Not Our Gang



When I was a kid, we always joked that you could tell the best Chinese restaurant in town by how many of “us” ate there.

Indeed, there were nights at Dave Wong’s China Sails that there were enough of “us” munching on Moo Goo Gai Pan to exceed the number needed for a temple quorum ten times over.

Am I teetering on the brink of the politically incorrect?

Yes, “we” love our own food too – although for the most part we save it for special occasions like Jewish holidays.  But truth be told, much of it originated as peasant food, was usually made with fairly unhealthy ingredients, and lacked…shall we say, complexity of flavors. I think that is why “we” became such rabid fans of other folks’ food.

This discussion will likely bring some stern words of disagreement my way, but to paraphrase an old borscht-belt joke, look around: Do you see one Jewish restaurant?

Yes, there are millions of delis, but nowadays those are only nominally Jewish, and as much as I love Hot Pastrami you’ll have a hard time convincing me of its merits as healthy food.

My Grandmother had a very old, very grand looking brass samovar which used to fascinate me because it was engraved with Russian words and images of the Czar. She never served anything from the samovar, but she did show me how they used to keep the borscht hot by loading a tube inside with hot coals. In her house the samovar was the only thing – besides her – that came from the “old country.” She didn’t speak with an accent, but the samovar did.

Like most immigrants of her era, she embraced all things American – she and my grandfather even spent their honeymoon in Washington, D.C.

As time brings “us” further and further away from our Eastern European roots, the definition of Jewish food becomes more watered-down than my Grandmother’s chicken soup. Pure Jewish food, when you can find it, doesn’t resemble the stuff served to me as a kid. I can’t remember the last time I had a Knish of the type they used to serve when I was a kid: tiny, crusty, and filled with mystery. (Unfortunately the mystery was about the filling, as in, “What the heck is this stuff?” That didn’t stop me from inhaling them.)

I’ve had a few requests for a Noodle Pudding recipe, but I have found that cooking Noodle Pudding (a/k/a Kugel) generally entails choices that are no more troublesome than asking, “Raisins? No raisins? Raisins in half the pan?”

Again, not very complex, and probably shouldn’t be. It is home cooking – comfort food – and needs to hew closely to an ideal well formed in peoples’ minds. When Passover rolls around I’ll probably fiddle around with Noodle Kugel, but if I stray too far afield from people’s expectations I’ll have to name it something else. Our assimilated tastes cause us to change these recipes to fit our surroundings, not unlike the way a little girl born in a rural Russian village was changed and became my city-dwelling-American-as-apple-pie Grandmother.

It’s January. It’s cold. As I wrote recently, this is my time of year to detox and deblobify. I am determined to do this as painlessly as possible, and that’s why healthy food, well cooked, is essential. I have been snooping around for healthy things to eat that will give me the fuel to stay warm during this cold winter. Hopefully it will also take my mind off the cookies and the bars of chocolate that are screaming for me to rescue them from the evil clutches of the grocery store.

So it was that I cracked open a box of kasha – cracked buckwheat– that has been sitting on my shelf so long that I forgot how it got there. This is what made me think about my Grandmother and Jewish food in general, but it was actually my Mom who used to serve Kasha Varnishkes, or cracked buckwheat mixed with bow tie noodles. The Kasha Varnishkes of my youth was that magically delicious blend of salty and greasy, hallmarks of really good soul food.

But the basic ingredient, buckwheat, is so healthy that I figured it was worth a try to see if I could recreate the flavor I remember while keeping it on my list of virtuous foods for my January cleanse. Happily, kasha is relatively obscure, so I am free to do whatever I want to it without going against anyone’s preconceived notions.

I used the Kasha Pilaf recipe on the box and added a dose of sautéed garlic then merely substituted olive oil for butter and low sodium chicken stock for water. Making Kasha Varnishkes was as simple as throwing cooked bow ties into the kasha. Because I am trying to be “good” just a few bowties were all I needed.

But what struck me was the texture and flavor of the kasha itself. Due to the mix of the kasha’s toasty graininess and my use of chicken stock, it had a gratifyingly meaty flavor. I immediately imagined it mixed with a liberal quantity of lightly toasted pine nuts and a sprinkling of currants as a really delicious filling for Stuffed Peppers. How about a cold salad of farro and kasha? I may even try to make those little Knishes of my youth with a kasha stuffing. Too bad I’ll have to save the knishes for later in the year when I’m not being as virtuous.

The bonus is that buckwheat is being touted in nutrition circles for bringing more than just a pretty face to the party. It is high in protein and fiber, it is gluten-free, and there are theories out there that it may even lower cholesterol and reinforce capillary walls.

Now I really feel virtuous!


Click here for the recipe for Kasha.


Saveur CoverThe kind folks at Saveur Magazine found my August 31st, 2009 posting about Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas and asked me to distill it for inclusion in their readers’ 2010 Top 100 list. You’ll find it in the Jan / Feb 2010 issue of the magazine, now on newsstands everywhere. Take a look and let me know what you think!


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