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Recipes for the Perplexed: Beginnings

I never learned to cook from my mom, and there my culinary troubles began.

I didn’t want to learn, and she didn’t want especially to teach me, I don’t think. My mother is Hungarian, and she knows all kinds of culinary magic: Chicken Paprikash, nokedli (little dumplings in broth), crepes with poppy seed filling, and túrós tészta, a pasta dish made with egg noodles, sour cream, and sugar.

The only dish I learned to make was the túrós tészta, and I will give you the recipe now, though I warn you that when my mother made this for a group of my friends once, they hated it and one kid actually threw up. I think it is absolute deliciousness, but I also don’t think it is suited to an American taste:

 

My Mother’s túrós tészta

1 package egg noodles

sour cream

cottage cheese

white sugar

 

Boil water and cook noodles according to the directions.

Drain.

While still piping hot, put noodles up in a bowl. Add a dollop of cottage cheese and a dollop of sour cream to the top, and sprinkle sugar over everything. My mother would serve it just like that, and the diner would mix it up themselves. The resulting concoction is creamy, sweet as a dessert, and incredibly filling and satisfying on a winter’s night. Try it at your own risk :)

American food, she did her best, but it was a challenge. So (like many folks in that generation, immigrant kids or not) we got steak and overcooked hot dogs, and chewy spaghetti with greyish canned peas. It worked, I grew up, but it was not a gourmet experience.  I think my mother was much more intent on me getting somewhere in life using my brain and not my kitchen abilities…

She tried her best to feed us American style, though. Saucy Susan was a big thing at my house, a sweet orange glaze that went on all meat products. My mother also had a habit of adding canned pineapple sections to things and proclaiming them “Hawaiian.” She used to make Hawaiian beef tongue often, and it was enthusiastically received at home. So I gotta tell you, the culinary standards were not standard, and I didn’t do much to learn what my mother did know. I pretty much avoided the kitchen altogether.

Fast forward to my current life, where I am the mom and I have a house of kids to feed every night. I don’t make them Hungarian dishes…I tried goulash once, and it didn’t go over very well.

But what I do try to go for is that warm satisfied feeling I used to get from my mom’s noodles, or my grandma’s perfect palacsinta stuffed with poppy seeds or chestnut puree. That happy, homey feeling. My goal with this cooking stuff is to see if I can conjure that feeling on a regular basis.

Maybe not every night…maybe pizza delivery plays a bigger role in my kitchen repertoire than I want to admit LOL. And during deadlines, my menu often devolves to Deadline Chicken, pizza and eggs (see last week’s post).

But coming together to eat something made special for you, even if that something is little baby hotdogs wrapped in flaky pastry blankets, makes a person feel safe, creates a loving circle of family. Dang that is corny. But it is all so true. And sometimes it’s like the little girl I was is sitting at the table with us, as we eat little hotdogs and talk about soccer teams and trumpet practice.

And that is kind of magical right there.

Recipes for the Perplexed: Deadline Chicken (Nano special)

***Note: this essay and recipe first appeared in the wonderful collection Cooking Up Stories, published by Lucky Bat Books and edited by the delightful Louisa Swann and Dayle Dermatis. If you like writing, cooking, or both, check out the whole collection***

I made a whole chicken yesterday, and the burnt little things are carrots...
I made a whole chicken yesterday, and the burnt little things are carrots…

(In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I offer for your procrastinating pleasure a short meditation on family, eating, and the things that matter…plus a bonus recipe that actually rocks. If you are writing a novel this month, try this recipe. It might save your life!)

In days of yore (like, when I was in my 20s) when any kind of deadline loomed, my food choices quickly devolved to, in order: (1) delivery pizza; (2) hard boiled eggs; (3) chocolate and (4) nothing. Though this sad diet kept me more or less alive when chasing a deadline, the headaches, dizziness, etc did not do much to help me to hit my target.

Then I started having kids (I have three hungry, growing boys now) and the above strategy no longer worked. No matter how heinous the deadline, those little guys had to get something good to eat or a mutiny would soon be on my hands! The pizza worked once or twice, but after that…oh my.

The following recipe emerged in the midst of my desperation. It was 2008, and I had a two-week old baby at home when I got my edits for my first NY published novel.

I had two weeks to edit the whole kahuna. No brain cells, certainly no time to cook a lasagna and throw it in the freezer for just such an emergency. A houseful of hungry guys. AND my husband worked long and hard hours, so he did his best to bring groceries in but wasn’t around to help any more than that.

This chicken dish is amazing. I have made it while bleary-eyed, feverish AND nursing a baby at the same time…and it came out fine. I originally named it Coma Chicken for truly many a time I *was* nearly in a coma when I made this, and it comes out great even if you are barely alive when you cook it.

My dear husband begged me to change the name, because he hated the thought of me being in a coma even as a joke, and it messed with his appetite, which is a real crime considering the tastiness of this dish. So I happily re-named it Deadline Chicken. Now when this dish appears on the table, there’s an added benefit — my little guys know that a deadline is looming once again, and they know to back away slowly once the dishes are done.  What’s not to love!

And now, my friends, I give to you my secret, easy recipe for Deadline Chicken!

Ingredients:

1 three pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 baking sheet

spices:

Kosher salt

Garlic powder

Paprika

Dried rosemary (or fresh thyme if you have some)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees (traditional chicken temp is 350 but I like the crispiness when I cook it a little hotter than that)
  2. While oven is firing up, put chicken pieces on the baking/cookie sheet. Do not oil the sheet — you are dry roasting this bird. If the chicken is damp for any reason, pat dry with a paper towel.
  3. Sprinkle spices over the pieces, and use a heavy hand. Simple salt and pepper would be enough, I guess, but I enjoy these four: kosher salt, garlic powder, paprika (for lovely golden color) and dried rosemary.
  4. When oven is at the right temperature, pop the sheet with the chicken into the oven. Middle or lower-middle rack is good. Set your timer for 50 minutes.
  5. When your timer goes off, take out the chicken, put it on a serving plate. That’s it!

Every time I have cooked this dish, the pieces come out crispy and flavorful, with moist, juicy chicken inside.

  1. OPTIONAL: for added nutritional goodness, once you’ve thrown in the chicken, get another baking sheet and cover it with some nice roasting vegetables. Here are some suggestions:

*cauliflower, cut up and sprinkled lightly with sea salt and olive oil

*onions, carrots, and celery, cut up with a little salt. If you dry roast these they get all crunchy and sweet and yummy

*some sweet potatoes, scrubbed and as is

*acorn or butternut squash, cut in half with maybe some oil or butter if you want (I do it plain)

Throw in the vegetables once you’re done cutting them up and let them cook at the same time as the chicken.  When the chicken is done so are the veggies. (The potatoes might take a wee bit more time, so if you have big potatoes throw them in as the oven is warming up.)

And that’s all there is to it. If this dish doesn’t work for you, please write to me and let me know what happened because I am a primitive cook and this recipe has never failed me. Enjoy!

 

Recipes for the Perplexed: A Blog Manifesto

Hello, all :)

So, I’ve decided to start something new, and before I get to it, I’d like to tell you what I’m up to, and why I’m doing this.

I am a terrible cook. Actually, I take that back…I have become a cook, but will never have the grace to become a chef. After a lot of life experience, I have gone from somebody who had trouble boiling water to somebody who can cook up dinner for 8 without activating my higher brain function.

I did not think this ability was any kind of superpower, just a survival strategy since I have a bunch of kids and a husband, who all get hungry and do not have the kitchen access that I do. But a couple of conversations have changed my mind.

I was on the phone recently with my wonderful mother-in-law (no sarcasm there at all…seriously, she is magical) and we were talking about a hapless child of a friend who did not know how to cook and who hated to cook. At the time, I was in the middle of hacking up a small mountain of eggplant and zucchini to make roasted vegetables with balsamic vinegar (OMG yum but that is a recipe for another post).

I heard myself saying, “oh, she can do it. She just needs to learn some simple recipes that are impossible to mess up, get some practice cranking them out using her lizard brain. Then start branching out. Next thing you know, she will have the superpower and can get dinner on the table at any and all times.”

I hung up with her, watched the zucchini broil, and started thinking. How did I learn what I know? I never wanted to learn how to cook, and had zero native ability to boot. And yet here I was, having a good time cooking up good eats for the people I adore.

So how did I learn to cook, anyway?

The second conversation got me even harder. My oldest son is an amazing cook…he inherited my husband’s chef genes.  One night, after a long and bruising day, I grimly made my turkey meatballs, one of my go-to meals. And this teenaged boy, who’d had his own hard day to deal with, beamed at me as I served it up. “I love your meatballs. And I always will.”

That just slayed me. Because he knew I made them out of love and he received them with gratitude, and that is one of life’s beautiful little moments of miracle.

So I replied, “They are easy, totally. I’ll teach you to make them and then you can have them always, whenever you want. I’ll make them for you anytime but you will have the secret knowledge too.”

At that point the light was slowly dawning. I really had learned something. Something that other people like me could use.

So that’s why I am starting this blog series. Because, dear reader, food is great. If you are also the kind of person who is freaked by the idea of cooking, I want to share all I’ve learned with you.

And also, some of my meals are hilariously bad and proudly I will share my flameouts as well. Because the first lesson of learning to cook is:

It’s okay to make a mistake. Mistakes are how you learn.

A good lesson for cooking, and for life.

So, for the non-cooks out there, what do you wish you knew about working the kitchen?

And for the great cooks of the world, do you have a favorite recipe that you consider a fail-safe? Please? My kids are getting sick of hamburgers this week LOL

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