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Family Recipe Series: Rick Nichols

In anticipation of our April 11th Edible World event, Sunday Supper and Family Lore, the First Person Blog will feature the stories and family recipes of Philly food personalities. This was going to an every-other-day happening, but we’ve had so many great foodies writing in with recipes, that you can find recipes every day till our event from the likes of chefs, writers and people who just love eating, making and talking about food and family.

Rick during the Port Richmond Edible World Food Tour

Rick during the Port Richmond Edible World Food Tour

Rick Nichols is a great friend to First Person Arts. As a food writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, he covers restaurants and food trends throughout the Philly area. He’s also hosted some of our most popular Edible World programs, leading likeminded culinary adventurers through East Passyunk’s (primarily) Italian landscape and Port Richmond’s Polish food treasures. Today, he recalls the traditions from his family’s Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen and reveals how he adopted the Eastern European ways of his wife’s family.

Want to be like our Philly Foodies? Share a family recipe at our Edible World event! Send your recipe, story and a photo to Karina by April 2nd! Reserve your seat at the event here.

My own family’s roots – those of the Esbenshades on my mother’s side, particularly – stretch more than 200 years into the Lancaster County loam. You’ll still see an Esbenshade Road in the farmlands outside Strasburg. And a turkey farm of the same name. And here and there a plant nursery. All of which is only to explain that, even though my mother had left that Mennonite culture behind, her home-cooking often and happily dipped into the Pennsylvania Dutch well.

We grew up on red-beet pickled eggs and flaky chicken pot pies (not the noodle dish; the crust dish), and on occasion shoo-fly pie with sour buttermilk, cornmeal mush and scrapple.

To my lasting regret, I never wrote down the recipes; I didn’t know they required recipes. So I work on approximations of my mother’s vinegary German potato salad, and the brothy sweetness – conferred by the cabbage, I think – of her beef-vegetable soup.

My wife is a different story. She is second-generation Slovak (well, half Slovak, and half Hungarian-Roumanian). Her parents’ ties to the old sod are far fresher, their cookery’s ethnic flavor undiluted. Two other things. First, I met them as an adult, my own inner-cook unleashed. Second, my wife, sensibly, had asked her mother, Helen Szokan, to write down her recipes on index cards.

So while her father rhapsodized about clam bakes and his manly skill with speck –- made in old Cleveland by patiently rotating a fatty piece of paprika –rubbed bacon over a fire and dripping the fat on rye bread layered with tomato, scallion, green pepper and radish — it is Helen Szokan’s dishes that I’ve learned to recreate; caraway soup and dumplings and stuffed cabbage (always “for 10”), potato pierogie (I’ve tackled that rarely even though I actually took lessons once in Fairmount), and chicken paprikash.

That soulful paprikash is the one we revert to, time and again, our comfort food of first resort, as I once wrote, “to blunt raw winter nights and feed sudden gusts of hungry friends.”

It requires only five main ingredients. And little else to make it a full meal. Just a simple cucumber salad and a knotty loaf of challah (for sopping up the gravy) that stands in for the braided egg bread that Nancy’s grandmother used to bake.

And here’s the thing: Because we had that recipe, we no longer need the recipe.

The training wheels have come off.
We know it by heart.
It is my family’s dish now.

Paprikash a la Szokan
4 servings

1 fryer (3 pounds or more), cut in serving pieces
4 tablespoons, unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1/2 pint sour cream
Pinch of flour, as needed
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter and cook onions on medium heat in deep pot until clear.
Add paprika and stir.
Salt and pepper the chicken on both sides and add pieces skin side down, brown for about two minutes and turn over, coating with the sauce.
Keep the chicken sizzling, adding up to a half-cup of water at first. Cover and cook over low flame, turning the pieces every 15 minutes for an hour or more until the meat is almost falling off the bone. (After the first 45 minutes, take off the lid.)
Remove the chicken to a bowl, peel off most of the skin; keep warm. Turn off the heat.
Add sour cream to the juices, thicken with flour. Whisk.
Turn on the heat again, add the chicken and reheat for five minutes or so.

– Rick Nichols

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