Aug 312011
 

I did not start out as a photographer. We had a mandatory photography course in eighth grade and somehow I managed to squeeze out an A. The next summer I signed up for a community class, but the instructor chose me for a model, and I failed to learn the technicalities of manual film shooting and developing. If I had a nice portfolio, I would have been satisfied, but I left the class more confused then when I entered.

Our parents outfitted a small room upstairs to be a photo lab and my sister and brother spent hours in there developing negatives, playing, experimenting, distorting, and beautifying. I have a lot of pictures featuring me in different sizes and shapes as the only revenge available to them at the time.

I embraced the automatic “idiot” camera and resigned my photographic interest to the role of a tourist and an eternal amateur, until I started my blog. All of a sudden, my artistic abilities emerged from their hidden spot and I wanted to learn as much as I could. I took a class at the local community college, diligently finishing all the tasks and homework on time, submitting the photos before deadline, and managing to earn praises and positive critiques from the professor and my fellow students. Do not ask how many crying sessions I went through on  my way home as I doubted my creativity and my “eye”.

I don’t aim to become a professional, but as a perfectionist, I have to aim for the highest levels of my abilities. I do not stress anymore and I do not try to explain why I am photographing any/everything edible (and inedible) several times a day. I enjoy taking pictures. I really enjoy taking pictures.

My friend Susan from The Well Seasoned Cook started showcasing black and white photos featuring food and culture every Wednesday. She has encouraged me from early on and I look to her as a mentor. Her photography is amazing and her writing always inspiring. I am sending this photo for her Black and White Wednesday event, hoping that I can learn as much as I can from her and the other contributors.

Please, visit her blog to see the beautiful creations of my fellow food bloggers.

Reaching for Bread from bibberche.com

Aug 152011
 

It’s summer time and tall corn stalks are swaying, gently caressed by the wind that brings on its wings the smell of the Danube. The majestic river rolls lazily through the plain, flanked by the reeds, and guarded by fishermen who respectfully and gratefully angle for pike and bass. The sun has set far over the horizon, leaving in its wake faint hues of orange and rose chased by the deep indigo of the night sky. Crickets and frogs are singing in weird harmony as if they had rehearsed elsewhere all winter, breaking the silence that slowly envelops the village.

The women, their heads covered with colorful scarves, mosey home, carrying green and cobalt-blue metal canisters filled with fresh, frothy milk, still warm form the udder. The older men reluctantly finish their chess matches, get off the benches lining the street, bid each other goodbye, and shuffle away through the wrought iron and wooden gates leading to their yards. The chickens settle comfortably in their coops, and the cows munch on straw, rewarded for the milk they unwittingly shared at twilight.

Children run inside, breathless, their faces and hands scrubbed clean. The last one of the bunch hangs the towel on the line to dry and brings the metal pitcher inside. A thick slice of homemade bread slathered heavily with yellow butter churned that morning rests on the plate along with recently picked tomatoes from the garden and a few thin slices of ham or smoked bacon that miraculously survived the winter.

The textile factory is dark having spewed the last workers out of the gates around two o’clock in the afternoon. But the restaurant that feeds the workers their midday meal is brightly lit and filled with people milling back and forth with excitement. The chairs are aligned in neat rows in front of a makeshift stage, ready to accept droves of villagers eagerly anticipating Saturday’s entertainment. The village elders, dismayed by the restaurant’s sole purpose, decided to open its doors at night and on the weekend, too, and offer the hard-working peasants a bit of relief. They invited various bands, theater groups, a cappella sextets, comedians, and magicians.

On this particular night, the stage was set for the orchestra which would accompany an opera singer from the city. Fifteen minutes before the beginning, every seat was taken and the excited whispers were heard throughout the sparsely furnished utilitarian blue-collar establishment. The opera singer was not exuberant about the night’s performance, used to the acoustically appropriate auditoriums and much more dignified surroundings, but he did not hesitate. His shoulders thrown back, his left eyebrow dramatically raised, he sauntered onto the stage, almost resigned, but ready to do the duty delegated to him by whatever higher-ups see fit to position opera stars in villages.

The girl with honey colored hair and big blue eyes.

As the lights went down, his bored glance meandered along the first row until it stopped and locked on a beautiful girl sitting in a chair a few spaces to the right. She was dressed in a sleeveless, white, button-down blouse and a white plisse′* full-circle skirt that fell just bellow her knees. Her slender legs were crossed, showing off Italian espadrilles with laces snaked around her calves. She kept her hands demurely in her lap while a smile brightened her flushed and excited face.

In that instant, the opera singer received a boost of energy and, mesmerized by her honey-colored curls and big blue eyes filled with trust and hope, he started singing, his powerful voice reaching to every corner of the room. He captured and collected every ear with his tenor, but his eyes never left the girl in white sitting in the first row. Every aria he picked was silently dedicated to her, and he sang for several hours, never once taking a break.

When the concert ended, he smiled as he shook hands with the dignitaries from the city and patted the most prominent of the villagers on the shoulder. The crowd lingered while he approached the girl and her father, a proud man with piercing blue eyes and the commanding comportment of an officer. He politely introduced himself and invited them to have a drink with him in the restaurant. The father politely declined, explaining that they had to walk about four kilometers to their house at the opposite edge of the neighboring village. Not willing to play a desperate prince to this fair-haired Cinderella, the opera singer asked the father if he could accompany them home. The father acquiesced and the unusual trio departed, waving goodbyes and fending off curious glances and raised eyebrows.

The father and the girl knew that both of the villages would be atwitter with suspense and gossip the next day, but they continued into the night, the father smiling as he purposefully lagged behind, his arms crossed behind his back, allowing the couple a bit of privacy some twenty paces ahead.

The path weaved through the rows of rustling corn as the summer wind whispered the sweet secrets that it seems only smitten young men hear clearly. The tall stalks parted as the opera singer let his voice take over the night, silencing crickets and frogs. For four kilometers he sang, oblivious of the sleeping cattle and drowsy children, his attention on the beautiful woman in white walking beside him. For that one hour, the night swallowed everything else but the two of them and his velvety vibrato which touched every corn stalk in its wake.

When they reached the house on the edge of the other village, the opera singer took the girl’s hands into his own and thanked her for allowing him to sing for her. He bowed slightly to the father, wished them both good night, and disappeared into the corn on his way back to the restaurant. The girl remained outside for a while, smiling, her eyes reaching into the night beyond the corn, the mighty Danube, the neighboring village, and the big city while the wind swirled the white skirt around her legs, lifted her golden hair, and whispered into her fine ear the moonshadowed echoes to which only smiling young girls are ever privy.

It was the summer of 1959. The luminous girl in white was my mother. The opera singer touched her life with a magic wand of beauty and hope, and having finished his mission, returned to his arias and stage. She never stopped dreaming. She still sees beauty in everything and clings to hope even in the most dismal situations. So many years later she is still that beautiful woman in white, surrounded by light and armed with a smile and hearing the music laden on a magical summer wind blowing from a night suddenly not so distant to lift her golden hair and fall upon her ears only. And when she hears Core ‘Ngrato** on the radio, that smile spreads across her face and the diamond of a tear sparkles on her cheek as her bright blue eyes flash and flash back,  and she is teleported through time and space to her village and that night of rustling corn and dreams yet to come.

*plissé, a French word for a fabric that has a lot of tiny pleats all around; it was fashionable in the 50s and 60s, but it is coming back in style

**Core ‘Ngrato, the Ungrateful Heart, is a Neapolitan song composed in 1911 for Enrico Caruso.

Aug 082011
 
Virgin Atlantic plane

Good wind, white bird!

On the afternoon of July 18, the girls and I kissed Husband goodbye and waved to him from the escalator leading to the security area. Our long-awaited trip to Serbia commenced with the buzzing of the metal detectors and bare feet impatiently following each other in the long line approaching gates. But nothing could diminish our excitement as the moment of take-off crept nearer and nearer.

LAX

LAX, waiting to depart

The transatlantic flight from Los Angeles to Belgrade via London was pretty uneventful and surprisingly pleasant, even with bland airplane food, recycled air, and the inevitable rude antics of a few inconsiderate passengers. I enjoyed a glass of red wine with my meal hoping in vain for a couple hours of sleep. Instead of the snoozing, I watched three brand new movies just to taunt Husband who will have to see them alone (not that he’ll complain as I have to comment, analyze, and guess the ending throughout every flick we watch while he sits there as if in church wishing I’d be quiet).

LAX

Airport ennui

The girls crashed on the last leg of the trip and when we landed at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport around noon the next day, they were disoriented, drowsy, and tired. Our suitcases arrived unscathed for a change, with all the wheels and handles intact. We cleared customs and entered the waiting area. I felt a pang when I saw the white cardboard sign with my name on it, even though I knew that this time Father would not be the one to drive us home. Instead I met Bosa, our family’s friend and a taxi driver, who piled us comfortably into her old Audi and drove off towards my home town a few hours southwest of Serbia’s capital.

While the girls fell asleep in each other’s laps, Bosa and I talked all the way home, which seemed much longer than usual. Not for the company, but because I yearned to see my street, hug Mother, and have a drink with Father. We drove, seemingly following the sun as it descended behind the hills. I welcomed the heat and stretched my arm through the window hoping to catch a handful of Serbian air. I breathed in the smell of burning grass and leaves touched by summer’s fiery hand, drinking in the scenery as the car rolled down the road meandering away from the rush of urban Belgrade.

Ibarska magistrala from bibberche.com

Three-hour ride

We entered the city limits as the night, dragging its pink and orange feet, began to ink over the daylight details of my hometown, and droves of young people filled the streets on their way to the city center. I am always taken aback by the sight of slender, tan, long-legged girls that seem to flourish so well on Serbian soil. This time was no exception and I smiled as the old Audi took a last left turn and parked underneath the linden tree in front of our family house.

My girls perked up as soon as I opened the door, and my brother’s two sons picked them up in a bear embrace on the sidewalk. I inhaled the smell of my town’s summer night, and for a second felt the call of the past as the years magically disappeared. I had boarded the plane after working for five days, packing, and organizing the house, and I was tired. The lack of sleep made my eyes sting, and thirteen hours cramped up in a small space made my whole body ache. But I felt alive as my soul sang I am home!

kuca Cacak from Bibberche.com

Home!

Aug 012011
 

Hi, foodies… Vince here again. Lana is still in Europe and her internet connection is just a bit slow. How slow? Ever pour a quart of black strap molasses through a mile of cat 5 ethernet wire? So, you poor souls will have to settle for me this time out. Now, I know what you want. I know you want some sort of emotional story with a food theme. You want some tearful tale of childhood and nostalgia that tugs at your heart and fairly brings the smells and tastes of your own past streaming with a melancholy beauty to your senses like some sort of crybaby time machine. Well tough. You got me instead.

I’m from the south. Let’s not sugar coat it; I was born a hick. A rube. A redneck if you will. I grew up on okra and pork chops and grits and such. And while we moved around like a band of gypsies, and I had a chance to stretch my taste buds more than most of the other southern gentlemen (hicks) who are at this very moment likely to be snacking on moon pies and wishing we were somehow in the third term of the George W. Bush administration, still, for all my comparative sophistication, I was woefully ignorant of a great many things in the culinary spectrum. That changed drastically when I met Lana. In fact, most of my favorite foods… most of the dishes that I would describe as “comfort food” are things to which she introduced me. I had never had stuffed cabbage, let alone the wonderful Serbian version called sarma. I had never had eggs lightly poached in homemade tomato soup. I had never had a 15 layer Napoleon torte.

There is a problem inherent to being married to a woman who loves to cook, let alone a food blogger. There’s always delicious food in the house and even Stephen Hawking would need to do additional research to comprehend the gravitational relationship between my wife’s cooking and the pie hole in the middle of my face. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got amazing washboard abs. The problem is that after a fall, winter, and spring of eating like an Iron Chef judge, the six pack is well concealed by a keg. I was always a bean pole growing up so when I put on pounds, it’s all gut and butt.

So, in the summer, Lana heads to her homeland in Serbia and I am left to write, edit, and diet. The diet is pretty easy because there’s no one around cooking amazing food. And so I easily drop 20 to 25 pounds in six weeks or so. The diet that I have created for myself allows… no, allows isn’t the right word… the diet demands that I binge eat after five diet days. So, after the strict regimen of the week, I can eat whatever I want on the weekend. And let me tell you, by the time Saturday arrives, I usually have a hell of a craving for something. The first weekend, I wanted pizza. Then wings. You get the idea.

As this past week went by, there was a clear craving developing. It was green and glorious.

Gloriously green pesto with a nice chardonnay! Oh yeah!

Pesto!

Now, I never had pesto until 1998 when Lana made it for me for the first time. I fell in love with it. I’ve had many variations of it since, but I love good basic pesto, the stronger the better. So Saturday found me at the grocery store buying fresh basil, cilantro, and angel hair. I waited until my stomach was growling and I was hungry enough to wrestle a hyena pack over a wildebeest carcass. Then I rounded up the usual suspects: garlic, green onions, lime, etc., and made enough to feed the whole family were they here. And ate it all. In one sitting. Alone.

Now, normally the story would end and you’d get a recipe. But that’s not how I roll. I’m going to walk you through this so you don’t screw it up. First, go shopping for fresh ingredients. I’ll be here when you get back.  Here’s a list of what you’ll need if you want to make the best Shrimp Pesto you ever crammed in your chirper:

  • A bottle of decent white wine. I prefer a chardonnay with pesto. There are too many awesome chards to be had for under 12 bucks to spend much more than that.
  • A lot of basil. I don’t know how many cups. Just find a nice lush basil plant and pick it bald.
  • A bunch of cilantro. Just use the leafy parts and avoid the stems. They suck. Use a lot, but not more than a quarter the amount of the basil. Cilantro is delicious, but more than that will overpower the pesto-ness of the dish.
  • A bunch of green onions. I know most recipes call for one or two green onions. That’s for wimps. Use a whole bunch… like 6 to 8 green onions. ‘Cause I said so.
  • A handful of pine nuts.
  • Garlic. At least 5 cloves. No, I’ve never ever tasted a dish with too much garlic in it. Garlic makes basil yummier.
  • The zest and juice of one medium lime.
  • Salt and pepper.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil.
  • Angel hair pasta. No, not spaghetti or macaroni or fettucini or shells. This is not alfredo or carbonara. Have some respect for the sauce and choose a fine pasta. Angel hair is perfect for pesto.
  • Shrimp, peeled and deveined and raw! However much each person wants.

Look at all that green!

First things first. Chill your bottle of vino. For this meal, I chose a 2009 California chardonnay (Sonoma) called Las Olas. They are a cool company that helps benefit charities that support the coastal marine environment. While that fact may not complement your pesto, it should leave a good taste in your mouth. The wine boasts notes of apple, pear, and citrus. It has an amazingly clean finish that makes it a wonderful accompaniment to a strong pesto. And while a table wine need not be quite so complex, we’ll be enjoying a glass as we prepare the meal, so why not have something decent? Pesto goes fast, so if you don’t have a nice bottle of white in the fridge already, put one in the freezer for ten or fifteen minutes and go pick out some tunes. Don’t forget it. It’ll burst if you do.

Pick out some nice upbeat tunes to listen to while you’re cooking. No rap. No Death Metal. No Blood Metal. No Bile Metal. No Hell Metal. No Dig My Soul Out With a Back Hoe Metal. No Rap Metal. No Metallic Rap. No “I wish I was dead” noise passing itself off as music. You may not listen to rap or metal while you prepare my pesto recipe. No. And nothing depressing while you cook. No Harry Chapin (much as I love him). No Jim Croce. No Stevie Nicks. No U2. No Frederic Freakin’ Chopin. If you are confused, you may choose from the following artists:

Dean Martin, Willie Nelson, The Cars, BTO, Gnarls Barkley, Peter Gabriel, even Lady Gaga. It has to be upbeat. It has to make you smile and be happy to be alive and in the kitchen and about to enjoy some awesome pesto! If you are in any way confused by this, just get the soundtrack to the movie Ray and get busy. In fact, let’s keep this simple. Just forget I suggested anything other than Ray. Play the Ray Charles. You’ll smile.  Because smiling is mandatory. Remember this:

‘Tis healthier to eat franks and beer
With thanks and cheer
Than bread and sprouts
With dread and doubts.

 

Pour a glass of chilled wine. Sip. Ahh…

Now, there should be music in the air and wine in your glass. See how happy you are? Time to make magic.

OK, the first thing to remember about pesto is that you don’t actually ever cook it. So fill a large pot with water and put it on the burner so that it can boil for the pasta. The bigger the pot, the better. A gallon of water is good for anything under a pound of pasta. Three quarts will do if that’s all the room you have, but more water is better. Cover it to trap the heat and trim a few minutes off the boiling time. While that’s reaching a boil, you’ve got time to toast the pine nuts and peel and devein the shrimp if you don’t dawdle. Do not buy cooked shrimp. Shrimp are delicate and wonderful and cannot be mishandled or overcooked. They are too expensive to screw up. If you buy precooked shrimp you will end up having rubbery overcooked nuggets for dinner instead of one of the world’s finest delicacies. Buy raw shrimp. Trust me.

OK. Now toast a handful of pine nuts. Just swirl them in a small skillet or saute pan. No oil. Knock them around with a wooden spoon just enough to keep them from burning. It takes just a moment if you keep them to one layer. Just get a golden color and get them out of there. Wipe out the saute pan with a paper towel and you’re done with it. I’m not one to leave a dirty kitchen. Clean as you go. It’s easier.

Wash and drain all your produce. Chop the onions. They have to fit into the chopper.

Put all the basil leaves, green onions, cilantro,  half of the toasted pine nuts, garlic, and lime zest/juice in a chopper or blender or food processor. Pour in some olive oil. No, I don’t know how much… you have to get a feel. Don’t talk to me about measuring cups. We don’t need no stinking measuring cups. Just a little at first, then pulse it and look at the consistency. You want it thick enough to adhere to the pasta but thin enough to get good coverage. You know what pesto looks like. Add olive oil between pulses until it is pesto in all its green glory. Taste it. Add salt and pepper until it suits you. Take another sip of that wine. Taste the pesto again just to make sure it’s perfect. When it is, set it aside. Have another sip of wine to set your palate. Ray’s probably singing Night Time is the Right Time by now and if nobody’s watching, you’re probably kinda dancing around the kitchen like a loon. That’s OK. If you don’t like Ray Charles, stop everything, put all the ingredients into the garbage disposal, grind them up, get your keys, and go get a burger at a drive-thru. You suck and I don’t want you eating my pesto.

More Ray. More vino. Good. Smile, because I’m about to irk some traditionalists. It’s time to talk about salt and oil in our pasta water.

OK, if this were a meatier pasta like farfalle, or if it were for something without a sauce, I’d add a good bit of kosher salt to the boiling water, say a large pinch per quart of water. This is the only chance you’ll have to get salt into the pasta. Once the water saturates the noodles, it can’t absorb anything else. However, because we’ve salted the sauce to taste and the sauce is going on the pasta, and this is angel hair we’re talking about, it’s pretty easy to over salt if we try to predict what we need to properly season the pasta. Since saltiness is very subjective and I don’t know two people who always salt the same, it’s best to come up light and let individuals add salt at the table to their own taste.  So, just a pinch at this point just to get a little into the noodles.

Then a splash of olive oil and add the pasta. OK… I know… some of you have heard that you shouldn’t add oil. Some say it coats the pasta making it resist the sauce later. The obvious flaw in that argument is the fact that oil and water don’t mix and the oil floats to the top while the pasta settles at the bottom quite uncoated by the oil. However, if you stir a small splash of oil into the boiling water, it will keep the released starch from the pasta from foaming the water. This is especially useful if you are using a smaller pot than is optimal. And while there is minimal effect in keeping the noodles from sticking to each other, it will help to keep the pasta from sticking to the pot itself. Just remember to give it a stir a few times as it cooks. Cook until it’s perfect. I know it’s a matter of taste, but for me, pasta is perfect when it has just a little bit of tooth to it. It’s pasta, not a long, skinny dumpling. Pasta should not be crunchy, but neither should it be mushy.

When the pasta is perfect, dump it into a strainer in the sink. Because of the oil, you will not have to deal with a lot of noodles stuck to your pot enabling you to put the empty pot back on the stove and throw in the raw shrimp. Pour in enough wine to coat the bottom of the pot. Don’t worry about the pasta. If you cook the shrimp long enough for the pasta to cool, you’re already lost. Yes, we are cooking the shrimp in the pasta pot. What? Are you looking to wash more pots and pans? Not me. Use a wooden spoon to move the shrimp around in the puddle of white wine just until that beautiful pink tinge emerges. Make sure all the shrimp are laced in that “done shrimp” shade of pink. Do not overcook! Dump shrimp into a bowl. Wash the pot quickly and you’re done with it unless you want to serve from it.

Note: almost any recipe calling for shrimp should be approached in this manner. Adding shrimp to a pan full of other stuff almost guarantees overcooked shrimp. Cook everything else. Then add perfectly cooked shrimp at the end.

Pour the pasta into a serving bowl (or back into the pot). Dump the pesto into the pasta. Stir until that yummy veridity coats every luscious strand. Do not add the shrimp. First, people may not get enough if they are hidden. Second, you don’t want the shrimp to continue cooking in the heat of the pasta.

Serve. Add shrimp to the top. Sprinkle on a pinch of the reserved pine nuts.

Enjoy. Take special note of just how tender and delicate the shrimp are when they are cooked properly and how well they take a strong, flavorful pesto. If anyone does not like the dish, they probably didn’t like Ray Charles either. Ask them to leave and do not allow them back into your home as they clearly cannot be trusted.