Jul 032012
 

airplane from bibberche.com

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

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

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

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

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

Lamb Burgers 

Lamb Burgers from bibberche.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled Beef Tenderloin

Chimney smoking from bibberche.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Pasta Salad

Summer Pasta Salad from bibberche.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled Summer Vegetables

Grilled Vegetables from bibberche.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled Sweet Corn with Chipotle-Lime Butter

Grilled Corn with Chipotle-Lime Butter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roasted Peppers, Roasted Beets, and Grilled Eggplant

roasted peppers from bibberche.com

Jun 012012
 

Summer Pasta Salad from bibberche.com

Mother dispatched me to college with a black-leather bound notebook filled with her hand-written recipes that were my favorites over the years. She really tried to take into account the inadequacy of my culinary skills, even though I spent many years assisting her in the kitchen. I just was not a willing participant, and I pretty much blocked any information trying to gain access to my brain that was obsessed by many worthy causes, and none of them connected with food preparation.

Ingredients for Summer Pasta Salad from bibberche.comIn the beginning I did not delve much into the precious notebook as I lived with my relatives and ate dinner that my Aunt Pašana prepared every night. My cousins were even less skilled in the kitchen duties, and we often played a game or two of Yahtzee! to determine who would make coffee or do the dishes.

Once I moved into my own apartment, I opened the notebook and started cooking. To my dismay, very few of the dishes that emerged from my kitchen resembled the comfort food I received at Mother’s, and I was rightly disillusioned. But my fear of failing retreated before the realization that I enjoyed good food and the only way to experience good eating away from home and on the student’s budget was to buckle down and learn.

While my room-mates were delegated to less appealing chores like cleaning or doing dishes, I ardently cooked almost every single day. Yes, there were many Sandra Lee concoctions in the beginning because I sometimes had classes for twelve hours straight; and there were many meatless pasta dinners that came together in less then thirty minutes; but from time to time I would proudly stand by the table hosting a particularly successful meal, my hands resting on my hips,Italian Dressing from bibberche.com my favorite orange apron still on, and a silly grin adorning my face.

In time, I realized that I felt really good about feeding the people I loved. And feeding people great food I prepared was not something to be embarrassed about. Sure, it would not bring me closer to a job for UNICEF, nor would it eradicate world hunger, nor prevent human beings from senselessly hurting each other, but it elicited so many smiles on regular basis that I felt I was surely resolving at least a few of the global conflicts.

My life took me along some very curvy roads, but the unpredictability of my tomorrows only motivated me more and more to offer comfort and love to all who stumbled into my kitchen. Good food does not have to be expensive and it does not have to dazzle. Most of the times a bowl full of pasta simply dressed with good olive oil, garlic, coarse salt, and freshly ground pepper is enough to make you forget the ugliest facets of the world. A roast chicken can pull you in and send you back to your mother’s lap for the warmest hug. A plate of creamy mashed potatoes is able to to conjure up the sweetest dreams that would leave you rested and invigorated.

As a good digital age student wannabe, I transferred all the recipes from Mother’s hand-written leather-bound day timer into a Word document that houses thousands of recipes I have collected over the years. But the actual notebook is still with me and I leaf through it occasionally, caressing the pages inscribed in that beautiful, yet unusual artsy handwriting of an Art major. I know now that my beloved Mother sent me off into the world with a treasure map, convinced that I would eventually experience all the riches her gift bestowed upon me.

Summer Pasta Saladvfrom bibberche.com

SUMMER BOUNTY PASTA SALAD

This is not my mother’s recipe, but when it gets hot,  nothing feels better than a refreshing serving of this pasta salad with tangy dressing and crunchy vegetables. And for me, that’s comfort at its best.

Ingredients:

Salad:

  • 1 lb (500gr) pasta of your choice (penne, ziti, farfalle, corkscrews – just avoid long-shaped pasta)
  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 8oz (250gr) button or cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups broccoli florets
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 1 cup olives, pitted (optional)

Garnish:

  • Fresh parsley, chopped
  • Grated parmigiano Reggiano

Italian Dressing:

  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar (you can use white wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, even aromatic vinegars)
  • ½ good quality olive oil
  • 1 tsp dry Italian seasoning
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Put all the ingredients for Italian dressing in a small jar, cover tightly with a lid and shake vigorously until it blends.

Boil pasta according to the package. Drain.

Mix in all the vegetables while pasta is still warm and stir. Add the dressing and mix thoroughly.

(The salad is better if it rests for several hours in the refrigerator.)

Garnish with parsley and parmigiano Reggiano and serve with crusty country bread or your favorite bruschetta, and a glass of crisp, chilled pinot grigio.

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 142012
 

Pasta with Sardines from bibberche.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasta with Sardines

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

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

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

Pasta with Sardines from bibberche.com

MEDITERRANEAN PASTA WITH SARDINES

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

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

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

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

Aug 012011
 

Hi, foodies… Vince here again. Lana is still in Europe and her internet connection is just a bit slow. How slow? Ever pour a quart of black strap molasses through a mile of cat 5 ethernet wire? So, you poor souls will have to settle for me this time out. Now, I know what you want. I know you want some sort of emotional story with a food theme. You want some tearful tale of childhood and nostalgia that tugs at your heart and fairly brings the smells and tastes of your own past streaming with a melancholy beauty to your senses like some sort of crybaby time machine. Well tough. You got me instead.

I’m from the south. Let’s not sugar coat it; I was born a hick. A rube. A redneck if you will. I grew up on okra and pork chops and grits and such. And while we moved around like a band of gypsies, and I had a chance to stretch my taste buds more than most of the other southern gentlemen (hicks) who are at this very moment likely to be snacking on moon pies and wishing we were somehow in the third term of the George W. Bush administration, still, for all my comparative sophistication, I was woefully ignorant of a great many things in the culinary spectrum. That changed drastically when I met Lana. In fact, most of my favorite foods… most of the dishes that I would describe as “comfort food” are things to which she introduced me. I had never had stuffed cabbage, let alone the wonderful Serbian version called sarma. I had never had eggs lightly poached in homemade tomato soup. I had never had a 15 layer Napoleon torte.

There is a problem inherent to being married to a woman who loves to cook, let alone a food blogger. There’s always delicious food in the house and even Stephen Hawking would need to do additional research to comprehend the gravitational relationship between my wife’s cooking and the pie hole in the middle of my face. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got amazing washboard abs. The problem is that after a fall, winter, and spring of eating like an Iron Chef judge, the six pack is well concealed by a keg. I was always a bean pole growing up so when I put on pounds, it’s all gut and butt.

So, in the summer, Lana heads to her homeland in Serbia and I am left to write, edit, and diet. The diet is pretty easy because there’s no one around cooking amazing food. And so I easily drop 20 to 25 pounds in six weeks or so. The diet that I have created for myself allows… no, allows isn’t the right word… the diet demands that I binge eat after five diet days. So, after the strict regimen of the week, I can eat whatever I want on the weekend. And let me tell you, by the time Saturday arrives, I usually have a hell of a craving for something. The first weekend, I wanted pizza. Then wings. You get the idea.

As this past week went by, there was a clear craving developing. It was green and glorious.

Gloriously green pesto with a nice chardonnay! Oh yeah!

Pesto!

Now, I never had pesto until 1998 when Lana made it for me for the first time. I fell in love with it. I’ve had many variations of it since, but I love good basic pesto, the stronger the better. So Saturday found me at the grocery store buying fresh basil, cilantro, and angel hair. I waited until my stomach was growling and I was hungry enough to wrestle a hyena pack over a wildebeest carcass. Then I rounded up the usual suspects: garlic, green onions, lime, etc., and made enough to feed the whole family were they here. And ate it all. In one sitting. Alone.

Now, normally the story would end and you’d get a recipe. But that’s not how I roll. I’m going to walk you through this so you don’t screw it up. First, go shopping for fresh ingredients. I’ll be here when you get back.  Here’s a list of what you’ll need if you want to make the best Shrimp Pesto you ever crammed in your chirper:

  • A bottle of decent white wine. I prefer a chardonnay with pesto. There are too many awesome chards to be had for under 12 bucks to spend much more than that.
  • A lot of basil. I don’t know how many cups. Just find a nice lush basil plant and pick it bald.
  • A bunch of cilantro. Just use the leafy parts and avoid the stems. They suck. Use a lot, but not more than a quarter the amount of the basil. Cilantro is delicious, but more than that will overpower the pesto-ness of the dish.
  • A bunch of green onions. I know most recipes call for one or two green onions. That’s for wimps. Use a whole bunch… like 6 to 8 green onions. ‘Cause I said so.
  • A handful of pine nuts.
  • Garlic. At least 5 cloves. No, I’ve never ever tasted a dish with too much garlic in it. Garlic makes basil yummier.
  • The zest and juice of one medium lime.
  • Salt and pepper.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil.
  • Angel hair pasta. No, not spaghetti or macaroni or fettucini or shells. This is not alfredo or carbonara. Have some respect for the sauce and choose a fine pasta. Angel hair is perfect for pesto.
  • Shrimp, peeled and deveined and raw! However much each person wants.

Look at all that green!

First things first. Chill your bottle of vino. For this meal, I chose a 2009 California chardonnay (Sonoma) called Las Olas. They are a cool company that helps benefit charities that support the coastal marine environment. While that fact may not complement your pesto, it should leave a good taste in your mouth. The wine boasts notes of apple, pear, and citrus. It has an amazingly clean finish that makes it a wonderful accompaniment to a strong pesto. And while a table wine need not be quite so complex, we’ll be enjoying a glass as we prepare the meal, so why not have something decent? Pesto goes fast, so if you don’t have a nice bottle of white in the fridge already, put one in the freezer for ten or fifteen minutes and go pick out some tunes. Don’t forget it. It’ll burst if you do.

Pick out some nice upbeat tunes to listen to while you’re cooking. No rap. No Death Metal. No Blood Metal. No Bile Metal. No Hell Metal. No Dig My Soul Out With a Back Hoe Metal. No Rap Metal. No Metallic Rap. No “I wish I was dead” noise passing itself off as music. You may not listen to rap or metal while you prepare my pesto recipe. No. And nothing depressing while you cook. No Harry Chapin (much as I love him). No Jim Croce. No Stevie Nicks. No U2. No Frederic Freakin’ Chopin. If you are confused, you may choose from the following artists:

Dean Martin, Willie Nelson, The Cars, BTO, Gnarls Barkley, Peter Gabriel, even Lady Gaga. It has to be upbeat. It has to make you smile and be happy to be alive and in the kitchen and about to enjoy some awesome pesto! If you are in any way confused by this, just get the soundtrack to the movie Ray and get busy. In fact, let’s keep this simple. Just forget I suggested anything other than Ray. Play the Ray Charles. You’ll smile.  Because smiling is mandatory. Remember this:

‘Tis healthier to eat franks and beer
With thanks and cheer
Than bread and sprouts
With dread and doubts.

 

Pour a glass of chilled wine. Sip. Ahh…

Now, there should be music in the air and wine in your glass. See how happy you are? Time to make magic.

OK, the first thing to remember about pesto is that you don’t actually ever cook it. So fill a large pot with water and put it on the burner so that it can boil for the pasta. The bigger the pot, the better. A gallon of water is good for anything under a pound of pasta. Three quarts will do if that’s all the room you have, but more water is better. Cover it to trap the heat and trim a few minutes off the boiling time. While that’s reaching a boil, you’ve got time to toast the pine nuts and peel and devein the shrimp if you don’t dawdle. Do not buy cooked shrimp. Shrimp are delicate and wonderful and cannot be mishandled or overcooked. They are too expensive to screw up. If you buy precooked shrimp you will end up having rubbery overcooked nuggets for dinner instead of one of the world’s finest delicacies. Buy raw shrimp. Trust me.

OK. Now toast a handful of pine nuts. Just swirl them in a small skillet or saute pan. No oil. Knock them around with a wooden spoon just enough to keep them from burning. It takes just a moment if you keep them to one layer. Just get a golden color and get them out of there. Wipe out the saute pan with a paper towel and you’re done with it. I’m not one to leave a dirty kitchen. Clean as you go. It’s easier.

Wash and drain all your produce. Chop the onions. They have to fit into the chopper.

Put all the basil leaves, green onions, cilantro,  half of the toasted pine nuts, garlic, and lime zest/juice in a chopper or blender or food processor. Pour in some olive oil. No, I don’t know how much… you have to get a feel. Don’t talk to me about measuring cups. We don’t need no stinking measuring cups. Just a little at first, then pulse it and look at the consistency. You want it thick enough to adhere to the pasta but thin enough to get good coverage. You know what pesto looks like. Add olive oil between pulses until it is pesto in all its green glory. Taste it. Add salt and pepper until it suits you. Take another sip of that wine. Taste the pesto again just to make sure it’s perfect. When it is, set it aside. Have another sip of wine to set your palate. Ray’s probably singing Night Time is the Right Time by now and if nobody’s watching, you’re probably kinda dancing around the kitchen like a loon. That’s OK. If you don’t like Ray Charles, stop everything, put all the ingredients into the garbage disposal, grind them up, get your keys, and go get a burger at a drive-thru. You suck and I don’t want you eating my pesto.

More Ray. More vino. Good. Smile, because I’m about to irk some traditionalists. It’s time to talk about salt and oil in our pasta water.

OK, if this were a meatier pasta like farfalle, or if it were for something without a sauce, I’d add a good bit of kosher salt to the boiling water, say a large pinch per quart of water. This is the only chance you’ll have to get salt into the pasta. Once the water saturates the noodles, it can’t absorb anything else. However, because we’ve salted the sauce to taste and the sauce is going on the pasta, and this is angel hair we’re talking about, it’s pretty easy to over salt if we try to predict what we need to properly season the pasta. Since saltiness is very subjective and I don’t know two people who always salt the same, it’s best to come up light and let individuals add salt at the table to their own taste.  So, just a pinch at this point just to get a little into the noodles.

Then a splash of olive oil and add the pasta. OK… I know… some of you have heard that you shouldn’t add oil. Some say it coats the pasta making it resist the sauce later. The obvious flaw in that argument is the fact that oil and water don’t mix and the oil floats to the top while the pasta settles at the bottom quite uncoated by the oil. However, if you stir a small splash of oil into the boiling water, it will keep the released starch from the pasta from foaming the water. This is especially useful if you are using a smaller pot than is optimal. And while there is minimal effect in keeping the noodles from sticking to each other, it will help to keep the pasta from sticking to the pot itself. Just remember to give it a stir a few times as it cooks. Cook until it’s perfect. I know it’s a matter of taste, but for me, pasta is perfect when it has just a little bit of tooth to it. It’s pasta, not a long, skinny dumpling. Pasta should not be crunchy, but neither should it be mushy.

When the pasta is perfect, dump it into a strainer in the sink. Because of the oil, you will not have to deal with a lot of noodles stuck to your pot enabling you to put the empty pot back on the stove and throw in the raw shrimp. Pour in enough wine to coat the bottom of the pot. Don’t worry about the pasta. If you cook the shrimp long enough for the pasta to cool, you’re already lost. Yes, we are cooking the shrimp in the pasta pot. What? Are you looking to wash more pots and pans? Not me. Use a wooden spoon to move the shrimp around in the puddle of white wine just until that beautiful pink tinge emerges. Make sure all the shrimp are laced in that “done shrimp” shade of pink. Do not overcook! Dump shrimp into a bowl. Wash the pot quickly and you’re done with it unless you want to serve from it.

Note: almost any recipe calling for shrimp should be approached in this manner. Adding shrimp to a pan full of other stuff almost guarantees overcooked shrimp. Cook everything else. Then add perfectly cooked shrimp at the end.

Pour the pasta into a serving bowl (or back into the pot). Dump the pesto into the pasta. Stir until that yummy veridity coats every luscious strand. Do not add the shrimp. First, people may not get enough if they are hidden. Second, you don’t want the shrimp to continue cooking in the heat of the pasta.

Serve. Add shrimp to the top. Sprinkle on a pinch of the reserved pine nuts.

Enjoy. Take special note of just how tender and delicate the shrimp are when they are cooked properly and how well they take a strong, flavorful pesto. If anyone does not like the dish, they probably didn’t like Ray Charles either. Ask them to leave and do not allow them back into your home as they clearly cannot be trusted.

Mar 252011
 

mushroom pasta from bibberche.com

Father drove our orange Russian-made Lada across the rickety one-way bridge over a spring and parked it in the meadow along the dirt road, making sure there was enough room for a horse-drawn carriage or a tractor to squeeze by. My cousin, Mira, and I unloaded our backpacks and Father carried the checkered bag full of Mother’s preserves, coffee, Å¡ljivovica*, and sugar cubes.

It was the summer after sixth grade and we were embarking on an adventure, getting ready to spend a month with a family so remotely related to ours that only in Serbia could they be counted as kin. I could barely hide my excitement and anxiety, bringing forth my favorite passages from “Heidi”, as we left the familiar world of concrete and steel, and entered the mysterious kingdom of secluded rural living. We hiked uphill for about an hour, surrounded by the silence of a perfect summer morning interrupted only by an occasional chirping chorus of cicadas and the shriek of some unfamiliar bird.

I admired Father as he led us skillfully through the thickets and across the streams. I was always forgetting that he grew up in those mountains before he became an urban surgeon. As we approached the last plateau, a cluster of buildings came into view, all whitewashed walls and dark, wooden roofs. The dogs announced our arrival and our relatives came down to meet us. I did not know any of them and my heart cramped, overwhelmed by shyness. The elderly matriarch hugged me gently and my head rested on her soft bosom which smelled like grass, freshly baked bread, and milk, while her rough fingers brushed the strands of hair that hid my forehead. Her smile was warm and I felt as if I had known her for centuries.

We hugged and kissed everybody that came down to greet us. They escorted us as we climbed the last hundred yards to the main house. The women moved around in a synchronized dance, adding the finishing touches to the lunch. The men claimed the rustic wooden table hidden from the sun’s fiery touch by the cool shade of an ancient beech tree, and loudly toasted each other with tiny glasses filled with plum brandy. Mira and I decided to stay inside, cowering in the corner. Our cousin BoÅ¡ko was twelve, just like us, and he reluctantly joined us at the table. His sister Maja, a couple of years older, brought glasses of fresh milk for all of us, and left to help her mother and grandmother in the kitchen.

Unable to overcome the awkwardness of the moment, the three of us attacked the milk with ferocity, not looking up, pretending to concentrate on drinking. When we were done, we put our glasses down and shyly raised our glances upward, knowing that somebody would have to start the small talk, and dreading it. We looked at each other and our shoulders began to tremble as we started giggling. We all had thick, white, milk moustaches from fervently diving into our glasses, trying to drown the shyness. Pretty soon we were laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming down our faces, the wall between us shattered as we pointed at each other and at the same time attempted to wipe our mouths. The shards of ice were expelled from our hearts**, and we knew that summer would bring us together.

The women ushered us out and we joined the men at the table underneath the tree. It was lunch time. All of a sudden, we realized we were ravenous from the long hike as our eyes followed each plate with anticipation. Warm bread was placed in the middle, flanked by dishes full of home-made cheese and kajmak; home-cured bacon, sausage, and pršuta***; sweet tomatoes sprinkled with salt and paired with diced onion; and hard-boiled eggs with bright orange yolks collected that morning from the chicken coop.

Silence descended and only grunts and satisfied sighs were heard. Some dishes were moved around to accommodate the additional plates of roasted chicken and new potatoes, accompanied by grilled peppers served with garlic and a vinaigrette. As if it were an afterthought, Maja brought a platter of bright orange mushrooms sauteed with onions and bacon, and it sat to the side, unassuming and modest, not eager to detract from the allure of animal protein.

I did not know what I was eating, but I certainly knew that I loved it. My first taste of chanterelles was enough to mark me for life. Finding out that my cousins foraged for the mushrooms made their earthy flavor even more appealing. When we were done, we did not wait for the adults to finish. We rose from the table filled with energy and ready to explore this beautiful, wondrous world opening in front of us.

Just like our cousins, we got up every day at sunrise and took the cows to graze, running after them with a huge slab of freshly baked bread and kajmak. We rode the sled down the grassy slopes, tumbling at times, and getting our knees scraped. We picked wild flowers, pressed them, and made a herbarium. We spent about fifteen minutes gathering hay into tall stacks, only to abandon the difficult task and tend to the orphaned baby birds we found in a nest. We sat in the shade playing with Barbies while our cousins helped with the farm chores. We went foraging for chanterelles, skipping over the streams, holding onto the slim tree-trunks as we hiked uphill, yelling in excitement at every bright-orange cluster we spied.

I have not had fresh chanterelles since the summer of 1976. I cannot buy the puny, dessicated specimens available at the stores when I know that forests are full of beautiful, fresh mushrooms waiting to be picked. One of these days I’ll find myself in the woods looking again for the clusters of orange fungi. In the meantime, I satisfy my hunger with cultivated mushrooms while I continue to dream of the wild ones.

Sarah of Maison Cupcake has started a Forever Nigella event. This month the theme is Ciao Italia! and we are challenged to make an Italian Nigella recipe. I made Nigella’s Big Pasta with Mushrooms, Parsley, Garlic, and Thyme. Simple, but bursting with complementing bold flavors, this dish was a favorite in my family. I will never stop fantasizing about fresh chanterelles, but for now I can still enjoy the woody aroma of creminis, portabellos, and champignons.

*Å ljivovica (slivovitz) is Serbian plum brandy

**This is a reference to the Hans Cristian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen.

***Pršuta is Serbian cured and smoked pork loin, extremely flavorful and addictive.

Big Mushrrom Pasta from bibberche.com

I am sending this pasta to Presto Pasta Nights hosted by Claire of Chez Cayenne, and started by Ruth of Once upon the Feast.

Mar 162011
 

ricotta gnocchi from bibberche.com

When I was twenty three, I traveled to Italy to spend a month with my friend, Stefania and her family in Abruzzo. The Di Falco family owned a hotel in Teramo, and after we drove for a couple of hours north from the Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Rome, we stopped there for a meal. I was one exam away from graduating from the University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with a degree in Italian and English, but nothing prepared me for a proper Italian repast.

Sure, I had pizza and spaghetti with tomato sauce before, but I had no clue what constituted a real Italian meal. Assuming that our Italian professors had managed to teach us some common Italian traditions, my hosts kept on bringing plates of pasta followed by grilled meats, vegetables, salads, and desserts. Pretty soon all the members of the extended family who worked in the kitchen joined us at the table. The wine was flowing and the spirits were high. I was a guest for about half an hour, and then they took me in as one of them.

I thought that Serbs were loud and obnoxious, but the Abruzzesi won. They played music they thought I might recognize and I threw some old San Remo favorites their way. They talked to me as if I had known them for ages, and brought down all my barriers. Their earnest embraces brought me out of my usual reserved and introverted shell, and I joined them in their infectious laughter, trying to catch all the nuances of the dialect exacerbated by copious amounts of alcohol.

It was August, and all the relatives gathered in one place, some traveling all the way from Venezuela. Stefania and her boyfriend Filippo were soon joined by a dozen cousins in playing hosts. They showed me around their home town of Teramo while the brightly colored Vespas were buzzing around. They took me to the beautiful, sandy beaches of Giulianova where I sat looking at the Adriatic from the other side, wondering how long it would take for the waves lapping around our feet to reach the coast of Dalmatia. We went to the majestic Gran Sasso mountain to traditionally celebrate the fiesta of Ferragosto. We drove around Abruzzo in a dark blue Fiat Panda with another cousin’s boyfriend, fearing for our lives at every hairpin turn, screeching in delight appropriate only in the early 20s when one feels foolishly immortal.

Stefania’s mother spent her days at the hotel running the front desk and dining room, and her father went to work as an agricultural engineer. Every morning there was strong Italian coffee and fresh croissants waiting for us when we got up. We would sit at the table while the morning sun spilled its light over our coffee mugs, spreading butter and anchovy paste on croissants, and planning the day’s events. The family would gather in the afternoons around steaming plates of spaghetti alle vongolle* and crisp white wine. I enjoyed listening to her father’s passionate diatribes about local and national politics. Fascinated by history, I asked him hundreds of questions, trying to follow his Italian, as he talked faster and faster the more excited he got.

We would stop by the hotel for dinner, a fresh fish fillet or a bistecca and a salad, after the hotel guests were gone to their rooms. All the aunts, uncles, and cousins would emerge and join us at the table, finished with their day’s labor and ready to relax. At night, after we came home tired and excited, Stefania and I talked for hours, sneaking into the kitchen for a bite of cheese or salami, careful not to wake her parents.

I was surrounded by food, skillfully prepared, fresh, and local, but at the time it was pure sustenance, pleasurable and enjoyable, but still only fuel to give me energy to go out and soak in some more of the Italian life. How I wish I’d spent time writing down the recipes for all the delectable dishes they served! Years later I look back with nostalgia to the month I spent in Abruzzo, missing the people, their hospitality and love of life, and craving the food I did not fully appreciate at the time.

March 17, 2011 will mark the 150th anniversary of risorgimento, when Garibaldi united various provinces and cities under one Italian flag*. I remember Signor Di Falco questioning the wisdom of uniting so many different people in one country, doubting that South and North would ever see the world with the same eyes. So instead of going to Ireland today, I am giving a tribute to Italy, grateful that I had the chance to visit and spend time with such a wonderful family.

I usually make my own ricotta, but Husband bought an extra container for the lasagna he wanted to make last week. I consulted several recipes for guidance. The gnocchi were like light, soft pillows, mild in taste and wonderfully complemented by sweet and tangy marinara sauce and pungent basil.

*If you would like to learn a bit more about the unification of Italy, there is an article on Wikipedia that talks about it.

RED, WHITE, AND GREEN RICOTTA GNOCCHI, adapted from Not Quite Nigella

Ingredients:

  • 500gr ricotta, drained*
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup all purpose flour (I used more because I forgot to drain the ricotta)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ grated parrmiggiano reggiano or gran padana
  • chopped herbs

*pour into a cheesecloth-lined bowl, wrap, press with a big can or another heavy object, and let drain for 1 hour

Directions:

Put a large stock pot of water to heat and add a handful of salt. In the meantime mix the ricotta and eggs in a bowl. Slowly add flour and the rest of ingredients, mixing just until incorporated.

Form gnocchi using two teaspoons and drop them into boiling water. Cook only several at the time. Once they swim to the surface, after 2-3 minutes, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and place into the simmering marinara sauce. Serve garnished with basil and some more grated parmesan.

ricotta gnocchi from bibberche.com

I am linking this post to Manu’s Menu, a blog written by Manuela, an expat Italian living in Australia, for her post that celebrates 150 years of unity.

I am sending this post to Presto Pasta Nights hosted by Debbie of Debbie Does Dinner and started by Ruth from Once Upon a Feast.

Mar 012011
 

pasta with cilantro-lime pesto from bibberche.com

I don’t buy cooking magazines. But every once in a while we have extra frequent flyer miles, and the airlines will send us a voucher for free subscriptions to several publications. I always ordered Gourmet, because I loved Ruth Reichl and the photography was amazing. Since it was discontinued, I go back and forth between Food&WineBon Appétit, and Everyday Food.

I have to admit that I have a weakness for printed material. Glossy pages, beautiful photos, and the smell of paper fresh from the press is like crack to me. As a child, I never wrote in my books, I never folded the corners to mark my place, I never flipped a paperback for easier reading. My books had to stay immaculate, even in college, when all the comments and quotes ended up in notebooks, rather than underlined or in the margins. Marring a book’s pristine pages seemed sacrilegious. I apply the same standards to magazines, and it is not surprising that a growing pile of them always resides somewhere in my house, moved from one place to another, most of them still untouched.

When we moved from Ohio to California, I had to scale down from over 3500 square feet with a finished basement and a huge two car garage to little over 900 square feet with no basement, no garage, no yard, and no storage space of any kind. As neither one of us was willing to part with our many books that fill more than seven bookcases, we had to apply a different strategy. Husband had to give up boxes of obsolete electronics and do-it-yourself gadgets. The kids had to donate a lot of toys, games, and clothes to the Berea orphanage. I had to let go of a lot of my kitchen stuff. And I had to give up my magazines. I leafed through every single one, copied the recipes I liked into my digital cookbook, brought them all to the library, seemingly unopened and new, and left them knowing that somebody would take care of them.

It did not take long for a pile of magazines to appear on my side table in our tiny apartment in Southern California (I apologize to my friends and family in Europe for calling a perfectly ample and comfortable area of 90 m squared tiny; it’s all about relativity). It is not as impressive as before because I reined myself in and got the subscriptions to only one at a time. They are so pretty, all shiny and new, with beautiful photos adorning their front pages. I want to cook from them, but just the thought of them being in close proximity to splattering oil or a whirring mixer gives me the chills. I cannot submit my lovelies to such treatment…

But I am aware that we have to use our furniture for other purposes than as magazine stands, especially if the magazines are just sitting there idly. In the meantime a glossy, new sample diligently appears in our mail box once a month. So a compromise was born out of desperation. When I announced that I would write down a recipe I like to make out of a magazine every week or so in one of my handy notebooks, Husband rolled his eyes in disbelief and asked why I just didn’t load it in my iPhone like all the normal people.

Barbara of Vino Luci Style has a  monthly blog event called RSVP Redux that features the recipes from Bon Appétit’s RSVP section. I wanted to participate for several months, but an aforementioned (barely noticeable) disorder prevented me. The stack of magazines was eagerly waiting to fulfill its existential purpose, and for once, I was highly motivated. The quest for the introductory recipe has begun.

When Father was here recently on his usual extended visit, he wanted to take us out to dinner. He is a gourmand, and I always try to expose him to new culinary experiences. I picked a Peruvian restaurant, Inca Mama, not too far away from us, knowing that this would be something new and unfamiliar for all of us. The service was not that great, but the atmosphere was good and we loved the food.

As I was thumbing through my Bon Appétit issue from July of 2010, I found a recipe that reminded me of one of the dishes we had that night which impressed us the most in all its simplicity: Pasta with Shrimp and Cilantro-Lime Pesto. It was in the RSVP section and seemed like a wonderful start, especially after Husband had been hounding me to try to replicate his Peruvian meal. The list of ingredients was short and my mental faculties were not sufficiently challenged to make me reach for a pad and pen.

I have made the original pesto Bolognese many times, ever since I discovered the strange-looking, vibrantly green sauce served over cappellini pasta in fine-dining Italian restaurants in the 80s. I occasionally substituted parsley for basil, and walnuts for pine nuts just to experiment with the flavors. But I have never used cilantro in pesto. I associate pesto with Italian cuisine and cilantro with Latin American and Asian food. I love my Asian noodles with my Asian sauces, and it did not occur to me to attempt some kind of fusion, as I thought that it was something only Ming Tsai did. Now that I think of it, I know that there are a lot of Italian immigrants in Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela who invariably brought their traditional dishes to their new homes and adapted them to the local ingredients.

The dish came together in less than thirty minutes. I blended cilantro, garlic, green onions, jalapeño peppers, lime juice, and olive oil until emulsified, while the pasta was boiling. As soon as it was done, I sauteed the shrimp, added the tequila and sauce, and mixed everything with linguine. I was supposed to sprinkle crumbled Feta on top (I did not have Cotija cheese as the recipe specified) after I served it, but I forgot. Unbelievably easy, but packed with tastiness. A fresh, intensely flavored, restaurant-style dish appeared on our dinner table in minutes. And no magazines were harmed in the process.

stack of magazines from bibberche.com

PASTA WITH SHRIMP AND CILANTRO-LIME PESTO (Bon Appétit, July 2010, adapted from Tejas Texas Grill & Saloon in Hermantown, Minnesota)

Ingredients:

  • 1 ¾ cups fresh cilantro, plus ¼ cup chopped (reserve for later)
  • ¼ cups green onion, coarsely chopped
  • 3 Tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely minced
  • 1 Tbsp chopped, seeded, jalapeño chile
  • ½ cup plus 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt
  • 1lb linguine
  • 1 lb uncooked shrimp, cleaned and deveined
  • 3 Tbsp tequila
  • ¼ cup crumbled Cotija or feta (optional)
  • salt, pepper

Directions:

Blend cilantro, green onions, lime juice, garlic, and chile. Gradualy add ½ cup olive oil with machine running. Season generously with salt. Prepared sauce can be made one day ahead and refrigerated.

Cook linguine in a large pot of salted water until cooked al dente. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 Tbsp of oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp and cook until almost opaque in the center, about 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, add tequila, return to heat, and stir for 30 seconds to thicken a sauce a little. Add sauce, stir to combine, and remove from heat.

Add pasta, toss, and season woth salt and pepper.

Divide among 4 plates. Sprinkle with cheese and chopped cilantro, and serve.

Serves 4.

Besides RSVP Redux, I am sending this dish to Hearth ‘n Soul blog hop, hosted by Alex of A Moderate Life and Presto Pasta Nights hosted by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast (Presto Pasta Nights celebrates its forth birthday on Friday, and this Thursday there is going to be a bash there! Great chance to visit!)

Feb 142011
 

When I was four years old, I remember Mother packing boxes full of clothes, coats, and shoes, and taking them down to the local Red Cross center to be shipped to Vietnam. Often, she was teary-eyed when she told me that she could always knit me another sweater and sew me another pretty dress while some children, as young as I was, in this far-away country went without food, water, and clothes.

In fifth grade, I fell in love with Pearl Buck and devoured every word she had written, transporting myself to China every night and living the lives of her unhappy heroines. In grade school, I became fascinated by geography and obsessed with major mountain chains, gross national products, capitals, waterways, and culture. I learned how to count to ten in thirty different languages, most of them non-European.

In high school I lost hours immersed in the books of Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, and Louis Bromfield, dreaming of monsoons, moist heat, tropical fruit, and sultry nights. I loved to recite the names of the Indonesian islands: Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Celebes (or Sulawesi, as it is known today (“known by whom?” Husband asked)), feeling touched by the magic of the Orient. I visited these lands vicariously through the written word, TV coverage of major political events, and movies.

Going off to college in our capital city of Belgrade did not bring me any closer to the real culture of Asia. Sure, there were students in my class studying Japanese, and I occasionally saw a diplomat’s family from Korea or Malaysia walking the streets. But there was little that was cosmopolitan about Belgrade in the 80s, at least from the perspective of a provincial student.

The first Chinese restaurant, Peking, opened on one of the side streets close to the University, but having to choose how to spend what little money we had, we remained loyal to the familiar places that served plenty of wine and had live music on weekends. I peeked inside longingly from time to time, but my adventurous spirit was spent riding on the back of the moped my cousin, Maja would “borrow” from her older brother, or staying at my friends’ dorm room until dawn, waiting for the first morning bus filled with still sleepy factory workers to bring me back home, exhausted and hoarse from too much talking and too many cigarettes.

When I was a freshmen, my Aunt who worked as the secretary for one of the deans introduced me to an elderly Chinese man finishing his doctoral studies in Philosophy. His name was Wu Shi Kan, which was immediately changed into the Serbian: Vukašin, as a term of endearment. He spoke Serbian fluently, having studied in China. My Aunt and Uncle took Vukašin everywhere they went, showing him the country and letting him experience the friendliness of the Balkan people.

I went home for the weekend when they brought VukaÅ¡in to visit my family. He charmed us all with his warm smile and beautiful music he wrought from his harmonica. He told stories of his homeland, laughing a little about his wife’s family which came from the potato region of China, and crying when remembering his children. I was mesmerized when he started talking about food, not for my culinary inclinations, but because the dishes he described were so exotic and strange that they evoked memories of old fairy tales I had read as a child. I remember him painting a vivid picture of a celebratory dish he called The Battle of Tiger and Dragon, which consisted of such far-fetched and weird ingredients that we believed he was pulling a fast one on us, taking advantage of our naïveté in his sweet, unassuming, and innocent way.

Before he left, VukaÅ¡in gave us bookmarks dotted with Chinese characters and depicting pandas, bamboo stalks, and old figurines. Those were the days when our stores were not inundated with made in China goods, and these little gifts were unique and special. We gathered as he retreated through the front door facing us and bowing in respect, the warm smile illuminating his eyes, and we felt like we were saying Goodbye! to an old friend.

I went to hear Wu Shi Kan defend his doctoral thesis. I shook his hand and congratulated him. He smiled and thanked me in his warm, soft voice. I heard from my Aunt that he had returned to China to his children and his loving potato-eating wife. I have recently found one of his bookmarks in an old day-timer I brought with me to U.S. and it flooded me with memories, not only of him, but of my love for the distant lands of Asia. I smiled because I knew that one day soon I would find someone to repeat to me the story of the Battling Tigers and Dragons and I would find out how much fun Vukašin had with us.

In the meantime, I explore the culinary world of Asia, ingredient by ingredient, culture by culture. I approach the 99 Ranch Market with the apprehension and excitement of Marco Polo, curious as a cat, overwhelmed with the smells and sights around me, delighted when I recognize jackfruit or maitake mushrooms from somewhere online, lost in the aisle of soy bean products, entertained by hilarious translations, and humbled by the sea of the unfamiliar. I have met some wonderful friends recently who are willing to be my guides through the maze of this store and help me find my way around. One of them is Karen of Globetrotter Diaries, whose recipe for Soba Noodles I used for the challenge. Every time I visit her blog I am in awe of her photography and wonderfully prepared food.

This month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge sent me out of my comfort zone, giving us the task of cooking soba noodles and making tempura. The host of this challenge is Lisa of Blueberry Girl, who is truly a citizen of the world, having lived in several countries. Thanks to her thorough research and easy to follow instructions, both of my dishes turned out wonderfully. Encouraged by the initial success, I am eager to expand my experience, and venture beyond stir-fries.

The February 2011 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl. She challenged Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi Soba and Tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including japanesefood.about.com, pinkbites.com, and itsybitsyfoodies.com

HIYASHI SOBA NOODLES (Recipe by Globetrotter Diaries)

Soba Noodles

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts (2 L) water
  • 1 cup cold water, separate
  • 12 oz (340 g) dried soba (buckwheat) noodles (or any Asian thin noodle)

Directions:

Cooking the noodles:

Heat 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the noodles a small bundle at a time, stirring gently to separate. When the water returns to a full boil, add 1 cup of cold water. Repeat this twice. When the water returns to a full boil, check the noodles for doneness. You want to cook them until they are firm-tender. Do not overcook them.

Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse well under cold running water until the noodles are cool. This not only stops the cooking process, but also removes the starch from the noodles. This is an essential part of soba noodle making. Once the noodles are cool, drain them and cover them with a damp kitchen towel and set them aside allowing them to cool completely.

Spicy Dipping Sauce

Ingredients

  • 3⁄4 cup 70gm/21⁄2 oz spring onions/green onions/scallions, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) rice vinegar
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon (21⁄2 ml) (4 2⁄3 gm) (0.16 oz) granulated sugar
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon (11⁄4 ml) (1/8 gm) (0.005 oz) English mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) grape-seed oil or vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) sesame oil (if you can’t find this just omit from recipe.)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste – roughly
  • 1/3 a teaspoon of each

Directions:

Shake all the ingredients together in a covered container. Once the salt has dissolved, add and shake in 2 tablespoons of water and season again if needed.

Common Hiyashi Soba Toppings:

  • Thin omelet strips
  • Ham
  • Boiled chicken breasts
  • Cucumber
  • Boiled bean sprouts
  • Tomatoes
  • Toasted nori (Dried Seaweed)
  • Green onions
  • Wasabi powder
  • Finely grated daikon (Japanese radish)
  • Beni Shoga (Pickled Ginger)
  • All toppings should be julienne, finely diced or grated. Prepare and refrigerate covered until needed.

Serving:

Traditionally soba is served on a bamboo basket tray, but if you don’t have these, you can simply serve them on a plate or in a bowl. Divide up the noodles, laying them on your serving dishes. Sprinkle each one with nori. In small side bowl or cup, place 1/2 cup (120 ml) of dipping sauce into each. In separate small side dishes, serve each person a small amount of wasabi, grated daikon, and green onions.

The noodles are eaten by sprinkling the desired garnishes into the dipping sauce and eating the noodles by first dipping them into the sauce. Feel free to slurp away! Oishii

soba noodles from bibberche.com

TEMPURA (Recipe from Itsy Bitsy Foodies and Pink Bites )

Ingredients:

  • 1 egg yolk from a large egg
  • 1 cup (240 ml) iced water
  • 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (21⁄2 oz) plain (all purpose) flour, plus extra for dredging
  • 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (21⁄2 oz) cornflour (also called cornstarch)
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon (21⁄2 ml) (21⁄2 gm) (0.09 oz) baking powder
  • oil, for deep frying preferably vegetable
  • ice water bath, for the tempura batter (a larger bowl than what will be used for the tempura should be used. Fill the large bowl with ice and some water, set aside)
  • Very cold vegetables and seafood of your choice ie:
  • Sweet potato, peeled, thinly sliced, blanched
  • Carrot, peeled, thinly sliced diagonally
  • Pumpkin, peeled, seeds removed, thinly sliced blanched
  • Green beans, trimmed
  • Green bell pepper/capsicum, seeds removed, cut into 2cm (3⁄4 inch)-wide strips
  • Assorted fresh mushrooms
  • Eggplant cut into strips (traditionally it’s fanned)
  • Onions sliced

Directions:

Place the iced water into a mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg yolk and gradually pour into the iced water, stirring (preferably with chopsticks) and blending well. Add flours and baking powder all at once, stroke a few times with chopsticks until the ingredients are loosely combined. The batter should be runny and lumpy. Place the bowl of batter in an ice water bath to keep it cold while you are frying the tempura. The batter as well as the vegetables and seafood have to be very cold. The temperature shock between the hot oil and the cold veggies help create a crispy tempura.

Heat the oil in a large pan or a wok. For vegetables, the oil should be 320°F/160°C; for seafood it should be 340°F/170°C. It is more difficult to maintain a steady temperature and produce consistent tempura if you don’t have a thermometer, but it can be done. You can test the oil by dropping a piece of batter into the hot oil. If it sinks a little bit and then immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.

Start with the vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, that won’t leave a strong odor in the oil. Dip them in a shallow bowl of flour to lightly coat them and then dip them into the batter. Slide them into the hot oil, deep frying only a couple of pieces at a time so that the temperature of the oil does not drop.

Place finished tempura pieces on a wire rack so that excess oil can drip off. Continue frying the other items, frequently scooping out any bits of batter to keep the oil clean and prevent the oil (and the remaining tempura) from getting a burned flavor.

Serve immediately for the best flavor, but they can also be eaten cold.

tempura vegetables from bibberche.com

Dec 242010
 

The town I consider my home is nestled in a valley surrounded by gently sloping hills, split in two by the river Morava. The sun sets fast behind the peaks of Ovčar and Kablar, two mountainous brothers watching over each other for eternity. Their sister, Jelica, sprawls for miles, flanking the town on the southern side, not rising above her brothers, feigning subservience, but reaching out for miles with her green fields studded with white herds of sheep and red earthen roofs. She is generous and fertile. She holds in her embrace orchards swelling with purple plums, rows upon rows of bursting red tomatoes, brambles protecting luscious wild blackberries, and acres of raspberries that feed all of Europe.

Three decades ago, Father bought a couple of acres of land on the side of mountain Jelica overlooking the town. Completely immersed in our teenage adventures altogether a world away, we did not share his newly-fetched enthusiasm for agriculture and homesteading. He would arrive home from the hospital and invite us to go with him to “The Ranch”, and we invariably had too much homework. We could not skip our scheduled karate classes or a choir practice or navel lint harvesting – anything to avoid going up there with him. Back then I lived for the lazy strolls along the river bank with my boyfriend and occasional moments of bliss when our knees would touch seemingly unintentionally. I preferred to join our friends at a sidewalk café, drink a Schweppes’ Bitter Lemon, and plan another bicycle outing. I would gladly stay home and engage my sister in yet another fight that would end up with me crying and her stubbornly pouting and refusing to talk to me. Even this was preferable to the Ranch.

Mother was another story. From the beginning, she was a bit skeptical about the whole idea. Father running a hacienda? She accompanied him to the Ranch a couple of times and attacked the gardening tasks with the vigor and energy she had used when working in her parents’ garden. She would not stop until she was done. Father laughed, reminding her that she was not an indentured servant, pointing out the three square feet of perfectly weeded garden that he managed to accomplish in the same time. Yes, it was flanked by waist high overgrown grass, but he did not break a sweat. He was doing it for fun. In the end, she gave up, knowing that his grandiose plans were meant to fail.

In the meantime he indulged his fantasies and had a log cabin moved and installed on the foundation of the old house. Walnut trees and hazelnut bushes formed the southern border of his property. Raspberries and blackberries hugged the fence on the eastern side. The northern half of the Ranch held an orchard, planted mostly with plums, apples, and pears. But he could not stop there. He added a couple of peach, apricot, and quince trees. Pretty soon they were joined by several cherry trees: two red cherries, two sour cherries, and one bing cherry. He planted some kiwis, a gooseberry bush, and three figs. Returning from his trips, he would bring home seeds and seedlings, the more exotic, the better. He planted a vineyard on the sloped hill and dreamed of pouring his own ruby black wine into bottles and sharing it with friends. He bought chickens of several different kinds, turkeys, and even pheasants. He dreamt of letting several sheep graze around the plum trees and a small herd of goats that would give him milk every day.

I am sitting here, almost melting, imagining the rustic idyll. But the reality is harsh. Father is a dreamer. Father is also an accomplished surgeon, a genius diagnostician, and an extremely poor homesteader. He loves his Ranch, and ever since he retired, he spends every free moment on the hill, getting up at dawn, and returning for the midday meal. His friends are getting less and less willing to join him and do the majority of heavy labor to make his dreams come alive. The fox has eaten his pheasants. The hawk got several of his chickens. The potatoes were as small as peanuts because he refused to spray against the potato bug. The cherries were rotting on the ground because he did not have the time to pick them. His neighbors goats got entangled in a chain and broke his kiwi trees. At the same time two of his figs disappeared, only to magically resurface in his neighbor’s yard.

At home, Mother rolls her eyes with exasperation when he unloads daily the crates of overgrown zucchini that were hiding in the weeds he did not pick, and the buckets of pears and tiny heirloom apples that stubbornly refuse to yield to the knife and give you blisters after fifteen minutes. She does not know what to do with cupfuls of gooseberries and crate upon a crate of cherries. It is, after all, only the two of them living in the house now. He promises every year that he will pare down significantly, but as soon as the snow starts to melt in early March, he starts rummaging in the garage, looking for the seeds he collected in the summer, and making a grand design destined to break his septuagenarian back and send Mother scowling into her room where she can forget, if only for an hour or two, the deluge of produce, almost all flawed, bound to appear on her kitchen table the next summer.

His apples are misshapen, and his pears small and overripe when he picks them. His scallions and onions arrive with a clump of dirt hugging the roots. His potatoes are not worth peeling and something always gets his figs before he can collect them. He brings these inferior gifts to Mother proudly, and inevitably getting the same reaction that our cats received when they caught the moths whose wings spanned more than three inches, and deposited them, still alive, wings a-flutter, at Mother’s feet.

But when he pours his golden yellow whites and ruby red “black” wines from the five-liter wicker-covered glass casks, we forget Mother’s suffering. He keeps them in her light-blue and white dining room making it look like an unorganized warehouse. It does not help that Mother is allergic to alcohol. Our praises to his wine-making skills, as random as we think they are, make him smile proudly, and recite every single detail that went into producing the wine from its inception. We nod, listen to his never-ending agricultural stories that inevitably connect to the summers in the 50s, and raise our gold-rimmed, light as foam wine glasses that belonged to Deda-Ljubo.

I have not tasted Father’s wine for two years. And he tells me I missed the best ones yet. Every year he puts away a five-liter cask of his red wine for me and my sister (and our husbands, if they happen to accompany us to Serbia). My sister and Thomas drank my share for two summers. But I intend to break that trend. I hope this Fall’s harvest yielded some magnificent grapes that will end up in my gold-rimmed glass next July.

I read a lot recently about pasta cooked in red wine. It intrigued me, and I decided to take the challenge. The earthy aroma of sauteed mushrooms, the sweet bite of garlic, and the crunch of roasted walnuts balanced beautifully the deep-red noodles which encased the essence of a fruity red wine and sharp nuttiness of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. The dish was definitely autumnal, albeit light. Every bite brought a smile to my face, as I imagined Father pouring his wine into our glasses, as the linden trees released their perfume on a sultry summer evening in Serbia.

RED WINE PASTA WITH MUSHROOMS AND NUTS

Ingredients:

  • 1lb pasta (I used farfalle, but spaghetti work as well))
  • 3 cups red wine (Zinfandel)
  • ½ walnuts or hazelnuts, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp butter or olive oil
  • 8 oz cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
  • salt, freshly ground pepper
  • a handful of parsley, chopped
  • ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved (those who follow Eastern Orthodox fast or a vegan diet, skip the cheese)

Directions:

Cook pasta in salted water for 4-5 minutes and drain. Pour the wine in the pot and return to boil. Add back the pasta and cook for 6-7 minutes, occasionally stirring gently, until most of the wine is absorbed. Pasta should be al dente.

Heat a dry non-stick skillet on medium heat and toast the nuts 2-3 minutes, shaking the skillet to prevent burning. Take of the heat and set aside.

Heat the butter or oil on medium-high heat and add the mushrooms, salt, and pepper. Cook for 5-6 minutes, until mushrooms are soft and golden brown. Mix in the nuts, parsley, and pasta. Shave the cheese on top.

This is my entry for Presto Pasta Nights, hosted by Claire from Chez Cayenne