After six holiday seasons outside of the US (one in Costa Rica, five in Germany), those annual December trips back to Cleveland look basically the same on paper. We alternate time spent with our respective families, and there’s a minimal amount of schlepping across town involved to ensure everyone is pleased with our visit.
We rarely do anything that’s purely selfish when in town. Once we spent a night at a downtown hotel near where we used to live, but even that ended up being for work. This year, I planned a surprise Airbnb overnight in the building next door to our last US address only for the host to ghost me on check-in day. (I got a full refund but never an explanation.) But the sudden surge of COVID cases drastically changed what that overnight would’ve looked like anyway. My planned night out at my wife’s favorite neighborhood restaurant with surprise appearances from extended family and friends warped into grabbing take-out and some beers to bring back to the Airbnb.
(If I’m honest, I’m partly spelling out the surprise I planned for posterity. I don’t do many things particularly well, but I can plan a fucking thoughtful surprise.)
At best, we get to check out a new restaurant and maybe a couple of old favorites. Even that’s been limited in recent years due to family illnesses and, in case you haven’t heard, the pandemic. But this year, I remained determined to finally stop by Larder Delicatessen and Bakery in what would’ve been a few minutes’ walk from our old apartment.
I’m generally skeptical of all things Airbnb. It’s not just the questionable things they do to cities i.e. one person buying up multiple properties in a neighborhood and renting them out exclusively to travelers. I just generally feel awkward running up and down the staircase of an apartment building, sticking out as the obvious tourist. I’d much rather be in a hotel, lumped together with my fellow ignorant travelers. To me, a city hotel is a safe space to make mistakes. Nobody expects you to know the cultural cues of a destination when you’re walking in and out of a hotel.
That said, I do from time to time pop on over to Airbnb Experiences when I’m traveling and even when I’m not. When I first moved to Berlin, I found it could be a great source for locating neighborhood interesting tours, cooking classes, and other culinary experiences. So that’s precisely what I looked for when Melanie and I planned our trip to Gdansk to celebrate our anniversary.
A lentil soup is the perfect beginner’s soup. For reasons that seem silly to me now, making soup was initially an intimidating task. There were some pretty simple, basic details that eluded me. Like, that most of a soup is just stock. Hell, I didn’t know what stock was.
Once I realized that soup is essentially stock plus seasoned veggies that you sauté, I felt free to finally shift into soup mode. To get started, I followed my wife’s lead and learned to make a simple lentil soup. Over time, I started making it my own with the addition of smoked paprika and potatoes because, well, I love potatoes. It’s the perfect merging of my Ashkenazi and Irish heritage.
The recipe is below complete with the requisite measurements. But as most home cooks will tell you, I don’t actually measure things when I cook. I listen to my gut and taste test. The key is to make sure you have enough stock for the soup. I make my own vegetable stock that can fill up my dutch oven. Although I say 4-5 cups in the recipe, I generally just pour enough stock into the dutch oven so that it almost fills it up because it’s going to reduce later on. Also, I like my lentil soup spicy so I go a bit heavier with the cayenne pepper. Play around and make it your own!
Poland in and of itself is a country that I think gets unfairly overlooked by travelers. But if you want that quintessential European aesthetic of cobblestone streets and gorgeous centuries-old buildings without lighting your wallet on fire, then you go to Poland.
Warsaw and Krakow are a couple of the first cities to come to mind (though some, unfairly I think, deride Warsaw’s old town as a Disneyland for tourists). But those towns are just the tip of the pierogi, if you will. In fact, one of the most impressive cities I’ve seen––across Western and Central Europe––is Gdansk, a seaside city where you can get your fix of Polish culinary classics alongside fresh fish and Baltic beach access.
Hankering for some pierogis, Baltic beach, and a train ride, we hopped on Deutsche Bahn Eurocity’s EC59 for a lumbering six-hour ride through western Poland and into Gdansk.
I first came across this dish flipping through Yasmin Khan’s “Ripe Figs.” In it, she has a recipe for Imam Bayildi––or “the imam fainted” for reasons few seem to know. It’s a classic Turkish mezze, not to mention simple to make. Essentially, you roast your eggplants and stuff them. Traditionally, you’d stuff them with something like tomatoes, onion, and garlic.
When I pointed this out to my wife, she reminded me that I’ve had something similar before––Greek papoutsaki.
Here’s a stuffed eggplant recipe that I’ve been making more regularly as of late. I got inspired by Yasmin Khan’s Imam Bayildi recipe in “Ripe Figs” and the Greek Papoutsakia from my wife’s side of the family. This is a very similar dish where you cut the eggplants lengthwise and scoop out the flesh so they look like little slippers before stuffing them with the cook’s choice. The main difference is that the Greek variety is typically topped with bechamel sauce like a pastitsio.
Kasha varnishkes was one of the first dishes I started cooking regularly. I call it the cacio e pepe of Ashkenazi cuisine. It’s a pasta dish with very simple ingredients. Traditionally, you just need onions, bowtie pasta, and some kasha––buckwheat groats. That’s it.
These days, Jewish cooks are zhuzhing it up a bit adding things like mushrooms and lemon juice. Me, I add broccoli––mainly because my wife loves it. But I do feel like it’s a natural addition. Plus with the parsley sprinkled on top, the dish makes me think of a simple, garden pasta dish. I could imagine throwing in some chopped or shredded carrots as well, maybe zucchini.
But the point is to keep it simple. This is one of those cultural dishes you can make on a weekday when you feel like establishing some sort of culinary connection to your roots. It’s not some massive, time-consuming dish you only whip up during a holiday meal. Kasha varnishkes is meant to be a wildly simple dish you can whip out at a moment’s notice.
Kasha Varnishkes Recipe
For my kasha varnishkes recipe, you can watch the video above or head over to Fifth Season. You’ll get my recipe using broccoli, lemon juice, and ground coriander. It’s a wonderfully fresh dish. Just make sure you get some sizeable kasha to go with it.
Are you even a Jewish home cook if you don’t have a publicly available challah recipe?
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that my challah recipe is wildly different than all of the other standard challah recipes out there. And by “standard,” I simply mean not laced with a strong flavor, like garlic, and not stuffed as is all the rage these days.
What brought me to the point of finally sharing this is that several folks commented that this recipe resulted in my best challah. The key ingredient? White whole wheat flour instead of white all-purpose flour (or Type 550 if you’re in the Deutschland).
Challah is traditionally baked with white all-purpose flour. But as I’ve gotten into baking challah over the past three years, I’ve learned a little about all of the different flour varieties out there. (Baby baker Joe had no idea there was more than one.) I still have plenty to learn. But the gist is that a whole wheat flour is going to be healthier than all-purpose flour.
Now, I don’t cook or bake purely with health in mind. And my challah is no exception. I just genuinely think it tastes better with white whole wheat flour. It’s a fuller flavor that survives on its own without any jam or cream cheese on top. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s good with just about any reasonable condiment on top.)
You learn quickly that history and how it’s told is an especially sensitive matter in the Balkans. It reminded me of traveling in places like El Salvador and Chile. People wanted to make sure that we knew their side of the story.
It’s impossible to start with the headlines you might be vaguely familiar with from the ’90s. You want to talk Tito? Milošević? Yugoslavia? Fine. But you have to eat your veggies first––2,000-plus years of Balkan history. Even when I said I was interested in learning more about Yugoslavia and its downfall in the late 20th century, the response was, “Okay, so 500 years after Christ…” referring to when Slavic tribes first started moving into the Balkans. That’s as early as anyone was willing to start the story.
If we’re going to start that far back, I better grab a snack.