I arrived at Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade in the middle of July, after three years of absence, with my heart beating wildly as I stepped outside of the building, enveloped by the fierce summer heat that somehow reaches its peak in this city. Instead of a month, as I initially planned, I stayed for almost four months, ambushed by Mother’s deteriorating health and stumped by the Kafkaesque state of bureaucracy putting up obstacles at every step. My daughters left as planned and arrived safely to Los Angeles, after two days of delayed flights, faulty engines, and London hotel rooms. I stayed behind, torn between worrying about my girls and taking care of Mother, finding solace in talking to friends and eating the familiar comfort food of my childhood.
Before I left on Tuesday, the farmers market was awash with sunshine, as busy as in the summer months. I took a stroll around the stalls one more time, saying goodbye to my favorite vendors, trying to keep the smells and sounds alive in my mind for months to come. I knew that my heart would break the moment I hugged Mother on my way out the door. I was aware that I would have to avert my eyes when I kissed Father goodbye at the bus station. And I realized that I would miss my morning visits to the market that I took for granted the previous four months.
The vibrant colors of summer produce were not there. Instead, the stalls were overflowing with various shades of green, and it felt as if spring had arrived unexpectedly and ambushed us with another fresh harvest. There were lettuces that I don’t remember seeing in my town even a few years back, as we are very loyal to the Bibb or Boston variety; piles of cabbage heads blocked the farmers from view; broccoli abounded, neatly wrapped in its dark leaves; brussels sprouts shyly peaked from a crate or two; scallions proudly displayed their shiny white bulbs; sorrel, chard, celery greens, beet greens, parsley, and dill, neatly bound in bunches looked almost like decorations; and then there were leeks, slender, gorgeous, elegant in their simplicity, offering the promise of sweet alium crunch.
I did not bring my white and blue checkered canvas bag on wheels and I passed by the produce that called to me biting my lips and making small, sweet oaths vowing that I would return in a few months to my beloveds. I bought only a long piece of pršuta* and a pound of young, fresh kajmak** collected that morning, that Father pre-ordered a couple of days ago. I rushed as I weaved through the stalls, thinking of suitcases still waiting to be packed and the impending moment of my departure that I knew would break me in two. Tears were already standing at attention, threatening to appear as I longingly glanced around, taking the scene in cinemascope, aware that the next day, the place would look just the same, only I would not be there.
The walk back home was hurried. We did not talk a lot, Father and I. I snapped a few photos, kicked a few big, heart-shaped linden leaves into the grass, breathed in the smell of snow brought by the winds from the northwest. The sky was pretty blue with only a few white clouds disrupting it, and the sun bathed everything with a make-believe glow. My town was saying farewell to me in a subdued way, melancholy and romantic, still clean of mud, still sharp and crisp, as if it needed to see me off dressed in its Sunday best. By the time we reached the white, wrought iron gate of my parents’ yard, I was silently sobbing. Why is it so hard to leave every time?
*Pršuta is cured and smoked pork loin or tenderloin, a delicacy of Serbian cuisine. Cut thinly, it is a great accompaniment to rakija (plum brandy) or a glass of hearty red wine.
**Kajmak is made when fresh milk is simmered and the fat from the top collected. It is placed in layers and salted lightly. When it’s young, it’s mild and sweet, but when aged, it acquires a deeper, more pronounced and developed taste.
PHYLLO DOUGH LEEK PIE (PITA SA PRAZILUKOM)
- 500gr (1 lb) phyllo dough
- 3 medium leeks, white and pale green parts only
- 250gr (1/2 lb) fresh farmers cheese (cottage cheese works, too)
- 100gr (3oz) kajmak (nothing can come close, but sour cream or cream cheese will do in a pinch)
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 100ml (1/2 cup) sunflower oil, divided
Preheat the oven to 350F (175C).
Grease the rectangular pan with some sunflower oil.
Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and dice into semi-circles. Place into a colander and wash thoroughly. Drain. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy skillet and add leeks. Cook on medium-low heat until softened, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let the leeks cool off.
In the meantime, beat the eggs and add kajmak and cheese, previously mashed with fork. Stir in the leeks, season with salt, and mix well.
Take one sheet of phyllo dough and spoon some filling evenly and sparingly on top. Place another sheet on top of it, sprinkle with some oil and spoon some filling evenly and sparingly. Continue with four sheets. When done, roll the phyllo dough away from you tightly and place into a pan. Continue with the rest of your phyllo dough. Depending on the number of sheets, you should get five rolls of four to five sheets each. Sprinkle with some more oil and bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown.
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