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How Two Brooklynites Are Rediscovering Jewish Food Traditions

In their new cookbook The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods, Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz are on a mission to revitalize Ashkenazi cuisine with recipes that draw inspiration from Jewish bakeries, neighborhood delis, old-fashioned pickle shops, and their own childhood kitchens. They're joining the Clever Cookstr to talk about bringing time-honored techniques and ingredients to your daily life.

By
Kara Rota
Episode #117

Ashkenazi cuisine refers to the foods of Jews of Eastern and Central Europe: Poland, Hungary, Russia. It's a cuisine that developed in a cooler climate, and a cuisine developed with resourcefulness in mind—these were not the foods of the rich. As these foods came to North America and adapted over the years, they evolved into the iconic dishes you know from Jewish delis and holiday meals. But along the way, some of the time-honored traditions and original ingredients were eschewed in favor of mass production, and the dishes that were originally made from scratch with fresh and seasonal ingredients were more likely to be found in jars or boxes. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern have realized their passion for keeping these food traditions alive, and for teaching others about the history and modern relevance of Ashkenazi cuisine. Their debut cookbook, The Gefilte Manifesto, serves as a call to action. For Liz and Jeffrey, gefilte fish is a perfect example: once a delicacy made by hand as the centerpiece of the Sabbath, the murky, jarred version now seems like more of a mascot—a symbol of Jewish food, rather than delicious food itself. 

Thus was born The Gefilteria. In 2012, Jeffrey and Liz wrote a manifesto and began making artisanal gefilte fish on a commercial scale, as well as limited runs of other products like beet kvass and carrot-citrus horseradish relish. "Gefilte fish was sort of our rallying cry," Jeffrey recalls. "Let's remake it, let's go back to the basics, let's take really good ingredients, let's research old recipes ... it really did feel like it was radical." With their new cookbook, the revolution is heading to your local bookstore.

To be clear, many of the DIY and from-scratch projects in this book require little in terms of both skill and time. This isn't about spending hours in the kitchen, but instead about rediscovering the delight and deliciousness that can come from reclaiming Old Country methods and approaches. For Jeffrey, that often means pickling. "It's just so easy, it's not even technically cooking," says Jeffrey of lactofermentation, which means pickling with just salt water rather than using vinegar. "It's about making a simple brine with salt and water and spices, choosing your vegetable—cucumber, green beans, or cabbage to make sauerkraut-- they're so gratifying, and the prep time is twenty minutes, max. You don't need much equipment." After a few days, you can have your very own half-sour pickles, made on your kitchen counter. 

Liz suggests starting with soups as a way into all that Ashkenazi cuisine has to offer. "Soups are my desert island category of food," she says. "You can use your odds and ends, so there's a resourcefulness to cooking in a large pot, and there's adaptation. If you don't have exactly the right amount, you can still make a wonderful soup." Aside from the association of chicken soup with the ultimate cure-all, soups like mushroom barley are so comforting and heartening. 

"If you were to ask me what characterizes Ashkenazi Jewish food, it's really how best to make use of what you have," says Jeffrey. The Gefilte Manifesto highlights this feature with the Choose Your Own Leftover Adventure Appendix, which gives ideas for how to use recipes and leftovers as building blocks in other dishes throughout the book. "If you're ever making mashed potatoes or kasha varnishkes, if you have extra, the way of thinking if we were living in Poland in the late 19th century would be 'oh, let's wrap them in a knish and take it to work the next day.'" Leftover pickle brine, in this cookbook, finds its way into bread and Bloody Marys, a dirty martini and a potato salad. "My great-grandmother would never let that flavor slip her by. She would utilize it as best she could."

And if your idea of Jewish food is all pastrami and matzo balls, there's more to be discovered here. "There's a lighter side to this cuisine," Liz explains. "People associate Ashkenazi cuisine with heavy foods, with wintry foods...but there's a wonderfully long and hot spring and summer in Poland and that means that you're eating lighter foods. There are fresh vegetables. There are tons of fresh things at the farmers' market. We like to highlight this lighter side of the cuisine, and smoked fish is such a natural fit for that. The idea of a "Latvian picnic' came from a friend who was having lunch with us. We laid out this spread of bread, smoked fish, pickles, and fermented beverages, for an authentically Ashkenazi meal that was also truly refreshing. These are foods that can travel. You can bring them outside, you can bring them to the park," says Liz. "We want other people to realize that that can be part of their experience of this cuisine as well."

It's tricky to innovate on the food of your ancestors in a way that respects and celebrates everything beloved about the original, but Liz and Jeffrey continually focus on doing just that, from the kimchi-stuffed cabbage to the black-and-white cookie sticks that ensure you get both sides in each bite. "A lot of people are willing to take that plunge, they're willing to try it out, it makes it more accessible," says Jeffrey of the chopped liver pate deviled eggs. "I'm so excited that hopefully, even kids will start giving it a shot at a little bit of a younger age! But to me, I think it's also visually just stunning." 

"If we can remake gefilte fish," Liz remembers she and Jeffrey thinking when they began cooking and talking about Ashkenazi food together, "we can do anything."

MUSHROOM AND BARLEY SOUP

Liz: Part of what made mushrooms—one of the primary flavoring agents of Ashkenazi cuisine—so popular was the fact that they could be foraged from the forests, free of charge. They also possess a meaty, umami character. The best foragers, often peasant women, would gather extras after a rain spell and sell them at markets.

Among the types of mushrooms eaten by Jews in Europe, porcinis (often referred to as cèpes, from the French) were quite common. Even after Jews immigrated to North America, where they relied mostly on North American ingredients for cooking, there was a robust mushroom trade for imported porcinis from the Old World. “Mushrooms were one of the few things they [Jews] bothered to bring in from the Old Country,” explains food historian Jane Ziegelman. “There was even a little mushroom wholesale district on Houston Street.”

This recipe is best made with porcinis, both dried and fresh, but a variety of mushrooms, including shiitakes and even portobellos, will taste great. The dried mushrooms give this soup particular depth. Also note that the barley is cooked separately from the broth, to ensure a soup that isn’t gummy or porridge-like, as mushroom barley can sometimes be.

2 1⁄2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1⁄2 cup pearl barley

4 sprigs fresh dill, plus chopped fresh dill for garnish

1⁄2 ounce dried mushrooms (about 3⁄4 cup loosely packed)

1⁄2 cup boiling water

1 large carrot, peeled and diced

1 celery stalk, diced 1 small onion, diced

1 pound fresh porcini mushrooms, stems removed, quartered

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 cups vegetable broth

1. In a small nonstick saucepan, heat 1⁄2 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the barley and toast it, stirring frequently, until it becomes fragrant and flecked with dark brown spots, about 7 minutes. Pour in 1 cup of the broth and add 1 sprig of the dill. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer over medium heat until the barley is cooked through but not soft, about 25 minutes. Remove from the heat, discard the dill sprig, and drain any remaining liquid from the grain. Set aside.

2. While the barley is cooking, place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let them rehydrate for about 25 minutes, then strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, reserving the liquid and slicing the reconstituted mushrooms into small pieces.

3. In a large stockpot, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the carrot, celery, onion, and porcinis. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the onion starts to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the rehydrated mushrooms, reserved mushroom soaking liquid, remaining 7 cups broth, the salt, pepper, and remaining 3 sprigs dill and simmer until the vegetables are soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove and discard the dill sprigs. Stir in the barley. Salt to taste. Serve the soup garnished with chopped fresh dill. It tastes best when reheated the next day. 

Check out The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods on Amazon, B&N, IndieBound, or Apple.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Volo

About the Author

Kara Rota
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