The cuisine of the Ashkenazic Jews is kind of awful. This is not the fault of my people; they tried their best, they really did. But the climate, socioeconomic struggles, and raw materials they had to work with left them with some pretty rough dishes. Worst, in my mind, is that there are a few big Jewish feasts in the late summer and early fall — the best time of year for produce — and Ashkenazic Jewish food doesn’t take advantage of that. So I would like to propose a way to make the feasts of early fall — Rosh Hashanah and the breaking of the fast after Yom Kippur — a little more vegetable-friendly: We must unite the cuisines of the Jews.
First, some history: Amidst lots of wars, large waves of Jews left Israel around the fourth century A.D., settling mostly in the Mediterranean climates of Italy, France, Spain, and Morocco. Over the next thousand years or so, they experienced varying degrees of hostility in these places at various times, and most were eventually booted to the cold lands of the Russian Empire. Some did okay in the cities, but others were stuck in ghettoes, which were occasionally burned down; sometimes they were imprisoned or chased around or killed. Their food options, to say the least, were limited.
The Jews were used to some of the most fertile land in the world; eastern Europe must have been a brutal shock for them. Now called Ashkenazim, they created the best cuisine they could for cold weather, given the garbage they had to work with: starches, soups, fatty cuts of meat, and boiled root vegetables, largely adopted from Polish and Russian cuisine. When they finally made it out, mostly to North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they brought this stuff with them, where some of the dishes got so popular they assimilated into the general umbrella of American food: Bagels, challah, latkes, and matzoh ball soup are as American as pizza, tacos, and pork fried rice.
People who aren’t into meat and fat will find that the centerpiece dishes of Ashkenazic Jewish cuisine tend to be very fatty and very meaty, like braised beef brisket, cholent (a slow-cooked stew of beef, potatoes, and barley) or kishke (an often-bland sausage made of beef intestine stuffed with flour or matzoh meal and chicken fat). They also often have a sweet element that can be cloying, since Jews worldwide love to put honey and apples and dried fruit in savory dishes. The sides are typically bland filler, made of noodles or breads or various permutations of matzoh. Spices are exceedingly limited; herbs pretty much non-existent. The vegetables used are of the root-y variety, like beets, carrots, potatoes, and turnips, all of which are cooked in pretty much the same way (boiled). The only Jewish vegetable dish I can really remember growing up with is called tzimmes, a dish of carrots boiled in water and honey and sometimes sprinkled with raisins. It is an awful, awful dish; it reduces the carrot to baby food and it is disgustingly sweet, as are many Ashkenazic Jewish desserts.
The fact that we eat this sort of food is especially galling during the High Holidays because late summer and early fall has some amazing produce — at least in the Northeast where I and, according to census data, several other Jews, live. It seems a shame to cook as if we’re in the dead of winter in a shtetl in Białystok when in fact we’re surrounded by amazing fruits and vegetables: The early fall produce, from apples to kale to chard to squash, join — for a mere few weeks — the end-of-summer peaches, okra, green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers on farmers’ market tables. We could make the argument (and I will!) that Jewish food, like most poor-people cuisines, is about using what you can find. And what I can find in Brooklyn today is a hell of a lot better than what my great-grandparents could find in Grodno.
LUCKILY: not all the Jews followed the path of my Ashkenazic ancestors. Lots of them stayed or ended up near the Mediterranean, either in western Europe (these we call the Sephardim) or in the Middle East (these we call the Mizrahi). And because they stayed in nice warm places where vegetables actually grow, their cuisines are completely different from that of the Ashkenazim, only vaguely connected pretty much only by the laws of Kashrut (Kosher). Instead of blending Jewish dietary laws and tastes with the frankly not very good foods of Poland and Russia, the Mediterranean Jews mixed with Spanish, French, Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Moroccan, and Algerian cuisines, among others, to create a variety of dishes that are nothing at all like what most non-Jews would think of as Jewish food. But it totally is!
For the fall feasts, I think we pale Ashkenazic Jews should explore the foods of our tanned, warm-weather cousins, because a lot of their food dovetails perfectly with what’s in season right now. That doesn’t mean abandoning our regional food; a bagel with lox and cream cheese is a delightful food to break a twenty-four-hour fast. But vegetables are good, too.
Since it’s the end of tomato season, how about shakshuka? The origins of the dish, like most Jewish dishes, is mixed up with the cuisine of whichever country the Jews happened to be living in at the time (in this case, probably Tunisia or Algeria), but it’s now often associated with Mizrahi food. To make: pre-heat oven to about 450 degrees. Fry onion, garlic, and a mix of sweet and hot peppers (your choice, but I like shishito for flavor, cubanelle for sweetness, and Thai chile for heat) in a cast iron pan in quite a bit of olive oil. When the peppers are soft, add cumin and smoked paprika, then stir to toast the spices. Take big stewing tomatoes like beefsteaks or Roma (because heirlooms would be a waste), chop them up, and throw them in. Cook down until thick, like a stew, then stir in the pesto of your choice (cilantro, parsley, or a combination would be good). Add salt and pepper here, because after this you won’t be able to fuck with it too much, and some chunks of feta or goat cheese. Crack a few eggs into the stew, being careful not to break the yolk, then shove it in the oven for a couple minutes. It’s done when the whites are mostly opaque but still a touch loose and pudding-y. The yolks should, of course, be runny. Serve with pita or bread. Or bagel, why not, this is all about friendship across borders.
Okra is a favorite vegetable of Middle Eastern Jews, especially in Libya and Syria. Another stew: fry onion and garlic, then add Aleppo pepper if you can find it (use one part ground cayenne to four parts sweet paprika if you can’t) and a small pinch of cinnamon. Slice okra (look for the smallest ones) into rounds and toss into the pan. Add in chopped tomatoes, chopped dried apricots and a little lemon juice. Cook it for maybe twenty minutes, until the flavors have all come together. Serve over rice or couscous with fresh mint and parsley on top. (I don’t have any special recipe for couscous. Bring water to a boil, measure out one part couscous to two parts hot water in a bowl, add in salt and a pat of butter, quickly stir and cover for about five minutes until the water has been absorbed. Fluff with fork.)
The Sephardim, like the Ashkenazim (and, I guess, everybody else in the entire world) are very into fritters. Latkes are great, but don’t really feel like late summer to me; moving to the Sephardic-style fritter, which are made with vegetables, feels fresher. Zucchini is an easy replacement for potato: Grate zucchini on a box grater into a big pile, then (and this is the most important part) wrap them in a towel and squeeze the shit out of them. You want as little water as possible. Then mix with either grated (this will destroy your eyes but is the best option) or minced onion, a beaten egg, and some breadcrumbs. Form into a patty and fry in vegetable oil, a couple minutes on both sides until golden brown. (These are called ejjeh kousa, and probably the Lebanese invented them.)
A more interesting twist comes from Poopa Dweck’s spectacular book, Aromas of Aleppo, and are called keftes de prasa. Hers uses leeks, one of my favorite favorite vegetables. Cut off the tough green part at the top and the roots at the bottom, then slice in half length-wise and wash very thoroughly (there’s going to be a lot of sand and stuff in there). Slice the leeks width-wise thinly, into little strips, and saute briefly in olive oil to remove some of that raw onion flavor. Then dump them into a bowl and mix with the standard items (beaten egg, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper) as well as some Syrian spices — a little bit of cinnamon, a little allspice, a little cumin, a little cayenne. According to Serious Eats, the batter should be “rather wet,” not quite like the patty you’d make with potato or zucchini. Serve with labneh.
Stuffed vegetables are also very common in Iberia and North Africa, and are nicely ceremonial (read: are a pain in the ass). Lots of stuffed vegetable recipes, here in America or in Greece or Italy, call for bell peppers. I hate bell peppers; they are the worst of all peppers. Instead opt for pattypan or otherwise spherical squash, or big tomatoes, or even some other kind of pepper, like a New Mexico pepper. First things first: Put some rice in water to soak for at least half an hour, and get some pine nuts or walnuts in a dry pan to toast until fragrant. If using squash or tomatoes, saw off their top and then scoop out the guts with a spoon, getting as close to the walls of the fruit as you can without busting through. Chop up the guts. In a pot, saute onion and garlic in olive oil, then dump in your spices: turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, dried chile. Stir. Then add in the guts of whatever you’re stuffing, along with a whole mess of chopped spinach. Add in a tiny dash of red wine vinegar and cover until the spinach has cooked down. Then throw in your walnuts, plus some kind of dried fruit. (Raisins are good, as are currants, or even apricots or cherries.) Drain the water from your rice, and mix the rice in with this whole mess. Make sure it’s not too dry; add a little water if it seems so. Stuff this insane mixture into your hollowed-out vegetable shells (not too much, though, since the rice will expand). Bake at 350 degrees until the rice is cooked, about twenty minutes. Serve with labneh.
Oh right, labneh! Labneh is a dairy product somewhere in between yogurt and soft cheese. You can buy it, but don’t, because the pre-made stuff is weirdly expensive and can be hard to find even though it is incredibly easy to make. To make it, get out a strainer and line it with cheesecloth or, hell, a clean dish towel that’s on the thin side. Take full-fat Greek yogurt (Fage is good) and dump it in there, add a little salt, and gather the top of the cheesecloth or towel to make a little bundle. Put it on top of a pot or bowl or something, because the goal here is to strain out most of the water in the yogurt, and put it in the fridge overnight. The next day you’ll have labneh, an amazingly tangy and thick yogurt/cheese thing which goes great with pretty much all vegetables and herbs.
I don’t mean to decry all Ashkenazic Jewish food, or suggest that we Eastern European Jews should abandon our roots. All I’m saying is, objectively, if you had to choose a cuisine to mix with, would you pick Lebanese or Polish? Spanish or Ukrainian? Moroccan or Russian? Yeah.
Photo by Joy