Whenever I ask a room full of people what they think Jewish food is, I get a resounding “Kugel!” For many, the baked pudding — sweet or savory; noodle or potato — of European (Ashkenazic) origins instantly connotes the Jewish experience.
That’s probably true for American Jews of European descent, or anyone who’s eaten at a kosher deli. But Jews have been on the move since the first exodus 3,500 years ago, and there is a whole world of different flavors and styles of Jewish food.
With Passover soon upon us — the eight-day holiday begins at sundown April 22 — it’s the matzoh variation of this iconic dish that intrigues me. Kugels created with “the bread of affliction” can sometimes have an ersatz quality that says “I’m not the real thing.” It’s time for a makeover.
Consider first that Passover is as much about spring as it is about that ancient flight from Egypt. The holiday is, after all, one of the three agriculturally important festivals in Judaism, and occurs during Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar and a New Year for the growing season. The Old Testament is filled with references to leeks, hyssop and other herbs that appear in spring gardens and markets. It’s no coincidence that the holiday’s symbolic Seder plate consists of seasonal foods that symbolize the birth and renewal of a Jewish nation. Its elements constitute a ready-made shopping list for a fresh approach to kugel.
Options open up further when we broaden the definition of kugel to casserole. There’s an entire Sephardic (very generally put: Mediterranean) pie tradition to the matzoh kugels to explore. The medieval Sephardic double-crusted meat pie — known variously as pastida, pastel and pastilla — has inspired generations of Passover cooks to clever holiday solutions. In “The Book of Jewish Food,” Claudia Roden shares her Egyptian family’s maiena, a meat-and-matzoh pie scented with cinnamon and allspice. Edda Servi Machlin, chronicler of the Jewish cuisine of her native Pitigliano, Italy, offers us “mazzagne” — lasagna made with sheets of egg matzoh instead of egg pasta.
No matter where Jewish cooks draw inspiration, the beauty of Passover puddings and pies is that they have always been meant to be prepared well ahead (think Sabbath cooking and communal ovens) — a welcome convenience during the holidays.
For the Seder meal, I like a savory kugel that can soak up the jus of braised brisket or poultry the same way Thanksgiving stuffing, Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes do. My matzoh kugel with leeks hits all the notes: “biblical” leeks slow-cooked to sweetness, a generous splash of Seder-plate parsley for brightness; and do-ahead convenience. Who needs potatoes?
The recipe is nicely flexible. Dill, thyme or sage work well in the mix of aromatics. If you have access to green garlic, or leek or garlic chives (available at Persian, Middle Eastern and farmers markets), substitute those for about a third of the regular leeks. Keep it a vegetarian dish by using a flavorful olive oil or enrich it with roasting pan drippings. Make it luxurious with the golden fat that rises to the top of your chicken soup; or with schmaltz (poultry fat rendered with onions) and gribenes (the crispy bits that remain) that you make from the chicken skin and fat trimmings saved from your soup-making. Once the leeks have cooked and cooled, it’s a snap to throw the rest of the dish together and let it set up in the refrigerator the day before baking. It’s also perfectly fine baked a day ahead and reheated to serve.
A matzoh pie with chicken and artichokes is a great way to repurpose Seder leftovers such as roasted or braised chicken (or turkey or lamb), chicken soup, hard-cooked eggs and herbs. (You’ll need four cups of meat; consider making extra for the Seder so you can readily make this dish later in the week.) Inspired by the double-crusted Sephardic Passover pastel, this meat pie uses sheets of matzoh briefly soaked in stock to create the crust and is filled with a lemony chopped meat mixture and a layer of chopped eggs and gremolata, the classic Italian condiment of minced parsley, garlic and lemon zest. Because spring is prime artichoke season, crown the pie with sauteed artichokes. (If you can’t find baby ones, you can manage with frozen artichoke hearts. But avoid using canned.)
This casserole is so satisfying, it’s worth starting from scratch: Brown chicken parts (use mostly dark meat for succulence) or a whole chicken with onions, carrots and other aromatics in the recipe. Add water to braise the meat and produce the stock all in one pot. Then pull the tender meat off the bones to begin the recipe.
Inspired by Machlin’s meat-and-tomato-sauce mazzagne and her pesto-and-bechamel one, I came up with a striking “center of the plate” for a vegetarian Seder or anytime during Passover. Layer deep-emerald early-season sauteed greens, such as Swiss chard, spinach or nettles, with a creamy ricotta-Parmesan-egg filling and milk-soaked egg matzohs that develop a lovely tenderness in the finished dish. A bit of taleggio or fontina cheese adds an extra pop of flavor, and the whole thing is topped with more ricotta, which puffs up like a souffle during baking. The dish is elegant, hearty and easy to prepare. (If you strictly observe Passover dietary laws, you may need to make adjustments in your choice of cheeses.)
There’s even a matzoh-friendly way to re-create the beloved cottage cheese-and-sour-cream kugel that shows up in every Temple Sisterhood community cookbook — and it’s simpler to do than the original. Use crumbled matzoh instead of noodles, and crushed matzoh instead of cornflakes in the lemon-scented topping. It’s wonderful warm or cold, for a “second-day” lunch or a Sunday brunch.
I think we’re good here. One more thing before you head to the supermarket: Bypass matzoh farfel and use regular sheets of matzoh instead. Their well-done edges add an extra note of complexity to all these kugels.
Saltsman is an author, most recently of “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition” (Sterling Epicure, 2015). She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.