Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to tour Paula Butturini’s new memoir: Keeping the Feast (read my review). I love books that center around food in foreign countries, and Butturini’s story of illness and recovery in Italy reminds us how the ritual of food is a symbol of survival.
About Paula Butturini:
Paula Butturini has worked in overseas bureaus in London, Madrid, Rome, and Warsaw for United Press International and the Chicago Tribune. She is now a writer based in Paris. To learn more about Buttuirini and her work, visit the author’s website. Listen to the author’s podcasts here. Read Buttuini’s Keeping the Feast blog.
About Keeping The Feast:
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
Publication Date: 2/18/2010
A remarkable story, gorgeously told. We reflect, relish, grieve, and heal our way with Paula Butturini, who is wise about so many things – family and place; depression, religion, and love; the disastrous long-term fallout of a single bullet fired at a loved one; and the immediate restorative pleasures of an Italian meal. This book evokes life at its most serious and dire, and at its most mysterious and delectable. Read it, and be deepened and refreshed. – Krista Tippett, host of the public radio program Speaking of Faith –
I was really happy when Paula agreed to write a guest post for me. What follows is one of Paula’s childhood memories of her Hungarian neighbor and the amazing garden which produced the homegrown ingredients for stuffed peppers. Enjoy!
Until I was nine, my family rented the sunny, ground-floor flat of a two-family house in a neighborhood of Fairfield, Connecticut, that had lots of Hungarian immigrants. Our Hungarian-born landlady, Grace Madaras, lived upstairs from us until she and her husband had a little house built next door at the front of their enormous vegetable garden.
I loved their garden in every season but winter, and when I was really young, I liked hiding among the plants where I wasn’t supposed to be playing in the first place. The garden produced all sorts of herbs and vegetables — like fresh, feathery dill and rows of red and white cranberry beans, whose foliage was big and lush enough to hide me if I crouched down low — that my own grandparents never grew in their Italian-style gardens. Every once in a while, greed would get the better of me and I would split open one of those enormous red and white cranberry pods while hiding among its leaves. I wasn’t interested in eating the beans; l just liked to look at them, in all their perfection, lined up cozily inside their pod. For some reason, they made me feel safe.
When our landlords moved next door into their new little house, it meant we no longer got to smell the wonderful aromas — so different from my mother’s Italian cooking — that would waft down the stairs when Grace was preparing the dishes her family used to cook back in Hungary. At some point though, Grace gave my mother her recipe for Hungarian stuffed peppers, sweet, green bell peppers from her garden that were filled with meat, rice, and onion, then simmered in a mild, glorious sauce made from tomato juice enriched with sour cream and fresh dill, straight from the garden.
To this day, I can still smell and taste this dish, and writing about it now, nearly fifty years later, makes my mouth start to water at the thought of it. I think the dill plant I have in a corner of my herb garden today stands there more in memory of Grace and my childhood than it does to flavor any of the dishes I use it for today. I wrote Grace’s recipe down on a file card when I set up my own household, and though I rarely make it, just seeing it in my recipe box makes me feel safe, like seeing those beans in their pod so long ago.
Grace Madaras’s Hungarian Stuffed Peppers
- 8-12 green bell peppers, depending on size
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 1 cup uncooked rice, cooked as package directs
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced and sauteed until soft in 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 eggs
- Salt, pepper
- Tomato juice
- Fresh dill
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup sour cream
Wash peppers and place them standing up in a deep kettle. Pour enough boiling water into the kettle to thoroughly cover the peppers, then let stand, covered and off flame, for 40 minutes. Drain pot, then using a sharp knife, cut a circle out of the very top of the pepper to remove the stem and a circle of pepper flesh surrounding it. Scoop out seeds, and drain well.
In a large mixing bowl, combine beef, pork, cooked rice, sauteed onion, eggs, two teaspoons salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Mix well, then stuff drained peppers with meat mixture. Placed the stuffed peppers upright in a deep pot. Pour enough tomato juice into pot to come 3/4 of the way up the stuffed peppers. Add a handful of fresh dill. Bring to a simmer and cook, simmering, for one hour. Toward the end of the cooking remove 1/2 cup of tomato juice and let cool. Thicken this cooled tomato juice by whisking in the flour and sour cream. Pour this mixture back into pot and mix well. Heat through but do not let it boil.
We always ate this dish — real comfort food — with mashed potatoes; I don’t know how it was served in Grace’s kitchen.
Contributed by Paula Butturini, whose book Keeping the Feast will be published by Riverhead/Penguin on Feb. 18.
To see all the blog tours of Butturini and her book, visit TLC Book Tours for links.