Jan 302014
 

Serbian-Chinese Cream of Chicken Soup from bibberche.com

When he was in Medical School, Father had a Chinese roommate. This was back in the 50s, and Tzu-Ke-Lee attended the University of Belgrade on a Chinese scholarship studying Serbian language and culture. Even now, in his old age, Father can charm a linguist without being proficient in any language except Serbian, and in his twenties he could communicate with extraterrestrials successfully. That they were both young men was obviously plenty for a friendship to be born.

Tzu-Ke-Lee introduced Father to the tradition of drinking real tea while still piping hot, and in turn got initiated into some unavoidable Serbian rituals: drinking slivovitz (plum brandy) along with Turkish coffee, and devouring various smoked porcine products. The gentle Chinese youth spent every holiday with Father and his parents, getting an in-depth experience of family life in Yugoslavia, which for the most part consisted of Njanja trying her best to fatten up her emaciated guest and Father playing practical jokes, fully taking advantage of the cultural gap.

Asian Vegetables from Melissa's Produce from bibberche.c0m

Tzu was serious and committed, but Father managed to drag him away from his books occasionally and take him out on the town. He went along without missing a smile, and spent hours with Father’s friends, downing shots of slivovitz, learning to jitterbug, and flirting with beautiful girls dressed in sleeveless shirts tied just above their belly buttons. But come morning, when all the rest of the bunch moaned in pain unable to face the morning sun, Tzu was already hitting the books, his porcelain teapot gurgling with steaming hot tea and several cups ready to be filled.

He graduated in record time and started to prepare for his return to China. He spent his last weekend in Yugoslavia with Father and his family in our home town of Čačak where everyone knew him and treated him like a member of the family. The women cried, the men patted him on the shoulders, trying not to show the sparkle of tears in their eyes. Back in Belgrade the farewell party was somewhat solemn. There was still slivovitz and the jitterbug, and flirty pretty girls showed up in droves. Promises were made, addresses exchanged, but everyone knew that China was on the other end of the world, as attainable as the Moon. It was a real goodbye and no one expected to hear from Tzu-Ke-Lee again.

Father continued his studies, intermittently interrupted by wild drunken bashes in which he invariably found himself entwined with another pretty girl with sparkly eyes. On many mornings after, he longed for a cup of strong steaming tea and the gentle smile of his departed roommate and wondered if Tzu thought about his days at the University of Belgrade and the friends he had to leave behind.

Daikon and Carrots Pickle from bibberche.com

And somewhere in Beijing, Tzu-Ke-Lee kept on studying, stealing moments to reminisce about the time he spent in Serbia. A letter from China traveled for months before it reached my grandparents’ house in Čačak. The whole neighborhood gathered at the house while Njanja read the lines aloud. For the moment the gentle Chinese was back among them, smiling and bowing, and everyone felt touched by his kind words.

Throughout the years he kept on writing. Father told us stories about their escapades, vowing every time that he would write back, complaining that he is not good with pen and paper (and that was not just an excuse; the postcards that he sent sounded the same no matter if he wrote to his best friend or Mother, exactly the same when he wrote from his trip to Paris, as from a neighboring town). But he never wrote back.

Back in the 70s, Tzu-Ke-Lee accompanied a Chinese delegation as an official interpreter. He called Father from Belgrade, and in a few hours he was in Čačak, embracing his old roommate and meeting his young family. I don’t remember much of that day, but I cannot forget that weird looking, but smiling face and gentle eyes hiding behind dark-rimmed glasses. A few letters and a few years later, Tzu started working for Radio Beijing. Father still promised to write back, but never did.

Tzu-Keli letter from bibberche.com

I was already on my final year of college when he told me that, a while back, Tzu-Ke-Lee had invited me to be a guest at their family home in Beijing. The meticulous Chinese planned every detail of my stay there. I would travel to Russia and take the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok, and on to Ulan-Bator in Mongolia and Beijing. He knew that I had a passion for languages and promised me a place at the University to study Chinese for two years. But by the time I found out, my life was taking a different turn. I spent a summer in the U.S. and my heart remained imprisoned in the wilderness of the Colorado Rockies. If I had known about the offer when the letter first arrived, I would have jumped up and down to make it happen. But after several years it became an empty dream never to be fulfilled.

Father has never written back to Tzu-Ke-Lee. But I am on very friendly terms with the pen and paper and today I wrote an e-mail to the editor of Radio Beijing. I know that it is a shot in the dark. I do not even know if I spelled Tzu’s name properly. But I am hoping that someone in that big town knows this man who was like a member of my family back when Father was just a young punk. I would like him to know that a lot of people still remember him and tell stories with a teary eye.

I sent greetings to Tzu-Ke-Lee and his family, wishing them health, prosperity, and happiness in the Lunar New Year. I told my girls all the stories I remembered about this gentle, kind man and recruited their help in preparing a Chinese meal. I am sure that there are a few teenagers somewhere in Beijing who listen wide-eyed about their Grandfather’s adventures. And you know what? China is not that far away any more.

In celebration of the upcoming Lunar New Year, I am presenting you with two recipes that are all about Serbian-Chinese friendship. Our cultures are not that are apart when it comes to food stuff.

Thank you, Melissa’s Produce, for all the amazing Asian vegetables that arrived one day in front of my door.

Pickled Daikon and Carrots from bibberche.com

 

Daikon and Carrots Pickle
5.0 from 1 reviews

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Recipe type: Canning
Cuisine: Serbian – Chinese
Author:
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 4-6
It seems that Serbian and Chinese food cultures are very similar, as the recipes differ in really tiny details.
Ingredients
  • 1 Daikon radish, scrubbed, peeled and cut in pieces 3 inches long and ¼ inch thick
  • 5-6 carrots, scrubbed, peeled and cut the same way as the radish
  • ½ cup rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 6-7 black peppercorns
  • Water
Instructions
  1. Place Daikon and carrots in two quart-size jars.
  2. Make it look pretty.
  3. Pour vinegar, salt, sugar and peppercorns on top. Pour in water to fill almost to the top (leave a bit of space under the lip of the jar.
  4. Firmly close the jars.
  5. Place a kitchen towel on the bottom of a tall pot.
  6. Fill the pot with water.
  7. Place the jars in the pot on top of the kitchen towel so that they are completely submerged.
  8. Heat the water until it boils.
  9. Turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes.
  10. Take the jars out of the pot.
  11. Turn them upside down, wrap them in towels and place them in a warm spot until they cool off.
  12. They should be ready to use within days.

Serbian-Chinese Cream of Chicken Soup from bibberche.com

SERBIAN-CHINESE CREAM OF CHICKEN SOUP

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • ½ cup diced onion
  •  ½ cup diced carrots
  • ½ cup diced red bell pepper
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 cup leftover roasted chicken cut up in small cubes
  • 1 bunch bok choy, trimmed, rinsed and cut in smaller piece
  • Tbsp farina (cream of wheat)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Heat the oil in a heavy pot on medium temperature.

Sautee Onions, carrots, and bell peppers until soft and transparent, 5-8 minutes.

Add chicken stock and cut-up chicken and cook for 15 minutes.

Add bok choy and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add farina.

Beat the egg with a fork and mix in buttermilk or yogurt.

Pour 1 ladle full of soup into the egg mixture to temper.

Pour the egg mixture into the pot and stir.

Turn the heat off and serve.

 

Dec 062012
 

Serbian Creamy Chicken Soup from bibberche.com

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

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

chicken soup vegetables from bibberche.com

vegetables for the stock (I save parsley stems)

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

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

Pileca corbica from bibberche.com

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

Serbian Creamy Chicken Soup from bibberche.com

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

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

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

Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with parsley.

 

Sep 142012
 

French Onion Soup from bibberche.com
The first time I encountered French Onion Soup was in a fine dining Italian restaurant in one of the western suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, where I started working as a waitress right after my extremely unsuccessful stint as a security guard at a local skiing hot spot*. I considered myself suave and sophisticated, well-traveled and well-read, a connoisseur of good food and fine libations – and what 22 year old youth from a good family does not think that?

The restaurant served different soups on different days, but not always on the same day. The CIA-educated owner and chef liked to surprise his patrons, and predictability was not his game. My arrogance crumbled when I tried to pronounce Mulligatawny Soup and remember all its ingredients. French Onion Soup was a gimme after that, and as I faked nonchalance, I scrambled the best I could to figure out its essence.

I had bowls and bowls of the soup which seduced me from the first spoonful, but I still could not replicate it at home. Every question I posed to the owner was received with a crooked grin, but I did not give up. Those were the days when I experimented with cooking, not because I loved it, but because I was stubborn and did not like to be defeated. I considered cooking one of the shackles of a modern woman, determined that I would master the skill only to hide it from anyone around me, afraid that it would glue me to the stove for eternity.

There was no Google in those days and when I visited my local library, I brought home dozens of books, none of which pertained to cooking. I observed the cooks at work and I watched PBS cooking shows for ideas and explanations. I still did not understand the processes and chemistry behind the art of cooking, and my culinary puzzle lacked a lot of pieces. But I was determined to learn, even if it entailed me relying on my senses, as I closed my eyes and envisioned the ingredients that went into this soup, or any other dish I wanted to make at home.

On the day I pulled it off, I danced around my kitchen, the first kitchen that was truly mine, the kitchen I did not have to share with anyone else, competent or incompetent. I had a pot of French onion soup simmering on my stove, the croutons were ready to meet the cheese, and the only person I had to please was myself – not that it was an easy task, but at least I knew no one was out there determined to keep me bound to that stove.

French Onion Soup from bibberche.com

The first time Father visited back in the 90s, I made it for him, knowing that he is an epicurean eager to get acquainted with new tastes. And for him, just like for me, it was love at first bite. Every time he visited I knew how to make him happy: with a bottle of Courvoisier and a bowl of French onion soup.Mother was a natural in the kitchen and I could never compete with her accomplishments. But I had to assert myself and decided to do it in a non-threatening way, by learning how to cook the dishes that she was not familiar with. French onion soup was a simple, peasant fare that elevated a few cheap ingredients to a higher level and I managed to learn how to do it without looking at a recipe card.

He usually spends a few months with us in the U.S. every year. But Mother was fading fast last fall and he could not leave her side. We contacted the Embassy, implored, and explained the circumstances, all to no avail. Father lost his green card and we will not see him this year. I made French onion soup when my sister was here, but it was all for him, a pot prepared with more tears than mere onions could extract, a pot of melancholy and nostalgia and love and hope, and a vision of the next time I am able to welcome him to my home in Southern California.

He loves the ocean and I know that he would spend hours at the beach reminiscing about his youth spent on the coast of the Adriatic. I know that I cannot replace Mother in his life, nor in mine; but I know that I can offer him a bowl of sweet French onion soup topped with crispy, cheesy croutons that will take his mind off sorrow and make him realize that life still goes on and he will never be alone.

*My parents built a chalet on one of the most beautiful Serbian mountains, Kopaonik, and the three of us, along with many of our friends and relatives spent innumerable hours on the slopes throughout the years; the mere thought of a ski “resort” built on top of a filled-in city garbage dump made me scratch my head in bewilderment, even though I had to admire the beauty of that practical solution.

Dusan, 2010, from bibberche.com

FRENCH ONION SOUP – JUST LIKE THE DOCTOR ORDERED

I have prepared this soup many, many times, using various combinations of onions: yellow, red, white, green,  even shallots and leeks. Each time the final product was a little bit different, but equally sweet with several deep layers of flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil (or any other oil of your choice)
  • 3 large onions, halved and sliced thinly
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup white wine (a few times I used dry vermouth when I was out of wine, and it tasted great)
  • 1 quart beef (or veal) stock (I make my own, but you can certainly use store bought; just make sure that it is low-sodium); vegetable stock is an option for vegetarians and my fellow Serbs who observe the days of fasting
  • 3 slices crusty country bread, cubed*
  • 4oz Gruyere (any cheese will do, as long as it melts well), sliced thinly; for Serbian Orthodox fast, use dairy-free cheese
  • parsley for garnish

*I used to toast whole slices of country bread, but they always turned soggy and drank up all of the liquid from the soup. That’s why I decided to switch to croutons.

 Directions:

Heat a Dutch oven or a sturdy soup pot on medium-low temperature and add butter and oil. When melted, pour in all of the sliced onions. Season with salt and pepper, and sautee until golden brown and caramelized, 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the onions start to burn, add 1 Tbsp of water. After 30 minutes add garlic.

When the onions are browned, stir in flour and mix for 1 minute. Pour the wine and stir to deglaze the pan. Increase the temperature to medium-high, and add the stock. When it boils, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover, and simmer for another 15 minutes.

While the soup is simmering, preheat the oven to 350F and lightly oil a cookie sheet. Place bread cubes on it in one layer and bake until golden brown and crispy.

Increase the heat to broil.

Ladle the soup in oven-proof individual bowls, top with croutons and lay slices of cheese over them. Place the bowls on a cookie sheet and put under the broiler for 30-60 seconds, just to melt the cheese (use the oven mittens when handling the hot bowls). Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Jun 262012
 

Corn Chowder from bibberche.com

When I was four months old, our family friend and one of the towns best pediatricians, Dr. Herzog, asked Mother if she had fed me meat yet. As I was her first, we used each other as guinea pigs and she struggled to find the proper balance of foods that would satisfy my voracious appetite as the supply of breast milk was very unpredictable. Every Aunt, grandmother, and neighbor took it as a God-given right to offer this new mother a piece of mostly contradictory advice, leaving her buried under a mountain made up of old wives’ tales and most modern views that annulled each other.

She avoided honey, eggs, and strawberries to fend off potential allergies, mixed cow milk with water once her milk just refused to come out, placed a few seeds of carraway to lessen the stomach cramps, and mashed potatoes, pumpkin, and peas with a fork to feed it to my decidedly finicky and wide-open mouth. But meat? For a four month old whose gums were still void of even the smallest white protrusions seemed dangerous and too invasive. But Dr. Herzog had over thirty years of experience in assuaging fears of brand new mothers and his mild-mannered, but authoritative approach convinced her to try his recipe.

She made a vegetable and veal broth, simmered it until everything was very soft, strained it, smashed the veggies and discarded the meat strands which toughened in the poaching liquid. All the essence of the veal, he assured her, would remain in that broth. She fed it to me with a spoon, apprehensive, prepared to stop and take me to the emergency room at the first sign of trouble. But as I ruminated contentedly, she relaxed, which rarely happens to mothers with their firstborns.

When my oldest daughter was born, the economic sanctions imposed on Serbia were getting worse and worse and baby supplies were hit the hardest. No formula, no diapers, no baby creams, and definitely no jarred baby food. My sister brought anything she could think of every time she visited from Germany, and my little baby smelled sweetly of Bübchen and Nivea baby soaps and lotions, had a stash of disposable diapers when we ventured out for visits, and gulped down Enfamil with the addictive need of a seasoned drunkard as my milk supply was not even close to being adequate.

Mother and I pureed and mashed vegetables and fruits, and prepared flavorful meat broths as my baby-girl kept on getting bigger and stronger. When I moved back to Michigan, my ex-mother-in-law gave me a Mullinex hand blender, which was the best present I could have received. I made soups and stews, compotes and fruity desserts, and blended them all into colorful pulps that I froze in ice trays, labeled and color-coordinated, of course.

For two more babies this process was repeated, and anything the adults ate, they ate, too, fortunately too inexperienced and oblivious to frown upon mushy stuff in various shades of browns and greys. As they grew up, from time to time they inevitably developed a strong distaste for peas, or broccoli, or green beans, or eggplant, but my hand blender solved everything, rendering hearty vegetable soups into velvety smooth cream soups that I would garnish with spiderwebs or heart garlands of plain yogurt.

One of our food blogging friends, Shelley from Franish Nonspeaker is expecting a brand new baby Ruby in August, and my dear Ilke gathered a few of us to throw her a virtual baby-shower and give her ideas for simple, nutritious, easy to prepare and fast meals that would make her first months just a little bit less hectic (if that is at all possible).

I knew that I would make a soup that can fit all of those categories with hope that she will receive a hand blender at one of her real baby showers, which would miraculously convert it into several healthy servings of baby food.

Shelley, I wish you enjoy these last two months, even though they will be  riddled with anticipation and impatience, aggravated by the summer heat and humidity, and probably filled with doubt that your body will ever return to its before-Ruby shape. Trust me, it all changes the moment you hold that wrinkled, most beautiful creature in your arms for the first time.

Good luck!

CORN CHOWDER

I cannot wait for sweet, tender summer corn to use for this hearty, flavorful, but healthy and easy to prepare soup.

Ingredients:

  • 1 strip of bacon, diced (you can use bacon fat, or skip it altogether and use 1 Tbsp butter, to make it vegetarian)
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1 medium carrot, diced
  • 1/3 big red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tsp turmeric (it does not change the taste, but adds a bit of color to the soup)
  • 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
    1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (home-made, but if store-bought preferably low sodium)
  • 3 ears of corn (about 1 ½ cups), shucked (you can use frozen corn, or already leftover cooked corn)
  • 1 big Yukon Gold potato (I used three baby Yukon Golds), diced

Directions:

Heat a heavy 3-quart soup pot or Dutch oven on medium heat and add diced bacon. When there is about 1 tablespoon of rendered fat, add onions, celery, carrot, and red bell pepper, and sautee for 6-7 minutes until all the vegetables are soft and somewhat translucent. Add chopped garlic, salt, and pepper, and stir for another minute. Mix in flour until evenly distributed and stir for 1-2 minutes. Add milk and water and whisk to blend every bit off the bottom of the pot. Stir from time to time, as the soup might scorch as it thickens. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add corn and potatoes and continue simmering until the potatoes are done. Adjust the seasonings to taste and serve for lunch, or an easy and fast weekday meal with a loaf of crusty bread.

For a cream soup, just whir it with the hand blender or regular blender until it’s completely smooth. If it is too thick, add some more liquid, milk or water, until desired consistency.

Freeze the leftovers in a plastic container or a Ziploc bag, labeled and dated. To serve, place still frozen soup into a pot, add ½ cup of water and heat it on medium-low heat, stirring often.

Here are the other bloggers who are coming to the shower. I hope you stop by and say “Hi” during this week :)

Ilke from Ilke’s Kitchen

Anna from Keep It Luce  

Carrie from Bakeaholic Mama

Christina from Girl Gone Grits

Elaine from   California Living  

Esra from Irmik Hanim

Jennie from Pastry Chef Online

Jennifer from Scissors and Spatulas

Lisa from Lisa Is Cooking

Renee from Sweet Sugar Bean

Robin from A Chow Life

Sarah from Snippets of Thyme

Jun 202012
 

Summer Tomato Soup

I have been sick last couple of days. It’s one of those sneaky, insidious colds that first appear as a mere tingle in your throat, tricking you into believing that you can ride it out with all the flair of Richard Gere as Sir Lancelot in the movie “The First Knight”, only to have you wake up in the morning feeling like you cannot separate from the bed, your limbs painfully attached to the mattress, your throat ablaze like the center of the Mount Vesuvius eruption, and your head throbbing in the rhythm of the wildest Scandinavian death metal band*.

I valiantly attacked my daily chores trying to ignore the beast and hoping that I can deter it with sheer determination and optimism. I do this every time I get these colds, and every time I hope that I can get a different result with the same strategy – a technique so opposed to using your intelligence. As I grow older, Richard Gere as Sir Lancelot appears less and less, replaced by the images of tired and moribund regents, still regal, but surrendering to the inevitable forces of time and circumstances.

This morning I woke up coughing so violently that tears ran down my cheeks. My throat felt raw and I could barely utter a word. I kicked the pride to the side and proclaimed the stage closed for the day, pulling the covers tightly around me, and letting the girls fend to themselves. I certainly did not look like the Queen Guinevere of Camelot, but fancied myself rather like Tolkien’s Golum, with blood-shot eyes filled with feverish desire and a few wisps of greasy hair stapled to his head.

I really wanted Mother’s chicken soup with egg drops or farina dumplings, but I could not even imagine going to all the necessary steps to achieve the flavor that would make me rise from the dead. For once, my freezer did not offer not even one measly container of chicken stock, even though there were numerous plastic bins holding vegetable, seafood, and beef stocks. For a moment I contemplated the possibility of a worldwide conspiracy, but even though my mind was somewhat addled by the thoughts of self-pity, I still regained some of my senses.

Summer Tomato Soup from bibberche.com

I can trust the girls to abandon for a moment their silly, but oh so important games of MASH that place them into imaginary lives with their beloveds, and whisk eggs or stir an already prepared meal. But they are not ready to face an extra sharp knife and a shiny onion or a slippery carrot. Even if I managed to ignore the inevitable giggling. So I knew that I was on my own if I wanted something warm and comforting to touch my lips.

I dragged my aching body out of the bed, straightened the sheets, opened the windows, and shed the pajamas. A hot shower brought me closer to life as it should be, and I almost felt a new surge of energy penetrate my ennui. I thank Lydia of The Perfect Pantry for perpetuating my pantry hoarding habits that enabled me to assemble all the ingredients I needed to make my Mother’s summer tomato soup on the whim.

Even though my sinuses suffered for a few days, I still caught the elusive whiffs of onion, carrot, and celery as they luxuriated in the tomato broth burbling on the stove. And in an instant, I was whisked away to my childhood, when all my worries, alms, and concerns were assuaged by comforting words and familiar smells enveloping me as I stepped into the kitchen, my teen angst at its peak. Mother was always there, tending to the pots and pans and eagerly awaiting another emotional report fresh from my day at school.

I felt as vulnerable and hurt as I stood by my stove in California, straining the vegetables and stirring the dough for the egg drops. But with every aromatic that hit my nose from that pot I felt better, as if Mother were caressing my cheeks and willing me to feel better with her tender, healing touch.

Towards the end of the summer, Mother would make huge batches of her tomato preserves with heavy, juicy, dark red tomatoes, sweet carrots, and white onions swirled in a blender with garlic and parsley, and encapsulated in 2 liter Coca Cola bottles that were snuggled neatly in  the big box freezer in the garage. At any given time there would be a defrosted bottle of the tomato goodness in the fridge, just awaiting someone to wish for a hint of the summer tomato soup.

I don’t preserve my tomatoes, but I know that I can squeeze every bit of flavor from the ingredients I find in my pantry and fridge. I yearn for juicy sweet summer tomatoes, but in the meantime I am perfectly satisfied with a can of good quality whole tomatoes picked at the height of the season, preserving their essence, sweet and acidic at the same time.

This soup exemplifies the simplicity of pure peasant cooking at its best, glorifying the best ingredients you can find and the ease of preparation. I did not sweat at the stove chopping and stirring. The whole preparation thing was done in minutes and the soup was ready in half an hour. And looking at the glorious red with specks of barely visible egg drops, I felt I could climb right onto that wild black stallion and ride with Richard Gere as Sir Lancelot, my hands encircling his slender waist, my head resting on his wide shoulder, as we rode into the sunset towards some enchanted Camelot.

Egg Drops from bibberche.com

SUMMER TOMATO SOUP

Ingredients:
Soup:

• 1 Tbsp sunflower oil (you can substitute vegetable, corn, or canola oil)
• 1 tsp sweet paprika
• 1 cup water
• 1 28oz can of crushed tomatoes (I use whole tomatoes which I process in a blender to allow for some chunks)
• 1 small yellow onion (or ½ a big one), peeled and cut in quarters
• 2 medium carrots, scrubbed and cut into big chunks
• 2 stalks of celery, leaves on, cleaned and cut into big chunks
• 1 tsp coarse salt
• ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
Egg Drops:
• 1 egg, beaten
• about ½ cup all purpose flour (depending on the size of your egg you might have to add a bit more)

Directions:
Heat the oil in a heavy soup pot on medium-low heat. Stir in paprika only until dissolved, making sure it does not burn. Immediately pour in water and stir to incorporate. Add the tomatoes, vegetables, and seasonings. Turn the heat to high and heat until the soup start to boil, and turn it back down to medium-low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked and soft.

In the meantime, make the egg drops. In a small bowl stir in the flour into the beaten egg little by little, until the strands of dough fall slowly off the fork in thin ribbons. Let it rest for 15 minutes.
Strain the soup through a wire mash and return to boil. Slowly pour the egg drops over the tines of a fork, controlling the size and shape of the ribbons. Scrape the bowl with a spatula, cover the pot, and simmer for another 5 minutes to cook the egg drops.

Dice the cooked carrots and return to soup and discard the onions and celery.

Serve immediately with some crusty bread.

*I love my Swiss friend Rosa of Rosa’s Yummy Yums, and I know that this metaphor will bring a smile on her face and at least a second of a raised eyebrow, as she finds comfort in most metal music, just like my eldest daughter:)

Apr 182012
 

Roasted Tomato Soup from bibberche.com

I met Christianna of Burwell General Store blog last May at a BlogHer Food conference in Atlanta. We stayed up one night over a bottle or two of really good red wine and a sparkle of friendship was ignited. Even though both of us call Southern California our home, we have been getting to know one another mostly through emails and Twitter. We have so much in common and talking to her feels as if I were speaking to an old friend who can finish my sentences and predict my next thought.

Christianna started Recipe Swap in December 2010, and I joined the wonderful group of bloggers about a year ago. Each month she picks a vintage recipe from an old cookbook she unearthed at a flea-market and throws a culinary challenge to us: we have to be creative and use our inspiration and imagination to twist the recipe, mold it to reflect our personalities and tastes, and give it another life and another form. Every month, on the day when our posts appear, I read the stories and innovative incarnations of the same recipe, delighted each time by unique approaches to a simple list of ingredients.

We have tackled jelly cakewild rabbit with vegetables, hot slaw with mayonnaise dressingmaple syrup cakeToll House cookies, zabaglione, and wild rice dressing, and I am mesmerized again and again by the limitless possibilities of the human mind to modify, adjust, and re-create.

Since December of 2011, we have been working through the book The Second Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places, compiled in 1954. Our recipe for April is Tomato Pudding, a specialty side dish offered by Hotel Dilworth, a B&B in Boyne, Michigan.

Tomato Pudding

I had never eaten bread pudding as a child in Serbia; it was a dish I discovered only when I landed, wide-eyed, on the shores of the New World. When I looked at the ingredients for tomato pudding, I sat speechless for several minutes, blinking in confusion, trying to envision a butterfly emerging from a non-descript cocoon hiding in this unappetizing pile of stuff. Bread, boiling water, tomato purée, and a whole cup of brown sugar?

As the fog slowly lifted, ideas started coming to me tentatively. I locked on panzanella, a wonderfully simple Italian peasant dish that combines chunks of crusty, stale bread and sun-ripened tomatoes. But even though I live in Southern California, sun-ripened tomatoes are not here yet, and the bland, store-bought, perfectly round, soulless impersonators could not make the salad sing.

roasted tomatoes from bibberche.comBut then I thought of tomato soup and imagined a crispy, golden-brown grilled cheese sandwich on the side plate next to the bowl of soup.  Once I firmly grabbed that idea by its tail, I clung onto it, delving deeper, putting the plan of action together, with a vision of a comforting meal filled with assertive and complimenting flavors.

Instead of using fresh, inferior tomatoes from the grocery store, I bought a few pounds of meaty Roma tomatoes and roasted them to intensify their sweet notes. I added a roasted red pepper to add a bit of smokiness and texture, as well as another punch of sweetness. I mellowed the harshness of onions and garlic by roasting them, too, and threw in a bunch of thyme and basil to bring out the bold taste of Italian summer in the country.Roasted Tomatoes from bibberche.com

For the grilled cheese sandwich, I chose to pair a robust and hardy Tuscan-style bread with mild and barely nutty Gruyère cheese and slowly caramelized onions finished with a balsamic vinegar reduction. The sandwich mimicked the deep flavors of the soup with a hint of smokiness and that wonderful agro-dolce note.

roasted tomatoesOnce again, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment as my girls and I sat at the table and started eating. The soup was hearty and satisfying, the sandwich a perfect accompaniment with its crunchy texture and mild, melting cheese that trapped caramelized onions in its strings.

I am grateful that I am a part of the vintage Recipe Swap and proud of yet another successful metamorphosis. This is a busy time for both Christianna and me, but now that I have moved even closer, I don’t need a crystal ball to imagine the two of us sitting under the awning of a restaurant somewhere along the Pacific Coast Highway sipping a glass of crisp Prosecco, while the waves break against the beach just a few yards beyond.

CREAMY ROASTED TOMATO AND RED PEPPER SOUP

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs Roma tomatoes (about 10 larger ones)
  • olive oil
  • coarse salt
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped into large chunks
  • 6-7 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • several sprigs fresh thyme
  • a few basil leaves (optional)
  • coarse salt
  • olive oil
  • 1 large red pepper, roasted, peeled, deseeded, and chopped into large chunks
  • coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 Directions:

Preheat the oven to 300F.

Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise and place, cut side up, on a cookie sheet brushed with olive oil (I dipped the cut side into the oil on the bottom and then flipped the tomatoes up – it seemed easier than sprinkling them with oil afterwards). Season with salt and bake for several hours, until shriveled and dark red in color.

Turn the heat of the oven up to 350F. Place onions, garlic, and thyme on a cookie sheet (I used a cast iron skillet), sprinkle with salt and a little bit of olive oil and roast for 25-30 minutes, until softened.

Discard the thyme and squeeze the garlic cloves out of their peels.

In a heavy soup pot combine the tomatoes, roasted onions, garlic, and red pepper. Add 4 cups of water, season with additional salt and freshly ground pepper and heat until the first bubbles appear. Turn off the heat and puree in a blender in batches until creamy and relatively smooth. (Be very careful as the lid can fly off the blender once it starts and you can get burned by hot soup – yes, I am talking from first-hand experience!)

Roasted Tomato Soup from bibberche.com

GRILLED CHEESE WITH GRUYÈRE, CARAMELIZED ONIONS, AND BALSAMIC REDUCTION 

(I had a leftover clove of roasted garlic from the soup and I rubbed the insides of my bread with it, but. It gave the sandwich another layer of depth, pairing well with the garlic in the soup.)

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 large yellow onion, sliced thinly
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • country style bread (I used Tuscan Country Bread from Trader Joe’s)
  • Gruyere, sliced
  • butter
Directions:
Melt butter in a pan on medium heat. Turn the heat down to medium-low, add onions and cook them for 30-40 minutes, until soft and caramelized. Sprinkle with salt and add balsamic vinegar. Cook for another few minutes until the liquid reduces and thickens.
Heat a skillet on medium heat. When hot, add a pat of butter (about 1 teaspoon). Place the cheese to completely cover one slice of bread and pile caramelized onions on top. Cover with another slice of bread and press. Carefully place into the skillet and let it cook for 2-3 minutes, lightly pressing with a spatula. Lift the sandwich and add another pat of butter to the skillet. Flip the sandwich and cook for another couple of minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Cut it in two and serve with soup or without.
I know that you will find the inspiration in the creative takes on this recipe from my fellow participants.



Feb 242012
 

Cream of Celery Soup from Bibberche.com

Mother usually made her chicken or beef stock in a pressure cooker, a shiny metal beast that sat atop the stove spewing steam at and hissing like a dragon from some of the scariest Serbian tales. I tried not to pay attention to the ingredients she threw into the pot showing oh-so-typical disdain for such mundane and pedestrian things like cooking.

At fourteen years old, I thought I was so philosophically advanced that I could parse out my little pearls of wisdom, trying to teach my beloved mother that she had it wrong; if Aristotle had to worry about dinners and cleaning the bathroom, he never would have had the time to finish writing his Aesthetics and securing his spot as one of the coolest people ever. I scolded her mercilessly for never unpacking her paints and leaving the easel buried under the piles of neatly folded out-of-season clothes and old knitting magazines in our big storage room. I pummeled her relentlessly with my arrogantly unwavering opinion that she wasted her amazing artistic talent on trivial and unimportant things that would mean nothing for posterity.

Mother would give me her one-sided smile as she cut the onion in half and placed it on the burner to char it and bring out the smoky flavor that would add another layer of taste to the stock. I would recite platitudes and do my best at remembering quotes, while she would clean and cut carrots, parsnips, and parsley roots. By the time she started on celery, I was at the top of my game, feeling victorious, imagining myself a mix of Socrates, Joan of Arc, and a very young Yoda, inundated with infinite wisdom and the courage necessary to fix everything that was wrong with the world.

I could not wait for her to finally plop the plump hen or a nice, thick shank with lots of marrow into the pot and acknowledge my litany, praising me for my eloquence and wisdom beyond my years. What I usually received instead of admiration and pure awe was a knowing and somewhat melancholy smile borne out of the years she lived in this imperfect world which tends to become smaller and smaller the older you get. As I was drying the dishes that she washed, I grumbled under my breath loudly enough for her to hear that there was not a soul on this earth incapable of drying dishes, while so few of the really great ones can rise to the heights of an Aristotle.

New Year 1968 from bibberche.com

My sister and I in dresses Mother made for us (we are holding our brand new Eskimo dolls she made:)

I know now that my words carried a hefty dose of unintentional cruelty. In my naivety, I really thought I was explaining to her some profound secrets that she somehow could not grasp, buried under the repetitious tasks linked together to make her day. Mother’s world was as big as mine when she embarked on her road to adulthood as a young girl, full of dreams and expectations. And even though I could not see it at the time, she managed to weave her magic and creativity into the minute details of her daily life, leaving behind a trail peppered with wonderment and glitter.

There are no paintings signed with her hand hanging in our family home. But there are rooms decorated with class and taste, almost every piece of furniture in them expertly made following her designs; there are luxurious tablecloths she embroidered fit to adorn a living quarters in a royal palace; there are unique dresses she sewed for us out of nothing, using handkerchiefs or the pieces of fabric left from other projects; there are dolls and toys she made from scratch when we were kids that made all our friends envious; there are soft elaborately knitted sweaters my girls jealously keep in their closets planning to pass them on to their children; there are cards she wrote to us for no reason at all and dedications in the books she bought for our birthdays filled with words of love, wisdom, and support; and then there is all the food she prepared for us throughout the years, teaching us that there is more to feeding your family than constant stirring and dicing.

As I listen to my smart girls trying to discover the world of wonders for me, I have to smile and remember another time and another place when I wanted to change the way the Earth turns, vowing never to allow myself to to be manacled to the stove, not realizing that the manacles were made of the softest petals, tiniest feathers, and most loving caresses she kept for us.

So many things in life are not the way they seem. Something that appears simple and unassuming at first glance, might hide the most wonderful surprises under the surface.

I have never been in love with the flavor of celery, packed in the hard and gnarly root displayed at European farmers’ markets, or the crispy, bright green stalks I saw for the first time when I moved to the U.S. I tolerate it as a flavor builder, a humble helper that allows others to shine. But the first time I reluctantly made cream of celery soup, I realized that another door opened for me. For, hidden in the silky sea of light green is a flavor so subtle, but so appealing, only a light trace of harsh celery essence that soothes and comforts more and more with every spoonful.

CREAM OF CELERY SOUP

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 bunch scallions, trimmed and diced
  • 1/3 large yellow onion, diced
  • 7-8 celery stalks, trimmed and cubed
  • 1 large Idaho russet potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 tsp fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp fresh parsley
  • 1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • ½ tsp fresh ground pepper
  • ¼ cup crème fraiche for decorating (optional); you can also use yogurt or sour cream mixed with a bit of milk to make it less thick

Directions:

Heat the oil on medium-low heat and sauté scallions and onions until soft and translucent. Add celery and stir for another 1-2 minutes. Add potatoes and herbs, and pour the liquid in. Season with salt and pepper and turn the heat on high until it boils. Immediately lower the temperature to simmer and cook for 30 minutes, until vegetables are soft. Carefully pour into a blender, cover, and place a kitchen towel on top. Puree the soup and return to the pot. Serve immediately, with a dollop of crème fraiche.

Kristin and Cheryl started their wonderful SoupaPalooza for the first time last year. I spent hours browsing through the comforting recipes, even though our Southern California weather was not exactly bone-chilling. The soup is the essential part of a Serbian main meal and no celebration can be imagined without a soup or a stew featured prominently. I linked the post about my African Chicken, Peanut, and Sweet Potato Stew, not only because it is one of the most satisfying meals I have ever head since I left Mother’s kitchen, but because the story surrounding it is one of my favorites.

February 28 is the second edition of SoupaPalloza and I cannot wait for another batch of delicious meals. I am sending my celery soup into the link-up, and I hope you visit Kristin’s and Cheryl’s sites for an inspiration.

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

Here are some other recipes for Cream of Celery soup from some of my favorite bloggers:

In Erika’s Kitchen - Cream of Celery Soup 

Rustic Garden Bistro – Silky Leek and Celery Root Soup

The Wednesday Chef - Leslie Brenner’s Cream of Celery Soup

Running with Tweezers – Mom’s Celery Soup

 

Last year at this time I published Hush Puppies

Sep 042011
 

 

our Serbian kitchen from bibberche.comEvery time my parents moved, the kitchen became much larger. Njanja and Deda-Ljubo lived in the big family house where most of the cooking was done outside in the separate summer kitchen. A hallway between their bedroom and the bathroom was converted into a tiny, galley-style kitchen, that could not accommodate both Njanja and Mother at the same time.

When I started fifth grade, Father was provided a condo by the hospital, and we moved away from our grandparents. A mere block away.  The building was brand new, and the eat-in kitchen was hip and modern, equipped with the best 70s appliances. It could fit a dining room table big enough for all of us to sit around and have a meal together.

We eventually moved into the house I have called home for most of my life, the house I sit in even now, writing this. This house was built in the beginning of 20th century, and the kitchen is pretty big. It was designed to be the center of family life with a big dining room table and a couch facing the working area, perfect for neighborhood housewives to stop by, have Turkish coffee every day, exchange recipes, and feed each other tasty morsels of town gossip. This kitchen was meant for the husband returning home from work, who would only have to climb four steps from the back yard, take his shoes off in the tiny square entrance way, and collapse on the couch while his face broke into a smile from the sight of his beautifully flushed wife finishing the preparation of their delicious daily repast.

There is a room in this house that contains a television and a more comfortable sofa and chairs. That other room is, for reasons that elude me, often called a “living room,” even though most of the living gets done in this kitchen. From morning coffee to late night snack… and all the conversations and life moments that go with them… the living gets done here, in the center of the universe… in this kitchen.

I love this kitchen, its twelve-foot high walls, white-brown-apricot color scheme, the old wood-burning stove (used only in times of scarcity and astronomically high prices of kilowatt hours), and the big window that opens up to a concrete slab filled with house plants. I love the big pantry lined with shelves housing hundreds of jars of preserves, various appliances (useful and useless), and Mother’s enormous collection of pots and pans of different age, color, and material.

I can walk through this kitchen in the middle of a moonless night, when the electricity goes out, and find my way around the chairs, not once even touching a piece of furniture. Yet, every time I come back from the US, it takes me a week to relearn where everything is and get acquainted with new skillets and mysterious gadgets. I used to bring spices in tiny baggies, dreading the customs and the dogs trained to sniff out drugs and other smelly contraband, eager to share my culinary accomplishments in global cuisine.

This time I brought nothing, deciding to prepare only Serbian dishes with gorgeous produce from the overflowing farmers’ market. If I could, I would spend hours strolling between the stalls, never getting tired of the smells and vibrant colors of the summer offering. I would take the sweltering heat that everyone tries to avoid. I would even tolerate the pesky wasps that scare me, accepting that sweet, yellow pears attract them as much as they attract me.

When I found out that the September choice for the Recipe Swap was Wild Rabbit with Vegetables, I really wanted to cook game. The hunting season in Serbia is over, but one of my best friends runs the hunting grounds in the town and his company freezer is always full of wild boar, pheasant, venison, quail, and rabbit. He promised to bring me a surprise package if I invited him over for dinner. I love bartering for food, but he had to spend a weekend putting out forest fires, and the delivery was delayed.

pork shoulder and smoked ribs from bibberche.com

I stopped by the butcher and bought a chunk of boneless pork shoulder instead, fighting the urge to bury my nose in the paper and breathe in the smell of fresh meat. I was making a utilitarian dish and I knew that I had the winner with my purchase, even though I was really looking forward to using the juniper berries and bay leaf in my venison stew.

When I returned home, I went through the pantry and collected the ingredients for the dish I intended to make. In the beginning my pile was small, the ingredients simple and few: a couple of onions, a pepper, new potatoes, sweet paprika, stock, salt, and pepper. But I discovered two roasted red peppers in the fridge, two pieces of smoked pork ribs, and a pound of button mushrooms. To make the party merrier, I brought out a bottle of Father’s homemade red wine and a bag of dry thyme Mother had picked on the mountain.

produce from bibberche.com

My produce was fragrant and fresh. My meat was of superb quality. The wine was dry, carrying tones of sherry in its bouquet. Even my pot was gorgeous, an old enamel piece with handles that got hot after five minutes on the stove. I was not disappointed that it was not the rabbit simmering in the pot as the big old kitchen was enveloped in the comforting and warm smell of a hearty pork paprikash.

This is a versatile and forgiving dish. It can be made with various vegetables and meat. You can season it with different herbs and spices, you can make it as mild or as hot as you prefer. The broth can be thin, or it can be thickened with flour. You can cook the potatoes in it as I did, or you can serve it with pasta, dumplings, or mashed potatoes. You can call it paprikash, goulash, or stew, depending on the changes you made. Or you can just call it delicious.

Pork Paprikash with Potatoes from bibberche.com

PORK PAPRIKASH WITH POTATOES

Ingredients:

  • 1 tbsp lard (or any other fat you prefer)
  • 750gr (1 ½ lbs) pork shoulder, cut in cubes (I prefer smaller cut, ¾ inch cubes)
  • 2 small pieces of smoked pork ribs (optional – I love the addition of the smoky layer, though)
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1 pepper (I use Serbian triangular pale green or yellow peppers, but a bell pepper would do), chopped
  • ¼ cup sweet paprika
  • 500gr (1 lb) button mushrooms, halved or quartered, depending on the size
  • 2 roasted peppers, peeled, stemmed, and chopped (optional)
  • ½ cup dry, red wine
  • 1 quart of homemade chicken or beef stock
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp dried thyme (or any herb or spice to your liking)
  • 1 kg (2 lbs) new potatoes, peeled (if you are inSerbia) or unpeeled (if you are in US) and halved

Directions:

Melt the lard on medium-high heat in a heavy skillet, and add the meat seasoned with a little salt and pepper. Brown on all sides in one layer, and remove from the skillet. Turn the heat down to medium, and add onions and peppers. Saute until soft, but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add the paprika and stir to incorporate.

Mix in all the mushrooms and roasted peppers, if using, and stir for another few minutes. Deglaze the skillet with wine, and when it evaporates, add the stock, salt, pepper, and thyme.

Turn the heat up to medium-high and bring to boil. Turn the heat back down to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 1 to 1 ½ hours, until the flavors develop and meat is almost fork tender. Add the potatoes and continue simmering, until the are done. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Serve with a vinegary coleslaw and crusty homemade bread. A cold beer or a glass of red wine are optional but desirable sides.

I met Christianna at BlogHer Food conference in Atlanta. We spent only a few hours talking, but that was enough for me to connect to her and her amazing life story. When I found out that she hosts a food blogging event featuring an old recipe and hymnal book she unearthed at a garage sale, I signed up immediately. And I love being a part of the Recipe Swap group that so many talented and creative people belong to.

Please visit Christianna’s blog Burwell General Store to read my friends’ imaginative approaches to the simple recipe for Wild Rabbit With Vegetables. There are some truly inspirational posts.  ChristiannaDennisToniShumailaAlexLoraLindsayMariBarbPolaJamieClaireShariJoyMonique,LindaPriyaRachelAlliKaty,

Emily, KrissyJacquelineClaire, Monique and Jaclyn.

Jul 032011
 

Oaxacan Chicken Soup from bibberche.comThursday morning, my friend Cipriano boarded a flight from Tijuana to Oaxaca  to reunite with his wife, children, and fourteen grandchildren that he has not seen in more than four years. A few days ago, a co-worker took him to a salon where he had his salt-and-pepper hair died a ridiculously artificial black to hide the fact that he has aged. He spent all his free time this week at Target and Walmart, buying presents for his eagerly waiting family.

We have worked together almost three years and I will miss his small, hunched up form scurrying around, pushing the crates of glasses, and bringing the piles of green, yellow, and maroon Fiesta plates from his immaculately clean dish washing area. He appeared every morning at least half an hour early, greeting everybody with a wide smile that made his mustache shift upwards. He worked without complaining, endured the incessant teasing of the Mexican cooks and waiters, accepting their jokes with giggles, and trying to reciprocate the best he could. He claimed to be fifty two, but the wrinkles on his face revealed a more advanced age.

The only words in English el viejito has learned to pronounce are “thank you”, “hello”, and “break”. When I met him, my Spanish consisted of Adios, Hola! and una cerveza mas fina. I could sing a few lines from Besame Mucho and Un Año De Amor from Pedro Almodovar’s movie High Heels, but we really could not communicate. Using my Italian to try to break the language barrier, I asked Cipriano if he would teach me Spanish. He agreed enthusiastically, and from that moment on, my days at work were filled with phrases and sentences that he would pronounce in his toothless Spanish, gesticulating and using charades to make me comprehend their meaning. I would come home and pore through books or consult the Internet to get the grammatically correct forms, and go back to work to put to use what he had taught me.

With a forlorn look in his dark beady eyes, he told me of his village nestled in the hills a few hours outside of Oaxaca. He told me of his wife who tends to their goats, pigs, cows, and chickens. He told me how he misses the burro that he rides every day to and from the village center, as they do not own a horse, nor a car. He smiled every time when he remembered his wife’s homemade comidita, the small corn tortillas filled with roasted pork, some frijoles and arroz served with a Coronita or two. Talking about the people he loved and the land he left behind, he resorted to diminutives, making everything closer, more endearing, and childlike.

Cipriano

He walked home up the hill after his shift, just to change his uniform and walk down the hill to his night time job. More dishes to wash, more tables to clean, more cooks and waiters to tease him about missing his wife. He greeted every day with a glint in his eyes, grateful to any small thing that made his day better, perennially happy and eager to joke and accept jokes, no matter how cruel. He worked six and seven days a week for more than four years, day and night, walking along the paved sidewalks of Southern California and dreaming of a distant village somewhere in Mexico where calves are born, and chickens are slaughtered, and cows are milked, and his wife is making small, sweet corn tortillas and maybe thinking of him.

On his last day at work, I had Husband bring my camera and I took pictures of Cipriano with all the employees: waiters and cooks, managers and busboys, hostesses and prep guys. In each photo, he stood erect, trying to appear taller, his face sporting his usual wide smile even though the cook couldn’t resist the juvenile antic of holding his fingers behind Cipriano’s head like donkey ears. I printed the pictures and gave them to him to take home, to have at least a few faces by which to remember the four arduous years he spent in the US, trying to make as much money as he could so that he can help his family.

He made me promise to visit him and his wife if I ever make it to Oaxaca, and I agreed. I wrote down the name of his village and all the families related to him that would know where to find him. I showed him the piece of paper with names in Spanish and he averted his eyes, smiling, saying bien, bien. In that instant I knew that mi amigo viejito does not know how to read nor write, and my heart ached for him. If I had known, I could have taught him a little every day, just like he taught me Spanish.

The last time I saw him, he came to pick up his paycheck wearing a freshly ironed plaid shirt and a baseball hat. I gave him all the tips I made that day and told him to buy something nice for his wife and a lot of chocolate for his fourteen nietos. He gave me a hug and we both fought tears as we made our usual jokes. I left, waving to him, saying Vaya con Dios, mi amigo Cipriano!  I wish you good winds… And just like that, there was one less smile in my world. But I smiled wider because there would be so many more smiles in his than he had known in too many years.

I hope that he has arrived safely. I imagine the whole village of San Bartolo Salinas has gathered to listen to his high tales while he is sipping mezcal and munching salsita. I wish that he finds his peace in the green hills of Oaxaca he missed so much, riding his loyal burro to the center of the village, sitting straight and smiling. And I hope that, at least once or twice, he thinks of his friends on the other side of the border that will remember him for a long time, hoping his smile is even wider for being home.

I searched for a recipe that would transport me to Cipriano’s Oaxaca and when I encountered higaditos, I knew I had a winner. This is a luxurious chicken soup made for celebrations and weddings, a perfect dish to mark a reunion of husband and wife. It was rich and flavorful, carrying many layers and bringing forth just enough spice to make your heart skip a beat. I don’t know what dish his mujer made to welcome him home, but I fancied that she served him a bowl of this wonderful soup and that his smile was as wide as mine at the thought that my friend is home.

Oaxacan Chicken Soup from bibberche.com

HIGADITOS (OAXACAN WEDDING CHICKEN SOUP), adapted from Martha Rose Shulman

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 chicken drumsticks or thighs
  • 1 small onion, halved
  • ¼ pound chicken livers (I had sautéed chicken livers from breakfast. I diced them and mixed them in just before adding the eggs)
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 2 quarts water
  • Salt
  • ½ pound tomatillos
  • ½ pound tomatoes, halved if big
  • 2-3 serrano peppers
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil or canola oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted
  • 4 peppercorns
  • 2 cloves
  • 6 cups of the chicken stock
  • 6 large eggs
  • ½ teaspoon salt, plus additional to taste
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro

Direction

Put  chicken, onion, garlic, carrot, water, and salt in a large pot, and cook on high heat until it boils. Reduce the heat to medium-low to low and skim any foam from the surface. Cover and simmer 45 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Turn off the heat and let the chicken pieces cool for about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the broth and set aside. Strain the broth and discard the vegetables. Bone and shred the chicken when it’s cool enough, and chop the chicken livers. Season the broth to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400F. Peel tomatillos and place them in a roasting pan along with tomatoes and serrano peppers, and roast until charred and wilted. Cool off and place in a blender or food processor. Pulse until chopped. Grind the cumin seeds, peppercorns and cloves together in a spice mill.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes, and stir in the garlic. Stir together until fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute. Turn up the heat to medium-high, and add the tomatoes and tomatillos, and the ground spices. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the mixture has cooked down.. Add the chicken broth. Bring to a boil, add the shredded chicken and the chopped chicken livers. Reduce the heat and simmer 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Shortly before serving, beat the eggs with ½ teaspoon salt. The broth should be just simmering. Very slowly pour in the eggs around the edge of the pot. Turn off the heat and cover the pot. Let sit 5 to 10 minutes. The eggs should set. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve in wide bowls with salsa on the side.

May 152011
 

chicken and andouille sausage from bibberche.com

I loved the rhythm, the melody, and soul-wrenching whine of the fiddle in Jambalaya long before I had a clue who Hank Williams was. I tried in vain to get a grasp of the lyrics, but the only thing I could understand, after rewinding the tape deck on our family Grundig again and again, were the lines “son of a gun we’ll have big fun…”. And jambalaya. Except that I had no idea what a jambalaya could be. At thirteen, I was obsessed with deciphering the lyrics of many foreign songs, failing miserably most of the time. But as an incorrigible romantic, I really wanted the song to be about love, unrequited if possible, to coincide with my melodramatic view of the world at the time.

My crystal ball did not inform me that twenty years later I would marry a Southerner who loves Hank Williams and thinks Willie Nelson is a minor deity. He considers the food south of the Mason-Dixon line true American. If he had a choice, he would make a big detour to avoid for eternity his home state of Georgia, which is not on his mind, but he cannot get detangled from the strong emotional ties that hold him bound to Brunswick stew (whatever that is), stewed okra, and anything deep-fried. He lived all over the south from Georgia to Texas, but his tongue is true to Louisiana and Cajun cooking.

I had solved the mystery of Jambalaya long before I met Husband, while I worked at Key Largo Restaurant in Walled Lake, Michigan. As I was getting acquainted with the menu, which was a combination of Louisiana, Florida, and the Caribbean cuisines, it dawned on me that Hank was singing about food. And I liked him and his song even more.

We served crayfish ettouffe, jerk chicken, conch chowder, Key lime pie, coconut shrimp, jambalaya, and gumbo. I was slowly adapting to new tastes, eager to discover unfamiliar ingredients and cherishing the challenges of the palate. And whenever Shawn Riley, our regular one-man-band, would start unpacking his equipment on the deck overlooking the lake and pretending to be somewhere tropical, I would ask him to sing Jambalaya at some point during the night.

Husband moved into my Ohio apartment dragging in a great collection of well-used books, an old, battered, but heavy cooking pan, and a lot of clothes that I disposed of on the sly, little by little. One of the first things he searched for at Cleveland’s West Side Market was filé powder. Once he secured it, he scurried home, stopping to purchase fish, shrimp, and sausage. He had been promising to make a pot of gumbo from the second or third e-mail we exchanged, and I was intrigued by his enthusiasm.

I stood dutifully by his side while he made it, and it was a long, time-consuming dish. Hank was crooning in the background, and Husband was pulling out every quote, fact, and anecdote from his Southern hat. He was not satisfied with being only the cook. He had to be the entertainer, too, and he fancies himself a comedian. The only thing he did not do was break into the Louisiana shuffle, for which I was eternally grateful, as Husband is completely devoid of any sense of rhythm.

After hours of chopping, and stirring, and simmering, he scooped a small pile of rice into each of our bowls, and ladled a hefty amount of wonderfully spiced, flavorful, dark stew on top of it. I wanted more rice, but Husband assured me that in gumbo, rice is considered almost a garnish, its neutral taste perfectly complementing the spiciness of gumbo. From that day on, the big pot and a huge wooden spoon with a leather attachment were his to keep.

When Daring Cooks announced that we are supposed to prepare gumbo for May Challenge, I was thrilled. For years I have been listening to Husband drone on about the importance of stirring roux for at leas forty minutes, the necessity of “holy trinity” to be chopped in equally small pieces, and the superiority of andouille sausage. But this time the big pot and wooden spoon belonged to me. He was at work when I was researching innumerable recipes on Internet, figuring out in the end that his method was a good one.

I had all the ingredients lined up on the kitchen counter, eager to cross into the unfamiliar territory by myself. I reverently stirred the roux until it was the color of chocolate, loose and shiny, its aroma moving away from lard and flour and ascending to another level. I cooked the chicken leg quarters with a carrot or two, a stalk of celery, and a wedge of onion for about one hour, trying to extract all the goodness those bones hide within before pulling the meat off. I wanted the flavorful broth to bring an additional layer of flavor to the stew.

gumbo ingredients from bibberche.com

I cut the aromatics evenly into small cubes, replacing the green pepper with red, preferring the sweet undertones to bitter, and added them to the roux to sweat and get soft and glossy. Spices and herbs went in next, stirred around for a minute, just before I added the stock and the chicken, already pulled off the bone. The stew simmered and bubbled until all the layers reached perfect harmony.

This was a dish simple and complex at the same time. I spooned a small pile of rice in each bowl and ladled the gumbo on top, eagerly awaiting Husband’s reaction. When I saw a smile on his face, I knew that I managed to cross the intimidating Mason-Dixon culinary line, and join the multitudes of Beulahs and Ednas who wielded the power in Old Dixie.

Husband and I might fight over the proprietorship of the gumbo pot, but I know that despite our competitive personalities, we will enjoy a delicious bowl of Southern goodness every time we move away from the stove, proudly carrying the steaming pot to the table. And you can bet that Hank’s version of Jambalaya will be playing in the background.

I hope you will take a trip South with me, stirring the roux and chopping the vegetables for “holy trinity”. I provided the lyrics to that crazy song just in case you decide to hum along and not think about definitions and sense.

Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My Yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou

Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a file gumbo
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.

The Thibodeaux and the Fontainneaux, the place is buzzin’
Kinfolk come to see Yvonne by the dozen
Dress in style, go hog wild, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.

Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a file gumbo
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.

Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

gumbo roux from bibberche.com

HUSBAND’S MEAN GUMBO

Ingredients:

  • 1 chicken, cut up in 8 pieces
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 celery stalk
  • ¼ large yellow onion
  • ½ cup lard (or butter)
  • ½ cup all purpose flour
  • I large onion, diced
  • 1 green pepper (red, yellow, or orange can be substituted), diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper (less or more, depending on taste)
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3 basil leaves
  • 1 tsp file powder
  • ¾ lb andouille sausage, cur in circles

Directions:

Put the chicken and vegetables in a stock pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil on high heat. Immediately lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 45 minutes, until meat is done. Let it cool, strain, take the meat off the bones, and reserve the broth.

In the meantime, heat the heavy skillet to medium and add lard. As soon as it melts, add flour and lower the heat to medium-low. Stir until incorporated. Keep on stirring frequently for 40 minutes, until the roux turns the color of chocolate. As it cooks, the roux will become looser.

Add vegetables and stir for 5 minutes, until softened and transparent. Add the spices and herbs and mix for a couple of minutes to release the flavors. Add the broth, chicken, and sausage, and simmer for another 30 minutes. In the end mix in file powder.

Taste for seasonings and adjust to taste. Serve with plain white rice.