Food is a way to enjoy being alive. Drink wine and dance around the kitchen; kiss your beloved. Life can be beautiful…
Experts with scientific credentials tell us the best way to resolve interpersonal conflicts, how to raise children, and what food to eat. These new gurus maintain that in principle scientific truths can guide every aspect of human life, from birth to death. Most of us, however, have discovered that the experts are not so much faulty as contradictory.
Thirty years ago, under the sway of nutritionists, we learned to think of food as protein, carbohydrate, fiber, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, cholesterol, vitamins, and micronutrients, such as zinc and selenium. The wrong food caused diabetes, cancer, and heart attack. That steak on the grill was a slow killer, as bad as cigarettes. Butter, the artery clogger and culprit in heart attack, was forbidden and replaced by safe margarine. Ten years later, trans fat made margarine lethal. The medical community, then, recommended a low-fat diet to protect against breast cancer. The Women’s Health Initiative, which tracked the eating habits of 49,000 women for eight years, announced, in 2006, that this most extensive study of food and health found no link between a low-fat diet and breast cancer or surprisingly coronary disease. Other studies cast doubt on the then prevailing view that a high-fiber diet reduces the risk of colon cancer. Now, in 2017, some experts tell us their previous advice to eat less fat and more carbohydrates caused the current epidemic of obesity in America.
A succession of contradictory guidelines on eating well has destroyed confidence in nutrition researchers, health reporters, and some cookbook writers. Today, most of us flounder in a sea of unfounded opinion. Myself, I look to the experts of the past, to those wise souls who never heard the words cholesterol, saturated fat, and fiber.
My childhood mentor on eating well was Ninya Moise, a Romanian gypsy, who once was a chef in Bucharest and after hard times in America ended up in Union Lake, Michigan, working in my parents’ grocery store and living in our house as a permanent border. Ninya Moise was fanatical about food and did all the cooking for our family and for the employees of our store.
In the summer, he planted a large vegetable garden with many herbs; in the fall, he slaughtered a hog, made sausage, and smoked the ribs and chops in a smokehouse he had built himself; in the spring, he butchered lambs purchased from a local farmer. Ninya Moise raised rabbits for our table and for sale in our store. He procured chickens from nearby farmers, again for us and our customers. This former Bucharest chef followed the seasons and bought locally, but what primarily guided his cuisine was the pleasure of eating. Ninya Moise did not suffer from the preaching by some Protestants that taking pleasure in eating and drinking is sinful, but is acceptable if it promotes good health.
In our grocery store, we sold Velveeta cheese, Wonder bread, and Campbell’s soup, food we called American, but we seldom ate ourselves. Ninya Moise made soup from the leftover parts from his slaughtered chickens, using everything, the necks, backs, legs with the claws, and the heads. The one time my boyhood friends saw the chicken heads with white eyes floating in the soup, they almost threw up.
The contrast between American and Romanian food taught me that the American palate is infantile, attuned to salt, sugar, and fat, superbly satisfied by the quarter pounder with cheese.
Ninya Moise was the heartiest person I have known; he lived to be eighty-eight, and I swear he died then only because he grew tired of living.
If you want to eat well and live exuberantly, here are the Gypsy principles to follow: Eat for pleasure; Expand the palate; Share food. If you follow these simple guidelines and forget about those put out by the FDA, at some point you will find processed food, factory-raised chickens, and soft drinks nauseating. With an expanded palate, you will be eating many different foods and cuisines. You will break free from McDonald’s to eat ragouts, goulashes, and curries. You may end up cooking with your children, spouse, or partner. Food is a way to enjoy being alive. Drink wine and dance around the kitchen; kiss your beloved. Life can be beautiful.
To get you cooking the Gypsy way here in a recipe from Ninya Moise’s kitchen.
Chicken Paprikas with Noodles
The classic Romanian recipe for this dish begins “First steal one chicken.” A store-bought chicken is okay, but the dish will not produce as much enjoyment. If you do not want to go the whole Gypsy route and steal a chicken, do not buy a factory-raised chicken produced by Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, or similar processors. Go to the local farmer’s market, or seek out a Bell & Evans or Empire chicken, available from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, respectively.
- 3 lb chicken, cut into pieces with skin and bones (In traditional peasant cooking, the skin is left on the chicken. If you wish to serve the paprikas without the skin, first sauté chicken with skin on and then remove before adding the other ingredients.)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 large red pepper, chopped.
- 1 small or half a large green pepper, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 tablespoons hot Hungarian paprika, or more to taste (Hungarian paprika is essential to this dish; I recommend the brand Szeged.)
- 1 can chicken broth
- 1 cup sour cream
- Accompaniment: buttered egg noodles
- Garnish: chopped fresh parsley
Rinse chicken and pat dry, then sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
Heat oil in a six- to eight-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then brown chicken in two batches, skin sides down first, turning over once, about twelve minutes per batch. Transfer chicken to a shallow bowl. Drain off fat, leaving about two tablespoons. Add onion, red pepper, and green pepper to pot and sauté, stirring, until well softened, about six minutes.
Add garlic, fry thirty seconds or so; add paprika, fry one minute or less. Add chicken pieces, skin sides up. Add chicken broth with enough water to cover chicken pieces and simmer, covered, until chicken is very tender but not falling off the bone, about thirty minutes. Remove chicken and purée sauce in a blender. Return sauce and chicken to pot and cook uncovered to thicken sauce, about ten minutes. Taste sauce; add salt and pepper, if needed.
Transfer one cup sauce to a bowl and whisk in sour cream, then stir mixture into remaining sauce in pot. Do not boil sauce: sour cream will curdle.
Raise your glass of red wine high and shout noroc, which is Romanian for good luck.
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