Friday evening is hot and muggy, and Holland tunnel is crowded, far more than I expected it to be given that we are presumably still under the post-fourth-of-July effect and given that half of the world is stuck in front of their TV sets watching the World Cup, while the other half is vacationing in Hamptons. Yet, the line at the tunnel is huge, there is no ending to it and absolutely no movement. I am sitting in traffic, sitting endlessly, grasping the wheel, keeping my eyes wide open as one is not allowed to daydream in bumper-to-bumper traffic; I am forcing myself to stay alert and chasing the fantasies away, otherwise it will be bumper to bumper for real.
It’s 6pm. Mr. Stan’s flight is landing at 8.10pm; with immigration, baggage claim and customs he won’t be out of the airport before 9pm, but I cannot wait anymore, hence the decision to depart to the airport good two hours too early. It’s been five years since last time I drove to Newark to pick my dad up. It’s been five years since we went to the Union Square Market together and to the Chelsea Market and to Cafe Angelique for espresso topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This is a weekend much anticipated.
We hug and kiss, and hug again, and hold hands... The tunnel is kind to us and we are back in the city and in front of the apartment in twenty minutes. We have not even entered the building when Mr. Stan raises the most important question in the universe, “Are we going to the market tomorrow?”
Neither of us can sleep. Needless to say, we are at the greenmarket at dawn. As farmers are unloading their crates Stan and I are warming up for the ambitious task we are about to undertake. We will be making a heroic attempt at Stan’s famous stuffed vegetables, an ancient Serbian/Bosnian delicacy he perfected over decades. There are more versions of this dish than there are cooks in the Balkans, but Stan’s one I like the best, partly because I am partial, partly because unlike other cooks who typically stuff peppers or zucchini only, Stan uses everything: cabbages, squashes, peppers, tomatoes, a potato or two, sometimes even collards. Our project requires a baking dish of gargantuan proportions and a decent amount of manual labor, but the result is one of a kind -- a melting pot of flavors I like to call the Summer Pot of Joy. Over the years I tried hard to replicate the aromas of my childhood, but I lack Stan’s touch; my pot is good, it’s better than just good by many standards, yet it will never reach the greatness of the Pot of Stan.
Back home, we make a basin of ice coffee and despite being ninety degrees out there we turn on the stove and the oven and get to work. A couple of hours later the great adventure is over and the two of us are looking at the tub-like Dutch oven overflowing with stuffed peppers, squashes, cabbages and tomatoes. By now it is one hundred and two degrees in the apartment, because in our excitement we forgot to turn on the air conditioner. Our ice coffee is close to boiling and we are close to boiling too, and since no one can eat in such conditions, we leave four stuffed goodies for dinner and ship the remaining twenty into the freezer.
Sunday is a much-deserved day of rest. In addition to the hard labor of stuffing a truckload of vegetables, this has been a long week of anticipation for both of us and we award ourselves with a lazy morning of not doing anything, followed by a doppio at Cafe Angelique and a long stroll through far West Village. The citizens of this great city are much too kind; still glued to their TVs, sitting in restaurants, cafes and neighborhood bodegas, they are tuned to the finals of the World Cup leaving the streets quiet and empty, almost as empty as when Stan used to visit regularly, almost as empty when we moved in for the first time, when Village was not lined with designer shops and Meatpacking District was a godforesaken neighborhood of warehouses, slaughter houses, meat supermarkets and a home to Florent restaurant. I wonder how many folks still remember old charms of now forgotten Meatpacking District? But that is an entirely different story altogether.
Stan is looking around absorbing every single inch of this new city. He is quiet; his eyes wide open, his head turning left and right, up and down, down and up. Stan is breathing the city and I do not want to disturb. Occasionally, he makes a comment. He is mesmerized by the High Line, touching the plants and hidden rail tracks and admiring the vistas. Stan notices both the new and the old, he points his finger at bustling construction sites and remembers buildings long gone. An hour into the stroll, I begin to see the city through Stan’s eyes. I too begin to notice things I have not noticed before, things I failed to register in a hurry to park the car, to make it home in time, or simply because I am constantly rushing, pacing around with my eyes closed and mind congested with routine. And the World Cup notices too, it notices that Stan and I need more time together, so they play overtime, and we get an additional hour of bustle-free New York. And we walk endlessly, until the sky turns pink and dusk takes over.
By the time we come home, we are tired and hungry, and there is all the food we bought at the market and all the food we cooked, except that it is now in the freezer. I inspect the fridge: a pepper here, forgotten zucchini there, an ear of corn, a handful of broccoli, an egg or two, a cup of flour, and our dinner comes together miraculously. We open cold beers and propose a toast, still excited and still happy, the happiest we’ve been in a long time.
Cornmeal Vegetable “Financiers”
* 1 cup freshly shucked corn
* 1 cup zucchini shredded on a microplane
* 1/2 cup finely cut broccoli florets
* 1/4 cup red pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
* 2 eggs
* 1/2 cup stone ground cornmeal
* 1/2 cup all purpose flour
* 1/2 cup crème fraiche
* 1/4 cup kefir
* 1/4 cup heavy cream
* 2 tsp baking powder
* salt and freshly ground pepper
* a pinch of chives, oregano or other herbs (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400F.
Gently squeeze out excess water from the zucchini.
In a large bowl mix all the vegetables.
Beat the eggs and add them to the vegetables. Mix well and season with salt and pepper. (If using herbs add them at this point. Sometimes I like to throw in a pinch of red pepper flakes.)
Add kefir, cream and crème fraiche. Mix well.
In another bowl mix flour, cornmeal and baking powder. Add to the vegetable mixture. Stir until combined.
Distribute the mixture equally in a financier pan (I used silicon pan for making large 2 ½ x 1 ½ x ¾ inch financiers. Alternatively you can use muffin pan or molds. If you are not using silicon pan make sure to oil the molds generously.)
Bake for about 20 minutes. Let the financiers cool and then remove from the pan. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.
Fills up ten 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 3/4 inch financiers molds