Feb 272011
 
FBLA members' meetup at Patti Londre's LA home

Thanks, Patti, for catching everybody's smile

Clockwise:

(Not seen in the photo are Husband, who had the honor of pressing the button, and pretty yellow cat who meowed on playback behind the window).

***

When I moved from Serbia to the U.S. in the 80s, I was in love. When I moved from Michigan to Ohio in the 90s, I was following a change in career. When I moved from Ohio to California a couple of years ago, I was saying goodbye to a nightmare and hello to a dream. And each time my heart was broken. Each time I had to leave behind people I loved who loved me in return.

Fighting the exhausting battle for survival in the midst of the economic crisis, I had little time to look for new people connections. I love California and its beauty still takes me by surprise every single day. But without people, my roots don’t take hold and I feel adrift. I had been blogging for several months when Greg of Sippity Sup sent an invitation on his site to local bloggers to attend his Christmas tree decorating party in December.

As shy as I am, I am extremely brave by 10 o’clock at night, a glass of red wine in my hand, so I commented on his post, accepted his invitation, and asked for the address. As the day of the party approached, I tried to keep my cool and laugh off the anxiety. Husband picked the champagne and the ornament, and we set off for LA, properly equipped with directions and the most annoying navigational system in the world interrupting me as I chirped excitedly all the way until we got off the 405 and took the 101 right into the heart of Los Angeles, when I fell silent. A couple of miles down the road I told Husband to turn around and take us back home. I am so grateful that he dismissed it and continued driving because as soon as I walked into Greg’s house, my fears dissipated and the sense of intruding and not belonging was not there any more. Greg was a gracious host and the glass of bubbly he offered certainly did not hurt.

Several hours later I was in the car again, babbling excitedly, relieved that I still knew how to interact with people who count their age in double digits, and happy about meeting other bloggers. Besides, Husband and I were seriously contemplating stealing Greg’s kitchen. And we were not the only ones smitten by it: his kitchen was the star of a Food and Wine magazine article.

The Food Bloggers of Los Angeles group meets once a month. January’s hostess was Pam of My Man’s Belly. Everybody brought a dish to contribute to the potluck, and seeing all the beautifully arranged food, Husband decided to stick around, guessing correctly that he would not be disappointed. Pam was very patient and methodical as she guided us through the treacherous and murky waters of SEO, Google searches, and spiders, suggesting methods to attract traffic to our blogs and answering seemingly endless questions. Pam’s immaculate home is mere minutes to the Hermosa Beach Pier and left Husband plotting to steal not only her kitchen, but her latitude and longitude. The drive home  was pretty much filled with another one of my euphoric monologues. Once again my fellow bloggers put a big smile on my face, enough to arm me against another month of inane exchanges at work, aimless banter, and empty talk. I mentioned the meet-up in my Lemon Risotto post.

urnebes, roasted red pepper relish from bibberche.com

Today’s meet-up took us close to the UCLA campus where our February hostess, Patti Londre of Worth the Whisk, resides with her husband, Larry and a beautiful yellow cat whose name I do not know. We were a little late, and the table was already laden with mini quiches, deviled eggs, bite-sized tortilla espagnola, scones, rainbow beet salad, date-nut bread, phyllo pastries, pear and chocolate upside-down cake, lemon-cheesecake bars, chocolate macarons, fresh blackberries, and strawberries with chocolate and rum sabayon for dipping. The kitchen island held everything possible you can imagine for making a Bloody Mary (Patti has written a great post about it). It was nice to see so many familiar faces and to meet the new ones (new to me, that is).

As an added bonus, Patti’s extraordinarily talented and hillarious friend Denise Vivaldo was there, and her sense of humor and energy were infectious. I will have a chance to learn much more about Denise, as I was lucky enough to leave with one of the door prizes, an oversized bag stuffed with two of her award-winning books: The Entertaining Encyclopedia and The Food Stylist’s Handbookautographed, of course! I cannot wait to curl up on the couch and sink into them.

denise vivaldo's books

Patti has worked for over two decades in the PR business, and she lead us into that world, step by step, starting from the beginning, as some of us were not in the loop. She taught us how the PR industry functions, concentrating on their approach to bloggers. She illustrated her words with anecdotes and gave us a lot of useful advice. Even though I spent years reading hundreds of blogs, I am seeing the blogging world colored in so many different lights and I am discovering the whole process anew. It will never cease to amaze me that there are people out there who know so much more than me who are willing to share their knowledge and help us on our steep climb uphill.

Today I learned a lot. I won two beautiful books. I fell in love (again) with another LA neighborhood. I met several amazing people. I tasted some seriously good food. And the Bloody Mary’s were right on cue. I like it here in California. My roots are growing stronger every day. And even though my heart will stay permanently broken from missing my family and friends in Serbia, the land of eternal sunshine seems willing to accept another refugee into its ample silicone bosom.

URNEBES – ROASTED RED PEPPER RELISH

(This relish is a favorite of southern Serbia and Macedonia. Good quality full-fat sheep cheese makes it creamy, and hot peppers give it the requisite spiciness. It is not for the weak of heart).

Ingredients:

  • 8 meaty red bell peppers, roasted (or grilled), peeled, and seeded
  • 4 red jalapeño peppers, roasted, peeled, destemmed, and deseeded (you can use less hot peppers for a milder relish)
  • 250gr (1/2 lb) Greek feta, crumbled and pressed with fork
  • 2 Tbsp softened cream cheese
  • 4 minced garlic cloves
  • 1-2 glugs of olive oil
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Place the peppers in a colander, press with a heavy bowl, and allow them to drain for several hours. Process them in a food processor until coarsely chopped and transfer to a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients, mixing to incorporate. Taste and adjust the amounts of salt and pepper.

Serve as a dip with toasted baguette or pita chips. This relish also makes an excellent condiment to any grilled meats.

Feb 262011
 

Braised short ribs with red wine from bibberche.com

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to get an early start preparing Dorie Greenspan’s Braised Short Ribs with Red Wine for our French Fridays with Dorie group. I am usually posting late, scrambling to push the “Publish” button some time on Saturday, commenting after everybody else has already said everything that could have been said, promising that the next time I will be more industrious. Those promises seem to fall into the category of New Year’s resolutions, starting or stopping something on a Monday, reading the lessons ahead, and finishing the homework early at the beginning of the school year. I am always sincere. I might even follow my promise for a day or two. But time inevitably sneaks up on me, laughing derisively as I concede defeat once again. I was roaming the apartment, opening the fridge, peeking into the pantry, moving the bottles around, only to conclude with the utmost delight that I had every single ingredient for this dish right here. And the list was never-ending. I know I have a problem: I admit freely that I am an ingredient hoarder. I bought star anise when I reorganized the spices and even though I have not used it until now, it sure looks pretty in my new metal magnetic jar. Parsnips are a different story. They reside in the vegetable drawer of the fridge, along with carrots and celery, my holy trinity for making the best chicken broth on Earth. When I pushed aside the bottles of spiced rum and Serbian slivovitz, I found out we even had port. The only thing Husband had to procure from our local Persian store were short ribs. I am pretty annoyed at food trends. Every once in a while, some chef or a food critic will unearth a cheap peasant food, and introduce it to fancy restaurants as the new black. Inevitably, it stops being peasant food, and it definitely stops being inexpensive. Short ribs have joined the fate of ox tail and chicken wings, and they are considerably more costly than beef shanks, for example. I grumbled at the price Husband quoted on his iPhone, but for the sake of playing along and following the rules, I gave him my blessing. As Dorie recommends that the braise be prepared a day ahead, I gave myself a lot of time, whistling, extremely proud at my own state of readiness. I have never worked with short ribs before, but I never let a four legged beast stump me. The first step was a bit different. Instead of the usual browning on high heat in the skillet on top of the stove, Dorie’s recipe asked us to put the ribs in the oven and broil them for a couple of minutes until brown. In the meantime, I chopped, I minced, and I collected the spices and herbs in a bundle ready to be dropped in simmering broth. I did not care how long it took, as I had the entirety of another day in front of me. The vegetables were caramelizing beautifully, and when I heard the unmistakable sputter that demanded liquid, I added wine and port, enjoying the sizzle that rose to meet it. A couple dollops of my favorite spicy tomato paste from Germany went in, along with the spice bundle and the meat. Beef stock covered the ribs half way, and back to the oven it went for a few hours. I certainly wasn’t counting. But when it came out, the meat was falling off the bone, and the sauce smelled like a walk through an Istanbul bazaar in summer time.

making short ribs from bibberche.com

While it rested in the fridge, we enjoyed a beautiful Indonesian Fish Padang Curry that I found on my friend Shulie’s site, Food Wanderings. This was a simple, flavorful dish that seduced our whole family with its complementary flavors and stunning yellow color imparted by turmeric… definitely worth a post on its own. The next day, it did not take long to revive the ribs from their hibernation once they hit the stove. I had to add some water to scrape up the sauce from the edges. And I was not even contemplating for a second the idea of straining the juices and getting rid of all the goodness in that skillet. Sorry, Dorie, I had to stray off the given path. My immersion blender brought the sauce together in mere seconds. I was so excited about the dish that I forgot to make the gremolata, even though I minced all the ingredients ahead of time. I am going to blame the spring fever for robbing me of my everyday faculties. I’d kick myself in the behind if I only could. Served on top of a pile of buttery mashed potatoes, the short ribs epitomized comfort food. Besides the usual undertones of onions, carrots, garlic, and red wine, the traces of ginger and anise gave this dish a flair of the Orient, too vague to pinpoint, but assertive enough to be noticeable. There wasn’t much left after we attacked it at the dinner table. Now that I have put another notch on my board of successes, I will have to watch for short ribs to be on sale at the Persian store. It has been gloomy and rainy again in Southern California, and even though I am not a fan of the gray skies, I will take the advantage of the weather and pretend that we are in the middle of winter by preparing more comfort food. As usual, I am frantically scrambling to get this post done before the clock strikes midnight. My Cinderella story will not be romantic. I do not have a lost shoe to mourn or to brag about. All I can say is, make these ribs. Fill your house with all the wonderful smells encapsulated in that cheesecloth bundle. Light up your fireplace and let the flames warm you while the ribs are simmering in the oven. Don’t count the minutes. Let this dish develop on its own, and it will reward you with a cozy, warm invitation to a night spent in comfort, love, and the embrace of your family.

Feb 212011
 

hush puppies from bibberche.com

I often wonder what my ancestors ate before the ships sailing from the New World unloaded sacks of peppers, potatoes, beans, and corn on the shores of the European continent, knowing that they pretty much describe the essence of Balkan cuisine. Parts of Europe cultivated rice, but the lack of fast and reliable transportation prevented it from becoming a staple. Italians might have enjoyed copious amounts of pasta, but noodles did not appear on Serbian tables until the middle of the twentieth century. Growing wheat was expensive, and only the rich consumed breads made from it.

There was buckwheat, barley, and oats, which the poor shared with their farm animals. We learned about all these different cereals in school, but I had never tasted buckwheat nor oats until I moved to the U.S. I  cannot count how many times at parties we sang a Serbian folk song about a girl harvesting barley without thinking of its role in human consumption.

I shudder to think that the majority of people relied on turnips to carry them through the cold and barren winter months. Last fall, I roasted turnips with potatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, and brussels sprouts. We love the caramelized and sweet taste of roasted vegetables and to prove it, the pan returned empty to the kitchen. Or almost empty. There were turnips left on it. I did not care for them. Neither did the Beasties, Husband, nor Father, who should have embraced the taste of this humble root, only to justify the stories he tells about his deprived childhood. Maybe there is a recipe out there which can make me into a convert, but for now, I’ll avoid the turnips on my shopping trips.

Other people can have their turnips. I’ll gladly keep the cabbage that fed us for hundreds of years, not asking for much in its low-maintenance, but versatile ways. And I’ll be eternally grateful for all those sacks filled with peppers, potatoes, beans, and corn that reached far into the continent and became the foundation of our culinary culture. They adapted, assimilated, and became not only equal to the local foods, but in many cases even more beloved.

There is no farm or large garden in Serbia that does not have at least a row of corn planted somewhere along the fence. These lovingly cultivated grasses are not for commercial use – there are fields in Vojvodina in the north that can feed Europe with corn. Even a few stalks can produce enough ears to make it into children’s hands in the summer time, cooked and sprinkled with coarse salt, eaten piping hot outside with juices carelessly running down the chin and onto a shirt.

A lot of small farmers in Serbia still take their corn to old-fashioned water-wheel mills where it’s stone ground into cornmeal. Baggage restrictions are the only thing that prevents me from packing a suitcase full of 1kg bags of Serbian cornmeal and transporting it to my California home. I try to stretch the bag or two Father manages to pack next to slivovitz, local honey, dried bay leaves from my Aunt’s and Uncle’s Mediterranean laurel bush, Mother’s homemade preserves and beautifully knitted sweaters, books and CDs from my friends, and numerous other items not available in the states.

I make the traditional breakfast cornmeal porridge for my girls. It’s simmered slowly for several minutes, and served runny, with crumbled Feta and a dollop of cream cheese instead of kajmak. Whenever I make any dish with brined cabbage, I make Serbian crunchy corn bread in the cast iron skillet. College Kritter loves the sweet Northern American version, and she makes it to accompany chili. In the past several years, I have become obsessed with polenta and grits, and any time I braise a hunk of beef or lamb shanks, I reach for the bag of stone ground grits and prepare it as a side. On our trip to the Yucatan last spring, I bought a tortilla press in a small shop in Valladolid, after I fell in love with the taste of small corn tortillas made on the premises by short, Mexican abuelas wearing their traditional huipil dresses.

I keep my Serbian mill-ground cornmeal in the fridge. In my pantry you can find at any time a standard box of yellow cornmeal, a box of Masa Harina, a bag of stone-ground grits and another bag of finely ground corn flour. If I run out of one of those, I feel insecure until I replenish it. When there is corn, there is food.

For several years I worked at Key Largo, a restaurant in a western suburb of Detroit. It featured the cuisines of Louisiana, Florida, and the Caribbean. We had a calypso or a still drum band every Friday and Saturday playing on the deck looking over the Walled Lake. Our fish arrived daily flash-frozen, always a surprise by our distributor. Our signature dessert was Key Lime Pie. Our signature appetizers were Conch Chowder, Conch Fritters, and Hot Puppies, a sweet and spicy take on the Southern side.

In so many instances I am like Pavlov’s dog, reacting impulsively to smells, songs, and sounds. Our front door was open yesterday to let in the abundant California sunshine. All of a sudden, a Harry Belafonte song started playing from our summer playlist, and my mind was flooded with memories. As it was time to make lunch, I started craving those Hot Puppies (I’d go for conch anything, but this is California, and I felt deprived). I explored the Internet for the basic recipes, remembering the taste of those delectable pieces of fried cornmeal. Husband was a bit skeptical, claiming the rights to Southern cuisine not only by being born in Atlanta, but residing in Georgia and Louisiana for much of his life before the age of Enlightement (i.e. meeting me :) )

The corn fritters were ridiculously easy to make. I complicated the process by adding chopped roasted jalapeño peppers and corn kernels to the dough. I was contemplating making only half of the recipe, but the Youngest Beastie needs some serious fattening up and the Hush Puppies seemed like her kind of snack. I was not wrong: I barely saved several to photograph before they disappeared, dunked in home-made mayonnaise (the girls convinced me they needed it, and after I gave them all the ingredients, tools, and instructions needed, they made it themselves in no time).

I don’t know why Husband still holds a certain dose of skepticism when it comes to my cooking. I will rock his Southern boat every time I enter the kitchen. Some of his ancestors might have chased the herds of bison all over the American prairie land, but mine taught me how to respect the food and take it to the highest level possible.  Somewhat reluctantly he proclaimed my hush puppies the best he ever tasted. I tried to avoid showing him my most annoyingly sweet I-told-you-so smile. I dunked one of the spicy crunchy corn balls into mayo and wondered for a second why there was no Serbian version of it. Knowing the Balkan palates, this dish would be a favorite.

how to make hush puppies from bibberche.com

Sue of Couscous and Consciousness has a weekly event Making it with…Mondays. We prepare the dishes that feature the designated weekly ingredient. This week it was one very close to my heart, cornmeal. I hope she likes my Hush Puppies.

I would also like to contribute these corn fritters to Hearth and Soul blog event hosted by Alex at A Moderate Life.

Make it with ..... Mondays

HUSH PUPPIES (as remembered by Key Largo’s Hot Puppies)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp sugar (optional)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cayenne (optional)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk*
  • 1 Tbsp melted lard, bacon grease, or oil
  • ½ cup cooked corn kernels (optional)
  • ½ cup chopped roasted and peeled hot peppers (optional)
  • sunflower oil for frying

*If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use plain yogurt diluted with some milk or club soda to a runnier consistency. If you want to make your own buttermilk on the fly, just add 1 Tbsp of lemon juice to 1 cup of milk, let it sit for 5-10 minute, stir and use.

Directions:

Mix all dry ingredients together. Add the eggs, buttermilk, grease, corn, and jalapeños, if using. Stir to combine. Heat the oil in a deep skillet to 350F. Spoon a walnut size of batter into the hot oil and fry several at the same time, without crowding, until golden brown and crispy, about 3-4 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve with honey butter or homemade mayonnaise.

More corn love: Splendor in the Corn (this story will take you back to your first butterflies in the stomach)

Feb 192011
 

Nigella's Chocolate Mousse from bibberche.comThere are certain combinations of ingredients that act like catnip for kids, most of them sweet: sugar and eggs, sugar and butter, butter and chocolate, chocolate and coffee. It is a given when you are a child that the bowl, the spatula, the beaters, and any other implement used to swirl, smooth, mix, or combine, will eventually fall into your greedy, grimy, sticky hands. I call my electric $10.00 hand-held mixer (circa 1988 it cost way more than! NOT) Pied Piper. No matter where my girls are, once it’s on, they appear in the kitchen Zombie-like, eyes glassed over, hands reaching for dishes with remnants of creams, glazes and frostings. They cannot be stopped until every speck has been licked off and the utensiles and bowls rest on the counter looking misleadingly clean.

But once the dessert is finished, the fascination wears off. They will eat a brownie, a small piece of cake, a narrow wedge of pie, and forget the rest, which will sit in the fridge loosing its allure with every hour that passes, unless Husband or I rescue it late at night. It took a lot of sad-looking, old, crusty, dried-out has-beens that ended in the trash can until I learned to scale down the recipe to fit our miniscule needs.

I can resist sweets. I will  make them, decorate them, put them in front of the children, and go on my merry way, tasting only while preparing to make sure I am going in the right direction. But I have a soft spot for creamy desserts, puddings, panna cotte, and flans. If there is any amount of dark chocolate involved, the temptation increases tenfold. Enter chocolate mousse. It was not a surprise to me when I fell in love with it after a measly bite. I used to dip a cup in freshly made, barely sweetened whipped cream and eat it all in one breath. I kept an irregular chunk of really dark chocolate wrapped in foil in my night table drawer, and whenever I felt overwhelmed with an urge for sweets, I’d drag it out and gnaw on it for a minute, eyes closed in bliss.

I made friends with our pastry chef and once in a while he would make sure I got my fix of delectable chocolate mousse without resorting to sneaking off to the cooler and frantically gulping down tablespoon by tablespoon, forgetting for once paranoid thoughts of being forgotten and locked in overnight. My metabolism was fired up and sustained this guilty habit for several years. Once I quit working in the restaurant, I went through some serious withdrawals, and only laziness prevented me from making the mousse every week.

There were several attempts to distance myself from it since then. I made a white chocolate mousse, en elegant, luscious dessert that seduced the younger Beastie and intrigued the older one. I made pumpkin mousse for a Thanksgiving dinner, a light, billowy, orange cloud spiced up with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom and topped with a spoonful of whipped cream. I experimented with savory varieties, serving salmon and trout mousse, pink and creamy, kissed with lemon and parsley. I loved them all, but secretly I pined for my first love.

I have recently connected on Twitter with a very nice gal from England, Sarah, who happens to be married to a guy whose father is Serbian. She has a wonderful blog, Maison Cupcake, full of beautiful recipes and photographs. A couple of months ago she started an event to celebrate her undying love for the cookery of Nigella Lawson, Forever Nigella.

I do not need a prompt to go out and buy another cookbook filled with glossy pages of well-written recipes and amazing photography. When the College Kritter moved to an apartment last Fall, I gave her several of my most cherished cookbooks to guide her on her culinary road. My shelves therefore offer a couple of empty spots and one of them should be a book by Nigella.

The theme for February is Chocolate. I did not ask for the family council to meet. I browsed and found out that Nigella makes an Instant Chocolate Mousse. She avoids raw eggs and uses mini marshmallows which melt and act as meringue. I was sold. I had only big marshmallows, but I cut them in quarters and solved the problem. I broke into pieces several squares of Ghirardelli 70% cacao Dark Chocolate, softened the butter in the  microwave, mixed everything together in a stainless steal pot, and added very hot water. A lot of it! The recipe called for 50ml. I poured one cup by mistake and, realizing it, said goodbye to any idea of instant and speedy. It took more than half an hour for all the water to evaporate while the chocolate and marshmallows were slowly simmering and melting together.

But in the end, everything blended into a dark, shiny, glistening river of chocolate lava. When it cooled, I folded it into fresh whipped cream and poured it into decorative glasses, topped with more whipped cream, just slightly sweetened and scented with vanilla. I placed them lovingly into the fridge to await the right moment, just after Jeopardy! As I expected, the girls were leaning over the kitchen sink, licking the beaters, spoons, and spatulas, their faces smudged by chocolate, fingers sticky from scraping the tiniest traces from the bowl.

That was a long wait. I gave everybody a glass, keeping the smallest serving for myself. I took my time to get comfortable on the couch, twisting the glass by its stem, choosing the best starting point. When the spoon filled with mousse hit my tongue, I felt dopamine rush through my blood and wake up every cell from its dormant mousse-deprived state. I closed my eyes in bliss and thanked Nigella for allowing me to fall off the wagon.

Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Mousse from bibberche.com

I did not change a lot about the recipe (adding five times as much water as needed is just embarrassing) and as requested by the rules of playing, I will not post it here. It appeared in Nigella Express cookbook, and if you go to Nigella’s home page you can find it. There is also a video of Nigella making her Instant Chocolate Mousse on YouTube. And visit Maison Cupcake for the round-up of all chocolate goodness from the blogs all over the world.

Forever Nigella

Feb 192011
 

Back in the 70s, the nouveau riche parents of Yugoslavia suddenly could afford large quantities of animal protein and children gorged on meat at every meal. Remembering the scarcity of their childhood and youth, our immediate ancestors showed their love for their progeny by grilling, braising, curing, and roasting big chunks of pork, beef, or lamb, depending on the local dietary preferences and availability.

In the process, vegetables suffered. They were pushed away from the leading roll and given only an occasional cameo appearance, with the mighty potato holding the flanks. The exceptions were tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage which continued to be exalted, served raw in season, brined, pickled, and canned for the winter.

Carrots were sold in tight bundles with parsnips, parsley, and celery root, destined to end up as aromatics, softly boiled in soup with a charred onion and a hefty hen. Peas had their fortnight of celebrity shows in spring, starring every day, until everybody tired of them, and they retreated to freezers, awaiting spring cravings during the gray days of November. Zucchini were everywhere for a month, loved for a very short time and them shunned, pawned off on the city-dwelling relatives, forgotten in the fields on purpose, left to rot despised and devalued. Spinach and cauliflower rarely graced the dinner tables, and if they did, they were hidden behind slabs of meat, cowering in a measly pile next to the mountain of golden, glistening roasted potatoes.

String beans came in various shapes and colors, from pencil thin, green ones, to yellow, buttery wide ones, to purple-striated and flat ones. Simmered with onions and carrots in a tomato broth, they were the the summer favorites of mothers, and clandestinely hated by most children, including my sister, who could not find anything endearing about beans and spent hours finishing their servings, moving the individual pieces around hoping they would disintegrate from constant prodding. Mother was creative with beans, as usual, and cooked them in various ways. I was pretty indifferent to any of string beans’ incarnations, choosing to bestow all my loathing to the odious potato soup with smoked pork.

As adults we have moved on from irrational dislikes of food, enabled to laugh about our past by the luxury of nicely developed and indulgent palates. In the summer time I still prepare the beans the way Mother had taught me, especially treasuring the rare Romano beans available only at the Farmers’ Market. Serbs prefer their meat completely done, and their vegetables soft and yielding. But I have learned to recognize that specific taste that comes forth only when the beans are swiftly blanched, drained, and swirled around in hot oil or butter, enhanced by toasted almonds, minced garlic, scallions, or tomatoes, and finished with a sprinkle of sea salt. Father gave me a nod of approval recently when I served the emerald-colored haricot verts as a side dish, not elevating them above Mother’s recipe, but acknowledging their excellence nevertheless.

The last bastion of string bean haters was my oldest, College Kritter. When she was here for winter break, she grudgingly admitted that she had started eating the beans in small quantities, and on rare occasions (At this point I am extremely optimistic: lamb – check; cabbage in salads – check; mushrooms – check; green beans – check. She has only to conquer peas and Brussels sprouts). If she had not crossed over from the dark side already, the green beans with pancetta that I made last night would have definitely won her over.

This was another one of Dorie Greenspan’s recipes form the book Around My French Table. I served them with Chicken Francese and Aioli pasta. The chicken was beautifully seasoned, touched by a sauce made velvety by lemon juice and white wine simmered with garlic and chicken stock. Farfalle were lightly coated with freshly made aioli, mirroring the lemon and garlic from the sauce. But the Green Beans with Pancetta stole the show. The beans were cooked perfectly, crunchy and spackled with sea salt, still verdant, but not grassy. The pancetta was crispy and salty, its aftertaste bringing out the best attributes pork has to offer.

Preparing this dish was like an afterthought. Each ingredient was showcased and brought  to perfection in its simplicity. And even though pancetta is fairly expensive, the two ounces necessary for the recipe were barely noticeable on our extremely frugal wallet. The Beasties concluded that pancetta is the same as bacon, and polished off every speck on their plates.

Looking at my girls embracing green beans without a second thought made me think that the French might have a right approach: everything tastes better with crunchy lardons. If a handful of crispy pork cracklings left over from rendering lard had ended up on top of a modest pile of green vegetables, some naive friend of mine back in the 70s might have actually enjoyed his allotted dose of vitamins.

green beans with pancetta from bibberche.com

There are some wonderful people who participate in French Fridays with Dorie and I am so happy to be a part of that group.

Feb 142011
 

When I was four years old, I remember Mother packing boxes full of clothes, coats, and shoes, and taking them down to the local Red Cross center to be shipped to Vietnam. Often, she was teary-eyed when she told me that she could always knit me another sweater and sew me another pretty dress while some children, as young as I was, in this far-away country went without food, water, and clothes.

In fifth grade, I fell in love with Pearl Buck and devoured every word she had written, transporting myself to China every night and living the lives of her unhappy heroines. In grade school, I became fascinated by geography and obsessed with major mountain chains, gross national products, capitals, waterways, and culture. I learned how to count to ten in thirty different languages, most of them non-European.

In high school I lost hours immersed in the books of Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, and Louis Bromfield, dreaming of monsoons, moist heat, tropical fruit, and sultry nights. I loved to recite the names of the Indonesian islands: Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Celebes (or Sulawesi, as it is known today (“known by whom?” Husband asked)), feeling touched by the magic of the Orient. I visited these lands vicariously through the written word, TV coverage of major political events, and movies.

Going off to college in our capital city of Belgrade did not bring me any closer to the real culture of Asia. Sure, there were students in my class studying Japanese, and I occasionally saw a diplomat’s family from Korea or Malaysia walking the streets. But there was little that was cosmopolitan about Belgrade in the 80s, at least from the perspective of a provincial student.

The first Chinese restaurant, Peking, opened on one of the side streets close to the University, but having to choose how to spend what little money we had, we remained loyal to the familiar places that served plenty of wine and had live music on weekends. I peeked inside longingly from time to time, but my adventurous spirit was spent riding on the back of the moped my cousin, Maja would “borrow” from her older brother, or staying at my friends’ dorm room until dawn, waiting for the first morning bus filled with still sleepy factory workers to bring me back home, exhausted and hoarse from too much talking and too many cigarettes.

When I was a freshmen, my Aunt who worked as the secretary for one of the deans introduced me to an elderly Chinese man finishing his doctoral studies in Philosophy. His name was Wu Shi Kan, which was immediately changed into the Serbian: Vukašin, as a term of endearment. He spoke Serbian fluently, having studied in China. My Aunt and Uncle took Vukašin everywhere they went, showing him the country and letting him experience the friendliness of the Balkan people.

I went home for the weekend when they brought VukaÅ¡in to visit my family. He charmed us all with his warm smile and beautiful music he wrought from his harmonica. He told stories of his homeland, laughing a little about his wife’s family which came from the potato region of China, and crying when remembering his children. I was mesmerized when he started talking about food, not for my culinary inclinations, but because the dishes he described were so exotic and strange that they evoked memories of old fairy tales I had read as a child. I remember him painting a vivid picture of a celebratory dish he called The Battle of Tiger and Dragon, which consisted of such far-fetched and weird ingredients that we believed he was pulling a fast one on us, taking advantage of our naïveté in his sweet, unassuming, and innocent way.

Before he left, VukaÅ¡in gave us bookmarks dotted with Chinese characters and depicting pandas, bamboo stalks, and old figurines. Those were the days when our stores were not inundated with made in China goods, and these little gifts were unique and special. We gathered as he retreated through the front door facing us and bowing in respect, the warm smile illuminating his eyes, and we felt like we were saying Goodbye! to an old friend.

I went to hear Wu Shi Kan defend his doctoral thesis. I shook his hand and congratulated him. He smiled and thanked me in his warm, soft voice. I heard from my Aunt that he had returned to China to his children and his loving potato-eating wife. I have recently found one of his bookmarks in an old day-timer I brought with me to U.S. and it flooded me with memories, not only of him, but of my love for the distant lands of Asia. I smiled because I knew that one day soon I would find someone to repeat to me the story of the Battling Tigers and Dragons and I would find out how much fun Vukašin had with us.

In the meantime, I explore the culinary world of Asia, ingredient by ingredient, culture by culture. I approach the 99 Ranch Market with the apprehension and excitement of Marco Polo, curious as a cat, overwhelmed with the smells and sights around me, delighted when I recognize jackfruit or maitake mushrooms from somewhere online, lost in the aisle of soy bean products, entertained by hilarious translations, and humbled by the sea of the unfamiliar. I have met some wonderful friends recently who are willing to be my guides through the maze of this store and help me find my way around. One of them is Karen of Globetrotter Diaries, whose recipe for Soba Noodles I used for the challenge. Every time I visit her blog I am in awe of her photography and wonderfully prepared food.

This month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge sent me out of my comfort zone, giving us the task of cooking soba noodles and making tempura. The host of this challenge is Lisa of Blueberry Girl, who is truly a citizen of the world, having lived in several countries. Thanks to her thorough research and easy to follow instructions, both of my dishes turned out wonderfully. Encouraged by the initial success, I am eager to expand my experience, and venture beyond stir-fries.

The February 2011 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl. She challenged Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi Soba and Tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including japanesefood.about.com, pinkbites.com, and itsybitsyfoodies.com

HIYASHI SOBA NOODLES (Recipe by Globetrotter Diaries)

Soba Noodles

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts (2 L) water
  • 1 cup cold water, separate
  • 12 oz (340 g) dried soba (buckwheat) noodles (or any Asian thin noodle)

Directions:

Cooking the noodles:

Heat 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the noodles a small bundle at a time, stirring gently to separate. When the water returns to a full boil, add 1 cup of cold water. Repeat this twice. When the water returns to a full boil, check the noodles for doneness. You want to cook them until they are firm-tender. Do not overcook them.

Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse well under cold running water until the noodles are cool. This not only stops the cooking process, but also removes the starch from the noodles. This is an essential part of soba noodle making. Once the noodles are cool, drain them and cover them with a damp kitchen towel and set them aside allowing them to cool completely.

Spicy Dipping Sauce

Ingredients

  • 3⁄4 cup 70gm/21⁄2 oz spring onions/green onions/scallions, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) rice vinegar
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon (21⁄2 ml) (4 2⁄3 gm) (0.16 oz) granulated sugar
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon (11⁄4 ml) (1/8 gm) (0.005 oz) English mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) grape-seed oil or vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) sesame oil (if you can’t find this just omit from recipe.)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste – roughly
  • 1/3 a teaspoon of each

Directions:

Shake all the ingredients together in a covered container. Once the salt has dissolved, add and shake in 2 tablespoons of water and season again if needed.

Common Hiyashi Soba Toppings:

  • Thin omelet strips
  • Ham
  • Boiled chicken breasts
  • Cucumber
  • Boiled bean sprouts
  • Tomatoes
  • Toasted nori (Dried Seaweed)
  • Green onions
  • Wasabi powder
  • Finely grated daikon (Japanese radish)
  • Beni Shoga (Pickled Ginger)
  • All toppings should be julienne, finely diced or grated. Prepare and refrigerate covered until needed.

Serving:

Traditionally soba is served on a bamboo basket tray, but if you don’t have these, you can simply serve them on a plate or in a bowl. Divide up the noodles, laying them on your serving dishes. Sprinkle each one with nori. In small side bowl or cup, place 1/2 cup (120 ml) of dipping sauce into each. In separate small side dishes, serve each person a small amount of wasabi, grated daikon, and green onions.

The noodles are eaten by sprinkling the desired garnishes into the dipping sauce and eating the noodles by first dipping them into the sauce. Feel free to slurp away! Oishii

soba noodles from bibberche.com

TEMPURA (Recipe from Itsy Bitsy Foodies and Pink Bites )

Ingredients:

  • 1 egg yolk from a large egg
  • 1 cup (240 ml) iced water
  • 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (21⁄2 oz) plain (all purpose) flour, plus extra for dredging
  • 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (21⁄2 oz) cornflour (also called cornstarch)
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon (21⁄2 ml) (21⁄2 gm) (0.09 oz) baking powder
  • oil, for deep frying preferably vegetable
  • ice water bath, for the tempura batter (a larger bowl than what will be used for the tempura should be used. Fill the large bowl with ice and some water, set aside)
  • Very cold vegetables and seafood of your choice ie:
  • Sweet potato, peeled, thinly sliced, blanched
  • Carrot, peeled, thinly sliced diagonally
  • Pumpkin, peeled, seeds removed, thinly sliced blanched
  • Green beans, trimmed
  • Green bell pepper/capsicum, seeds removed, cut into 2cm (3⁄4 inch)-wide strips
  • Assorted fresh mushrooms
  • Eggplant cut into strips (traditionally it’s fanned)
  • Onions sliced

Directions:

Place the iced water into a mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg yolk and gradually pour into the iced water, stirring (preferably with chopsticks) and blending well. Add flours and baking powder all at once, stroke a few times with chopsticks until the ingredients are loosely combined. The batter should be runny and lumpy. Place the bowl of batter in an ice water bath to keep it cold while you are frying the tempura. The batter as well as the vegetables and seafood have to be very cold. The temperature shock between the hot oil and the cold veggies help create a crispy tempura.

Heat the oil in a large pan or a wok. For vegetables, the oil should be 320°F/160°C; for seafood it should be 340°F/170°C. It is more difficult to maintain a steady temperature and produce consistent tempura if you don’t have a thermometer, but it can be done. You can test the oil by dropping a piece of batter into the hot oil. If it sinks a little bit and then immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.

Start with the vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, that won’t leave a strong odor in the oil. Dip them in a shallow bowl of flour to lightly coat them and then dip them into the batter. Slide them into the hot oil, deep frying only a couple of pieces at a time so that the temperature of the oil does not drop.

Place finished tempura pieces on a wire rack so that excess oil can drip off. Continue frying the other items, frequently scooping out any bits of batter to keep the oil clean and prevent the oil (and the remaining tempura) from getting a burned flavor.

Serve immediately for the best flavor, but they can also be eaten cold.

tempura vegetables from bibberche.com

Feb 132011
 

Orange Almond Tart from bibberche.com

Getting ready for work one morning, I casually inquired about a math midterm test. The older Beastie equally casually answered that she expected a bad grade because she was bad at math. Insert the sound of squealing brakes here to illustrate my WTF moment and the switch to “Excuse me???” mode accompanied by seriously raised eyebrows.

As I was under the impression that “math was really easy”, the nonchalant statement hit me like a super-fast European bullet train. Silly me, I did not have a clue that my seventh grader does not really “get” fractions even though they have been studying and repeating the lessons ad nauseam since fourth grade. And just the day before, I gave her the authority to explain the dreaded fractions to the Younger Beastie, who confessed to “not getting them” (after a semester of her teacher stopping us at the pick-up line at the school to praise her for being in the top of the class in math, this came as a shock).

A dramatic episode ensued, accompanied by inevitable tears and ended with the never too popular, but predictable ban on watching The Simpsons and Degrassi Junior High, until we exorcised the Boogie-man out of fractions. I went to work pretty perturbed, torturing myself and feeling guilty for allowing my bright girls to be “bad at math”.

Besides the obvious benefits of having enough greenbacks to ensure that we get to eat on a regular basis and live in relative comfort, work accomplishes one thing beautifully: it temporarily distracts me from domestic problems and allows me to concentrate on the highly inane tasks of taking care of my customers. But as soon as the car rolls off the restaurant’s parking lot, the distraction ends and and everything I left at home, usually the bad and the ugly, resurfaces with that annoying na-nana-na-na.

Luckily, I do not hold grudges. Enough time elapsed since the morning and the Drama Queen was enthusiastic, full of love for me, and completely out of the OMG-roll-the-eyes attitude. I gathered both girls in the kitchen and asked them to help me make dinner. While neither volunteered to chop the onions and garlic, they were fighting over every other task. I played the mediator, the instructor, and the clown. We stepped over each other’s feet, banged heads, and laughed over every little incident. Anya pretty much single-handedly made cream of cauliflower soup while Zoe handled mashed potatoes (she was especially impressed by the potato ricer). Together they formed the seasoned ground meat patties, rolled them in bread crumbs and pan-fried them, conquering their fear of hot grease. Dinner was a happy affair with the girls excited and their Momma teary-eyed and proud.

Afterwards, instead of retreating to the bedroom with my laptop, I sat on the couch and watched several videos on linear equations with Anya for extra credit in her math class. She was exuberant and full of energy, impatient for the next test where she intended to prove that she was not that bad at math. Our hug before bed was longer than usual. I just melted when I went to their room several minutes later and heard her reading a Harry Potter book to her sister. I silently closed the door trying not to break the spell of sisterly love.

I watched some recorded episodes of my cooking  shows, answered some e-mails, caught up on my Google reader and planned meals for the next couple of days. Husband was already blissfully asleep, and even though I should have joined him, I felt awake and full of energy. I could have ironed a pile of dish towels I rescued from grunginess. I could have finally applied Super-Glue to several broken objects patiently waiting to become whole again. I could have sewn buttons and patched the holes in socks the girls assembled after the last room-cleaning. But instead, I decided to bake.

The house was peaceful when I started gathering the ingredients necessary for the Orange-Walnut Tart. I proceeded quietly, enjoying these rare moments of utter silence and stillness, feeling like the only wakeful citizen on the planet. The shortbread crust came together easily. I pressed it onto the bottom and sides of the lightly buttered quiche pan and placed it into the freezer for half an hour. In the meantime I ground walnuts and mixed them with butter, sugar, rum, and tiny amounts of flour and cornstarch to form the cream. Husband bought beautiful blood oranges the day previous for no apparent reason (he does that) which I peeled and cut into segments between the skin that separates them, and they glistened like jewels in various hues of red. I left them to drain while the crust baked and cooled. I poured the cream inside the crust, smoothed it evenly, and laid the orange segments around in concentric circles.

I looked at it reverently, wishing that I did not have to bake it, wanting only to look at the lovely pattern on top until my eyes started hurting. I knew it would be a success because I had licked all the utensils and bowls earlier, usurping the job that belonged to my children since before they could talk. I placed the tart in the hot oven and cleaned the kitchen, feeling the first signs of fatigue. The kitchen was filled with the smell of toasted nuts, warm rum, and browned butter when I took the pan out to cool. Those aromas came with me to bed and tucked me in.

I could not wait to fall asleep and wake up the next morning. I knew that the gloomy cloud would vanish taking away my self-doubts and guilt. Even though I knew that I was far from being done with histrionics and exaggeration, I was armed with new strength that would help me tackle the make-believe monsters hiding in my girls’ math books. They were going to learn all about fractions as the tart was sliced into halves, quarters, and eighths.

Orange Almond Tart from bibberche.com

The Orange-Almond Tart was this week’s challenge for our French Fridays with Dorie group. For several months we have been making recipes from Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table and writing about our experiences, successes, and failures. Since my schedule at work changed, I have missed several tasks, not having the time to write a post before the deadline, although I cooked almost everything that was assigned.

I used walnuts because Husband is severely allergic to almonds. Blood oranges are in season and their vibrant color contrasted well with the neutral beige of the walnut cream and crust. As I predicted, the flavors of the ingredients in the tart complemented each other very well. I was a little disappointed because the upper parts of the crust browned a bit too much and became harder than I expected (my oven is older and I am convinced that the temperature is not calibrated properly). But in the end I was satisfied with the results.

For more stories and different approaches to this dish, visit our discussion group, and for the original recipe, buy the book – it is truly beautiful.

Feb 072011
 

cinnamon roll from bibberche.com

One of these days, when my time off work rolls around, I will pack my beach bag with a book, sunscreen lotion, a bamboo beach mat, and a beach towel. I’ll hang the bag on the handle-bar of my shiny, cherry-red Vespa, put on my fabulous Sophia Lauren sun-glasses, and zoom down Crown Valley Road to the Pacific Coast Highway.

I’ll weave around convertible BMWs and sleek Porsches, hair flying, inhaling the salty air that makes my face tingle. I’ll park the scooter, adjust my wide-brim straw hat, and sashay toward the beach allowing the Pacific breeze to play with my pareo, tied loosely about my neck. I’ll find the perfect spot and kick off my shoes, wiggling my toes in the sun-warmed sand. I’ll take my time rubbing the lotion into my skin, looking over the rim of my glasses at the beautiful California men running along the shore with their dogs or attacking the still frigid waves on their boards. I’ll tilt my head back and close my eyes, enjoying the sun as it caresses my arms, getting lost in the whooshing of the waves and the distant crow of the sea-gulls…

Vespa GTS 250 Red

The Temptress

But today the only sound of water around me was coming from the kitchen sink. I promise myself a gift of solitude from time to time, but I know that it would be wasted on me. Omnia mea mecum porto* – if I do not have at least one little duckling following behind me, I feel guilty, which ruins any attempt at enjoyment. Of course, if I had a shiny, red Vespa waiting for me, the guilt would disappear behind the first curve. I am not a saint, and this beauty would be enough to lead me astray.

My day was not following the script for “La Dolce Vita”, which does not mean that it lacked a healthy dose of glamour. I opened the patio door and welcomed a bright and sunny California morning. A bluish-green finch walked across the tiles into the living room and fluttered hastily back outside. A hummingbird greedily fed on my lavender blossoms. The fuchsia petals of my new bougainvillea made great friends with small, yellow clusters of mimosa in the background, as the breeze brought their sweet smell inside.

Everybody was asleep the previous night when, prompted by an innocent Twitter exchange, I acted on impulse and fought my insomnia by preparing the next morning’s breakfast. Accompanied by a glass of fruity sangria, I made the soft yeast dough. While it was resting, I buttered the pans (a big one for tomorrow, a small one to freeze and make the kids happy on a school morning) and made the filling. As I was rolling the dough, it whispered to me, all soft and pliable, eagerly awaiting the rich blanket of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Prettily arranged in their pans, the buns went to sleep in the refrigerator, and I finally felt my eyelids become heavier.

This morning the Beasties emerged from their cave rubbing their eyes still swollen from sleep, following the aroma of cinnamon and yeast beckoning from the kitchen. I felt pretty glamorous when I pulled the Pyrex dish filled with plump, golden, steaming cinnamon rolls out of the oven, which elicited a group sigh of gratitude.

I did not have to reach for my straw hat and pareo, even though I was seriously considering perching the oversized sunglasses on my nose and blinking over their rim at Husband slouching over his laptop. OK, he has a situp or two to do before he’ll be allowed on the beach and a surfboard would mean certain death. He has to work on becoming a Californian, and buying a dog is not going to be enough.

My family makes me feel glamorous and fabulous – not every day, but often enough that I forget all the grumbling and pity parties I throw for myself when they are all in bed. And since I started this blog, some of the people I met through it give me some incredibly warm and fuzzy moments. Recently, I have been a recipient of not one, but two Stylish Blogger Awards! Is there anyone else who doubts that shiny, red Vespa and I are a match made in some European heaven? I think not!

Thank you, Yummy Chunklet and Kathy at Bakeaway with Me for passing the award to me! We have got to know each other through French Fridays with Dorie group. What a great world of new blogs it has opened for me!

I am a newbie as far as the awards go, but I know how to read the rules:)

Now, seven things about me that you have always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask (thank you, Woody Allen for this one):

1. As embarrassed as it makes me feel, I have to admit a secret illicit love-affair with the Serbian version of Spam, called “mesni narezak”. I do not know, nor do I care what it is made of. Period.

2. I love an Ice Café  in the summer time: a tall glass of cold instant coffee, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, topped with fresh whipped cream – preferably enjoyed at an outside café, while watching beautiful people walk around.

3. The closest I came to death was driving with a crazy Italian in his Fiat Panda packed with friends up the serpentine road from the Adriatic coast to the town of Teramo, Abbruzzo.

4. I was offered three types of caviar at every meal while travelling through Russia in 1976 with my grandmother Njanja. At twelve, I thumbed my nose at it. Little did I know…

5. I love offal of any kind, except tripe, which I have not tried yet. Yes, I ate brains, liver, sweet breads, kidneys, lungs, and even bull testicles, and liked them en masse:) The idea of Haggis intrigues me.

6. I love to grow things, ever since I discovered making crystals from sugar and salt in fourth grade. A few things in life are more rewarding than waking up in the morning and running to your own garden to pick the ingredients for dinner.

7. I put an invisible “Mission: Accomplished” stamp in my life file every time my daughter calls from Berkeley asking for a recipe, or when the Beasties run to the kitchen to help me cook.

As the last step, I have to pass the award to 15 blogs that I consider valuable and stylish.

MAKE-AHEAD CINNAMON ROLLS

Ingredients:

Dough:

  • 1 envelope of rapid-rise yeast
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten (I did not have any eggs (!), so I substituted 2 defrosted eggwhites)
  • 3-3 ½ cups all purpose flour (more for dusting)
  • 3 Tbsp room-temperature butter, unsalted
  • pinch of salt

Filling:

  • ¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • ¾ cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts or raisins (I did not put any, because some members of my family frown on the changes in texture)

Glaze:

  • 4oz softened cream cheese
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or lemon juice
  • ¼ cup softened butter

Directions:

Dough: In a small bowl dissolve yeast in milk and let it rest for 5 minutes, until bubbles appear. Combine sugar, egg, butter, salt and half of the flour. Add milk and yeast, and mix thoroughly. Pour in the rest of the flour and mix until a sticky dough is formed. Turn onto a floured surface and knead 5-10 minutes, until it becomes shiny and elastic. Put into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest in warm spot for 1-2 hours until doubled.

Filling: Mix brown sugar and cinnamon and put aside.

Butter lightly a rectangular 15×9 inch oven-proof pan. Punch the dough and roll it into a rectangle 15×9 inches in size, with the longer side facing you. Spread the butter on top, leaving 1/2 inch border along the longer sides. Sprinkle with brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins and nuts (if using). Carefully roll away from yourself, and pinch the seams to close. Cut with a sharp knife into 16-18 pieces, and lay them cut side up into the prepared pan(s). If baking the same day let the buns rest for 45 minutes in a warm place. Otherwise, cover with the plastic wrap and put in the fridge overnight. In the morning bring the pan out 30 minutes ahead to get to room temperature.

Glaze: Mix all the ingredients until smooth.

Preheat the oven to 350F and bake the buns for 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven, until golden brown and puffy. Spread the glaze while still hot.

This post is perfect for Hearth and Soul blog event, hosted by Heather of Girlichef and several other fabulous bloggers.

Feb 012011
 

patatas a la riojana from bibberche.comYesterday morning I woke up smiling, looking forward to another day off work. I stretched, I yawned, and I enjoyed the slow-motion feel of my lazy morning. I decided to stay in bed for a while. A cup of coffee steamed on my nightstand. Husband brought it as soon as he heard me moving about. With the laptop resting on my knees, and fuzzy, striped socks hugging my feet, I was ready to welcome another glorious day to my life.

The Beasties stayed in bed late, awake, I am certain, but extremely silent, which was as good in my book as if they had been asleep. Breakfast turned into brunch with easy and quick puff pastry rolls filled with Nutella, barely giving the girls time to change out of their pajamas and brush the tangles out of their hair.

I planned on attacking my patio plants and getting them ready for spring. My mind was bursting with ideas of the new arrivals sitting pretty in clean, colorful pots. The neighbor several doors down had already accomplished the feat, and I felt like I was lagging behind. Not acceptable at all. But as the sun sank deeper and deeper behind the clouds, all my hopes for getting dirty evaporated. Or so I thought.

I had to abandon the patio project, but another one, much less enjoyable and much more tiresome popped up on the horizon. The first daily glimpse of the Beasties’ room sent me back to the kitchen to gather the cleaning supplies and my drill sergeant uniform, complete with the whistle and the whip. The ranks were unruly at best, and the exercise dragged on for hours. My girls take after the Husband and hoard every card, picture, painting, drawing, or scribble. They love to make cards, paint, draw, and scribble, and in a few weeks there are piles hiding every bare surface of the shelves, nightstands, desks, and even carpet. Interspersed with the papers were tiny Barbie shoes, plastic dishes, mini Beanie-Babies, barrettes, crayons, and various miniature objects I did not have the time to identify.

Armed with a garbage bag, I directed them to separate and sort the mess. I took a pile of very important paintings and drawings that needed to be saved for posterity, and took photos of them. The originals went into the garbage can. It took some time, but eventually carpet started to appear, liberated from debris. Satisfied with the progress, I left the room, promising to stop by every fifteen minutes to prod them forward (after all, rediscovering all those amazing trinkets and almost forgotten messages posed a serious threat to a timely and thorough cleaning).

By this time, the rain was coming down in sheets. I looked sadly at my forlorn plants, and bid them goodbye for another day at least. I turned toward the kitchen, trying to get an inspiration for a gloomy day dinner. I guessed (correctly) that Husband did not feel like mingling with the Sunday crowd at the supermarket (people in Southern California rush to the stores when it rains to stock up on food; and driving in the rain is an adventure). I rummaged through the freezer, but nothing made me jump up and say “Eureka!” The refrigerator, on the other hand, held a hidden treasure: about a pound of Mexican chorizo sausages.

I love comfort food, but it usually means planning ahead, starting the preparations around noon, simmering, stirring, and babysitting the pot on the stove for hours. I actually enjoy the process, but the day started pretty blue and warm, with not a cloud in sight, and my “think ahead” mood was turned off. No daubes, no tasty braised lamb shanks, no beef stews, no gulash, no piggy roasts. But there is a dish that comes about in thirty minutes, a low maintenance one, but as flavorful, as filling, and as satisfying as its much more time-consuming friends: Krompir PaprikaÅ¡ (Potato Paprikash), which sounds much more appealing and romantic in Spanish, as Patatas a la Riojana.

Mother made this humble dish for us often in the winter time, using homemade smoked garlicky sausages that hung in our pantry, spreading their tantalizing smell for months. I remember vividly coming home after several hours of skiing, cheeks numb from the icy wind, knees wobbling, hair in disarray under the hat, fingers and toes barely moving, only to be greeted by the welcoming aroma of smoked sausages and fried onions that filled our small cabin.

My chorizo was not from Spain, but my paprika was. Mother used the Hungarian sweet paprika ubiquitous to Balkan cuisine, and the sausages gave off wonderfully smoked undertones to the dish. To emulate the rich, smoky flavor of her Krompir PaprikaÅ¡, I grabbed smoked paprika, Pimentón de la Vera, which they use in Spain to prepare Patatas a la Riojana.

smoked paprika pimenton de la vera from bibberche.com

In no time, the onions were sizzling in the pan. Once they yielded to the heat, I added garlic (this is the Spanish addition – Mother would never put garlic in her paprikash), and let them become soft and almost caramelized. I stirred in perfect, pink half-moons of chorizo, let it get warm and just a bit brown, and then mixed in cubed russet potatoes, a nice heap of smoked paprika, some salt and pepper. The stock went in, the heat went up, and the cover went onto the pan. I poured a glass of California cabernet, wishing that we had some Rioja on hand and blaming the rain for my reluctance to send Husband off on a journey to the World Market.

I put my fuzzy-socked feet up, grabbed my laptop, and rested the wine on the nightstand. The paprikash was softly simmering on the stove, the rain abating, the light disappearing, while the happy children voices rang from a distance. Comforting, indeed.

fussy socks from bibberche.com

MOTHER’S KROMPIR PAPRIKAÅ  (PATATAS A LA RIOJANA)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp  lard (or olive oil, if you are making Patatas a la Riojana)
  • 1 large onion, slices
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 lb Spanish chorizo, cut into chunks
  • 2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 Tbsp (or more) smoked paprika
  • 1 scant tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • water or chicken stock (for the Spanish version a part of the liquid can be white wine)

Directions:

Heat the lard or olive oil on medium heat in a heavy skillet or a stainless steel pot. Mix in the onions and garlic, and cook for 15 minutes, until almost caramelized and soft. Add the chorizo and stir for a couple of minutes. Stir in the potatoes, and cook for 1 minute. Add the paprika, salt, and pepper, stir to combine, and then pour the water to cover. Turn the heat to high until it boils, reduce to low, cover, and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are cooked through. It should look like a thick stew.

My friend Sue from New Zealand has a great blog Couscous and Consciousness (stop by, she has wonderful recipes and really pretty photos). She has started recently an event that she calls Make It…..with Mondays. Every Monday we make a dish that features that week’s chosen pantry ingredient. For this Monday we were given paprika, and I think that my Krompir PaprikaÅ¡, aka Patatas a la Riojana is going to be a perfect dish for this event.