Mar 302011

arancini from

I was a fair skier in high school, and my gym teacher, who spent many afternoons in our chalet in the mountains sipping plum brandy with Father after a run through the powder, signed me up for the school ski team. I loved playing volleyball and basketball, even though I was not particularly good, as I could hide in the crowd. I enjoyed tennis and skiing, but only as recreation activities. To actually compete, to stand alone surrounded by an audience, was unimaginable, the mere thought mortifying. I knew that I could not get into the zone, that I would only think of people watching me and imagine them laughing derisively and my legs would become powerless noodles unable to control the skis. I knew in advance that I would fail, not because of a lack of skill, but because of fear to disappoint.

As the day of the tournament approached, my stress level reached enormous heights. My friends found my panic amusing, but I tried every excuse in the world not to go. The teacher was not buying into any of them and I became desperate. As I was running the student radio station and participated actively in the school’s newspaper, I checked everything that arrived in the mail pertaining to art and culture. A couple of days before the dreaded competition, I unearthed my salvation: a regional conference of poets, taking place in the capital city of Belgrade.

I loved poetry since I learned how to recite the Serbian equivalent to Mother Goose in the monotone and exaggerated rhythm of a four year old. I collected poems in a hard-bound notebook, illustrated the pages with sketches and vignettes, and pasted the pictures I cut out of magazines. I could recite by heart Neruda, Lorca, Baudelaire, Rilke, and Tagore even if rudely awakened in the middle of the night. I produced perfectly metered and rhymed poems to match the music I composed as I walked home from the piano lessons in grade school, and mock epic folk poems featuring my schoolmates and teachers as I sat bored in history class.

I filled notebooks with melodramatic verses in eighth grade, pouring onto the paper my emotions of unrequited love because the boy with dark hair and green eyes who I dreamed about did not know I existed. I aced my language classes, won essay contests, and wrote an occasional article for the local newspaper, but a poet I was not. I knew that, but my gym teacher was oblivious. So I decided that I was going to represent our school and our town at the poetry conference which just happened to fall on the same weekend as the skiing tournament. Serendipity!

Armed with my best “oh, shucks!” expression, I ruefully informed the coach that I would have to forego the wonderful opportunity to humiliate myself in front of a bunch of strangers. I was not a necessary presence on the team as there were other, more deserving athletes who could not wait to shine while swooshing around the slalom poles. On the other hand, nobody was there to represent our venerated institution in the field of poetry, and hence my sacrifice. He was a jock (an old one, but still hardcore) and he bought my story, feeling sorry for me, and I was plunged inadvertently into the world of geeks and dorks.

I attended every single lecture at the seminar, sat through excruciatingly long sessions of really bad adolescent poetry, applauded after every reading, grateful and happy that I was saved from an event I would surely have failed, and was, instead, delivered to this group of shy, creative, awfully-dressed people with whom I felt a strong connection. After all, I was a geek, a nerd, and a dork, much more comfortable with a book and a pen than playing practical jokes on other students on the bus or showing off my Elan skis in a competitive downhill race.

I might have done really well at the tournament. I might have even won. I might have enjoyed the adrenalin rush that always set off at the top of the slope, augmented by the challenge of the competition. I am sure I would have enjoyed the camaraderie of the other team members, practical jokes and all. I will never know because I allowed my fears to cripple me. I don’t regret attending the poetry conference, as I have wonderful memories from that weekend; I regret only not giving myself a chance to fail.

Since I started blogging, my perfectionism has shown itself in all its glory, liberated from the loose chains I managed to put around it, hoping to face the world without its fierce pressure. I have imposed incredibly high standards for myself and missed on many other opportunities in life, fearing that I would not be the best and not willing to accept the alternative.

I would like to convince myself that I can curb the beast of perfectionism as I am older, more experienced, and mature. I admit that my photography is not the best, but I am determined to make it better. I don’t measure myself against the best in industry, but I strive to learn as much as I can to reach my own potentials. I am not a professional  or gourmet chef. I am baffled by molecular gastronomy and do not see the point in sous vide cooking at home. I do not call myself a recipe developer, because I still use someone else’s recipes, adapt them slightly, change them just to fit the family needs, without inventing a new process, a new technique, or a new combination of flavors. But I am determined to learn as much as I can. I will allow my perfectionism to lead me and push me, not to be on the top, but to be the best that I can be (the mantra we preach to our girls every single day).

This whole story has a preamble to a confession: I have not mastered risotto. Oh, I know the process by heart; I buy the right kind of rice; I prepare my ingredients on time; I have the stock slowly simmering on the adjacent burner; I approach it with a wooden spoon and patience to stand by and stir. But inevitably, I end up with a gloopy mess. I look at beautiful photos of successfully prepared risotti on other blogs and I feel that old sense of inadequacy as I present a bowl of sticky, glutteny rice to my family.

But rather than despairing and berating myself, I have recently found the solution to leftover lemon risotto that was staring at me from the refrigerator shelf. I made arancini, Italian rice balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese, breaded and deep-fried until perfectly browned and crispy. They got their name by resembling small oranges, or arancini, and they are ingenious. As inedible as my risotto was, these little balls were delectable with lemon zest in harmony with crunchy Panko coating and melted cheese affording an unexpected reward after every bite. I felt I had redeemed myself as my family buried me with compliments and incessant words of praise.

I almost decided to keep on making horrible risotto only for the leftovers, but the overachiever in me cannot abide by that. I will master this dish one of these days, if only because I cannot bear to concede failure. I try to remember that one does not climb to the top of a mountain to rest, but to hurtle oneself down, taking risks, learning the slope, and trying to enjoy the trip.

arancini from



  • 2 cups of cold, leftover risotto (any kind will do, as long as it is cold)
  • 4 oz mozzarella cheese, cut in small cubes ½ inch by ½ inch
  • ½ cup flour
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
  • sunflower (or vegetable) oil for frying


Scoop about 2 teaspoons of risotto in your palm and make an indentation in it. Place the cheese cube in the middle and mold the ball around it, making sure that the cheese is completely enclosed. Continue with rolling until all the rice is gone.

Set out your bowls with flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. Heat the oil on medium-high heat in a deep stainless steel sauce pan. Roll the rice balls in flour, egg, and panko, and place them in the hot oil, 3-4 at time. Fry until golden brown. When they are done, transfer them to a paper-towel lined bowl. Continue frying.

Serve as a side dish or an appetizer with a marinara sauce for dipping.

I am sending this post to Hearth and Soul blog event, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life.

Mar 252011

mushroom pasta from

Father drove our orange Russian-made Lada across the rickety one-way bridge over a spring and parked it in the meadow along the dirt road, making sure there was enough room for a horse-drawn carriage or a tractor to squeeze by. My cousin, Mira, and I unloaded our backpacks and Father carried the checkered bag full of Mother’s preserves, coffee, Å¡ljivovica*, and sugar cubes.

It was the summer after sixth grade and we were embarking on an adventure, getting ready to spend a month with a family so remotely related to ours that only in Serbia could they be counted as kin. I could barely hide my excitement and anxiety, bringing forth my favorite passages from “Heidi”, as we left the familiar world of concrete and steel, and entered the mysterious kingdom of secluded rural living. We hiked uphill for about an hour, surrounded by the silence of a perfect summer morning interrupted only by an occasional chirping chorus of cicadas and the shriek of some unfamiliar bird.

I admired Father as he led us skillfully through the thickets and across the streams. I was always forgetting that he grew up in those mountains before he became an urban surgeon. As we approached the last plateau, a cluster of buildings came into view, all whitewashed walls and dark, wooden roofs. The dogs announced our arrival and our relatives came down to meet us. I did not know any of them and my heart cramped, overwhelmed by shyness. The elderly matriarch hugged me gently and my head rested on her soft bosom which smelled like grass, freshly baked bread, and milk, while her rough fingers brushed the strands of hair that hid my forehead. Her smile was warm and I felt as if I had known her for centuries.

We hugged and kissed everybody that came down to greet us. They escorted us as we climbed the last hundred yards to the main house. The women moved around in a synchronized dance, adding the finishing touches to the lunch. The men claimed the rustic wooden table hidden from the sun’s fiery touch by the cool shade of an ancient beech tree, and loudly toasted each other with tiny glasses filled with plum brandy. Mira and I decided to stay inside, cowering in the corner. Our cousin BoÅ¡ko was twelve, just like us, and he reluctantly joined us at the table. His sister Maja, a couple of years older, brought glasses of fresh milk for all of us, and left to help her mother and grandmother in the kitchen.

Unable to overcome the awkwardness of the moment, the three of us attacked the milk with ferocity, not looking up, pretending to concentrate on drinking. When we were done, we put our glasses down and shyly raised our glances upward, knowing that somebody would have to start the small talk, and dreading it. We looked at each other and our shoulders began to tremble as we started giggling. We all had thick, white, milk moustaches from fervently diving into our glasses, trying to drown the shyness. Pretty soon we were laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming down our faces, the wall between us shattered as we pointed at each other and at the same time attempted to wipe our mouths. The shards of ice were expelled from our hearts**, and we knew that summer would bring us together.

The women ushered us out and we joined the men at the table underneath the tree. It was lunch time. All of a sudden, we realized we were ravenous from the long hike as our eyes followed each plate with anticipation. Warm bread was placed in the middle, flanked by dishes full of home-made cheese and kajmak; home-cured bacon, sausage, and pršuta***; sweet tomatoes sprinkled with salt and paired with diced onion; and hard-boiled eggs with bright orange yolks collected that morning from the chicken coop.

Silence descended and only grunts and satisfied sighs were heard. Some dishes were moved around to accommodate the additional plates of roasted chicken and new potatoes, accompanied by grilled peppers served with garlic and a vinaigrette. As if it were an afterthought, Maja brought a platter of bright orange mushrooms sauteed with onions and bacon, and it sat to the side, unassuming and modest, not eager to detract from the allure of animal protein.

I did not know what I was eating, but I certainly knew that I loved it. My first taste of chanterelles was enough to mark me for life. Finding out that my cousins foraged for the mushrooms made their earthy flavor even more appealing. When we were done, we did not wait for the adults to finish. We rose from the table filled with energy and ready to explore this beautiful, wondrous world opening in front of us.

Just like our cousins, we got up every day at sunrise and took the cows to graze, running after them with a huge slab of freshly baked bread and kajmak. We rode the sled down the grassy slopes, tumbling at times, and getting our knees scraped. We picked wild flowers, pressed them, and made a herbarium. We spent about fifteen minutes gathering hay into tall stacks, only to abandon the difficult task and tend to the orphaned baby birds we found in a nest. We sat in the shade playing with Barbies while our cousins helped with the farm chores. We went foraging for chanterelles, skipping over the streams, holding onto the slim tree-trunks as we hiked uphill, yelling in excitement at every bright-orange cluster we spied.

I have not had fresh chanterelles since the summer of 1976. I cannot buy the puny, dessicated specimens available at the stores when I know that forests are full of beautiful, fresh mushrooms waiting to be picked. One of these days I’ll find myself in the woods looking again for the clusters of orange fungi. In the meantime, I satisfy my hunger with cultivated mushrooms while I continue to dream of the wild ones.

Sarah of Maison Cupcake has started a Forever Nigella event. This month the theme is Ciao Italia! and we are challenged to make an Italian Nigella recipe. I made Nigella’s Big Pasta with Mushrooms, Parsley, Garlic, and Thyme. Simple, but bursting with complementing bold flavors, this dish was a favorite in my family. I will never stop fantasizing about fresh chanterelles, but for now I can still enjoy the woody aroma of creminis, portabellos, and champignons.

*Å ljivovica (slivovitz) is Serbian plum brandy

**This is a reference to the Hans Cristian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen.

***Pršuta is Serbian cured and smoked pork loin, extremely flavorful and addictive.

Big Mushrrom Pasta from

I am sending this pasta to Presto Pasta Nights hosted by Claire of Chez Cayenne, and started by Ruth of Once upon the Feast.

Mar 182011

Salted Butter Break-Ups from

I am the oldest of three children, and when I turned 20, I was ceremoniously presented with a shortest sibling award, having my brother and sister pat my head Benny Hill style. I was not a grateful recipient by any means, coming up with every “small is better” cliché I could dig up from the vast quantity of trivia I had at hand.

My mother is getting older and I managed to knock her down on the size chart, feeling extremely guilty in the process. But my triumph will be short-lived as I might have only another year until I become officially the shortest member of the family. Again. Long gone are the days when I could squeeze my girls and rest my lips on top of their shampoo-smelling hair. It seems that they have grown in an instant from pudgy rolly-pollys to these tall, leggy creatures that almost look at me eye to eye.

my girls from

College Kritter has outgrown me several years ago, and I had time to get accustomed to her being taller. Her attitude changed gradually as she became stronger and more eloquent. She still asks for advice and refers to me on certain issues, but I consider her an equal. What she lacks in experience, she makes up in energy and determination. She usually calls in the afternoons on her way home from classes or work, killing two flies at once, a born multi-tasker. Her world is still predominantly black and white, but with every conversation I see her growing more mature, embedding herself firmly into the outside world, thinking beyond the self-absorbed solipsism of teenagers, connecting with people and looking for a purpose.

The Beasties have each other. While we tried in vain to encourage Nina to spend more time in her room, we certainly do not have the same problem with Anya and Zoe. Close enough in age to be best friends one day, they still play together, usually dragging out every stuffed animal they have. I get exasperated at times and wish that all of the Barbies were gone, the ones still intact and the ones missing limbs and heads. But I like that they use the barrettes to tie around a teddy bear’s ears, and lipgloss to draw sparkly, fat lines on special cards for each other. They still talk about boys as “dumb, gross, stupid, and ignorant” and that suits me just fine.

They come out of the room reluctantly when we call them, to finish their homework, to set the table, and to put the dishes in the dishwasher. They emerge from their cave more willingly to watch Jeopardy! with us. They run out if we announce a game night, and they hustle to set the table with the board for Settlers of Catan or Scattergories.

my girls from

But what gets them out the fastest is the smell of freshly baked bread or desserts travelling from the kitchen into their room. They put the dolls into their make-shift beds, and emerge blinking, curious and eager to find out what’s hiding in the oven. Their noses are getting more discernible, and they will detect the tropical hints of vanilla, or the refreshing notes of citrus.

A couple of days ago I made a big cookie for the French Fridays with Dorie group. It was very simple, very basic, using just four ingredients: flour, butter, sugar, and sel gris. When I first read recipes that asked for salt in desserts, I snubbed them, ignored the salt, and continued on my merry uppity way. But as I learned more about baking, I realized that old habits might need to be abandoned in pursuit of a finer taste, and I started adding a pinch of salt, closing my eyes, and expecting every time to be thoroughly disgusted by the results. But instead of throwing whole batches of chocolate chip cookies or brownies into the garbage disposal unit, I noticed that the chocolate in my desserts got somehow more distinct, its flavors singing in harmony once the salt was added.

I trusted Dorie Greenspan and threw a very heavy pinch of coarse salt into my cookie batter. I formed the dough into a disk and placed it in the fridge, where it rested for about two hours. While the oven was heating, I rolled the cookie batter into a rectangle, brushed it with an egg yolk wash, and made a criss-cross pattern on the surface using the back of a fork.

The Beasties came home from school and entered the house running, drawn in by the smell of the big, buttery cookie baking in the oven. They suffered while they changed their clothes, washed their hands, and finished their homework. In the meantime the cookie cooled off, and I managed to take it out for a photo shoot. I poured a couple of glasses of milk, put broken pieces of the cookie on plates and served my girls a snack they had been ogling since the early afternoon.

My girls are gourmands in the making. They tasted the salt in the cookie, without knowing what they were tasting. They described the taste as snappy, fresh, and zippy. Throughout the day the rectangle kept on changing shape as more and more pieces were broken off. Husband had to be restrained after the Beasties went to bed. He wrapped a couple of weirdly shaped chunks of the cookie for the girls’ lunch the next day, showing a remarkably high dose of self-control.

My family was left sadly missing the cookie. Another one is in the making, for I cannot stand the pathetic looks the Beasties send my way. Husband tries the same trick, but for him it does not work. Sorry, you have to be lanky, sinewy, and skinny to illicit a serious sign of compassion from me. And he is not.

The recipe for Salted Butter Break-Ups is in Dorie’s book Around My French Table. I cherish this book. So far, none of the recipes have disappointed, and many have stretched my culinary horizons. Besides, it is a beautiful book. Get the book and make the cookie.

Salted Butter Break-Ups form

Mar 162011

ricotta gnocchi from

When I was twenty three, I traveled to Italy to spend a month with my friend, Stefania and her family in Abruzzo. The Di Falco family owned a hotel in Teramo, and after we drove for a couple of hours north from the Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Rome, we stopped there for a meal. I was one exam away from graduating from the University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with a degree in Italian and English, but nothing prepared me for a proper Italian repast.

Sure, I had pizza and spaghetti with tomato sauce before, but I had no clue what constituted a real Italian meal. Assuming that our Italian professors had managed to teach us some common Italian traditions, my hosts kept on bringing plates of pasta followed by grilled meats, vegetables, salads, and desserts. Pretty soon all the members of the extended family who worked in the kitchen joined us at the table. The wine was flowing and the spirits were high. I was a guest for about half an hour, and then they took me in as one of them.

I thought that Serbs were loud and obnoxious, but the Abruzzesi won. They played music they thought I might recognize and I threw some old San Remo favorites their way. They talked to me as if I had known them for ages, and brought down all my barriers. Their earnest embraces brought me out of my usual reserved and introverted shell, and I joined them in their infectious laughter, trying to catch all the nuances of the dialect exacerbated by copious amounts of alcohol.

It was August, and all the relatives gathered in one place, some traveling all the way from Venezuela. Stefania and her boyfriend Filippo were soon joined by a dozen cousins in playing hosts. They showed me around their home town of Teramo while the brightly colored Vespas were buzzing around. They took me to the beautiful, sandy beaches of Giulianova where I sat looking at the Adriatic from the other side, wondering how long it would take for the waves lapping around our feet to reach the coast of Dalmatia. We went to the majestic Gran Sasso mountain to traditionally celebrate the fiesta of Ferragosto. We drove around Abruzzo in a dark blue Fiat Panda with another cousin’s boyfriend, fearing for our lives at every hairpin turn, screeching in delight appropriate only in the early 20s when one feels foolishly immortal.

Stefania’s mother spent her days at the hotel running the front desk and dining room, and her father went to work as an agricultural engineer. Every morning there was strong Italian coffee and fresh croissants waiting for us when we got up. We would sit at the table while the morning sun spilled its light over our coffee mugs, spreading butter and anchovy paste on croissants, and planning the day’s events. The family would gather in the afternoons around steaming plates of spaghetti alle vongolle* and crisp white wine. I enjoyed listening to her father’s passionate diatribes about local and national politics. Fascinated by history, I asked him hundreds of questions, trying to follow his Italian, as he talked faster and faster the more excited he got.

We would stop by the hotel for dinner, a fresh fish fillet or a bistecca and a salad, after the hotel guests were gone to their rooms. All the aunts, uncles, and cousins would emerge and join us at the table, finished with their day’s labor and ready to relax. At night, after we came home tired and excited, Stefania and I talked for hours, sneaking into the kitchen for a bite of cheese or salami, careful not to wake her parents.

I was surrounded by food, skillfully prepared, fresh, and local, but at the time it was pure sustenance, pleasurable and enjoyable, but still only fuel to give me energy to go out and soak in some more of the Italian life. How I wish I’d spent time writing down the recipes for all the delectable dishes they served! Years later I look back with nostalgia to the month I spent in Abruzzo, missing the people, their hospitality and love of life, and craving the food I did not fully appreciate at the time.

March 17, 2011 will mark the 150th anniversary of risorgimento, when Garibaldi united various provinces and cities under one Italian flag*. I remember Signor Di Falco questioning the wisdom of uniting so many different people in one country, doubting that South and North would ever see the world with the same eyes. So instead of going to Ireland today, I am giving a tribute to Italy, grateful that I had the chance to visit and spend time with such a wonderful family.

I usually make my own ricotta, but Husband bought an extra container for the lasagna he wanted to make last week. I consulted several recipes for guidance. The gnocchi were like light, soft pillows, mild in taste and wonderfully complemented by sweet and tangy marinara sauce and pungent basil.

*If you would like to learn a bit more about the unification of Italy, there is an article on Wikipedia that talks about it.

RED, WHITE, AND GREEN RICOTTA GNOCCHI, adapted from Not Quite Nigella


  • 500gr ricotta, drained*
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup all purpose flour (I used more because I forgot to drain the ricotta)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ grated parrmiggiano reggiano or gran padana
  • chopped herbs

*pour into a cheesecloth-lined bowl, wrap, press with a big can or another heavy object, and let drain for 1 hour


Put a large stock pot of water to heat and add a handful of salt. In the meantime mix the ricotta and eggs in a bowl. Slowly add flour and the rest of ingredients, mixing just until incorporated.

Form gnocchi using two teaspoons and drop them into boiling water. Cook only several at the time. Once they swim to the surface, after 2-3 minutes, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and place into the simmering marinara sauce. Serve garnished with basil and some more grated parmesan.

ricotta gnocchi from

I am linking this post to Manu’s Menu, a blog written by Manuela, an expat Italian living in Australia, for her post that celebrates 150 years of unity.

I am sending this post to Presto Pasta Nights hosted by Debbie of Debbie Does Dinner and started by Ruth from Once Upon a Feast.

Mar 142011

Peruvian Ceviche from

College Kritter earned that name well before starting college. The state of Ohio offered all high-school juniors with a GPA over 3.5 a chance to attend a community college, get their regular high school requirements met, and also finish off some college core classes. During her junior and senior years of high school, she was immersed in a college atmosphere, visiting her school only for an occasional and extremely useless mandatory meeting with her counselor. And she thrived.

Before we had decided to move out west, she and I picked colleges and her heart was set on the University of Michigan, followed closely by the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. The mortgage industry went belly up, Husband lost his pretty lucrative job almost overnight, and we had some extremely big choices to make. The majority of our material possessions, including the house and both of the cars went POOF, and instead of moving into a cheap apartment somewhere on the west side of Cleveland, we decided to really move west. As to California. College Kritter was aware of our financial downsizing, but the young Beasties were oblivious, Hollywood stricken, and eager to relocate (they even volunteered to donate a bunch of toys, stuffed animals, and games to an orphanage in Berea).

College Kritter moved her college interests westward as well, and applied to four UC schools. She graduated a semester early, and after spending a week with her dad in Florida, she joined Husband and Father on their moving adventure west. She did not know anybody in Orange County and I was the grateful beneficiary of her solitary existence. We spent hours talking, laughing, and reminiscing. We watched Kurosawa and Buñuel movies and analyzed till late at night. We went grocery shopping together and prepared meals stepping on each other’s toes in the tiny kitchen. She became quite skillful in her culinary efforts, and I enjoyed the unexpected gift of her presence.

It was the last week of March, 2009. We were watching TV in our tiny, 960 square foot apartment in Southern California. I was laying on the love-seat with my feet up on the armrest (I am not so short as to fit comfortably), and College Kritter was sitting on the sofa checking her iPhone during the commercials. Out of the blue, in a deadpan voice she said, “I think they accepted me at Berkeley”. For a moment I was speechless, trying to switch planets. Then I grabbed her iPhone, read only “Congratulations…”, got up and started jumping up and down, crying and screaming, a woman possessed, while she watched me with that WTF expression that is a rite of passage for teenagers. The rest is history.

When she came home from Cal at Thanksgiving, we celebrated her eighteenth birthday on the 28th of November within the family. We got her a basket of food-related goodies because she is a gourmand-in-making. She got to choose almost every meal for the four days she spent with us. We had a toast, welcoming her into the world of adults (even though she is a more responsible and adult person then many adults I know). She flew back to her roommates, classes, and exams, and I stayed behind, crying silently as I collected the clothes she left on the floor and aligned the books she disturbed, and threw away empty toiletries left in her wake.

We did not celebrate her high-school graduation. She did not go to the prom. There was no bash marking her acceptance to UC Berkeley. And her eighteenth birthday, one of the biggest milestones that would have definitely warranted a massive attendance by relatives and friends bearing gifts if we lived in Serbia, was a quiet affair, missing all the necessary bells and whistles. She finished her first semester with As, and proud does not even come close to explaining how I felt about my child.

I asked her what she wanted as a present for everything she had accomplished, and she said she wanted to take a trip with me during spring break. We tossed ideas back and forth talking on Skype several times a week. Constricted by finances and the short time period, we decided to go to Yucatan, Mexico. I trawled the Internet frantically for a couple of months, trying to cram as much as I could into one week, and on the eve of our departure, when she flew in from Northern California, our suitcases were packed, printouts ready, cameras charged, and the meticulously written list left on the counter with every item crossed off.

I have to devote several posts to describing our wonderful adventure in Mexico. It has been a year since then, and I still feel the Caribbean sun on my skin. I have bought a tortilladora in Valladolid after watching Mayan women make small, corn tortillas that we ate at every meal. I lugged heavy a molcajete y tejolote that I bought at the Farmers’ Market in Yucatan, convinced that salsas could taste as good as they did in Playa Del Carmen. I bought banana leaves, determined to make Cochinita Pibil, desperately trying to relive one more time the fresh, flavor-packed meals we ate in Mexico.

The first time I ever had ceviche, Nina and I were sitting at an outside table in a small seafood restaurant in Playa Del Carmen. It was a warm night, but the clouds were hanging low and a couple of raindrops fell intermittently on the concrete. The waiter told us that people did not eat seafood when it rained, apologizing for the lack of customers. It seemed that the Italian restaurant next door offered comfort food, but I could not imagine eating a plateful of spaghetti with Bolognese sauce on the coast of the Caribbean Sea.

We asked for recommendations and he brought us a fish ceviche for an appetizer. We are both enamoured with raw food, and we were looking forward to trying another approach to raw seafood. It was completely different from steak tartare, carpaccio, and even sushi in its preparation. It was well balanced, clean, acidic, and spicy, with a fresh aftertaste of cilantro.

I’ve made ceviche several times since then, always consulting Rick Bayless’ recipe from the book Fiesta at Rick’s which I won during his Twitter contest. His recipe uses scallops and tropical fruit and it became a staple appetizer for any of our summer dinners. This month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge took us to Perú, and one of the dishes we were supposed to make was Peruvian Fish Ceviche.

Our local grocery store, Henry’s Market, had beautiful corvina (sea bass) filets and I trust their meat department. The ceviche was extremely easy to make, and it was an enjoyable introduction to our fish dinner. The cubes of fish are marinated for 10-15 minutes with thinly sliced red onions, and served with corn and rounds of soft, boiled sweet potato, a completely new approach to our favorite summer nibble.

As I tasted every lime and jalapeño-infused morsel of fish, I remembered the warm Mexican night a year ago. One day College Kritter and I will be heading to Perú and I cannot wait to start planning again. I am looking forward to exploring the world with her, one ceviche at a time.

ceviche, process from

Kathlyn of Bake Like a Ninja was our Daring Cooks’ March 2011 hostess. Kathlyn challenges us to make two classic Peruvian dishes: Ceviche de Pescado from “Peruvian Cooking – Basic Recipes” by Annik Franco Barreau. And Papas Rellenas adapted from a home recipe by Kathlyn’s Spanish teacher, Mayra.

CEVICHE DE PESCADO, from Peruvian Cooking – Basic Recipes, by Annik Franco Barreau


  • 2 lbs. (about 1 kg) firm white fish (scallops or other seafood may be substituted)*
  • 2 garlic cloves, mashed
  • 1 chili pepper,
  • 1 cup (240 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice (between 8-12 limes)
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 large ear of corn
  • Lettuce leaves


Boil sweet potato and corn (separately) if using for garnish. Allow to cool. (Can be done hours or even a day in advance). Wash and trim your fish. Slice into pieces between ½ inch (15 mm) cubes to 2 inch (50mm) pieces, depending on taste.** Place fish in a non-reactive, shallow pan in a thin layer. Season with salt and pepper.

Combine lime juice, chili pepper, coriander and garlic. Pour mixture over fish. Stir lightly to expose all the fish to some of the lime juice mixture. Put sliced onion on top of fish as it “cooks”. Let fish stand for 10 minutes. Lift fish out of the lime juice and plate individual portions, garnishing with lettuce, slices of sweet potato and slices or kernels of corn if using.

*It is important to use high quality, really fresh fish. You can use previously frozen The better your fish, the better your ceviche.

** The fish is going to “cook” in the lime juice – how thick you make the pieces will determine how much the fish cooks, so keep your own preference in mind when you are cutting the fish up.

I am sending the ceviche to Hearth and Soul blog event, hosted by Christy of Frugality and Crunchiness with Christy.

Mar 122011

butternut squash soup from

Last night’s dinner left me in particularly good spirits. I defrosted garlic and lemon marinated pork shoulder pieces left over from several days ago when I prepared Souvlaki. Even though the weather is at its most glamorous here in Southern California, I wanted a hearty, saucy dish. Husband was clearly relieved when he found out that he would not be dispatched to the store and volunteered to make me a cocktail. Impersonating Julia Child, I prepared a rustic, flavorful pork paprikash and for the first time in my life made pasta from scratch. No box. No pasta machine. Just me, a wooden rolling pin, and a pizza cutter. Completely old school. The Beasties ate several strands of raw dough while the water was boiling, meeting with my incredulous glances. I have obvioulsy forgotten how wonderful uncooked pasta could taste.

Everybody loved the heart-warming paprikash, but my pappardelle stole the show and made me regret not making the full amount. I do not own a pasta machine and rolling out the dough was quite a workout. Besides, I made the mistake of using my tiny counter top and quickly ran out of space. Next time I am going to follow the example of every self-respecting old country housewife and utilize our dining room table. Still, in the end, I was immeasurably proud when I dished out irregularly shaped, glistening, pale-yellow ribbons of pasta and topped them with flavorful, rich pork ragout. One more notch on my cutting board.

After checking on the Beasties, making sure they were blissfully asleep and erasing the image of the clothes strewn all over the floor by quickly turning off the light, I leisurely assumed my favorite position on the love seat, opened my soon-to-be-sent-for-repairs laptop, and started on my evening routine of connecting with the world. Pretty soon I was alone, Husband far gone into the land of dreams. I love absence of sound after the day filled with noise. I was feeling at peace with the universe, energized and ready to start another blog post, eager to be hypnotized by the arrhythmical staccato of typing.

The TV was muted, bathing the room in a wave of light. So it was not the sound that diverted my attention. From the corner of my eye I subconsciously detected a change in the regular programming of the local channel. I stared, transfixed, at the unrelenting wave of muddy water pushing ahead the matchboxes that were cars and houses, advancing on the immaculately arranged patchwork of fields, annihilating the world of man in its unpredictable and unstoppable advance. I switched to CNN and the horrifying images continued to roll on the screen.

I have never been to Japan and I do not personally know any Japanese people. But I knew that tsunami was devouring shiny new bicycles and favorite ragged stuffed animals, late grandmother’s slightly battered frying pans and state of the art rice cookers, old photo albums and hard drives full of digital images of snaggletoothed grandkids. I knew the water was hiding shards of broken glasses saved from a wedding, a ripped report card showing straight Kanji As, an already muddy crimson cocktail dress bought for the party on Saturday, an old, much loved book slowly losing its pages. I saw in my mind painstakingly planted gardens turned into a salty marsh, and my heart cramped with sorrow. I thought of these things as I tried not to think of the lives that produced them, washed away on that merciless wave.

I stayed awake until late at night, unable to pull away from the images on the screen. Oh, how I wished that the leading story was another Lindsey Lohan drug bust or Charlie Sheen interview. But the only thing I saw was utter destruction, hour after hour. I finally fell asleep, tortured and drained.

I did not want to get up when the shrill 5:30a.m. alarm went off. I went to work tired and subdued, but determined to dig out every ounce of cheer I could muster. Our new manager greeted me with the biggest smile and a pot of really strong coffee. We have worked together only a few days, and the only personal thing I know about him is that he cuts his own hair. I wanted to know him better and I asked questions, small talk, chit-chat, nothing probing. Still smiling, he told me that he was staying with his grandmother in order to take care of her and his ten-year-old sister while their mother was in the hospital battling lung cancer and lymphoma. She never smoked and it was a surprise… I don’t know Andy and I don’t know his mother. But thinking of that little girl worrying if her mother was ever coming back from the hospital brought me to tears. He was trying to be brave and I certainly was not going to bring him down. So I smiled too.

A couple of hours later, a regular customer came in dressed in a bright turquoise shirt. She gave me a hug and whispered in my ear that her husband had passed away several days before. I had always seen them together and admired the way they treated each other, teasing and joking, but never maliciously. They were both grey and wrinkled, although she carried her years more vainly. She said that she was taking it in stride, but that she missed him. She smiled, but her blue eyes were sad and the tears were pooling around the edges. I did not know him well. But I knew they were leaning on one another, supportive and loving. And I knew that her heart hurt, feeling cut in two, abandoned and alone. She patted me on the shoulder and smiled. I smiled too.

When I came home, I wanted my children close to me. Our family has been through a lot in the last few years, but we still have each other. I know that I take a lot of my life for granted. But I know that nothing in life is granted. Life as we know it can be destroyed in ten minutes, or a week, or a month. All we have is now, to cling to, to cherish, to appreciate. Tomorrow is promised to no one.

I needed food solid enough to cling to in this wave of darkness. My pork paprikash with home-made pappardelle would have been perfect, but it was long gone. So I turned to silky, bright orange, sunny, and luscious butternut squash soup, simple and unpretentious, but strong and assertive enough to offer a respite from the harsh world. I won’t pretend that I follow the seasons or weather forecast when planning a meal. I cook according to my heart and the only guides are my emotions. Or my children’s. Or Husband’s. Today I needed sustenance with the power to keep me smiling in spite of the ugliness that shows its face once in a while. I needed a ray of sunshine to dispel the clouds and keep the murky wave we all feel even from here, from taking me too far away.

roasted butternut squash from

BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis; original recipe


  • 1 butternut squash, about 3 lbs
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas) for garnish


Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut the squash in half and clean the seeds. Place on the baking sheet, cut side down, and add ¼ water. Roast for 45 minutes, or until done. Cool and scrape the meat away from the skin.

Heat the butter and oil in a pot and melt together over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the sage. Continue to boil until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Add the squash pulp and heat for another minute or two. Turn off the heat. Using an immersion blender, blend the mixture until smooth and thick. Season with salt and pepper, to taste and garnish with pumpkin seeds. Keep the soup warm over low heat.

I am sending this post to I Heart Cooking Clubs that is featuring Giada De Laurentiis and Souper Sundays, hosted by Deb of Kahakai Kitchen.

Mar 082011

pita bead from

I was a very imaginative and impressionable child (somehow, when you grow up, these characteristics are not as adorable and no longer praised). I weaved stories around a scene on the street, traveled to far-away lands following the smell of jasmine, and wrote perfectly rhymed poems inspired by a flower or a puddle. The rituals and traditions, especially those connected to religion, always carried a dose of the exotic for me, changing the routine of everyday life into a fairy tale.

Tall, bearded Eastern Orthodox priests garbed in long, black cassocks, their heads covered with kamilavkas*, were just visitors from some yet unidentified moment in the past, mysterious and aloof. They waived sensors and filled rooms with smoke that immediately took me to an obscure, tiny Greek island where the evergreens wept honey-colored sap, and the sun bleached the rocks. They sent hundreds of droplets of holy water into the corners of every room as  they shook bunches of soaked basil in the attempt to expel evil spirits, while their deep, harmonious voices sang incantations in Old Church Slavic that I could not understand.

The domed churches were like old castles, imposing fortresses encircled by green Serbian hills, giving off the sense of invincibility and strength. Every time I touched their damp and cold stone walls, I envisioned thousands of other children before me touching them, and I felt a connection with all the little feet that walked the ground hundreds of years before me. In my mind, I saw all these hands holding each other like in a paper chain.

We were not raised in religion, even though Father’s forebears were priests for several generations. But our household, like so many Serbian households, was engrossed with the traditions and customs that pagan Old Slavs brought with them when they decided to move from the Carpathian mountains to the Balkan Peninsula. Stubborn and defiant, they did not take to Christianity easily. In order to lure them in, the Greek missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, incorporated a multitude of ancient Slavic beliefs, changing some names and adapting the old to the new.

In 1054, Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Cerularius, slapped each other with anathemas (excommunication), and East and West have never been the same since. To make matters even more complicated, several Eastern Orthodox Churches have not accepted the Gregorian calendar, and all the major events are postponed by about two weeks. That’s why in Serbia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, New Year’s Eve is January 13th (which does not mean that there are no wild parties on December 31st), and the October Revolution actually happened in November. Easter is calculated differently, and sometimes there are four or five weeks separating the Western celebration from the Eastern one. This year they coincide on April 24th.

For some of my compatriots in Serbia and diaspora, Monday was the first day of Great Lent which lasts for seven weeks until Easter Sunday. There is no Fat Tuesday, nor Ash Wednesday. There are no carnivals and last moments of indulgence and exaggeration, no King Cakes and Paczki, no crazy Fasching, costumes, nor make-believe. There are strict rules to this fast, and the faithful are supposed to adhere to them. Throughout the Lent, they abstain from red meat, eggs, and dairy, while they are allowed to consume fish and seafood. Tobacco and alcohol are not allowed, although wine does not fall under the restrictions. The first and the last week are even stricter, as no wine, oil, fish, nor seafood is allowed.

These are the tenets and they are not optional. You do not get to choose what to give up. There are no soft-serve “I gave up abstinence for Lent” jokes. However, I know a lot of Serbs who will give up their beloved pork for weeks, but will continue to puff endless Marlboros, chug beer, and sip Å¡ljivovica*. I won’t even mention the fowl language, petty jealousies, spreading gossip, and hating your neighbors that should not be expressed during Lent, but very few obey. Cleansing your body is hard, but detoxing your heart seems much harder.

When I crossed the ocean, I did not bring the religion with me. But I brought an icon of Jesus that my friends Miško and Nataša gave me the night before I boarded the intercontinental plane to Detroit, Michigan, along with a small glass jar full of pebbles from the bank of the River Morava. Visiting me in the states for the first time, Father brought me another icon of St. Nicholas, patron saint of our family since the advent of Christianity in Serbia. He also provided the ornate cresset that hangs above the icon tile. When Njanja died, I took from her wall the framed reproduction of the White Angel (the fresco is from the Monastery Mileševa). College Kritter loves incense. She brings little paper-wrapped sachets filled with tiny pieces of aromatic sap every summer she spends in Serbia.

icons from bibberche.comBut alongside all of my Eastern Orthodox paraphernalia, I keep an engraving of an emaciated St. Joseph that my fiercely devoted Catholic ex-stepmother-in-law gave me when the College Kritter was born, just to watch over us. Right next to the entrance door hangs the Egyptian eye that my sister brought from her travels through Northern Africa. It is meant to ward of the evil spirits and protect the home. A beautifully carved and vibrantly painted Indonesian goddess hovers above my bed, protecting me and the children. I received her as a parting gift from a friend when I left Michigan and moved to Ohio. One Christmas, Younger Beastie gave me a Dream Catcher that hangs above my head board, making my dreams pleasant and happy. The last to be added was the Mayan goddess Ixchel, that College Kritter bought for me at Chichen Itza last spring. Who cares that she is supposed to be the goddess of pregnant women? She reigns supreme from atop a bookshelf.

my wall

All these are little pieces of love, given to me by people who cared. They all work together in unison, bringing back the elusive feelings of exotic and distant lands that marked my childhood. I am still as impressionable and imaginative as before, believing that all of these objects offer a touch of magic to our home, allowing me to have my fairy tales. Husband just thinks they look cool, and perhaps even edible as he is fasting sunrise to sunup until the solstice, not religiously, but as a diet.

We will not be following the Great Lent, but my recipe for today is evocative of its purpose: it is plain, simple bread, shaped into individual servings. It symbolizes for me the basics of humanity, its simplicity, its strength, and its nourishment.

*kamilavka looks like a Lincoln’s stovepipe had, but without the brim

pita bread process from



  • 500ml (about 2 cups) warm water
  • 1 envelope instant yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil (if adhering to the strict fast, skip the oil)
  • 650gr all purpose flour (the dough will be very loose)


Put the yeast and sugar in a big bowl and add a bit of water. Let it rise for 5 minutes until bubbly. Add the rest of water, salt, and oil if using, and start adding flour gradually, mixing with a wooden spoon. It took 650gr of four for me to achieve the right consistency. Stir vigorously for a couple of minutes and let it rest on room temperature for 15-20 minutes. Mix again, and let it rest another 15-20 minutes. Repeat one more time, letting it proof for 15-20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 250C (450F).

Pour out the dough onto the floured working surface, pat it into a circle, and cut into six even pieces. Flour your hands and roll each piece into a ball. Flatten it to desired thickness (I wanted mine thinner, to be similar to pita, but I have made them thicker, to be served with grilled meat), from ¼ inch to ½ inch (1-2cm). Let them rest for another 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, put the baking sheet in the oven (or even better pizza stone, if available).

Move two by two to the hot baking sheet and bake for 5-6 minutes, until lightly brown and bubbly.

pita, done from

More recipes appropriate for Great Lent:

Mung Bean Dal

Prebranac (Serbian Baked Beans)

Quinoa Stuffed Poblano Peppers

Romano Beans with Chicken or Without (Boranija)

Serbian Fried Dough (UÅ¡tipci)

Red Bean Stew with Potatoes (Žuti pasulj nakiselo)

Onion, Pepper, and Tomato Sautee (Sataraš)

Roasted Peppers, Eggplant, and Beets with Garlic (Pečene paprike, plavi paradajz i cvekla sa belim lukom)

Basic Mashed Potatoes

Quinoa-Stuffed Grape Leaves

Lentils and Rice Salad with Plantains

Braised Red Cabbage

Rigatoni with Roasted Eggplant Puree

Quinoa and Sweet Potato Salad

Red Wine Pasta with Mushrooms and Nuts

Saffron Rice with Carrots

Ligurian Fish Stew

Tempura Vegetables and Soba Noodles

Shrimp and Cilantro-Lime Pesto

I am sending my bread recipe to Hearth and Soul blog event, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life.

Mar 082011

To all the beautiful, strong, smart, kind, loving, sensitive, imaginative, and creative women in my life, Happy Women’s Day! I give you these blossoms that surround me. Take one, or take them all!

mimosa from


bouganvillea from


calla lily from

calla lily

lavender from


Mar 052011

Dorie Greenspan's Cheese and Chives Bread from

“Put some coffee on, we’re coming over!” Mother’s face would turn crimson at the beginning of the sentence, and as she put the receiver down on our heavy, black, roto-dial phone, I could feel the panic settle. She would mumble under her breath, never giving way to profanities, wringing her hands, and trying to calm her rapidly beating heart. Like a general on the eve of a crucial battle, she would plot a strategy, assigning duties and organizing the ranks. In minutes she would have a plan which usually made us groan in pain. No shortcuts, no easy-way-outs, no five-minute-fridge-to-table-deals. We were the grunts and we obeyed, grumbling all the way to the small neighborhood grocery store, dispatched to procure the missing ingredients to properly welcome the guests.

In the meantime, Sonja and Pedja (Mother’s sister and her husband) would bundle up their brand new curly baby, Vladimir, crank up the old Citroen Diana, and set out on the five to six hour trip from the city of Novi Sad where they resided, to our hometown of ÄŒačak, to have a cup of coffee, laughing all the way, completely aware of the martial law that had been imposed on our household. They knew Mother abhorred surprises, even the best ones, and taunted her as often as they could. We did not buy into the state of raised alert, knowing that our hip and totally cool Aunt and Uncle would show up dressed in jeans, low maintenance as always, cracking jokes and making us feel really special.

They would enter through the back door bringing the spirit of rebellion and non-conformity, the sense of adventure and daring to be different. They would deposit Vladimir into our greedy hands as we fought to be the first to hug him and caress him and pet him and call him George. Sonja would fall into a chair, lifting her feet on another, while Pedja would find his way to the fridge to get a beer or fix himself a screwdriver (back in the early 80s we assumed that it was the official drink of the guild, as he was a carpenter). Mother would desperately try to get him to sit down for a steaming cup of Turkish coffee as he paced around the kitchen to stretch his legs, getting in her way constantly.

Pretty soon Father would bring a snifter of cognac for Sonja, and a semblance of a drink for my allergic-to-alcohol Mother. There would be music, and the delicacies would start appearing on the table: homemade rolls served hot with kajmak, fresh farmer’s cheese and cold cuts, different varieties of phyllo dough pastries, roasted peppers dressed with a vinaigrette and garlic, tomato-cucumber salad when in season, cheese and meat strudels, roasted suckling pig, or mixed grilled meats, and unavoidable sweets. Pedja was boisterous, and his voice could overpower Father’s forceful and excitable expressions. The men would loudly toast each other, while the sisters would look for a moment to sync their voices in perfect harmony and make the world stop as they sang, their eyes locked together in unmistakable love.

Right after the feast, the little red car that could would be idling loudly, cranked up for the return trip, the baby bundled snuggly, smiling in his sleep. Both Mother and Father would protest, trying to get Sonja and Pedja to spend the night, but they would just wave them off, hug and kiss everybody, climb into the car and drive away with a last shout carried out through the window, “See you next time for coffee!” After the Citroen disappeared around the corner, Mother would retreat to the kitchen, shaking her head incredulously as if this had been the first time. It would be hours before her heart slowed and the redness in her face returned to pink.

I often scolded Mother for making this seemingly unnecessary fuss when people stopped by our house. I lectured her on the futility of spending a day in the kitchen to appease every passer-by (at times, my omniscient tirades turned from sarcastic to vitriolic), assuring her with the wisdom of all of my sixteen years lived on the planet that real friends and family did not visit for the food or drinks, but for the company. Serve them water, or serve them pheasant under glass, they would still love you. Sometimes she would only smile. Sometimes she would give me a sideways glance that asked me nicely to just shut up. But she did not accept my advice. She still gets a rapid heartbeat when someone announces a visit and she scrambles to offer sustenance to everybody who enters the house.

I am sure that Sonja and Pedja would have been satisfied with just a cup of coffee, but I realize that they appreciated Mother’s efforts and humored her at every occasion. They knew that she prepared the food to please them, thinking of their preferences, picking the best produce, the freshest ingredients, and the most succulent meats. They knew that she indulged their culinary whims, even when they did not ask for it. She offered the food they loved and could not get in Novi Sad. She offered it with a great amount of affection, even if it was hidden behind her flushed cheeks and snarky remarks. She thought they were crazy for traveling for five hours on an impulse. They thought she was crazy for spending five hours cooking. But after all this crazy talk there was the fact that only love can make you pack up your family and jump in the car to drive forever for a cup of coffee, and only love can make you turn that cup of coffee into a feast.

When I made Chives and Cheese Bread from Around My French Table, I was thinking that it would have been perfect for an impulsive visit from a friend. It’s quick, it’s versatile, and it uses the ingredients readily available in the pantry. Husband raved about it. The Beasties loved it as an after-school snack, and part of their lunch the next day. It satisfied my craving for a savory breakfast, lightly toasted and smeared with butter.

Sure, my friends and family are still going to love me if I welcomed them with an offering of bottled water. But this bread, still warm from the oven, would translate my love so much better. I am sure that Mother will be sporting her most I-told-you-so smile as soon as she reads my post. And I will have to tell her that I inherited all of her masochistic genes that psychologically chain me to the kitchen. And that I am eternally grateful.

My sister often invites me over for a cup of coffee, and we drink it virtually, chatting on Skype. I daydream that one day she will call me just to tell me that she is on her way to our house all the way from Frankfurt, Germany, hoping to get a decent cup of Turkish coffee. I might not be all flushed and ridden with arrhythmia, but the dining room table would showcase a pile of food. And I am not kidding.

I changed the ingredients somewhat, but I did not stray too far from Dorie’s suggestions. I sauteed chopped smoked ham, added scallions towards the end, and mixed it into the batter. Instead of chopped cheese, I added feta. For the recipe, go get Dorie’s new book Around My French Table, which recently won an award in Paris for the best French cookbook. But if you want to make this bread tomorrow, Dorie has posted the recipe  on Serious Eats. I am sure that my fellow bloggers participating in our French Fridays with Dorie group have an abundance of praise for this dish.

Mar 012011

pasta with cilantro-lime pesto from

I don’t buy cooking magazines. But every once in a while we have extra frequent flyer miles, and the airlines will send us a voucher for free subscriptions to several publications. I always ordered Gourmet, because I loved Ruth Reichl and the photography was amazing. Since it was discontinued, I go back and forth between Food&WineBon Appétit, and Everyday Food.

I have to admit that I have a weakness for printed material. Glossy pages, beautiful photos, and the smell of paper fresh from the press is like crack to me. As a child, I never wrote in my books, I never folded the corners to mark my place, I never flipped a paperback for easier reading. My books had to stay immaculate, even in college, when all the comments and quotes ended up in notebooks, rather than underlined or in the margins. Marring a book’s pristine pages seemed sacrilegious. I apply the same standards to magazines, and it is not surprising that a growing pile of them always resides somewhere in my house, moved from one place to another, most of them still untouched.

When we moved from Ohio to California, I had to scale down from over 3500 square feet with a finished basement and a huge two car garage to little over 900 square feet with no basement, no garage, no yard, and no storage space of any kind. As neither one of us was willing to part with our many books that fill more than seven bookcases, we had to apply a different strategy. Husband had to give up boxes of obsolete electronics and do-it-yourself gadgets. The kids had to donate a lot of toys, games, and clothes to the Berea orphanage. I had to let go of a lot of my kitchen stuff. And I had to give up my magazines. I leafed through every single one, copied the recipes I liked into my digital cookbook, brought them all to the library, seemingly unopened and new, and left them knowing that somebody would take care of them.

It did not take long for a pile of magazines to appear on my side table in our tiny apartment in Southern California (I apologize to my friends and family in Europe for calling a perfectly ample and comfortable area of 90 m squared tiny; it’s all about relativity). It is not as impressive as before because I reined myself in and got the subscriptions to only one at a time. They are so pretty, all shiny and new, with beautiful photos adorning their front pages. I want to cook from them, but just the thought of them being in close proximity to splattering oil or a whirring mixer gives me the chills. I cannot submit my lovelies to such treatment…

But I am aware that we have to use our furniture for other purposes than as magazine stands, especially if the magazines are just sitting there idly. In the meantime a glossy, new sample diligently appears in our mail box once a month. So a compromise was born out of desperation. When I announced that I would write down a recipe I like to make out of a magazine every week or so in one of my handy notebooks, Husband rolled his eyes in disbelief and asked why I just didn’t load it in my iPhone like all the normal people.

Barbara of Vino Luci Style has a  monthly blog event called RSVP Redux that features the recipes from Bon Appétit’s RSVP section. I wanted to participate for several months, but an aforementioned (barely noticeable) disorder prevented me. The stack of magazines was eagerly waiting to fulfill its existential purpose, and for once, I was highly motivated. The quest for the introductory recipe has begun.

When Father was here recently on his usual extended visit, he wanted to take us out to dinner. He is a gourmand, and I always try to expose him to new culinary experiences. I picked a Peruvian restaurant, Inca Mama, not too far away from us, knowing that this would be something new and unfamiliar for all of us. The service was not that great, but the atmosphere was good and we loved the food.

As I was thumbing through my Bon Appétit issue from July of 2010, I found a recipe that reminded me of one of the dishes we had that night which impressed us the most in all its simplicity: Pasta with Shrimp and Cilantro-Lime Pesto. It was in the RSVP section and seemed like a wonderful start, especially after Husband had been hounding me to try to replicate his Peruvian meal. The list of ingredients was short and my mental faculties were not sufficiently challenged to make me reach for a pad and pen.

I have made the original pesto Bolognese many times, ever since I discovered the strange-looking, vibrantly green sauce served over cappellini pasta in fine-dining Italian restaurants in the 80s. I occasionally substituted parsley for basil, and walnuts for pine nuts just to experiment with the flavors. But I have never used cilantro in pesto. I associate pesto with Italian cuisine and cilantro with Latin American and Asian food. I love my Asian noodles with my Asian sauces, and it did not occur to me to attempt some kind of fusion, as I thought that it was something only Ming Tsai did. Now that I think of it, I know that there are a lot of Italian immigrants in Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela who invariably brought their traditional dishes to their new homes and adapted them to the local ingredients.

The dish came together in less than thirty minutes. I blended cilantro, garlic, green onions, jalapeño peppers, lime juice, and olive oil until emulsified, while the pasta was boiling. As soon as it was done, I sauteed the shrimp, added the tequila and sauce, and mixed everything with linguine. I was supposed to sprinkle crumbled Feta on top (I did not have Cotija cheese as the recipe specified) after I served it, but I forgot. Unbelievably easy, but packed with tastiness. A fresh, intensely flavored, restaurant-style dish appeared on our dinner table in minutes. And no magazines were harmed in the process.

stack of magazines from

PASTA WITH SHRIMP AND CILANTRO-LIME PESTO (Bon Appétit, July 2010, adapted from Tejas Texas Grill & Saloon in Hermantown, Minnesota)


  • 1 ¾ cups fresh cilantro, plus ¼ cup chopped (reserve for later)
  • ¼ cups green onion, coarsely chopped
  • 3 Tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely minced
  • 1 Tbsp chopped, seeded, jalapeño chile
  • ½ cup plus 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt
  • 1lb linguine
  • 1 lb uncooked shrimp, cleaned and deveined
  • 3 Tbsp tequila
  • ¼ cup crumbled Cotija or feta (optional)
  • salt, pepper


Blend cilantro, green onions, lime juice, garlic, and chile. Gradualy add ½ cup olive oil with machine running. Season generously with salt. Prepared sauce can be made one day ahead and refrigerated.

Cook linguine in a large pot of salted water until cooked al dente. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 Tbsp of oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp and cook until almost opaque in the center, about 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, add tequila, return to heat, and stir for 30 seconds to thicken a sauce a little. Add sauce, stir to combine, and remove from heat.

Add pasta, toss, and season woth salt and pepper.

Divide among 4 plates. Sprinkle with cheese and chopped cilantro, and serve.

Serves 4.

Besides RSVP Redux, I am sending this dish to Hearth ‘n Soul blog hop, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life and Presto Pasta Nights hosted by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast (Presto Pasta Nights celebrates its forth birthday on Friday, and this Thursday there is going to be a bash there! Great chance to visit!)