Bring 22 Jews of all ages to review Jewish food and you get 22 opinions. We hosted a group of friends for Shabbat with this simple challenge: bring a dish or incorporate an ingredient from the March issue of Tablet Magazine’s “100 Most Jewish Foods.” Just to be clear, the magazine’s list was not made up of the most popular or the best tasting, but rather the most identified as Jewish.
When I read Tablet’s list, I was transported to my 10-year-old self, sitting in my Grandma’s kitchen with the mint green cabinets and flowery-patterned wallpaper. My Grandma’s holiday menus didn’t include Tablet’s more obscure epicurean curiosities – gribenes, calves feet etc. However, ever present was the spirit of these foods when my Grandma reminisced with her guests about the menus from their childhoods.
My Grandma’s act of slipping on her dish gloves for washing, and handing out dish towels for drying would send these women through a portal of flavorful memories. They’d tell tales about their fathers’ haggling for the best cuts and prices of kosher meat at the local butcher shop. They’d describe their moms’ chicken preparation. Forever etched in my memory are the descriptions of their mothers sitting on worn out wooden stools in their backyards, plucking the feathers off the chickens before putting the birds in the pot to cook.
My preparation for this Tablet-themed Shabbat didn’t include trips to the butcher shop or feather plucking. Our menu did, however, showcase the familiar – fruit, crudités and hummus; the comical – Chinese dishes including cauliflower fried rice, egg rolls and plum sauce; the traditional – kasha varnishkes, challah, and babka; the global – chicken shawarma, and an assortment of Israeli salads; and the curious – gribenes, kishke, and Slivovitz plum brandy .
I made chicken shawarma, Israeli sandwich meat seasoned with a multiplicity of spices including cumin, paprika, garlic, oregano, allspice cardamom, chili powder, nutmeg, salt and pepper. I paired it with Greek pita bread and the Israeli salads. To prepare the chicken, I bought close to 20 pounds of bone-in, dark meat chicken with skin.
I removed about two pounds of skin as I worked to cube the dark meat. Like an old-world balabusta (Yiddish for homemaker), I wasn’t about to let anything go to waste. All the leftover skin led me to make Gribenes.
Gribenes literally means scraps and is prepared by frying chicken or goose skin to a crisp – think a kosher version of pork rinds. It can be added to dishes like chopped liver, or pastrami sandwiches, or it can be eaten on its own as a snack or appetizer.
My younger son took on the challenge to prepare the scraplings. He started by coating the skins with olive oil, salt and pepper and frying it in a cast iron skillet. The result was a crisp, savory appetizer that was a sleeper hit.
At 6:30 p.m. our guests began to arrive and placed their entrées on the counter to be served buffet style. The best part was the guest reactions.
Here’s a quick rundown:
- Slivovitz Plum Brandy – we all proudly grew extra hair on our chests as we slammed back shots and proclaimed, L ’Chaim.
- Chicken Shawarma – spices tasted authentic.
- Roasted Garlic Couscous with Tomatoes and Edamame – fresh veggies and couscous? You can’t go wrong.
- Cauliflower Fried Rice, Egg Rolls and Plum Sauce – what a delicious twist on old favorites. Nothing says Jewish cuisine like Chinese food.
- Kasha Varnishkes – Bowtie pasta, kasha (buckwheat groats), onions and beef broth – comfort food at its finest.
- Kishke – described by one guest as Jewish haggis, this dish is similar to stuffing and has a sweet flavor. Kishke literally means gut. While most Kishke recipes are made with organ meat, our guest brought a vegetarian version. This dish was met with a lot of trepidation. In fact, one of our guests who refused over the years to sample it, tried it and admitted they’d eat it again.
- Gribenes – this dish was pretty foreign to the group, but everyone agreed to try it and it was gone within minutes.
- Bowl of mixed fruit – this is my Shabbat staple; and gratefully our guest who doesn’t claim culinary skills was willing to expertly cut a very large bowl of the seasons finest – watermelon, strawberries, honeydew, and cantaloupe.
- Babka – chocolate bread, which if I wasn’t so polite I would have eaten the loaf myself!
So what should have made the list?
- Pickled Tongue
- Pesach Fruit Jellies
- Chocolate Phosphate
- Brown’s Cream Soda
- Egg water soup
- Chipwiches – ok…that might be more of a summer camp influence
So what do you think? What did Tablet miss? Have you tried what’s on their list? Join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and memories in the comments.