Food & Memory on NPR

Happy Tuesday, and hopefully you’re still deep in holiday season relaxation. Alex here.

Just a heads up for the people who missed it: I did a story about the connections between food and memory, and Mexican and Jewish cooking, and it ran Sunday on NPR’s Weekend Edition (Christmas Day). Here’s the link. It was cool to hear our family on the air, but of course we may be slightly biased.

Some of you folks may be reading this blog because you heard the story on NPR. To you I say, thanks for listening, reading, and subscribing!

I thought it would be cool to share some other pictures from the trip to Mexico City during which I reported the story. (I asked for help crowdsourcing cookbook research for that trip, and many people shared comments and suggestions — more on that soon, as the NPR piece has kept  me busy.) Happy Holidays to you and your families! All photos are credited to my lovely sister, Anita Schmidt.

Justo Sierra Street in downtown Mexico City. The doors of the synagogue are visible on the left.

Inner courtyard of the Nidjei Israel Temple in downtown Mexico City

The interior of the temple has been beautifully preserved. Anita and I are standing with our grandmother where she greeted guests at her wedding (higher quality image fortcoming).

Ceiling of the temple (higher quality image forthcoming)

Me and my grandmother in the old temple kitchen where Mrs. Shlejter cooked her delicacies. You can see grease stains on the walls and ceiling.

Me in the old temple restaurant where my great grandfather looked forward to eating when he visited Mexico from New York. Shout out to Anita (again) for a very cool shot.

Chicken Paprikash and Nokedli

My Grandfather, Bertsi (Bertolon) Schlesinger declared one day to My Grandmother Lily, that he was going to set out for America.  They were in  Budapest, Hungary, and they had two little girls, my mother Martha, (Marto-Lenke), and my Aunt Edith, (Editke).  The growing Anti-Semitism in Hungary in the late 1920′s had become too much for him.

Not family, nor the Beautiful Danube, not the passionate Hungarian Csárdás Music, nor the food he was so accustomed to, could dissuade him.  One day, in 1927, he set out in search of a better life, and a more secure future for he and his family. He crossed the Atlantic on a big ship, and disembarked in the Port of  Tampico, in the State of Tamaulipas, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.  My Grandfather got settled  in Tampico, and sent word to my grandmother that she and their little girls should join him as soon as possible.

One day, shortly after my grandfather sent for them, my grandmother and her two little girls boarded a ship and traversed the Atlantic for two weeks, heading for Tampico.  It broke my great-grandmother’s heart to see her daughter and little granddaughters leave their native Hungary.  She and her husband owned a beautiful restaurant in Budapest where my grandmother had learned to cook, and also where she entertained the clientele in highbrow style, for she was a concert pianist.

When she arrived in Tampico, my grandmother tried to adjust to life there, but could not.  She missed her mother terribly, and she couldn’t adjust to the language nor the food.  She didn’t like those round discs made out of corn flour, called tortillas.  She didn’t like beans, nor the spicy sauces and other typical foods in that new land.  She decided to take her little girls and go back to Hungary. She remained in Budapest for several weeks until my grandfather convinced her that their future lied in Mexico, and to give it another chance, and so she did, and she found herself again on a ship back to Tampico.

Gradually, my Grandmother adjusted to her new life.  She learned the language and the cooking, yet she continued making the same dishes that she had learned from her mother in Hungary.  She began to love tortillas and spices so much that she served them side by side with  her Hungarian dishes, and she found they made a good accompaniment.

My mother and her sister, and eventually their little brother, were raised in Tampico, Tamaulipas, practically the only Jewish kids in town, in the 1920′s, 1930′s and 1940′s.

I vividly remember my Grandmother Lily preparing this recipe for many of our Sunday afternoon meals in Mexico City.

Ingredients for my Chicken Paprikash

  • 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 2 chickens cut in 10
  • 1 onion diced
  • 5 fresh red pimentos diced
  • 2 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 cup roasted red pimentos from a jar, chopped
  • 2 cups tomato sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fine Hungarian Paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups water

Method

In a large saucepan heat the teaspoon of canola oil. Add the chicken pieces skin down, and allow them to brown for ten minutes.  Turn the pieces over and brown the opposite side for another 10 minutes.  I do this in two batches, removing the browned pieces to a large bowl, as they are ready.

When finished browning the chicken, remove some of the chicken fat which has been rendered during the browning process, and set it aside, (The fat may be discarded, refrigerated or frozen for other use, such as in my Kosher Tamale recipe).

Retain about 2 tablespoons of fat, and keep the saucepan over a high-medium heat.  Add the onion and mix for about 3 minutes.  Add the fresh red pimentos, mix in well with the onion, and then add the minced garlic, followed by the roasted pimento. Stir for three minutes and add the tomato sauce,  bringing the mixture to a boil. Add the paprika, salt and pepper, stir and add the water.   Remove the skin from the chicken pieces  and place them back into the saucepan, into the sauce to finish the cooking process.  Bring to a boil, lower the heat a bit, cover, and cook at a high simmer for one hour.

While the chicken is cooking prepare the Hungarian Dumplings or Nokedli.

Ingredients For Nokedli

  • Large pot filled with boiling water
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup water
  • Just under 2 cups all-purpose flour

Method

Fill a large pot with water about 3/4 to the top. Place it over high heat and while it begins to boil, prepare the dough.

Combine the eggs, salt, and water and beat well with a whisk.  Add the flour a little bit at a time and mix well, until you have a soft but sticky dough.  With a teaspoon take very small amounts of dough and drop them one at a time into the boiling water.  If you stick the spoon into the boiling water, these slide right off.

When the dumplings rise to the surface they are ready.  Using a slotted spoon remove them to a large colander.  Make  batches of about 20 dumplings at a time, to avoid overcooking. Repeat the process until you have finished all of the dough.  Rinse the dumplings in gently running, cold water.

Plate the Chicken Paprikash in a large rectangular serving dish and cover it generously with the sauce.   Separately,  plate the dumplings, and top them with a generous amount of the sauce as well.

Serve hot and enjoy!

Mexico Days…Coca-Cola, Dr. Kildare and The Beatles

I felt very safe and happy as a young child in Mexico City.    In front of our sweet little house on Amatepec Street in Las Lomas, we had huge green bushes filled with large yellow daisies. We had a white picket fence, where my brothers would climb in between the wooden slats, and where I attempted to follow.  Dickie and Gary always wore their little brown leather cowboy hats, and their toy guns in their holsters.  They would climb and then straddle the fence, pretending to be on their friendly and loyal horsies.  They’d aim their toy guns, and shoot at each other, then they’d fall to the ground gravely wounded.  I would watch wide-eyed and laugh with relief to see that they were only pretending.

I always  wanted to do everything that my  big brothers did.  I tried to keep up with them but I always remained a step behind.  By the time I learned to play the game of the moment, like “No pisar suelo”  (Don’t step on the Floor) they no longer had an interest in playing the game, especially not with me.  That game was so much fun!  We would make trails (and a mess) all over the house with newspapers or any other paper we’d find. We’d put it over and up on counters and even on the furniture.  The first one to step off of the trail was out.  I was always the first one out.

Because my brothers had no interest in having me tag along with them, early on I sought out friends to play with.

Just up the street from our house, on Monte Ararat Street lived the Unzueta family.  They had 3 boys and one girl.  Lizzie was 2 years older than me and we went to different schools, but we became the best of friends. After school I’d hurry up to finish lunch, so that I could run up and play at Lizzie’s.  We would sit for what seemed like hours on the side steps outside her house, with her fat Basset Hound Maggie, sprawled out next to us in the sun.  We’d talk and giggle and pass the hours.  She had only brothers and I had only brothers, so we became each others’ sister.

One of the great features of hanging out at Lizzie’s was waiting for the Coca-Cola delivery truck to arrive and unload its cargo of the dark sweet liquid whose bottles sat firmly in their  faded yellow, thick wooden crates.  We watched the strong Coca-Cola man as he brought in crate after crate placing each by Lizzie’s daddy’s bar, next to the living room.

Yes Lizzie’s family was allowed to drink Coca-Cola!  We weren’t!   And the Unzueta’s had the most up to date cars and T.V.’s.  On Wednesday nights Lizzie and I would sit and watch Richard Chamberlain as Dr. Kildare, whom I found myself later daydreaming about.  He was the most handsome person I had ever seen…yes,  at Lizzie’s house I learned the meaning of a first crush.

But the greatest time of all was February 9th 1964.  Lizzie and I were watching the Ed Sullivan Show and the new musical group The Beatles came on  the television.  Lizzie and I sat in stunned silence.  We didn’t know what had just hit us, we only knew that it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to us!   Those were my Mexico days.

Chicken Fajitas

December is fiesta time!  So get out your tortillas, and bring out the avocado and cilantro because this healthy low-fat recipe is delicious and good for you.  These Fajitas, although an American invention {Tex-Mex} are a wonderful and healthy meal in one.  Make tacos out of the fajitas or a burrito (another delicious American invention) or eat them by themselves, either way you will enjoy.  The recipe can also be made vegetarian by using strips of Portobello Mushrooms instead of chicken or turkey strips, and the recipe can easily be cut in half.

Chicken Fajitas

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken or turkey breast lightly pounded, and then sliced in 1/4 inch strips
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 large white onion sliced in thin strips
! red pimento sliced in 1/4 inch strips
2 green bell peppers sliced in 1/4 inch strips
1 or 2 (or more) jalapeno peppers sliced in strips (optional)
2 large garlic cloves minced
3 large Roma Tomatoes cut in strips
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper

1 or 2 Avocados sliced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves (optional)
Corn or flour tortillas

Place chicken in a bowl and add the lime juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Mix well, allow the chicken to marinate for one hour. After an hour drain the chicken in a strainer.

Rub down an indoor stove-top grill or outdoor grill with some olive oil and heat it up over medium heat. If you don’t have a grill use a large frying pan and heat the olive oil in there. Lightly brown the chicken strips on all sides, remove them, and set them aside.

On the same grill add the sliced onion and mix it constantly. After a minute, add the rest of the ingredients mixing them well after each addition. sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper, mix thoroughly, and then add the browned chicken strips to the mixture. continue turning and mixing until chicken is well cooked, remove from heat.

Warm up your corn or flour tortillas, fill them with the fajitas, slices of avocado. chopped cilantro, and a green or red salsa,  roll them up and dig in.

Enjoy!