A quick corn recipe this time. Polenta has an interesting history in Jewish tradition – like other maize products, it really only became a thing after corn was brought from the New World in 1492. Polenta and similar corn porridges like mamaliga and gomi became common in certain pockets of the Jewish world: Italy, Romania, and Georgia are primary among them. Unlike rice, breads, and noodles though, there was no broad swathe of cornmeal-eaters. Georgian gomi tends to be white; Romanian mamaliga tends to be mushier, and Italian polenta tends to be firmer.
I made this casserole back over the summer when our internet was out for three days during Isaías, but had the wisdom to write this down.
6 cups cooked polenta (about 2 cups uncooked)
2 ½ tablespoons olive oil or butter + more for greasing
1 medium white onion, chopped
6 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped finely
1 15-oz can cannellini beans, with the fluid
Salt and black pepper to taste (I find the goat cheese adds enough salt.)
1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar
3 cups frozen spinach
2 cups goat cheese crumbles
If you haven’t already, make the polenta according to package directions. I use Bob’s Red Mill Polenta.
Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a 9×13” casserole with a very light layer of olive oil or butter.
Heat a large skillet, then add the oil or melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté for a few minutes, or until the onions begin to wilt.
Add the beans and fluid, salt, and pepper. Stir, then add the vinegar. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for five to ten minutes, or until the fluid is mostly gone.
Add the frozen spinach and mix in thoroughly, until it is cooked through. Remove the skillet from the heat.
Spoon the polenta into the casserole. Then, spoon the skillet mixture on top. Add the goat cheese crumbles in an even layer on top of that.
Bake for ten minutes, or until the cheese starts to brown. Serve hot.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about food during this time. Some of it is because, well, I am always thinking about food. Some of it is because dreaming about food helps me deal with the wildness of the outside world – as I told Ruby Tandoh for a piece in Food52. And some of it is because, well, there is a lot to say. I’ve been keeping what has become a fairly lengthy personal diary themed around food and food systems since the onset of the pandemic, with tons of materials and recipes and thoughts. I am also working on a piece about food sharing in socially distant ways (with video!). Beyond that, though, I have been noting observations I have made – both in my professional work in local government and urban planning, as well as the cooking habits I see in my away-from-the-desk life.
A lot more people are cooking, for sure – even as various places “reopen”. Many of these people were far more reliant on restaurants, takeout, and prepared foods before the pandemic; which, though not always leading to restaurants’ closure, certainly made a takeout-centric lifestyle a lot more difficult. So folks turned to the kitchen, and new trends blossomed: sourdoughs, jam-making, homemade pastas, and complex dishes. Others cooked because they were bored; still others cooked their grief away. And even consummate cooks like me, now with more time to cook complicated things we saved for chagim and birthdays, branched out in new directions. (I mastered khachapuri.) For those new to cooking, the sudden imposition of more time, and time at home, provided an opportunity to actually learn some new skills. Some liked the cooking, some did not. But two months in, a lot of new habits might be sticking. That is curious to me, though I’m always happy when more people find joy, solace, or simply something in cooking.
Of course, the consequences from this change are not always positive. For the millions of people who rely on kitchen work, serving, and other food work to pay their bills, the shift to cooking at home can be catastrophic – no matter how virtuous the intent. Then, of course, there is the question of who is doing the cooking at home. Women are still doing far more chores than men in shared households, and that extends to cooking. Increase cooking time without addressing patriarchy, and that’s increasing women’s work. (Cooking is hard!) Then, of course, we should also remember that food safety problems can come from improperly made home-cooked food – not ideal in the time of a pandemic. One is not, actually, necessarily staying safe at home. That said, some people are now cooking more, or cooking differently.
Some of these changes will “stick” for a while. People may cook at home because going out makes them anxious. People may cook at home because that is what they are used to now. People may cook at home because they feel pressure to do so from peers or social media. People may cook at home because that is what they can afford. People may cook at home because they like it. Perhaps it is all of these things. And for those of us in Jewish communities, cooking at home may also happen because all the other wonderful parts of semachot – happy occasions – are so much harder in a physically distant world.
But I have been wondering about what these things mean long-term. One is that I think we will see some of a shift in what kind of cooking is celebrated in social media and popular discourse. The 2010s saw a lot of cooking as a showpiece: the cookies, the stews, the perfect open-faced sandwiches. (Too often without honoring marginalized creators and contributors.) But when people have spent much of a formative moment in their lifetimes cooking for themselves and those in their households, or closest circles, showpieces begin to mean much less. I think, across cultures, that we might see more “home-style” cooking – as loaded and historically complex as this idea is – in which the process and the comfort take a much more central stage. Sure, you will have centerpieces, but cooking now sits in a very different place in many people’s brains.
Cooking is work! And I sense that there is greater appreciation for that now. When you have to cook, for work, or for a family, or for yourself, you start to learn shortcuts and tricks because you know that you do not have the time, energy, or space for the “real thing” – as bullshit as that concept is anyway. A lot of new cooks are coming in, and I think they are coming in with a perspective that is not about cooking something that shows status or looks good – though that is always part of food. Rather, it’s about trying to eat and enjoy it – and the process – even as the world seems to fall apart, and even when the energy to cook isn’t fully or really there.
Perhaps we will shift to a food culture that is less precious – and hopefully, less racist. A lot of this picture-perfect food culture is built on a narrative and process that steals from the work of people of color, and masks the risks and labor of cooks of color across the food industry. I hope that these changes lead some white folks to have greater empathy – and pay more attention to whose food stories are told, and who gets the money from them. I also hope that cooking habits lead people to glorify aspirational cooking a little less, and the fact that food should be for everybody a little bit more. I also hope that, now that some have experienced cooking labor for the first time, that there is more weight and advocacy for the millions of kitchen workers that feed America – few of whom have the luxury to eat the way white pundits tell them to.
But who knows if these hopes will come true? Like the virus, food habits are often unpredictable.
A very simple chard recipe in honor of Shavuot, which is coming up in just under two weeks’ time. It is quite traditional in many Jewish communities to eat plenty of greens on Shavuot, in honor of Northern Hemisphere bounties and the giving of the “Tree of Life” (Torah). I hope you enjoy this recipe, even if the current situation has cancelled other communal traditions.
Rainbow Chard with Lemon and Garlic
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 pounds rainbow chard
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
juice of one lemon
salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons water
1. Chop the rainbow chard as follows: chop the stems into small slices, and then the leafy bits into wider strips and squares.
2. Heat a wide skillet, and add the butter. When the butter is melted, add the onion, garlic, and stem slices. Saute for four to five minutes, or until the onions and stems are soft.
3. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper – I use about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper. Saute for 30 more seconds.
4. Add the leaves and mix in thoroughly, then add the water. Saute for about five minutes, or until the leaves are completely wilted.
5. Serve warm as a side dish.
When I am not writing this blog, I am in graduate school for urban planning at the University of Maryland. I primarily focus on disability access and aging, and how we can do better planning for cities that are livable for everyone (Sometimes this means that I write about toilets.) A lot of what we look at revolves not just around how people should move about the city, but about how people actually do so. And some of that includes the fact that some travel is simply not facilitated.
One thing we planners often discuss is “trip-chaining.” In our jargon, this means “a trip with one or more stops on the way.” So, instead of say a single-purpose trip – a trip to work or from work – it is more of a trip that might include dropping your child off, picking up some medicines, working for a few hours, and then swinging by the supermarket on the way back. Everyone trip-chains at some point. However, women, children, and people with disabilities are far more likely to trip-chain on a daily basis than men. The problem is that much of our extant transport infrastructure is planned around the assumption of a commute to work in the morning and a commute back from work in the evening. This case is especially apparent for public transit schedules. But for women still largely charged with childcare and household responsibilities, and others who are less likely to work in big job centers on those schedules, navigating the transport system becomes more difficult. Trip-chaining is easier for many – and besides, logically makes more sense – than doing one trip to get the groceries, another to drop off a child, and so on. Planning is finally cottoning on to this reality.
Trip-chaining affects how we buy groceries and what groceries we buy. Firstly, when we go to buy groceries, our cognitive bandwidth is not always focused on the groceries. Anyone who has cared for a child while shopping or had to do it in a rush to catch a bus can tell you this. Secondly, it means that groceries will be carried sometimes a fairly long distance – especially if it’s not the last stop on a trip. If, like in some countries, distances are not that far, it means that it is not too terrible to carry around fresh vegetables, dairy, or other perishables. But in places with long travel times, or where transit is unreliable, perishable food becomes risky. Hence it is easier – and less wasteful – to buy things that do not need a refrigerator or can be outside of a fridge for longer. Think canned beans, fruit and vegetables that travel well, and not as many fragile leaves or berries. (Which, besides, are prohibitively expensive for some.) Difficulty in travel also makes big trips to the supermarket with a car far more likely – people in places that are heavily car-dependent go to the grocery store less often than people elsewhere, and the bulk and length of those visits are hard to chain.
I think processed foods have other benefits, especially for certain folks and people in certain places. But one advantage that is not always acknowledged is that they are something someone can actually buy and cart around effectively. If you have to grocery shop while doing three other tasks, it is harder to select and lug around fresh foods – especially if you don’t have a car to stow them in or if you have a long way to travel. Sometimes, it is easier to just buy a can or a box. Not to mention that it is already hard, with overwhelming choice, for many people to grocery shop anyway. Add the labor on top of that of child care or coordinating three schedules or three tasks, and then the cognitive load for many is overwhelming. The fact that I can eat and cook with so many vegetables has much more to do with the fact that I have lived walking distance from a good grocery store my entire adult life, and not nearly as much to do with my (lacking) virtue.
What does this mean in the Jewish context? Well, I think it illustrates the fact that things like pre-made latke mixes, canned soups, and “hacks” to make traditional dishes actually have a place in our kitchens. They make Jewish food much more manageable and feasible for some people, and there should not be shame in doing what is possible in the system you cannot change as an individual alone. And certainly not with consumption wrapped in deeply privileged ideas of propriety.
I have attached a simple recipe for a soup made entirely from ingredients you can buy while trip-chaining. It is an adaptation of pasta e fagioli for the vast majority of us who do not have the time to lovingly caress beautiful ingredients every day. The soup takes under half an hour to make. You could probably swap frozen vegetables for the canned option, but it is harder to travel with those! (I use frozen, but I live five minutes’ walk from a grocery store.) These are also items that could easily be stored for a while in a pantry. I use soup powder, but you can use stock as well. The recipe multiplies well. My boyfriend enjoyed this soup, and I hope you do too!
Bean Soup with Pasta (Trip-Chainers’ Pasta e Fagioli)
1 teaspoon table salt (add 1 ½ tsp more if using stock)
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 15oz/425g can cannellini beans
1 15oz/425g can diced tomatoes
1 8oz/212g can mixed vegetables
1 cup elbow macaroni
Olive oil or vegetable oil
Apple cider vinegar
Water for pasta (and soup)
Ready-made vegetable stock for the soup (optional)
Put some water on to boil in a small saucepan for the pasta. Dice the onion and garlic however small you like them.
Put a bigger saucepan on the heat for the soup. Add the oil – maybe two tablespoons – then the onions and garlic. Sauté, stirring, for two minutes, or until soft.
Add the soup powder (if using), salt, pepper, and oregano, then mix in. Add a splash of vinegar. Sauté for 30 more seconds.
Add the canned tomatoes and mix in. When they are boiling, add the beans, then 2 cups of water or ready-made vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the pasta is ready. If you like your soup very liquid, cover the pot so the steam gets trapped.
When the pasta water is ready, add the elbows. Bring to a boil, then cook for five-six minutes or until al dente. Drain, and set aside.
Add the canned vegetables to the soup when the pasta is done. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for two minutes. Turn off the heat.
To serve, ladle pasta into the bowl, then soup, to the serving size of your choice.
So, it is time to post one of my favorite childhood recipes: a zucchini casserole called pashtidat kishuim. It is an odd favorite dish for a child: a soft, eggy, slightly bitter, zucchini-based pudding. But to me, this is childhood: it was a frequent feature on the dinner table. I am not given to nostalgia, but I will say that 14-year-old me and 28-year old me are equally enthusiastic about this dish. I am excited to share it with you!
I discussed the history of pashtidot in one of the earliest posts on this site, a recipe for pashtidat tiras (corn casserole). To review: the dish is rooted in some sort of baked dish from medieval times, mentioned by Rashi and other scholars. In modern Israel, that morphed into a casserole made from various readily available, often processed, and nationally encouraged ingredients. In the 1950s, classes and media encouraged pashtidot as a food, and soon, the casseroles became a staple of dinner tables. They remain as such today – one of Israel’s best-selling cookbooks is simply titled Pashtidot.
Pashtidot are different from kugels but are often similar. Some Israelis use pashtida to refer to kugels, and many Americans use “kugel” to refer to pashtida. I draw the difference by two means. One is that the history is different – kugels were originally and sometimes still are cooked in a Sabbath stew, while pashtidot are generally baked separately. The other is that kugels tend to have a mainly starch base, while pashtidot tend to be egg-based for their structure. As a result, pashtidot tend to be a lot softer than kugels – even those made from mashed potato tend to be firmer. But who knows – the boundary is in the eye of the beholder. Authenticity is still bullshit, anyway.
A typical Israeli pashtidat kishuim is a little less firm than my rendition. This is because I add potato for solidity and for heartiness. This addition brings my pashtida closer to a kugel then other pashtidot, because of the carbohydrate. Again, the boundary is fuzzy – and even, then, such a heavy kugel would be classified differently, as a teygekhts, in some dialects of Yiddish. But I digress. The potato cuts the bitterness of the zucchini nicely, adds some weight and solidity, and also makes the whole thing even more delicious. You can decide whether or not it is a main course (serves 6) or a side (serves 12).
4 medium-large fresh zucchini
2 medium baking potatoes
1 medium onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
6 large eggs, beaten
1/3 cup neutral-flavored oil
1 heaping tablespoon avkat marak (soup powder) or 2 tbsp table salt, additional 1 tsp ground black pepper, ½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp dried oregano
1 ¼ cups white flour
Additional salt, to taste
Oil, to grease the pan
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a 13”x9”/33cmx25cm deep baking pan.
Grate the zucchini, then squeeze out all the water by hand. If you have a food processor, I strongly suggest you use it.
Grate the potatoes, but do not squeeze them. Mix with the zucchini.
In a large mixing bowl, mix together the onion, garlic, eggs, oil, avkat marak, black pepper, and dried oregano.
Add the grated vegetables and mix until the egg mixture is distributed throughout.
Add the flour and mix in until thoroughly combined. Pour the mixture into the pan and distribute so that it is level.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is beginning to become golden on the ridges and a knife comes out moist, but without zucchini or flour sticking to it. If you like a crispy top, bake for another fifteen minutes. Serve warm or hot.
A note: during Passover, you can swap the flour for an equivalent amount of matzah meal.
Shana Tova! I made a salad at my Rosh HaShanah dinner that I was quite proud of, and after a few more tries (and a lot of arugula), I got the recipe down enough to post it here. Here is to a 5780 in which we are prickly when needed – like arugula – but sweet like pears and rich like goat cheese.
Salad itself has a very long history for Jews – salted raw vegetables were common in the Roman Empire, and it is where we get the word “salad” from. However, like other raw vegetable dishes that were not pickled, salads begin to become much more popular with the advent of refrigeration, when raw vegetables became safer and more readily available. That said, they were somewhat common in the Middle East, and the early Zionists borrowed/took the Palestinian custom of eating salads – which may have been of relatively recent vintage – and christened it as “Israeli.” Since then, certain kinds of salads have been nigh-ubiquitous in Jewish communities – and have only grown more so as Jewish communal life has become more centered on Israel. Meanwhile, in Israel, many feel that no meal is complete without a salad.
As for arugula, I wrote about the Jewish history of arugula for the Jewish Daily Forward back in 2016. Shall we say that this salad may serve as a proverbial “pick-me-up?”
Arugula Salad for the Fall/Tishrei and Marcheshvan
For every 8 ounces/225 grams of fresh arugula, add:
½ cup finely chopped walnuts
½-1 cup crumbled goat cheese (to taste)
1 small-medium red onion, finely chopped
2 medium pears, cored and finely chopped (you can use any pear, I prefer D’Anjou)
Toss these together. Then, make a dressing of the following proportions. Double as necessary for every 8 ounces/225 grams of arugula.
1.5 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon strong mustard
1.5 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
A few dashes of table salt
Mix these together, then pour over the salad and toss. The salad keeps for three days but tastes best right after you make it.
On readers’ request, I am starting off 2019 with something very practical: a guide to avoiding common aversions.
Food aversions are a real and serious thing. More than a dislike, an aversion is to a taste or texture. Exposure can throw one’s senses and function out of whack. Sometimes, a food aversion can make someone feel violently ill. This reaction happens famously to pregnant women, but really can occur to anyone. The reaction also happens without an allergy. Other times, an aversion can leave a sticking sense of anxiety or discomfort – as happens with me when I accidentally consume a marshmallow. Many people get raised heart rates, jitters, or nausea from aversions.
Aversions are difficult to shake. Doing so takes time, effort, and most importantly, the person’s consent. (It is a painfully slow process.) It is not your job to “help” someone lose an aversion as a host or cook, unless you are explicitly told so by the person. You would not consent to someone making you anxious, jittery, or ill because they felt like it. So do not do it to your guests, friends, or family! Believe your guest or friend, and cook something that they can eat.
As it happens, substitutes are a venerated part of the Jewish culinary tradition. Meats have been replaced with fish and beans for dairy dishes. Kosher animals replaced pork in meat dishes that imitated whatever neighbors ate. An entire world of dairy-free, pareve desserts exists for serving at meat meals. Vegetable shortening was first marketed among American Jews as a pareve substitute for butter. (Gil Marks discussed this extensively in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.)
I mean to say: there is no shame in swapping. We are lucky to live in a time when we have the ability to do so. We have historically unprecedented access to good, safe, and varied food products. We can take advantage of this plenty to better accommodate aversions. Not that aversions did not exist through history – they most certainly have. More that we can now better identify and address them.
This list is meant to help. I have listed some common aversions and substitutes. Try different things! Sometimes, though, you need to avoid the recipe. This is particularly the case when there is an aversion to a broad category of food, like fruit, or flavor combinations, like sweet and savory. (Or specific aversions, like my friend’s aversion to “cold, wet kitniyot.”) There are many delicious foods and I am sure you will find something for your guest to eat that you can enjoy too.
This chart is for when you only need to substitute one ingredient, and is aimed to common aversions rather than common allergens – which are different! Please do not “try to get someone to like X.” That is rude, and forcing people to eat abominable food goes against Jewish tradition and basic decency. This chart is meant to help you be a nice host, and make something good for everyone!
Cause of aversion
I find that leeks and scallions tend to work well if you need something to replace the texture. If the flavor is okay, a half teaspoon to a teaspoon of onion powder (depending on brand) for each onion. You can also ramp up the garlic. Raw onion can be replaced with cabbage and fennel, but keep in mind that it changes the flavor.
Garlic has a very distinctive, pungent flavor, so it is difficult to replace. I would enhance the flavors of other spices, or add some more onion or scallions. Asafetida, fenugreek, and celeriac root serve as good substitutes for pungency. Celery is a good substitute for body and aroma.
Tomato (raw or cooked)
Raw tomato is usually fairly easy to leave out of things like salad. For cooked tomato, I suggest using tomatillos or eggplants to substitute in sauces, though keep in mind that the sauce will be far thicker. If the texture aversion has to do with seeds, remove the seeds and cook with just the flesh of the tomato. The seeds are hard to use alone but are very good for compost.
Tomato flesh can be used in most places as a substitute for bell pepper.
Depending on the type of mushroom and consistency, you can replace them with marinated tofu, eggplant, zucchini, or turnips.
Mushroom is a pretty solid replacement for zucchini. For pumpkin or butternut squash, using sweet potato is a time-honored American tradition.
Zucchini is a fairly solid replacement for eggplant in dishes that do not require long cooking. Mushrooms with a strong acidic counterpart work well for longer cooking.
Tofu, seitan, or mushrooms tend to work quite well. There is an Ashkenazi tradition of making “false fish” with chicken, but I have never had this and cannot confirm the effectiveness.
Cabbage or Brussel sprouts
For some things, broccoli (which is ironically the same species) works very well in my experience. This is particularly true for slaws and quickly cooked dishes. For pickled and raw dishes, dark lettuces also work very well. For longer-cooked dishes, fennel is a good substitute, but keep in mind that the flavor will change.
If you are just trying to make a cake moist, applesauce is by far the best. Eggs are hard to replace in some dishes – for those, use an egg replacer or common baking combination. Where the egg is eaten in egg form, soft tofu or mushrooms.
Greek yogurt works very well, as does any non-dairy yogurt.
Very difficult to replace, but I have had moderate result with harder varieties of squash, like butternut. The color is inimitable.
Parsley or the Mexican herb epazote tend to work quite well.
Visible seeds, like poppy or sesame seeds
99% of the time, you can leave them out. If you really want the flavor, add some ground poppy or sesame seed into the batter or dough of what you are making.
99% of the time, you can leave them out. For a flavor substitute, just add a bit of sugar.
Fennel or dill seeds.
The flavor is going to change, but for texture and approximation, leeks and caraway seed.
For dry mustard, horseradish powder or more black pepper and vinegar. Add a bit of yogurt or mayonnaise if it’s for wet mustard.
There is another post with a more complicated recipe coming up – a delightful and bizarre treat called, I kid you not, “stuffed monkey.” In the meanwhile, allow me to share a very simple chickpea recipe that works wonderfully for a crowd. I served this to great success at a sheva berachot for my friends. Chickpeas have a long history in Jewish food going back to ancient times, and have been served to huge crowds for almost as long – be it as a snack in Lithuania (where yes, people ate chickpeas) or as the protein of choice in Medieval Egypt. This recipe uses baby kale, but any leafy green will do.
Chickpeas with Baby Kale
1 15oz. can chickpeas, drained
1 lb baby kale, thoroughly washed
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp date honey (silan)
Oil for roasting
Water for blanching.
If you want, roast the chickpeas for a few minutes in a hot oven (above 200C/400F) on a greased pan, until they are darker.
Boil 1 liter/4 cups water, then pour over the baby kale in a bowl. Leave the kale for three minutes, then drain.
Mix the kale with the chickpeas.
Mix the soy sauce, vinegar, oil, and date honey, and mix with the chickpeas and kale. Let sit for one hour. Serve at room temperature.
So when I was in Mexico a few months ago, I had one of the best soups of my life at a restaurant in Tula de Allende that served comida casera – roughly speaking, “home-style cooking” – but entirely vegetarian. I asked the proprietor, Cristina, for the recipe, which she roughly described in the telegraphic style of home cooks everywhere. A bit of this, a bit of that, and a good dose of black beans. Unfortunately, I left the scrap of paper with my notes on the bus back to Mexico City. However, with some experimentation over the winter, I was able to roughly recreate the soup with ingredients readily available in the United States.
The soup is chock-full of ingredients beloved by Jewish communities: beans, garlic, tomatoes, squash, and peppers among them. Though some would tell you that this is a “weeknight” dish, I would consider this soup better for languorous weekend cooking, when you have the time to spare a while to cook a big hearty soup. Eat leftovers during the week, when the myth of so-called “easy” home cooking is most apparent.
Sopa de Frijoles y Calabaza con Fideos
1 large onion, diced
7 cloves white garlic, minced
2 dried ancho chilies, broken apart into small pieces (keep the seeds if you want it spicy)
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar
1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 large kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped into chunks
1 8oz/225g can corn kernels, drained (or 1 cup cooked corn)
2 15-oz/425g cans black beans, drained (or 4 cups soaked black beans)
Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.
“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.
The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.
When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.
The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.
Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.
And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.
I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.
Bringing out the juices in the pumpkin
Pureed pumpkin with cottage cheese on a pancake (photos mine, November 2017)
Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.
Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash
Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.
Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.