her town garb, add some very subtle make-up, put on a pair of comfortable, but stylish, preferably Italian shoes, grab a wicker basket or a canvas bag and head on to the town’s green market, head held high, smiling for the entire world  and wishing “Good Morning!” to all the friends, acquaintances  and neighbors (and in our town, that would include everybody on the street at the time.) At the market she knew all the vendors. Very intuitive, empathic, and sensitive, she joked with them, asked about their children, listened to their woes and troubles, and managed to get the best bargains in town. She convinced some of them to start selling herbs like dill and basil, which was pretty adventurous in a land which considered salt, pepper, paprika, and parsley the only necessary additions in cooking. Her basket was always filled to the point of overspilling, overburdened with plump, fully ripe,  delicious and fragrant vegetables and fruits.

On her way back home she would sometimes stop at her favorite butcher shop. The butcher was, we were convinced, secretly enamored of my mother. He taught her how to pick the best cuts of meat, and how to make sausage. He called the night before to let her know what would be available. He kept the cuts she wanted hidden until she appeared and later on, he named his daughter after her.  She would get the freshest cuts of meat , not too much, though, a pound or less. Satisfied with her purchases, she would walk home, precariously carrying her loot, already imagining the pots and pans on the stove brimming with delicious food for her family.  In Serbia, like in many countries in non-western Europe, midday meal, eaten around 2.00 p.m. was the most substantial. Dinner was an optional repast.

- – - – - – - – - -

We always ate together, at the table set with a nice cotton tablecloth, china and silverware aligned perfectly. And very often we had company: our school friends, one of my Father’s patients or associates, a relative from far away awaiting results from a lab test, etc. If he was not called off to deliver another baby, Father would reign over the meal at his place at the head of the table, requesting peace and quiet, but joining any conversation that would inevitably start, as soon as Mother would fill our bowls with soup. We talked in the usual Serbian manner, interrupting each other, each of us convinced that ours was the most pertinent piece of information.

At the time we didn’t fully appreciate the food we ate. It was “taken for granted.” Are there more secure and comfortable words than those three? I don’t think so. We never doubted that we would find our way home guided by the sounds and smells from Mother’s kitchen. We just accepted it as a given, as something that is cemented, that is forever our right. Later on, when we ventured elsewhere, when the fates took us to some other homes, into the lives of some other families, we were stunned. We realized what we had, as the fortunate tend to do, only too late,  when we were adults ourselves.

I live on another continent, far away from my Mother and her kitchen. But I think that I finally got her approach. I dish out a lot of my love with every morsel of food; I send a message of adoration through every hand-picked, fresh, in-season ingredient I choose for my family. I have to think hard, I have to ponder, I have to spend sleepless nights over the issues of food. But in the end, I hope my kids take my cooking for granted until they find themselves standing in their own kitchens slicing and stirring and serving the ingredients that their own eyes and hands deem worthy to pass their own children’s lips… children that will, of course, take it all for granted.

Jun 012010
 

I started this blog with a clear idea to emphasize Serbian food. But, so far, I’ve written about squid, which nobody in my town ate before the 80s, when a restaurant called “032″ (area code for my town) opened – oh, some adventurous souls who were exposed to the seafood life might have gotten a taste at the Adriatic, but the majority were squid virgins.

And then came the mung bean post – mung beans??? Please! The only creature in my known Serbian universe who might have heard of these would be Daniela, the ex-vegetarian wife of my meat-eating cousin Vladimir ( I know she wanted to ease into the omnivore’s world slowly, and at the same time introduce other food staples to her hubby, besides the obligatory pork, chicken, pork,  bacon, and pork – and I have to mention fish, because they live on the shores of the Danube, and he is a European champion in “Fish Paprikash” – more about it in another post.)

To make things worse, I have sent a link for my blog to my mother, the reigning queen of Serbian cousine, the utmost authority on preparing, serving, and decorating the best tasting and best looking food. I will always be an apprentice to her, no matter how far I stretch the global epicurean boundaries. I am filling mental sandbags and erecting emotional levies as I try to brace myself for her comments…  I need the truth from her no matter how many therapists drive new Mercedes in the bargain.

So, what can I make to reflect my heritage? Yesterday we celebrated Memorial Day by cooking some most delicious, juicy, medium rare ribeye steaks. Serbs traditionally do not eat raw food. But, Serbs always cook more food than necessary so they can have leftovers. I love leftovers. But my leftovers have to undergo a face-lift; they have to be pimped, rejuvenated, refreshed and disguised. Leftover steak? Of course, Beef Barley Mushroom Soup.

Not Serbian enough? I beg to differ. The best lamb, veal or chicken soups are served in a “kafana”, a Serbian restaurant or inn, usually situated along a major road or the highway (which actually has a passing lane in places). They use the remnants to make their stocks, and the leftover meat is used abundantly in soups, with the addition of several vegetables; I just followed that idea in giving another life to my American steaks. And I bet you that I could have enticed at least a half dozen burly and seasoned Serbian truck drivers to park their 18-wheelers and stop on by for some manly deliciousness (I assure, I can sell barley as rice, no one will know!)  Serbian enough, if you ask me.

Mother might not be mollified by this soup. But she will definitely approve of the repurposing of leftovers – frugality, thy name is Mama.

SERBIAN AMERICAN BEEF BARLEY MUSHROOM SOUP

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbs sunflower oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 green, red, or orange pepper, chopped
  • 10 or so button mushrooms, sliced
  • 300gr leftover steak (or, 3/4lbs), cut into small pieces
  • 2 Tbs tomato paste
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 2 quarts water or beef stock
  • a handful of barley
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2tsp freshly ground pepper
  • ½ cup of green peas

Directions:

Sautee the vegetables (except peas) in oil, on medium heat until transluscent, about 10 minutes. Add the meat, stir around and add tomato paste. Stir until incorporated and pour the wine in. When all the liquid evaporates, add water or homemade beef stock (I always have some in the freezer), barley, salt and pepper, and cook, on high heat, until it boils. Add the peas and turn the heat down to medium low. Simmer for another 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. (This soup is versatile; you can add any vegetables you want, green beans, corn, chopped tomatoes, peapods, cut-up potatoes, parsnips – anything to clean out your fridge.)

Serve with a loaf of freshly baked bread and a salad, accompanied by a glass of a robust red table wine. Serbian folk music in the background is legally, if not morally optional.

mmmm, goodness