Tom Jozsi makes Stuffed Meatballs
When Tom Jozsi and his brother and sister were growing up in Skokie, family dinner at their house was a time when kids ate quietly and quickly hoping to dodge the parental question: "How come I got a call from your school today?"
A lot of us "old-timers" grew up that way. Every night at roughly the same hour Mom prepared a tasty, hot meal, along the lines of hearty pot roast, pork chops or Salisbury steak with potatoes and gravy. The kids ate as fast as possible and asked to be excused.
But as the father of two teenagers, Tom long ago redefined family dinner. He still serves nutritious, from-scratch meals, but conversation with the kids is welcomed and encouraged.
"That's what my wife (Mary) and I brought to the table," he says. "Back then we didn't have the opportunity to talk as kids do today; it's a tool to help us understand what's going on in their lives."
To loosen their tongues, Tom prepares straightforward, approachable comfort foods - meatballs, fried chicken, cheesy meatloaf, grilled roasts and pork chops and fried fish. Sometimes he invites his kids - Marianne, 18, Tommy, 15, and his niece, Cassy, 16, who lives with them - to lend a hand.
For a recent Friday fish fry he set the kids up as line cooks, dipping the fillets in flour, then egg wash, then crumbs and passing it on to Tom, "the fry guy."
The radio is generally tuned to vintage rock and Tom lightens the work with some horsing around - flicking a little flour at his daughter, teasing the kids and rough housing with Shandor, their 8-month-old vizsla pup. Mary pitches in with salad or a side and everyone sits down between 6:30 and 7.
That scenario doesn't play out every night but the family aims for communal meals four times a week.
Tom's repertoire combines heirloom recipes from his Hungarian parents and contemporary dishes from cookbooks, the Internet and Food Network.
A traditional bow hunter and fisherman, he provides venison, crappie, blue gill and walleye for the table, too.
Fresh vegetables, purchased from a farmers market when possible, are a must; he dresses them up with cheese sauce, butter and bacon or brown sugar and butter.
"We have a rule, regardless whether you think you like a dish you have to try it," he says. "It's amazing how many things they really like."
Among the Jozsis' favorites are two Hungarian recipes from Tom's mother, pork burgers served with spaetzle or mashed potatoes and chicken paprika enhanced by sour cream and mushrooms. The recipe he shares today for stuffed meatballs with mushroom soup gravy comes from his wife's family.
Serve all with lively conversation and laughter.