When I was in second grade in Syosset, New York, my class did a unit on “ethnic” foods. We celebrated with a potluck party: Every kid brought in a dish that represented their family background. I brought noodle kugel.
To the best of my knowledge, the only ethnicity that I had was Jewish. I knew that it was also our religion, but all the foods that I identified with my family background were the foods we ate on Shabbat and during the holidays. Although I tried to learn more about where my ancestors came from, my parents gave only the vaguest of answers — Russia, a word that is even less precise to me now than it was then, what with changing borders and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. What once was Russia might also have been Poland or Yugoslavia. Who knows?
More general, but accurate, I eventually figured out, would be to say that our background was Eastern European. This became more evident to me when I moved from the Long Island home of my childhood to Manhattan in the 1990s and ate at the historic, but sadly now defunct Kiev¬ restaurant in the East Village. It was dirt cheap, yet exotic. The Polish and Ukrainian dishes like kielbasa and pierogies opened up a new world to me, but the cold red borscht with sour cream, cheese blintzes and the potato pancakes reminded me of my Jewish identity. Or to put it another way, I learned from the food we ate for the holidays —brisket, matzoh ball soup and potato kugel— that we were Ashkenazi.
As I learned more about food, I gathered that Sephardic dishes were more to my taste and much more interesting than the heavy dishes that I grew up with. These days, I often pretend that I am Sephardic for the holidays, experimenting with recipes such as Tunisian-style peppers and zucchini stuffed with couscous, Italian fried artichokes, or brisket braised with chestnuts and pomegranate molasses. But when I remember the foods that made me feel Jewish as a child, I think of doughy knishes, kasha varnishkes, and other stick-to-your-ribs cuisine.
To my second grade class I brought a classic, sweet noodle pudding, made with cinnamon, sugar, raisins and eggs. That delicious noodle pudding still evokes warmth and wonderful memories, but I’d be more likely to serve it for brunch or as dessert. For the main course, I prefer a savory pudding with hearty whole grain pasta instead of the traditional egg noodles.
Here’s my assimilated version of lukshen kugel:
21st Century Savory Noodle Pudding*
16 ounces buckwheat or farro noodles (dry)
4 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup sliced shallots 2 small onions, chopped
1 medium bunch kale, arugula or other bitter leafy greens
8 large eggs
1 cup shredded gruyere
1 cup ricotta
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1) Boil noodles until al dente. Drain and set aside to cool.
2) Saute shallots in olive oil at high heat until just beginning to brown. Remove from pan and set aside. Add onions to the same pan and sauté at medium heat until translucent. Add sliced kale or arugula, season to taste, and continue to cook, stirring frequently until greens are tender and slightly wilted.
3) Beat eggs with ¼ cup water in a large bowl until frothy. Mix in the gruyere and ricotta until smooth. Add the sautéed onions and greens to the eggs. Stir in noodles and mix until evenly coated.
4) Pour mixture into greased 9x12” casserole dish. Top with fried shallots and grated Parmesan.
5) Bake in 375 degree F oven for 45 minutes or until egg is set and top is golden brown.