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.
I am staunchly of the belief that if you really really crave something — I mean, if you’ve tried very hard to move on or distract that part of your brain/belly that rather rudely interrupts into your thoughts most days at 4 p.m. and screams “CHOCOLATE!” or “CAAAAAKE!” and it’s just not working — you should indulge it. I have no patience for baked doughnuts or sugar substitutes, and you can probably already guess that I cannot abide anything but cream in my hot coffee. Have a salad for lunch the day before and the day after, eat the steel-cut oats for breakfast, make hearty soups a regular part of your dinner rotation, but FTLOG, if you really want that chocolate cake, please, have that chocolate cake and then enjoy every last buttercreamed crumb of it.
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.
What makes a recipe great? In my head, there’s a list of ten things and eight of them are different ways of saying the first one, which is “It works.”
- It works.
- For everyone. In every kitchen.
- Without requiring an advanced cooking degree or preexisting mastery of obscure techniques.
- Or voodoo.
- Definitely not prayer.
- It explains what you need to do in the clearest language possible.
- It anticipates where most home cooks might struggle. If something is a game-changer — i.e. it will kill the recipe if you don’t adhere closely to a step — it will warn you.
- Did I mention that it needs to work? Because it doesn’t matter what you’re making or who gave you the recipe or how transcendent it was at the Michelin-starred restaurant that night, if the recipe printed in a publication intended for home cooks doesn’t work for most of us at home, it sucks as a recipe. It leads to bad meals, bad moods and take-out. A recipe flop is about the worst way to spend your limited free time. It is a 100% guarantee that you’re not going to feel like cooking next time you have a chance.
As someone who claims that her favorite food on earth is artichokes, it’s strange that this cooking website boasts so few recipes that feature them, that the last one was over 5 years ago, and I came to the conclusion years later that I liked it better without the artichokes. Something is not adding up. But while I like to believe that I cook what I want — it’s all about me, me, me, baby — and not solely that which will please a real or imagined audience, the reality is that it’s not much fun to make food that few people get as excited about as you do. It would be like inviting everyone you knew to a viewing party on the latest Science Channel documentary on, say, how rolling luggage is made only to find that all of your friends were simultaneously, apologetically busy that night. (WTH, you want us to return to the dark ages of lifting luggage by hand?)
I was going to offer today a kind of loose apology. “Sorry, guys, for all of the potatoes and eggs and utter randomness of recipes this winter,” and then shamelessly go onto blame this approaching third-trimester (ack, too soon) situation with its still-unpredictable food cravings I’m in but then I realized: this is actually nothing new. There isn’t a recipe in the almost 9 years and 975-deep archives on this site that hasn’t been fueled wholly by hankerings, usually arbitrary ones. Some people have lesson plans and editorial calendars, I have whims. It’s just now I have a tiny thing — a future rock star, if the dance party from 2 to 6 a.m. last night is indication — to blame for it.
I’m pretty sure I’m the last person in the cooking-obsessed world to get Sean Brock Fever, the chef behind McCrady’s, Husk, and Minero in Charleston. Worse, this is probably a good time to admit that I was sent his first cookbook, Heritage, when it came out and rejected it on sight alone. There was something about those sleeve tattoos cupping the sacred rainbow beans, an image I’ve seen variations on countless other farm-to-table cookbook covers and magazine spreads, that put me off. Skimming the recipes didn’t always help. Your red peas, cornmeal and gold rice should be from Anson Mills, and if not, at least the cornmeal should be fresh from a gristmill. Your tomatoes should be home-canned, or at the very least, San Marzano. Your pork should be from a heritage pig, your buttermilk and goat cheese should come from a local farm, as should your Red Bliss potatoes; this is your heritage after all.