Oct 312010

I make mayonnaise from scratch, and I stash the leftover egg white into a ziploc bag, adding them in one by one over time, and updating the number with a Sharpie. Yesterday, I decided to organize both the box freezer and the small one above the refrigerator, and as a result, unearthed massive amounts of food completely forgotten, languishing sadly in the dark and frosty corners. One of the newly rediscovered treasures was a baggie holding five frozen egg whites.

Later that day, I was searching the net for a chocolate recipe by Giada de Laurentiis, who is a featured chef in the I Heart Cooking Clubs blog event, and there it was, a beautiful vessel for my lonesome egg whites: Chocolate Hazelnut Kisses. You might find a squirrel without a stash of nuts, but not a Serb. I emptied the bag of hazelnuts onto a baking sheet, shoved them into the oven, and waited impatiently for the heady, rich smell of roasted nuts. As soon as the first whiff reached my nostrils, I went about collecting the other ingredients, pivoting on my left foot (that’s how big my kitchen is). While stirring, I was anticipating the magic that would emerge from the union of chocolate, hazelnuts, cocoa, honey, vanilla, and egg whites.

It did not take long to recruit my ever-ready youngest Beastie to help me with piping the rosettes (after all, who else would sacrifice their precious time to lick the bowl and the spoon?), and let them dry for a couple of hours (the recipe calls for drying them overnight, but for my lack of planning I could not abide by the rules). When the time came, three polka-dotted sheets went into the oven. The comforting and warm aroma of chocolate joined the lingering hints of hazelnuts, and drove both Beasties and Husband from their lairs. While the kisses were cooling off, I melted some chocolate, gave each girl a teaspoon, and showed them how to assemble the sandwiches. Then, I retired to the couch with a glass of wine.

The cookies were everything I thought they would be: chewy, not too sweet, intensely flavored by nuts and cocoa, and small enough to be eaten in one or two bites (depending on the tester). They reminded me in texture of the Parachute Cookies my grandmother Njanja (pronounced nya-nya) used to make with ground walnuts and egg whites, bound together by chocolate buttercream.

We still have a lot of kisses to consume. Today is Halloween, and the Beasties are getting ready to scare or charm some unsuspecting neighbors into giving them as much candy as they can carry (we have a Gypsy and a Hannibal Lecter in the repertoire this year). Nobody will want to eat Giada’s cookies tonight. But I bet they freeze well, just like those Parachute Cookies. And when the chocolate cravings become hard to resist, in a week or two, I will know just where to find the remedy. Providing my freezers stay neat and organized.



  • 3 cups whole raw hazelnuts
  • 2 cups sugar (I added only 1 1/2 half cups – I do not like my chocolate treats too sweet)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted plus additional unsalted butter for baking sheets, optional
  • 1/2 cup Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa-powder, sieved
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 or 5 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 3 ounces semisweet chocolate

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F.

Spread the hazelnuts in a single layer in a shallow pan and place them in the preheated oven, turning every now and again, until lightly toasted and the skins begin to blister, 15 to 18 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Then, working in batches, rub them between the palms of your hands until the skins loosen and fall away. (This will take some time and not every bit of skin will rub off.) Chop the hazelnuts coarsely. Using a nut mill, blender, or a food processor fitted with the metal blade, grind the hazelnuts to a fine powder. (If the nuts do become oily, pass them through a sieve to break up any lumps.)

Place in a large mixing bowl and stir in the sugar. Add the butter, cocoa, honey, and vanilla and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Add the egg whites, a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add only enough of the whites for the doughto take on the consistency of a loose paste or spritz cookie dough. Do not worry if all of the egg whites are not used.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or grease them with butter. Spoon the hazelnut mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a No. 6 star tip. Pipe out rosettes 1 inch in diameter onto the prepared sheets, spacing the rosettes about 1 1/2 inches apart. You should have about 60 rosettes in all. Let the rosettes sit, uncovered, at room temperature overnight.

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Bake the cookies in the preheated oven until firm to the touch but still moist inside, 8 to 10 minutes. When they are done they will not brown and may even look undercooked, so you must test by touch. Remove to wire racks to cool completely. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in the top pan of a double boiler placed over simmering water. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.

Gently turn half of the cookies top sides down on a flat surface and spread about 1/2 teaspoon chocolate on each of the upturned bottoms. As each cookie is coated, press a plain cookie onto the chocolate, bottom side down, to form a “sandwich”. Lay the cookies on their sides on a tray or flat plate and refrigerate for 15 minutes to set the chocolate. Store in a covered container, at room temperature, for up to 1 week.

I am submitting this recipe to I Heart Cooking Clubs, Chocolate Cravings.

Oct 302010

When I arrived in the U.S. in the late eighties, the culture shock was much more intense than I had anticipated. I guess if it weren’t, they wouldn’t call it “culture shock.” The first movie my ex-husband took me to see was Howard the Duck. (A couple of months earlier I suggested Paris, Texas with Nastassja Kinski and his response was akin to WTF.)  Coming out of the theater I was trying my best to find even slightly entertaining moments, questioning myself, and wondering if there was more depth to this duck movie than I perceived.

I experienced the same uncertainty with food. The first dinner with my new American family was take-out BBQ ribs and chicken. I was reluctant at first to mix sweet and savory in the same bite, but my adventurous spirit prevailed. I decided to embrace the new culture and to meld it with the established one I carried from Europe.

Many years have past. My ex is a chef in one of the best restaurants in Bradenton, Florida. We are friends on Facebook. As a matter of fact, he is friends with most people I  know on Facebook, including Mother and Husband.

I have moved on with my insecurities about food. This salad that I found at Andrea‘s blog Forks, Fingers, Chopsticks proves my point. There are lentils that I was not familiar with until I crossed the ocean. There is wild rice that does not exist in Europe. There are plantains that I savored for the first time in the spring of this year when I took a bite from my daughter’s Huevos Motulenos in La Cueva del Chango restaurant in Playa del Carmen.

Everything seemed weird when I read the recipe. But, again, everything made sense. I served it as a side dish to some tasty enchiladas, and after some raised eyebrows trying to ascertain if the ingredients worked, a thumbs up appeared, reassuring me that this dish was a winner.

LENTILS AND PLANTAIN SALAD (Forks, Fingers, Chopsticks)


Wild Rice

  • 1/2 tablespoon butter or oil
  • 1/2 cup onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup wild rice
  • 1 1/3  - 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt


  • 1/2 cup green lentils, sorted and rinsed
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 cup red, yellow or green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 green onion, diced
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • Fresh serrano chile, deveined and finely chopped (optional)


  • 2 ripe plantains*
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

*Ripe plantains have a dark, almost black exterior. Fully ripe plantains are sweeter and make a nicer contrast in the salad.


Wild Rice: In a small pot, over medium-high heat, melt butter; saute onion and garlic for 1 – 2 minutes. Add wild rice, 1 1/2 cups water and salt. Bring to boil, cover with tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 45 – 50 minutes. I prefer rice grains slightly split with a chewy texture. If you prefer yours fully split, cook a few minutes longer (you may need to add 1 – 2 tablespoons water). When done, fluff with fork, drain off any excess water. Let cool.

Lentils: Sort lentils to remove debris; rinse well. In small pot, bring all ingredients to boil; cover, reduce heat and simmer on low for 35 – 40 minutes or until lentils are tender but still in tact. Drain lentils, remove bay leaf. Let cool.

Salad: In a small bowl, whisk olive oil, balsamic, garlic, cumin and cinnamon. In a medium-size bowl, add cooled and drained wild rice and lentils and the remaining salad ingredients – bell pepper, celery, onion, cilantro and chile. Add oil mixture; mix well.

Plantains: With a knife, trim the ends off the plantains. Cut in half, leave skin on then slice each piece lengthwise; peel. Heat oil in skillet until hot, use tongs to place plantains flat side down. Fry in oil about 2 minutes on each side until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. When cooled a few minutes, cut lengthwise and cut into bite-size pieces (about 1”). Add to salad and lightly toss.

Serve at room temperature or chilled. Platanos taste best when freshly fried.

Variation:  add pineaple; grill fruit instead of frying

I am submitting this post to Souper Sundays, hosted by Deb of Kahakai Kitchen and to 12 Days of Bloggie-mass, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life.


Oct 272010

Our family car was a bright orange Russian-made Lada which stood packed since the early hours of the morning with several suitcases holding the beginnings of my new life in the big city. Tucked neatly and methodically around them, using every inch of available space in the trunk with a Tetris-like precision were checkered linen bags holding Mother’s praised preserves (wild strawberry, bing cherry, quince, and blackberry), along with apricot and plum jams, ajvar*, and jars of pickled peppers and cucumbers. Carefully wrapped and insulated bottles of Father’s golden hued plum brandy (the beloved “Å¡ljivovica” or slivovitz) were strategically placed to fill the gaps between bags. A special heavy-duty tote occupying the seat next to me was filled with home-cured Serbian delicacies like prÅ¡uta, smoky bacon, and a string of plump garlicky sausage links. The package was topped with plastic containers packed with fresh white farmers’ cheese and kajmak**, which Father bought at the green market at dawn.

Everybody was out on the street in front our house to say goodbye to me: my sister and my brother, Njanja, Deda-Ljubo, some of my friends who were not leaving town for college, and several neighbors. I was sobbing inconsolably, burying my head in my brother’s shoulder, and caressing my sister’s wet cheek. The unsuspecting passers-by were turning their heads down and away, uncomfortable witnessing this heart-wrenching scene, convinced that some horrible tragedy must have befallen this wailing family.

I was heading to the University of Belgrade, the capital city, a mere three hours away by bus, two hours away by car, and just over an hour hitchhiking, especially if you lucked out and stopped one of the crazy drivers from the town of Užice who seemed intent on sending the needle of their speedometers crashing out the passenger side window (I shudder now just thinking about it, but back in those days I had a secret affair with any adrenaline rush).

I cried because I finally realized that I was leaving behind my town, my family, and my home. It would not matter how many times we talked on the phone and how often I would take the last bus on Friday night to surprise them, our lives, so connected and intertwined until then, would inevitably start to diverge and follow different paths. I cried for the computer games I would not play with my brother and his friends, even though he banished me a hundred times for constantly ruining his joysticks. I cried for the empty half of the pull-out bed I shared with my sister. I cried for the magnolia tree Deda-Ljubo planted in the yard right next to the old-fashioned cast iron water pump. I cried for Father’s sullen admissions of affection and Mother’s love, omnipresent and eternal.

With one look at his watch, Father broke the farewell party. The time of the scheduled departure had arrived. He started the engine as I was entering the back seat, still holding my sister’s hand. Slouching in his wheelchair, my beloved eighty-something step-grandfather, Deda-Ljubo, a veteran and invalid of WWI, was drying silent tears with his white, blue-bordered cotton handkerchief, waving to me with a trembling hand, when Mother ran down the steps, carrying the last plastic container destined to accompany us to Belgrade. She nestled in the front seat, closed the door, and the Lada took off like a sad rocket prototype intent on carrying me to another world, another planet, another life. Half of my body was hanging through the window, while I tried to take in the last imprint of my childhood, damning the tears and blessing the gravity that would forever draw me back home. I was wishing that the hundred yards to the corner would go on indefinitely, like in a dream, but in a couple of seconds, my house and my world disappeared.

I cried, holding Mother’s hand half-way to Belgrade. After we passed the tunnel, Mother opened the plastic container sitting in her lap and gave me a “piroÅ¡ka” that she made just minutes before we left. Famished, I attacked the perfect little bundle of ground meat and onions rolled into a tender, miniature burrito-shaped crepe, dipped in flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs, and sauted until crisp. The familiar flavors filled the abyss in my soul and abated my tears. Somehow, I survived he rest of the trip.

We arrived at my Aunt and Uncle’s apartment, lugging the bags and suitcases to the phone booth of an elevator. There were hugs and kisses at the door, the boisterous hoopla typical of Slavic manhugs, and the tears of women that were so opposite the tears of a few hours ago that they seemed almost to run up their rosy cheeks, cried out by smiles rather than pooled eyes. The shoulder-patting and and giddy squeals softly gave way to a welcome round of whiskey and Turkish coffee, and a great dinner prepared by my Strina-PaÅ¡ana, accompanied by hefty pours of Vranac red wine from ÄŒika-Aco’s hospitable hand.

After a mandatory nap, Father announced that the time had come for him and Mother to return home.  As is a custom in our parts of the world, everybody came down to the parking lot to say their goodbyes. I hugged both of them, trying in vain to stop the tears from welling and overflowing my eyes. The orange Lada slowly pulled away. The last image I remember is Mother’s face glued to the window, shaking in wordless tears.

The elevator took us back to the eighth floor. I unpacked my bags and lined the shelves of my cousin Maja’s half-empty armoire. I sat on the edge of the bed that was suddenly mine, feeling utterly lost and alone. My Strina-PaÅ¡ana brought me and Maja some coffee. We drank it in silence, not knowing what to expect. We exchanged a few words and spent the rest of the night carefully avoiding each other.

When everybody was comfortably tucked into their beds, I tiptoed to the kitchen and grabbed one of Mother’s “piroÅ¡ke”. I sat at the kitchen table, savoring every morsel, slowly realizing that certain parts of my previous life were as portable as my heart and that I could take them anywhere life might lead.

This recipe is for a completely different kind of “piroÅ¡ke”. Instead of the mini-crepes it is made with a potato yeast dough. Instead of the ground beef and onion, it is filled with ham and sour cream. Instead of a flour-egg-breadcrumb finish, it is deep-fried just as it is.

Mother’s recipe will have to wait for some future day when the right Muse knocks on my door and the gods of family life grant me enough time to properly reproduce the flavor that I crave. In the meantime, I give you the recipe for “piroÅ¡ke” that I found on my fellow Serb, Jelena’s enjoyable blog, “Food for Thought“, which she saw on “Le Cuisine Creative“, Mignonne’s blog filled with beautiful photographs of delectable food.

*Ajvar is a roasted red pepper relish cherished in all regions of ex-Yugoslavia

**Kajmak is a Serbian dairy product similar to clotted cream


I made the whole batch and froze half after the rising. Not willing to spend all the time by the stove frying, I baked half of the piroške. Everybody preferred the fried version. The baked ones were excellent, with a slightly crunchy crust and a very soft middle, similar to bread-sticks. They could also be filled with cheese, ground meat and onions, and mushrooms and onions.



  • 700g of flour ( might need more)
  • 300g of boiled potatoes
  • 40g of fresh yeast
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 100g of butter
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 300ml of warm milk


  • 300g of ham cut into cubes
  • 300g of sour cream
  • black pepper, parsley


Boil the unpeeled potatoes, let cool a bit, peel. Mash with a fork. Add salt, yolks, and butter to potatoes and mix with an electric mixer. Place the yeast in warm milk and leave for 15 minutes in a warm place. Add the yeast to the potato mix and half of flour. Slowly add the remaining flour and work with hands to form an elastic dough not too hard. You might need more flour. Leave the dough to rest for 45 minutes. Make the filling and place it in the fridge.

Boil the unpeeled potatoes , let cool a bit, peel. Mash with a fork. Add salt, yolks, and butter to potatoes and mix with an electric mixer. Place the yeast in warm milk and leave for 15 minutes in a warm place. Add the yeast to the potato mix and half of flour. Slowly add the remaining flour and work with hands to form an elastic dough not too hard. You might need more flour. Leave the dough to rest for 45 minutes. Make the filling and place it in the fridge.

I am submitting this post to Hearth and Soul blog hop event hosted by Alex of “A “Moderate Life” and three other wonderful bloggers.

Hearth n' Soul Blog Hop

Oct 222010

My sister Ljiljana (also known as Schwester Lily by her colleagues and patients of the Frankfurt (Germany) hospital where she works) and her husband Thomas are on a scuba-diving vacation in the Philippines. If I did not simply adore her, I would have been insanely jealous of her traipsing around the world. But this way, I get to live vicariously through her adventures, look at the beautiful photos she takes, and listen to her detailed account of every action-filled day. Occasionally, I even “visit” some of the destinations via Skype when she takes her laptop to some pristine beach seemingly untouched by human feet, but lovingly caressed by the fine silts and salts of the turquoise Pacific.  Then back to their bungalow, transported directly from one of Luis Brumfield’s novels, together with the bamboo furniture and diaphanous white insect net, to the table on the veranda laden with the most delectable oriental foods.

She is very thoughtful. She sends postcards and buys souvenirs. She plays the role of a glamorous and exotic Aunt extremely well. For my part, I try to comfort Mother who has also seen the photos my sister uploaded on Facebook. She knows that there is much more lurking in the depths of the ocean than Nemo and Dorie. I brush her fears aside when they are kidnapping tourists in the Philippines, and when a typhoon attacks the shores of Thailand. It is her job to worry about us and she is an expert at it. She follows the weather forecast for California and Germany better than we. She alerts me every time when there is an earthquake on the Mexican border and watches minute-by-minute developments of every storm that rolls across the Alps towards Central Europe.

A brief aside: Mother does not take the weather lightly. I still laugh when I remember finding her and my four-year-old daughter huddled inside the door jamb in my Michigan apartment, waiting for me to come home from work. When I entered, she jumped up and hugged me, relieved to see that I had not been trapped underneath a fallen tree, or swept into one of the small lakes in the area. I tried in vain to explain the difference between a thunderstorm and a tornado, but to her, the sound of thunder was much more menacing than anything she had ever experienced in Europe, and she continued to huddle inside the door jambs, protecting my offspring from the evil American storms. A tangent I’ll save to explore on a rainy day.

Before she left, my sister and I had one of our usual marathon Skype conversations. I knew then that they would spend several days at a time on open sea and that we would not be able to communicate for more then three weeks. I missed her in advance. We discussed our plans for the summer, laughed about my College Kritter’s escapades in the world of independent living with no one to huddle her under a door jamb at the first rumble of thunder, exchanged news and concerns about our parents in Serbia, and talked about food.

Her husband celebrated his birthday recently and when she asked him what he wanted for his special meal, he stated, without pondering for a second, that he would be perfectly content if she made him Serbian Pilav or Stuffed Peppers. My German brother-in-law once worked for some major bands as part of the road crew. He traveled the world and tasted the best any country had to offer. Taking people on scuba-diving expeditions exposes him to Asian and Middle-Eastern cuisines. He has eaten with the Bedouins under the enormous star-lit desert skies, enjoyed the most exotic dishes of Thailand and the South Pacific, and dined beside camp fires on the cod he caught from the boat in the fjords of Norway. He has tasted the best of the world, but for his birthday meal he craved his wife’s comfort food.

After our initial laugh, we concluded that his wish was not as preposterous as it seemed. Comfort food implies the food cooked by someone we love who loves us in return. It takes us back to the fuzzy and cozy days of childhood. It brings the connotations of warmth, family, and the sense of belonging. It anchors us and keeps us afloat close to the shores of the family hearth. It fills the kitchen for hours with the smells of caramelized onions, sauteed peppers, sizzling bacon, or infused herbs. It allows us to relax, to kick back and stop worrying. It does not demand constant attention to propriety and manners (even though I still do not tolerate slouching and slurping at the table. Are you reading this, Husband?). It invites laughter and friendly conversation. And there is always enough to share with a friend. Finally, it definitely demands wine. Or beer, if you are so inclined.

In her new book Around My French Table Dorie Greenspan shares with her readers a memory of an extravagant meal by the famous chef, Daniel Boulud, cooked for her and her husband one night in Paris, many years ago. When they asked him what he was going to eat with his family, he smiled and answered: “Hachis Parmentiere”, a French dish similar to Shepard’s Pie, the epitome of comfort food.

For this round of French Fridays with Dorie we cooked the Hachis Parmentiere. Beef bouillon, cubed beef, and sausage make the bottom layer of this dish while the mashed potatoes sprinkled with cheese lie on top*. The heat of an oven puts the finishing touches on the dish, making the wavy surface golden brown. We were instantly seduced by the contrast of sweet, creamy, milky potatoes and the bold and savory meat layer. We raised our wine glasses to my sister and Thomas, wished them calm seas, and invited them to our table to vicariously savor this dish that beautifully accomplishes the flavor and feeling of real comfort food.

*I used her quick version, having some chuck steak ground per order in our Persian store, and adding chorizo for sausage.

The recipe for Hachis Parmentiere is in Dorie Greenspan’s new book Around My French Table. It is a wonderful book that just keeps on giving.

Oct 202010

The last week of September, while the rest of the country was busy raking leaves, cleaning out chimneys, and taking out sweaters and boots preparing to welcome the imminent arrival of Autumn, the air in Southern California was set on fire. The AC units which were in hibernation throughout the summer came to life grunting and grumbling, spewing around the droplets of condensed water which hissed on the first contact with concrete shimmering from the heat.

People disappeared from the palm lined streets looking for respite from the sun’s fiery touch in cool and artificially lit malls. Only the crickets gave life to patios and back yards with their monotonous summer songs. It seemed like the whole world was suspended in the sweltering limbo, counting down every hour-long second, desperately awaiting relief.

In spite of the thermometers breaking loose and showing temperatures well over 110F, the stores dutifully showcased the pumpkins, the winter squashes, the apples, and the pears. Our plates were overflowing with crisp, refreshing salads; light pastas just touched with garlic, olive oil, and lemon; and even grilled meats in the rare cases of courageous humans willing to leave the comfort of their insulated living rooms, armed only with an ice-cold Sam Adams Oktoberfest brew. At the same time the rest of the world, at least in our hemisphere, was excitedly chattering about braised short ribs, hearty and comforting soups, stews simmered for hours, and different types of chili. Just thinking of winter fare raised the temperature several degrees, and we continued grazing, while trying to ignore the images of steaming heaps of buttery mashed potatoes, rich, red-wine sauces, and salubrious pot roasts surrounded with glistening carrots.

And then October rolled around and brought a long-awaited change. The breeze from the Pacific tamed the sun’s rays and invited us outside. It encouraged us to open the doors and shut off the air-conditioning. We slowly ventured out to the patios and back yards, skeptical at first, but growing bolder every minute. In a couple of days you could almost hear a communal sigh of relief. Paradise regained!

My Californian roots are still tender and weak. I hope with every new day to become more and more entrenched. But it is so easy to join the natives and take for granted the balmy days of perpetual spring, technicolor-blue skies, and the barely noticeable salty ocean air. We are definitely spoiled.

The last week our blue skies turned gray. Everything became subdued, void of color, like in an old black-and-white movie. In the morning a dew-like drizzle wets our cheeks as we hurry off to work. Once in a while, a short shower battles the dust and perks up the tired plants craving the water. The sun hides behind the uniform mass of leaden clouds. Girls wear boots, traffic is worse than ever, and all of a sudden the vibrant orange of the omnipresent pumpkins fits the color scheme.

We know that this weather will not last. Frantically, we drag the Dutch oven from the dark recesses of the pantry, print the book-marked recipes for comfort food, and plan shopping trips around big chunks of meat and root vegetables. How many braises and stews can we cram into our lives until the clouds break and the sun spills its warmth on us, liberated and victorious?

Husband made a huge pot of chili that we ate for two days. And we never eat the same thing twice, day after day. Those were some serious chili withdrawals! I made braised beef shanks with a hearty vegetable and red wine sauce. Even my older Beastie, Anya, who is not too enamored with meat, attacked the tender shreds with unusual gusto which made me smile and pat myself on the shoulder. We left the white wine in the refrigerator and uncorked the red, admiring its ruby color swirling in the glasses. It had been too long…

Rumbling thunder woke me up last night. For a moment I felt disoriented and thought I was in Cleveland. When I got up, I went outside and moved my sun-loving plants (lemon, fig, rosemary, and cacti) out of the reach of the deluge. The rain was coming down in sheets, fiercely attacking the arid soil, punching the leaves into submission, and flowing off the slopes in muddy streams. It continued relentlessly throughout the day, changing the rhythm occasionally, stopping for a few minutes, barely enough to trick the sun into peeking from behind the clouds as if to see if it was safe.

Feeling grateful that I do not have to face the blobs of water spilling from the clouds, I embraced another day of comfort foods. I browsed my cookbooks, checked some online sites, and tried to get inspiration from thousands of recipes I have stored in my virtual cookbook. The recipes I chose did not require a trip to the store. They were the epitome of hearty meals meant to warm up the body and the soul. I enjoyed gathering the ingredients, chopping, dicing, and browning, wishing for a second that every day was a comfort food day.

Californians are very fickle. I know that one of these gray days I will wake up annoyed by the pitter-patter of the rain drops and yearn for blue skies. But for now, I will cherish the chilly mornings and skip over the puddles. I will greet the clouds knowing that they are rare guests who allow me to treat my family to some incredible food.

PASTA E FAGIOLI (Giada De Laurentiis, Everyday Italian)


  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 3 ounces pancetta, chopped (I used bacon)
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 5 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (used my own, home-made)
  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (I used only 1 can)
  • 3/4 cup elbow macaroni
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch red pepper flakes, optional
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil


Wrap the thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth and secure closed with kitchen twine. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, pancetta, and garlic and saute until the onion is tender, about 3 minutes. Add the broth, beans, and sachet of herbs. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables are very tender, about 10 minutes. Discard the sachet. Puree 1 cup of the bean mixture in ablender until smooth. Before putting the puree back into the soup, add the macaroni and boil with the lid on until it is tender but still firm to the bite, about 8 minutes. Return the puree to the remaining soup in the saucepan and stir well. Season the soup with ground black pepper and red pepper flakes.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Sprinkle with some Parmesan and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil just before serving.

I am linking this post to I Heart Cooking ClubsHearth and Soul blog hop, and Presto Pasta Night, hosted by Chez C ayenne

IHCC Hearth and Soul Hop Badge photo by alex clark

Oct 162010

In April of 2008, we decided to move to California. Losing our house to a foreclosure became a certainty after months of trying to make up for the lost income. Our Serbian friends Dragana and Milan moved to Orange County two years before us, and put a lot of effort into convincing us that relocating to a palmy balmy paradise was not such a bad idea. We would have to say goodbye to our beautiful house and move to an apartment no matter what we did. So why not  California? Husband’s manager had flown him out and he was in love with it. The Beasties were too small to comprehend the recession, and they were extremely excited about the move. Not so much the College Kritter, who at the time took classes at a Community College as part of the specialized curriculum her high school offered. The idea of having to take another PE class as a requirement for graduating a California school did not sit well with her. Not to mention all the friends and the boyfriend…

We spent a lot of time rearranging our lives. Father bought the tickets to Serbia for me and the kids for the whole summer, allowing Husband to have an enormous garage sale, pack up all our belongings, put them up in storage, and vacate the house, without breaking little innocent hearts. Our friends put the deposit on an apartment next door to theirs. The College Kritter decided to graduate in December. She also had to abandon her Midwest University choices and shift towards California schools. Farewell to University of Michigan, Northwestern, and University of Chicago! Hello… whatever schools are in California!

Fast-forward to spring of 2009. It is March twentieth, my birthday. Dragana is taking me and the College Kritter to a nice Italian restaurant in Aliso Viejo for lunch. We sit outside where the sun is caressing our skin. We are relaxed, laughing, gossiping in Serbian, completely enjoying the food and the company of each other. We drop Dragana off and continue on to pick up the groceries. I am still in a haze, feeling great after a good meal when the College Kritter drops the bomb: “Mmmmm, I don’t think that I have been accepted at any of the UC schools”. My heart instantly skips a beat, starting to gallop wildly, faster and faster, while I clutch the wheel with such a force that my fingers are devoid of blood.

She does not want to ruin my birthday lunch, but now that it’s over, she has to share. My eyes well and I can barely see the road.  I park the car, relying on instinct as my vision is lost to tears. I cry.  And I cry for a week, regretting our decision to move to California, feeling that I have betrayed my child by putting our needs above hers, completely crushed by the injustice (after all, she was at the top 5 percent of her class, with a GPA of over 4.3).

Amidst all the crying we try to reassess our options. There is a community college right next to our new apartment complex. She can take classes, do really well, maybe transfer into the U.C. system later… And there are all the culinary schools… We schedule the interviews and rearrange our work hours to attend them. My heart is literally hurting for this child who has put so much effort into achieving excellent results, only to bang her head against a wall. And I hate California!

A week after my birthday, my butt is firmly ensconced upon the love seat while the College Kritter claims the couch, playing with her iphone. I allow a Food Network show to take my mind off my imminent stress when I hear, “I guess I just got accepted at Berkeley” uttered in a deadpan voice. It takes me quite a while to understand what she has just said. Berkeley? For real? Hippy trippy cool as all hell Berkeley? That’s when I jumped off the love seat and started screeching, hugging her, whirling, and crying, but this time out of pure happiness.

Yes, my first-born is fully embedded  in the People’s Republic of Berkeley and enjoying every minute of it. She has finished her first year triumphantly, pulling an A average. I accompanied her for her orientation, bonded with other parents, and spent a wonderful weekend transversing the streets of San Francisco until we collapsed, crushed by sheer exhaustion.

We made trips to Berkeley several times to move her into a dorm, to attend the weekend of parents’ visitation (never again!), to move her out of the dorm and into her first apartment. And a couple of weeks ago I flew to SF to spend a weekend with her. We had no agenda, no plan, no schedule. She met me at the airport BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit… y’know… the train) Friday night and we talked for the hour long commute to Berkeley. Her roommates went home for the weekend leaving us the run of the apartment and we talked for hours into the night.

Saturday morning, I made Turkish coffee and brought it to her while she was still rubbing her eyes, sleepy and tired. And then she made breakfast with eggs and chili. We left to explore Berkeley, wandering the streets, stopping by the Farmers’ Market, buying a flat of succulent strawberries, and snacking on them while walking. She had invited several friends for the meet-the-parent night, and we planned a visit to Berkeley Bowl later that day (she had envisioned a cheese and wine party as a perfect back-drop for me meeting her friends).

We knew we did not want to eat anything big or heavy. Mulling about the ideas, we decided to find a Vietnamese restaurant and try some pho. Walking up Center Street we stumbled upon Le Regal and decided to give it a try. We were drinking our jasmine tea when the waitress brought two huge bowls of soup that could easily feed a family of six. In a separate bowl there were twigs of Thai basil, lime wedges, minced chiles, and bean sprouts. We dug in, getting lost in the hints of anise, savoring the balance of complementary tastes, slightly sour, slightly spicy, slightly sweet.  After we were finished, most of the soup was still in our bowls. We took it home for another day. And we vowed to learn how to prepare a proper pho.

Back in Orange County, I joined the group French Fridays with Dorie, which celebrates Dorie Greenspan’s new book Around My French Table. Every week, we prepare one of her recipes (and in the month of October, she picked the dishes!). The book is beautiful, and filled with glorious recipes. I cannot wait to try them all!

This week we are cooking the Vietnamese Chicken Soup, very similar to pho. I had all the ingredients in my pantry except for the chicken breast on the bone. The soup was extremely simple and quick to prepare. The balance of tastes was impeccable. We ate it two nights in a row and all that was heard at the dinner table were some very satisfied grunts.

Sometimes, everything just works out.

The recipe for Spicy Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup can be found on page 98 of the book. Please, buy it, it is so beautifully written and photographed.

Oct 122010

Today was not a good day. I knew it when the phone rang the night before, right when we were finishing our dinner of grilled ribeye steaks, mashed potatoes, and mushroom and leek gravy. I knew it as I climbed into the car to go to work. I knew it when I met my manager’s eyes just before she averted them. I waited for more then an hour to talk to her, feeling like a pariah sitting in a booth, trying to calm a wildly beating heart. In my mind I was counting the bills left in the partly torn envelope hiding in my underwear drawer trying to calculate my family’s financial existence. The uncertainty and a million question marks lead me through a series of film noir scenarios until paranoia finally overwhelmed me. I dissected every hour of the previous several days at work, trying in vain to come up with a thread that would lead me to illumination. I analyzed my actions to the finest details hoping to find a reason for getting the cold shoulder.

In the end it was anticlimactic in its shallowness, but incredibly hurtful in its effect. My destiny was undergoing an unpredicted and undesirable change, and I could not do anything about it. I suffered the consequences of an uncommitted act. I was punished without  reason. Even though my arguments were valid and my voice rang true, I banged my head hard against the corporate wall and elicited nothing but a shoulder shrug. There had to be an investigation, and in the meantime my working conditions changed so much that my earnings, meager to start with, would dwindle by seventy percent.

The rest of the working day passed in a haze with intervals of sobbing interchanged by determinations and the pledge to keep on and elevate myself above the stench of the injustice and pettyness. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, trying to prevent splotchiness and avoid the not so goth effect of the mascara running down my cheeks joined with the tears. I faked a thousand smiles. I flirted with the octogenarians who assured me that I was the best and well deserving of a raise. I ran on pure spite, with nostrils flaring in anger one second, and gasping for air the next, completely overtaken by despair.

I could not wait to leave. A colleague went to make me an espresso, but I bolted as soon as I saw the “W” on the grill of the silver car approaching the parking lot. I vented for several minutes until we reached the apartment complex we call home, and then I broke down, completely, without reserve, unaware of the curious glances and questioning stares of the neighbors. I sobbed uncontrollably, crushed by the helplessness of the situation, feeling that I have betrayed my family somehow, by not being everything I could be.

The last thing I wanted was the Beasties to see me swollen from crying, eyes red, cheeks burning red from salty tears. They emerged like shadows from their room, wrapped their lithe bodies around me, hugged me really tight and kissed me a thousand times. We stood there, in a clinch, unable to move, afraid to break the tie, with me quietly sobbing and them whispering that everything would be all right.

I usually leave work at Crown Valley Parkway until I return the next day. As soon as I walk through the doors I discard my Cinderella clothes, take a shower to get the last remnant of the work off, and start living my real life, the life of creative energy, flowing sentences, imaginative dinners, and evocative conversation. I live a double life and it suits me well. I know that one of these days I will wake up smiling, knowing that I could continue and be the Princess for the eternity, that the golden carriage will never again turn to pumpkin.

But today nothing could pull me away from the tide of negativity encroaching into my sacred family life from that plain building off I-5. The stuffed grape leaves I prepared yesterday and simmered for a couple of hours put forth a burst of flavors, deeply Mediterranean, lemony, minty, and exotic. But my eyes were glazed, my throat constricted, my words on the verge of another crying spurt. I felt like I was betraying my family by not standing proud and walking out with my head held high and my integrity intact. But I do not have that luxury. I need to work. I need to stay there and fight like a lioness for my brood. And I hate every moment of it…

At work I am invisible at best, snubbed by botox-ridden housewives, patronized by laptop toting businessmen, and shuffled whimsically by the GED-wielding managers. I turn on my most sincere No. 6 smile and I face them all, invincible and proud, confident and at peace with myself. I perform my menial duties in a floating manner, hovering above, detached in mind, as if watching an old neo-realistic Italian flick.

I left the dinner table and assumed my favorite position on the love-seat, with my beloved laptop in my lap (!) The Beasties cleared the table and washed the dishes, Husband put the finishing touches on his edit for a Pepperdine professor’s paper, and I tried to catch up with my e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Google reader. I was temporarily lost in an article when the older Beastie plopped a navy blue cup and saucer in front of me, claiming that was the tea that was going to drag me up to the surface. And then she added: “If you like it, I will make tea for you every day”.

As if I did not cry enough today already, I could not help it. I cried, but this time the tears were sweet, bourne out of love and tenderness. As the fragrant steam was filling my lungs, I promised myself that I would dig in, endure, fight, and come out victorious just to show my girls what needed to be done.


The mixture of rosehips, hibiscus, yerba mate, herbs from Mount Kopaonik in Serbia, honey from the Serbian meadows and a squeeze of lemon our friend picked up recently screams comfort to me. Offered in my navy blue cup, with a serving of warm hugs, makes my heart sing.

I am submitting this post to Hearth and Soul event, hosted by Girlichef, among the others.

Oct 122010

June 15th 1982, I was standing in line at the University of Belgrade School of Languages waiting to enroll in French as a double major (I had already been accepted in the English program). A curly-haired woman wearing really thick glasses looked at me and said, “Dear, everybody who has applied has had at least four years of French. You would be at a disadvantage. Why don’t you pick another language?”  I moved away from the line, weak in the knees, my heart pounding. The world did not end, but I had to think fast. My heart was saying goodbye to Molière and Jacques Prévert, promising not to abandon them. As I moved down the corridor toward the Department of Italian Studies, I felt lighter and less restrained. The line was much shorter and the smiles more sincere. I got the official stamp in my student booklet, and took the first bus home.

In October, when classes began, I became quite infatuated by Italian. Almost all the teachers were young, passionate, extremely knowledgeable, and friendly. In two years at the University, I spoke Italian as fluently as English, which I had studied since fifth grade. Most of the classes were informal. The professors would lean or sit on a desk facing us, lighting a cigarette, nodding their consent if we did the same. In a couple of minutes the Department’s housekeeper would appear with small cups of Turkish coffee for all of us, and we would translate the Italian newspapers, or conjugate the verbs between puffs of cheap Serbian tobacco.

On the other side of the building, our English professors were suffocating us with lifeless lectures and ex-catedra pontifications. They fancied themselves far superior to the masses of students and faced us with perpetually raised eyebrows, expecting an Oxford answer from a province-educated teen. I rebelled and my grades suffered.

I graduated in 1987 with a double major in English (and English Literature) and Italian (and Italian Literature). I live in the U.S., but my heart is wandering through the Appenini every day. I read Italian authors, I listen to Italian music, and I indulge in Italian food.

I am pretty alone in my little home in Southern California. I yearn for company. I search for kindred spirits. And I discovered a Book Club close to my heart. In the I Heart Cooking Club’s event, the participants choose a book and cook from it for months, as long as there are recipes.

The members chose Giada de Laurentiis as a host to the event. I voted for Lidia Bastianich, but anything Italian, done well, will suffice. As a welcome gesture, we were supposed to execute one of Giada’s appetizers. I searched and researched, and in the end found a perfect recipe: crostini with gorgonzola, toasted walnuts, and honey.


These little bites were perfectly balanced. The bread was crusty, the cheese creamy, soft, and strong enough to counterbalance the the concentrated sweetness of fig jam, and the walnuts delivered a nutty bite melding everything together.


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 24 1/3-inch-thick diagonal slices of baguette
  • 6 ounces creamy gorgonzola cheese, coarsely crumbled
  • 2/3 cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
  • 1 ripe fig , thinly sliced crosswise (I used fig jam,  just a 1/4 tsp dollop on each crostino)
  • 3 tablespoons honey (I thought honey would be an overkill alongside fig jam)


Preheat the oven to 375°. Arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet in a single layer. Lightly brush the baguette slices with oil. Toast in the oven until the baguette slices are golden, about 8 minutes. (You can toast the baguette slices 1 day ahead. Cool, then store them at room temperature in an airtight container.)

Toss the gorgonzola with walnuts in a small bowl. Spoon the cheese mixture onto the baguette slices and press slightly to adhere. Return the baking sheet to the over and bake until the cheese melts, about 8 minutes.

Arrange the crostini on a platter. Top each with a slice of fig, if desired (or plop a bit of fig jam, as I did). Drizzle with honey (you can omit this step if you used fig jam) and serve warm.


Oct 092010

The calendar boldly states that Autumn is in full blast. The orange of  pumpkins is splashed all around me, at supermarkets, farmers markets, in front of the stores, on tresholds and in yards. But I live in Southern California and the summer does not seem willing to yield. I yearn for the steady patter of the October rain from my childhood, the smell of wet leaves the color of fire and clay, and the northern wind which brings with its chill the promise of snowflakes.

A few days ago, I bought a pumpkin for jack o’ lantern, enthusiastic and eager to start cutting, as if the mere act of personalizing a gourd could miraculously turn the planet on its axis and bring us a few days of real fall. I looked at it every time I went in and out of the apartment, and in the end decided that I will carve another pumpkin some time later. This one is all mine, destined to end up in our bellies.

I remember afternoons when the sky was the color of pewter and lead, skeletal tree branches suddenly void of leaves, and the icy touch of the rain drops against my skin. The light from the orange globe hanging in our kitchen was like a beacon, steady and warm, promising shelter and comfort. And on some of those afternoons I would open the kitchen door coming back from school and inhale the aroma of cinnamon coming out of the oven, where Mother had thick pieces of brightly orange pumpkin baking, shiny from the sugar caramelizing on the edges.

Even though I tried not to buy the biggest pumpkin at the store, baking it in pieces would yield too much. I opted to make “tikvanjik” or “bundevara”, Serbian pumpkin strudel that uses pureed pumpkin. That way I can freeze a bag or two of puree and make it again in the winter, when pumpkins are forgotten, and some people somewhere sit by the fireplaces, while the snow slowly wafts just beyond their windows.

My daughters don’t remember where I keep the umbrellas and a few puffy, white clouds we occasionally see marring the eternal Technicolor blue of southern California skies can hardly be considered threatening.  But I bet that they are going to dive nose-first into the kitchen, led by the comforting and warm smell of cinnamon coming out of my oven.


The pumpkin puree when baked becomes creamy and custard-like, giving a nice contrast to crunchy and flaky phyllo dough.

*In northern part of the country, Vojvodina, where my mother comes from, it is called “bundevara”.



  • 2 lbs pumpkin puree*
  • 3 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½  cup sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder

Other ingredients:

  • 500gr (1 pound) phyllo dough, extra thin (approximately 20 sheets)
  • ¾ cup sunflower oil (or any neutral oil)

*To make pumpkin puree, you need a pumpkin of any size. Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut the pumpkin in halves and then into wedges. Lay the slices into a heavy baking pan and pour some water to cover the bottom. Bake for 1 hour, until fork tender. Let it cool and scrape the pulp into a bowl. Measure 2 pounds and reserve the rest for another use – I am thinking pumpkin gnocchi. Puree in the food processor until smooth.


Preheat the oven to 375F. Brush a 9×13 baking pan with oil.

Mix the pumpkin puree, eggs, cinnamon, sugar, and baking powder. Open the phyllo dough package and lay the sheets on the counter, longer side facing you. Place 6 sheets on the cutting board, brushing each with some oil. Place another sheet on top and spread 1/3 of the filling all over it, leaving an inch filling-free on each long side. Carefully roll the dough away from you, with the seem on the bottom (my dough sheets were 3 inches longer than my pan, and I had to cut off that much from my roll to fit). Transfer to the baking pan. Repeat two more times for three rolls. Brush the tops with oil and bake for 45-60 minutes, depending on your oven, until golden brown and delicious (I just love Alton Brown!). Let it rest for 15 minutes and cut into squares. Sprinkle with powder sugar and serve at room temperature.

I am linking this recipe to Fall Fest12 Days of Bloggie-mas, and Happy Post, a pumpkin recipe round-up by Marla of Family Fresh Cooking.


Oct 052010

“Every night, just before you close your eyes and drift off to sleep, rewind your day and think about it. Ask yourself questions: What did I learn? Whom did I help? In which way did I make myself a better person? Will my day have an impact, no matter how minuscule, on the world?”

I hear these words in my head almost every night. They are spoken in a slight whisper in a calming cadence, and belong to Angela, the language teacher in my elementary school. She was tall and gawky, an older version of Olive Oyl, with horned-rimmed glasses and unflattering dark-colored dresses. She roamed the hallways smiling, perpetually lost in her imagination, oblivious to a sheet of paper scotch-taped to her back (most of the time it was blank, but would you expect anything more clever from fifth-graders?) and a gaggle of giggling boys surrounding her. She taught Serbian and Russian. I studied English and had Pavle, the grammar-Nazi, for Serbian. But we found each other at poetry recitals and literary club sessions.

I talked to her about my dreams and my fears. She listened and quoted from books. I suffered when she was ridiculed, too helpless and shy to interject and defend her. I did not understand until much later that as the queen of a beautiful world of romantic poets and chivalrous knights, she was protected by a perfect rhyme and a quill dipped in dark ink. I did not notice that the dusty smell of books enveloped her like an invisibility veil. I did not realize that her soft humming of Russian ballads could dispel the cruelest of the pranks.

I started high school with a nervous energy, excited about the change, and impatient for life to finally begin. Once in a while I would visit my siblings still in grade school, and look for Angela in dark corners. Throughout the years she did not change much – more graying hair framed her face, the slouch of her shoulders got the better of her, and long and slender hands showed faint blue rivulets underneath the pale skin. The new generations of fifth-graders pinned pieces of paper to her dress, but she was still smiling and humming, her eyes behind the thick glasses warm and understanding. Every time before we parted she would remind me “not to walk small underneath the stars” *

My life was gaining momentum and pretty soon I was at the University and then in the U.S. I never saw Angela again, but I know that she sang in the town choir with Mother. A few years back she gave Father seedlings for rainbow Swiss chard. They tell me that she is still the same.

It is not time to drift off to sleep, but I have to say that today was a pretty good day. I listened to a co-worker’s heart-wrenching break-up episode and let him cry without losing face. I made a family of four laugh. I fended off several poisonous barbs hidden in sarcastic statements of an unhappy man with a smile. I learned how to say “corner” in Spanish. I got a small editing job for Husband and exulted in his optimism of the days to come. I helped the younger Beastie make crème caramel. My sinus cold is slowly ebbing and breathing is getting easier, even though my nose is a red, peeling mess. I read my mail, replied, checked the Skype, answered to some comments on the blog, and brought my Google reader down to a manageable size. I made dinner and planned the meals for the next several days.

In a couple of hours, after I close my book and get ready to surrender to sleep, I know I will smile. I have not wasted the day. While the line of reality and dream becomes indistinguishable, I am convinced that I will hear Angela’s voice whispering soft encouragements. And that is enough for me to bid the day good night.

*I had to put this in quotation marks, because I am sure that it is a quote, but after all these years of my paraphrasing it, I cannot find the source.

(This story has nothing to do with rice, pilav, or food. It went into a completely different direction and I did not dare bring it back).



  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 lb boneless chicken thighs/legs (or pork – country ribs are the best choice)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 medium to large onion, diced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 1 pepper (I avoid green bell pepper, too bitter IMO, but anything else is fine), diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced (optional – in Serbia it is not used)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup short-grain rice, like Arborio
  • 2-3 cups chicken stock
  • 1 sprig of rosemary, leaves only, chopped


Preheat the oven to 350F.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet on medium-high heat. Add the chicken, salt, and pepper, and brown on all sides. Remove from the skillet and add the vegetables. Sautee for 6-8 minutes until soft. Add the seasonings, rosemary, and rice. Stir for another 2-3 minutes and return the chicken. Add the stock to cover, stir and pour into an oven-ready dish. Bake for 1 hour. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes. Serve with a cucumber salad (cucumber slices dressed with vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, and minced garlic) or cabbage salad (shredded cabbage salted and kneaded for a minute, then dressed with oil and vinegar).

I am submitting this recipe to Hearth ‘n Soul, hosted by Hunger and Thirst (and the gang)