Nov 262010
 

Deda and Nina, Thanksgiving 2005, Fairview Park, Ohio

Every single year, I make a pledge to approach the month of November prepared, ready to tackle every challenge it issues, armed with experience and predicting the ensuing chaos. But this time, again, it took me by surprise. It ambushed me. November skulked at a safe distance behind a harvest moon, hung meaninglessly from the silhouetted palms like a demented piñata. It laid low, hiding behind the Halloween costumes and lying pumpkins completely out of their comfort zone under the cerulean skies of Southern California. It leapt at me with a shout of “BOO!” as soon as we sorted the candy. And being needy November, it demanded instant attention.

We barely had a moment of respite after putting together the award-winning Gypsy costume for the younger Beastie, and making a non-winning, but truly terrifying Hannibal Lecter mask for the older Beastie, when the birthday party preparations came into focus. I know, I know, I dig myself into a hole every year, trying to make something memorable for my girls, stretching every penny, and pulling every ounce of creative energy I possess.

Some time in September, when November was just a distant thought, Zoe and I decided on a fancy cocktail party with a bartender, pretty hors d’oeuvres, and chocolate cupcakes instead of a cake. No, the inspiration did not come from an episode of Orange County Housewives, and you might think that we are shacking up in one of the mansions in Coto de Caza. That is obviously what my delusional youngest child envisioned when she showed me the list of about twenty friends she wanted to invite to her long-anticipated birthday fête. I had to make her choose and apply the red marker aggressively, until the number dwindled to ten, still too many to sit at the dinner table, and way too many for our small two-bedroom apartment. But, the invitations went out, hand-delivered to the lucky few by the party girl herself.

That Saturday afternoon, everything in our home was black, white, and silver. The freshly ironed crisp white tablecloth was a perfect background for black platters filled with tiny stacked sandwiches, deviled eggs, bites of hot dogs wrapped in puff pastry, colorful vegetables with a dip, hummus, fruit kabobs, shrimp cocktail, and cheese with crackers.  The guests started trickling in, dressed for the black-tie affair, their eyes twinkling with excitement. Our twelve year old was behind the kitchen counter, dressed in a mandatory white shirt and black skirt as any self-respecting bartender, surrounded by bottles of juices, nectars, soda, straws, and cut-up fruit for garnish. In twenty minutes she mastered the skill of mixing a proper Shirley Temple and a booze free Bellini, and we had a room full of starlets attending their first Hollywood gala, balancing the cocktails in one hand and a small plate of nibbles in the other, with the appropriate pop standards unobtrusively completing the atmosphere. By pop, I mean Dino, Frank, Sammie, etc.

After this first, successfully accomplished November task, we were ready to finally embark on a long, luxurious scuba-diving vacation in the Philippines. Oh, I forgot: it was my sister and her husband on that sail boat cutting through the turquoise waves. Silly me! But I had no time for petty jealousies. We had to prepare for Father’s yearly visit, coordinate the arrival and organize the departure of the College Kritter, tackle Thanksgiving, and properly celebrate another birthday: that of the aforementioned alien from Academia.

Deda, Zoe, and Anya, Thanksgiving, 2005, Fairview Park, Ohio

I took a day off work on Monday, and spent the whole morning twirling around and singing (I would have whistled if I had ever managed to master the skill), ecstatic that I did not have to come close to the odious location of my employment. Father’s flight arrived on time, the suitcases following him, piled on another wheelchair (he is a very agile man, but for his complete and utter ignorance of any other language beside Serbian, we convinced him to ask for land transportation when he travels). It was the first sunny day after several gloomy and rainy ones. TSA did not subject him to the dreaded groping routine, LAX was not the usual nightmare, and the I-5 took us home in less than an hour. Feeling exhilarated, I stuck my tongue out at November.

We sipped Courvoisier as is our ritual for welcoming Dr. Popovic (Father to me, “Meeko” to Husband, “Deda” to the Beasties and the Kritter) to our home, as he slowly unpacked and I put away the goodies he brought from home. Everything survived the trans-Atlantic voyage and the gentle, loving attention of  the baggage handlers. We talked as Husband retreated to his laptop, unable to follow the conversation (he is a very smart man, but completely and utterly ignorant of any other language besides English), or rather a winded monologue.

While nodding and interjecting an occasional “da” or “aha”, I pulled a chicken out of the fridge, emptied its cavity and separated the liver from the neck, heart, and gizzards which went into my soup bag. I sprinkled the chicken with salt and pepper inside and out, rubbed it with butter, stuffed it with rosemary, thyme, a garlic head cut in half, and the liver. I put it in a roasting pan on top of six thick pieces of baguette, and poured several glugs of olive oil and wine to moisten the bread. It roasted for forty five minutes before I added the wedges of potatoes, big chunks of carrots, and the other half of the garlic head, glistening with olive oil. It remained in the oven for another forty-five minutes, filling the house with an air laden with pleasure breathed through the nose and straight into the soul.

The table was set and red wine poured, while everybody was milling around feeling good, listening to the 80s ballads in anticipation of the delectable meal. After all this was Dorie Greenspan’s Roasted Chicken for the Lazy People, and I have been looking forward to making it since I read the first glamorous review on the French Fridays with Dorie group site (yes, it was the crispy bread that did it for me).

Husband and the Beasties are properly trained, and accept that my Canon Rebel must eat before they partake. But Father and the Berkeley Kritter set the pace and set in on the beast like vultures. The crispy golden skin was peeled and half-digested before I could remove my lens cap. Hence, no pictures of the meal.

And still, November whines, kicking its bratty feet, unwilling to relent. The Kritter’s birthday is up next and her ever evolving palate is not easily appeased. The Brits have an ode to Guy Fawkes that begins, “Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”

So, why is it that year after year, like a mother forgetting the agony of labor, I let November sneak up on me so that by the fifth, I am the victim of its treason and plot.

But, oh how we remember, remember our sweet Novembers.

Nov 242010
 

I have never been to Africa. I listened, entranced, to the stories of wonder my parents’ friends told about working on the dams in Zambia, or building the roads in Zimbabwe, tracing  afterwords on the globe the meridians that led me to those exotic countries. In elementary school, I cried silent tears of angry resignation through Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I followed with adrenalin-induced intensity the escapades of the two kidnapped children wandering through deserts and jungles in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and Wilderness. In high school I suffered through Harry’s inevitable moribund monologues in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and made a pledge to change the world when the horrible injustices of Appartheid made my heart constrict with sorrow in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.

I listened to the stories of safaris in Kenya and explorations of the Serengeti, and yearned to see the red sky on the horizon of the savannah. I watched every episode of the BBC Survival series, dreaming of the African sunrises and the majestic waterfalls. When my piano teacher left for Mauritania with her husband and daughter, I was heart-broken and sad, but curious and jealous at the same time.

I wanted to go to Africa when my friend John Elwell finally got accepted to the Peace Corps and departed for Tunisia, but I was too insecure to skip the meridians again. Besides, I had a two year old daughter who was a bit too big to fit into a backpack. So I stayed put in a western suburb of Detroit and buried myself in the painful intricacies of The English Patient. My heart, already torn to slivers by divorce, became broken again and again, while I envisioned myself in the cave, the Saharan winds covering me with layers and layers of soft, seductive, and deadly sand.

I rejoiced when the mailman brought a postcard from my sister’s trip to Northern Africa, and cried laughing while she later described their adventures in Egypt and Morocco. I could envision her sitting under the enormous Saharan night sky next to the communal fire, surreptitiously rubbing her hands with an antiseptic just before a wizened Bedouin women of undetermined age offered her some flat bread and a tiny piece of some desiccated animal protein wrapped in dried camel dung. I chuckled as I imagined her chagrin when she discovered that she would be the one riding a donkey, while the rest of the group would ascend on the royal camels on their way to the pyramids, even though she would be the one leading the caravan.

I watched Hotel Rwanda embracing my knees with all my strength and sobbing inconsolably, unable to sleep for nights, asking myself what I could do to help. And I admired my friend Srdjan who spent months in the worst regions of Sudan on a UN mission to help the children.

Another friend is leaving for Cairo in a month on another UN mission, and Africa is again on my mind. Africa of Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion of my grade school years, Africa of Alex Haley’s Roots, Africa of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Africa of Somalian babies with stomachs distended by hunger, Africa of merciless child-soldiers wielding AK-47s, Africa of majestic buildings in Addis Ababa, and Africa of victorious Nelson Mandela.

I cannot go to Africa. Not yet.  But I can bring a part of Africa to my home. I can introduce my children to a world that they yearn to discover as much as I do by cooking a dish that represents at least some aspects of this wonderful, mysterious, and so exploited continent. And as a background, I will offer them the books and the movies that seduced me and enticed me to learn as much as I can about Africa, enveloped in romanticism and destroyed by greed.

AFRICAN CHICKEN PEANUT STEW

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound (500gr) boneless chicken legs. chopped in cubes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 piece ginger (1 inch), peeled, grated
  • 1 Tbsp garlic chili paste
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp smooth peanut butter
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 big sweet potatoes peeled and cut in big chunks
  • salt, pepper

Directions:

Combine the chicken, garlic, brown sugar, ginger, garlic-chili paste, salt, and oil, and marinade for 30 minutes. Heat the skillet on medium-high heat and add the chicken and the marinade. Stir for 5-8 minutes until the chicken starts to get brown, and add the onion. Stir for another 5 minutes and add the tomato paste, and the peanut butter. Stir for a couple of minutes until everything melds together. Add the chicken stock, sweet potatoes, and the seasonings. Cook for another 20-30 minutes, until the sauce thickens and the potatoes are fork-tender. Serve as is, or with some boiled rice.

I am submitting this to Hearth and Soul event, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life, Heather, Butter, Christy and Sue.

“Come join Soup-a-Palooza at TidyMom and Dine and Dishsponsored by Bush’s BeansHip HostessPillsbury and Westminster Crackers”

Nov 202010
 

America officially became my home in August of 1986. I arrived on a one-way PanAm flight, Belgrade-New York-Detroit, dragging behind two suitcases overfilled with books and photo albums, my heart rent with sorrow from leaving my family and friends forever, and, at the same time, brimming with anticipation.

I felt like Alice in Wonderland as I walked through the door of a small, one-bedroom rental house in one of the less developed western suburbs of Detroit that my ex-husband shared with his sister and her boyfriend. The welcoming committee consisted of two smiling humans who hugged me, five exuberant canines who jumped around, squealing and yelping, and a very reserved, long-haired feline, who did not move an inch.

That night we went out to a BBQ restaurant. I was completely lost in a daze, jet-legged, and too disconnected from the physical world to pay too much attention to the food. I smiled and nodded a lot. Afterwards, we went to the movies. I should have known that the vertigo was not only the vestige of the trans-Atlantic flight. A couple of months previously, I recommended to my (now ex) husband the movie, Paris, Texas with Nastassja Kinski. In turn, he introduced me to my new life with Howard the Duck. How fitting!

Pretty soon, I stopped feeling like Alice, and entered the story of Gulliver, alternating between Liliputians and the giants. Used to the brick and mortar houses of Serbia, I shuddered every time a truck passed by and the whole wooden structure reverberated. European washing machines heat the water to near boiling. The American machine only seemed capable of lukewarm, and all my pristinely white whites became gray and beige. I could not stand the clutter and the mess, cat and dog hair all over my clothes and the furniture, the kibble strewn around the floor, the dirty dishes languishing for hours in the sink, getting crusty, and the towels thrown down after the shower and later trampled on by muddy boots (the washing machine had only lukewarm water, right).

The front door opened into our room, and Sisyphus only could relate to my efforts as I tried to keep it tidy. The room did not have a door, except to the yard (a perfect setup for a newlywed couple) and no closet. The clothes had to be hung high up above the piano so the dogs could not get to them. One day, as I walked through the door, I was greeted by a scene from Dante’s Inferno: A dog was lying in the middle of the floor casually chewing my brown suede Bali pumps, surrounded by the beans from my beanbag frog that I received from my friends at the airport. I broke down and cried for hours. That event symbolized the irreversible change I made when I light-heartedly decided to say goodbye to the world I knew.

After all, I did not need my heels in the new world. Even when I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I was deemed overdressed, receiving non-approving glances from other women. The first New Year’s Eve in the U.S. I spent wrapped in an extra large winter jacket speckled with oil stains, huddled around a bonfire, looking wistfully toward a garbage dump turned ski slope next door, with lights illuminating little figures snaking their way down the hill. I felt so utterly alone, amidst dozens of people whose language I spoke, but did not understand, imagining my friends celebrating this holiday at our parents’ chalet on the mountain of Kopaonik, exhausted from skiing, cheeks flushed red by the crisp winter air, raising their glasses to toast me, wishing me well, and missing me.

Only one woman can be in charge of the household, and it was not me. My sister-in-law planned the activities, delegated chores, did the family finances, and on rare occasions even cooked. She was an extremely picky eater, and dinner choices were very limited and repetitious, albeit flavorful and well prepared: spaghetti with tomato sauce, tuna casserole, baked chicken, pot roast (this one was my favorite), steak (well done for her, medium rare for the rest of us), turkey for holidays and the inevitable turkey Divan the day after. I made iles flottantes one day, wanting to contribute with at least a dessert, but she refused to try it, saying that the combination of white and yellow grossed her out. Her boyfriend got paid in lamb one time, and I roasted a leg with yogurt and garlic. While everybody else enjoyed it, she would not touch it. My eagerness evaporated and I resigned myself to eating fast food and cheap take-out my new family preferred.

My loneliness deepened with every new day. I found solace in the books piled on the shelves in the mud room, left by many roommates who once lived there. I devoured the words, getting lost in imagined worlds, trying to escape mine.  While everybody slept, I stayed up, reading until my eyes could not take it any more and I had to succumb, allowing the first rosy light on the horizon to wish me good-night.

I did not belong. I missed my friends and family. I missed the bed I shared with my sister, knowing that she sensed my absence. I longed for nights out on the town with music and wine. I felt wistful thinking of all the college nights spent in a smoky dorm room, discussing movies, books, and plays. I wrote long letters, my attention never far from the dimensional portal cleverly disguised as a common mail box.  I lived for those moments when I would  reach into it and find letters from home, blessedly as long as the ones I sent. I wrote a diary and cried every single day.

I craved the warmth of Mother’s kitchen with all the comforting smells that made me feel secure and loved. And the only way to bring that warmth across the ocean was to cook something that smelled and tasted like home, something I could enjoy by myself. It had to be cream of wheat: lightly sweetened, luscious, milky, warm, and filling. A simple dish to make for a cold Michigan breakfast, while the others were eating some sort of sugar frosted kibble poured from a box with a cheap plastic toy at the bottom. Mother made cream of wheat for us since we were babies. It was a favorite in the morning, and at night, just before bed.

I would heat a cup of milk and as soon as the the surface started to shiver, I would add three tablespoons of farina and one and a half tablespoons of sugar. Once in a while I would add a small handful of raisins. After a couple of minutes of stirring, I would pour it into a bowl and sit at the table with a smile on my face, inhaling with all my might the creamy, milky porridge that smelled like home, my childhood, and Mother. And for a moment I would forget where I was.

Since those days I always keep farina in my pantry. I made it for my daughters since they were babies. I make it for breakfast, sprinkled with chocolate chips, as Mother got them addicted to, with a cold glass of milk to cool the sticky heat. It has become a comfort food for them, too.

Our French Fridays with Dorie group is making four different recipes this month from the book Around My French Table. I have already made the Pumpkin Flan and  Pommes Dauphinois. The other two are the Roasted Chicken for the Paresseux and the Semolina Cake. For some reason I did not know that semolina is the same thing as farina, or cream of wheat, until I read the comments from the bloggers that are participating in this event. But when I found out, I had to make the cake and invoke just a little magic from my past.

The process was extremely simple, and the instructions easy to follow, as usual. I had only a nine-inch pan and the cake came out somewhat thin. The caramel soaked into the semolina and did not ooze over the edges when I inverted the cake. I used regular raisins instead of golden ones, because I did not think ahead. But the dessert was satisfying, creamy, not too sweet, with a touch of bitterness from the caramel and a bit of fruitiness from the raisins. The Beasties approved, which is the ultimate sign of success. I curled up on the couch with a still warm slice, and let the memories take over.

The recipe for the Semolina Cake is on page 438 of Around My French Table. To get a peek at other posts about this month’s dishes, go to French Fridays with Dorie and enjoy. And for the recipes, get the book. It is really beautiful.

Nov 162010
 

It was April of 1987, and I was boldly approaching the entrance of one of the best restaurants in the area, armed only with the innocence and arrogance of my youth. My college degree was safely tucked in the file cabinet, still smelling of fresh ink. I was starting a new life in the land of plenty, and the world was beautiful seen through my rose colored contact lenses.

My American husband’s effort to get me a job as an entrepreneur, when I was an interpreter, went unrecognized, and the opportunity to work for Delta Airlines was squashed because I could not drive. My sister-in-law laughed at me when I asked her to teach me how to process taxes, told me I should start from the beginning like any other American kid, and get a job at Mickey D’s. Tired of grueling work at Huff’s tree farm that tore the skin off my delicate piano-playing fingers, and working as a security guard at a local ski-slope making minimum wage of $4.00 an hour, I was ready to take off in a different direction. Anywhere else would be good.

The owner of Appeteaser was a CIA (no, not that CIA, where they could tell you the recipe, but then have to kill you) trained chef in his early thirties, a good-looking man of Italian and Jewish ancestry. He looked at me and gave me the job on the spot: not because I was a sophisticated European fluent in four languages; not because my college degree produced an ethereal halo around my head; not because I knew the ingredients of all mother sauces; not because my husband was a six-foot-four inch man-beast. I got a job in his restaurant because I was pretty. At the time, it did not occur to me that my looks would be enough to secure me a job in any industry. I did not consider myself particularly beautiful and tried to impress people around me with my intellect only.

The restaurant was a logistical nightmare. It was situated on the main street, spread through three floors: the basement housed the piano bar and the bakery, and first and second floors were delegated to the dining room. I had never carried a tray before, and resting it on my shoulders, with five or six heavy plates on it, trying to negotiate the steep steps winding around, was definitely a challenge. I practiced without grumbling, going up and down, balancing empty trays and yelling “Corner!” I attended wine seminars, and spent hours breaking corks in my clumsy attempts at opening a French red, until I could pull the cork out with confidence, weaving a story to distract my thirsty customers.

A new world was slowly opening in front of my eyes, and I entered it in wonderment. I stood, mesmerized, while the baker swiftly braided lemon-scented ropes of dough for challah. I tasted crunchy matchsticks of jicama carefully laid on top of mixed greens. I inhaled the anise-flavored Pernod as it hit the hot saucepan, splashing over a lobster tail basking in butter. My senses were in a perpetual state of overload, and I fell in love with food all over again.

The restaurant menu was a combination of classic and fusion dishes: Lobster Ravioli, Chicken Livers with Strawberries, Flounder with Bananas and Walnuts, Moules Marinière, Filet Mignon with Hollandaise and Asparagus… and Soufflé.

Oh, the dreaded soufflé! Each night it was a different one, and the guests had to order it when ordering dinner. Timing was crucial because it took forty-five minutes for it to bake, and we had to present it to the table in all its glory, still airy and fluffy, with tendrils of steam rising above the ramekin. We would dip the teaspoon into the sauce served in a delicate silver dish and carefully deposit a dollop of it, while breaking the golden brown skin. Only then could we let out a sigh of relief and move on.

At home, I tried to recreate some of  the dishes that impressed me the most. I fumbled in the beginning, my palate still unaccustomed to the newly-discovered flavors. I tasted the sauces with my eyes closed, trying to isolate the hints of ingredients, one by one. I went back to my stove, and started from the beginning.

I cursed a million times wishing to bring back all the moments in the past when I absent-mindedly stirred whatever was on the burner, when I mechanically added the prepared ingredients, while Mother’s voice droned on in the background, my mind wondering about random inanities like how different my life would have been  had she been named Violeta. I had a superb culinary teacher right next to me for years. And I chose to start learning only after I put the ocean between us.

At work I observed the chefs and tried to imitate their movements in slow-motion. I mastered the kitchen jargon and French culinary phrases. I had my survival skills honed enough not to ask any questions and risk a knife flung in my direction while they were behind the infamous kitchen Maginot line. Instead, I sat at the bar after work and drilled them, as soon as Mr. Hyde departed for the night and only the jovial Dr. Jekyll remained, chain-smoking and throwing back beer after beer.

I listened and I soaked up the knowledge. In time, velouté sauce ceased to intimidate me. I managed to put composed salads on the dinner table, accompanied by home-made dressings. Mussells in white wine and garlic became one of my signature dishes. And my first challah was a thing of beauty, even though my fingers lacked the dexterity of the Appeteaser’s bakers. I moved on to different pursuits of happiness, but my quest for culinary knowledge never stopped.

There remained one elusive dish I did not have the courage to tackle: the soufflé, until a few days ago, when the Daring Cooks Challenge put the fire underneath my feet, and I could not decline. I read recipe after recipe, looking for the line that would scare me, but I encountered only simplicity. I opted for a savory version by Ina Garten and delved in with the passion of the pastry chefs I admired. I whipped my egg whites to their glossy, firm peaks, folded them gently into the cooled blue cheese sauce, and poured the fluffy concotion into the buttered dish sprinkled with Parmesan. I resisted the urge to peek, and let it bake for 30 minutes, breathing in the tantalizing smells from the oven.

As soon as the timer went off, I grabbed the soufflé and took it outside to takes its photo for posterity. I caught it while still high and billowy, but in seconds it started to collapse. We had one more hour before the dinner would be ready and I placed the dish in the middle of the table.  There is nothing like the aroma of melted cheese to drag everybody out of their hidden lairs. By the time I brought out the plates and silverware, the Beasties and Husband were leaning forward in their chairs, uttering mmmmmmhs and aaaaaaahs, breathing in the cheesy steam. We could not agree which parts were tastier: the creamy, soft, yielding center, or the slightly crunchy, golden brown crust. Rubbing their tummies in obvious satisfaction, the tribe went about their usual weekend business, and I sat at the table, looking at the empty Pyrex ramekin, smiling,  ready to cut another notch on the board of my culinary successes. As a matter of fact, I am going to start collecting egg whites: there is a dark chocolate soufflé with a Grand Marnier sauce calling my name all the way from the North Main Street in Milford, Michigan, where once upon a time, Appeteaser restaurant stood.

Dave and Linda from Monkeyshines in the Kitchen chose Soufflés as our November 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge! Dave and Linda provided two of their own delicious recipes plus a sinfully decadent chocolate soufflé recipe adapted from Gordon Ramsay’s recipe found at the BBC Good Food website.

This is also my entry for the Real Food Wednesdays, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop

BLUE CHEESE SOUFFLÉ (Ina Garten, Barefoot in Paris)

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup scalded milk
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 4 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 3 ounces good Roquefort cheese, chopped
  • 5 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Butter the inside of an 8-cup souffle dish (7 1/2 inches in diameter and 3 1/4 inches deep) and sprinkle evenly with Parmesan.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the hot milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, the cayenne, and nutmeg. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, for 1 minute, until smooth and thick.

Off the heat, while still hot, whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time. Stir in the Roquefort and the 1/4 cup of Parmesan and transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Put the egg whites, cream of tartar, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on low speed for 1 minute, on medium speed for 1 minute, then finally on high speed until they form firm, glossy peaks.

Whisk 1/4 of the egg whites into the cheese sauce to lighten and then fold in the rest. Pour into the souffle dish, then smooth the top. Draw a large circle on top with the spatula to help the souffle rise evenly, and place in the middle of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 375 degrees F. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes (don’t peek!) until puffed and brown. Serve immediately.

Nov 152010
 

Mother has always been an innovative and creative cook. As long as the recipe did not contain mollusks, cilantro, or hot spices, she would enthusiastically gather the necessary ingredients, substitute the missing ones if needed, and reproduce the dish she had seen on TV or in one of the many international magazines she read. This was not always easy to accomplish. In the late sixties and seventies, the only seasonings she had on hand were salt, pepper, and paprika. Parsley was used as a garnish, and she had to win the hearts of the neighborhood reigning queens to introduce the beloved dill of her Austro-Hungarian heritage.

Dinner parties at our house were much-anticipated events. The dining-room table would be immaculately set with a starched white tablecloth, white-and-blue patterned plates, crystal glasses, and gold-plated flatware. Friends would gather around the appetizer platters, holding a tumbler of whiskey or a glass of Campari, excitedly chattering, taunted by the aroma wafting from the kitchen. With Sinatra or Nat King Cole playing in the background, Mother would emerge from the kitchen flushed from her special hostess anxiety syndrome, bringing the main dish out to the table, throwing witty repartees without missing a beat. A fresh-water bass caught the day before would end up stuffed and baked on top of flavorful rice pilav, infused with white wine and rosemary. A couple of rabbits Father had brought from his hunting expedition would end up as a robust goulash accompanied by bread dumplings. In the spring, the centerpiece would be a lamb roasted with garlic and yogurt in the Albanian style. In November, when the pigs were butchered for the winter, she would serve a hearty pork offal stew with steaming boiled potatoes.

I enjoyed her imaginative approach to cooking. Every delectable bite left her signature on my culinary experience. I admired her creativity and confidence to tackle seemingly impossible tasks. But it was not the roasted pheasant or perfectly round, symmetrical Scottish eggs that pull me back to my childhood. It’s pasta.

Eating meat at dinner was a status symbol in 1970s Yugoslavia, a way to prove that life was getting better following the decades of suffering and starving during the war and right after it. We partook of the abundant quantities of meat protein, but two or three days a week, the dinners were meatless. And those days, I was the happiest. I still dream of Mother’s homemade tagliatelle with sauteed cabbage and lots of black pepper, small shells tossed with caramelized onions and potatoes, fresh ravioli filled with jam, and macaroni with cheese.

I can sing the odes to macaroni and cheese. It is not the American version with cheese sauce and elbow pasta. Mother usually cooked penne or rigatoni, a robust pasta able to stand up to crumbled fresh farmers cheese and “kajmak”*, which would melt and lend the noodles a buttery sheen. I could never have enough. And if there was a surplus of noodles, we had a dessert coming: warm pasta with ground walnuts and sugar.

While Father swore that he enjoyed meat-free meals, macaroni and cheese somehow always happened when he was away on an emergency surgery or on call in the hospital. His absence from the kitchen table allowed us a bit more freedom. We still had to keep our shoulders up and our elbows off, but we could talk, laugh, tease each other, and ignore the principle of silence during meals. We were raised in a household that applied strict rules on behavior, and the odd days we were allowed to skirt around them were cherished. My emotional connection to macaroni and cheese certainly reaches to those moments when we were relaxed and unbound in our youthful enthusiasm.

Since then, the culinary world exploded, and different ethnic cuisines started to warm their way around the globe, reaching even the smaller towns that have been stubbornly rejecting change for decades. Mother has expanded her pasta repertoire and mastered lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, and fettuccine Alfredo (this one surprised me, for I thought she would be eternally traumatized by her first encounter with the dish, watching in horror as my first husband, the chef, flung a flaccid noodle against her pristine stove backdrop to check for readiness). We exchange recipes and tips, give each other advice on techniques we learned the hard way, and analyze the results of each new approach we try. Next time I go back home, I plan on introducing her to the delicately balanced flavors of Thai pasta and Vietnamese phở. She will dissect every element, she will scrutinize my every movement, she will act skeptical about the integrity of the dish. But in the end, I know that she will clear a little patch of the herb garden for a Thai basil seedling.

Our little circle at I Heart Cooking Clubs is featuring Giada De Laurentiis, and the theme for this week was “Kid at Heart”. The challenge was to find a recipe of Giada’s that takes us back to our childhood. I immediately thought of Serbian macaroni and cheese. I could not expect Giada to publish Mother’s recipe, and settled for pasta of any kind.

The Persian store in our neighborhood had gorgeous, firm, shiny eggplants on sale (4 for $1.00) and I could not resist. I found a recipe for Rigatoni with Eggplant Puree on Food Network and threw myself into preparing the meal, emulating Mother’s flair and confidence. I peeled and cubed two eggplants, put them into a bowl with cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. After stirring gently, I slid the vegetables onto a baking sheet and roasted them until they yielded to my touch. I would have stopped there, seduced by the aroma emanating from the oven. But the older Beastie detests the idea of eggplants, and the younger Beastie does not like the texture of nuts in her food. I pureed the vegetables and ground the toasted nuts, adding the pasta water and lemon juice.

It was not the prettiest pasta dish I have ever served. The Beasties and their friend who was spending the night had seconds (no, I have not divulged the secret ingredient), and I received a lot of thank you kisses afterwards. It was not Mother’s macaroni and cheese, but it was satisfying, comforting, and warm, simple to prepare, and rewarding in its robust flavors. We laughed, talked over each other, teased one another and enjoyed the moment, relaxed and happy. And just for a second, I felt the stirring of memories from another kitchen table in the faraway land of my childhood.

*Kajmak is the fat that gathers on the surface of the slowly heated fresh, unpasteurized and unhomogenized milk; it’s carefully collected with a slotted spoon and salted lightly. Each day another layer is added, depending on the quantity of milk. Kajmak can be consumed immediately, still containing the sweetness of the milk, or aged, when it becomes tangy and sharper. It is used as a spread on hot, fresh bread, an ingredient for the phyllo dough cheese pies, or an addition to sauces, to make them creamier and richer.

RIGATONI WITH EGGPLANT PUREE (Giada De Laurentiis, Foodnetwork. com)

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 3 cloves garlic, whole
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 1 pound rigatoni pasta (egg-free pasta is available for Eastern Orthodox fast)
  • 1/4 cup torn fresh mint leaves
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan (skip if you are following eastern Orthodox fast or a vegan diet)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl combine the eggplant, cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Spread the vegetables out in an even layer on the baking sheet. Roast in the oven until the vegetables are tender and the eggplant is golden, about 35 minutes.

While the vegetables are roasting, place the pine nuts in a small baking dish. Place in the oven on the rack below the vegetables. Roast until golden, about 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and reserve (I toasted mine in a small, dry skillet on the stove, shaking it every now and then, for 4-5 minutes).

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain pasta into a large bowl and reserve 1 1/2 cups of the cooking liquid. Transfer the roasted vegetables to a food processor. Add the torn mint leaves and extra-virgin olive oil. Puree the vegetables.

Transfer the pureed vegetables to the bowl with the pasta and add the Parmesan. Stir to combine, adding the pasta cooking liquid 1/2 cup at a time until the pasta is saucy. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the top (I ground mine and mixed them into the sauce) and serve.

This pasta is going to be perfect for Hearth and Soul blog event over at Alex’s A Moderate Life.

Hearth n' Soul Blog Hop IHCC

Nov 122010
 

I have a great ear and respect for languages and I try to pronounce foreign words as close as a native speaker would. I get a lot of sideway glances when I insist on saying moustache and garage just the way the French would. Michelangelo never becomes a Michael, and there is no “sh” sound in bruschetta. I like pronouncing the initial “g” in gnu, “p” in pneumonia, and “eks” in Xanadu, just because I can. I stick to proper Latin, so bona fide does not rhyme with hide and there is no night in ad infinitum. Do not even get me started on Russian.

I have passed this purist, snobbish trait on to my girls, and they suffer even more questioning looks and tilted heads. Husband tries to follow suit, to show his great appreciation for articulate and precise expression, but his Southern heritage shows its rubish head once in a while.

I taunted him on purpose yesterday when I told him that we are having pommes dauphinois for dinner. Oh, he knew that it was another Dorie night, and expected a barrage of incomprehensible guttural sounds from his hoity-toity wife. His inquisitive eyebrow raise granted him a translation of potato gratin, with a roled “r” and a nasal finish. I thought it was self-explanatory, turned away, and went on my merry way into the kitchen, digging through the drawers in quest for my mandoline (no, I was not going to serenade him; I am talking the other mandoline of the un-romantic, slice-your-finger fame, that renders even and thin slices of vegetables).

But Husband was still perplexed. I rolled my eyes (just to get back at the multitudinous eye-rolls coming my way for every computer-oriented question), and continued in an exasperated tone to dissect the process of making this dish. Half way through my exaggeratedly detailed explanation, a little light bulb illuminated Husband’s face and he exclaimed, “Well, that’s just like our southern potatoes au gratin!” In his best lower Appalachian accent it came out as “awg-rotten”. Did we have some fun with that one!

Husband is a writer and his command of the English language is formidable. He edits all my posts, and I usually hide under the table while he deletes my beautiful commas and adds the definite articles I tend to completely ignore. But foreign languages are not his strong suit. He does not mind if I correct him. I do not mind, as long as he continues with his merciless strategy of weeding out the undesirables in my prose.

We have certainly expressed our differences in pronouncing this simple, country fare that is a staple on many French tables. But when we cut into the creamy, garlicky,  soft potatoes topped with the most beautiful golden-brown hue of sinfully rich melted cheese, we spoke the same language, void of articulation, grammar and style. We leaned back, eyes closed, the mouth slightly curved into a beatific smile, and regressed to a time of stocky, muscular humanoids with filthy, matted hair, dressed in uncured animal fur, uttering the sounds for which only a three month old baby would be praised.

Dorie Greenspan has scored again. The dish was simple, with minimal ingredients. The potatoes are peeled, sliced thinly, and layered, slightly overlapping, in a buttered oven-proof  pie plate. Each layer is seasoned with salt and covered with a couple of tablespoons of garlic-infused heavy cream. The shredded cheese finishes the plate before it goes into the oven for the final step.

These potatoes were the centerpiece of our dinner. They were rich, but not overbearing. They were lusciously creamy and soft under the tongue. They imparted a wonderful tangy and salty note of melted cheese on top, heated to a delicate, golden veneer. And the garlic, steeped in cream, elevated the flavors up from mild without become obtrusive.

For the recipe go buy the book Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. It is worth every little coin you send. And for more posts on this recipe (and three others) visit French Fridays with Dorie.

Nov 112010
 

I have been on a serious German kick lately. Our eternally blue California skies become speckled with fleecy white clouds and I start thinking stews, and dumplings, and root vegetables. I talk to my sister on Skype over the ululating  sirens of the Frankfurt Fire Station #39 located across from their apartment building and I envision big chunks of “rindfleisch” braised for hours, resting on a platter surrounded by glistening carrots and perfectly boiled potatoes. I hear her husband’s hearty laugh or an innocuous remark in German about their impending late dinner, and I see a pot of boiling water with plump balls of dough bouncing around on top.

While Liljana and Thomas are basking in the afterglow of their three-week scuba vacation in the Philippines, lamenting over a barely perceptible weight gain (in her case) or a more substantial one (in his), and planning meals that would enable them to reclaim their svelte, athletic figures, I can barely stop myself from breaking into  Marianne Rosenberg’s Schlager while salivating over beef shanks, imagining a pungent horseradish sauce and a kohlrabi puree. It is irrelevant that I have never tasted kohlrabi in my life. At this particular moment the unattractive, tentacled, greenish-white bulbous rhizome is the epitome of heartiness that defines the German cuisine for me.

My first encounter with Germany was in September of 1982, during the luxuriously long summer between high school and college. I spent a month visiting one of my numerous Aunts and Uncles in the small town of Lörrach, close to the French and Swiss borders. During the day, while my little cousins were attending preschool and the adults had to go to work, I roamed the quiet streets, peeked into the store windows, and tried to break out of my shy mode and buy groceries. Some days the babies stayed home and I would watch them, switching my attention from yodeling folk-musicians on ART TV to equally unsatisfying and uninspiring Wild-West romance novels in Serbian supplied by another cousin from Basel, for my reading pleasure.

One of my relatives’ friend was a hostess on the train, and I spent several days as her guest, traveling along the barbed-wire protected East German border all the way north to the island of Sylt in the North Sea. As the train left the solid ground of the European continent and continued on tracks running across the sea, practically hovering above the churning waves, I felt as if I were approaching one of Dante’s inner circles, abandoning any hope of return. The island was a resort, the retreat of the rich and famous, all fur, leather, and precious stones.

And yet, the sandy beaches were deserted. The beach chairs sat facing the icy, gray ocean. I plopped down in one of them and gazed toward the horizon where the world ended in a barely perceptible line separating the sky from the water. I never felt as desperately isolated as in that moment, wrapping my sweater tight around my shoulders, while the wind flung tiny, stinging droplets of the cold North Sea at my cheeks. I felt utterly crushed by the gray sand, gray water, and the gray sky above, unable to detect even the smallest speck of color anywhere around. This was not my Adriatic. I walked back from the beach, passing beautiful women wrapped in soft fur coats, accompanied by equally beautiful men with aristocratic features. The sleek, expensive black sedans coasted along the main street. Waiters dressed in crisp, white shirts floated around smooth, bare shoulders and elegant hands holding glasses of Dom Pérignon, while the guttural laughs of the satisfied and inebriated elite reverberated along the sidewalks.

I held my breath until I reached the small, non-descript building where the train crew slept. I was ready to throw myself into my bed, but as I approached, the smell of roasted meat and cabbage melted the shard of ice in my heart. And just like Kai in Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen, I woke up. As I walked toward the crowd gathering around a simmering pot of red cabbage, I felt at home. For a moment I forgot that I am on a tiny island at the edge of the world. I found solace in the flushed cheeks surrounding me. I joined the line of people piling their plates with steaming heaps of soft, flavorful cabbage and juicy roast with crispy skin. Somewhere in the corner, a TV came alive broadcasting Marianne Rosenberg’s newest hit.

I sat on the couch against the wall as the gray slowly dissipated, overtaken by the golden brown skin of the roast, the liquid amber in the steins of beer covered with a foam thicker than the sea’s, the rosy pink in the cheeks of people celebrating another ordinary day in their lives, and the vibrant purple of the steaming cabbage in the middle of my plate.

The next day the train tracked back to the continent, along the barbed-wire protected East German border, all the way to Basel. We returned just as Oktoberfest was starting. My parents drove to collect me and we spent several days gorging ourselves on juicy bratwursts covered with pungent grainy mustards, chickens roasted on spits in tiny kiosks, potato dumplings, spaetzle, and copious amounts of beer from huge mugs carried with confidence and expertise by buxom blonde women in dirndle dresses. But every plate I ate had to contain a small dollop of “rotkraut”, sweet, sour, enriched with bacon, glistening like an amethyst, a veritable beacon always leading home.

GERMAN BRAISED RED CABBAGE (ROTKRAUT)

In Germany, braised red cabbage is a hearty winter dish served with roasted goose, duck or pork, usually accompanied by dumplings. I served it with roasted pork loin, gravy and spaetzle.

Ingredients:

  • 150gr (5-6oz) bacon, cut into smaller pieces (skip the bacon and use oil if vegan or following Eastern Orthodox fast)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tart apple, peeled, cored and chopped
  • 1 head of red cabbage, shredded
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup red wine
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • salt, freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Heat the large skillet or a stainless steel pot over medium temperature and add bacon. Fry until crisp. Add the onions and sugar and stir until onions soften. Add the apple and sautee for another 5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and heat to boil. Turn the temperature to medium-low to low, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

I offer this wonderful winter dish to the Hearth ‘n’ Soul, hosted by Alex at A Moderate Life.

Hearth n' Soul Blog Hop

This weeks Fall Fest theme is Brassicas, and my red cabbage fits right in! One of the hosts is Nicole from Pinch My Salt, my fellow Californian.

Fall Fest!

Nov 072010
 

Once we were past the age of uttering two repetitive syllables as means of conversation, our parents bestowed upon us a Maleficent-like gift: the burden of trust. We were never forbidden anything and had to be mature enough to make our own decisions. A lot of days had to pass by before we knew for sure that Mother could not see from the back of her head. Oh, we tried to conceal the evidence of our misdeeds, using every ounce of intelligence we possessed. We lied with dead-pan faces. We employed the imagination and creativity for which our teachers praised us daily, and which worked like a charm with our friends. But Mother obviously had an eye (or two) of Sauron’s.

She knew when I swiped a stick of gum from our local small grocery store. She knew when my sister and I went to the river to swim without an adult to accompany us. She knew when my sister lit her first cigarette at the age of twelve. She knew exactly how many pens my sister and brother took from Father’s huge pile, even though he never noticed (and why he was so hard to part with them we could never understand; the ink inevitably dried out, and they became useless before he could get to them all).

Getting caught in a lie meant losing her trust (and in turn Father’s, because she had never hidden from him anything we did, no matter how small and insignificant). And losing her trust was the worst punishment you could imagine. Father would thunder and roar, wave his arms around and point his index finger into our faces. He would send us to stand in a corner when we were little, and ground us for two years when we were teenagers, only to forget everything after couple of hours and some warm hugs from his “I-will-never-do-this-again-for-the-rest-of-my-life-I-promise” repentant children. Not so with Mother. Her sentences were final, with no right to appeal. We knew better than to try to sway her by being more loving, or offering to do extra chores. No way. She saw through our transparent intentions and she never forgave us for them. We had to honor her verdict without audible complaining. Period.

It follows every rule of logic that they kept nothing under lock and key. The only exceptions were Father’s hunting rifles kept immaculately cleaned and unloaded in a small cabinet in the den, and his stun gun, locked in the first drawer of his desk (it was hard to get a licence to carry arms in Yugoslavia, even for a stun gun, but Father was a Commander-in-Reserve  of the field hospital, and the gun was officially issued and legal).

We had access to anything: cash, jewelry, medications, documents, alcohol, and Father’s medical encyclopedia, considered soft-porn by his offspring at the tender age of seven or eight. We knew we were not supposed to dig through their things, but leafing through the glossy pages of his books was too much of a temptation. Few young souls would be able to resist the combination of gruesome, bloody, degenerate, malformed, infected, and very rarely mildly arousing drawings – after all, they were in full color!

We mostly left their stuff alone (I say “mostly”, thinking in averages: while I had no curiosity about them at all, my sister could not wait for the door to click closed after they left, her feet running to rummage through old photographs, Father’s love letters from college, and Mother’s sketches). The off-white credenza with double glass doors hugged the corner of the formal blue dining room, and housed at least thirty different kinds of booze. And I am not including several bottles of beer we always had on hand, dozens of bottles of wine in the cellar, and numerous varieties of “Å¡ljivovica” (Serbian plum brandy) nestling on the pantry floor, to Mother’s eternal chagrin.

As a doctor, Father rarely returned from the hospital without a bottle of fine liqueur, or a pack of foreign cigarettes. He had a reputation as an appreciative consumer of the finer vices. His patients rewarded his diligence, diagnostic acuity, and friendly (but stern when needed) rapport with these gifts encased in shiny colorful boxes that we coveted so intensely that, for a couple of years, we built a most unusual “mural” in our upstairs living room which consisted of hundreds of boxes in different sizes (to this day, Father insists on saving the boxes as a habit, even though his Santa days are past perfect tense, and we have no interest in covering our walls with skeletons of cigarettes smoked and perfume evaporated).

Our relationship with alcohol was one of indifference. We knew it was there. We could have a half glass of wine at dinner once we turned twelve, but chose not to imbibe, except for the New Year’s Eve toast and Deda-Ljubo’s slava*. I was especially prone to stage fright and at times behaved like the frog from that Warner Brothers cartoon (yes, that one). Before leaving the house and facing my demons, I would accept a thimbleful of Mother’s home-made cherry brandy, and while the sweet, thick liquid would slide down my throat, I would gather the courage to endure another school dance, or read aloud my award-winning essay in front of the whole class (shudder). We were perfect hosts-in-training, offering patients waiting to talk to Father a refreshment, usually consisting of something 80 proof, served neat, as was the custom (in those days, if you asked for anything “on the rocks”, you might be granted a puny, half-way melted piece of ice, dug up from a defrosting freezer and presented with the utmost contempt).

We handled the alcohol with expertise. It did not scare us. It did not intimidate us. It did not tempt us. It just was. Until one night when we decided to experiment with cocktails. It was the Fall of 1979, and we just moved to the new house. I was a high school freshman, my sister was in seventh grade, and my brother in fifth. Our Aunt Boba moved in with us from out of town to attend the University (do not ask me to explain Serbian blood ties, too complicated). Our parents were gone for the evening, and we had the run of the house. It was a weekend night and all of us were free of obligations and full of energy. For years we were ogling a book of cocktails issued by Pepsi, imagining the miracles that would occur if you add a little bit of this, and a little more of that. After all, who did not want to join the Pepsi generation? I do not remember who was the genius behind the unanimously accepted mixology lesson, but pretty soon the four of us went about gathering the ingredients, glassware, measuring vessels, lemons, and the one solitary tray of ice that made ice balls.

Campari? Check, second shelf, back row. Dark rum? Check, second shelf, front row. Whiskey? No problem – we just had to choose between Johnny Red, Johnny Black, Chivas, Ballantine, Black&White, and some unpronounceable Anglo-Saxon brand (I chose Black&White as it had the cutest little schnauzers on the label. Thank God I did not pick the unpronounceable single malt scotch. I would not be writing this for sure). Orange liqueur? Hmmm, how about “Mandarinetto”?  Angostura bitters? No clue, but there was a bottle of wormwood liqueur we knew was really bitter because it was doled out in minuscule doses as a remedy for stomach-ache. We leafed through the booklet with frenzy, coming up with the most interesting and vile concoctions imaginable. As the experiment progressed, we became louder. Our giggles were contagious and our cheeks flushed with excitement and adventure. We mixed everything, getting bolder by the second, boosted by liquid valor. It did not take long for the words to become slurred, or for the eyelids to get heavy.

By the time our parents returned home, the sink was full of sticky glasses, the kitchen table piled with bar accessories, and the four of us were sprawled all over the living room, some on the couches, some on the floor. All they heard was heavy breathing, snoring and moaning.

The next morning Reveille sounded promptly at eight, the product of Mother’s special brand of  instructional sadism. We could not lift our heads off the cushions. The cursed bell hanging on the stairs rang on and on, until we could not ignore it anymore. We groaned and sighed loudly stumbling upstairs in a weary procession, not able to keep our eyes open. We could not recall the previous night. We could not stop our heads from exploding with rhythmic pounding. We snarled at one another, wishing for the impossible: the soft comfort of a dark room.

Mother did not mention our adventurous experimentation with drunkenness. She greeted us cheerfully, served us breakfast and coffee, and delegated the chores for the usual Saturday morning clean-up. No rest for us. No empathy. No aspirin. And no grumbling allowed. The lesson learned: suffer the consequences. She did not need to punish us. We could not decide what was worse: climbing the ladder to clean the windows with your head spinning, running the vacuum cleaner on full blast, dusting the crystal glasses and delicate figurines with your shaking hands, or caramelizing the onions in bacon grease while your stomach was doing back flips.

For a long time we could not drink Pepsi (Coke was acceptable, although not a preferred choice). And we circled in a wide arc around the liquer cabinet. But in time we healed and made our peace with alcohol. We respect its power and acknowledge the consequences of indulging with stoical endurance. When we meet, we laugh about the “Pepsi” night, letting the time soften the pain of pounding headaches and the quivering of young hands. And we raise our glasses to Mother, the only person I know that is truly allergic to alcohol, who managed to teach us a lesson without punishment.

*Each Serbian family celebrates its saint-protector. These holidays are remnants of the old Slavic pagan religion that continued in Christianity.

There is a group of very dear bloggers who are celebrating Giada De Laurentiis  and her recipes. For this week the emphasis was on Giada’s international recipes. I chose a cocktail. For more recipes for Out of Italy head to I Heart Cooking Clubs.

Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies has started a Cocktail Puppy event, where we are encouraged to submit our best recipes for potent potables. This is my contribution.

HIBISCUS TEA WITH CITRUS AND VODKA (FoodTV, Giada De Laurentiis)

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cups (2 ounces) dried hibiscus flowers or dried rose petals*
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 cup vodka chilled
  • 1 cup ice

*Can be found at specialty Latin markets

Directions:

In a medium saucepan combine the water, hibiscus flowers, and sugar over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool for 25 minutes. Add the lemon juice, lime juice, and vodka.

Place the ice in a tall pitcher. Strain the hibiscus tea into the pitcher and discard the flowers. Refrigerate until ready to use.

NOTES: I thought the beverage was a bit too sweet, but Husband liked it just fine (he is from Georgia, so I forgive him). Would be the best served after the meal, not as an aperitif.

Nov 052010
 

I might have been a picky eater in the making for the first several years of my life, but milk and dairy products I always enjoyed with abandon. Living in Yugoslavia, we were on the outskirts of the technological revolution that swept the western world and glorified the cold aisles of the supermarkets. As a result, our food came straight from the farm, unadulterated and unchanged.

Every morning at six o’clock, Milorad the milkman would pour two liters of fresh, unpasteurized, un-homogenized milk into a green pot that Mother set out the previous evening, put the lid back on, hoist his burgundy enameled bucket, and walk over to the next house. Two hours prior, that milk was still in the cow. We would wake up with the smell of sweet milk warming slowly on the stove, just until the fist bubbles appeared. When the mornings greeted us with psychedelic icy drawings in the windows, nothing felt better than holding a cup of frothy milk by both hands, trying to warm your fingers and letting the steam touch your cheeks. On lazy summer mornings we preferred the cool café-latte made from yesterday’s milk.

On Friday mornings, Vinka would tap shyly at the back door, enter, and sit in the chair closest to the door. Mother would make coffee while transferring the cheese and “kajmak” into the containers. We loved Vinka. Her sad blue eyes would always brighten when she saw us. She smelled of fresh milk and grass, and her embrace was comforting, even though our cheeks stayed red from the rough woolen texture of her home-made vest. How many mornings have I climbed down the stairs heading for that bucket on the counter, stuffing a whole piece of her fresh cheese in my mouth, experiencing every bite with my eyes closed, not knowing that every time brought me closer to parting with it. What would I give now for a perfectly rectangular, pristine white piece of Vinka’s cheese, still unsalted, creamy and soft, resting in a milky brine?

Father’s job often took him on weekends to Sjenica, a town that did not have an Ob-Gyn. Always a people’s doctor, he made friends with his patients, and visited them in their villages, often times in a horse-drawn carriage. He liked to sit down with the grizzled Muslim men and drink a cup of strong tea, served by the women dressed in black, demure, respectful, and always smiling. Interested in history, he would trace their last names generations before, listen to their stories, and share a plate of “sudžuk”*, “turÅ¡ija”**, freshly baked bread, and strong sheep’s milk cheese. Once in a while, he would pull up in our driveway and gather his meager belongings from the car, carrying in his other hand a big white bucket of this strong, full-flavored cheese, made in the same manner for hundreds of years.

I was the only other member of the family that shared Father’s affinity for this cheese. But when he and Mother came back from their European trips and medical conferences, and he unloaded all the cardboard boxes containing cheese, inscribed in old-German or French, nobody kept him company. We ran around holding our noses, begging him to put them somewhere else, lest his stinky bounty spread its foulness onto other food. He sat by himself with a glass of red wine, perusing a magazine, and snacked on his cheeses, ignoring his rube family.

It took me a while to make friends with some of the more robust-flavored European cheeses, especially the ones with blue veins running through them. Rolling plump white grapes in crumbled blue cheese and chopped walnuts for a catering event back in the eighties made me question my adventurous spirit. I tried them and did not like them. At all. I avoided every incarnation of the moldy cheese for years. And then my sister in Germany started talking about this amazing pasta she made featuring Gorgonzola. And College Kritter came back from Florida where she visited her dad, a chef, proclaiming that she loves Blue Cheese.

I am a competitive person. I love my sister, and I adore my oldest daughter. But I could not take the second seat in this event. I had to be in the front row. I started buying moldy cheeses in very small quantities. I would include them in our traditional nightly repast – a cheese platter with crackers and some prosciutto or salami. I would take a tiny nibble, let it hit my palate, and allow it to roll around my mouth before swallowing. The strong, almost bitter flavor grew on me. And I became a convert.

Rare are the days that there is not some kind of moldy cheese in our refrigerator. And every time my sister visits from Germany she brings me numerous cardboard boxes containing European cheeses. My children do not run, do not hide, do not hold their noses. Not because they are well behaved, but because they grew up tasting different cheeses and loving them.

For dinner tonight I made pork tenderloin, stone-ground grits and mushroom ragout. As if this was not enough, I prepared Dorie Greenspan’s Pumpkin-Gorgonzola Flans from her book Around My French Table. A group of several hundred bloggers is making the recipes from the book. For French Fridays with Dorie, throughout the month of November we can make any of the four chosen recipes in whatever order suits us.

The little custards were indescribably easy to make, needing only a few ingredients. The flavors of off-sweet pumpkin played against the acidity of Gorgonzola, and the smooth texture of the flan counterbalanced a lovely crunch of toasted walnuts. When I declared that I wanted more Gorgonzola, I was struck by an image of Father, chuckling and polishing off a whole container of some wonderful cheese that my unsophisticated palate did not know how to appreciate at the time. He got the best of me and for that I had to smile and toast the man with a mouthful of moldy cheese and a glass of red.

*beef sausage, made mostly in Muslim areas of former Yugoslavia

**pickled vegetables, usually peppers, hot and mild

Nov 032010
 

Ljiljana and Thomas on their wedding day in April of 2009

I am the oldest of three children. My sister and I are separated by only sixteen months, but for me it was enough to always feel like a protector. I took her to a high school dance once and had to stand up to a gang leader who had fancied her, without considering the consequences of my defiance (I had to employ the best of my diplomatic talents to ensure the company of a friend who was respected in the “underworld” community to accompany us home when six or seven angry men surrounded us after the dance).

When she started dating a suave, sweet talking, magic weaving, not to be trusted guy that was my boyfriend for about three and a half days some time before, I slapped her, trying to get her out of his spiderweb hold. It did not work. They stayed together for several years.

She went through several relationships, and I traveled up and down with her. It seemed as if our lives were unravelling at the same speed, at different times, with similar intensity. She was living in Frankfurt, Germany, and I was in the U.S. The telephone was the only connection we had. And back then, it was an expensive one. We sped through those brief, expensive, priceless minutes as if we were being charged for the very breath that carried our love across the Atlantic. At times I cajoled, at times I begged, at times I threatened. And every time it worked. I managed to be the protector she needed. My sister is a stubborn woman, but over time I have convinced her that she should listen to me, at least sometimes.

Several years ago she met Thomas. Online. I was teasing her, calling her the “copycat”, because I met my husband online. This time I did not have to interfere. I did not have to sharpen my claws to fight on her behalf. My instincts were telling me to back off and leave them alone. And I did. As a reward for my exemplary behavior, I have a brother-in-law who is like a real brother to me. And he can take care of her.

Thomas did not have an easy life. His parents were divorced and he was raised by his grandmother in a tiny village on the Rhine river. He would wake up early in the morning to work in the garden, before going to school. In September and October the school became a secondary concern: there were grapes, ripened by the minute, ready to be picked. He loved the life he lived and he resented it at the same time. He yearned for freedom.

As soon as he graduated, he bid his grandmother goodbye and took off for the world. He spent several years as a member of the road crew for some of the most famous rock bands. He traveled the world and lived life on the edge, experiencing all the highs and the lows life had to offer. He got married to a nurse in Berlin and sired two sons with her. When she broke his heart leaving him for his best friend, he ran back to the village where he grew up, seeking solace at the hearth that nourished him for years.

That’s when my sister met him. Alone, hurt, tending his elderly Grossmuter’s garden, greeting every ugly tuber he had to dig up as if he had to pay a penance for being away for so long.

As Thomas said at the day of their wedding, it was love at first sight for him and me. We recognized each other as kindred spirits. That day I metaphorically carried her over and gingerly placed her into his arms, looking into his eyes for assurance. The warmth and love I saw completely disarmed me. For the first time in my life I do not feel obligated to hover over my sister’s life. There is somebody who loves her as much as I do and he can protect her for me.

Thomas grew up on a farm. He yearns to go back to the farm. My sister is a city girl, finding herself at ease wearing designer boots and feeling European sophisticated chic. Even though she has a degree in Agricultural Engineering, she is completely removed from the dirt and seedlings, and does not feel the excitement of a summer vegetable bounty.  But Thomas and I plot behind her back. One of these days, when all of my children are dispersed to college, we would all move to Serbia, to Father’s “ranch”. Husband can write on the porch overlooking the city. My sister can make coffee and read. Thomas and I are going to bury our hands into the warm dirt and turn that piece of land into a paradise. Each fruit tree will be pruned with Teutonic precision, the vineyard on the slope will yield the grapes that will become our small wine label, the plums overflowing their trees will keep us in slivovitz. It seems my new brother and I shall have the lions share of the labor so those stories and that coffee had better be good.

I love my brother-in-law. He always has a smile hiding in his face, and his laugh is infectious. He cannot enter a house without looking for things to fix, which endears my mother. He is adventurous and fearless willing to try new foods which endears him to my epicurean father. He somehow manages to enjoy metal bands like Rammstein to the delight of the College Kritter. She calls him “the magic man.” He runs on adrenaline and dreams of swimming with great white sharks off the coast of California. And he loves to cook. He respects the land and the produce. He does not take shortcuts. He enjoys the process as much as the finished product.

This is his recipe for Oxtail Soup. It is not a soup, really, more of a stew, or a paprikash. It came from Thomas’s Grossmuter. It is time-consuming, but so worth it. Hearty, warm, spicy, and comforting. Everything that embodies my brother-in-law, Thomas, as cheesy as it sounds.

GERMAN OXTAIL SOUP:

All the ingredients were approximate, and I tried to measure the right amounts.

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tbsp lard, bacon grease or butter
  • 2-3 lb ox tail bones
  • 1-2 lb beef shank
  • 1 – 2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
  • 1 – 2 onions, chopped
  • 3-4 carrots, sliced
  • 1/2 of a celery root (celeriac) or 3-4 stalks celery, cleaned or peeled and chopped
  • 1 parsnip, peeled and chopped
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste (I love the German spicy tomato paste)
  • 1 Tbsp paprika
  • 1 cup dry, red wine
  • 1-2 tsp salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 5 juniper berries
  • 1 stalk fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme leaves
  • hot paprika (optional – I did not use it, the tomato paste gave just the right amount of spice)
  • 1 Tbsp flour (optional)
  • Madeira or dry sherry
  • Fresh or dried parsley

Directions:

Wash the meat and pat dry. Heat the grease in a large Dutch oven or skillet and brown the meat on all sides at medium heat.

Meanwhile, clean and chop the vegetables. If you can’t find parsley root, celeriac and leek increase the celery, onions and carrots. Remove the beef from the pan and brown the vegetables for several minutes, until soft. Add the tomato paste and the paprika, and stir for another minute. Add the red wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up all the browned bits. Add the meat back into the vegetables. Put the whole spices in a piece of cheesecloth, tie into a bundle with kitchen twine, and add to the soup along with hot paprika, if using. Season with salt and pepper. Add enough water to cover everything and let it simmer for 2 – 4 hours or more on the low heat.

When the meat is fork tender, remove to a platter to cool, and then chop into bite sized pieces. Discard the rest of the bones and cartilage. You can strain the broth and discard the vegetables for a smoother soup. In that case mix the flour with some broth to make a slurry. Pour into the gently simmering soup, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add the Madeira or sherry and return the meat to the pot. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

I opted for more rustic stew and left the veggies in. If you chose to do that, pull the spice sack out and puree the vegetables just for a second using the immersion blender (it should still be robust with chunks of vegetables). Add the Madeira or sherry, and put the meat back. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Serve with spaetzle or boiled potatoes.

This is my contribution to Hearth and Soul blog event, hosted by Girlichef and some other wonderful bloggers.

Stephanie of Wasabimon asked for different oxtail recipes. Head over to her blog for a wonderful oxtail soup.

“Come join Soup-a-Palooza at TidyMom and Dine and Dish sponsored by Bush’s BeansHip HostessPillsbury and Westminster Crackers”