Hearty foods will satisfy big appetites


July 18, 1993|By Cecelia C. Pettican | Cecelia C. Pettican,Greensburg Tribune-Review

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.

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