Sep 282010
 

The College Kritter and I spent the spring break week in Mexico. It took some time to organize and plan all the activities in order to cram as much as possible into measly seven days, but it was worth it.

We are both laid back, uncomplicated (the best compliment from my German brother-in-law, Thomas*), and interested in the same things. I knew that food would be as important to my eldest as it is  to me, and I researched for weeks the best and the most authentic, off-the-beaten-path places to kick back and enjoy the real Yucatecan cuisine. Wherever we went we were enveloped in the smell of freshly made corn tortillas, barely four inches in diameter, warm, pliable, and usually made on the spot by huipil-wearing Mayan women. We trusted our Spanish-speaking meseros’ suggestions when ordering, and indulged in Grilled Conch, Queso Relleno, Pollo Pibil, Sopa di Lima, Relleno Negro, Longaniza di Valladolid, and Poc Chuc. We bought spices and pastes from the market at Valladolid, hoping to capture the magic of Yucatán once we return to our California home.

For a while we did not crave Mexican food. Our senses were satisfied. I cooked Mediterranean, and Indian, and Serbian for weeks. The Beasties whined for enchiladas. Husband wanted a taste of our Mexican vacation. But I was still not ready. I have been transformed. I watched teenage girls put the thin tortillas on the comal, flip them with their hands, and move them to a plate. I tasted thin slices of arrachera grilled for a mere second and served with roasted onion, avocado, and lime. I encountered achiote paste and habanero salsa. Mexican cuisine would never be the same in our house.

And then, just for fun, I entered Rick Bayless’ Twitter contest: for four weeks he tweeted a recipe from his new book, Fiesta at Rick’s, under 140 characters, challenging his followers to decipher it, cook it, and photograph it. He chose one overall winner a week, and another nine runners-up. All of them received a copy of his book.

Each week I gathered the necessary ingredients, followed the recipe, cooked it, and served to the family (after I tried to take the best photo my camera would muster). And each week I heard only the grunts of satisfied bellies. The final week featured grilled pork ribs. I prepared the rub and Husband tended to grilling. Our photo was chosen as the overall winner and I was beyond excited!

Some time later, the book arrived, signed by Rick Bayless. I spent a couple of minutes getting high from the new-book-smell. After I glanced through it, I knew that we would not be disappointed: the glossy pages revealed dozens of recipes that appealed to me immediately. And some of them threw me right back to Yucatán for a moment. Remembering the accolades I received from the family upon serving Rick’s dishes, I decided to cook from his book, one or two recipes at the time.

Tipped off by our Mexican neighbors, we visited a near-by Mexican store, Tula Market, and left with some queso fresco, Yucatecan habanero salsa, nopales (cactus fruit), and freshly made, warm from the comal, corn tortillas, which we attacked as soon as we entered the car.  Our Persian market had some thinly sliced beef, knob onions, and tomatillos. We were good to go!

While the beef was getting happy with the marinade, I roasted the tomatillos with some onions, garlic, and jalapeños for salsa verde. Nopales were bought cleaned of thorns and they met the Weber grill accompanied by halved onions. In no time we sat the table, placed a bowl of home-made guacamole on the “lazy susan”, flanked by some sour cream, lime wedges, and habanero salsa. When the beef finally hit the grill, sizzling, we started piling our plates with the nopales, onions, and salsa. After a couple of minutes, I cut the striped steak into ribbons and passed around still-warm tortillas. Ice-cold Pacifico put the final touch on this Mexican feast.

The flavors were light, bold, and clean. Everything merged together to bring about a simple meal bursting with fresh taste. If only I could have summoned the sound of waves breaking on the shore, I would have been transported back to Yucatán.

*it is his birthday today – Glückwünsche für dein Geburtstag, mein Bruder!

GRILLED SKIRT STEAK TACOS WITH KNOB ONIONS AND CACTUS  – TACOS DE ARRACHERA AL CARBÓN CON CEBOLLITAS ASADAS Y NOPALES (adapted slightly from Fiesta at Rick’s, by Rick Bayless)

Ingredients:

Marinade:

  • 6 unpeeled cloves of garlic
  • 3 Tbsp sunflower or olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • pinch of ground cloves
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa:

  • 1 lb (6-8 medium) tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and halved
  • fresh hot chiles, stemmed (jalapenos, serranos), 2-3
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • a bunch of cilantro
  • 1 tsp salt

The Rest:

  • 1 lb skirt steak
  • 3 medium cactus paddles (we bought ours already cleaned of thorns – to clean them yourself, wear the gloves, trim a thin layer around the cactus and cut out the spines)
  • 1 big bunch of knob onions (or spring onions – the bulbs are bigger than scallions), cut in half

Directions:

MARINADE:

Place the garlic in a skillet and cook on medium heat until softened, 10-15 minutes. Cool, peel, and process in a food processor along with oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and oregano. Place the beef in a Ziploc bag and pour the marinade over it. Close the bag and rub the marinade with your fingers over the enclosed steak. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes (or as long as 6 hours) in the refrigerator.

SALSA:

Roast the tomatillos and peppers under the broiler, for about 5 minutes. Turn and roast the other side. Place into a blender together with cilantro and all the juices and puree until coarsely ground. Add the onions and salt.

GRILL:

Heat the grill to medium-high and grill the cactus and the onions, previously brushed with oil and seasoned with salt (put the cactus on the hotter side, the onions on the cooler side of the grill, with the round part of the bulb down). Flip the cactus after about 3 minutes, cook on the other side and leave on the cool side of the grill. After 10 minutes, onions should be soft. Scrape both onto the dish.

Place the beef over the hottest part of the grill and cook for about 2 minutes per side. Take it off and let it rest for several minutes.

Cut the steak into long ribbons, slice the cactus into strips, and sprinkle both with some salt. Serve with warm corn tortillas, onions, salsa verde, a squeeze of lime and some avocado.

MARINADE:

Place the garlic in a skillet and cook on medium heat until softened, 10-15 minutes. Cool, peel, and process in a food processor along with oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and oregano. Place the beef in a Ziploc bag and pour the marinade over it. Close the bag and rub the marinade with your fingers over the enclosed steak. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes (or as long as 6 hours) in the refrigerator.

SALSA:

Roast the tomatillos and peppers under the broiler, for about 5 minutes. Turn and roast the other side. Place into a blender together with cilantro and all the juices and puree until coarsely ground. Add the onions and salt.

Heat the grill to medium-high and grill the cactus and the onions, previously brushed with oil and seasoned with salt (put the cactus on the hotter side, the onions on the cooler side of the grill, with the round part of the bulb down). Flip the cactus after about 3 minutes, cook on the other side and leave on the cool side of the grill. After 10 minutes, onions should be soft. Scrape both onto the dish.

Place the beef over the hottest part of the grill and cook for about 2 minutes per side. Take it off and let it rest for several minutes.

Cut the steak into long ribbons, slice the cactus into strips, and sprinkle both with some salt. Serve with warm corn tortillas, onions, salsa verde, a squeeze of lime and some avocado.

I am linking this post to Hearth ‘n Soul, hosted, among the others, by Alex of A Moderate Life.

This blog post is my contribution to 12 Days of Bloggi-Mas, hosted by A Moderate Life and Alternative Health and Nutrition News.

Brenda of Brenda’s Canadian Kitchen has a really neat blog event called Cookbooks Sunday. She encourages her readers to dig up the cookbooks, make a recipe or two, and link to her site on the first Sunday every month. I am excited to be a part of this group.

Sep 262010
 

I left the Orange County on Friday, apprehensive (the Beasties had to spend the weekend cleaning their room thoroughly, without my supervision) and excited (am I really going to be gone for almost four whole days?) Since I arrived, there was no time to write a post. But the photos should tell the story.

Sep 192010
 

We arrived at our home in California in the early afternoon of August 2008, exhausted, stressed to the limit, and penniless. Our Serbian neighbors who reserved our apartment next to theirs shared their dinner of Serbian Bean Soup with us, and helped us move what little we had into the apartment. They gave us a card table with four chairs, two air-beds, two armchairs, a coffee table, a lamp and enough plates, glasses, and cutlery to bridge the waiting period until the rest of our stuff arrived. One of these days I might sit down and write about our trip west, but not today. It still hurts too much.

While Husband and I were in the frenzy of unloading everything from the the rented SUV, the Beasties were hanging around the patio, unable to get their bearings. My friend Dragana planted herself right at the bottom of the stairs leading to the apartments upstairs and yelled. In no time three Mexican girls came running down the steps. The first minute, the five children just stood there looking at each other, not knowing what to say or do. Soon enough, it was like listening to a bunch of birds of different species chirping, cawing, clucking, and hooting. From that moment they became inseparable.

Vanessa was in third grade like Zoe. Noemi and Anya had the same fifth grade teacher. These two were born just days apart, but both were drama queens craving the spotlight.  This  made them too competitive to become close. Yesenia, a seventh grader, was the oldest of the Sanchez girls, but for some inexplicable reason she and Zoe became the closest friends.

Zoe and Yesenia at Disneyland

The four younger girls rode the bus to school together. As soon as they would come home, they would all gather at our apartment and do their homework. Yesenia would join them later, and they would play until night time, causing an unbelievable level of high-pitched noise. I was amused when I noticed that the Beasties became whinier as the result of the friendship, and their whines carried a lilt of Spanish.

There were six children in the family and the mother, Gabriela, was expecting the seventh. Luis was the oldest at fourteen, a troubled child who did not like school, but admired his Uncle, a member of a gang. Yesenia, Noemi, and Vanessa came after, with Emi and Sofia closing the ranks at four and two years of age. The father, Jesús, worked as a cook at Nordstrom’s and at a local country club. Gaby did not speak any English, and we communicated through the kids.

In November the little baby Jesús was born, a tiny bundle of cuteness. I was cringing every time Gaby would let the children, including mine, hold him. But very soon he became their plaything, and we all grew very attached to the Baby. Dragana simply fell in love with him, and started watching him more and more. After some time he was calling her “mama”. In between gulps of juice and bites of a banana she would teach him to speak Serbian.

Dragana and I would sit on the patio, drinking our Turkish coffee and observing all the differences between the children. The Sanchez girls were allowed to play as long as they took care of the three youngest siblings. They carried them, fed them, played with them, and changed their diapers. They behaved like little women. I would not trust the Beasties with taking care of two sheep drawn on a piece of paper. Heck, I do not think I would trust the College Kritter, either! But these girls were attentive, responsible, and caring. And as soon they heard their mother calling them, they would run up the stairs, abandoning any game or project they started.

They ate breakfast and lunch at school for free. Once in a while Jesús would bring some food from work. And sometimes Gaby would make posole or tamales, enlisting the help of all the kids and some relatives. But on most days the school lunch would be the last meal they ate. Dragana cooked every day. I cooked every day. Coming around the corner you would be enveloped by the smell of sauteed onions, roasted peppers, or freshly baked bread coming from our little enclave. But every time I asked them if they were hungry, they would say no.

We decided that we had to break through their little barrier of pride. Dragana would pass out candy and give them money for ice cream when the truck pulled into the parking lot on Wednesdays. When dinner time rolled around, the Beasties would set the table, adding extra bowls and plates, and I would just ask them if they wanted to try some of my cooking. Most of the time they accepted and joined us at the table after Gaby gave them her blessings. Dragana did not ask. Her husband Milan would fire up the grill, she would break open a bag of hamburger patties and just thrust the food into their eagerly awaiting hands.

We tried to feed them regularly on the weekends and holidays when the school was not in session, knowing that their little bellies were grumbling. Dragana’s family is not big on leftovers and she always sent any remaining food upstairs. I fed them at our dining room table, including them in our family conversations, wanting them to feel like they belonged.

Vanessa, Yesenia, Noemi

The next fall Jesús left, after an episode of pretty intense domestic violence. Gaby did not work and had no source of income. She rented one bedroom to a young couple. We were all worried for the children. They missed school having to take care of the little ones. They had no time to finish their homework, and we knew they did not have anything to eat. I talked to Gaby and she let the girls come downstairs every morning. They had breakfast with the Beasties and then Husband drove them to school where they still ate free lunches. Dragana and I conspired and decided that between the two of us we could offer them some pretty good-tasting, nutritious food. We employed various techniques and ruses, and managed to feed them pretty regularly.

In the spring of this year, they had to move out. Dragana and I were heartbroken and worried. We were talking of housing the kids in our apartments until the situation got resolved. But we did not suggest it knowing how proud they were. We cried, hugged each one of them, and tried to reassure them. I whispered into each girls’ ear that I expected them to rise above and do well in school, while the tears were streaming down my face. The Beasties were crying, the Sanchez girls were crying, and it was an emotional mess. When they left holding their meager belongings in garbage bags, we were all left sobbing for hours.

For some time we did not know of their whereabouts. And then one day Gaby drove the bunch of them over, and they played with the Beasties all afternoon, talked about how much they hate their new school, the chicken coop next-door to their “house”, and not having a refrigerator or a stove. They are still proud and protective of their family, but we found out that Jesús moved back to Mexico, abandoning his seven children. We know that they move around from place to place in Santa Ana.

Anya’s birthday was on August 8th. I did not expect that they would remember it, but the Sanchez girls showed up nicely dressed and spent an afternoon playing with the Beasties. For a moment it felt like old times. They laughed, teased each other, and argued. The whining was the same, the bird sounds were the same. But nothing else was the same.

Some other people live in their apartment now. But once a while I imagine I can hear the girls bickering as they are coming down the stairs, running to catch the bus. I have a vision of Yesenia’s brown slender legs disappearing around the corner and of Noemi’s light brown hair flying as she runs behind the building. I hope they are healthy. I hope I see them soon. I hope they stay in school and do well.

This is Day 5 of The Hunger Challenge. Husband is visiting his Offspring #1 who recently moved away to live with her boyfriend. I thought that I would make a pasta dish with all the various shaped remnants and all the various remnants of cheese in the fridge. No meat necessary. I thought that the Sanchez girls would love this creamy, hot dish, with melted cheese enveloping the noodles, and the crunchy topping giving it a bite. It was delicious and I wish they were here to share it with us.

BREAKFAST:

soft boiled egg

tomato slices

english muffin

coffee, Husband

rye bread and 1 sausage link, me

milk

.85 per person

  • Eggs, $4.00 for 12, .33 for 1
  • English muffins, $2.79 for six, .23 for a half
  • Milk, 2 for $4.99, .15c for a cup
  • Sliced heirloom tomatoes, $1.99 per pound, .50 cents for 1
  • .50c for coffee
  • .99c for rye and sausage

LUNCH:

soft boiled egg

peach

juice/water

yogurt

chips and salsa, Husband

a piece of multi-grained roll with butter, me

  • 1 egg, .33c
  • peaches, .49c per pound, ½ peach for .12c
  • yogurt, .50c
  • juice/water, .25c each
  • chips and salsa . 50c
  • bread and butter .50c

.85c per person

DINNER:

leftover Serbian Bean Soup

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

milk/soda (the kids)

white wine (me)

(Husband ate the beans before he left, and we finished off pasta later at night)

$1.57 per person

  • Beans, already included, therefore free
  • Pasta, $1.29 a pound (mixing and matching, I probably ended up with about a pound)
  • Butter, $1.99 a pound, 2 Tbsp, .13c
  • Flour, $2.99 per pound, 2 tbsp, .05c
  • Milk, 2 gallons for $4.99, .15c per cup
  • Cheese, $5.99 a pound (I used a couple of slices of provolone, some jack and some cheddar), $3.00
  • Panko breadcrumbs, $1.99 for 8oz package at 99 Ranch Market, I used 1/3 of the package, .66c
  • Parmesan cheese, $12.99 per pound, just a sprinkle, $1.00

BAKED PASTA WITH CHEESE

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound of pasta (I used any more robust shape I found in the pantry, a bit of this, a bit of that, rotini, farfalle, penne, even 1 lasagna noodle, broken into pieces)
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 8 oz cheese (I had a couple of slices of provolone, some jack and some cheddar)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • about 1 cup of panko breadcrumbs (I liked the crunchiness they added)
  • a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Directions:

Heat a big pot of water with a handful of salt on high heat, when it boils add the pasta and cook for 8-9 minutes (it should be slightly undercooked). Drain.

Preheat the oven to 400F.

In a heavy saucepan melt the butter on medium heat. Stir in the flour and whisk to incorporate. Add the milk and stir to avoid lumps. Turn the heat down to low and let it cook for 2-3 minutes to thicken. Add the cheese, salt, and pepper and stir to help melt the cheese. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Pour the pasta and mix well. Transfer to a buttered oven proved dish and bake for 25-30 minutes until brown on the top. Let it cool for 5 minutes and serve.

I m contributing this recipe and post to 12 Days of Bloggie-mas, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life.

Sep 162010
 

The veterans of this event say that the fourth day is the hardest. I would not know. I went to work early, really, really early, and Husband tended to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I came back, showered, went out again to finish my first assignment for the photography class (my memory card spaced out and I had to reformat it, loosing all the data in the process). I could not face the professor with excuses. I took pictures for one whole hour, and then started on downloading, uploading, renaming, choosing, moving pictures over to new folders…Nerve-wrecking at least. I rushed to the class, nervous, anxious, afraid of tackling the brand new shiny Mac when conquering a PC was a challenge.

A Korean woman named Tanya sits next to me in class. She guided me through each step, comforting me with her sing-song voice, assuring me that everything would get easier, adorning each sentence with a beautiful unassuming smile. Five hours later, completely relaxed and at piece, after I managed to tame Mac the Beast at least temporarily, I came home, had a bowl of beans, watched the finale of Master Chef (minus the last ten minutes during which I just could not keep my eyes open), and went to bed.

I was extremely frugal throughout the day. But how did the family fare with Husband at the helm? I left him the instructions and the recipes, but he is never to be trusted to go “by the book”. I tried not to imagine him adding some Dijon mustard or his beloved Worcestershire sauce to Mother’s true and trusted and only recipe for the bean soup. But he behaved and adhered to the rules. Sigh.

BREAKFAST:

Cereal and Milk

.55c per person

  • $2.50 for 12oz (we buy cereal on sale, only), .22c per child
  • milk, 2 gallons for $5.00, .15c per cup
  • I had 1/ 2 of a croissant and a cup of coffee (croissant .99c,)
  • Husband had coffee, .50c

LUNCH:

Tuna salad sandwich

Granola bar

Tapioca pudding

Juice/water bottle

Chips and salsa for Husband

A piece of crusty Italian bread and butter for me

.90c per person

  • Tuna salad was left over from yesterday
  • Sarah Lee Whole Wheat Bread, 2 for $4.00 (.10c per slice)
  • Pudding, .25c a piece
  • Quaker Oats granola bars, $3.49 for 10 (.35c each)
  • Juice/water – .25c each
  • .50, Husband, chips and salsa
  • .20c, me, bread and butter

DINNER:

Serbian Bean Soup with Smoked Ribs

Bread

Roasted beets salad (for me)

milk/soda for kids

soda for Husband

vodka&tonic for me

.99c per person

  • Navy beans, $1.29 per pound (.65c for 1/2 pound – I used white beans from Serbia, but navy beans would be fine)
  • Onions, $49c per pound (1 medium, .12c)
  • Carrots, $49c per pound (1 carrot, .5c)
  • Smoked meat (I will put the price of bacon) $3.99 per pound ($2.00 per 1/2 pound)
  • Bay leaves, salt, pepper, paprika, .20c
  • home-made roasted beets with garlic, .20c
  • Bread, $1.49 for a loaf of freshly baked Italian bread at Albertson’s (.50c for 1/3 of a loaf)
  • Milk/soda, .25c each
  • Vodka&tonic for me, after school, at home, .50c

The Beasties had a scoop of ice cream before bed, 2 for $5.00 at Albertson’s (.21c for 1/2 cup) and a plum each after school (.69c a pound, .12c each)

TOTAL FOR THE DAY: $2.60c per person

SERBIAN BEAN SOUP WITH SMOKED MEAT (ÄŒORBAST PASULJ)

In Serbian, when we want to illustrate that something is quite easy to accomplish, we say “It’s as simple as cooking beans”. Keeping that in mind, I entrusted one of my favorite comfort foods to Husband, notorious for experimenting with food. This dish is at its best when prepared in huge quantities, for big gatherings, for cafeteria food, or military mess halls. It has to contain some form of smoked meat. The best choice would obviously be pork ribs preserved in Serbian style, cured, smoked, and kept exposed to cold air for weeks. The smokiness of the ribs and similarly cured pork products is much more intense than anything I encountered here in the States. Unfortunately, we cannot procure said meats in the state of California. They are transported here in many creative ways from the Midwest, where they were lovingly prepared by friends and relatives. If I absolutely have to, I would use a smoked ham bone, or a Chinese smoked ham hock, preferably with some meat on it.

Ingredients:

  • 250gr (1/2 lb) white beans (cannellini, navy, or northern – I used “tetovac”, the beans grown by my relatives in Serbia
  • 200gr (1/2 lb) smoked pork ribs and bacon
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper (smoked ribs can be quite salty, be careful when seasoning)

Directions:

Soak the beans over night. (If you forget, you can use the shortcut: put them in a heavy pot or a Dutch oven, cover with cold water, and heat on high temperature. As soon as the water boils, strain the beans, put them back in the pot and follow the rest of the recipe).

Pour 2 quarts of cold water over the beans and return to the stove. Add the meat, onion, carrot, and bay leaves. When the water reaches boiling temperature, turn the heat down to medium-low to low and simmer for 2-3 hours (depending on the type of beans, their size, and age). Taste and add the seasonings (sometimes it is not necessary to add salt – the smoked ribs are pretty salty on their own).

The next step is optional, and I often skip it – it adds a little more vibrancy to the color of the beans, and does not contribute to the taste, at least according to my experiences. But, many a Serbian housewife would strongly disapprove of omitting this step.

Heat the oil in a small saucepan on medium heat. Add the paprika and stir for 3o seconds to dissolve. Mix into the beans to incorporate. Take the bay leaves out before serving. Serve with a loaf of crusty bread (it is preferable if it is somewhat stale, because then you have an excuse to dunk) and vinegary coleslaw or roasted beets salad with garlic and vinaigrette.

Awful photo, I know. But it was too late. As soon as I make another batch (and with the cooler weather approaching even Southern California, it will be shortly), I will take a picture.

I am linking this recipe to My Legume Love Affair event hosted by Susan at The Well Seasoned Cook

Sep 152010
 

For a couple of years I have been keeping tabs on our monthly grocery-shopping expenditures. No, I do not employ Excel or use the computer in any way to facilitate this tedious task. After each trip to one of the stores we dutifully write the date, the name of the store, and the total on the dry-erase board attached to the fridge by magnets. The sums for each of the previous months are tallied on one side, and on the other is the grocery list. This prehistoric technique drives Husband crazy, but I need to have the numbers right in front of my eyes. They get lost in the directories, files, and folders cluttering our computers, and it takes me much longer to access them. I am still a child of another era, and even though I learn something new every day about computers, the old ways are so hard to change.

Our monthly expenses for food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and alcohol vary between $600.00 and $800.00, depending on the number of mouths we feed and special occasions. Most of our produce and meat we buy at the local Persian store. They offer a great variety of fruits and vegetables at half the price of major grocery chains. I practice my Spanish with the Mexican butchers, while Husband slips them a buck each time, to ensure we get the best meat in the store.

The Asian pantry staples we buy at 99 Ranch Market in Irvine. Their prices are incredible, choices overwhelming, and shopping is like going to a theme park. We discover something new each time we visit. I love watching the Beasties explore the fruit aisle, touching the mangosteens, admiring the size of the jack fruit, and wondering what lychees taste like. I consider these visits educational filed-trips. While I have not yet reached for the package of pig uteruses (uteri?) or duck tongues, I bought the chicken feet for the younger Beastie (thanks, Mother, for turning her into the feet lover!) to add to chicken soup, and pig liver (hmmmm, sauteed in lard with lots of garlic, instant jump in time to my childhood).

We buy our cheese and pork mostly at Costco, trying to avoid going there on the weekends. What a madhouse! Husband likes to sample food, while I buzz right by old ladies with hair nets pushing teriyaki chicken or caramel popcorn, rewarding myself with Nathan’s hot dog for lunch after successfully avoiding running over the little kids with the cart.

On Mondays and Tuesdays we receive the major grocery chains’ fliers in the mail, Albertson’s, Pavilion, Vons, Ralph’s, and Stater Bros. I write down the best deals on an index card and take the fliers outside to be used next time we grill. I do not cut coupons. We buy so few processed food items that the effort is not worth it. We buy the fish, the bulk food, and anything organic from Henry’s, which is pretty cool quintessential Californian store that even comes with the Green Peace volunteers waiting outside imploring you to save the whales.

It takes time and planning to be savvy shoppers, but the results are immeasurable. We go to one or more stores almost every day. We try to adhere to the grocery list and not waiver too much. We avoid buying on impulse. We do not buy our drinks at the Persian store, and we do not buy our produce at the grocery stores (unless the deal is just to good to pass).

Our routine has not changed much with The Hunger Challenge. The budget we are working with is slightly smaller, but manageable. The most important thing to remember is that food has to taste good and we have to be satisfied. For three days I have not heard one peep of a complaint. We can do it for the rest of the week, for sure.

BREAKFAST:

Half an English muffin

2 eggs

milk

$1.04 per person for the kids, half a bagel with cream cheese at work, .99, and Husband had coffee .50c

.81c per person

  • English muffins, $2.79 for 6 (.23c per half)
  • Milk, 2 gallons for $4.99 (.15c per cup)
  • Eggs, $4.00 per dozen (.66c for 2)

LUNCH:

Tuna salad

Bread

Pudding

Juice/water

$1.35 for the Beasties, .95c for Husband, .99c for me (cup of tomato bisque soup)

$1.16 per person

  • 2 cans tuna in oil, .89c each
  • 1 hard boiled egg, .33c
  • 2 Tbsp homemade mayonnaise, .10c (?)
  • 1 Tbsp sour cream (.5c)
  • salt, pepper
  • total for salad $2.26, divided by 3 (Beasties+Husband), .75c
  • Sarah Lee Buttermilk Bread, 2 for $4.00 (.10c per slice)
  • Pudding, 4 for 1.00 (.25c each)
  • Capri Sun juice, $1.99 for 10 pouches (.20c for each)
  • Water bottle, $1.99 for 8 (.25 for 1)

DINNER:

Spinach and rice soup

Potato dumplings with caramelized onions (Å¡ufnudle)

milk and diet soda for the Beasties (.20c each), wine for the adults ($1.25 for 2 glasses)

$1.12 per person

  • 4oz frozen spinach, .50c (big bag from the Persian store, blanched, cut, divided, frozen)
  • ½ cup basmati rice , $6.99 for 10lbs (.13c per ½ cup)
  • 1 egg, .33c
  • 2 Tbsp yogurt, $1.99 pound, .12c
  • salt, pepper, paprika, .5c
  • total for soup: $1.13

  • potatoes, .89c for 10lbs (2lbs, .22c)
  • flour, store brand, $1.99 for 5lbs (1 cup flour, .10c)
  • 1 egg, .33c
  • onions, .49c per pound (2 lbs, .98c)
  • oil, salt, pepper, .10c
  • total for potato dumplings: $1.73

TOTAL FOR THE DAY: $3.09

MOTHER’S POTATO DUMPLINGS (MAMINE ŠUFNUDLE):

These were so unbelievably soft and pillowy, that I could not stop eating! The trick is not to overwork the dough.

Ingredients:

For the dough:

  • 2lbs russet potatoes (about 4 large)
  • 1 egg
  • 1cup all purpose flour

For the onions:

  • 2-3 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 2 lbs yellow onions, sliced thinly
  • 1tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 425F. Puncture the potatoes with the fork in few spaces and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, until fork-tender. In the meantime heat the sunflower oil on medium heat, and add the onion. Cook until soft, translucent and slightly brown. Season with salt and pepper. Mash with potato ricer as soon as possible, or peel with hands, being careful not to burn yourself. Let the potatoes cool off.

Heat the water in the stock pot to boiling, adding a couple of tablespoons of salt. Add the egg and flour to potatoes, and mix tenderly to incorporate. Dust the board with flour lightly. Divide the dough in 4 parts, and roll each one into a snake ½ inch thick. Cut pieces 1 inch in length, and roll with your palms into finger-shaped dumplings, about 3 inches long and 1/3 inch (1cm) thick. Put into the boiling water and mix a bit to avoid sticking. When the dumplings float to the surface, pull them out into the caramelized onions and mix gently. Serves 4.

Variation: The same dough can be used to make the gnocchi. Follow the recipe exactly, but cut the pieces twice as small and roll them along the fork tines for the classical roundish, striped shape.


Sep 142010
 

Growing up in Serbia, which was then a part of Yugoslavia, we never went hungry. But the lack of food was a reality for our parents’ generation and every generations preceding theirs. There were wars, there was re-building, more wars, more re-building. Being hungry most of the time was a part of life they accepted. When the whole country turned middle class in the early 70s, the hoarding started out of ingrained fear for surviving until the next day. Everybody had a big box freezer filled with various animal protein in copious amounts provided on the cheap by the unions. The pantries were stocked with 50kg sacks of flour and sugar, boxes of sunflower oil, and vacuum-closed bags of coffee. The shelves lined with flower-patterned paper were chock full of glass jars with preserved fruits and vegetables.

The arrival of the summer announced the quest for preservation. The wooden crates of fruit in season would pile up on the tables in the summer kitchens outside the main dwelling, the old wood-burning stoves would come to life, large shallow Paris-blue or burgundy enamel pots would appear from the cellars carefully rinsed and ready to welcome the best berries or hand-picked stone fruit. Recipes for the best jam or pickle were hastily written on the pages torn from a child’s notebook, the new tips and innovation duly marked, children sent to procure the last minute necessities – a jar of vanilla sugar, a packet of ascorbic acid, or a leaf of “rozetla*” from a neighbor.

The weeks of heavy labor would roll one after the other, without a break. Peeling, de-pitting, blanching, macerating, boiling, smashing, grinding, pureeing… The immaculately clean jars would preen on the shelves, dressed in beautiful cotton bonnets or crinkly cellophane held together with the rubber bands. They glistened in shades of orange, crimson, and purple, proud and vain. The stockier glass jars displayed a variety of pickled vegetables, from the cornichones, to roasted peppers, to green tomatoes, adorned with peppercorns, bay leaves, dill, or garlic cloves. The military rows of these glass containers signified a victory over hunger. I can imagine a Jungian sigh of relief coming from thousands of homes at the same time, as the women admired the results of their efforts, hands resting on their hips, the smiling eyes caressing each beautiful specimen lining the pantry shelves.

I always feltl the communal need to preserve. When I had a garden, I put up anything we could not eat. And towards the end of August the hordes of Eastern Europeans would converge on the pick-your-own-peppers farms strewn all over the North-East Ohio. For $14.00 a bushel it was definitely worth spending a couple of hours getting sandy dirt in your shoes and bending your back to twist another beautiful, glistening pepper off its vine.

Since we moved to California, I preserve in small batches. A jar of pickles, another one of preserved lemons, small containers of apricot and plum jam. I am ambitious and I plan more elaborate preserving sessions. But for now, there is no room for a parade of pretty jars filled with the summer’s bounty.

This month’s Daring Cooks Challenge was preserving. The first option was Apple Butter, but Husband is allergic to apples and I moved on. The alternative was the topping for bruschetta, or oven-roasted tomatoes. Our local Persian store had some beautiful, ripe Roma tomatoes on sale for .69c a pound, and I brought a bunch home.

I cut them in half length-wise, tossed them with some sea salt, Italian seasonings and olive oil, and put then in the pan with several whole garlic cloves. They roasted for several hours at 250F, until they collapsed, their color turned dark red, with some darker spots, and the skin became shriveled. I let them cool off, and put them in a freezer bag, leaving a small jar in the fridge, planning to use them soon.

The September 2010 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by John of Eat4Fun. John chose to challenge The Daring Cooks to learn about food preservation, mainly in the form of canning and freezing. He challenged everyone to make a recipe and preserve it. John’s source for food preservation information was from The National Center for Home Food Preservation.

beautiful roma tomatoes

enveloped in olive oil and spices

getting ready for the oven at 250F, for several hours

ready to be enjoyed

THE HUNGER CHALLENGE: DAY 2

BREAKFAST:

pop tarts and milk

.31c per person (Husband and I did not eat breakfast)

  • Pop tarts, $1.99 a box (.16c per tart)
  • Milk, 2 gallons for app. $5.00 (.15c per cup)

LUNCH:

leftover pork schnitzel sandwiches with cheese

juice pouch or a water bottle

tapioca pudding

.90c per person (.78c for the kids, I skipped, and Husband ate some tortilla chips and salsa)

  • Sarah Lee Buttermilk Bread, 2 for $4.00 (1 slice=.10c)
  • Havarti cheese, Costco, $6.00 per pound (1 slice=.18c)
  • Leftover pork with gravy (free!)
  • Tapioca pudding, 4 cups for $1.00 (.25c per cup)
  • Juice pouch, $1.99 for 10 (.20c per pouch)
  • Water bottle, $1.99 for 8 (.25c per bottle)

DINNER:

$1.93 per person

pasta with crispy bacon, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, red pepper flakes and garlic

  • Barilla rottini pasta, $1.29 per pound (.90c worth)
  • Button mushrooms, $2.49 per pound ($1.25 for 8oz used)
  • Bacon, $3.99 per pound ($1.99 for 8oz)
  • Roasted tomatoes, .69c per pound ($1.40 for 2 lbs)
  • .50c for lemon juice, white wine, red pepper flakes, garlic, salt and pepper

PASTA WITH CRISPY BACON, MUSHROOMS, ROASTED TOMATOES AND GARLIC

The tomatoes played the leading role in this pasta. It was low cost, but huge on flavor. The intensity of the roasted tomatoes bounced off the red pepper flakes and crispy fried bacon. The sauteed mushrooms added just enough bite to tie everything together, and the touch of garlic, white wine and lemon juice put on the finishing touches.

Ingredients:

  • ¾ lb pf pasta
  • 8oz bacon, fried and broken into pieces
  • 80z mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 10-12 slow-roasted tomatoes, sliced
  • juice of half a lemon
  • ¼ cup of white wine
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes

Directions:

Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the box. In the meantime sautee the mushrooms and the garlic on medium heat for 4-5 minutes, until soft and aromatic. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and stir for 30 seconds. Add the lemon juice and wine, and in the end the bacon. Mix into the pasta and serve with freshly grated parmesan.

the combination of flavors was superb

Adding .50c for the morning coffee for the adults, a cup of soda for the kids at .10c a  cup, a glass of wine for the adults at $2.49 a bottle, and a chocolate at bed time (for the kids, of course!), .20c each.

TOTAL FOR THE DAY: $4.03

I am submitting this post to Hearth ‘n’ Soul

Hearth n' Soul Blog Hop

Sep 132010
 

I have been reading food blogs for several years. The blogs with really pretty pictures, the blogs with true and tested recipes, the blogs that care about the origins of food, environment, and sustainability, and the blogs that deal with food policies, trying to make a statement. My blogroll is as immense as my interests. I learned a lot from the veterans and I still keep on learning. This is my first year of active participation in the blog-world and I am perfecting my style of writing, my voice, and my agenda.

I have always been frugal, especially with food, and feeding my family on a strict budget, without sacrificing quality or taste has been my credo for years. Both of my parents lived through a period of scarcity in childhood, and they instilled in us a very specific view of food. To this day I cannot stand to see a morsel wasted. I recycle the leftovers, buy in bulk, and freeze. I roam the stores looking for a sale, shop at ethnic markets knowing I can get a deal on various items, and bask in glory when I manage to replicate a nice restaurant meal at home.

I remember reading in 2007 on Kate’s extremely educational and thought-provoking blog Accidental Hedonist the official USDA report on US food spending on four different levels. The amount listed for “low” astounded me, because I fed my family of five, with frequent long-staying visitors for about that amount. This included the toiletries, cleaning supplies, and alcohol. And we were not hurting for money.

In September of 2008, the San Francisco Food Bank initiated The Hunger Challenge for the first time. I heard about it on one of my favorite blogs, Cooking with Amy. The participants had a budget of $3.00 a day per family member (the approximate value of food stamps in California) and a week to try to envision the life of the poor. At the time I chuckled because the idea hit too close to home, after we got completely destroyed by the mortgage industry crash. We fought every day just to survive until another sunrise, too proud to apply for any assistance.

But this year I have decided to participate. We are not living the life of plenty, but the Beasties need constant reminding that nothing should be taken for granted, especially not food. They have given up toys, games, and clothes to take to an orphanage. A tenth of their weekly allowance goes into a can for charity. And this holiday season I plan on taking them to a soup kitchen, just to face the reality and imagine the life of the indigent.

The food stamps amount has risen in the last year to allow the “luxury” of $4.00 per family member a day. For the purposes of this exercise, that includes all the food and drinks during the day. I have a college-ruled notebook and a calculator nearby. I collect all the receipts from the stores and apply my superb mathematical skills in adding, multiplying, and dividing. I had a stocked pantry, pretty full box freezer, and all necessities safely stored in the fridge. We did not have to start from zero this time, like we did back in 2008. And even though it has been only two years since then, this little adventure is definitely going to teach us not to get lax, not to get self-indulgent, and not to forget how it feels to be hungry.

BREAKFAST:

Roasted red peppers sautéed with cream cheese

Whole wheat ciabatta rolls

Milk

$1.33 per person

  • milk – .15c (cup)
  • peppers – .37c each (we had two each)
  • cream cheese – $1.99 for 8oz, .50c for 2oz, divided by four (.12c)
  • lard – rendered by my friend at .39c a pound for pork fat
  • ciabatta rolls – $2.49 for four (we had two, a half each, .32c pre half)

ROASTED RED PEPPERS WITH SOUR CREAM (PAPRIKE NA KAJMAKU)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp lard or sunflower oil
  • 8 red, orange or yellow bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and destemmed
  • 2-3oz cream cheese
  • salt and pepper

Directions:

Heat the pan on medium-low heat. Melt the lard or add the oil. Season the peppers on one side and put them in the skillet seasoned side down. Season the other side and let the peppers warm up. Scoop up several little piles of cream cheese and put into the skillet. Turn the peppers and lay them on top of the cream cheese. Allow the cheese to melt a bit. Take off the heat and serve with a lot of freshly baked bread to soak up all the juices.

LUNCH:

Grilled cheese sandwiches

Fresh peaches

Fritos

Milk

.59c per person (I did not eat lunch, too stuffed from breakfast)

  • Sarah Lee Buttermilk Bread, 2 for $4.00 (1 slice=.10c)
  • Havarti cheese (Costco, $6.00 a pound, .18c a slice)
  • Butter, $2.00 per pound
  • Peaches, .49c per pound at our local Persian store (1/2 large peach=.5c)
  • Fritos, $2.00 a bag (kids got about .10c worth each)
  • Milk, .15c per cup

DINNER:

Cream of celery soup

Hunter pork schnitzels with gravy

Mashed potatoes

Roasted Beets Salad

$1.89 per person

  • Soup, .70c
  • Pork loin, $1.99, Costco ($2.70, it was a bit more then a pound)
  • Flour, garlic, white wine, homemade stock, vinegar, salt, pepper, parsley, .50c
  • Potatoes, .89c per 10 pound bag at our local Persian store (2lbs=.18c)
  • Beets, roasted, dressed with vinaigrette and garlic, .69c
  • Soda for the kids, .20c each
  • Wine for the adults, $2.49 a bottle (1 glass each=.62c)

CREAM OF CELERY SOUP

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • ½ large onion, diced
  • 5 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
  • 1 quart chicken (or vegetable) stock, or water
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Heat the oil on medium heat and sautee the onions until translucent, 6-7 minutes. Add the celery and the potato, and cover with stock or water. Season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat up to high until it boils, and then turn back to medium to medium-low. Simmer for 15-20 minutes. Puree with the immersion blender and pass through a mash to get rid of the celery strings. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Keep on low heat until ready to serve. Serves 4.

Cream of Celery Soup

TOTAL: $3.81 per person

With .50c for the morning coffee for the adults, and .60c for the bed-time ice cream for the beasties, I had to add another .27c per person.

GRAND TOTAL FOR THE DAY: $4.08 per person.

Sep 092010
 

Roasted Peppers with Garlic from bibberche.com

I never cease marveling at the Internet and its magical powers to connect people from all over the world. That I still sometimes think there are elves living in computers performing all these complicated operations is another story.  Looking at this thin laptop, though, it is obvious that the elves have been dieting. And I DO NOT believe in Santa Claus. Everybody I know is busy. Everywhere I look people are rushing. The incessant stream of cars lines California’s six-lanes roads (and I am not talking about highways, but just your regular going-through-town streets. What a cultural shock that was, coming from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio!) While waiting for the light to change I always wonder, “Where is everybody going?” Duh.

I shudder to think where I would be without my computer and without the Internet. I push aside every tiresome moment at work when I come home and click my mouse to uncover a witty and sarcastic comment from my sister in Germany. Every snotty customer’s mean remark gets erased when I see the beautiful face of my cousin’s baby girl, Ira, showing off her strawberry-blond curls. I leave behind all the aches and pains when I comment on Mother’s Facebook (I have not seen Mother since 2008. Both of our hearts are breaking more and more, every day). I miss spending time with my nephews and nieces, but I can see them growing before my eyes when they share their escapades with the world on the ‘net. Even Father’s refusal to man up to the 21st century and talk to me on Skype lasted only a few grumbling minutes before he relented and the real challenge was to shut him up and get him to surrender the microphone and webcam back to Mother. It will be the same the next time I want to Skype with him… grumbling followed by a megadose of the verbosity I so clearly inherited.

I am used to getting some TLC from my friends and family. Apart from the pigeons, we employ every possible vehicle of communication. But since I started blogging, some new people have entered my life and sent little bursts of positive energy my way. And I am basking in its warm glow. I always felt good belonging to a “village” – the more global, the better.

Blogging events have become an amazing adventure for me. Hopping from blog to blog, transversing thousands of miles and covering several continents, reading the posts, and discovering new ideas and approaches to the same ingredients made me realize that the world is as big or as small as we make it. Just knowing that there is a kindred-spirit somewhere in Italy, in South Africa, in the Philippines, in Louisiana, or really close to me in Orange County, who relates to my obsession about food and preparing it in new, traditional, and ever more interesting ways, gives me a sense of belonging.

Grilled Eggplant from bibberche.com

When the Summer Fest announced its last week, crowning it with peppers, I was a bit disappointed. But I guess I was not the only one. One of the founders of the event, Margaret Roach from A Way to Garden, announced recently that due to its popularity the Summer Fest would continue until the beginning of Autumn, when it would morph into a Fall Fest.

The theme for this week’s edition was garlic. I have occasionally made the Italian garlic and bread soup. I have roasted whole heads of garlic at times. But for me it has always been a hard-working helper capable of boosting the flavor and elevating a dish into a higher realm.

We had our trusted Weber filled with natural charcoal preparing to grill some lamb burgers (again, I know, but they are so succulent and flavorful), and I took a tray of red peppers, poblanos, pale-green triangular peppers of unknown variety, and a beautiful eggplant, trimmed, cut into slices, salted, and brushed with some olive oil, and plopped it all in front of Husband as he tended the life giving flames that have marked mankind’s joy since Husband’s ancestors were cavemen (which I estimate to be sometime back in the 70s). In the meantime, I dripped some olive oil on four medium beets, wrapped them in foil and set them to roast.

The peppers rested in the plastic bag for 30 minutes to cool, and then I peeled them. Some of the red ones I set aside for surprising the Beasties on Monday with one of their favorite breakfasts, roasted peppers with cream cheese (Serbian version is “paprike na kajmaku”, but I do not have any “kajmak” available, and substitutions have to be sufficient). The poblanos I sequestered to make a Mexican dish with onions and cream. The pale-green elongated peppers, still on the stem, and the remainder of the red ones I laid on a platter, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, topped with minced garlic, and adorned with a plain vinaigrette . The eggplant slices got a sprinkling of minced garlic and just a brush of vinaigrette.

The beets filled the kitchen with their earthy aroma while roasting. Once they cooled off I peeled them, sliced them to about 1/6 inch circles (if they are larger, like mine were, cut the circles in half, or even in quarters). I layered them in a bowl, seasoning each layer with sea salt, minced garlic, and vinaigrette. This way they can last for weeks in the refrigerator, ready to beautify a Greek salad, or play the main role alongside of chicken, pork, or lamb roast.

ROASTED PEPPERS, EGGPLANT, AND BEETS WITH GARLIC AND VINAIGRETTE

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium beets, washed, trimmed, brushed with olive oil, and wrapped in foil
  • 1 large eggplant, trimmed, washed, sliced into 1/6 inch ovals, salted, and brushed with olive oil
  • red, orange, yellow bell peppers, poblanos, pale-green ones, as many as you need
  • 1 head of garlic, peeled and minced

vinaigrette:

  • 3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 7-8 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425F. Place the beets on a cookie sheet and roast for 45-60 minutes, until you can pierce them with a knife).

Roast the eggplant and all of your peppers until the skin on peppers becomes charred, and the eggplant gets softer and sports some nice grilling marks. Put the peppers in a plastic bag and let cool for 30 minute. Peel and keep in a bowl.

Place the eggplant into another bowl.

Whisk the vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Sprinkle the peppers and the beets with garlic and spoon some vinaigrette on top, working in layers (try to get some garlic and vinaigrette in every layer). Keep your vegetables in the refrigerator. The marinade is just going to make them more delicious.

The eggplants do not ask for too much – a bit of garlic, and a brush of vinaigrette is enough. Serve as a side dish or as a refreshing salad.

I asm submitting these grilled and roasted veggies to Get Grillin’ even, 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 CheeseRösleEmile HenryRouxbe and ManPans.”

I am submitting this trio of beauties to Summer Fest, hosted by several wonderful bloggers.

Summer Fest 2010

Sep 052010
 

The weather in Southern California has been fiercely hot recently. Husband complained about humidity several days ago, but today’s dry heat was more to his liking.  Hot with a chance of more hot. As long as I can find shade, I do not gripe about the weather. After all, it is California, and we moved here intentionally, dreaming of nice, warm days all year long. But, warm can be a pretty relative term.

It cannot compare to summers in the Midwest, when the humidity would reach 80 to 90 percent. Taking a shower was obsolete. Straightening your hair? Why bother?  In minutes all the unwanted curls would show up at random places on your head. The meticulously applied make-up would become a shiny gloop and rivulets of sweat would run down between your breasts, at the nape of your head, and around the edges of your hairline. That perfectly selected white blouse would stick to your ribs and you would keep your arms close to your body in fear of showing the sweat stains.

My relatives and friends in Europe did not understand this phenomenon. I tried for years to explain, but it was all for nothing. Until one day a memory struck me head-on and I knew I had the perfect example. I went back in time to my student days at the University of Belgrade.

It is June and the whole city is pulsating with sweltering temperatures. The asphalt appears to shift, to shimmer, to change hues in front of your eyes. The concrete emanates heat like a microwave and the air is hopelessly still. The green oasis of the parks is not enough to combat the merciless and relentless attack of the sun, and it seems that the city has succumbed to the fiery god. The last classes of the semester find us listless and unable to concentrate. Our minds are wandering, seeking refuge from the stuffy, stale air of the classroom. The professors feel it more than us and let us go earlier than expected. We run down the two flights of stairs and emerge onto the street. The hot air envelopes us as we hurry to our favorite gathering place next to the “Knez Mihajlo” sculpture.

Exhausted and weary, we collapse into the plastic chairs on the plaza, under the umbrella. As on command we light up our Marlboros and relax, pummeled by the heat, but comforted by the hour of leisure. We smile sweetly and accept a brochure from a Hare Krishna girl dressed in an orange sarong. We throw some change at the Gypsy boy playing the accordion. We skim the National Theater schedule and pick a couple of events worth visiting. As we light another cigarette the waiter appears, and we all order Ice Café (this is a European summer treat – cold instant coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some fresh whipped cream). Even in this heat, all the tables are occupied. For a moment we forget the rising temperatures and incoming exams. We chatter, gossip, argue, and laugh, while nursing our drinks through several cigarettes. The heat is still unrelenting, but we are oblivious to it.  At one point in time, as if on cue, we get up, say our goodbyes and stroll off in different directions.

I usually have a book with me and waiting for the city bus is not an ordeal. At four o’clock in the afternoon, when the factories spit thousands of workers out of their halls, the bus stops are crowded. At long last the right bus arrives and I have to elbow my way into it. Closely gripping my black canvas bag from Germany, I hold onto a steel pole. The windows are sealed shut to prevent death-by-draught (I thought this was a Serbian phenomenon, but I guess the Italians suffer from the same ailment). There are no places to sit, and standing room is pretty scarce. In a couple of minutes I feel the sweat beading on my arms. I hold onto a pole, trying to keep steady every time the bus takes a sharp turn. The guy next to me is awfully close and I move away from him, nestling next to a grandma coming home from the market, hauling a basket of produce. By this time I am completely drenched. And I do not sweat easily! The bus takes its sweet time to get to my stop. I exit, panting, and rush across the stretch of land that separates the bus stop from my Uncle’s building in Novi Beograd (a newer part of town). As I cross the no-man’s land, I say a mantra wishing for the elevators to work. Climbing two sets of stairs to the eighth floor is not easy. AT ALL!. Coming up the elevator, or having to climb the stairs, I arrive completely exhausted, feeling clamminess all over my skin. Once I ring the bell and see the beautiful face of my cousin Maja I start feeling at home. I know my Aunt PaÅ¡ana will make us coffee and later dinner. I will shower and lay back on the bed, relaxed and cool. I will study, the cool breeze from the fan rustling the pages, forgetting for a moment the moist heat that enveloped me on the bus.

So, there it goes: Mid-West humidity feels like being on a crowded local bus on the sunniest day of the summer, with all the windows safely locked. I know that my sister and my friends can relate. I hope that my parents can relate. The days of humid midwest summers basting me in my own juices are behind me. I welcome the heat of California with all my soul. And because of that we decided not to cook today. We opted for sandwiches instead. BLTAs.

We bought the onion rolls at Albertson’s. I whipped up a cup of mayonnaise in no time while the bacon sizzled in the pan. We crisped up the rolls in the oven for five minutes and presented the casual dinner on the “lazy susan” in the middle of the table. The AC was humming quietly in the background and nobody complained of being too hot or too cold.

We love living in California and this dinner was a casual celebration of the state and the bounty it provides.  Fresh tomatoes and avocados don’t need a lot of frills to satisfy.  The sandwiches were as cool as we were.

BLT SANDWICHES WITH EXTRIES

Ingredients:

  • 4 onion or Kaiser rolls, warmed up in the oven for 5 minutes, at 350F
  • 1 pound of bacon, fried
  • 2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 Tbsp mayonnaise (I make my own. It’s very easy and tastes so much better then store-bought)
  • lettuce
  • Avocado, optional
  • turkey deli meat, optional
  • onion slices, optional

I am submitting this post for Kahakai’s  Souper Sundays and 12 Days of Bloggie-mas

Sep 022010
 

Sometimes I wonder: if anybody asked me to name one, and only one, food item that defines Serbian cuisine, how would I answer? My instinct tells me I cannot go wrong with The Pig, and I can see why. There is no celebration that does not include one or more (and usually more) of the porcine products. The roasted suckling is the centerpiece of every holiday table, and few people can resist its seductive crunchy skin and the succulent meat, with just enough fat to melt in your mouth (just ask my American husband – it took him about thirty seconds (and one savored mouthful) in the company of the piggy to become a follower).

There is lard, rendered in big metal dishes in the early hours of a Sunday in late November, leaving as residue the tastiest tidbits of salty, crunchy goodness – I guess something akin to chicharrones. There is smoked bacon, garlicky smoked sausages, head cheese, blood sausages, prÅ¡uta (cured, smoked, and air-dried pork loin), and smoked ribs. This immediately makes me envision a copper pot full of brined cabbage at a village wedding, or the aromas from an earthen clay pot of beans simmering on the stove, promising to warm up fingers frozen from throwing hundreds of snowballs.

In my musings I move somewhat away from the beloved pig, with a big sigh. The next obvious choice is cabbage. Shredded in a vinegary slaw, cooked cut up in chunks with pork, or sauteed with homemade tagliatelle and lots of pepper. In autumn, the heads are lovingly nestled in wooden barrels and a couple of months later pale green sauerkraut emerges begging to be stuffed and rolled into “sarma”, simmered with smoked ribs for hours, or shredded and sauteed with onions and bacon, to be served alongside roasted chicken or pork.

I love all the incarnations of cabbage. But there is another vegetable that is a jewel amongst the others: pepper. All summer long the narrow, triangular, light-green beauties adorn the market stalls, their flesh firm, their aroma spreading around like the smoke from Aladdin’s lamp. They are sweet, without the hint of bitterness so common to the green bell pepper. We mix them with sun-ripened tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions for a refreshing summer salad, just moistened with oil and touched with salt and pepper. We roast them on the grill or a gas stove, and serve them for breakfast, warmed up with kajmak (the south Slav relative of clotted cream) or layered with chopped garlic, oil, vinegar, and salt, as the most delicious accompaniment to any roast.

When you buy a couple of pounds of sweet peppers, the wizened old grandma dressed in black, with a black kerchief on her head puts a few of the dark green, small, and extremely hot peppers in your bag as a gift. Those are also roasted and served in small dishes, challenging the brave to taste them. The pale-yellow roundish peppers are stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and onions, and simmered for an hour. The hot ones are filled with fresh, unpasteurized milk, and left to ferment into this delicious, creamy, sweet, sour and spicy combination of tastes, that is irresistible on a cold night in January.

Right about this time big plastic sacks filled with meaty red peppers start appearing at the markets, on the road sides, and at the street corners. There is a hint of autumn chill in the air which puts everybody into a preserving mode. Pretty soon the grills will be sizzling with roasted peppers for ajvar, ljutenica, and pindžur. The canning jars will be piled on the kitchen tables, ready to accept the pickled peppers, and bigger, plastic canisters will come out of the cellars and garages to house brined peppers with garlic and parsley. For a month the peppers will play the main role in many houses.

But I am not ready to start preserving the peppers yet. The California sunshine does not yield to autumn chill.  It seldom yields at all. I bought some really nice, meaty, red bell peppers and decided to treat my family to another one of Mother’s perfect recipes. The peppers are roasted, peeled, de-stemmed and cleaned, drained and stuffed with a mix of feta and eggs, dipped in crepe batter and pan-fried until golden and delicious. We ate them with a salad of heirloom tomatoes, onions, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Another day in paradise.  And paradise knows well enough to have Serbs cater the affair.

roasted pepper

peeled peppers

STUFFED,  BATTERED, AND PAN-FRIED RED PEPPERS (PUNJENE POHOVANE PAPRIKE)

Ingredients:

Filling:

  • 8 meaty red peppers
  • 250gr (1/2 lb) feta
  • 2 eggs

Batter:

  • 200ml (1 cup) milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3-4 Tbsp sunflower oil for pan-frying

Directions:

Roast peppers on the grill, on high heat*, turning occasionally, until the skin is blackened and blistery. Put them in a plastic bag for 30 minutes to cool off. Peel the peppers and pull out the stem and the seeds (do not wash the peppers directly under the water stream – it will wash out all the yumminess the grill has imparted). Let them drain in a colander for 10 minutes.

In the meantime beat the mix of milk and eggs with an electric mixer. Add the flour and salt and mix to combine. The batter should be a little looser than pancake batter, and a bit thicker then crepe batter.

Heat the oil on medium-high heat. Fill each pepper with 1 heaping tablespoon of cheese filling (if your peppers are bigger than mine, you will need more – I had some filling left over), and close the opening loosely. Dip in the batter and put gently into the heated oil. Turn the heat to medium and pan-fry until golden brown, 3-4 minutes. Turn and continue frying the other side, for another 2-3 minutes.

Eat immediately or when cooled to room temperature (I love them even cold from the refrigerator). Serves 4.

*roasting them in the oven does not yield the same results, but if grilling is not an option you can roast them on a dry sturdy pan right on the burner turned on high

I am submitting this post to Summer Fest, started by Margaret Roach at A Way to Garden..