For most of us, what we learn in the kitchen comes from our mothers. Seriously, I’m not trying to be sexist here. Many fathers are the main cooks in the family these days. But for generation after generation, our culture had well defined roles. The daddies went to work and the mommies kept the home fires burning. The kids helped roll out the pie crust and clean the veggies and stir the saucepot. As children, we absorbed kitchen knowledge from our moms and this is certainly true for Alan and I. My mother was a wonderful cook and she passed down to us the recipes and techniques that she learned from her mother, who learned from her mother and so on. When I make chicken soup, for instance, I imagine the women who preceeded me, Grandma Bella, Grandma Segall, the Eurpoean wives and mothers from whom my mother learned to make this staple dish. When I cook these family recipes, they are looking over my shoulder and guiding my hand.
Some of these dishes I can prepare without thinking, kind of like the way we drive home from work. We pull into the driveway and have no recollection of the trip home. And these simple recipes are the ones I turn to over and over. These are peasant dishes with no frills, no fancy ingredients and no multi-stage cooking process. One of my favorites is chicken paprikash.
My mother taught me to make this dish over the phone. I had a craving for it, so I called her to ask how to make it. She told me to basically throw everything in the pot, cover it and walk away for half an hour. I couldn’t believe it was that simple. I asked “How do you make the sauce?” and she said “It makes its own sauce”. What??!! No way!! But when I followed her instructions, it worked, and it tasted exactly as I remembered it.
Now, as I’ve said before, I can’t leave any recipe alone. Over the years as I’ve learned more about good kitchen skills, food chemistry and the finer points of cooking, I’ve modified this recipe to develop the flavors and add depth and body. I hate to say it lest I insult my ancestors, but I think I’ve improved this traditional family recipe. Grandma Bella, I hope you’ll forgive me!!
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 large onion
2 tbsp paprika (I prefer the sweet for this dish)
1 cup of white wine
a dusting of flour, sally and peppy to taste (sorry, Alan)
My mother told me to slice the onion, saute it briefly, toss in the chicken pieces, sprinkle the paprika on top, cover the pot and simmer it on medium heat for about half an hour. But over the years, I have added some steps and even the white wine is my own twist. Even so, this dish is ridiculously simple and very delicious.
If your chicken breasts are big, you can cut them in half to make smaller portions. Try to make sure all your chicken peices are similar in size. Don’t use boneless chicken for this dish, it’ll dry out and no matter how much sauce you spoon on it, it will be stringy and tough. Give the onion a rough chop and saute it in the bottom of a large pot. You want a tall pot for this recipe as it creates steam, thus retaining all the moisture and that’s how this dish makes it’s own sauce, although the wine helps. Here is where my preparation departs from my mother’s. I dust the chicken with a little bit of flour, sally and peppy and once the onions start to turn soft and brown a bit, I move the onions to the side of the pot and brown the chicken. The more you brown things, the more flavor your dish develops. And in addition to helping the chicken brown, this little bit of flour also helps thicken the sauce. Don’t brown the chicken for too long, just a few minutes until you get a slight bit of color on the skin. Also, you can remove the skin for this dish if you’re concerned about the fat and it’ll turn out just fine.
Turn the chicken over, add the white wine and sprinkle the paprika over the top. This may seem like a lot of paprika, but it mixes into the sauce and blends with the onions and wine and I promise, it’s not too much. Trust me. Slosh everything around to make sure all the chicken is covered with paprika, cover it, turn down the heat and simmer it on medium for about half an hour. Your sauce might be a little thin, so if you like a more viscous consistency, thicken it up with a little flour and water slurry. I like my sauce a little thick so it sticks to the egg noodles. And that’s how you serve this dish, over egg noodles with a green salad on the side. It’s simple fare, but sometimes nothing is better.