Dec 062012

Serbian Creamy Chicken Soup from

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

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

chicken soup vegetables from

vegetables for the stock (I save parsley stems)

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

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

Pileca corbica from

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

Serbian Creamy Chicken Soup from


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


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

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

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

Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with parsley.


May 112012

Leftover Tostada from

When the times get tough financially, my instincts kick in and the survival mode becomes default. But I don’t really change my modus operandi, as frugality is somehow ingrained in me, and I just keep on doing what I do best: digging through my pantry and my freezer and putting healthy, nutritious, appetizing food in front of my girls, playing with ingredients, pimping up the leftovers, and offering colorful and enticing meals that would make them appreciate all aspects of the culinary world.

Sometimes the prompts come from them, if they feel inspired and creative – in  the rare moments when they are not entranced in a fantasy play or a puppet show. But most of the times it takes a few minutes poring through the contents of my legume drawer or taking inventory of every refrigerator shelf to come up with a perfectly balanced meal that would be cost-effective, creative, flavorful, and overall nutritious.

It breaks my heart when I see food being wasted. I collect the tough asparagus stems, cauliflower stalks, celery leaves, and lettuce cores to make a vegetable stock. I salvage the roasted chicken carcass with all the gelatinous deposit on the bottom of the pan and make a hearty chicken stock. I collect egg whites for a future angel food cake, and pork fat for the day I feel inspired to render lard. I place parsley and cilantro stems in bags and add them to stews and soups, reluctant to waste even a smidgen of the goodness they impart.

My freezer is a repository of oddly shaped bags containing fish heads, shrimp and lobster shells, chicken gizzards, and stock. There are labeled plastic containers with leftover tomato sauce, chopped herbs, and duck fat, along with neatly wrapped packages of beef and lamb bones destined for a soup.

The girls rarely know what they will have for breakfast or dinner, because I employ all my resources when I start to contemplate it. They are adventurous and open to new culinary challenges, which makes my thought process much easier.

School lunches are limited in creativity as they have to be stored in a locker for hours, eaten within fifteen minutes and relatively easy to handle. They eat outside and have no access to a microwave. I smuggle a Ferrero Rocher treat or a square of dark chocolate in their paper bags to give them a sense of adventure.

This week they had state testing and school let out earlier, which allowed me more freedom with their mid-day repast. They arrived from school famished and I had a perfect meal for them every single day, taking advantage of the amenities I had at home, excited to offer them something different than the usual sandwich or wrap fare.

True to my nature, I had to be frugal, and most days the lunches were spruced-up leftovers. But every single time their faces lit up and they brought the plates to the kitchen licked clean.

These tostadas elicited a whole lot of squeals. I loved how my girls’ faces alighted with excitement when I poked the eggs and released the yolks. This lunch did not cost me anything, but a few minutes of my time and some kilowatts of energy. But it made my daughters feel special, loved, cherished, and adored. And in the times when every dollar spent has to be spent wisely, that’s the only thing that matters to me.



  • Corn tortillas
  • Remoulade (recipe bellow)
  • 1 Roma tomato, diced
  • Black bean and corn salsa (recipe bellow)
  • Jack cheese, shredded
  • Poached eggs (recipe bellow)
  • Cilantro


Preheat the oven to 450F. Place corn tortillas on a cookie sheet. Spread remoulade all over the tortilla. Spoon salsa and diced tomatoes on top. Sprinkle with cheese and place in the oven. Bake for five minutes until the cheese is melted. Take out of the oven and place each tortilla on a separate plate. Place a poached egg on top, sprinkle with cilantro and serve.


Mix together ½ cup of mayonnaise, 1 tsp of capers, 1 tsp of lemon juice, 1 tsp of Dijon mustard, a bit of salt, and 1 tablespoon of chopped dill.

Black Bean Salsa:

Combine 1 can (14oz) rinsed black beans, 1 cup frozen cor kernels, 1 chopped jalapenñño, ½ shopped onion, salt, pepper, and lime juice.

Poached eggs:

Heat the water in a small stainless steel pot until it boils. Turn the heat down to simmer. Add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. Break an egg into a ramekin and pour it carefully into the boiling water. Fold the egg white over the yolk with a spoon and cook for 1 minute. Using the slotted spoon remove the egg and place it onto a plate covered with a few layers of paper towels to absorb the moisture.

Mar 062012

Gnocchi from

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

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.



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


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 172012

Potato Croquettes from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potato Croquettes from


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


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


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

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

Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Last year: Dorie Greenspan’s Green Beans with Pancetta

Dec 092011
Zlatibor from


My hometown in Serbia is nestled snugly at the foot of the hills, protected from the harsh winds that blow from the Alps, lulled into a false sense of security. And any road you take out will lead you to more hills and more horizons interrupted by gentle green curves or sharp peaks piercing the clouds. Only when you travel far enough northeast and reach the beautiful spot where the river Sava submits to the mighty Danube, facing an old Turkish firmament at the capital city of Belgrade, will the plains open up, allowing you to watch the magnificent sun descend for a long, long time, finally falling asleep somewhere in the middle of fertile Pannonia.

I was a child conceived, born, and raised in the bosom of the hills and mountains, even though Mother longingly missed the long sunsets that teased the horizon and made golden promises of infinity to Vojvodina’s flat terrain. I possess the impulsiveness and raw passion of highlanders, aware that there will always be another peak to overcome, furtively suspicious of never-ending expanses of docile wheat undulating seductively while following the strong lead of the merciless northern winds. Our sunrises took us by surprise, changing the night into day instantaneously, jerking us into reality unrelenting, whipping us into shape within minutes with the sneering authority of a drill sergeant.

Zlatibor from

The end of the day arrived as quickly, unexpected, with the sun dipping into the cleavage of twin hills guarding the town from the west. It would inevitably try to spread its pink and purple around, wishing to caress every roof and touch every glade of grass, but the twin peaks would inexorably suck in its glow within minutes, leaving only the wounded hues of indigo to color the twilight. We adjusted and learned to live in the moment, fast on our feet, expecting a slap, a jab, a tickle from our whimsical and cruel surroundings. The shades of gray were temporary, coming and going with the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, leaving the scorching white and unfathomable black to fight for dominance.

An hour to the west lies mountain Zlatibor like a meek, voluptuous concubine showing its fertile valleys and knolls behind every lazy curve of the road, its silky green flanks flecked with flocks of sheep. It accepts travelers into its warm embrace promising comfort and denying danger, eager to spread and show off its unthreatening, innocent beauty. It offers welcome and necessary respite because somewhere beyond it, you are bound to face cold and ominous mountains with deep canyons, plunging cliffs, and unyielding rocks slashed open to let a stream through. Once you get there you know that some invisible hands will grip your throat and allow you only shallow breaths, enveloping you in air so crisp that you can barely stand upright, your whole body suddenly light and weightless.

Zlatibor from

But Zlatibor nurtures and caresses, unselfishly giving everything it possesses, eager to please and satisfy, smiling timidly with the smallest praise. Her air is fresh and fragrant with grasses that barely move in the breeze. It seduces you while bringing you strength and arming you with confidence. Its power does not hide behind intimidation. It is unassumingly spread before you in all its soft folds, dark thickets of slender pines, and gurgling springs that calm and entice at the same time.

My country is small with very few roads connecting the dots. Every time we traveled west to the Adriatic coast, we could not avoid the green haunches of Zlatibor. We always became ravenous a few miles before, letting our primal desires build, heads swimming with anticipation, oblivious to the landscape surrounding us. Father would park his bright orange Lada in front of an unassuming inn and we would pour out, stretching and jumping, breathing the cool mountain air with full lungs, feeling welcome and safe. We would sit at the table with wooden benches and Father would order for us without consulting us, the menu, or the waiter. Only in Zlatibor would he disregard our wishes because there was but one dish that all of us craved: komplet lepinja.

Zlatibor from

This is a simple fare, but unattainable anywhere else. Freshly baked small rounds of soft bread (lepinje) are sliced in half, slathered with aged, locally made golden kajmak*, brushed with a brightly orange, slightly beaten egg and suffused with richly flavored juices left over after roasting a lamb or a piglet. The two halves are placed in an oven and baked for a few minutes until the edges crisp up and become lightly blushed from the heat. We had no reason to speak when our hungry mouths reached this infused bread hot from the oven. With eyes glazed over, we took the first bite, sighing in contentment, knowing that it was worth waiting for.

After the last crumbs disappeared from our plates, we would reluctantly leave the inn and pile into the good, old Lada, basking in the afterglow of our experience. We felt that the mountain surrendered herself with abandon, satisfying our every need and bringing a satiated smile to our lips. While we rode her creases back to our town, we were grateful and happy, assured that one day soon we would return and accept her gift again and again.

*Kajmak is the specialty of Serbia. Fresh milk is slowly heated in big, shallow pots until it simmers. When it cools off, the fat that gathered on the top is collected, placed in a dish, and salted. Kajmak can be eaten immediately or it can be aged until it’s crumbly and strong.

(My sister took all of the beautiful photos above).


To satisfy our cravings and to save the bread from going stale, Mother made a take on this dish, excluding the roasted meat juices as they were usually unavailable. She spoiled my girls by making them this baked bread for breakfast and now I am challenged to execute it in my Southern California kitchen. I am so glad I managed to bring kajmak home!

There is no need for a traditional recipe – photographs are enough.

Zapecena lepinja

An egg, a lepinja, and kajmak


Komplet lepinja

Cut the bread in half, making the bottom part more concave and thicker.


Lepinja from

Spread copious amounts of kajmak and brush with a beaten egg.


Zapecena lepinja from

Bake in the 400F(200C) oven for 7-10 minutes, until golden brown.

Last year: Hair Apparent and a recipe for Quinoa Sweet Potato Salad

Mar 302011

arancini from

I was a fair skier in high school, and my gym teacher, who spent many afternoons in our chalet in the mountains sipping plum brandy with Father after a run through the powder, signed me up for the school ski team. I loved playing volleyball and basketball, even though I was not particularly good, as I could hide in the crowd. I enjoyed tennis and skiing, but only as recreation activities. To actually compete, to stand alone surrounded by an audience, was unimaginable, the mere thought mortifying. I knew that I could not get into the zone, that I would only think of people watching me and imagine them laughing derisively and my legs would become powerless noodles unable to control the skis. I knew in advance that I would fail, not because of a lack of skill, but because of fear to disappoint.

As the day of the tournament approached, my stress level reached enormous heights. My friends found my panic amusing, but I tried every excuse in the world not to go. The teacher was not buying into any of them and I became desperate. As I was running the student radio station and participated actively in the school’s newspaper, I checked everything that arrived in the mail pertaining to art and culture. A couple of days before the dreaded competition, I unearthed my salvation: a regional conference of poets, taking place in the capital city of Belgrade.

I loved poetry since I learned how to recite the Serbian equivalent to Mother Goose in the monotone and exaggerated rhythm of a four year old. I collected poems in a hard-bound notebook, illustrated the pages with sketches and vignettes, and pasted the pictures I cut out of magazines. I could recite by heart Neruda, Lorca, Baudelaire, Rilke, and Tagore even if rudely awakened in the middle of the night. I produced perfectly metered and rhymed poems to match the music I composed as I walked home from the piano lessons in grade school, and mock epic folk poems featuring my schoolmates and teachers as I sat bored in history class.

I filled notebooks with melodramatic verses in eighth grade, pouring onto the paper my emotions of unrequited love because the boy with dark hair and green eyes who I dreamed about did not know I existed. I aced my language classes, won essay contests, and wrote an occasional article for the local newspaper, but a poet I was not. I knew that, but my gym teacher was oblivious. So I decided that I was going to represent our school and our town at the poetry conference which just happened to fall on the same weekend as the skiing tournament. Serendipity!

Armed with my best “oh, shucks!” expression, I ruefully informed the coach that I would have to forego the wonderful opportunity to humiliate myself in front of a bunch of strangers. I was not a necessary presence on the team as there were other, more deserving athletes who could not wait to shine while swooshing around the slalom poles. On the other hand, nobody was there to represent our venerated institution in the field of poetry, and hence my sacrifice. He was a jock (an old one, but still hardcore) and he bought my story, feeling sorry for me, and I was plunged inadvertently into the world of geeks and dorks.

I attended every single lecture at the seminar, sat through excruciatingly long sessions of really bad adolescent poetry, applauded after every reading, grateful and happy that I was saved from an event I would surely have failed, and was, instead, delivered to this group of shy, creative, awfully-dressed people with whom I felt a strong connection. After all, I was a geek, a nerd, and a dork, much more comfortable with a book and a pen than playing practical jokes on other students on the bus or showing off my Elan skis in a competitive downhill race.

I might have done really well at the tournament. I might have even won. I might have enjoyed the adrenalin rush that always set off at the top of the slope, augmented by the challenge of the competition. I am sure I would have enjoyed the camaraderie of the other team members, practical jokes and all. I will never know because I allowed my fears to cripple me. I don’t regret attending the poetry conference, as I have wonderful memories from that weekend; I regret only not giving myself a chance to fail.

Since I started blogging, my perfectionism has shown itself in all its glory, liberated from the loose chains I managed to put around it, hoping to face the world without its fierce pressure. I have imposed incredibly high standards for myself and missed on many other opportunities in life, fearing that I would not be the best and not willing to accept the alternative.

I would like to convince myself that I can curb the beast of perfectionism as I am older, more experienced, and mature. I admit that my photography is not the best, but I am determined to make it better. I don’t measure myself against the best in industry, but I strive to learn as much as I can to reach my own potentials. I am not a professional  or gourmet chef. I am baffled by molecular gastronomy and do not see the point in sous vide cooking at home. I do not call myself a recipe developer, because I still use someone else’s recipes, adapt them slightly, change them just to fit the family needs, without inventing a new process, a new technique, or a new combination of flavors. But I am determined to learn as much as I can. I will allow my perfectionism to lead me and push me, not to be on the top, but to be the best that I can be (the mantra we preach to our girls every single day).

This whole story has a preamble to a confession: I have not mastered risotto. Oh, I know the process by heart; I buy the right kind of rice; I prepare my ingredients on time; I have the stock slowly simmering on the adjacent burner; I approach it with a wooden spoon and patience to stand by and stir. But inevitably, I end up with a gloopy mess. I look at beautiful photos of successfully prepared risotti on other blogs and I feel that old sense of inadequacy as I present a bowl of sticky, glutteny rice to my family.

But rather than despairing and berating myself, I have recently found the solution to leftover lemon risotto that was staring at me from the refrigerator shelf. I made arancini, Italian rice balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese, breaded and deep-fried until perfectly browned and crispy. They got their name by resembling small oranges, or arancini, and they are ingenious. As inedible as my risotto was, these little balls were delectable with lemon zest in harmony with crunchy Panko coating and melted cheese affording an unexpected reward after every bite. I felt I had redeemed myself as my family buried me with compliments and incessant words of praise.

I almost decided to keep on making horrible risotto only for the leftovers, but the overachiever in me cannot abide by that. I will master this dish one of these days, if only because I cannot bear to concede failure. I try to remember that one does not climb to the top of a mountain to rest, but to hurtle oneself down, taking risks, learning the slope, and trying to enjoy the trip.

arancini from



  • 2 cups of cold, leftover risotto (any kind will do, as long as it is cold)
  • 4 oz mozzarella cheese, cut in small cubes ½ inch by ½ inch
  • ½ cup flour
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
  • sunflower (or vegetable) oil for frying


Scoop about 2 teaspoons of risotto in your palm and make an indentation in it. Place the cheese cube in the middle and mold the ball around it, making sure that the cheese is completely enclosed. Continue with rolling until all the rice is gone.

Set out your bowls with flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. Heat the oil on medium-high heat in a deep stainless steel sauce pan. Roll the rice balls in flour, egg, and panko, and place them in the hot oil, 3-4 at time. Fry until golden brown. When they are done, transfer them to a paper-towel lined bowl. Continue frying.

Serve as a side dish or an appetizer with a marinara sauce for dipping.

I am sending this post to Hearth and Soul blog event, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life.

Dec 032010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Eurocrem is Serbian-Italian product similar to Nutella



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


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

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

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

Jun 012010

I started this blog with a clear idea to emphasize Serbian food. But, so far, I’ve written about squid, which nobody in my town ate before the 80s, when a restaurant called “032″ (area code for my town) opened – oh, some adventurous souls who were exposed to the seafood life might have gotten a taste at the Adriatic, but the majority were squid virgins.

And then came the mung bean post – mung beans??? Please! The only creature in my known Serbian universe who might have heard of these would be Daniela, the ex-vegetarian wife of my meat-eating cousin Vladimir ( I know she wanted to ease into the omnivore’s world slowly, and at the same time introduce other food staples to her hubby, besides the obligatory pork, chicken, pork,  bacon, and pork – and I have to mention fish, because they live on the shores of the Danube, and he is a European champion in “Fish Paprikash” – more about it in another post.)

To make things worse, I have sent a link for my blog to my mother, the reigning queen of Serbian cousine, the utmost authority on preparing, serving, and decorating the best tasting and best looking food. I will always be an apprentice to her, no matter how far I stretch the global epicurean boundaries. I am filling mental sandbags and erecting emotional levies as I try to brace myself for her comments…  I need the truth from her no matter how many therapists drive new Mercedes in the bargain.

So, what can I make to reflect my heritage? Yesterday we celebrated Memorial Day by cooking some most delicious, juicy, medium rare ribeye steaks. Serbs traditionally do not eat raw food. But, Serbs always cook more food than necessary so they can have leftovers. I love leftovers. But my leftovers have to undergo a face-lift; they have to be pimped, rejuvenated, refreshed and disguised. Leftover steak? Of course, Beef Barley Mushroom Soup.

Not Serbian enough? I beg to differ. The best lamb, veal or chicken soups are served in a “kafana”, a Serbian restaurant or inn, usually situated along a major road or the highway (which actually has a passing lane in places). They use the remnants to make their stocks, and the leftover meat is used abundantly in soups, with the addition of several vegetables; I just followed that idea in giving another life to my American steaks. And I bet you that I could have enticed at least a half dozen burly and seasoned Serbian truck drivers to park their 18-wheelers and stop on by for some manly deliciousness (I assure, I can sell barley as rice, no one will know!)  Serbian enough, if you ask me.

Mother might not be mollified by this soup. But she will definitely approve of the repurposing of leftovers – frugality, thy name is Mama.



  • 1 Tbs sunflower oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 green, red, or orange pepper, chopped
  • 10 or so button mushrooms, sliced
  • 300gr leftover steak (or, 3/4lbs), cut into small pieces
  • 2 Tbs tomato paste
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 2 quarts water or beef stock
  • a handful of barley
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2tsp freshly ground pepper
  • ½ cup of green peas


Sautee the vegetables (except peas) in oil, on medium heat until transluscent, about 10 minutes. Add the meat, stir around and add tomato paste. Stir until incorporated and pour the wine in. When all the liquid evaporates, add water or homemade beef stock (I always have some in the freezer), barley, salt and pepper, and cook, on high heat, until it boils. Add the peas and turn the heat down to medium low. Simmer for another 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. (This soup is versatile; you can add any vegetables you want, green beans, corn, chopped tomatoes, peapods, cut-up potatoes, parsnips – anything to clean out your fridge.)

Serve with a loaf of freshly baked bread and a salad, accompanied by a glass of a robust red table wine. Serbian folk music in the background is legally, if not morally optional.

mmmm, goodness