nib·ble (nbl)
v. nib·bled, nib·bling, nib·bles
1. To bite at gently and repeatedly.
2. To eat with small, quick bites or in small morsels: nibble a cracker.
3. To wear away or diminish bit by bit: "If you start compromising too early . . . they nibble you to death" (People).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A sweet and savory New Year

Rosh Hashanah just blew by and soon Yom Kippur will be upon us. These are two Jewish 'High Holy Days'. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year celebration, following the lunar calendar, and happens to be one of my favorites. As a true day of celebration, Rosh Hashanah's traditional feast is marked by sweetness to encourage a sweet New Year to blossom. The holiday spans two days, and is marked by a feast served on the eve of the first day. To accentuate the sweetness of the coming year, dishes traditionally served take on a sweet  flavor note. Traditional foods to serve include apple slices in honey and sweet egg bread called Challah. Jews from around the globe serve different traditional foods for the holiday -- apples in honey, dates, jams, sweet bread and more.

In my own family (my mother is Jewish of Eastern European descent) we traditionally start our meal with apples in honey and challah. After a few basic prayers we hold a large feast for family and friends, usually a potluck. Certain items always recur. I cannot recall a Rosh Hashanah that failed to feature a Lokshen Kugel (a sweet noodle casserole), and a variation on my mother's 'festive chicken' recipe -- a breaded chicken dish soaked in a sweet sauce featuring fruits like peaches and pineapples, sweetened with honey. I also cannot recall a Rosh Hashanah in my adult life where my dishes were prepared in a timely fashion. This year was no exception. Halfway through preparing my kugel, I noticed that the sour cream I had bought mere hours earlier was blue and orange and I had to return to the store to replace it before sending the casserole into the inferno.

For years my aunt Sandee always made the kugel dish for the meal. She is a veritable master of kugel -- both varieties -- Lokshen (noodle) and Potato Kugel. Potato Kugel is typically served at Passover, when leavened foods are disallowed. Sandee makes noodle kugel for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Her version is sweet and simple. Boiled egg noodles, eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, Cinnamon and brown sugar are mixed together and baked to perfection. The dish is served hot from the oven for the dinner but is also wonderful as a cold leftover. It is something akin to a sweet lasagna.

My healthy rendition of kugel gets its sweetness from pureed roasted Butternut Squash and a touch of organic Dark Brown Sugar

As much as I love and cherish Sandee's rendition of kugel, my constant search for cultural recipes has led me to many variations the world over. It seems 'kugel' was created in Germany or perhaps Russia and known as 'keegel', where a casserole of egg noodles, eggs, sour cream and cottage cheese emerged. It made its way to Poland where raisins and cinnamon were added. In Jerusalem, caramelized sugar, black pepper and fine egg noodles accent what's known as "Jerusalem Kugel". Kugels can be made from noodles or vegetables like potatoes, zucchini and carrots and can be sweet or savory. In anticipation of the coming New Year, I created  a new kugel recipe to share with my  family. As usual, I neglected to develop the recipe before unleashing it on the masses (I  don't recommend this). Luckily for me, and them, it worked out well.

It has been my experience that festive foods in the Jewish calendar are fairly rich and sweet, and rarely super healthy. this year I wanted to preserve the sweet tradition, while strengthening the nutritional profile of the iconic dish. I constantly reinvent traditional and comfort foods in a healthy light. Healthy does not have to mean bland or uninspiring. And for a holiday hailing a sweet and happy new year, I think a healthy but delicious dish is more than appropriate.

Yin and Yang:  Egg and Dark Brown Sugar

I wanted to highlight the sweetness of traditional kugels without incorporating a ton of refined sugar, so I turned to a sweet vegetable -- butternut squash. I am also veering steadily away from conventional cow's milk dairy products whenever possible, which can be full of hormones. I have been mostly cooking with goat and sheep's milk products instead and even though I am not lactose intolerant, I find them much easier to digest. I also replaced the traditional white egg noodles with whole wheat.
Goat dairy paraphernalia: sour cream, soft cheese, and ricotta.

My body seems to be fairly sensitive to sugar, refined in particular, so I used a touch of organic dark brown sugar instead. When I eat too much sugar I tend to get quite flushed and nauseated quickly. I even experience this in a milder way when I eat white flour breads and noodles and white potatoes as they tend to spike my blood sugar. As much as I enjoy the taste of traditional kugel, I tend to walk away from the meal feeling ill. I created this sweet and savory butternut squash kugel as a healthy ode to the traditional dish. I think my version is a good one to bring to any meal -- festive or routine.

Roasted Butternut Squash, ready to mash for kugel filling

For anyone looking for a new version of kugel for this Yom Kippur, I recommend it to you. If you enjoy the savory flavor of soft goat's cheese you should add larger quantities than I did as its flavor was muted by the butternut squash puree. I hope you enjoy it and Shana Tova!

Serves a crowd
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel seed and chop the squash. Arrange on a baking sheet. Top with all the spices and oil. Toss pieces with your hands to evenly coat the squash. Bake until tender.
  2. While the squash is baking, cook the pasta to al dente following package instructions. Strain reserving 1/4 cup of pasta water. Set aside to cool. Mash or puree the cooked squash with the reserved water and 1/2 the sour cream, set aside in a bowl to cool.
  3. Beat the egg with the brown sugar in a small bowl.
  4. In a large mixing bowl gently combine the squash puree, noodles, beaten egg, remaining sour cream and ricotta cheese. Empty mixture into a casserole pan. preferably a deep rectangular cake pan or similar. Squeeze out dollops of the goat's cheese and roughly incorporate. Drizzle olive oil over the top of the mixture. Shake a few shakes of cinnamon over the top.  Bake at 375-400 for approximately 20 minutes. Serve immediately or allow to cool and refrigerate covered. Can be served warm or cold.