Have a Little Something!

Forshpeis can be what’s for dinner

    Most of us have done our wills and trusts. Who gets the diamonds and who gets the rubies have already been decided, but who’s going to get the recipes?
   You taste something you haven’t had in decades, and suddenly you are transported back in time to your grandmother’s kitchen. L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.
    Unlike a photo or even a video, a treasured recipe, passed down from mother to daughter for who knows how long summons the past with all five senses, revealing a slice of our ancestors’ life, a cuisine borne by ingenious Jewish women within the confines of both kashruth and poverty.
    No matter your taste for haute cuisine, there is nothing like those well-worn recipes from another time, another place to bring back the essence of a dearly missed loved one. 
   One of the culinary customs of the Jewish kitchen instilled in me since childhood is the need to feed. In radio they call it “dead airtime,” those dreaded seconds of unplanned silence that seem like hours. In broadcasting every moment must be filled with sound.
    As I remember the family gatherings of my youth, there was a similar avoidance of “dead food time.” From the moment you crossed the threshold you would immediately be invited to “have a little something.” G-d forbid one should faint from hunger while awaiting dinner!
    I call it the three-minute rule. A guest must get something to eat within the first three minutes of arrival or it’s a shandah (shame) on the host.
   “Come in. Give me your coat. Have a knish.”
   When I started teaching cooking classes at Sur la Table, I was cautioned to be sure the students had something to sample within the first 45 minutes of class. Forty-five minutes? Obviously, they had no experience with Jewish table rules! In my classes students would partake of “a little something” as soon as they arrived. G-d forbid they should faint from hunger during my demonstration!
Forshpeis—a foretaste, appetizer
   As the overture is to the musical, forshpeis is meant to build anticipation for the great event to come. But sometimes it’s fun to create a party on forshpeis alone. And judging by the portions served in restaurants these days, an appetizer can sometimes serve nicely as an entire meal.
   When I announced my cookbook project to my family, one of the most frequent requests I received was be sure and get Aunt Sally’s sweet and sour meatballs, ever present at every family gathering. Her original instructions called for frying the meatballs in fat. By broiling them we get the same nice crust and leave the fat behind. Serve them with toothpicks or as a main dish over rice or noodles.
   When I was growing up knishes were a staple at every party. You don’t see them that often now, but I found a unique updated version in “Little Book of Jewish Appetizers,” a darling collection of 25 unique appetizers by Leah Koenig (Chronicle, $18.95).
    I sometimes prefer these little palate teasers to the main course. “They are like the comedian who warms up the crowd before the featured act and ends up stealing the show,” Koenig writes. Knishes, “this Eastern European comfort food, became a New York City classic, a warm, delightful gut bomb peddled by street vendors, in Jewish bakeries, and Jewish delicatessens. Knishes can still be found at a few holdouts, like the more than a century -old Yonah Schimmel’s knishbakery on Manhattan’s lower east side.”
   Yonah Schimmel’s, family owned since its inception in 1890, is currently operated by Yonah’s great nephew, Alex Wolfman. Knishes sell for $5.50 and come in a variety of flavors. Savory potato knishes include potato, kasha, broccoli, mixed vegetable, sweet potato, spinach, red cabbage and mushroom. Sweet cheese knishes come in apple cheese, blueberry cheese, apple strudel, cherry cheese, and chocolate cheese … a good reason to visit New York!
    “These days a really good knish is hard to find,” moans Koenig, “unless, of course, you make it yourself. My version stays true to a classic mashed potato knish with a few tweaks, namely a scattering of poppy seeds in the dough for color and crunch, a generous amount of cream cheese mashed into the potatoes for over-the-top richness, and a splash of vermouth to give the caramelized onions sweetness and depth.”

Potato and Red Onion Knishes
Yield: 8 servings

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon poppyseeds
1 large egg
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2–inch chunks
4 ounces cream cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons vermouth or dry white wine
1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water

1. Dough: Whisk together flours, baking powder, salt, and poppy seeds in large bowl. In small bowl, whisk together egg, warm water, oil and vinegar. Make well in dry ingredients and pour in wet ingredients. Stir until dough comes together, then knead it a few times in bowl with heel of your hand and form it into a ball. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature at least 1 hour, or store in refrigerator for up to 1 day.

2. Meanwhile, make filling: Place potatoes in large saucepan. Cover with water by 2 inches and set pan over high heat. When water boils, turn heat to medium and cook until potatoes are very tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and transfer to a bowl. Add cream cheese, 1 teaspoon salt, and generous amount of black pepper and mash with potato masher until creamy and well combined. Set aside.

3. Melt butter in medium skillet over medium heat. Add onion, sugar, and generous pinch of salt, cover, and cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Uncover add 2 teaspoons water, turn heat to medium low, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add thyme and vermouth and cook, stirring, until vermouth evaporates, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat. Fold onion mixture into mashed potatoes and let cool.

4. Assembly: Preheat oven to 375°F. Line large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut dough in half, returning other half to covered bowl while you work. Lay large dish towel or tablecloth on table and sprinkle generously with flour. Use a rolling pin to roll dough as thinly as possible into a large rectangle, less than 1/8 inch thick. Trim any ragged edges with sharp knife. Take half of potato mixture and use your hands to form it into a thick log. With long side of dough facing you, lay potato log across bottom edge of dough. Roll dough around filling like a jelly roll. Repeat with remaining dough and filling to make a second log. Trim ends off each log so that they are flush with filling.

5. Using side of your hand (imagine a karate chop motion), make indentations along the logs every 3 inches, then twist at these points. Use a sharp knife to slice dough at each twist, then pinch 1 side together to form base of knish. Flatten knish a bit between your palms, then pinch together tops to seal filling inside dough. Repeat with remaining knishes. Leave formed knishes on prepared baking sheet and use two fingers to press small indentation into top of each one, which will keep them from opening during baking.

6. Brush tops and sides of each knish with egg wash (you won’t use all of it). Bake knishes, rotating baking sheet halfway through cooking, until golden brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let knishes cool at least 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Cover leftovers tightly in plastic wrap and store in refrigerator up to 5 days or in freezer up to 3 months. Reheat in oven or toaster oven at 350°F until warmed through, 10 to 15 minutes.

Source: “Little Book of Jewish Appetizers” by Leah Koenig

Aunt Sally’s Sweet and Sour Meatballs

For the meatballs:

1 1/2 cups cornflakes, crushed by hand
2 pounds ground beef
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce:

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 large onions, chopped
2 cans (15 ounces each) tomato sauce
1 canned (20 ounces) pineapple tidbits, undrained
3/4 cup golden raisins
3 to 4 tablespoons dark brown sugar, or to taste
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Preheat broiler with rack placed about 8 inches from heat source.

2. Meatballs: Combine crushed cornflakes with 1/4 cup water in small bowl, and set aside to soak for a minute or two. Then crumble soaked cornflakes into large bowl. Add meat, eggs, salt and pepper, and mix well. Using your hands, form mixture into balls about 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Place them in a 13 x 9–inch glass baking pan.

3. Broil meatballs until brown crust begins to form. Then turn them over and broil on the other side until browned. Remove from broiler and set aside.

4. Meanwhile, prepare sauce: Heat oil in Dutch oven or other large, heavy, oven-proof pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Then stir in tomato sauce, pineapple tidbits with their juice, two pineapple cans water, and the raisins, brown sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice.

5. Preheat oven to 275°F.

6. Using a slotted spoon, add browned meatballs to sauce and bake, uncovered, for 2 1/2 hours. No basting is necessary. Add salt, if needed, and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Source: “Cooking Jewish” by Judy Bart Kancigor

Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.




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