September 8, 2010 in Food

Mentor had the recipe for a full life

By The Spokesman-Review
 
File photo

A woman with a sharp knife and a sharp wit, Chef Char Zyskowski cracks a joke with her cooking class in her kitchen in 2003 while sharpening a knife. Zyskowski always kept the mood fun and light in the class while trying to impart the skills to prepare a great meal.
(Full-size photo)

Taking a cooking class from Char Zyskowski was more than just a way to sharpen your kitchen skills.

It was an invitation to laugh; to be part of her magic; to join the community she created around her table.

The chef and caterer, who was always so generous with her cooking advice, recipes and kindness, died last week after a four-year fight with ovarian cancer.

Char came late to her calling in the kitchen. She was almost 50 when she moved to California for two years to follow her dream of going to culinary school.

She brought her expertise back to Spokane, starting Apple Charlotte Cooking and Catering Company and teaching hundreds of students how to make their own magic.

I was a student in some of those classes. I consider meeting Char one of the great gifts this job has given me.

She was introduced to me when my friend and previous food editor Laura Crooks took me with her to a class one evening.

The food, the energy and the laugher that night was addicting and I wanted to learn more. So I signed up for a series of classes, and then another and another.

Char was equal parts teacher, friend and counselor. The evenings were filled with great food and wine, encouragement and her quick and generous laughter.

We called on her often for food page stories and advice. She loved to hear stories about the phone calls I would get at the newspaper from readers seeking cooking advice.

When Laura died unexpectedly almost four years ago, Char graciously offered her kitchen as a respite for those of us who knew her. She welcomed me and three of my colleagues for an evening of cooking and remembering Laura, who was 37 when she died due to a heart defect.

We cursed the fates for a life lost so soon. We promised to learn from Laura’s example and live a full life without squandering a moment of the time we had left.

It wasn’t until we were almost finished making pierogi for Laura’s family that Char revealed her own recent diagnosis of ovarian cancer. She didn’t waste a minute feeling sorry for herself and wouldn’t let us, either.

She closed her business to reserve her energy for her fight. Then she reopened it after the initial round of treatments. When we talked she seemed her old upbeat self, ready to entertain, to teach and share her gift.

We talked on the phone a few times in the past few years, and I knew without hearing it from her that when Apple Charlotte closed again that she needed that energy for something more important.

I’m sorry to say that we didn’t get the chance to connect again before her death last week. But I know I won’t forget what I learned in her kitchen.

There were lots of little things, of course – how to mince garlic starting with the bash of a giant cleaver, making the perfect pie crust and tricks for adjusting the flavors of a finished dish.

But the big stuff … well, you could almost feel it when Char was nearby. It was in the twinkle in her eye, in her hearty laugh and in the hearts of everyone who ever ate at her table.

My stack is full of dog-eared and food-stained recipes from Apple Charlotte. I use some of them more often than this recipe she shared for pierogi, but it is the one that will always bring back the best memories of graceful and generous Char.

Pierogi

From Char Zyskowski. She wrote on the recipe, “Having married into a traditional Polish family … my mother-in-law, Irene, was fast to teach me her Polish cooking ways and generously give me her delicious heritage. The Zyskowskis are a sweet and wonderful family that have shared this food and life with me. I am every so pleased to pass on their kitchen secrets to you, my Apple Charlotte cooking friends.”

Dough:

4 cups flour

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk, approximately

Filling:

1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese, squeezed of liquid

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

1 large egg

1/4 teaspoons salt

1 cube unsalted butter

Sour cream

Place dry ingredients for dough in food processor. Mix. Add milk and mix until it comes together. Allow dough to rest under bowl for at least 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together all items for filling.

After dough has rested, use pasta machine to roll it out, using about a quarter of the dough at a time. Roll to about a thinness of 4, according to the machine markings. Cut out with 2-inch cutter and place filling on half of the round. Fold over and pinch edge closed, wetting with a bit of water. Set aside on floured sheet pan and finish others. (Can be frozen at this point on sheet pan.)

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add salt. Add pierogi a few at a time and cook briefly until they float to the top and boil about 1 to 2 minutes more. (Total cooking time is about 4 to 5 minutes.)

Melt butter on hot sheet pan and place pierogis on sheet pan when finished boiling. To finish cooking pierogis place under broiler briefly until bubbly. Serve with sour cream

Yield: 24 servings


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