My College Kritter’s infatuation with food probably started the day she was born, four days after the predicted date. After conferring with my ObGyn, Father called from the hospital and told me to be there at noon. I was a novice at the delivery business and did not want to take any chances of going without food. I calmly asked Mother to make me some sauteed chicken livers. Her first reaction was utter confusion, followed closely by incredulity, only to finish in amusement.
I sat at the table facing a plate of glorious morsels crunchy and salty on the outside, soft and sweet inside, with a hefty piece of crusty bread on the side to dip into the flavorful lard. Mother’s chicken livers are always insanely good, but this plate stayed in my memory as the best. I had to get up occasionally and breathe rhythmically as I walked around the kitchen table. But I managed to polish off a huge plate just before Father arrived to take me to the hospital.
Fortified with all the comforting goodness, I was ready to tackle a two-to three day delivery process. But my firstborn arrived after only four hours of the most intense pain I had ever experienced, well before my morning meal was entirely digested.
The nurses told me the first day that she was one of the most voracious eaters ever, ruefully informing me that my breast-feeding would not suffice. My sister, the nurse, arrived from Germany the day Nina was born, toting a suitcase full of baby formula, just in case. The wars were ripping Yugoslavia apart, and baby food was a luxury, hard to find and extremely expensive. I was grateful and at the same time awfully sad, feeling inadequate at providing nourishment for my baby.
From the beginning she was not a picky eater. She approached new foods with enthusiasm and joy. She was a healthy and happy girl. She was nine months old when I fled my country and came back to the States, frightened by the threat of international sanctions and bombing. When a pediatrician in the U.S. told me in an accusatory tone that she was too tall for her age, I stopped seeing him. Upon my return I faced an insecure future, a husband who barely worked, maxed-out credit cards, unpaid bills, and an empty refrigerator. In spite of all that was happening in our lives, Nina continued to thrive.
I still see that two-year-old sitting at Mother’s kitchen table in Serbia, chanting “Meso, meso, meso“*, banging her little fist holding a fork against the wooden surface, her curly dark pig-tails bobbing up and down keeping the beat. I remember her peeking under Father’s Yugo looking for a quince that rolled out of her hands, upset that her Baba would not be able to make jelly for her. I smile when I bring back the memories of her kneeling on a chair, covered in flour, working the rolling pin over the dough in earnest.
At fourteen, she started making her signature yeast rolls with caramelized onions and rosemary. At sixteen, she fell in love with Asian cuisine and started preparing stir-fries and curries. At seventeen, she cooked a couple of meals a week and baked cookies with ease. When she was twelve, she announced that her first paycheck would go towards purchasing a whole wheel of cheese. True to her promise, she spent the first money she had earned hostessing in a restaurant on food. She came home with a wheel of cheese and several bags of groceries. That night we were treated to a beautiful feast of international food: crostini with gorgonzolla and fig preserves, a cheese platter, caviar, soft-boiled quail eggs, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, roasted asparagus, and Thai soup served in coconut shells.
My College Kritter has only recently become an official adult. Tired of the cafeteria food, she moved out of the dorm and into an apartment with two roommates. She calls occasionally, searching for a consultation on a meal she is preparing. She regularly confers with Mother on Skype, getting invaluable advice of the Queen of Cooking. Whenever she visits, she dives into my cookbooks and pastes colorful notes on dozens of recipes that intrigue her. I let her take over the kitchen, accepting in advance that dishes will miraculously disappear from their usual spots and that the Beasties will quickly become her volunteer slaves.
Coming home for winter break, she bought me the book, by Greg Atkinson. There are no photos, and the book is definitely not meant to be a coffee table conversation starter. But as I started reading, I felt the author’s love for the Pacific Coast and the abundance of food available to those of us lucky enough to dwell at the edge of western civilization. I am still in awe of the variety of edibles that surrounds me and I share his infatuation and gratitude.
Nina loves to work with dough. She is fearless and adventurous, while I hesitate when faced with finicky yeast. Any time she has to bring food to a party or a pot luck, she bakes bread. Thinking of her and missing her an awful lot, I chose to make Focaccia from my new book. The recipe was easy to follow, and I could hardly wait for it to come out of the oven. It was flavorful, soft in the middle, salty on the outside, with just enough spice from red pepper flakes and a nice burst of woodsy rosemary. I don’t know if it was better just by itself, or as a base for one of the best BLTs I have ever had. I only regret that I had not sauteed chicken livers. Sopping up the laden lard with such a beautiful Focaccia would be heaven.
*Meso is meat in Serbian
FOCACCIA (West Coast Cooking, by Greg Atkinson)
This bread was a breeze to make. The instructions were clear, the process easy to follow, and the resulting focaccia flavorful, soft on the inside, with hints of rosemary and spice on the outside.
For the Sponge:
- 2 cups warm water
- 1 envelope active yeast
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
For the Dough:
- 2 ½ half cups all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp kosher salt
For the Topping:
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 Tbsp fresh rosemary
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp sea salt
The Sponge: Put the warm water into a big mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast and sugar on top, and stir to dissolve. Mix in the flour, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the sponge rest for 1 hour.
Add the remaining 2 ½ cups of flour and salt and mix until the dough starts pulling away from the sides. Move the dough onto the floured counter top and knead until elastic and springy. Place into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for another hour.
Preheat the oven to 400F.
Pour the olive oil into a 16×12 baking sheet. Sprinkle some more flour onto the counter top and roll the dough into a rectangle big enough to fit into the prepared baking sheet. Put the dough in, and then flip it to oil the other side. Using your fingers make indentations all over the surface of the dough. Sprinkle the rosemary, red pepper flakes, and sea salt all over. Bake until crispy and golden-brown, 15-20 minutes.
I love baking bread. A new friend just started a blog event that has everything to do with bread, Let’s Break Bread Together. I am sending my focaccia her way. Visit Wit, Wok, and Wisdom for more wonderful bread recipes.
This is the first time that one of my recipes takes part in Susan’s YeastSpotting and I am excited. Cannot wait to check all the other entries.