I have never taken February seriously. It was the month right after winter break when my legs still craved the tortuous curves of the moguls on the snow-covered mountain, feeling the weight of the boards and the bindings days after we said goodbye to our family winter haven.
It was short and unassuming, but crammed full of school work devoid of the promise of a holiday (there is no Presidents’ Day or MLK Day in Serbia). It was also the month before my birthday, which made it irrelevant and easily ignored. The only interesting fact that I could attach to this gray and drab part of the year was my Grandmother Babuljica’s birthday: when she died she was technically only 16 years old, as her birthday occurred every four years on February 29. That and the first blooms of the spring, the bright yellow blossoms of forsythia bushes that stood apart like beacons in the sea of gray.
Fat Tuesday holds little significance for me, even though I am tempted every year to go into the kitchen and emerge only after I produce a big bowl of krofne, which are very similar to Polish paczki or the beignets served at the Cafe du Monde. While my adventurous spirit always keeps alive a desire for losing myself in the throngs of scantily clad Brazilians inebriated by the seductive rhythm of samba, garishly costumed Southerners emptying innumerable hurricanes in N’awlins, or slender Italians hiding behind articulately decorated masks along the canals of Venice, I refuse to pretend that I am part of the celebrating crowd only by decorating the house in the appropriate colors and serving the delicacies meant to bring the tired carnival-goers necessary sustenance before they embark on forty days of Lent.
For Orthodox Christians, the last day before Lent is the Saturday that falls six weeks before Easter Sunday. Without a prompt from me, Father used to bring me the church calendar that marked the dates of all the religious holidays. This year I have to consult the almighty Internet to seek the information. I found out that the two Easters are separated by only a week, which makes this passed Sunday the last day before Lent for my fellow Serbs. There are no make-believe parades in my town, no colorful costumes, loud music, or traditional dishes that make the passage into Lent more bearable. On Monday, the believers have started to abstain from all red meat, dairy products, and eggs for six weeks, as the Christian Orthodox faith prescribes.
This February arrived incredibly fast. I have not caught my breath from the hectic tempo of the holiday season. The end of the month is approaching with geometric progression, and if we stayed in Midwest, I would be suffering the intoxicating effects of the incoming spring fever and be quite ready for the snow to finally melt. But in Southern California we are surrounded by eternal spring and bright forsythia flowers are not necessary to break winter depression.
When we were growing up, the six weeks before Easter were no different than any other week of the year as my parents were not religious. We will not embark on six weeks of abstinence either, and even though the geek in me has researched the traditions and observances of the Eastern Christians and come up with several dishes that mark the passage into Lent among Russians and Greeks, I will have to ignore the urges of the food anthropologist wannabe and refrain myself.
Next year I might make gumbo, krofne, or beignets. Or even better, I might be off to Rio, New Orleans, or Venice, ready to tackle on the most demanding challenges of the carnivals, toasting the world with a caipirinha, a hurricane, or a negroni. This year, I will mark the beginning of Lent with a dish that is unavoidable on any Serbian Lenten table featuring fish – the potato salad. My girls never get tired of it and I make it fairly often.
You can use any type of waxy potato that doesn’t fall apart. This time I used Ruby Red new potatoes and Belgian leeks from my friends at Melissa’s Produce.
- 2 lbs waxy new potatoes (Yukon gold, red, ruby red)
- 2 leeks, white parts only, cleaned thoroughly and diced
- freshly ground pepper and salt to taste
- 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
- 3 Tbsp water
- Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water.
- Heat until the water boils and cook on medium high heat until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 15 minutes.
- Drain the potatoes and allow them to cool a bit.
- Cut the leeks lengthwise and dice.
- Place them in a colander and rinse several times to get rid of the dirt.
- Place the leeks in a bowl, add salt and pepper, olive oil, vinegar, and water.
- Mix thoroughly and let stand at room temperature for 15-30 minutes.
- Cut the potatoes into rounds, if bigger, or into quarts, if smaller.
- Pour then into the bowl with leeks and seasonings and stir carefully to mix.
- Allow the salad to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.
- Serve at room temperature or cold.