At this time of the year, leaving the house proves challenging. Best to stay in and cook. Smell the goodness, feel the coziness.
My favorite comfort foods tend to be close to my roots. I get nostalgic for simple suppers at my gram's, the flavors she coaxed from just a few ingredients. Potatoes and noodles to fill us up. The Hungarian paprika my grandfather brought home from the butcher in a brown paper sack, smelling of earthy, sweet chiles.
A cut-up chicken, or chunks of pork, would simmer to tenderness with that paprika, a few cloves of fresh garlic and water. We'd play card games until dinner was ready. Nothing to fuss over as the combination was ladled into flowered porcelain bowls.
What lingers is the desire to gather with family at the table with no real agenda, with food that nourishes, tastes delicious, but causes no stress for the cook. To impart to the children the beauty of generations dining together: That's the true benefit of home cooking.
This winter, I'm paying tribute to the gone, but never forgotten, family elders with an oven-roasted version of chicken paprikash - the classic dish from Hungary. Similar to goulash in that paprika-seasoned beef, chicken or veal simmers to tenderness in water, paprikash has the distinction of a sour cream finish. My mother preferred to make paprikash, while her mother mostly made a brothy goulash.
I like making sheet-pan paprikash. The hot oven and a large rimmed baking sheet allow me to reduce cooking time, concentrate flavors and improve texture more in line with today's tastes. The chicken skin crisps, the potatoes and onions brown to golden, and the paprika's natural sweetness intensifies with the dry heat. After everything is cooked, I deglaze the pan with water and then swirl in a bit of sour cream for a simple sauce to spoon over the chicken or buttered noodles.
For the fastest dinner, I choose bone-in, skin-on, chicken thighs. They're easy to serve and always stay moist. Bone-in pork loin chops are great here too; 1-inch-thick chops will cook in about the same time as the chicken thighs. Whole roasted chicken is synonymous with comfort cooking, so I've included for it as well; it typically requires 20 extra minutes of oven time.
Paprika is made from ripe, red chile peppers that are dried and powdered. In the United States, sweet paprika is an underrated spice because it's often stale and flavorless. We tend to keep a jar for years, but the powder stales quickly and the color fades. If you don't know how old your paprika is, taste it. If it's pale orange and flavorless, start over. Fresh paprika is a deeper, darker red color than the ripest tomatoes. The aroma should be sweet and a bit musky.
Most supermarkets carry sweet paprika. I like the Szeged brand imported from Hungary. Or, order Hungarian or Spanish paprika on the internet from spice shops. If you like heat, try subbing in some "half-sharp" (spicy) paprika for the sweet. Or swap in a teaspoon or so of smoked paprika for a different take. Of course, don't confuse paprika with cayenne pepper, that superhot chile powder.
I like to take advantage of the flavors in the pan drippings and boil water in the pan to make a fast sauce. This boiling works to dissolve all the stuck-on bits, so clean-up is a snap!
For dessert, I suggest sauteing apples in butter with raisins and cinnamon - sort of like a crustless apple strudel. Top it with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream, flavored with just a smidge of smoke or sweet paprika for intrigue.
I believe comfort food means not focusing on calories and carbs. Of course, you can skip eating the chicken skin and opt out of the sour cream and pan juices if you have concerns. Otherwise, gather the family and friends and enjoy the warmth.
Use a heavy pan that doesn't warp in the oven.
Use a large enough pan - better to have room around the food than a packed-tight version that prevents crispness.
Use plenty of seasoning: Since there's no direct heat on the foods, all the flavor comes from the seasonings.
Use a convection setting, if you have it; the circulating hot air promotes browning.
SHEET-PAN CHICKEN PAPRIKASH WITH POTATOES
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
Use absolutely fresh paprika here; it should be bright red with a rich aroma.
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, about 2 1/4 pounds total
5 to 6 medium-size yellow roasting potatoes, about 1 1/4 pounds total, scrubbed
1 medium-large (8 ounces) sweet onion, halved, thickly sliced in wedges
1/4 cup Hungarian sweet paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup water
2 to 3 tablespoons sour cream or creme fraiche
Buttered noodles (optional), see recipe
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees on convection setting or 425 degrees on conventional. Pat chicken dry and place on 16-by-12-inch (or larger) rimmed baking sheet. Cut potatoes lengthwise into quarters. Arrange potatoes and onion slices around the chicken.
2. Mix sweet paprika, salt, oregano, garlic powder and hot paprika in small bowl. Sprinkle chicken, potatoes and onion on all sides with the paprika mixture. Drizzle everything with olive oil.
3. Roast for 20 minutes. Stir vegetables well. Continue roasting until chicken juices run clear and potatoes are fork-tender, 20 minutes more.
4. Transfer chicken and vegetables to serving platter. Set baking sheet over a burner and turn heat to medium. Stir 1/4 cup water into the pan. Heat to a boil and scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Remove pan from heat. Stir in sour cream and season with salt.
5. Drizzle pan sauce over the chicken and vegetables. Garnish with parsley and serve.
Whole roasted chicken: Use a 4- to 5-pound whole broiler chicken and remove the giblets and extra pockets of fat. Tuck the wings behind the back. Place chicken on a 16-by-12-inch baking sheet. Rub chicken on all sides with half of the seasoning mixture. Roast, breast side up, at 400 degrees on convection setting or 425 degrees on conventional for 20 minutes. Add potatoes and onions to pan; toss with remaining seasoning mixture and drizzle with oil. Continue roasting, stirring vegetables once or twice, until potatoes are fork-tender and chicken juices run clear, 35 to 40 minutes more. Let chicken rest 10 minutes before carving. Make pan sauce as directed in step 4.
Buttered noodles: Heat a large pot of salted water to boil. Add 1 bag (12 ounces) extra broad egg noodles to the water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until nearly tender, 7 to 8 minutes. Drain off the water. Return the noodles to the pot and add 2 tablespoons butter. Toss to melt the butter. Season with salt.
Nutrition information per serving: 395 calories, 23 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 132 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 26 g protein, 695 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
SKILLET APPLES WITH SMOKED-PAPRIKA WHIPPED CREAM
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
5 small Honey Crisp apples, about 1 1/2 pounds total
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup each: packed dark brown sugar, raisins
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
Spice cookies or shortbread cookies
1. Peel apples; cut into quarters. Remove the core and cut each apple quarter into 3 slices.
2. Heat a large, well-seasoned cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; add butter and apples. Cook and stir for 5 minutes.
3. Stir in sugar, raisins and cinnamon. Cook and stir until apples are fork-tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
4. In a small bowl, beat cream until soft beaks form. Beat in confectioners' sugar and paprika just to mix.
5. Serve warm apples with their pan juices in small bowls. Top with a dollop of whipped cream. Pass cookies.
Nutrition information per serving: 295 calories, 20 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 25 g sugar, 2 g protein, 15 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com