A global quest for the culture of—turnips

When it was her turn to host our regular canasta game, my friend Jan served a wonderful turnip and leek soup, the recipe for which I offer you this week.

There was something about being served turnips, in any form, that struck me as odd.

I love vegetables, but I have never cooked with turnips. I’ve hardly ever eaten a turnip, except when we visited a family in Scotland and were served a plate of “neeps and tatties”–turnips and potatoes mashed together.

It occurred to me that turnip is simply not a Jewish thing. My grandmothers didn’t cook with them. My friends–with notable adventurous exceptions like Jan–don’t serve them. I can’t recall being served turnips by a kosher caterer, even though kosher foodies have become much more adventurous in the past 10 years or so.

I went to my bookshelf, where I have eight specifically Jewish cookbooks, and looked for “turnip” in the indexes. One suggested adding a turnip to the broth when cooking chicken soup. That was it!

The only other mention of turnip in the Jewish books was a recipe for pickled turnip in a book of Syrian Jewish recipes called A Fistful of Lentils. Pickled turnips are ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking; you often see a piece of one, usually neon pink due to the beet juice it’s pickled in, used as a garnish in Middle Eastern restaurants. To me that hardly counts as an useful recipe. My daughter, who has some trendy, newer Jewish cookbooks, found all of one recipe, for turnip salad with sour cream – which doesn’t sound at all appealing to me.

So I thought I’d look up more information about these common but strange-to-me veggies.

Turnip? Rutabaga? Swede?

Alas I didn’t get any satisfactory answers as to why turnips are not a Jewish thing. They were known in the ancient Middle East, and they grow well in northern climes, where most of what we think of as “Jewish food” developed. They’re easy to grow and inexpensive, considered a staple, not a gourmet treat.

Wikipedia says there is evidence that the turnip was domesticated before the 15th century BCE, and was grown in India at this time for its oil-bearing seeds. It was well known in Hellenistic and Roman times.

Turnips are often confused with, and can usually be interchanged with, rutabagas, which are larger and have yellower flesh. Trust the British to confuse things. In the south of England, the larger, yellow vegetables are called swedes, possibly because they developed in Scandinavia as a cross between turnip and cabbage. But in Scotland, Ireland and northern England (and parts of Canada), the white root veggies are called swedes and the yellow ones are called turnips.

In Britain and Ireland, where pumpkins were unknown until a few hundred years ago, jack o’lanterns were made from turnips; at Halloween, the large turnips (what we in the U.S. would call rutabagas) would be hollowed out and carved with a face, then carried around with a candle inside. Fans of the wonderful PBS series Call the Midwife saw this on an episode a few weeks ago.

The greens are good too!

In the United States, turnips are harvested in the fall and can be stored over the winter. Turnip greens are harvested and eaten year round, often cooked with a ham hock or piece of fat pork meat; the juice produced in the stewing process is known as pot liquor.

Here are some other uses of turnip in various food cultures:

In Turkey, turnips are used to flavor şalgam, a juice made from purple carrots and spices served ice cold.

In Japan, pickled turnips are sometimes stir fried with salt or soy sauce. Turnip greens are included in the ritual of the Festival of Seven Herbs.

In the Tyrolean Alps of Austria, raw shredded turnip is served in a chilled remoulade as a winter salad.

Turnips are used in variety of dishes in the Punjab and Kashmir regions of India and Pakistan.

In Iran, boiled turnip-roots with salt are a common household remedy for cough and cold.

The turnip may be the only vegetable with its own historic marker. The plaque, on Main Road in Westport, Mass., celebrates the return of farmers Aiden and Elihu Macomber from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition with seeds from a turnip exhibited there. The seeds did well, and “Macomber Turnips” are still grown in New England.

Searching for potato kugel


Today’s essay is by Avery Robinson, a former Detroiter who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. This article is reprinted from Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. 

This seemed like a good piece to follow the one about knishes, another traditional Jewish food.

I had to laugh when I read how his great grand-aunt Minnie’s recipe consisted of a list of six ingredients and no directions; she and everyone else she may have given the recipe to would have inherently known what to do with it. I was reminded of the time my mother, not a great cook, asked her mother-in-law for her noodle kugel recipe. My grandmother told her to use noodles, a grated apple, canned pineapple, sugar, salt…”Don’t you need eggs?” asked my mother. “Eggs?” said my grandmom. “Of course eggs!”

Kugel is my favorite food. My love for it has compelled me to host kugel-offs, spend countless hours looking for kugel recipes in culinary archives, write my graduate thesis on the pudding’s history in America, and generally, devote more time to this casserole than any millennial ought to. But for years when people have asked me about my kugel recipe, I demurred. “I don’t use recipes,” I said. “I cook by feeling, like our grandmothers did.”

But I was not happy about my answer. I was not happy with my kugel complacency. I craved some kind of ancestral culinary anchor—a family recipe.

I own scores of Jewish cookbooks. Across the 90 years of American Jewish cooking that they represent, there is an aggregate kugel content of more than 150 different recipes. Yet none of them evoked any personal connection or meaning. Even my mother’s delicious kugels—the sweet lukshen (noodle) kugel she serves on Shabbat, the potato kugelletes on Passover—lack the link I yearned for. My mother’s recipes were not ones handed down to her by her grandmother or mother. And that precise lineage was the ingredient missing in my kugel.

My introduction to potato kugel

I ate my first real potato kugel—the kind not wedged into muffin tins—when I was 18 and living in Israel. This same year I tasted my first savory noodle kugel. It blew my mind—I knew kugel as a sweet complement to a savory meal. But not as a Jewish replacement for roasted potatoes.

Then there were the Yerushalmi kugels—caramelized noodles flavored with black pepper. I never thought of kugel as such a dynamic canvas. Until then, I had no idea that unsweetened kugels existed. A new world was opening before me, and I wanted to learn all I could about this Ashkenazi [Eastern European Jewish] staple.

For the next seven years I tasted most every kugel I could find. Some were made with quinoa; another was cinnamon-free, but loaded with nutmeg (don’t try this at home); there was one bound by applesauce, gluten-free, and vegan; and increasingly more autumnal gourd-based kugels

I went out of my way for kugel. But I wasn’t just looking for greatness. I was also asking questions: Why use sweet potatoes and russets? What makes a spinach casserole a kugel? For four consecutive years during college at the Malka and Elimelech Kugelov Kugel-off—an annual event hosted by the Jewish culture club at the University of Michigan—my fellow eaters and I critiqued an average of 15 kugels year.

It was a long process, throughout which I made a lot of kugels of my own. But never with a recipe of my own.

Back to Mother Russia

In 2014, I joined an  organized trip to the Pale of Settlement to explore the origins of Ashkenazi foodways. Specifically, I went in search of my family’s heritage, to see where my family came from; I went to find my culinary birthright.

“Four hours by horse from Minsk,” jokes my father’s Cousin Lou about the distance to my family’s ancestral shtetl of Lekhovich, a Belarusian town 140 miles due south of Vilna.

In this picturesque town, surrounded by lush green fields, with an apple orchard a stone’s throw from the market square, there are few signs of a Jewish past: two monuments recognizing the Jewish victims of the Shoah, a department store in a former beis midrash [study hall], and a canning factory has replaced the Great Shul.

Though I found no answers there to my kugel queries—indeed, I didn’t find any dish there resembling a kugel—I did find them east of Bialystok in Krynki, a town where nine of out 10 people were Jews before the Holocaust.

In the middle of Krynki was a small restaurant serving made-to-order pierogen and other Polish staples, including babka ziemniaczana. This was not the layered chocolate or cinnamon confection you think of when you think of babka. This was a potato and onion pudding: a kugel.

It was a Jewish pudding unlike anything my family ever made—a savory outlier to the sweet lukshen I knew from my youth—complete with a latticework of sour cream as garnish. I couldn’t claim it as my family’s recipe—after all, my ancestors lived more than 80 miles away. But it was a delicious start to finding something I could eventually claim as my own.

The search continues

We continued our journey north, having lunch in the town of Sejny, home to a yeshiva, the White Shul, and a Lithuanian restaurant serving kugelis, a potato kugel often made with bacon fat.

It smelled great and looked tempting, but as a kosher-observant person, I would not try it. I imagine it’s reminiscent of an equally inimitable schmaltzy kugel—made with rendered chicken or goose fat instead of the more contemporary butter, oils, and margarines—another delicacy I have never sampled because I was raised in a world of “lite” sweet kugels, a world that tried to eschew cholesterol.

I continued traveling in the region, and though I ate lot of pickles and smoked fish and fell in love with black bread, I found no more Jewish puddings. I was no closer to identifying a kugel of my own, much less identifying what I was going to do with rest of my life.

I admit I was lost. I had post-graduation angst. I was living at my parents’ house with no idea about my future. I was unemployed and didn’t know what else to explore.

A few weeks after my summer travels, I headed to New York to attend a workshop on contemporary Jewish food culture that included historical discussions, archival visits, cooking lessons, and encounters at eateries of all sorts.

First, though, participants had to introduce ourselves to one another. “Hi, I’m Avery Robinson from Detroit, Michigan. I just finished a master’s at the University of Michigan in Jewish American culinary history through the lens of kugel.”

An hour later, and 21 other much more impressive self-descriptions later, we ventured to our first meal. In a private room at Bar Bolonat, Sydney, another conference attendee, asked me if I am related to some other Detroit Robinsons. I am; they are my father’s aunt and uncle. Apparently, Sydney and I are cousins.

And, as you’d expect at a food conference, we started talking about family recipes.

Family recipes! My heart soared.

A family recipe at last

As far as I knew, there weren’t any. Sydney explained that her great-grandmother Minnie, a sister to my great-grandmother, was the cook in the family. Her recipes were central to her family’s identity. Lacto-fermented pickles, for example, were so important in my cousin Sydney’s life that she made batches of them as wedding favors for all of her wedding guests.

Now I have a lacto-fermented pickle recipe! And it’s from kin!

Later in the week, I learned that it wasn’t just pickles that survived the family’s migration to Detroit. Minnie had brought other recipes from Europe to Michigan with her.

Blintzes! A Pesach meringue! Mandelbrodt! And kugel!

Finally, a kugel recipe to call my own. Having read thousands of recipes for kugel, nothing has felt anywhere near as right as this one.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:21 says, “Without bread, there is no Torah.” For my family, this is our bread, our Torah. Spending time in my family’s shtetl last summer was great—but discovering this trove of recipes was a much more tangible—and tasty—homecoming.

Minnie’s recipe for “Potato Pudding” is a work of utter simplicity, poverty, and secrets. Six ingredients are listed in four lines. If you didn’t know better, you might confuse it for instructions on latkes or roasted potatoes.

Minnie’s contemporaries would have known the potatoes were to be grated; there’d be no need to write that down. They’d have known everything went into a greased casserole dish and then into a 350- to 400-degree oven until it was done, an endpoint the cook would have to determine.

There’s no direction about salt or pepper or schmaltz, but for me, that’s not the point. This recipe—and the card it’s written out on—is a reminder of my family’s journey from Lekhovich to Detroit. Beyond my family recipe, it is my story.

The potato kugel recipe below comes from The Pleasures of Your Food Processor by Norene Gilletz. The photo is by Melissa Goodman via Flickr Creative Commons.


Crazy for knishes

Ask any Jew of European origin to describe “Jewish soul food” and you’ll likely get one of several answers. For many people, it would be chicken soup (preferably with matzo balls), also known as “Jewish penicillin.” For some it might be sweet and sour stuffed cabbage, or roast brisket.

But for many, including author Laura Silver, the quintessential Jewish soul food is the knish (rhymes with “dish,” with both the “k” and the “n” voiced).

I can’t disagree. I have wonderful memories of my Philadelphia grandmother’s meat knishes: flaky, melt-in-your mouth pastry wrapped around onion-scented chopped beef and liver. They were heavenly.

A hand-held meal

The knish is the gustatory cognate of many hand-held, savory pastries, including the Cornish pasty, the Italian calzone, the Mexican empanada, the Middle Eastern bourekas and the Indian samosa.

Like those other pastries, knishes were popular with the working classes because they were inexpensive and filling. In the early- to mid-1900s, New York was full of pushcarts and storefronts that sold them.

Knishes also figure prominently in my memories of my other grandparents, who lived in Brooklyn.

They lived in the Brighton Beach area, about a half-mile from the ocean. It was always an adventure to visit them, especially in the summer, because we could walk to the beach and boardwalk.

I was amazed to find beach vendors hawking not only ice cream and sodas but also hot knishes. The ones they sold on the beach were  filled with mashed potatoes and onions and deep fried – kind of like a McDonald’s apple pie made with potatoes. We never bought them – who wanted a hot pastry on the blazingly hot beach?

Memories of Mrs. Stahl’s

But when we walked home it was a different story. At the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, we’d pass by Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes. Mrs. Stahl didn’t sell meat knishes, but she sold just about every other kind: potato, kasha (buckwheat), cabbage, spinach, mushroom apple, cherry, cheese, cherry-cheese.

We’d always buy a bagful of knishes and take them back to Grandma and Grandpa’s for a hearty snack.

Turns out Mrs. Stahl’s, a neighborhood staple since 1935, was Laura Silver’s favorite knishery too. She would go there when visiting her Brighton Beach-dwelling grandma. After her grandmother died, eating a hot Mrs. Stahl’s kasha knish was a way for her to rekindle fond memories.

And then in 2005, Silver was heartbroken to discover that Mrs. Stahl’s had morphed into a Subway. After 70 years, the Brighton Beach landmark was gone.

Gabila’s, the primary source of the square Coney Island-style (fried) potato knish, was also gone (though you can still buy their goods wholesale or online), as were many of the knish bakeries in Mahattan’s Lower East Side.

Silver set out to do some research on her favorite food. The result is her book, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.

Silver seeks out the descendants of the great knish dynasties of yore and meets Toby Engleberg of San Francisco, and Sara Spatz of New York, granddaughterss of Fannie Stahl (the Mrs. Stahl) who give her the original potato knish recipe, reprinted below.

She also traces the development of the delicacy back to Eastern Europe. In the process she discovers that some of her own ancestors lived in the Polish town of Knyszyn (pronounced “Nish”), which may or may not have been responsible for the derivation of the word “knish.”

Silver’s book includes a list of 18 places throughout the country where you can still buy a good knish.

A dough so thin it’s transparent

The key to making good knishes is creating a very elastic dough that you can roll out so thin you can just about see through it. Then you oil the pastry as you roll it around the filling; the result will be a very flaky, crispy crust.

My grandmother sliced the log of filled dough with the edge of her hand, which not only separated the individual pastries, it also sealed the cut edge.

If you have a free afternoon and feel adventurous, try your hand at recreating Mrs. Stahl’s potato knishes. Then invite a dozen friends over to get ’em while they’re hot.