Apr 142013


A popular breakfast and/or anytime food in Israel, shakshuka is both dead simple to make right and surprisingly easy to make wrong. A specialty of the Jews of northern Africa, almost every Israeli has a firmly-held opinion on what constitutes the proper ingredients and method of preparation for shakshuka — and by and large (he said, modestly) almost every Israeli is incorrect. I learned from the Moroccans. My shakshuka has made women weep. It is perfect. If you disagree, you need to seriously evaluate the choices that led you to this miserable station of your existence. I will brook no dissent. And no onions. No dissent or onions.

Technically, what you will be making at first is matbucha, AKA salade cuite AKA ensalada cocha (cooked salad), which is a perfectly delicious accompaniment to bread in its own right. Once you reheat it and poach eggs in it, the resulting dish is shakshuka, which makes for a wonderful meal any time of the day. My friends, Jew and Gentile alike, clamor for its heartwarming goodness. So without further ado:
Continue reading »

Nov 112012

Potato Kugel/קאַרטאָפל קוגל/קוגל תפוחי אדמה

בשם הרב ירדן רוזנבלום שליט”א
אזהרה לקורא: מתכון זה עוסק בענייני תורת הנסתר מאוד עמוקים וקדושים, שאינם ניתנים להבנה ע”י אלה שתורתם ויראתם אינן נמצאות במדרגה עליונה. כ”ש “ראשית דבר על האדם למלא כרסו בש”ס ופוסקים, מי שלומד קבלה צריך להתקדש ולהיטהר,” שלא יבוא לידי חטא, ר”ל.

“The zaddikim proclaim that there are profound matters embedded in the kugel. For this reason they insisted that every Jew must eat the Sabbath kugel. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov recalled that once, when he went out for a walk with the holy rabbi of Ropshitz, all that they talked about for three hours were the secrets that lie hidden inside the Sabbath kugel.”

“The Seer of Lublin taught that just as one’s respective mitzvot and transgressions are weighed in the balance in the process of our final judgment in the heavenly courts, so too they weigh all of the kugel that one ate in honor of the Sabbath.”

“Reb Shmelke of Selish used to immerse himself in the mikvah [ritual bath] after the Mussaf service, before the eating of the kugel.”

“Reb Itiskel of Pshevorsk taught that there is a special chamber in the heavens in which the particular reward for eating kugel on the Sabbath is distributed; even one who ate kugel only out of base material motives, because he craved it, would receive his reward.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it seems that when one’s operating theology is that shards of the divine presence are locked within the very fabric of creation, one might arrive at some very strange conclusions – as Allan Nadler discovered in his paper “Holy Kugel: The Sanctification of Ashkenazic Ethnic Foods in Hasidism.” The humble kugel too is a vessel for aspects of the divine. Actually, as it so happens, for one very specific aspect. Do read on: Continue reading »

Dec 112008


Now that we’ve gotten kibbeh, kubbeh, and kasha out of the way, it’s time to visit a little-known corner of the Jewish culinary world: Ethiopia. For all intents and purposes, Ethiopian Jewish cooking is indistinguishable from Ethiopian Christian or Muslim cooking – none of the staple grains, plants or meats of Ethiopia are unkosher by nature, so Ethiopian cuisine never had to be ramrodded through the strictures of Jewish dietary laws like the cuisines of other regions in which Jews found themselves. In fact, the Ethiopian Jewish community, which was largely unaware of the developments of Rabbinic Judaism, continues to this day to allow the eating of chicken with dairy, prohibited for the rest of world Jewry long ago as one of Judaism’s charming moats around the wall around the fence around the Torah. But that’s neither here nor there. I learned to love Ethiopian food while living in Israel, so I’m calling it Jewish food.

I’m starting this series within a series with a primer on the basic building blocks of many (if not most) Ethiopian dishes – all of which you’ll need before you can think about making a full Ethiopian meal. First off is berbere, the piquant orange blend of chili peppers and fragrant spices used by the fistful in all those atomic bowls of wat. There is nothing subtle about berbere. It is a sucker punch straight to the sinuses. Naturally, you can’t do without it.

A note of warning before we begin: African birdseye peppers are hot. I don’t mean hot like your homemade pico de gallo when you’re feeling frisky and chop up a third jalapeño. I mean that the process of pulverizing dozens of them will produce invisible yet highly potent clouds of fine pepper particles which will spread quickly and thoroughly throughout the house, and you will essentially be mainlining 170,000 Scoville units with every breath you take. I have a high spice tolerance, so an afternoon of standing in the eye of a capsaicin hurricane only caused my eyes to water and nose to run, and also gave me a weird adrenaline rush, but when one of my roommates and her friends came in – up a flight of stairs from the kitchen – they immediately began gasping and coughing. I am not bragging; I am cautioning. If you can’t handle spice – and I mean spice, not Tabasco – don’t make berbere. You won’t survive the grinding, much less the eating.

On we go:
Continue reading »

Dec 032008

Red Kubbeh Soup/מרק קובה אדום/Marak Kubbeh Adom/Kubeh/Kube/Kubbe

This is the beet generation.

This is red kubbeh soup.

Remember how I taught you how to make Israeli-style kubbeh for soup? Now your kung-fu is ready. Now you can defeat soup!

My red kubbeh soup recipe is based on Harry’s, with a couple of tweaks. Harry loves kubbeh. Harry loves kubbeh with an almost intimidating fierceness. A man once came between Harry and a bowl of kubbeh soup and Harry killed him and made his skin into an ascot (he calls it his “soup-eatin’ tie”). Harry always kept a thermos of kubbeh soup warming on the engine of his Merkava, and for every shell fired, he would eat one kubbeh. This remains a Chativa Sheva tradition to this day.

I believe that soup should always be made in ridiculous quantitites and last for days, and my recipe reflects this. There is no better comfort food for the winter. And I have several friends and acquaintances who regularly clamor for “that red soup.” So be forewarned. Making this soup is like going all the way in high school: you’ll have fun and be more popular. Let’s get to it:

Continue reading »

Nov 292008

Kubbeh/קובה למרק/كبّ/Kubeh/Kube/Kubbe

Ranks of Kubbeh

Kubbeh: not to be confused with kibbeh, despite being a variation of the same word for a variation on the same thing. Like kibbeh, these are made from ground meat in a chiefly bulgur shell, but they hail from the northern regions of Iraq rather than Syria, and instead of deep frying, they’re treated to a simmer in broth, making them more dumpling than mezze. In Israel, the word “kubbeh” is applied indiscriminately to both the fried and simmered variety (in Arabic, pronunciation differences between dialects leads to the discrepancy in names for the same thing), but for the sake of clarity, I’m calling these Kurdish-style dumplings “kubbeh” and the fried and raw versions predominant in the Levant “kibbeh.”

Anyway. Kubbeh are a specialty of the Jews of Kurdistan, who once formed large percentages of the population of now-infamous cities like Mosul and Arbil before immigrating to Israel en masse along with the rest of the Iraqi Jewish population in the 1940s and 1950s. My old hood in Jerusalem, centered around the Machane Yehuda market, was heavily Kurdish, home to a Kurdish-Jewish community organization that never seemed open, and dozens of restaurants, social clubs and backgammon parlors that never seemed closed. Several of the restaurants (most notably, Mordoch) specialize in kubbeh-based soups, ranging from the crimson marak kubbeh adom to the sour, green hamousta. So between Jerusalem’s Little Kurdistan and the frozen sections of Israeli supermarkets, kubbeh were never far off. But like edible hummus, Zohar Argov, responsible M16-bearing teenagers and the Divine Presence, we don’t have any here in the far reaches of Exile.

Until now.
Continue reading »

May 222008

Kasha Varnishkes/קאשה וורנישקס (כוסמת עם אטריות)/קאשע ווארנישקעס
каша варнишки/Kasha Varnishkas/Kasha Varnishka

Mmm. Childhood food. I don’t think anyone ever acquires a taste for kasha varnishkes as an adult; for the dish to be truly appreciated, the earthiness of the kasha and the fleeting sweetness of the caramelized onions have to be augmented by recollection, by the sense memories of your grandmother’s kitchen as experienced from your below-the-countertop vantage point. Eating kasha varnishkes without ever having had an Eastern European Jewish grandmother is like eating hummus without tehina.

Kasha varnishkes is a heavyweight of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine in America, familiar to probably every American Ashkenazi with roots in Eastern Europe. I grew up eating it in my Baba Larisa’s little apartment, where it was usually followed by her airy, moist apple cake, but until not so long ago, I was under the impression that it was a Russian dish. My mother’s parents, from the Austro-Hungarian/Romanian/Ukrainian/Romanian/Ukrainian/Russian/Ukrainian city Chernivtsi (isn’t 20th century European history fun?), had their Jewishness, or at least their willingness to talk much about it, effectively beaten out of them by the lightning jab and cross of the Nazis and the Communists, which is why it took me so long to realize that many of the foods I had grown up identifying as Russian, kasha varnishkes among them, were actually Ashkenazi Jewish.

Kasha is the Slavic word for any kind of cereal porridge, a basic staple of Eastern European cuisine – but in Yiddish, which adopted the word from the Slavic languages, and in English, which adopted the word from Yiddish, it refers pretty much exclusively to buckwheat groats. The etymology of varnishkes is murkier. It means “bow-tie noodles,” but it appears (to my knowledge) only in the context of this dish. It’s a Yiddish word, at least in structure and phonology, but the Yiddish word for “noodles” is the unrelated lokshn. Obvious cognates don’t appear in the main source languages of Eastern Yiddish (medieval German, classical Hebrew, and the surrounding Slavic tongues). The Italians, who probably invented bow-tie noodles, call them farfalle (butterflies), so much as in World War I, they’re little help. I couldn’t even find a consensus on how to spell varnishkes in Yiddish. I was beginning to think, after much research (even, vey is mir, reading Yiddish newsgroups), that like General Tso, tikka masala, and the global success of Domino’s, varnishkes would have to be consigned to the great realm of culinary mystery. But then I asked my mother, who knows everything.

“It’s from vareniki,” she said. I was skeptical. Filled dumplings seemed a fairly far cry from bowtie noodles and kasha. But then she started making sense: she explained that “varnishkes” was a Yiddish corruption of “варенички” (varenichki), the diminutive of vareniki, and that the dish arose as a quick and easy version of those significantly more arduous stuffed pasta dumplings. Those lazy Jews. It makes sense; varnishkes sounds pretty damned close to varenichki. Reigning lady of Jewish cooking Joan Nathan mentions a kasha varnishkes recipe dating back to 1925 that was “basically a kreplach-type noodle stuffed with kasha, buckwheat groats, and gribenes” – which implies that, at some point in its history, kasha varnishkes was literally kasha vareniki, that is, noodle dumplings stuffed with kasha. So there you have it: a mystery even the Internet had no answer for, solved in thirty seconds by my mother. And they give Joan Nathan the million-dollar ethnic cookbook deals. Feh.

But for now, less inherent unfairness of life, more kasha varnishkes recipe. Read on:
Continue reading »

May 132008

Sourdough Starter/מחמצת שאור/Levain

Once upon a time, when men were men, and women were ostensibly women (but who knows since nobody ever talked about them), bread was leavened not with packets of Fleischmann’s but with sourdough, a sinister froth comprised of wild yeasts and bacteria kicking it symbiotic in a mix of flour and water. Yes, in those heady days of yore, yeast was not something you bought, but rather something you dearly cultivated, giving it far more love and attention than all those children you put to work at six and married off at twelve. We’ve lost something since then, and it’s not just an uncomplaining pool of nimble child workers: it’s the taste of our bread. In this era of pre-sliced uniform bread product, we’ve forgotten that bread should be rich and complex, nourishing and fortifying, the staff of life and not the densely wadded ball of Wonder. Take my hand (briefly, because I don’t much like being touched) and let me guide you to the old school flavor.

First, to lay some background: a sourdough starter is a symbiotic colony of wild yeasts – microscopic fungi which can be found zinging about everywhere, from the air on down to the nether regions of Monistat users – and a certain strain of bacteria, the lactobacilli. In an active starter, water breaks down the starch in flour into simple sugars, which just so happen to be a yeast’s favorite food. The yeast digest the sugars, and subsequently poot out what just so happens to be a lactobacillus’s favorite food. Nature: gross in tooth and claw. With regular additions of fresh flour and water, the starter will chug on indefinitely, denying access to any nastier microorganisms, and happily leavening all your bread.

I should also mention that sourdough in this context does not refer to the actual flavor of the dough, but rather to the entire category of naturally leavened bread. Technically, what I’m talking about here should probably be referred to as levain, after the French, but that strikes even me as too pretentious. In short, you shouldn’t confuse sourdough the concept with its most recognizable application: San Francisco sourdough. San Francisco sourdough gets its flavor from a particularly gnarly local lactobacillus and a long fermentation time. The bread you make with a sourdough starter can range from not sour at all to sourer than any San Francisco loaf, depending on how long you allow the dough to ferment before baking – and depending on the particular bacteria in your starter, which vary enough to give each starter its own unique flavor. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

So, to get back to the topic, how do you start a starter? Read on.
Continue reading »

May 112008

Kibbeh/קובה מטוגנת/كبة مقلية/Kibeh/Kibbe/Kubbeh

Le Cordon Jew (GET IT???!!!!1!!) is my new cooking series. I’ve been cooking regularly since I was about ten or eleven, and along with music and not leaving the house, it’s one of my favorite hobbies. When I lived in Israel, I had neither the money nor the equipment in my one-burner, no-oven apartment to do much of it, so when I descended into Exile, I threw myself back into the world of sauté and shallots with the kind of intensity and dedication I usually reserve only for scorn. My culinary passion, fostered by all that time in Zion, is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, but I get a kick out of cooking just about everything. Le Cordon Jew, as its name implies, will focus on my epicurean fascination with all the facets of Jewish cuisine, from the old-fashioned Yiddishe Iron Curtain poverty food I grew up eating to the heady culinary fusion I encountered in Israel, where hummus, shakshuka and mesir wat shared city blocks. I plan to break down proven recipes step-by-step and augment them with plenty of images for you visual learners. And we’re starting out with kibbeh.

Kibbeh are ubiquitous in the Middle East, appearing in dozens of different forms, the most popular of which is the deep-fried torpedo. The Lebanese consider this version, sometimes called kibbeh nabulsiyeh (Nablus kibbeh), their national dish. The Syrians do too, but given that they also consider Lebanon their national property, that’s not entirely surprising.

Making kibbeh is not for beginners. It’s one of those dishes, like couscous or risotto, that serves as a test of skill within a particular cuisine (in this case, that of the Levantine Arabs), requiring several uninterrupted hours of delicate, tedious work. It’s worth it, of course, especially since you can freeze kibbeh essentially indefinitely – but it ain’t everyday food.

My recipe is derived from the one in the Sephardi cookbook A Fistful of Lentils. I’ve made some modifications and omissions based on my own experimentation, and judging by reactions, I’ve hit on a fairly successful formula. So read on…
Continue reading »