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The Dinner Pot : Gabriella Rado and the Stacked Potatoes

January 20, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

Whenever her mother tried to give her a cooking lesson, Gabriella Rado ran out of the kitchen crying, "I want to marry a rich man!" (A rich man, presumably, who would pay someone else to cook.) And indeed, she married a dentist, one of the wealthier men in her small Transylvanian town. They ate out all the time.

After her son was born, however, Rado had to learn how to cook; her boy was sickly and required special dishes. Her cooking was terrible. "Oh, it smells so good," everyone would say to encourage her. But when they sat down to eat, the food was so awful, they had to throw it away and go out to eat in a restaurant.

A strong, quick-witted woman, Gabriela was an artist, a painter. Eventually, without using cookbook or measuring cup, she got the hang of cooking. The first dish Rado made that everybody liked was chicken soup. Little did she know that she'd eventually be sought out by her countrymen for her terrific Hungarian dishes.

Rado is a Hungarian from Transylvania, which used to be a part of Hungary and is now a part of Rumania. As an ethnic minority in Transylvania, the Hungarians suffered under Rumanian rule. The Rado family came to the United States in 1976. Tamas Vetro, a Hungarian from Budapest and a close family friend, relies on Rado to supply him with the beloved flavors of their homeland: stacked potatoes, stuffed cabbage, a thick soup goulash, and Transylvanian cabbage, a dish made with filet mignon, sauerkraut and sour cream.

"I really think cooking is now Gabriella's second nature," says Vetro. "She doesn't have to think about what she's doing. I went to see her last week and the house smelled wonderful. I asked her what was on the stove and she said, "I really don't know!"

Stacked potatoes is a substantial and filling regional dish. Ask 10 different Transylvanian cooks to make it, and you'll probably end up with 10 slightly different versions. While many cooks will use salami or ham in their stacked potatoes, Rado's version includes smoked sausage made by her younger brother Tibor from a closely guarded family recipe. The cheese? "A not-yellow cheese," says Rado vaguely. But it must be layered generously to keep the potatoes moist. The sour cream is thinned with milk so it won't dry out and crack as it cooks. Serve stacked potatoes as a main course, with a little soup beforehand, and a sour pickle--maybe some pickled beets with the casserole itself.

Of course, Rado won't take a compliment. If you tell her a dish she cooked is delicious, she'll say, "That's just the way it's supposed to taste."

Note: For Rado's Transylvanian stacked potato recipe, see above.

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