Searching for the “Knack”

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This afternoon I decided to cook a comfort food meal for supper. I whipped out my mother’s trusty green cookbook loaded with Hungarian dishes and picked one that caught my eye some time ago. The Hungarian name for it is “Koloszvari kaposzta” (Scalloped Pork and Rice). It has all the ingredients that I love: pork, rice, sauerkraut, sour cream, paprika, onion, and salt. How could I go wrong? Let me tell you the ways. I follow recipes like a chemist follows a formula. It looked suspicious when I pulled it out of the oven, and I confirmed my suspicions. It didn’t look like what my mother used to make. She had a knack as did all her girl friends, and they were the ones who wrote this cookbook. Somehow the knack is something you learn by doing, and not by reading the recipe.

Don’t get me wrong, the dish was delicious, but not to my personal specification. Peg tossed her food around on the plate being polite. Tomorrow I’ll check the underside of the dining room table to see if she hid her part on the extra table-leave under the table while I wasn’t looking. She has told me many times about how when she was a kid, she would hide the green beans under the table just to get away from the supper meal. Her Dad wouldn’t let her leave until she finished eating everything on the plate. Kids have a way of dealing with parents who are demanding. Especially when they want to go out to play. I however, enjoyed the meal with a nice glass of Cabernet and analyzed the heck out of the process. Here is what I would do differently the next time:

1. I would use a deeper, but smaller casserole dish, but I don’t have one.  Why? Because the ingredients were slightly on the dry side. The large area of the dish I use allows the meal to evaporate its moisture in the oven. A smaller area, deeper dish will make it harder to lose the moisture during the oven time.

2. I will use more sauerkraut and juice between layers of meat, rice, and sauerkraut. I used what the recipe calls for and I felt it lacking. I love sauerkraut and sour cream.

3. I will cut the oven time by fifteen minutes to shorten the drying process.

4. I will try the same meal mixed in a pan on the stove and skip the casserole completely. I have cooked Stroganoff like that and it turns out fabulous.

5. I will use less cooked rice, so there will be less absorption of meat juices during oven time.

As I told Peg during supper, I’m beginning to sound like a cook; Always analyzing flavors, textures, moisture, etc. I do that in search of the knack that Mom and her buddies left out of the words but included in the invisible instructions hidden between the lines.

Thanks Mom, I’m getting closer, but will I live long enough to learn the KNACK?

I Watched Mom Make Thousands of Them

Santa let me out of the workshop just long enough to bake some cookies for Christmas. It was a special day. I picked up my nine-year old grand-daughter from school and we came to Santa’s kitchen to bake a special recipe.

As a kid, I watched my mother bake often. She was expert at making delectable goodies which I loved to devour. One of them is kifli, or crescents. They are squares of dough rolled over a filling. My favorite filling is walnut. My job for Mom began by cracking hundreds of walnuts to pick out the meat. I’m sure that out of every pound of nuts Mom got about nine-tenths of it for baking. The other tenth went down the hatch, hymmmm. Over the course of her lifetime, Mom made thousands of these cookies. She never tired of it. The faster we devoured them the more proud she was. I helped her many times and watched her make those thousands. I testify to eating thousands too. Although my favorite filling is walnut, she made apricot, poppy-seed, and prune filling also. All are delicious.

This was a special adventure for me because even though I watched Mom make these cookies often, I never made them myself. It has been sixty years since I witnessed the action in her kitchen. All I have is a faint memory, and her Hungarian recipes.

I taught grand-daughter how to grind nuts, separate yolks from whites, how to make meringue, and how to roll dough. My daughter cooks with Jenna often, so when my Jenna works with me she comes as an accomplished kitchen worker. One mix of dough gave us six small batches of about a dozen cookies each. By the sixth batch our kifli began to look like the ones Mom made. We didn’t roll the dough thin enough on the first batch, the crescents looked like doughy bread. On the second batch we cut the squares too small and we had trouble rolling them. By the third batch we got the dough thin enough, but over compensated on the size of the squares. Anyway, by number six we got the dough thin enough, and the squares just the right size. Thankfully, we didn’t over bake any, and they came out a light golden color.

I used one of the eight recipes for kilfi shown in Mom’s cookbook, the one with the green cover. The ladies of the Dorcas Guild of the Magyar United Church of Christ who compiled the recipes must each have had their own recipe, and to save argument, they published all eight. The cook book is only forty-four pages long but is has the basics for any Hungarian palette.

Here is the recipe in all its simplicity.

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Sprinkle the finished product  generously  with powdered sugar to make a scrumptious treat. I can’t honestly say which batch these kifli are from. No matter, I’m enjoying them just like I did Mom’s.

Lazy Summer Days Spent Lolling On Custom Lawn Furniture

This post is excerpted from “Jun-e-or” a book of my “Recollections of Life in the 1940’s and 50’s,” available from Amazon.com

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There is something about winter that sets me into recalling times from the past. In early 2010 I posted several stories about my Grampa Jim.  This year, I will do the same. Here is the first of a series.

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Lazy Summer Days Spent Lolling On Custom Lawn Furniture

Every summer, Dad packed us up and took us to the farm in Michigan to live with Mom’s dad Grampa. That twenty-acre spread like seemed a vast wilderness at the time. Gramps’s house was set back from the road and trees lined each side of the drive giving the feel of going through a tunnel. Three tall cedar trees stood in a row with two pear trees next to the ditch. They hid the house from the road.

The front door faced the road, and served to let a breeze flow through the house. Gramps never did finish building the front steps. The main entrance was from the side door facing the yard at the end of the drive. A huge willow tree, opposite the living room window, filled the side yard with shade. The weeping boughs nearly touched the ground, and my arms reached less than half way around its trunk. A few feet away stood a very mature mulberry tree that appeared tiny next to the willow

In early summer, the birds came to eat mulberries.  I climbed the low branches and sat in the tree with them. Mom knew what I was doing because my lips and hands were purple. The low branches were easy to climb, not like the tall willow whose first branch was many feet above my head. Dad used a ladder to climb up to that branch to make us a swing from a recycled tire from his 1929 Buick

The outhouse stood across the yard from the mulberry. Grampa Jim didn’t have running water, nor a bathtub or toilet. The outhouse was the third point on a trapezoidal yard formed by the side door, and the two trees.

Grampa Jim had a unique set of lawn furniture sliced from the trunk of a huge tree.  The Table was twenty-four inches in diameter, and just as tall.  The chairs were slightly smaller in diameter and were cut to form a seat with a backrest. The set was old, and gray with no signs of bark on the wood.

I spent endless hours playing on, and around that furniture. Sometimes, I sat on a chair and watched the big black ants run crazy patterns all over the table. Often, I tried counting the rings, but got lost in the weathered and worn grooves of the cut surface.

On the very hot listless days of summer, Grampa Jim, and his buddy Mr. Toth sat on the tree furniture in the shade drinking a beer. They chatted and smoked; Grampa dragged a hand rolled cigarette of Bull Durham while his friend puffed a corncob pipe filled with Prince Albert. Often, I sat with them and listened. They spoke in Hungarian, and I did not recognize many of their words, but I understood the gist of their thoughts.

I wondered then, and I still do now, if the table and chairs all came from one tree.  If they did, the tree had to be magnificent. I asked myself, how tall was that tree? How old was it? Why was it cut down? Did it fall down, or did it die of natural causes? All I know is that I loved sitting and playing on that furniture.

Hungarian Comfort Food

Today was a day that chilled my bones. The temperature was relatively mild, but the dampness was gross. It started with a meeting of Lions this morning, and moved to an appointment with a doctor, then on to the grocery store for provisions. My plan was to come home and cook up a batch of chicken paprikas. By the time we got home, I was so chilled, the act of cooking warmed me over. The anticipation for the meal was building and I recalled memories of when I helped my mother make the same dish.

The recipe is so simple anyone who knows how to read and turn on a gas stove can make this stuff. The ingredients are spelled out in a photos below. The main ones are chicken, onion, sour cream, and some simple spices. Combine them in the right order and you get a dish to die for.

When I began cooking I was not hungry. By the time the dish was completed, I was ravenous. Between the aroma, and the flavor, my stomach sent signals to my brain that shouted “Feed me.”

I had to have a wine to go with it, so I went down to the wine rack and picked out a bottle of red. The wine turned out to be as great a winner as the meal.

I had problems making the spatzle. It certainly wasn’t as good as Mom’s. This is the fourth time I have made spatzle as an adult, and I need more practice doing it. Mother’s was uniform in size, and firm in texture. My dumplings were rather random in size, shape, and texture. Oh well, another day, another dollar. If I don’t wait another seven years between attempts, I should be able to improve.

The paprikas smelled great, looked great, and tasted great. The spatzle tasted great but looked like hell. The appearance did not deter me from attacking it with appetite.

The chosen wine  was accidental. It was the last bottle in the rack. I love Cabernet Sauvignon which is full bodied and flavorful. This one called “Dynamite.” was exactly all of that. It made a great pairing with the colorful red and rich paprikas.

If I were in a restaurant and had to rate this meal, I would give it four stars. If the dumplings were uniform in size and texture I would have rated the meal a five.

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Words of Wisdom

“I don’t like it”, I said, when Mom put something on the table.  Most of the time, if I didn’t like the way a dish looked, I hated it immediately.  When Grampa Jim over heard my complaint, he said,

“If you were hungry, you would eat rusty nails.”

I don’t think I have to interpret that one. Grampa Jim, Mom, and Dad too, all came from very poor families. They often went hungry for lack of food.

Mom served potatoes often, but Dad would not eat them.  We asked him why?  His reply was “I ate enough potatoes in the old country.”

He was sixteen when he left Hungary to come to America. That means his diet must have been all potatoes for siixteen years. What else could kill his appetite for more?

Grampa Jim’s Advice

Grampa Jim  didn’t have a formal education, but he was wise.  His favorite advice to us, spoken in Hungarian was this:

“If someone hands you money, accept it graciously.

If someone approaches you with a stick in his hand,

run like hell!”

Grampa Jim Studies

In the wintertime, Grandpa Jim came to live with us.  The winters in Michigan were hard.  His house wasn’t insulated, and there were only two pot belly stoves to heat the place.  There was no indoor toilet.  So, Mom insisted that Gramps stay with us.

His day began with a breakfast of coffee and bread. He tore one slice of  Silvercup bread into shreds, and plunked them into coffee with milk. Slowly, he spooned up the soggy bread like cereal. After he ate, he shuffled into the living room to sit in the easy chair to read.  First, he read the Hungarian paper cover to cover. The special paper came once a week, but it didn’t matter. He re-read the thing everyday until the new issue arrived. After he finished the Hungarian news he moved to the daily Chicago Times. After the Times, he pulled out a volume of the encyclopedia, and read that.  He was self-taught, and his  English reading skill was not great; but he loved to study. When he returned to the farm, he had new knowledge to share with his friends at Fish Corners.

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