Jan 302014

Serbian-Chinese Cream of Chicken Soup from bibberche.com

When he was in Medical School, Father had a Chinese roommate. This was back in the 50s, and Tzu-Ke-Lee attended the University of Belgrade on a Chinese scholarship studying Serbian language and culture. Even now, in his old age, Father can charm a linguist without being proficient in any language except Serbian, and in his twenties he could communicate with extraterrestrials successfully. That they were both young men was obviously plenty for a friendship to be born.

Tzu-Ke-Lee introduced Father to the tradition of drinking real tea while still piping hot, and in turn got initiated into some unavoidable Serbian rituals: drinking slivovitz (plum brandy) along with Turkish coffee, and devouring various smoked porcine products. The gentle Chinese youth spent every holiday with Father and his parents, getting an in-depth experience of family life in Yugoslavia, which for the most part consisted of Njanja trying her best to fatten up her emaciated guest and Father playing practical jokes, fully taking advantage of the cultural gap.

Asian Vegetables from Melissa's Produce from bibberche.c0m

Tzu was serious and committed, but Father managed to drag him away from his books occasionally and take him out on the town. He went along without missing a smile, and spent hours with Father’s friends, downing shots of slivovitz, learning to jitterbug, and flirting with beautiful girls dressed in sleeveless shirts tied just above their belly buttons. But come morning, when all the rest of the bunch moaned in pain unable to face the morning sun, Tzu was already hitting the books, his porcelain teapot gurgling with steaming hot tea and several cups ready to be filled.

He graduated in record time and started to prepare for his return to China. He spent his last weekend in Yugoslavia with Father and his family in our home town of Čačak where everyone knew him and treated him like a member of the family. The women cried, the men patted him on the shoulders, trying not to show the sparkle of tears in their eyes. Back in Belgrade the farewell party was somewhat solemn. There was still slivovitz and the jitterbug, and flirty pretty girls showed up in droves. Promises were made, addresses exchanged, but everyone knew that China was on the other end of the world, as attainable as the Moon. It was a real goodbye and no one expected to hear from Tzu-Ke-Lee again.

Father continued his studies, intermittently interrupted by wild drunken bashes in which he invariably found himself entwined with another pretty girl with sparkly eyes. On many mornings after, he longed for a cup of strong steaming tea and the gentle smile of his departed roommate and wondered if Tzu thought about his days at the University of Belgrade and the friends he had to leave behind.

Daikon and Carrots Pickle from bibberche.com

And somewhere in Beijing, Tzu-Ke-Lee kept on studying, stealing moments to reminisce about the time he spent in Serbia. A letter from China traveled for months before it reached my grandparents’ house in Čačak. The whole neighborhood gathered at the house while Njanja read the lines aloud. For the moment the gentle Chinese was back among them, smiling and bowing, and everyone felt touched by his kind words.

Throughout the years he kept on writing. Father told us stories about their escapades, vowing every time that he would write back, complaining that he is not good with pen and paper (and that was not just an excuse; the postcards that he sent sounded the same no matter if he wrote to his best friend or Mother, exactly the same when he wrote from his trip to Paris, as from a neighboring town). But he never wrote back.

Back in the 70s, Tzu-Ke-Lee accompanied a Chinese delegation as an official interpreter. He called Father from Belgrade, and in a few hours he was in Čačak, embracing his old roommate and meeting his young family. I don’t remember much of that day, but I cannot forget that weird looking, but smiling face and gentle eyes hiding behind dark-rimmed glasses. A few letters and a few years later, Tzu started working for Radio Beijing. Father still promised to write back, but never did.

Tzu-Keli letter from bibberche.com

I was already on my final year of college when he told me that, a while back, Tzu-Ke-Lee had invited me to be a guest at their family home in Beijing. The meticulous Chinese planned every detail of my stay there. I would travel to Russia and take the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok, and on to Ulan-Bator in Mongolia and Beijing. He knew that I had a passion for languages and promised me a place at the University to study Chinese for two years. But by the time I found out, my life was taking a different turn. I spent a summer in the U.S. and my heart remained imprisoned in the wilderness of the Colorado Rockies. If I had known about the offer when the letter first arrived, I would have jumped up and down to make it happen. But after several years it became an empty dream never to be fulfilled.

Father has never written back to Tzu-Ke-Lee. But I am on very friendly terms with the pen and paper and today I wrote an e-mail to the editor of Radio Beijing. I know that it is a shot in the dark. I do not even know if I spelled Tzu’s name properly. But I am hoping that someone in that big town knows this man who was like a member of my family back when Father was just a young punk. I would like him to know that a lot of people still remember him and tell stories with a teary eye.

I sent greetings to Tzu-Ke-Lee and his family, wishing them health, prosperity, and happiness in the Lunar New Year. I told my girls all the stories I remembered about this gentle, kind man and recruited their help in preparing a Chinese meal. I am sure that there are a few teenagers somewhere in Beijing who listen wide-eyed about their Grandfather’s adventures. And you know what? China is not that far away any more.

In celebration of the upcoming Lunar New Year, I am presenting you with two recipes that are all about Serbian-Chinese friendship. Our cultures are not that are apart when it comes to food stuff.

Thank you, Melissa’s Produce, for all the amazing Asian vegetables that arrived one day in front of my door.

Pickled Daikon and Carrots from bibberche.com


Daikon and Carrots Pickle
5.0 from 1 reviews


Recipe type: Canning
Cuisine: Serbian – Chinese
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 4-6
It seems that Serbian and Chinese food cultures are very similar, as the recipes differ in really tiny details.
  • 1 Daikon radish, scrubbed, peeled and cut in pieces 3 inches long and ¼ inch thick
  • 5-6 carrots, scrubbed, peeled and cut the same way as the radish
  • ½ cup rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 6-7 black peppercorns
  • Water
  1. Place Daikon and carrots in two quart-size jars.
  2. Make it look pretty.
  3. Pour vinegar, salt, sugar and peppercorns on top. Pour in water to fill almost to the top (leave a bit of space under the lip of the jar.
  4. Firmly close the jars.
  5. Place a kitchen towel on the bottom of a tall pot.
  6. Fill the pot with water.
  7. Place the jars in the pot on top of the kitchen towel so that they are completely submerged.
  8. Heat the water until it boils.
  9. Turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes.
  10. Take the jars out of the pot.
  11. Turn them upside down, wrap them in towels and place them in a warm spot until they cool off.
  12. They should be ready to use within days.

Serbian-Chinese Cream of Chicken Soup from bibberche.com



  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • ½ cup diced onion
  •  ½ cup diced carrots
  • ½ cup diced red bell pepper
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 cup leftover roasted chicken cut up in small cubes
  • 1 bunch bok choy, trimmed, rinsed and cut in smaller piece
  • Tbsp farina (cream of wheat)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper


Heat the oil in a heavy pot on medium temperature.

Sautee Onions, carrots, and bell peppers until soft and transparent, 5-8 minutes.

Add chicken stock and cut-up chicken and cook for 15 minutes.

Add bok choy and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add farina.

Beat the egg with a fork and mix in buttermilk or yogurt.

Pour 1 ladle full of soup into the egg mixture to temper.

Pour the egg mixture into the pot and stir.

Turn the heat off and serve.


Jan 192013

Bacon-Flavored Chicken Wings from bibberche.com

We did not have Super Bowl in Serbia and the phenomenon of preparing special foods for that day was a novel one. But eager to socialize with people who loved to cook and eat, I frequently joined my friends with excitement, even though I still did not understand the rules of American football and have not watched one single game in its entirety.

The major games in soccer, the ones that decide the winner of the national league or the world champion are watched sitting on the edge of the couch, falling down on your knees, jumping, pulling your hair, stomping your feet, howling, screaming, and eating your nails, oblivious to any victuals surrounding you. I delighted in preparing a menu for a day of sports, comforted in the thought that there will be others like me, there for friends, fun, and nibbles, rather than to feverishly follow the mystical dance by men in helmets.

Chicken Wings from bibberche.com

No one counted calories at Super Bowl parties and the tables were piled high with cheesy dips, spreads, and dressings, potato skins and stuffed jalapeños, chips and crackers, fried mozzarella sticks, crispy Nachos and tight spring rolls. And at every party the pièce de résistance was a platter of gloriously glistening chicken wings, an homage to the meat gods in the shape of finger food.

I have not eaten my share of chicken wings when I was a child, as my preferred piece was white meat. No one else staked a claim on chicken breast and it made me infinitely happy not to have to share with my siblings. Only in my adult years did I understand that everyone else in the family enjoyed much more flavorful morsels all those years, while I gloated over a big chunk of bland and dry food.

Bacon-Flavored Chicken Wings from bibberche.com

My parents fought over the chicken wings and I never understood the attraction. But when I arrived to the U.S. and tried Buffalo wings for the first time, I had to reconsider. I am not a gnawer and prefer a cut I could get to using utensils, but I discovered how good it feels to sink my teeth between the bones and suck the tiny fibers of muscle covered with spicy Red Hot Sauce and butter. Almost overnight I became a convert, not only in my love of chicken wings, but blue cheese as well.

Over the years I tried many incarnations of the ubiquitous bar food and I love them all. I have even introduced my Serbian relatives and friends to them and watched in glee as they savored the piquant Buffalo or smoky and sweet BBQ wings, their fingers sticky, their cheeks speckled with sauce.

But this year I am going back to my Serbian roots with my mother’s recipe which delighted my children and was a favorite when I was growing up. It is simple, prepared with only a few ingredients, and it can take me home faster than a Concorde. I cannot promise that we will even turn the TV on when the big game starts on Super Bowl Sunday, but you can bet there will be a few indulgent dips scattered around the living room, and a platter of sticky and crunchy Serbian chicken wings. Let the games begin!

Bacon-Flavored Chicken Wings from bibberche.com



  • Chicken wings (my last package contained 8 whole wings, which makes sixteen servings)
  • 2 TBSP bacon fat or home-rendered lard
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup water


Cut the little protruding piece from each wing and then cut through the joint to half them. Lay them out on the cutting board skin side up, and sprinkle salt and pepper on top.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy skillet on medium-high temperature. Add bacon fat or lard and heat until it sizzles. Place the chicken wings seasoned side down and sprinkle the other side with salt and pepper.

Brown the chicken wings for 4-5 minutes, turn and brown the other side, for another 2-3 minutes. When the delicious brown pieces appear at the bottom of the skillet, turn the heat down to low, pour the water in (carefully, as the steam will rise up) and cover with a tightly fitting lid.

Cook for 15-20 minutes, until done. Take the lid off, turn the heat back to medium-high and simmer until the liquid evaporates and the wings become sticky. Scrape them off into a bowl and serve immediately.

(The remnants in the skillet are precious and Mother would soak them up for us with a few slices of crusty bread. But they would be perfect the next morning, turned into chicken gravy to serve with biscuits.)

Dec 062012

Serbian Creamy Chicken Soup from bibberche.com

No matter how many times I tell myself that I am a competent home cook, it takes only a well-intentioned, but misplaced comment from one of my girls to make me roll my eyes in disbelief and grind my teeth in an effort not to speak up and ruin the moment. One of those occasions involved an incarnation of a simple creamy chicken soup and my oldest daughter.

We were visiting my cousin who is married to a priest with a parish in one of the suburbs of Belgrade. For years, Mira and I have been pen-pals; we spent many summers together, playing badminton, sewing clothes for a couple of precious Barbies, and climbing hills above their house in Novi Pazar. We try to get together at least once a year if I am in Serbia, in hopes that our children will bond and friend each other on Facebook, and maybe get involved in a virtual game of badminton, if nothing else.

chicken soup vegetables from bibberche.com

vegetables for the stock (I save parsley stems)

The two of us managed to corral the six kids and deposit them around the dining-room table; I helped her carry the food from the kitchen, keeping a watchful eye on the group of unpredictable energetic girls and a token boy, the youngest of all. The first dish was a Serbian staple, a creamy chicken soup thickened with farina, eggs, milk, and a bit of flour, something we looked forward when we were growing up.

Sure, there was a picky eater in the bunch who pulled the tiny cubes of carrots to the rim of the bowl, but most of them stopped talking for a minute and surrendered to the comforting flavors of the dish and we were rewarded by a few moments of silence. I raised my girls to be respectful and kind, but I almost fell out of my chair when my oldest, Nina, who was ten at the time exuberantly chimed, “Aunt Mira, this is the best soup I have ever tasted! How did you make it?”

Pileca corbica from bibberche.com

Mira beamed, hiding her chuckle behind her hand, while I stared at my daughter with disbelief. She looked at us both utterly perplexed with childish innocence. I made that soup for her many times. So had Mother. But to her it tasted so different and so much better slurped in utmost disharmony with five other children who kept kicking one another under the table and competing in stupid jokes. The peasant fare became exotic not necessarily because Mira’s culinary achievements surpass mine (although she is a really good cook), but because she shared it with cousins she rarely sees in that welcoming kitchen with windows opening to the view of the green meadow and the parish church in those wonderfully lazy days of summer that bring promise with each sweltering moment.

Serbian Creamy Chicken Soup from bibberche.com


  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 small or ½ big yellow onion, diced
  • a few carrots, diced
  • 2-3 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 small bell pepper, diced (optional, but I really like the color and the sweetness it adds)
  • 1 cup of roasted chicken, cut into small pieces
  • 1 quart of chicken stock
  • 2 Tbsp farina (cream of wheat)
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • ¾ cups milk
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup plain yogurt
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • chopped parsley for garnish


Heat the oil in a heavy soup pan on medium heat. Add onions, carrots, celery, and bell pepper (if used), and sautee until softened, 8-10 minutes. Add chicken and stock and simmer for another 30 minutes.

Stir in farina. In a small bowl combine flour and milk and whisk until smooth. Pour into the soup and stir vigorously to break up the small bumps of flour. Cook for a couple of minutes and turn the heat off.

Mix together egg and yogurt in a small bowl. Pour a ladle of soup to temper it and stir to combine. Pour the warm mixture slowly into the soup, whisking, to avoid curdling.

Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with parsley.


Nov 092012

Korean Pear and Kale Salad from bibberche.com

As the Fall firmly takes a hold even in southern California where we bundle up and don gloves and hats as soon as the temperatures drop bellow 60F, the last brave specimens of the late summer fruit slowly retreat and surrender the coveted shelf space to bright orange persimmons, dark red pomegranates, apples colored every hue from green to yellow to red, Weeble-shaped fragrant and sun-kissed pears, and ubiquitous pumpkins who reign not only because of their heft, but also because of their colorful kitschy appeal.

And as if we did not have enough drama in the produce department of any given grocery store, enters Korean pear, the prima donna of fruit, the spoiled Asian heiress grown to be the juiciest, the freshest, the lightest fruit in the aisles. Its delicate brownish-yellow skin is thin, unblemished, and perfect, as the fruit is wrapped while it grows for protection from the elements and parasites that threaten to mar its smooth surface. The flesh is white and crunchy. It does not turn brown or wrinkly when exposed to air. You can imagine it in a floppy hat and big sunglasses, sipping a mint julep at the races, looking all fabulous and haughty.

Korean Pears from bibberche.com

When I opened the box from Melissa’s Produce, a dozen Korean pears were nestled comfortably in soft indented trays, wrapped in delicate netting, not touching each other. I gingerly picked one out of its nest, unwrapped it, and barely resisted the temptation to start chanting a line from one of my favorite Loony Toones, “I will love him, and pet him, and squeeze him, and call him George.”* But I remembered in time that it was, after all, only a piece of fruit. I dropped the silliness and started thinking of the ways to use them in my kitchen. They are like Kobe beef of produce, coddled, nurtured, loved, but destined to satisfy the gourmands of the world in search of the best culinary experience.

Just to get an idea how pampered these pears are, watch this video:


My daughters ask for them at every meal and they make a perfect addition to their school lunches. They are crunchy like an apple, extremely juicy and refreshing, and sweet without being overbearing. For their size (and they are pretty hefty at about 10 ounces or 275 grams a piece), they pack surprisingly few calories, only 115, and less than 30 grams of carbs. They are available November through March, which means that they will start appearing at your local grocery stores soon. If you are not sure what stores carry them, contact Melissa’s Produce, the largest U.S. distributor of Korean pears, for the information.

Korean Pear

We could have easily eaten them all just like that, fresh from the box, crispy and firm and juicy. But I knew that I could pair them with a few other seasonal ingredients that would allow them to shine, all sophisticated and special. I picked up some gorgeous, dark green Tuscan kale at Torrance farmers’ market and decided to tame it with these juicy pears, plump dried cranberries, crunchy pecans, sweet matchstick-cut carrots, and roasted chicken breast. The salad came together with a light dressing of lemon juice, Dijon mustard, honey, olive oil, salt and pepper. A pinch of lemon zest on top added just enough citrus fragrance to make it Californian.

I was happy. I shared it with a friend and she was happy. Looking at the small chunks of Korean pears glistening from the dressing, pristine and white in the sea of bold colors, made me confident that they were happy, too,

*You do know which cartoon I am talking about? It features Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the Yeti. If you have not seen it, find it on YouTube; it’s hilarious.

Korean Pear Salad from bibberche.com



  • A bunch of Tuscan (Lacinato) kale, rinsed, trimmed of tough stems, and cut into thin strips
  • 1 Korean pear, cored, cut in wedges and then in smaller chunks (I prefer mine smaller, as I like to get a bit of everything on my fork, but this is up to you)
  • 1 handful of dried cranberries (dried cherries or even raisins would work, too)
  • ½ cup of chopped pecans (or walnuts)
  • 1 medium carrot cut into matchsticks or grated
  • 4 oz roasted chicken (I used ½ of roasted chicken breast) cut into cubes


  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp honey
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • a twist or two of freshly ground pepper


Toss all the salad ingredients together in a big bowl.

Place the dressing ingredients in a small recycled glass jar, twist the lid on tightly and shake vigorously for 30 seconds to combine. Pour over the salad and toss well. If you want kale to soften a bit, let the salad sit for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

For more recipes using Korean pears check some of my favorite blogs:

 I received a sample of Korean pears from Melissa’s Produce. I was not otherwise compensated for this post. The opinions are mine and only mine:)

May 032012

This is a post I wrote a while ago, but it contains some of my favorite Mexican dishes. Moving to southern California was like “Open, Sesame!” for me – I encountered so many culinary treasures previously hidden. I left the photos unchanged, just like I submitted them to Rick Bayless’s Twitter contest. I hope at least one of these meals will inspire you for Cinco de Mayo.


I ate my first taco at a bowling alley in Highland, Michigan, in 1986, while accompanying my ex-husband’s sister and her friends to the meeting of their bowling league. And I did not care for it at all. I found out later that taco meat is highly seasoned with cumin and at the time I was put off by it. The texture of avocado reminded me of melons, and melons and I do no keep good company. I found the green mushy fruit bland and not deserving of my time.

I discovered cilantro purely by chance. Mother was visiting at the time and we were shopping for groceries at a local supermarket. We bought some nice looking green beans, but when we cooked them they had a specific taste that we could not stand. We deemed the beans spoiled, rotten, contaminated, and threw the whole batch away.  The next day I went to the same supermarket to inspect the beans because I bought them before at the same place, and they were fine. When my nose approached the vegetables another smell, forceful and overbearing, got my attention. The green leaves next to the beans resembled Italian parsley, but when I rubbed them between my fingers, I thought I would just keel over and die. Poor, innocent beans were as healthy and fresh as they could be. They were just positioned next to cilantro, which usurped and overpowered their taste without a thought. And every time a family member would come to visit from Serbia, I would put them to the cilantro test. We are proud to be extremely adventurous in culinary matters, but not one of them liked it. Or to be more precise, we all just hated it.

For a while I avoided Mexican food, enjoying almost all the other world cuisines available to us. But I am a curious person, always looking to broaden my horizons, and it irked me to think that there was an abundance of dishes I was neglecting based on my underdeveloped palate. If I could eat liver, brain, Rocky Mountain oysters, snails, shellfish, feta cheese, and gorgonzolla, I could learn to like cumin, avocado, and cilantro. At the same time I started watching cooking shows on PBS  and my passion for food came at me full strength. I started exploring this undiscovered territory slowly adding small amounts of cumin to my ground beef. I would buy the wrinkly, ugly, almost black avocado, and cut it in half, just to stand mesmerized by its pristine green pulp. I mastered the deceptively simple art of taking the pit out and started making my own guacamole. Little by little the cumin and avocado grew on me, seduced me, and made me fall in love with them.

Cilantro had a more arduous fight ahead of it. I’d pick it out from salsas in Mexican restaurants and became resigned to an eternity of not being its fan. I love to cook with herbs and spices. I have always grown my own, and every morning, for years, the first thing I do after a sip of coffee is to go out and look at my pots. I could not stand the thought of not being able to enjoy so many dishes just because I could not stomach the cilantro. So I braced myself, bought a bunch, snippped a leaf or two in pico de gallo or a salsa, and surrendered. It was definitely a battle. Over time cilantro won.  I even learned to love it. Mexican food in our house became a staple.

And then we moved to Southern California and tasted our first fish taco. At a work potluck Christmas party, Ricardo brought home-made posole. Enrique made ponche spiked with tequila, Joe and Lupe brought spicy carne asada, Juan made chorizo. My Mexican neighbors send plates with tamales and lured the Beasties to stay over for some caldo de res and horchata (having three girls their age did not hurt). My mind was spinning. Where was all this coming from? So I started learning again.

In the spring of this year the College Kritter and I went to Yucatan and Cozumel over Christmas break. That was her present from us for graduating high-school, getting enrolled in a University and turning eighteen. It was her choice destination. And I was her choice companion. I will have to write about our adventure another time. But we discovered another variation of Mexican cuisine dining in Playa Del Carmen, Valladolid, and Cozumel. We avoided tourist traps and ate in the restaurants that locals frequented. Queso relleno, poc chuc, huevos motullenos, cochinita pibil, negro relleno, ceviche… We were in culinary heaven. In every restaurant we talked to waiters and cooks (Kritter speaks fluent Spanish and I can get by with what I picked up from co-workers, adding odd words in Italian), got the recipes, and vowed to replicate the dishes at home. I bought the “tortilladora” from an old woman in Valladolid, and decided to start making my own corn tortillas.

A couple of weeks ago Rick Bayless started a contest on Twitter. He tweets a recipe in 140 characters, we make it, photograph the finished dish, mail the photo to him, and hope to become winners of his newest cookbook Fiesta at Rick’s. I participate every time. It has become a much anticipated event in our household. My photos have not won me the book yet. But the journey that Rick took us on is a gift by itself. Every single recipe is a jewel, bursting with flavors, well balanced, assertive, and addictive. We are looking forward to Mondays when he puts out the new recipe, hidden in abbreviations of the tweeterese.

My love affair with Mexican food is only growing stronger. I do not think it will ever end. One of these days I am taking on the ridiculously long process of making the Yucatecan specialty cochinita pibil. I have already bought the banana leaves and stashed them in the freezer. Until then, Mondays at Rick’s will be more than sufficient to keep the flame growing.


” Sear 1.25# bnls chix brst; cool, cube. Brn 1 onion,add 3 grlc,2 poblanos (rstd,pld,slcd),6 oz chard,1c broth,1c crema.Boil2 thickn.Add chix “


” Rst 1#tomtllos,1 on,3 grlc,3 serranos;puree;sear n oil 2 thkn;simr w 2c broth,.5c crema.Oil,micrwv 12 torts,roll w rstd veg,sauce, chs, bake “

molcajete y tejolote (aka "el serdo") I bought at the Valladolid farmers market


” 8oz slicd raw scallops+1c grapefrt j:45 min.Drain;blend 2/3c juice,1-2 chipotles,4 rstd grlc,2T br sgr.Mix w scal, red on,trop fruit,jicama “

Vladimir Jovanovic, my cousin extraordinaire, edited my photo


“Proc 4 grlc,6T ancho,4t sugr&peppr,5t salt,1t oreg,½t cumin.Rub 4 slb ribs;ovrnite.Bake 300 75 min.Blend:7oz chiptles&3/4c honey.Grill;glaze”

May 152011

chicken and andouille sausage from bibberche.com

I loved the rhythm, the melody, and soul-wrenching whine of the fiddle in Jambalaya long before I had a clue who Hank Williams was. I tried in vain to get a grasp of the lyrics, but the only thing I could understand, after rewinding the tape deck on our family Grundig again and again, were the lines “son of a gun we’ll have big fun…”. And jambalaya. Except that I had no idea what a jambalaya could be. At thirteen, I was obsessed with deciphering the lyrics of many foreign songs, failing miserably most of the time. But as an incorrigible romantic, I really wanted the song to be about love, unrequited if possible, to coincide with my melodramatic view of the world at the time.

My crystal ball did not inform me that twenty years later I would marry a Southerner who loves Hank Williams and thinks Willie Nelson is a minor deity. He considers the food south of the Mason-Dixon line true American. If he had a choice, he would make a big detour to avoid for eternity his home state of Georgia, which is not on his mind, but he cannot get detangled from the strong emotional ties that hold him bound to Brunswick stew (whatever that is), stewed okra, and anything deep-fried. He lived all over the south from Georgia to Texas, but his tongue is true to Louisiana and Cajun cooking.

I had solved the mystery of Jambalaya long before I met Husband, while I worked at Key Largo Restaurant in Walled Lake, Michigan. As I was getting acquainted with the menu, which was a combination of Louisiana, Florida, and the Caribbean cuisines, it dawned on me that Hank was singing about food. And I liked him and his song even more.

We served crayfish ettouffe, jerk chicken, conch chowder, Key lime pie, coconut shrimp, jambalaya, and gumbo. I was slowly adapting to new tastes, eager to discover unfamiliar ingredients and cherishing the challenges of the palate. And whenever Shawn Riley, our regular one-man-band, would start unpacking his equipment on the deck overlooking the lake and pretending to be somewhere tropical, I would ask him to sing Jambalaya at some point during the night.

Husband moved into my Ohio apartment dragging in a great collection of well-used books, an old, battered, but heavy cooking pan, and a lot of clothes that I disposed of on the sly, little by little. One of the first things he searched for at Cleveland’s West Side Market was filé powder. Once he secured it, he scurried home, stopping to purchase fish, shrimp, and sausage. He had been promising to make a pot of gumbo from the second or third e-mail we exchanged, and I was intrigued by his enthusiasm.

I stood dutifully by his side while he made it, and it was a long, time-consuming dish. Hank was crooning in the background, and Husband was pulling out every quote, fact, and anecdote from his Southern hat. He was not satisfied with being only the cook. He had to be the entertainer, too, and he fancies himself a comedian. The only thing he did not do was break into the Louisiana shuffle, for which I was eternally grateful, as Husband is completely devoid of any sense of rhythm.

After hours of chopping, and stirring, and simmering, he scooped a small pile of rice into each of our bowls, and ladled a hefty amount of wonderfully spiced, flavorful, dark stew on top of it. I wanted more rice, but Husband assured me that in gumbo, rice is considered almost a garnish, its neutral taste perfectly complementing the spiciness of gumbo. From that day on, the big pot and a huge wooden spoon with a leather attachment were his to keep.

When Daring Cooks announced that we are supposed to prepare gumbo for May Challenge, I was thrilled. For years I have been listening to Husband drone on about the importance of stirring roux for at leas forty minutes, the necessity of “holy trinity” to be chopped in equally small pieces, and the superiority of andouille sausage. But this time the big pot and wooden spoon belonged to me. He was at work when I was researching innumerable recipes on Internet, figuring out in the end that his method was a good one.

I had all the ingredients lined up on the kitchen counter, eager to cross into the unfamiliar territory by myself. I reverently stirred the roux until it was the color of chocolate, loose and shiny, its aroma moving away from lard and flour and ascending to another level. I cooked the chicken leg quarters with a carrot or two, a stalk of celery, and a wedge of onion for about one hour, trying to extract all the goodness those bones hide within before pulling the meat off. I wanted the flavorful broth to bring an additional layer of flavor to the stew.

gumbo ingredients from bibberche.com

I cut the aromatics evenly into small cubes, replacing the green pepper with red, preferring the sweet undertones to bitter, and added them to the roux to sweat and get soft and glossy. Spices and herbs went in next, stirred around for a minute, just before I added the stock and the chicken, already pulled off the bone. The stew simmered and bubbled until all the layers reached perfect harmony.

This was a dish simple and complex at the same time. I spooned a small pile of rice in each bowl and ladled the gumbo on top, eagerly awaiting Husband’s reaction. When I saw a smile on his face, I knew that I managed to cross the intimidating Mason-Dixon culinary line, and join the multitudes of Beulahs and Ednas who wielded the power in Old Dixie.

Husband and I might fight over the proprietorship of the gumbo pot, but I know that despite our competitive personalities, we will enjoy a delicious bowl of Southern goodness every time we move away from the stove, proudly carrying the steaming pot to the table. And you can bet that Hank’s version of Jambalaya will be playing in the background.

I hope you will take a trip South with me, stirring the roux and chopping the vegetables for “holy trinity”. I provided the lyrics to that crazy song just in case you decide to hum along and not think about definitions and sense.

Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My Yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou

Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a file gumbo
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.

The Thibodeaux and the Fontainneaux, the place is buzzin’
Kinfolk come to see Yvonne by the dozen
Dress in style, go hog wild, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.

Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a file gumbo
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.

Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

gumbo roux from bibberche.com



  • 1 chicken, cut up in 8 pieces
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 celery stalk
  • ¼ large yellow onion
  • ½ cup lard (or butter)
  • ½ cup all purpose flour
  • I large onion, diced
  • 1 green pepper (red, yellow, or orange can be substituted), diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper (less or more, depending on taste)
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3 basil leaves
  • 1 tsp file powder
  • ¾ lb andouille sausage, cur in circles


Put the chicken and vegetables in a stock pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil on high heat. Immediately lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 45 minutes, until meat is done. Let it cool, strain, take the meat off the bones, and reserve the broth.

In the meantime, heat the heavy skillet to medium and add lard. As soon as it melts, add flour and lower the heat to medium-low. Stir until incorporated. Keep on stirring frequently for 40 minutes, until the roux turns the color of chocolate. As it cooks, the roux will become looser.

Add vegetables and stir for 5 minutes, until softened and transparent. Add the spices and herbs and mix for a couple of minutes to release the flavors. Add the broth, chicken, and sausage, and simmer for another 30 minutes. In the end mix in file powder.

Taste for seasonings and adjust to taste. Serve with plain white rice.

Dec 032010

Early Monday morning the College Kritter took off from Long Beach airport, joining a crowd of half-asleep college students dragging their turkey-stuffed bodies back to dorm rooms and bad cafeteria food.  Perky, clean-shaven  businessmen fell into the flying fold, hands gripping their third Starbucks of the day more protectively than their boarding passes.

Her purple suitcase really stands out on the baggage carousel, and likely an x-ray machine. It held items that rarely belong to a college student. The Styrofoam cooler box contained a pound of frozen raw, unpeeled shrimp, three individually packed salmon fillets, and a bag of leftover turkey. A new non-stick skillet with a glass lid served as a vessel for a container of Eurocream*, a box of rose-scented turkish delight, and a handful of Halloween candy her sisters generously donated to the worthy cause of feeding a perpetually hungry student. We bought her a sushi-making kit, resisting the urge to pack some sea-weed and a bag of Japanese rice, after all, she lives across the Bay from the best oriental food on the American continent. Curious to learn the secrets of preparing the feasts for people who once ruled the world, she borrowed Tito’s Cookbook, a compilation of stories and recipes written by the chef who prepared all the meals for the former president of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito.

Laid neatly on top was the Serbian folk attire, complete with the thinnest cotton undershirt, tightly pleated skirt, and hand-embroidered apron and stockings, on which Father spent a considerable amount of money. She is going to don it on the day of her final exam in Yugoslav Culture. It’s Berkeley. Nobody will give her a second glance.

She came into the house like a tornado, leaving behind a trail of debris. She usurped my spot on the love seat and buried the coffee table with her books. She gathered the eager Beasties and watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while we listened for nine hours to Howard Shore’s haunting soundtrack. She made me prepare the southern style bourbon-spiked sweet potato casserole I was trying to avoid, and made faces when she spied the Brussels sprouts intended for the vegetable roast. She took with her my Ipod earbuds which I do not use anyway. She coerced me into giving her a spring-form pan to make a cheesecake for her friends upon her return. She told me how she had lost her black, knee-length woolen coat, and all of a sudden I was reaching into the coat closet and giving her mine, without a moment of regret.

She planned her birthday meal on Sunday with the precision of a four-star chef. She went to our local Persian store to get the freshest salmon fillets. She chose baguettes and Gruyère for the French onion soup. She made creamed spinach and finished decorating the Torte Reforme, a classic Serbian chocolate cake made with four layers of cake and a smooth chocolate buttercream we made together the night before. She made sure I did not include peas in her favorite orzo risotto, but acquiesced to chopped mushrooms which she is learning to appreciate.

She made tea for both of us and we spent hours discussing her plans for the summer, for the next college year, and even for the summer after she graduates in less than three years. We talked about the books she had read and the movies that did and didn’t impress her. She urged me to watch the few episodes of Dexter that I have missed, promising that the latest one would be fantastic. I heard her exasperation about the manager of the cafeteria where she works part-time who cannot remember her name. I laughed when she recounted escapades with her friends. There are few occasions when tea tastes that good (and it has to be real tea, brewed properly, the leaves steeped for just right amount of time and strained, poured into the orange and navy tea cups). I cherish these magic moments when she breezes into our lives, bringing with her all the energy and indolence of her years, bursting with excitement and ambition. And I am grateful for when she allows me to hold her without scrunching up her face and pretending that it bothers her.

Every time she leaves, exuberant and impatient, she takes a tiny bit of my heart with her. I picked up the clothes she left on the floor and found a place for the “Cal” drinking glass and hairbrush she had forgotten. I put away all the card-playing paraphernalia, the notebook, the pen, and the double set of Piatnik cards she had bought for us as a present, smiling as I looked at the scribbled pages, remembering all the wonderful moments we spent playing whist for four nights. I was not rushing in my task of ridding the house of the clutter she made, finding her presence even in a purple barrette that had fallen under the coffee table, an empty deodorant bottle she was too lazy to throw away, and a half-opened jar of Serbian honey sitting on the counter. I was trying to keep alive as long as I could the smell of her hair and the feel of her smooth, cool cheek against mine as she was saying goodbye, already thinking of her classes and the fencing meet later that night.

I tried to overcome my usual modus operandi which is to wallow in sentimentality for two or three days, only because I knew that she would be home in three weeks, right after her finals. That is not too many days to count. As long as she wants me to be a part of her life, I will cry silently at night, as Mother had cried for me, but I will always encourage her to  spread her wings and go as far away as her dreams can carry her.

But as brave as I was on Monday, I did not feel like cooking an inspirational meal. I found two turkey legs that she did not take with her back to Berkeley, and a container of leftover orzo risotto. I dragged Father from his spot on the couch, knowing he craved some action, gave him a knife, a vegetable peeler, and a bunch of vegetables to roughly chop. It took some time for his surgeon’s hands to get acceptable results from the medieval tools he was asked to wield, but when everything finally hit the pot, the kitchen was enveloped in the smell of comfort, security, warmth, and love.  As the soup simmered on the stove, I bid farewell to November and sent my Kritter a big kiss. I know that it has to fight the fog of the Bay and the wind off the Pacific, but it will find her smooth, cool cheek one of these nights, and she will smile and, I fancy, think of me, even if just for that moment.

*Eurocrem is Serbian-Italian product similar to Nutella



  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 poblano pepper, de-stemmed, seeds and veins cut off, diced
  • 1 turnip, peeled and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 5 cups chicken or turkey stock
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 2 leftover turkey legs, roasted (or leftover chicken parts)
  • any leftover roasted vegetables (Brussels sprouts, potatoes, sweet potatoes)
  • ½ cup peas
  • ½ cup frozen corn
  • 1-2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup leftover cooked pasta (I used orzo risotto)
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley


Heat the oil in the soup pot on medium temperature. Add the onions, carrots, celery and poblano pepper and sauté until soft and translucent, 8-10 minutes. Add the turnips and garlic and stir for another minute. Mix in the tomato paste and pour the chicken stock and the tomato sauce. Turn the heat on high, and when it boils, add the turkey legs and any leftover roasted vegetables. Turn the heat down and simmer for 45 minutes. Add the peas, the corn, the seasonings and pasta. Cook for another 15 minutes and serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.

I am submitting this recipe to Presto Pasta Night, hosted by Ruth at Once Upon a Feast and Souper Sundays, hosted by Deb at Kahakai Kitchen.

“Come join Soup-a-Palooza at TidyMom and Dine and Dish sponsored by Bush’s BeansHip HostessPillsbury and Westminster Crackers”

Nov 262010

Deda and Nina, Thanksgiving 2005, Fairview Park, Ohio

Every single year, I make a pledge to approach the month of November prepared, ready to tackle every challenge it issues, armed with experience and predicting the ensuing chaos. But this time, again, it took me by surprise. It ambushed me. November skulked at a safe distance behind a harvest moon, hung meaninglessly from the silhouetted palms like a demented piñata. It laid low, hiding behind the Halloween costumes and lying pumpkins completely out of their comfort zone under the cerulean skies of Southern California. It leapt at me with a shout of “BOO!” as soon as we sorted the candy. And being needy November, it demanded instant attention.

We barely had a moment of respite after putting together the award-winning Gypsy costume for the younger Beastie, and making a non-winning, but truly terrifying Hannibal Lecter mask for the older Beastie, when the birthday party preparations came into focus. I know, I know, I dig myself into a hole every year, trying to make something memorable for my girls, stretching every penny, and pulling every ounce of creative energy I possess.

Some time in September, when November was just a distant thought, Zoe and I decided on a fancy cocktail party with a bartender, pretty hors d’oeuvres, and chocolate cupcakes instead of a cake. No, the inspiration did not come from an episode of Orange County Housewives, and you might think that we are shacking up in one of the mansions in Coto de Caza. That is obviously what my delusional youngest child envisioned when she showed me the list of about twenty friends she wanted to invite to her long-anticipated birthday fête. I had to make her choose and apply the red marker aggressively, until the number dwindled to ten, still too many to sit at the dinner table, and way too many for our small two-bedroom apartment. But, the invitations went out, hand-delivered to the lucky few by the party girl herself.

That Saturday afternoon, everything in our home was black, white, and silver. The freshly ironed crisp white tablecloth was a perfect background for black platters filled with tiny stacked sandwiches, deviled eggs, bites of hot dogs wrapped in puff pastry, colorful vegetables with a dip, hummus, fruit kabobs, shrimp cocktail, and cheese with crackers.  The guests started trickling in, dressed for the black-tie affair, their eyes twinkling with excitement. Our twelve year old was behind the kitchen counter, dressed in a mandatory white shirt and black skirt as any self-respecting bartender, surrounded by bottles of juices, nectars, soda, straws, and cut-up fruit for garnish. In twenty minutes she mastered the skill of mixing a proper Shirley Temple and a booze free Bellini, and we had a room full of starlets attending their first Hollywood gala, balancing the cocktails in one hand and a small plate of nibbles in the other, with the appropriate pop standards unobtrusively completing the atmosphere. By pop, I mean Dino, Frank, Sammie, etc.

After this first, successfully accomplished November task, we were ready to finally embark on a long, luxurious scuba-diving vacation in the Philippines. Oh, I forgot: it was my sister and her husband on that sail boat cutting through the turquoise waves. Silly me! But I had no time for petty jealousies. We had to prepare for Father’s yearly visit, coordinate the arrival and organize the departure of the College Kritter, tackle Thanksgiving, and properly celebrate another birthday: that of the aforementioned alien from Academia.

Deda, Zoe, and Anya, Thanksgiving, 2005, Fairview Park, Ohio

I took a day off work on Monday, and spent the whole morning twirling around and singing (I would have whistled if I had ever managed to master the skill), ecstatic that I did not have to come close to the odious location of my employment. Father’s flight arrived on time, the suitcases following him, piled on another wheelchair (he is a very agile man, but for his complete and utter ignorance of any other language beside Serbian, we convinced him to ask for land transportation when he travels). It was the first sunny day after several gloomy and rainy ones. TSA did not subject him to the dreaded groping routine, LAX was not the usual nightmare, and the I-5 took us home in less than an hour. Feeling exhilarated, I stuck my tongue out at November.

We sipped Courvoisier as is our ritual for welcoming Dr. Popovic (Father to me, “Meeko” to Husband, “Deda” to the Beasties and the Kritter) to our home, as he slowly unpacked and I put away the goodies he brought from home. Everything survived the trans-Atlantic voyage and the gentle, loving attention of  the baggage handlers. We talked as Husband retreated to his laptop, unable to follow the conversation (he is a very smart man, but completely and utterly ignorant of any other language besides English), or rather a winded monologue.

While nodding and interjecting an occasional “da” or “aha”, I pulled a chicken out of the fridge, emptied its cavity and separated the liver from the neck, heart, and gizzards which went into my soup bag. I sprinkled the chicken with salt and pepper inside and out, rubbed it with butter, stuffed it with rosemary, thyme, a garlic head cut in half, and the liver. I put it in a roasting pan on top of six thick pieces of baguette, and poured several glugs of olive oil and wine to moisten the bread. It roasted for forty five minutes before I added the wedges of potatoes, big chunks of carrots, and the other half of the garlic head, glistening with olive oil. It remained in the oven for another forty-five minutes, filling the house with an air laden with pleasure breathed through the nose and straight into the soul.

The table was set and red wine poured, while everybody was milling around feeling good, listening to the 80s ballads in anticipation of the delectable meal. After all this was Dorie Greenspan’s Roasted Chicken for the Lazy People, and I have been looking forward to making it since I read the first glamorous review on the French Fridays with Dorie group site (yes, it was the crispy bread that did it for me).

Husband and the Beasties are properly trained, and accept that my Canon Rebel must eat before they partake. But Father and the Berkeley Kritter set the pace and set in on the beast like vultures. The crispy golden skin was peeled and half-digested before I could remove my lens cap. Hence, no pictures of the meal.

And still, November whines, kicking its bratty feet, unwilling to relent. The Kritter’s birthday is up next and her ever evolving palate is not easily appeased. The Brits have an ode to Guy Fawkes that begins, “Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”

So, why is it that year after year, like a mother forgetting the agony of labor, I let November sneak up on me so that by the fifth, I am the victim of its treason and plot.

But, oh how we remember, remember our sweet Novembers.

Nov 242010

I have never been to Africa. I listened, entranced, to the stories of wonder my parents’ friends told about working on the dams in Zambia, or building the roads in Zimbabwe, tracing  afterwords on the globe the meridians that led me to those exotic countries. In elementary school, I cried silent tears of angry resignation through Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I followed with adrenalin-induced intensity the escapades of the two kidnapped children wandering through deserts and jungles in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and Wilderness. In high school I suffered through Harry’s inevitable moribund monologues in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and made a pledge to change the world when the horrible injustices of Appartheid made my heart constrict with sorrow in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.

I listened to the stories of safaris in Kenya and explorations of the Serengeti, and yearned to see the red sky on the horizon of the savannah. I watched every episode of the BBC Survival series, dreaming of the African sunrises and the majestic waterfalls. When my piano teacher left for Mauritania with her husband and daughter, I was heart-broken and sad, but curious and jealous at the same time.

I wanted to go to Africa when my friend John Elwell finally got accepted to the Peace Corps and departed for Tunisia, but I was too insecure to skip the meridians again. Besides, I had a two year old daughter who was a bit too big to fit into a backpack. So I stayed put in a western suburb of Detroit and buried myself in the painful intricacies of The English Patient. My heart, already torn to slivers by divorce, became broken again and again, while I envisioned myself in the cave, the Saharan winds covering me with layers and layers of soft, seductive, and deadly sand.

I rejoiced when the mailman brought a postcard from my sister’s trip to Northern Africa, and cried laughing while she later described their adventures in Egypt and Morocco. I could envision her sitting under the enormous Saharan night sky next to the communal fire, surreptitiously rubbing her hands with an antiseptic just before a wizened Bedouin women of undetermined age offered her some flat bread and a tiny piece of some desiccated animal protein wrapped in dried camel dung. I chuckled as I imagined her chagrin when she discovered that she would be the one riding a donkey, while the rest of the group would ascend on the royal camels on their way to the pyramids, even though she would be the one leading the caravan.

I watched Hotel Rwanda embracing my knees with all my strength and sobbing inconsolably, unable to sleep for nights, asking myself what I could do to help. And I admired my friend Srdjan who spent months in the worst regions of Sudan on a UN mission to help the children.

Another friend is leaving for Cairo in a month on another UN mission, and Africa is again on my mind. Africa of Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion of my grade school years, Africa of Alex Haley’s Roots, Africa of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Africa of Somalian babies with stomachs distended by hunger, Africa of merciless child-soldiers wielding AK-47s, Africa of majestic buildings in Addis Ababa, and Africa of victorious Nelson Mandela.

I cannot go to Africa. Not yet.  But I can bring a part of Africa to my home. I can introduce my children to a world that they yearn to discover as much as I do by cooking a dish that represents at least some aspects of this wonderful, mysterious, and so exploited continent. And as a background, I will offer them the books and the movies that seduced me and enticed me to learn as much as I can about Africa, enveloped in romanticism and destroyed by greed.



  • 1 pound (500gr) boneless chicken legs. chopped in cubes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 piece ginger (1 inch), peeled, grated
  • 1 Tbsp garlic chili paste
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp smooth peanut butter
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 big sweet potatoes peeled and cut in big chunks
  • salt, pepper


Combine the chicken, garlic, brown sugar, ginger, garlic-chili paste, salt, and oil, and marinade for 30 minutes. Heat the skillet on medium-high heat and add the chicken and the marinade. Stir for 5-8 minutes until the chicken starts to get brown, and add the onion. Stir for another 5 minutes and add the tomato paste, and the peanut butter. Stir for a couple of minutes until everything melds together. Add the chicken stock, sweet potatoes, and the seasonings. Cook for another 20-30 minutes, until the sauce thickens and the potatoes are fork-tender. Serve as is, or with some boiled rice.

I am submitting this to Hearth and Soul event, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life, Heather, Butter, Christy and Sue.

“Come join Soup-a-Palooza at TidyMom and Dine and Dishsponsored by Bush’s BeansHip HostessPillsbury and Westminster Crackers”

Oct 162010

In April of 2008, we decided to move to California. Losing our house to a foreclosure became a certainty after months of trying to make up for the lost income. Our Serbian friends Dragana and Milan moved to Orange County two years before us, and put a lot of effort into convincing us that relocating to a palmy balmy paradise was not such a bad idea. We would have to say goodbye to our beautiful house and move to an apartment no matter what we did. So why not  California? Husband’s manager had flown him out and he was in love with it. The Beasties were too small to comprehend the recession, and they were extremely excited about the move. Not so much the College Kritter, who at the time took classes at a Community College as part of the specialized curriculum her high school offered. The idea of having to take another PE class as a requirement for graduating a California school did not sit well with her. Not to mention all the friends and the boyfriend…

We spent a lot of time rearranging our lives. Father bought the tickets to Serbia for me and the kids for the whole summer, allowing Husband to have an enormous garage sale, pack up all our belongings, put them up in storage, and vacate the house, without breaking little innocent hearts. Our friends put the deposit on an apartment next door to theirs. The College Kritter decided to graduate in December. She also had to abandon her Midwest University choices and shift towards California schools. Farewell to University of Michigan, Northwestern, and University of Chicago! Hello… whatever schools are in California!

Fast-forward to spring of 2009. It is March twentieth, my birthday. Dragana is taking me and the College Kritter to a nice Italian restaurant in Aliso Viejo for lunch. We sit outside where the sun is caressing our skin. We are relaxed, laughing, gossiping in Serbian, completely enjoying the food and the company of each other. We drop Dragana off and continue on to pick up the groceries. I am still in a haze, feeling great after a good meal when the College Kritter drops the bomb: “Mmmmm, I don’t think that I have been accepted at any of the UC schools”. My heart instantly skips a beat, starting to gallop wildly, faster and faster, while I clutch the wheel with such a force that my fingers are devoid of blood.

She does not want to ruin my birthday lunch, but now that it’s over, she has to share. My eyes well and I can barely see the road.  I park the car, relying on instinct as my vision is lost to tears. I cry.  And I cry for a week, regretting our decision to move to California, feeling that I have betrayed my child by putting our needs above hers, completely crushed by the injustice (after all, she was at the top 5 percent of her class, with a GPA of over 4.3).

Amidst all the crying we try to reassess our options. There is a community college right next to our new apartment complex. She can take classes, do really well, maybe transfer into the U.C. system later… And there are all the culinary schools… We schedule the interviews and rearrange our work hours to attend them. My heart is literally hurting for this child who has put so much effort into achieving excellent results, only to bang her head against a wall. And I hate California!

A week after my birthday, my butt is firmly ensconced upon the love seat while the College Kritter claims the couch, playing with her iphone. I allow a Food Network show to take my mind off my imminent stress when I hear, “I guess I just got accepted at Berkeley” uttered in a deadpan voice. It takes me quite a while to understand what she has just said. Berkeley? For real? Hippy trippy cool as all hell Berkeley? That’s when I jumped off the love seat and started screeching, hugging her, whirling, and crying, but this time out of pure happiness.

Yes, my first-born is fully embedded  in the People’s Republic of Berkeley and enjoying every minute of it. She has finished her first year triumphantly, pulling an A average. I accompanied her for her orientation, bonded with other parents, and spent a wonderful weekend transversing the streets of San Francisco until we collapsed, crushed by sheer exhaustion.

We made trips to Berkeley several times to move her into a dorm, to attend the weekend of parents’ visitation (never again!), to move her out of the dorm and into her first apartment. And a couple of weeks ago I flew to SF to spend a weekend with her. We had no agenda, no plan, no schedule. She met me at the airport BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit… y’know… the train) Friday night and we talked for the hour long commute to Berkeley. Her roommates went home for the weekend leaving us the run of the apartment and we talked for hours into the night.

Saturday morning, I made Turkish coffee and brought it to her while she was still rubbing her eyes, sleepy and tired. And then she made breakfast with eggs and chili. We left to explore Berkeley, wandering the streets, stopping by the Farmers’ Market, buying a flat of succulent strawberries, and snacking on them while walking. She had invited several friends for the meet-the-parent night, and we planned a visit to Berkeley Bowl later that day (she had envisioned a cheese and wine party as a perfect back-drop for me meeting her friends).

We knew we did not want to eat anything big or heavy. Mulling about the ideas, we decided to find a Vietnamese restaurant and try some pho. Walking up Center Street we stumbled upon Le Regal and decided to give it a try. We were drinking our jasmine tea when the waitress brought two huge bowls of soup that could easily feed a family of six. In a separate bowl there were twigs of Thai basil, lime wedges, minced chiles, and bean sprouts. We dug in, getting lost in the hints of anise, savoring the balance of complementary tastes, slightly sour, slightly spicy, slightly sweet.  After we were finished, most of the soup was still in our bowls. We took it home for another day. And we vowed to learn how to prepare a proper pho.

Back in Orange County, I joined the group French Fridays with Dorie, which celebrates Dorie Greenspan’s new book Around My French Table. Every week, we prepare one of her recipes (and in the month of October, she picked the dishes!). The book is beautiful, and filled with glorious recipes. I cannot wait to try them all!

This week we are cooking the Vietnamese Chicken Soup, very similar to pho. I had all the ingredients in my pantry except for the chicken breast on the bone. The soup was extremely simple and quick to prepare. The balance of tastes was impeccable. We ate it two nights in a row and all that was heard at the dinner table were some very satisfied grunts.

Sometimes, everything just works out.

The recipe for Spicy Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup can be found on page 98 of the book. Please, buy it, it is so beautifully written and photographed.