Freelance food writer and recipe developer Lee Majhen-Todd takes us on a journey of reconnecting with her family history through food and the impact this has had on creating her debut cookbook.
Good food shouldn't be difficult to make or to eat, that's always been at the front of my foodie mind when it comes to developing recipes. It should be fun, it should be real, and it should be social. This is a lot to ask from just one meal, and I know exactly where this comes from.
The credit should go to the many amazing chefs and cooks that I admire and follow on social media, and if I'm lucky enough to eat at their restaurants even better. It should also go to the infinite amount of fantastic cookery shows on TV and the Internet, or the pile of cookery books next to my bed that I use to stand my green tea on at night. I truly and sincerely pay homage to all those skilled chefs who leave me with a sense of awe when I meet them. I also have a low-level feeling of jealousy at times, because I didn't trust myself to know a little sooner in life that the food world was where I wanted to be.
My ideas about food, how it is cooked, the type of ingredients used, and complexity of flavours all came from a source much closer to home. It came from my Mum and Dad. These two individuals who were both food lovers and food makers.
My parents weren't either of these things because they were out to impress. Their cooking prowess came from a place of necessity. The need to be able to cook and create something from scratch, meant they fed four growing girls, and fed them with food that wasn't boring, food that kept us interested and kept us wanting to sit down at the table together.
They also promoted the "eat everything" approach, way before offal was used as a trendy main course on Instagram.
My Dad was Croatian and brought to the household some quirky ideas about food - or I so I thought at the time.
From his very early years living in Yugoslavia to his time in a concentration camp - food meant surviving. It wasn't unusual that we cut the green hairy edges off the cheese or had large pork spare ribs as a snack when watching Saturday afternoon wrestling.
We'd often come down in the morning to be greeted by whey dripping into the sink from a pair of my mum's tights which had been tied to the taps making sure the curds were thoroughly separated from the fresh cheese he was making. (Yes, the tights were always clean). I can still hear my mum scolding him for destroying yet another pair of tights she needed for work that day. I don't think you know how difficult it is to wash curds and whey from tights.
All this nostalgia has to do with the cookery book I'm researching. When I say researching, I use that word very loosely. What it feels like right now is me, Lee & The Sweet Life, spending a lot of time in Croatia with my extended family watching them cook some amazing family-friendly and family popular dishes. I then re-create them in my kitchen for my husband, the ever understanding Mr G, who is, whether he likes it or not, my chief taster.
Oh, and did I mention the eating? I'm sure that in some alternative universe stuffing my face with Zlevka (a sweet and slightly savoury cake), a few slices of Madjarica (a chocolate layer cake) or even a few dozen Kifle cookies can be called research.
It's only right that my first cookery book should be about my family and food. A book full of Croatian family favourites and then my version of that amazing dish with the Lee & The Sweet Life feel to it.
A book filled with stories about family, full of real food, topped up with all the fun I think cooking should be. Not forgetting the social element this can bring. A little bit of my mum and dad in each dish, with a few memories thrown in.
My experience of Croatian cooking is about freshness, sharing, nose to tail eating and family. This is exactly what my trip to visit family for New Year's Eve was all about.
It's not often you can say that you were outside on New Year's Day, fully wrapped up against the cold, filming the cooking of a traditional Kotlovina -a dish with onions, pork cutlets and smoked pork sausage straight from Grandparents pig. Or what about some mushrooms foraged a few days ago from the wood half a mile away.
And don't get me started on the pumpkin oil. This green-tinged jewel of an oil is made once a year when the community comes together to share and celebrate the hard work of the harvest. The making of the oil so they can all share in the silky, nutty pleasure of using it in their everyday cooking.
Needless to say, I'll have to take many more trips back "home" for more research. It's interesting how I easily call Croatia home?
I've never lived there for any significant length of time. It's the draw of the community, the welcoming nature of my extended Croatian family that pulls me back there again and again.
For me, there is nothing that encompasses that feeling of home more than the joy that food can bring, of course with a little Lee & The Sweet Life thrown in for fun.