Indeed, the Hofman family had its Oma — a warm, practical and stoic lady who really never mastered English and yet was able to communicate with me, a young Scottish newlywed. In her sensible, low-heeled, laced-up shoes, she'd walk to the shops, then come back to her tiny kitchen, where she cooked fabulous meals — brisket, salads, sides, cakes and cookies, all seemingly executed with minimal effort.
Sadly, the recipes were never written down — it was a bissel of this and a handful of that, and although I never took the time to watch and measure as she made her magic, I've been able to recreate some of her dishes. Back then, we just ate and enjoyed.
So I was delighted to see a review copy of Doris Schechter's new book At Oma's Table (Home Hardcover). Besides including more than 100 recipes, the story told in the book spans four generations, three countries and the shared meals that held the family together once everyone fled Vienna.
From Vienna, to Italy and, finally, to the United States — it's a journey with which many first-generation American Jews can identify. In Italy, where they lived from 1939 to 1944, they were "free prisoners." Doris notes: "This was an oxymoron, meaning that we were allowed to walk around freely, though each morning my father had to report to the mayor of Guardiagrele, the little town where we lived."
She fell in love with Italian food and culture, learned the language and made close friends, returning frequently to a country of happy memories in the midst of war-torn Europe. The Blumenkranz family (Schechter's maiden name) were among the fortunate to have survived.
In 1944, Doris and her parents were among the 1,000 refugees invited to the United States by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
They arrived in New York on Aug. 3 — the very same day that Anne Frank was betrayed in Amsterdam.
In detail, Schechter tells how the family adapted to a new country with a completely different culture; and how, when her father died suddenly of spinal meningitis, the women in the family were supportive and strong, with food instilling a sense of comfort and identity.
Besides growing up in an atmosphere where the best natural ingredients were simply cooked — so that the resulting dish made for a mouthwatering, aromatic blend — Schechter is the owner of My Most Favorite Food, a catering company that includes a bakery, restaurant and cafe on 45th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, close to the theater district.
The starred items come from a Rosh Hashanah luncheon included in At Oma's Table. The other recipes are derived from the late "Oma" Hofman.
Red and Golden Beet Salad With Scallion Dressing
3 medium golden beets, trimmed of greens
3 medium red beets, trimmed of greens
3 Tbsps. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. red-wine vinegar
4 scallions, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
2 cups vegetable oil
4 large or 6 small heads of endive
Cook the gold and red beets in separate saucepans (otherwise, the red beet juice will bleed into the gold). Bring 2 large pans with enough water to cover the beets to a boil over medium-high heat. Add golden beets to one pan and red beets to the other. Simmer 30 to 40 minutes, or until fork-tender. Drain, cool and peel.
Slice golden beets thinly and place in a medium bowl. Slice red beets thinly and place in a separate bowl. Divide the oil and vinegar evenly between them. Toss gently and let stand at room temperature to develop flavors while you prepare the dressing.
For the Dressing: In a blender or food processor, combine all the ingredients except the oil. Blend until almost smooth.
With the machine still running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream and process until totally combined. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
To Assemble the Salad: Cut the stem ends off the endive and remove the leaves, one by one.
Arrange the leaves, fanning out from center, on a wide, shallow serving platter with sides.
Spoon the sliced beets decoratively in the center. Drizzle with some of the dressing.
Pour the remaining dressing into a pitcher and pass around with the salad.
Editor's Note: Any leftover dressing may be used to toss with cooked vegetables.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 320; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 8 g; fat, 33 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 248 mg.
Veal Roast With Fresh Vegetables
5 fresh sage leaves, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
5 lb. rack of veal, filleted and tied with kitchen string
1/4 cup garlic-infused oil (No garlic oil? Add 1/4 tsp. minced garlic to vegetable oil.)
2 large Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced thickly
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
4 stalks celery, with leaves, cut in 1-inch pieces
2 cups kosher chicken broth
Preheat oven to 375°.
In a small bowl, combine the chopped herbs with a scant tablespoon salt, and 5 or 6 grindings of pepper. Sprinkle the mixture over the veal, then press it on with your hands.
Rub the garlic oil all over the roast. Transfer meat to a medium roasting pan with low sides and grind more pepper over top.
Place the vegetables in the pan around the roast, then pour the broth over top.
Roast the veal on the middle rack of the oven for about 11/2 hours. Use a meat thermometer to ensure perfect doneness: 160° to 165°F for rare, a minimum of 170°F for medium and 180°F for well-done.
Remove the roast to a platter and tent it closely with foil to keep warm.
Return the pan of vegetables to oven and roast about 30 minutes longer, or until broth has cooked off and vegetables have turned a deep, rich brown, and onions are caramelized around the edges.
To Serve: Remove strings from the roast. Slice into even pieces, arranging on the platter. Cut the racks where the meat was tied into individual ribs and arrange them on the platter as tasty morsels. Arrange the vegetables alongside and serve.
Serves 8 to 10.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 452; protein, 59 g; carbohydrates, 10 g; fat, 18 g; cholesterol, 236 mg; sodium, 305 mg.
Brown Rice With Mushrooms
Although the original recipe calls for butter, margarine has been substituted to make this a pareve dish.
1 Tbsp. pareve margarine
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced (about 1 cup)
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup brown rice
21/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 small thyme sprig
Preheat oven to 350°.
In a flameproof, 21/2-quart casserole, heat the margarine and oil over medium-high heat.
Add onion and mushrooms and cook, stirring until onion is translucent and mushrooms are soft, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the rice and cook, stirring until completely coated, about 2 minutes. Add the water, bay leaf and thyme, and bring to a boil.
Cover and transfer the casserole to the preheated oven.
Bake for 35 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed.
Before serving, remove the bay leaf and thyme sprig.
Fluff the rice with a fork.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 116; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 18 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 19 mg.
Marinated White Asparagus Spears
White asparagus spears (in a can) were considered a luxury item in Eastern European homes. Marinated, these were the predictable vegetable almost always served to dinner guests — a dish carried over from the Old Country.
3 cans (15-oz.) white asparagus spears, drained
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup, plus 2 Tbsps., peanut oil
2 small shallots, minced
2 Tbsps. finely snipped parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Place the asparagus in a serving dish. Set aside
In a bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice and peanut oil.
Stir in shallots and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour evenly over the asparagus. Cover and refrigerate.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 112; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 3 g; fat, 10 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 468 mg.
This recipe contains partially cooked egg yolks.
6 oz. pareve semisweet chocolate, at room temperature, coarsely chopped
4 Tbsps. sweet red concord-grape kosher wine
2 Tbsps. honey, warmed
1/4 tsp. orange extract
4 egg yolks
3 cups nondairy whipped topping
candied violets or mint leaves (optional)
Place the chocolate and wine in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Melt in the microwave for 1 minute at medium. Stir.
The chocolate should be silky smooth. If not, microwave for 30 seconds longer at medium, or until chocolate is completely softened and able to be stirred to a smooth mixture. Cool slightly.
Whisk in the honey, orange extract, then the egg yolks, one at a time, until completely blended. Return to the microwave and cook at medium for 30 seconds. Mixture will begin to thicken. Whisk until smooth. Cool.
Fold in the nondairy whipped topping until no white streaks remain. Chill.
Immediately spoon into small dessert dishes. Before serving, garnish with candied violets and mint sprigs (optional).
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 243; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 24 g; fat, 14 g; cholesterol, 106 mg; sodium, 48 mg.
Cinnamon-Scented Apples and Raisins
A speedy rendition of Oma's cinnamon-scented apples, which were baked for an hour or so.
4 Granny Smith apples, cored
2 Gala or Braeburn apples, cored
3 Tbsps. pareve margarine
1/3 cups (scant) brown sugar, packed
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. vinegar
1/3 cup golden raisins
Cut the apples into 1/4-inch thick wedges (no need to peel). Set aside.
In a large, deep skillet, melt margarine over medium heat.
Add the brown sugar, vinegar, cinnamon, lemon juice and raisins. Stir well.
Add the apples. Stir, partially cover, and cook over medium high heat until tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir often.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 153; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 31 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 54 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.