Autumn Gnocchi with Apple, Fennel, and Parmesan

Greetings! I hope you had a lovely holiday season, be it with your family, your friends, or on a spaceship with kindly aliens.

I have been busy with applications for urban planning school, or volunteering for the Democratic Party, so I have not sat down to do quite as much food writing. However, I did make a very fun gnocchi dish using lots of traditional ingredients from Italian and German Jewry – apples, fennel, and cheese. Gnocchi and Parmesan are not Jewish per se. However, gnocchi has a long tradition in Italian Jewish cooking – though preparations with spinach or tomato sauces are far more common. I cannot find sources in a language I speak for the various hard cheeses of Italian Jewry (Italian speakers, hint hint), but Italian Jewish recipe collections in the languages I do speak use hard cheese heavily. In any case, I should not worry if Parmesan is “traditional” – authenticity is bullshit anyway. That said, this recipe would not be too out of place on an Italian Jewish table.

I have actually made an Italian Jewish dish with fennel and cheese in the past – I highly recommend it.

A bowl of gnocchi with apple, fennel, and parmesan.
(Photo mine, September 2018)

Autumn Gnocchi with Apple, Fennel, and Parmesan

2 tablespoons butter

1 large white onion, chopped roughly into small pieces

1 medium bulb fennel, chopped roughly into small pieces

2/3 teaspoon table salt

1/3 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

8 cloves garlic, chopped into bits (you can vary the size according to taste)

3 medium Fuji apples, cored and chopped into cubes (you can use another crisp, sweet apple such as a Honeycrisp or Cameo)

2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped with stems removed

½ cup water + more to cook gnocchi

1 500g/17.5 oz package potato or sweet potato gnocchi

1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

  1. Heat a deep saucepan, then melt the butter. Add the onions and fennel. Sauté for two minutes, or until they begin to soften.
  2. Add the salt, pepper, and vinegar, and mix in. Sauté for two more minutes, or until they are slightly softer.
  3. Add the garlic, apples, and rosemary, and stir to combine. When the pan starts sizzling again and the apples begin to soften, add the water, then cover.
  4. Cook covered for ten minutes, then uncovered for ten minutes on a high flame. Stir every few minutes. The apples and fennel should soften and release their juices.
  5. In the meantime, prepare the gnocchi according to package directions. (If you want to use homemade gnocchi, try this recipe here, but I am all for industrial food.)
  6. When the apples and fennel are soft and the liquid has mostly reduced, turn off the heat. Add the gnocchi and parmesan, and stir thoroughly. Serve warm.

Thank you to Eric Routen for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Advertisements

Passover Potato Gratin

Passover is speedily upon us. I personally do not mind the culinary restrictions brought about by celebrating the Exodus: it is a fun time to be creative, eat colorful food, and ingest mammoth quantities of vegetables and unusual starches. For some, however, Passover is a time of woe, when all one’s favorite foods are forbidden. Doubly so for those who follow the Ashkenazi custom of not eating kitniyot – “wheat-like” items that include corn, rice, beans, and seeds. Which means … a lot of potato.

I personally could eat potatoes for three weeks straight without complaining, but that is just my Lithuanian ancestry saying hello. But I do realize that some people find potatoes “boring.” So the next three recipes, all for Passover, are easy and tasty ways to make potatoes.

Potato gratin on a plate
Potato gratin. (Photo mine, March 2018)

This first recipe answered a challenge issued to me by a friend: could I do a potato gratin, with a rich and creamy béchamel sauce, for Passover? Béchamel sauce normally requires flour, which for non-matzah purposes is basically forbidden during Passover. Luckily, potato flour serves as a nice substitute, and you still get the creamy béchamel that blends with cheese to make a very decadent dish.

This dish might seem very “white-bread American.” However, béchamel, which is one of the “mother sauces” of French cooking, made its way into Jewish cooking during the 19th century, when Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike used it to seem “classy.” German Jews put a “white sauce” on vegetables, and Jews across the Mediterranean under French influence used it for dairy-heavy egg- and vegetable-based casseroles. (If you want to learn more about the history of béchamel, I strongly urge you to read Anny Gaul’s post about béchamel in Egypt and Morocco!)

Most recipes have you melt the cheese into the béchamel, but I distribute it among the potatoes for “maximum coverage.” I use cheddar here, but any strong and sharp cheese should do. Enjoy!

Passover Potato Gratin

3lbs/1.3kg potatoes, peeled

8oz/225g cheddar cheese, shredded

4 tablespoons butter + extra to grease

4 tablespoons potato flour or potato starch

2 cups milk

Table salt and ground black pepper to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.
  2. Slice the potatoes very thinly.
  3. Grease a medium-to-large casserole pan with butter. Place half the potatoes in the pan, then half of the cheese on top. Then, place another layer of potatoes, and then another layer of cheese.
  4. Make the Passover béchamel:
    1. In a small pan on a medium flame, melt the butter.
    2. When the butter is melted, add the potato flour, salt, and pepper. Whisk quickly so that the potato flour is browned.
    3. Slowly pour in the milk and whisk it slowly.
    4. Keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture is thick and starts to bubble. Then, turn off the heat.
  5. Pour the Passover béchamel over the potatoes and cheese.
  6. Bake for 60 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Serve hot.

Thank you to Dana Kline, Dov Fields, and Robbie Berg for serving as the User Acceptance Testing committee for this recipe.

Baked Fennel and Comfort

A recent memory, to begin:

It was a cold and depressing day in New York – and the venom of Trump’s recent election polluted the entire city in the many hushed voices whispering between the trees’ falling leaves. Dark, threatening, and draining.  I sat with my friend Karen – almost an aunt really – in her Bronx apartment, and we spoke of our fears as we ate pieces of raw fennel. The beautiful flavor of the raw fennel – earthy and vegetal, licorice and dilly, cooling and sweet in its anise strength – was cooling against our tongues. Healing, interesting, and fuel for our work. In the time when our Presidents eats food for its ease and not for what it is, who think the poor must work to even deserve food – the basic, simple tastes can give us the power to continue. Strength and power and comfort – from fennel.

Baked fennel with breadcrumbs and cheese.
Baked fennel with breadcrumbs and cheese. (Photo mine, December 2016)
This community dates to the earliest days of the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple – and perhaps before, since Jewish migrants, merchants, slaves, and soldiers were present in Rome from the 1st century BCE. Jews brought foods familiar to them to and encountered the same foods in Italy – and these foods often became both a comfort and an integral part of memory on festivals. Fennel, which is known as shumar in Modern Hebrew but as gufnan in Mishnaic Hebrew, was among these. Sicilian Jews ate fennel for centuries – and, after being expelled in the Inquisition by the Spanish then-rulers of the island, brought fennel to the rest of Italy. In times of anti-Semitism, poverty, welcome, and having the ear of the Doge of Venice, fennel was part and parcel of Jewish cuisine. Elsewhere, fennel was also consumed by Jews – in Morocco and in Germany – but became a marked part of Italian Jewish cuisine.

Fennel is also a testament to the cosmopolitan worlds past of Jewish Livorno, Venice, and Rome. Historians of Italian cuisine have noted that these communities traded foodstuffs extensively with both the great communities of the north – such as Germany and Poland – and the neighboring Arab world. Foods such as coffee, goose, and fennel were introduced by Jewish traders to the wider population – and certain foods, including fried artichokes and fennel risotto, were known as “Jewish” in Rome and Venice respectively. This history was largely erased by the mid-twentieth century, when the twin pushes of nationalism and fascism sought to “make Italy great again” by creating a monolith of heritage and cuisine. But Italian cuisine – to the chagrin of nationalists – is deeply Jewish and Arab, and Jewish cuisine likewise can sometimes be deeply Italian. In this age of cuddly white nationalism, it is a helpful fact to remember. Once, fennel was the comfort introduced from the not-so-foreign “other.”

Fennel growing
Fennel growing (Michal Waxman, link in Hebrew)

This recipe for fennel is simple and tasty. The licorice taste of the fennel, which is too strong for some, is balanced out by the garlic and cheese, which make this dish quite hearty. If you want a lighter dish or a more vegetal one, remove the cheese and cut the garlic in half. It is also traditional to make this dish with large chunks of fennel that retain the shape of the vegetable – which makes for a wonderful final presentation.

Stacked fennel bulbs
Fennel for sale at a market in Holon, Israel (photo Ariel Palmon via Wikimedia Commons)

Finocchio Gratinato/Baked Fennel

Based on recipes by Claudia Roden and Luca Marchiori

2 large fennel heads, roughly chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon dried basil

4 tablespoons melted butter

1 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

4 tablespoons breadcrumbs or gluten-free breadcrumbs

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese.

  1. Preheat your oven to 425F/210C.
  2. Boil the chopped fennel in salted water for five to ten minutes, or until tender but not squishy. Drain and put at the bottom of a baking dish – 20cm x 20cm or 9 inches by 9 inches should do.
  3. Mix the garlic, basil, and butter together, then pour over the fennel. Stir in a little to make sure the fennel is evenly coated.
  4. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, salt, and pepper over the fennel evenly.
  5. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese is browned and the fennel is noticeably darker.

Thank you to Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Shavuot I: Make Your Own Cheese

Shavuot is fast upon us! For those of you who don’t know, Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Torah unto Israel, and the time of the Biblical wheat harvest. Though oft-forgotten in secular American Jewish culture, Shavuot is one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish calendar, and was one of the three Pilgrimage festivals – along with Pesach and Sukkot. Many traditions exist for Shavuot, including pulling an all-nighter of Jewish study, the tikkun leil, decorating the house and synagogue with flowers, and eating copious amounts of dairy food. It is absolutely my favorite Jewish holiday, not least because my favorite prayer and favorite Biblical text are both read in the holiday’s ritual.

But this blog is about food, not archaic Aramaic prayers or the Biblical injunction against slut-shaming, so let’s return to our topic at hand: dairy. Now, multiple explanations exist for why we eat milk products on Shavuot. Some say it is because the Torah is like G-d’s way of giving to Jews what a mother’s milk gives to her child. The Song of Songs does call the Torah “honey and milk” that “are under Your (G-d’s) tongue” (4:11). Others argue that it comes from the fact that Mount Sinai is Har haGavnunim in Hebrew, the name of which is similar to gvina – cheese. I prefer a more practical explanation: before modern times, Shavuot was soon after the time of year most cows gave birth to calves, and milk would have been in most plentiful supply at this time in most Jewish societies across the world.

Most Jewish communities, other than those of Yemen and Ethiopia, have various dairy-eating traditions on Shavuot. These tend to revolve around the various forms of cheese and milk products each Jewish cuisine uses. Cheesecake, a very Jewish dish whose history will be discussed in the next post, is common across many Ashkenazi, Italian, and Sephardi communities, and is taken as synonymous with Shavuot in the American Jewish community. Other delights include blintzes in the  Ashkenazi sphere, rice pudding (sütlaç) among Sephardim, and qatayef – very sweet fried and syrup-soaked pancakes – among Syrians. All of these are delicious, and many often involve local forms of soft cheese.

Soft cheese is a very traditionally Jewish thing. Quark cheeses, called tvarog in Russian,  tsvorekh in Yiddish, and gvina levana in Hebrew, is a curd cheese that is often confused with ricotta. It is soft, sweet-tart and slightly tangy, and quite tasty. The cheese comes at various levels of hardness and sweetness – I tend to prefer a softer, tangier quark. Tsvorekh is traditionally used in kugels, blintzes, and on bread. In fact, quark on black bread was one of the most common meals of poor Jews in Lithuania and Poland for centuries. [The same cheese was used for Shavuot.]

Ricotta, that famous soft Italian cheese, is a frequent ingredient in Italian Jewish dishes. Ricotta – which means “twice cooked” in Italian – is actually made from the whey left over from making other cheeses. When you make cheese, it separates into curds – the white stuff that we eat – and whey, the acidic component. (Think of the nursery rhyme.) Whey is cooked again to separate out the curds, and then the curds are strained out and sometimes played around with. Italian Jews traditionally used ricotta both for Hanukkah cheese pancakes, cheesecakes for Shavuot, and with bread year-round.

Both cheeses are ridiculously easy to make and taste quite good. In fact, you can make them both at the same time, as I shall show you below. It’s not an everyday thing, but certainly a fun thing to do when you get the chance. This is how you do it:

How to Make Two Cheeses at Once 

Makes one pound quark cheese (tvarog/tsvorekh/gvina levana), one pound ricotta, and about four cups whey

Refer to pictures at the beginning of the post for parts of the process.

You will need:

Ingredients

1/2 gallon/2 liters milk

1 pint/500 ml heavy cream

1/2 tsp salt

Juice of 2 large lemons

1/2 tsp white vinegar

Equipment

A big soup pot

Two colanders – one should be quite big

A giant bowl

Cheesecloth

Big wooden spoons

  1. Line one of your colanders – the big one – with cheesecloth, and then place over the bowl so that there is a good two-three inches between the bowl floor and the bottom of your colander.
  2. Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
  3. Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
  4. When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
  5. You should notice the milk start to curdle. This is the curds separating from the whey. The curds are the cheesy bit. The whey is the leftovers* from which we will make more cheese.
  6. Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for five minutes. It will look weird – white clumps and white fluid. This is how we make cheese, do not worry one bit!
  7. Pour the entire mixture into your big, lined colander. Then let sit and have the whey drip out for anything between fifteen minutes and two hours – the longer it sits, the harder your cheese. I go for 30-40 minutes since I like my cheese super soft.
  8. When your time is up, scoop up the cheese in the colander and put into a container, and refrigerate. Don’t throw the whey (liquid below) away! Congratulations! You have made quark cheese! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  9. Now it’s time to make the ricotta. Pour your whey – you should have about six cups – back into the pot, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  10. When the whey is boiling, turn off the heat and quickly stir in the 1/2 tsp of vinegar.* Then leave alone for ten minutes.
  11. You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
  12. Pour the mixture through a colander, preferably a fine-meshed one – with a bowl underneath if you want to save your whey. The curds should collect in the colander right away. Scoop them out into a container and refrigerate. Congratulations! You have made ricotta! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  13. You can save your whey – it is really great for making hearty breads and baked goods when you use it instead of water.

*Traditionally many cooks allow their whey to sit for a few hours to allow it to acidify, which negates the need for additional vinegar. However, this can be a rather smelly process that is not conducive to relaxing cheese-making.