Friday, September 18, 2009

Nana's Sauce

Let me start this post by admitting the following, I am not a good cook. I generally need a recipe and not just any recipe, a step by step guide with definitions for thing such as "whip lightly" or "sautee" or "fold in X ingredient". When I was back in Canada, I had a trusty beginner's cookbook and relied heavily on any recipe based on a Campbell's soup. Sure there were times I got adventurous and attempted cheesecake. And to my surprise, it turned out amazing. I even had my photo taken with it and constantly prodded tasters with questions like, "No, really, how good is it?"

But then I moved to Montenegro with no Campbell's soup in sight, surrounded by authentic homemade goodies and a serious lack of easy-peezy ingredients. Luckily, around that time, I decided to become an Atkins girl, which meant I had a free pass from kitchen creativity and cooked lumps of meat with stir-fried whatever veggie.

My mother-in-law is an amazing cook. Well, duh. All those Ukranian, Croatian and Italian inspired bellywarming dishes. Cabbage rolls, homemade chicken soup and the all-time family favourite...Nana's spaghetti sauce.

Nana is Ukrainian/Croatian but was married to an Italian for some years and obviously picked up a talent for Italian cuisine. There isn't an Italian on this planet that can compete with her sauce and the Italian side of the family have admitted it.

Whenever we go home, you can bet there's a pot of sauce on the stove..tomato based with hearty meatballs bouncing around on the surface.

I've never attempted to make said sauce and for two reasons: 1. It's Nana's claim to fame so I vowed not to attempt it until the day she can no longer make it. 2. Fear of failure or perhaps worse, what if by some miracle, it's better that the original?

Circumstances have changed.

I find myself with no Nana around, a pack of nostalgic boys AND a tribe of preteens about to enter my house tonight for dinner and a sleepover (one with an allergy to gluten). And the Nana is thousands of miles away. The last time the girls came over, I served up some yummy homemade burgers and this time, I'm super busy and need to make something fast and "easy" and different. I broke my vow, called Nana on Skype and asked her for THE recipe.

I was only half paying attention as she was giving it to me as flashbacks for a particular "Everyone loves Raymond" episode were running through my head. Do you remember the one I'm talking about? Well here's the synopsis. Deborah, like me, sucks in the kitchen. Marie, like my mother-in-law, is always cooking up generous portions of hearty soulfood. Deborah decides she wants to learn how to cook Marie's famous sauce. They spend a day of bonding over the stove making the sauce together, with Marie telling her the most important ingredient is LOVE. It's beautiful. These two frenemies finally becoming friends. It's suppertime at Ray's house and they all sit down to Deborah's attempt at Marie's sauce. She's excited. They're scared. The sauce, as you may have guessed, is awful. Marie spends the evening wondering what could have possibly gone wrong, thinking she doesn't have the LOVE. She checks and rechecks her recipe, breaks into Marie's house and checks the original recipe. Nothing. Then she sees a spice jar label losing its grip. Marie switched the ingredients! She actually sabotaged Marie's sauce. Deborah's fuming. To make a long story short, Marie did in fact do this deliberately. She did it because she believes her food is all she has and she didn't want Deborah to take it away from her. Kinda sad and funny. They made peace, which I believe included Deborah promising never to make THE sauce.

Back to today. I don't have the Marie/Deborah relationship with my mother-in-law THANK GOD. But regardless, here I am making HER sauce. A recipe, which like all Nana recipes, calls for a can of this, a dash of that and no measurable amounts of ANY ingredient. Perfect for someone who ONLY follows recipes.

So there it sits on the stove waiting for a hungry brood. I've watched her make it a hundred times. And the meatballs have NOT fallen apart, small victory for the daughter-in-law. But my mother-in-law has nothing to worry about. It's not the LOVE I'm missing but personal control over dispensing of SALT. Looks like they'll be LOTS of water glasses to refill tonight...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Swedish Birthday Party Part 2

So we took off from the house about 10:20 for an 18-minute journey to the party location. As I didn't have an actual house number and it was somewhere outside of town, I wanted to allow for the likelihood we'd get lost.

We got lost, well sorta. Actually it was worse than that.

I followed the directions to this "township" and sure enough, we ended up in the right area. Score 1 for the Canadians! Farmland and lots of houses and little clusters of houses. But which house? Ahhhh...there! As per my previous post, it had to be this house. Balloons. Lots of balloons. Balloons off the main road, balloons marking the driveway and balloons on the front of the house. Well no wonder they didn't give me an address. How could I possibly miss the house? But it was 10:35 and much too early to make an appearance so we circle back around to the gas station to snack on candy until 10:51, when I figured it was safe to head on in and make our appearance.

I park in front of this beautiful old red barn, hop out with the man and the "cheap" gift and we make our way to the door. We're excited...first ever birthday party invite for the little man..woohoo. We ring the bell. Geez, taking awhile for someone to answer. Maybe the kids are already running around screaming. Finally a 13-year old opens the door in her PJs, with a few other kiddies in pyjamas wandering over to take a look at the visitors.

What could be worse than being lost? How about showing up at the wrong house?! "Is this Pontus' house?" "Nej" says the confused teen. Oh God.

I pry my excited toddler off the stranger's balcony trying to explain that Mommy's an idiot when I see a car pull up behind me full of kids. Another family about to make the same mortifying mistake. The little man recognizes his classmate and as she rolls down her window, I proceed to explain we are indeed at the wrong house. She bursts out laughing, "Oh I'm so glad it was you and not me." Thank you very much.

She makes the call to the party house, explaining that we're crashing the wrong party and I set off to follow her to the house I am sure we never would have found alone.

Turns out it's the little man's teacher's son whose turning 4. And we're climbing up slippery rocks into the woods to roast hot dogs in a fire pit. Cute. Did I mention hotdogs are a staple here and that the little guy hates them? Anyway, after some parents come and go and others, like me, elect to stay, we make our way inside.

Beautiful home really.

The kids are playing upstairs. And then it's gift opening time. Thank God, everyone seemed to have spent the same amount on the gifts. My first relief of the day. Then it's ice cream cake. Not just any ice cream cake. This ice cream cake is literally a square box of ice cream flipped upside down and cut into pieces. And then decorated with jam from a tube on the fly.

and that's it. Weiners on sticks and a container of ice cream. We left with a bag containing about 7 candies, "because it's Sunday" said the Mom.

Now I have seen friends with kids throw birthday parties back home. Beautiful handmade cupcakes, ornately decorated homemade cakes, party games, decorations, THEMES, t-shirts that say "Birthday Girl/Boy", loot bags chockfull of loot, jumping castles, hired entertainment, snacks galore, balloons, nice gifts. I wonder how much the average kids party cost these days back home in Canada. But I can guarantee it's a lot more than the $20 this party cost to put on.

Now I'm not saying this is what every birthday party in Sweden is like. I really don't know. And I'm not judging this party. I'm merely pointing out the differences between cultures. Hubby says we come from a culture where it's all about "Keeping up with the Joneses" and here the philosophy is, what does a three-year old remember about a kid's birthday party except that they had a good time playing with their friends? I can't help but agree with him.

However, for the little guy's 4th birthday party, you won't catch me decorating a lump of ice cream with a tube of jam and calling it "ice cream cake". I.Just.Can't.Do.It.

And if I live in the middle of nowhere and on the off chance there are other birthday parties occuring on the same day as my son's, my directions will include landmarks and uniformed officers directing traffic if necessary.

Swedish Birthday Party Part 1

So I've been to birthday parties here, but only within our close circle of friends, friends we've had for years before we moved to Sweden.

And the other day an invitation came in the mail addressed to Joseph. I seriously welled up. My son was invited to his first ever birthday party for a child in his class.

I chose 10am the day before the party to RSVP. The party's in Ströbylund and there was no address provided on the invitation, just "Ströbylund" so I naturally inquired as to the number of the house. "Just Ströbylund". Even when I pressed on, I got the same broken English response from said parent. And then finally, "You can call when you get here". After a quick search on GoogleMaps, I located the general vicinity of about 20small homes. I guess I'll take a page from the movie StepMom and look for the house with the balloons.

Anyway, in my excitement, I call my dear friend about this great milestone. She warns me to only spend 50 SEK (that's like $9) on the birthday gift and assures me EVERYONE does this. Swedes are practical people and I guess with the number of parties a child is invited to during the course of a school year, buying gifts can be quite expensive (not that it stops us North Americans from overspending). So I spent 90 SEK and am hoping and praying I won't be embarrassed...

Now to the other part. I am just supposed to drop my 3-year old off and...GASP... LEAVE! This is likely not going to happen. What if he needs to pee? What if he doesn't like the food? What if the supervision is inadequate and he falls down stairs or gets electrocuted? What if noone understands his special brand of Swinglish? So this is likely NOT happening. Still not sure how I'm going to force myself into their home but somehow I'll manage, maybe...

Stay tuned