Feb 282012
 

Pain Au Chocolate from bibberche.com

She is nine and a half years old this June, and her Baba’s birthday is coming up in a few days. She does not have enough money to buy a proper present, something that adults plan and execute with little thinking. As far as she can remember, Baba has made everyone’s birthday special, pouring all her creativity and love into that particular day, excited to bring joy and cause shrieks of laughter with her thoughtful and unique presents.

Besides her mother, Baba was the biggest part of her life, a constant that made her feel loved, secure, and comforted. Her middle name (Angelika) was in honor of her beloved grandmother. Baba taught her how to read in Serbian and put her to sleep singing beautiful melodies in her soft alto. She took her to the park every day, pushed her on her bike until she took off and became free for the first time, and held her little squirming body up in the pool while her splashing legs and arms sent a thousand droplets of water around them.

Since she was born, Baba was an everyday presence in her life, but when she started kindergarten, she had to learn to say good-bye to her beloved grandmother at the airport, hiding her tear-soaked face in Baba’s embrace, not embarrassed at all that everyone at the gate could hear her sobbing. She counted the months until Baba’s next arrival, and at Grandparents’ Day in school she told anyone that would listen that her Baba spoke four languages, painted wonderful watercolors, knitted beautiful sweaters, sewed, cooked the best dishes, sang in a choir, knew her way around the Internet, and had a whole wall in her room lined with book shelves.

Baba sent her beautiful handmade cards filled with lines overflowing with love for her first grandchild. She sent Baba her first awkward renditions of flowers, butterflies, and families in which the two of them were always holding hands and smiling.  Every year she eagerly awaited the last day of school knowing that only a long inter-continental flight separated her from spending her summer break in Serbia.

Nina and Baba from bibberche.com

Nina and Baba

Still fighting the last vestiges of jet lag, she tried to think of something she could give Baba to make her happy. When the idea came to her, she knew it would be the perfect gift. She shared her plan with her mother and aunt, enlisted their help in gathering the necessary items, and gave them the instructions to wake her up really early on the morning of June 15th.

The morning broke and she quietly climbed down the stairs, mindful of the sixth step from the bottom which squeaked, clutching her wallet in her right hand, while holding to the banister with her left. She peaked into the kitchen where her aunt was pouring three small cups of Turkish coffee, and darted outside through the central hall, hoping that Baba was too busy talking and laughing to notice her sudden movements.

She ran to the corner bakery and back, closing the wrought-iron gate slowly behind her, and stealthily walked ahead hugging the walls of the house. As was the plan, her mother and her Aunt served the coffee outside at the table underneath the eave, where the apricot tree cast shade and the view of Baba’s lovingly tended yard was unspoiled. She busied herself in the kitchen fetching everything she needed, trying not to make any noise as the back door was open and Baba could hear fish talking.

 

When she was ready, she carried the silver-plated serving tray gingerly down the stairs as the three women stared at her. She ceremoniously placed the tray in front of Baba, leaned down and hugged her tightly, blasting an excited “Happy Birthday!” in her ear. Words chased words as she stumbled over her prepared little speech: “You always make breakfast for everybody and I wanted to make breakfast for you. Prijatno*!” Baba’s eyes were blinking as she was fighting the onslaught of tears, but it was useless.  She clutched her oldest granddaughter’s narrow hands and sobbed silently, a habit she developed over the years as she cried herself to sleep night after night.

She did not want to make her Baba sad, and now her mother and aunt were crying, too. She started to feel weird, as if she had done something she was not supposed to do, and she shifted her weight from one foot to another, unable to understand the overflow of emotions and drama evolving in front of her. Baba finally released the grip on her hands and looked at the offerings displayed on the silver platter.

There was the ubiquitous handmade card with two female figures holding hands and smiling, oblivious to the world around them. A small crystal glass filled with milk hugged the far right corner. A soft, white damask napkin was folded into a triangle and tucked underneath a zwiebelmuster saucer barely big enough to hold a still-warm, plump, flaky chocolate croissant, dusted generously with powdered sugar, and three luscious, dangerously red June strawberries from the farmers’ market.

Nina is a student at the University of California at Berkeley now, and she will read this and look back and marvel at the beautiful little girl she once was who  stood there and wondered why we were all crying… knowing now that tears are sometimes diamonds, beautiful and powerful and sparkling with the emotions that make us who we are.

*Serbian for Bon Apetit!

Pain Au Chocolate from bibberche.com

PAIN AU CHOCOLAT

Ingredients:

Dough:

  • 2 tsp instant yeast (or 1 inch cube of fresh yeast)
  • 100gr (3 oz) granulated sugar
  • 250 ml (1 cup) warm milk
  • 500 gr (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp salt

Other:

  • 150gr (12 Tbsp, 1 and a half stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 100 gr (3oz) good quality chocolate (I prefer at least 70% cacao, but the rest of the family likes it sweeter), cut into pieces; you can use Nutella or any other chocolate spread

Directions:

Place yeast with sugar and milk in a large bowl and allow it to bloom for 10 minutes. Add most of the flour and salt, and mix to combine. The dough should be soft, but not sticky. Add the rest of the flour in small increments if necessary.

Remove to the counter dusted with flour and knead for 10 minutes until elastic. Lightly oil the dough, return to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave at a warm place to double in size, about 1 and a half to 2 hours (I left mine in the refrigerator overnight).

Divide the butter in three equal parts. Punch the dough down and shape into a rectangle about 1/4 inch thick, the longer side facing you. Spread butter onto two right thirds of the rectangle, fold the left third over the buttered middle third as if you were folding a business letter, and in the end the remaining uncovered third over the other two folds. (I folded mine one more time to form a square). Place on a tray, cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated for 30 minutes.

Pain au Chocolate from bibberche.com

Repeat the process two more time, for the total of three folds. After the final rest in the fridge (which can be overnight), shape the dough into a rectangle and cut strips 2 inches wide and 4-5 inches long. Or you can shape the dough into a circle and cut it in triangles to form croissants (first in halves, then in quarters, eights, etc., just like a big pie).

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Place a chocolate square close to the narrow end and fold into a roll. Flatten the roll just a little bit, and place seam down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (if you have a non-stick pan, you don’t have to do this).

Pain au Chocolate from bibberche.com

Bake the rolls for 10-15 minutes, until light brown. Let them cool in the pan for 5 minutes, and then transfer them to a cooling rack. After they cool off, sprinkle with powder sugar and serve.

Lisa Michelle from Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives is hosting Bread Baking Day #47, an event started by Zorra from 1x Umrühren Bitte. She chose the theme for this month, Bread and Chocolate, and I think  my Pain Au Chocolate would love to be in the company of so many baked beauties.

Another one of my favorite events is Yeastspotting, hosted by Susan of Wild Yeast. I wish only that I can participate more often. For now, I am sending her this beautiful pastry.

Feb 242012
 

Cream of Celery Soup from Bibberche.com

Mother usually made her chicken or beef stock in a pressure cooker, a shiny metal beast that sat atop the stove spewing steam at and hissing like a dragon from some of the scariest Serbian tales. I tried not to pay attention to the ingredients she threw into the pot showing oh-so-typical disdain for such mundane and pedestrian things like cooking.

At fourteen years old, I thought I was so philosophically advanced that I could parse out my little pearls of wisdom, trying to teach my beloved mother that she had it wrong; if Aristotle had to worry about dinners and cleaning the bathroom, he never would have had the time to finish writing his Aesthetics and securing his spot as one of the coolest people ever. I scolded her mercilessly for never unpacking her paints and leaving the easel buried under the piles of neatly folded out-of-season clothes and old knitting magazines in our big storage room. I pummeled her relentlessly with my arrogantly unwavering opinion that she wasted her amazing artistic talent on trivial and unimportant things that would mean nothing for posterity.

Mother would give me her one-sided smile as she cut the onion in half and placed it on the burner to char it and bring out the smoky flavor that would add another layer of taste to the stock. I would recite platitudes and do my best at remembering quotes, while she would clean and cut carrots, parsnips, and parsley roots. By the time she started on celery, I was at the top of my game, feeling victorious, imagining myself a mix of Socrates, Joan of Arc, and a very young Yoda, inundated with infinite wisdom and the courage necessary to fix everything that was wrong with the world.

I could not wait for her to finally plop the plump hen or a nice, thick shank with lots of marrow into the pot and acknowledge my litany, praising me for my eloquence and wisdom beyond my years. What I usually received instead of admiration and pure awe was a knowing and somewhat melancholy smile borne out of the years she lived in this imperfect world which tends to become smaller and smaller the older you get. As I was drying the dishes that she washed, I grumbled under my breath loudly enough for her to hear that there was not a soul on this earth incapable of drying dishes, while so few of the really great ones can rise to the heights of an Aristotle.

New Year 1968 from bibberche.com

My sister and I in dresses Mother made for us (we are holding our brand new Eskimo dolls she made:)

I know now that my words carried a hefty dose of unintentional cruelty. In my naivety, I really thought I was explaining to her some profound secrets that she somehow could not grasp, buried under the repetitious tasks linked together to make her day. Mother’s world was as big as mine when she embarked on her road to adulthood as a young girl, full of dreams and expectations. And even though I could not see it at the time, she managed to weave her magic and creativity into the minute details of her daily life, leaving behind a trail peppered with wonderment and glitter.

There are no paintings signed with her hand hanging in our family home. But there are rooms decorated with class and taste, almost every piece of furniture in them expertly made following her designs; there are luxurious tablecloths she embroidered fit to adorn a living quarters in a royal palace; there are unique dresses she sewed for us out of nothing, using handkerchiefs or the pieces of fabric left from other projects; there are dolls and toys she made from scratch when we were kids that made all our friends envious; there are soft elaborately knitted sweaters my girls jealously keep in their closets planning to pass them on to their children; there are cards she wrote to us for no reason at all and dedications in the books she bought for our birthdays filled with words of love, wisdom, and support; and then there is all the food she prepared for us throughout the years, teaching us that there is more to feeding your family than constant stirring and dicing.

As I listen to my smart girls trying to discover the world of wonders for me, I have to smile and remember another time and another place when I wanted to change the way the Earth turns, vowing never to allow myself to to be manacled to the stove, not realizing that the manacles were made of the softest petals, tiniest feathers, and most loving caresses she kept for us.

So many things in life are not the way they seem. Something that appears simple and unassuming at first glance, might hide the most wonderful surprises under the surface.

I have never been in love with the flavor of celery, packed in the hard and gnarly root displayed at European farmers’ markets, or the crispy, bright green stalks I saw for the first time when I moved to the U.S. I tolerate it as a flavor builder, a humble helper that allows others to shine. But the first time I reluctantly made cream of celery soup, I realized that another door opened for me. For, hidden in the silky sea of light green is a flavor so subtle, but so appealing, only a light trace of harsh celery essence that soothes and comforts more and more with every spoonful.

CREAM OF CELERY SOUP

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 bunch scallions, trimmed and diced
  • 1/3 large yellow onion, diced
  • 7-8 celery stalks, trimmed and cubed
  • 1 large Idaho russet potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 tsp fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp fresh parsley
  • 1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • ½ tsp fresh ground pepper
  • ¼ cup crème fraiche for decorating (optional); you can also use yogurt or sour cream mixed with a bit of milk to make it less thick

Directions:

Heat the oil on medium-low heat and sauté scallions and onions until soft and translucent. Add celery and stir for another 1-2 minutes. Add potatoes and herbs, and pour the liquid in. Season with salt and pepper and turn the heat on high until it boils. Immediately lower the temperature to simmer and cook for 30 minutes, until vegetables are soft. Carefully pour into a blender, cover, and place a kitchen towel on top. Puree the soup and return to the pot. Serve immediately, with a dollop of crème fraiche.

Kristin and Cheryl started their wonderful SoupaPalooza for the first time last year. I spent hours browsing through the comforting recipes, even though our Southern California weather was not exactly bone-chilling. The soup is the essential part of a Serbian main meal and no celebration can be imagined without a soup or a stew featured prominently. I linked the post about my African Chicken, Peanut, and Sweet Potato Stew, not only because it is one of the most satisfying meals I have ever head since I left Mother’s kitchen, but because the story surrounding it is one of my favorites.

February 28 is the second edition of SoupaPalloza and I cannot wait for another batch of delicious meals. I am sending my celery soup into the link-up, and I hope you visit Kristin’s and Cheryl’s sites for an inspiration.

Come join SoupaPalooza at TidyMom and Dine & Dishsponsored by KitchenAidRed Star Yeast and Le Creuset

Here are some other recipes for Cream of Celery soup from some of my favorite bloggers:

In Erika’s Kitchen - Cream of Celery Soup 

Rustic Garden Bistro – Silky Leek and Celery Root Soup

The Wednesday Chef - Leslie Brenner’s Cream of Celery Soup

Running with Tweezers – Mom’s Celery Soup

 

Last year at this time I published Hush Puppies

Feb 212012
 

Blueberry Muffins from bibberche.com

I have never taken February seriously. It was the month right after winter break when my legs still craved the tortuous curves of the moguls on the snow-covered mountain, feeling the weight of the boards and the bindings days after we said goodbye to our family winter haven.

It was short and unassuming, but crammed full of school work devoid of the promise of a holiday (there is no Presidents’ Day or MLK Day in Serbia). It was also the month before my birthday, which made it irrelevant and easily ignored. The only interesting fact that I could attach to this gray and drab part of the year was my Grandmother Babuljica’s birthday: when she died she was technically only 16 years old, as her birthday occurred every four years on February 29. That and the first blooms of the spring, the bright yellow blossoms of forsythia bushes that stood apart like beacons in the sea of gray.

Fat Tuesday holds little significance for me, even though I am tempted every year to go into the kitchen and emerge only after IMardi Gras Carnival Mask from bibberche.com produce a big bowl of krofne, which are very similar to Polish paczki or the beignets served at the Cafe du Monde. While my adventurous spirit always keeps alive a desire for losing myself in the throngs of scantily clad Brazilians inebriated by the seductive rhythm of samba, garishly costumed Southerners emptying innumerable hurricanes in N’awlins, or slender Italians hiding behind articulately decorated masks along the canals of Venice, I refuse to pretend that I am part of the celebrating crowd only by decorating the house in the appropriate colors and serving the delicacies meant to bring the tired carnival-goers necessary sustenance before they embark on forty days of Lent.

For Orthodox Christians, the last day before Lent is the Saturday that falls six weeks before Easter Sunday. Father diligently leaves me the calendar that marks the dates of all the religious holidays, but I still consult the almighty Internet whenever I need the information. This year, the two Easters are separated by only a week, which makes the next Saturday the last day before Lent for my fellow Serbs. There are no make-believe parades in my town, no colorful costumes, loud music, or traditional dishes that make the passage into Lent more bearable. Next Sunday, the believers will abstain from all red meat, dairy products, and eggs for six weeks, as the Christian Orthodox faith prescribes.

This February arrived incredibly fast. I have not caught my breath from moving to another city, the girls starting school just before the mid-terms, having to learn how to get around, where to find the best and most affordable produce, and where to enjoy the best burgers in town. The end of the month is approaching with geometric progression, and if we stayed in Midwest, I would be suffering the intoxicating effects of the incoming spring fever and be quite ready for the snow to finally melt. But in Southern California we are surrounded by eternal spring and bright forsythia flowers are not necessary to break winter depression.

When we were growing up, the six weeks before Easter were no different than any other week of the year as my parents were not religious. We will not embark on six weeks of abstinence either, and even though the geek in me has researched the traditions and observances of the Eastern Christians and come up with several dishes that mark the passage into Lent among Russians and Greeks, I will have to ignore the urges of the food anthropologist wannabe and refrain myself.

Blueberry Muffins from bibberche.comMy oldest daughter, the College Kritter, left to head back to Berkeley this afternoon after spending four incredibly short days with us. As usual, we spent a big part of our time together cooking. It is easy to indulge her every whim as she is eager to tackle the most difficult kitchen tasks. We made much better tasting copycat Egg McMuffins, braised chicken enchiladas with black bean salsa, black-and-blue hamburgers with homemade buns, shrimp pesto,  garlic and olive oil crostini, buttermilk biscuits with ham, eggs, and milk gravy, and chocolate fudge.

Some of the dishes came out beautifully, just like we envisioned, and some flopped. But neither one of us despaired over the failures, knowing that there is always the next time. Before she woke up this morning, I made blueberry muffins, intending to send her off enveloped in a big, fluffy cloud of comforting smells. She emerged from the bathroom wrapped in her soft white robe, her long hair damp and feet bare, reaching for the cup of coffee I had waiting for her at the counter.

This month is short and seemingly unassuming. There is no forsythia in the neighborhood, but my rosemary plant and hibiscus are thriving in front of our apartment door. We skipped Valentine’s Day and celebrated Mardi Gras with humble and easy blueberry muffins. Next year we might make gumbo, krofne, or beignets. Or even better, me might be off to Rio, New Orleans, or Venice, ready to tackle on the most demanding challenges of the carnivals, toasting each other with a caipirinha, a hurricane, or a negroni.

BLUEBERRY MUFFINS

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring the pan and coating the blueberries
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • ½ cup milk
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ cups fresh blueberries
  • 1-2 Tbsp granulated or turbinado sugar (I prefer turbinado sugar, as the crystals are bigger and shinier)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375F. Lightly butter and flour a regular-size muffin pan (or place the muffin inserts to save this step; I would have done it, if I had not run out of the paper inserts).

Sift flour into a bowl (take out 1-2 teaspoons to coat the blueberries). Add salt and baking powder and stir to combine. In a separate bowl cream sugar and butter. Add oil, milk, eggs, and vanilla, and mix until combined. Stir in the flour and slowly add the blueberries using a wooden spoon.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, filling the holes to about ¾. Sprinkle the sugar on top evenly. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and done. (To check for doneness, insert a knife at the thickest part of the muffin and if it comes out dry, muffins are ready.)

Let the muffins cool in the pan for a minute or two, transfer them to a rack and let them cool for another 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Shrimp and Scallop Creole

 

Louisiana Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo

Feb 172012
 

Potato Croquettes from bibberche.com

When you are a child, your family is like a fortress, protected from the outside world by this invisible wall of habits and routines. Every day, I left my house in the morning and spent several hours in school with other children who belonged to seemingly similar, but in essence very different tribes. Just because we were inclined to make fun of some teachers, had crushes on the same celebrities,  and rehashed the same favorite shows that aired the night before, I assumed they woke up to their clothes lined up on the couch, the hot breakfast waiting at the table, and cafe latte steaming in their favorite cup.

I envied my friends who ran to the corner store during recess and returned with a bag of potato chips or pastel-colored rice puffs. They always shared their loot, but I did not realize at the time that for them that was not a luxurious snack, as I thought, but breakfast and lunch squeezed together into a make-believe package aimed at dulling hunger pangs and providing at least some pretense of nutrition. When I ran into the house, breathless and flushed, Mother was always there, enveloped in a cloud of caramelized onions, sweet roasted peppers, or freshly baked yeast bread. And I assumed, with the innocence only a child can project, that all houses smelled like that in the early afternoon on any given week day.

It did not strike me as odd that my best friend’s mom invariably served roasted chicken with potatoes whenever I visited, and I wondered just a little bit about the reluctance of my friend to even try anything green. Field trips were an absolute adventure, and while I was apprehensive about leaving my comfort zone, at restaurants I felt at home, searching for whatever food was unusual, local, or specific to an area. Fast food was not available in Yugoslavia at the time, and many students around me were in pain, desperately looking for the familiar, and in the end falling back to the good old Wiener Schnitzel with french fries, the meal that is ubiquitously found in any restaurant in any European city.

I learned in time that we were the lucky ones, spoiled by Mother’s creativity at home and Father’s insistence on exposing us to different and strange foods while we traveled. I was not surprised any more when I was the only one approaching the cafeteria line without trepidation and accepting many meals with epicurean joy. I realized that it was the fear of the unknown that prevented my friends from experiencing hundreds of various flavors and I tried to educate, rather than ridicule them.

I understood when they eyed offal with suspicion and made faces when I talked about game meat. It was the simple things that puzzled me, though. I was astonished when a roommate in college made me tea using oregano, and puzzled when my potato croquettes were greeted by raised eyebrows and questioning glances. They were not an exotic fare by any standards, but I found out that what was for us a common and pedestrian food, was, for some, elusive and strange.

Besides throwing fabulous dinner parties that featured many delectable dishes, Mother had a magic touch when it came to reusing leftovers and turning them into something completely different and equally satisfying. She intentionally made more mashed potatoes than we could eat, planning on making Å¡ufnudle*, potato dumplings filled with plums, or croquettes. She always enlisted our help since we were in grade school, and we enjoyed rolling the pieces of dough across the table sprinkled with flour or turning over golden brown potato cakes, wary of the hot oil.

Since I met Husband, I taught him hundreds of ways to eat peppers; I made him fall desperately in love with roasted beets; I convinced him that life without sauerkraut would be impossible to imagine; and showed him how to enjoy hundreds of porcine products. He thought I was an Iron Chef when I made crepes and Iles Flotante for the first time, which amused me immensely, as those are desserts that we used to make on the fly, when the guests arrived unexpectedly and you had nothing else in the house but eggs, milk, and flour.

On the other hand, he tried to warm me up to the idea of accepting squirrels, opossums, and muskrats as worthy victuals, and taught me how to make beautiful, nutty chocolate-colored roux for a gumbo. And when I made potato croquettes for the first time, he squealed in joy, finding the first example of comfort food that connected our so different childhoods.

We really had nothing in common when we were growing up, separated not only by the huge expanse of the Atlantic and several formidable mountain ranges, but by the approaches our mothers had to cooking and feeding their families. I was definitely the luckier of the two, and it made me happy that I could dig up something from my warm, Serbian kitchen that he recognized from growing up in the American South.

Just like Mother, I make extra mashed potatoes on purpose, wanting to make the dumplings for dinner or croquettes as a side or a welcome, warm after school snack. As I watch my girls devour them bite by bite without thinking, I chuckle, knowing that the fortress is slowly crumbling and that they are about to discover worlds completely different from their own. I hope they enjoy the process of conquering the new roads as much as I did, one delightful morsel at a time.

*Å¡ufnudle (schupfnudeln), German potato dumplings similar to Italian gnocchi, but shaped like fingers, rather than little pillows; we ate them with lots of caramelized onions or sweetened by brown bread crumbs, sugar, and cinnamon.

Potato Croquettes from bibberche.com

POTATO CROQUETTES (KROKETI OD KROMPIRA)

I serve these as a side dish with any roasts or stews. They are a great accompaniment to a goulash made with wild game. Easy and fast to make, they are perfect for quick lunch or a snack and go really well with an ice cold beer

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups leftover mashed potatoes (you can boil and mash potatoes just for the croquettes; in that case, do not add milk or butter)
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • 1 cup all purpose flour (you might need a bit more or less, depending on the consistency of your potatoes)
  • sunflower oil for pan-frying, enough to cover the bottom of the pan by about ½ inch

Direction:

Place the potatoes in a bowl and add egg and salt. Mix in most of the flour until combined. The batter should be soft and sticky (if it is just a bit runny it’s fine, as you will use the spoon to scoop it out).

Heat the oil in a sauté pan on medium temperature. When it gets hot, scoop a spoonful of batter and place it carefully in the oil. If your batter is thicker, you might need to flatten it a bit with the back of your spoon. Cook for 2 minutes, until golden brown and turn. Cook for another 1-2 minutes, until done. Place the croquettes on a plate lined with paper towels and let cool.

Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Last year: Dorie Greenspan’s Green Beans with Pancetta

Feb 142012
 

Pasta with Sardines from bibberche.com

I like to pose challenges for myself from time to time, and this week I took inventory of our pantry and the fridge, and decided to clear out some of the underused items before adding more and shoving them farther toward the dark corners where the chances of ever being consumed become slim and finally none. Wielding an unwavering confidence in my miraculous abilities to produce delectable and nutritious meals out of even the most miscellaneous of ingredients, I reached back into the pantry abyss. When I unearthed two cans of sardines from the very back of the cabinet, I was thrilled, my brain immediately fired up on a quest for ideas.

When I was a child in land-locked Serbia, we did not have cans of tuna available. The only canned fish were sardines and mackerel packed in oil. Tuna appeared when I was a teenager, touted as superior and costing twice as much, but I stayed loyal, losing myself to the briny taste and saltiness of humble sardines that transported me with each bite to the coast of the Adriatic Sea, allowing me to feel the gentle caress of the Mediterranean sun, even when the temperatures plummeted well below zero.

Right along with Popeye, we were entertained on TV by a big, husky walrus outfitted in a striped muscle shirt and white sailor hat, popping cans of Eva sardines, which made him strong enough to battle the most ferocious of Adriatic sea creatures. Only in retrospect do I eva-eva.jpgquestion the ad-men of that era who decided to make a commercial by pairing the testosterone-ridden mammal with a romantic-sounding, but definitely female slender fish in a metal tub. It sounds odd, but Eva commercials featuring the husky walrus are still going strong.

Not big on religion, but respectful of our grandparents’ beliefs and Serbian traditions, we abstained from red meat, dairy, and eggs on Fridays.  Instead of spreading milky kajmak or rich lard on homemade bread, we had to use ajvar, the ubiquitous Balkan roasted red pepper relish, which was not such a great sacrifice to bear for one measly day a week. We looked forward to Mother opening a few cans of sardines for breakfast and mixing them with freshly diced, crispy onions, leaving most of the oil in Father’s bowl. Most of the kids in school had similar fare for their morning meal and bad breath was not an issue.

Throughout college, eating sardines with onions continued to be a tradition, but this time influenced more by frugality and desire to spend the stipend and allowance on a new book or a concert, rather than satisfying the dietary tenets of the Serbian Christian Orthodox Church. And chewing a few sticks of Juicy Fruit or Spearmint gum dispelled all guilty feelings about fishy, onion breath.

When I moved to the U.S., canned tuna was abundant and awfully cheap. Feeling somewhat decadent in my newfangled financial ability to procure the superior product, I abandoned the humble sardines, selling out to “the other white meat.” I only remained stubborn in my reluctance to buy tuna in water, opting always for the oil as a filler.

Years later I started craving that strong, overwhelming, but comforting and weirdly pleasant taste of sardines that was such a big part of my childhood. A few times a year I would grab a can or two from the shelves and enjoy them by myself, drained of oil, mixed only with crisp diced onions. I still made tuna salads for my girls, carrying in the back of my mind that misleading commercial message that sardines are somehow inferior.

But propelled by my new challenge, I was determined to bring the sardines out of the closet, to let them shine and seduce not only my girls, but my white-bread American husband who is as drawn to tuna-fish packed in water as I am to sardines. As much as I wanted to present them in the simple form that is still my favorite, I realized that they would have to be elevated to dinner course. I had a few ideas, but decided to consult the omniscient Google in gathering the information.

Pasta with Sardines

I was disenchanted after my search. Almost every site tried to recommend the best ways for disguising the flavor of these little fishes, and the overall feeling was grimly apologetic. I was dismayed and saddened that this treat from my childhood was some sort of culinary pariah, but at the same time I was wondering if my own American family would take to this briny fare without too much grumbling and complaining. In the end I came up with a solution and paired my sardines with the Provençal flair. My approach was definitely Mediterranean, adhering to my cucina povera concept. I emptied the remnants of two pasta boxes, cut up a leftover half on an onion, pitted a handful of black and green olives, used slow-roasted tomatoes from last week and the last of the baby greens. In went some capers, juice of half a lemon left to rest on the cutting board, and a couple of spoonfuls of toasted pine nuts.

The flavors of the dish were bold, in-your-face, and unapologetic. The concentrated taste of sardines took center stage, but its dominant nature was complemented by the caramelized sweetness of oven-roasted tomatoes, the tang of lemon juice, a burst of brightness brought on by the capers, and slight bitterness from the greens. The crunch of the pine nuts added a welcome change in texture and the olives sang in harmony with the fishy brine.

I stole a furtive look or two, but the girls were happily engrossed in their meal, and Husband could not hide his enthusiasm for the unappreciated sea creatures. I felt vindicated and vowed to replenish the reserves as soon as I get to a grocery store. I will still make tuna salads for school lunches, and Husband will still eat albacore tuna packed in water on top of dry lettuce in summer months when he decides to drop a few pounds, but sardines are not going to sneak into our dinners any more: they are going to take a proper place of honor, appreciated and respected, as they deserve to be.

Pasta with Sardines from bibberche.com

MEDITERRANEAN PASTA WITH SARDINES

Ingredients:

  • 250gr (8oz) of pasta (I combined shells and penne, as that’s what I had left)
  • 2 cans of sardines packed in oil, broken into chunks, drained (I removed the spine because my girls are squeamish about fish bones, but it’s completely edible)
  • ½ small onion, diced
  • 10-15 slow roasted tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 Tbsp capers
  • a dozen or so black or green olives, pitted and diced
  • 1-2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
  • a handful of bitter baby greens
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil

Directions:

Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package. Drain.

In a bowl combine the rest of the ingredients and carefully mix into the hot pasta, making sure that chunks of fish are not disintegrated.

For years, even before I started writing my blog, I have enjoyed creative and versatile recipes on Presto Pasta Night, an event started by Ruth from Once Upon a Feast. I am bit sad that there are going to be only two more installments; it feels as if a dear friend is moving away. I am sending my Pasta With Sardines for the penultimate edition hosted by Kirsten from the blog From Kirsten’s Kitchen to Yours.

Last year at this time I wrote a post Go East, Young Lady, featuring Soba Noodles and Tempura Vegetables.

Feb 092012
 

Yellow House from bibberche.com

Most of my childhood memories are firmly tied to a yellow house built in the beginning of twentieth century in the Central European style. It had a double set of marble stairs flanked by a smooth stone handrail and a decorative balustrade. The two porches atop the stairs were connected with a big concrete slab supporting an ornate wrought iron fence that reflected in the living room windows on the other side. The fence was dotted with ceramic pots holding geraniums and azaleas, while the cacti and other green plants sat atop the concrete slab.

We spent interminable hours playing in the yard without any adult supervision. We really could not wander off as the black wrought iron gate was always locked (the mechanism was easy enough for adults to manipulate open, but extremely hard for small, weak fingers). There was a swing suspended from the branch of an old mulberry tree, a couple of lush hydrangea bushes, and a row of elegant roses that Deda Ljubo tended to patiently and lovingly.

Yellow House from bibberche.com

The grassy part of the courtyard looked over at the boarding house for the local high school students from out of town and we often saw faces framed by the window looking over at the yard. For some reason, we imagined they were kept there against their will, and often plotted rescue missions, faced by their imploring, and, as it appeared to us, incredibly sad glances. In retrospect, they were probably just homesick kids who missed their families, their siblings, and their yards, and envied our protected little world.

As the oldest and best acquainted with the intricate plots of adventure and action books, I was the fearless leader of our group, always ready to tackle a project, especially if it involved saving someone or something. (This trait would bring Mother numerous hours of anguish as I continued to drag home abandoned kittens, dirty puppies, and birdies still unable to fly that I collected on my meandering way back from school.) I went as far as suggesting a regular feeding schedule for the poor, emaciated souls next door, but our culinary prowess did not prove adequate for such an endeavor.

Yellow House from bibberche.com

Njanja and Deda-Ljubo, Moving Day

But we did try. Cooking, that is. We gathered mulberries from the grass and pulled walnuts through the hole in the sack. (The sack was purposely hung above the cellar stairs to allow the breeze to dry out the walnuts still in their shells, and we poked a hole in the burlap to get to the nuts.) There were some dandelion leaves and clover in the grass, but that was the extent of the fresh ingredients we managed to forage. Dissatisfied with the bounty found in nature, I organized forays into the enemy territory which was clearly marked by the two sets of marbled stairs. There were no guards anywhere in sight, but I knew that the hallways were rigged with booby traps and protected by hostile giants.

There are three sisters or three brothers in almost every Serbian fairy tale, and the youngest was always the most courageous. Fitting the stereotype and also being the token male and therefore a protected species, my brother was the usual emissary, the spy, or the thief sent into the great unknown that was the House. Armed only with his innocent, big, dark brown eyes, he braved the immense sprawl of our family home, hiding plastic containers in primary colors behind his back. Left outside, my sister and I were unable to monitor his progress, and the time he spent inside went on forever.

But eventually he emerged, sending us his snaggletoothed smile and offering the loot: salt, flour, sugar, bread crumbs, finely ground Turkish coffee, a few bay leaves, or a vanilla bean, whatever he could reach or swipe from the counter and cram into the dirty plastic containers. On many occasions he left a veritable Hansel and Gretel trail behind, when the corn meal or sugar trickled down from a hole in the cup, but we knew that he would get off easily if caught, exploiting trembling lips and teary eyes as his best defense.

My Brother

When I look back, our first attempts at cooking were very avant-guarde, always raw and vegan, albeit disgusting and unsanitary. But in our romanticized world, those inedible and dangerous pasty concoctions became golden brown pastries filled with juicy fruits and toasted nuts, filling our lungs with the glorious aroma of exotic vanilla and heady rum, or huge platters of roasted meats with crispy skin, surrounded by sweet carrots and buttery potatoes. We imagined feeding the droves of starving waifs next door and receiving in return not only their eternal gratitude but their souls, all in sync with the fairy tale themes.

The yellow house is no more. The city planners decided that an apartment building would serve the community much better than two houses built at the turn of the century and demolished it, after offering our grandparents another house in exchange. The boarding house is still there, but the kids from the neighborhood play somewhere else, unable to see sad faces framed by the windows. The three of us left the fairy tale world a long time ago, eager to embrace the reality of adulthood, leaving behind the magic we didn’t know we would miss. Being an adult is not an easy job, as the blinking and tearing of big, innocent brown eyes cannot always bring merciful results or absolve you of your wrong-doings.

But the three of us continued to cook and feed our families real food, delicious and nurturing, swapping the fairy dust for earthy ingredients, resigned to receive an occasional grunt instead of eternal gratitude from our not so emaciated subjects. Food is a big part of our lives and our games revolve around kitchen appliances, stoves, and grills, where our imagination can run (almost) as wild as it did back then when we fancied ourselves the savior brigade.

Home-made mayo from bibberche.com

(As it happens from time to time, my words escaped and took off on their own. Instead of shepherding them back into the pen, I let them fly freely, curious to see where they would land. The story has nothing whatsoever to do with making mayonnaise, but it was there, newly hatched, bright and glimmering, begging to be read.)

We never had store-bought mayo when we were children. Making it was such a simple process that it could be done any time, at a moment’s notice, without any preparation. In college I started buying Thomy, a German mayo that came in tubes, and had a wonderful, lemony taste to it. This recipe will give you slightly more than a cup of beautiful, creamy mayonnaise bursting with flavors of Dijon mustard and lemon, taking less than ten minutes of your time and utilizing the ingredients that you probably have available at any given moment.

Home made mayo from bibberche.com

HOME MADE MAYONNAISE

Ingredients:

  • 1 egg yolk*
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard (or any mustard that you like and have available)
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • a pinch of sugar (optional)
  • 250 ml (a smidge more than 1 cup) neutral oil (I use sunflower oil as it has no aftertaste); oil should be in an easy to pour vessel with a spout
*To eliminate the chance of salmonella poisoning, use pasteurized and germ-free Safest Choice Eggs.

Directions:

Place the egg yolk, mustard, salt, lemon juice and sugar (if using) in a big coffee mug or a mason jar. Attach only one whisk to your hand-held mixer and start mixing on medium speed, until it comes together, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to high and trickle in some oil. When it incorporates, add some more, making sure that it’s added slowly, in a very thin stream. Proceed until all of the oil is used and your mayo is thick and almost gelatinous.

Keep your mayonnaise covered in the fridge up to a week (in our house it never lasts that long).

Just in case it brakes (and sooner or later it happens to everyone, as we know that eggs and emulsions are fickle), there are a few simple methods that will turn the curdled mess into a smooth, creamy mayo. If you rush with addition of the oil, your chances of curdling are much higher, so I must advocate patience.

The first option is to add a few drops of really hot water. If that does not pull it together, beat an egg yolk in another bowl and add a bit of your broken mayonnaise. Mix it as if you were tempering it. Add the rest of the mayo and it should revert to its glorious, shiny self.

 

Last year at this time: Make-Ahead Cinnamon Rolls (while dreaming of a red Vespa)

Feb 052012
 

Freekeh, Onion, and Mushroom Dressing from bibberche.com

The first Sunday of the month marks the time to write another Recipe Swap post. Ever since I became a member of the group almost a year ago, I have been looking forward to these challenges. Each old-fashioned recipe that Christianna from Burwell General Store chooses for us from retro cookbooks she finds at flea markets throws me into a whirlwind of thinking, pondering, imagining, and dissecting. We are not supposed to replicate the recipe as written, but rather to change it, make it our own, adapt it so it reflects our experiences, preferences, tastes, and personalities. Once the idea takes hold and solidifies, there are hundreds of what ifs and how abouts that run through my head as I surrender to my perfectionism and start fretting about the end result.

So far, I’ve managed to pull off every single challenge without any snags and I feel confident. Once I hit Publish, I pat myself on the shoulder and embark on the most enjoyable part of the process: exploring my friends’ blogs and discovering all the variations on the given recipe prompt. There are not two that are alike, and month after month I am amazed at the versatility and creativity of our group.

This month, this Wild Rice Dressing recipe came from another junk-store find, Second Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Placeswhich features the best dishes of restaurants found all over the country. This one originated in Pine Tavern in Bend, Oregon. It looked pretty straight-forward, even though I veered off the familiar dressing recipe only a few years ago, nudged by my curiosity and somewhat nomadic culinary tendencies. For years, I made the southern corn bread dressing that Husband brought with him when he migrated north from rural Georgia (I revel in any opportunity that will allow me to mention his place of origin, especially if I can make it juicier and mention that the mountains and river gorge near his great grandmother’s Tallulah Falls home was where they filmed “Deliverance”).

Once I found out that he would not make any attempts at secession, having his traditional family tastes satisfied throughout the years, I spread my wings and experimented with various ingredients and techniques. But this approach misfired this last Thanksgiving when my middle daughter asked me to make the same dressing as I made the previous year. Predictably, she remembered only that it tasted great, without mentioning what it consisted of. I might have stumbled on the future family tradition, but it slipped through my fingers as I did not remember to write it down, even though I have a folder on my desktop devoted solely to grading and commenting on the recipes I tried.

The dressing that accompanied our juicy and plump chicken for Thanksgiving was made with wild rice and we enjoyed it. This time I duly recorded it and alotted it the several stars that it deserved. But I am always searching for new and different,  and this Recipe Swap challenge gave me another opportunity to experiment.

Freekeh from bibberche.com

I came home from last month’s visit to Melissa’s Produce in Vernon, California, with a big burlap bag filled with fruits, vegetables, and grains, some familiar, some wrapped in several veils of culinary mystery. One of the baggies contained freekeh (pronounced free-kuh), an ancient grain that left me completely befuddled. It is actually roasted wheat that is harvested when still young and green, and therefore has a lot more vitamins and minerals than regular wheat. Its fiber content also gives it the status of food that’s really, really good for you, and I was more than happy to include it in my legume and grain drawer.

When I decided to pull out the baggie with freekeh and make it the star of my recipe, the rest just fell into place. I knew that earthy and robust mushrooms would pair well with chewy grains, and caramelized onions would bring just enough sweet notes and soft texture to balance the dish. A whisper of wine, a slight crunch of celery, and a nice amount of spices would round out the finish. The only thing that surprised me a bit is that baking it did not seem to change the consistency a whole lot. Next time I will skip that step and serve it as a hearty side dish.

This was a perfect winter fare, served with moist roasted chicken and a garlicky beet salad. Freekeh was easy to cook and reminded me of barley in its texture.  I am happy to have found another ingredient that will at least occasionally make an appearance at our dining table.

Freekeh Dressing from bibberche.com

FREEKEH, ONION, AND MUSHROOM DRESSING

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup uncooked freekeh
  • 2 ½ cups cold water
  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil, divided
  • 2 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 8 oz cremini or button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tsp poultry seasoning or a mix of sage and thyme (if fresh, double the amount)
  • ½ white wine, dry sherry, or dry vermouth
  • a big handful of fresh parsley, chopped

Directions:

Place freekeh and water into a heavy pot and heat on high temperature. When it boils, turn to low, cover, and simmer for 50-60 minutes, until there is no more liquid and the grains are soft. Remove from the heat.

In the meantime, heat 1 Tbsp oil on medium-low heat and add onions. Cook for 30-40 minutes, until soft and golden brown. Combine with freekeh.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Heat the remaining oil on medium heat and sauté mushrooms and celery. Season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, 6-8 minutes. Add wine and cook until it evaporates. Mix into freekeh and onions along with parsley. Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary.

Pour the dressing into a square or round baking dish and bake for 30 minutes. Let it rest for 5 minutes before serving.

You can find my fellow swappers’ recipes just below. And if for some reason the links don’t show, click on the frog.



Feb 012012
 

Blood Orange Salad from bibberche.com

For a long time, the smell of oranges brought forth memories of mercilessly frigid January nights with bright stars twinkling in clusters and finding their sparkle mirrored in a distorted symmetry of snow crystals underneath. I remember icy winds from the north slapping my cheeks and pinching gloveless fingers while every tiny hair on my face was frozen and covered with a thin layer of ice. January is cruel in Serbia, bringing on its wings unrelenting cold that turns everything to an ice statue. Light and dry snow muffles all the sounds and when you walk, your boots make scrunching noises that break the ominous whining of the trees bending in an effort to release their branches from the deadly embrace of ice.

On those nights the fruit bowl stationed to the right of the kitchen sink contained nothing but citrus. Thin-skinned lemons ended up cut up and squeezed in big cups of hot tea sweetened with honey that awaited us when we returned home from school, our noses running from the cold, our cheeks flushed. Instead of chocolates and candy that visitors usually brought throughout the year, there were bags of oranges from the port town of Jaffa in Israel.

Mother would place a bowl of oranges in front of Deda-Ljubo and he would unfold the Swiss-army knife that he meticulously sharpened every morning and cut through the skin, sending the heady aroma all over the room and making us appear from our hidden corners, ready to bite into juicy fruit. Those oranges were sweet, with very few seeds, and thin white pith. It might have been just a mirage of childhood, but I have been searching in vain for those oranges ever since.

In the late seventies, grapefruits became fashionable, and I learned to love their bitter-sweet taste. And then the mandarins from Montenegro appeared, easy to peel, soft, and bursting with fresh flavor. But it was not until I arrived to California that I felt as if I were thrown smack in the middle of a citrus family reunion. There were huge pomelos with thick skin hiding pinkish flesh, round and sweet Meyer lemons perfect for preserving, Ojai pixie tangerines whose short season made them sought out and coveted by aficionados, tiny kumquats that once brought me a decisive victory in Scrabble!, and more orange varieties than I could number on my fingers.

blood oranges from bibberche.com

A few weeks back a group of food bloggers from the area had a chance to tour Melissa’s Produce warehouse in Vernon, California. We had an amazing vegetarian spread for lunch, featuring all the seasonal produce Melissa’s proudly carries and distributes throughout the country, and not one omnivore in the bunch complained for the lack of animal protein. We donned dorky hair nets and strolled around the warehouse, observing and learning, listening to every word our charming and knowledgeable host Robert Schueller uttered. And then he challenged us to identify ten ingredients he placed on a table, promising a prize for the most right guesses. After I managed to guess only three and with a great effort, I humbly admitted to myself that my knowledge of the world of produce is extremely superficial.

I found out that I have not met even a half of the cousins at the citrus family reunion: there was sweet cocktail grapefruit completely void of bitterness; juicy Cara Cara orange; Satsuma mandarin; hydra-shaped Buddha’s hand; wrinkly-skinned desert gold mandarin; easy to peel honey tangerine; kaffir limes with their brain-looking skin; Kishu mandarins fresh off the boat from Korea; and finger lime hiding a myriad of opalescent beads with a stunning burst of flavor in its nondescript green pod (at 50 cents a piece, these “legumes” can march along truffles and caviar as the world’s most expensive food per ounce).

It is an understatement when I declare that I was thoroughly overwhelmed. My head was spinning from all the shades of yellow, orange, and green, while the aroma was filling the spacious and modern kitchen that we all wished would miraculously transport to our own homes. I felt humbled by the nature’s bounty and grateful for a chance to experience the abundance that is offered to a human being in a developed country. And when I left, my burlap bag filled with different products found at Melissa’s, I vowed to look at the world of produce with different eyes and from a different perspective.

February is the month that brings us blood oranges. A few days ago I found some at our local Persian store and I plopped several of them in my basket. To me, they are the sexiest citrus fruit, promising lusciousness with its red-speckled skin. Once you slice through, the flesh appears in different hues of magenta, red, and maroon, glistening with juice. These oranges offer not only beautifully shaded cross-sections, but also the juices both abundant and sweet.

I don’t have a habit of eating salads as meals, but as I was plating my greens and layering them with beets, segments of blood oranges, toasted pine nuts, crumbled feta cheese, slivers of thinly sliced onions, and slices of cucumbers, all sprinkled with a zesty tarragon vinaigrette, I could not wait to sample this colorful dish and savor the flavors in every forkful. It was as satisfying as I thought it would be.

I scraped the last of the arugula off the plate as I was finishing a Skype conversation with my sister in Frankfurt, Germany, who was getting ready to go to bed, already grumpy at the thought of riding her bike to work at seriously sub zero temperatures. January is at its fiercest in some parts of Europe and the concrete is crackling under the attack of ice. The sun is out in all its splendor, but its rays do not reach the Earth and its glow is completely void of warmth. But I know that somewhere in my sister’s kitchen there is a bowl of citrus, each round piece of fruit ready to ward off the frigid fingers of January and bring sunshine into dreary and grey days.

Blood Orange Salad from bibberche.com

SALAD WITH BLOOD ORANGES AND ROASTED BEETS

This salad is very versatile and the ingredients can be varied. You can use goat cheese instead of feta, red onions instead of scallions, pecans or walnuts, even hazelnuts instead of pine nuts, and golden beets would add a nice contrast of color.

Ingredients:

  • a few big handfuls of mixed salad greens, torn into pieces if too large
  • 1 blood orange, peeled, separated into segments, white skin removed
  • 1 medium beet, roasted and cut into pieces*
  • 1 chunk of feta cheese (2×2 inches), crumbled
  • 2 Tbsp pine nuts, toasted**
  • 3-4 scallions, diced
  • 1 small cucumber, sliced thinly

Dressing:

  • 2 Tbsp Tarragon vinegar (you can use any flavorful vinegar you like)
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp dried Italian seasoning or Herbes de Provence
  • ¼ cup good quality olive oil
*Wash the beets, but do not peel them. Wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and place on a cookie sheet. Roast for 40-45 minutes until tender. After they cool, peel them, wearing gloves to protect your fingers. You can keep roasted beets in the refrigerator,  sliced and layered in a mason jar, lightly salted and sprinkled with oil.

**place the pine nuts into a non-stick pan and toast for 2-3 minutes on medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally until golden brown

Directions:

Place the lettuces on a plate and top with orange segments, beet chunks, cucumber slices, crumbled cheese, scallions, and toasted pine nuts.

Pour all the dressing ingredients into a glass jar, put the lid on it tightly and shake for 20-30 seconds until combined. Pour over the salad and serve.

Last year at this time I wrote about my dad and a recipe for Ligurian Fish Stew.