Bowling Green's Jackie Metz is the self-proclaimed "last of a dying breed" - 100 percent Romanian, yet all-American.
|Jackie Metz in her kitchen, ready to serve Romanian Chicken Stew with Mamaliga. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
That proud Romanian heritage is reflected in many ways, not least her approach to cooking.
"I grew up in Northeast Ohio to first-generation American parents. All four of my grandparents grew up in Romania. My maternal grandparents came from the village of Garbova and my paternal grandparents were from Fagaras not too far away. They all settled in the Warren-Youngstown area in the early 1920s." Her grandparents started the Romanian Orthodox church there, as a matter of fact.
Her maternal grandfather died when Metz's mother was a little girl, so Metz never knew him. However, "I grew up with my grandmother, Buni, (Romanian for grandmother) in the house with my parents and my sister."
Buni Anna loved to cook and little Jackie Corsatea (Metz's maiden name) "was always in the kitchen with her, although it was more cleaning up after her.
"On holidays, specifically Easter, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Buni had to create huge European meals for the family. Sundays after church, she had to hurry home to make something because everyone would be coming over.
"She'd use every pot, pan and utensil in the kitchen" and it was Jackie's job to clean it all up.
The most fondly remembered meal of Metz's childhood is her grandmother's Tocana de Pui si Mamaliga cu Brinzea, which translates to "chicken stew and corn meal mush with cheese."
Mamaliga is like Italians' polenta, "only they use the tomato sauce."
It's a hearty, satisfying meal with just a hint of peppery bite to it. That bite forms the perfect counterpart to the mellow yellow mamaliga topped with cheese.
"I used to be the skinny, scrawny kid whose mother chased her around the yard to eat a half of a sandwich," Metz recalls. "Not so anymore - bring on the Tocana.
"Buni used to make the mush plain and put it in a bowl with milk for me prior to the entire group eating the chicken stew with the mamaliga. In the meantime, she would make the mamaliga with Muenster cheese, so I would eat two dinners that night."
During that era, in the villages of Romania, they didn't have fresh green salads "so they would open the jars of crock-cured kosher dill pickles. That would be the only garnish we would have with the stew."
It's still the exact menu she likes to serve to put her proud Romanian heritage in the spotlight.
In recent years, she's made this meal at St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church in Sylvania for a function of 200 attendees, including the Romanian nuns from the Orthodox Monastery at Rives Junction, Mich. The gathering was a fundraiser for the nuns to build their church, which they did themselves.
"It's a great meal when you need to add for more hungry appetites."
Metz has adopted her Buni's entertainment style as an adult.
"I never needed to cook while I was living with Buni, my parents, and my daughters because they would have already eaten dinner by the time I got home from work in Youngstown at the-then East Ohio Gas Co. After college, I got married and moved to Norfolk, Virginia.
"Never having cooked before, Buni would call and ask what I made for dinner and how it turned out. My standard answer was, 'Just because I never cooked while at home doesn't mean that I never watched you cook! We ate it all, so I guess that means it was pretty good.'"
After an early divorce, Metz, with her 6-month old and 18-month old daughters, moved back in with her parents and Buni, so the little girls grew up with four generations in the house.
"We lived like that for 23 years until my girls went away to different colleges" and fate led Metz to meet her now-husband Rick. The BG man was the father of her oldest daughter's roommate.
All those extra years with Buni gave Metz appreciation of her old-style approach to cooking.
"My grandmother used to get fresh chickens. She'd have them in the basement. When ready to eat one she'd go down there and break its neck."
Metz doesn't go that far. She just buys skinless, boneless chicken breasts.
"You can even make (the chicken stew) on the stove. Or can throw it in the slow oven and cook it until the chicken reaches 165 degrees internal temperature."
Regardless of method, Metz finds the dish pretty easy to make.
"Once you get the onions cut, and the chicken cleaned and seasoned, prep time is only about 20 minutes."
The mush should have a cream of wheat consistency.
Buni finally died at the age of 102, the cherished matriarch of her clan.
"I'm not like Buni as far as all the heavenly baked goods, the soups, the breads, but I do like to do the 'Romanian hospitality' where whomever stops to visit does not leave hungry."
Metz, who has been on the staff of the Wood County Senior Center since 1997, traveled to Romania with Rick twice, in 2005 and 2007, staying in the old village with cousins. And yes, Tocana de Pui si Mamaliga was on the menu.
"We cleaned the pin feathers from the chicken prior to my cousin making this dish for the whole group. You don't pull the feathers, you burn them off with a candle."
Romanian-Style Chicken Stew (Tocana de Pui)
3-pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thighs, etc.
3 onions, chopped fine
1 stick butter or margarine
1 cup chicken bouillion
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup cold water
Mix in equal parts: salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika (About 2 T. each ingredient; leftover can be save until you make this recipe again.)
Pre-heat oven to 350.
Clean chicken pieces and rinse in cool water. Dry and sprinkle with the mixed seasonings. Set aside.
Dice onions fine. Melt butter/margarine in casserole pan and saute onions until soft and transparent. Add seasoned chicken and coat with butter/onions combination, turning to coat both sides. Turn off range and prepare for the oven by adding the chicken bouillion. Cover and place in oven for one (1) hour, longer if you have added more chicken.
When chicken is done, remove the meat from the pan onto a plate that can be covered to keep the chicken warm while you prepare the gravy. Combine the flour and cold water in a cup that can be shaken to mix, much like a gravy base. With the pan of chicken juices on the stove on low, stir in the flour mixture to thicken. Add sour cream, chicken, and finish with the parsley.
* This same process can be done with beef bits and is called “tocană de vacă.”
Mamaliga (Corn meal mush)
4 cups water
1 Corn Meal
1 teaspoon salt
Bring three (3) cups water to a boil. Combine remaining one (1) cup water, corn meal, and salt; slowly pour into boiling water, stirring constantly. Cook until thickened, stirring frequently. Cover and continue cooking over very low heat 30-40 minutes, stirring a couple of times to keep from burning and scorching sides of pan. When done, turn pan over dish and let it fall out of pan onto the plate, keeping pan over the dish for a few minutes to allow mush to form on the plate while you complete the stew.
If you’re really adventurous, take a huge scoop of the mush and place it in layers in a saucepan or microwaveable bowl in which you have layered butter/margarine; a layer of mush; a soft cheese like muenster or colby-jack, either grated or thick-sliced; another layer of mush, more cheese, mush, then top with more butter/margarine. Warm until the cheese is melted. Serve with sour cream.
Great alone or with chicken/beef stew..