Apr 012014
 

Ojai Pixie Cake from bibberche.com

I am standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes. A coffee maker is gurgling behind me, and to the right the onions and potatoes sizzle in the skillet on the stove. My 70s kitchen could have easily been duplicated from an Updike’s Rabbit novel, but all the smells that surround me scream comfort and warmth. The tree branches in front of my balcony sway in the rhythm with the wind that blows from the west, bringing along a hint of the  ocean through the open door.

Yes, life is hectic and I still need at least five or six extra hours a day to accomplish everything. But even with the constant adrenaline rush I manage to take in all the beauty and serenity around me and acknowledge how grateful I am that my girls and I are finally settled in our own apartment. I still smile every time I unlock the door and glimpse a stairway leading up to the bedrooms, pinching myself just in case I were dreaming. Every day is like a present, unexpected, but eagerly awaited and greatly appreciated.

Ojai PixieTangerines from bibberche.com

I want to finally anchor myself to one place even though I still feel like a tourist who has decided to make this Southern California vacation last longer, and every Saturday chants “one more week, one more week.” I walk around with my mouth open, greedily soaking up every detail of beauty that surrounds me. I crane my neck through the car window, hoping to see the mountains covered with snow in the distance. I eagerly await the green light on the way to our local Persian store just to see the undulating hills of the valley hugging the horizon while the car plummets down the steep, curvy road.

I still get excited when I see a plump palm tree in a neighbor’s yard. I point and clap every time I spy a citrus tree, and sometimes even plan the elaborate nightly raids on the unsuspecting fruit hanging off the easily reached branches in the street that leads to my daughter’s school. I feel as if I were here on borrowed time, and any minute a cold hand will snatch me and whisk me away back to Ohio. And just in case I wake up freezing in some driveway west of Cleveland, I would like to have my pockets stuffed with tangerines, lemons, and oranges to keep me warm.

Ojai Pixie Tangerines from bibberche.com

A few days ago the mailman delivered a box full of Ojai pixie tangerines from Melissa’s Produce to my door. As I brought them up to my face and inhaled their fresh, citrus smell, I could not stop smiling. I do not have to sneak through the neighborhood and make the chihuahuas restless while I try to pick someone else’s fruit. I am not going anywhere and I do not have to arm myself with California sunshine to battle the invisible forces trying to plunge me into the land of eternal snow. I loved Cleveland, but right now I am starting to make firmer and more self-confident steps on the California sand.

I felt as if I were living a California dream as the sweet, sticky liquid ran down my fingers and the smell of fresh citrus enveloped me. It made me tremendously happy to be alive right now, in this beautiful part of the world that I can finally call home.

Ojai Pixie Caramel Cake from bibberche.com

Ojai pixie tangerines are incredibly sweet and fragrant. Their season is short and can be easily missed. We ate most of the loot, but several ended up in this cake which pretty much describes my life right now: fulfilling, satisfying, light, fresh, and at times surprising (as the caramel hardened on top of the tangerines, it added a delightful, albeit unexpected crunch).

Ojai Pixie Cake with Caramel Sauce
5.0 from 2 reviews

Print

Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: International
Author:
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 6
This cake is easy to make and versatile. You can substitute fruit of your choice and play with the flavor combinations.
Ingredients
  • 6 Ojai pixie tangerines (zested, peeled and separated into segments; reserve 1 tsp of zest for the recipe, save the rest in freezer)
  • 8 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs (at room temperature)
  • ¼ tsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Caramel Sauce:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ⅓ cup water
  • ⅔ cup Ojai pixie tangerine juice (about 4 tangerines)
Instructions
  1. Cake:
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  3. Butter and flour a 9 inch cake pan.
  4. Combine the butter and sugar and mix on medium speed until fluffy using an electric mixer.
  5. While the mixer is running, add eggs one at a time.
  6. Add the grated orange zest.
  7. In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  8. Add the flour mixture to the batter and mix until it is incorporated.
  9. Pour the batter into the pan.
  10. Bake the cake for 45 to 55 minutes, until the cake is an even golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  11. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack.
  12. Take the cake out of the pan.
  13. Arrange the orange slices in one layer on top of the cake.
  14. Caramel Orange Sauce:
  15. Combine sugar, water, and tangerine juice in a heavy pan.
  16. Heat on moderate-high temperature until sugar is melted.
  17. Turn the heat down to low and cook until the color turns light amber, stirring occasionally.
  18. Pour the caramel on top of the cake and tangerine slices.
  19. Let it cool and serve.

Thanks Melissa’s Produce for the gift of citrusy sunshine.

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…

Sep 132013
 

Ramen Burger from bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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 bibberche.com

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.

Jul 302013
 
Hatch Chile Cookbook Promotion at Melissa's from bibberche.com
Hatch chile season is just around the corner and I cannot wait to fill my house with smoky smell of these meaty roasted New Mexico peppers. I still pursue every sale my local grocery stores have for sweet red peppers that remind me of late summers in Serbia and huge sacks of dark red capsicums littering the sidewalks, farmers markets, and back yards, destined to be turned into a dozen or so different preserves, relishes, and spreads.
But Hatch chiles, as new as they are in my pepper-obsessed world, bring me a sense of adventure and excitement. They are available for only a few weeks in August and September, and there are hordes of aficionados breathlessly awaiting their appearance. Some of them will be heading straight to Hatch, New Mexico, equipped with wooden crates, huge bags, and plenty of room in their trunks.
Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's
Just in time for the new season, hard-working folks from Melissa’s Produce released Melissa’s Hatch Chile Cookbook. I was fortunate to be invited recently to their headquarters in Vernon, CA, for a luncheon and book promotion, where I met the authors, Chef Ida Rodrigez and Sharon Hernandez, co-owner of the company. Melissa’s talented chefs prepared fifteen dishes, most of which featured dried or frozen Hatch chiles.
Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon at Melissa's from bibberche.com
What gives these chiles their celebrity status? Like Vidalia onions, they are grown in a small area with distinct micro-climate; in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley days are hot and nights cold, which slows down the ripening process of the chiles and they mature to be meatier and tastier than many of their more famous cousins. They also range from mild to extremely hot, which makes them versatile and adaptable to any palate and taste. As I learned at Melissa’s, the taste of Hatch chiles is enhanced by roasting. And roasted, they can be frozen and preserved to be used throughout the year.
The new cookbook features 150 recipes, from cocktails, starters, main dishes, to desserts. Here are a few photos to give you an idea of different ways you can use Hatch chiles:
Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Hatch Chile Salsa Fresca

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Hatch Chile Guacamole

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Honey Mustard Pretzel and Nut Crunch with Hatch Chile Powder

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Hatch Chile Corn Bread

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Hatch Chile Club Sandwiches and Chicken Salad Tea Sandwiches

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Grilled Shrimp Skewers

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Dutch Yellow Potatoes Salad with Hatch Chile Vinaigrette

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Baby Heirloom Tomato and Grilled Corn Salad

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Hatch Chile Devil’s Food Cookies

Hatch Chile Cookbook Luncheon Melissa's from bibberche.com

Even beverages can be spiced up: Hatch Chile Ice Cubes

Hatch chile season officially starts on August 3th, when they first start appearing at the local grocery stores. Here is the schedule of Hatch chile roasting at Bristol Farms Stores in southern California:
Westchester Saturday August 17th 8:00am – 2:00pm 8448 Lincoln Blvd. Westchester, CA 90045
South Pasadena  Saturday August 24th 8:00am – 2:00pm 606 Fair Oaks Ave. South Pasadena, CA 91030
Santa Monica Saturday August 24th 8:00am – 2:00pm *Live Broadcast with Chef Jet Tila from 10am – 12pm 3105 Wilshire Blvd. Santa Monica, CA 90403
Newport Beach Saturday August 31st 8:00am – 2:00pm 810 Avocado Ave. Newport Beach, CA 92660
La Jolla Saturday September 7th 8:00am – 2:00pm 8510 Genesee Ave. La Jolla, CA 92122
And Lazy Acres store in Long Beach will host the roasting August 17, 8:00 – 2:00 2080 Bellflower Blvd. Long Beach, CA 90815
If you would like to roast your own chiles, follow these simple and thorough instructions from my friend Dorothy:
For more on Melissa’s Hatch Chili Cookbook luncheon and promotion, read these informative articles.
You can grab your own copy of the book from Amazon or from Melissa’s Produce.
Jun 152013
 

For years, June was one of my favorite months. June was like Friday for the working people, marking the beginning of a long-awaited break. Linden trees lining the streets in the neighborhood blossomed and their sweet smell offered the promises of long, summer days filled with adventure and hope, as another school year ended.

June 15 was Mother’s birthday that opened the season of numerous summer birthdays in the family. Today would have been her 75th birthday. But this time our living room will not be filled with her friends from the city choir harmonizing Russian ballads, Serbian town songs and French chansons. No one will have to carry trays precariously spaced with tiny porcelain cups of Turkish coffee and slender stemmed crystal glasses filled to the brim with Mother’s home-made cherry brandy. We will not have to fret if we brought the pastries right on time for she won’t be there to cast a warning glance our way.

Last year I wished Mother a happy birthday on Skype. I was in California, and she was too weak to turn her webcam on. Three weeks later the girls and I arrived to Serbia, and I managed to plant a big birthday kiss on her sunken cheek.  A few days later she left us forever, while my sister and I held her hands and my brother stood at the the foot of her bed. It was inevitable. It was a relief for her. It was a merciful end to a battle she fought valiantly until the last day.

I wish that I could click her name on Skype and hear her voice again. I wish she could have lived to see the photos of Nina’s graduation from UC Berkeley I posted on Facebook. I wish she could have heard Zoe’s Lady Macbeth monologue. I wish she could have read Anya’s most recent short story. And I wish she had left in peace, knowing that I would be fine, trusting that I was strong enough to make a new start in my life.

I miss my “Mamicken” every day. And every day I think of her. Yes, I cry sometimes, craving her words and yearning for her hug. But most of the times I smile, finding her traces in our everyday life, in my admonishing the girls, in their desire to keep all the sweaters she knitted for them, in the dishes I prepare, in the smiles I offer to neighbors… Today is her birthday and even though she is not with us any more, I know that she is hovering around, reminding me to look after myself, caressing the girls’ hair, and singing softly, with her perfect pitch, telling me that everything will be fine with the world. And I believe her.

May 062013
 

Bella Italia! (photo by Vamoos Travel)

If I ever win lottery, I will spend the rest of my life traveling. That is, after I donate a large sum to juvenile diabetes research, fight against cancer, eradication of hunger, and education. And after I help some of my family and friends better their existence. And after I secure a substantial amount for my daughters’ college tuitions. As I don’t have to stay in four star hotels and I don’t have to travel first class, I believe that there will still be plenty left for my traveling budget.

Vineyards as far as you can see (photo by Vamoos Travel)

I am not a great fit with guided tours, preferring to explore the unknown places on my own, following my curiosity and interests, rather than bowing to the general assumptions of what needs to be seen. I carefully plan my vacations doing a lot of research, reading comments and recommendations, and bothering friends and family who ventured in the the area before me.

Balsamico di Modena (photo by Vamoos Travel)

I like to book rooms in small, un-glamorous hotels which sometimes do not offer AC and definitely do not have every cable channel available on TV, providing there even is a TV set in the room. I like to be on the first name basis with the receptionists/owners and get their input on the best-ofs in their area. I like to ride buses with the locals across towns and get lost in small village farmers markets.

Suzie and Erika of Vamoos Travel from bibberche.com

Suzie and Erika, the founders of Vamoos Travel

On a few occasions in the past I was pleasantly surprised to discover small tourist agencies that cater to unorthodox tourists like me who remain behind, hidden under huge, floppy hats and Victoria Beckham-sized sunglasses as their group herds after a guide carrying a flag and talking in a condescending kindergarten-teacher manner.

Making fresh pasta (photo by Vamoos Travel)

Therefore, I was thrilled to meet Erika Suhr and Suzie Agelopoulos, the founders of Vamoos Travel, a small company that promises to take you off the beaten path and let you immerse yourself in the real life just waiting to be explored behind the glossy posters adorning the glass walls of most travel agencies. These two long-time friends hail from Seattle, where they dabbled in different careers before discovering their true passion: Erika sold pharmaceuticals and Suzie ran a Greek restaurant. Sensing that there is so much more out there, they embarked on an adventure and spent more than a year traveling the world and managing to feel at home at most places they visited.

Truffle from Emilia-Romagna, from Vamoos Travel

Truffles of Emilia-Romagna (photo by Vamoos Travel)

Passionate and vivacious, they befriended locals wherever they went and spent many hours experiencing their day-to-day existence. People they met opened their hearts and their homes to them, eager to share their hospitality, and in no time they learned that they were the happiest when sitting down at the family table, sharing food and wine with strangers who became fast friends before the first glass was empty. The seed of an idea was planted, and shortly after they returned to the US and relocated to Los Angeles, they started Vamoos Travel.

Prosciutto di Parma (photo by Vamoos Travel)

Prosciutto di Parma (photo by Vamoos Travel)

Their first destination for the culinary travel tour is Emilia-Romagna, a northern province of Italy rich with traditions, culture, and history, and home to some of the best regional cuisines. Small groups (not more than ten people) would visit family-run factories that make Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, and aceto balsamico the old, traditional way; they would watch some of Bologna’s most acclaimed chefs prepare their dinner and learn how to roll pasta in some nonna’s small kitchen; they would ride in the pick-up truck to forage for truffles, and taste wine produced in small countryside vineries.

I want to be there! (Photo by Vamoos Travel)

I cannot imagine better way to spend a week. If that winning lotto ticket would somehow materialize in my hands, I would book this November tour for me and nine of my friends without blinking. In the meantime, I can keep this dream alive by practicing my Italian with my friends Barbara and Christina and eating simple, but flavorful foods that are the essence of Italian regional cooking. I offer you a recipe for baked vegetables, one of the quintesential Italian dishes our Food Bloggers of LA group sampled several days ago at home of Erika Kerekes in Santa Monica (whose kitchen I covet with every ounce of my being – when I get my own house, can I borrow Michael to help me with design of the kitchen, pretty please?)

Vamoos Travel Italian luncheon at Erika's from bibberche.com

Erika Kerekes prepared an amazing Italian lunch

Verdure Miste Gratinate
5.0 from 1 reviews

Print

Recipe type: side dish
Cuisine: Italian
Author:
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 8
Crispy topping transforms these simple vegetables into a memorable side dish bursting with flavor and texture.
Ingredients
  • 3 large, ripe, round tomatoes
  • 1 eggplant
  • 1 yellow pepper
  • 1 red pepper
  • 3 zucchini
  • 150 gr./ 3.5 oz. bread crumbs
  • 4 or 5 garlic cloves
  • a little bunch of parsley
  • 4-5 spoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper as you like
Instructions
  1. Cut the tomatoes in halves and squeeze them a bit to get some water and the seeds out.
  2. Slice the eggplant and zucchini ½ cm thick, take away the seeds and the white internal part of the peppers and slice in 6 parts.
  3. Prepare a large baking tin, cover it with parchment paper, and spread vegetables in one layer.
  4. Mix the bread crumbs, garlic, minced parsley, salt, pepper
  5. and oil.
  6. Fill each tomato half with this mixture and sprinkle all the other mixture over each piece of vegetable, pour a thin thread of oil on top and cook for about ½ hour at 180-200 degrees C. (about 350-400 degrees F).

 

I apologize for the poor quality of the photo; the sample of baked vegetables (eggplant in my case) is on the upper left side

Please visit Vamoos Travel site and look at the photos. These girls will fulfill their dreams and make dreams come true for so many of us. I wish them all the luck in the world. Arrivederci a Bologna, amiche mie!

Thanks, Erika, for your hospitality, for preparing those fabulous Italian dishes and for introducing us to Erika and Suzie.

Apr 102013
 

 

Puslice from bibberche.com

When I look back in time of my childhood, I have to be in awe of Mother and Njanja for all the baking they did, almost on daily basis. I cannot remember a single day that we did not have something sweet to round up our meal and to snack on. I definitely took it for granted and only when I became a mother and faced the demands of the adult world did I realize how fortunate we were growing up.

My children do not enjoy daily doses of pies, cookies, tortes, cakes – not even crepes, the ubiquitous dessert that most of the European children learn to make about the time they start preschool (yes, I am kidding, but crepes are a simple, inexpensive and versatile dessert that can be whipped up in minutes, and as such they are considered ordinary by many of my “paesanos”). That way, when I bake something, anything, they are elated and tremendously happy.

Sure, I have inherited Mother’s hand-written cookbook and Njanja’s painstakingly recorded page after yellowed page of decades-worth of recipes, and one of these days I will embark on a project of preserving the old-fashioned, delicious, and oh-so-time-consuming European dishes of the past. I hate to see them lapse into the oblivion, but I am not ready yet to tackle Njanja’s Dobos Torte or Mother’s Napoleon Torte. My girls know nothing about this idea and that’s for the best. In the meantime, I bake the simplest of desserts, once every couple of weeks, and make a grandstand of it, accepting accolades, praises, and, of course, sweet kisses with feigned modesty.

Our Food Bloggers of LA April meeting was held in the Orange County, at a beautiful house perched on a Tustin hill. Kim of Rustic Garden Bistro was our hostess, and as this was the second spring she and her ever-so-nice husband Barry have kept chickens, it was no surprise that the theme of the get-together was “Egg-stravaganza”.

I planned on making a quiche, a Russian Salad, or maybe an assortment of deviled eggs, but I was ambushed by a few unexpected errands the day before, which left me literally scratching my head as I had to go to work in the early afternoon. I did not completely disregard the teachings of my female ancestors, though: every time I make mayonnaise, I save the egg white and keep it in a plastic bagie in the freezer – as I add more, I just change the number on the bag with my Sharpie.

I promptly excavated a baggie containing three egg whites, placed them in a cup of warm water to defrost, and danced a happy dance in the middle of my 70s kitchen in anticipation of light-as-foam, crispy meringues. They might not have been Mother’s elaborate masterpieces combining several beautiful flavors that sing to your palate in a delicious symphony, but the members of my household, including Pepe, the French poodle, were exctatic.

Meringues (Puslice) from bibberche.com

Basic Meringue Cookies
5.0 from 2 reviews

Print

Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: International
Author:
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 4
It takes a little bit of patience to whip the egg whites into a firm meringue, but the results are always going to be successful, as long as you do not allow any yolk to penetrate the egg whites.
Ingredients
  • 3 large egg whites
  • a small pinch of salt
  • 1 cup (240 gr) granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • zest of 1 lemon
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).
  2. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  3. Place the egg whites and salt in a large, cold metal or glass mixing bowl (if you are using the stand mixer, refrigerate the bowl for 10-15 minutes).
  4. Whip on high speed until the stiff peaks appear, about 15 minutes.
  5. Slowly add the sugar until incorporated.
  6. Mix in the lemon juice and in the end the lemon zest.
  7. Spoon the meringue into a Ziploc bag (or a pastry bag) fitted with a large star tip.
  8. Pipe the rosettes (1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter) on top of the parchment paper in the cookie sheets, leaving some space between them as they spread a bit.
  9. Place the cookie sheets in the oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 200F (100C).
  10. Bake (or rather dry) the cookies for 60 minutes until done. (They should stay white).
  11. Do not open the oven door during the baking process (that might cause the meringues to collapse).
  12. At this point you can turn the oven off and leave the cookies inside until ready to serve.

The recipe is versatile – you can omit the lemon zest and top each meringue with a quarter of a walnut or a pecan. You can add a bit of cocoa to color it and give it chocolate flavor. You can add chocolate chips or chopped nuts as Judy of Bumbleberry Breeze did. And besides, they are so easy to make that I entrusted my girls to watch them, turn the oven off, and let them dry out while I went to work.

 

Jan 082013
 

 

Lentil_and_Bulgur_Pilaf_with_Caramelized_Onion_(landscape)

Photo by Faith Gorsky

New year literally brought a new beginning into our lives. I erased our presence from the beloved apartment with a gallon of Clorox, turned my keys in, and hugged the managers whose eyes mirrored mine and sparkled with tears.  A new family was moving in, and I had to smile at the three girls jumping and skipping around, excited about their new home, remembering my two daughters and their happiness just a year ago. I drove off with my clothes piled up on the back seat of the old Bonneville, while the fountain in the courtyard and the pink facade slowly disappeared from my sight.

My girls and I are almost completely unpacked, with just a few odd items disrupting the harmony of our new abode. We have roses in the front yard and an orange tree in the back. We have an adorable poodle who makes our feet warm on these surprisingly chilly California nights. This holiday season ended with a miracle for us and I cannot even try to explain the gratitude I feel for my dear friend who opened her home to us and welcomed us in with a huge embrace and even bigger smile, erasing the scary thoughts of homelessness and shelters that occupied me for days.

We are slowly adjusting to our new routine, getting to know the pathways through the house and learning to live with the unusual noises. My friend has a house full of vintage cooking props and I cannot wait to use them in my photos. In turn, she is hungry for my cooking, and even a simple fried egg I make for her in the morning makes her face beam. I am humbled by her generosity and if she asked me to prepare a pheasant under glass, I would gladly do it, even if I had to go in the Sierras and catch the bird myself!

My life is slowly getting back to normal. A different, new normal, filled with uncertainty and mystery, but comfortable and welcoming nevertheless. The beast of anxiety and fear is still a frequent daily guest residing on top of my chest, but the promise of a wonderful year ahead gives me strength to shake it off and force it to go away.

I miss writing. I miss my camera. I miss the feel of a few keys that slightly stick under my fingers as I type yet another blog post. I miss my friends, real and virtual, and feel as if I were in exile for months. But as I disassemble the last of the packing boxes and send them to a recycling bin, I know that I have not only come home, but returned as well. And I am so ready to start living again!

An Edible Mosaic

What can be better to announce the beginning of a life much richer, fuller, and more satisfying, than a beautifully photographed cookbook filled with brightly colored fruits and vegetables of the Middle East, with authentic recipes for fragrant and aromatic foods of Syria, Tunisia, Morocco simplified and adjusted to the markets of the west? I am proud to be a part of the team involved in promoting Faith Gorsky’s lovely book, An Edible Mosaic: Middle Eastern Fare with an Extraordinary Flair.

If you remember, the six of us each picked a different recipe from the book several weeks ago, and prepared a prix fixe virtual meal for our readers. My family enjoyed Spinach Turnovers and it makes me feel good that it’s also one of Faith’s favorite recipes she learned from her Syrian mother-in-law.

I would like to invite you to join us again, this time in real time, for the Twitter party Cook, Tweet and Eat this coming Saturday, January 12th, at 4:00 pm EST. Let’s have fun preparing Lentil and Bulgur Pilaf with Caramelized Onions together, exchanging tips and ideas, posting photos, learning from one another and from Faith! I have participated in a few Twitter events in the last couple of years since I’ve been blogging, but this one will be special, as so many of us will be making the same dish and I cannot wait to see different takes, variations, and creations.

Hashtag for this event will be #AnEdibleMosaic. Casey of Kitchen Play helped us form our group and formulate a plan for promoting An Edible Mosaic. After Cook, Tweet&Eat party, she will put up a photo album of all the photos submitted on Twitter, with links and credit.

If you are interested, you can RSVP here. I hope to see you at the party on Twitter!

Lentil_and_Bulgur_Pilaf_with_Caramelized_Onion_(portrait)

Photo by Faith Gorsky

LENTIL AND BULGUR PILAF WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS                                                                                                                             (MUJADDARA BURGHUL)

Recipe courtesy of An Edible Mosaic:  Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair by Faith Gorsky (Tuttle Publishing; Nov. 2012); reprinted with permission.

Serves 4 to 6

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 50 minutes, plus 10 minutes to let the bulgur sit after cooking

Ingredients:

  • 1 ¹/3 cups (275 g) dried brown lentils (or 2 cans brown lentils, rinsed and drained)
  • 6 cups (1.5 liters) water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 large onions, quartered and thinly sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 pods cardamom, cracked open
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup (185 g) coarse-ground bulgur wheat
  • 1½ cups (300 ml) boiling water
  • Plain yogurt (optional, for serving)
Directions:
  1. Sort through the lentils to remove any small stones or pieces of dirt, and then rinse with cold water in a colander. Bring the rinsed lentils and the water to a boil in a lidded medium saucepan. Cover the saucepan, turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook until the lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more water as necessary so that they’re always immersed; strain.
  2. While the lentils cook, heat the oil and the butter in a large skillet over moderately-high heat; add the onion and sautee until completely softened but not yet browned, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer half the onion to a small bowl and set aside. Continue cooking the remaining onion until deep caramel in color, about 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water as necessary if the onion starts to get too dark. Set aside.
  3. Put half a kettle of water on to boil. Transfer the sauteed onion (not the caramelized onion) to a medium saucepan. Add the bay leaf, cardamom, clove, cumin, cinnamon, salt, and pepper and cook 1 minute. Add the bulgur and cook 1 minute more, stirring constantly. Add the boiling water, turn the heat up to high, and bring to a rolling boil.
  4. Give the bulgur a stir, then cover the saucepan, turn the heat down to very low, and cook until tender, about 10 minutes (do not open the lid during this time). Turn the heat off and let the bulgur sit 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork and gently stir in the lentils. Taste and add additional salt, pepper, and olive oil if desired.
  5. Transfer to a serving dish and top with the caramelized onion. Serve with plain yogurt to spoon on top, if using.

 

Nov 052012
 
Oroville Dam from bibberche.com

Nicole, Kim, Jeanne and I at the biggest earth dam in the U.S.

 

“Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” ~~Noah Cross… Chinatown

While the east of the country gets pummeled by Hurricane Sandy and whole towns are devoured by tons of dirty, churning water, I cannot recall if we even had a few days of rain here in southern California since last winter. I remember the worried faces of Serbian farmers as they looked at the skies early in the morning this summer when I was there, shaking their heads in desperation, resigned to the fact that a few random clouds would disperse by noon and the cracks in the thirsty soil that did not see the rain in months would just get deeper.

But for us city dwellers, it takes a natural disaster to get us to start thinking about water as something different than a routine shower in the morning and a reliable stream that comes out from the state-of-the-art faucet in our custom-made kitchens. We take water for granted and it takes a tsunami in Java, the earthquake in Japan, and the disasters caused by Katrina and now Sandy to bring home the fact that water is our friend and our enemy. But the deep concern we feel is fleeting and we easily fall back to our old ways.

Most of us have become so distanced from the origins of our food, that we do not give a second thought to the relationship between the abundance of  produce in our grocery stores and water. So how does all of this work? California Farm Water Coalition has a motto: Food grows where water flows, and a few days ago I witnessed that in ways I had never experienced before.

Glenn-Colusa Irrigation System

Glenn-Colusa Irrigation System

My consternation over noticing enormous fields flooded with water was dispersed when Bryce of Lundberg Family Farms assured us that the actual depth of water in rice fields does not exceed 5 inches, due to a layer of hard-packed clay underneath. The wetlands are not only great for suffocating the weeds, mulching the stalks, and germinating the rice seeds, but also they make for excellent wild bird sanctuaries which are often much better than the natural refuges. Between 300 and 400 different avian species find food and shelter in flooded rice fields.

We learned that all water is measured in acre feet (1 acre foot is the volume of water that would cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot; I am sure that my fellow Europeans, educated on simplicity of the metric system, will find it fascinating that there are 325,851 gallons of water in an acre foot – good to know if you ever end up as a contestant on Jeopardy!). Rice plants consume only 3.3 acre feet of water in their growing process.  It takes only 16 gallons of water to grow 1 serving (1 ounce) of rice, which is comparable to tomatoes and other vegetables.

Feather River from bibberche.com

Feather River feeds the second biggest man-made lake in the U.S.

Driving away from the Sacramento airport, following the Sierra Nevada foothills, we stopped at Oroville Dam, the tallest earthfill embankment dam in the U.S. Built by the California Department of Water Resources, this 770 feet tall dam is a main feature of the California State Water Project , one of two major projects that  California’s water system consists of.  Construction started in 1961 and the dam on the Feather River started generating electricity in 1968. Oroville man-made lake is the second largest in the U.S. The river is fed by rain and snow melting off the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Besides generating power, the dam warms the water and regulates irrigation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When the reservoir is full, it contains three and a half million acre feet, which is enough to supply water for thirty million people.

Glenn-Colusa District Pump and Fish Screen from bibberche.com

Glenn-Colusa District pump and fish screen in real size

The intricate irrigation system is what attracted many Midwestern farming families to migrate west and in retrospect it allowed California to prosper and offer the abundance of produce to the nation and abroad. Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District is the largest district in Sacramento Valley covering over 175,000 acres. The 65-mile long irrigation canal feeding off Sacramento River has over 900 miles of laterals and drains which provide water for agriculture only. That makes it possible for water to be used and reused over and over.

Glenn-Colusa from bibberche.com

Glenn-Colusa District pump system

To keep fish from entering the irrigation canals, fish screens were built back in the 1920s. With Chinook salmon being on the endangered list, the District had to reconstruct the elaborate system of screens, employing the U.S. Engineers Corps. To learn more about this project, click on the YouTube video link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ur158PoI0iQ

Glenn-Colusa fish screen from bibberche.com

Glenn-Colusa fish screens are the biggest in the country

To find out how California deals with water, where the water comes from, and how it is dispersed, visit Jolly Tomato and let Jeanne educate you. She has years of journalistic experience behind her and her two adorable sons motivate her to explore the origins of food available to us.