Jan 302011
 

Father at 20 by bibberche.comWhen I was filling out the application for the Student Exchange program in my Junior year of college, I did not think for a second that I was irrevocably changing the path of my life and that nothing would ever, ever be the same. Because of that I have sentenced myself, my family, and my friends to a life of inconsolable goodbyes and days filled with endless tears. At the same time, I have opened up the atlas previously folded tightly and made our world bigger.

Last night we drove to LAX and sent Father back to Serbia. He has been here with us for two months. He is a stubborn, opinionated, and extremely loud old goat who drove me and the girls crazy almost every day. As a retired surgeon, he definitely suffers from the “benign tyrant” syndrome, at least. At seventy six, he considers himself middle-aged, to which I do not have a reason to object – I guess it makes me a mere teenager, so I’ll take it.

Mother diligently took several English courses in her fifties, when I married an American. She did not want Husband to make mother-in-law jokes behind her back. She can read, write, watch TV, and converse even on the most complicated political issues. Father, on the other hand, refused to move forward and learn one more word past the lessons he learned with a private English tutor he had in high school (the woman was placed in Deda-Ljubo’s house after WWII, and felt an obligation to help out the family that lost living space alloted to her, so she taught Father English).

He has been visiting our family every year since 1996, toting a dilapidated booklet titled English for Travelers without opening it once, asking the questions in a language stored deep in his spinal column, without waiting for a response he knew he could not understand. Every time he boards a plane, there are concerned and well-meaning people on both sides of the ocean who sacrifice sleep and stay up for hours, biting their nails and trying to calm their wildly beating hearts, imagining the worst possible scenarios, only to face the grinning, albeit tired Father, safely deposited at the right place. It will never cease to amaze me that he manages to plod his way from one continent to another when I know that he has never once filled out the customs form successfully, and doubt that he even knows our address by heart.

He is like a child, amused by the most inane things. Husband and College Kritter call him K-Pax, because his sunglasses hide the eyesDad as K-Pax from bibberche.com turned upwards, his mouth opened in wonderment. He is convinced that “laguna” is a synonym for “valley”, and we gave up trying to dissuade him. When he is here, he is mostly bored. For years, he was everywhere. There was no party, wedding, or feast in town that he was not a guest of honor. He traveled the world, enjoyed the best in food, alcohol, cigars, and women. The doors always miraculously opened for him, and we never had to wait in line (if he did not offer to deal with the bureaucracy for us). He loved people, and people loved him in return.

But when he retired, his usefulness dwindled. A lot of “friends” turned away from him. The invitations to the important parties slowed down to a trickle. Women started to see his gray hair once he shed the white coat. He stopped smoking. And his life became dull. With so much time on his hands, he constantly tries to satisfy the little boy still living within, whose childhood was abrubtly interrupted by Stukas and Messerschmitts flying above his village back in 1941. He hoards seeds, nuts, and fruit seedlings, and plants them envisioning a garden of Eden. He always has a dog or two, and he takes them hunting for rabbits and pheasants. He raises turkeys chickens of several different breeds. He wants to expand his homestead and introduce goats and sheep to his Ranch. He is seventy six, but in some ways, life is just beginning.

In the winter, he visits us. He goes for walks in the neighborhood, examining various shrubs and nodding hello to Mexican abuelas watching the children play. Around eleven he changes into his swimming trunks, dons his K-Pax sunglasses, grabs a towel, and heads for the pool, where he lies in the chaise-lounge and takes an occasional soak in the jacuzzi.  At one o’clock he enjoys his vodka-tonic and takes the first nap of the day. To fill his afternoons, I give him simple kitchen tasks and plenty of time to finish them without rush: he can slice and dice the onions, mince the garlic (if you are not particular and do not mind pretty sizeable chunks), peel and cube the potatoes and carrots, and prepare any meat for dinner. He holds the knife like a scalpel and arranges the food in neat rows when he is finished. He cleans the pots and bowls he used with cold water and no soap, still refusing to plop them in the dishwasher. And then he retreats to the couch for a round of reading and another nap.

Deda from bibberche.com

By the time I arrive home from work, he is eager for conversation. Husband works at home usually, but speaks less Serbian than Father speaks English. They get along perfectly. I’m scarcely in the door a nanosecond before Father begins reciting the detailed account of his day. He will manage to weave in a small hook that enables him to take me on another trip into his past, the days of medical school, summers in Dalmatia where he ran a students’ camp for years, or the time spent on the island of Vis where he served as a medic in the mandatory Yugoslav army. Most of these recollections I have heard before, but each telling becomes more embellished and fanciful. Once he starts talking, his world alights again, and very few things can snatch him away from the seductive calls of his adventurous youth.

The blue skies of California remind him of the skies over the Adriatic. He looks lovingly at the mountains and imagines the slopes of Mount Biokovo. He relives every day the dawn fishing trips with the locals, the feasts of strong red wine and fresh seafood in the stone taverns, the briny smell of the harbors, and the warm mistral carrying on its wings the droplets of the sea. Born in a small village far away from the ocean, only at the sea coast does he feel completely alive. He is afraid of the future. He does not care for the present. The past keeps him afloat and fuels his energy.

Deda with Kids from bibberche.com

At times I longed for the routine of my life before his visit and freedom from his passionate monologues. I occasionally sneaked to the bedroom toting my laptop, trying not to wake him up and provoke another one of his long-winded talks. I caught myself several times counting the days until his departure, only to feel completely devastated by the guilt.

The check-in process at the Lufthansa counter was unexpectedly quick. We had already reserved a wheelchair transport to the gate – he is in a great shape for his age, still agile and spry, but we do not have to worry that he would get lost navigating the airport maze. The time to say goodbye approached much faster then I anticipated. We hugged and kissed, he squeezed me tightly, and sat in the wheelchair. Looking from above, his hair was never whiter. His shoulders slouched, wrapped in a light coat several sizes too big, he looked small and vulnerable. I held his hand as the Indonesian airport worker pushed him towards security. As he was just about to disappear around the corner, he turned, smiled, and waved, his tired eyes glistening. I waved back, tears running down my face, my heart held in a vise of grief.

Deda in California from bibberche.com

I did not talk much on the way home. When we arrived, I put away the nail file he left on the coffee table, and washed his wine glass. I quickly hanged clothes on several hangers left empty behind him, and put back the sweaters on the shelf I let him use. I smiled when I saw his neatly folded sheets and towels in the hamper, and I started missing him.

Today was a quiet day. He arrived safely, Mother said. I chuckled, knowing that her days are going to be filled with his accounts of the California visit, and that she is going to sigh impatiently and roll her eyes before she retreats to her sanctuary of a room and her own computer. I felt at peace, relaxed, and relieved. While I was gathering everything I needed for dinner, I thought of him, his life, his memories, his endless stories, and his immense love for the ocean. I felt that the fish stew I made would have made him happy. If he were at the dinner table, he would have taken me again to meet the handsome, young man he once was, sitting on a pier in the Adriatic, looking at the horizon behind his K-Pax sunglasses.

Ligurian Fish Stew form bibberche.com

LIGURIAN FISH STEW (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

The stew was pretty simple to prepare and not time-consuming. The flavors came together, enhanced by the homemade seafood stock. I served it with a loaf of fresh bread and a salad. The original recipe called for crostini.

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 3/4 cup white wine
  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes
  • 2 cups seafood stock*
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 1/2 pounds fish fillets, skinned and cut into 3/4-inch chunks (I used swai and salmon, but any firm, white fish would work)
  • ½ pound shrimp, cleaned and deveined
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Directions:

Heat the oil over medium heat In a heavy bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Add the carrot, onion, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir for 1 minute. Turn the heat to high. Add the wine and scrape up the brown bits that cling to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stock and red pepper flakes. Reduce the heat and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 18 to 20 minutes. Add the fish to the stew. Cook until cooked through, about 5 to 8 minutes. In the last 3 minutes add the shrimp. Season the stew with salt, if needed.

*I always have seafood stock in the freezer, and several bags of shrimp and lobster shells, along with fish heads, waiting to become stock one fine day

 

I know that this stew will be in good company at SoupaPalooza event organized by Kristen and Cheryl. And I know that my dad will enjoy the company of mostly females:)

Come join SoupaPalooza at TidyMom and Dine and Dishsponsored by KitchenAidRed Star Yeast and Le Creuset

I present this hearty and flavorful dish to the I Heart Cooking Clubs hosted by Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies. The theme for this week was potluck. Another one of my favorite blog hops is Hearth and Soul, hosted by Heather of Girlichef, and this is my entry.

Jan 232011
 

Sometimes I feel like a tourist who has decided to make this Southern California vacation last longer, and every Saturday chants “one more week, one more week.” I walk around with my mouth open, greedily soaking up every detail of beauty that surrounds me. I crane my neck through the car window, hoping to see the mountains in the distance covered with snow. I eagerly await the green light on the way to our local Persian store just to see the undulating hills of the valley hugging the horizon while the car plummets down the steep, curvy road.

I still get excited when I see a plump palm tree in a neighbor’s yard. I point and clap every time I spy a citrus tree, and sometimes even plan the elaborate nightly raids on the unsuspecting fruit hanging off the easily reached branches in the street that leads to my daughter’s school. I feel as if I were here on borrowed time, and any minute a cold hand will snatch me and whisk me away back to Ohio. And just in case I wake up freezing in some driveway west of Cleveland, I would like to have my pockets stuffed with tangerines, lemons, and oranges to keep me warm.

I waded in the Romanian Black Sea, barely getting my knees wet the year “Jaws” was playing in the theater. I watched the white nights on the shores of the Baltic Sea in St. Petersburg. I held my breath while the train was carrying me across the churning gray North Sea, my eyes painfully shut, until we hit the land of the island Sylt. I flirted with sinewy, bronzed boys on both sides of the Adriatic, seduced equally by the romantic melody of Italian and the exotic dialect of Dalmatia. I gazed at the muddy waters of the Hudson as it mingled with the Atlantic the first time I saw the U.S. I sat with my sister on the cool, sandy beach of Florida’s Gulf coast, and vowed never again to step on the scorching sands of Myrtle Beach a couple of years later. I laughed at my girls who refused to swim in the warm waters of Georgia’s Tybee Island, choosing instead to jump around the hotel pool. I stood mesmerized on a cliff in the Yucatan, my eyes brimming with tears, feeling the call of the Caribbean Sea with its palette of blues, wishing that I could stay there forever.

The Adriatic Sea will always have my heart. I am biased, and at the same time pretty objective in my assertion that it is one of the most beautiful bodies of water on Earth. But the Pacific Ocean will never cease to intrigue me. It mirrors the incredibly blue skies above and invites you in for a swim, sending long-reaching arms of frothy water to show you the way. It is fiendishly pretending to be hospitable on its calm days, feigning timidity with its seductive whispers. Its waves break against the soft, cool sand, leaving behind squiggly lines and mussels’ shells. As the water retreats, the feet follow tentatively at first, more boldly in a second, trying to catch the elusive foam on its way back to the Mother. And then it returns, stunning you with its icy touch, rendering you immobile and unable to retract. A moment later the feet are moving forward, destabilized by the enormous power of the ancient wave, and in that fleeting second you feel the majestic strength of the ocean in front of you. Helpless and hypnotized, you have to fight against the desire to surrender to the deadly embrace and call forth all the mechanisms of self-preservation to make your muscles move backward to safety.

This is never going to be my ocean. I respect its every drop and say “Uncle” way before I am pinned down. I can sit in the sand for hours, safely away from the reach of the waves, listening to the distant growling, paying homage to the most powerful water on Earth. I will look for the first glimpse of blue as the Crown Valley Road ends at the Pacific Coast Highway, my heart beating faster, as if seeing its fierce beauty for the first time. I will rejoice as the salty air fills my lungs and look forward to a long drive towards Malibu just to see the setting sun sparkle in thousands of colors as it sinks into the water. But it will never be mine.

I saw a triangle of the Pacific framed by a roof and the mild curve of a tree crown today from a hilltop in Hermosa Beach. I walked up the stairs of Pam’s house holding my purse and my camera, Husband following with a quiche haphazardly wrapped in a Berkeley Store plastic bag. Twenty or so local food bloggers were meeting to get to know each other, exchange their experiences, and learn how to make our endeavors better and more rewarding. In these situations I usually revert back into that shy fourth grader (dark-rimmed glasses, pig-tails, braces, and all) and I had to fight, again, this incredibly hard-to-conquer desire to run back to the car, lie on the floor and pretend that I was invisible.

As soon as I walked inside, it all changed. I felt warm. I felt welcome. I felt pieces of the ice shard in my heart beginning to thaw. I shared a hug with people I’d met before. I listened and I talked while sipping a Mimosa and piling my plate with all the amazing food spread on the kitchen counters. I was relaxed and thoroughly at ease, comforted by the smiles, playful banter, and witticisms of the people around me.

Back home in Orange County, I had a bag of Meyer lemons I had received as a gift from Kim from Rustic Garden Bistro, when we met on Wednesday. As I brought them up to my face and inhaled their fresh, citrus smell, I could not stop smiling. I do not have to sneak through the neighborhood and make the chihuahuas restless while I try to pick the lemons. I am not going anywhere and I do not have to arm myself with California sunshine to battle the invisible forces trying to plunge me into the land of eternal snow. I loved Cleveland, but right now I am starting to make firmer and more self-confident steps on this sand.

I do not have to fall in love with the Pacific to become a Californian. The austerely magnificent scenery is more than likely going to keep my heart racing as I gaze adoringly, even though my name is not engraved on any trees. But each friend I make is like a differently colored buoy, just enough to keep me anchored here and not allow me to drift aimlessly, looking for a harbor.  For the first time since we moved, I feel as if I truly belong.

This weeks theme for I Heart Cooking Clubs was California Dreaming. I chose Giada’s Lemon Risotto.

LEMON RISOTTO (adapted from Giada de Laurentiis; original recipe here)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 Tbsp butter+1 Tbsp
  • ½ small onion, diced
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • ½ white wine
  • 2 Tbsp Parmesan
  • sea salt, freshly ground pepper
  • juice of ½ Meyer lemon
  • zest of 1 Meyer lemon

Directions:

Heat the stock and the water until it boils, turn the heat to low and keep warm.

Heat the butter in the heavy skillet and sautee the onions until softened on medium heat. Add the rice and stir for a couple of minutes, until it starts to smell nutty. Add the wine and stir until all the liquid is absorbed. Turn the heat to low and start adding the stock, ½ cup at a time, stirring until the liquid is absorbed. Continue for about 20 minutes until the rice is soft, but not disintegrating. Take off the heat, and add the remaining butter, salt, pepper, Parmesan, lemon juice and lemon zest. Serve immediately.

Lemon Risotto from Bibberche

Jan 192011
 

I woke up before five o’clock this morning for no apparent reason. The birds started their tentative chirping, and I pulled the covers over my head, trying to silence them. Husband was softly snoring, and after giving him a chance or two to stop on his own, I started nudging him, first with my elbow, and then with my knee. I was jealous of his state of unconsciousness, but in spite of all my tossing and turning, I could not reach it myself.

If I could have stayed in bed, even awake, opening the laptop and getting lost in the Great Unknown of the Internet, it would have been fine. But I had to gather all my strength and plod on to work, which only brought up tenfold my grumpiness level. Eyebrows almost meeting across the frown, I opened the patio door, desperately longing for a chilly morning domed with a gray sky. Instead of indulging me, warm California air rushed to greet me, embracing me in a comforting hug, sending off whiffs of eucaliptus and pine, while the green leaves whispered gently, rustled by a balmy breeze.

What an affront! I quickly closed the door and continued to get ready without making the house awash with sunshine and fresh air. The shades stayed drawn and the only illumination came from the fluorescent bulbs in the bathroom. The smell of freshly ground coffee did not bring a smile on my lips. Neither did Father’s detailed description of how he intended to spend the morning, which included a usual walk around the neighborhood and lying by the pool.

While I walked towards the car, the warm wisps caressed my arms, trying to seduce me out of my grouchy mood. I brushed them off, pursing my lips even tighter, not allowing my eyes to wander and soak up the beauty around me. Even at seven o’clock in the morning, there was not a hint of January to latch onto; not a shadow of a cloud to mar the perfect blue stretching all the way to the mountains in the east and the beach in the west. I found a small comfort only in trying to outsnarl the neighbors’ equally miserable chihuahua which seemed unwilling to share the sidewalk with humans.

Having only one contact lens (my right eye still recovering from the self-inflicted damage from dish-washing liquid and hourly shower-rinse in Berkeley), the reflection in the car window that greeted me might have been somewhat incorrect, but at that moment I saw an image pretty similar to Danny DeVito’s Momma, minus the cane. Even that failed to soften the frown on my face. Instead, I silently coveted the cane.

When I entered the restaurant, I was determined to nurse my joyless day to its limits. The first strike against my decision was a surprising appearance of my favorite manager, who certainly did not deserve to meet The Beast (he needs to maintain the highest opinion of me as classy, sophisticated, well-read European, the only one in his known world who can coach him to properly pronounce his Russian girlfriend’s name and gain immeasurable positive points in his personal life). My face reluctantly opened into a smile, and the grumpy persona started to crack.

The second strike was the optimism of my favorite co-worker who had decided to look beyond and venture into the unknown waters of high-end dining in his quest for a career. I have been nurturing this single father’s ambitions for months, teaching him bartending skills, and filling his head with all the possibilities fine dining offers. His enthusiasm managed to penetrate the sullenness and my smiles became somewhat less restrained.

What brought me 180 degrees back to normalcy was our short and always mean head cook who suddenly appeared from the kitchen wearing wrap-around cheap sunglasses and stood by our side waiting patiently for our outrageous burst of laughter. After that, it was all uphill. I tried really hard to salvage every little trace of  misery from this day. The whole world seemed to have conspired to cheer me up and bring me to the bright side. And I surrendered unwillingly, grasping at straws and fighting all the way. The rest of the working day slipped away lightly, made endurable by jokes and friendly banter. There was a bounce in my gait as I approached the car. The harsh midday sunlight made me squint and put on my fake designer shades.

Walking toward the apartment I breathed in the warm smells of the late summer offered freely by stern January. I wished that the chihuahua would be out for another miserable walk, only to show it that we can embrace the world of beauty and make compromises on the right to sidewalks. But the only movement I saw was the rapid fluttering of a hummingbird’s wings as it fed on the lavender blossoms on our patio. I was humming We Are the World as I opened all the windows in the apartment. Husband blinked like Mr. Magoo, trying to comfort his inner mole. We are the ones that make a brighter day…

I was finished with the hibernation. I heard the call of the Earth slowly awakening. I wanted to bury my hands in soft, yielding dirt, and plant seeds. But my garden stayed behind at our old address in a suburb of Cleveland, and until I appropriated a small yard here in Southern California willing to let me sow, grow, and harvest, all I could play with were my potted plants lined atop the patio fence. The basil and thyme were clearly suffering, but the rosemary was going strong, defeating the seasons. No need any more to pluck it off the hedge at Costco.

I  inhaled the odor of the herbs off my hands and thought of the azure waters of the Mediterranean sparkling under the sun, the silence broken only by the crickets and an occasional faint rustle of the ancient olive trees. I wanted to feel the warm waves lapping at my feet as the breeze brought the briny smells of the harbor. The kitchen floor morphed into the weathered terracotta tiles, the walls darkened, the invisible shutters squeaked while barely moving in the gentle wind.

My hands rubbed the olive oil, sea-salt, and coarse-ground pepper onto four plump, fresh lamb shanks. They sizzled fiercely upon touching the hot oil, but calmed down and absorbed the heat until a crispy, golden-brown skin appeared on their surface. After leaving them to rest on a plater, I threw into the skillet a couple of handfuls of chopped onions, two chopped carrots, some garlic, a diced red pepper, rosemary, and thyme. The aromas of the garden rose from the stove as the vegetables softened. Several glugs of red wine went in towards the end, some tomato paste, and a cup or two of chicken stock. I laid the shanks on top, covered them, and placed them in the oven. The sounds of bouzouki slowly reached me as one of my favorite Greek songs played from a corner. The notes invited some old memories of good friends, red wine poured from casks, unbridled laughter, and newly awakened desire, and I blissfully followed the tune, happy for the digression.

I was lost in the revelry for an hour, while the shanks softened in the oven, soaking in the flavors of the wine and spices. I peeled and quartered several potatoes and tossed them in the juices, resting the meat on top. After another half an hour the potatoes succumbed and the lamb quivered when I moved it to the plate. This was a meal worthy of a Greek shepherd, who would only have to  cut big chunks of fresh bread and pour the wine to make it better.  Whatever was left of my misery and my desire to cling to it was gone.

BRAISED LAMB SHANKS

Ingredients:

  • 4 lamb shanks, about 4-5 lbs
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2-3 sprigs of rosemary
  • 2-3 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • sea salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 6-7 russet potatoes, peeled and quartered

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet on medium-high heat. Season the lamb with salt and pepper and brown fro several minutes on all sides. Remove from the skillet and let it restf on a platter. Turn the heat down to medium-low and sauté the vegetables until softened, 8-10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Deglaze the pan with wine and stock. Season and stir for another minute or two.

Return the meat to the skillet, cover with aluminum foil and roast for 60-70 minutes. Uncover and toss in the potatoes, resting the meat on top. Return to the oven for another 30-35 minutes, until the potatoes are soft. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes and serve.

braised lamb shanks from bibberche.com

This post fits perfectly with the Hearth and Soul blog hop, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life, and Real Food Wednesdays, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

Jan 142011
 

I have planned for several years to make a cassoulet, but night after night,  year after year,  other hearty dishes appeared on the table, while it patiently waited its turn. The serendipitous pick for this month’s Daring Cooks Challenge was this marvelous French stew and I decided to celebrate the frigid Southern California weather by preparing this time-consuming and fussy meal (and I know that one day a hefty Minnesotan woman with a Scandinavian lilt will beat me senseless with a snow shoe for all my whining about the cold, and I will deserve it).

Father has this idea that women, historically, have not really had anything to do and therefore competed amongst each other in inventing the most difficult and tedious dishes imaginable. I know that he cannot boil an egg, so I greet these original inanities with a wide grin, avoiding arguments that would lead nowhere. As I read the recipe, I realized that it really takes three to four days to make a proper, original cassoulet, but it is mostly passive time.

I sent Husband to procure the necessary ingredients, opting for chicken leg confit (our Mexican butchers at the local Persian store know us, and I knew the meat would be of great quality. On the other hand, I had no idea where to buy duck legs). Pork belly had everybody completely confused. The butchers at “Albertson’s” were playing possum, and I had to drag Father to the store, as the porcine expert (I can vouch that he has consumed a fair quantity of pork bellies in his life).

By the time I gathered everything I needed, the house was a stage of which Ionesco would have been proud. Husband proclaimed that the dish sounded very southern (as in Appalachian way). Nina dismissed it as “just another bean dish”. Zoe went around trying to frenchify Bill Brasky jokes (do not ask me, just Google it). Father went on a tangent of a tangent trying to tie it to one of the summers of his youth. Anya flitted around pronouncing every word as if French. And I just plodded along, trying to ignore the cacophony, invoking a “happy place” mantra.

The first night I rubbed four plump chicken quarters with kosher salt and left them in the refrigerator to luxuriate in grainy salinity. A pound of navy beans went into a pot with cold water to soak overnight. Not fussy at all. French housewives were patient. They relied on planning and organization to extricate the best flavors from the most ordinary foods.

The next day I poured the mix of duck fat and lard over the chicken legs, buried some rosemary and thyme underneath, and stuck a couple of cloves of garlic around the meat. It went in the oven to roast for about an hour. I strained the beans and put them back on the stove with more water, the pork belly, salt, pepper, onion, and herbs. It simmered for two hours, until the beans were softly yielding to the tongue. I took out the pork belly, discarded the onion and herbs, and strained the beans, reserving the liquid.

The chicken went to sleep in the refrigerator, miraculously missing all the crispy skin. Several days later, Father told me, in all innocence, that he really liked that roasted chicken I made (well, it was only boiled in duck and pork fat, producing the best cracklings ever!) The theater of the absurd continued while I was building the cassoulet ingredient by ingredient, trusting the Grandmeres in this blind quest for the ultimate food-Grail. I had to hide the cooked pork belly from the girls who abhor anything white and fatty in their plates (we are a household of extra-crispy bacon). I had to tuck the sausage in the far depths of the refrigerator lest it became the “after hours snack” for the whist-playing brigade. I had to guard the leftover bean liquid from being dumped in the sink, inglorious and plain in its brown tawdriness.

The third day I sauteed the sausage, the garlic and the onions in some more duck fat. The caramelized vegetables went into a blender, spiked with sea-salt and black pepper. I aligned all the participants on the counter top and started layering the cassoulet in my Romertopf clay casserole. When I pulled it out of the oven, steaming and bubbly, it looked gorgeous to me. It symbolized the essence of home-cooking, a dish pretending to be humble and ordinary. It was not an elusive Parisian beauty wearing haute couture at a soire, but a Tante that always offers a warm hug, sitting in the shade of an old elm in front of her cottage overlooking fields of lavender.

I was not surprised when The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros failed to appear at dinnertime. The cassoulet seduced us with its complexity. Every rich ingredient complemented another, and the flavors rose step by step, until our taste buds became pleasantly overwhelmed. Gone were the French jokes and oo-la-las. The girls went for seconds, unaware that it was just another bean dish hiding soft pillows of sweet pork fat in its midst.

If you have to ask how many calories it has or how many grams of fat, then run like the wind and forget you ever read this. But if you want something rich, and with the power to induce hibernation for the remainder of the season, this one’s for you.

Blog checking lines: Our January 2011 Challenge comes from Jenni of The Gingered Whisk and Lisa from Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. They have challenged the Daring Cooks to learn how to make a confit and use it within the traditional French dish of Cassoulet. They have chosen a traditional recipe from Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman.

For the original recipe click here.

Jan 112011
 

I am approaching Monday with some anxiety and apprehension. Father, College Kritter, and I are getting on a plane to San Francisco at dawn. Nina will stay in Berkeley, of course, and Father and I are coming back on Wednesday. If only the rain gods would look upon us mercifully and refrain from the showers for a couple of days, I would be eternally grateful.

I do not like the look of suitcases lying open on my living room floor. It most likely means that someone I love is leaving. To accommodate my schedule, I will say another Good-Bye to my daughter five days before school starts. How many times in those five days will I miss her jumping on my bed and inviting me to see a movie with her? How many times will I pretend to hear her drawn-out “Maaah-maaah” coming from the kitchen, where she is looking for an ingredient that usually stares her in the face? I will not count.

In the two weeks we spent together, I got used to having her around. She is often a child herself, taunting her younger sisters and chasing them around the apartment, leaving her clothes everywhere but in the hamper, making a mess with her “morning” banana-strawberry yogurt smoothie around 1 p.m., and organizing the “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter” marathons. She makes me watch the seven episodes of “Jeopardy!” that I missed, and convinces me to take her shopping for boots after work, when all I want to do is curl up on the couch and stay motionless. She lies next to me in bed at night and starts a philosophical conversation, and all I can do is stare at her cross-eyed and say “Wha?”

Nina in Prague, summer 2010

I look at her when she sleeps and in the face of this young woman I see the many faces of my little girl: The mischievous toddler who poured a jar of honey on Father’s head while he was taking a nap; A kindergartener who refused to eat “the weird ground meat in a weird kind of bread” (she adores tacos now!), while beating her daycare teacher in the game of Mancala; a curly-haired girl dancing an Irish jig in the middle of the class for Lee, the little boy she liked in first grade, while her teacher stared unbelieving; a fourth grader working on a patent for a portable, computerized dry-erase board in her gifted and talented class; a teen obsessively playing the Math 24 game and helping her team win in seventh grade; a proud eighth grader attending her first formal dance, completely oblivious of her beauty, dressed as Eowyn from Lord of the Rings in a white silk-satin dress I made, as she requested; a high schooler crying at the dining room table after getting an F in Honors Chemistry (her first tears since watching The Titanic and realizing that the captain who so resembled Santa Claus, would die with the ship); an excited sixteen year old getting in the car with her first boyfriend and learning to parallel park; And then a daughter ready to conquer the world, reading to me the acceptance e-mail from UC Berkeley.

All those Ninas, small and big, still live within her. And each one is a part of me. I had to work the evening before our flight and she took over the kitchen with the confidence and creativity that have come to be her hallmark. She prepared a delicious chicken curry and the flavor of it was unlike anything because it tasted like 19 years of smiles and tears and laughter and wonder.

Who is this woman child who has become my best friend? What wonders wait within her as her potential staggers and boggles my mind? I don’t know. But I am so enjoying finding out.

SAFFRON RICE WITH CARROTS

I made the rice to accompany Nina’s curry, and it was perfect, with raisins adding just enough sweetness to counterbalance the spice in curry.

Ingredients:

  • several strands of saffron
  • 2 Tbso olive oil
  • ½ large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 carrots shredded or julienned
  • 1 ½ cups basmati  rice
  • 3 cups water, vegetable stock or chicken stock
  • salt, pepper
  • ½ cup golden raisins

Directions:

Soak the saffron in a small amount of hot water. In the meantime, sauté onions and garlic until soft, 4-5 minutes. Add the carrots and rice and stir for a couple of minutes. Pour in the water or chicken stock and add the raisins. Heat to boil, turn the temperature to low, and simmer for 15-20 minutes until done. Fluff with the fork and serve.

I am sending this dish to Making It with….Mondays hosted by Sue of Couscous and Consciousness, Hearth and Soul, hosted by Heather of Girliechef, and Full PlateThursday, hosted by Miz Helen from Miz Helen’s Country Cottage.

Jan 082011
 

Sometime in the far gone past, the Christian Orthodox Church refused to accept the Gregorian calendar. So, the Bolshevik October Revolution happened really in November, Christmas falls on January 7th, and the New Year makes its grand entrance at the stroke of twelve on the 13th of January. While everyone else has already put away their ornaments and taken their sad trees to the curb bleeding needles and icicles, our home is still a-twinkle with lights, garland, and fake snowflakes hanging off the window-frames. The stores are filled with pink and red hearts, and flaxen-haired California girls are seriously thinking of abandoning their Uggs for designer flip-flops. It seems that everybody is on the welcoming committee for spring. But in our Orange County home, the winter holiday season is still going full blast.

We were not raised with religion, but many Serbian traditions and rituals are intertwined with Christianity. Christmas Eve brought a breath of mystery, a whisper of ancient Slavic rites, and a sense of belonging and connection to a world much older than us. We did not follow the forty-day period of Lent that precedes Christmas, but on Christmas Eve, we would abstain from dairy and red meat. At dusk, deda-Ljubo would light the cresset hanging on the wall, illuminating the icon of St. Michael, the saint-protector of his family and the house. He would burn little rocks of incense from Smyrna and envelope the house in the heady, exotic, and somehow solemn smell. In the meantime Njanja would caramelize sugar for the hot slivovitz* and pour the amber liquid into the special thick glasses. The radio was softly playing Serbian music from between two World Wars, the songs celebrating friendship, love, and good times. The table was set with several bowls containing dried fruits and nuts and we would gather around, inhaling the essence of the East and tasting the sunshine of the past summer banked in the dates, figs, and raisins, while the northern winds howled and winter tried to sneak its freezing fingers underneath the doors.

kandilo - cresset

I carried those traditions with me when I crossed the ocean. There is an icon of St. Nicholas, the saint-protector of the Popovic family, hanging on my wall, with a red cresset set just underneath. It ties me to my homeland, my family, and an old Slavic tribe whose god the Christian saint replaced. This Christmas Eve, it was Father who lit the cresset, while my oldest daughter burned the incense from Smyrna. Following the tradition and the ritual, there was no dairy, eggs, nor red meat at the dinner table. I made Pam‘s light and airy Artichoke Dip for the appetizer. Paris Mushroom Soup was earthy, rosemary and thyme playing nicely with white wine. Pan-fried California Trout held court, flanked by a simple potato salad, dressed with a vinaigrette and a lot of red onions. The flickering light was dancing on my girls’ faces and I enjoyed their exuberance and vivaciousness, my fingers sticky from cleaning the bones of several fishes.

After all the dishes were put away, we sat down to play a game of whist, with platters full of dried fruit and bowls full of nuts on the table, Serbian music from the 30s playing in the background. I made some Turkish coffee and Father started caramelizing the sugar for hot slivovitz. The smells of plum brandy and strong coffee magically invoked the memories of my Grandparents’ house and for a moment I was a teenager again, given a thick glass only half full of the potent beverage, allowed into the world of adults, trying awkwardly to bridge the gap between the exotic past and ever-changing present.

*Hot Slivovitz is very popular in cold winter months. It is a potent and great-tasting combination of caramelized sugar, plum brandy, and water.

Paris Mushroom Soup is the first recipe for January that our French Fridays with Dorie group is preparing from Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table. I have been making cream of mushroom soup for years with a tried and true recipe, but this newcomer may just usurp the veteran, and appear in our soup bowls at least half of the time. The herbs add another layer of depth that complements the essence of mushrooms. I can only imagine the intensity wild mushrooms would bring. And even though I am not a fan of raw fungi, I enjoyed the added texture of the heat-softened salad of sliced mushrooms and scallions that Dorie suggests we put on the bottom. The only thing that I would add is a tablespoon of cognac, dry sherry or Marsala, for yet another subtle layer of flavor.

If you are interested in reading an fascinating discussion about this recipe, head over to French Fridays with Dorie.

Jan 022011
 

Of all the holidays, New Year’s Eve has always been my favorite. That was the night when girls transformed into princesses and carefully walked in heels to a hotel’s grand ballroom, supported by a boyfriend’s steady arm. That was the night when the tables were set with starched white tablecloths, shining silverware, and sparkling glasses, glittery sliver and gold ribbons, garlands, and balloons swaying from the ceilings and hanging from the walls. That night the feet hurt from dancing, and the eyes stayed permanently lit from laughter. That night was shared with best friends, counting down the last seconds of the year, raising champagne flutes to welcome another one, while the band played the first notes of The Blue Danube waltz, inviting everybody to dance their way into the future. That was the night that always stood for hope.

As I was getting ready for work on New Year’s Eve, I tried to catch the usual twinkle of excitement that accompanies the holiday. I closed my eyes to avoid distractions, hoping to recognize the familiar flutter of anticipation. Nothing. Was the culprit the tall and skinny California palm silhouetted against the cloudless sky? Was it our token tree, decorated with a few ornaments that somehow evaded the garage sale back in Ohio? Should I have blamed the absence of snow?  Maybe the spirit of the special day was kidnapped by the depressing thought of facing the work-harpies?

Whatever the reasons, the fairy dust failed to appear. I trudged off, plastered on smile #6, and tried to bring a touch of cheer I did not feel to my customers. As the doors of the restaurant closed behind me, I limped to the car and fell into the passenger seat. Husband knew better than to utter a sound before my customary monologue that summarized the day’s events.  The drive home lasted about seven minutes thanks to the lack of crazy holiday mall traffic. My litany took six minutes. In the last minute, Husband  started to describe the state of the affairs on the home front, but my exasperated whine stopped him as soon as he mentioned the failed attempt to procure the mussels at Costco. The stars seemed to be fully ruled by the horrible forces of entropy. We obviously needed a new session of the council of elders to determine the alternative New Year’s Eve dinner menu.

Walking toward the apartment, I was thinking only of shedding the uniform and wrapping myself in something soft and fleecy right after the shower, already seeing myself on the couch, feet propped up, laptop fully charged, and a martini within reach. I banished all the thoughts of parties from the past years, and resigned myself to just another ordinary night.

But something started to change in the air with the first notes of Dean Martin’s baritone invoking images of snowflakes and fireplaces. The house was clean, the candles lit, and the tiny plastic tree blinking with lights was surrounded by meticulously wrapped presents. There was a nice, green tablecloth on the dining room table, and the glasses were ready for vodka-tonics. The Beasties ran out of their room to hug me and tell me that formal attire was required for dinner. The College Kritter had flour all over her arms, finishing the pizza dough for the appetizers. Hastily, afraid to lose the elusive tendrils of hope, I dispatched Husband to the Persian store to get steaks (rib-eyes for the real meat connoisseurs, Father and me, and fillets for the the uninitiated remainder of the family).

presents from my girls

By the time he was back, vodka-tonics were waiting on the table, Nina’s gorgonzola pizzette were in the oven, champagne was chilling in the fridge, and everybody was dressed for a gala. Magic has crept into our small home and turned it into a beautiful fairy-tale castle. We played music, laughed, and danced, stepping over each other, pretending that we were gliding over the vast expanse of a ballroom. We opened the presents, truly appreciating all the love and effort each of us put into making it happen. We ate the flavorful morsels of baked dough, with tangy gorgonzola balanced by sweet tomato and fresh bite of basil. More music, more laughter, and more wine accompanied the perfectly cooked steaks and twice-baked potatoes.

As midnight approached, the excitement grew. The champagne was uncorked as 2011 stepped across the threshold, invited in by The Blue Danube waltz. We kissed each other, whispering and yelling wishes, poured the champagne and toasted, knowing that some wonderful things are awaiting us just around the corner. The six of us danced the waltz, exchanging partners, until our feet could not stand it any more.

It was not a special day, and it was not an ordinary day. It was just a day. By the end of it, there was fairy dust everywhere and the air was full of glitter. And I felt like a princess again.

PIZZETTE WITH GORGONZOLA AND TOMATOES (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

(In her recipe, Giada uses purchased pizza dough, but College Kritter can whip up some mean pizza in no time. She also used more gorgonzola and more tomatoes.)

Ingredients:

Dough:

  • 2 tsp instant yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 TBSP olive oil
  • 2 ½ cups all purpose flour

Toppings:

  • 8 oz crumbled gorgonzola
  • 8 oz cherry tomatoes, halved
  • salt
  • a bunch of fresh basil

Directions:

Dissolve the yeast in a little bit of warm water, Add sugar and let proof for 10 minutes, until bubbles appear. Add the water, salt, oil and enough flour to form a non sticky dough. Knead for several minutes, until it becomes smooth and elastic. Put into a bowl, grease with a bit of olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest in a warm spot until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Punch the dough, and flatten using the rolling pin to ¼ inch thickness. Cut out the circles using a 2 inch cookie cutter and place them on two baking sheets. Crumble some gorgonzola on each circle, press 1 or 2 tomato halves in (depending on the size of your tomatoes), sprinkle with a bit of salt and bake for 10 minutes. Garnish with basil and serve immediately.

Nina's nibbles

You can find the original recipe here.

This story and Nina’s adaptation of Giada’s recipe for pizzette goes to I Heart Cooking Clubs blog event, hosted by Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies