Chopped Liver

After years of waiting, I finally got around to making one of my favorite Ashkenazi dishes: chopped liver. This recipe has become a sort of “catchall” dish for the entirety of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, much as other specific recipes have become “representative” of entire cuisines. It is also something that can be very controversial: vegetarians have told me that this is the last meat thing they miss, and others, including my partner, will not touch it. It is also laborious, so I wanted to make it when enough liver-eaters would be with me to share a decent quantity – something stymied by the pandemic. Finally, that moment came, punctured by a few anti-organ-meat comments from my partner.

Chopped liver on bread with tomatoes with salad on a plate on a floral tablecloth
(Photo mine, February 2021)

The history of chopped liver is quite interesting. The dish originates in the Middle Ages with goose liver – which was often consumed as a byproduct of rendering schmaltz (fat, traditionally from poultry). Though preparing liver to be kosher requires salting and broiling to eliminate blood, Jews quickly developed a taste for the rich organ. A preparation of liver chopped with onions and salt quickly became popular in medieval and early modern Jewish communities, and spread in two directions. One was into France, where it became foie gras. (Yes, it has a Jewish origin!) The other was to Eastern European Jewish communities, where the dish became popular with calf and chicken livers. Eggs and more onions were added, usually to stretch the costly and strongly flavored liver. The dish has remained popular in Jewish communities ever since, though after World War II there was some decline, just like with organ meat generally.

Chopped liver is often used as a shibboleth for authenticity or tradition. In my own experience, consuming it is sometimes seen as a sign of upholding some sort of “real” Jewish culture. Others cite it as an example of a dish lost in assimilation (whatever assimilation means), just like herring and p’tcha. I suspect that some of this attachment has to do with the way “chopped liver” is used as a Jewish symbol in Hollywood. Never mind that this narrative of dishes being abandoned is, in some ways, artificial – though it has happened for a few things.

The original chopped liver source. (Photo JD Forrester/CC)

Not everyone has to like chopped liver – it is an acquired taste. That said, I do quite enjoy it. I enjoy the deep, earthy flavor good liver has – and the way that these flavors can be accentuated by a tart rye bread, a soft challah, or crunchy matzah. Then again, I have eaten chopped liver since I was a child. Not everyone has – and if someone decides they do not like it, well then, there is more for me.

I break the tradition in this recipe in two ways. One is that I use oil instead of schmaltz for a lighter final product – though many recipes nowadays use oil too. Oil was expensive into the 19th century, so many of our ancestors would probably think of an oil-based chopped liver as more luxuriant than schmaltz – which was much more common in Eastern Europe. (The schmaltz from a large goose could last a family several months.) The other change I embrace is how I blend the final product. Though the tradition is to chop it by hand, I use the food processor for a smoother – and more quickly produced – final product. Technology can aid us in deliciousness. Be careful when making it, because liver is easy to overcook. After three and a half minutes on each side, I check the livers every thirty seconds until they are finished cooking.

If you have not had it before, I strongly recommend that you try it from someone else before you cook it. Liver is a laborious thing to prepare, and if you do not like it, you will have saved yourself the effort of preparing it (as outlined in steps 3 through 4). Delis in Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods often have very good liver to try. Feel free to ask in the comments if you want a recommendation for a particular area – I have recommendations in New York City, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Chicago.

Chopped Liver

Based on the recipe by Faye Levy

2 eggs

1 lb chicken livers

Kosher salt

3 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 white onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled

Table salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Parsley to garnish

  1. Boil the eggs for ten minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.
  2. Turn on your oven or broiler to a high setting.
  3. Wash the livers under running water until the dark liquid is mostly gone. Pat dry. Then, cut off the green bits and the black bits from the liver – this takes a bit of work. These bits are a bit softer and different in texture from the rest of the liver. Place the livers in a bowl and toss with a few generous sprinkles of kosher salt. The salt draws out the blood.
  4. Place the livers on a foil-covered sheet and spread them out. Broil for 3 ½ minutes on each side, or until dark with no pink on the outside and with a smoother, more solid texture on the outside of the liver. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
  5. Heat a skillet or saucepan, and then add the oil. Then, add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring regularly, for 20 minutes, or until the onions are a rich brown color and have a sweet smell and very smooth, soft texture. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
  6. While the onions are cooling, peel the hard boiled eggs and mash with a fork into coarse crumbles.
  7. In a food processor, puree the livers and onions together to your preferred consistency – my family enjoys a smooth chopped liver.
  8. Pour the liver mixture into a bowl. Add the salt and black pepper to taste – I usually add twice as much salt as pepper. Then, mix in with the crumbled eggs.
  9. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve on your chosen vehicle for chopped liver. The liver keeps in the fridge for about four days.

Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Cherry Jam in the Telegraphic Style

In the tradition of my ancestors, I made some jam out of cherries recently at home. As I mentioned in a prior post, cherries have a long, beautiful, and tasty Jewish history stretching back over a thousand years. Jam, though more recent, has also become an institution in the past 150 years.

I decided, however, to try something different, and play around with the recipe format. I have been interested recently in what Eve Jochnowitz once called the “telegraphic style” of pre-war recipes, which do not start with an ingredients list. Though in many ways this style of recipe writing is inaccessible for some, it may also be more accessible for others who think chronologically. I find that it also works for quantity-flexible recipes like jam. Let me know what you think.

Cherry Jam

Take some black cherries, and remove the stems and pits.

Then, weigh the cherries, and pour them into a big pot.

Add the equivalent weight in white sugar.

Then, for every 500g/1 pound of cherries, add:

-one teaspoon red wine

-two tablespoons of water

-a dash of cinnamon

Then, add some vanilla extract. The cherry skin should have adequate pectin, but if you want to, you can also add some pectin.

Turn on the stove and bring to a boil.

Stir regularly and reduce to a simmer. Foam will start to bubble up – remove it with your spoon.

Cook for 30-50 minutes, or until the water has reduced, and the syrup part gels on a spoon when removed from the heat. Test by sticking a spoon in.

Put into containers before cooling. If you choose to can, follow safe canning guidelines. If not, the jam keeps for up to a year in the freezer, 3-6 months in the refrigerator.

Bread Pudding

Here is a dessert that seems to be common in some Jewish communities and not others: bread pudding. In the Jewish communities of England, South Africa, Argentina, and the Midwest, bread pudding is quite common as a dessert. This is not surprising, given that the dish as we know it originated in medieval England as a frugal food and later became popular in areas in the British Empire, or – like Argentina – influenced by it. It was also originally eaten as a meal itself, a trend reflected in many German puddings and our own kugels. The dish crept up from the lower classes and became sweeter, richer, and tastier among the wealthy who could afford white bread. The Ottomans, too, had their own bread-based desserts – and so you have the ekmek kadayıfı (link in Turkish) of Turkey, the umm ali of Egypt, and the budín de pan (link in Spanish) of Argentina. A bread-baked dessert makes sense: it is made from a common ingredient, is filling, and can be both very luxurious and very simple. It is also easily made without milk; thus it can be served with a meat meal in kosher households. Yet bread pudding does not seem to be quite as common in the Northeast United States or in Israel as elsewhere in the world – though I have never served it to an unwelcome audience.

I give here my “typical” bread pudding recipe, which I have made for many years – since I was in middle school! For this bread pudding, I used some Berches that I had frozen. Berches is the traditional Shabbat and holiday bread of German Jewry, and in the place of egg in challah, potato is used. The result is a delightfully fluffy and luscious bread. I will post a recipe in the future, but I strongly urge you to check out the incredible recipe in The German-Jewish Cookbook by Gabrielle and Sonya Gropman. If you do not have Berches, use another fluffy bread, such as challah or brioche.

Bread pudding with cherries in the pan

Simple Bread Pudding

Serves 9-12

1 medium to large loaf light, white bread, shredded into small pieces (it is fine if the bread is stale) – I recommend using challah, Berches, or brioche

6 tablespoons melted butter (salted or unsalted)

1 cup whole milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

1 cup white sugar

4 large eggs, beaten

 

Add-ins (all optional and flexible with quantity)

1 handful dried cherries or raisins, soaked for ten minutes

1 handful chocolate chips

1 handful slivered almonds

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190 C.
  2. Place the bread in a deep 9”x9”/23cm x 23cm pan (or a similarly sized pan).
  3. Mix in any add-ins into the bread with your hands, until evenly distributed.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the butter, milk, vanilla, cinnamon (if using), sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined.
  5. Pour the egg mixture over the bread. Evenly distribute such that all the bread is soaked by the mixture – you may need to press some of the bread down into the mixture with a fork.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the liquid has set and the top is browned and crispy. A toothpick should come out clean. Remove from the oven, and serve warm or at room temperature. You can optionally serve this with a wine sauce, a custard, or ice cream.

*A note: the question of how much bread was actually consumed by the poorest is a matter of historical debate, especially given that grain shortages were common. What is certain is that medieval bread was very different – largely made from unhulled grain, and stretched with other seeds in poorer communities. Medieval peasants did not eat “well” in any sense of the word. Medieval “frugal” bread pudding would be unrecognizable to us today. I suggest reading Cuisine and Empire by Rachel Laudan or Food in Medieval Times by Melitta Weiss Adamson for more.

Simplifying is Good: Eggplant with Leeks and Pomegranate

Sometimes it pays off to simplify a recipe.

My elegant aunt Dalia was visiting from Israel over the holidays, and she gave me a special Rosh HaShanah copy of the Israeli cooking magazine Al HaShulkhan (“At the Table”). I opened it to a beautiful picture of an eggplant covered in leeks and pomegranate seeds, and immediately said, “I am making this.” I showed the recipe to my roommate Alex – who said “that looks beautiful but … complicated.”

Indeed, Alex was right. The original recipe was not actually complicated in technique, but in serving. A whole roasted eggplant carefully stuffed with leeks and pomegranate is lovely to look at, but a lot of work to serve and eat. So I decided to simplify matters by chopping the eggplant like a salad – thus putting the work on the cook, and not the end line consumer. The end result was as beautiful as it was delicious.

Eggplant, leeks, and pomegranates all have long Jewish histories stretching back to the Ancient Near East. I’ve discussed each in prior posts. The combination may seem a tad unorthodox, but trust me: this salad is delicious.

Eggplant salad with parsley leeks and pomegranate with bread

Eggplant with Leeks and Pomegranate

Based on a recipe by Erez Golko and Shlomi Navon in “Al HaShulkhan,” September 2017 (in Hebrew)

 

4 medium-sized eggplants, cut in half lengthwise

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 medium-sized leeks, washed, diced, and washed again

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Seeds of one pomegranate

1 fistful fresh parsley, chopped

Salt, ground black pepper, and lemon juice to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.
  2. Spread the eggplants apart on a cookie sheet, with the cut side facing up. Drizzle the vegetable oil over the eggplant.
  3. Roast the eggplant for 40-50 minutes, or until the outside is browned and the eggplants are soft to the fork. Remove the eggplants from the oven and let them cool.
  4. While the eggplant is cooling, heat a pan. Add the oil, and then add the leeks. Saute the leeks for 5-7 minutes, or until the leeks have softened and are beginning to brown.
  5. Once the leeks are cooked, add the vinegar and stir rapidly through the leeks. Then, remove the leeks from the heat. Reserve the oil and the vinegar in the pan.
  6. Once the eggplant is cool, remove the peels from the eggplant flesh. Chop the eggplant flesh roughly, then place the flesh in a large bowl.
  7. Pour the leeks, oil, and vinegar over the eggplant.
  8. Add the pomegranate seeds and parsley. Mix everything together.
  9. Season with salt, ground black pepper, and a bit of lemon juice to taste. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold. The eggplant goes particularly well with bread or rice.

Thank you to Avi Garelick, Madeline Richer, Akiva Lichtenberg, Amram Altzman, and Jamie Weisbach for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Cashew and Garlic Spread

Here’s a quick recipe in honor of the Nine Days before Tisha B’Av. It is traditional in this time to eat foods associated with mourning, to avoid meat, and to avoid alcohol, all in honor of the destroyed Temples – and for many modern Jews, other tragedies as well. Garlic has an interesting duality in traditional Jewish cuisine – it is simultaneously a food of pleasure for Shabbat but also traditional for mourning, along with eggs and lentils. I haven’t found very much on the Jewish history of cashews, but I do know that they are frequently found in the cuisines of Brazilian and Indian Jewry.

Cashew and Garlic Spread

Serves 10-20

6oz/170g raw cashews

2 cups water

16 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon table salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

  1. Soak the cashews in water for fifteen minutes. Then, drain the cashews.
  2. You can optionally saute the garlic cloves whole in the olive oil and then save both. Or you can use them raw for a stronger flavor.
  3. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth but with some chunkiness. I have a hand-crank food processor and find that I can better get the consistency I want with that. You will get a smoother product more quickly with an electric food processor.
  4. Let it sit for ten minutes before serving. It will keep for up to a week refrigerated.

Thank you to Alex Cooke, Jonathan Bressler, Rebecca Galin, Berakha Guggenheim, Akiva Lichtenberg, and David Hughes-Robinson for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Fun With Pickles

Pickled kohlrabi and turnip in an orange brine
Pickled kohlrabi and turnip. (Photo mine, July 2017)

It finally happened: I made pickles. It is such a Jewish category of food – and so tasty – and I had simply skipped it. No longer.

Jews have been preserving food since Jews have … been Jews. The pickles that we enjoy today are all ultimately related to methods of food preservation from ancient times. In the Ancient Near East, people Jewish and non-Jewish alike dried, salted, and fermented foods for long-term use. (Some ancient ferments like feseekh in Egypt are still with us today.) Cabbage has been fermented in Eastern Europe since ancient times, and foods have been preserved in vinegar or whey from Iceland to India to Ethiopia since at least the medieval era. As salt became cheaper because of colonialism and expanded trade networks, pickling in Europe and North Africa became far more affordable and thus common. New pickles often joined existing pickles and preserved foods – pickles eggplants alongside preserved lemons in Morocco, pickled radishes alongside sauerkraut in Eastern Europe, pickled herring alongside … other pickled herring in Germany. The invention of the boiling water bath certainly helped. By the early 19th century, a scepter was haunting Europe – the scepter of many preserved vegetables.

Even today, each Jewish community’s pickles have a strong toehold on Jewish tables around the world. In Ashkenazi communities, cucumber pickles are found seemingly everywhere – at Shabbat tables, in sandwiches, as snacks. In the United States, the “kosher dill” pickle has transcended ethnic boundaries to become something of a regional food in the Northeast. (I remember a Catholic friend from New Jersey who brought back a jar to the United Kingdom from a visit home.) In other countries, but especially France and Israel, meanwhile, many preserved Mizrahi foods are popular: pickled eggplants from Iraq, preserved lemons from Morocco, and preserved onions from everywhere among them. Today, in any food shop catering to Israeli expatriates, you can find cans of Kvutzat Yavne pickles for sale. At all stages of assimilation and cultural and culinary change, pickles have accompanied Jews for the ride – even if the pickles themselves have changed.

In an age of mass pickling and a stronger food supply (both of which are good things), fewer people are pickling. I do not hold by arguments that something is lost here: let’s not romanticize a past in which death by food poisoning was common and nutrition more lacking than today. This is a view that Rachel Laudan correctly described as ahistorical in her wonderful book Cuisine and Empire. What is true, though, is that pickling is a lot of fun. The work is satisfying, and a new generation of millennial picklers are bringing new flavors to the table. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, for example, included not only classical Ashkenazi cucumber pickles and sauerkraut in their book The Gefilte Manifesto, but also kimchi-like sauerkraut and shallots in red wine. Not authentic at all, totally Jewish, and stunningly delicious. Other cultures, too, are playing with their pickles – I recently found a recipe for Iranian torshi that used Fuji apples!

In this recipe I used some pickling spices from South Africa. The blend includes turmeric and paprika, which lend the pickles I made a spicy undertone and a bright color. You, of course, can have your pickles as plain as possible. Remember to use the freshest vegetables for the best flavor. This recipe is very easy since the fermentation and preservation all take place in the refrigerator. This recipe is suitable for canning – remember to follow safe canning guidelines.

Happy Pickling!

Easy Refrigerator Pickles

Makes one quart

2 cups chopped and peeled vegetables (I used kohlrabi and turnips for one pickle, onions for another, cucumbers for another, and lettuce – yes, lettuce – for the last. The recipe is easily scalable.)

1 cup water

1 cup vinegar (any should do)

1 tablespoon coarse salt (do not use table salt)

1 tablespoon pickling spices of choice (optional)

  1. Wash thoroughly and dry a liter- or quart-sized container with a lid. This can be a jar, Tupperware, former peanut butter vessel… you name it.
  2. Stuff the chopped vegetables into the container, leaving room between them and at the top for the brine.
  3. In a saucepan, blend the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. This makes the brine.
  4. When the brine is boiling, stir again, then turn off the heat.
  5. Ladle the brine into the container with the vegetables until full, leaving a bit of space at the top. Close the container completely.
  6. Place the container in the back of the refrigerator for three days at least before eating. The pickles keep for up to six weeks.

Remember to can safely if you can!

Thank you to Evan Bialostozky and Jessie Thompson for selling me the vegetables used in this recipe.

Eggplant Salad

Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic
Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic. Photo mine, April 2017.

Recently, I have found myself craving eggplant all the time – and I have perhaps become addicted to the tannic and earthy taste of a vegetable that is actually a giant berry. And so, given my passions and my interests, I have also been researching the Jewish history of this most extraordinary plant. Today, the eggplant is so associated with Israel that it is difficult to believe that eggplants were not, in fact, present during the First and Second Temple period. Rather, the plant is from India – and the word “aubergine” in English and French comes via Arabic and Persian from the Sanskrit vatiga-gamah, which might be related to the word for flatulence. I cannot speak to that effect, but I can say that eggplants reached the Jewish Mediterranean in about the 7th century CE.

White, five-petaled flower of a wild eggplant, with little green fruit behind.
Flower of a wild eggplant. (Photo Michael Khor/CC-Flickr)

Eggplants have long been a beloved mainstay of Sephardic cooking – and show up in all sorts of pastries, stews, and salads. Folk songs wage a fight between the eggplant and tomato (another newcomer), which were long considered the two favorite vegetables of the Sephardi community. In Morocco, Jews and non-Jews make a pungent and delicious salad called za’alouk with eggplant, as well as a lovely eggplant jam. Moroccan Jews even candy eggplant! Ashkenazi Jews historically only ate eggplant in Hungary and Romania, but developed an attachment to the plant there as well. Eggplants were one of the first foods adopted by settlers in Israel and Palestine in the early 20th century, and today eggplant might as well be a food group in Israel.

Eggplant pieces
Delicious eggplant, before cooking. (Photo mine, March 2016.)

This salad is a riff on a recipe more typical in Israel today – one often called a “Moroccan” eggplant salad, though it is somewhat different from typical salades cuites. As in North Africa and Turkey, “salad” in Hebrew, or salat, can also refer to small plates of vegetable dishes served at the beginning or as part of a meal. Even in English, the term salatim is now frequently used among Hebrew-speaking Jews. The eggplant used in Israel is smaller and fried more deeply in oil, whereas I have used the larger Mediterranean eggplant. I also have added more garlic, because garlic is delicious. In any case, this eggplant salad – though given that it is cooked I hesitate to say “salad” – is easy, delicious, and goes well with many other dishes.

Fried Eggplant Salad (Salat Khatzilim Metuganim)

2 small-to-medium eggplants, chopped into 1cm/ 1/3 inch slices (optionally salted)

1 bell pepper, finely chopped

1 chili pepper, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tbsp lemon juice

Salt, to taste

Olive or vegetable oil

  1. Heat a wide skillet or pan, then add about 2cm/1 inch of oil. Fry the eggplant in the oil until soft and darkened on both sides, flipping as necessary.
  2. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pan. Set the eggplant aside to cool.
  3. In the same oil, sauté the peppers and garlic until the pepper begins to soften and the garlic is thoroughly browned. Remove, with the oil, from the heat. Set aside to cool.
  4. Mix the leftover oil-garlic-pepper mixture with the lemon juice. Then, pour this “dressing” over the eggplant, and mix well.
  5. Add salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Simple Chickpeas for Purim

Purim is soon upon us; in true Leibowitzian fashion, Purim is quite possibly my least favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar. The noise! The gaudiness! The drunken shenanigans! I am perhaps too serious to truly appreciate Purim as anything other than a day for calmly reading the story of Esther and eating some delicious traditional foods. The famous food here in the United States is hamantaschen, for which I gave a recipe last year – delicious cookies that really should be consumed whenever it is not Passover or a fast day. (Including Hanukkah.)

A chickpea field in Israel with a hill in the background
A chickpea field in Israel – notice the luscious green of the leaves! (Photo Eitan F via Wikimedia commons)

But other food traditions exist too – among them, eating beans. It is said in Talmud and Midrash that Esther ate legumes whilst in the palace of King Ahasuerus so as not to ingest food that was not kosher. Hence many Jewish communities choose to eat beans and nuts on Purim in commemoration of the Purim heroine. Among those beans are chickpeas – a legume that has been part of the Jewish diet for thousands of years – as I wrote five months ago for another recipe. From the agriculture of the Second Temple Period to medieval Spain, from 19th-century Eastern Europe to today’s stylish Jewish restaurants in Buenos Aires, chickpeas have a long and storied history on the Jewish table. In the context of Purim, chickpeas have long been specifically associated with Esther herself as the food that she ate while in the palace – and have thus been considered traditional to Purim in Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities for centuries.

Chickpeas in a tomato sauce in a Pyrex bowl
The chickpeas – completed. I prefer to chop the onions very roughly; you can dice them if you would like. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Anyway, here is a simple and delicious recipes for chickpeas that you can make for Purim – or whenever. The hearty beans are paired with a piquant tomato sauce not unlike that served with chickpeas or other beans in parts of Turkey. It is very easy to make and is a good weekday dish that will also keep well for leftovers for lunches. On the other hand, it is also a very good and reliable dish for a dinner party that can please folks with many habits of diet – it is vegan and gluten-free. Even Esther, I hope, would approve in all her glory!

Spicy Garlicky Chickpeas

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

8 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more, to taste – I like a bit more)

1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup water

6 cups cooked chickpeas (1 pound dried*)

Olive oil

  1. Heat a saucepan and add the olive oil. Then, add the onion and garlic and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion begins to wilt.
  2. Add the salt and red pepper flakes and stir in thoroughly. Sauté for another 30 seconds, then add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions are softer.
  3. Add the tomato paste and mix in thoroughly, then add the cup of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
  4. Remove from the heat and add the chickpeas. I recommend that the chickpeas be hot when you add them. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. When hot, the chickpeas go well with rice or noodles; when at room temperature they are particularly good with a dense bread.

*If you are using dried beans, soak the chickpeas overnight or for eight hours in water with 2 inches/5 centimeters to cover. Then, drain the beans and boil in four quarts/four liters of salted water for one hour or until soft.

Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas

Happy New Year! Let us hope that 2017 is less terrible than 2016.

Lentil soup with a challah roll.
Lentil soup with a challah roll. Ugly but delicious! (Photo mine, December 2016)

Lentil soup is one of the oldest Jewish dishes – it is probably the “pottage” mentioned during the story of Esau and Jacob in Genesis, and we have recipes from ancient Greece that may date back as far as the second millennium BCE. It has remained a “classic” – and one that I was recently asked to make.

Red lentils
Red lentils. (Photo Brian Snelson via Flicker/CC, February 2007)

The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.

I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.

Enjoy!


Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas

Serves 12-25

Vaguely based on the recipe of Esther Katz

2 medium-sized leeks, washed, diced, and washed again

2 tablespoons table salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons white sugar

1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground thyme

1 teaspoon sumac

1 teaspoon za’atar

1 teaspoon fenugreek (dried seeds or ground)

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon vinegar (rice wine or apple cider should do)

13oz/370g canned diced tomatoes (about one medium-sized can)

1 large turnip, peeled and diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups vegetable stock (you can use water)

2 cups dried green or brown lentils

1/3 cup dried split peas

1 cup rice (sweet brown or another short-grain rice is best)

1 tbsp rosemary, chopped if fresh

 

2-3 tbsp olive or vegetable oil

8-10 cups water

Salt and pepper to taste

Grated cheese for garnish (optional)

 

  1. In a large, deep soup pot, sauté the leeks in olive oil until they begin to wilt and soften, about two minutes.
  2. Add the salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, thyme, sumac, za’atar, fenugreek, and nutmeg, and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for another minute or until the leeks are uniformly soft.
  3. Add the vinegar and stir in thoroughly. Then, add the tomatoes and stir in thoroughly. Cook for another minute, stirring throughout.
  4. Add the turnip and garlic and mix in thoroughly with the tomato mixture. Then, add the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil.
  5. Add the lentils, split peas, and 8-10 cups water. Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
  6. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until the lentils are thoroughly cooked and the water has reduced slightly. The turnips should also be soft to the fork or tooth.
  7. Stir in the rice and the rosemary and another cup of water. Simmer for another 45 minutes, or until the rice is soft. The soup should be quite thick.
  8. Turn off the flame and let it sit for fifteen minutes. Then, serve hot with salt and pepper to taste. You can add a bit of grated cheese. The soup tastes best on the second day.

 

Thank you to Jay Stanton and Julia Clemons for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Great Books: The Gefilte Manifesto

The cover for The Gefilte Manifesto.
The cover for The Gefilte Manifesto. (Photo Amazon)

Normally, I don’t tend to fall into cookbook or food book hype. Yes, I tell you about “Great Books” but that is because a lot of Jewish food books simply don’t live up to the hype promised to us by marketers, the media, and the priests and priestesses of the Cult of Authenticity. (Authenticity in cooking is bullshit.) So I was a bit nervous when I picked up a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, promising that Ashkenazi cuisine was “one of the world’s great cuisines…right under our noses.” Another well-publicized book, a historical one, on Ashkenazi cooking earlier this year did not live up to hype. The authors, essentially professional Ashkenazi chefs, were proclaimed to be revitalizing Eastern European Jewish cuisine itself. That is quite a lot of hype.

Thus I was more than pleasantly surprised when I opened the book to find a true gem. This is a cookbook that celebrates the wonders and underrated glory of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine: some of the classic dishes, but some of them with a new twist. The crisp, delightful flavors of Eastern Europe are rendered lovingly, but not cloyingly. As someone who grew up with these tastes, this book is delightful. It must be even more so for those who were not as exposed to traditional Ashkenazi cooking. And the hype, if hyperbolic, was appropriate for the book. You should all buy a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto as soon as you are able.

I will briefly state what the book is not before I go through all the things that it is. It is not a book on authenticity, it is not a book of manufactured memories, and it is not a book that makes demands of certain dishes for the reader’s Jewishness. Rather, it approaches Ashkenazi cuisine as a tradition embodied in methodology and memory, and for that alone it is valuable. As it happens, Yoskowitz and Alpern are excellent arbiters of memory and new taste. Recipes are preceded by and placed in the context of recollection – be they historical, personal, or somewhere in between. But the food that is remembered is not taken as a given – and homage is given to how memory in fact influences the way we eat.

The book is incredibly well-written, and practical too. Within the book’s contents, you have guides to dressing poultry, making kreplach, and braiding challah – and not to mention all types of pickling. Thus readers are taught at a variety of levels how to make all of the book’s tasty treats – and in language that is neither cloyingly saccharine nor sentimental.

And the recipes themselves? They are wonderful! Some of them are what are popularly called classics: matzah ball soup, savory blintzes, and the namesake gefilte fish. Others are inspired by the Ashkenazi tradition but are certainly welcome departures from the “canonical” dishes: Polish sour rye soup, kimchi-stuffed cabbage, or a gluten-free buckwheat bread. My current favorite new recipe is for a spiced blueberry soup, which promises all the tart-sweetness of yagdes and the creamy indulgence of dessert for dinner. In addition, many of the “basics” are covered – such as pickled cucumbers, farmer’s cheese, and bread. All are well-presented, and all have an eye not to the idol of authenticity in the past, but that Ashkenazi food is still in evolution.