Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gizzard Paprikash

While I was home over the holidays, we got together with some friends and butchered a number of chickens -- hens who'd stopped laying, roosters with asthma, roosters in general. Nobody else was particularly interested in the organs and feet, so I took those. Gracious. Those old roosters grew dragon's hide on their feet! I dunked the feet in boiling water for five minutes, clipped off the toenails, and then my mother and I painstakingly peeled off the outer layer of scaly skin before making stock of them. That dragon stock was gorgeous. You could have walked on it and not fallen in.

But this is about the gizzards and hearts. Gizzards and hearts are delicious dark, dark meat -- almost blue, they're so dark -- but they take a little stewing to become tender. The gizzard is a powerful disc-shaped muscle in the chicken's neck, which grinds seeds and grass. To get the partially digested food out of the gizzard, you have to split it open and peel the lining out, which is why gizzards have that clam-shell shape when you buy them.

When considering what to do with my bucket of gizzards and hearts (besides make an enormous pot of gravy), I recalled a delicious dish of zúza paprikás, a.k.a. gizzard paprikash, I had one evening in Budapest. And I recalled a page or two I'd spent an entire day translating from a Hungarian cookbook, and from these two recollections I made a very delicious, convincing gizzard/heart paprikash for supper. It was boldly orange, piquant and creamy.

Back in San Francisco, I wanted to compare my recipe to that in a book of mine called Cooking with Love and Paprika, a 1966 cookbook by Joseph Pasternak. To my alarm, he makes a distinction between Hungarian paprikash and Transylvanian paprikash; according to him, my recipe is Transylvanian because it includes sour cream. How perplexing. Well, the zúza paprikás I had in Hungary most definitely had sour cream in it, just like practically everything I ate there (oh sigh!). Also, a good bit of Transylvania used to belong to Hungary, so maybe it's a moot point.

Many Hungarian dishes start with rendering some minced smoked pork fat in a skillet. Unfortunately, I cannot walk two blocks to the nearest market hall and ask for a kilo of smoked Mangalica fat from the butcher. (Nor can I ask for a kilo of goose gizzards, or a quart of pickled peppers ladled from the brine vat, or get my jug filled up with raw milk for a handful of forints -- sigh, sigh, and sigh.) So I would recommend frying a few slices of bacon at a fairly low temperature for a long time, so the fat renders out without burning at all. Pour the clean fat into a jar, eat the bacon, and clean the sticky stuff off the skillet before putting the fat back in. This will give you good fat with a nice smoky flavor.

You may chop the gizzards or hearts before cooking them; when cooked, a whole gizzard tends to be a bit more than one mouthful. You can also remove the "hinge" in the middle of the gizzard -- this is the most sinewy part -- and then the gizzards will become tender much sooner. I lazily left my gizzards whole.

Mince a large onion fairly fine, and let it cook in the fat in Dutch oven till soft and clear. Push the onions to one side of the Dutch oven and briefly brown about a pound of gizzards and/or hearts on the other side.

Add salt and a large peeled, crushed tomato (or a tablespoon of paste), and a ton of fresh sweet paprika, 2-3 tablespoons.* Pour in enough chicken stock** to cover the gizzards, cover the pan, and let it simmer for about three hours, until the meat is tender. Undercooked gizzards are unpleasantly squeaky on the tooth. If you trimmed the gizzards, they may only take an hour or so to cook.

If the dish seems too liquid (soupy, not stewy), remove the lid and let it boil down for a bit. When it's done cooking, add a couple of cloves of finely minced garlic and turn off the heat. Swirl in sour cream or creme fraiche to taste -- at least half a cup. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Paprikash is traditionally served over little egg noodles (tojásos tészta). As you can see in the picture above, I sometimes enjoy it on potatoes.

You can also use this recipe to make straight-up chicken paprikash. Break a small young chicken down into drumsticks, thighs, wings and breasts. It will only need 45 minutes or so of cooking time, and you can let the chicken pieces make their own stock as they cook. Add the breasts towards the end of the cooking time so they don't get overdone. Old stewing birds will take about three hours, just like the gizzards.

*About the paprika: it really needs to be good if you're not just sprinkling it on deviled eggs for pretty. Fresh means less than a year old. Sweet means it's made from sweet peppers, not spicy ones. It's hard to find non-sweet paprika in the United States, so you probably don't need to worry about it.

**You probably expect me to say "or water" here. But I won't do it. If you were making a custard that called for milk, would you use water instead? Only a very slight exaggeration. Vegetable stock also doesn't work. Neither does most of the "chicken broth" you can buy in stores. Unless the stock is made from bones and tendons, there will not be gelatin in it, and gelatin is necessary for that silky feeling on your lips. And that silky feeling on your lips is necessary for happiness. Okay, fine, you can use water if you're really in a pinch, but don't make a habit of it. Also, if you've gone to the trouble of tracking down chicken gizzards, you're probably in close proximity to some chicken backs or feet, too. Just simmer them for a few hours before you make supper.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to Make a Wedding Dress, Part One

When I was about four, I saw that dainty ladies pinched their skirts up and walked with pointed toes (probably in a book, because all the women I knew wore plaid and denim). I knew I should be just as dainty as these storybook ladies. Daintier, even! I lifted my skirts as high as I could and pranced around like the queen of daintiness, until my mother told me I wasn't allowed to wear skirts to church if I flashed everyone.

When I was about seven, I vowed that I would never, ever, ever wear jeans. Denim was entirely too uncomfortable, stiff, and modern. I preferred calico dresses, with buttons down the front. "I will not even wear jeans when I am a TEENAGER," I said. I pretty much held to it, wearing long flowing skirts all through high school and the first year of college, up until that day I cut off all my hair.

This is my wedding dress design problem, see. I have too long a history with fantastic dress-ups. I know how to sew a wizard's cloak, how to turn thrift-store negligees into fairy gowns and spiderwitch tatters, how to cut a cardboard sword from the Arabian Nights. I'm getting married; I can't screw it up now. All my younger selves are standing in a dainty row, waiting to see their dreams fully realized in my wedding dress. So I lay awake at night, thinking about sashes and gores and trims and petticoats, and wondering what Mlirriiken the Wizardess would wear to her wedding. And what would you wear to a pirate wedding on the Purple Island? Or hell, to the polyandrous weddings in Midderwynn? These are ponderous, ponderous questions! I tossed and turned.

I thought about buying a wedding dress. There are all kinds of professional magical seamsters, on Etsy and elsewhere, who spin gossamer gowns out of seashells and hickory nuts. They could certainly do a better job than I. I thought about embarking on the most epic thrift-store-scouring mission in the history of used clothing. Wouldn't scavenged laces and ruffles be fun, and cheaper than sewing?

But that line of dainty young selves shook their heads. When would I ever again have the chance to make a dress entirely out of my dreams?

On a flight home, I filled a sketchbook with drawings. The businessmen on either side of me must have thought I was some kind of overgrown eight-year old, hurriedly filling pages with sketches of nearly identical dresses. With my imagination finally loosed, the possibilities and abstractions drove me crazy. I have designed skirts before, and designed fitted bodices before, and made dresses from patterns before. But designing a whole dress required entirely too many choices -- and I knew my vision needed to crystallize before I could set to with my scissors and pins.

Also, you know how hard it is to make a flat map of a round earth? HA. Spheres are EASY. They are so predictable. Mapping a body is the real challenge.

In part two: how to actually make a pattern, instead of just talking about it.