How to Perfect the 6 Most Traditional Jewish Foods
There are certain foods that just jump into the mind when you think "Jewish foods:" Chicken soup, gefilte fish, potato kugel, chopped liver, noodle kugel, and of course, cholent—just to name some of the most notable. It's easy to picture the "old world" classics, but it's not as easy to create them on your own. In order to get you to the head of the Jewish kitchen class, we sat down with Faigy Grossman, food writer, recipe developer, and all around excellent cook to learn about the best tips and tricks to getting these classic food from "old hat" to classic perfection.
First thing’s first: What do you think makes all these foods so special?
What has made these dishes stand the test of time?
It really is good food even though some of it is old fashioned. Some people roll their eyes when you say something like “chopped liver.” It’s traditional. People like tradition. It’s what they grew up with, and it’s what they know their parents grew up with. These are the recipes that their parents passed on to them, and it’s very meaningful.
You draw up a picture in your mind of a Shabbos seudah, and pictures of these foods go along with it. They represent all of the good memories people grew up on—memories of their grandmother’s homes. Even if not, then at least it’s what Jew’s all over the world eat. These were the traditional foods of people who came to America from Poland, Russian, Hungary. It’s something we continue doing.
In traditional homes, you won’t see a Friday night without chicken soup. There are some homes that do other soups that are more contemporary or they don’t care about not doing traditional, but this goes back as far as I could know or remember. For my grandmother, it was always part of a Friday night seudah and part of even any yom tov seudah.
Along with the soup would come with lukshen, which are the noodles, and sometimes kneidlach, sometimes lima beans which people have nicknames for- my son in law calls them bubelach and that’s generally what goes into a traditional chicken soup.
What’s the key to making a stellar broth?
I would make it with a combination of bones and chicken, and of course a lot of vegetables for color and taste. Onion, carrot, celery, zucchini. People put in kohlrabi, people put in turnips, people put in parsnip. I do whatever I have on hand or I pick up- and also fresh dill and parsley. Sometimes I throw in a handful of chicken gizzards—people call it pipik'lach and that gives an extra salty, chicken flavor to the soup.
The bones, gizzards, and the vegetables people don’t like to eat can go into net bags, and when the chicken soup is done you can just pluck it out and throw it out. It makes it much easier. You also have to put in a nice handful of salt. You simmer it for quite a while because the longer you simmer, the richer and the deeper the flavor. After it cools off I usually take out the veggies and chicken, and freeze it for a different time or a different recipe. Then I pour the soup through a sieve to take out any last bits of dirt that’s there.
Are there any other flavors that you recommend?
My sister puts in sweet potato and some whole black peppercorns, so that gives a little bit of a peppery spice to it. She also puts in leek. She loves the flavor that it adds to the soup. I’ve heard that from a few people.
What are some of the pitfalls of making chicken soup?
You have to be careful when it starts boiling. Often it starts boiling over. While the soup boils, a lot of scum rises to the top. I skim it off and keep doing it as soon as the water boils. If it boils over with all of that stuff, it gets all over the sides and the stove, and it’s a problem! I watch it carefully when it’s close to boiling. Then when it starts boiling, I lower the flame and start skimming to make the soup clear.
Is there any way to avoid the scum?
My daughter actually taught me a new way of making chicken soup. You barely have to clean scum off at all. She says you boil the vegetables first with the water for about an hour. After that, you put in the chicken, and you let it cook for another two or three hours. You’ll have a clear, gorgeous soup with no fat and no mess. I tried it. It’s true! I still had to skim a tiny bit, but nothing compared to what I usually do.
Don’t the vegetables get mushy after cooking so long in the soup?
Some people like their vegetables more crisp and not soft and mushy. They cook up vegetables fresh. They’ll make their chicken soup, portion it, and freeze their extra. But when they freeze it and take one out for another week, they cook up so vegetables fresh in some water to put in because they like that firmness to the vegetables.
We don’t mind it soft and mushy. Also, for a baby, I put in extra vegetables and then when they’re done cooking, I blend them with a bit of the chicken, and I have baby food! Then I can freeze it in a bunch of little containers.
Are there any variations on chicken soup that you enjoy?
Sometimes I want make a cream of chicken soup. I add a lot of vegetable and put potatoes in the soup also. If there’s loads of chicken soup in the pot, I’ll take out about half of the broth and keep it as regular chicken soup. The other half I’ll blend up the rest of the vegetables with it, and it’ll become thick and creamy. I can even throw in the reserved chicken that I took off the bone.
Try it yourself with Classic Chicken Soup!
I don’t make it from scratch. I really don’t know anyone who does! In general, it’s an easy dish for me. I buy the frozen loaves, and I cook it with water, an onion, and a carrot. I put in a dash of salt, a little bit of white pepper, and some sugar. People like it with varying degrees of sweetness, so they add different amounts of sugar. I pour sugar, so I can’t even tell you an exact amount. I just cover the loaf of fish with the sugar. Not too little and not too much. Once it cools I pull off the wax paper. I save the carrots for garnishing the slices. It goes with mayonnaise, it goes with chrain (horseradish), or a combination, which is chrayonaise.
Does anyone still use jarred gefilte fish?
My father loves it! I don’t know many people who do though.
Can you freeze the leftovers?
You can freeze it once it’s cooked. It will be watery when you defrost it, but if you’re in a pinch or you made too much and don’t want it to go to waste, you could put away a loaf for when you need it.
Are there any variations on the gefilte loaf?
I know people who bake it in the oven. I also once ate somewhere where they served it with tomato sauce over the top. It was very good! I have a recipe where you semi-defrost the gefilte fish and form it into little balls. You make a whole tomato sauce mixture and cook it up in that. You can serve it over rice.
My mother takes off the wax paper in the middle because she likes a fluffier, juicer slice. It blows up a little more when you remove the wax paper while it’s cooking.
Potato kugel is the winner of them all. It’s something that everybody loves. The smell of it—forget the taste—when you come into the house and smell that potato kugel cooking in the oven, you just can’t wait to get a piece! Everybody claims that their way of making potato kugel is the best. I think we’re using all the same ingredients, we’re all just using slightly different methods and different tricks.
What are your tricks?
First of all, I heat up my oil in my pan, to add to the grated potatoes. Besides for heating up the oil, something else I do is add a large zucchini to the kugel. I think it makes it a bit fluffier. I also delude myself into thinking it’ll be more healthful that way!
I use a little more than 5lbs of potatoes and 4 eggs. I put in a heaping tablespoon of salt, a generous sprinkling of black pepper. I grate in one large onion and a large zucchini. Everything gets mixed together. I bake it at 425° for the first hour, so it really starts crisping up the crust. Afterward, I lower the oven to 350° and let it bake at least another hour. It sits in there until it looks about right.
Once in a while I mess up with the oil because I’m not measuring. If it looks like the middle is too dry, I poke holes with a fork and drizzle more oil over the top. I find that works to get it the right way.
Hand grating or food processor?
I don’t hand grate. I used to, but I make a lot of it. I don’t have the time! But there are people who claim that’s the best way.
What are some other popular methods?
My mom used to make it in a frying pan. It was like a humongous, oversized latke. Then she’d flip it over with a plate and slide it back in. That was delicious. We grew up on that method
I have a neighbor who actually puts cinnamon in her potato kugel! That I never heard of. I did taste it. It wasn’t bad! It was just a totally new flavor coming into that kugel. It’s so unexpected.
There are people who put in breadcrumbs to keep it from getting too watery. They like a firmer kugel.
There are people who shred the potato, so there is more of a stringy texture. I use the grater blade. I like it better that way.
There’s also the whole concept of an overnight potato kugel. It’s in the oven overnight, and it gets this gorgeous color—like a golden brown inside.
Can you freeze potato kugel?
Potato kugel freezes great. (If you have a lot of extra, you can always pop some in the cholent!) People freeze potato kugel all the time. The best way to rewarm it is to add a drop of water and heat it in the oven at a low temperature for a long time so it becomes almost like an overnight kugel.
Try it yourself with Secret Ingredient Potato Kugel!
I don’t make my own chopped liver—I prefer it sautéed! I know chopped liver is the real traditional dish, but I buy vacuum-packed broiled liver. Then I fry up onions with a lot of oil, I put in paprika, salt, and pepper, and then I cut up the liver into little pieces and add it to the onions. I cook it together—not for very long, just until it’s all heated through. The main thing is frying up the onions. I get them good and sautéed, mix in the liver, and the liver starts absorbing the oil, so I sometimes add some more.
I take it out Shabbos morning and put it near the blech (hot plate). We serve it in between the fish and the cholent, alongside eggs. Chopped liver is almost the same it just has eggs grated in and sometimes some mayonnaise.
Try it yourself with Yussi's Chopped Liver!
NOODLE KUGEL (LUKSHEN KUGEL)
There are many different variations. There are so many types. There’s your sweet one with cinnamon and raisins and pieces of fruit. There is a salt and pepper lukshen kugel, which is popular in some circles. There is Yerushalmi kugel, which is also very popular in certain circles. And then there are combinations that people do. There’s a spinach noodle kugel, and other types of vegetable versions that are savory. There are sweeter ones with apples and honey. I have a recipe I make every Rosh Hashanah because it has honey and chopped apples in them.
In general, noodle kugel is a great food because it can be served hot or cold. It can be served Friday night or Shabbat afternoon. And people love it, it’s easy to cut up and prepare and put out. It’s not a complicated thing to make.
Basically, from the older times the most popular were the sweet noodle kugel and salt and pepper. The Israelis brought in the Yerushalmi kugel. Then over the past 10, 20 years, people experimented, and it bloomed and became millions of variations.
What are some of the variations?
There’s ways you can make noodle kugel on a cookie sheet and roll it up. It’s a sweet noodle kugel, and when it’s partially baked you spread jam on it and roll it up and the finish baking it like a log.
People also do a savory one with pastrami inside or sautéed onions. There are so many different ways that people make it.
Can you freeze your noodle kugel?
It’s freezable, which is great. You can make a big batch and freeze portions for a few different weeks. You can even make them in individual muffin tins.
Try it yourself with Sweet Noodle Kuglettes!
Cholent is even more of a dish that everybody has their own way of doing and their own additions.
We use a pot on a blech- I know most people use a crockpot. We put it up midday Friday, and once it’s boiling, we transfer it to a blech and keep it on a low flame just simmering overnight. What I do for my cholent is start off with sautéing onions and browning some meat. I put in some flanken with bones and beef stew cubes. Once I have the meat browned and onions sautéed, I’m going to add beans.
I add water then and start letting it cook. The meat and the beans needs to cook even longer. I don’t like the potatoes to get too mushy, so I put in the potatoes closer to Shabbos. I add barley also. I rinse the barley because it has floury film around it, which causes the cholent to get thicker and clumpier.
Do you have any special tricks in making your cholent?
I soak the beans because they can be hard on the stomach. I like to soak them in boiling water for an hour. People also soak them overnight in the fridge in a container of water and rinse them well afterward.
You can do this with all types of foods that cause bloating and gaseousness [broccoli, brussel sprouts, etc.]. The more you soak and rinse them, the easier they are on the stomach. They're hard to digest foods, so you’re softening the fiber so that it won’t cause so much of a digestive problem. The longer you soak them, the softer they are.
Also, sometimes if I’ve made a roast, and I have leftover gravy, I’ll freeze it in little bags. Then I’ll defrost a bag and add the gravy to the cholent. It gives it a good flavor
I do make a vegetable kishka on occasion. I make it with onion, flour, carrot, celery, paprika, and oil. It blends together and gets rolled up and frozen. When it’s shaped nicely I put it into the cholent.
We also put potato kugel into the cholent sometimes. It becomes like overnight kugel – everybody ends up wanting it!
How do you spice your cholent?
Spicing is my husbands’ department. I can’t get over how much he adds of everything, but it comes out so good! He puts in loads of white and black pepper, a lot of paprika, and salt. I know people put in a million other things. People put in garlic, people put in ketchup, people put in sugar or honey. Once in a while we try it those ways if we’re in the mood, but generally we keep it simple.
What are some other variations you know about?
My mother puts onion soup mix in her cholent. She also puts in sweet potato and carrot. I have a neighbor who puts in brown rice, because her husband can’t eat gluten so he can’t have the barley.
A friend of mine puts pastrami in her cholent. It’s not immersed, but it does add a smoky flavor to the cholent.
People also really like to make cholent eggs. They put eggs in the cholent with the shell and lets them cook overnight. They turn brown, and they have a good taste. I never would have thought of doing it.
(No Jewish food is more versatile than cholent. Read more about successful substitutions and tips to help you prepare the perfect cholent.)
Can you freeze leftover cholent?
It freezes great also!
Try it yourself with Yussi's Cholent!
Have your own take on a classic? Know some tips and tricks that have been passed down for generations? We'd love to hear it!