In October of 1982, Father stopped his orange Russian-made “Lada” in front of a New Belgrade skyscraper and let Mother and me exit, while he searched for a parking spot. My Aunt’s and Uncle’s two bedroom apartment on the eighth floor of the building would be my home for the first two years at the University of Belgrade. My parents loved spending time with ÄŒika-Aco and Strina-PaÅ¡ana. They visited Russia together, vacationed on the Adriatic, went sledding on the hills of Mount Kopaonik, and drank hot plum brandy in our family cottage. They shared laughter and witty repartees, enjoyed the same kind of music, went out to restaurants, and sneaked home giggling like teenagers in the wee hours of the night.
I occasionally saw my older, handsome, gaunt, dark-haired, artistic cousin, Dragan, on his visits to my home town. He would take me out to one of the trendiest places, after he spent an adventurous weekend with a girl he met after his band’s concert in Belgrade. I felt so special at fourteen walking with him along the main street, chuckling inside, knowing that I was the envy of many a female in town who did not know that we were related.
But when I arrived at the capital, feeling awkward, shy, and completely out of place, he was serving in the army and I was stuck sharing the bedroom with his sister, Maja, three years older than me, a Master’s Candidate in chess, and a Chemistry major. She was everything I was not: a short haired girl with no make-up, dressed in t-shirts and jeans, with a cigarette perpetually resting between her thumb and index finger, assertive, and certainly not shy. I was intimidated by her, and she did not even try to pretend to welcome me warmly into her part of the woods.
My classes started and I spent a lot of my time running from one classroom to another, navigating the halls of the old buildings, studying the bus schedule, and getting acquainted with small pastry shops and cafes in the vicinity. At night I would cross the expanse of yellowed grass from the bus stop to the building, press the elevator button hoping that at least one of the phone booth-sized cars would be in service, unlock the door, and plop on my bed for a couple of minutes. My Aunt would make me some Turkish coffee and assemble the family over the dinner table.
After dinner I would empty my book-bag and start with never-ending homework. Maja would listen to the music, smoke, and talk on the phone. From time to time she would ask me a question and I would answer, timidly, not knowing what to expect. In a few weeks I realized that she was not that scary, and she figured out that I was not some country-bumpkin unloaded on a tractor from the province just to make her life miserable. We spent hours talking at night, uncovering our fears and hopes, laughing and crying, until we became as close as sisters. She would steal Dragan’s moped and we would ride on the embankment of the river Sava, avoiding the police, and screeching in delight. We spent hours walking the streets of old Belgrade, eating fried smelt wrapped in newspaper. We hitchhiked, even though we could afford the price of the bus ticket. We played a Serbian version of Yahtzee called Yamb designating the loser for making Turkish coffee. I met her friends. She met mine, and got along with them without a problem. I teased her boyfriend, she hated mine, always observant enough to point out tiny stupidities bourne out of his insecurity.
We were still the antipodes of each other, but we found our differences complementary. She called me “smart bear” and helped me grow. She listened to my constant anguished whining, and laughed away my illusory worries. She was extremely blunt, always sincere, never concerned about being nice, but I knew that her advice came from the heart, and that I should heed it. On my end I tried to get Maja enthusiastic about school again, make her trust her intellect, and wrap her burrs in a more feminine clothing. I went to her chess tournaments, yawned for hours while she played, and drank and smoked with her at the parties afterwards. We were good for each other, but in the end she did not manage to turn me into a steel-lady, and I did not succeed in getting her back to school. For more than twenty years we have lived on two different continents, but we are still close, and she is still the same, non-apologetic, tough girl of my college days.
When I walked in that condo embarking on my brand-new academic life, cooking was the least of my concerns. I was transported from Mother’s kitchen to my Aunt’s kitchen. The approach to food was different, the ingredients were different, the choices were different, but there was dinner on the table every night, and a cup of cafe-latte on cold winter nights, and creamy, fragrant, warm rice pudding just before Strina-PaÅ¡ana’s bed-time. I went home every other weekend and came back dragging a brown leather bag, aka “the Hog”, full of food that was not readily available in the capital: jars of Mother’s preserves, honey, roasted red pepper spread (ajvar) from her kitchen, fresh cheese cut in perfectly aligned pieces smelling of fresh milk and grass, smoked bacon and pork ribs, seasonal fruit, home-rendered lard, and pastries. Once in a while Mother would wrap a loaf of freshly baked bread in a plaid cotton kitchen towel and place it gingerly on top of the other contents in “the Hog,” warning me to be gentle and not squish it. The Hog would be unpacked with utmost care, its contents lovingly placed in the fridge or a pantry, and enjoyed by the family for days, until my next trip home.
The junior year, I moved out. My cousin, Dragan got married, and he and his bride, Marina, were expecting a baby. My friend NataÅ¡a’s roommate went to live with her sister, and I was more than excited to fill the gap. We lived in a studio with a small kitchenette and a pull-out bed, not too far from my Uncle’s condo. My Hog joined NataÅ¡a’s Hog, and our fridge was full with home town food stuff. But Mother was not leaving anything to chance: she sent me off with a black-leather-bound day-timer filled with my favorite, easy to make hand-written recipes.
My visits home became somewhat less frequent. I ran on dozens of cups of Turkish coffee that our house-keepers on the floor prepared for us at the University at ridiculously low prices, a must-have croissant or a “burek” with yogurt after the first period, and whatever I could scrounge on my way from school to home. I did not want to waste my time by cooking. I had a life to live. I would open the black-leather “cookbook” to get an inspiration only when the fridge loomed frighteningly empty (and in a Serbian home that is unforgivable) and the pastries at “Atina” were not enough to sustain me. NataÅ¡a was as indifferent in the kitchen as I was, and our experiments were fodder for entertainment at the parties. But we tried.
In the beginning the results were atrocious. It did not matter how many times I ate a certain dish at Mother’s table, I was not able to replicate it following her recipe. Of course, at the time I did not understand that her “recipes” are just the reminders, and not the instructions. I did not know the basics of cooking, and could not connect the dots in the complicated puzzle of her recipes. Back then I was oblivious to the temperature and the time necessary to “brown the onions until soft and transparent”. I was not aware that the sticky goodness on the bottom of my skillet left over after I browned the meat was the start of a wonderful sauce. Nowhere was it written to preheat the oven to a certain temperature, or not to open the door while the pastries were baking. Mother assumed I knew. I felt lost in a maze of cooking terms seemingly clear, but deviously non-specific.
The senior year I was completely on my own. NataÅ¡a graduated and moved back to our home town. I went to live in a vast apartment on the outskirts of Belgrade, feeling cut-off and alienated from my friends by the distance. My roommate Milunka was my age and completely useless in the household department. Maja decided to come over and live with us. Not that she was any better at house chores. While she went to work, we attended the University. Figuring that I was the only one who could even dabble in the culinary arts, I proposed that I cooked the dinner, if they would do the shopping and cleaning afterwards. The little black book found its permanent place in the kitchen. I started to learn by making mistakes and demystifying various cooking processes and techniques. But even though I enjoyed eating, I did not feel obsessed by preparing food. I did not fall in love with cooking until some time later. I took it for granted, because I thought I could have Mother’s cooking any time I wanted.
The years rolled by gathering momentum. I have a food blog and my oldest daughter, the College Kritter, is attending University at Berkeley. She has left the confines of a dorm and moved into an apartment with two roommates. A day does not pass without her sending a message on Skype or iphone asking for culinary advice or a recipe. Unlike me at her age, she truly enjoys the art of preparing food.
We spent the last weekend enjoying each other’s company at Berkeley. But anything we did, from me meeting her friends, to walking around town, to visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, to cutting across from Haight-Ashbury to Chinatown, involved some aspect of food. I made Turkish coffee for us on Saturday while she made breakfast. We went to Berkeley Farmers Market where we bought a bunch of very sweet, small strawberries to nibble on while walking, had big bowls of pho (Vietnamese soup, laden with noodles, spices and different meats) at a local restaurant, bought cheeses, bread, crackers, olives, and wine at the Berkeley Bowl for the impromptu get-together with her buddies later that night. The next day we indulged in some pretty good Chinese food in San Francisco and enjoyed big servings of FroYo on our way back.
On Monday she went to classes, while I prepared a picnic lunch for us. I met her at Dwinell Hall and she took me to her favorite tree where she comes to read and eat lunch. We spread the obligatory plaid blanket on the grass in the shade of the old tree and pulled out sandwiches made with salami and provolone on crusty Italian bread, wedges of ripe heirloom tomatoes, cubes of havarti, danish blue cheese, chevre, and smoked cheddar, along with some cut-up pears and grapes. For desert we had Ferrero-Rocher candy, a gift from her Russian friend Olga to me, upon our meeting.
I boarded my plane content, satisfied that my oldest had found her place in the world. I was somewhat intrigued when she told me that her friends read my blog, but consider my recipes too complicated. My first instinct was to rebel and defend the simplicity of my food preparation, but then I remembered how upset I was when the little black book would not reveal the secrets for which I searched. I decided to start a series of recipes for absolute beginners, the smart and brainy kids who not only deserve to be at great schools, but also to prepare nutritious, real meals on any given day.
The first in the series is a tutorial on basic mashed potatoes.
MASHED POTATOES, 101
- 7-8 medium to large russet potatoes
- 2 tsp salt
- ½ cup warm milk
- 2-3 Tbsp room-temperature butter (margarin, if you follow Eastern Orthodox fast, Great Lent, or vegan diet)
- 1-2 tsp kosher salt
- 1-2 Tbsp sour cream
- 1-2 tsp chopped chives or parsley
- 1 head roasted garlic*
Wash and scrub clean the potatoes. Peel them with a vegetable peeler (I prefer that now, but for years I did it with a paring knife, stubbornly resisting the advice of the more enlightened) and cut into uniform chunks (if you cut each potato in half, and then each half in thirds, it would be perfect). Place in a heavy-bottomed pot (stainless steel is the best) and pour cold water to cover the potatoes entirely. Add salt and cook until the water boils. Turn the heat to medium and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes, until potatoes are fork-tender (pierce the biggest chunk with a fork, and if there is no resistance, your potatoes are done). Drain in a colander and put back into the pot. Return to the turned-off, but still warm burner to evaporate all the water.
Use the potato ricer to make a puree (I just recently bought a potato ricer â€“ it makes the fluffiest, airiest mashed potatoes ever). You can, alternatively use the potato masher, but there will be chunks in your puree. If, on the other hand, you decide to use the hand-held mixer, the potatoes might become too gummy.
Mix in the butter, milk, and salt. Stir until uniform and incorporated. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
To spruce up your potatoes add sour cream and chives or parsley. Another variation is adding roasted garlic. Experiment and adjust to your tastes.
*To make roasted garlic: Cut away the ends of the head, opposite the root, and sprinkle some olive oil on top. Wrap in aluminum foil and roast for 45 minutes at 400F. Let it cool, and then squeeze each clove into a ramekin or directly into mashed potatoes.