02 Mar

In Uzbekistan, the 14th of February is dedicated to the greatly venerated Uzbek poet Bobur, born in 1483. The Uzbeks have had several centuries to perfect their celebration of this wonderful poet, thus leaving no room for St. Valentine. But I still wanted to acknowledge this special day. 

At a certain age one starts viewing everything life has to offer through the lens of food. Valentine’s Day is no exception. Unless the flowers are herbs and I can eat them, don’t bother, especially at 5x the usual price. Also, because most school-paid luggage allowances are very skimpy, Dave and I decided long time ago to forgo material gifts in favour of anything we can either experience, eat or drink. I was painfully aware that whatever I acquired abroad, I would have to pay for again in the form of an ELEF (excess luggage extortion fee) to bring it home. 

With Valentine’s Day approaching, I decided to surprise Dave with a homemade schnitzel, which we have not tasted since we arrived in Nukus. The town doesn’t have any Western style fast food. No Kentucky Fried, no McDonald’s. Needless to say, there are no Starbucks, nor Second Cups either. But, luckily for me (and Dave), I have discovered two places that serve very respectable cappuccino and espresso. So, on that front, I was covered. I could live without peanut butter or schnitzel, but I couldn’t survive a year without a good cup of Java. I draw my line on roughing it right there. 

I had not seen anything resembling schnitzel on the menus of any of our favourite restaurants here either. The nonexistence of major fast-food chains didn’t bother me at all, since I am not fond of burgers tasting like cardboard, and my homemade schnitzel is far superior to anything the Colonel has to offer. My plan to surprise Dave with this here-not-readily-available treat was sound. There was just one catch in the plan. I had not been able to source breadcrumbs in any of the three biggest stores that we depend on for our staples. It might have something to do with the fact that all three are just babies in size compared to Western jumbo supermarkets. 

If I can’t buy it, I can make it, was my reasoning. It turned out that saving half of a baguette and letting it go hard was the easiest part. And even on that point it was a close call. 

‘Where’s the baguette? It must be getting stale by now”, Dave surprised me with his request. 

“Why do you want to know?” I asked suspiciously.  

“I’ll use it.” He replied reasonably. I placed myself protectively in front of the counter, on which rested half of the baguette swaddled in a paper towel like a baby to keep it clean but airy. “Why?” I asked again, stalling. 

“I want to make French Toast.” 

How do you counter that? Your husband is offering to utilize old bread instead of throwing it out, and producing delicious French Toast. But I really needed that baguette for my big surprise, so I countered. 

“No, I have another plan for it.” 

“Really?” Dave sounded incredulous, which made me sad. I can have some good plans sometimes.  

“Yes, I will make croutons.” 

“But we don’t need croutons. We probably won’t see any fresh lettuce for another month.” 

Dave had a point. It was February and, during the past three weeks, we had noticed a certain dearth in the choices of fresh produce. However, any time I wanted to feel sorry for myself on that account, I only needed to head to the deli counter of the nearest store and buy caviar; fresh from Russia, dirt cheap. One can’t have it all. 

I saved the baguette by claiming I had a craving for over-easy eggs, not French Toast. I reminded him that he makes them to perfection. The yoke just runny enough, no slimy whites. Yes, flattery gets you anywhere. 

The next step was to procure two pieces of chicken from somewhere. The only chicken I found in a supermarket was frozen, but it would have to do. As with many city people, when it comes to meat, I am a hypocrite. I will happily munch on a juicy baby lamb chop or a nice chicken breast, but I prefer the raw product to come to me in a nicely wrapped package, its origin shrouded in mystery. On my walks around the town, I had seen plenty of butcher shops here, but never had the guts (no pun?) to enter one. The pictures of baby calves frolicking in the meadow, thus advertising their fare, don’t work on me. In fact, the opposite is true. 

We had one flimsy grater that had, so far, been sufficient for our culinary experiments here. The hardest test it had endured to date was to grate some cheese we forgot to put in the fridge for a few days. This was going to be my tool to produce homemade breadcrumbs. How hard could it be to grate an old baguette? 

It started well enough but, after a minute of grating, the baguette began to display a fault line in the middle. I slowed down my grating to a gentle stroke, producing something resembling sawdust. There was no helping it. If I applied any pressure to produce the desired crumbs the crack turned into a crevice. I took the plunge and increased the pressure. The crevice collapsed onto itself leaving me with several pieces of baguette, some in my hand, the rest in the bowl. I continued working with individual pieces, each one of them in turn falling apart producing a negligible amount of breadcrumbs. I continued vigorously until a sharp pain reminded me that commitment to a cause does not equate to brains. After I bandaged my bloody finger I surveyed the disaster area. Crumbs on the floor, blood in the bowl ... how DID our mothers manage before the invention of Panko? 

The amount of breadcrumbs that ended up in the bowl was good enough for one chicken wing. My vision of two nice crispy chicken breasts gave way to a new vision; two steaks brought by a friendly waiter without bandaged fingers, in a place where the floor was not covered by the escaped breadcrumbs crunching under my feet reminding me of my defeat. 

Yes, it was trying, even painful at times, but the look on Dave’s face when I presented him with a plate adorned by a beautiful schnitzel looking all golden and crisp was worth it. Since I only had enough crumbs to coat one side, my instructions that came with it were clear. 

Do not flip!

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