Aug 312010
 

sarma simmering

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 Mića, the eggman (aka Mića 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!

cool the mixture of ground meat, onions, spices and rice
lay the cabbage leaves onto a plate

a teaspoon of filling in the middle

flip sides towards the center

start rolling tightly

rolled sarma

cut-up smoked bacon

SARMA (STUFFED BRINED CABBAGE LEAVES)

Ingredients:

  • 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 that’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

Directions:

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.

T4ToriginalGirlichef

Aug 262010
 

the bounty of tomatoes

We bought our house in Ohio  in August of 2006. It had a big back yard that opened to a natural pond.  I immediately found a spot for a garden. Husband worked away the daylight hours, but Father arrived in October and after a short deliberation and exchange of ideas he set out to turn the dirt on a hundred square feet in the corner of the yard abutting the two neighbors. He spent hours pulling the deep-rooted flowering plants from the ground, fighting the clay, sweating, and getting blisters from the shovel handle. I had to drag him inside to rest, reminding him that he was a retired Ob Gyn, and not a farmer. After several days of digging I had my plot.

I made a schematic, placing tomato plants along the two wooden fences with basil growing between them. The peppers were going to be in the middle, and the outer perimeter would house the eggplants, beets, and zucchini so they could spread their greenery beyond the edges of the garden. In the spring I started a lot of my plants from the seeds I brought from Serbia and some from Ohio. They flourished. I followed the last frost date and replanted them in the soil as soon as possible. I added another little spot next to the steps leading to the deck to plant Swiss chard, chives, and lavender.

I am no botanist. Everything I learned came from the Internet. I fought tomato blight, zucchini weevil borers, rabbits, and geese feeding their offspring with my young seedlings. Husband and I collected hay from empty houses in the neighborhood and I laid it around the plants to prevent weeds from growing and keep in the moisture. Sammy, the high-school kid from next door promised to make me a compost bin for an occasional plate of chocolate chip cookies.

Every morning after I sent the kids off to school and Husband off to work, I would make a cup of Turkish coffee, sit on the deck, and look at the garden and the pond in front of me. I would stroll down the slight slope with scissors and a bowl, and walk around the tomato plants, touching their leaves, gently shaking the flowers, and inspecting the fruit. I noticed the difference in the hues, as they ripened from light to dark green, and then moved to the stripes of pink, to emerge in their full glory of royal red. It was amazing to watch life just blossoming in front of my eyes.

my garden

I grew up eating heirloom tomatoes at the peak of their ripeness and I am a bit of a tomato snob. I do not partake of Husband’s big-tomato-for-the-burger buys in January. I prefer to suffer in a tomato void than to consume a poser red orb trying to usurp the name. But the tomatoes I grew were real. The skin was soft and there was no tough white center running through them. They were not perfect, but misshapen and gnarly.

Most of them we ate raw, sometimes right off the vine with a few sprinkles of sea salt, sometimes in salads with chopped onions, peppers, cucumbers, salt, pepper, and olive oil. I made salsa and tomato sauce. I even dried some in the sun. But when the call from the distance came, sneaking in from the East, carried by the smell of tomato leaves on my hands, I would have to make SataraÅ¡ (suh-tuh-rush). Nothing else would satisfy the longing for the days long gone and the comfort of Mother’s kitchen in August.

Softly sauteed onions are mixed  with chopped peppers, softened and tamed into translucency. The tomatoes are added, stirred and left to simmer until the whole kitchen is filled with the essence of summer. Some salt and pepper join in, and in the end a slightly beaten egg, just to connect it all. We ate it room temperature or even cold, with a slice of white Serbian cheese and some fresh bread.

*”paradajz”, pronounced puh-ruh-daiz, is a Serbian word for tomato

SATARAÅ  (ONIONS, PEPPERS, AND TOMATO SAUTEE)

Ingredients:

  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 big red pepper, chopped (in Serbia we use long, yellow-green triangular peppers, which are not bitter like the green bell pepper)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 6-7 ripe tomatoes*, peeled and cubed
  • 1 sligtly beaten egg (if you are following Eastern Orthodox Great Lent, fast, or vegan diet, skip the egg)

Directions:

Heat the sautee pan on medioum heat. Add the oil, and when hot mix in the onion. Cook until translucent, about 7-8 minutes. Add peppers and continue cooking until soft. Season with salt and pepper and add the tomatoes. Simmer for 20-30 minutes until flavors combine. Take off the heat and stir in the egg. Adjust the seasonings. Serve immediatelly, or at room temperature, with freshly baked bread and some white farmers’ cheese (or as a side dish with pork, chicken, or beef).

I am linking this post to Summerfest and Margaret Roach’s wonderful site Away to Garden.

Aug 222010
 

This week has been the hottest yet since we moved from Ohio to Southern California almost two years ago. When I walk out the door before seven in the morning to go to work, I cannot feel the remnants of the desert chill lingering in the air which usually greets me right at the threshold. The light breeze is pleasant, playful, inviting, bringing the promises of scorching afternoons.

When I come back from work, the sky is this unbelievable shade of blue which almost looks fake. The sun touches the skin with its fiery kisses and I search for shade going up the sidewalk. The hot wind brings with it the smells of eucalyptus, pine, and the ocean. I rush inside to take a shower. Refreshed, wearing shorts and a tank-top, I go out to the patio to greet my tiny container garden. The essence of the Pacific is now joined by heady aromas of thyme, basil, lavender, and rosemary adorning the parapet fencing the small area in front of the apartment. The heat does not bother me any more because I am suddenly transported to a place somewhere on the Adriatic coast, lounging in the shade of an old olive tree, listening to the waves breaking on the shore. The crickets are harmoniously singing their ode to the sun and it seems the whole world is asleep. The air moves just enough to bring a hint of garlic and rosemary meeting the hot grates of a grill in the distance.

I go back inside smiling, relaxed, the petty and stressful politics at work obliterated by the welcoming sight of my dozen pots. I ask if anybody wishes something special for dinner. The Beasties have spent the whole day inside, encapsulated in the “mole hole” with the AC on and the shades closed. They are chilly and they crave the winter fare. One shouts “Lasagne!” (uhm…no, not hard, but time-consuming, being that I have to make my own ricotta and tomato sauce, and the bechamel has to be simmered with spinach to make it truly red-white-and-green Italian fare). The other clamors “Roasted pig!” (again, no… four hours of roasting, basting the pork shoulder every fifteen minutes with beer…I love lard but would opt for something much lighter). Husband is very diplomatic when he says “What are you thinking of?” Well, now we are talking! My mind races from Mexico, to Cuba, to Northern Africa, and stops at the Mediterranean, when a pound of frozen ground lamb beckons to me from the freezer. Lamburgers!

Husband comes back from the store with the perfect buns and a bag of charcoal. I try to warm up the house with some appropriate music, starting with an Italian CD a friend from Serbia made for me, moving on to Spain and the music from Pedro Almodovar’s movie “High Heels”, Un Año de Amor and  Piensa en Mi by Luz Casal ( I love that flick!), and finishing with this Greek song that always touches my soul and makes me cry, even though I do not understand a word in it. By this time I am waltzing around the kitchen with a glass of chilled white wine to the rhythm of my music, chopping garlic, snipping green onions, and whirring bread for breadcrumbs in my mini food processor.

While the “chimney” is slowly firing up the real mesquite charcoal, I harvest thyme, rosemary, and mint from the patio. My mezzaluna is at its best as it chops and minces the herbs which join garlic and green onions in the chopper just for a minute. I scrape the mix in the bowl with the ground lamb and breadcrumbs, add the egg, crumbled feta cheese, salt, and pepper kneading it until it all comes together. As I form the patties, the chimney releases the charcoal into our little Weber grill and the smell of smoked wood permeates the air. The Beasties emerge  from their room as the meat hisses on the grill. They set the table while I make a Greek salad with kalamata olives, cucumbers (Husband is allergic and his dish is separate), feta, red onions, roasted beets, sliced hot peppers, and a couple of tomatoes left over from the visit to the South Coast Farms in  San Juan Capistrano.  All this is dressed in a simple vinaigrette.

The weather might be hot. It might be sweltering. It just might justify turning on the AC. Or not. As I sit at the table with my plate full of Mediterranean flavors, I cannot help but bask in the thought that we are living in paradise, not affluent, but at least eating like kings.

LAMBURGERS

Ingredients:

  • 500gr (a bit more than 1 lb) ground lamb
  • 1 small bunch of scallions, shopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small handful mint leaves
  • 1 sprig of thyme, chopped
  • 1 sprig of rosemary, taken off the branch and chopped
  • 150gr (4-5 oz) crumbled feta
  • 2/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper

Directions:

Place the lamb into a bowl. Combine scallions, garlic and herbs in a food processor, and mince. Add to meat, together with feta, breadcrumbs, egg, salt, and pepper. Mix to combine and form patties. Grill for 3-4 minutes per side (you can sear them in a cast-iron skillet for 3-4 minutes per side with the same results). Serve on the bun or a pita, with a Greek salad.

This is a perfect recipe for Get Grillin’!, the event hosted by Marla of Family Fresh Cooking and Dara of Cookin’ Canuck.

Summer grill blogger event hosted by food blogs

“Get Grillin’ with Family Fresh Cooking and Cookin’ Canuck, sponsored by Ile de France CheeseRösle,Emile HenryRouxbe and ManPans.

I have submitted this post to Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by Marija from Palachinka, my fellow Serb and a wonderful photographer.

This also goes by the way of Two for Tuesdays, one of my favorite food blog events.

Two for Tuesday Recipe Blog Hop

Aug 192010
 

Mother and Father united for once, picking the best plums

My hometown in Serbia is surrounded by hills. They are not high, but wavy, seemingly undulating, leading the eye from the bright meadow greens to golden fields of hay. And everywhere you look there are orchards. The plum* is the undisputed queen of the summer fruits. It is a symbol of Serbia, interwoven into our heritage, our past and present, our rituals and traditions.

When the August sun hits the slopes and reveals the trees sagging with chalky purple fruit weighing down the resilient branches almost to the ground, the holiest of the rites commences: collecting plums for “Å¡ljivovica”, a potent, distilled brandy, golden in color, with an unmistakable aroma. The fruit has to be fully ripe and not bruised. The trees are gently shaken, and the purple orbs collected in vast canvas or nylon sheets spread underneath. They are cleaned of leaves and branches, pitted, and finally ready to meet the distilling drum. For wonderful photos and detailed description of the process of making “slivovitz” (as it is known in the US), head over to one of my favorite blogs, Palachinka.

When the icy winds of November and December rattle the windows and crawl stealthily underneath the doors, I love to have a glass of “Å¡ljivovica” warmed on the stove, sweetened with caramelized sugar, steaming, inviting, and comforting. It brings a warm glow to my cheeks, makes me smile, and gets me ready to curl up on the couch with my soft, navy-blue blanket and a good book. But in the summer time I forgo the distilled form and reach for the fruit.

Father has a piece of land in the hills overlooking the town. From the beginning he called it his “ranch”. And for more then twenty years it has been his escape, his respite, his Elysian Fields. I dream that one of these days, when all the kids have flown the nest and found their own safe haven, we can retire there, in the midst of the luscious greenery, surrounded by a vineyard, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop and an orchard boasting dozens of plum trees, all different varieties.

Every summer we go to Serbia. This year we did not. In June my heart was breaking every day thinking of cherries, red, yellow, bing, and sour, falling on the ground, unused and lost. In July I yearned for the early pears, peaches, and apricots, sweetened by the fierce sunshine. And now, I long for the plums. Even though I am thousands of miles away from “the ranch”, in my daily dream-escapes I can almost feel the breeze sweeping down the slope and smell the freshly cut grass drying in the sun.

I pick an oval-shaped plum with a center line dividing the halves, rub it with my thumb until it shines, squeeze it so it opens, juicy, luscious, sweet, pulling away from the pit. I eat one half first, throwing the pit in the grass, and then the other. The taste is the essence of summer. I close my eyes and there is a touch of wild flower honey on my tongue mixed with the aromatic pistils of the acacia blossoms I ate in grade school. There is a hint of the roses Deda-Ljubo planted… deep burgundy ones with velvety petals that lined the edge of our yard. I detect the smallest note of acidity from a particular type of wild lemony grass a cousin taught me to pick the summer of my sixth grade. As the late afternoon breeze rustles the leaves on the trees around me, I pick another plum, and then another, my fingers sticky, but still greedy. I steal the moments from the summers past in each flavorful bite. These memories I cannot share with my family and I feel guilty. But I smile in spite of this. One day my children will form their own sensuous mementos, and I will forgive them their selfishness.

The markets around us are overflowing with plums. I could not have Father’s beautiful, fully ripe fruit, but Husband brought me a couple pounds of Italian prune plums a few days ago. My first thought was to make these wonderful Central-European potato-dumplings filled with plums, but I reconsidered, convinced the rebelling dumpling-craving Beasties that one day soon they will be on the menu, and made jam.

*The big, round fruits everybody around me calls “plums” do not exist in Serbia. Dozens of varieties are all oval, smaller, similar to Italian prune plums. I have found that Damson plum is more appropriate name for the Serbian fruit.

MOTHER’S DAMSON PLUM JAM WITH RUM (MAMIN DŽEM OD Å LJIVA SA RUMOM)

Ingredients:

  • 1kg (2 lbs) damson plums, washed and pitted, cut in quarters
  • 800gr (1 ¾ lbs) sugar (I put less, about 600gr, 1 1/2 lbs)
  • 1 Tbsp spiced rum, or 1 tsp cinnamon

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350F. Put the fruit in a 5 quart stainless steal pot. Cover with sugar and heat on medium heat until it bolis. Turn the heat down, and stir until the sugar melts. Put the pot in the oven, and cook for 90 minutes, occasionally stirring. Add the rum or cinnamon. Let it cool, and pour into sterilized jars (I got 1 quart plus 1 small, 4oz jar of jam – no need to worry about safety, it will disappear in a couple of weeks! The small jar is going to be a gift to my single mom co-worker who really appreciates it).

This is my submission for this week’s Summer Fest which features stone fruit.

Aug 172010
 

I have joined the Daring Cooks to experience new recipes and learn new approaches to food. It is an amazing concept to get hundreds of people from all over the world to cook the same thing and then share their views and voyages on their blogs.

Mother made a lot of pasta dishes when we were small. The meatless meals we saved for the days when Father was on duty in the hospital, even though the famous carnivore professed he did not have to have meat every day. After making the pierogi I really have to ask myself, where did she find the time to cook the way she cooked for us? I am in awe and I admire her more and more with these new insights.

She was the first to get up and the last to go to bed. She made breakfasts for all of us, laid out our clothes, sent Father to work and us to school. And even if there were any soap operas on TV in Serbia at the time, she would not have watched them. She tended to the yard, made preserves, knitted, sewed, hosted the neighborhood ladies’ coffee meetings, took care of our Grandparents, made wholesome meals, listened to our stories, gave advice, helped with homework, read every single essay we wrote, and played the best hostess in the evenings when their friends would gather for an elaborately prepared and served dinner. We had a dessert almost every day. Father’s patients who rang the bell never left hungry. She ran the household like a master conductor, orchestrating every little detail.

We were quite oblivious of the efforts it took to tend to so many variables. We took for granted her role as a master organizer, selfishly enveloped in our own little worlds. We were never late, we were never hungry, we were never neglected. Later on, she took in our friends, listened to them, comforted them when they cried, fed them, and talked to them. A lot of them still consider her their second mother.

She made pierogi often. But they were not called pierogi. They were called “taÅ¡ci” (tash-tzi). And they were almost always filled with her homemade jam. It took hours to make them and minutes to devour them. It never crossed my mind to even wonder how much time, effort, and love she put into shaping every single little dumpling, just to see them disappear.

I made the filling. I made the dough. I flattened the dough into a 3mm thickness, and cut circles out of it. I stuffed them, folded them over, closed them, and pinched them tight with a fork. I boiled them, and then sauteed them, and served them with caramelized onions and sour cream. I filled several with Nutella and apricot jam just for kicks. My family loved them. I needed a stiff vodka-tonic after the fiftieth pierog hit the floured tray. I lifted my glass, exhausted, and saluted Mother, who truly was, and always will be, my inspiration (even though she would frown and scold me for imbibing).

The August 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by LizG of Bits n’Bites and Anula of Anula’s Kitchen. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make pierogi from scratch and an optional challenge to provide one filling that best represents their locale.

RUSSIAN STYLE PIEROGI

Makes 4 generous servings, around 30 dumplings. Traditional Polish recipe, although each family will have their own version, this is Anula’s family recipe.

Dough Ingredients:

  • 2 to 2 1/2 cups (300 to 375 g) all-purpose (plain) flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
  • about 1 cup (250 ml) lukewarm water

Filling Ingredients:

  • 3 big potatoes, cooked & mashed (1 1/2 cup instant or leftover mashed potatoes is fine too)
  • 1 cup (225 g) cottage cheese, drained
  • 1 onion, diced & sauteed in butter until clear
  • 3 slices of streaky bacon, diced and fried till crispy (you can add more bacon if you like or omit that part completely if you are vegetarian)  - I added more, we like lots of bacon!
  • 1 egg yolk (from medium egg)
  • 1 tablespoon (15 g) butter, melted
  • 1/4 (1.25 ml) teaspoon salt
  • pinch of pepper to taste

Directions:

Combine all the ingredients for the filling (it‟s best to use one‟s hands to do that) put into the bowl, cover and set aside in the fridge until you have to use it.

Place 2 cups flour in a large bowl or on a work surface and make a well in the center. Break the egg into it, add the salt and a little lukewarm at a time (in my situation 1/2 cup was enough). Bring the dough together, kneading well and adding more flour or water as necessary. Cover the dough with a bowl or towel. You‟re aiming for soft dough. Let it rest 20 minutes.

On a floured work surface, roll the dough out thinly (1/8” or about 3 millimeters) cut with a 2-inch (5 cm) round or glass. Spoon a portion (teaspoon will be the best) of the filling into the middle of each circle. Fold dough in half and pinch edges together. Gather scraps, re-roll and fill. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bring a large, low saucepan of salted water to boil. Drop in the pierogi, not too many, only single layer in the pan! Return to the boil and reduce heat. When the pierogi rise to the surface, continue to simmer a few minutes more ( usually about 5 minutes). Remove one dumpling with a slotted spoon and taste if ready. When satisfied, remove remaining pierogi from the water.

And again, my genius cousin Vladimir Jovanovic worked wonders to fix this photo

Aug 162010
 

We were raised in our grandfather’s (we called him Deda-Ljubo) house, a nice, classical building built in Central-European style in the early 20th century, painted pale yellow, with a beautiful front yard, a shed, and a back yard where, some time before my birth, chickens pecked around and an occasional corn stalk separated the unfenced property from the neighbors. The short, quiet street was called Učiteljska, “The Teachers’ Street.” On one end, it met the town’s main street. On the other it faced the greenery and lushness of the town park. The only two buildings that were not residences were the Medical Center for Women and Children, situated on the corner across the street from our house, and the drab edifice boarding children from the other parts of the country attending high schools in the town, which abutted our yard.

We had an old mulberry tree with a swing tied to one of its branches and several hydrangea bushes which were Njanja’s  pride and joy (I do not count the smacks I received as a toddler for picking the flowers without asking). Along the edges of the lawn, adjacent to the concrete walkway, were Deda-Ljubo’s roses, the sweet-smelling beauties which were the envy of the whole neighborhood. The fence toward the Teachers’ House was lined by peony bushes that put out huge flowers of white and burgundy throughout the summer. The two parallel balustraded staircases lead to the main entrance and a side door, announced by the terazzo-lined porticoes. Between them was a raised concrete platform with a cast-iron fence. Dozens of plants resided there in terracotta pots, spilling their blossoms over the railing. It was our job to water them just before the sunset, dipping from a bucket with a small metal cup.

There was not a lot of traffic on the street in those days. A horse-drawn carriage would pass once a while, a garbage truck, and a small variety of family cars depositing women carrying sick babies wrapped in blankets, or husbands supporting their wives bent over in pain. We learned how to ride our bike in the street, turning circles, round and around until our balance improved. My sister and I spent hours on the roof of our neighbors’ shed with their daughter Dara (several years older, but still much a child at heart), telling stories, planning adventures, and dreaming about the future.

Next to the Medical Center lived two old spinster sisters, Baba-Butra and Baba-Milja, retired pharmacists, and Aunts to one of Serbia’s greatest stage actors, Ljubo Tadić. Their garden was magnificent, lush, and brimming with lilacs and jasmine, providing a suitable juxtaposition to the sadness and anxiety going on next door.

Baba-Milka and Deda-Milojko were their neighbors. They always invited us to come and sample the first red currants of the season. They would let us roam the yard, mysterious and darkened by the shadows of many leafy trees, while we pretended we were in the jungle (I know, I know, but we were city kids with wild imaginations).

Next to them lived an old couple, both of them retired teachers, and their tenants Baba-Gina and her daughter Radica who played with us for hours, took us to the park, and entertained us with stories of her high-school escapades. I was obsessed with flowers and one spring, when I was four or five, I picked every single tulip from the teachers’ garden and brought the bunch to Mother. It took a while for me to realize that I did not make her happy with the gesture.

The corner house belonged to a cobbler, an old man with very thick, black-rimmed glasses, who fixed the shoes in a little shop in the front, and lived in a house behind it. He was always hunched over his work table, rarely speaking, sharing with us little more than the wonderful aromas of leather and glue.

Adjacent the Teachers’ Home, lived an old couple, Professor Cvetkovic and his wife Rada. Their son and grandkids moved to Belgrade years before. Rada died early, but the professor continued coming over for coffee, one of the last old European gentlemen in town, always immaculately dressed in starched shirt, tie, and hat. He was quick with a poem or a story he had written himself, and I still recall the way his soft, melodic voice tumbled gracefully through the air.

Our house was a duplex, built by my Grandpa, Deda-Ljubo, and his brother Milojko, who was also a teacher. He and his wife, Mileva, a fellow teacher, could not have children. She died young, presumably of sorrow. After WWII, almost all private property was nationalized by the government, and their house was deemed too “bourgeoise”. As a result two more families moved into each half. Deda-Ljubo and Njanja had to empty a couple of their rooms to welcome an older childless couple. Milojko and Mileva moved into one room with a kitchenette to let a family of four reside in the rest of the house. By the time we were born the old couple had already moved out from our half, but the other family, Dara’s parents, still lived in Deda-Milojko’s house. And everybody was happy.

The last house on the corner, facing the park, belongeded to Simeon EÅ¡kenazi, the pharmacist, and his wife Seka. Their daughters Cica and Anica were in high school and University, and we rarely saw them. Their house was of a particular importance to me because for two winters in a row I saw Deda Mraz (the Serbian version of Santa Claus) running around the corner, after leaving gifts just minutes before.

Except for my mother, all of the ladies in the neighborhood were elderly and retired. They gathered for daily coffee breaks in the mornings and afternoons. Everybody took turns hosting these “coffee elevenses”, which were not your usual down-your-coffee-and-keep-on working kinds of affairs. They would arrive one by one, meeting in the street, hooking arms, exchanging pleasantries, and usual health complaints. Once inside, they would sit at the dining room table, carefully scrutinizing the surroundings, noticing a newly embroidered doily, a new addition to the china cabinet, and every speck of dust the hostess had neglected to remove. The small talk would steadily lead to neighborhood gossip and bragging about the accomplishments of children and grandchildren. Once the hostess would appear with a tray of steaming cups of Turkish coffee and a plate of baked goods, the group would slow down for a moment to enjoy the offerings, murmuring in agreement, and nodding their approval. They discussed new recipes, analyzed the flavors of the food, and wrote down any new methods or techniques on scraps of paper. The competition between them was fierce because each one yearned to outdo the others with her culinary expertise. They would rise, as if suddenly aware that the mid-day meal would not be preparing itself on time, nor would the pile of ironing get any smaller or flatter. The ladies made their way toward the door, stuffing the precious recipe scraps into their floral smock pockets as they exchanged closing salutations.  The final minutes of the board meeting satisfied, one of them would, in turn, recognize her upcoming duty as chairwoman and invite the others for coffee the next day.

One day, when I was four, I decided to go have “coffee” at Tetka-Seka’s house. I had been there before, with Mother or Njanja, but this time it was my own initiative, and I did not tell anyone. Tetka-Seka kissed me on both cheeks and gave me some homemade cherry juice and a slice of quick bread. We chatted for a while until I told her, quite in passing, that Mother did not know where I was. She took me by the hand gently, and led me home. Mother was pacing, evidently worried. About Me? We all stood in the big foyer, Mother now visibly upset, I contrite, unable to lift my eyes from the hardwood floor, and Tetka-Seka, suddenly my legal advocate, promising in my name it would never happen again. I do not recall being punished, but I remember that Tetka-Seka came back, bringing a plate of her quick bread and a scrap of paper with the recipe for it.

There are hardly any houses left on Učiteljska Street. Several families, including ours, moved to different places in the seventies when the city decided to erect a couple of apartment buildings there. There is a café, a small grocery store, an attorney’s office, a physician’s office, and two ugly, gray skyscrapers which replaced peonies, roses, and hydrangeas. But when I make this bread for my family, I do not see the street of today. Instead I smell jasmine and lilacs from Baba-Butra’s yard and see small groups of housewives returning to their homes, refreshed by the coffee and nurtured by the friendship.

*During WWII, Simeon’s neighbors protected him from the Germans who occupied the town after a short-lived twelve-day war between Serbia and Germany. For four years he was not Simeon Eskenazi, the Jew, but Simo Eric, a Serb.

QUICK BREAD (TETKA-SEKINA BRZA POGAÄŒA)

Ingredients:

  • 16 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2  tsp (or 1 envelope) baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ cup (or 1 “šoljica”, a small cup used for Turkish coffee or espresso)sunflower oil
  • 2 slightly beaten eggs
  • 1 cup (250gr) yogurt
  • 5oz (150gr) fresh cheese (feta, cottage, queso fresco), crumbled

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Greese a 9 inch round pan.

Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the oil, eggs, yogurt and cheese. Stir to incorporate and pour into prepared pan. Bake 25-30 minutes, until the toothpick comes out clean and the crust is light brown. Let it rest for 5 minutes in the pan, remove from the pan and let it rest on a baking rack for another 5 minutes. Serve eith kajmak (or butter), fresh cheese, and yogurt or milk.

Aug 102010
 

I usually like when I hear a rooster announcing a day break in English (“cock-a-doodle-do”) or in Serbian (“kukuriku”), because it means I am away from the highways, trucks, and students upstairs who love to play Persian techno music till the wee hours of the night (I always forgive them when they appear around noon the next day with a bottle of wine, apologetic and grateful for the crepes I sent to them).

But roosters also conjure up visions of summers past spent in my grandparents’ house in Vojvodina, the northern area of Serbia bordering Hungary. Deda-Vlada was a retired railroad engineer with white hair and piercing blue eyes, who always walked with his shoulders straight and his hands interlocked behind his back. He made the best popcorn in an old skillet, with just a touch of oil and some salt.

Baba-Anka became Babuljica for me and everybody else when I was four. “Baba” is grandma, “Babica” would be a deminutive, and I invented “Babuljica” as a deminutive of a deminutive, because I loved her so much. She was soft spoken, gentle woman with green eyes and an eternal smile on her face. I cannot recall ever seeing her angry or upset.

Vladimir married Anka when she was mere sixteen years old. He was twenty eight, established, and had a job assigned by the government. They did not attend University. They were not raised by the aristocracy. But their small house on the edge of the village was always a comfortable den filled with culture, love of reading, music, and friends. They were the first in the village to own a TV. And they shared it with everybody. They organized plays, staged recitals, brought books to the families who settled there from Herzegovina after the ravages of the World War Two. They hosted poetry nights, instigated talent shows, and taught kids how to read when the nearest school was miles away.

They passed their love for life to their three children: our Uncle Milan, Mother Andjelka, and our Aunt Sophia, who we always called just Sonja. We looked lovingly at every painting, sketch, and drawing my mother made while still living at home, studying Art at the University of Novi Sad. Most of them adorned the walls of the living room. We rummaged through the piles of books stashed everywhere – classics from before WWII, poetry and Russian realism from the 50s and 60s, modern and rebellious literature from the 70s. For me it was heaven on earth. And my grandparents did not care if I stayed buried in a book for hours, as long as I appeared at the table with clean hands and a healthy appetite.

Our summers spent in their house were the definition of freedom. We went swimming in the Danube with the neighbors’ kids, spent hours building fortresses on the front lawn, walked the rails with our cousin when the trains were not running, collected snails after the rain, broke off pieces of the colorful tile from the roof and used it as chalk, and went to sleep, exhausted, with the rhythmic cadence of passing trains in the background.

In the morning we would rise early, only a few moments after the vicious rooster who vehemently hated my brother (the kindest and nicest child ever) fluffed up his feathers and crooned his greeting to the sun. We were excited to find out how many eggs the hens had hatched. We’d collect them, guided by Babuljica, and some of them would find their way into our breakfast plates, along with freshly baked bread and tomatoes from the garden. We would play, and they would tend to the garden and corn field. Occasionally we would feed the chickens with brown, red, or yellow corn, constantly amused by their never-ending fight for every kernel. And once a while, one of those chickens would be selected for dinner. Babuljica would wring its neck, scald it with hot water, take the feathers out, and cut it up in pieces. We were fascinated and intrigued, but eager to consume.

Toward dusk, Babuljica would grab her navy-blue metal canister with a wooden handle and take us over to the village. We’d pass fields of golden wheat swaying in the wind, rows of sunflowers obediently facing west, and militarily straight aligned corn days away from ripeness. We would make small talk with old women sitting on the benches in front of their houses and finally arrive at our destination where fresh milk would find its way into the canister, its smell bringing forth the summer grasses and straw.

We would walk back to the house for a mile or so, slowly, not wanting to spill a drop of the precious liquid. Babuljica would scald the milk, make us big cups of hot cocoa, and lay a plate of animal crackers on the table for us to dunk.

Excited by our daily adventures and mostly ravenous, we did not think of the origins of the food that she served for every meal. Looking back I know that most of the ingredients were grown in the vegetable garden in the yard. When I close my eyes I can see Babuljica getting ready to make a bean stew for us. She is collecting onions, potatoes, and beans in a purple enamel bowl. She is sitting on a chair in the kitchen facing her pale green china cabinet dating from the golden age of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the radio is playing a mellow evergreen tune. She hums along while she cuts the onions and peels the potatoes. The pot of red beans is gurgling on the stove. Deda-Vlada is sitting opposite her, working on a crossword puzzle, looking at her occasionally and quite lovingly over the thick black frame of his glasses. I can see the table set for all of us, bowls of steaming fragrant stew resting on the starched tablecloth. I can see us racing to the kitchen, out of breath, talking over each other and digging into the beans with abandon.

They both died before they could see me enrolled in the University. Their house still stands at the edge of the village where the road makes an elbow curve, but some other children and grand-children play on the grass and rest underneath the old walnut tree. The rustling of the corn in the summer makes me think of them. The crow of the rooster brings a smile to my lips because I know that I continue their legacy.

RED BEANS STEW WITH VEGETABLES  (ŽUTI PASULJ NAKISELO)

The aroma of this bean stew, enriched by sweet carrots and parsnips, spiced by onions and celery, freshened up by bay leaf and paprika, thickened by velvety potatoes, and finished off by a glug of vinegar takes me back in time, in my Babuljica’s loving arms.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lbs red beans
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, sliced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 parsnip, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 2-3 potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes
  • Parsley, chopped

Directions:

Clean the beans and put in a Dutch oven or a 5-quart stainless steel pot. Cover with water and heat until boiling. Strain the beans, retur to the pot, and cover wit water to reach ¾ of the pot. Add onon, carrots, celery, parsnips, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook on high heat until it boils, turn the temperature down and simmer on medium low to low, depending on your range, for 2-3 hours, until the beans are soft, but not falling apart. Add bay leaves, paprika and vinegar. Add the potatoes and cook for another 30 minutes, until potatoes are soft. Sprinkle with parsley and serve. Serves four very hungry and melancholy people.

Why does not comfort food photograph well?

I am submitting this post for Two for Tuesdays and Summer Fest.

T4ToriginalGirlichef

Aug 052010
 

It’s 7:30 Friday night. I am in my parents’ bedroom in front of the full-size mirror. I have a minute or two before my friends ring the bell. Did I cover the fresh-from-this-morning zit between my brows? Does my oversized shirt borrowed from Father cover my hips? Is my hair positioned just the way it should be (if I manage not to move my head at all)? Mother is amused by all the primping. Father is oblivious, as usual. When I peek into the living room he beckons me in, gives me some “just in case” money, and continues to watch the early news.

My friends are here. I close the door behind me, slam the gate shut and step out into a warm summer night, enveloped by the distant chorus of crickets from the park. The air is warm and heady with the last lingering perfume of lindens and the woody smell of farmers burning off grass beyond the levee. The evening is starting laden with anticipation, excitement, and a barely noticeable fear of disappointment.

We turn the corner and join a procession of boys and girls walking in small groups, all heading to the main street and the town square. Our interchanges are barely comprehensible, consisting mainly of giggles, tiny screeches we cover by hand, and shushing sounds – we do not want to be overheard (fifteen-year-old minds are filled with paranoia). We cast sideways glances while we advance towards our destination, trying not to miss that someone special. Our cheeks are flushed from the excitement. Our fingers are nervously twitching.

It’s Friday night in July and the city square will be filled not only with the usual crowd of high-schoolers, which is usually most excellent, but also with college students, who are finally back in town. We avoid the main street with all the lights and approach the square from the back, partly hidden by shadows from a tall apartment building on the right. To the un-initiated the whole scene looks pretty random, just another summer evening in a Serbian town. But we know that there are patterns each group follows, there are rules to which to adhere if you want to stand at the square, there are right ways to make sure you see and are not seen if that is your choice (Since late April my sister and I skipped our karate lessons on Saturday nights to go out, walk around, and dance in a discotheque at the Home of Culture* abutting the square. We consider ourselves pretty knowledgeable). We do not go as far as to make a map and use pointers and colored push-pins, but we plan our strategic approach before every outing, knowing with certainty the time everyone arrives and the place at the square they will eventually occupy.

I walk around with my friends, almost believing they are the reason I am out. My eyes are nonchalantly (I think)  glancing over the throngs of youths, hoping to find him who is the only reason for my being here. While my strides get shorter, my heart beats faster. I see a couple of his friends on the steps. When I catch a glimpse of a striped purple and white t-shirt, I think my heart will jump out of my chest. My cheeks are blushed, my palms are sweating, and I cannot utter a word. I squeeze one of my friend’s arms in a silent alert, and avert my eyes from him, petrified even to imagine that he would notice my attention. I love him from afar. I look at him only when he is occupied with something else. I know his face as well as mine, the green eyes that stole my soul the first time I noticed him, the almost-black hair, shiny and parted in the middle, the rosy color of his cheeks, the smooth chin thrust arrogantly upwards, the lips in a perpetual mocking smile. Each part of that face is immortalized in my journals and poems.

Even though adrenalin is sending waves of whooshing sounds through my ears and my heart has no chance of slowing down, I am perfectly content. I saw him. My night is as big as the Milky Way, expanding with each second and each stolen sideways glance at him. I sometimes daydream that on one of these intoxicating summer nights he will miraculously feel the enormity of my affection, walk away from his friends, take my hand, and lead me away, into a life filled with only the two of us. But for now, just seeing him on those steps in front of the square is enough.

We circle the square several times, slowly, exchanging elbow-nudges and snickering. The groups slowly start to dissipate, the older ones heading to the bars, the younger ones headed home. The air is still pulsating with the unspent energy as we walk down the steps towards the main street. We are ready to face the light. As we move away from the square, our voices become louder and more confident. We pass two pastry stores, debating if a tall glass of lemonade and a cake would be a fitful ending to the evening. But from the right a seductive aroma of burning wood makes me look away from the sweet delights. An old Gypsy man has set up a hand-made grill between the “Hotel Belgrade” and a fabrics store. He is enveloped in gusts of smoke as he turns freshly picked corn with his hands. The kernels are popping, blistering, soaking the essence of the forests that feed the fire. I hand the man a bill, he hands me a hot ear of corn, blackened and smoking, wrapped loosely in newspaper. I bite into it, savoring each milky kernel, my teeth getting black, specks of char on my cheeks, lips and hands. I do not care any more. This is the taste of fifteen summers, the taste of innocence and hope. As we slowly walk back to our homes I eat greedily, with abandon, void of self-consciousness and restraint, looking forward to jumping on the couch and telling my sister every little detail of this exciting evening.

*Only in countries that went through social-realistic phase of “art” the names like this exist.

***

We came by some extremely fresh and succulent corn today. I was making Tomatillo Salsa Enchiladas and Mexican Rice for dinner. Corn salad? Corn salsa with black beans and red onions? Plain boiled corn? From somewhere in my mind a distant memory awoke and with a smile I decided we are having grilled corn. To make it jell with the rest of the dishes I made a chipotle-lime butter.

Our newly acquired Weber grill is not made from unrecognizeable iron scraps and Husband, who tended the corn does not have a gold tooth nor a black, bushy moustache (I am thankful for both). But the corn was perfect: charred on the outside, soft and milky on the inside, with the distinctive smokiness and redolent of the summers of my teenage years. Chipotle-lime butter added a hint of spice, reminding me that I am an adult after all, but I still smiled while I sank my teeth into a cob, charring my lips, my cheeks and my hands.

“Get Grillin’ with Family Fresh Cooking and Cookin’ Canuck, sponsored by Ile de France CheeseRösle,Emile HenryRouxbe and ManPans.”

I am contributing to Summer Fest event with this post.

Summer Fest 2010

Aug 022010
 

Mother and Father as close as you are likely to see them without Photoshop

I cannot recount how many times throughout my life I stated that my parents should not have ended up together. They are both very strong, intelligent, well-read (on different subjects, of course) and as a consequence extremely opinionated, stubborn, and uncompromising. I wish I could write a fairy tale about two complementary souls who, while different, managed to fulfill each other and ended up walking away into the sunset holding hands, giggling like children remembering their arguments, debates, and days of not understanding one another completely. But that is not their fairy tale.

To this day they continue to bicker, to antagonize one another, to dig out the smallest details in order to pick a fight. When we are around them we usually just roll our eyes during the incessant back-and-forths, resolved to their antics and aware that we are an audience to a drama rehearsed and played a thousand times.

Their personalities might not be in sync. But there are certain common core values that define both of them. They are extremely hard-working, diligent, responsible, and reliable people. They enjoy company, friends, good food, and conversation (in different measures and different volumes). They love to help people who need help. They are brutally honest (not counting little white lies uttered in self-defense). They have a great knack for story-telling (Father’s art of developing branches of digressions and adding embellishments to anything that happened is widely recognized amongst his friends and family).  They share the love of reading, and our house was a veritable library, constantly replenished by new, fresh from the printer volumes (is there a more intoxicating smell, beyond food, then a freshly printed book?). They are pretty good with finances, although they have different ideas about immediate monetary priorities (who says that Dunhill’s and Johnny Walker Black are not everyday necessities?). They are compulsively organized (Father’s organizational skills are clearly inspired by OCD, and we laugh when he aligns his keys, glasses, and wallet on the night stand in an exact and immutable way every single night).  They adore their grandchildren and spoil them in different ways, but of course, there cannot be a common ground. They love their children, even though they constantly complain about ingratitude and selfishness of the younger generation.

They have instilled all of these values in us. They taught us not to be tattle-tales, but to stand up not only for ourselves, but for others falsely accused. They taught us to respect people regardless of their ancestry, origin, place of birth, or social standing. They taught us to be proud, but not arrogant, to be kind, but not push-overs. Lying was punished more strictly then any other misdeed and honesty was praised above all things. They urged us to keep our promises and to be loyal to our friends. They encouraged us to go on vacations with friends and opened their house to countless  parties (New Year’s Eve’s parties, birthday parties, passing a hard exam parties, or just anything parties). Mother was the incarnation of Brecht’s Mother Courage. She cooked most of the meals, helped with costumes or broken hearts – whatever was needed at the time. Father was in charge of providing the booze and driving everybody home at the wee hours of the morning.

My parents are not perfect. But they are good people. They make each other miserable and compete in petty power-wielding contests. But they managed to lead us each into our own right direction. We are all honest to the point of naiveté. We are kind, fierce in defense of the weaker. We are loyal friends. We love to read, converse, socialize, and debate. We love to entertain, to offer plenty of good wine, scrumptious food, and unforgettable music. We are passionate, frugal, and extremely organized. Oh, each of them had different methods, but we have, I hope, become the people each of them envisioned.

I read a post on one of the blogs I haunt regularly, The Bitten Word, about keeping inventory of your fridge, when you go shopping for veggies, or you get a CSA delivery. I commented in earnest, having just cleaned and organized my refrigerator, and labeled the dry-erase board with every single ingredient in it (minus the door, which is self-evident, and the upper shelf, which alway holds 2 gallons of milk and various juices (orange, grapefruit, cranberry, pomegranate, peach, tomato…). The idea is to erase the ingredient once it’s used to keep a better overview. My parents would be proud. And I am glowing in the aftermath of the accomplishment. Husband is somewhat worried, confused, and not really as enthusiastic as I am.  He looked at the board as he might look at a new puppy he will have to walk and clean up after.  But I am sure he’ll learn to appreciate it once it starts saving time and money, and doesn’t actually poop on the carpet.

THE REFRIGERATOR INVENTORY: