Esther Kessler, my paternal grandmother, cooked with the precision of a diamond cutter, methodical, deliberate, and composed. Her hair professionally coiffed, a silk-scarf jauntily tied at the neck, she brought those same qualities to her personal style.
Esther immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1938 and settled in the Bronx. A single mother of two, she was a working woman and therefore “fed” her young family in both senses of the word. She earned the money to buy the groceries, but also turned them into meals.
My grandmother was not an adventurous cook. Her culinary repertoire was limited to the Jewish standards she had learned as a girl back in Europe, along with a handful of schlock (by my standards), American dishes acquired on this side of the ocean. On her Friday night table, you would have found gefilte fish, chopped liver, chicken soup, roast chicken, farfel with mushrooms, but also a salad of iceberg lettuce, green pepper, and Wishbone Italian, along with a form of kugel made from frozen broccoli, margarine, eggs and matzoh meal. All, however, were prepared with consummate finesse.
By the time I was born, my grandmother had remarried and moved to Queens. Friday night dinners at her fifth floor apartment were forays into exotic terrain. Things were different in Queens, small things. In Queens, you drank tea out of a glass, never a cup, and never with milk. Our Manhattan apartment was basically candy-free; at my grandmother’s, every side table held a dish of Barton’s Almond Kisses. And then, of course, there was all of that praying and singing and clapping, things we never did at home. But strangest of all, when my grandfather came home from shul, he opened the door with a key attached to his tie clip.
The food was also different, though in the best possible way. Even as a kid, I understood that my grandmother’s cooking was “just so,” every carrot in the soup cut to uniform size, the matzo balls perfectly round, the chicken done to a turn. But her crowning achievement, as far as I was concerned, was the breast of veal, stuffed with challah and vegetables, its meat tender and delicate, with lovely bones to suck on.
A cumbersome piece of meat, breast of veal is fatty and bony, with large deposits of cartilage. American cooks have traditionally found little use for it, which helps account for its low sticker price. Jewish cooks however, were well aware of its virtues. After, long, slow cooking, the fat melts away in self-basting fashion. The knobs of cartilage, meanwhile, release their gelatin, the “secret ingredient,” so to speak, that gives this dish its satiny luster.
At some point down the road, I decided I was ready to take on stuffed breast of veal, and turned to my grandmother for guidance. As I discovered, getting her “recipe” was an involved process.
First, all of her culinary know-how was stored in her head. Second, her understanding of what exactly a recipe is, its form and content, was nothing like the recipes in American cookbooks. Finally, there was the language barrier. Her speech was full of Yiddishisms, mysterious word combinations that required careful decoding.
So, her veal recipe went like this:
You take a carrot, and you grate it. And an onion. Put it to the flame. It should go through and through. You mix it with the challah. You take the meat and give a cut. You fill it, and then, you cook it!
Translated and expanded, that same recipe looks something like this:
Esther Kessler’s Stuffed Veal
2 large onions
1 medium carrot, grated
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
3 slices stale challah, torn into small pieces
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons water
salt and pepper
Sweet Hungarian paprika
3 ½ to 4 pound breast of veal, with bones
Pre-heat oven to 325.
1) Halve the onions. Finely chop one of those halves for the stuffing. Cut remaining onion into rings and strew over the bottom of a roasting pan.
2) Over low heat, sauté the chopped onion in a tablespoon or so of oil. When soft, add carrot and continue cooking another 5 minutes. Add parsley. Stir and set aside.
3) To make stuffing, sprinkle the water over the challah to moisten it. Combine challah with eggs and sautéed vegetables. Stir well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4) To make the pocket in your breast of veal, lay meat flat on your work surface, bones down, the thickest side of the breast facing you. Insert knife horizontally and cut side to side to form pocket, leaving a one-inch margin of meat on each end. Season pocket with salt and pepper. Fill loosely with stuffing. Sew pocket closed with needle and thread (regular sewing thread works nicely) or secure with wooden skewers.
5) Season meat with salt, pepper and paprika. Rub with vegetable oil. Place in roasting pan, on top of onions, fat side up. Add ½ cup water. Cover and cook for 3 hours, or until meat is fork tender. Let cool 15 minutes before slicing.