Dec 302010
 

It was already dark when Husband picked me and the girls up at the Cleveland International Airport after our summer vacation in Serbia, and drove us to our new house in the western suburb of Strongsville. There was a hint of autumn chill in the late August night. The kids were tired and drowsy, cranky and hungry, but maniacally excited as we pulled into the driveway. He unlocked the burgundy-colored front door and turned all the lights on. We walked into the foyer gingerly, as if trespassing, gaining courage as we recognized the furniture.

Sensing the commotion, our cats, Macey and Dixie, appeared silently from the basement and the Beasties rolled on the carpet with them, squealing with joy. The future College Kritter ran up the winding staircase and claimed one of the four bedrooms. I walked around the boxes in the living room, touching the wall-papered walls until I reached the kitchen. I opened every empty cabinet, caressed the yards of counter space, peered into the oven, and stood mesmerized in the entrance of the walk-in pantry. The French doors lead me to the huge deck overlooking the yard, sloping towards the lake shimmering under the late summer moon.

There was a real wood fireplace in the family room, and the wet bar decorated in a very cheesy 80s style. I circled around and around, opening doors, still caught in a surreal this is not happening to me moment. By that time all three of the girls were running up and down the stairs, screeching and jumping, energized by the excitement of our new home. I crumbled in Husband’s arms, unable to speak, and I cried for a long, long time, not from exhaustion, but from unimaginable happiness. That night we all slept together, snaked around each other, holding hands and linking arms, comforted by the warmth of our bodies.

The next morning we went exploring, accompanied by the soulful cooing of the mourning doves and assertive splashing of the Canadian geese who ruled the little lake. There was a sour cherry tree off the deck stairs, and lily-of-the-valley covered the incline underneath the deck leading to the walk-out basement door. There was a big patch of mint along one side of the house and violets at the bases of the canadian maple trees. There were decorative bushes and trees, lazy susans and chrysanthemum, rose bushes and wisteria. In those days just before school started, I spent a lot of time on Google, trying to find out what treasures we had growing in the yard.

We settled in and felt the house opening to us, welcoming us, becoming ours. I lined the deck with plants and flowers and threw the seeds into a patch right next to the stairs. We bought a charcoal grill and a big table with an umbrella. Father came and pulled the tall weeds that flanked the fences towards our neighbors, turned up the clayish dirt, and prepared a square area for the garden. I exchanged small talk with the nice elderly black couple whose yard I thoroughly admired, and kept on trying to elicit a “Good Morning!” from the two reticent people to the south.

One evening a man showed up at our door with his kindergartener in tow, welcoming us to the neighborhood and inviting us to the clam bake at the community center, just around the corner from our house. We started going to the parties, meeting the neighbors whose children knew ours, playing games and watching movies with them, trying to get ourselves firmly rooted in the area. We walked every morning, taking different routes, learning the names of the streets surrounding ours, and meeting the people walking their dogs, jogging, or working in their gardens.

I made crepes and took them across the lawn to the neighbors on the other side, knowing only their black lab and their son’s red truck. Food speaks a thousand languages, and we became friends, sharing wine on our deck, or cocktails huddled around the fire pit on their patio. I got Kay into gardening, and she dragged me out to garage sales. I showed her how to make home-made hummus and guacamole, and baked chocolate chip cookies for her son Sam, after he plowed our driveway. She took the Older Beastie shopping for her birthday and treated her to her first salon hair-cut.

They invited us to their annual Christmas bash, and it took more then five minutes to walk in heels from our house to theirs, daring the icy sidewalks and avoiding the snow-covered lawn, grabbing the Husband’s arm and holding the still steaming loaf of bread filled with melted cheese, trying not to drop it. We shook off the snowflakes sticking to our coats, and joined the crowd congregating around the chocolate fountain and a martini bar. The whole house was decorated with several sparkling Christmas trees. We met people from the neighborhood. We connected. We started to feel a sense of belonging. And our new house became our home.

Warmed up by the spirit of holidays and new friends, I decided to send home-made presents to several families that welcomed us into the neighborhood. On Christmas Eve, Husband and I drove around, depositing the bags at their thresholds unobtrusively. Nestled in the tissue paper were all the necessary ingredients for making mulled wine: a bottle of Argentine Malbec, an orange, and a tulle sachet containing several small cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and a star anise. Tucked aside was a card with the warmest holiday wishes and the recipe, inviting them to battle the icy Ohio winter with this warm and spicy beverage.

Several years have rolled by. We have lost our beautiful house in Ohio and moved to California. Our neighbors back east are battling the snow storms, shoveling the driveways, and scraping ice off their windshields. It is another holiday season, and even though there is no snow on our patio, we make mulled wine. When the  aroma of cinnamon and orange warmed up in barely simmering fruity red wine spreads through our tiny kitchen, we remember all the friends we left behind and wish them another year full of happiness and joy.

MULLED WINE

Ingredients:

  • 750ml red fruity wine, like Zinfandel or Argentine Malbec
  • 3-4 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 orange, peeled, cut in slices
  • 3-4 whole cloves
  • 1 star anise (optional)

Directions:

Combine all of the ingredients in a stainless steel pot and heat to boil on high. Turn the temperature to low and simmer, covered, 20-30 minutes. Serve in glasses with a piece of cinnamon and a piece of orange peel.

Natashya, this one goes to your Cocktail Puppy blog event!

Dec 252010
 

I divorced my ex-husband in August of 1994, when the College Kritter was known as the Tasmanian Devil. I hired an attorney, and he was so smitten by my soon to be ex’s charm, that he worked for him too, informing him of important dates, advising him on the necessary documents, calling him daily to “touch base”. My thought on that was, “Hmmm, Larry, I think I hired you and you were supposed to work for me?” But I really could not hold a grudge. My ex has always been a lovable person who grew on you, like it or not. He was not even present at court, enjoying beers and seafood on his Florida vacation. If I wanted to have his skin mounted on my wall, I could have accomplished it. But I did not hate the guy. I just wanted out. He was a great friend, a burly man with a wonderful sense of humor, a “Grizzly Adams” look-alike. But he was not the best husband. And I did not think that he would be the best father.

I worked in a restaurant and after the split, it suited everybody that our daughter spent holidays with him and his family. She was inundated with typical Thanksgiving overeating and watching the Lions lose again and again (not that she cared).  A couple of years later I left Michigan for Ohio, and he moved to Florida.

I met Husband on the Internet, and in the Fall of 1997 he moved into our little “mole-hole” of an apartment. My ex was coming over from Florida, planning on taking Nina with him to Petoskey, Michigan, to visit the relatives. I offered him a place to stay, as I did time and time again, wanting him rested and awake when he continued driving up north with my beloved daughter in the back seat. Husband was not enthusiastic about the idea, to say the least. The ugly yellow-green tentacle of jealousy poisoned our days, but I was not budging.

The ex spent the night, and the Husband liked him as much as everybody else. I did not find it amusing in the least when they started comparing notes on me, agreeing, and laughing, pounding the table with a gleeful: “Me, too!” I would indulge them with an obligatory smile, or two, smiling to myself, knowing that I had won. It continued like that to this day. The Kritter spends Christmas with her Father in Florida, roaming the coast, sailing, fishing, swimming in the Keys, eating the mounds of fresh seafood in the restaurant on Santa Maria Island where he has been working as a chef for eleven years.

One of his sisters lives in Escondido, and he visited her last year. It felt weird to meet the ex-family-in-law for the first time after so much time, but we enjoyed having Theresa and her daughter over for our family’s Saint’s Day, the celebration feast of St. Nicholas. They were gracious guests, and everybody got along wonderfully. This winter break the Kritter announced that her father was flying to San Francisco right after her finals. They planned on renting a car, doing a lot of sightseeing and eventually making their way south to our house. We offered him the couch, left empty by Father who was visiting a cousin in Florida. Serendipitous, at least.

It has been raining a lot in California recently. I am a mother and I worried about their long drive on wet roads. They finally arrived a little before midnight on Tuesday, exhausted and drained. We spent a couple of hours laughing, reminiscing, and watching Jeopardy. I put a fresh sheet on the couch for my ex, brought several pillows and a blanket, and went to cuddle with my girls. The ex and Husband continued talking, laughing, and drinking single malt Scotch until dawn.

We skipped breakfast and we skipped brunch. At about 1:30 I pulled six sticky buns from the oven and served them with milk (Thanks, Professor Smith!). But everybody was still hungry, and I brought out the huge bowl of stone crab claws my ex had brought all the way from Florida. He made the mustard sauce and drawn butter, and we attacked them with gusto, barely making a sound, indulging in the rare delicacy. Can you ever get enough crab? I do not think so.

Nobody was hungry for hours. But I was smart. I made Dorie Greenspan’s Go to Beef Daube the day before, and I could wait patiently for the first hunger signs. In the meantime I started preparing polenta, enjoying a glass of wine, bouncing off the silly darts coming from the two men who shared my life at different times. I slowly reheated the daube, adding a bit of tomato sauce and water. When we finally started eating everybody was in heaven. The stew was hearty, comforting, the flavors extremely well balanced. The polenta added some creaminess and served as a beautiful backdrop to all the tender meat and sweet vegetables.

I knew Husband would like it. I knew the children would be happy with it. But I was somewhat apprehensive to my ex’s opinion. I have not tasted his food in eighteen years, and he knew me only as a beginner cook. I have to admit that I smiled like the Cheshire Cat when he praised the daube. And no, I did not tell him it was Dorie’s recipe!

We finished the night playing Pictionary and sampling some bourbon that my ex brought as a Christmas present to us – as if all that crab was not enough! This morning he collected the College Kritter and took her to Escondido to spend a couple of days with his sister’s family. He left some more crab in the refrigerator, as the last little “thank you”.

Not everything that ends has to end horribly. My ex and I do not share the same world anymore. But we do not disseminate hatred and intolerance. We get along to allow our daughter to grow as a person, touched by both of us. He can crash at our place any time he wants. We, of course, expect a bag-full of fresh stone crab as a deposit. And I will plan ahead to make this beef daube for his next visit, just to say “Welcome to our house!”

If you are interested in the recipe for the daube, go buy the book Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. If you want to see different renditions of the same dish, or some other fare, go visit French Fridays with Dorie group. There are some amazing people participating in the event.

Dec 242010
 

The town I consider my home is nestled in a valley surrounded by gently sloping hills, split in two by the river Morava. The sun sets fast behind the peaks of Ovčar and Kablar, two mountainous brothers watching over each other for eternity. Their sister, Jelica, sprawls for miles, flanking the town on the southern side, not rising above her brothers, feigning subservience, but reaching out for miles with her green fields studded with white herds of sheep and red earthen roofs. She is generous and fertile. She holds in her embrace orchards swelling with purple plums, rows upon rows of bursting red tomatoes, brambles protecting luscious wild blackberries, and acres of raspberries that feed all of Europe.

Three decades ago, Father bought a couple of acres of land on the side of mountain Jelica overlooking the town. Completely immersed in our teenage adventures altogether a world away, we did not share his newly-fetched enthusiasm for agriculture and homesteading. He would arrive home from the hospital and invite us to go with him to “The Ranch”, and we invariably had too much homework. We could not skip our scheduled karate classes or a choir practice or navel lint harvesting – anything to avoid going up there with him. Back then I lived for the lazy strolls along the river bank with my boyfriend and occasional moments of bliss when our knees would touch seemingly unintentionally. I preferred to join our friends at a sidewalk café, drink a Schweppes’ Bitter Lemon, and plan another bicycle outing. I would gladly stay home and engage my sister in yet another fight that would end up with me crying and her stubbornly pouting and refusing to talk to me. Even this was preferable to the Ranch.

Mother was another story. From the beginning, she was a bit skeptical about the whole idea. Father running a hacienda? She accompanied him to the Ranch a couple of times and attacked the gardening tasks with the vigor and energy she had used when working in her parents’ garden. She would not stop until she was done. Father laughed, reminding her that she was not an indentured servant, pointing out the three square feet of perfectly weeded garden that he managed to accomplish in the same time. Yes, it was flanked by waist high overgrown grass, but he did not break a sweat. He was doing it for fun. In the end, she gave up, knowing that his grandiose plans were meant to fail.

In the meantime he indulged his fantasies and had a log cabin moved and installed on the foundation of the old house. Walnut trees and hazelnut bushes formed the southern border of his property. Raspberries and blackberries hugged the fence on the eastern side. The northern half of the Ranch held an orchard, planted mostly with plums, apples, and pears. But he could not stop there. He added a couple of peach, apricot, and quince trees. Pretty soon they were joined by several cherry trees: two red cherries, two sour cherries, and one bing cherry. He planted some kiwis, a gooseberry bush, and three figs. Returning from his trips, he would bring home seeds and seedlings, the more exotic, the better. He planted a vineyard on the sloped hill and dreamed of pouring his own ruby black wine into bottles and sharing it with friends. He bought chickens of several different kinds, turkeys, and even pheasants. He dreamt of letting several sheep graze around the plum trees and a small herd of goats that would give him milk every day.

I am sitting here, almost melting, imagining the rustic idyll. But the reality is harsh. Father is a dreamer. Father is also an accomplished surgeon, a genius diagnostician, and an extremely poor homesteader. He loves his Ranch, and ever since he retired, he spends every free moment on the hill, getting up at dawn, and returning for the midday meal. His friends are getting less and less willing to join him and do the majority of heavy labor to make his dreams come alive. The fox has eaten his pheasants. The hawk got several of his chickens. The potatoes were as small as peanuts because he refused to spray against the potato bug. The cherries were rotting on the ground because he did not have the time to pick them. His neighbors goats got entangled in a chain and broke his kiwi trees. At the same time two of his figs disappeared, only to magically resurface in his neighbor’s yard.

At home, Mother rolls her eyes with exasperation when he unloads daily the crates of overgrown zucchini that were hiding in the weeds he did not pick, and the buckets of pears and tiny heirloom apples that stubbornly refuse to yield to the knife and give you blisters after fifteen minutes. She does not know what to do with cupfuls of gooseberries and crate upon a crate of cherries. It is, after all, only the two of them living in the house now. He promises every year that he will pare down significantly, but as soon as the snow starts to melt in early March, he starts rummaging in the garage, looking for the seeds he collected in the summer, and making a grand design destined to break his septuagenarian back and send Mother scowling into her room where she can forget, if only for an hour or two, the deluge of produce, almost all flawed, bound to appear on her kitchen table the next summer.

His apples are misshapen, and his pears small and overripe when he picks them. His scallions and onions arrive with a clump of dirt hugging the roots. His potatoes are not worth peeling and something always gets his figs before he can collect them. He brings these inferior gifts to Mother proudly, and inevitably getting the same reaction that our cats received when they caught the moths whose wings spanned more than three inches, and deposited them, still alive, wings a-flutter, at Mother’s feet.

But when he pours his golden yellow whites and ruby red “black” wines from the five-liter wicker-covered glass casks, we forget Mother’s suffering. He keeps them in her light-blue and white dining room making it look like an unorganized warehouse. It does not help that Mother is allergic to alcohol. Our praises to his wine-making skills, as random as we think they are, make him smile proudly, and recite every single detail that went into producing the wine from its inception. We nod, listen to his never-ending agricultural stories that inevitably connect to the summers in the 50s, and raise our gold-rimmed, light as foam wine glasses that belonged to Deda-Ljubo.

I have not tasted Father’s wine for two years. And he tells me I missed the best ones yet. Every year he puts away a five-liter cask of his red wine for me and my sister (and our husbands, if they happen to accompany us to Serbia). My sister and Thomas drank my share for two summers. But I intend to break that trend. I hope this Fall’s harvest yielded some magnificent grapes that will end up in my gold-rimmed glass next July.

I read a lot recently about pasta cooked in red wine. It intrigued me, and I decided to take the challenge. The earthy aroma of sauteed mushrooms, the sweet bite of garlic, and the crunch of roasted walnuts balanced beautifully the deep-red noodles which encased the essence of a fruity red wine and sharp nuttiness of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. The dish was definitely autumnal, albeit light. Every bite brought a smile to my face, as I imagined Father pouring his wine into our glasses, as the linden trees released their perfume on a sultry summer evening in Serbia.

RED WINE PASTA WITH MUSHROOMS AND NUTS

Ingredients:

  • 1lb pasta (I used farfalle, but spaghetti work as well))
  • 3 cups red wine (Zinfandel)
  • ½ walnuts or hazelnuts, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp butter or olive oil
  • 8 oz cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
  • salt, freshly ground pepper
  • a handful of parsley, chopped
  • ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved (those who follow Eastern Orthodox fast or a vegan diet, skip the cheese)

Directions:

Cook pasta in salted water for 4-5 minutes and drain. Pour the wine in the pot and return to boil. Add back the pasta and cook for 6-7 minutes, occasionally stirring gently, until most of the wine is absorbed. Pasta should be al dente.

Heat a dry non-stick skillet on medium heat and toast the nuts 2-3 minutes, shaking the skillet to prevent burning. Take of the heat and set aside.

Heat the butter or oil on medium-high heat and add the mushrooms, salt, and pepper. Cook for 5-6 minutes, until mushrooms are soft and golden brown. Mix in the nuts, parsley, and pasta. Shave the cheese on top.

This is my entry for Presto Pasta Nights, hosted by Claire from Chez Cayenne

Dec 182010
 

Southern California is enveloped in an enormous pewter-colored cloud which opens its jowls and sends down tiring and unstoppable ribbons of rain which bounce off the concrete and saturate my cactus plants which are usually very happy with the occasional drop of water I feed them every other day. It is going to rain for another week and I am already missing the view of the perfect blue skies from my patio. Seriously, this is southern California. We have ordinances against excessive precipitation. We had a special election just this past November that did for clouds what Arizona did to illegal immigrants. Show your papers or find the door. Law enforcement is clearly not up to snuff.

And yet, I am not allowed to complain. As soon a I uttered a word on Facebook, lamenting our meteorological misfortunes, my sister took photos from her window in Frankfurt, Germany with her iphone, capturing chunks of snow burying her street, drifting along foundations and stranding parked cars. My beloved sister’s comment: “THIS is winter!”

Our friends in Cleveland are disdainful about our newly acquired Californian airs and remind us daily of almost forgotten terms like “snow day” and “lake-effect snow”. I want to understand. I want to commiserate. I really want to comfort them and promise falsely that the winter will not last for seven months, as it usually does. But I have fallen into the California rut, even though I do not glue my nose to the window to watch the rain fall and I refrain from calling it “THE STORM!” Husband says he was once in a rain forest themed bar in Savannah, Georgia where he got wetter than this.

We do not watch much TV, but Husband has a dozen cities’ weather programmed into his iphone, and he recites the temperatures and the weather conditions that our friends and family are experiencing. He does this for me every day. Not that I ask – I am perfectly content to pout, drain my plants of the excess water, and plan a braised meat dish for dinner. But I get the reports, like it or not. Belgrade, 32F, mostly cloudy; Frankfurt, 25F, snowing; Cleveland, 16F, snowing occasionally; Kansas City, Missouri, 17F, colder than a witches bosom. He reports the weather not as an impartial journalist, but as a gloating maniac justifying our relocation to the edge of western civilization.  He just recently added Fort Myers to the list, because we sent Father to spend several days with our Serbian cousin Branka, and it makes me feel good that the temperatures are in the high 50s and 60s, and he will not freeze.

Husband wants to make me happy. He wants me to gloat too, knowing that others are suffering much harsher fates than us. He wants me to look at the glass that is at least three-quarters full. I let him drone on, excited about being so worldly with his little electronic toy, while the incessant gurgling I hear outside drives me insane. I do not open the shades as I always do first thing in the morning. I let my mole family enjoy the darkness and the artificial light. I come home from work and I do not complain if I have to squint to recognize a human form in the blob that runs to hug me, while there is no natural light at all.

My customers at work are not helping at all. They come wrapped in coats, sweaters, gloves, and scarves, wearing boots, asking for hot tea and oatmeal (whoever orders the oatmeal in the restaurant?), complaining of the long drives from Los Angeles. Only then my Midwestern persona awakes to remind them that we are, indeed, considered to be lucky in this weather draw. I retell the horror stories of the cars fishtailing for 360 degrees on ice-packed, snow-covered streets. I describe in vivid detail the terror of driving in icy rain, and inevitably suggest that they see Ang Lee’s brilliant movie The Ice Storm. And for a finale, I leave a memory of the Valentine’s Day in 2007, when the lake effect snow buried the western suburbs of Cleveland. Husband had a twenty minute commute from work. He arrived three hours later, only to find the driveway shoveled and clean. To this day that was his best Valentine’s present from me. And it better be! Do not ask me how many hours it took me to battle the incoming snowflakes and lead him into the garage.

I am absolutely content with 75F all year long. And, usually, that is what we get. But on an odd week we have to accept the rain. And I really look forward to the rain most of the time. I am at home, feeling the sentimentality just coming straight on with every little sound the raindrops make outside. I understand that language and it translates into wonderful, warm, nostalgic prose. Usually. But not this time.

I do not want to go to work. There are harpies there, and Minotaurs, and simple street bullies. They conspire and lie. Every day I walk in is a gamble: what circle of Dante’s Inferno will be my home today? I face uncertainty, Machiavellian intrigue, and plain old games of framing. For the last two months I have assumed a role of Norma Rae at work. I know that I have to fight my windmills alone. And I do. I made a lot of noise noise and I am not ready to silently go away.

Translated, it means that I wake up every morning before 6 a.m. with my heart wanting to break out of my chest. The adrenalin is too much to bear and I sit up in bed covered in sweat, feeling every pulse whooshing along, inviting an invisible, but existing elephant to assume a comfortable place atop my lungs. At night, fortified by a glass of wine, or two, I am overly optimistic. In the morning Husband has to work his magic in making me leave the house.

It is really late, and my girls are asleep, buried by an avalanche of stuffed animals. Husband attempted to watch Jon Stewart, which lasted for about forty seconds. I think that my soliloquy today at work was hitting all the areas of interest, even though my face and chest exhibited the obvious signs of “allergy to stress” with all the splotches of red in an erratic design. But whatever happens, I am ready to take back my life, make ornaments and pretty cookies with the Beasties, watch an old movie with the Husband, read the pile of books that only kept growing while I was in the grey daze, and re-connect with some wonderful people I had left in check, trying not to spread the poison of misery.

While my family slept, I made Dorie Greenspan’s sweet and spicy nuts, which everybody raved about on our French Fridays with Dorie group. Husband is allergic to almonds. The Younger Beastie does not like the nuts when they are whole or chopped, only when ground (yes, she has OCD thanks to Father and Husband who were kind enough to make sure that gene will live on and on). But right now, I don’t care if Beasties don’t like them or if Husband can’t eat them and continue breathing (all that annoying in and out of the oxygen)… I need a lot of sweetness and spice. I’ll take a photo before I devour them, but I’ll have to be careful with the tags on this one. Between the staging and shooting and eventual devouring, don’t take it the wrong way when I say, I can’t wait to get my hands on those nuts.

Recipe for the Sweet and Spicy Nuts are on the page 18 of Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table. And for more renditions of this and several other recipes, visit our group, French Fridays with Dorie.

Dec 172010
 

One August day, a long time ago, when the College Kritter was six years old, she ran into our bedroom, jumped on the bed, and looked through the window.  She used to do that quite often, but that day she ran back to the living room and said: “I think that I have stepped on the baby’s head.” I felt as if my blood turned to ice and all the life energy simply left my body. Husband and I rushed into the room where our two-week old baby, Anya, was sleeping in our bed, right underneath the window. We woke her up, made her cry, and after finding out that she was fine, we hugged. I rocked the baby in my arms, while embracing the Kritter, and we stayed like that for a long time, until it was a communal crying fest.

We laugh whenever we mention that incident, but every time I feel a tiny remnant of the anguish and terror I felt that day, and try not to think of all the “what-ifs” that wash over me like a tidal wave. We barely avoided a tragedy, without any consequences. Or, if there were any, they might have been quite positive.

Before she learned to walk, the Kritter used to pull herself up using the spines of my many hard cover books, destroying many in the process. Zoe had no interest in books, but was mesmerized whenever a repairman would scatter his tools around, watching intently his every move. But Anya could spend hours immersed in a book, when she was barely eight or nine months old. She invented her own language and pretended to read, turning the pages gently, caressing them, looking at the letters and pictures even if the book was turned upside down.

I read with the Kritter until she started middle school. An hour before her bed time, we would sit together and read aloud, alternating pages. She admittedly liked the books, but did not like reading. The process was long and torturous, with tears on both of our faces at different times, but she became a reader. I do not have the time, nor patience to do it again with Zoe, and I feel as if I am betraying her. We had to hide her favorite picture books (Shitty Kitty and Poopy Puppy, as the College Kritter has renamed them), promising to release them only when we became convinced that she would enjoy a book with more than twenty pages printed in size 24 font. These days she is reading her way, slowly, for sure, through The Series of Unfortunate Events.

But Anya does not need any prompts. There are books wedged against the railing on her upper bunk bed, on her desk, in her closet, in the locker at school, and under the couch in the living room. Nothing can drive her to a state of panic as fast as the realization that she is close to finishing a book, and there is not another one lined up somewhere. Then she starts rummaging through our book shelves, looking for something to tide her over, unable to go to sleep without taking a trip into the world of wonder that only a printed page can bring.

We do not have to agonize for days what to buy her as a birthday gift. The only problem is a choice of reading material, because Husband and I, both avid readers, rarely agree on a topic. While I would like her to discover the adventurous and romantic world of pirates, musketeers, and knights, ridden with intrigue, backstabbing, and duels, but inevitably ending with a hero’s victory over evil, Husband pushes her toward the graphic novels and science fiction which marked his childhood, trying occasionally to lure her a bit early into Steinbeck, Lee Falk*, and Thomas Mallory, not always promising the same happy ending. I am introducing her to the European masters of the 19th and 20th century, those realists of verbose, descriptive, and erudite prose, and he is offering the stylistic simplicity of Hemingway and the crystalline storytelling of Alan Moore. I want her to get lost in the glens overgrown with heather and fall in love with dark-haired and mysterious Heathcliff, as I did when I was twelve. He wants her to read Cormier and Finney and learn the meaning of “42″ (alas, he cannot share with her the infatuation with Wonder Woman, which stayed with him long after he turned twelve).

We bicker and we argue, but in the end we know that Anya will find her own style and discover the literary world that will be her own little den. Our intellectual tug-of-war can only open her mind to search further and encourage her to stray off the path.

She wears her emotions on her sleeve and tries to dramatize the most trivial moments in her life. She is sensitive and empathic. Her favorite movies are Love, Actually and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. While her classmates are shopping in Forever 21, she wears her Father’s shirt and the tie with the Magna Carta on it, pretending that she attends Hogwarts rather than Newhart Middle School. As exasperated as I get when I uncover the nests holding the Barbies and stuffed animals on top of the encyclopedias, I smile in relief knowing that my baby will not grow up too fast.

Tomorrow is the last day before the winter break. We have the symbolic presents for the teachers and the staff. But there are always “oh, by the way” moments in our lives, and Husband had to take the girls to the mall to buy gifts for friends, sharing with the world the fact hat he was extremely reluctant and unenthusiastic. But that gave me an hour of solitude and silence to finally make my Daring Cooks challenge that is way overdue, Oeufs en Meurette. I embarked on the project of making an egg perfectly poached in fruity red wine, resting atop a crusty toasted piece of bread, enveloped in a flavorful reduction infused with herbs and vegetables, and embraced by browned mushrooms, crispy bacon, and softly sauteed pearl onions. I was feeling so French, flitting through my small kitchen, making bouquet garni, while Joe Dassin’s velvety voice filled the air around me with the old chanson Et Si Tun Existais Pas, which reminded me of my sister, our teenage years, and Michel from Granville, France, who stole my first kiss.

I could not wait for my girls to come back. The house smelled like a Parisian bistro, I was humming along with Joe, and my eggs were beautiful, quivering masterpieces. As I anticipated, they ran to the stove, breathing in the smell of sauteed vegetables, and stole a couple of extra pieces of crunchy bacon laying on the side. I had assembled a plate with the egg perching proudly on top of the sauce. I punctured it to let the yolk flow. As they watched, I heard Anya snickering. “It’s an alien embryo”! My beautiful sauce, carrying along the essence, but not the harshness of the wine, my yolks running like lava, liberated at last, the culinary delight ready to please… only to be seen as alien afterbirth by my beloved empath. Obviously, that little romp on the head did its damage. Her reference is not Wuthering Heights, but EC Comics. OK, Husband. You win this round.

Blog-checking lines: Jenn and Jill have challenged The Daring Cooks to learn to perfect the technique of poaching an egg. They chose Eggs Benedict recipe from Alton Brown, Oeufs en Meurette from Cooking with Wine by Anne Willan, and Homemade Sundried Tomato & Pine Nut Seitan Sausages (poached) courtesy of Trudy of Veggie num num.

You can find the recipe for Oeufs en Meurette HERE.

* For the non-initiated, this dude created The Phantom. And yes, I had a crush on The Phantom, too.

I did not dare edit the photo. Anya wanted the alien face in the foreground.

Dec 082010
 

Today was my day off from work. Usually that gives me enough reason to contemplate opening a bottle of bubbly ( not that we have any in stock for similar occasions) and running around the apartment building in my green shorts pajamas (sorry, sister, they are mine now), making the neighbor’s chihuahuas frantically yelp. Instead, I woke up in my normal state of panic, heart racing like crazy, and an invisible three-toed sloth sitting on my chest, making me breathe like the Elephant Man.

I stumbled out of the kitchen slightly miffed that there was no gurgling from the coffee machine. My myopic eyes did not detect Husband behind his laptop, but even squinting, I could clearly see that my laptop had been commandeered by the Second Beasty. At 9:30 in the morning on a school day, I did not want her working on the best American novel at our dining room table, on MY laptop, but at her desk in school, sweating over square roots and cellular biology. “Daddy did not wake me up”  trailed behind me, as I slowly opened the second bedroom, feeling the lazy, but still heavy sloth steadily morph into a more sinister being, one with razor-sharp fangs and slits for the eyes. And there, on the lower bunk, slept Husband, his glasses slightly askew, separated from the younger Beasty by several stuffed animals in assorted colors and degrees of dinginess.

There was nothing gentle in my hand shaking his shoulder, and he abruptly sat up, sporting a case of really horrendous bed hair and an utterly confused look. Still blinking, he adjusted his glasses and stared at me questioningly, while I stood beside the bed in a great rendition of Mr. Clean, minus the shiny head and bulging biceps. I abhor the abominable language of the chat rooms, but as I spread my arms and tilted my head, WTF was clearly written all over my face. “You told me to keep them home for your photo assignment”, he said, getting out of bed.

It is true that I lamented for days how I have to work on weekends when the kids are at home, while they are in school on my days off. I whined about the light slowly ebbing  just about four o’clock, when both girls are back from school. I complained how it would be impossible for me to finish my final project in my photography class because it is winter, and how I was going to fail, which would be pretty embarrassing for the whole family. I ruefully concluded that I would have to make them stay at home and take the pictures I had envisioned. But then I found the magic little rabbit who became the star of my project and I felt relieved. The kids could go to school, I proclaimed the day before, and started plotting the scenes for my photo shoot.

But Husband forgot. The Beasties took advantage of the unexpected hooky day and organized a Harry Potter marathon. I felt so guilty that the only thing to save the day was for me to go and get a haircut. I do these beauty things on impulse. There were so many things I needed to do today, but getting rid of the sparkling strands on top of my head became the priority. Husband found a Christmas card from my girl Jessie with a 20% coupon in it. Bonus! Appointment was set for two in the afternoon, and my heart was starting to sing. I had time to take shots of the girls, just in case the rabbit idea failed, make plans for dinner, work on my blog, study on the history of photography, and open the bottle of bubbly. After five o’clock, of course ( I do love me some Jimmy Buffet and he says it’s five o’clock somewhere).

Just then, Father returned from his second morning walk, describing in long detail his route, mentioning every corner, every street, and every plant he encountered on the way. As I was drinking my coffee and nodding absentmindedly, already thinking of the luxurious day ahead, he asked me if we were going to go to the store as we planned. Who planned? What store? We did not need anything from the store. But he reminded me that I promised to take him to the grocery store to buy vodka and wine, and to the Persian store to buy lamb shanks on my next day off. He wrote it down in his notebook and there was no backpedaling, even though I tried with all my eloquence to convince him that Husband would love to take him shopping the next day, throwing in the bait of stopping by the “Home Depot” to browse at leisure. He was not budging. He had written it in his notebook and we had to follow the plan. We had four bottles of wine and a huge bottle of vodka, but in his mind this was the only day to procure more, and it had to happen.

While I was changing my clothes (the European habit that will never die), I was dictating to Husband the instructions for a Moroccan marinade. It was already eleven o’clock and the chicken legs had to be lovingly dressed in an aromatic coating of preserved lemons (home-made, of course), cumin, onions, garlic, paprika, olive oil, and lemon juice. Not too culinarily esoteric for Husband, but I had to hold my fingers crossed that he would not exercise his creativity and add a dollop of, say, Dijon mustard, or Worcestershire sauce.

I rushed off with Father in tow, trying to chill and enjoy the time we get to spend together. I let him push the cart, even though I could do it faster, and allowed him to meander somewhat around the aisles. We left the supermarket and drove to the Persian store. After the lifeless experience at the Albertson’s, shopping at Crown Valley Market was pure pleasure. My Mexican butcher picked four beautiful, fresh, meaty piernas de borrego. I grabbed a bag of potatoes and a bunch of cilantro, and we were done.

At home, I dragged the Beasties to the living room, brought a bunch of toys and made them play, while I took the pictures. I checked on the chicken marinating in the refrigerator, not noticing a suspicious yellow tinge, or sharp smell of Leah&Perins. By the time Husband was getting ready to drive me to my hair appointment, Father was donning his swimming trunks and heading out to the pool, the notebook entry scratched off as accomplished.

I brought a book with me, not willing to shift through People, Cosmopolitan or InStyle. I spent two hours chit-chatting with Jessie, reading, and wondering how some women can walk in four-inch stilettos without twisting their ankles. When I finally looked at the mirror, my heart was silent, the beast had departed, and my guilt was nowhere to be found. I liked what I saw, and after hugging Jessie with warmest wishes for the best newlywed holidays, I bounced out of the salon, where Husband was eagerly waiting for me. At home, the Beasties paused the movie to snuggle for a second and smell my hair. Father approved of my new look, but I would not let him get off so easily. I gave him a pile of vegetables to chop and dice, knowing that it would take him about an hour.  But this was the activity he needed and accepted with eagerness and grace.

The men of my family did not disappoint. The Moroccan chicken was moist and flavorful after it sizzled in the cast iron skillet for several minutes.  The Quinoa and Sweet Potato Salad was a perfect accompaniment, light, but assertive, beautifully balanced between soft sweetness of the yams and the crunchiness of raw vegetables.

My day did not start with the choir of Seraphim angels singing. But looking at all the smiling faces surrounding me at the dining room table, I am convinced that I heard a faint harmonious melody coming from a distance, taking the discordance out, and bringing us together, no matter how different we are.

QUINOA AND SWEET POTATO SALAD (adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian)

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups cooked quinoa or 1 cup raw
  • 1 large or 2 medium (about 1 pound) sweet potatoes
  • Salt
  • 1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced
  • 1/4 cup minced onion
  • 1/4 cup green onion, chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh chives or parsley leaves
  • hulled pepitas (pumpkin seeds) as garnish (optional)

Directions:

Cook the quinoa according to directions. Drain in a strainer and rinse. Peel the sweet potato and dice it into 1/2-inch or smaller pieces. Cook it in boiling salted water to cover until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain well.

Toss together the potato, quinoa, bell pepper, onion, and green onions. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Whisk the oil and vinegar together and toss the salad with about half of this mixture. Add all or some of the rest to taste. Taste and adjust the seasoning, garnish with the chives and pepitas, and serve.

For the original recipe, click here.

I am linking this post to Tackling Bittman, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life, Hearth ‘n Soul blog event, hosted by Butter of Hunger and Thirst, and Real Food Wednesday, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

H‘nSHungerandThirst Tackling Bittman Recipe Hop at A Moderate Life RealFoodWednesdays

Dec 062010
 

Nina and Anita several years ago

You could almost hear a communal sigh of relief as the lecture hall on the first floor of the University of Belgrade’s Philology Department emptied and a river of exhausted freshmen flooded the hallways. It was the last class of the day that started at 8 o’clock in the morning, with breaks no longer than twenty or thirty minutes, barely enough to get a pastry from the bakery a couple of doors down and a cup of plain yogurt. At 7:oo in the evening, when the professor of linguistics magnanimously let us leave the stuffy room to have a drink of water and stretch our stiff legs, we were a pitiful bunch of whiney, raccoon-eyed newbies, ill-equipped to handle the challenges of the university life.

We were just embarking on the second week of the semester. Very few people knew each other, and we mostly stood alone, not able to garner the energy to start up a conversation. I found a perfect little spot on the windowsill just wide enough to allow me to recline and rest my head against the pane. I lit a  Marlboro and closed my eyes, drifting off for a moment.

“Do you want an apple?” I woke up out of my reverie and gazed at the girl standing in front of me, holding a piece of fruit, a bright smile deepening her beautiful dimples. For a second I thought that this could not be happening, not in the twentieth century, not in a city as jaded as Belgrade, and particularly not to me. I took the offering and scooted aside, making room for her. I immediately brought out my pack of cigarettes, shook one loose for her, and we sat there, smoking and crunching on the juicy apples. When we went back to class, we sat together and spent the remaining time whispering and chuckling, waiting for the “Piggy” to finally release us from the torture of his lecture.

This was the first time I met Vesna who would become my friend for life. I do not want to think what would have happened had she not had an extra apple. Most of our classes we had together, because she was also a double major in English and Italian. She was from Montenegro and her father was a CEO of a very prominent company. I introduced her to my cousin Maja and brought her home to meet my Aunt and Uncle. I met her Montenegrian roommates, and accompanied her after school to the café of the Hotel Moskva where her compatriots had been meeting since Father attended the University. As our friendship grew, we expanded our horizons and learned many things that were fascinatingly exotic and intriguing about each other, our families, and our friends ( why would it even surprise me to find out that most of the good-looking guys in designer jeans and leather jackets carried a gun tucked into their waistbands? That should have been obvious, for they came from her hometown of Cetinje, a small, but very old and distinguished place, once a capital of Montenegro, which is hugged by the rugged mountains on all sides).

We studied together, we went to the parties together, we explored the city together. I spent a winter break in their house in Montenegro, where I ate eel, freshly caught from the nearby lake and some of the best lamb I have ever tasted that Vesna’s mother lovingly prepared for us. They took me all around their beautiful town, and I felt as if I belonged. In turn she and her boyfriend (and now husband) Jovica came to Father’s chalet in the mountains and skied with us winter after winter. They became like family.

We both applied for a Foreign Exchange program in the U.S.  in the summer between our junior and senior year and were accepted. That June was beyond stressful. We studied for hours, trying to pass as many exams as we could before our adventurous trip across the ocean. Sleeping was not an option, but we ran on this particular energy that only highly ambitious, motivated college students can recognize. We could not go back to our hometowns to recuperate and prepare for the coming trip. June 25th loomed ahead of us, enormous and terrifyingly exciting.

On the day when all the finals were over, we met our friends at out favorite outside café downtown, just a few minutes walk from the University. The Belgrade heat made the asphalt sizzle, but all we could feel was pure exhilaration. While we were sipping our Ice cafés and smoking our Marlboros, we were unable to contain our excitement about the impending trip. We were all starving, and feeling delightfully empowered. Vesna suggested we go to a a new Italian restaurant, not too far away, that served more than the ubiquitous pizza. Ravenous for more then food, we boarded the tram that took us close to the Danube. The restaurant was small, but new and brightly lit. It did not take a long time for all of us to order the combination pasta platters, which offered ravioli, tortellini, spaghetti alla Bolognese and lasagna. With Toto Cutugno’s soft voice in the background, I tasted my first lasagna. It might have been really lousy. It might have been an abomination to the lasagna matrons of Italy. It might have been the worst lasagna on Earth. I did not know. I did not care. I polished off everything on my plate, following the example of my friends.

When we left the restaurant, the sun was still blazing and the concrete was pulsating from the heat. We were exuberantly happy and satiated with the meal. The future held innumerable promises, and we felt empowered to tackle any challenge that life would throw our way. Standing in front of the restaurant, on the riverside, we felt the seductive pull of the unknown. We parted, only to meet at the airport several days later.

I have had many lasagne since then, in restaurants, at potlucks, at friends’ houses. I have been on the quest to make the one that would bring me back to those days, but those were the days of pure emotion and adrenalin, and the quality of food had so little to contribute. Anya loves lasagna, and for her I make it often. This time I decided to break out of the routine and make Giada’s Classic Lasagna  for my I Heart Cooking Clubs group.

It was prettier than my usual recipe. The spinach was just chopped on top of the bechamel, and not incorporated. There was no call for garlic and Italian herbs in the ricotta filling. But when I served it, bubbling hot from the oven, the cheese gloriously browned on top, everybody loved it.

This was not the lasagna I remember from Belgrade. To get that taste right I would have to be twenty-one again. I wish! But every time I make another rendition of lasagna, I think of Vesna and our friendship. We are just a keyboard away, and we are still friends. Our oldest daughters were born six months apart. The College Kritter is slowly making the streets of Berkeley her own, while Vesna’s Anita is doing the same with the streets of Milano, Italy, where she is attending the prestigious Politechnic School of Architecture. And all because of an apple.

CLASSIC ITALIAN LASAGNA (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

Ingredients:

Bechamel Sauce:

  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons for the lasagna
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups whole milk at room temperature
  • Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce, recipe follows
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lasagna:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound ground beef (we have our butcher grind our own)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds ricotta cheese (I make my own, recipe to follow soon)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 pound lasagna sheets (I use no-cook lasagna sheets)
  • 300gr (1 package) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 3 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a 2-quart pot, melt 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When butter has completely melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue to simmer and whisk over medium heat until the sauce is thick, smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the nutmeg and tomato sauce. Stir until well combined and check for seasoning. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

In a saute pan, heat extra-virgin olive oil. When almost smoking, add the ground beef and season with salt and pepper. Brown meat, breaking any large lumps, until it is no longer pink. Remove from heat and drainany excess fat. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

In a medium sized bowl, thoroughly mix the ricotta and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Into the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish spread 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the pasta sheets side by side, covering the bottom of the baking dish. Evenly spread a layer of all the ricotta mixture and then a layer of all the spinach. Arrange another layer of pasta sheets and spread all the ground beef on top. Sprinkle 1/2 the mozzarella cheese on top of the beef. Spread another 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the final layer of pasta sheets and top with remaining bechamel, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into 1/4-inch cubes and top lasagna.

Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place lasagna dish on top, cover and put on the middle rack of the oven and bake until top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake for about 15 minutes.

Simple Tomato Sauce:

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 (32-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, optional

In a large pot or Dutch over, heat oil over medium high heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft and translucent, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add celery and carrots and season with salt and pepper. Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and bay leaves and simmer uncovered on low heat for 1 hour or until thick. Remove bay leaves and check for seasoning. If sauce still tastes acidic, add unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon at a time to round out the flavors.

Add 1/2 the tomato sauce into the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth. Continue with remaining tomato sauce (I use the blender, because I still do not have a food processor!).

If not using all the sauce, allow it to cool completely and pour 1 to 2 cup portions into freezer plastic bags. This will freeze up to 6 months.

This is my contribution to I Heart Cooking Clubs. Our group is featuring the recipes of Giada De Laurentiis. Please, go to the site and read all the wonderful variations of this week’s theme Warm the Belly, Fill the Soul.

Dec 042010
 

Father was a physician, but reluctant to prescribe medicine if not absolutely necessary. We were a tough bunch of kids and did not succumb too often to the common cold. On the rare occasions that a viral or bacterial infection got the best of us, we surrendered unwillingly, fighting every step, unless of course, it meant skipping school, in which case we were more than willing to exaggerate the conditions of our unfortunate state. Not that it worked. These were the times we cursed the fact that our Father was a doctor, and therefore completely capable of seeing through our childish ruses, easily diagnosing our seemingly fatal conditions as taurus poopicus (in layman’s terms: BS).

But if I make myself delve a bit deeper, I realize that it was always Mother who figured out our master plans for avoiding school.  Had she never tried gorging herself on raw potatoes on math test days? To this day I hate the kid in fifth grade who swore that eating raw potatoes would give you a fever. Not true.

About once a year, nature won and we got sick. We pulled the blankets and feather-stuffed  duvets over our heads, shivering from high fever one moment and breaking into clammy sweats the next, miserable and whiney, feeling a temporary relief only when Mother’s warm hands cradled our cheeks, and her loving blue eyes convinced us that that we would soon be outside, running around Njanja’s hydrangea bushes and swinging on the branches of the old mulberry tree. A bad flu could almost seem permanent until Mother, with her ultimate power, pronounced it otherwise.

In the morning we would eat small bowls of milky, sweet cream of wheat, steaming hot and comforting. Mother would close the shutters, draw the curtains, and tuck the fuzzy blankets underneath our feet and around our shoulders. She would kiss our foreheads and close the door behind her to protect us from the frequent ringing of the phone and buzzing of the bell that came with living in a doctor’s house.

Around eleven o’clock she would push the door knob open with her elbow and bring in a tray holding a steaming cup of tea, several lemon wedges, and a couple of crunchy Petit Beurre cookies. She would fluff up our pillows, prop us up against them, and sit on the edge of the bed, holding the tray. We had to drink the tea as hot as we could handle it, with steam bringing tears to our red-rimmed eyes. She would hold the cup to our lips, allowing us to sip the smallest amounts, breaking the arduous   process with buttery cookies. Warmed up by the tea, we would slip into the downy comfort of our covers and surrender to slumber, while she quietly left the room.

Even asleep, we caught a whiff of her chicken soup simmering slowly on the stove. In the pot there was a roasted onion half, a parsley root cut into chunks, a carrot or two, pieces of a gnarly celeriac, a parsnip, and a chicken that had still been clucking and pecking worms the previous night.

Father would arrive from the hospital, put away his worn, black leather doctor’s satchel, hang up his coat in the closet, and change his clothes. Only when his feet were breathing freely in his house slippers would he approach our beds, touch our foreheads with his all-knowing diagnostic hand and prescribe more tea, more lemon, and more soup as a remedy for our miserable state.

To this day, an onion cut in half and roasted on the stove burner until charred is a time capsule; the smell of it brings back the fuzzy, warm memories of days when I knew that the world was going to turn around all right, no matter how weak I felt. I knew Mother was there, a mere step away, concocting a witches’ brew that would make me feel better.

Mother’s chicken soup is not just any soup. It is an anchor of stability and security. It is a staple of comfort food. It is the seductive opening to almost every meal. In the spring, it may be laced with asparagus or spinach. It is lighter in summer, enhanced by egg drops or semolina dumplings. In the fall, it is creamier, bursting with the healthy orange of a butternut squash, or the pale cream of a cauliflower. In the winter, the base of Mother’s chicken soup rolls up its sleeves for heavy lifting and becomes a hearty seafood bisque or potato-cheese soup, topped with crispy bacon, sour cream, and shredded cheddar cheese.

I love them all. When I met Husband, the only soup he knew was Campbell’s. Oh, how easily we get used to finer things! I skipped soup one day and had a mutiny on my hands. Raised eyebrow, quizzical glance, question in his eye, his wounded little-boy voice querying, “Where, pray tell, is the soup?” He thought there was certainly some mistake, perhaps a technical error. For a moment I felt consternation, but in a minute I realized that I had elevated his appreciation beyond the “soup is good food” motto printed on the cans he now shunned as if they contained bees or worse. I taught him that soup made by loving hands warms not just our bellies, but our souls as well.

Nobody is sick in our household, but I made a soup that would have exorcised the most stubborn cold: Dorie Greenspan’s Leek and Potato Soup. It was a joint effort and all those hands chopping, peeling, mixing, and stirring brought to the table a pot of pale green soup that soothed away burden and care as its comforting, love-laden steam relaxed our minds and muscles and the universe was benevolent. While the Beasties were spooning the thick potage, smiles beaming, I crossed the ocean for a second and thanked Mother for being there for me when the germs invaded and turned my stomach and head to misery and the winds were shrieking their scariest melodies. It is cold there today. I hope she has made soup for herself.

Check our wonderful group of bloggers over at French Fridays with Dorie for some great renditions of her recipes from the book Around My French Table.

Dec 032010
 

Early Monday morning the College Kritter took off from Long Beach airport, joining a crowd of half-asleep college students dragging their turkey-stuffed bodies back to dorm rooms and bad cafeteria food.  Perky, clean-shaven  businessmen fell into the flying fold, hands gripping their third Starbucks of the day more protectively than their boarding passes.

Her purple suitcase really stands out on the baggage carousel, and likely an x-ray machine. It held items that rarely belong to a college student. The Styrofoam cooler box contained a pound of frozen raw, unpeeled shrimp, three individually packed salmon fillets, and a bag of leftover turkey. A new non-stick skillet with a glass lid served as a vessel for a container of Eurocream*, a box of rose-scented turkish delight, and a handful of Halloween candy her sisters generously donated to the worthy cause of feeding a perpetually hungry student. We bought her a sushi-making kit, resisting the urge to pack some sea-weed and a bag of Japanese rice, after all, she lives across the Bay from the best oriental food on the American continent. Curious to learn the secrets of preparing the feasts for people who once ruled the world, she borrowed Tito’s Cookbook, a compilation of stories and recipes written by the chef who prepared all the meals for the former president of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito.

Laid neatly on top was the Serbian folk attire, complete with the thinnest cotton undershirt, tightly pleated skirt, and hand-embroidered apron and stockings, on which Father spent a considerable amount of money. She is going to don it on the day of her final exam in Yugoslav Culture. It’s Berkeley. Nobody will give her a second glance.

She came into the house like a tornado, leaving behind a trail of debris. She usurped my spot on the love seat and buried the coffee table with her books. She gathered the eager Beasties and watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while we listened for nine hours to Howard Shore’s haunting soundtrack. She made me prepare the southern style bourbon-spiked sweet potato casserole I was trying to avoid, and made faces when she spied the Brussels sprouts intended for the vegetable roast. She took with her my Ipod earbuds which I do not use anyway. She coerced me into giving her a spring-form pan to make a cheesecake for her friends upon her return. She told me how she had lost her black, knee-length woolen coat, and all of a sudden I was reaching into the coat closet and giving her mine, without a moment of regret.

She planned her birthday meal on Sunday with the precision of a four-star chef. She went to our local Persian store to get the freshest salmon fillets. She chose baguettes and Gruyère for the French onion soup. She made creamed spinach and finished decorating the Torte Reforme, a classic Serbian chocolate cake made with four layers of cake and a smooth chocolate buttercream we made together the night before. She made sure I did not include peas in her favorite orzo risotto, but acquiesced to chopped mushrooms which she is learning to appreciate.

She made tea for both of us and we spent hours discussing her plans for the summer, for the next college year, and even for the summer after she graduates in less than three years. We talked about the books she had read and the movies that did and didn’t impress her. She urged me to watch the few episodes of Dexter that I have missed, promising that the latest one would be fantastic. I heard her exasperation about the manager of the cafeteria where she works part-time who cannot remember her name. I laughed when she recounted escapades with her friends. There are few occasions when tea tastes that good (and it has to be real tea, brewed properly, the leaves steeped for just right amount of time and strained, poured into the orange and navy tea cups). I cherish these magic moments when she breezes into our lives, bringing with her all the energy and indolence of her years, bursting with excitement and ambition. And I am grateful for when she allows me to hold her without scrunching up her face and pretending that it bothers her.

Every time she leaves, exuberant and impatient, she takes a tiny bit of my heart with her. I picked up the clothes she left on the floor and found a place for the “Cal” drinking glass and hairbrush she had forgotten. I put away all the card-playing paraphernalia, the notebook, the pen, and the double set of Piatnik cards she had bought for us as a present, smiling as I looked at the scribbled pages, remembering all the wonderful moments we spent playing whist for four nights. I was not rushing in my task of ridding the house of the clutter she made, finding her presence even in a purple barrette that had fallen under the coffee table, an empty deodorant bottle she was too lazy to throw away, and a half-opened jar of Serbian honey sitting on the counter. I was trying to keep alive as long as I could the smell of her hair and the feel of her smooth, cool cheek against mine as she was saying goodbye, already thinking of her classes and the fencing meet later that night.

I tried to overcome my usual modus operandi which is to wallow in sentimentality for two or three days, only because I knew that she would be home in three weeks, right after her finals. That is not too many days to count. As long as she wants me to be a part of her life, I will cry silently at night, as Mother had cried for me, but I will always encourage her to  spread her wings and go as far away as her dreams can carry her.

But as brave as I was on Monday, I did not feel like cooking an inspirational meal. I found two turkey legs that she did not take with her back to Berkeley, and a container of leftover orzo risotto. I dragged Father from his spot on the couch, knowing he craved some action, gave him a knife, a vegetable peeler, and a bunch of vegetables to roughly chop. It took some time for his surgeon’s hands to get acceptable results from the medieval tools he was asked to wield, but when everything finally hit the pot, the kitchen was enveloped in the smell of comfort, security, warmth, and love.  As the soup simmered on the stove, I bid farewell to November and sent my Kritter a big kiss. I know that it has to fight the fog of the Bay and the wind off the Pacific, but it will find her smooth, cool cheek one of these nights, and she will smile and, I fancy, think of me, even if just for that moment.

*Eurocrem is Serbian-Italian product similar to Nutella

LEFTOVER TURKEY SOUP (TO HEAL YOUR SOUL AFTER YOUR CHILD GOES BACK TO COLLEGE)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 poblano pepper, de-stemmed, seeds and veins cut off, diced
  • 1 turnip, peeled and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 5 cups chicken or turkey stock
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 2 leftover turkey legs, roasted (or leftover chicken parts)
  • any leftover roasted vegetables (Brussels sprouts, potatoes, sweet potatoes)
  • ½ cup peas
  • ½ cup frozen corn
  • 1-2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup leftover cooked pasta (I used orzo risotto)
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley

Directions:

Heat the oil in the soup pot on medium temperature. Add the onions, carrots, celery and poblano pepper and sauté until soft and translucent, 8-10 minutes. Add the turnips and garlic and stir for another minute. Mix in the tomato paste and pour the chicken stock and the tomato sauce. Turn the heat on high, and when it boils, add the turkey legs and any leftover roasted vegetables. Turn the heat down and simmer for 45 minutes. Add the peas, the corn, the seasonings and pasta. Cook for another 15 minutes and serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.

I am submitting this recipe to Presto Pasta Night, hosted by Ruth at Once Upon a Feast and Souper Sundays, hosted by Deb at Kahakai Kitchen.

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