Among the great Ashkenazi soul food traditions — bagels, lox, chicken noodle soup, challah, brisket and its cousins, pastrami and corned beef — few are more deeply rooted in the communal psyche than kugels, or starch-based puddings that hail from southern Germany. The word kugel, meaning sphere, globe or ball, originally referred to dumplings dropped over a soup pot, the version baked casserole pans became my people’s favorite, always made in vast quantities, served on Shabbat or holidays in squares and usually shoved in the hands of unsuspecting relatives and guests in disposable foil tins on their way home. The smart ones know resistance is futile.
Side Dish Archive
Prior to last week, I only liked baked potatoes two ways and the first was so weird, I usually had the decency to keep it to myself. Many years ago, I had an internship a couple blocks from a lunch place with a baked potato sub-menu, full of odd and awesome topping combinations. My favorite involved a marinated tomato-pepper salad, avocado, cheese and — yesss — ranch dressing and it was amazing and wonderful and stop looking at me like that because I have missed and longed for it since. The second way I like baked potatoes is equally troublesome, the classic with “the works” involving heaps of cheese, butter, sour cream, bacon, chives and blood pressure medication. I no longer eat them the first way because the sandwich shop is 250 miles from here and also it has since closed; I usually resist eating them the second way because if I’m going to have all of the fat and calories of a golden, glistening and salted pile of French fries, I’d rather have them in said French fry format.
September has always been my favorite month. The grimy, relentless sauna that is New York City in August finally lifts and we can almost always count on a solid week (or more) of impossibly sunny low-humidity days that I consider my personal obligation — as happy repentance for all the above griping — to spend entirely outdoors. My best memories are from Septembers; this may sound weird, but I remember going to work on the morning that nobody knew yet would be 9/11 and thinking it was as clear-skied and gorgeous out as a day could ever be. Two years later, I met my husband on that day. Six years and a few days after that, we met our baby boy, and I distinctly remember checking into the hospital on a hot summer day and checking out three days later when it was unquestionably fall, disoriented.
I may have suddenly, and at least a month earlier than I’d hoped, reached the slightly less awesome phase of pregnancy, which I suspect is nature’s way of ensuring that despite all of the great things about gestating — thick, shiny hair! elastic-waist pants! people actually encouraging you to be lazy! — you will have little desire to stay this way forever.
It’s been 29 weeks since I first made this avocado and cucumber salad, which means two things: it predates this news, meaning that all of my theories about this kid making me crave avocado, grapefruit, and chocolate are perhaps completely bogus, elaborate projections on my part. Two, I’ve probably made it 29 times since then and never shared it with you, which is a huge shame. I’m clearly addicted to it, but every time I went to take a few photos and write it out in recipe format, I convinced myself it was too simple to make a big deal of. You know, as if what anyone has ever asked for in their life is more complicated recipes and fewer 5-minute salads worth obsessing over.
As I do every year, I woke up the morning after Thanksgiving with dueling urges to consume pie for breakfast as well as to repent with an endless sequence of brothy vegetable soups until I no longer dreamed of pumpkin cheesecake, cranberry caramel almond tarts and chocolate silk. I vowed make the wholesome side triumph this year, however, yet somewhere along my righteous path to eating kale salad for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I remembered that kale salad tastes absolutely nothing like pie and that was basically the end of that. By dinner that night, we were digging into terrifying heaps of spaghetti and meatballs at Carmine’s, followed by overstuffed chocolate cannolis. There wasn’t a ribbon of kale in sight.
I have a complicated relationship with sweet potatoes. I think they’re one of these wonder vegetables — impossible to mess up cooking, pretty consistently delicious whether you buy them freshly-dug from the farmers market or from a grocery chain, aglow with vitamins A and C and chock full of fiber. [Which I mostly think about because I’m the mother of a sweet potato junkie.] I like them in cake, sweet biscuits and pie. I like them with goat cheese and a light vinaigrette, gratin-ed with a tangle of chard, with a strange-but-addictive mix of spices and roasted in wedges, and one-bowl-meal-ed with roasted broccoli, black rice and miso sauce. But I also have all sorts of quibbles with them. They’re never crispy enough. They’re rarely savory enough — basically, if you get within 10 feet of my savory sweet potato dish with cinnamon, I go into hiding. For me, the louder the contrast between their sweet, soft nature, the happier I am eating them.