Of all my food memories, the ones that tug most deeply at my heartstrings are dishes I attribute to my maternal grandmother, Inka Bruck. There was the cake she made for my birthday every year, Hedgehog cake (decorated with M&Ms for eyes and slivered almonds for quills!), the Andes mints she kept in the glass candy dish in her living room for our visits, and most of all, a traditional Central European comfort food made for special occasions: Chicken Paprikash.
Despite the fact that she strongly identified with her Czech background, my grandmother rarely spoke about her upbringing — preferring to distract me with treats as well as Czech endearments, songs and games from her childhood. Reflecting on this after her death, I assumed that the pain of having had her family broken apart and killed during the Holocaust was something she didn’t want to introduce into our relationship given the fact that I was so young. For this reason I chose to fill in my only half rendered image of her with this indelible connection to food. I clung to my existing memories of her in the kitchen of her San Diego home and relished stories about my Grandmother’s marble baking slab in the kitchen of my mother’s childhood home, which she used to make pie crusts and other homemade desserts.
Since my grandmother passed away when I was only ten, the job fell to my mother (a force herself in the kitchen), to continue to promote the legacy of Grandma’s Chicken Paprikash. Though it is not a complicated dish, it was still something only prepared in honor of Shabbat —underscoring the high place it held for all of us, as we would only invoke the food of Grandma on special occasions such as Shabbat. It wasn’t until years later that I read Claudia Roden’s seminal cookbook “The Book of Jewish Food,” and learned that Hungarian Jews prepare this recipe exclusively for Shabbat.
While I was always my mother’s sous-chef on Friday afternoons, for some reason I never learned how to make Chicken Paprikash. The time finally came when I was preparing to leave for college, where I would be have to cook by myself. One Summer Friday, my mother showed me each step of the process, from the browning of the chicken (which she did in goose fat!), to the introduction of the red-hued spices into the onions and garlic, and finally, the methodical layering of the richly flavored tomato and pepper sauce with the browned chicken in a heavy pot, preparing it to stew. My mom made the dish with great care, even suspending her personal preferences for brown rice in favor of staying true to the original recipe with white rice.
Watching her seamless movements, I realized that this cooking lesson was my unofficial induction into womanhood, and more specifically as a member of the Bruck clan. All the elements — the beautiful California afternoon, the memory of Grandma, the imminence of college, and the heady fragrance of the chicken itself melded together into one. Armed with this recipe (never written down, but committed to memory then and there), I was now ready to go out and make my own way in the world — with the support two generations of Bruck women behind me.
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, diced
3-4 firm chopped tomatoes, such as roma
2 red peppers, sliced cross-wise (1/3 inch thick), seeds discarded
2 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (more if you like spice)
1 cut up chicken (8 pieces)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 32-oz container vegetable broth
1) Rinse chicken and pat dry. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. If you are using kosher chicken, omit salt.
2) Heat olive oil in a large heavy bottomed pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, place chicken skin side down in pan and cook until deep brown. Flip and cook underside until browned as well, about five minutes per side. Take care to prevent crowding the chicken by working in batches. Remove chicken from pan and place on a paper towel lined plate to drain.
3) Using the same pan, cook the onions and garlic in the remaining chicken fat and oil until softened and translucent. Add paprika, cayenne, and sugar to onions and mix well, ensuring that the onions are well coated in the spice mixture.
4) Add chopped tomatoes and sliced red peppers to onions and coat thoroughly in mixture. Cook for three to five minutes, until peppers begin to soften. Remove pan from heat.
5) In a large heavy bottomed pot, layer the tomato-pepper-onion sauce and browned chicken, making sure to reserve enough sauce to top the chicken.
6) Add vegetable stock as needed to pot so that chicken is halfway covered. Cover pot and cook over medium low heat until chicken is cooked through — about 30-40 minutes. Rotate chicken pieces halfway through cooking.
Serve chicken on a bed of white rice, with plenty of sauce spooned over top. Grilled or roasted zucchini makes a great side dish.