Pennsylvania's comfort food


Seventeenth-century Europe was embroiled in political and religious turmoil - no place for peaceful farmers who loved good food. As farms burned and heads rolled in the Palatine, German Protestants accepted William Penn's invitation to settle and develop the central woodlands of his American grant, Pennsylvania.

Group by group, Mennonites, Amish, Seventh-Day Baptists, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders and Moravians packed their cookbooks and their families and came to the New World. Spreading out over what is now Northampton, Berks, Lancaster, Lehigh, Lebanon, York and Adams counties, they tidied up the countryside, built stone houses like those they had left, planted vegetables and started cooking, adding local products as they discovered them - corn, sweet potatoes, squash and beans - to their traditional recipes. Soon the word was out in the Colonies that there was good food to be had in central Pennsylvania.

Now, some 300 years later, travelers still flock to the area to sample the traditional foods of a people born to cook.

Culinary and diet crazes come and go - fusion, nouvelle, low cholesterol, low fat, high carbohydrate-low protein, high protein-low carbohydrate, high calcium, low dairy - whatever. Folks in Pennsylvania keep an eye on them and wouldn't miss checking out a new product, but they never let that interfere with the delicious and comforting foods of the past.

And, surprisingly, in these days when everyone is too busy to spend much time in the kitchen, serving flavorful, nutritious Pennsylvania Dutch dishes isn't out of reach. While many of the traditional foods aren't quick, they certainly are easy. Created by hard-working farm women, one-pot meals such as Schnitz and Knepp, Chicken Potpie, and Sauerkraut and Pork are easily assembled and can simmer on the back of the stove while the cook goes on to other things.

Even the famous "seven sweets and seven sours" are a collection of convenience foods. Originally "put up" at harvest time, these jellies, spiced fruits, pickles and relishes are always waiting in every cook's pantry, ready to open and serve.

Chicken Potpie

Makes 4 servings

1 teaspoon butter

8 chicken thighs, skin removed

1 medium onion, chopped

4 cups water

8 small red potatoes ( 1/2 pound), scrubbed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 (8-ounce) package potpie noodles or bow-tie pasta

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Melt butter in 4-quart Dutch oven. Add chicken and brown on all sides, 3 to 5 minutes. Push chicken to one side.

Add onion and cook until browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add water, potatoes, salt, saffron and pepper. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer 25 minutes.

Add noodles and cook until tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve from the Dutch oven.

Schnitz and Knepp

Makes 6 servings

2 cups dried apples (schnitz)

2 cups ham pieces

2 tablespoons brown sugar

4 cups water

1 1/2 cups unsifted flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1/3 cup milk

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional

Combine apples, ham and brown sugar in 4-quart Dutch oven. Add water and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer 45 minutes.

To make knepp (dumplings), combine flour, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Combine egg, milk and butter in small bowl or measuring cup.

Stir egg mixture into flour mixture just until dry ingredients are moistened. (Mixture will be lumpy.)

Drop dough by tablespoonfuls into simmering apple-and-ham mixture. Cover and cook until dumplings feel firm when center is pressed, 15 to 18 minutes. (Surface should look moist and shiny.) Sprinkle with cinnamon, if desired, and serve from the Dutch oven.

Sauerkraut and Pork

Makes 6 servings

1 teaspoon butter

2 pounds boneless pork, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 (1-pound) bag or 1 (15-ounce) can sauerkraut

1 cup water

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

mashed or boiled potatoes

Melt butter in 4-quart Dutch oven. Add pork cubes and brown on all sides, 5 minutes.

Stir in sauerkraut, water, brown sugar, caraway seeds and pepper and bring to boil over high heat.

Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until pork is tender, 40 to 45 minutes. Check occasionally and add water if necessary.

Serve from the Dutch oven accompanied by mashed or boiled potatoes.

Joanne Lamb Hayes is the author of "Grandma's Wartime Kitchen: World War II," St. Martin's Press, $27.95.

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