Oct 252011
 

plums from bibberche.comThere are three big barrels at Father’s ranch full of sweet, ripe plums, languishing in their own juices, getting ready for the final process of distillation in a copper cauldron (“lampek”). In a month or two, there will dozens of bottles full of rakija, flavorful and awfully potent plum brandy. The plum trees have released their heavy burden and their branches rest for a moment, before the cold winds arrive from the Alps on the northwest and shake every leaf off. The grass underneath is slowly turning yellow, getting tired and ready for the winter’s slumber. The hills of Serbia are turning more subdued in color, the blue of plums stripped by busy hands, the green fading to brown.

While the nature is preparing for the inevitable change, the stores are trying to keep up with the demand for canning supplies. But I don’t have to battle the crowds and fight old, blue-haired ladies for the last bag of jar lids. I don’t really have to leave the house, unless a trip to the cellar is necessary: we wash jars and recycle them, year after year, and store them neatly on the shelves in the pantry or in the cellar. We collect glass jars, small and big, square, round, octagonal – once the food they came in disappears, they become beautiful and unique containers for the summer bounty. There is never a lack of jars in our house, and as the canning season progresses, the empty jars are replaced by filled ones, displaying pink cherries, crimson raspberries and red currants, deep red strawberries, purple sour cherries and blackberries, orange apricots and quinces, yellow peaches and nectarines, and plums in an array of colors ranging from magenta to almost black.

I have spent my summer here in Serbia constantly running from Mother’s room to the kitchen, with frequent, awfully short excursions to the Farmers’ market. I spent hours weighing sugar, cleaning fruit, and stirring jams, relieved once I can see the bottom of the fruit basket. I only wish that I can take more of the preserves with me to the U.S.,  but one solitary suitcase will hardly contain all my clothes, let alone allow room for innumerable heavy glass jars. I look lovingly at the neat rows and pat myself on the shoulder, realizing that I can carve another notch at the board of my culinary accomplishments.

plums from bibberche.com

I strut around the house since I mastered the general technique for making jam. I usually approach everything from an intellectual point of view, over-analyzing and fretting too much about the outcome. I gather the information, try to learn the science behind every process, compare, and read for hours before I step into the unknown culinary territory. But having Mother close by took all the anxiety away (not to mention that nobody would have missed a bowl or two of pounds and pounds of fruit delivered daily from Father’s ranch).

I admit to burning a few batches, not used to the intricacies and whims of a gas stove (when I was living in my parents’ house, I did not have to do anything with cooking – the highest title I ever achieved was a prep cook – and I could control the flames when scalding fresh milk or making Turkish coffee). Nobody was here to see me scrubbing the pots so I can pretend it never happened. But in the end, I came out triumphant.

plums from bibberche.com

I will not be here when Father brings home his treasured bottles of golden rakija, but somewhere in Southern California, we will be spreading plum jam and pekmez on my homemade bread slathered with butter and I will think back with love and gratitude on this summer that rewarded me with so much.

PLUM JAM (DŽEM OD ŠLJIVA)

This jam is chunky and flavorful. It is best served with bread and butter.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg ripe prune plums
  • 800gr sugar
  • 2 Tbsp dark, flavorful rum
Directions:
Wash the jars and lids in hot water and place into the oven preheated to about 220F to sterilize.
Wash the plums, cut in half widthwise and remove the pit. Put the fruit into a shallow, wide enamel pot and cover with sugar. Turn the heat on low and simmer, stirring often (constantly towards the end) until it thickens. It should take about one hour for the wooden spoon to leave a wide white trail along the bottom (providing your pot is white:) Add the rum and stir for another minute. You can also place a saucer into the freezer for a minute or two to get cold and drop a bit of jam on it. If it stays put, it is done. If it runs, you have to continue stirring it.
Pour hot jam in hot jars (be careful, and if necessary wear the kitchen mittens to avoid burning yourself). Return filled jars to the oven for another 15 minutes, reducing the heat to about 100F (50C). Do not close them yet. Once they are done sterilizing again, take them out carefully and screw the lids on tightly. Let them cool and put them on your pantry shelf.
plum jam from bibberche.com

 

PLUM PEKMEZ (PEKMEZ OD Å LJIVA)

Pekmez is thick, dark, smooth, and a bit tart. It is a great filling for sweet ravioli or crepes, but it is equally good on bread and butter.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg ripe plums
  • 300gr sugar
Directions:
Wash the jars and the lids and place them on a tray in the oven preheated to 220F to sterilize.
Wash the plums and remove the pit. Grind them in a food processor and place the puree in a big, heavy-bottomed, shallow enamel pot. Cover with sugar and cook on low heat until it thickens. Stir often in the beginning and constantly towards the end. It should be done in about one and a half hours, when the wooden spoon leaves a wide, white trail along the bottom.
Pour hot jam in hot jars (be careful, and if necessary wear the kitchen mittens to avoid burning yourself). Return filled jars to the oven for another 15 minutes, reducing the heat to about 100F (50C). Do not close them yet. Once they are done sterilizing again, take them out carefully and screw the lids on tightly. Let them cool and put them on your pantry shelf.

 

Last year I wrote You Can Go Home if You Have the Dough and featured a recipe for piroshki.

Oct 152011
 

Young Potatoes from bibberche.com

I was fascinated by stories and storytelling from the moment my big eyes blinked for the first time encountering a sun’s ray. Mother was an insatiable source of tales and fables, anecdotes and jokes, poems and songs. I listened to her melodic voice mesmerized by the sound and cadence, not understanding a word in the beginning, comforted by the warmth and rhythm as she narrated or read, holding me firmly in her lap. Pretty soon I started weaving stories of my own, fed by hundreds of books that miraculously appeared in my life just when I needed them.

But reading was not a passive undertaking. Both Mother and Father loved to read, and reading for them involved copying favorite passages in a notebook and revisiting them from time to time. I had day-timers filled with quotes, while my books retained their virgin, pristine look. I read, and I copied, and I thought about the passages I had copied, and the words slowly entranced me until I was forever lost to their magic.

I walked through the city park on my way home from the conservatory where I took piano and solfeggio, oblivious of the world around me, trying to shape a story into a poem, and then adding the melody, counting every syllable in my head, aiming for the perfect rhyme and perfect harmony. In seventh and eighth grade I wrote elaborate poems in decasyllable that told about class escapades mimicking the old Serbian epic poems in an attempt to make myself a bit more visible among my peers.

In high school I wrote wretchedly melodramatic poetry prompted by my unrequited love for a beautiful green-eyed boy I saw in my karate class. I produced some reluctantly written fine prose that caused many raised eyebrows and earned me prizes in essay contests. The poems I tried to hide, embarrassed by the effluvium of raw emotions, but my younger sister would find them, copy them for further use, either as blackmail or as fodder for school essays of her own. The prose, on the other hand, was out in the open with the topic hanging around the house for days while I did everything to avoid whatever writing was to be done.

As the deadline approached, I would get my notebook and fountain pen which allowed my letters to flow on the paper without interruption. I would sit at my pull-down desk next to the window, chew on the end of the pen, stare outside, and try to catch an idea in flight. After several futile attempts at writing, I would get up with a sigh and join Mother in the kitchen, pretending to be hungry, but in reality fishing for inspiration. She never told me what to write, but instead made me think and drag the inspiration from my heart. Armed with all the questions she posed, I would run back and start writing and rewriting until I had a piece that satisfied me.

I still had to read it to Mother to pass the ultimate test of quality. She would stop whatever she was doing at the time, sit in the orange chair at the kitchen table and give me all the attention I needed. And I needed a lot. As I read aloud, she would barely nod, smile, and sometimes look at me. In the end she would give me a few comments and a lot of encouragement, and send me on my way back to my tiny pull-down desk to write the final version.

Because of her, I never stopped reading. Because of her, I decided to study languages and literature, even though I could have followed in Father’s footsteps and survived even the most challenging classes at Med School and come out with a coveted MD following my name. In the end, I am a writer because of her. And when my Aunt Sonja recently texted her and inquired about a prize-winning story she had written in fifth grade, I found out that she was just like me. If Mother were just a bit less Austro-Hungarian, she would have said WTF? But she just looked at me from her bed, while I was trying forever to pass an impossibly hard level in a computer game, and asked: Why is she digging up this stuff?

Annoyed by my inability to place various geometric shapes into the prescribed fields with any sort of accuracy, I welcomed the distraction and perked my ears when she mentioned the story. She tried to push it away, concentrating on the Indian soap opera on TV, but I was not buying it. I had a chance to peek into Mother’s eleven-year-old soul and I was not missing that opportunity.

my mother, 11 years old, from bibberche.com

She summarized the story in a few sentences. When she was finished, I pretended that I had to go to the bathroom and left the room crying. Mother’s story was entitled Ljiljana’s Dream. My younger sister’s name is Ljiljana, AKA Schwester Liliana to her patients in one of Frankfurt’s Intensive Care Units. Twenty years before she had her Ljiljana, she dreamed that she found a story in one of her story books. When she awoke, she excitedly reached for the book, but could not find the story, no matter how frantically she leafed through it. Realizing that it was a dream, she caught the disappearing tendrils of it and put it on paper.

The summary: Ljiljana and her mother lived by themselves. They were very poor. It was winter and they were cold. There was nothing to eat and Ljiljana’s mother got sick. The little girl could not afford to buy food nor medicine, and she cried every night, wishing her mother would get better. One particularly cold and windy night, Ljiljana fell asleep from exhaustion and hunger, and had a dream. In her dream she heard someone knocking on the door.

When she opened the door, the small front yard was filled with beautiful vegetables lining in a queue, waiting to enter. A ruddy potato hefted its bulk through the door first, followed by a grumpy onion with peeling skin, and a perky carrot, orderly and straight. Right behind them a couple of peppers, one green, one red, stepped over the threshold, making room for a tomato, all cheerful and sweet. Peas marched in a military position, ready to jump into a pot on order, while a garlic hesitated, walking slowly, guarding the rear.

Ljiljana smiled in her dream and rushed to fetch the old beaten up soup pot. She filled it with water and the vegetables plopped in one by one. While the soup simmered on the old wooden stove, the whole house smelled heavenly. She ladled the hot soup into a bowl and fed her mother. With every spoonful, her mother’s eyes became clearer and the drops of sweat disappeared from her forehead. As her face broke into a smile, Ljiljana clapped her hands and danced around. The miraculous soup healed her beloved mother and she could not hide her happiness. As soon as she woke up, Ljiljana reached for her mother to tell her all about the dream, the soup, and the cure. But it was too late – her mother had died during the night.

The story broke me and I cried. I cried for the little girl Ljiljana and her mother. I cried for my sister Ljiljana and our ailing mother. I cried for all the things that I did not know about her, cursing this disease that  is stealing her from us before I can learn everything she has to offer (as if that were possible at all).

But when the tears eventually stopped, I had to smile as I imagined my eleven-year-old mother, her honey-colored hair tamed into two long braids, leaning earnestly over a lined notebook with the ink pen in her hand, trying to remember every detail of her dream, transforming it into a story that would eventually win her the first prize in the essay contest.

I prepare every meal she eats. I indulge every little whim of hers and fulfill her quirkiest culinary desires. But since she told me about Ljiljana’s Dream, I look for any excuse I can dig up not to make a vegetable soup, even though Mother loves my vegetable soup. The Farmers’ Market has been tempting me with the most beautiful produce of the whole summer, and even though I am not superstitious, every time I think of vegetables happily simmering in a flavorful broth, my throat constricts and the tears blind me.

I look for solace in gathering as many recipes from her as I can manage to write down. Under her tutelage I learned many techniques this summer that used to intimidate me, and mastered dishes I found challenging. I tried not to introduce any foreign foods into the household this summer, aware that my quest for the ingredients might be exhausting and often futile. Instead, I concentrated on cooking dishes using local, seasonal ingredients, taking advantage of the benefit of living in a developing country.

New potatoes have been seducing me since I arrived in July, and I had to subdue myself dozens of times when my greed took over and I wanted to buy a kilo or two and stuff them in my shopping bag, even though I had a hefty reserve of them back at home. I made them several times a week, searching for variety, but no matter how many different incarnations young potatoes went through in the kitchen, the favorite was still my grandmother Babuljica’s recipe that Mother brought with her when she married Father.

making fried potatoes from bibberche.com

BABULJICA’S NEW POTATOES

The potatoes done this way are soft and sweet in the middle, and crunchy and salty on the outside. This is really not a recipe, but a method. There are only a few ingredients, and the exact amounts are not that important. In the beginning, I cheat and surreptitiously leave the potatoes unpeeled, which is an abomination among the Serbs. You can use any variety of potatoes you like, but I prefer red (Desire) and baby Yukon golds. In the summer I prefer really small potatoes. When they are bigger, I just cut them in half. Nothing beats homemade lard for frying and I always have some at hand. But if it is not available in your part of the world, or if you do not consume lard, sunflower oil works just fine (I have never tried making the potatoes with schmaltz or duck fat, but I can imagine that they would be heavenly).

Ingredients:

  • New potatoes
  • Homemade lard (or sunflower oil)
  • salt
Directions:
Wash and scrub the potatoes (or, if you prefer, you can peel them). Cut the bigger ones in half. Place them in a pot filled with cold, salted water, heat until boiling, and then simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are barely done. Drain the water and leave the potatoes in the pot until ready to pan fry (they can sit on your counter for a few hours like this).
Melt the lard in a heavy skillet so it covers the bottom  (1-2 tablespoons should be enough) and when it is hot, place the potatoes in one layer. Leave them undisturbed for a couple of minutes, until a golden crust appears on the bottom. Turn and leave for another minute or two, until the other side is done. Put the potatoes in a bowl lined with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt.
fried potatoes from bibberche.com

Last year at this time I wrote Be Sure to Wear the Flowers in Your Hair and made a version of Vietnamese Pho.

Oct 022011
 

The summer between seventh and eighth grade was the last summer when just being a child was enough. Sure, I had a huge crush on David Cassidy (which thirteen-year old girl did not in 1977?). I wrote some really bad melodramatic poetry about unrequited love for Zoran, the eighth grader with the most beautiful cornflower blue eyes and dark brown curls (my beloved did not know I existed, but if Petrarch could have pulled it off, so could I). I went to the movies with friends to watch Bruce Lee. I had a crush on him, too (which thirteen-year old girl did not in 1977?), which inspired me to start taking karate classes in the fall. That earth-shattering event brought to my attention an arrogant high-schooler working on his black belt. He immediately captured my willing heart, and made me forget all about David, Bruce, and Zoran. Not that he knew I existed.

Bruce-Lee  

I spent a month of that summer in Novi Pazar, the town of my birth (I was barely two months old when my parents moved to central Serbia, to be with Njanja* and Deda Ljubo**, Father’s mother and stepfather. Njanja’s younger brother Deda-Zhile still lived there with his family, and we often visited. His daughter Mira, by relation my Aunt, was my age, and Boba was four years older.

I was always fascinated by this town which reminded me of Baghdad’s 1001 Nights with its mosques and minarets, cobblestones, small shops selling copper dishes and gold, the smell of freshly roasted coffee, the high brick and mortar walls with gates facing the street, men in red fezes smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking tea for hours, the busy markets crowded with haggling shoppers and people with strange sounding names.

That summer, Mira and Boba’s mother was in the hospital, and it felt completely natural to me that their father and Boba would take care of the household chores and cooking (even though my Father did not know how to boil an egg, and the memories of him feeding us when Mother was absent were akin to the famous french toast scene in Kramer vs. Kramer).

Mira and I spent our time sitting on the blanket in the courtyard and sewing clothes for our Barbies, or playing endless games of badminton in the street. In the late afternoons we would visit cousins and friends, play outside, or walk into one of the town’s pastry shops for a piece of baklava and fresh lemonade.

We fancied ourselves adventurous explorers, and went climbing the hill above the house, picking wild flowers and bunches of mugwort (we loved the pungent smell of this relative of wormwood, which is actually used to make a bitter liqueur called “pelinkovac” used as a digestif or a remedy for tummy ache, depending on who you asked). Every so often we would gather enough damsel plums to fit into our shirts, and bring them to the kitchen to bake the pie, completely improvising, not having a clue of the proper methods. We insisted everybody try the finished masterpiece, and ignored the bulging eyes and stuffed cheeks of our culinary guinea-pigs.  If that had been Food Network, we would have been told to pack our knives, but they bravely encouraged us to continue on in our creative endeavors  - I guess it was a step up from the previous attempts in cooking with dirt, water, leaves and flower petals, as pretty as it might have looked.  We haven’t seen those ingredients on Chopped. Yet.

We would proudly prance home, hauling our newest loot, legs dusty and scratched by weeds, fingers green, hair wind-blown into a rats’ nest, only to be seduced by the smell of Deda-Zhile’s cabbage, simmering on the old wood-stove with vegetables and pork, guiding us like a beacon and awakening our grumbling bellies. We would try to scrub off most of the dirt, racing to the table, eager to dip our spoons into still steaming bowls. The middle of the table held a basket of freshly baked bread cut into thick slices and a saucer of small, thin, green, very hot peppers, called “feferoni”. We did not care what hurt more – the heat or the spice. We dared each other, tears running down our cheeks, feeling on top of the world, high on being thirteen.

Deda-Zhile died of prostate cancer in the 80s. But every time I smell cabbage with pork, it brings me back to that summer of innocence. I recall his patient smile. I see a devoted father, a  tall man with graying hair, drooping mustache, and slouching shoulders bent over the stove, stirring “pekmez”***, envisioning his daughters happy and at moments less sad missing their mother.

*pronounced Nyah nyah – I was an imaginative kid who did not want to have a “grandma” or “baba”, and I named her Njanja

**Deda means Grandpa in Serbian

***pekmez is a type of a plum jam, thick and not too sweet

SLATKI KUPUS (SERBIAN CABBAGE WITH PORK)

Ingredients:

  • 1 head of cabbage, 3-4 lbs
  • 500gr (1 lb) boneless country style ribs, cut into chunks
  • ½ onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, sliced
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped (I do not like the taste of green bell peppers, and opt for pale-yellow, semi hot peppers, deseeded)
  • 1 cup tomato sauce (I prefer homemade)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tbsp paprika

Directions:

Cut the cabbage into big chunks. Line the dutch oven with a layer of cabbage. Place the chunks of meat on top. Sprinkle the vegetables over the meat and cabbage. Add salt, pepper, and paprika. Add another layer of cabbage. Pour in the tomato sauce and enough water to cover the meat, cabbage, and vegetables. Heat on high until it boils. Turn to medium-low and simmer fro 1-2 hours, until the meat is tender. Serve with fresh baked bread and some hot peppers for the kick.