Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hungarian Roots, part 1 - Jozsa Corner

Pittsburgh is a melting pot of eastern European cultures. When the city's mills and factories were booming during the industrial revolution, people from all over the world came to Pittsburgh to chase the American dream. In the hills and valleys where the three rivers meet, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Serbian, Hungarian, Ukrainian and many more communities came together and gave this city its unique character. It is most evident in the local food traditions. Pierogies are kind of a big deal here. Its tradition to serve pork and sauerkraut at New Years and people are crazy for coleslaw, pickles and keilbasa. The city is dotted with small restaurants that serve their communities with the dishes of their homelands, the food of their people. This is certainly the case for Jozsa Corner.

Beef goulash from Jozsa Corner
I'd heard about this place since I moved here five years ago and have been intrigued ever since.  You don't make reservations at Jozsa Corner, you make an appointment. From what people had described to me, you are basically dining in someone's living room on the most rustic homemade Hungarian fare this side of the Atlantic ocean. I have quite a bit of Hungarian and Romanian blood flowing through my veins and comfort food for me includes chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage and goulash. Give me some pickled herring, dense brown bread and a briny, fermented pickle and I'm a happy girl. Looking at Jozsa's menu online, the siren call of my ancestors echoed in my heart.

The descriptions were absolutely accurate, this place could not be more unpretentious or informal. The old building sits in front of railroad tracks on a sparsely populated corner in a working class neighborhood. It has a storefront with a counter, a couple of stools, a kitchen with an ancient cook top and well worn appliances. You can imagine generations of Hungarian immigrants stopping in after their shifts at the factory to pick up dinner on their way home.
Dinner in the parlor
Alex Jozsa, our proprietor, looks to be about 70 years old and he chatted with our party of five people when we arrived, making sure he learned everyone's names. He took us through the kitchen, past the tiny sink and into the living room where we would dine. On the way past, we met Alex's daughter, who was busy cooking the meal were about to enjoy.  Alex has a couple of banquet tables set up in the parlor and you are literally sitting next to his old TV, family piano and cluttered bookshelves. The walls are adorned with old black and white photos of immigrants and Alex's original paintings.

Its just he and his daughter, cooking dinner for people when they get appointments, which is no more than about 10 at a time. At lunch, they serve to-go dishes like keilbasa sandwiches, soups and single servings of haluska, which is sauteed cabbage and egg noodles. For dinner, you don't order off a menu, its just whatever Alex wants to cook that day. It is served on plastic tablecloths with plastic forks and styrophome plates and bowls. There is a pitcher of water on the table with no ice. This is as no-frills and you get.

Transylvanian goulash
There was tart red cabbage salad on the table when we arrived and it tasted like something I'd find in my grandmother's icebox. Every 20 minutes or so, Alex would arrive with another big bowl of food. We started with langos, which is a round, doughy flatbread that is crispy on the outside, and it was served with mushroom paprikash - big, meaty slices of mushrooms in their own juices, heavily imbued with flavorful paprika. We had goulash, chicken paprikash, haluska, cucumber and dill salad and something called Transylvanian goulash, which was pork shoulder cooked in sauerkraut in a rich, tomatoey sauce. For dessert, Alex took a warm langos and covered it with chopped dried fruits, chocolate chips and chopped nuts. It was a lovely sweet ending to a dinner that touched my Hungarian roots.

The Hungarian dishes I grew up eating were prepared differently than Alex's, but I found his cooking to be totally authentic. That food probably tasted exactly the same as it did when his grandmother prepared it a century ago. I was inspired by this dinner and committed myself to cooking all my favorite Hungarian dishes over the next six months. The following weekend, I bought a pork shoulder and a couple bags of sauerkraut and I made Transylvanian goulash. While I would put my paprikash or goulash up against Alex's any day, my version of this dish didn't come close to what he served us that night in his living room. This winter, I'll be cooking the beloved Hungarian dishes I learned from my mother and will post the recipes here so you can give them a try.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stuffed Eggplant

For home cooks everywhere, social media provides a constant stream of inspiration and an excellent forum to share our experiences. My personal feeds on Instagram and Facebook are filled with beautiful pictures of food, links to recipes and posts from some of my favorite chefs and culinary publications. When I see something interesting, I make a mental note and start devising a recipe in my head. That's what happened when a video popped up in my Facebook feed showing a recipe for stuffed eggplant Parmesan.

I do love eggplant, although I grew up eating it prepared one way - dredged and fried. I made the mistake one time of buying a rather large one because I had a craving for that fried eggplant of my childhood. It was entirely too much fried eggplant and despite the yummy eggplant Parmesan I made to use some of it up, I was totally sick of it after a couple days. For many years, it was a forgotten vegetable for me, but when I saw that video of the stuffed eggplant, I started building my own recipe in my head. A few days later, my husband and I were at local outdoor market and a Greek food vendor was selling stuffed eggplant with a ground meat filling, rich tomato sauce and a topping made of thick bechamel. It was absolutely delicious. The eggplant shell had absorbed the juices from the meat and was soft and unctuous. I made up my mind to experiment with this recipe the next day. 

I had a tub of San Marzano tomatoes in the freezer from my garden and I was able to find some small to medium sized eggplants at the store. I picked up the other ingredients I needed and headed home to make magic in the kitchen. The beauty of this kind of recipe is that you can do anything you want with it - just let your imagination run wild. 


3 small to medium sized eggplants
2 large cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1 large yellow onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 8 oz ball of fresh mozzerella cheese
1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup Panko bread crumbs
1 medium sized fresh tomato or 12 fresh grape tomatoes
1/4 cup of chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley
Salt, pepper, dried oregano and red pepper flakes to taste

Start by preheating your oven to 350 degrees. I made my own tomato sauce, but you don't have to.  If there is a jarred sauce you like, you can omit this entire step in the process and save some time. However, its really not difficult to make and it's absolutely worth the minimal amount of effort to have a simple, homemade sauce that is full of flavor. Put a medium saucepan over medium heat and drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom. Chop half the onion into a medium dice and add it to the pot with some salt and pepper. While the onion is cooking, open your cans of tomatoes and lift the tomatoes out into a separate bowl and reserve the juice for a later step. Crush the tomatoes with your hand, making sure to break them all up into very small pieces. Once the onions begin to take on a little brown color around the edges, thinly slice two cloves of garlic and add them to the pot. It only takes a couple of minutes for the garlic to become fragrant and begin to brown. That's when you want to add all the tomatoes. Turn the heat to low and let the sauce cook covered for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

While your sauce is cooking, you have time to work on your eggplants. Cut them in half lengthwise so you have two even halves. With a small paring knife, cut the flesh of the eggplant all the way around about half an inch from the skin. This will give you enough space to wedge a spoon in and scrape out the flesh of the eggplant, which you want to set aside. It takes a little work, but what you want to end up with is an eggplant boat that you can fill with stuffing. The skin can be leathery and unpleasant to eat, especially in large pieces. Ultimately when the dish is served, you will be scooping the cooked eggplant away from the skin as you eat it. Put your eggplant boats in a roasting pan, drizzle them liberally with olive oil, salt and pepper them and place them in the oven while you make your stuffing. 

Now, this is the fun part and the place where you can let your imagination soar free. I'll tell you when I did, but don't let that hold you back. You can use whatever stuffing you like. Some sweet Italian sausage or ground beef would be good in here. I can imagine making this dish with ground lamb, fresh oregano and feta cheese. It would be yummy with mushrooms, zucchini or even spaghetti squash in the filling. You could add chopped Calamata olives, pine nuts, raisins, any kind of cheese that strikes your fancy or even chopped fresh apples. The possibilities are endless. 

If you are using meat, that will be the first thing you cook.  Brown it in a large skillet over medium high heat until it is cooked through and set it aside in a bowl to cool. Chop the other half of the onion and the garlic, add it to the same pan and cook it over medium heat until translucent, about 8 minutes. Chop the pieces of eggplant you set aside into bite-sized chunks and add them to the pan. You may need to add a little extra olive oil at this point as the eggplant acts like little sponges and will soak up whatever moisture is in the pan. If you were adding any other veggies, this would also be the time to add them to the pan. Cook everything together and allow it to breakdown a bit, adding salt, pepper, dried oregano and red pepper flakes to taste. Finally, add about half a cup of the liquid from the canned tomatoes and place a lid on the pan. Let that cook for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables and soft and cooked through. The finished mixture should have a sludgy texture with very little or no extra liquid in the pan. If your mixture is too  juicy, turn the heat up to high and let the liquid cook away until you have a tight mixture. Scoop it into a bowl and take your eggplant boats out of the oven and let everything cool off for about ten minutes before moving to the next step. 

I like my tomato sauce smooth, but if you like yours more chunky, this is another step you can skip. I used an immersion blender to make a smooth sauce, tasting and adjusting the seasoning as I blended. Cut your cheese into small cubes, dice your fresh tomatoes, chop your herbs and now you're ready to assemble. Add your cooled meat to the veggie mixture, add the cubed cheese, add the tomatoes and herbs, half a cup each of grated Parmesan and Panko bread crumbs and mix everything together. Fill each eggplant boat with a generous amount of stuffing. Ladle sauce over each eggplant boat and cover the tops with the rest of the grated cheese and breadcrumbs. I also ladled some of the sauce into the pan so the eggplant would kind of be floating in a thin bed of sauce as it cooked.  Cover it loosely with foil and place it back in the oven. It needs about 45 minutes to cook completely, but take the foil off half way through the cook time so you can get some browning on the top. That cheese will be as hot as molten lava when it comes out of the oven, so let it cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before you serve it. 

I served mine over angel hair pasta, but it would be good over rice or with just a piece of crusty bread for sopping up the sauce. This is one of those dishes that can go in any direction. Its not terribly difficult and looks very impressive on the plate. This is also a great dish if you're entertaining vegetarians and if you leave out the cheese, its great for your vegan guests. Whatever you stuff in your eggplant, I hope you'll share your experience on social media and create your own community around the food you love to cook. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fried Green Tomatoes

I am a little sheepish to admit that until last weekend, I had never made fried green tomatoes.  In fact, I'd only eaten them once or twice before and while they tasted fine I wasn't wild about them. They just didn't live up to the hype for me. One of my home cook heroes is Jason's grandmother Mom Mom Jessie and she has been singing the praises of fried green tomatoes for as long as I've known her. This has been an amazing year for tomatoes and my garden has yielded quite an abundant crop. I was tending the garden one day and a very large unripe beefsteak fell off the plant. It didn't knock me on the head, but that green love apple gave me an idea and I decided to follow Mom Mom's advice and fry that baby up.

I read a few recipes and recommendations on line and consulted my best friend Jenny, who cooks them all the time. Basically, this preparation is the same as any other fried delicacy - the sliced tomatoes are dusted in flour, dipped in an egg wash and coated with cornmeal or bread crumbs before being pan fried in a flavorless oil. Jenny had some good suggestions, such as adding grated Parmesan cheese to the coating and double dipping in egg and flour before coating them in breadcrumbs, making for a thicker crust. Jenny also warned me to slice the tomato thinly so the inside cooks through before the coating has a chance to burn. Armed with tricks and tips, I was ready to fry my first green tomato.

For the coating, there are more choices than you might think. Cornmeal and Panko breadcrumbs seem to be the most common and in many cases they are mixed with flour, but I saw recipes that employed cracker crumbs, crushed corn flakes and a liquid fritter-like batter. I like using matzoh meal for dredging as it gives you a crispy and light coating, but I decided to mix in Panko crumbs for the extra crunch. I also happened to have buttermilk in the fridge, which acts as an excellent adhesive for coating fried chicken. Why not tomatoes?


1 large or several small to medium sized green tomatoes
1 large egg
1/3 cup of buttermilk
1/2 cup of matzoh meal
1/2 cup of Panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup of flour
Dash of hot sauce
1 tsp each of salt and pepper
1/2 tsp of any seasonings that strike your fancy
2 cups of any neutral flavored oil for frying, such as vegetable or canola

Just like any fried food, there is science and technique behind the perfect result. Ultimately, you want a crispy, deep brown coating that adheres to the tomato and you want the inside to be soft and fully cooked but not mushy. In order for the coating to adhere to the tomato, it needs a glue to hold it in place. That glue has to stick to both the coating and the tomato without sliding off. The surface of the tomato has to be dry or the egg will just slip right off and your coating will not adhere properly. That's why fried foods are typically dusted with flour first. The flour creates a dry surface, which allows the egg to stick, then the coating sticks to the egg. When the buttermilk is added to beaten egg, it creates a thick, almost gelatinous goo that sticks beautifully.

The temperature of your cooking environment is also really important. The first step to this preparation is to put your oil on the stove to heat up. I like to use a cast iron skillet for all my frying, but any skillet will do. Pour in enough oil so that it comes up about an inch in the pan and turn the heat to medium. This will heat the oil slowly and allow it to hold its temperature during cooking.  The thickness of the sliced tomato is also an important variable. If its too thick and takes too long to cook, you'll have burned coating and a hard tomato. If its too thin, it'll get gushy and fall apart during cooking. While the oil is heating, cut the tomatoes into 1/8th inch slices, lay them flat on the cutting board and sprinkle them with flour. Then beat the egg and buttermilk together with a dash of hot sauce and in a separate bowl combine the bread crumbs, matzoh meal or whatever you're using with the spices. By the way, I used granulated garlic and a dash of cayenne pepper in my coating.

If you are organized about the dredging process, the whole task is much more manageable. Set up an assembly line with the tomatoes on one end, the egg mixture next to it and the coating on the end closest to the pan. Test your oil by dipping your finger in a little of the egg and letting small drops fall into the pan. If it sizzles when it hits the oil, you're ready. If it just drops in and does nothing, the oil isn't hot enough, but if it spatters like crazy, your oil is too hot. Flip the tomato slices over and flour them thoroughly on both sides so the surface is dry, then slide them into the bowl of egg and coat them well. Lift them out and let the excess egg drip off, then place the slice into the breadcrumbs. I like to shake the bowl around gently to begin to coat the tomato, but the coating really needs to be pressed in. With the palm of your hand, apply pressure to one side then flip it and do the same thing on the other side, making sure that your coating is really stuck on there. Shake off a little of the excess before sliding your coated tomato slice into the pan. You should only cook maybe three slices at a time to avoid overcrowding. They cook really quickly and as soon as the sides begin to turn golden brown, flip them over gently. I like to use two wooden spatulas to flip them so there isn't too much splashing around.

Once they are a deep golden brown, remove them from the oil one by one allowing then to drip off before placing them on a sheet tray. I do not drain any of my fried food on paper towels as the steam that is released from the hot food will create moisture, which is absorbed by the paper towel and transmitted back into the coating you worked so hard to get perfect. It'll get soggy and fall off before you know it. If you are concerned about drainage, put your fried tomatoes on a metal rack on the sheet tray to allow the extra oil to drip through. Sprinkle a little salt on the finished tomatoes while they are still hot.

Ya know when people say "you don't know what you're missing: and you think "yeah, right"? Well, that's exactly what I thought before that slice of fried green tomato crossed my lips. The coating was super crispy and the inside was tender with that slight tang you expect from a green tomato. We ate ours on potato rolls with goat cheese, green salsa and lettuce and they far exceeded my expectations. I spent the next two hours reliving that meal and making yummy noises. Think you don't like fried green tomatoes? Think again.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Pickle It Yourself

I think I killed my taste for cucumbers this summer. Its hard to believe that I could harvest so many cucumbers in one season. Actually, I brought this upon myself.  On a road trip to the Fiestaware factory outlet in WV with my adorable friend Marie, we stopped at Janoski's local farm stand and I found a whole bunch of very nice looking plants. The problem was that they came in four-packs priced at only $2 each. How could I resist? I bought a four pack of cucumber plants and put all of them in the ground, thinking only two would thrive and produce. Boy was I wrong.  We returned from a week-long trip right after July 4th and found about a dozen enormous cucumbers hanging from the plants and probably 20 more small ones that would be ready to harvest just a few weeks later. I have been harvesting cucumbers for two solid months and they are beginning to get on my nerves. I brought a bunch of them to work, but it barely made a dent in my harvest. I mean, seriously, how many cukes can two people eat? There's only one thing to do with too many cucumbers. Make pickles, of course!

To some folks, the idea of making pickles is daunting.  Questions abound. How does a brine work? Do I have to ferment them for a long time? How do I keep them crisp? How do I keep them from going bad in the pantry? What kind of vinegar should I use? I was talking to my 93 year old dad about how his mother made pickles. He described a crock that sat on the kitchen counter for months and the time-intensive process she went through to ferment her own pickles the old fashioned way. Not all pickles are created equally - there are hundreds of types of pickles and they are enjoyed by many cultures around the world.  Pickling was a main form of food preservation long before the invention of modern refrigeration. Sauerkraut is really just pickled and fermented cabbage. In Japanese cuisine, pickled ginger is quite popular. On the Indian table, you will find mango pickle. There are pickled eggs, pickled beets, pickled pigs feet and even pickled herring. You can pickle just about anything.

Picklesburgh features a giant inflatable pickle.
Of course, the technique, preparation and ingredients for a great pickle are different depending on your tastes. Pittsburgh is the hometown of H.J. Heinz and people here are proud of the important role pickles have played in the city's history. In July, we have wonderful festival called Picklesburgh that takes place on one of our stunning bridges and all things pickled are celebrated and on display. I go every year, but given the annoying abundance of cukes in my kitchen, I was there for inspiration this year.  For my first batch of the season, I decided to go with one of my favorites, the sharp sweetness of the bread & butter pickle.

After making a few batches of pickles, you get a feel for the proportions of the ingredients. I started by following a recipe for the brine, but I had a lot of cucumbers to deal with and I didn't want to have any left over.  You need enough brine so that each jar is filled to the rim, so you might need to adjust the amount of vinegar and sugar to ensure that you have enough brine. Too much is better than not enough.


15 cups of sliced cucumbers (12-15 medium large cukes)
1 thinly sliced yellow onion
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups sugar
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp celery seed
1 tbsp pickling spice (optional)
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

My husband makes a pickle recipe that was handed down from his grandmother. They are affectionately known as "MomMom pickles" and they almost treated as currency in his family. This recipe is made with sliced zucchini and the brine is more sweet than tart. MomMom's secret to keeping her pickles crunchy is to salt them and let them sit for a long time so the excess moisture is drawn out of the zucchini, which firms them up so they don't go soft in the brine. MomMom is a farm cook and everything she learned about food and cooking was passed down to her by generations of farm cooks. In my opinion, that is the kind of kitchen wisdom you can't get from a book. So, if it works for MomMom, its gotta work for me. I used a crinkle cutter and sliced my cucumbers into thick, crinkled slices and I also sliced the onion very thinly. I put it all in a colander and tossed it with the kosher salt, then covered the top with ice and set the colander in the sink. Its important to keep the cucumbers cold while the salt does its work. Three hours later, there was a generous pool of light green liquid in the sink and the cucumbers had a slightly firmer texture.  They were ready to rock.

In order to dissolve the sugar and allow the spices to release their flavor, the brine needs to be simmered. I put all the brine ingredients into a big pot and brought it to a simmer over medium heat. Once the brine was simmering, I rinsed my cukes and put them in the pot with the brine to cook for just a moment. This step is omitted from some recipes, but I find that the brine penetrates a little better if the pickles are simmered in it for just a few minutes.  If you are using something more firm, like green beans or cauliflower, its a good idea to simmer them in the brine so they soften slightly before they are jarred.

The pickles should be packed tightly into jars and the best way to do this is with tongs. Lift the pickles out of the hot brine and put them in the jars making sure to press them down so you can get as many in there as possible. Once your jars are filled with pickles, ladle the brine over them so it covers the cucumbers. You can keep the jars in the fridge or you can seal them using the traditional canning method and they'll be good in your pantry for about six months, although mine don't make it that long. I made seven jars of bread & butter pickles and for my second batch, I made sour pickles with dill seed from my garden. I'm hoping they'll make it to Thanksgiving, but they are in high demand. Pickling is really not difficult and once you learn the technique, you can pickle whatever you have on hand. Don't be shy, give it a try!