By Virginia Zaharieva

About This Excerpt: 
In the bestselling Bulgarian novel 
Nine Rabbits, a restless writer’s fiery enthusiasm for her family’s culinary traditions defines her from childhood into passionate adulthood as she strives for a life less ordinary. Virginia Zaharieva peppers the narrative with real recipes significant to the novel’s characters. Lush gardens, nostalgic meals, and sensual memories are as charming as the narrator herself. The gorgeous iPad edition of Nine Rabbits features more of the full-color professional photographs seen in this excerpt, accompanying 20 original recipes.

Chapter 11: Tomatoes

I used to love going to the monastery on the shores of the sea. Its whiteness thumbed its nose at the blue, it burned eyes at noon, while in the evening the shadows of the cypresses crept over it. The old folks said that the monastery was a gift from a rich man. Once, when a terrible storm overtook his ship, he promised St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, that if St. Nicholas saved him, he would build a white stone church on the cape. St. Nicholas saved him, and since the stone in that region was gray, the man imported carved white stone all the way from Greece.The monastery and church of St. Nicholas gleamed white in the distance, filling the sailors passing by the cape with hope, since all the winds and currents really did meet there.

In the sheltered flagstone-paved inner courtyard there was a long wooden table around which the nuns gathered in the summer and early autumn to do their canning for the winter. “Tomato time,” that’s what they called it, and they were happy when I used to come with my grandfather to help them with the grape harvest, or with the apples, pears, and plums in the garden.

The abbess, Mother Efrosinia, was a sprightly woman. She would read the Bible to me and explain the parts I didn’t understand. Sometimes we played hide-and-seek. She sang well in church and had a low, strong voice. She loved standing at the edge of the cliffs, looming over the sea, and although she was physically there, in fact she was elsewhere. In her habit, she looked like a tree struck by lightning; she wore her towering velvet hat, or kamilavka, tied with a black veil. She had a calm and cheerful soul. Her eyes had turned bluish-green from staring at the sea, but when she was angry, she glared dark green, and it was best to make yourself scarce.

Besides the five older nuns, there was also one new, young novice with a round white face. She was serious and somehow seemed affronted. She looked down, kept silent, and was always reading. I didn’t like her and felt uncomfortable in her presence. A stern and merciless God watched me through her olive eyes and knew all of my past and future misdeeds.

Ever since he had donned his doorman’s uniform with its epaulets, Grandpa had also been looking after the monastery garden. The oxheart was ripening. This year the tomatoes were growing by the cartload and they could barely manage to pick them all. The nuns crossed themselves and thanked the Almighty. The monastery was famous for its tomato soup.

Tomato Soup

In one quart of salted water, thoroughly boil a finely chopped head of celery, three carrots, one pepper, three onions, and two green onions. Strain out the vegetables. In this broth, bring the juice of five grated tomatoes to a boil, along with two nests of vermicelli, a sugar cube (to soften the tomatoes’ tart taste), a small cone of incense crushed into powder, and whole basil leaves. Can be served with grated cheese.

Whole cauldrons simmered, especially on holidays, no matter what the season. If it wasn’t fasting time, the nuns would add cheese to the soup. On the table stood small pots of hot pepper paste, which Sister Evdokia concocted all by herself.