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It wasn't quite by osmosis, but Melissa Shaheen could hardly have escaped learning to cook.
"I grew up in a family where all we did was bake and cook," says the recently transplanted Chattanooga wife and mother. "I took over my Grandma's recipes. But a lot of the stuff she did, there's no [exact] recipe for."
That's the case for Grandma Marge Carlson's chicken paprikash, "a comfort food dish" that Shaheen says "was a real staple" in her great grandmother's native Hungary.
"It's really good on a cold night," she says. "It's also pretty cheap to make."
Shaheen says she makes the dish "anytime anybody makes a request" or on special occasions for family and friends.
One such occasion, she says, is Christmastime, when she and relatives need a little sustenance after getting together to make about 5,000 cookies, a tradition that has continued for 50 or 60 years.
Shaheen says she first began to help make the paprikash dish as a teenager, but learned the real ins and outs of it from her father, who also makes a cucumbers-and-onions side dish to go with it.
The handed-down Hungarian recipe is different from ones she's seen online, some of which call for green peppers, tomatoes or marjoram, but she's sticking with the family favorite.
The dish begins with a roux-like mixture of onions and garlic sautéed in lard or, for a lighter recipe, olive oil. However, Shaheen says lard offers a better taste.
"You can't go wrong with bacon fat," she says.
The chicken, according to Shaheen, should a cut-up whole fryer rather than cuts such as boneless, skinless breasts.
"You have to have the bones in the chicken," she says. Without them, "it doesn't have a real chicken flavor. My uncle says the bone marrow makes the difference."
While the chicken broth mixture is simmering, Shaheen makes her own noodles. No boxed pasta for her.
The mixed noodle dough -- flour, salt, eggs and water -- is dropped into boiling water through a spaetzle maker, but it could just as easily be dropped through a strainer or scraped in tiny pieces off a plate.
The resulting noodles, which can be prepared while the chicken is cooking in the roux, are shaped like "blips" or "commas," Shaheen says, and are ready in just a minute or two.
After the cooked chicken is removed from the broth, sour cream -- at room temperature to keep it from curdling -- is added. Then the drained noodles are combined with the mixture. The longer the mixture cooks, the more it thickens. Paprika sprinkled over the top as a garnish adds a dash of color.
The dish, says Shaheen, is served with a bowl of the noodle/roux and a hunk of chicken on the side. The chicken then can be torn and added to the bowl. A slice or two of French bread allows for dipping and getting the last tasty bit of the broth.
Shaheen took a 12-week culinary class in California and trained under a Swiss chef and a pastry chef who had been instructed at the Cordon Bleu. While in the class, she says, she picked up tips on cake artistry, the "chemistry aspect" of cooking and the "cost-out" of complex desserts.
And while she'd like to use that knowledge to open a bakery or bake for individuals, she'll stick to the old recipes like chicken paprikash when special occasions come calling.
2 onions, finely cut up
2-6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon lard (or 2 teaspoons olive oil)
1-3 pounds chicken, cut up
Crushed red pepper (to taste)
3 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
1 pint sour cream
21/3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
Sauté onions and garlic in lard (or olive oil) in large stock pot. Add crushed red pepper and paprika. Add chicken. Cover chicken with water and bring to boil. Simmer 45 minutes. While chicken mixture is simmering, combine noodle ingredients into dough. Drop into boiling water, using spaetzle maker, strainer or other kitchen device to determine the size of the noodles. Noodles are done when they all pop to the top (about a minute or two). Drain noodles. Take chicken out of mixture. Add sour cream to mixture. Add noodles. Serve warm with fresh bread.