By Albert Stern / BJV Editor
Editor’s Note: When Carol Goodman Kaufman briefly went on hiatus from her Traveling With Jewish Taste column, I did my best to write a food column in her absence. Thank God she’s back.
Since you are a Berkshire Jewish Voice reader, I suspect that your culinary consciousness holds a platonic ideal of what a blintz would taste like in Gan Eden, in Paradise. Moreover, I’d wager that you associate a particular home cook with those perfect blintzes, a person whose version of the humble farmer cheese-filled crepe outshines all others you ever tasted or ever expect to. Those blintzes might be so outstanding that they are, by consensus, regarded as that cook’s “signature dish” – so good, perhaps, that you might even find yourself unable to think of that person without also thinking about blintzes.
Say that home cook is Mrs. Magda Weiss. Put her in a kitchen with three other capable Jewish cooks, give them all the exact same ingredients, and ask them to make blintzes. Somehow, Mrs. Weiss’s signature blintzes inevitably turn out to be the crowd pleasers, acknowledged by all as the superior crepes. How does Mrs. Weiss do it? Nobody knows! Even if Mrs. Weiss might be kind enough to share a “recipe” that leaves out nothing, those who follow it invariably return with a plaint: “Magda, they were good, but not as good as yours. I don’t know how you do it!”
The word “recipe” is in quotes because Mrs. Weiss, in making her signature blintzes, of course uses no recipe. In achieving her supreme facility in preparing the signature dish, over time Mrs. Weiss figured out something profound and incommunicable about blintzes. Her blintzes became the crowd pleasers because, over time, Mrs. Weiss also identified some universal human hunger that can be deeply satisfied by a perfect blintz. What’s more, I would venture that in mastering her signature dish, Mrs. Weiss, over time, figured out something meaningful about herself.
This is a culinary and psychological journey all more-than-competent home cooks take with at least one dish. My own signature dish is chicken fricassee prepared in the Puerto Rican style – you can find the “recipe” below. On the way to mastering your signature dish, you make every mistake you can make; you acquire a nuanced understanding of the flavors, textures, and properties of each ingredient; you pay attention to every tweak or accident that even slightly improves its flavor; and you observe the responses of each person you feed when they tuck in. Technique one acquires through ambition, necessity, and practice – the desire to please with food comes from someplace indefinable. Then, cooking becomes less about slapping together ingredients with hands and kitchen tools, and more about inhabiting an elevated state of being in which the essence of everything you prepare moves through your soul.
I say this coming from two family lines of middling-to-lackluster Jewish cooks. On my father’s side, the worst of the worst was my Tante Esther, who lived in Ramat Gan. Because my family would come all the way from Amerrikeh to visit, the family would gather at Tante Esther and Dod Yaakov’s apartment for a celebratory feast. On one such occasion, my great aunt made her signature dish – a Romanian milk-based fruit soup sweetened with strange Balkan syrups. It was a prized family recipe from the ancestral Transylvanian homeland of the Sterns and one that should have remained there, like Count Dracula, impaled by a wooden stake somewhere deep in the Carpathian Mountains. Imagine taking a fruit salad, simmering it in curds like a cholent at the body temperature of a healthy resting cow (101.5 degrees Fahrenheit) for 3 days, and, just before serving, topping off the pot of steaming fruit sludge with warm milk squeezed directly from the cow. Garnish with some fresh green grapes, and voila.
That’s what it was like. Fifteen or so of sat around the table. Tante Esther proudly ladled out her signature dish and bowls were passed around the table. When mine was set down in front of me, I whispered to my mother that there was no way I was going to eat it.
“You will insult your father’s aunt very deeply if you don’t,” she said.
“It’s warm milk with grapes in it,” I pleaded.
“Eat,” my mother commanded through a tight smile.
It took just one spoonful for the dam to break. It wasn’t just one of those ‘rotten-kid-spitting-something-out-of-his-mouth’ deals, but rather a full-on brekh fun di kishkes all over Tante Esther’s festive table. Mortified, my mother rushed to clean up my mess while I whimpered on the ground like I’d been kicked in the stomach by a mule.
After that, my mother realized that a signature dish was not a suicide pact and never forced me to eat anything again. Which was a good thing, because my mother made a lot of food I wouldn’t eat.
So I learned how to cook. I started out by throwing together rudimentary staples – say, tuna salad sandwiches to my liking – and then graduated to simple meals for the family by the time I was in high school. I kept cooking that way until the summer break between my freshman and sophomore years of college, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and had to spend the better part of a month in the hospital. I took over the grocery shopping and cooked all the meals for the family – it beat washing the dishes (and still does).
Understanding our family’s predicament, our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Magda Weiss, showed me how to roast chicken, make pot roasts and chicken soup, and how to prepare delicious vegetables not from a can. I was an eager student and adept – cooking not only satisfied my ravening adolescent appetite but also my guyish proclivity for making things with my hands, which I wasn’t good at when using tools to build or fix things. (By the way, Mrs. Weiss’s signature dish was her blintzes. Oh, for just one more taste.)
Exploratory surgery revealed my mother’s cancer to be inoperable and metastasizing, and she died in January, six months after her diagnosis. She was our rock, the one who kept us all together. Because I went back to school in New York, I really wasn’t engaged with how badly my sister and father were faring without her.
Back in New York, I moved into an apartment with a big kitchen. I bought a used New York Times cookbook by Craig Clairbourne and Pierre Franey, and started working my way through the recipes that interested me. I remember my college classmates complaining about their wretched diets of ramen noodles, greasy diner food, deli sandwiches, and such. When they asked me what I had eaten for dinner, my answer would be something like, “Um – last night, moules marniere.” So I started cooking for friends and girlfriends.
I returned to Miami Beach three years after college. My sister, needing family structure, had married a man 16 years her senior and had her first child, my niece, when she was nineteen. He was a great guy, but how can I say it – things were not as everyone imagined they might be before my mother died. My father retired and was lost in life. I was kind of rattling around South Beach, living a bohemian life without much direction. It was a point where we all might have gone our own ways. It happens to some families.
What saved us was Shabbat. Both my sister and I felt sorry for my father, an Orthodox Jew, being alone on Friday evenings, and so came together once a week at his home for a home-cooked meal that I would prepare. In the beginning, I leaned on Mrs. Weiss and some of the old Jewish cookbooks my mother kept, but soon started branching out.
The recipe that would become my signature dish, “Chicken Fricassee in the Puerto Rican Style,” appeared in the Food section of The Miami Herald – “First You Must Know the Sofrito.” A sofrito is the vegetable base of Spanish-style sauces, and there are many different versions; in the Puerto Rican style, the sofrito is made of onions, cubanelle peppers, garlic, cilantro, ajices dulces peppers, cilantro, culantro, tomatoes, red pepper, and bay leaves. The stew was an immediate hit – I’ll always remember my little niece’s “mmmmmmmmmmmm” when she first put some in her mouth. But I knew it could taste better. After some fine-tuning over a period of months, I asked my brother-in-law, who was Puerto Rican, whether his mother made the same dish. Yes, she did, he answered, adding that it was good, “but not as good as yours. I don’t know how you do it.”
The secret ingredient, I would say, is love.
Over the next seven years, our Shabbat dinners were joined by another child, my nephew, and then by my longtime girlfriend. The signature dish appeared on our dinner table at least once month. Eventually, my girlfriend left to go to graduate school in New York, and a year later I followed her back to the big city. Soon, she made it clear she wanted to go places where I was not eager to follow. I settled into a protracted Gotham bachelorhood during which I made the signature dish when friends requested it or when I thought it might move along the process of a courtship or when I was feeling lonely and in need of comfort food – I made it quite a lot, actually.
Back in Miami Beach, my sister’s marriage broke up and she and the kids moved in with my father. When I came home to visit, they all asked for the signature dish. After my sister got involved in a new relationship, it became a staple of my visits to her new home (and a favorite of her husband’s young daughter). Tom, my sister’s bashert, asked for the recipe and started cooking the signature dish himself, but eventually gave up because, as he admitted, “It just doesn’t taste as good as when you make it.” Even if you add the secret ingredient? “Yes.”
The last courtship in which the signature dish played a role was the one with the woman who would become my wife. It remained a much-requested family staple and a favorite of our son from the time he began to eat solid food, so much so that his favorite afternoon nosh comprised two of its prominent ingredients, olives and red peppers. He had this same snack for years until he finally outgrew the afternoon snack habit. My wife and I, alas, outgrew our marriage and I moved into a place without a kitchen – I tried making it in an Instant Pot a couple of times, but neither the slow or pressure cooker modes made the grade. Or maybe it had something to do with the secret ingredient being unavailable.
Which wasn’t the case the last time I prepared my signature dish. I was housesitting for a friend and invited my nephew and his fiancé over for Shabbat dinner, along with my son. As my nephew tucked in, he told his fiancé, a lovely girl originally from Honduras, that this was the food he grew up eating. “Me too,” said my son. When we finished supper, my nephew’s fiancé asked me for the recipe.
“Don’t bother,” said my nephew. “It won’t taste as good as his.”
He was right – not if she made it with love, not if she let it flow through her soul when preparing it. Because it is my signature dish and can be nobody else’s. Each person has to find their own. So here’s what I learned about myself and about chicken stew – the secret ingredient in your signature dish is not just love. The secret ingredient is how delicious you believe life can taste, if only for a little while.
Not as Good as Albert Stern’s Puerto Rican Chicken Fricassee
Ingredients (Available in most supermarkets)
6 Chicken thighs
1 or 2 onions
6+ garlic cloves
1 red pepper
1 cubanelle pepper
1 bunch cilantro
1 large tomato (optional)
2 bay leaves
Pinch of oregano
4-6 cans Goya tomato sauce
1 jar Goya alcaparrado (mixture of olives [unpitted, if available], capers, and pimento), drained
Salt (not too much, as alcaparrado is salty)
Season chicken with salt, pepper, and paprika to taste. Brown thighs in olive oil on both sides and remove from pan. Leave some of the chicken fat in the pan.
Process all sofrito ingredients except bay leaves in food processor, taking care not to over-process. You don’t want a liquified sofrito.
Add a little olive oil, and sauté the sofrito, with bay leaves, over a medium to medium-low heat until the mixture dries out a bit.
Add tomato sauce and alcaparrado. Return chicken to pan and immerse in the sauce. Cover pan, leaving lid slightly askew, and simmer for about 40 minutes at a medium-low heat. You can also cook it for a longer period at a low heat so that the chicken meat breaks down and becomes stewier. Stir often, as the sauce can burn against the bottom of the pan if you don’t.
Serve with white rice and a garden salad. Roasted or steamed fresh asparagus is also a nice side. Of course, it tastes better the next day – add another can of tomato sauce, if needed, to your leftovers.