Sue Pietkiewicz was born and raised in Cheektowaga, where her kitchen experience went little beyond watching her mother and grandmother cook.
"I got to set the table," said Pietkiewicz, The News' August Cook of the Month. "Even as an adult, I got the bread."
But Pietkiewicz, nee Skierczynski, watched well. She had to, because her mother and grandmother were "old-fashioned Polish cooks" who didn't measure ingredients, unless you count handfuls as measuring. Written recipes? Please.
"They said, 'If you don't watch, you're never going to learn.' "
By the time she married Michael, a nice Polish boy from Cheektowaga, and settled into their University Heights home, she could handle the Polish classics. Her house is the family gathering spot for Christmas and other holidays now. Her mom can set the table as Pietkiewicz turns out the pierogis, the sausage, the cabbage braised with bacon.
Ask her what she would like to share with News readers, though, and her imagination goes south. The girl from Cheektowaga has grown to enjoy Mexican food, and she can thank her husband.
Each year for five years, Michael Pietkiewicz, assistant vice president of community and government relations at the University at Buffalo, had to attend a January conference in Tucson, Ariz.
There, at a roadside taco trailer, Pietkiewicz had a moment. "I'll never forget eating on the roadside, sitting at that red picnic table at that truck, you're not even sure if they got your order right, because of the language barrier," she said. "I can still smell it."
It was a pork burrito or taco with a squeeze of lime, simple but new to her. "The first bite, I was hooked."
Around Tucson, Sue and Michael explored some of the blue-collar Mexican cooking that's as common as hamburgers and pizza are here.
Back home, she tried making tacos but moved on to enchiladas, usually meat or vegetarian filling inside tortillas, baked in sauce. Her first attempts used canned chilies, and canned enchilada sauce, missing the vibrant flavors she had come to enjoy. "I said, this doesn't work for me. ... There is no more Ortega in our life."
So she started building her sauce from fresh chilies and tomatillos, which were canned but better than nothing. (Tomatillos, which look like tiny green tomatoes, add a pleasantly sour vegetal flavor that's hard to duplicate otherwise.)
Instead of submerging the shredded chicken filling in cheese, she decided to blend in earthy goat cheese, just enough to provide the rustic flavor she likes. "I started out with cream cheese, but it's got to have more, I thought," she said. "I just wanted it better."
The recipe below sums up four or five years of tinkering. The tomatillo sauce "really makes this dish," she said. "It's bright, it's a citrusy thing, with a lively, tart taste."
It's actually a pretty healthy dish, she noted. It's not oozing cheese, and her tortillas aren't fried in lard. "No chicharron, no pork belly," she said.
Their 5-year-old son Jackson still likes his food simple, and Pietkiewicz cares for the couple's 9-month-old daughter Willa as well. With their needs, she "sticks to the playlist pretty much at this point" when it comes to menu planning. But, she said, "I gotta get back in the game." Making her enchiladas again "is kind of breaking me out," she said.
In the years she's been tinkering, Pietkiewicz has become comfortable enough with Mexican dishes to invent her own crossover cuisine.
"I've made an enchilada pierogi," she said, stuffing the dumpling dough with the same chicken and goat cheese filling. Her smoked kielbasa pierogi is her husband's favorite, though.
"Render kielbasa down, crumble it up with some caramelized onions. Boil them, then fry them in butter. That's the triple-bypass dish."
Cook's note: When cutting fresh chilies, wear gloves and/or wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Serranos are always spicy, and poblanos can be as well. All it takes is one forgetful eye-scratching to remember.
> Sue's Chicken and Goat Cheese Enchiladas
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chicken broth or more, optional
4 ounces goat cheese, sharp cheddar or Monterey Jack
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 serrano pepper, diced small
1 poblano pepper, diced small
1 sweet banana pepper, diced
1 medium onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 large 26-ounce can tomatillos
Corn or flour tortillas
Combine 3 tablespoons oil with cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper. Coat chicken well with marinade. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or more. Grill 5-6 minutes each side. Remove from grill, cover with foil and let cool.
In a pan, heat 3 tablespoons oil. Sweat chili peppers, onion and garlic over medium-low heat until soft. Add drained tomatillos. Cook for 5-7 minutes more, until tomatillos are collapsing. Set aside and let cool. Put cooled chili mixture in food processor and blend until smooth.
Meanwhile, cube chicken. Shred in food processor. Mix goat cheese into chicken with a fork. If chicken seems dry, add 2 tablespoons chicken broth or more. Mix well; the filling should be moist but not wet. Scoop 2-3 heaping tablespoons of chicken mixture into tortilla of your choice. Roll, place in greased baking dish with seam down and pour sauce over them. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
Serve with sour cream, fresh cilantro and lime.
Name: Sue Pietkiewicz
Mouths to feed: 4
Instant go-to meal: Frozen fries and grilled cheese
Guilty pleasure: Nutter Butter Blizzard