While Adolf Trump and Heinrich H. Bannon (with mouthpiece Joseph G. Kellyanne) usher in America First nationalism (is National Socialism or outright Nazism far behind?), HG/BSK practice internationalism at the table. With a bow to Muslims, there are two Middle East staples: Baba Ghanoush (garlic infused mashed eggplant) and Shakshuka (poached eggs in tomato-onion-pepper sauce) Shakshuka is very popular in Israel, a delight shared by Arabs and Jews. HG/BSK also like Halwa (from Lebanon) as dessert. Asia predominates in many HG/BSK dinners. Oyster (or scallop) pancakes from Korea. Pho and rice noodle/chicken salad from Vietnam. Ma Po Tofu from China. Watercress and smoked ham soup from China. Chicken and vegetable curries from India. Spicy eggplant and pork belly dishes from the Hunan and Szechuan provinces. Steamed sole with bok choy and garlic chips from Japan. A score of pasta, meat and chicken dishes inspired by the late Marcella Hazan’s Italian cookbooks. Soup de Poisson from France. Congee from China and the Philippines. Lamb chops and racks of lamb (imported from New Zealand) and cooked using French techniques. And, yes, many dishes from Mexico including chile and posole. For sheer comfort there is the strange Jewish-Russian-Italian medley, Kasha Varnishkes (buckwheat groats, chicken stock, eggs, mushrooms, onions and Italian farfalle pasta). HG/BSK will eat this tonight with gobs of sour cream. HG will accompany it with iced vodka (from Sweden). BSK will choose a wine from Argentina, Italy, Chile, France or the State of Washington. Hurray for diversity in culture, people, life and pleasure. This is the message fromHG/BSK’s American-Canadian-Japanese-Italian-Jewish-Russian-English-Irish-Welsh family.
The yiddish word haimish means warm, unpretentious, down home comfort. It applies to the comfort level of a home, the personality of a person and the taste of certain foods. Brisket, potato latkes, chicken soup, matzo balls, blintzes, chopped liver, pastrami are among the long list of “haimish” foods. Despite being decidedly unkosher, pork chops taste “haimish” to HG. Sushi and sashimi are delicious. But, not haimish. Gyoza, curiously, are “haimish.” So is Menudo, the Mexican tripe stew.There are times when HG chooses among three foods for a comforting “haimish” dinner. These are dishes HG’s Mom fed her growing boy, so they are imbued with a strong element of nostalgia. First choice is kasha (buckwheat groats) with caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms and a big dollop of sour cream. HG accompanies this with chilled vodka and beer chasers. Number two is starkly simple (but lush): Little boiled potatoes in their skins. Butter. Sour cream. Lots of black pepper and Malden Sea Salt Flakes. Vodka and beer plus a platter of sliced Kumatoes and Vidalia onions. (No, HG’s Mom didn’t serve the little fellow vodka). Third choice is another simple dish: Egg noodles with cottage cheese, salt and pepper. Coffee if serving at breakfast. Trader Joe’s Vegetable Patch drink if serving at lunch. BSK, despite her Anglo-Saxon-Welsh ancestry and Canadian-Midwestern youth, makes superb matzo balls. HG longs for these winners floating in a big bowl of free range chicken broth. Unrfortunately, BSK has not made them for years. However,BSK makes a world class bowl of Straciatella, the Italian version of egg drop soup. Italian “haimishkeit”. The best cure for the common cold and a splendid nourishment when flu has caused (a very rare happening) the disappearance of HG’s hearty appetite.
Kasha (also known as buckwheat groats) is one of HG’s favorite foods. HG is always puzzled why it’s so seldom on restaurant menus (except for the rapidly diminishing number of Jewish “dairy” restaurants) and is so rarely used in home cooking. Simple to make. The kasha grains are mixed with beaten egg and sautéed until dried. A few cups of chicken broth are added to the saucepan and the mix is cooked until the grains become soft (Warning: Never overcook into a mush). HG likes kasha topped with fried onions and mushrooms (accompanied by a bowl of sour cream and plenty of ground pepper and sea salt flakes). Great topped with fried chicken livers and onions. Kasha Varnishkes used to be a staple in traditional Jewish eateries. In these kosher (non dairy) restaurants the mix of kasha and butterfly (farfalle) pasta would get an exhilarating hit of crisp fried onions and a big dollop of chicken fat. A young HG would accompany this treat with plenty of cold vodka and beer at Moe Dubiner’s eponymous non-kosher restaurant (long closed) on New York’s Stanton Street. It was a big favorite of the Jewish gangsters and gamblers who came to the restaurant for a late night snack. Kasha is versatile. Great in a big bowl of steaming chicken broth. Excellent as a filling in traditional blintzes (an egg crepe topped with kasha, rolled and then fried gently) or knishes (a flaky stuffed pastry). Best of all as an accompaniment to slow roasted beef brisket. Obligatory is lots and lots of savory gravy.
When HG/BSK lived (with famille) in their spacious rent controlled paradise on New York’s W. 79th Street, HG would escape from the Christmas holiday jingles and saccharine melodies by visiting a stronghold of traditional Jewishness: Paramount Dairy Restaurant on W. 72nd. The stroll on Broadway during the Upper West Side’s pre-gentrification days was always interesting. HG passed culinary landmarks like Daitch Dairy, Babka Bakery, Izmir Pizza, Gitlitz Delicatessen, Citarella Fish Monger. Fellow strollers included junkies, female sex workers, muggers, burglars, crazy ladies talking to themselves, sad eyed refugees from the Nazi terror; and, the usual crowd of West Side intellectuals, artists, writers and bohemians. On almost every block, HG would pause for a chat with a friend or acquaintance. Once in the Paramount, HG was seated at a table adorned with a huge bowl of breadstuffs — each the best of its kind: rye and pumpernickel bread, bialys, pletzels, challah. A dozen pats of unsalted butter. No Christmas decorations. No Chanukah decorations (not even a minor league menorah). Very refreshing. HG would order warm gefilte fish (a note to the uninitiated–this is a fresh water fish dumpling, a Jewish quenelle). This was served in a bowl of fish broth with a boiled potato and carrot. Accompanied by blazing horse radish. HG would dip thick slices of challah in the fish broth. Very comforting. This was followed by kasha varnishkes with mushroom gravy (HG recently wrote about this dish). Many cups of coffee and overindulgence in buttered bialys and pletzels. Refreshed and Judaized, HG was then ready for another onslaught of Bing Crosby and “Silent Night.”
Is there any dish more soulfully Jewish than kasha varnishkes? Don’t think so. For the unenlightened, permit HG to do some deconstruction: Kasha is another name (derived from the Yiddish Kashi literally translated as porridge) for buckwheat groats and is available in most supermarkets (Wolff’s is the outstanding brand). Varnishkes derive from the Russian pasta-like dish, vareniki. The approximation is butterfly shaped Italian pasta called “farfalle.” Thus, kasha varnishkes is a dish of kasha mixed with farfalle. An aside: There is a Jewish pasta product called egg barley or “farvel.” The name was possibly derived from “farfalle.” “Little Farvel” was a violent Jewish gangster (in the 30’s/40′) from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. HG has always enjoyed that nickname. Back to kasha varnishkes. You will find an excellent recipe for KV on About.com. Top your KV with loads of fried onions and mushrooms. Stir in an abundance of chicken fat or butter. Eat with a big bowl of sour cream. Drink icy vodka with beer chasers. Play Mandy Patinkin’s wonderful CD, “Mamalushen” or, if unavailable, hum a few bars of “My Yiddishe Momma.”
HG has been rereading some works by I.B. Singer (In My Father’s Court, The Magician of Lublin, Satan in Goray) and I.J. Singer (Yoshe Kalb.) This is a plunge into the vanished world of the Jewish Chassidim of Poland, a strange environment of fervent religiosity, Talmudic scholarship, superstition, mysticism. A world wiped out by the German murderers. Beyond the spiritual, the Singer books provide plenty of descriptions of traditional Eastern-European Jewish food-ways from everyday eating to wedding dinners to the opulent feasts of the more prosperous rabbinical courts. HG was struck by the omnipresence in these descriptions of kasha (buckwheat groats). Kasha with milk for breakfast. Kasha in chicken soup. Kreplach (a sort of Jewish ravioli) stuffed with kasha. Knishes stuffed with kasha. Bowls of kasha with onions. Indeed, kasha seemed the staff of life for many Polish and other Eastern European Jews. HG, the son of Jewish/Belorussian immigrants, ate lots of kasha at the family table. Loved its robust nutty flavor. Still love it. HG enjoys it in a bowl of steaming beef or chicken broth. Enjoys it as an accompaniment to brisket and gravy. Enjoys it mixed with farfalle (butterfly shaped) pasta in a dish called kasha varnishkes. HG has a fervent attachment to this dish when it is topped with fried onions and mushrooms. Accompanied by a bowl of sour cream or Greek yogurt, of course. When winter chill arrives, HG watches NFL playoffs on TV. Before HG is a bowl of onion-mushroom-kasha varnishkes, Sour cream. A bottle of dark beer. A glass of ice cold vodka. Happy times.
Some years ago HG and BSK were strolling in the colorful, noisy, fragrant Italian city of Naples, a place where anarchy (and crime) reigns. It was midday and a group of men gathered before the ground floor of a ramshackle apartment house. A window opened and a woman handed out bowls of something that looked quite robust (HG thinks it was Trippa Napoletana — tripe done in the Neapolitan style). The lady sold a lot of food. HG doubts whether she was troubled by health inspectors or tax collectors. The scene reminded HG of the illegal restaurants that used to flourish in the basements of buildings in New York’s Garment Center and Fur District. These places opened at noon and closed at two. The scene was mayhem. Workers in the Fur District were Greeks and Jews. The cuisine reflected this. HG remembers tasty Moussaka, lemony chicken stews, goulash. kasha varnishkes with mushrooms, onions and chicken livers. Hearty stuff for hardworking folks untroubled by indelicate presentation.
Yes, it’s true. HG, the devoted carnivore, has become a veggie junkie. Dinner last night was HG’s garlicky eggplant caviar, a big platter of sliced radishes and baby white turnips. Ripe, sliced tomatoes with buffala mozzarella (okay, cheese isn’t a vegetable) and lots of basil and very good Sicilian olive oil. Tonight, HG and BSK will have a modest reprise of the turnip, eggplant and tomato appetizers. Then they’ll settle in with penne rigate mixed with a load of cauliflower sauteed in garlic infused olive oil. Tomorrow night plans call for kasha (buckwheat groats) mixed with farfalle (butterfly) pasta. The dish (known as kasha varnishkes) will be topped with fried onions and mushrooms. Greek yogurt on the side. Next night, BSK is contemplating haricots vert and fingerling potatoes in an Indian inspired cumin and mustard seed curry.
Blame the vegetable madness on the superb produce available at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Star of the market is HG’s organic farmer neighbor Gary (known in the market as Mister G.). You’ve got to get to his stand early to stock up on his incomparable lettuces, escarole, fingerling potatoes, shisito peppers, radishes, turnips, arugula, parsley and many other good things. The knowing gourmets of the Land of Enchantment snap up Gary’s produce quickly.