Wandering through the farmers market with a reusable tote bag and a beatific smile has become the ultimate in foodie clichés, and for good reason. There is little more satisfying to a home cook than tipping forth the day’s haul onto the kitchen counter — a pound of coral-colored rhubarb, say, a silky pile of zucchini blossoms or a gorgeously blistered heirloom tomato — and falling into a frenzy of improvisational, from-the-hip cooking.
I have spent many happy weekends exactly this way. And yet, as someone preoccupied with Jewish cuisine, I find the farmers market and CSA box equally motivating as a pathway back to traditional Jewish dishes.
In 2011, writer Josh Ozersky proclaimed in Time magazine that “Jewish food is awful” — an “aggressively bland” assault of “dry flavorless brisket” and “dense lokshen kugels, sweet noodle casseroles as unappetizing as Christmas fruitcake.” Once or twice a year, he writes, we suffer through these nostalgic Eastern European shtetl foods with a grim determination to keep them alive rather than any sense of real pleasure. “I don’t claim to have an answer for this problem, which is one of the most baffling in all of American culinary history,” he writes. Well, Mr. Ozersky, I do.
I disagree with Ozersky that Jewish food is bad by definition. In fact, I find it presumptuous to label any time-tested cuisine inherently bad. What is accurate, however, is that much of traditional Jewish cooking has lost its way.
Take sorrel. The lemony-flavored green, a spinach look-alike, serves as the base for a largely forgotten, and delicious, soup called schav. Regrettably, the schav one tends to encounter today would make Ozersky shudder — me, too. Industrially produced, confined to a glass bottle and sitting for unspeakable stretches on the supermarket shelf, it loses all connection to its inherent tastiness, becoming an uninspired facsimile of its original form.
But not long ago, chilled schav was a desirable standard on Ashkenazi tables, a tangy and refreshing antidote to summer’s muggiest months. As Jewish cookbook author Arthur Schwartz recalls on his website, The Food Maven, the schav his grandmother made was “from scratch, which meant ordering enormous bunches of large-leafed sorrel — what she called ‘sour grass’ — from her fruit and vegetable man.” Stirred with cool sour cream and garnished with crisp chopped vegetables, it was an integral part of her seasonal repertoire.
On a recent walk through the farmers’ market, I spotted several bunches of sorrel resting amid more commonly known greens. Snagging a couple of bundles, I softened it, along with some onions, in butter, then simmered it into an Old World soup that tasted remarkably fresh and vital.
Walking past the market tables, the beginnings of countless other Jewish dishes beckon. After all, many of these dishes were once inherently seasonal, developed and canonized at a time when fresh produce was available only for a few short months each year.
Continuing on the soup front, the ruby-colored sour cherries that appear in early summer could be turned into chilled Hungarian cherry soup. Crisp green cucumbers — not to mention tomatoes, beets and turnips — beg to be pickled, and sides of sustainable salmon can be rubbed with salt and transformed into tender lox. Heavy heads of cabbage can be softened and stuffed with a sweet and tangy beef filling for holishkes. The makings of tzimmes — carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots and honey — are available in sweet abundance during the late summer. Even the lokshen kugels Ozersky so despises can be bolstered with grassy eggs and rich farmer or ricotta cheese from the market.
Like the ones near me in New York City, many farmers markets have recently begun to embrace locally grown grains, making it increasingly possible to find nutty-scented kasha (toasted buckwheat) to use in kasha varnishkes. Ozersky writes that there is “nothing but despair” at the bottom of a bowl of kasha varnishkes, which evidently means he has never tried to make his own. Cooked in broth until fluffy and fragrant, then stirred with bowtie noodles, slowly caramelized onions and a generous amount of oil or schmaltz, the traditional grain makes eating an undeniably joyous experience.