Apr 172014
 

Naturally Colored Easter Eggs from bibberche.com

The days approaching Easter were filled with excitement and anticipation for us while we were growing up in Yugoslavia. As soon as we noticed the envelopes of different dyes and cartons of eggs waiting in the pantry, we became antsy, barely able to wait for “Veliki Cetvrtak” or Big Thursday, to join in the ritual of coloring Easter eggs. The galley kitchen in our old house was too narrow to accommodate Mother’s slender figure joined by Njanja’s much more corpulent presence. When the three of us ran around, weaving through skirts and legs, the small space became like an anthill, teeming with small creatures.

Mother would empty an envelope in the water, add a tablespoon of vinegar to help set the color, and heat it until it boiled. She would place the eggs one by one carefully into the bubbling liquid, and let them move around and absorb the color for fifteen or twenty minutes. The moment when the eggs were to emerge from the murky swirls was greeted by wide open eyes. Upon resting our glances on a perfectly colored oval resting in the spoon glistening in Carmine Red, Prussian Green, Cadmium Yellow, Permanent Violet, or Cobalt Blue, the smiles of relief would appear, and the egg would be placed gingerly onto a plate to cool off.

Easter 2005

Easter egg and Anya, nine years ago.

We breathed in the astringent smell of vinegar waiting eagerly for our cue to affix the clingy decorative labels depicting adorable chickens and cute bunnies onto the eggs. After straightening the folds of the filmy material, making it become one with the surface, Mother would rub the eggs with bacon, making them shiny and beautiful, resplendent in their primary colors.

The first red egg was sequestered into the credenza to await the next year’s Big Thursday, replacing the old one that sat triumphantly on the shelf for a year. This egg was called “Cuvarkuca”, its purpose: to take care of the house and its inhabitants and protect them from the evil spirits. They say that this first red egg never rots, but I was never brave enough to test this hypothesis.

At the conclusion of this endeavor, there were baskets of colorful eggs adorning every flat surface of the house. We would approach them surreptitiously and caress their smooth surfaces, trying to pick the sturdiest specimens for the upcoming egg battle on Sunday morning. We called forth images of Father choosing a ripe watermelon, thumping and probing, and shook the eggs, knocked on them, and rolled them around. We pulled the ones we decorated on top, and marked the possible winners with a marker. Every day the position of the eggs in the baskets changed, as we attempted to be sly and sneaky, looking forward to the challenge.

Easter 2005

Nine years ago, Zoe and her egg.

Veliki Petak (Great Friday, as opposed to Good Friday) was one of the few days during the course of the year that we observed the Eastern Orthodox Lent rules: no red meat, no dairy, no eggs. I am convinced that I mastered the art of delayed gratification ogling those beautiful eggs for three days, without being able to get to them.

Our Lenten dinner was not a humble affair. There was always a lot of pan-fried fish (trout or fresh-water bass), accompanied by crusty bread,  potato salad with red onions and a vinaigrette, baked Serbian beans, black radish relish, and several desserts, including baklava. But those forbidden eggs taunting us with their vibrant splendor were the center of our attention.

The Easter Sunday table was covered with a crisp, white, starched tablecloth that awaited us early in the morning when we sauntered in with our freshly scrubbed faces and squeaky-clean teeth. We wore our best clothes that Mother picked the night before and laid for us on the living room couch. We would solemnly sit at the table, appraising its offerings:  magenta slivers of fresh radishes, crisp spears of green onions, white cubes of farmers’ cheese, a bowl of pale yellow kajmak, a platter exhibiting one of Mother’s baking masterpieces, and in the center: the basket of eggs, flanked by a wooden salt and pepper dispenser.

We would wait patiently while the adults took their places at the table, ready to grab the egg we had chosen days ago to be the contender. When everybody’s cups were filled with milk or yogurt, the egg battle could commence. The only rule that was imposed was the proper positioning of the egg in the hand. We went around, knocking egg against egg, sharper side to sharper side, obtuse to obtuse, until one egg was the absolute winner, having at least one of the sides intact. The other eggs became pure fodder for the masses, dunked in salt and eaten together with crunchy scallions. The winner went back to the basket, its owner jealously guarding it during any upcoming meal. These battles were not to be taken frivolously and everybody coveted the winning egg. But we all enjoyed the rest of the Easter breakfast, laughing, arguing the merits of each carefully chosen egg, and enjoying the wonderful food greeting us on the table.

I was not raised in a religious household, and neither are my girls. But when Easter approaches, their eyes become sparkly, and they start talking eggs. I indulge them and offer the cups of food coloring diluted in hot water. They draw with crayons before they color the eggs. They put sprinkles and rhinestones on eggs, they write messages and names, they try their best in topping the previous year’s lovelies.

Easter Eggs from bibberche.com

I do not buy the envelopes of powder dye, even though I still have dreams of those eggs posing on the dining room table. I collect onion skins and color my eggs naturally, decorating them with a leaf, a petal, a frond. It is  a method widely used in Serbia, and I just love the hues that I get from different exposure times and differently colored eggs.

I carefully lay the basket of colored eggs on my Easter Sunday table, accompanied by magenta-hued radishes, crispy scallions, and freshly baked bread. The girls come out of their room scrubbed and clean, wearing their best clothes. Looking at their eyes darting around, appraising the situation, picking the best egg for the battle, I try to stifle a smile. I know for certain that they are going to pick the eggs they decorated, thinking they just might win this time!

ONION SKIN COLORED EGGS

Ingredients:

  • 2 dozen eggs (buy them several days in advance and let them rest in the fridge)
  • Onion skins (yellow onions and red onions are the best) – I start collecting mine a couple of months before
  • 1-2 Tbsp vinegar
  • leaves, fronds, petals – anything you think might make a good impression on the egg
  • old stockings
  • twist ties or rubber bands

Directions:

Wet a spot on the egg and affix the leaf, a petal, or a frond onto the egg. Wrap tightly in the stocking and twist off with a twist tie or a rubber band.

Fill a big Dutch oven or a stainless steal pot with onion skins, add water, and nestle the wrapped eggs inside. Heat until boiling, and then turn the heat down to medium-low. Simmer for twenty to thirty minutes (depending on the desired shade, the eggs can simmer for up to one hour.) Pull the eggs out and allow to cool. Cut the wrapping around the eggs and remove the greenery. Rub the eggs with a piece of bacon to seal the pores.

VARIATIONS:

I have colored my eggs successfully using turmeric and coffee. I love all the different hues I get with the method. I also use garlic skins to achieve marble effect, rubber bands, the adhesive “dots” that are left after punching holes in paper, and textured plastic bags that hold my garlic bulbs or potatoes.

Naturally Colored Easter Eggs from bibberche.com

Eggs colored with coffee, turmeric, and onion skins

Jan 222013
 
Lenti Bulgur Pilaf from bibberche.com

Photo by my 3G iPhone. No comment.

I have always wondered how celebrity chefs on TV manage to pull off their seemingly easy cooking demonstrations, having to consider the time and space limitations, the necessity to show technique, the need for banter and entertaining talk, and the intimidating presence of non-forgiving video cameras.

I am an oldest child and I embrace challenges. Or, as my sister would put it, I tend to pick ways to make my life harder. I played with the idea of making a video of myself preparing a dish I am truly comfortable with, only to satiate my curiosity and explore another terra incognita. Recently I decided to put that momentous event off until much later, convinced that it really would make my life much harder. And these days I want to invoke my inner Milan Kundera and experience my own Unbearable Lightness of Being. No need to stress, over-exert, or worry. I had more than my share of those in the past several months, thank you very much.

A while ago I enthusiastically answered an email from Casey Benedict of Kitchen Play and signed up for the Cookbook Tour with five other food bloggers. Supporting Faith Gorsky, a fellow writer and a newly-hatched cookbook author came naturally. Her book An Eddible Mosaic is gorgeous, the dishes from her Syrian mother-in-law invite me back home to Serbia, and every time I open it, I feel as if I were visiting an old friend.

An Edible Mosaic by Faith Gorsky

We invited our friends and readers to join us for a live Twitter party last weekend. All six of us were preparing the same dish, Lentil and Bulgur Pilaf with Caramelized Onions, at the same time. We had one hour to gather the ingredients, cook, take photos, upload them to Twitter, and record our progress in a live Twitter stream.

Well, people who know me are aware of the fact that I am a techno-peasant. I believe that there are mean little elves who reside inside my laptop, whose only purpose in life is to sabotage and impede my technological efforts. But not only was I armed with my iPhone, I recruited my oldest daughter who was on her winter break from UC Berkeley. She poo-poos my woes and wrestles with any techie problem with an analytical and logical approach. And together we pulled it off.

The dish came together in less than an hour, the house smelled divine, and apart from the annoying fact that my father ate all of the caramelized onions that were supposed to be the finishing touch to the dish, I felt really proud of my accomplishment: not only was I able to follow all the steps accurately to come up with a fragrant and delicious meal, I managed to take the photos of the process and tweet while doing it!

Lentil and Bulgur Pilaf with Caramelized Onions from bibberche.com

Yes, we had to make another batch of caramelized onions, but we were at an advantage, as it was still early in southern California after the Twitter party ended. I made my first bulgur meal, I learned novel techniques and tips, and my whole family enjoyed this pilaf that I served with grilled Moroccan chicken.

This was enough excitement and multi-tasking for now. Shooting a video is definitely not going to happen soon. But as I learned from James Bond movies, never say never again.

I hope you get a chance to try some of the recipes from An Edible Mosaic. They are well written, comprehensible, easy to follow, and delicious. You don’t have to be an expert on Middle Eastern foods to take the plunge. And if you need some questions answered, don’t hesitate to ask me, or my friends who are participating in this book promotion.

LENTIL AND BULGUR PILAF WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS

(MUJADDARA BURGHUL)

Recipe courtesy of An Edible Mosaic:  Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair by Faith Gorsky (Tuttle Publishing; Nov. 2012); reprinted with permission.

Serves 4 to 6

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 50 minutes, plus 10 minutes to let the bulgur sit after cooking

Ingredients:

  • 1 ¹/3 cups (275 g) dried brown lentils (or 2 cans brown lentils, rinsed and drained)
  • 6 cups (1.5 liters) water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 large onions, quartered and thinly sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 pods cardamom, cracked open
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup (185 g) coarse-ground bulgur wheat
  • 1½ cups (300 ml) boiling water
  • Plain yogurt (optional, for serving)

Directions:

1. Sort through the lentils to remove any small stones or pieces of dirt, and then rinse with cold water in a colander. Bring the rinsed lentils and the water to a boil in a lidded medium saucepan. Cover the saucepan, turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook until the lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more water as necessary so that they are always immersed; strain.

2. While the lentils cook, heat the oil and the butter in a large skillet over moderately-high heat; add the onion and saute until completely softened but not yet browned, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer half the onion to a small bowl and set aside. Continue cooking the remaining onion until deep caramel in color, about 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water as necessary if the onion starts to get too dark. Set aside.

3. Put half a kettle of water on to boil. Transfer the sauteed onion (not the caramelized onion) to a medium saucepan. Add the bay leaf, cardamom, clove, cumin, cinnamon, salt, and pepper and cook 1 minute. Add the bulgur and cook 1 minute more, stirring constantly. Add the boiling water, turn the heat up to high, and bring to a rolling boil.

4. Give the bulgur a stir, then cover the saucepan, turn the heat down to very low, and cook until tender, about 10 minutes (do not open the lid during this time). Turn the heat off and let the bulgur sit 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork and gently stir in the lentils. Taste and add additional salt, pepper, and olive oil if desired.

5. Transfer to a serving dish and top with the caramelized onion. Serve with plain yogurt to spoon on top, if using.

 

Nov 272012
 

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa's Chestnuts from bibberche.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients:

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

 Directions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beef Stew – Reluctant Gourmet

Bo Kho Vietnamese Beef Stew – The Ravenous Couple

Ox Tail Stew – Bibberche

Nihari/Indian Beef Stew – Rasa Malaysia

Basic Beef Stew Recipe – Food Blogga

Marha P̦rk̦lt РHungarian Beef Paprika Stew РThe Shiksa

Guiness Beef Stew – Geez Louise

Nov 022012
 

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

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

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

Collard Greens from bibberche.com

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

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

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

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

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

Meat-Stuffed Collard Greens from bibberche.com

MEAT-STUFFED SORREL LEAVES (ZELENE SARMICE)

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

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

Directions:

Heat the skillet on medium heat.

Add the oil and onions.

Cook for 5-8  minutes until translucent.

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

Season with salt and pepper.

Let the mixture cool a bit.

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

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

Place in the pot and continue rolling.

Heat the oil on moderate heat and add the paprika.

Stir for 30 seconds and pour into the pot.

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

Sep 202012
 

Montenegrin Goat Cheese from bibberche.com

“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” ~~G.K. Chesterton

Djurdja admits that she is at least 80 years old, but I believe that she is somewhat conservative. She complains constantly of her back pains, leg pains, head pains. She wobbles when she walks, but when no one is looking she straightens up and runs up a path, nesting her walking stick underneath her armpit for safe keeping. She gave birth to ten children, two of whom died as toddlers. The rest she dispersed all over the world, choosing to stay with her youngest son Danilo, his wife Sanja, and their three teenage children.

She was born in Metohija, the land of undulating hills, vineyards and sunshine, where old Serbian kings of the Middle Ages built their castles and churches, choosing to conduct wine through the pipes under ground rather than water. She married young and lived a hard life, the youngest wife in the commune, the inevitable target of the older women who tried to exert their power in any way possible in the cruel and patriarchal world dominated by men.

old Serbian woman from bibberche.com

Djurdja

In 1999 her world collapsed as NATO war planes bombed her village and the universe seemed to point an accusatory finger at every Serb living in the area. When it became obvious that the life of yesteryear could not continue, she abandoned her husband’s grave, gave away their meager possessions to the neighbors, parted with her flock of sheep, and took off for the scraggy and dry hills of coastal Montenegro, never once looking back at all those years she spent in Peć.

I met her son Danilo, a former engineer turned high school maintenance man, when he came to help my Uncle make salami. We were born in the same year, we have college degrees and we both have three children; that’s where the similarities stop. His two boys walk three miles to their high school. The oldest daughter takes the bus to the college in the near-by city of Kotor. All three of them have to help the family; the boys accompany their father when he goes out to fix things; the daughter wakes up at dawn to take the goats out to graze. When I was there, I did not hear them whine, complain, or talk back. They just did it, understanding that they contributed to the family. And they maintained an A average.

Goats from bibberche.com

I woke up early one morning and walked to their still unfinished two-story brick house with an old RV camped in the front yard and a dilapidated, green awning casting shade onto the patio. Djurdja was watering the plants, complaining of the merciless heat that was killing her tomatoes. Together we crossed the road to the meadow where her daughter-in-law, Sanja, stood surrounded by two dozen goats as she poured water into the trough. Sanja called the goats by their names, almost singing, and they trotted to her, stopping on the way to munch on some dry leaves. She had already milked them before I arrived and they were bleating happily as they played, crossing their horns in make-believe combat.

Her son arrived to relieve her and took the goats further into the thicket. The relentless Montenegrin summer was at its peak and greenery was scarce. The milk, Sanja told me, would be stronger and less fatty. They sell the milk to the tourists, and make cheese with the rest. She refused my offer to help her carry the buckets filled with frothy, white milk, and continued on across the road and behind the house where she started to turn milk into cheese. She brought a shallow, heavy enameled pot from the house and strained the milk into it through the cheesecloth. Then she stirred a few tablespoons of liquid rennet, covered the pot, and placed it on top of  a Smederevac, an ancient wood-burning stove.

Mking goat cheese from bibberche.com

Djurdja was cracking jokes all the time and lamenting over her life, while she watched every step Sanja made like a hawk, ready to pounce and scold her for the smallest error. But everything worked as planned and the three gallons of milk were slowly simmering, heated by gnarley dry wood. We moved to the patio and had shots of strong, sweet home-made cherry brandy that accompanied even stronger cups of Turkish coffee.

I did not have the time to observe the process in its entirety. I only wish I thought of visiting this family at the beginning of our stay. Milk had to cool off for several hours covered with a clean, starched linen kitchen towel before it would be sliced in cubes, allowing the whey to separate. The solids would be strained into a cheesecloth-lined wire strainer and left to drain for a few hours. After that, the disc (still wrapped in cheesecloth) would be placed onto a wooden board and pressed with a heavy rock. It usually ended up in the fridge for about a week to dry and age, without getting sour in the summer heat.

Goats from bibberche.com

I discovered a slightly yellow disc in my Aunt’s and Uncle’s fridge and I knew it was Sanja’s goats’ cheese. I unwrapped it and cut a few thin slices, not knowing if I would like the taste. It was still a bit milky, but dry, without being crumbly and too salty. There were small holes in it and the crust just started to form. It went perfectly well with a glass or two of Vranac, a famous heady Montenegrin red wine, made strong and stout by the endless sunny days.

We left the next day, but on our way I stopped by their house to say goodbye to Djurdja, Sanja, and Danilo. I felt honored that I met this hard-working family that offered me hours filled with smiles as they toiled under the scorching sun. I know their kids will become wonderful adults and I wish them at least a few days free of worry. But as they plan to keep those goats, my wish might be in vain.

Sanja and Danilo from bibberche.com

Sanja and Danilo

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).

Mar 062012
 

Gnocchi from bibberche.com

One of the most important lessons I learned in my childhood is the lesson on frugality. My parents were born just before World War II erupted and had to live through the years of scarcity and food shortages during the war and for several years after. The country was destroyed, having met with the destructive might of both Axis and Allied forces, and it took a couple of decades for the population at large to stop feeling the hunger pangs.

In the seventies and eighties, while the three of us were emerging from childhood into adolescence,  life in ex-Yugoslavia was pretty idyllic for  most people (at least from our young perspective). Mother stayed at home with us, forsaking her career as a teacher, while Father was mostly absent, delivering babies, performing surgeries, and celebrating happy outcomes with numerous friends and acquaintances in restaurants and taverns all over the province.

We were not lacking anything, yet our parents insisted on keeping a tight budget on everyday expenditures. We didn’t go to the yearly clothes-buying pilgrimages to Trieste in Italy in the early 80s, like most of our friends, or later to Istanbul, Turkey, when Italy became too expensive. We learned how to sew in grade school, and most of the clothes we wore we made ourselves using an old foot-controlled Singer machine. We labored under the hawk-eyed criticism of  our Mother, who had learned to sew at age five, taught by a stern German hausfrau obsessed with the tiny details on the road to an elusive perfection.

All the sweaters Mother knitted were unravelled after we outgrew them, the yarn washed gently, and wound again into tight balls, ready to be transformed into another thing of beauty (as an Art teacher, she enjoyed the craft, and her unique creativity is unsurpassed).

The couches were reupholstered into something completely different and new. The tables and chairs were stripped and re-stained. The curtains and drapes Mother made herself, moving from the bright orange and brown hues of the seventies, through the Miami Vice pastels of the eighties, to the earth tones of the nineties.

We repurposed everything: supermarket plastic bags lined the trash cans; small glass jars holding mustard were turned into serving glasses for the family; emptied whiskey and vodka bottles held Mother’s special tomato and vegetable sauces; smallish, 250gr or 500gr jars were used to house those rare and hard to make homemade jams and preserves, like wild strawberry, rose, or  fig; yogurt and sour cream containers were for storing the daily leftovers.

We learned domestic alchemy from Mother… how to make something out of nothing. We developed a healthy approach to not wasting food. We grew up to be creative, imaginative, and frugal adults.

I arrived to my new home in the U.S., armed with this knowledge. In the land of plenty, I still reuse plastic containers, glass jars , and supermarket bags. Leftovers are transformed into meals of a completely different nature, the refrigerator is always full, and the box freezer is entering its tenth anniversary (we had to make an emergency trip to BestBuy to get it when a Serbian friend gifted us out of the blue with half of a freshly butchered Amish pig and plopped it on the kitchen counter).

I do a weekly inventory of the refrigerator, pantry, and the freezer, and make a meal plan for the week based on work and school schedules, and children’s activities and parties. College Kritter usually e-mails her special culinary requests several days prior to arrival at home for the weekend. I also research the weather forecast and take advantage of any cloudy, or less then 75F day (a winter wonderland in Southern California) to make a stew, a braised dish, or anything with sauerkraut. Based on all of these variables, we will go grocery shopping.

I try to include different foods and various cuisines, utilizing fresh produce and  healthy ingredients (yes, lard is healthy!). Mother was willing to accommodate all of our preferences, wishes, and cravings as long as they fit her master plan. I try to follow the same trend. The menu is not set in stone. Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking what I planned. Sometimes the chosen fresh produce does not look that fresh, and substitutions have to be made. Sometimes nobody feels hungry, and we just graze.

The finances are tight, and we do not eat out. But I pride myself on offering my family the freshest and finest ingredients so that they do not notice the budget. It gives me enormous satisfaction to expand their horizons, to introduce them to the unusual, to let them taste something wonderfully different. The gifts from Nature (you can tell I am digging life in California with that capital N in Nature!) transformed by my hands, leave every morsel as good as it can be. I try. I really do.  My parents had it worse in those uncertain war years, but as we cope with this recession, I hope to instill the same love of good food in my children as my parents instilled in us, always remembering that frugality is the basis of it all.

Gnocchi ingredients from bibberche.com

We had two baked potatoes left from the day before which were not enough to turn into twice-baked potatoes for a family of four. The cream of potato soup, as much as I love it, did not really fit with my plans to lose a few extra pounds. They were definitely destined to become gnocchi, these wonderfully soft potato pillows that give themselves thoroughly and with abandon to various sauces, transforming with each additional layer of flavor, leaving you content in the most wonderful carbohydrate daze.

As I had dinner already planned, I left the gnocchi in the freezer to await their chance to shine.

POTATO GNOCCHI

Ingredients:

  • 2 large Idaho potatoes
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • ¾ cups all-purpose flour

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425F.

Wash and dry the potatoes. Wrap them in aluminum foil and place directly on the grate in the oven. Bake for 45 minute until fork-tender. (If you have leftover baked potatoes, just warm them up in the oven for 5 minutes, as the gnocchi are much softer if the potatoes are warm.)

Remove the foil and allow potatoes to cool slightly, just enough so you can peel them without burning your fingers. Pass them through potato rice if you have one. If not gently press them with a fork until mashed.

Place the mash on a counter and make an indentation in the middle. Break the egg in the hole and beat it slightly with a fork. Sprinkle the flour and salt on top and gently fold the potatoes outside in, over the egg and flour, mixing gently. Knead lightly just until incorporated. You should not overwork the dough, as the gnocchi will be tough.

Cut the dough in four pieces and roll each piece  into a snake about ¾ inch thick (I find it  easier to roll it on a counter that is barely dusted with flour – just enough so that it does not stick to the surface.)

Using a knife, a pizza cutter, or a mezzaluna, cut pieces an inch in length and place them on a flour-dusted tray.

When all four pieces of the dough are rolled and cut, press each little piece against the fork tines with your thumb lightly, so the get ridges and curl inward. Place the gnocchi back on the flour-dusted tray.

(You can freeze them at this point by placing the tray in the freezer until they are completely frozen. Remove them from the tray and put them in a Ziploc bag.)

How to cook the gnocchi:

Heat a big pot of salted water until it boils. Once the water is vigorously boiling, put about 20 gnocchi in. They will sink to the bottom, and as they cook, they will float to the top. Once they are all the way to the surface, take them out using the slotted spoon and place them into the prepared sauce of your choice.

Feb 092012
 

Yellow House from bibberche.com

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

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

Yellow House from bibberche.com

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

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

Yellow House from bibberche.com

Njanja and Deda-Ljubo, Moving Day

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

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

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

My Brother

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

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

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

Home-made mayo from bibberche.com

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

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

Home made mayo from bibberche.com

HOME MADE MAYONNAISE

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

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

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

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

 

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

Nov 022011
 

 

pickled peppers from bibberche.com

When I go to a grocery store, I am faithful to my nature and I always carry a list in my pocket. Farmers’ market is a completely different story. I bring an oversized canvas bag, preferably equipped with wheels, and meander around the rows waiting for inspiration to hit me while I ogle all the beautiful produce seductively spread across the wooden stalls. I never buy just what I need. There is invariably an immaculate eggplant too pretty to ignore, a gnarly celery root proudly displaying crisp greenery on top, or a bunch of elegantly slender leeks too long to comfortably fit on the counter, pleading to be saved and taken away.

I leave only when my bag cannot hold another ounce, rushing by the stalls displaying hundreds of items I did not purchase. Almost every time, I guiltily stop at some point and allow a farmer to coerce me into buying something I really do not need, that definitely will not fit in my bag… a cup full of juniper berries, a bucket of Cornellian cherries, a big black radish, a sack of spicy, colorful peppers, a baggie of hawthorn berries… I sometimes scold my parents for hoarding, but I am as culpable as they are. I collect food. I cannot help it, as my greed and addiction are too hard to resist. It has become a standing joke with my family and friends. I cannot lie and I empty my bags feeling contrite on the surface, but impatiently waiting for everyone to leave me alone just for a moment, long enough to think of all the uses for my beloved produce.

cornichones from bibberche.com

Mother thinks I am crazy for piling more and more obviously unnecessary work. Father is amused when he finds me buried in the yellowed pages of Veliki narodni kuvar.* My sister just looks at me with her famous “I am speechless” glance. My best friend indulges my addiction by bringing baskets full of Swiss chard and red currants, boxes of his home-rendered lard, bouquets of dill, and since the hunting season opened a few weeks ago, a hefty piece of wild boar and a skinned and thoroughly cleaned rabbit. But nothing can stop me from finding the perfect ways of preparing everything that ends up on my kitchen table, regardless of whose hands delivered it there.

For several weeks now, farmers’ market has been full of people gathering the goods for the incoming winter. Middle-aged men push their bicycles with canvas bags full of  green tomatoes and cauliflower hanging from the handles. Old ladies shuffle along with their backs arched in a hump, toting heavy sacks of red peppers. The young men, displaying their entrepreneurial spirit, walk around proudly weaving their hand-made dollies where the bundles of onions and shiny cabbages rest comfortably. Everybody is scurrying around, like the ants from Aesop’s fable, afraid to welcome the icy northern winds with their pantries not adequately stocked.

hot peppers from bibberche.com

I feel the call of the preserving season and I join the crowds, grabbing every opportunity to once again walk through the market. I am returning to the U.S. pretty soon and leaving behind sick Mother who barely eats, and elderly Father whose dinner portions are smaller then my eleven-year-old’s. But I made sure that they will not lack food for another decade, labeling the jars clearly to make hunting for them as easy as possible. I visit the jars several times a day, admiring their beautiful colors, proud of my accomplishments. Day by day I progressed on my culinary journey, picking Mother’s brain and learning how to preserve, pickle, and can.

sweet red peppers from bibberche.com

I picked every vegetable that ended in those jars, and Father provided the fruit from The Hills. In the U.S. this would be luxury. Here in Serbia, it is the way of life, a consequence of living in a country that has not reached the dreaded standards of the west. I am convinced that in the years to come, Farmers’ Market will inevitably change, reflecting the European Union’s strict agricultural principles and that all the stalls will offer straight cucumbers without tiny thorns, perfectly matching in size, falling between seven and nine inches, with tomatoes uniform in color, immaculate in their roundness, hard and unappetizing, completely void of their sweet summer essence. But in the meantime, I’ll take advantage of all the colors, sizes, and shapes my beloved, hard-working farmers are offering every day for mere pennies, feeling eternal gratitude for them and their toil.

pickles from bibberche.com

*Veliki narodni kuvar is an old Serbian cookbook that is considered the Bible of cooking.

PICKLED VEGETABLES

This is a universal method that can be applied to any vegetable in season. I have pickled sweet red peppers, hot peppers, and cornichones following the recipe. It differs from many as it does not ask for any preservatives and chemicals and produces perfect pickles, firm, sour, and crunchy. The amounts given are for every 1 kg (1 quart) jar.

Ingredients:

  • Vegetables of your choice (small cucumbers, sweet red peppers, Hungarian yellow peppers, hot peppers of any variety, green tomatoes)
  • 100ml white vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp coarse salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • several peppercorns
  • fresh dill sprigs (for cornichones only)
  • water

Directions:

Wash the jars in hot water, and boil the lids for a few minutes (if you run the jars and the lids through the dishwasher, they should be sterilized).

Carefully place the vegetables in jars, lining the edges first and then filling the middle. Press them in tightly, trying to squeeze in as many as possible. Mix all the ingredients except for water and pour into the jar, atop the vegetables. Fill with water almost to the top, leaving a bit of space (1cm or ¼ inch) to the top. Screw the lids on tightly and place in a deep pot. Cover with water to reach all the way to the lids and heat to boil. Once it reaches boiling temperature turn the heat down to medium and simmer for 15 minutes until sterilized.

Using the canning tongs, carefully pull the jars out and place them upside down on a kitchen towel to cool of and seal. If they leak at all, the seal has broken and the jar needs to be used immediately or processed again.

pickled peppers from bibberche.com

 Last year at about this time I wrote a post about my sister and her German husband with a recipe for his Grossmutter’s Oxtail Soup.

 

Oct 252011
 

plums from bibberche.comThere are three big barrels at Father’s ranch full of sweet, ripe plums, languishing in their own juices, getting ready for the final process of distillation in a copper cauldron (“lampek”). In a month or two, there will dozens of bottles full of rakija, flavorful and awfully potent plum brandy. The plum trees have released their heavy burden and their branches rest for a moment, before the cold winds arrive from the Alps on the northwest and shake every leaf off. The grass underneath is slowly turning yellow, getting tired and ready for the winter’s slumber. The hills of Serbia are turning more subdued in color, the blue of plums stripped by busy hands, the green fading to brown.

While the nature is preparing for the inevitable change, the stores are trying to keep up with the demand for canning supplies. But I don’t have to battle the crowds and fight old, blue-haired ladies for the last bag of jar lids. I don’t really have to leave the house, unless a trip to the cellar is necessary: we wash jars and recycle them, year after year, and store them neatly on the shelves in the pantry or in the cellar. We collect glass jars, small and big, square, round, octagonal – once the food they came in disappears, they become beautiful and unique containers for the summer bounty. There is never a lack of jars in our house, and as the canning season progresses, the empty jars are replaced by filled ones, displaying pink cherries, crimson raspberries and red currants, deep red strawberries, purple sour cherries and blackberries, orange apricots and quinces, yellow peaches and nectarines, and plums in an array of colors ranging from magenta to almost black.

I have spent my summer here in Serbia constantly running from Mother’s room to the kitchen, with frequent, awfully short excursions to the Farmers’ market. I spent hours weighing sugar, cleaning fruit, and stirring jams, relieved once I can see the bottom of the fruit basket. I only wish that I can take more of the preserves with me to the U.S.,  but one solitary suitcase will hardly contain all my clothes, let alone allow room for innumerable heavy glass jars. I look lovingly at the neat rows and pat myself on the shoulder, realizing that I can carve another notch at the board of my culinary accomplishments.

plums from bibberche.com

I strut around the house since I mastered the general technique for making jam. I usually approach everything from an intellectual point of view, over-analyzing and fretting too much about the outcome. I gather the information, try to learn the science behind every process, compare, and read for hours before I step into the unknown culinary territory. But having Mother close by took all the anxiety away (not to mention that nobody would have missed a bowl or two of pounds and pounds of fruit delivered daily from Father’s ranch).

I admit to burning a few batches, not used to the intricacies and whims of a gas stove (when I was living in my parents’ house, I did not have to do anything with cooking – the highest title I ever achieved was a prep cook – and I could control the flames when scalding fresh milk or making Turkish coffee). Nobody was here to see me scrubbing the pots so I can pretend it never happened. But in the end, I came out triumphant.

plums from bibberche.com

I will not be here when Father brings home his treasured bottles of golden rakija, but somewhere in Southern California, we will be spreading plum jam and pekmez on my homemade bread slathered with butter and I will think back with love and gratitude on this summer that rewarded me with so much.

PLUM JAM (DŽEM OD ŠLJIVA)

This jam is chunky and flavorful. It is best served with bread and butter.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg ripe prune plums
  • 800gr sugar
  • 2 Tbsp dark, flavorful rum
Directions:
Wash the jars and lids in hot water and place into the oven preheated to about 220F to sterilize.
Wash the plums, cut in half widthwise and remove the pit. Put the fruit into a shallow, wide enamel pot and cover with sugar. Turn the heat on low and simmer, stirring often (constantly towards the end) until it thickens. It should take about one hour for the wooden spoon to leave a wide white trail along the bottom (providing your pot is white:) Add the rum and stir for another minute. You can also place a saucer into the freezer for a minute or two to get cold and drop a bit of jam on it. If it stays put, it is done. If it runs, you have to continue stirring it.
Pour hot jam in hot jars (be careful, and if necessary wear the kitchen mittens to avoid burning yourself). Return filled jars to the oven for another 15 minutes, reducing the heat to about 100F (50C). Do not close them yet. Once they are done sterilizing again, take them out carefully and screw the lids on tightly. Let them cool and put them on your pantry shelf.
plum jam from bibberche.com

 

PLUM PEKMEZ (PEKMEZ OD Å LJIVA)

Pekmez is thick, dark, smooth, and a bit tart. It is a great filling for sweet ravioli or crepes, but it is equally good on bread and butter.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg ripe plums
  • 300gr sugar
Directions:
Wash the jars and the lids and place them on a tray in the oven preheated to 220F to sterilize.
Wash the plums and remove the pit. Grind them in a food processor and place the puree in a big, heavy-bottomed, shallow enamel pot. Cover with sugar and cook on low heat until it thickens. Stir often in the beginning and constantly towards the end. It should be done in about one and a half hours, when the wooden spoon leaves a wide, white trail along the bottom.
Pour hot jam in hot jars (be careful, and if necessary wear the kitchen mittens to avoid burning yourself). Return filled jars to the oven for another 15 minutes, reducing the heat to about 100F (50C). Do not close them yet. Once they are done sterilizing again, take them out carefully and screw the lids on tightly. Let them cool and put them on your pantry shelf.

 

Last year I wrote You Can Go Home if You Have the Dough and featured a recipe for piroshki.