For a complete listing of recipes from the March 16 “Holy Smoke” section, please browse the 3D FlipBook at the bottom of this article.
By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Miracles – some pretty hefty ones – have rocked Karen Hubert Ursin’s life from Day One.
As a newborn, Ursin was baptized in the hospital because her doctors were concerned her O-negative blood type – seen as a potential death sentence in 1955 – was working against her little body.
The morning after Ursin’s birth, in a textbook medical case that confounded even her doctors, Ursin’s blood type had turned into a more benign A-positive, and the baby suddenly began to thrive.
The family attributed the life-saving change in blood type to a prayer marathon undertaken by Ursin’s grandfather to nine New Orleans churches. He had asked God to save his granddaughter through the intercession of Father (now Blessed) Francis Seelos.
“The doctors came in the next morning and told my mother I was a miracle. They didn’t know how to explain it,” said Ursin, a parishioner of St. Pius X Church in New Orleans. “That story sticks with me. I’m here for a reason!”
But God wasn’t done.
About 20 years ago, after being plagued by painful welts that caused her face and extremities to swell and bruise, Ursin turned to St. Joseph and St. Frances Cabrini, the patron saint of her high school alma mater, for their intercession.
“They couldn’t figure out what was making me sick. They thought it was shingles, then they thought it was lupus,” Ursin recalled. “I would get these hives that would almost look like boils. I looked like I had been punched in the face. I would get up in the middle of the night and lay in the bathtub.”
After three years of hospitalizations and steroid treatments that delivered only temporary fixes, an analysis of Ursin’s blood by a specialist in New York finally revealed that she was suffering from a rare auto-inflammatory disease called Schnitzler syndrome.
“As quickly as it came it went away,” Ursin said. “Every now and then I have a flare-up, but I take Benadryl and that takes care of it.”
In thanksgiving for her recovery, Ursin began erecting a St. Joseph altar in her living room. The annual tribute culminates with a hot, meatless meal served the evening of March 19 to upwards of 30 guests.
Meatless can be hearty
Rather than focusing on assembling an overly extravagant altar, Ursin pours her energy into the preparation of numerous meatless entreés for her visitors, three of which she is sharing in this issue of “Holy Smoke.”
One of Ursin’s biggest crowd-pleasers is her version of eggplant lasagna, which gets its distinctive taste and “meaty” texture from peeling, breading and frying the eggplant slices before layering them in the casserole dish. Ursin recommends patting the breaded eggplant dry after frying to avoid making a greasy lasagna.
“Most people slice their eggplant, leave the skin on and put it in their lasagna. I peel mine,” she said. “I let the eggplant soak in a little salt water for a little bit, then I dry it off and I pané it with bread crumbs, and then I layer it in the pan. It locks in the moisture.”
Ursin also prepares stuffed bell peppers for her St. Joseph’s Day diners, using a full pound of crabmeat – inspired by her family’s love for crab cakes. She incorporates Pepperidge Farm stuffing, which unlike loose bread crumbs has a French bread texture and is conveniently pre-seasoned with herbs.
“If you see that your stuffing is not sticking together with the eggs, just add a little more butter,” advises Ursin.
The cook said the trick behind making great spinach-stuffed pasta shells is to drain the thawed spinach within an inch of its life, squeezing it first by hand and then pressing it into a colander. Ursin adds a dusting of bread crumbs to the mixture for some added seasoning.
“But not a lot, because you don’t want it bready; you want to taste the spinach and the cheese,” Ursin said. Worcestershire sauce, which she frequently calls on in her kitchen, gives the dish “that little tangy taste,” she said.
Altars come from the heart
Ursin begins to cook for her home altar just five to seven days in advance, so the entreés “don’t have that freezer taste.” The altar is blessed before March 19 by Father Patrick Williams, pastor of St. Pius X.
“I feel really blessed that I can do it,” Ursin said, recalling how she would visit various St. Joseph altars while growing up in St. Matthias Parish in Broadmoor. “I remember thinking, even back then, that those families didn’t have to (put up an altar), but they took it upon themselves to do it anyway. So, it’s a privilege to do it.”
Ursin, who recently retired from work in city government, said she picked up cooking tips from her grandmother, whose home she would walk to every day after school at St. Stephen Elementary. Her grandmother would prepare milkshakes for young Karen, sneaking in egg whites for added nutrition.
“I would kind of sit at the kitchen table and watch what she was doing. I was there almost every day of my childhood,” said Ursin, recalling another sly move executed by her grandmother. One day, when little Karen asked what meat was on her plate, her grandmother responded: “It’s steak.”
“I told her, ‘This doesn’t taste like the steak my mom makes,’” Ursin said. “I come to find out it was liver and onions! But to this day I still eat liver and onions, so that was a good thing that she did!”
Despite her early exposure to home cooking, Ursin confesses she didn’t know “how to boil water” when she got married in 1977. She once put french fries in a crock pot, assuming it was deep fryer.
“I felt my way through. I knew the ingredients that went into stuff, I just didn’t know how it went,” said Ursin, who has four adult children, two grandchildren and a third on the way.
In one brave kitchen attempt as a newlywed, Ursin cooked Thanksgiving dinner. “Everything came out great, but the gravy for the turkey kept growing!” she said. “I must have had a big ol’ stew pot of gravy at the end. My father-in-law said I could have fed gravy to the masses.”
Ursin went on to master family favorites such as pot roast with potatoes and carrots, Salisbury steak with grilled onions and traditional lasagna. Her meatless Lenten staples include her mother’s potato salad (which derives its richness from fork-mashed egg yolks blended with a little olive oil); and “breakfast for dinner” – either eggs or pancakes using the Ursin family’s recently acquired Mickey Mouse mold.
As a young mother, Ursin enforced a rule of family dinners around the table at 6 p.m. sharp, even when that meant piling the children into the car to ferry meals to their father on nights he was working the late shift. The Ursins continue to eat dinner as a family without fail, every Sunday at 5 p.m. – a time slot that seems to work well with everyone’s Mass schedules and pre-Monday errands.
“That’s the only time we all get together and talk about everything,” Ursin said.
One thing that doesn’t feature prominently in Ursin’s culinary repertoire is desserts, although she does make the occasional pie or cake.
“I tried to make a lamb cake for the altar, but you wouldn’t even know what it was. I bought the mold and everything,” Ursin said, chuckling. “It was a disfigured lamb.”