Aug 272012
 

Branzino from bibberche.com

The road from my Aunt’s and Uncle’s house in Montenegro to the beach spiraled around the hills sparsely covered with yellowed weed and resilient and hardened Mediterranean bushes. The heat radiated from the asphalt and the crickets kept me in rhythm as I became aware of the smell I missed for years: the smell of the Adriatic. I live a short walk away from the Pacific and every time I leave the apartment, I take time to breathe in the briny ocean air, but there is something different and seductive about the Adriatic.

When I entered its turquoise blue water for the first time after a few years, it felt as if I were hit by a bullet train full of memories. In an instant, I re-lived my childhood and adolescence; a pink balloon shaped as a rabbit, almost bigger than I was at age four in Budva; a creamy bite of pistachio gelato from BaÅ¡ka Voda; the lavender smell of pillows and blankets in our room in Dubrovnik; grilled squid from Brela; the bold and energizing tang of the pine branches that protected our tents at the beach on the island of Pag; the electrifying touch of my boyfriend’s hand while we walked in the surf in Biograd; a glass jar of strong home-made red wine I shared with my sister in Igalo; the still too-hot-to-touch paper cones filled with fried smelt in BaÅ¡ko Polje; sharing the elevator with a beautiful blond German boy when I was thirteen in Srebreno; the feel of cobble-stones underneath my bare feet in Hvar; a crumbly, dry, salty cheese we tried to cut into in Makarska; the excitement of sneaking away from my senior class on a field trip in Portorož; and the precise moment when I was convinced that a guitar cannot sound better anywhere else in the world than at midnight on an Adriatic beach.

Adriatic from bibberche.com

I could not get enough of that briny high, helplessly lost in the magical world of remembrances, inebriated from the feel-good warmth that cocooned me as I swam, and dove, and jumped, and floated, pretending to follow the girls around in their silliness. While I was in the water, nothing else mattered. Nothing could come between me and the beauty that surrounded me, real or resurrected. I was riding the wave of endorphins even on my trek back home, up the hill, under the merciless southern sun, accompanied only by the unstoppable crickets and the gut-wrenching whining coming from the three girls who dragged their feet and begged me to send for the car.

As I turned the water on in the shower, I licked the salt off my still warm shoulder and savored the intensity of the sea, trying to delay the inevitable sobering up. The water washed the salt off my body and the sand from my hair, but the minute remains on my tongue kept me smiling for another few moments, just in time for the gaggle of girls to burst through the door kicking and shoving, racing each other to the shower stall.

Branzino from bibberche.com

I could not feel even a whisper of a breeze as I made my way to the stone-covered patio. Parsley and rosemary edged the garden and shimmered in the heat haze and the whole world seemed to move in slow motion. Father had retreated to his room for a siesta. Uncle slowly rose from his chair behind the wooden picnic table and, toting his ice-cold beer, brought out of the fridge a metal bowl full of silver and rosy fish, their eyes bright and shiny, the scales reflecting the harsh noon sun. He had bought a dozen branzini at a near-by fishing village that morning, sending the money down on a rope pulley and receiving a bag of just caught fish in return.

Branzino from bibberche.com

When I was a child, I could not run far enough away when Mother scaled and gutted the fish, afraid that I would be summoned to help somehow, feeling disgusted and well above those tedious and odious chores. But now I stood mesmerized as I watched my Uncle clean one branzino after the other, laying them back gently into their bowl, and then placing a sprig of rosemary and a sprinkle of coarse salt between the sides. They rested on a board, aligned like soldiers and covered with a netted screen for an hour to dry out. In the meantime, he made the fire in the vast outside oven, layering the wood coals, crumpled newspapers, and pine cones in a metal trough big enough to grill a meal for a squadron.

Branzino from bibberche.com

Once the fire subsided, he dragged the fish through olive oil and placed them on the hot grates, brushing them with more oil as they cooked. After ten minutes, he turned them, anointed them again, sprinkled some salt on top, and let them finish grilling until their skin was golden and crackling, their eyes opaque, and fins and tails deliciously crispy. When he laid the platter on the table, it looked like the food of gods, flanked by a simple Serbian potato salad, fresh home-made bread, hearty Montenegrin red wine, lemon slices, and the “marinade” -  fragrant mix of olive oil, parsley, and garlic.

The first flaky and sweet bite sent me on another high wave. Looking at the girls in summer dresses, with their faces kissed by sun, their long fingers greasy from the fish, their eyes glistening with content, I felt immensely happy, grateful for this day filled with simple gifts that touched all my senses and awoke the sentiments of excitement and peace at the same time.

Branzino from bibberche.com

Mar 092012
 
On the Adriatic Coast from bibberche.com

My Nina is as old as I am in this photo. I need a shot, STAT!

I proved many times, not always with pleasant consequences, that certain skills, once learned, always stay somewhere in our brain-warehouse, maybe hidden and dusty, but easily reached and polished: bike riding, nursing, roller blading, skiing (on this one, my body knew exactly how to move, but my muscles refused to cooperate and time after time I ended up looking more like a snowman than a ski-bunny)…

But, I was so immensely impressed by my little gray cells’ capacity to pull the long-forgotten images from one end of my spinal column or the other when I was confronted with freshly defrosted whole, not yet cleaned heap of viscous, slimy and pretty scary looking baby squid.

As soon as I reached for the refrigerator door to fetch the cephalopods, Husband left the house to go to Home Depot, because we urgently needed a replacement filter for something. Right.

I tried to get the Beasties, our 12 and 13 year old daughters, to help – the older one made faces and faked gagging, and the younger grabbed an innocent specimen, named it Cthulhu, ran around the house with it and asked if it could be her new pet (I guess it can join a dead grasshopper-pet and a potato-pet that sleep very close to her). I gave up and shooed them away. My santoku in hand I started…

Some time ago (has it been that long?) in my college junior year, my roommate’s boyfriend’s cousin Drakče came to visit us on a furlough from serving army somewhere on the Adriatic. This continental boy learned how to fish, clean, gut and eat anything that swam around, and brought some fine squid with him. A small group of friends gathered with promises of free and delicious food, but first, we had to go through a tutorial on how to clean these gross-looking things. It took some (and then some more) alcohol for fortification, but when we embarked on this voyage, we were soon mesmerized and pleasantly surprised as how easy it was. By the last one, we felt like huffy, grumpy and not-too-freshly-smelling fisherman from any Mediterranean port – proud and convinced that the next day we could look the fish monger straight in the eyes and give him a secret shake.

Over the years I kept meeting squid – fried, sauteed, grilled, stuffed, in salads, in risottos, but never again did I have to clean another one. Until today. And it all came back. I missed my friends, I missed being 20 (and no, I didn’t forget the most important part of bracing myself for the deed with a cocktail), but the end result was as spectacular and awe-inspiring as back then.

Patiently awaiting my expertise

heads off

gutted in one clean sweep

the last thing out, cartilage

all queued up for a hot date (after being skinned, of course)

no, these would not make the most desirable prom date

If you are afraid that the next posts are going to be tutorials on gutting the fish, killing and plucking the chickens or skinning a hog, you can relax;  apart from rinsing and de-bearding the mussels I am completely ignorant of the processes necessary to transform fully functional grazers/swimmers/fliers/waders  into neatly packaged squares available in the supermarkets.

And, no, these beauties did not go anywhere. They ended up in a nice aromatic bath of minced garlic, lemon juice, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and olive oil, where they luxuriated for 30 minutes, while the cast iron grill pan was slowly warming up. They accepted the heat with sizzle, sunbathed for 1 minute, turned on their backs, just to get the char lines, and off they strutted into a bowl, all their own. They were accompanied by a simple pasta with sauteed onions, red peppers, salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes – my squid like it hot and spicy! – a salad and a ramekin of marinade (I remembered to dish some up before the squid jumped in).

Feb 142012
 

Pasta with Sardines from bibberche.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasta with Sardines

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

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

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

Pasta with Sardines from bibberche.com

MEDITERRANEAN PASTA WITH SARDINES

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

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

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

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

Mar 142011
 

Peruvian Ceviche from bibberche.com

College Kritter earned that name well before starting college. The state of Ohio offered all high-school juniors with a GPA over 3.5 a chance to attend a community college, get their regular high school requirements met, and also finish off some college core classes. During her junior and senior years of high school, she was immersed in a college atmosphere, visiting her school only for an occasional and extremely useless mandatory meeting with her counselor. And she thrived.

Before we had decided to move out west, she and I picked colleges and her heart was set on the University of Michigan, followed closely by the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. The mortgage industry went belly up, Husband lost his pretty lucrative job almost overnight, and we had some extremely big choices to make. The majority of our material possessions, including the house and both of the cars went POOF, and instead of moving into a cheap apartment somewhere on the west side of Cleveland, we decided to really move west. As to California. College Kritter was aware of our financial downsizing, but the young Beasties were oblivious, Hollywood stricken, and eager to relocate (they even volunteered to donate a bunch of toys, stuffed animals, and games to an orphanage in Berea).

College Kritter moved her college interests westward as well, and applied to four UC schools. She graduated a semester early, and after spending a week with her dad in Florida, she joined Husband and Father on their moving adventure west. She did not know anybody in Orange County and I was the grateful beneficiary of her solitary existence. We spent hours talking, laughing, and reminiscing. We watched Kurosawa and Buñuel movies and analyzed till late at night. We went grocery shopping together and prepared meals stepping on each other’s toes in the tiny kitchen. She became quite skillful in her culinary efforts, and I enjoyed the unexpected gift of her presence.

It was the last week of March, 2009. We were watching TV in our tiny, 960 square foot apartment in Southern California. I was laying on the love-seat with my feet up on the armrest (I am not so short as to fit comfortably), and College Kritter was sitting on the sofa checking her iPhone during the commercials. Out of the blue, in a deadpan voice she said, “I think they accepted me at Berkeley”. For a moment I was speechless, trying to switch planets. Then I grabbed her iPhone, read only “Congratulations…”, got up and started jumping up and down, crying and screaming, a woman possessed, while she watched me with that WTF expression that is a rite of passage for teenagers. The rest is history.

When she came home from Cal at Thanksgiving, we celebrated her eighteenth birthday on the 28th of November within the family. We got her a basket of food-related goodies because she is a gourmand-in-making. She got to choose almost every meal for the four days she spent with us. We had a toast, welcoming her into the world of adults (even though she is a more responsible and adult person then many adults I know). She flew back to her roommates, classes, and exams, and I stayed behind, crying silently as I collected the clothes she left on the floor and aligned the books she disturbed, and threw away empty toiletries left in her wake.

We did not celebrate her high-school graduation. She did not go to the prom. There was no bash marking her acceptance to UC Berkeley. And her eighteenth birthday, one of the biggest milestones that would have definitely warranted a massive attendance by relatives and friends bearing gifts if we lived in Serbia, was a quiet affair, missing all the necessary bells and whistles. She finished her first semester with As, and proud does not even come close to explaining how I felt about my child.

I asked her what she wanted as a present for everything she had accomplished, and she said she wanted to take a trip with me during spring break. We tossed ideas back and forth talking on Skype several times a week. Constricted by finances and the short time period, we decided to go to Yucatan, Mexico. I trawled the Internet frantically for a couple of months, trying to cram as much as I could into one week, and on the eve of our departure, when she flew in from Northern California, our suitcases were packed, printouts ready, cameras charged, and the meticulously written list left on the counter with every item crossed off.

I have to devote several posts to describing our wonderful adventure in Mexico. It has been a year since then, and I still feel the Caribbean sun on my skin. I have bought a tortilladora in Valladolid after watching Mayan women make small, corn tortillas that we ate at every meal. I lugged heavy a molcajete y tejolote that I bought at the Farmers’ Market in Yucatan, convinced that salsas could taste as good as they did in Playa Del Carmen. I bought banana leaves, determined to make Cochinita Pibil, desperately trying to relive one more time the fresh, flavor-packed meals we ate in Mexico.

The first time I ever had ceviche, Nina and I were sitting at an outside table in a small seafood restaurant in Playa Del Carmen. It was a warm night, but the clouds were hanging low and a couple of raindrops fell intermittently on the concrete. The waiter told us that people did not eat seafood when it rained, apologizing for the lack of customers. It seemed that the Italian restaurant next door offered comfort food, but I could not imagine eating a plateful of spaghetti with Bolognese sauce on the coast of the Caribbean Sea.

We asked for recommendations and he brought us a fish ceviche for an appetizer. We are both enamoured with raw food, and we were looking forward to trying another approach to raw seafood. It was completely different from steak tartare, carpaccio, and even sushi in its preparation. It was well balanced, clean, acidic, and spicy, with a fresh aftertaste of cilantro.

I’ve made ceviche several times since then, always consulting Rick Bayless’ recipe from the book Fiesta at Rick’s which I won during his Twitter contest. His recipe uses scallops and tropical fruit and it became a staple appetizer for any of our summer dinners. This month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge took us to Perú, and one of the dishes we were supposed to make was Peruvian Fish Ceviche.

Our local grocery store, Henry’s Market, had beautiful corvina (sea bass) filets and I trust their meat department. The ceviche was extremely easy to make, and it was an enjoyable introduction to our fish dinner. The cubes of fish are marinated for 10-15 minutes with thinly sliced red onions, and served with corn and rounds of soft, boiled sweet potato, a completely new approach to our favorite summer nibble.

As I tasted every lime and jalapeño-infused morsel of fish, I remembered the warm Mexican night a year ago. One day College Kritter and I will be heading to Perú and I cannot wait to start planning again. I am looking forward to exploring the world with her, one ceviche at a time.

ceviche, process from bibberche.com

Kathlyn of Bake Like a Ninja was our Daring Cooks’ March 2011 hostess. Kathlyn challenges us to make two classic Peruvian dishes: Ceviche de Pescado from “Peruvian Cooking – Basic Recipes” by Annik Franco Barreau. And Papas Rellenas adapted from a home recipe by Kathlyn’s Spanish teacher, Mayra.

CEVICHE DE PESCADO, from Peruvian Cooking – Basic Recipes, by Annik Franco Barreau

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. (about 1 kg) firm white fish (scallops or other seafood may be substituted)*
  • 2 garlic cloves, mashed
  • 1 chili pepper,
  • 1 cup (240 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice (between 8-12 limes)
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 large ear of corn
  • Lettuce leaves

Directions:

Boil sweet potato and corn (separately) if using for garnish. Allow to cool. (Can be done hours or even a day in advance). Wash and trim your fish. Slice into pieces between ½ inch (15 mm) cubes to 2 inch (50mm) pieces, depending on taste.** Place fish in a non-reactive, shallow pan in a thin layer. Season with salt and pepper.

Combine lime juice, chili pepper, coriander and garlic. Pour mixture over fish. Stir lightly to expose all the fish to some of the lime juice mixture. Put sliced onion on top of fish as it “cooks”. Let fish stand for 10 minutes. Lift fish out of the lime juice and plate individual portions, garnishing with lettuce, slices of sweet potato and slices or kernels of corn if using.

*It is important to use high quality, really fresh fish. You can use previously frozen The better your fish, the better your ceviche.

** The fish is going to “cook” in the lime juice – how thick you make the pieces will determine how much the fish cooks, so keep your own preference in mind when you are cutting the fish up.

I am sending the ceviche to Hearth and Soul blog event, hosted by Christy of Frugality and Crunchiness with Christy.

Jan 302011
 

Father at 20 by bibberche.comWhen I was filling out the application for the Student Exchange program in my Junior year of college, I did not think for a second that I was irrevocably changing the path of my life and that nothing would ever, ever be the same. Because of that I have sentenced myself, my family, and my friends to a life of inconsolable goodbyes and days filled with endless tears. At the same time, I have opened up the atlas previously folded tightly and made our world bigger.

Last night we drove to LAX and sent Father back to Serbia. He has been here with us for two months. He is a stubborn, opinionated, and extremely loud old goat who drove me and the girls crazy almost every day. As a retired surgeon, he definitely suffers from the “benign tyrant” syndrome, at least. At seventy six, he considers himself middle-aged, to which I do not have a reason to object – I guess it makes me a mere teenager, so I’ll take it.

Mother diligently took several English courses in her fifties, when I married an American. She did not want Husband to make mother-in-law jokes behind her back. She can read, write, watch TV, and converse even on the most complicated political issues. Father, on the other hand, refused to move forward and learn one more word past the lessons he learned with a private English tutor he had in high school (the woman was placed in Deda-Ljubo’s house after WWII, and felt an obligation to help out the family that lost living space alloted to her, so she taught Father English).

He has been visiting our family every year since 1996, toting a dilapidated booklet titled English for Travelers without opening it once, asking the questions in a language stored deep in his spinal column, without waiting for a response he knew he could not understand. Every time he boards a plane, there are concerned and well-meaning people on both sides of the ocean who sacrifice sleep and stay up for hours, biting their nails and trying to calm their wildly beating hearts, imagining the worst possible scenarios, only to face the grinning, albeit tired Father, safely deposited at the right place. It will never cease to amaze me that he manages to plod his way from one continent to another when I know that he has never once filled out the customs form successfully, and doubt that he even knows our address by heart.

He is like a child, amused by the most inane things. Husband and College Kritter call him K-Pax, because his sunglasses hide the eyesDad as K-Pax from bibberche.com turned upwards, his mouth opened in wonderment. He is convinced that “laguna” is a synonym for “valley”, and we gave up trying to dissuade him. When he is here, he is mostly bored. For years, he was everywhere. There was no party, wedding, or feast in town that he was not a guest of honor. He traveled the world, enjoyed the best in food, alcohol, cigars, and women. The doors always miraculously opened for him, and we never had to wait in line (if he did not offer to deal with the bureaucracy for us). He loved people, and people loved him in return.

But when he retired, his usefulness dwindled. A lot of “friends” turned away from him. The invitations to the important parties slowed down to a trickle. Women started to see his gray hair once he shed the white coat. He stopped smoking. And his life became dull. With so much time on his hands, he constantly tries to satisfy the little boy still living within, whose childhood was abrubtly interrupted by Stukas and Messerschmitts flying above his village back in 1941. He hoards seeds, nuts, and fruit seedlings, and plants them envisioning a garden of Eden. He always has a dog or two, and he takes them hunting for rabbits and pheasants. He raises turkeys chickens of several different breeds. He wants to expand his homestead and introduce goats and sheep to his Ranch. He is seventy six, but in some ways, life is just beginning.

In the winter, he visits us. He goes for walks in the neighborhood, examining various shrubs and nodding hello to Mexican abuelas watching the children play. Around eleven he changes into his swimming trunks, dons his K-Pax sunglasses, grabs a towel, and heads for the pool, where he lies in the chaise-lounge and takes an occasional soak in the jacuzzi.  At one o’clock he enjoys his vodka-tonic and takes the first nap of the day. To fill his afternoons, I give him simple kitchen tasks and plenty of time to finish them without rush: he can slice and dice the onions, mince the garlic (if you are not particular and do not mind pretty sizeable chunks), peel and cube the potatoes and carrots, and prepare any meat for dinner. He holds the knife like a scalpel and arranges the food in neat rows when he is finished. He cleans the pots and bowls he used with cold water and no soap, still refusing to plop them in the dishwasher. And then he retreats to the couch for a round of reading and another nap.

Deda from bibberche.com

By the time I arrive home from work, he is eager for conversation. Husband works at home usually, but speaks less Serbian than Father speaks English. They get along perfectly. I’m scarcely in the door a nanosecond before Father begins reciting the detailed account of his day. He will manage to weave in a small hook that enables him to take me on another trip into his past, the days of medical school, summers in Dalmatia where he ran a students’ camp for years, or the time spent on the island of Vis where he served as a medic in the mandatory Yugoslav army. Most of these recollections I have heard before, but each telling becomes more embellished and fanciful. Once he starts talking, his world alights again, and very few things can snatch him away from the seductive calls of his adventurous youth.

The blue skies of California remind him of the skies over the Adriatic. He looks lovingly at the mountains and imagines the slopes of Mount Biokovo. He relives every day the dawn fishing trips with the locals, the feasts of strong red wine and fresh seafood in the stone taverns, the briny smell of the harbors, and the warm mistral carrying on its wings the droplets of the sea. Born in a small village far away from the ocean, only at the sea coast does he feel completely alive. He is afraid of the future. He does not care for the present. The past keeps him afloat and fuels his energy.

Deda with Kids from bibberche.com

At times I longed for the routine of my life before his visit and freedom from his passionate monologues. I occasionally sneaked to the bedroom toting my laptop, trying not to wake him up and provoke another one of his long-winded talks. I caught myself several times counting the days until his departure, only to feel completely devastated by the guilt.

The check-in process at the Lufthansa counter was unexpectedly quick. We had already reserved a wheelchair transport to the gate – he is in a great shape for his age, still agile and spry, but we do not have to worry that he would get lost navigating the airport maze. The time to say goodbye approached much faster then I anticipated. We hugged and kissed, he squeezed me tightly, and sat in the wheelchair. Looking from above, his hair was never whiter. His shoulders slouched, wrapped in a light coat several sizes too big, he looked small and vulnerable. I held his hand as the Indonesian airport worker pushed him towards security. As he was just about to disappear around the corner, he turned, smiled, and waved, his tired eyes glistening. I waved back, tears running down my face, my heart held in a vise of grief.

Deda in California from bibberche.com

I did not talk much on the way home. When we arrived, I put away the nail file he left on the coffee table, and washed his wine glass. I quickly hanged clothes on several hangers left empty behind him, and put back the sweaters on the shelf I let him use. I smiled when I saw his neatly folded sheets and towels in the hamper, and I started missing him.

Today was a quiet day. He arrived safely, Mother said. I chuckled, knowing that her days are going to be filled with his accounts of the California visit, and that she is going to sigh impatiently and roll her eyes before she retreats to her sanctuary of a room and her own computer. I felt at peace, relaxed, and relieved. While I was gathering everything I needed for dinner, I thought of him, his life, his memories, his endless stories, and his immense love for the ocean. I felt that the fish stew I made would have made him happy. If he were at the dinner table, he would have taken me again to meet the handsome, young man he once was, sitting on a pier in the Adriatic, looking at the horizon behind his K-Pax sunglasses.

Ligurian Fish Stew form bibberche.com

LIGURIAN FISH STEW (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

The stew was pretty simple to prepare and not time-consuming. The flavors came together, enhanced by the homemade seafood stock. I served it with a loaf of fresh bread and a salad. The original recipe called for crostini.

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 3/4 cup white wine
  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes
  • 2 cups seafood stock*
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 1/2 pounds fish fillets, skinned and cut into 3/4-inch chunks (I used swai and salmon, but any firm, white fish would work)
  • ½ pound shrimp, cleaned and deveined
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Directions:

Heat the oil over medium heat In a heavy bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Add the carrot, onion, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir for 1 minute. Turn the heat to high. Add the wine and scrape up the brown bits that cling to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stock and red pepper flakes. Reduce the heat and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 18 to 20 minutes. Add the fish to the stew. Cook until cooked through, about 5 to 8 minutes. In the last 3 minutes add the shrimp. Season the stew with salt, if needed.

*I always have seafood stock in the freezer, and several bags of shrimp and lobster shells, along with fish heads, waiting to become stock one fine day

 

I know that this stew will be in good company at SoupaPalooza event organized by Kristen and Cheryl. And I know that my dad will enjoy the company of mostly females:)

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

I present this hearty and flavorful dish to the I Heart Cooking Clubs hosted by Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies. The theme for this week was potluck. Another one of my favorite blog hops is Hearth and Soul, hosted by Heather of Girlichef, and this is my entry.