It’s been a month since we came home from our stay in Russia. School is back in session (second grade for Paloma), and the vacation seems like a long gone dream. Now that we are all situated, I’m finally finding the time to talk about Sochi – the last stop of our trip, where we had a chance to fully relax.
I’ve been visiting Sochi every summer, with small breaks here and there, ever since I can first remember myself. My aunt and cousins have an old, wooden house there, built on the slope of a hill, dating all the way back to the 1940s. The narrow street, on which it stands, is shaded by dense growths of cypresses, palm and fruit trees, which are abundant all over the city. To me, Sochi is a magical place. There is something special about the mix of sweet mountain air and salty Black Sea breeze, tropical vegetation, clear and refreshing seawater, pebbled beaches and busy ethnic markets that surround one at all times. I can never can get enough.
Last year’s winter Olympics brought about major updates to Sochi. The old house on the hill, however, remains the same. The city has been threatening to demolish that whole street for decades, as the houses there have seen their better days, but to our delight, the family house is still there, as welcoming as ever.
Traditionally, generations of cats guard the house. They are tough and self-sufficient like street cats, but also social and friendly like house pets. Each one has a big personality, and all are treated with much respect. Paloma was in heaven, playing in the charming courtyard at the footsteps of the old garden surrounded by cats of all sizes, just like I had done as a kid. And although we live on the beach in Florida, Paloma can’t stop talking about Black Sea beaches, where she would not leave the water for longer than two minutes at a time, turning into quite the little mermaid.
I’ve talked about food from the Caucasus region last year here and here. The markets there supply a wealth of colorful pickles (pictured above on the yellow table), endless fermented dairy and pretty treats like churchkhela. Local cuisine is rich in herbs and spices, and the vegetables are commonly cooked and served whole, or in large chunks, as opposed to Russian cooking, which favors mincing and shredding everything very finely. In the summer, eggplant is present at any table, and there are hundreds of ways to prepare it. The most common and simple eggplant dish is a mixture of vegetables charred over open fire or hot coals, dressed with tons of fresh herbs and garlic. The dish is smoky and fresh at the same time. In the absence of open fire, the recipe below is an alternative way of showcasing eggplant and other summer vegetables in a vegetable dish to complete any table.
Summer Vegetable Saute
3-4 small eggplants – sliced lengthwise, 1/4-inch thickness
2-3 bell peppers – seeded and sliced lengthwise
1-2 onions – sliced lengthwise
about 7 small tomatoes or 2 cups cherry tomatoes
coconut oil or other vegetable oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper – to taste
3-4 cloves garlic – minced
good amount of fresh herbs – parsley, dill, basil, mint
1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat and fry eggplant slices in batches, on both sides, until golden brown. Add oil as needed and sprinkle with salt and pepper as you go. Remove eggplant slices from the pan onto paper towels to absorb excess oil, set aside.
2. Saute peppers until soft, add salt to taste, set aside.
3. Saute onions until golden, add salt to taste, set aside.
4. Increase the heat to high. Add whole tomatoes to the pan. Let them sit for about 2 minutes, until they begin to blister, stir and leave to sit for another 2 minutes or longer, until cooked through, but with a bite remaining. Add salt and pepper.
5. Arrange vegetables on a large platter. Top eggplant slices with onion and pepper, finish with tomatoes. Sprinkle with garlic and herbs, more salt and pepper, if desired. Alternatively, you can mix them in a bowl.