Pennsylvania Dutch is probably the most enduring and distinctive of all the regional cooking styles in America. The recipes of these industrious, frugal, farm people haven't changed much since the days their ancestors settled in Pennsylvania.
Today, as yesterday, when you travel along the roads of Lancaster, you will see hand-lettered signs in front of farmhouses telling what's for sale. You'll find strawberries and sugar peas in June; tomatoes, corn and squash in late summer; and, in the fall, melons, pumpkins, apples and cider.
Almost everything the Pennsylvania Dutch eat comes from their farms. They grow their own vegetables (Lancaster is noted for its sugar peas and asparagus) and butcher their own steers and hogs. From these products have come the rich and varied dishes they have kept intact through the years.
And how the people enjoy eating! There's a word they use to describe their passionate appetites -- feinschmeckers -- which in rough translation means "those who know how good food should taste and who eat plenty of it." Their cooking is a blend of their ancestors' food and what they found and grew in this new world.
The emphasis is on hams, sausages and dishes made from every part of the pig. Reminders of their German ancestry are found in their use of cabbage and sauerkraut, slaw and the yeast-dough kuchen (coffee cake). Around Christmas there are the traditional lebkuchen and sand tarts.
Native grains of corn and buckwheat play a prominent role in their hearty meals. A farmer's breakfast might consist of buckwheat cakes with syrup and molasses, sausage or fried ham. This gets him off to a good start for his day in the fields.
An important part of the Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine is the main-dish soups, thick with dried beans, peas and vegetables. In addition to these usual soups, there are some unusual ones, such as pretzel or popcorn soup. Surprisingly, these thrifty people buy a great deal of saffron, one of the most costly spices. It is used in their soups, noodle dishes and gravies.
Starch is plentiful in many ways -- bread, hot cakes, potatoes, dumplings, noodles and, of course, every kind of pie. Pie is often eaten three times a day. To many, Pennsylvania Dutch pie means shoofly pie. But there are many versions of it -- a dry one for dunking, a wet-bottom one that's moister and spicier, and a cake-like pie with filling and crumbs mixed together. It's an all-time favorite.
The ample apple orchards in the area furnish the fruit to make delicious, dark, thick apple butter. Sliced apples are cooked with cider, sugar and sometimes spices for hour upon hour in a huge kettle and stirred constantly with a wooden paddle.
The cider is important because it is fermented with vinegar, which is dominant in all Dutch cooking. It is an essential preserving ingredient in the pickles and fruits that make up the traditional "seven sweets and sours."
Most characteristic of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking and a mainstay of the table are these sweets and sours. They are served in a great number of bowls and plates to complement the meat and potato main dishes. It isn't necessary to always have seven sweets and sours. The housewife decides which of the pickles, preserves or relishes go best with her main dish.
The salty meats, such as ham, need the sweetness of spiced watermelon rinds or cherries. With beef, the less delicate contrast of some spicy bread-and-butter pickles goes well. The more meats served, the more sweets and sours go on the table.
A Pennsylvania Dutch dinner is a convivial affair with the entire family eating together. The cook makes sure there is something for everyone; no one should leave the table hungry. A typical meal would include chicken alone, or chicken plus fried ham, or chicken, ham and roast beef. The main dish might be accompanied by sweet potatoes and highly seasoned mashed potatoes, or a "filling," which is what the Dutch call the bread or potato dressing that accompanies meat.
There might be a potpie -- a bowl of noodles simmered in broth. In Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, the chicken potpie doesn't resemble the pastry-encased potpies typical of other parts of the country.
Potpies are pieces of noodles or baking-powder dough. They are boiled with meat and potatoes to make potpie stews, named for the kind of meat used.
The sweets and sours at this meal would include apple butter, dried apricots, pepper cabbage (cabbage and green pepper in a sweet and sour dressing), chowchow (mixed vegetable pickle) and pickled beets.
Sweets at a meal can be jams, jellies, conserves, sweet preserved fruits and even cakes, cookies and puddings. However, the sours are endless: spiced and pickled vegetables, such as onions, beets, mushrooms, cucumbers, Jerusalem artichokes; chili sauce; tomato ketchup; pickled walnuts; mustard beans; green or yellow string beans flavored with mustard; dilled beans or tomatoes; pickled watermelon rind, or spiced cantaloupe.
Eating is a pleasure for the Pennsylvania Dutch, and they take advantage of every occasion to indulge. At weddings, barn-raisings or just meals after Sunday worship, they gather around their tables, laden with delicious dishes made from the old recipes.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 cup unsifted flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup solid vegetable shortening, cut into 1/4 -inch bits
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup boiling water
2/3 cup light corn syrup
DTC 1/3 cup dark molasses
1 (9-inch) unbaked short-crust sweet pastry shell
sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, optional
To prepare crumb topping, combine flour, brown sugar and shortening in bowl and rub them together with your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Dissolve baking soda in boiling water in deep bowl. Add corn syrup and molasses, and stir to blend well. Pour mixture into unbaked pie shell and sprinkle crumb topping evenly over top.
Bake shoofly pie on middle rack of oven at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking until filling is set and does not quiver when pie pan is gently shaken from side to side, about 25 minutes longer. Do not over-bake, or filling will become too dry.
Cool pie to room temperature before serving. Accompany servings with sweetened whipped cream or scoops of vanilla ice cream.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 (5- to 6-pound) roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces
4 quarts water
2 medium celery stalks, including green leaves, cut into 3-inch pieces
1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried saffron threads or 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt
6 whole black peppercorns
1/2 cup coarsely chopped celery
2 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 pound egg noodles
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
freshly ground pepper
Combine chicken and water in heavy 6- to 8-quart pot and bring to boil over high heat. Skim off foam and scum. Add pieces of celery, saffron, 1 tablespoon salt and peppercorns. Reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, until you can pierce chicken thigh with sharp knife without resistance, about 1 hour.
Transfer chicken to plate with slotted spoon. Strain stock through fine sieve and return 2 quarts to pan. (Reserve remaining stock for another use.) With small sharp knife, remove skin from chicken and cut meat from bones. Discard skin and bones. Slice meat into 1-inch pieces and set aside.
Add chopped celery, potatoes and remaining 2 teaspoons salt to stock in pan and bring to boil over high heat. Drop in noodles (or potpie squares) and stir briefly, then cook briskly, uncovered, until noodles are tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in reserved chicken and parsley and cook to heat through, about 1 minute. Taste and season with more salt if desired and a few grindings of pepper.
Pennsylvania Dutch fried tomatoes
Makes 4 servings
4 to 5 large firm, ripe tomatoes (3 to 4 inches in diameter), thickly sliced
2 teaspoons salt
freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup flour
4 to 6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons sieved brown sugar
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
Sprinkle tomatoes on both sides with salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Dip tomato slices in flour, coating each side
thoroughly. Very gently shake off excess.
Melt butter in 12-inch, heavy, preferably nonstick skillet over moderate heat. When foam subsides, add tomato slices and cook on one side until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle tops with 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Carefully turn tomatoes over with spatula. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon brown sugar and cook 3 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer slices to heated serving platter.
Pour cream into pan. Increase heat to high and bring cream to boil, stirring constantly. Boil briskly until cream thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste for seasoning, then pour over tomatoes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Note: Traditionally, this recipe is made with green tomatoes. However, they are not easily available. If you find them or grow them, cook them more slowly and add a few minutes to cooking time on each side.
Makes 1 quart.
1 (2-pound) firm, ripe cantaloupe
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 (2-inch) stick cinnamon
4 whole cloves
Cut cantaloupe into quarters. With spoon, scoop out seeds and stringy pulp. With small sharp knife, remove skin and inner rind. Cut cantaloupe into 2-inch pieces. Pack pieces into 1-quart canning jar.
Combine sugar, water, vinegar, cinnamon stick and cloves in 2-quart stainless-steel saucepan and bring to boil over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cook briskly, uncovered, 5 minutes.
Remove cinnamon stick with tongs and tuck it down side of cantaloupe-filled jar. Ladle hot liquid over cantaloupe, a few tablespoonfuls at a time, allowing liquid to flow through to bottom of jar before adding more. Fill jar to within 1/8 -inch of top.
Follow manufacturer's directions for home canning. Seal and process jar 12 minutes in boiling-water bath.
+ Los Angeles Times Syndicate