Thursday, September 29, 2011

Recipe #16: Печени чушки с чесън (Roasted Peppers with Garlic)

I'm still working on my stash of peppers, and this is a super easy "salad" that I really love - Печени чушки с чесън (Roasted Peppers with Garlic).

6 peppers
2 large garlic cloves
3 teaspoons oil
1½ teaspoons vinegar
fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 400° F (or use broiler).
Cut tops off peppers.
Quarter peppers lengthwise and discard seeds and ribs.
Place peppers, skin sides up, on pan and bake until skins are blistered and slightly blackened.
Transfer peppers to a bowl, cover, and let stand until cool enough to touch.
Peel skin from peppers and cut each pepper lengthwise in half.
Mince garlic.
Toss peppers, garlic, oil, and vinegar in bowl and add salt to taste.
Cover peppers, place in fridge, and allow to marinate (preferably overnight).
Serve with fresh, chopped parsley.

Roasted Peppers with Garlic.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Recipe #15: Пълнени чушки с яйца и сирене (Stuffed Peppers with Eggs and Cheese)

While some people prefer their peppers stuffed with meat and rice, others, including me, prefer a different kind of stuffed peppers - Пълнени чушки с яйца и сирене (Stuffed Peppers with Eggs and Cheese). This is a simple recipe for making such peppers.

10 peppers
3 eggs
14 ounces cirene (feta)
3 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Preheat oven to 350° F.
Cut off tops of peppers and remove the seeds.
Beat the eggs, grate the cheese, and combine and mix in a bowl with spices and fresh parsley.
Stuff each pepper with the mixture.
Grease an oven proof dish with oil.
Put peppers in dish.
Cover dish with foil and cook peppers for approximately 20 minutes in oven.
Uncover and cook for another 10-15 minutes until the peppers are fully cooked.

Stuffed Peppers with Eggs and Cheese.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Recipe #14: Пълнени чушки с кайма и ориз (Stuffed Peppers with Mincemeat and Rice)

September in Bulgaria is a feast. Gardens overflow with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, apples, grapes, and other homegrown fruits and vegetables. What doesn't get eaten gets canned in preparation for the long, cold winter ahead. Being one who much prefers veggies fresh as opposed to canned, I have been gorging myself every day thanks to the hard work and incredible generosity of Баба Ристена (Baba Ristena). Таратор (Tarator) and Шопска салата (Shopska Salad) have been staples of my diet, but lately I've been inundated with peppers. To remedy this "problem," I've taken to making what a friend describes as a "true Bulgarian dish" - Пълнени чушки (Stuffed Peppers).

Here's her recipe:

10-12 large peppers
1 cup rice
1 lb. mincemeat
4 medium-sized tomatoes
2 onions
3 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh parsley

Cook the rice.
Preheat oven to 375° F
Cut off tops of peppers and remove the seeds.
Heat oil in a frying pan.
Finely chop the onions and fry in oil for 2-3 minutes.
Add the meat and cook 5 minutes.
Add the rice and diced tomatoes.
Add salt, pepper, and paprika.
Cook for 2 minutes.
Stuff each pepper with the mixture.
Put in an oven proof deep dish.
Fill the dish half way with water.
Cover dish with foil and cook for approximately 30 minutes in oven.
Uncover and cook for another 15-20 minutes until the peppers are fully cooked.
Sprinkle with fresh parsley.
Serve with plain yogurt on the side.

Stuffed Peppers with Mincemeat and Rice.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bulgaria Through a Friend's Eyes

A fellow volunteer, the one from Горно Дряново (Gorno Dryanovo) who recently had a "wedding," put together a remarkable video capturing her time in Bulgaria. We were first shown the video at our close of service conference. Several of us were moved to tears. Surprisingly, few of the Bulgarians who watched the video with us were as moved as we were. Talking to some of them afterward, it was apparent why. They are from larger cities and the video does not represent their "Bulgaria." No, it's not everyone's Bulgaria. But it is someone's, and it's awfully special.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Tale of Two Weddings

A little over a year ago I visited Горно Дряново (Gorno Dryanovo) for the first time. I loved it and vowed to return. The volunteer living there told me I needed to come back for a wedding, and she promised to tell me when there would be such a wedding. As her departure date grew near and I still hadn’t heard anything, I resigned myself to the fact I wouldn’t witness a wedding in Gorno Dryanovo. Then, at the last hour, I was invited to a wedding. And not just any wedding. Her wedding!

So, in mid July, I returned to Gorno Dryanovo for a village wedding … sort of anyway. It was a staged "made for TV" and "made for the village babas" "wedding." No matter. The entire weekend was beyond brilliant. Prior to the "wedding," a group of us put the final touches on a map created as part of the World Map Project, opened a new sports’ center (and kicked some Bulgarian ass in soccer thanks to some favorable officiating), and celebrated the groom’s birthday. The entire time we enjoyed the company of the hospitable and gracious locals, and, ultimately, we joined the entire village in celebrating the "wedding" of two people who we’d all grown to love. It was the perfect end to two years of service together and perhaps the best weekend of my service in Bulgaria.

Even though I knew the village would be the perfect place for some amazing "wedding" photos, I left my camera at home and just enjoyed the festivities. Details of the "wedding" can be found here, but I think pictures tell the story as good or better than words.

This is one of my favorite shots of the happy couple (Photo by James Gholson).

The second wedding had no chance of comparing to the first, but it was fun, interesting, and a great thing to have been invited to. Since it was my first actual “Bulgarian” wedding, I did bring my camera along (but I hung out in the back far away from the action and behind a lot of other people). Here’s what transpired.

The bride and groom were separated. The bride and her friends got ready for the wedding in one place, and the groom and his friends “prepared” for the wedding in another place.

A little after 3:00 p.m., the groom and his entourage departed for an apartment where the bride was holed up.

Here are the groom's friends waiting for him to come out.

At 3:30, the groom's entourage arrived at the bride's apartment. The groom came with a bag full of coins which he would use to bribe his way into the apartment. Some of his friends had crowbars and other tools for breaking in the door just in case we were refused admittance.

The groom's entourage gathered outside of the bride's apartment.

People watching from above.

The pied piper leading everyone into the apartment.

After being admitted, the groom first had to find the bride and then he had to find her shoes. Not surprisingly, the shoes didn’t fit requiring the groom to make them fit by adding money to them. Once the shoes fit, the bride and groom kissed, and everyone had a drink or two to celebrate.

The bride was found and the shoes fit, so everyone could drink and be merry.

Then everyone left the apartment, and the wedding party went out into the courtyard and danced horo.

The triumphant bride emerged.

And then the dancing started.

Following a couple dances, it was off to a civil ceremony, which would make the wedding official.

The governmental hall was like a cattle call with one wedding after another. Great care was taken to make sure no two brides crossed paths, as such an encounter would bring bad luck to their marriages.

Waiting to enter the wedding hall.

Inside the hall.

A strange ritual where the bride and groom attempt to eat each other.

Exchanging vows.

They're married!

"Oh, well," the groom thinks, "Nothing I can do about it now."

The reception line.

Some of the many flowers, chocolates, and other gifts.

The newlyweds emerge.

After the civil ceremony, everyone piled into their cars and headed to the church so that the wedding could be recognized and blessed by the church.

An obligatory flower girl pose before heading off to the reception.

I wish both couples nothing but success and happiness and thank them for allowing me to be part of their most special days.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Celebrating Two Years In Bulgaria

I celebrated my two year anniversary in Bulgaria with the people who first welcomed me here: my language trainer and her family and my host family from Boychinovtsi. Two years earlier I had sat in the same room with the same group of people feeling like a complete outsider, an intruder in a place I didn’t belong. But two years down the road I sat there and felt completely at home. Everything and everyone there was familiar and comfortable, and it was a typical Bulgarian get-together of family and friends of which I was a part. The table overflowed with food, drink, and laughter, and I soaked it all in as long as I could.

Eventually, I pulled myself away from the table and crawled into bed wondering if the day was as meaningful and special for them as it had been for me. It didn’t take long before I was fast asleep.

Then, a little more than an hour after I’d gone to bed, I was awakened by some strange sounds. Was I dreaming or was someone actually calling my name? Someone was definitely calling my name. But who was it and what did they want? Dazed and confused, I sat up on the side of the bed and listened intently. The sound seemed to be coming from the street, not the house. I fumbled around for my glasses and went to the window.

Standing in the street were the principal of the school where we had done our training and his daughter’s boyfriend. They had learned I was in town, and they wanted to grab a beer. Still half asleep and feeling plenty good from the earlier rakia, wine, and beer, I politely declined. Everyone else was sound asleep, everything was locked up, and I didn’t want disturb them. “Just one,” they pleaded and pleaded. Having played the “just one” game plenty of times and knowing how it usually ends (at least for me), I stood my ground and agreed we’d hang out and have a few beers on my next visit to Boychinovtsi. And we will. Because sometimes the Peace Corps is about grand projects and helping those who are less fortunate, and sometimes it’s about having a beer with new friends.

Two of the three wonderful Bulgarian families who have adopted me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Watch and Listen

Watch and listen to this. A friend, who also happens to be a Peace Corps volunteer, was a contestant on X Factor Bulgaria and dedicated this song to the kids he teaches in Bregovo, a small town in the far northwest of Bulgaria near the Serbian and Romanian borders. You don't need to understand anything to understand everything.

Reflections on 9/11

Ten years ago I was on my way to a deposition when a reporter broke in over the radio to announce that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. A few minutes later, the reporter broke in again to announce a second plane had crashed into the other tower. A chill went up my spine, but I drove on to the other lawyer’s office and went through with the deposition. After taking the worst deposition I’ve ever taken, I returned to my office just to check in, and then I went home. And there I sat in disbelief. Just me and my girlfriend. Shocked. Stunned. Speechless. Horrified and saddened by the cowardice we had witnessed, awed by the courageousness, thankful our families were safe, and thankful to be together. It’s a day I’ll never forget.

While it's important to pay tribute to those affected by the heinous acts of 9/11, it's equally important to remember that what was a one-time occurrence in America is a regular occurrence in some other parts of the world. Let's save some of our compassion for the innocent people around the world who are subjected to horrific violence on a more regular basis. And let's reconsider ... how much money must we spend, how many wars must we wage, and how many lives must be lost or forever shattered before we realize there's a better way?

As someone much more intelligent than I am said a long time ago, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” That’s the idea behind these bears, which came to Sofia earlier this year.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Life is a Bowl of Cherries

It was the last Sunday in May. I had agreed to survey birds in connection with the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds’ Common Bird Monitoring Scheme. I wasn’t quite sure of the territory I was supposed to survey, so I got up at the crack of dawn and went out toward the general area I was supposed to cover. Along the hour or so walk to my territory I saw not a soul; but for some domesticated roosters crowing and the many wild birds singing, the town was still asleep. As I climbed a small hill on the edge of my territory, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk zoomed by low overhead. Moments later a Hoopoe flushed from the trail, flapping away like a giant butterfly with its black and white wings and tail contrasting with its buffy pink body. As I continued, all the expected species were out marking their territories with much vigor: Skylarks, Red-backed Shrikes, Black-headed Buntings, among others. Then I saw something approaching from behind. A dog? No. It was a Golden Jackal, and it hadn’t seen me. I moved up the hill behind some vegetation and waited, hoping to get a photo. Unfortunately, when the jackal turned the corner and came into view it saw me and immediately fled through the long grass. Both thrilled and disappointed, I continued on … encountering more birds, a plethora of wildflowers (pink, red, purple, blue, yellow, and white against a backdrop of green), clean, crisp morning air, and just one old man. It was a brilliant way to start the day.

Being Sunday it was also market day in town, so I stopped into our local market on my way home. The end of May in Bulgaria is, among other things, cherry season, and the cherries looked amazing. I bought a large bag of them and headed home.

When I arrived home, as is usually the case, Baba Ristena was tending to her garden. She often offers me food and insists that I take it, so, when I asked her if she wanted any cherries and she declined, I simply gave her a handful. She washed the cherries and then devoured them – clearly a welcome and unexpected treat. I went inside and washed the rest of the cherries and put them in a couple bowls. I ate one bowl for breakfast and saved the other one for later.

After lunch and a nap, friends began arriving for the town’s first ever rock festival. I had friends in two of the bands and was looking forward to it. The plan was simple: grill some meat and veggies, drink beer, head to the rock fest, eat more, and drink more beer. As we sat around enjoying the first round of BBQ and beer, another volunteer who had arrived commented about my interactions with one of my Bulgarian friends, “That’s awesome. You guys talk to each other like you’re brothers.”

At the concert, the mayor came up and welcomed my friends and me with a warm and genuine greeting. My friends had no idea who he was, and when I told them afterward that they had just met the mayor, the response was, “You need to tell us when we’re meeting the mayor.” I just laughed. The opening act's lead singer was a girl who had attended my summer school classes my first year. When I congratulated her on her performance, she told me I should stay in Bulgaria one more year. And when the two headlining acts finally took the stage, I was there with them one after the other. Apparently, I was the only sucker among their friends who was willing to stand on stage and videotape them playing live rather than enjoy the show from the audience. Oh, well. It was fun, even if I am now partially deaf.

When the show ended, we headed home and grilled up some more food and drank some more beer. I crawled into bed full, content, and smiling.

The next morning, as I savored the second bowl of cherries, I couldn’t help but thinking, “Life is a bowl of cherries.”

One of the bowls of cherries.

Black-headed Bunting.

Yellow Wagtail.

Red-backed Shrike.


Common Cuckoo.

And some flowers.