Mar 122014

Wilfreds Picks_Spring_2014

If you know me at all, in real life or via Facebook, you know that I have a long-lasting friendly relationship with wine. It started when I was a teenager in Serbia, where beer and wine are conveniently considered to be more like food items, than alcoholic beverages.

I did not like the taste of wine when Father would pour a few sips into a goblet placed just to the right of my plate, and it took years of perseverance and many long nights for the two of us to get on friendly terms.

Our friendship is still full of mysteries and secrets, as I do not presume that I know much about wine. I know that I thoroughly enjoy its company, that it makes me laugh, and allows me to push aside the ugly of the world for a few hours.

I do not foresee us splitting ways any day soon and I am convinced that we are to spend numerous hours together getting to know each other much better. I am willing to learn, and even make sacrifices, such as  braving the 91 eastbound at rush hour on my way to Riverside for the opening of the newest BevMo! store.

Riverside BevMo!

Riverside BevMo!, photo by Valerie Mitchell

I arrived with my knees wobbly and my knuckles white, my head filled with the highway screeches and honks. It would be an understatement to say that I welcomed with a sigh of relief a proffered glass of 2012 Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and a saucer of nibbles.

I am always eager to hear new advice on how to pair wine and food, especially when the teacher is Wilfred Wong, the Cellar Master for BevMo! for the last nineteen years. This man has a dream job: he travels all over the world, tastes the wines, rates them, and chooses which ones are going on BevMo! shelves.

Wilfred Wong

Wilfred Wong, photo by Valerie Mitchell

So what should you do to be able to taste wine like a pro? Follow the four Ss:

  • SEE the color of the wine; as the white wine ages, the color gets darker and as the red wine ages, the color gets lighter; the color can also give a hint as to what type of grape was used to make the wine; color can help determine how light or heavy the wine will taste or feel – the lighter the color, the lighter the wine should feel in your mouth.
  • SWIRL: Coat the side of the glass to help wine open up and release the aromas for the next step.
  • SMELL: Sniff three times and come up with three words to describe the wine.
  • SIP: You will taste sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

When pairing wines with food think of the elements of the food that will affect the wine. Is the food salty or sweet? Does it have acid or is it fatty? (Use the acid in the wine to either complement the food, or cut through fatty types of food.)

Some of these tips will definitely help you pick the right wine for your next dinner party, but the most important lesson is that you should really imbibe the wines you personally like. Wine drinking and tasting is highly subjective and therefore, there is no right and wrong answer.

Wine tasting

Wine Tasting at Riverside BevMo!, photo by Valerie Mitchell

And the best way to learn what you like is to taste as many varieties of wine as you can. This made me clap my hands in anticipation, eager to start making new acquaintances.

To make it even more irresistible, BevMo! 5 Cent Wine Sale just started. And in case you have no clue what I am talking about, here is the deal: if you buy one bottle for retail value, you get another one for only a nickel. Or buy one case of wine at the regular price, and the second case is just 60 cents. Here is the chance to experiment and stock up without buyer’s remorse, as there are over 200 different wines offered in this deal.

 Wilfred Wong’s Top 10 picks for 5 Cent Wine Sale:

1.     Main & Geary Pinot Grigio ’12 (92 points) Suggested Pairing: linguine, clams in a light cream sauce

 2.    Ray’s Creek Sauvignon Blanc (89 points) Suggested Pairing: raw oysters on the half shell

 3.     Dolce Vita Prosecco (89 points) Suggested Pairing: tuna sashimi, with sorrel and lemon

 4.     Beringer Carneros Chardonnay ’12 (92 points) Suggested Pairing: sauteed, pounded chicken breast in a light crème sauce

 5.     Ray’s Creek Chardonnay (91 points) Suggested Pairing: lightly grilled shrimp, with a white wine reduction sauce

 6.     Kenwood Jack London Merlot ’10 (92 points) Suggested Pairing: baked pork tenderloin, with savory spices

 7.     Zolo Gaucho Select Malbec ’11 (91 points) Suggested Pairing: grilled beef or goat, light red wine reduction sauce

 8.     Donovan-Parke Pinot Noir ’12 (91 PTS) Suggested Pairing: grilled salmon, fresh, savory herbs

 9.     Unruly Red Table Wine ’11 (92 points) Suggested Pairing: grilled beef or lamb, with a light touch of savory herbs

 10.  Crooked Path Zinfandel ’11 (93 points) Suggested Pairing: Greek style lamb kebobs, with rosemary and lemon zest

Be sure to check out Wilfred’s Top 10 Picks here each week and stop by your local neighborhood BevMo!, where the local beverage experts can help you make your 5 Cent Wine Sale picks.

BevMo Riverside

I have been compensated to write this post. But everything you read is straight from my heart. Yes, twist my arm and point me to a glorious wine store…

Oct 192013

Dominique's Kitchen from

I traveled to France only vicariously, first through my parents, then through my sister and my friends, and most recently through my oldest daughter, Nina. They all brought me presents from the land of Gaul: little crystal bottles of perfume, a roll of green silk that became my eighth grade graduation dance dress; gloriously stinky cheeses; tiny pewter Eiffel towers; reprints of Toulouse-Lautrec’s art; minuscule ornate boxes hiding three perfect truffles; an airplane-size bottle of Veuve-Clicquot.

I embraced their stories and pored through the photos, trying to absorb the magic by osmosis, imagining my own feet hitting the streets of all those places that became so familiar while I spent hours reading the French classics. One of these days I’ll visit France in person and I am convinced it will be one of those marvelous “deja vu” experiences that would prevent me from feeling like a tourist.

Dominique's Kitchen from

In the meantime, I’ll continue my France-by-proxy existence by frequenting one of my favorite South Bay restaurants, Dominique’s Kitchen, which is celebrating its first anniversary this weekend. I hate to lament the passage of time again and again, but it truly feels like a fleeting instant from the first time I noticed the bright yellow board with the restaurant’s name hovering above the PCH. Since then, I stopped by a few times on their Ménage à Trois Mondays happy hour, and each time I felt as if I were coming home.

French restaurants have a reputation in America of being too expensive, too fancy, and too intimidating. The owners Dominique and Liza are trying to break the stereotype and change that widely accepted, but wrong opinion. They came up with a concept of a casual restaurant that would offer classic French dishes at affordable prices in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. They yearn to demystify some of the more exotic fares and invite everyone to feel at home at their cozy, warm place.

Dominique's Kitchen from

Dominique and Liza, the owners

Throughout the celebratory weekend, chef Dominique will be preparing dishes that feature snails, as an adventurous and fun ingredient very much underused in American culinary traditions. They were pleasantly surprised by a positive response from their customers who genuinely loved their classic escargot served during Mondays’ happy hour, that they felt confident in offering the public many other ways to prepare this ubiquitous French food.

Fried Kale with Parmiggiano from

Fried Kale is offered at happy hour

Chef Dominique Theval grew up in the outskirts of Paris and his mother made the escargot maybe once a month. The snails from Burgundy came already detached from their shells, and after they were sauteed in garlic and butter, they were placed back into the shells and smothered by the insanely rich, flavorful, and yet so simple sauce that just begged for a heel of crusty, French bread.

Country Pate from

Country Pâté with Cornichons is one of my favorite happy hour dishes

This classic approach to snails is hard to beat and I am glad I get to enjoy it every time I show up for their happy hour. But in the weeks to come, there will be many different dishes featuring escargot aimed at broadening the culinary horizons of the loyal patrons.

A few days ago I had a chance to try some of those dishes with several other media people and food bloggers. We really did not know one another, but as we sampled chef Dominique’s creations and sipped wine, it felt as if we were in a casual, street restaurant somewhere in France, surrounded by friends, relaxed after another day at work.  Yes, the snails were the main attraction, and as a bunch, we were not the connoisseurs; but we were curious and adventurous. And we definitely enjoyed many incarnations presented to us.

Dominique's Kitchen from

Organic Greens Soup with Escargot

Dominique's Kitchen from

Mache Salad with Escargots and Portobello Mushrooms in a Raspberry Vinaigrette Dressing

Dominique's Kitchen from

Crust of Escargots with Brie Cheese – an ultimate grilled cheese sandwich!

DOminique's Kitchen from

Home Style Roasted Escargots and Fingerling Potatoes

Dominique's Kitchen

Sauteed Escargots with Garlic Cream

If you are in the area, stop by the restaurant for a complimentary glass of champagne, a chance to win a prize, or just to hang out and nosh on some of the most delicious and affordable French cuisine in southern California. I know I will be there on Monday, and many Mondays to come!

Sep 132013

Ramen Burger from

I don’t like standing in lines. Not for a premiere movie tickets, not for the newest techie gadget, not for the sales on Friday after Thanksgiving. (Having to spend hours away from classes while waiting in never-ending lines, depending on mercy of the office harpies at the University of Belgrade just to be issued a monthly bus pass clearly does not count. That I endured this at the age before smart phones were invented, makes the experience even more traumatic).

So when I learned that Keizo Shimamoto would be serving 500 ramen burgers last Saturday at 11:00 am at Mitsuwa Market, a Japanese  chain store in my neighboring Torrance, I deliberately failed to set the alarm. Yes, I was determined to go, as I was curious about the concept, but I knew that I am not that hard-core to camp in front of a store for a food item, no matter how highly recommended and hyped.

Ramen Burger lines from

The recovering journalist in me woke up and nudged me to get up just in time to make it close to the end of the line at 10:30. I felt empowered by finding a decent parking place and exercised my patience for a while, relieved when more and more people queued up behind me. But when they announced that I probably would not get to be the one of the chosen 500 to sample the $8.00 ramen burger, along with a few dozen of my crestfallen neighbors who stood in line behind the coveted corner, I had to rethink my strategy.

I stayed in place for a few minutes, thinking that there might be some vegetarians ahead who might forfeit their burgers. The logic prevailed, though, and I decided to head to the store and be the journalist, experiencing the event vicariously and taking testimonies, resigned that it was not in my cards that day to taste the trendy fusion burger.

Ramen Burger assembly line from

I positioned myself in front of the stall hosting Ramen Burger crew and started taking photos of busy hands assembling the burgers, minutes before the hungry hordes were allowed to enter. Ramen noodles, already cooked and shaped into sturdy disks, were placed onto a griddle until golden brown and crispy. A charbroiled hamburger patty fit perfectly on top of one of the rounds, followed by a secret shoyu sauce, a few leaves of arugula, chopped scallions, and another ramen round. It was neatly folded in a pleated paper wrapper constructed specifically to prevent the juices and sauce from seeping out.

Ramen Burger experience from

I happened to be at the right place and the right time to see Keizo Shimamoto, the guy behind the the ramen burger fame, pass one of the burgers to his mother, who declared that she had never tasted one of her son’s inventions before. Even better, I stood next to the CBS News cameraman who passed his burger to me, as he was on a diet. I figured it was research combined with a good deed and bit into it.

I expected the ramen bun to fall apart at the first attack, but it was surprisingly sturdy. According to Keizo, this is not your usual instant ramen, but rather custom made by respectable Sun Noodle company in New Jersey. It took me much longer to finish this burger, and it kept me full for quite some time. It was an unusual combination of flavors and textures, which is typical for fusion cooking, and while I still prefer a classic hamburger, I would not mind breaking the routine with this umami-rich newest food sensation.

Keizo Shimamoto from

Keizo’s story is an inspiring one. Born, raised, and educated in southern California, he entered the work force as a computer programmer, only to depart to Japan to study ramen, in pursuit of his dream. After four years he returned with an idea of a ramen burger which combines his two culinary loves, and almost overnight became a frenzied success. It seems that things are moving incredibly fast for this one-man enterprise, as the demands are clearly going through the roof. He is riding the wave with a smile, knowing that all his work has finally paid off and his dream became a reality. He and his ramen burger are here to stay, and I would not be surprised to see Keizo more frequently back on the West coast.

A few hundred photos and a full belly later, I slowly made my way out of the store, where the line was shorter, but still winding around a couple of corners. Keizo’s ramen burger was satisfying, but did not convince me that anything is worth waiting in line for hours in midday southern California sun.


Aug 242013

Hatch Chiles at Bristol Farms from

Wednesday morning, I dared the rush hour traffic on PCH heading north to Santa Monica. It was my day off and I decided to spend a part of it with a few of my blogger friends at the opening of a new Bristol Farms store on Wilshire Boulevard, as guests of Melissa’s Produce and the store management.

You can send me to Tiffany’s and I’d probably meander around the aisles for a few moments just to show good graces before exiting in haste with sighs of relief. On the other hand, exploring a brand new grocery store filled with the most delectable food stuff is definitely a reason to get excited.

Right at the entrance to the store I was greeted by a bright display of Melissa’s Hatch chiles – a reminder of Bristol Farms’ efforts to offer the most seasonal, local, natural, organic, and community-driven produce. These New Mexico chiles are in season for only a few weeks in August and September, and now is the time to get a box or two, roast them (either at home or at one of the roasting events scheduled throughout southern California), freeze them, and bask in the happy thought that come January, you can start the pot of Chile Verde, or enjoy Hatch Chiles Rellenos at any time.

Hatch Chile Products at Bristol Farms from bibberche.comI have Melissa’s Hatch Chile Cookbook, but as I walked around the store, I encountered a few items that used Hatch chiles in the most creative ways. OK, corn bread and cheese might be somewhat expected, but trail mix and sushi? Definitely intriguing and, in the case of trail mix, seriously addictive.

I spent a few hours weaving around the aisles, impressed by the choices and delighted by the knowledge, passion, and zeal of the employees. Having my friends by my side made this experience even more enjoyable.

We took turns snapping the photos  and admiring the vibrant colors of the fresh and versatile produce section.

Produce Bristol Farms from

Am I the only one who finds beauty in all different shades of pink in this meat counter? The beef is grass fed, the poultry air-dried, and most meet in general is natural and organic, void of antibiotics, growth hormones, extra water, preservatives, and chemicals.

Meat Department Bristol Farms from

I don’t have to complain any more about the lack of game meets in California and lament the glory days spent with my hunting friends in Serbia and Ohio, who generously shared their catch. I saw elk, ostrich, antelope, venison, wild boar, bison, and even kangaroo!

Specialty Meats Bristol Farms from

I have never seen fish cut and displayed this way in a grocery store and it left me speechless. To make it even better, swordfish was on sale and I knew I would not be leaving the store without it.

Seafood Bristol Farms from

Yes, there are a dozen or so different soups offered at the lunch counter and they have a pizza oven, a sushi station, make-your-own wok bowl station, a deli station with freshly roasted tri-tip and turkey (carved per order) – just to name a few delicacies.

Lunch at Bristol Farms from

And then there is cheese. I roamed the store, but I returned to this section again and again, drawn by artfully arranged tables offering hundreds of cheese varieties. If anyone asks, I’d like to stake a claim underneath one of those tables and live there forever!

Cheese Department Bristol Farms from

I thought of my girls as I ogled the dessert case, wishing they were here to sample the perfect little bites, but secretly glad they were not, as I know that some of my baking and decorating efforts might lose their high ratings compared to these masterpieces.Desserts at Bristol Farms from

The cupcakes were not small, nor dainty, and we attacked them as a group at the end of our working lunch. If I call it work, eating cupcakes counts as research or quality control, not pure, unadulterated indulgence. So work it is. And the researchers were happy.

Cupcakes from Bristol Farms from

Remember the swordfish? The piece I brought home was about one and a half pounds and the three of us feasted on it like queens. Hatch chicken sausage is on the menu tomorrow and I cannot wait to taste it.

Bristol Farms from

I am sure that Bristol Farms store will be wildly successful in this increasingly affluent Santa Monica neighborhood. The management hopes that it will become a regular stop for the locals who demand and expect the best. As for me, I’ll visit occasionally to sightsee, sample, and purchase another exquisite piece of seafood.

Nov 122012

Lazy Acres from

Lazy Acres Market opened this week in Long Beach. Some of you might shrug your shoulders and move on to the story of the Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez break-up (do not ask me how I know this; it is not because I have two teenage daughters under my roof, but despite of the fact). And I understand and forgive the ambivalence of the un-initiated. But  the mere thought of a grocery store based completely on natural, organic, mostly local products was enough to set me driving on south-bound Pacific Coast Highway, navigating the dreaded round-about and roaming the unknown, and therefore hostile territory without a GPS (horrors, I know!)

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

By the time I arrived, the parking lot looked like a mosh pit at a Scandinavian death metal band concert, with cars weaving around the aisles in a desperate attempt to find an empty space. I silently invoked my inner Buddha and parked in front of a T. J. Maxx, as my eyes followed a seemingly interminable line of people snaking around the corner, patiently waiting for the doors of Lazy Acres to open.

Lazy Acres from

I was inside the store minutes before the grand opening, snapping pictures of employees and perfectly arranged produce with enthusiasm of an E! reporter at a Versace fashion show. I tell you, people, I could set up a tiny tent and live in this store. As a matter of fact, I don’t even need a tent, as they sell yoga mats in the fitness section. Which is right next to the organic teas and natural supplements.

Lazy Acres from


Lundberg Family Rice Products at Lazy Acres from

I was happy to discover Lundberg Family Rice products here!

The coffee station is better than Starbucks and you can pick a variety of flavors for your smoothie right from the refrigerated bins filled with produce. As tempted as Kale Smoothie sounded (not! I know I am bad, but I have not jumped on the green wagon yet; I love to eat green food, but drinking it is an alien concept), and as satisfying as a sample of Breakfast Smoothie tasted, I chose Blueberry Splash, thick, vivacious, and splendidly speckled with berry goodness.

Lazy Acres Long Beach from

Breakfast taken care of, you can move along a few paces and get your lunch order filled as you pick between juicy Santa Maria marinated tri-tip, seasoned grilled chicken breast, peppery roast beef, and pastrami; if your preferences lie in the herbivorous realm, your choices are even better (thin crusted  Pizza Margherita with burrata? Pizza sandwich with grilled vegetables? Or with tofu? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) Seriously, this place has a bona fide wood-burning oven on premises! You squint slightly and you are in Tuscany, just like that.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Looking at the cheeses lined up on the shelves made my eyes glaze over as I imagined myself rolling a wheel of raw-milk gouda down the aisle and to my car. This pale yellow baby encased in waxy red skin was so big that my fingers would not have touched if I tried to encircle it. So, carrying it out was definitely out of the question. Then, again, if I manage to get squatter’s rights, all I would need is a small paring knife and a trip or two to the produce section to be in heaven.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

A small area of the store is designated solely to sushi and sashimi. And sake, of course. Because it is punishable by law not to imbibe sake while eating raw fish. I think. At least it should be. The workers behind the counters moved so fast that most of my photos ended up blurry. Or they were blurry  because I stared at the perfectly aligned rolls on black trays and pressed my shutter randomly. Oh, the choices! I wished my dear friend E. were there with me as I put my face against the glass transfixed by glistening cubes of Hawaiian poke, as welcoming as a soulful sound of ukulele that played in the background. OK, ukulele was all in my head. But it should have been there. Along with pretty girls in hula skirts.

Lazy Acres from

The fish counter was like an art exhibit displaying every hue on the color wheel from pristine white of cold-water fish to almost maroon of wild-caught swordfish (which happened to be on sale). And just in case you lived in a glass bubble for the last decade and have not heard about the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a warning is taped on the glass guiding you to better choices.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Pete was standing behind his little table grilling New York strip steaks from naturally raised beef and passing out the samples, reciting again and again for the sake of some unbelieving customers (no, no, no, definitely not me!) that the only seasoning on the meat was salt and pepper. I assumed that he was in competition with the sushi people as he was moving with lightning speed trying to refill his tray of quickly disappearing samples. I would have to give him a medal for multitasking as he managed to fulfill his task while explaining in details the air-chilling process of chicken and pork sold at Lazy Acres.

Lazy Acres from

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

I am a trivia geek, and learning about the proverbial mammoth I bring home to my young ones is of the utmost importance to me. Allow me to paraphrase Pete, and enlighten you. The most important thing in meat industry is chilling the meat once the animal has been killed (I have to apologize to my herbivore friends for this segment) to prevent the bacteria from multiplying. Most big meat producers dunk the chickens in icy water, thousands at a time, and stir them for a while to get them to the right temperature. This makes them water-logged, heavier, and more prone to being infected with salmonella (if one out of 15,000 chickens has salmonella, the rest being plunged in the mix might develop it, too).

Lazy Acres from

A few smaller poultry and pork producers are employing an air-chilling process, where the chickens (and pigs) are suspended on lines or racks and blasted with frigid air which instantly brings the temperature of the meat down and prevents breeding of the harmful bacteria. These chickens are not frozen, nor water-logged, and their chances of containing salmonella are minuscule. “I’ll take ‘Poultry Processing’ for$2000, Alex!”

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Produce section offered as many varieties and more than a thriving European Farmers’ Market. Just knowing that every leaf, stalk, and root displayed on the shelves was grown seasonally, organically, naturally, without GMOs and mostly locally was enough to make me feel all cozy and warm.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Lost in the sea of heirloom apples, citrus with stems and leaves still attached, and gnarly, alien-looking bulbous stalks of Brussels sprouts, I felt relieved to find my friends from Melissa’s Produce showing off their sweet young coconuts and pouring samples of coconut water for weary customers (yes, shopping and taking pictures is an extremely demanding and tiring job!).

Lazy Acres from

As I was dragging my feet towards the checkout and exit, I stumbled onto the bulk produce department and mills that grind nuts. You know how you can buy coffee beans and grind them at the store for the freshest experience? Well, Lazy Acres Market has the mills that grind peanuts into peanut butter, cashews into cashew butter, almonds into almond butter, and so on. All you have to do is place your plastic container underneath the wide spout and press the button! No preservatives, no additives, no extra salt or sugar – just the nuts in all their beauty. (Psssst, there is one machine that makes peanut and chocolate chip butter, but this is just a rumor :)

Lazy Acres from

I left the store feeling like Bugs Bunny in one of the Looney Toon cartoons where he sees colorful bubbles in front of his eyes. I saw various fruits and vegetables and meats dancing inside my eyes as I made my way towards my car, toting a beautiful duck breast and a wedge of that raw-milk gouda that I coveted so much. All the way home, after making one wrong turn after another, I kept on planning my next excursion to this store, thinking of inviting my friends who would be as excited about natural, healthy, locally grown, farm-to-table, organic foods as I am.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Robert, thank you for giving me the chance to explore the Lazy Acres Market. And thanks for that beautiful, soft, flame-kissed pizza Pastrami sandwich:) This was, indeed an enlightening experience, even though I did not end up staking a claim on the store’s real estate.

Lazy Acres Market in Long Beach is the second store to open after the success of Santa Barbara location. I just hope they open another one somewhere in my neighborhood! But even if that does not happen, taking a forty minute road trip down the picturesque albeit treacherous PCH  to Long Beach is definitely worth it.

Sep 202011

srpski pijac from bibberche.comIt has been sweltering hot in my Serbian home town the last few weeks. As soon as I get up and water my mom’s geraniums and azaleas, I close wooden shutters on all the windows, drape a dark green tablecloth over the upstairs bathroom window, and close the back door in an attempt to block the ruthless heat from penetrating the house. (Husband, the mole, would find himself at home, enjoying the dusk-like quality of light and deep shadows that preserve the traces of fresh morning air).

I make Turkish coffee, strong and black for me, weak with a touch of sugar for Mom, and we drink it in the back yard, at the table in front of the house, chasing the shade cast by the roof. My sister-in-law, Tanja, joins us if she is not at school where she teaches Language Arts, and we spend a leisurely half an hour gossiping, exchanging stories and advice, laughing, and reminiscing. I sweep the leaves that magnolia shed during the night, not missing the beat in the conversation. When the sun reaches the six terazzo steps leading to the back door, leaving us no respite whatsoever, I pick up the cups and follow Mom as she slowly makes her way up, leaning on two canes, one metal, one wooden, that Father had bought in San Francisco’s Chinatown last Fall.

Cacak from

Once she is comfortably settled in her bed, with four pillows meticulously arranged to support her aching spine, I bring her breakfast on a small purple plastic tray with a white damask napkin as the nice, antique silver trays lining the upper pantry shelf on the right are too heavy for her to support while laying down. I learned the first day that she eats very little and I bring her very little, aware that even the sight of too much food will make her nauseated. I start auctioning food, offering everything available in the house and in the stores a few blocks away, knowing that I can make it back in time. She scrunches her nose and makes faces until a craving appears. When she locks onto an idea, she looks at me with her big, blue eyes and asks me for a soft boiled egg with sliced tomato, a warm croissant from the corner bakery, cream of wheat with raisins and cranberries, or a half a piece of toasted French bread with a slice of Havarti I brought form the US, knowing that she would enjoy it.

She turns her TV on and watches the morning shows, while texting with family and friends. With one last glance I make sure that she is feeling alright for the moment. I drag the white and navy checkered grocery bag with wheels, don my straw hat and my cheap, oversize a la Victoria Beckham sunglasses, and head for the market. I walk briskly, weaving in and out of shades that our linden trees provide, my feet following with certainty the path they carved so many years ago.

Cacak from

Going to the market is a social occasion. I will invariably meet several people on my way to the store. I will stop and chat, punch in a long-lost friend’s cell phone number to connect later, make a date for another day, and continue with my enjoyable daily task. During the week, outside cafés are filled with people huddled under the awnings, seated as if in a theater, facing the main  pedestrian walkway down the middle of the street that has been closed for traffic since I was a teenager. On the weekends, there are only a few souls brave enough to face the merciless heat, as the wise and knowledgeable blue-hair ladies have finished their daily shopping hours before.

The first stop is a grocery store, where I usually buy juice, yellow European butter that smells like fresh milk, yogurt, Happy Cow cheese, and a variety of small portions of deli meats, always hoping that I could coerce that stubborn woman to take a piece for a mid-day snack. Knowing that Father will dutifully collect all flimsy plastic bags that come in various pastel colors, unable to part with them, fold them neatly, and lay them carefully on top of another hundred or so neatly folded bags, I refuse the offer from the cashier, and place the groceries one by one in various pockets of my huge canvas bag.

Cacak from

Moving along, I cross a little square and pass by the pastry shop Pelivan, where mothers and children sit and eat gelato, cream puffs, or baklava, chasing the sweets with the best tasting lemonade in town. I arrive at the butcher’s appreciative of the modern addition of air-conditioning, while reveling in the old-fashioned custom of not having every cut of meat on premises at all time. I buy on recommendation, trusting my butcher’s pride in his craft. Our dinner plans may change drastically based on my purchase, but I embrace the challenge and adjust to the moment.

As I approach the farmers’ market, my step quickens and my eyes focus on the first stalls laden with beautiful produce, looming just beyond the cast-iron gate. The merchant who makes leather goods stands erect in front of his shop just before the gates, his arms crossed behind his back, his mustache curling upwards, the caricature of one of the hunters in fairy tale Peter and the Wolf. I have to weave through a throng of Gypsies hawking cheap socks, t-shirts, and soap bars, and move to the side when old women march ahead, burdened with overfilled canvas bags.

srpski pijac from

I am mesmerized by color and smell, and overwhelmed by a feeling of abundance every time I come to the market. I always visit every stall, remembering not only the best produce, but the friendliest and most sincere vendors. By now, I recognize most of them, and have a few that that are definitely favorites. In the beginning, I wanted to but everything every day, greedy for the luscious, sweet tomatoes, firm peppers that take my breath away with  their smell, perfect young potatoes, curvy and lopsided carrots that remind me how carrots should taste, and pale yellow beans speckled with purple that I rarely manage to find in farmers’ markets in California.

I still have to restrain myself, but the temptation is weaker now, as I know that only fifteen minutes separates me from this place. I dutifully follow the plan, only occasionally picking a beautiful eggplant that seduces me, sitting innocently next to the onions I really have to buy, or a head of cabbage picked that morning, so cheap that it could be free. I carefully place my vegetables and fruits in the bag, making sure that nothing gets squished, and with a last longing glance I leave the market and head home.

srpski pijac from

As I close the gate behind me and enter the yard, Mother is already watching her Turkish soap opera, alert and freshened from her nap. I recite to her who I met and what I bought. After taking a vicarious walk through town with me, she smiles mischievously and makes a dinner request. I play along and feign annoyance at her choice, inwardly beaming, happy that she feels anything at all about food. I bring her a juicy peach or a few figs, fluff her pillows and kiss the top of her head as I leave the room to start unpacking my purchases and putting every vibrantly colored piece to its designated place.

fruit from the farmers' market from

I struggle between laughing and crying, anticipating nutritious meals that would boost her immune system and keep this filthy disease at bay. And I know that she trusts me, even though I see myself as a Don Quixote, foolishly attacking these windmills with nothing else but a bunch of vibrantly colored vegetables and pure love for the woman who taught me to how to laugh, how to cry, and how to love.

Serbian farmers' market from

Last year, about this time I wrote about the book Hungry Planet and Chicken Makhani in my Hunger Challenge series.


Jul 112010

Cleveland, Ohio, was our home for over a decade. I moved there from Michigan, Husband from Georgia, and we met in the early fall of 1997. The city’s “emerald necklace”, the Metroparks, served as our courting grounds. Surrounded by hues of burnt orange, sienna, ochre, crimson, and sunflower, spectacularly revealed in ancient oaks, elegant maples, and stately elms, we fell in love, not only with each other, but with the city, too. And in my food-obsessed mind, the best thing Cleveland had to offer was the West Side Market on 25th and Lorain.

I went shopping with my Serbian friends to the West Side Market before Husband-time. But once I introduced him to it, the visits became a weekly routine. For him it was an exotic place, a glimpse into the world of other cultures, and a way to fill the trunk with produce without going bankrupt. For me, it was like coming home, inhaling the smells and filling the soul with the sights of abundance, while listening with curiosity to the excited voices in many different languages.

The outer area of the Market is shaped like an “L”. There you can find fruits and vegetables, flowers, herbs, and seasonal products. The building itself is nestled in the hook of the “L”, and inside you buy meat, charcuterie, cheese, fish, dairy, and cooked goods.

We would park, donate a dollar to whichever person was there hawking The Homeless Grapevine newsletter, and continue with quickening strides toward the entrance of the main building, looking around the produce stands, taking a quick inventory, and storing the information for later. Before anything else, we had to make a stop at Frank’s Bratwurst, located at one of the entrances. Hard roll, brown mustard, sausage for me. Soft roll, sauerkraut, Stadium mustard, sausage for Husband. After exchanging a line or two with the owners, we’d move a couple of steps, to make room for the endless line of bratwurst aficionados. First few bites we’d devour in complete silence. The next phase would introduce a smile and a series of grunts. The finish would be more leisurely, devoid of hunger induced panic, with long glances inspecting the stands (like we did not know the layout by heart), fortified and prepared to enjoy the rest of our outing.

Photo: Chris Stephens, Plain Dealer

We’d traverse five steps and enter the Greek-run Mediterranean Imported Foods, which was a haven for the Serbian community. White cornmeal, feta cheese, olives, sardines, roasted peppers, jams, juices from Europe – you could find everything your little immigrant’s heart desired there. At the Hungarian delicatessen we’d buy smoked bacon, hot sausages, and head cheese. Across the aisle was The Urban Herbs, a must for spices and hard to find varieties of beans and rice (best Himalayan rice you can find without a Sherpa).

Kaufmann’s Poultry was our favorite stand for buying anything chicken, rabbit or duck (occasionally we even managed to secure some rare chicken feet for the younger Beastie, who is quite enamored with gnawing on them, to the absolute revolt of the remainder of the family). We were seriously worried for a period of time that a very young future College Kritter would elope with the gray-haired owner of the stand, after she declared that would be the most awesome job on Earth (which, for the most part, was a giant move forward for her, abandoning the plans on becoming a driver of the garbage truck, or even more coveted, the Zamboni).

After making our usual loopty-loop, buying lunch meat, and either fish, pork, beef, lamb, goat, or even bison, we would venture outside and start the quest for weekly produce and fruit. We had our favorite vendors (Eddie with the Boutros Brothers always took great care to get us the best produce and warn us off anything less).  But the names of our other favorites elude me. We only occasionally risked the unknown. Husband would make the trip to the car, carrying the loot, while I visited the last stop, my herb guy, who was always very helpful with advice and tips regarding growing vegetables.

The trip home was always a beautiful coda, composed of snippets of excited conversation, reveling in the glory of nature and the sense of security, which only a car-load of food can bring. Once at home, we’d get everything out of the bags, put it on the counter, and admire it for a minute or two. That was enough to make my day exceptionally good.

When we moved to California, we left pieces of ourselves at the West Side Market. We miss those Mondays fiercely, and lament our loss constantly. I roam the Internet searching for farms, farm stands and farmers markets. And I do not want to believe that Ohio can beat California on food shopping, ’cause I’ve been to San Francisco and Berkeley, and I know better.

We went to our first SoCal Farmers Market in Irvine today. It was a completely different experience from Cleveland. A much younger, more sophisticated, and less ethnic crowd. People were more relaxed, taking their time (but it could be an overall Californian thing), sporting designer duds, showing off their pets and their children. There were less staple foods, more organic produce, more variety to choose from, and a lot more samples. I definitely felt like a tourist. But that could be just me – I still feel like we are imposing on California. It was not my beloved place back east. But I felt the familiar heart-quickening. And I definitely know I’ll go back, even if I have to avoid work on an occasional Saturday. Who knows, there just might be another vendor who will become a friend.

May 262010

Last March, for my birthday, the College Kritter took me to this store. It was a surprise, and I had no clue where we were going; she drove and when we arrived, I was in heaven! We were transported into a different world, and spent over three hours browsing, exploring, admiring and trying to figure out what you would do with some of the stuff. We bought a cart full of groceries for about $40.00 and left happy, dreaming of all the meals we would make…

It is an Asian store, with tanks of live lobsters, crabs, shellfish and fish, with an aisle devoted exclusively to bean curd, with more varieties of noodles than in a Mediterranean market, with fruit and vegetables that we had to put on our Google search, just to be able to remember, let alone use. Most of the articles we bought still reside happily in my pantry, and I am proud to say, I managed to cook with all of the ingredients, including tamarind paste and banana sauce!

In the meantime, we ran out of red rice (we used to buy Himalayan red rice at a stall in Westside Market in Cleveland, but have not found source for it here, yet) and I took the Husband on an adventure, to the 99 Ranch Market!

I grew up in a country where fish is served with the eyes looking at you, where tripe, kidneys, liver, brain and tongue find their place at the dinner table more than occasionally, where chicken you are eating was clucking and gobbling up worms just a couple of hours earlier, before grandma wrung its neck, pluck the feathers and dumped it into a pot.

I was perfectly comfortable with chicken feet, pork liver, and goat’s testes, but I had to chuckle and envision a Fear Factor episode when we encountered duck tongues, boneless duck feet and pig uteruses! My American Husband, although somewhat seasoned by being fed in my mother’s  kitchen, and my culinary explorations throughout the years, asked me nicely not to buy anything with eyes, and to, please, keep on moving past the black sea cucumber, nicely packaged as it was. I obliged and remarked that next time I would have to come with the younger Beastie, who is going to appreciate completely what this store has to offer.

We bought: pork liver, frozen whole baby squid, maitake mushrooms, bunapi mushrooms, black rice, garlic-chili sauce, shrimp paste, frozen banana leaves, dark soy sauce, panko breadcrumbs, and coconut milk (it was dirt cheap!)

Our loot.

Bunapi (aka Beech mushrooms).

Maitake mushrooms.