Pleasure Hunting / One potato, two potato, three potato, four...
In the Russian town of Motol (now known as Motal and part of Belarus), they celebrated Hanukkah with a meal in three potato-heavy acts. Recreating it now has more than nostalgic value.
"And I, your servant, crack nuts, throw the seeds into a glass of wine, and when the glass is full to the top I drink the wine with the nuts. I have a sweet tooth, if you'll excuse me."
From "Ayarati Moteleh" ("My Town Moteleh" ), Hayyim Chemerinsky, Hebrew University Magnes Press
These words - a small piece of sweet childhood memories full of forest grains, wild pears buried beneath hot embers, globules of fat, Shabbat puddings and tavchik bulbusin (a potato pudding ) - were written by Hayyim Chemerinsky toward the end of 1916, when he was on his deathbed. A cancer that had spread in his stomach consumed the body of a man of spiritual and material pleasures, who was born in the second half of the 19th century in the town of Motol, halfway between Pinsk and Minsk, and who died penniless and far from his family in a Ukrainian hospital.
He suffered terribly for four months until he returned his soul to his Creator. During that time, using just a pencil and lying on his back because of the pain, he frenziedly wrote chapters remembering the town of his childhood and youth. He left behind a series of pictures of the town and its inhabitants that are full of humor and a healthy lust for life. Chemerinsky wrote in Hebrew, but he had published most of his articles and translations in Yiddish under the pen name Reb Mordechele, and gained a strong reputation among the Yiddish writing community of the time.
A 21st century reader is amazed at the beautiful, readable and very funny Hebrew in which the work was written. Chemerinsky's friend Alter Droyanov ("The Book of Jokes and Witticisms" ) first published the book in 1922; in 1951 Dvir published a soon-forgotten edition; and in the early 21st century the book was published again, by Prof. David Assaf from Tel Aviv University's Jewish History Department. Assaf also added a nice foreword describing the vicissitudes of the author's life while painting a vivid picture of the era.
Even then, unfortunately, there was no large reading public for Chemerinsky's work. "Memoirs can be the most boring and the most exciting thing in the world," says Assaf, who specializes in the history of Eastern European Jewry in the 19th century. "Some great writers, such as Y.L. Peretz, actually often failed in the mission, while ordinary people who did not specialize in literature, or unknown writers whose names have been forgotten, wrote memoirs that are genuine literary treasures. Like this text."
It's sometimes possible to fall in love with someone born 150 years ago, whose remains have been interred in the ground for almost 100 years, thanks to the words they left behind them and the person they portray, and the fragmentary memories of those who were close to them. "A story of genius and missed opportunity," was the unjustified attitude of Chemerinsky's relatives toward the life of the man who loved to sprawl idly on the sofa, to read, eat and drink well. Occasionally he would jump up from the sofa in a frenzy, in order to write learned articles or to translate masterpieces from French, English, Russian and Polish into Yiddish.
There is nobody who loves food and the good life (and not in the saccharine sense that tacky television channels have attached to it ) who won't fall in love with this 19th-century man, born in a remote town surrounded by forests and swamps and who migrated to the big cities of his time. In his 50 years of life, the long-haired and emotional bohemian, who received a traditional religious education in his childhood, managed to become a sworn heretic, a territorialist, a passionate Zionist, a devout socialist and more.
Motol's famous native
"My home town of Motol," Chemerinsky wrote at the beginning of his memoirs, "is located in the district of Kobrin, in the Grodno region, on the border of Minsk, near the famous Minsk swamps." Prof. Assaf adds that in the 17th century, a Polish Jew, Mordechai the Gravedigger, was the only survivor in a Polish town burned down by the Swedish army. When the invader retreated, this Mordechai (Motol ) opened a small tavern. "Let's go to Motol to get a drink," the gentiles in the area used to say. The Jews added an affectionate diminutive to his name, and that's how the town that grew up around the tavern got its name. Well, that's how the legend goes, and if there isn't an iota of truth to it, it's still very appealing to drinkers and foolish romantics.
The former Polish town, now part of Belarus, was appended to Russia in the late 18th century, but because it lay in a remote area, surrounded by swamps and thick forests, throughout the 19th century it maintained a backward way of life that was typical of small Polish towns in earlier times. Motol was accessible only by boat or wagon, there were no roads or railroads, and for most of the year nobody came or went. In the summer the roads were muddy; in winter they were covered with ice. During the period when Chemerinsky grew up, Motol had about 3,000 inhabitants, two-thirds of them Catholic farmers and one third Jews.
There was only one main street in the town on the banks of the Yaselda River, lined with wooden houses surrounded by miserable-looking yards, and most of the inhabitants of the town - both gentiles and Jews - made a meager living from the forests and the rivers. Many of them worked at chopping down trees and sending logs down the river in rafts on the way to Danzig in the north or Odessa in the south, work that was not typically performed by Jews.
The most famous of Motol's sons is Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the State of Israel. The Chemerinskys and the Weizmanns were related by marriage, and Ozer Weizmann, Chaim's father, also plays an important part in the book. By some miracle, a series of writers, Talmud researchers and intellectuals emerged from the small and isolated town.
The daily life of the townspeople was determined by the seasons and the holidays of the Jewish calendar year. On Shabbat and festivals they served special foods whose taste and fragrance symbolized the cycle of life, left moments of grace in people's memories and painted their meager existence in bright colors.
On Friday night they recited kiddush over wine with wafers, honey cookies and cold compote, and enjoyed a meal of rare poultry and beef delicacies; on Shabbat afternoon they ate a cholent that had been cooking in the oven since the day before, and when the Shabbat Queen was on her way out, they had seasoned turnips served with eggs and sometimes with calf's foot jelly. At the Purim feast they would go all out and prepare huge raisin challot that required the bricks of the stove to be dismantled when they were rolled out; on Passover they prepared gefilte fish and gullets stuffed with matza meal and fat.
Spuds, they liked
Of all the holidays, Chemerinsky - who himself was born on the first night of Hanukkah - preferred the Festival of Lights and golden coins. On Hanukkah, when they finished sending the trees down the frozen river, and before the tiny town surrounded by forests white with snow was cut off from the world, the family, neighbors and friends gathered to observe the commandment of kindling the lights and giving Hanukkah gelt (money ).
When they lit the first candle they drank fine liquor from Pruzhany and ate roast duck, chunks of fat, latkes (potato pancakes ) fried in fat and, once again, potato pancakes. But on the other days of Hanukkah, when there was great joy in the house, they changed the order and ate a dairy meal. There were three acts in the Hanukkah dairy meal, and all three starred bulbusin (potatoes ), the supporting players that had been brought from the New World a few centuries earlier and became the mainstay of Europe's poor.
The modest potato-filled menu is liable to be dismissed, justly, by those living in modern times as a menu of no choice for those who often could not afford anything except for the grayish-looking tubers. But just think about the way in which contemporary chefs create a variety with numerous dishes and techniques using the same raw ingredient.
Whatever the case, reading the lyrical words and the passionate love for potatoes helps us understand easily why they became an integral part of the new Israeli cuisine, and learn how the Eastern European ancestors bequeathed to their children and grandchildren a genetic preference for potatoes.
And this is how the writer described it:
"The first bowl was full of potatoes, which this time had been boiled unpeeled, the second bowl contained pickled cucumbers in brine, the third pickled cabbages in brine - and this cabbage had not been cut and pounded like noodles but diced, a quarter of its stalk remaining on each piece - and we peeled off the cabbage leaves like onion skins and enjoyed their taste. Each had a cup of brine next to his plate from which we drank after each bite.
"To counteract the salty brine, we were now served an additional array of dishes: a bowlful of roasted potatoes whose fragrance traveled far, accompanied by a small bowl of curdled milk; a thin skin of cream on top, and below the skin beneath the cream, a single gleaming white mass."
In the third act, wonder of wonders, again potatoes. There was one dish in the world which Chemerinsky knew boiled on all six days of the week - it was like the Sambatyon (the mythical river resting only on Shabbat ), and its name was krupnik (soup ). But there's krupnik and there's krupnik, declared the gourmet passionately:
"So what was the difference between krupnik and krupnik? The 'chemical' elements were the same: water, barley groats and potatoes. In the case of ordinary krupnik, one groat chased the other in an endless expanse of water, with the mutilated potato pieces as eyewitnesses. Whereas the superior krupnik was boiled in a pot whose size corresponded to the number of diners, and three things were lavished on its preparation: fire, time and effort."
The pot was placed on the range in front of the oven, a fire was lit underneath, the talented cook mixed the barley constantly, so it wouldn't get scorched, water was added in small quantities as needed, and at the end the barley and the potatoes were combined into one smooth mixture. In order to enrich the recipe, one adds milk, butter, truffles or other forest mushrooms and in that way you get a dish that befits the righteous in the world to come.
It isn't hard to recreate Motol's Hanukkah meal. Buy some good potatoes and dried but not ancient porcini mushrooms, and you'll see that a fire of joy burns within the potatoes, and that forest mushrooms store the dark secret of the magic of their birthplace. The enjoyment of them will be complete if a saucer of sharp horseradish, sour cream and pickled cucumbers spiced with onion and dill appear on the table.
Starch Support / Potato recipes to get you through Hanukkah
Potatoes roasted in a pot on the fire without oil
Use a pot or skillet with a relatively heavy bottom and a lid (can be stainless steel ). During the roasting, the pot or skillet will get scorched but don't worry. Because there's no fat in the recipe, a light scouring after soaking overnight in water will restore the pot's shine. It's important to choose potatoes without cuts and defects.
12-18 small- or medium-sized potatoes of any type (enough to cover the bottom of the pot, or slightly more )
1 heaping tablespoon of coarse salt
Wash the potatoes without peeling them and place in a pot or skillet. Sprinkle with coarse salt (don't worry about the quantity of salt, most of it is not absorbed by the potatoes ), cover with water and a lid. Cook on a medium flame until the potatoes soften and the water evaporates. Continue to cook while occasionally shaking the pot or skillet until all the potatoes soften. Meanwhile prepare the additions (below ).
Split the piping hot potatoes, pinch in order to open slightly and add butter, sour cream, chopped scallions or chives and drip in a little olive oil.
You can also add butter with grated cheese (Parmesan, Roquefort, goat cheese or Camembert ) which melt immediately from the heat of the potatoes. You can add herring with onions. Or an egg scrambled in butter with soft cheese, as they did in Motol.
Whole potatoes in the oven
The secret is to use very large potatoes and not to prepare them in advance but to serve them immediately after removing them from the oven.
A potato for each diner
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Wash the potatoes, dry the peel and place in a flat baking pan (not too close together ). They can also be placed directly on the grate. Don't grease, don't salt and, most important, don't wrap in aluminum foil. Potatoes have to receive direct heat that enables the peel to dry and expand until it develops a crisp crust like a baguette. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Remove from the oven, cut a lengthwise slit, mash the inside a little with a fork, fill with butter and sour cream, sprinkle salt on it and serve immediately.
You can also grate in some Parmesan cheese or add chopped garlic with a little parsley or fried onion. Herring with onions is a very tasty addition.
Barley, potato and mushroom soup (krupnik )
A packet of dried porcini mushrooms
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 onions chopped into cubes, not too small
3-4 peeled carrots (optional )
5 celery stalks with leaves
3/4 cup barley
20 gm. butter
Ground white or black pepper
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
6 cups water or strained chicken soup
Soak the mushrooms in a bowl of warm water.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot and steam the chopped onions, carrots and celery in it on a low flame for 10-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove the mushrooms from the bowl and add them to the pot (save the liquid ).
Wash the barley 3-4 times in a bowl with water, until you remove the moisture. Strain well, add to the pot and turn up the flame. Add the butter, stir and fry for another minute. Season with salt and pepper.
Add water or chicken soup, the liquid from soaking the mushrooms, and the potatoes, and cook for about 20 minutes or until the barley softens but doesn't lose its shape and dissolve. The barley absorbs and thickens the soup and it may be necessary to add water during cooking.
Taste and adjust the seasoning. If you must, you can add soup powder, no more than a teaspoonful. Cook for another 2-3 minutes and remove from the heat. Serve immediately, otherwise the soup will become too thick.
To serve: Fry or roast a handful of nuts, chop them and scatter them over the soup with a tablespoon of sour cream or yogurt. A piece of toast rubbed with a garlic clove will also be a welcome addition.
The potato tavchik is the most glorious potato dish, or in Chemerinsky's words: "What can I say? I am willing to forego the most sublime dishes in the world for a single slice of tabachik." Chemerinsky did such a good job bringing tabachik back from the dead - and with the same hungry and precise way as he did for other childhood dishes - that the reader doesn't only salivate and remain hungry, but also gets a written recipe:
"We peeled potatoes and boiled them, poured out the water and mashed them with a wooden spoon, adding as much salt, eggs and fat as possible, continuing to mash until the mixture looked like thick porridge. It was placed in a well-greased clay dish. This dish, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, was placed in the oven. The dough rose a little, and its top turned into a brown crust that rose above the dish - the sign that it was ready."
He doesn't give a precise quantity of potatoes and eggs, but the amount of fat hints at the ratio between them. And the fat? In Chemerinsky's day he was referring to goose fat, chicken fat and even turkey fat, because on Passover they used to eat the tabachik in soup made from a turkey that had been fed until it was all fat. If the cooks of Motol prepared dairy potatoes for Hanukkah, we can assume that they would have used butter, as we do today.
Occasionally they would add mushrooms they'd gathered in the forest to the potato dishes, and then they dried and pickled them to preserve their flavor. When you prepare tavchik, which is actually a potato kugel whose flavor has almost disappeared from the world, you discover that its taste does not contain an iota of nostalgic sadness that sometimes accompanies the consumption of recreated dishes. Nor does the secret of its charm stem from its ability to revive an extinct culture - it's simply tasty and it gladdens the heart with pleasure and joy.
This baked dish should be prepared in a ceramic baking dish. The quantity of potatoes depends on the size of your baking dish.
8-10 medium-sized potatoes (Desiree or organic potatoes covered with earth )
80-100 gm. butter cut into cubes
Salt and a drop of black or white pepper
Spread the sides of the baking dish with softbutter and place in the refrigerator. Peel the potatoes and cut into cubes. Place in a pot, cover with water with a little salt and cook until they are very soft. Preheat the oven to 190-200 degrees centigrade.
Strain the potatoes from the cooking water, return the pot to the fire and let the remaining liquids evaporate.
Turn off the heat, add the cubes of butter and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the potatoes become a coarse puree (there is no need to turn them into a smooth puree ) and the butter is absorbed into them. Taste and add salt as needed. If you like you can also add a dash of pepper.
Beat the eggs and mix them into the puree. Transfer to the greased ceramic dish and make slashes on top with a fork. Place in the hot oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until the tavchik browns and the mixture separates from the dish. Serve immediately.
Baked potatoes and porcini mushrooms
The dish, similar to those prepared in Motol, comes out dark and golden because it has absorbed the color and forest fragrance from the mushrooms, but the recipe can also be prepared with another type of dried mushrooms. We recommend buying dried mushrooms, but not the kind that originated in the forest many years ago. You can ascertain the quality of the mushrooms by the smell. Dried mushrooms without a fragrant aroma will remain tasteless even after they are soaked.
60-75 gm. dried porcini mushrooms 1 1/2 kg. high quality potatoes 2 medium-sized white or red onions, thinly sliced 2 tbsp. olive oil Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper Leaves from 6-8 sprigs of fresh thyme 130-150 gm. butter
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Soak the mushrooms in three cups of boiling water for 20-30 minutes, strain and save the water. Rinse the strained mushrooms lightly and squeeze them out thoroughly. Peel the potatoes, halve them lengthwise, rinse and strain.
In a wide pot, heat the oil and dissolve half the butter in it. Fry the onion slices until they soften and begin to brown slightly. Add the mushrooms and the rest of the butter and fry for several minutes.
Pour the water from the porcini into the pot (so that the sand remains in the bottom of the bowl ), bring to a boil and cook for 7-8 minutes. Add the potatoes to the pot, stir, bring to a boil again and cook for 15-20 minutes. The potatoes take on the brown color of the porcini, and that's fine.
Transfer the potato and mushroom mixture with the liquids to the baking pan. Sprinkle on the thyme, salt and pepper, stir and place into the hot oven. Bake for about 30 minutes until the dish begins to brown slightly. Try to stir once or twice during the course of the baking.
At the end of the festive meals, the cooks of Motol used to serve a compote made from fresh or dried fruits, depending on the season. The loveliest description of the compote - and the book is full of appetizing descriptions of compote, of women fragrant with wine who dip wooden spoons into the pot of fruit and the chains of wild pears that shrink in the furnace - appears in the chapter devoted to the hungry Feibush, a clumsy guy whose gluttony was supernatural and served as a parable. This is what it says: "The more condensed a compote was, the better it tasted. It was put on top of the hot stove and covered with pillows and blankets to keep the steam inside. By the time it was put on the table it was boiling. It was served in a bowl which was large as the Sea of Solomon [the large basin that Solomon built in the Temple]."
Dried fruit compote
The compote can be prepared without sugar, but the sauce will be less transparent and shiny. The addition of some lemon juice and sugar brings out the pectin from the apples and thickens the compote.
We learned the method of individual cooking, with the fruits cooked separately, from the wonderful book "Schmaltz" by the Ashkenazic food researcher Shmil Holland (published by Modan ), and discovered that that's how to get a compote with a wonderful color, texture and flavor. Of course you can also add apricots and other dried fruits.
150 gm. dried apples
250 gm. prunes with pits
200 gm. small light-colored raisins
Ribbon of lemon peel or half a vanilla stick
2 cinnamon sticks 5 tbsp. cinnamon
5 tbsp. sugar
Place the apples in a saucepan, add 2 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of sugar and the lemon peel or half a vanilla bean. In another pan place the raisins and prunes, add 3 cups of water, the cinnamon sticks and 3 tablespoons of sugar.
Bring the contents of both pans to a boil, lower the flame and cook for 20-30 minutes with gentle simmering. While they are still hot, combine the fruits and the liquids into one pot. You can add a little lemon juice if you like. Cool thoroughly.
Some people soak the fruit for about half an hour in water before cooking. When you do that, you can shorten the cooking time to 15-20 minutes.
Going down the tuber
There is no question that the potatoes used in Motol were far better than those you will find today in the supermarket. They were not inflated with fertilizer and nitrate mixtures, but were grown at a slow natural pace in soil enriched with compost, so that their potato flavor became stronger. In moments of hunger and goodwill, they split them open, piping hot, and added butter, goose fat, cheese, forest mushrooms or scrambled eggs.
The varieties of potato common in Israel today (Mondial, Winston and Desiree ) are mediocre in quality, although for export we grow some of the best species in the world, such as Charlotte, which is sent to France, and Nicola, which is exported to England. Too rarely one can find export surpluses of them and of other fine varieties in farmers' markets, selected fruit and vegetable stores or on farms and organic vegetable cooperatives. Desiree, with its red peel and relatively dry pulp, is the best of the varieties commonly found in the markets and supermarkets. Winston - an oval potato with a light-colored, smooth and thin peel that was developed in Scotland and brought to Israel in the late 1970s, is the worst. When you slice it, you see that it's full of water, there's no way to fry it and it has almost no taste when cooked either.
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