We grew up in the 60s and the 70s eating only locally grown and seasonal food. Not by choice. Real food was abundant and available. The “exotic” food still did not make its appearance at the grocery stores. We lived in the city and did not grow our own produce, but the market was open at 6:00 every morning, offering every fruit and vegetable that grew in the area. When I was four years old Father was finishing his residency in Belgrade, and I could not wait for the weekends when he would come home bringing fragrant pineapples and cashews for us to try. Nobody at my preschool had ever seen a pineapple before, let alone tasted it. And no, it did not make me cool when I bragged about it.
Milorad the milkman brought two liters of milk every morning by six o’clock. On Fridays Vinka brought fresh, white cheese and kajmak, a Serbian delicacy very similar to clotted cream. We would get two flats of eggs in different shades of brown and tan from MiÄ‡a, the eggman (aka MiÄ‡a Jajara) once a week.
Father became a much loved and respected ObGyn who befriended every patient. Being a doctor in a socialist country had its downfalls, especially concerning salary, which was not much higher than the janitor’s or the maintenance guy’s, but the perks were still worth it. While he was scrubbing off, leaving the midwives to clean up and do the bed-talk, a relieved brand new grandfather or a grandmother would timidly ring the bell at our door offering a crate of sweet tomatoes still warm from the sun, picked with love that morning. Or a basket of fragrant apples. Or a bottle of foamy milk. Or a chicken, in most cases already killed. Mother would usher them in, seat them in the “salon”, make them some coffee and offer some of her baked goods. These were hard-working people, poor, but proud, timid, respectful, and grateful. But Mother always put them at ease, finding a common thread and weaving a masterful web of conversation. We learned social graces from her and Father, never became haughty, arrogant, aloof, or snobbish.
We never ate seafood in our home town. It was not available. We were land-locked and the only fish we ate was wild trout, fresh-water bass, and catfish, still swimming in the river or freshly caught in tanks, waiting to be picked and cleaned. When we visited Novi Sad, the city in the north, we indulged in Danube species, pike, “keciga” (sterlet) and jesetra (a type of sturgeon). On the Adriatic, vacationing at Father’s favorite spots from his college years along the Dalmatian coast, we indulged in seafood caught that morning (Father knew a lot of fishermen and they would take him along at dawn, disregarding his total incompetence, basking in his respect of their trade).
As the summer rolled along, the crates of strawberries would pile up at the steps leading to the kitchen. What we could not eat would end up as preserves. Next came cherries, red, yellow, Rainier, sour – pitted and used in cakes, compotes, preserves, or just frozen. Apricots, peaches, and plums filled our plates as snacks, and we enjoyed the juices running down our cheeks. More preserves, compotes, jams. The kitchen was sweltering, Mother was blushing from exhaustion and heat, wasps were buzzing around fighting for every bit of sugary fruit.
The end of August brought along the innumerable crates of perfectly ripe tomatoes and sacks of red peppers. The jars were filled with tomato sauce, “ajvar” (a Serbian roasted red pepper relish), pickled peppers,” ljutenica”, and “pindzur…”
When the winds turned the summer into fall, it was time to preserve the cabbage. Sauerkraut time. The big, wooden barrels were cleaned and seasoned. The most meticulous search for the best heads of cabbage ensued. The chemistry was called forth – the saturation point was of the most importance. A hundred heads were de-rooted and submerged in salinated water. A couple of months later the most exquisite brined cabbage would emerge. But twice-a-week visits to the barrel were necessary, to ensure the quality.
It all leads to “sarma”, the reigning queen of the Serbian cuisine. You can use shredded sauerkraut with sausages. You can use cabbage leaves to make ” stuffed cabbage”. But the combination of the two is amazing. The mixture of ground beef sauteed with onions, salt, and peppers, mixed with rice, allowed to sizzle for just for a moment is stuffed into the brined cabbage leaves, tightly wrapped and simmered with smoked bacon until the smell overwhelms you. You can always take it off the heat and reheat it the next day; it only improves the taste.
I made my own sauerkraut last fall. Father was here and he supervised every step. His OCD paid off and we ended up with some pretty awesome brined cabbage. And fast (California weather works to our advantage). Well, it’s almost time to put another batch of cabbage to the brining test. I had a ziploc bag full of sauerkraut-ed leaves. When I announced “sarma” for dinner, I was greeted by a tribal dance, yelps, and high-fives. It’s Husband’s birthday and sarma is his favorite. He is from Georgia. US. Not the other one. But when asked about the perfect dish, his answer is always going to be “sarma” – the most perfect mix of protein (ground beef), carbohydrates (rice), vegetables (cabbage – sauerkraut has more vitamin C than citrus), and spices.
I served it with corn bread, following the tradition. Complete silence, followed by some grunts was an appropriate response to this dish. And now I can look forward to making some more sauerkraut. In fact, I cannot wait!
SARMA (STUFFED BRINED CABBAGE LEAVES)
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 big onion, chopped
- 650gr (1 ½ lbs) ground beef
- ¾ cup rice (in Serbia we use short grain, but you can use any thatâ€™s available)
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp fresh ground pepper
- 30-40 brined cabbage leaves (thin the main vein with a knife)
- 4-5 strips of heavily smoked bacon
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 tbsp paprika
Heat a large skillet at medium heat. Add the oil, and then the onions. Sautee for five minutes until translucent. Add the ground beef and cook until it turns brown. Add the rice and stir fore a couple of minutes. Season with salt and pepper and let cool. Spread the cabbage leaves on a plate and put 1 tsp of filling in the middle of the leaf. Fold the sides and start rolling tightly from the side closest to you, like you would a burrito. Lay the rolls next to each other in a 5-quart Dutch oven or a stainless steel pot. Tuck the bacon in between. Put another layer of sarma rolls on top. Add 1 quart of water. Heat to high until it boils, turn to medium-low heat and simmer for a couple of hours. In a small saucer heat the oil and paprika for 30 seconds. Add to sarma and shake to absorb. Let simmer for another minute or two and serve. Sarma can be refrigerated for a day or two, reheated and served.
I am submitting this post to Two for Tuesdays.