Monday, January 26, 2009

Cook What You Know

With the Arizona Cardinals making their inaugural Super Bowl appearance, various friends have asked me about cooking some Grand Canyon State specialties for their parties on Sunday. OK, so it was only one friend (thanks Roy), but it did get me thinking about how where we come from affects how and what we cook.

Since my parents are East Coasters and my mom is plagued with Crohn's disease and a distaste for spiciness, we didn't have too many traditional Arizonan foods at home. But that didn't stop me from developing a taste for enchilada-style burritos (now I eat vegetarian/kosher versions), nopales (prickly pear cactus pads), chiles and prickly pear-flavored concoctions. Never quite got into fry bread - the Pima/Navajo answer to funnel cake - but there's something about it that always makes me think of the state fair.

Sadly, finding decent sopapillas and Southwestern-influenced food is not too easy here in the Tristate area. I've mastered a darn-tasty meatless chili and if I'm looking to go truly authentic, I could substitute native Nimbus beer, and I rarely make anything containing chocolate without throwing in a little cayenne. Not bad considering most of my Arizona food encounters were limited to restaurants before the age of 22.

Meanwhile back at the late 1970s-built rancher, the flavors in my mother's kitchen took on a decidedly eastern flair... Eastern European, that is. My grandparents came from Hungary after World War II and holidays around our house included at least a few traditional dishes. Homemade apple cake, stuffed cabbage (without tomato sauce), potato/sour cream/beef casserole (from my pre-kosher days), cream of wheat dusted with cocoa, chestnut puree, stuffed peppers and other delicacies filled our table on a regular basis.

When my siblings and I had our bar and bat mitzvahs, the big guns came out and my mom ordered from Schwartz's, the big Hungarian bakery in LA (with locations on Pico AND Fairfax!). Awesome ruggelach, kugeloaf and beigli streamed in and filled the bellies of family and guests alike. And it's one of these treats, chocolate-flavored beigli, that I've decided to tackle for #12 on my 30 By 30 list.

It's on the docket to be checked off in mid-February and I will be sure to let you all know how it turns out.

Apparently, like writing and so many other creative endeavors, cooking is all about drawing on what you know and making it your own. The Southwestern and Hungarian flavors and sensibilities that shaped my cooking style are not as divergent as one might think. Lots of peppers, tomatoes, stewed meats, sour cream and paprika permeate both cuisines. Maybe I'm on to some new fusion concept and Bobby Flay or Rick Bayless will be knocking down my door for menu advice. Just remember this post when you read a New York Times review for that new Magyar-Mex craze that's sweeping the nation.


Jannah said...

Hey! Why haven't I eaten at your house? It sounds yummy!! Just kidding but warn your Mom I may knock on her door for some applecake and stuffed cabbage! Have a great week!

SuperRaizy said...

I grew up on Hungarian food too, and I'm having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the idea of Magyar-Mex cuisine. I'd be interested to see how you pull it off. Can you post some recipes for us?

Shtetl Fabulous said...

Raizy - great idea! I've never really tried to fuse the two together but maybe in the coming weeks I will do a little research and try out some recipes. Keep reading and I'll be sure to post on my progress.

Anonymous said...

First of all, you forgot that glorious Arizona/Mormon staple known as ranch dressing.

Also, Magyar-mex is easy...How many dishes did you have growing up where paprika was a main ingredient regardless of original nationality? I'm sure we can come up with a whole cookbook in no time.

~The Magyar McGuyver