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One of the first lessons of the COVID-19 quarantine is that we are more busy, not less busy, as the illusion of independence falls away and we want to stay in touch with and care for friends and family ever more mindfully. Momentary Kitchen and this quarantined cook will be coming to your homes weekly from here on so that I may cook with you as well as teach and care for my people. You are still always welcome to drop onto momentmag.com with questions, ideas, pictures and requests, 24-7. There is always a seat waiting for you in my kitchen. Together, we’ll find our way through this time.
Today’s offering has been inspired by Tania, a lawyer by trade, who cooks out of her kitchen in Pittsburgh, and with whom I share an interfaith (Jewish-Muslim) connection. Fortunately, potatoes are in most of our pantries, and what we do with them tells us a great deal about our ethnicities, religious traditions, customs, economic status and diets. Potatoes are nutritive, starchy, ubiquitous tubers that grow almost anywhere there is healthy soil. You can buy seed potatoes and grow them in deep containers on your terrace, plant plots this spring in your yard or buy them at the grocery store or farmer’s market. You can find them in any color—red, pink, purple, brown and, most commonly in the United States, yellow and white. They also come in palates of various sweetness and bitterness, and in configurations from dime-size gems to dinner-plate monsters.
Today we are cooking two dishes: the classic potato kugel (chosen to console my friend Ava, who is far away from her father; he would make a potato kugel for every Passover, until COVID-19) and the classic Indian bhajee, comfort food that Calcutta Jews have turned to for centuries. I have made miniature versions today because I do not keep a big store of potatoes. The beauty of kugels and bhajees is that they look like recipes because we codify them on paper, but really they are simply ancient improvised dishes made from oil, onions, potatoes, maybe matzah meal or another extension, and some spices or seasoning. These dishes are well-loved because they are cooked nearly directly from heart to hand to pan.
RECIPES BY MARCY EPSTEIN
Ashkenazi Potato Kugelettes
Gluten Free – Dairy Free – Vegetarian
This is the simplest potato kugel, served in muffin cups. You can try some now or freeze some for the holiday. Perfect for a Passover breakfast!
One and ¼ cup of olive oil
One pound of very finely shredded potatoes (Yukon and red-skinned are great—if you want to avoid darkening, put shreds in a bowl of very cold water)
One large onion, finely diced
Three large eggs, whisked thoroughly
Three tablespoons of matzah meal, optional
One tablespoon of salt
One tablespoon parsley
One tablespoon sesame seed
Optional: sunflower seeds, raisins, shredded nori (seaweed)
My go-to: thin slices of mushrooms for the middle of each kugelette
Note on processing the potato and onion: I hand-shred, but using a food processor will speed up production a great deal. Just remember to take out awkward chunks, leave the potato juices in the bottom of the food processor bowl, and plunge the rest into cold water to avoid discoloration.
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Oil a muffin tin (do not use paper cups) generously with sunflower or safflower oil and put it in the oven until you are ready to transfer the batter.
2. In a bowl, mix the remainder of the oil, potato, onion, egg, meal, spices and salt. Use a large spoon or small scoop to ladle the mixture into the tin, allowing for shreds to stick out of the cups to bake later into a medium-dark brown. Bake for 10 minutes and then check for color.
3. Let cool on the stovetop, then cut and ease each kugelette out of its mold onto paper or a clean cloth towel in order to absorb any extra oil. Serve hot—for 6, or for 2 eager for thirds.
Gluten Free – Dairy Free – Vegetarian
Traditional Indian bhajee changes from subculture to subculture. In one part of India, these are more like latka-esque fritters, with enough crunch to resemble pakora (fried snacks) and with a softened middle as big as a prune plum. You can even leave the potato out, shredding lots of onions, mixing in herbs and spices, then plopping tablespoons full into an inch of hot oil. In other parts of Sephardi Asia, bhajee incorporates other available vegetables into a well-caramelized stir fry—tomatoes add a particular tang. Jain bhajee is more like a puree. Still other Asiatic regions that saw early commerce across the Indian Ocean offered bhajee tempered with shredded coconut and crushed peanuts. This dish can take you across 5,000 miles and many years, through not only our Jewish roots but also our geographical adaptation alongside Islamic and Hindu civilizations. Not a bad way to get a taste of the world without leaving your house.
About four splashes of sunflower oil or ghee
About 1 pound of yellow or white potatoes, cubed medium-fine
About 1 pound of yellow or white onions, sliced thin
Generous tablespoons of turmeric
Generous tablespoons of fennel, coriander, chili powder, and/or cardamon
Generous tablespoon of salt
Generous tablespoon of black pepper
2-4 tablespoons of water, for desired thickness
My go-to: a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar for tang
1. Bring the oil or clarified butter up to medium-high in a saute pan. Add slices of onions and cook until caramelized to a medium brown. Add all the spices, lowering the heat to medium, so they form a sort of thick paste.
2. Add in potatoes until all are coated, tossing in half of the salt and pepper, and stirring gently.
3. Turn the burner to low, add in one tablespoon of water at a time, cover pan for five minutes, checking for a desirable consistency. Serve medium-warm to bring out the best effects from the spices. Add the remainder of salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4-6.
If you would like to learn more about Sephardic Bhajee, food writer Tori Ivey penned a lovely essay exploring her family’s recipe.
If you would like to study more about Jewish-Indian cuisine for your seder, check out the offerings in Haaretz and The New York Times, or the lovely overview from My Jewish Learning that informed me.
Bonus Chometz Kugel
I am part of a fantastic online cooking group that explores the foods of Romanian Jewish grandmothers. Maybe because mine were American, Ukrainian and Polish, several members pooh-poohed my Chicken Soup Two Ways, because I had sautéed the vegetables before stewing. It’s a fierce community. But the learning and the cooking are both delicious.
Just today, Carol Ritter Elbaz of Houston, a member of this group, posted her grandmother Etty’s savory noodle kugel, akin to the Yerushlami Kugel, turned beautifully out of a bundt pan. Enjoy this fancy rendering, plated on aluminum foil no less, of one of the best peasant foods around. I include her grandmother’s recipe as well. A great way to eat up those noodles before Passover begins. Etty’s recipe is below, true to the original hand-written version:
2 cups of cream cheese, 1 cup sour cream, 1 container cottage, splash vanilla, 7 whole eggs, 3 yolk only eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 16 oz spaghetti pasta, 6 pats of butter, golden raisins.
Those who collect recipes from the past will be able to follow easily. Premake the pasta, drain out all extra fluid, and mix together as though baking a cake—all liquid ingredients first, then solid, put into a well-buttered fancy pan. Share your kugel pictures with Moment this week for a chance to be featured on our social media!
A Suggested Menu for a Passover Feast, Quarantine b’Mitzrayim
Stay tuned for Friday, when we’ll post an imagined quarantine “Shulchan Orech b’Mitzrayim,” (A Seder Feast for Narrow Places)—a menu for a Passover meal in relative captivity. It’ll be simple, nearly self-evident to prepare, and easy to make for one person or a minyan.