I loved my mother’s food, but I rarely prepare her dishes anymore. That’s because she has lots of culinary competition. Over the last 20 years, I have fallen in love with Israeli cuisine. Creamy tahini, made from Ethiopian sesame seeds and drizzled over chopped salad, is dream-worthy. So are pita sandwiches packed with grilled meats or oil-slicked eggplant, doused in tangy amba sauce made from pickled mango.
But I had an epiphany recently: Sour cream is as delicious as labneh. And the sweet and sour tongue that my grandparents ate in Poland deserves as much respect as the spicy Moroccan fish dish, chraime.
So, before we forget about the delicacies of our past, here’s my list of oldies but still goodies, Jewish foods that deserve not just respect, but a comeback.
Sweet and Sour Tongue
I know, I know. The name is unfortunate. Who wants to eat tongue? I do. It is soft and luscious. I love it simmered in a sweet and sour sauce similar to one I use for stuffed cabbage: crushed tomatoes, sugar, lemon juice, kosher salt and raisins. Serve the sliced beef tongue in a pool of the cooking sauce and soak up that luscious tomato-y goodness with fresh challah. The Kingdom has come.
This dish has a far better name than the one above, but it’s a lie. You don’t want to know what sweetbreads really are. I never did when I ate it and LOVED IT as a child. I only know now because I researched what it is and I am saving you by not telling you. But sautéed with chopped onion, celery, and lots of mushrooms, you have a poor man’s dish that is a subtly flavored delicacy. Bring it back.
Chicken Soup With Chicken Feet
It seems like everyone and their mother (and grandmother) has a recipe for the best chicken soup. Culinary icon Ina Garten features chicken soup in every one of her cookbooks. But few talk about the essential element that brings chicken soup from good to great. New York Times food writer Melissa Clark is a loud and proud proponent of using chicken feet in her soup. Chicken feet, she told me, “add body and richness. They are high in gelatin, which makes the stock silky.” When she was a kid, Clark says, she “learned the joy of pulling them out of the pot while they were still warm and soft, and eating them like lollipops.” Her grandmother let Clark eat as many as she wanted, probably because, “no one else was exactly waiting in line.” Time to queue up and make chicken soup the right way:feet forward!
Speaking of chicken soup, garnishes for the golden broth should not begin and end with matzah balls and noodles. What happened to soup mandlach, AKA soup nuts? They are round, crisp dumplings that are fried in either vegetable oil or chicken fat and then popped into a steaming bowl of chicken soup. They add texture and surprise to the dish. If my grandmother made it every week for her family of eight, we can, too!
I love gefilte fish. Always have, probably always will. I know that I am an outlier on this subject. But when we weren’t eating homemade gefilte fish for a first course at the Sabbath meal in my childhood home, we got poached whitefish on a bed of steamed carrots, string beans, and celery, with hot, red horseradish on the side. You don’t see that anywhere anymore. According to Gil Marks, in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, whitefish in Europe and America “was relatively inexpensive” and often served as a Sabbath appetizer. I like it better than its smoked cousin. Time to revisit.