More years ago than I care to remember, I had my first and only experience with a Yiddish delicacy that hides its true identity under the seemingly unpronounceable pseudonym “ptcha.” What it really should be called is garlic jello. There are many wonderful Jewish foods, chopped liver, a little gefilte fish with horse radish, matzoh ball soup, foods that have come to define old world Yiddish cuisine. Ptcha will never make into this exalted club.
Here is my story.
I am about to meet for the first time the grandparents of the woman who was to become my first wife. I am very nervous. These are people from the old world, somewhere in Eastern Europe. I want to make a good impression, but I have no idea what kind of thing will impress them. We get to their home just about lunch time. We haven’t come for lunch, but when the Zayde (grandfather) wants lunch, the Zayde gets lunch. And when the Bubbe (grandmother) serves lunch, she serves lunch to everyone, and I’m smart enough to understand that when the Bubbe says eat, if you want to make an impression, you eat.
“You like ptcha?” she asks.
“I never. . . .”
“You never? Try it, you’ll like,” she says; the Zayde nods agreement.
The woman who was to become my first wife catches my eye. She shakes her head, slightly. “You won’t like,” she seems to be indicating. “None for me,” she says. She has no one to impress. But I do, and the way to impress a cook is to eat their cooking.
Out come two plates of ptcha. One for Zayde; one for the schlemiel. On the plate sits something that looks like a brownish gray glob of jelly with something nestled within. While it doesn’t look quite appetizing, it doesn’t quite look poisonous. Looks, they say, can be deceiving. They who say have it right.
“Try,” Bubba smiles.
I try. I put fork to plate. The jell doesn’t want to stay on the fork, but with a few stabs, I get it to co-operate. I open wide. In it goes, and what can I say: garlic jello. It is enough to make a weak stomach give back a week’s worth of food.
“Delic. . . .,” I begin. “What exactly is ptcha?” Smiling I force down another forkful.
“Calf’s foot jelly.”
“Calf’s foot? Oh, really. It’s del. . . .”
“You’ll have some more.” This is not a question; this is a command.
The woman who was not yet my first wife chuckled silently as I “wolfed” down my second portion. I tried it. How about you? “You’ll try it, you’ll like it.”
Google ptcha and you’ll get several recipes. One surprisingly neglects to mention the main ingredient. Some suggest alternatives for the calves foot. One seems to offer something close to the genuine article. This comes from Rikki Spivak, the Jewish food expert on the AllExperts website. She says in answer to a question from a reader that ptcha is a kind of aspic made from calf’s feet. And God bless her, she too says it reminds her of garlic jello (a woman after my own heart).
Anyway, here is her recipe. Try it, you’ll like it.
1 calf’s foot
1 4-quart pot
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
6 cloves garlic minced or more
1 tablespoon dried parsley
Place foot in pot and cover with water. Add salt, pepper, and garlic powder and bring to a boil. Skim foam if necessary. Lower heat (as low as your flame goes without going out). Cook until the meat on the bones is very soft and literally falling off the bones. While it cooks, mince the garlic and place in the bottom of a large square Corningware or Pyrex that has a cover. It should take around 2 to 3 hours to cook. Using a slotted spoon lift out all the bones and remove all meat from bones. Using a hand chopper, chop all the meat until fine and it gets gluey. Put the chopped meat in the Pyrex and then all the liquid from the pot, mixing well. Re-season using a lot of black pepper, garlic powder and salt. Carefully put Pyrex in fridge. After 5 minutes sprinkle the parsley all over the top. Leave in fridge at least overnight. Serve cold.