Oct 082013
 

Carpaccio from bibberche.com

First time I tasted carpaccio was at an upscale Italian restaurant in one of the western suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, our home town for more than a decade. It was presented on a big, narrow, cream-colored oval plate, and it looked stunning; thin, red pieces of beef tenderloin, perky dark green arugula, curlicues of shaved parmigiano, yellow-green comas of extra virgin olive oil, and dark-brown droplets of balsamico painted a picture that reminded me of Caravaggio and his beautiful contrasts.

I was seduced by its clean, simple taste from the first slender bite. Of course, those were the days of promises, when the tears were easily hidden in a glass of good Sicilian Primitivo and the future always overrode the present. But the flavor of carpaccio was not emphasized by euphoria and hope; it was truly good and memorable.

Contrary to what some members of my family may think, I am a geek, and I started researching carpaccio, wondering if I could make it at home, satisfying my inner hedonist as well as my inner frugal self. What I found out did not surprise me: the most important thing is ensuring the superb quality of each ingredient.

From that day on, I stopped ordering carpaccio in restaurants. I mastered the technique of preparing it myself, and it became my favorite starter for a dinner party, providing my guests were not of a squeamish and non-adventurous sort that eye everything not burned and charred as inedible.

Olives from bibberche.com

I buy my beef tenderloin at a local Persian store where the young Mexican butcher knows me well. I talk to him in my rudimentary Spanish, trying to practice as much as I can, even though he speaks perfect English. I tip him a dollar or two every time I buy something from his counter and he always brings me the best and the freshest cuts from the back of the store.

I splurged a long while ago on a bottle of thick, fragrant balsamic vinegar and I use it extremely sparingly for special occasions, treating it with more reverence than a bottle of VSOP Courvoisier. I purchase only the authentic, aged Parmigiano Reggiano which resides wrapped in luxurious layers of thick paper towels neatly enclosed in a ziploc bag.

When it comes to olive oil, I usually fall back to the old and familiar and anything that was produced in the Mediterranean will be more than sufficient to meet the standards (my standards have to do more with memories of sweet, hot nights spent under the olive tree branches in Croatia, Montenegro, and Italy, than with the intricate process of extracting the best olive oil).

This time, though, I abandoned my tried and true and used Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the first one in its category to receive the USDA Quality Monitored seal, which verifies the quality and purity of olive oil through rigorous government testing and reviews of production processes. It’s low in acid due to first pressing of great quality olives, fragrant and beautifully colored.

A big platter of cold beef sprinkled with briny cheese and bitter arugula, and dotted with sweet vinegar and robust olive oil made for a perfect repast on a day when the Santa Ana winds brought the heat back to southern California. I don’t have an ancient olive tree in my yard, but the smell of the ocean at twilight when the sun is dipping bellow the horizon is enough to send me back to those sultry Adriatic nights that will forever keep on bringing a smile to my face.

CARPACCIO

Ingredients:

  • Beef tenderloin
  • Aged parmigiano reggiano
  • 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp good quality balsamic vinegar
  • arugula and/or other dark greens

Directions:

1. Wrap the meat in plastic and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.

2. Unwrap and slice thinly against the grain with a sharp knife.

3. Place the pieces between two layer of plastic wrap and beat with a meat mallet until paper thin.

4. Layer the pieces of thin meat on a platter.

5. Scatter the greens on top.

6. Dot with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

7. Shave the cheese on top evenly.

8. Serve with a glass of hearty, Italian red wine (not necessarily Sicilian Primitivo)

Carpaccio from bibberche.com

Visit and like Pompeian Facebook page here.

Click here to get $1.00 off coupon for Pompeian Olive Oil.

Take a survey for a chance to get a $200.00 gift card.

Thank you Smiley360 for a complimentary bottle of Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Nov 272012
 

Beef Stew with Chestnuts, Pearl Onions, and Potatoes from bibberche.com

I know I am not the only one out there experiencing fierce post-Thanksgiving blues. We dutifully ate various incarnations of the smallest turkey I could find for four days, and there is still a hefty package sequestered in the freezer and a huge pot of turkey stock cooling off on the stove. This morning at the store I closed my eyes tightly and quickened my pace as I passed the poultry section on my way to dairy products. Not even the sight of beautiful duck breast I bought at Lazy Acres Market a while ago perching on my freezer shelf seductively could make me excited.

It was time to get the animal protein that did not have feathers, and when I saw rosy fresh, halal beef at our local Persian store, I knew what I wanted to make: a beef stew with pearl onions, chestnuts, and baby Dutch potatoes. I don’t need sub-zero temperatures and ice storms to put me in the mood to braise and simmer; there was just enough chill in the air to wear long sleeves and in my book that’s as perfect as it can get for an ordinary fall day in southern California.

I opened the apartment door trying not to pay any attention to the excited shrieks of a few small children enjoying our outside pool, immersed in my autumnal reverie. I knew that was a risk as seductive aroma of sweating onions and peppers would inevitably entice every neighbor passing by to peek in. But I needed to feel that breeze, even though it did not bring on its wings the icy touch of a northern wind nor the smell of wet leaves and wood-burning fireplaces.

I don’t follow a recipe any more when I prepare these one-pot meals – call them stew, braise, carbonnade, goulash, paprikash, fricasse, or anything in between and beyond. I know what vegetables to add and how long to leave them on the stove to yield to the heat and become soft and translucent. I can sense the right moment to add just enough wine or stock when I smell the sweetness of caramelizing tomato paste. And if I add a bit too much liquid, all I have to do is leave the lid off and let it steam off and escape out through the doorway, tantalizing my neighbors even more.

Melissa's Chestnuts from bibberche.com

I am not the next Food Network Star by any means. I remember the days in my late twenties when I was convinced I did not inherited one single culinary gene from Mother and my two grandmothers. Every time I attempted to make a  one-pot meal I despaired upon seeing dark bits and pieces sticking to the bottom of my pan thinking that I burned it and ruined it forever. I had no clue that those unseemly little plies were the essence that would permeate the dish, thicken the sauce, and carry through the depth of its flavor. When Mother was behind the stove stirring, it seemed like magic, easy, effortless and smooth. I almost suspected that she omitted a step or two in the recipe she wrote in the little black book I took with me to my junior year in college.

But I became confident, not because I channeled my inner Volfgang Puck over night, but because these dishes are very forgiving and versatile. They let you experiment and play; they encourage you to be creative and build the layers of flavor with layering of the ingredients. They are going to taste slightly different every time as you vary your choices of meat, vegetables, liquids, and seasonings. The more you play, the better you’ll get. All you need to know are a few basic steps; the rest is your call.

Meat: The obvious choice is beef, something lean and not suitable for grilling, but you can opt for chicken, pork, lamb shanks, beef shanks, even ox tail. The time of the cooking the dish will vary as they all cook differently, but you are there to monitor and taste.

Vegetables: Onion is necessary; the rest is up to you and the yield of your pantry and fridge: carrots, celery, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, even apples, pears, or prunes (or in my case, earthy chestnuts and sweet pearl onions).

Liquids: I prefer to use wine (red for beef and lamb, white for chicken and pork) and stock, but you can use all stock, beer and stock, tomato juice and stock, or even a little cider along with the stock.

Herbs: Thyme and rosemary are my favorites, but bay leaf certainly holds its own, as well as tarragon (preferably with chicken and if there are mushrooms involved)

Carbs: Potatoes are easy, as they cook right in the stew. But you can also add barley, or homemade dumplings. You can serve it on top of buttery egg noodles, mashed potatoes, or creamy, cheesy polenta.

So go ahead and tinker, switch and swipe, be spontaneous and impulsive and enjoy the variety of the results. You will always end up with a cozy, comforting dish that will make your heart sing and melt even the imaginary snow.

BEEF STEW WITH PEARL ONIONS, CHESTNUTS, AND DUTCH BABY POTATOES

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 lb lean beef (chuck, top round, or bottom round), cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 bell pepper (I prefer red, orange, or yellow, as green bell peppers tend to be slightly bitter), diced
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 1 / 2 cups beef stock (start with 1 cup and add as needed)
  • 1 sprig of fresh rosemary, minced
  • 1 sprig of fresh thyme, minced
  • 6 oz pearl onions, peeled (I used about half a bag of Melissa’s Red Pearl Onions)
  • 6 oz peeled and cooked chestnuts (I used a 6.5 oz package of Melissa’s Vacuum-Packed Chestnuts)
  • 1 lb baby Dutch potatoes (I used Melissa’s Peewee Dutch Yellow Potatoes)
  • coarse salt and pepper to taste

 Directions:

Melt butter and oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pour the flour into a plastic zip bag. Season the meat with salt and pepper and add to the bag with flour. Close the bag and shake vigorously to evenly distribute the flour.

When the butter and oil are hot, add meat and brown on all sides for 8-10 minutes. If necessary, divide the meat into two batches to avoid the overcrowding, which would prevent the meat from getting crispy on the outside. Take the beef out, lower the temperature to medium, and add onions and peppers.

Sautee for 6-8 minutes until soft and stir in the tomato paste for 1 minute. Add the wine and deglaze the bottom, making sure that you scrape all the delicious bits and pieces that stick to it.

Stir until wine evaporates, add herbs and water, raise the temperature to medium high and cook until it boils. Lower the temperature to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 1 hour. Add pearl onions, chestnuts, and potatoes, cover and continue cooking until the meat is fork-tender and potatoes soft and buttery, for another 30-45 minutes.Taste and adjust the seasonings. Let it rest for a few minutes and serve with a green salad, crusty country bread, and a glass of red.

Thanks, Melissa’s Produce for making this stew memorable!

Here are some more recipes from some of my favorite bloggers:

Beef Stew – Reluctant Gourmet

Bo Kho Vietnamese Beef Stew – The Ravenous Couple

Ox Tail Stew – Bibberche

Nihari/Indian Beef Stew – Rasa Malaysia

Basic Beef Stew Recipe – Food Blogga

Marha P̦rk̦lt РHungarian Beef Paprika Stew РThe Shiksa

Guiness Beef Stew – Geez Louise

Nov 022012
 

Meat-Stuffed Collard Greens / Zelene sarmice from bibberche.com

As the spring accelerated into summer, and the linden trees sent their sweet scent on the wayward wisps of a gentle breeze, we would get antsy. The days grew longer, the nights gradually lost the chill, and the smell of the warm asphalt under the noon sun sent us the message that school was almost over and the lazy days of summer were ahead.

The green market would start out shyly with bright green and crisp butter lettuces, ripe green onions, tender spinach leaves, young sweet peas, and fuschia hued radishes. The first strawberries would join the party, followed by early bing cherries, yellow, green, and purple-spotted snap beans, and pinkish tomatoes that everybody tried to avoid. The first time wild sorrel appeared at the stalls, gingerly tied in bundles, we knew that our wait was over: green sarmas were on the horizon!

Collard Greens from bibberche.com

The chopped onions were sauteed until translucent. Ground beef was stirred and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Rice was warmed up until nutty and flavorful, and then everything got a rest, to cool off and meld together. In the meantime the sorrel leaves were cleaned, and the stems cut off. They lay on the plate or a cutting board eagerly awaiting the addition of the filling, only to be rolled into tight round packages and placed in a deep pot, layer upon layer. The water came in, covering the little bundles half-way, some seemingly random, but not; a small amount of salt was added,  and the pot went on the stove for 45-60 minutes. A bit of oil was heated and some paprika added to make a roux, which went into the pot, making a sound that the word “sizzle” only begins to cover. The rolls were dished into a bowl, covered with a big dollop of yogurt and consumed with vigor, juices sopped up by fresh bread. Very few meals scream summer to me like these green rolls.

Meat-Stuffed Collard Greens / Zelene Sarmice from bibberche.com

And now my daughters vie for them, as if they grew up in Serbia. But I cannot find sorrel here. There is young spinach, and beautiful colorful chard, and curly Tuscan kale, and dark, flat collard greens, and beet greens, and mustard greens, and turnip greens. I have tried them all without succeeding in the replication of the taste of tender sorrel leaves.

This time, I could not resist a vendor at Torrance Farmers’ Market, who talked me into buying a bag full of various gorgeous looking greens giving me a discount here, a great deal there, until I surrendered my greens for his.

I made little stuffed rolls with collards, thinning the stem and blanching them for several minutes, just until they turned vivid green. Of course, everybody was lamenting the lack of tender sorrel, even though I enjoyed the toothsomeness of the collards. We managed to finish off every single little green roll vowing that the next time, it would taste even better.

Meat-Stuffed Collard Greens from bibberche.com

MEAT-STUFFED SORREL LEAVES (ZELENE SARMICE)

You can use grape leaves or collard greens instead of sorrel. If you are using sorrel, there is no need for blanching, as the leaves are very tender. But if you are using the more robust collards, you might want to thin the main vein on the back of the leaf to make them more flexible.

  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 500gr (1 lb) ground meat (beef or lamb)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup short-grained rice
  • 20 grape (collard) leaves, stemmed, and covered by boiling water for 15 minutes; if you are using sorrel, there is no need for blanching, as the leaves are very tender
  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 sup of plain Greek-style yogurt

Directions:

Heat the skillet on medium heat.

Add the oil and onions.

Cook for 5-8  minutes until translucent.

Add the meat and stir until brown. Stir in the rice and cook for a couple of minutes, until nutty.

Season with salt and pepper.

Let the mixture cool a bit.

Lay a sorrel ( gape, collard) leaf on the cutting board and place 1-2 teaspoons of filling (depending on the size of the leaf) in the middle of the lower third.

Fold the sides over the filling and start rolling from the bottom up, until a tight roll is formed.

Place in the pot and continue rolling.

Heat the oil on moderate heat and add the paprika.

Stir for 30 seconds and pour into the pot.

Stir very carefully and let it rest for 5-10 minutes. Serve with a big dollop of plain Greek-style yogurt.

Sep 102012
 

Chiles Rellenos with Picadillo from bibberche.com

It’s been a few months that I did not participate in my favorite online culinary exchange Recipe Swaps. Oh, I was ambitious when I set sails for Serbia earlier in the summer, intending on reporting about various farmers’ markets I visited, foods I tasted and I enjoyed, dinners al fresco and at restaurants, and family meals I prepared in the warmth of our family’s kitchen. But life intervened and my good wishes were dispersed in an instant. My blog suffered and I missed the interchange with my virtual friends scattered all over the globe.

Things happened and hours in the day were too few. My muse was like a flitting fairy, here in one second, gone in the next, and the rhythm of my days over there was so syncopated that I could not plan anything even one hour ahead. I am not complaining, even though some of those hours were saturated with grief of the deepest kind; I was fortunate to spend a few weeks with people I loved who loved me in return. We cried and we laughed intermittently; we reminisced and remembered, filling each other’s stories with our own  almost forgotten details; we spent long minutes in silent embraces, our shoulders wet from tears; we sat at a long, disjointed table in the yard underneath the eave, drinking Father’s golden-hued, homemade slivovitz and listening to the ballads that marked our youth; we allowed ourselves to get lost in bygone years, reaching to the past to get that special feeling back, the feeling of unwavering hope, unbridled energy, and the unstoppable zest for life yet to come.

Hatch Chiles from bibberche.comThe weeks I spent overseas were therapeutic, sobering, and mind-awakening. I drifted between sorrow and exultation; after my mom died, I sniffed her  pillow knowing that even the faintest whiff of her smell would make me cry for hours; minutes later I would be laughing with my sister as we remembered the funniest moments of our childhood, Mother making faces, cracking jokes, and instigating some seriously funny mischief.

I returned to the U.S. filled with energy, ready to tackle all the obstacles of  life, prepared to face all the demons I was hiding from for so many years. My smile is bright, my skin is shining, and my mind is set on finding the right path for my future. My friends love my new aura of self-confidence, and I bask in the glow of their appreciation.

As if she could guess seemingly antagonistic thoughts occupying my head, our group leader and founder Christianna, from Burwell General Store, challenged us to recreate Pork Fruit Cake from Nebraska Pioneer Cookbook for this month’s Recipe Swap. Ground pork paired with molasses, cloves, and raisins, mixed with flour and baked into a cake? An impossible task at first glance.

recipeswap, pork fruit cake from bibberche.com

I channeled all the contradictions of my present life and conjured up a vision of a dish containing many of the given ingredients,  celebrating their bold, yet complementing tastes. Picadillo sounded just right, with its sweet plump raisins and exotic spices not often paired with pork (at least not where I come from). Piquant Hatch chiles are at the peak of their season and I used a batch I had roasted a couple of days ago as a cradle for this fragrant sauce. When their soft flesh closed around the filling, and the icy touch of the freezer made them more compliant, I rolled them in the flour and the beaten eggs, and fried them gently until they were perfectly browned and crispy.

All the flavors from rice, tomato sauce, and stuffed peppers melded together even as they jumped individually, asserting themselves one by one: the sweet and tart of cranberries mellowing out the spicy notes of Hatch chiles, the cumin in rice finding the cumin in the tomato sauce, the nutty crunch of roasted almonds welcome alongside crumbled, slightly tart pork.

I am slowly settling back into my American routine, each new day another challenge I gladly accept with my new-found energy, even though I am still partially overseas, roaming the house that holds so many memories, smiling through tears, confident that the best of life is ahead of me.

Roasted Hatch Chiles from bibberche.com

CHILES RELLENOS WITH PICADILLO SAUCE

Loosely adapted from Mexico, One Plate at a Time by Rick Bailess

Ingredients:

Tomato Sauce:

  • 1 Tbsp lard or bacon fat
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 can (28oz) whole tomatoes, pureed in a food processor or a blender
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 cup chicken broth

Picadillo:

  • ¼ cup slivered almonds
  • 1/2lb ground pork (or beef)
  • 2 Tbsp milk*
  • 1 cup reserved tomato sauce
  • ¼ cup dried cranberries (usually it’s the raisins required by the recipe, but my girls don’t like them)
  • ½ Tbsp vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but you can add one of your choice)

Peppers:

  • 12 Hatch chiles (or 6 poblanos), roasted and peeled ( destemmed mine, but it’s easier if you leave the stem on and clean only the seeds)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup flour+1Tbsp
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • oil for frying
*I always add a few tablespoons of milk when  work with ground meat; it softens it so it breaks easier, thus avoiding big lumps; I saw this tip a long time ago on a food TV show featuring an Italian chef.

Directions:

Heat the lard or bacon fat on medium-low temperature. Add the onions and garlic, and sautee until translucent and soft, about 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, cumin, and cloves, and simmer for another 25-30 minutes, until it thickens.

Reserve 1 cup of the sauce for picadillo.

Add the chicken broth to the rest of the sauce and simmer for another 30 minutes.

Heat a non-stick skillet on medium heat and add almonds. Stir for 1-2 minutes until they are golden brown and crispy. Remove the almonds and add the pork to the skillet along with milk. Break the meat clusters with a wooden spoon and sautee until equally browned and crispy on the edges.

Mix in the tomato sauce, dried cranberries, and vinegar and stir until combined, about 5 minutes. Keep warm.

Make a slit in each pepper and remove all the seeds, trying to keep the stem intact (I failed at this, but it still worked). Place about 1 Tbsp of picadillo filling in the middle and wrap the sides of the pepper gently over it. Place on the cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. When all the peppers are stuffed, put the pan in the freezer for about 1 hour, for easier frying.

Separate the eggs. Whip the whites until firm, but not rigid. Add salt and yolks. In the end mix in the 1 Tbsp of flour.

Heat the non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add enough oil for frying, about 1 inch in depth.

Roll the peppers in the flour and then in the egg mixture. Place them in the skillet, four at the time. After 2-3 minutes, when golden brown, flip them with a spatula and fry for another 1-2 minutes until the other side is done (the egg burns easily, so be careful). Place onto a plate lined with paper towels. Continue until all the peppers are fried.

Spoon some of the sauce on a plate and place a couple of peppers on top. I served mine with Mexican rice and even though Hatch chiles managed to pack some serious heat, the girls and I enjoyed the dish.

Picadillo from bibberche.com

 



Jul 032012
 

airplane from bibberche.com

Thursday afternoon, the girls and I will board a big white bird and fly across the ocean to London and then to Belgrade. Last few days I have been overwhelmed with a feeling of unbearable panic accompanied as usual with an accelerated heart beat, a crazy adrenaline rush (not in a good way), and a sensation that a baby elephant has made a nest on my chest. The items on my list are almost completely crossed over, our e-tickets are printed, the passports are neatly laid out right next to the tickets, and empty suitcases lined up on the bedroom floor.

I still have to buy a few necessities for the trip, like goat cheese, multi-grain crackers, and pretzels, as the girls requested them as snacks. Packing should not take a lot of time, as  I have piles of stuff destined to travel neatly arranged all over the apartment. I am helping my sweet next-door neighbor with making a creative journal for her special friend’s 70th birthday. In exchange, she will water my succulents and keep my herbs alive until we return. The roots and grays are covered, the nails are done, the purses purged of extraneous material that inevitably manages to collect in time.

I am as excited as anxious, unable to relax, even though these trans-Atlantic trips have been my routine for over twenty five years. But, I tend to fret whenever anyone travels, even for a weekend, even just across the state. Once the baggage is checked in and boarding passes are safely tucked in my purse, I’ll slump in a hard plastic chair at a Starbucks and bury my face in a latte, a smile replacing the angst. Until we arrive at Customs, of course.

Wednesday morning, the suitcases will be packed and keeping ranks in the hallway. I hope to emulate Dorothy Parker and walk around my friend’s street party, cool, armed with a witty repartee and a glass of good wine. (The only thing that I can guarantee right now, though, is a glass of good wine.) We’ll stroll down to the beach at sunset to watch the fireworks and I will take every burst of color personally, as a farewell greeting and a colorful goodbye. I will miss the smell of the ocean and the bike rides on the strand. I will miss my friend madly. But summer is always the fastest of the seasons, and the day of our return will creep up sooner than I expected, as always, and plunge me into another panic-ruled state.

I will not be cooking any Fourth of July delicacies, but here are some great dishes that would make any party unforgettable. Happy Fourth!

Lamb Burgers 

Lamb Burgers from bibberche.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled Beef Tenderloin

Chimney smoking from bibberche.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Pasta Salad

Summer Pasta Salad from bibberche.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled Summer Vegetables

Grilled Vegetables from bibberche.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled Sweet Corn with Chipotle-Lime Butter

Grilled Corn with Chipotle-Lime Butter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roasted Peppers, Roasted Beets, and Grilled Eggplant

roasted peppers from bibberche.com

Jun 222011
 

It seems logical that the honor of writing the first guest post on my blog fell to Husband, a talented writer and a grammar nazi, who reads my every post and mercilessly removes comas and errant semi-colons that I adore. And I appreciate his ardor.

filet from bibberche.com

Man. Grill. Meat. These three things are extensions of each other and, properly combined, are completely capable of rendering a delicacy that justifies existence itself. But I didn’t always think so.

I didn’t much care for meat when I was a kid. My dad grilled fairly often, but it would generally go something like this: My mother would buy the cheapest cut of meat on sale at the grocery store. Or my father would kill something. A squirrel, rabbit, possum, anything that wandered into his traps or stumbled into his sights.

My father would prepare for an afternoon of grilling by having a beer. And another. He’d stack the coals and dowse them with lighter fluid. The fumes would kill every appetite within a country mile of the place. While the fire raged, the meat would be hooked up with a dry rub or marinade of some kind. Of course, you really need to leave red meat for 24 to 48 hours for the marinade to penetrate, but that takes planning. A twenty minute soak and another beer does not require a scheme.

After the coals finally burned down and ashed over, around the fourth beer, the meat would go on the grill. And there it would stay. And stay. No, not yet. Another beer.

My mother liked her meat well done. That is not to say that she liked it done well, but that she preferred it to resemble a worn old wingtip to the greatest extent possible. So, well after sunset, around beer number seven or eight, the cheapest cut of steak legally available to be consumed by humans would hit the plates, almost indistinguishable from the charcoal briquettes that had begun the ceremony and reeking of petroleum.

My mother would tell my father that this was the best steak ever. Steak? Mystery solved. And I would chew and gnaw and eventually end up with a plate filled with masticated leather scraps.

When I grew up, I didn’t much care for meat and was practically a vegetarian. I didn’t mind killing animals, I just didn’t see the point if they weren’t going to be delicious. It was years before I discovered that there were wonderful cuts of meat and that they could be grilled rare, letting the wonderful flavors actually survive the process.

While I can appreciate a good rib eye from time to time, I love filet mignon. I prefer to purchase it from the butcher at the local Persian store. Their meat has to be Halal and is of excellent quality. I have the butcher trim off any fat or silver skin. I always remember to tip my butcher a buck or two. He makes sure I always get excellent meat and will advise against a purchase if he is not confident of the quality.

No gas. Let’s get that out of the way right now. No propane. No lighter fluid. No instant light or light-the-bag briquettes. It makes no sense to pick out the finest meat available if it’s going to taste like petrol. In fact, no briquettes of any kind. I buy natural mesquite charcoal at the same ethnic store where I buy my steaks, and yes, it makes a difference. Besides, a seven pound bag is three bucks and change.

No marinade. No dry rub. I cut the steaks to about an inch and a half thick, sprinkle some kosher salt on both sides, and let them sit a while.

And the fire? Before you start any fire, always make sure there are two things available to you: a fire extinguisher and an adult beverage. Then proceed with that most basic step of civilization, the creation of fire.

chimney from bibberche

When we bought the grill, we also bought a Weber chimney. The chimney is like large steel can, open on both ends, but with a perforated floor a few inches from one end. Three or four wadded up balls of newspaper or grocery store flyers are inserted into the shallow end. A quarter cup of vegetable oil is poured onto the newspaper. The chimney is then inverted and the large side filled with charcoal. Simply light the paper. The vegetable oil will insure that the paper burns long enough and hot enough to start the coals on the other side of the perforated floor. Once the flames go down and the coals are ready, I simply grab the chimney by the handle and pour the beautiful orange coals into the grill. I don’t usually clean the grill itself until this point. I replace the top grate and let the last of the flames sterilize it. Then I take the steel brush to it. This leaves a nice carbon residue that makes awesome marks on the meat.

I can eat a filet raw, but having gone to all the trouble, I will walk it by the fire on the way to my plate. I like to take a paper towel and pat the steaks dry before putting them on the grill. Lana prefers her steak mid-rare, so I put hers on first. Half way through the cook time for the first side, I turn the meat ninety degrees so that it gets nice crosshatching. Then, when I flip hers over, I add mine.

The embers from natural charcoal do not last as long as briquettes. Briquettes last longer than they need to and pulling the meat off after only a few minutes to leave those beautiful embers glowing for another hour seems so wasteful. While natural charcoal doesn’t last near as long, the embers are still sufficient for an aluminum foil pouch of potatoes or vegetables, toasting garlic bread, or even roasting a handful of red peppers. But there’s no time to dawdle or get tanked, though I think there is an ordinance somewhere that no charcoal fire may be started without a beer or glass of red wine available to the grill master and I try to be a law abiding citizen.

There is something primal about grilling meat over an open flame, something that sates the testosterone driven pyromania that is too often sidelined or sacrificed to the niceties of modern life. But that drunken instinct to set things on fire can be harnessed and brought into the service of refined appetites… even one as recently refined as mine.

Summer grill blogger event hosted by food blogs

I am contributing this post to Get Grillin!, an event hosted by Dara of Cookin’ Canuck, and Marla of Family Fresh Cooking.

“Get Grillin’ with Family Fresh Cooking and Cookin’ Canuck, sponsored by Ile de France CheeseRösle,Emile HenryRouxbe and ManPans.”

Apr 182011
 

Beef Tagine from bibberche.com

Ever since I learned how to talk (they tell me it was long before I took my first step), I was fascinated by language. Creativity was a default for me, coming up with my own words for whatever crossed my path unlabeled, and pretty soon everybody around me adopted my inventive nicknames for grandparents, relatives, and neighbors. I read voraciously and my parents fed my addiction by providing me with reading material at any cost. They bought books from  bookstores, ordered them from catalogs, filled in paperwork for door-to-door salesmen, and even purchased the newest editions from the shady types that would set up their portable exhibits on the trunks of their cars in the parking lot of the only department store in town.

The walls in our house were lined with bookshelves, and there was no prohibited reading – even Father’s medical encyclopaedia and Mother’s beloved art books were not off limits as long as we treated them with respect. We rarely borrowed material from the library, not for a lack of interest, but because the bookshelves in our house were constantly overfed and dripping with such a voluminous variety that we seldom needed to look beyond it.

I did not stop with just exploring the depths of Serbian, or as it was known back then, Serbo-Croatian language. Mother was a German teacher, and since we were small, she would interject words and phrases of Deutsch into our everyday communication. She tucked us in with German lullabies, taught us nursery rhymes, and sang songs about windmills and Lorelei. At ten, I started learning German on my own, using her old college books with yellow pages that seduced me with their smell which reminded me of cramped used-book stores somewhere in Vienna or Prague.

In  fifth grade, I started learning English in school. My English teacher was a strange creature in her late twenties who rented a room from the spinster sisters who lived across the street from our house. She rode her red bike to school, neck wrapped in a red and white scarf. She usually wore a t-shirt with a fading picture of Kabir Bedi as Sandokan* and a pair of ill-fitting jeans when all the other teachers adhered to strict dress codes and wore mid-calf skirts and matronly dresses exclusively.

Kabir Bedi as Sandokan

She pronounced mushroom moo-shroom, and made us learn the English alphabet by heart. To this day, I cannot spell correctly in my head. I have to write the word on a piece of paper or imagine it written to get it right. But in spite of her shortcomings, I became blessedly infatuated by the English language, its irregularities, illogical spelling, and crazy idioms. In order to override my teacher’s inability to correctly pronounce the words, Mother ordered for me an English course that consisted of tapes and shiny books featuring the Union Jack in all its splendor. While the other grade-school kids were busy chasing the soccer ball by the river and rollerskating, I spent afternoons after school rewinding again and again the tape recorded and listening to the proper BBC pronunciation.

The freshmen year of high-school, my teacher was a young and enthusiastic girl, recently graduated from the University of Belgrade. Her ideas were fresh, her methodology unorthodox, and I had a big teacher-crush on her. My sophomore year, the teacher was an older, small, bony woman with a bird face, horn-rimmed glasses and a perpetual frown. Her tight, thin lips were enough to turn me off English conversation, and her constant throat-clearing, which sounded as though she were trying to start a chainsaw, was the most annoying tick. In addition, she had us memorize paragraphs by heart. At sixteen, I was already pretty advanced in the subject, and I found it insulting. I would learn the whole lesson by heart, raise my hand, and recite it in monotone, ridiculing her and her inane teaching methods. This did not make me a teacher’s pet, and she learned to resent me. The feeling was mutual, but she did not kill my love of English.

I lucked out big time in junior and senior years. I knew that I would get along splendidly with my tall, quarterback-shouldered teacher from the first time she said in her perfectly accented Queen’s English, “Put the gum out of your mouth!” She was authoritative, knowledgeable, and completely capable of seeing through the most creative and imaginative bullshit that thirty or so smart, straight-A students in my class attempted to sell daily. I have heard that she moved to Australia a while back. Swept along with the excitement of graduation, prom, finals, and college applications, I never told her how much she influenced me in deciding to follow Mother’s steps and study foreign languages.

As a senior, I took a year of German in high school, attending classes after school and at night. I followed the curriculum, did my homework, took the tests and quizzes, intent on learning as much as I could. The kids looked at me as if I were a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not specimen, questioning my sanity, and laughing at me behind my back (as I found out more than twenty years later at a party :) ). I took all the jokes in stride, smiling all the time, helping them with their homework if they asked, trying to engage in everyday silly student routines. The teacher saw my determination and zeal and put me on the fast track. While the rest of the class was practicing declinations, I was translating passages. On the days when they were drilled on tenses, she gave me poems to read. When I received my high school transcripts at the end of the year, I saw that she had given me credit for four semesters rather than just the two I took.

Without all these women, I would not have decided to study languages and literature. I would not have attended the University of Belgrade’s College of Philology. I would not have married an American, and crossed the ocean toting only two suitcases. I would not have three daughters who speak fluently both mother tongues, mesmerized by foreign languages, and looking at the world of diverse cultures and traditions with wonder and curiosity.

I did not instill in them only the love of languages, but the love of eating well. My family is used to surprises awaiting them at the dinner table. I might not be the most accomplished cook, and I am not putting “personal chef” on my resume any time soon, but my curiosity leads me to explore the cuisines from all over the globe. Each foreign word I learn is like a piece of glass through which I can get a tiny glimpse into the soul of a different nation. And each new dish opens up a window, allowing me to hear the clutter of utensils, to see children seated around a table laden with food, and to smell the spices coming from the steaming plates.

The other day, I prepared Beef Tagine from Jamie Oliver’s book, Jamie Does, for my group, I Heart Cooking Clubs. As I was rubbing the spice mix into the cubes of meat, I was thinking of the sixth grader sitting on the floor in the bedroom that she shared with her sister, completely absorbed by artificially annunciated phrases in British English coming from a Grundig tape recorder. Not for a second did that girl think that, one day, many years later, she would be making a Moroccan dish by a British chef in her American kitchen.

*Sandokan, or the Tiger of Malaysia, is a fictional pirate from the novels of Italian author Emilio Salgari. Popular mini-series that aired in the mid-70s all over Europe featured Indian actor Kabir Bedi as Sandokan.

This dish takes a little bit of planning ahead, but once the beef is marinated, the spices mixed, and the vegetables chopped, the process is simple and rewarding. The aroma of the spices hitting the heat of the oil fills the kitchen with comfort and anticipation. The sweet potato lends its creaminess and complements the tang of the tomatoes. The fruit is not overwhelming, but adds texture while the nuts give it a surprising and crunchy finish.

BEEF TAGINE (adapted from Jamie Oliver’s book Jamie Does)

Ingredients:

  • 600gr (1 ½ lbs) beef (I used chuck), cut into cubes
  • 3 Tbsp spice rub (recipe follows)
  • sunflower oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small bunch of cilantro
  • 1 can (400gr, 15oz) chopped tomatoes
  • 1 can (400gr, 15oz) chickpeas, drained
  • 800ml (1 quart) of beef stock
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into cubes
  • 100gr (3-4oz) assorted dried fruits (I used cranberries, apricots, and raisins)
  • 100gr toasted hazelnuts

For the spice rub:

  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tbsp North African spice mix*
  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
  • 1 Tbsp sweet paprika

*Jamie calls  for ras-el-hanout,  (Arabic for ‘top of the shop’) a blend of the best spices a vendor has in his shop. The mixture varies depending on who is selling it, but can be a combination of anywhere from 10 to 100 spices. It usually includes nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, aniseed, turmeric, cayenne, peppercorns, dried galangal, ginger, cloves, cardamom, chilli, allspice and orris root.

I used cinnamon, cloves, allspice, coriander, hot paprika, turmeric, and nutmeg.

Directions:

Mix the spice rub ingredients in a small bowl. Put the beef into a large bowl, massage it with about 3 tablespoons of the spice rub, cover with plastic wrap and put into the refrigerator for a couple of hours (next time I will marinate it over night, as Jamie reccomends, for the spices to fully absorb into the meat.)

When you are ready to cook, heat sunflower oil in a casserole or a Dutch oven and fry the meat over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Add chopped onion and cilantro stalks, and fry for another 5 minutes. Pour in the chickpeas, tomatoes, and half of stock and stir. Bring to the boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer for 1½hours.

At this point add sweet potatoes, died fruit, and the rest of the stock. Give everything a gentle stir, then put the lid back on the pan and continue cooking for another 1½hours. If it is necessary, add a splash of water if it looks too dry.

If it seems too runny, simmer for 5 to 10 minutes more with the lid off. The beef should be really tender and flaking apart now, so have a taste and season with a pinch or two of salt. Scatter the cilantro leaves over the tagine along with the toasted hazelnuts.

I served it with Israeli couscous.

For the original recipe go to Jamie Oliver’s site, and for beautiful renditions of his recipes visit I Heart Cooking Clubs.

I would like to remind my readers that Saveur magazine is running its annual Best Blog Award in about a dozen categories, including the Best Essay. While I do not eve dream (yet) of becoming the Best Blog Ever, I would be extremely happy to be noticed for my writing. The nominations are open until 22nd of April, and Saveur will announce the finalists on 26th. Thanks!

I love Hearth and Soul blog event hosted by Alex at A Moderate Life. I am sending my tagine her way.

Feb 262011
 

Braised short ribs with red wine from bibberche.com

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to get an early start preparing Dorie Greenspan’s Braised Short Ribs with Red Wine for our French Fridays with Dorie group. I am usually posting late, scrambling to push the “Publish” button some time on Saturday, commenting after everybody else has already said everything that could have been said, promising that the next time I will be more industrious. Those promises seem to fall into the category of New Year’s resolutions, starting or stopping something on a Monday, reading the lessons ahead, and finishing the homework early at the beginning of the school year. I am always sincere. I might even follow my promise for a day or two. But time inevitably sneaks up on me, laughing derisively as I concede defeat once again. I was roaming the apartment, opening the fridge, peeking into the pantry, moving the bottles around, only to conclude with the utmost delight that I had every single ingredient for this dish right here. And the list was never-ending. I know I have a problem: I admit freely that I am an ingredient hoarder. I bought star anise when I reorganized the spices and even though I have not used it until now, it sure looks pretty in my new metal magnetic jar. Parsnips are a different story. They reside in the vegetable drawer of the fridge, along with carrots and celery, my holy trinity for making the best chicken broth on Earth. When I pushed aside the bottles of spiced rum and Serbian slivovitz, I found out we even had port. The only thing Husband had to procure from our local Persian store were short ribs. I am pretty annoyed at food trends. Every once in a while, some chef or a food critic will unearth a cheap peasant food, and introduce it to fancy restaurants as the new black. Inevitably, it stops being peasant food, and it definitely stops being inexpensive. Short ribs have joined the fate of ox tail and chicken wings, and they are considerably more costly than beef shanks, for example. I grumbled at the price Husband quoted on his iPhone, but for the sake of playing along and following the rules, I gave him my blessing. As Dorie recommends that the braise be prepared a day ahead, I gave myself a lot of time, whistling, extremely proud at my own state of readiness. I have never worked with short ribs before, but I never let a four legged beast stump me. The first step was a bit different. Instead of the usual browning on high heat in the skillet on top of the stove, Dorie’s recipe asked us to put the ribs in the oven and broil them for a couple of minutes until brown. In the meantime, I chopped, I minced, and I collected the spices and herbs in a bundle ready to be dropped in simmering broth. I did not care how long it took, as I had the entirety of another day in front of me. The vegetables were caramelizing beautifully, and when I heard the unmistakable sputter that demanded liquid, I added wine and port, enjoying the sizzle that rose to meet it. A couple dollops of my favorite spicy tomato paste from Germany went in, along with the spice bundle and the meat. Beef stock covered the ribs half way, and back to the oven it went for a few hours. I certainly wasn’t counting. But when it came out, the meat was falling off the bone, and the sauce smelled like a walk through an Istanbul bazaar in summer time.

making short ribs from bibberche.com

While it rested in the fridge, we enjoyed a beautiful Indonesian Fish Padang Curry that I found on my friend Shulie’s site, Food Wanderings. This was a simple, flavorful dish that seduced our whole family with its complementary flavors and stunning yellow color imparted by turmeric… definitely worth a post on its own. The next day, it did not take long to revive the ribs from their hibernation once they hit the stove. I had to add some water to scrape up the sauce from the edges. And I was not even contemplating for a second the idea of straining the juices and getting rid of all the goodness in that skillet. Sorry, Dorie, I had to stray off the given path. My immersion blender brought the sauce together in mere seconds. I was so excited about the dish that I forgot to make the gremolata, even though I minced all the ingredients ahead of time. I am going to blame the spring fever for robbing me of my everyday faculties. I’d kick myself in the behind if I only could. Served on top of a pile of buttery mashed potatoes, the short ribs epitomized comfort food. Besides the usual undertones of onions, carrots, garlic, and red wine, the traces of ginger and anise gave this dish a flair of the Orient, too vague to pinpoint, but assertive enough to be noticeable. There wasn’t much left after we attacked it at the dinner table. Now that I have put another notch on my board of successes, I will have to watch for short ribs to be on sale at the Persian store. It has been gloomy and rainy again in Southern California, and even though I am not a fan of the gray skies, I will take the advantage of the weather and pretend that we are in the middle of winter by preparing more comfort food. As usual, I am frantically scrambling to get this post done before the clock strikes midnight. My Cinderella story will not be romantic. I do not have a lost shoe to mourn or to brag about. All I can say is, make these ribs. Fill your house with all the wonderful smells encapsulated in that cheesecloth bundle. Light up your fireplace and let the flames warm you while the ribs are simmering in the oven. Don’t count the minutes. Let this dish develop on its own, and it will reward you with a cozy, warm invitation to a night spent in comfort, love, and the embrace of your family.

Dec 252010
 

I divorced my ex-husband in August of 1994, when the College Kritter was known as the Tasmanian Devil. I hired an attorney, and he was so smitten by my soon to be ex’s charm, that he worked for him too, informing him of important dates, advising him on the necessary documents, calling him daily to “touch base”. My thought on that was, “Hmmm, Larry, I think I hired you and you were supposed to work for me?” But I really could not hold a grudge. My ex has always been a lovable person who grew on you, like it or not. He was not even present at court, enjoying beers and seafood on his Florida vacation. If I wanted to have his skin mounted on my wall, I could have accomplished it. But I did not hate the guy. I just wanted out. He was a great friend, a burly man with a wonderful sense of humor, a “Grizzly Adams” look-alike. But he was not the best husband. And I did not think that he would be the best father.

I worked in a restaurant and after the split, it suited everybody that our daughter spent holidays with him and his family. She was inundated with typical Thanksgiving overeating and watching the Lions lose again and again (not that she cared).  A couple of years later I left Michigan for Ohio, and he moved to Florida.

I met Husband on the Internet, and in the Fall of 1997 he moved into our little “mole-hole” of an apartment. My ex was coming over from Florida, planning on taking Nina with him to Petoskey, Michigan, to visit the relatives. I offered him a place to stay, as I did time and time again, wanting him rested and awake when he continued driving up north with my beloved daughter in the back seat. Husband was not enthusiastic about the idea, to say the least. The ugly yellow-green tentacle of jealousy poisoned our days, but I was not budging.

The ex spent the night, and the Husband liked him as much as everybody else. I did not find it amusing in the least when they started comparing notes on me, agreeing, and laughing, pounding the table with a gleeful: “Me, too!” I would indulge them with an obligatory smile, or two, smiling to myself, knowing that I had won. It continued like that to this day. The Kritter spends Christmas with her Father in Florida, roaming the coast, sailing, fishing, swimming in the Keys, eating the mounds of fresh seafood in the restaurant on Santa Maria Island where he has been working as a chef for eleven years.

One of his sisters lives in Escondido, and he visited her last year. It felt weird to meet the ex-family-in-law for the first time after so much time, but we enjoyed having Theresa and her daughter over for our family’s Saint’s Day, the celebration feast of St. Nicholas. They were gracious guests, and everybody got along wonderfully. This winter break the Kritter announced that her father was flying to San Francisco right after her finals. They planned on renting a car, doing a lot of sightseeing and eventually making their way south to our house. We offered him the couch, left empty by Father who was visiting a cousin in Florida. Serendipitous, at least.

It has been raining a lot in California recently. I am a mother and I worried about their long drive on wet roads. They finally arrived a little before midnight on Tuesday, exhausted and drained. We spent a couple of hours laughing, reminiscing, and watching Jeopardy. I put a fresh sheet on the couch for my ex, brought several pillows and a blanket, and went to cuddle with my girls. The ex and Husband continued talking, laughing, and drinking single malt Scotch until dawn.

We skipped breakfast and we skipped brunch. At about 1:30 I pulled six sticky buns from the oven and served them with milk (Thanks, Professor Smith!). But everybody was still hungry, and I brought out the huge bowl of stone crab claws my ex had brought all the way from Florida. He made the mustard sauce and drawn butter, and we attacked them with gusto, barely making a sound, indulging in the rare delicacy. Can you ever get enough crab? I do not think so.

Nobody was hungry for hours. But I was smart. I made Dorie Greenspan’s Go to Beef Daube the day before, and I could wait patiently for the first hunger signs. In the meantime I started preparing polenta, enjoying a glass of wine, bouncing off the silly darts coming from the two men who shared my life at different times. I slowly reheated the daube, adding a bit of tomato sauce and water. When we finally started eating everybody was in heaven. The stew was hearty, comforting, the flavors extremely well balanced. The polenta added some creaminess and served as a beautiful backdrop to all the tender meat and sweet vegetables.

I knew Husband would like it. I knew the children would be happy with it. But I was somewhat apprehensive to my ex’s opinion. I have not tasted his food in eighteen years, and he knew me only as a beginner cook. I have to admit that I smiled like the Cheshire Cat when he praised the daube. And no, I did not tell him it was Dorie’s recipe!

We finished the night playing Pictionary and sampling some bourbon that my ex brought as a Christmas present to us – as if all that crab was not enough! This morning he collected the College Kritter and took her to Escondido to spend a couple of days with his sister’s family. He left some more crab in the refrigerator, as the last little “thank you”.

Not everything that ends has to end horribly. My ex and I do not share the same world anymore. But we do not disseminate hatred and intolerance. We get along to allow our daughter to grow as a person, touched by both of us. He can crash at our place any time he wants. We, of course, expect a bag-full of fresh stone crab as a deposit. And I will plan ahead to make this beef daube for his next visit, just to say “Welcome to our house!”

If you are interested in the recipe for the daube, go buy the book Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. If you want to see different renditions of the same dish, or some other fare, go visit French Fridays with Dorie group. There are some amazing people participating in the event.

Dec 062010
 

Nina and Anita several years ago

You could almost hear a communal sigh of relief as the lecture hall on the first floor of the University of Belgrade’s Philology Department emptied and a river of exhausted freshmen flooded the hallways. It was the last class of the day that started at 8 o’clock in the morning, with breaks no longer than twenty or thirty minutes, barely enough to get a pastry from the bakery a couple of doors down and a cup of plain yogurt. At 7:oo in the evening, when the professor of linguistics magnanimously let us leave the stuffy room to have a drink of water and stretch our stiff legs, we were a pitiful bunch of whiney, raccoon-eyed newbies, ill-equipped to handle the challenges of the university life.

We were just embarking on the second week of the semester. Very few people knew each other, and we mostly stood alone, not able to garner the energy to start up a conversation. I found a perfect little spot on the windowsill just wide enough to allow me to recline and rest my head against the pane. I lit a  Marlboro and closed my eyes, drifting off for a moment.

“Do you want an apple?” I woke up out of my reverie and gazed at the girl standing in front of me, holding a piece of fruit, a bright smile deepening her beautiful dimples. For a second I thought that this could not be happening, not in the twentieth century, not in a city as jaded as Belgrade, and particularly not to me. I took the offering and scooted aside, making room for her. I immediately brought out my pack of cigarettes, shook one loose for her, and we sat there, smoking and crunching on the juicy apples. When we went back to class, we sat together and spent the remaining time whispering and chuckling, waiting for the “Piggy” to finally release us from the torture of his lecture.

This was the first time I met Vesna who would become my friend for life. I do not want to think what would have happened had she not had an extra apple. Most of our classes we had together, because she was also a double major in English and Italian. She was from Montenegro and her father was a CEO of a very prominent company. I introduced her to my cousin Maja and brought her home to meet my Aunt and Uncle. I met her Montenegrian roommates, and accompanied her after school to the café of the Hotel Moskva where her compatriots had been meeting since Father attended the University. As our friendship grew, we expanded our horizons and learned many things that were fascinatingly exotic and intriguing about each other, our families, and our friends ( why would it even surprise me to find out that most of the good-looking guys in designer jeans and leather jackets carried a gun tucked into their waistbands? That should have been obvious, for they came from her hometown of Cetinje, a small, but very old and distinguished place, once a capital of Montenegro, which is hugged by the rugged mountains on all sides).

We studied together, we went to the parties together, we explored the city together. I spent a winter break in their house in Montenegro, where I ate eel, freshly caught from the nearby lake and some of the best lamb I have ever tasted that Vesna’s mother lovingly prepared for us. They took me all around their beautiful town, and I felt as if I belonged. In turn she and her boyfriend (and now husband) Jovica came to Father’s chalet in the mountains and skied with us winter after winter. They became like family.

We both applied for a Foreign Exchange program in the U.S.  in the summer between our junior and senior year and were accepted. That June was beyond stressful. We studied for hours, trying to pass as many exams as we could before our adventurous trip across the ocean. Sleeping was not an option, but we ran on this particular energy that only highly ambitious, motivated college students can recognize. We could not go back to our hometowns to recuperate and prepare for the coming trip. June 25th loomed ahead of us, enormous and terrifyingly exciting.

On the day when all the finals were over, we met our friends at out favorite outside café downtown, just a few minutes walk from the University. The Belgrade heat made the asphalt sizzle, but all we could feel was pure exhilaration. While we were sipping our Ice cafés and smoking our Marlboros, we were unable to contain our excitement about the impending trip. We were all starving, and feeling delightfully empowered. Vesna suggested we go to a a new Italian restaurant, not too far away, that served more than the ubiquitous pizza. Ravenous for more then food, we boarded the tram that took us close to the Danube. The restaurant was small, but new and brightly lit. It did not take a long time for all of us to order the combination pasta platters, which offered ravioli, tortellini, spaghetti alla Bolognese and lasagna. With Toto Cutugno’s soft voice in the background, I tasted my first lasagna. It might have been really lousy. It might have been an abomination to the lasagna matrons of Italy. It might have been the worst lasagna on Earth. I did not know. I did not care. I polished off everything on my plate, following the example of my friends.

When we left the restaurant, the sun was still blazing and the concrete was pulsating from the heat. We were exuberantly happy and satiated with the meal. The future held innumerable promises, and we felt empowered to tackle any challenge that life would throw our way. Standing in front of the restaurant, on the riverside, we felt the seductive pull of the unknown. We parted, only to meet at the airport several days later.

I have had many lasagne since then, in restaurants, at potlucks, at friends’ houses. I have been on the quest to make the one that would bring me back to those days, but those were the days of pure emotion and adrenalin, and the quality of food had so little to contribute. Anya loves lasagna, and for her I make it often. This time I decided to break out of the routine and make Giada’s Classic Lasagna  for my I Heart Cooking Clubs group.

It was prettier than my usual recipe. The spinach was just chopped on top of the bechamel, and not incorporated. There was no call for garlic and Italian herbs in the ricotta filling. But when I served it, bubbling hot from the oven, the cheese gloriously browned on top, everybody loved it.

This was not the lasagna I remember from Belgrade. To get that taste right I would have to be twenty-one again. I wish! But every time I make another rendition of lasagna, I think of Vesna and our friendship. We are just a keyboard away, and we are still friends. Our oldest daughters were born six months apart. The College Kritter is slowly making the streets of Berkeley her own, while Vesna’s Anita is doing the same with the streets of Milano, Italy, where she is attending the prestigious Politechnic School of Architecture. And all because of an apple.

CLASSIC ITALIAN LASAGNA (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

Ingredients:

Bechamel Sauce:

  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons for the lasagna
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups whole milk at room temperature
  • Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce, recipe follows
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lasagna:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound ground beef (we have our butcher grind our own)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds ricotta cheese (I make my own, recipe to follow soon)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 pound lasagna sheets (I use no-cook lasagna sheets)
  • 300gr (1 package) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 3 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a 2-quart pot, melt 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When butter has completely melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue to simmer and whisk over medium heat until the sauce is thick, smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the nutmeg and tomato sauce. Stir until well combined and check for seasoning. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

In a saute pan, heat extra-virgin olive oil. When almost smoking, add the ground beef and season with salt and pepper. Brown meat, breaking any large lumps, until it is no longer pink. Remove from heat and drainany excess fat. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

In a medium sized bowl, thoroughly mix the ricotta and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Into the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish spread 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the pasta sheets side by side, covering the bottom of the baking dish. Evenly spread a layer of all the ricotta mixture and then a layer of all the spinach. Arrange another layer of pasta sheets and spread all the ground beef on top. Sprinkle 1/2 the mozzarella cheese on top of the beef. Spread another 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the final layer of pasta sheets and top with remaining bechamel, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into 1/4-inch cubes and top lasagna.

Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place lasagna dish on top, cover and put on the middle rack of the oven and bake until top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake for about 15 minutes.

Simple Tomato Sauce:

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 (32-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, optional

In a large pot or Dutch over, heat oil over medium high heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft and translucent, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add celery and carrots and season with salt and pepper. Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and bay leaves and simmer uncovered on low heat for 1 hour or until thick. Remove bay leaves and check for seasoning. If sauce still tastes acidic, add unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon at a time to round out the flavors.

Add 1/2 the tomato sauce into the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth. Continue with remaining tomato sauce (I use the blender, because I still do not have a food processor!).

If not using all the sauce, allow it to cool completely and pour 1 to 2 cup portions into freezer plastic bags. This will freeze up to 6 months.

This is my contribution to I Heart Cooking Clubs. Our group is featuring the recipes of Giada De Laurentiis. Please, go to the site and read all the wonderful variations of this week’s theme Warm the Belly, Fill the Soul.