Aug 272012
 

Branzino from bibberche.com

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

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

Adriatic from bibberche.com

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

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

Branzino from bibberche.com

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

Branzino from bibberche.com

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

Branzino from bibberche.com

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

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

Branzino from bibberche.com

May 032012
 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WEEK ONE, POBLANO RAJAS

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

WEEK TWO, ENCHILADAS VERDES

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

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

WEEK THREE, TROPICAL BEACH CEVICHE

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

Vladimir Jovanovic, my cousin extraordinaire, edited my photo

WEEK FOUR, CHIPOTLE GLAZED RIBS

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

Mar 092012
 
On the Adriatic Coast from bibberche.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patiently awaiting my expertise

heads off

gutted in one clean sweep

the last thing out, cartilage

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

no, these would not make the most desirable prom date

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

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

Feb 142012
 

Pasta with Sardines from bibberche.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasta with Sardines

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

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

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

Pasta with Sardines from bibberche.com

MEDITERRANEAN PASTA WITH SARDINES

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

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

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

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

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.

Jun 122011
 

Books

When I call Husband from work to come and pick me up, I count the seconds before our silver VW Jetta appears, weaving between the pumps and luxury cars at the gas station before it glides to a stop in the parking lot. I can’t wait to get home, shed my uniform, take a shower, and gently roll into my other life, laptop leaning against my legs, a Seabreeze misty and cold on the coffee table within an easy reach, and my family shadowing my field of vision every few minutes.

But on Thursday we had repairmen over at the apartment fixing a crack in the bath tub. They shooed Husband out and ordered him not to return until 3:00 PM at the earliest, because the fumes from the chemicals they used were noxious. I moaned in disappointment, dreading another hour that I would have to belong to the unwashed masses, partially mollified by the change of clothes that Husband offered when I reached the car.

Our youngest, Zoe, was in the back seat doing her usual imitation of the baby T-Rex, glasses askew, backpack leaning against her side, her hair mussed and disheveled, iPhone intermittently giving off signals that her virtual pies were done baking. Not able to return home for at least an hour, we decided to head over to “It’s a Grind”, our local coffee shop, conveniently situated a block away from Anya’s school. Also conveniently located a block away from Anya’s school is our City Library, and as soon as we remembered that, husband started weaving from lane to lane, back and forth, while we debated what sounded better.

With the last swerve to the left, we picked the library, hoping to get a cappuccino after we browsed through the book shelves. We are a family of book-worms, some of us affirmed and obsessed, some that don’t even realize it, some only in making. We are a family of five with five pairs of glasses and three pairs of contact lenses, the family of squinters, and the family that gets high from the smell of new books.

We looked for Watership Down for Zoe, who really likes animals and thinks she hates reading, and unable to find it, reserved a copy for next week. We stopped at the library store just in case, and the time stopped. We went three ways, excited and giddy, looking at the titles, pulling the books off the shelves, and piling them on the desk manned by an elderly couple. We felt like thieves, as every book in the place sold for 3 bucks or less, most for a mere dollar. Every ten minutes we would regroup and come together, to share in careful whispers of our precious finds.

An hour flew, and we scampered out of the library, Husband toting a huge paper bag full of books. We drove at Indy500 speed until we reached Anya’s school and parked in front to await the bell. Almost feverish, we started pulling the books out of the bag, leafing through and reading excerpts to each other. An unforgettable moment of bliss!

We live in a really small apartment and we have many books. It looks as though we are slowly transferring the regional library to a more convenient locale. There are book shelves in the living room, dining room, kids room, our bedroom and the closet. The only reason we feel guilty when we drag a bag like this one home is that we really have no place for more books until we move. Or until we start throwing out the furniture to accommodate the books. When Husband and I merged the households some thirteen years ago, he brought a ton of books to my little space that was already full to the brim with my own. In all these years we had to get rid of a lot of stuff for the lack of space, but the books, all of our books, remained. We have accepted the sad truth that we are the book hoarders.

The newly purchased bag of books sat in the living room like a Christmas tree for a night, loved with an eager longing, but… where the hell are all these books going to go? Our shelves are double and triple stacked. They are literally overflowing. Unhappy with its undeserved banishment, Husband decided to rearrange the furniture to find a loving home for our new acquisitions. I came home from work today to find our little apartment in complete disarray. I had to navigate furniture on the porch. I had to jump over the cables to get to the bathroom; I had to squeeze through a corridor of DVDs on my way to the bedroom; I had to dance around precariously grouped CDs on the dining room table; but I was relieved: we are paring down!  And this time I did not have to initiate the purge with Husband guiltily hiding the useless necessities behind his back in a vain effort to save them.

Our patio became a depository of soon-to-be donated items: a CD player, a DVD player, an old desk top computer, a printer, a TV stand. Buoyed by Husband’s enthusiasm, the girls started bringing miscellaneous stuff from their room, all of a sudden feeling generous and willing to part with boxes full of plastic toys, mangy stuffed animals, and old games. Safely fortressed in the bedroom, I followed the events from the distance, smiling in satisfaction, looking forward to a cleaner, more organized home.

My only task was to prepare dinner. I was not really jumping at the thought of going to the grocery store, and I did not feel sadistic enough to dispatch Husband to hunt the victuals. I rummaged through the pantry and the fridge, peeked in the freezer, and glanced at the produce bowl on the counter. With a touch of ingenuity, a dinner plan was formed: Shrimp and Scallops Creole, scrounged from small amounts of various ingredients I found around the kitchen. Can it get more thematic than that? While Husband was getting rid of stuff to bring some order and harmony into our lives, I collected edible bits and pieces to prepare a comforting, flavorful dinner perfectly capable of ruling the day with its bold, assertive notes hidden amidst the sweet and soft texture of the scallops, and somewhat firmer and briny taste of shrimp.

By the time I placed the steaming pot in the middle of the table, the living room was transformed. Clutter disappeared, the carpet was not merely visible, but vacuumed, the desert dust of California gone for a moment. Red wine mirrored the flames from the candles, and every face at the table shone with the healthy hue of accomplishment.

Shrimp and Scallops Creole from bibberche.com

SHRIMP AND SCALLOPS CREOLE

(Roasted peppers are usually not used in this dish, but I had some beautiful roasted poblanos that just begged to be utilized. They added a smoky and piquant note that added a new layer to the meal.)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 bell pepper (I prefer yellow, red, or orange), diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 3 pasilla (poblano) peppers, roasted, peeled and destemmed (optional, I just had them available)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary (or ½ tsp dry)
  • 2 sprigs fresh oregano (or ½ tsp dry)
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper (more or less, to taste)
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tbsp flour
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 cup tomato sauce (I used whole tomatoes in juice and whirled them in my chopper)
  • 1 ½ lbs scallops, rinsed, the foot removed
  • 1 lb medium-large shrimp, peeled and deveined

Directions:

Heat a large, heavy skillet on a medium heat. Add oil, and when hot enough, mix in onions, peppers, and celery. Stir from time to time until translucent and soft, 5-8 minutes. Add roasted poblanos, garlic, bay leaf, and spices. Stir for another 2-3 minutes, and mix in the flour. Stir until combined, 1-2 minutes, and deglaze with white wine. Stir to loosen up the tasty layer on the bottom of the skillet. Add tomato sauce, stir to combine, lower the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Add the seafood and simmer for another 6-8 minutes, until shrimp is pink, and scallops opaque inside (if your shrimp is smaller, add it 3-4 minutes later).

Taste for seasonings and adjust according to the need.

Serve with plain white rice.

Mar 142011
 

Peruvian Ceviche from bibberche.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ceviche, process from bibberche.com

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

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

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

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

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

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

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

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!)

Jan 302011
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deda from bibberche.com

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

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

Deda with Kids from bibberche.com

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

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

Deda in California from bibberche.com

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

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

Ligurian Fish Stew form bibberche.com

LIGURIAN FISH STEW (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

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

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

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

 

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

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

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

Jul 142010
 

When I was growing up in Serbia, nuts were seldom used in savory dishes, but mostly in pastries, cakes, tortes, or crepes. Times have changed and I can see the big-city dwellers using peanuts as a result of the Thai influence, but my town would rebel for sure. Peanut butter is an adventure when you are raised on Nutella or Eurocreme.

The idea of cooking the same dish all over the world appealed to me, and I joined the Daring Cooks. The first challenge for me was nut butters. Since I left Serbia I have moved past the traditional and embraced international cuisine. But I rarely cook with nut butters. OK. Somebody has thrown the glove to me. I can do this.

The July 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by Margie of More Please and Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make their own nut butter from scratch, and use the nut butter in a recipe. Their sources include Better with Nut Butter by Cooking Light Magazine, Asian Noodles by Nina Simonds, and Food Network online.

I cooked three dishes out of four. We loved two, and were  unimpressed by one. And making nut butters without the food processor is a major pain. Costco’s appliances look mighty good right now.

All the recipes can be downloaded here in PDF.

Asian Chicken Salad With Cashew Butter


The only changes I made were substituting zucchini for cucumber, rice vinegar fro vinegar, adding shredded carrots, and using yellow bell pepper instead of red. The dish was wonderful, light, and well rounded in flavors.

I made my own cashew butter using a mini food chopper.

Chicken With Curried Tomato and Almond Sauce

I used walnut butter and home-made garam masala. The spice was just right, and we enjoyed this dish tremendously.

Chicken with Pecan Cream and Mushrooms

I used cashew butter instead of pecan. The sauce was pretty bland, and the chicken breast was somewhat dry. A mediocre dish. Chicken thighs would have been a better choice.