Every once in a while, usually when traveling in Central and Eastern Europe or the Balkans, I get a whiff of something that reminds me of my childhood. It happened most powerfully one summer in Salzburg. Mr. Wonderful and I were staying in the old town at the Goldener Hirsh, and we walked into a lovely restaurant nearby. The formally clad maitre d’ sat us down in a luxe country house environment and the next thing I knew, I was ordering boiled beef [aka Tafelspitz].
It was not merely boiled beef. The meal started with a clear delicate yellow consommé soup [the liquid in which the beef had simmered] with tiny dumplings and a discrete sprinkling of chopped parsley. This was followed by the beef, deliciously tender and falling off a rich marrow bone, and chopped carrots, potatoes, celery, and parsnip that had been drained from the consommé. A horseradish white sauce was served on the side. Simple, delicious food that reminded me more strongly of childhood than the pączki we had been eating in Poland, the stuffed peppers of Serbia, or the piroshki in Russia.
When I was little, both of my parents worked, and my grandmother ruled the kitchen. She believed in daily marketing for fresh ingredients and made everything from scratch. We rarely ate anything canned, frozen or out of a box. A consommé soup followed by boiled beef or chicken was a staple meal that she prepared at least once a week. In the mid-west, there were ethnic neighborhoods and food, but I wanted “American” food, meaning a full freezer and cake from a boxed mix. Her recipes were a mystery to me.
Gradually, I learned to cook, but I rarely thought of replicating grandmother’s kitchen skills. Once in a while, I’d have a traditional dinner at the home of European friends. I considered it a special treat but had no thoughts of cooking the same dishes.
That dinner in Salzburg was a turning point. We returned to the same restaurant the next night. The maitre d’ remembered us [he probably remembered the generous Mr. Wonderful], and seated us at the best table in a romantic raised window alcove. I ordered the same meal, and started reminiscing to my husband about the meals my grandmother had made and wondered aloud how it she did it. When we returned a few years later the restaurant was gone.
Since that summer, I have found my grandmother’s old cookbooks (one in Polish, one in Russian, one in Serbian), her recipe-filled spiral notebooks, and a pre-war [WWI, that is] notebook with my grandfather’s writing that had some recipes in it was well. I read and experiment. I also ask friends for recipes and pointers. It’s fun. And, if a recipe doesn’t work out, there is always pizza delivery.