Jul 282010
 

Summer in my Serbian home town is ushered in by linden trees. The dark green, heart-shaped leaves become hidden by a myriad of tiny yellow blossoms which permeate the air with their intoxicating scent. With the first shy hint of their smell that sneaks through an open window at night, you smile in your sleep and you know that months of leisure await you. The school year is coming to a close, its final days full of pressure, fear, hope, and exhilaration.

The strawberries are lining up for the beauty pageant at the market, warm from the sun, their heady perfume intertwined with that of the linden blossoms. The first time, you eat most of them on your way home closing your eyes, feeling the withdrawals of fall, winter, and spring. A couple of days later you might pair them with some freshly whipped cream. Only then do you consider making a simple but delectable yellow cake with pastry cream, soft and imbued with vanilla, the perfect bed for ripe strawberries. You rush to salvage the last specimens and turn them into jams and preserves.

Photo by Vladimir Jovanovic

The first cherries are showing up like jewels high in the branches, their shining orbs perfect in the hues of pale yellow, bright red, and cream kissed with rose and crimson. When most of them are packed into checkered canvas bags on their way to become preserves, compotes, or just earrings for some imaginative eight-year old, sour cherries make their appearance for the briefest moment. They mark the summer unobtrusively, but confidently. Their juices color your lips like blood and you can only taste a couple before the tart overwhelms you. But you see them playing the lead in jams and cakes, cooked in sweet syrup and preserved for the winter, pitted and frozen to be awakened only when the whole world around you turns to gray and white.

Meanwhile you fight the urge to buy the first perfect-looking tomatoes. You touch them, you smell them and you know you have to wait. Once the ugly ones show up in the wooden crates, you relax. They are plentiful, cheap, and delicious. They explode in your mouth like a burst of summer, their skin soft, the meat bright red and juicy. You add a couple of firm cucumbers, a half-dozen pale-yellow peppers, some parsley still attached to its root, a pound of onions, the green still showing at the top. Your checkered canvas bag is getting heavier. You spy perfect pink and gold new potatoes. The royal purple of a glistening eggplant seduces you. A wizened old woman talks you into buying a pot of basil, “to ward of the mosquitoes”. You know you are greedy and you do not care.

Photo by Vladimir Jovanovic

All the summer beauties appear cautiously, testing the water, teasing, and playing the role of an elusive maiden. Only one shows up in abundance, all over, all at once, modest and versatile. The zucchini, the undervalued and prolific step-daughter of summer. The first ones might cause a moderate excitement, but the feeling gets diluted over time. They are always present, fresh, firm, their skin pale green. They are cheap from the first day and you do not feel challenged. They are there to stay throughout the summer, therefore scorned and undervalued.

I cannot find that kind of courgette here, yet. When I had a garden I planted them, but the squash bore-weevil had a blast with them and destroyed every one of them. I found some nice looking zucchini at out local Persian store. They were not as big, but they were fresh and firm. When I announced the dinner plans, the Beasties were clapping and jumping up and down. Husband smiled, anticipating comfort food (“This is something my Granddaddy would cook, if he knew”). We are not going to Serbia this summer. The over-abundance of courgettes does not influence us in any way. But it is the middle of the summer. And this is the quintessential summer dish of my youth.

STUFFED ZUCCHINI

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 zucchini (at least 1.5 to 2 inches in circumferance)
  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 250gr (1/2 lbs) ground beef
  • ½ cup rice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 potato, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes
  • Parsley, yogurt

Directions:

Peel the zucchini and cut in half. Seed each half using a teaspoon.

In a sauce-pan heat oil on medium heat. Add onion and sautee until translucent. Add the ground beef and stir until brown. Add rice and the seasonings.

Stuff the zucchini loosely. Plug each one with a slice of potato. Lay into a 5-quart pot or a Dutch oven. Pour the crushed tomatoes on top and cover with water. Let simmer for 45-60 minutes. Sprinkle with freshly cut parsley. Serve with a dollop of yogurt and fresh bread.

I am joining the Summer Fest with this recipe.

Summer Fest 2010

Jul 262010
 

I never thought I would have children. I felt somewhat detached from my siblings in our early days, even though all three of us were born within four years. I learned to read when I was four, and was drawn to books more then to the kids my age. I was shy and awkward around other children, and smaller kids frightened me. I never looked at the babies laying in the strollers. Younger children ignored me and I avoided them as much as I could.

They, in turn, adored my sister, listened to every word she said, and followed her directions as if she were the Pied Piper of Hamelin. She could coerce them to do her bidding and the adults at the time were getting pretty frustrated with the usual defense of the young ones when confronted with the accusatory question of  ”Why did you do it?” “Ljiljiana said so” was a mantra among them, something all of them understood and could not convey to the older generation. They were stealing corn from the neighbor who had only five corn plants, running up and down the elevator in a newly erected apartment building, pressing the buzzers and running away, calling people on the phone pretending to sell small, green tractors (I am sure all seven and eight year olds sounded like bona fide salesmen – not!), smoking Father’s cigarillos on the balcony, in full view of the neighbors. She was the dare-devil, the pirate, the adventuress. She loved the action and did not think twice about breaking the rules. And for that, she was the hero. And still is to a bunch of almost middle-aged man and women who still tell fairy tales about my sister’s influence on their lives.

While she was taking the neighborhood kids (and our brother) on the path of adventure and rebellion, I was laying on the couch, getting lost in literary worlds. When I envisioned my future, I saw myself as Virginia Wolf in a cottage, composing the most influential prose. Or like Georges Sand, strolling along the Champs-Elysees with Chopin (did I mention that I had a morbid posthumous crush on him? To this day his music makes my knees wobbly). I saw my life children-free.

It was not meant to be. When I was about twenty five, I developed this horrible habit of peeking into baby-strollers, asking questions about babies and smiling at baby gurgles and coos. I was astounded. This new development got me thinking and planning. I told my husband that it was time for me to become a mother and I got pregnant. Unfortunately, I miscarried. My father, an ObGyn at the time, threw his briefcase against the door when he heard the news. But I did not give up. I planned the next pregnancy in detail: my child would be born in November, preferably Scorpio. I’d go to Serbia and have her there, with Father supervising it. I’d loose all the baby weight and attend my 10th high school reunion in style, still glowing from the brand-new-motherly bliss.

It all happened as I planned, except that my first daughter was born a bit later in November as a Sagitarian.

She is eighteen years old now and attends UC Berkeley. But I did not stop there. We have Anya, soon to be a twelve year old, and Zoe, the awaited Scorpio who will turn eleven in November. To this day I wake up in panic, realizing that I am a mother. The days pass me by and I remember the pregnancies and deliveries, but it still astounds me that I have children.

The College Kritter calls me when she has an interesting linguistics assignment. We talk for hours about the etymology, Latin, and comparative analysis of languages. We took a trip to the Yucatan this spring, as much friends now as mother and daughter, and enjoyed every minute of it. She is in Europe now, doing the Eurotrail backpack trip that is the unspoken prerequisite at Berkeley, and I cannot wait for her to fill me in. I know that we are connected. I see my influence on her life. And I feel relieved.

The Beasties have each other. I do not know how much of my experiences I have instilled in them. We read books together. We watch movies together (it astounds me that they would sit quietly through a black-and-white film, and deem it perfectly entertaining). I let them choose a “topic of the day” and we spend 10 to 15 minutes researching human anatomy, Greek architecture or history of China. And they go away to their room, dig out Barbies and disappear from my world altogether.

Husband and I went shopping today. We were gone for most of the afternoon. The Beasties were at home alone, by their own choice. We came back hauling a bunch of grocery bags, and the first thing I heard when I entered our apartment was: “Mama, you have to see our photos”! I left the bags on the kitchen counter and looked at the pictures they took of their lunch, PB&J sandwiches. Not only did they make the sandwiches on their own (OK, they used blackberry preserves, which have large pieces of blackberries), but they styled them and took the pictures.

I was putting the groceries away and I could not stop smiling. My children adore my sister. She still has that Pied Piper charm and on their list of cool peeps, she is at the top. I am their mother and by definition I cannot be “cool”. But knowing that they appreciate what I do, what I am, what I strive for allows me to take a deep breath and admit that I might be doing a good job as a mother.

Zoe's PB&J

Anya's PB&J;

Jul 222010
 

My parents loved people, and people loved them. Our house was always the gathering center for visiting relatives, friends from out of town, acquaintances passing by on their way to the market, neighbors coming over for coffee and a piece of pie, etc. They kept very close relationships with the extended family (in Serbia, a cousin six times removed counts as a close relative) and there was not a weekend that somebody would not come over, or that we were not packed into Father’s Fiat 1300 on our merry way to some Aunt’s or cousins’ place. And for those not initiated in Serbian visiting customs, if you live more then 30 miles away, you visit for the whole weekend. At least.

All our beds were expandable. All sofas could be converted into sleepers. We had extra mattresses stashed in the “warehouse” room upstairs. A family of ten could feel comfortable and welcome, albeit a little squished. But nobody ever complained. There was food aplenty, booze flowing freely, music and dancing, tours of the near-by attractions, and conversations galore.

A couple of times a year we would all go to Kosovo, a southern province where Father’s family lived. He was raised in an old house atop a hill, which was home to our grandfather’s brother deda-Rastko and his wife baba-Bola. We’d leave the car along the main road and climb up the steep hill for about 300 meters. On each side of the path were small fields of beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, and melons. Approaching the house we’d hear the clucking of twenty or more chickens, all of different varieties. An old yellow mongrel dog would welcome us barking, snarling, and wagging his tail. Amid all the ruckus, baba-Bola would come out beaming, and bury us in her ample bosom, kiss our hair and forehead, and hurry us inside, afraid we would faint from hunger. After all, we traveled for about three hours to get there! Deda-Rastko would greet us on the threshold, always smiling sadly, his skin sallow and cheeks sunken, stooping from working long years hunched down in the lead mines of Trepča. His rough peasant fingers would brush our cheeks barely touching the skin, and he’d look at each one of us children, embrace us, and herd us inside.

In no time, deda-Rastko would pour some rakija (Serbian specialty, plum brandy, aka Å¡ljivovica – “slivovitz”)  into small glasses, while baba-Bola would sit, grinding coffee beans for Turkish coffee. We would take a bite of slatko (home-made preserves) washed down with fresh well water, as was the custom in Serbia. Leaving the adults to enjoy coffee and rakija, we would run outside to explore the yard and beyond. We’d chase the chickens. We’d go to the stable to see the cows and the only horse. We’d pick any fruit that we saw, ripe or green. We’d pretend we were afraid of the dog. And we’d come back to the house, famished.

I know we ate a lot of different foods, all prepared lovingly with ingredients from the farm. But what stayed with me throughout the years was “uÅ¡tipci”, yeasted, loose dough fried in deep oil until golden, and filled with holes. Baba-Bola made them with their own whole wheat flour ground at the mill in the neighborhood. She would serve them with hard farmers cheese (similar to feta, but made from cow’s milk) and milk fresh from that morning, boiled on the stove to pasteurize. We’d rip the oddly shaped fritters apart while still hot, stuff our mouths until we could not breathe, and chase it down with viscous room-temperature milk that smelled like milk should smell, and not like cardboard or plastic. We could not get enough. Our fingers were greasy, our upper lips white, our bellies full. We did not analyze food. We only knew that it made us happy.

Deda-Rastko and baba-Bola are long gone now. But when I eat “uÅ¡tipci”, I catch a faint whiff of the grasses from the fields and fresh milk boiling on the old wooden stove. I wish for my kids to taste what I had tasted so many years ago, not knowing, not appreciating, rushing through every bite.

We do not own a farm. We cannot obtain fresh milk from the cows. We do not know of any mills in the neighborhood. But I make “uÅ¡tipci” for my family almost every Sunday. Mine are not whole-wheat (one of these days I promise myself to be brave and try it), but they are still beautiful, weirdly shaped, golden, and filled with holes. I serve them with feta or home-made preserves. And milk that tastes of cardboard or plastic.

UÅ¡TIPCI (SERBIAN FRIED DOUGH)

Ingredients:

  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • ¼ cup warm water (about 100F)
  • 400gr all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups warm water
  • oil for frying

Directions:

In a large bowl mix yeast, sugar, and water to disolve. Let stand for 5 to10 minutes. Add the rest of ingredients, and mix vigorously with a wooden spoon, until there are bubbles in the dough, 5 to 6 minutes. The dough should be very loose. Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Heat the oil to 350F ( it should be 3 inches deep). Dip big spoonfuls of dough and lay gently in hot oil. Fry until they are golden brown. Turn over and fry for another minute. Take it out into a bowl lined with a paper towel. Continue frying until all the dough is gone. Serve with feta type cheese, home-made preserves or jam, and even with Nutella.

I am linking this post to Hearth and Soul Hop and 12 Days of Bloggie-mas, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life.

Jul 172010
 

When I was four years old, I got the mumps. Father was a physician, but the remedy did not come from a pharmacy. Instead of reluctantly ingesting grape-flavored syrup or being force-fed pink gel antibiotics, my neck, jaws, and cheeks were enveloped in smoked, thickly sliced ribbons of bacon, and wrapped with a bandana tied tightly on top of my head. I slept several nights stewing in smoke and grease, while my sister, sixteen months younger, shared my bed (not on her own volition). Mother and Father hoped I’d give her the  mumps and get the whole thing over with for our household. My fever almost melted the bacon, but my misery did not move my parents to spare me that porcine torture. In a few days, the swelling was gone,  my temperature subsided, and I was bacon-free, even though I smelled like a ham hock for days.*

Mother’s hearty Potato and Smoked Meat Soup brought back the memories of warm bacon layering my cheeks, and I suffered horrible olfactory flashbacks while eating even the smallest serving. My sister did not suffer any consequences from that ordeal. For no reason whatsoever she detested green beans. The randomness of her choice used to bother me because my dislike was obviously and unequivocally cemented in logic. Ultimately it did not matter because to Mother it was all the same. We had to eat whatever she prepared and the only negotiation concerned portion size. I suffered through the harsh and unusually cruel punishment of forcefully swallowing the odious soup with the stoicism of a martyr, while considering my sister’s insistence on hating green beans a pretentious whim, shallow and fickle, borne out of stubbornness. After all, her favorite dish was spring peas!

We grew up. Our palates continued to develop as we moved away from Mother’s hearth, well-prepared to embrace the world of culinary adventures. I moved to America. My sister moved to Germany. New experiences challenged us every day and molded us into what we are today. Somewhere in the process I stopped hating the smell of cooked smoked pork. Instead of dragging me back in time to suffer the horror of being wrapped in bacon, that smell evolved into a beacon guiding me home. My biggest anguish now is the inability to procure Serbian grade smoked pork products in California. One day soon…

My sister and I plan our summer visits to Serbia to spend as much time together as we can. We sit on the balcony looking down on hundreds of red roofs, sipping a glass of wine, reliving our teenage and adolescent years, crying and laughing. We talk until late at night in the room that used to be ours, digging out every embarrassing detail we tried to forget for years, confessing minor sins in hope of forgiveness, and hushing each other when the giggles get out of control for fear the husbands and the kids might wake up.

Once in a while I can coax my sister to accompany me to the market. I have to promise a leisurely pace and a visit to one of our favorite cafés. She reluctantly agrees, spends some time primping while I write the list, prepare the bags, and tap my foot impatiently. We walk under the linden trees that line our street and breathe in the familiar smell of our town in summer. The old concrete is gone and new pinkish tiles line the sidewalks, but our feet still find the invisible paths they engraved years before. The student cafeteria is a bank now. The old pastry and ice cream shops are not there any more, replaced by…well, newer pastry and ice cream shops. The stores have changed their names to things more colorful and international. But this is still our town, moreso than if we lived here year round.

Walking past the men offering currency exchange (no, not that kind of exchange) in a “psst, hey buddy” whisper**, and past the tavern that serves the best braised tripe (so I’ve heard) in town, we arrive at the market. Heading towards the covered and air-conditioned part, we wade through Gypsies offering packs of socks or new brooms. Entering the cool building that houses dairy and meat vendors, we buy chicken leg quarters from Father’s friend who taught me how to cut up the chicken properly. Next we sample cheeses, trying in vain to find the elusive one we enjoyed as children. We buy brown eggs, collected that morning, and nestle them carefully in one of the egg cartons I brought from the U.S.  We go outside and loop around the stalls, touching, smelling, tasting. We joke with the farmers and humor unsolicited life advice from old ladies dressed in brown with babushkas on their heads. We pack our canvas bags full of summer produce and carry them between us. The bags rest on the floor-tile of the  restaurant “Proleće”, while we sip a Schwepps Bitter Lemon or an icecafe, and watch people go by. There are some new kids running around, high on life and drunk on the promises of the future. And we see each other, and our friends as we were when we owned this town way back “in the day”, feeling at the top of the world, invincible and eternal.

Refreshed, but prompted by the sun to pick up the pace, we arrive home and empty the bags on the kitchen table. Red orbs of tomatoes, long triangles of pale yellow peppers, bright orange carrots, dark-skinned cucumbers, perfect ovals of new potatoes, and yellow, purple-speckled romano beans.

My sister finally overcame her childhood confusions and embraced the beans in all their summer splendor. I cannot be with her this summer, while she strolls along the river bank, or sits at the table flanking the house, marveling at the size of the magnolia tree our grandfather planted many years ago. I will not be there to wake her up with a cup of strong Turkish coffee, or to keep her awake at night with infinite stories of our youth. The least I can do is make the beans that define the summer for me. I picked them up at Irvine Farmers Market.

MOTHER’S ROMANO BEANS  (MAMINA BORANIJA)

I usually prepare it with chicken in hopes of luring the College Kritter to eat it, but it is equally delicious as a vegetarian version.

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 500gr (1 lb) romano beans, green or yellow
  • 2-3 chicken leg quarters, depending on size (optional)
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes

Directions:

Add the oil to a 5 quart pot or a Dutch oven and heat on medium temperature. Sautee onions, garlic, carrots and celery until transluscent, 6-7 minutes. Add the beans and the chicken (if used), and enough water to cover the meat and the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Turn tne temperature to high, until it boils, then turn it down to medium low. Simmer for 30 minutes and add the tomatoes. Cook for another 30 minutes until chicken is cooked and the beans are tender. Taste and adjust the seasononings. Sprinkle with fresh minced parsley. Serve with freshly baked bread. Serves 4.

*My sister did get the mumps just like the adults planned. And  couple of years later she got sick with them again. This time, our younger brother was the unwilling victim of torture by bacon.

**This is a relic from the 90s, when the country was under embargo and economic sanctions.  Hyperinflation could render a paycheck worthless in mere hours, so people would convert their dinars into dollars or marks to preserve the spending power of their earnings.  But currency exchange was an illegal grey market that took place on street corners with men who looked for all the world like they were trying to move fake Rolex watches.  Now that currency exchange is available in any bank, those guys are still there, still whispering as if Milosevic were still in power.

I am submitting this for “Two For Tuesdays” event.

24TNewerSpainInIowa

Jul 142010
 

When I was growing up in Serbia, nuts were seldom used in savory dishes, but mostly in pastries, cakes, tortes, or crepes. Times have changed and I can see the big-city dwellers using peanuts as a result of the Thai influence, but my town would rebel for sure. Peanut butter is an adventure when you are raised on Nutella or Eurocreme.

The idea of cooking the same dish all over the world appealed to me, and I joined the Daring Cooks. The first challenge for me was nut butters. Since I left Serbia I have moved past the traditional and embraced international cuisine. But I rarely cook with nut butters. OK. Somebody has thrown the glove to me. I can do this.

The July 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by Margie of More Please and Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make their own nut butter from scratch, and use the nut butter in a recipe. Their sources include Better with Nut Butter by Cooking Light Magazine, Asian Noodles by Nina Simonds, and Food Network online.

I cooked three dishes out of four. We loved two, and were  unimpressed by one. And making nut butters without the food processor is a major pain. Costco’s appliances look mighty good right now.

All the recipes can be downloaded here in PDF.

Asian Chicken Salad With Cashew Butter


The only changes I made were substituting zucchini for cucumber, rice vinegar fro vinegar, adding shredded carrots, and using yellow bell pepper instead of red. The dish was wonderful, light, and well rounded in flavors.

I made my own cashew butter using a mini food chopper.

Chicken With Curried Tomato and Almond Sauce

I used walnut butter and home-made garam masala. The spice was just right, and we enjoyed this dish tremendously.

Chicken with Pecan Cream and Mushrooms

I used cashew butter instead of pecan. The sauce was pretty bland, and the chicken breast was somewhat dry. A mediocre dish. Chicken thighs would have been a better choice.

Jul 112010
 

Cleveland, Ohio, was our home for over a decade. I moved there from Michigan, Husband from Georgia, and we met in the early fall of 1997. The city’s “emerald necklace”, the Metroparks, served as our courting grounds. Surrounded by hues of burnt orange, sienna, ochre, crimson, and sunflower, spectacularly revealed in ancient oaks, elegant maples, and stately elms, we fell in love, not only with each other, but with the city, too. And in my food-obsessed mind, the best thing Cleveland had to offer was the West Side Market on 25th and Lorain.

I went shopping with my Serbian friends to the West Side Market before Husband-time. But once I introduced him to it, the visits became a weekly routine. For him it was an exotic place, a glimpse into the world of other cultures, and a way to fill the trunk with produce without going bankrupt. For me, it was like coming home, inhaling the smells and filling the soul with the sights of abundance, while listening with curiosity to the excited voices in many different languages.

The outer area of the Market is shaped like an “L”. There you can find fruits and vegetables, flowers, herbs, and seasonal products. The building itself is nestled in the hook of the “L”, and inside you buy meat, charcuterie, cheese, fish, dairy, and cooked goods.

We would park, donate a dollar to whichever person was there hawking The Homeless Grapevine newsletter, and continue with quickening strides toward the entrance of the main building, looking around the produce stands, taking a quick inventory, and storing the information for later. Before anything else, we had to make a stop at Frank’s Bratwurst, located at one of the entrances. Hard roll, brown mustard, sausage for me. Soft roll, sauerkraut, Stadium mustard, sausage for Husband. After exchanging a line or two with the owners, we’d move a couple of steps, to make room for the endless line of bratwurst aficionados. First few bites we’d devour in complete silence. The next phase would introduce a smile and a series of grunts. The finish would be more leisurely, devoid of hunger induced panic, with long glances inspecting the stands (like we did not know the layout by heart), fortified and prepared to enjoy the rest of our outing.

Photo: Chris Stephens, Plain Dealer

We’d traverse five steps and enter the Greek-run Mediterranean Imported Foods, which was a haven for the Serbian community. White cornmeal, feta cheese, olives, sardines, roasted peppers, jams, juices from Europe – you could find everything your little immigrant’s heart desired there. At the Hungarian delicatessen we’d buy smoked bacon, hot sausages, and head cheese. Across the aisle was The Urban Herbs, a must for spices and hard to find varieties of beans and rice (best Himalayan rice you can find without a Sherpa).

Kaufmann’s Poultry was our favorite stand for buying anything chicken, rabbit or duck (occasionally we even managed to secure some rare chicken feet for the younger Beastie, who is quite enamored with gnawing on them, to the absolute revolt of the remainder of the family). We were seriously worried for a period of time that a very young future College Kritter would elope with the gray-haired owner of the stand, after she declared that would be the most awesome job on Earth (which, for the most part, was a giant move forward for her, abandoning the plans on becoming a driver of the garbage truck, or even more coveted, the Zamboni).

After making our usual loopty-loop, buying lunch meat, and either fish, pork, beef, lamb, goat, or even bison, we would venture outside and start the quest for weekly produce and fruit. We had our favorite vendors (Eddie with the Boutros Brothers always took great care to get us the best produce and warn us off anything less).  But the names of our other favorites elude me. We only occasionally risked the unknown. Husband would make the trip to the car, carrying the loot, while I visited the last stop, my herb guy, who was always very helpful with advice and tips regarding growing vegetables.

The trip home was always a beautiful coda, composed of snippets of excited conversation, reveling in the glory of nature and the sense of security, which only a car-load of food can bring. Once at home, we’d get everything out of the bags, put it on the counter, and admire it for a minute or two. That was enough to make my day exceptionally good.

When we moved to California, we left pieces of ourselves at the West Side Market. We miss those Mondays fiercely, and lament our loss constantly. I roam the Internet searching for farms, farm stands and farmers markets. And I do not want to believe that Ohio can beat California on food shopping, ’cause I’ve been to San Francisco and Berkeley, and I know better.

We went to our first SoCal Farmers Market in Irvine today. It was a completely different experience from Cleveland. A much younger, more sophisticated, and less ethnic crowd. People were more relaxed, taking their time (but it could be an overall Californian thing), sporting designer duds, showing off their pets and their children. There were less staple foods, more organic produce, more variety to choose from, and a lot more samples. I definitely felt like a tourist. But that could be just me – I still feel like we are imposing on California. It was not my beloved place back east. But I felt the familiar heart-quickening. And I definitely know I’ll go back, even if I have to avoid work on an occasional Saturday. Who knows, there just might be another vendor who will become a friend.

Jul 092010
 

Tihomir at seventeen - photo for an ID, had to be black&white

This blogging business is sometimes an awkward thing. I feel like I am the new kid in school, and I don’t know what would be worse: to be labeled as a weirdo, or not to be noticed at all. Other times, my emotions take me into a different direction. Hi, My name is Lana, and I am a new blogger (biting my nails while awaiting a “sponsor” to take me into a consultation room).

I always like to paraphrase Socrates, “I only know that I don’t know”. And my field of un-knowledge is immense. But I am determined to learn, and my baby steps are taking me closer to my goal – I can see the tiny imprints all over the previous posts of the blog.

When we were growing up, my brother Tihomir, the youngest of the three children, got an Atari; and no, he was not elected as a recipient because he was the youngest, or cutest, or the male-destined-to-inherit-the-family-wealth; he was the only one interested. I remember playing Pac Man on it with my mother who would develop a lasting addiction to computer games.

In the early 80s, a Commodore 64 made an appearance in our house. Hordes of teenagers swarmed the house to play the games. At times, my sister and I were enlisted to read a series of gibberish letters, numbers and symbols as our brother would try to write a program. A program for what I did not know. I did not care enough to try to become curious.

I was banned from even approaching the “machine” after I broke two sets of joysticks trying to outrun Jason in a Friday the 13th game (he was really scary!), but I was an avid observer in games’ marathons every weekend I came back from the University. I sucked at computer games, just like I sucked at ping pong, a favorite summer game in the yard. I let my siblings and friends excel at Aztec Revenge, Wizards of Wor, and Boulderdash, feigning not only disinterest, but complete disdain for “technology”. I was above. I could not be bothered. I was an intellectual abhorring the alienation computers brought to society.

My brother tried to argue his point about the practical uses of a computer, time after time. Always in vain. I was a sophomore in college, typing my assignments on a manual typewriter when he told me that, one day, I could have a cookbook on a computer. I laughed, rejecting the idea without giving it a thought.

In our junior year we got a young, American teacher, who gave us an essay assignment about computers. The whole class failed because we were not taught how to write a proper essay. All earlier writing assignments had been in the realm of creative writing, asking only our opinions, not the facts. The teacher was completely flabbergasted by the sheer force of hostility our academic group expressed toward computers. We unanimously dissed the whole concept, pointing out the evils of inevitable human future immersion in screen activities, while sacrificing interaction with real people. We saw computers replacing books, replacing real adventures in life, replacing real people. Our horizons were obstructed by ignorance, and the lack of experience. We invented the enemy with the luxury of adolescent righteousness.

My brother got the last laugh, though: I met the Husband online, by chance, stuck alone in a Cleveland suburban apartment, while future College Kritter, then only five years old, slept, blissfully unaware of my technological ineptitudes (to make matters more interesting, the chances were minimal for anything constructive as my primitive (even then) computer had a 1500 bps modem). I pressed the buttons randomly, daring the Fates, afraid I would crush the system, with nobody to assist. I read the personals for fun, for entertainment, never intending to reply to any of them. But, the generic ones who liked to walk on the beach and relax with a movie and a glass of good red I managed to bypass. Husband’s ad read like deja-vu, with ten adjectives only. Nine were a match. I responded on an impulse. The rest is history.

I still have to face my brother and suffer the I-told-you-so glib smile when I admit I made friends with the machine. I hope he does not remember our conversations and will not remind me of my short-sightedness. Yes, I keep all my recipes in a humongous Word document on my very slow computer, which suffers blue screen of death almost every day. And now I have a blog. And virtual friends. My real friends do not suffer. We talk on Skype as often as our schedules will allow and gone are the $400 a month phone bills to pay for all too brief conversations; we e-mail, we look at each other’s photos on Facebook and keep in touch. Happy place.

I am still not ready to come out of the closet and confess that I have been fully converted. But I can thank my brother, Tihomir, for his patience with my theatrics and intellectual gibberish of my maturing years. He was right. I was wrong. As a small gesture of admitting it, I will post his method for the best fried eggs ever.

MY BROTHER’S PERFECT FRIED EGGS

There is not supposed to be a speck of brown or crispy on these eggs: they are firm, pristinely white, with golden orbs of yolks awaiting a piece of crusty bread to break them loose.

Ingredients:

  • 2 fresh from the farm eggs
  • 2 Tbsp oil or lard (I prefer lard)
  • salt, pepper

Directions:

Pour grease into a cold non-stick pan. Break the eggs into cold grease. Put on the stove and turn the burner on medium-low to low temperature, depending on the stove. Baste occasionally, whites only, until they are cooked. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Photo: Vladimir Jovanovic

P.S. I have asked my cousin, a professional photographer, to send me some photos of food. Among them was this one, of perfectly fried eggs. How serendipitous, I thought, and sent him immediately a thank you e-mail. He responded, after reading my post, that he took the picture this spring, in my brother’s house, while my brother, the egg master, was finishing another one of his little masterpieces.

Jul 022010
 

This is weird: I feel like I am back in elementary school again. I have homework! And a due date. I am not going to be sent to the principal’s office if I fail in my pursuits. My parents are not going to be aware that anything is amiss (well, my Mother reads my blog, and as an ex-teacher she is not shy with doling out criticism). I will graduate to the next post even if I don’t finish this one on time. But I have a responsibility to myself, which is not an easy burden to bear. I am always the hardest to satisfy, the most critical, nit-picky person around. The digital clock is not ticking, but it stares at me relentlessly. Time to wrap up a week and move on.

Our weekly menu suffered only small changes.

Saturday:

  • Mussells with garlic, white wine, butter and lemon
  • Green Salad
  • Homemade bread

Husband went to Costco and bought a big bag of mussels (for some reason, they stock it only on weekends). We can plough through a pile of these mollusks in no time (my children do not crave hot dogs and Kraft’s Mac-N-Cheese on daily bases). While I was at work, my taller half went on an internet quest for a homemade loaf of bread destined to soak up the garlicky mussels’ juices. It was whole wheat, very tasty, but not something my Mediterranean loving soul would have chosen. For a geeky geek, that was an effort worth praising. Dinner was a wordless affair, with a lot of slurping and sighing. I would call it a success. No pictures, though – the sun was already on its way towards Japan, and the mussels do not like to wait and pose.

Sunday:

  • Tandoori Chicken and Rice
  • Homemade Roti

I have a huge Word document where I store all my recipes. It is a behemoth, and I add to it every day. I have a separate folder for the dishes I have to try (as if thousands in the “cookbook” were just an exercise  in typing). There I record the recipes from the blogs I read. Sunday’s dinner was inspired by Simply Recipes for chicken and rice. The roti recipe is from Quick Indian Cooking. I made a cucumber raita in addition. No surprises, because the sources were impeccable. The chicken was succulent, spicy in just the right way, looking appetizing even without the red food dye. The rice was aromatic and a pretty yellow – the Beasties had a great time with it. Roti was easy to make and I felt proud of myself for accomplishing another baking project. No photos. Chicken could have waited, but we were starving and half-way done with dinner when I remembered. Too late.

Monday:

  • Spanish-Inspired Stuffed Peppers

This did not happen because the schedules got mixed up. But I am not deserting it, just moving it to next week. We had pizza, because Husband’s Offspring #1, the Vegetarian, worked the morning shift and announced her presence at the dinner table. OK, not a big deal. I made the dough, Husband cut up the ingredients, and two pies were ready to face the hungry household in short order. One had some ham, the other was vegetarian, but I planted a variety of olives in both of them, knowing they would be coming my way (the young ones do not appreciate the salty deliciousness of the mother-olive). No photos, even though pizzas were extremely photogenic, albeit weirdly shaped.

Tuesday:

  • Cream of Broccoli Soup
  • Noodles With Lemon-Ginger Dressing

This happened, but the next day. I had a hankering for Serbian baked beans, fish was on sale, and I knew the noodles to be a patient bunch. Fresh swai fillets were seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika, lightly brushed with olive oil, rolled in bread crumbs and baked for 15 minutes at 350F. The beans got a post all to themselves, and I am not playing to their vanity by repeating anything.

Wednesday:

  • Serbian Cabbage with Pork

Noodles With Lemon-Ginger Dressing from Steamy Kitchen (adapted from Heidi of 101 Cookbooks) planned for the previous day were a delight. Husband did not even notice the absence of the meat protein. The Beasties loved the spice. The only change I made was adding lime zest and lime juice, because I did not have any lemons. And no tofu. I still have to allow this soy bean curd to seduce me.

Thursday:

  • a shrimp dish (still have not decided)

I visited my friend Dragana in her new place, and her mother was making Serbian Cabbage with Pork. I knew I had to make it immediately. Shrimp was moved to another day. We can always have shrimp. But when cravings for cabbage are awakened, delaying won’t do. I have written a post about this cruciferous monarch of Eastern and Central Europe, paid my dues, and now I move on.

Friday:

  • Sloppy Joes, coleslaw

When I announced Sloppy Joes for dinner, the Beasties staged a rebellion, demanding stuffed peppers. What? I tried to do a child friendly meal. Hmmm. How well do I know my children? But I promised them the peppers to come very soon (the Spanish spiced ones are eagerly awaiting their cue), and continued on with my plan. The meal was pretty good, considering its pedestrian nature (did I just use a snotty adjective?). No, it was really good. The sauce was thick, slightly sour, slightly sweet, just a bit “piquant”, and melded wonderfully with the soft bun. The creaminess of the coleslaw brought another dimension to the senses, and crunchiness of Lays potato chips was just an added bonus.