CHESTNUT HILL — The table in Eva Bonis’s dining room is set with an embroidered cloth from her native Hungary. A deep bowl holds lecho with sausage, a colorful specialty of tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, seasoned with paprika, which, Bonis explains, “is the cornerstone of the Hungarian culture.” Another dish is packed with green peppers stuffed with ground turkey, rice, onions, and, of course, paprika. Both are from Bonis’s self-published cookbook “New Hungarian Cuisine: Traditional & Contemporary Favorites.”
The volume, her second, took Bonis five years to complete. “It was a labor of love,” she says. Friends and relatives tested recipes, others helped with editing, and her daughter Andrea and son Peter provided general support and encouragement.
Bonis, 81, was born in Hungary and escaped in 1956 with her then-husband after the defeat of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. They settled in the Boston area the following year because he got a job at MIT. She had a degree in chemical engineering from the Technical University of Budapest and earned a master’s in library science from Simmons College, and loved to cook, finding it therapeutic. She learned how at home, but between classes and laboratory work, was so busy that she did not have much time to spend in the kitchen. “This cooking mania really started here,” she says. “Cooking was my hobby.”
Seven years after Bonis arrived here, her mother, whom she describes as a wonderful cook, came to live with them. But the older woman never wrote down her recipes, so Bonis spent years trying to re-create them. She writes that she experimented, trying to reproduce her taste memories, ultimately developing her own versions of her mother’s favorites, along with other Hungarian-style dishes.
Bonis still visits her homeland, and says the cuisine there has evolved with the influx of international influences that followed the collapse of the Communist regime in the late 1980s. “Chefs became inspired,” she says. For her part, “I thought it was time we eliminated the thought that Hungarian food is impossible to eat because it’s heavy.”
She decided to publish the book because “I wanted to write it down and make [the national cuisine] lighter, bring it into the 21st century. I wanted to develop new recipes that have the Hungarian touch with ingredients that are available here.”
Korozott is a favorite recipe that Bonis has tweaked. A popular spread, it is typically made with butter and sheep’s milk cheese. Bonis’s version calls for light cream cheese, fat-free feta, mustard, paprika, and chives, yielding what she calls a “healthy but tasty spread.”
Bonis’s self-published first cookbook, “Sensuous Hungarian American Desserts,” sold a few hundred copies. She says she enjoyed working on “New Hungarian Cuisine” more because it has a broader scope. Dedicated to her mother and her two grandsons, the volume contains more than 170 recipes, a section with sources for difficult-to-find ingredients, and a page devoted to paprika and its history.
Many recipes include the staples of the Hungarian diet: paprika, sour cream, garlic, and onions. But even the most traditional, like chicken paprikash, named for its primary ingredient, are lighter than what Bonis grew up eating. The dish typically calls for chicken with the skin on; Bonis removes the skin. She also uses light sour cream and makes her dumplings, a common accompaniment to this and other dishes, with egg whites instead of yolks. This is her favorite entree for guests, though she notes that people who come to her house often expect goulash.
“I don’t understand why goulash is so famous,” Bonis declares, explaining that the Hungarian word “gulya” means cowboy. “It’s a peasant dish. They put everything in it. Anything goes with goulash.” In fact, it can be both a hearty stew and a soup. Bonis offers a recipe for goulash soup. She recommends adding tiny dumplings and a tablespoon or two of paprika paste (from a Hungarian specialty store, though tomato paste is an acceptable substitute) to make it a meal.
Bonis adapts the classic dish lecho by using kielbasa instead of heavier Hungarian sausage, which she can no longer digest. And she cooks the vegetables and meat in canola oil instead of the traditional lard.
Two cookbooks is her limit, says the author. Now she wants to just enjoy the food with friends and family — particularly her grandsons — and hope an audience in her adopted country will also discover a taste for her cuisine.
“New Hungarian Cuisine: Traditional & Contemporary Favorites” is available at New England Mobile Book Fair, 82 Needham St., Newton Highlands, 617-527-5817; Wellesley Books, 82 Central St., Wellesley, 781-431-1160; or go to www.amazon.com.