Was it really a cruel summer? My recap of summer 2020

A parallel universe

The summer of 2020 will go down in history as one of the most difficult summers our generation has ever had to endure. Typically, my family and I spend our summers in Croatia, however, we (regrettably) decided not to go due to the pandemic. As you may recall in earlier blog posts, 2019 was a very difficult year for me after my uncle’s sudden passing and 2020 was supposed to be a breath of fresh air. Like many of you, I experienced both emotional highs and lows, but at some point I told myself to not give in to negative feelings and try to make the most of this summer.

Was this the worst summer to date? Looking back, it wasn’t really that bad at all. It was very strange in the sense where we did some “normal” things but within the realm of social distancing. In other words, I felt as if we were living in a parallel universe. But for the sake of our kids, we tried to keep things as “normal” as possible: attending Sunday misa (church) at our parish in Oakville, weekly soccer practice in Hamilton, getting together with friends at the park on play dates, going to the zoo, visiting my parents in Windsor and so on. M. and I went out for a few dinner dates as well. As strange as this summer was, we found things to do and made the most out of it the best way we know how: through good food, wine and company.

The holy trinity of food- steak, pizza and fish

In our household, we are definitely foodies and no one can describe it better than my oldest son, T. At his annual check-up at the doctor’s office recently, the doctor asked T. what his favourite food was and he proudly replied “steak!” The doctor was delightfully surprised and sort of taken aback that a six-year-old’s favourite food is steak done rare. Fortunately, our kids like everything we make, from mahune to fish. Growing up in a Dalmatian household, my mother would always ask what we would eat the next day; my aunt used to own a restaurant in Germany, so food is definitely in our genes.

When the lockdown started, my husband made it his life’s mission to re-create the perfect pizza Napolitana as pizza is his all-time favourite food. He spent hours researching the best outdoor pizza oven for it’s value, so low and behold he purchased an Ooni Koda Gas-Powered Outdoor pizza oven. He justified the expense by stating that within 6 months the oven will pay itself off and so far it definitely has (nb: we used to order Pizza Nova like every Friday). During the first few weeks of lockdown, my husband would spend his spare time visiting various local Italian bakeries to find the gold standard of pizza flour- Caputo 00. We even planted Roma, cherry and hothouse tomatoes as well as basil for our pizza in our garden this year. Gardening in of itself was a very worthwhile and memorable experience. We got so into pizza making that we spent hours watching different dough recipes on YouTube. After testing a few different recipes, we decided that the one from Vito Iacopelli’s YouTube channel was best for us. How it works is that I make the dough and M. makes the pizza. This recipe from Vito makes approximately nine 12-inch dough balls; we make about 3 pizzas a week so the rest I just store in the freezer. Weekly pizza making is definitely a family affair as our kids get involved too. Overall, pizza making has become a newfound family tradition for years to come.

Another tradition we started in our home was fish Sundays. We decided to bring the shores of Dalmatia closer to home by making seafood and blitva on Sundays after church. If we remember, we order brancin from the local market and M. grills it on the barbeque; but if we don’t get an order in on time, then its either salmon or scallops. Definitely a nice, light lunch to end the weekend paired of course with my favouriite Pošip from Saint Hills.

good things grow in ontario

The pandemic sort of forced us to “think outside of the box” without really going too far. Being a little bit of a wine snob (Brunello being my all-time favourite,) I must say that Ontario wines really surprised me this year. There truly is a pleortha of wineries, markets and restaurants to discover in the Niagara Escarpement and Niagara-on-the-Lake regions. In July, a few of us embarked on a small wine tour with dinner at Treadwell to end the day. Simply put, just being out on the property brings a sense of peace and tranquility. In a COVID world, many of the wineries and restaurants that I have visited have taken the proper steps to ensure safety but still provide an enjoyable experience. Some notable wines/wineries that really stood out to me and worth checking out are Five Rows, Domaine Queylus, Westcott Vineyards, Kabaca, Leaning Post and Pearl Morissette.

Pjesma i vino

Croatia has a long-standing history of producing wines dating back to Ancient Grecian times. In today’s world, Croatia is home to many world-class and unique wineries. Although Zlatan Plavac Sveta Nedelja Plavac Mali will always be my favourite Croatian wine, some notable favourites of mine that were imported from Croatia Unpacked are Korta Katerina’s Rosé and Plavac Mali, Saint Hills “Sv. Roko” Plavac Mali and “Posh” Pošip and finally Stina’s Plavac Mali. Try one of them and you may be pleasantly surprised!

krv nije voda – keeping it in the family

My parents always told me, friends may come and go, but in tough times, we always can rely on family. Although the last six months have been very difficult, there have been moments of complete joy. No one can ever take away that precious extra time I got to spend with my two little boys. This summer was definitely a memorable one, where we became closer as a family and got to explore a bit of Ontario and try some new things out. We visited my family in Windsor a few times and explored Windsor’s Via Italia. Daytrips to zoos were worthwhile, but I found with kids, sometimes the most simplest of activities are the most enjoyable. Walks throughout downtown Burlington over ice cream and exploring new splash pads and parks were probably the most memorable for us.

In summary, although this is a strange and albeit difficult time, the key to making memories are the ones with the people that matter most to you – your loved ones.

Carrying traditions on: Learning how to bake my family’s sweet Easter bread

Easter is considered to be the most important holiday in the Catholic faith.  For Croatians specifically, Easter is also about tradition.  On Holy Saturday, Croatians (and most Eastern Europeans for that matter) will bring baskets of sweet bread and eggs to be blessed during mass.  Some people also add smoked meats and green onions to their baskets.   This tradition of bringing baskets to be blessed dates back generations.

Usually, we go to my family’s home in Windsor for Easter, however due to the pandemic this won’t be possible.  Perhaps it was a sign for me to learn how to bake my mom’s Easter bread and carry the tradition on.  The Easter bread my mom bakes is a sweet bread, known as sirnica or pinca.  This sweet bread is typically baked in Dalmatia, but other regions in Croatia have their own versions of this Easter bread.  Some put rum in theirs and others raisins.  My mother-in-law who is from Gorski Kotar makes her Easter bread with a ham in it.  This particular recipe that I am going to share with you is the one that my mom makes every Easter.  My mother learned this recipe from her sister-in-law, my Strina (aunt).

Most Croatian-Canadians will understand when I say that figuring out my mom’s Easter bread recipe is like a solving a puzzle.  No directions and all approximate amounts (od prilike) for the ingredients or po potrebi (as needed).   With the help of FaceTime and a lot of questions on my end, I was able to figure out this family recipe.  Overall, I was quite pleased with the results, despite the fact that a part of the bottom tore.  The bread was nice and soft and reminded me so much of home.

3 loaves | 2 hours prep time | 3 hours total

Ingredients:

8 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 packet of Dr. Oetker vanilla sugar
Lemon grinds from 1 lemon
Juice from 1 lemon
2 teaspoons Fleischmann’s active dry yeast (mix with ¼ cup warm water and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar)
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 cup warm milk
Approximately 2-4 cups of all-purpose flour (note: my mom’s recipe just says flour as needed, so I kept adding flour into the mixer until it formed a dough).
1 egg for glazing
Cooking spray for pans

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Directions:

1. Follow the directions for the yeast (mix ¼ cup warm water and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar and let stand for 10 minutes).

2. Mix the yolks with cup sugar; add the vanilla extract and packet of the vanilla sugar. Mix for a few minutes.

3. Add the yeast mixture and continue mixing.

4. Add grinds from lemon and lemon juice while mixing.

5. Add the cup of warm milk while mixing.

6. Add the oil.

7. Add the flour slowly to the mixer until it forms a dough. Then with a wooden spoon, knead the dough into a ball.

8. Take your dough, cover with a kitchen cloth and let it rest in a warm oven to rise for approximately 1 and a half hours.

9. Once dough has risen, remove from warm oven. Punch the dough and knead on a floured surface or use a wooden spoon to knead the dough (I had to knead the dough, my mom uses a wooden spoon so I would say do what is easier for you).

10. Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit (or 280 depending on your oven).

11. Divide dough into three round cake pans, or corning ware bowls, or stainless steel bowls (note: if your pans are not non-stick, then spray generously with PAM or whatever cooking spray you have available)

12. Crack one egg and scramble, with a brush, glaze the three loaves.

13. Place pans into oven and bake at 275 (or 280) for 15 minutes; then increase heat to 310 (or 325 depending on your oven) for 40-45 minutes.

14. Remove from oven and place loaves on cooling racks to cool.

Notes:
*I didn’t want to make as many loaves as my mom, so I cut the ingredients in half and still worked beautifully. I filled two small corning ware dishes and one normal sized corning-ware dish.
**I think it would be easier in non-stick cake pans as they don’t stick; in hindsight, I should have placed mine in bread pans but my mom insists it has to be a round shape as that is traditional.  As I did not have cake pans available she said corning ware dishes would be fine. I didn’t have cooking spray available, so I brushed oil on it and some of it stuck but overall it was still good!
***My mom uses a hand mixer but I used my Cuisanart stand-mixer and it turned out fine.

Wishing you a wonderful Easter.  Enjoy!

egg and ceramic rabbit
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

 

Natalie’s easy pasta sauce

A few weeks ago, one of my friends asked me when I learned to cook. I told her “not until I got married, and before that I was awful.”  She was stunned by my admission.  Truthfully speaking, my mom did most of it growing up, so there was no need for me to even try and when I did, it was awful. I couldn’t even make Kraft mac n’cheese.  It would turn out so watery that my brother teased me and called it “water n’cheese.”  I couldn’t crack an egg properly and my pancakes always burned.  But that didn’t mean that I didn’t love food.

Growing up, I lived in a very unique family setting a la Full House: it was me, my brother, my parents and my late uncle.  My late uncle loved to cook, dine at fine restaurants and to entertain.  For a long period of time, I was his partner in crime.   He took me everywhere and treated me to the finest Windsor had to offer:  Erie Street.  He was a class act and his passion for food and wine was a great influence on my life.  I was always amazed by his love for cooking, entertaining and being social.

Although I didn’t learn how to cook until I was married, it is definitely in my blood: my aunt and uncle run a restaurant in Germany and my late grandfather made an amazing Hungarian goulash.  But it was my very own “Uncle Jessie” who made me a foodie from a very young age.

My passion for food grew even larger when I met my husband.  His mother is the queen of entertaining and my sister-in-law is an impeccable cook and baker.  In my mid-twenties, my husband and I were living in Toronto and we thoroughly enjoyed city life.   He had a list of Blog TO’s top 50 restaurants in his wallet, making it his mission for us to visit every one…and was it fun!

It was not until I was on my first maternity leave that I realized my true passion was for cooking.   Early mornings feeding the baby introduced me to some of the “gods” on Food Network:  Giada De Laurentis, David Rocco, Laura Calder, Michael Smith, to name a few. I was inspired to try different things out, explore different cuisines and cookbooks and basically practiced my way into cooking.

I wouldn’t consider myself a master chef but I am miles away from making that watery Kraft mac n’cheese I did many moons ago.   Today, I love cooking and find it very relaxing.  I also enjoy entertaining and love having company over a nice meal, some meze and vino.

Being a busy mom,  it’s nice to make something that everyone will love, that can last a few days and something you can freeze for another day.

Here is my easy pasta sauce that has taken me a few years to master and perfect.  It was influenced partly by how my mother makes bolognese and how my mother-in-law makes it.   It’s not a real bolognese in the sense because I don’t add milk to mine and I add a ton of veggies to it to make it more flavourful.   Is it authentic? No because I add premade tomato and basil sauce to it.  But it works.  This recipe has become a hit in my household and is great on top of penne or in-between lasagna sheets.

Natalie’s Easy Pasta Sauce

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Ingredients

1. One cooking onion, chopped

2. One large carrot, chopped

3. One celery stalk, chopped

4. One yellow zucchini, chopped

5. One garlic clove, minced

6. 1 small package of lean ground beef and 1 small package of lean ground pork (or: two mixed ground beef, pork and veal packages).

7. 2 jars of tomato and basil sauce (any brand; I usually buy what’s on sale).

8. 1 small can of tomato paste (to thicken it).

9. Salt and pepper; to taste

10. Dash of sugar

11. Olive oil

Optional: Podravka Vegeta (to taste); chilli flakes (to taste)

Directions:

1. In a large pot, drizzle olive oil to have bottom of the pot evenly covered (about 2 tablespoons) and heat pot on stove to about medium. Add onions, minced garlic, carrots, celery and zucchini and sauté until a nice golden colour.

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2. Add your ground beef/pork/veal and cook until brown.  I break up the meat with my spatula so it’s not clumpy.

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3. Once meat is cooked, add the jars of tomato and basil sauce, dash of sugar (to get rid of the acidity) and bring to a boil.

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4. Reduce heat to about medium-low; add tomato paste and salt and pepper to taste. Vegeta and chilli flakes is optional.   Let cook for about 30-45 minutes and enjoy on top of your pasta of choice or use for lasagna.

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Enjoy!  Dobar tek!

***Notes: if you do not want to be your sauce to be “oily,” drain the meat/veggies through a strainer and store all the oil from the meat in a separate container and disregard.  Then add your tomato and basil sauce, etc. and continue cooking.

This recipe is great for freezing for another day so my rule-of-thumb is to keep it in the freezer up to one month.