Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 13, 2007
Hungry for Hungary
Although my culinary skills are not one of my strong suits, I do enjoy cooking on weekends when I have a bit more time to peruse recipes, shop for groceries and "hang out" in the kitchen. A recent weekend was one of those times when I felt downright domestic. I found a baked chicken recipe that looked easy enough, and I thought scalloped potatoes and a green bean casserole would complement the chicken nicely. It was a cool, rainy Saturday, too, so I knew that the oven would add some cozy warmth to the house.
So when the four of us - even college-daughter Mariya was home - sat down for Saturday night supper together, I was content.
Husband Art started by dunking his bread in the juices. He's never been one to flinch from criticizing my cooking if he thinks it deserves it, but he might just as often compliment it, depending on whether it tickles his taste buds.
"This sauce is good," he commented, ignoring the chicken pieces and continuing to dunk.
I started portioning out chicken, potatoes and green beans to the girls.
"What is this?" he asked, pointing to the chicken with that interrogator's look I've seen so many times.
"Baked chicken," I responded.
"No, I mean, what is it called?" he asked again.
I had to think a minute before it came to me.
"Hungarian chicken paprikash."
"I knew it!" he exclaimed. "It tastes just like the chicken paprikash I had at the Epicurean in Chicago when I was 13."
I did a quick calculation. Art is almost 63 so that would have been nearly 50 years ago! I was amazed that the taste of my chicken could so closely resemble that of a restaurant - and that it would bring back decades-old memories.
"Mmm, this is really good," he said.
I was pleased that he liked it, and that I had made enough for leftovers.
That evening we called Art's mother to wish her a happy 97th birthday. When Art got on the phone, he asked if she remembered the Epicurean and the chicken paprikash. She did. So did his brother Tommy, who was visiting at her home. That led to a big discussion of the restaurant, the chicken, who was there and so on.
I smiled. It didn't take much for one small, seemingly insignificant event to lead to a much wider discussion for Art and his family. But it didn't stop with the phone conversation.
The next day Art checked out the history of paprika, chicken paprikash and the Hungarian people on the Internet. By lunchtime, he'd gathered several tidbits of information to share with me.
"Trying to find the origin of paprika is like trying to find the origin of fire because it goes back so far," Art told me.
But he discovered that paprika is derived from pepper plants that have been cultivated for centuries in eastern Europe. The paprika used in Hungary is sweeter than what we're accustomed to. Hungarians consider it their number-one spice and use it in many dishes. And chicken paprikash is commonly served with rice, potatoes, noodles or spaetzle.
Hungarians favor the theory that their ancestors came from the steppes of southern Russia and that they were pushed southwest over many years to their current location.
Among famous Hungarians, Art found Ernö Rubik of Rubik's Cube fame, pianist Franz Liszt, Edward Teller - the "father" of the atomic bomb, and actresses Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor.
But of all the things he found, I think his favorite was rediscovering a dish he so enjoyed almost half a century ago.
(Hungarian Chicken Paprikash - from "Taste of Home" magazine: In a large skillet, saute one large onion in one-quarter cup butter until tender. Sprinkle six to eight chicken breasts, thighs and/or legs with two tablespoons paprika, one teaspoon salt and one-half teaspoon pepper; place in ungreased baking pan. Spoon onion mixture over chicken. Add one and one-half cups hot water. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for one and one-half hours. In the last few minutes of baking, combine two tablespoons cornstarch and two tablespoons cold water in small saucepan and mix until smooth. Remove pan juices from chicken and whisk into cornstarch-water mixture. Bring to boil over medium heat; cook and stir until thickened. Remove from heat. Stir in one cup sour cream. Pour mixture over chicken.)