Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Yiddishe Mama

Chicken Fricassee was one of our favorite Jewish holiday dishes growing up and one that I never stopped to think much about. I still make it once or twice a year, usually for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. During Passover, we'd eat it with matzoh farfel sprinkled on top and for Rosh Hashanah, it was our dinner the evening of the first day, a supposedly lighter meal as we'd been eating all afternoon with friends. It's also great for an appetizer before your pre-Yom Kippur meal.

Last week, as I was shopping for the ingredients to make this, I started wondering about the unlikely name of this dish. This fricassee bears no resemblance to the French dish of the same name. According to the Food Lover's Companion, fricassee (FRIHK-uh-see) is a dish of meat (usually chicken) that has been sauteed in butter before being stewed with vegetables. The end result is a thick, chunky stew, often flavored with wine. Chicken? Check! And that is the end of the similarities. Certainly there is no butter as this evolved out of a kosher house. And, a vegetable has never entered this dish as far as I'm aware.

My family's chicken fricasee was a tomato based stew, of sorts, which featured parts of the chicken we normally do not eat today: necks and gizzards (pupiks in Yiddish). To this epitome of Yiddishe cucina povera, my forebears would add some wings and a little flanken (top rib - which is similar to short rib, just cut across the bone instead of alongside). Preparation required cleaning the gizzards of their greenish skin, cutting the flanken into bite sized pieces, and browning both prior to adding any other ingredients. Once the meat and gizzards were browned, they went into a large pot, were covered with tomato sauce, sugar and lemon juice, and simmered for a couple of hours. The chicken necks and wings went in after an hour or so for the last hour of simmering. Salt and pepper were added, to taste, at the end.

When I make fricasee now, there is none of the cucina povera about it. My husband and kids never cared for the boney chicken necks and wings, so I switched to skinless drumsticks. More recently, I learned that the gizzards were unappealing to them as well, so I sometimes leave them out. When I do use them, I use half as much as I used to. I either add in extra boneless flanken or some meatballs. I play to my audience! My ancestors' budget stew has evolved into a $60.00 pot of sweet and sour short ribs.

In doing some research last week into this dish, I've discovered that not only does this dish not resemble a French fricassee, it doesn't even resemble a typical Jewish one. In fact, it seems that somewhere along the way one of my Grandmothers or Great Grandmothers conflated fricassee with a sweet and sour dish. My family's created an amalgam of the two, keeping the chicken parts while using the flanken and sweet and sour sauce.

Arthur Schwartz' Jewish Home Cooking and Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America were helpful in my research. I think Arthur Schwartz and I must be related because his recipes are so similar to my family's. My family's fricassee is most similar to his family's Sweet and Sour Flanken.

Our recipe is a simple one, with very few ingredients and only one pot needed, although I choose to use a second pot to cook the gizzards if I use them. Feel free to sub back in the gizzards and necks if it's to your taste. If you'd like the cleaning instructions for the gizzards, just drop me a message in the comment section. Nose to tail cooking is trendy right now!

This dish just gets better with time, so if you can, make it a day ahead and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. An added bonus is that when chilled, the fat will rise to the top and you can easily skim it off the next day.

Grandma Penzner's Chicken Fricassee

(serves 10 or so)

3 -4 pounds of first cut top rib from a kosher butcher, trimmed of large pieces of fat and cut into bite sized pieces. Leave some meat attached to each bone, but you can cut some of the meat away from the bone, too.

1.5 pounds boneless top rib, trimmed of large pieces of fat and cut into bite sized pieces

48 - 53 ounces strained tomatoes (I use either Bionaturae which comes in a 24 ounce jar, or Pomi in a 26.46 ounce box. Either way I use two. I throw a half cup,sometimes more, of water into the jars or boxes after emptying them into the pot, swish it around and add that in too - helps get the last bits of strained tomatoes out. It's a little harder to do with the boxes! With a dish like this I'm not sure how much it matters, but both these brands have no added sodium)

1/4 cup sugar (I use natural cane sugar), more to taste

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, more to taste

1/2 tablespoon salt, more to taste

pepper to taste

6 - 8 chicken drumsticks or one dozen wings. I like to take the skin off the drumsticks.

1. Brown the flanken in a large, heavy pot over a medium-high to high flame. Do not crowd the pieces, even if it means doing the browning in several batches. After each batch is finished, remove the pieces to a bowl and set aside.

2. When all the meat is browned, put it all back into the pot, and add the strained tomatoes, sugar, lemon juice, salt and a few grinds of pepper. The sauce/water should cover the meat. If it doesn't, add a little water to the pot. Let it come to a boil, then lower the light to keep the contents at a steady simmer. Scrape up the bits that might have gotten stuck to the bottom of the pan during the browning.

3. After about an hour of cooking, taste and see if the sweet and sour flavor seems balanced. Add more sugar or lemon juice by tablespoons. Taste for salt and pepper.

4. Add the chicken legs or wings (if using wings, I like to brown them before adding) and continue to simmer about another hour.

5. If possible, let cool and refrigerate overnight. Skim fat and reheat to serve. Delicious with challah and/or rice.

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