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Don't Get Depressed!

January 27, 2011 By:
Linda Morel, Jewish Exponent Feature
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WHAT'S COOKING?

While some people find the Great Depression depressing, I see it as a more heartwarming time. It's an odd stance for a baby-boomer to take, since I grew up hearing my father tell stories about stretching nickels until they snapped.

Not unlike today's wobbly economy, these were years of cutting corners. Yet I love some of the Depression's most popular dishes. In an era when home cooking flourished, what could be better than macaroni casseroles, fried fish or everyday cakes?

While the stock market came to a crash in 1929, setting off a decade of economic decline, there were some delightful things that happened that year: chiffon pies became the rage, and 7Up was introduced.

In 1930, Ruth Wakefield sweetened the course of American culinary history by inventing chocolate-chip cookies at the Toll House, her inn in Massachusetts. Nestle gave her recipe a boost in 1939 by introducing chocolate morsels.

And in 1931, Irma Rombauer, a Jewish housewife from St. Louis, paid to have some 500 recipes from family and friends published, launching the Joy of Cooking, the blockbuster cookbook still in print.

For most Americans, the Great Depression ushered in frugal foods. Housewives served bubbling casseroles, rich on sauces and starch, and scant on meat. Women baked eggless cakes. The economic turmoil behind these recipes seeped into Jewish families in all walks of life.

A friend of mine has written a memoir, as yet unpublished, called Jam Tomorrow, about growing up during the Depression. She described her mother, a nice Jewish woman, stealing a coat from a store. My friend had outgrown her overcoat and her mother, who couldn't afford to replace it, didn't want her daughter freezing through winter. In spite of the deprivations, her mother cheerfully promised that there would be Jam Tomorrow for their toast. Butter was far too expensive.

Feeling nostalgic, I've been preparing some Depression-era recipes. They are the most delicious part of today's lingering recession.

Fried Parsnips and Onions

(Pareve)

During the Depression, root vegetables were mainstays during the winter.

  • 6 small parsnips 
    1 onion 
    4 Tbsps. vegetable oil, or more, if needed 
    kosher salt to taste

Peel the parsnips, and with a sharp knife, cut them crosswise into paper-thin circles.

Peel the onion and cut into paper-thin slices. With your fingers, separate slices into rings.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet on a medium flame.

Spoon in the parsnips and onions and sprinkle with salt. Fry until parsnips and onions start to brown, then turn them with a spatula. Continue turning until they are crunchy and brown. Add more oil, if needed.

Serves 4 as a side dish.

Beef-and-Macaroni Casserole

(Meat)

Hearty casseroles, containing all of the elements of a meal, were widespread during the Depression.

  • 4 Tbsps. olive oil, or more, if needed 
    11/4 lbs. ground beef 
    kosher salt to taste 
    1/2 lb. (half of a 16-oz. box) macaroni 
    nonstick vegetable spray 
    2 carrots, cleaned and scraped 
    2 celery stalks, cleaned and scraped 
    1 small green pepper, seeds and pith removed 
    1 large onion, chopped 
    2 garlic cloves, minced 
    2 cans (15-oz.) tomato sauce 
    1/2 cup breadcrumbs

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet on a medium flame.

Crumble the beef and sprinkle it with salt. Sauté the beef in the skillet until browned. Drain off the excess fat and reserve.

Set a large pot of water to boil. Prepare macaroni according to package instructions. When ready, drain in a colander and reserve.

Meanwhile, coat a 9x13-inch ovenproof baking pan with nonstick spray. Preheat oven to 350°.

Dice the carrots, celery and green pepper.

In another large pot, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil on a medium flame. Sauté the carrots and celery until wilted, about 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle in salt.

Add the onion, garlic, and green pepper. Sauté until wilted, about 3 minutes.

Spoon the browned beef into the vegetable mixture. Pour in the tomato sauce. Stir to blend.

Cover the pot and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the drained macaroni and stir until well-incorporated.

Place the macaroni mixture into the prepared pan. Even out the surface. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the casserole bubbles.

Serves 6 to 8 as a main dish; serves 12 as a side.

Fried Fillet of Sole

(Pareve)

Fish was less expensive than meat during the Depression, making it a popular entree.

  • 1 sole: Ask your fishmonger to prepare the sole into fillets, yielding 2 pieces of fish. Cut each piece in half vertically along the line where the spine was removed. There will be 4 pieces of fish. 
    4 Tbsps. vegetable oil, or more, if needed 
    1/2 cup flour, or more, if needed 
    2 eggs, beaten in a low, flat bowl 
    kosher salt to taste 
    paprika for dusting 
    garlic powder for dusting 
    ground white pepper for dusting 
    1 Tbsp. fresh parsley, minced, optional 
    1 lemon, sliced, optional

Rinse the fillet of sole under cold water. Pat dry on paper towels.

Heat oil in a large skillet on a medium flame.

Spread 1/4 cup of flour on a plate, adding the remaining flour as needed. Dredge the fillets one at a time in the flour. Then submerge them in the beaten eggs. Let the excess egg drain into the bowl.

Dredge fillets a second time in flour. Sprinkle salt, paprika, garlic powder, and white pepper on the top side of fillets. (They taste best with a generous amount of salt.)

Lift the fillets with your fingers and carefully slide them, seasoned side down, into the skillet. Fry to a deep golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Add more oil, if needed.

With a spatula, turn fillets and season the exposed side with the spices. Fry until they turn a deep golden-brown and with a spatula move to a serving platter.

If using, garnish with parsley sprinkled on top and place lemon slices on the edge of the platter.

Serves 4.

One-Egg Chocolate Cake

(Dairy)

Because it was economical, home baking of unadorned cakes was common during the Depression.

  • unsalted butter for coating pan, plus 4 Tbsps. 
    1 cup flour 
    1/8 tsp. salt 
    3/4 tsp. baking powder 
    2 oz. of unsweetened baker's chocolate 
    1 egg 
    1 cup sugar 
    2 Tbsps. coffee, preferably leftover 
    3/4 cup milk 
    1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°.

Coat a 9-inch springform pan with butter.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, salt and baking powder. Reserve.

Pour water an inch or two deep into the bottom of a double boiler, place its upper part and lid over it. Bring water to simmer. (If you don't own a double boiler, use a medium-sized pot as the lower part and a heat-proof ceramic bowl as the top. Use aluminum foil as the lid.)

Place 4 tablespoons of butter and the chocolate into the upper part of the double boiler -- not into the water. Cover with the lid.

Stir occasionally with a long-handled spoon while the butter and chocolate melt. When completely melted, remove from heat and stir vigorously until smooth. Cool covered to warm.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg and sugar together until well-combined and light. Add the butter-chocolate mixture and beat again until combined.

Stir the coffee into the milk. Pour in the milk mixture a little at a time, alternating with the reserved flour mixture, mixing after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and beat again.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake about 40 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake.

Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice-cream or powdered sugar sprinkled on top.

Serves 6 to 8.

Linda Morel is a writer based in New York City. E-mail her at: [email protected].

 

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