Cuckoo for Kugel

Like all soul foods, this is a dish born of poverty. But creativity flourishes under impediment, so destitution frequently leads to deliciousness —and there are few things in this world as delicious as a well-baked kugel. It’s a delicacy anyone even remotely fond of potatoes must adore.

I’m nuts about it. Though starchy, inelegant kugel is the trashy underside of Jewish cooking, it’s long been one of the things I most crave. Of course, this might not have been the case had I been born a century ago over there, where potato-centricism stemmed from necessity rather than choice. There’s an old song that goes “Monday, potatoes; Tuesday, potatoes. Wednesday and Thursday, potatoes. Saturday… maybe a potato kugel, then Sunday potatoes again.” It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that this was a blues sung from poverty, not a hopeful song for a future utopia.

The dark side of the current klezmer music craze is that a musician who’s learned the style finds himself qualified to make plenty kesh playing Jewish weddings. I don’t mean swanky affairs at Great Neck catering halls with chopped liver sculptures; I mean the hard-core stuff, Orthodox and Hassids dancing sweaty ecstatic circles while the band blares a nonstop succession of identical-sounding oom-pah tunes in snakey D-minor. Same-sex dancing and long curly sideburns. Blow your brains out for six hours of cacophonous mayhem in exchange for enough kesh to pay half your rent: it ain’t bebop, but it’s hard to resist.

And thus I found myself —stylishly tricked out in yarmulke and polyester tux —playing for a particularly frum (religious) crowd. They were too pious to drink much, though a bottle of Old Williamsburgh (I kid you not) Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky was passed among the elders. The women were virtually locked away in the room next door; too observant to even wear wigs, they donned dowdy kerchiefs.

At the head of the dance floor, in a position of supreme authority, was a table bearing three large rococco silver trays. All attention came to focus on this setup. With a flourish, the top of one vessel was opened to reveal a kugel. The second lid was removed, kugel again. Third… kugel kugel kugel. There followed a feeding frenzy, as yours truly jumped off the bandstand to try to salvage a morsel amidst the kugelly commotion.

These, in truth, were not great kugels, but that’s not the point. Kugel is intrinsically a Craved Thing: potato, egg, salt, grease. That’s four of the Major Food Groups; you simply can’t go wrong.

The Three Sacred Offerings had nearly been forgotten when, as we started another set, I detected the wafting aroma of fresh kugel. There was even more being brought out.

Amazing.

We later stood around the starchy relics, debating the merits of the second kugel (eggier) versus the much-loved fifth kugel (very dense), when a waiter, with the earnest sense of duty and pride of purpose of a rabbi carrying the Torah, presented yet another tray.

I was deeply moved by this elevation of kugel —a dish far too homely to be served in restaurants or at less earthy soirees. My head spun at each new serving until I was overcome, thrown into such an emotional tizzy that I found myself screaming —from my spot between a horrified trumpeter and a bemused tenor saxophonist —”By Golly, I’m PROUD to be Jewish!” I was having one of those life-changing moments, catalyzed by the dizzying procession of Bottomless Potato Puddings.

The bandleader, a way-frum but pretty hip guy named Yochi (pronounced YUKHee; with a name like that he’d make a helluva food writer), moved by my kugel catharsis, invited me home for a pre-Sabbath taste of rare Hungarian skillet-cooked kugel.

Brooklyn’s Satmar Hassids are the main preservers of the Hungarian Jewish tradition, and so I found myself the following Friday in South Williamsburg, the turf of Orthodox Judaism’s most xenophobic sect. Yochi’s mom sat me down at the dining table in front of a huge slice, which I chomped nervously under the wary gaze of the entire hyperextended family.

It was surprising, wonderful stuff; very little oil is used, but a hennery of eggs lend a puffy, almost quiche-like texture. The polished exterior is too dry and greaseless to be crisp; rather it’s a parchment to be worked through in your journey toward an almost erotically creamy, coarse-grained interior.

Hungarians cook their kugel in much the same manner as Spaniards make tortilla Española, only they grate, rather than slice or dice their potatoes. Here’s the recipe: combine 9 russets (hand grated through the small holes) with 8 eggs, salt and white pepper; fry in just 1/4 cup of corn oil heated to smoke point in a 10” pan. Reduce to low and cook uncovered 45 minutes. Transfer to a plate, smoke another 1/4 cup of oil, then flip kugel back to pan for 45 minutes of low heat on the other side.

Visit the web site for Yochi’s new rock band, Metalish (complete with sound samples). http://www.jewishjukebox.com/products/jewish_rock_music/535.asp

Consumer Kugel

I’m excited about the Hall Street Kosher Cafe (9 Hall Street, at Flushing Ave., NY, 718-802-9638). It’s a mobile home parked in a junky lot across from the Brooklyn Navy Yards -you’d never notice it driving by-and chef Mario, a religious Jew from Argentina whose culinary talents are exceeded only by his sweet personality, cooks the best potato kugel I’ve ever found in a restaurant. Potatoes are perfectly grated, and teeth glide effortlessly through the firm but ultra-moist (almost pudding-like) interior. Mario’s oversized potato pancakes are superb, as are his cheese blintzes–rich, vanilla-scented pot cheese spiraled inside spongy bland crepes. I also love pickled vegetable salad and lukshin kugel (noodle pudding, here done slightly sweet and with very narrow noodles). There’s a brown Israeli noodle kugel, made with caramel, but it’s too revisionist for my Ashkenazic palate. Note: everything’s nuked to order, which is cool for all but the potato pancakes, which lose their crunch.

This is certainly the best dairy place New York has seen in quite some time, and the staff’s very friendly to boot; people of all races and ethnicities can be found munching Jewish soul food in an atmosphere far more reminiscent of a Southern ribs joint than a kosher restaurant.

UPDATE: Last time I was there, Mario had changed his recipe for both kugel and latkes; I don’t think he’s grating by hand anymore! I’ve had to “pull” my review for The Forward... stay tuned for more info on this grating tragedy (as well as a recipe for my mother’s more traditional baked kugel).

Real McCoy

Having given a recipe for the very unusual Satmar Skillet Kugel, I’d be remiss not to also include a more mainstream baked kugel recipe. The following is my mom’s version, passed on by her mother, Minnie Rosenkranz, who hailed from Shnyaten (actually, one doesn’t “hail” from a place like Shnyaten so much as flee from there). Shnyaten (rhymes with “rotten”) is a small town near Bukovina that’s been volleyed between several countries since my grandmother left (at that time, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire…” as she was wont to sniff). To read socio-historical background on that time and place, check out the classic Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori. To taste it, cook the following:

Florence Leff’s Potato Kugel

6 medium Idaho Russet potatoes, peeled
1 small onion (or 1/2 normal onion), peeled
3 eggs, well beaten
4 tbs corn oil
2 tbs matzoh meal (or flour)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
black pepper to taste

Peel potatoes, submerge (uncut!) in cold water until all have been grated.

Grate potatoes and onions through the small holes of a hand grater (or electric meat grinder—do NOT use a food processor).

Place grated potato/onion mixture in a clean, lint-free dishtowel and squeeze out liquid (stop squeezing when water begins to drip rather than stream).

Place grated potato/onion mixture in a large bowl; stir in all other ingredients. Mix well.

Transfer to lightly oiled 7×12 pyrex baking dish.

Bake at 375 degrees for one hour or until well browned.

Leftovers are good cold or reheated, but after a couple of days, crumble up the remaining kugel and cook it with scrambled eggs.