As a Catholic who grew up in St. Louis’ most Jewish neighborhood, I’m embarrassed to admit that I never really have gotten a grip on Jewish cuisine.
I recall walking my mom’s solidified chicken fat to the trio of unmarried Jewish sisters who lived across the street. But, I never could stomach the smells from the Lerner sisters’ kitchen. I dumped off the pint of schmaltz and dashed.
And, while plenty of the kids on my block were Jewish, we didn’t focus on religion. We were more interested in playing with yo-yos than talking about Yahweh.
Some 40 years later, I yearn to understand better the food traditions of this faith. And, in the current climate of divisiveness around the world, and within our own borders, it seems more important than ever to celebrate cultural and religious differences as well as our commonalities.
Hanukkah begins Dec. 2. The eight-day Festival of Lights seemed as good a time as any to roll up my sleeves and get enlightened while standing next to a Jewish chef at a hot stove.
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It was pouring rain as I ran from the parking lot at 227 Sandy Springs Place and into the dry confines of Bogartz Food Artz. The newly opened restaurant is a venture by chef Bruce Bogartz and his brother Scott. Although Bogartz attended college at Emory University, he only recently relocated here from Knoxville. At Bogartz, his Southern and Jewish roots are on display in many a dish.
As I walked in the door, I met Barbara Bogartz and Richard Mindel. They were there to check on their 53-year-old son, and also to snag a couple of slices of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake. The dessert is the specialty of Bogartz’s 18-year-old college daughter, Sara, who had come down from Knoxville to attend the restaurant opening.
I also shook hands with Scott Bogartz. The restaurant isn’t the brothers’ first foray together; the pair operated a food truck in Knoxville for a year. The chef joked about the irony of their biz on wheels, since the brothers aren’t mechanically inclined, and food trucks are notorious for breaking down. “I was like, ‘Dude, we do not need a food truck. We are two Jewish brothers!’”
Bruce had planned to show me how to make four dishes: smoked trout latkes, pumpkin-raisin kugel (a sweet casserole made with egg noodles), brie beignets and duck taquitos. Potato latkes and kugel are among the Hanukkah greatest hits, but beignets and taquitos?
“Hanukkah is pretty much all about the oil,” he said.
The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple at the time of the Maccabean Revolt (167 to 160 BC), against the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenistic influence on Jewish life. When the Jews sought to light the temple’s Menorah, they found that only a single cruse of olive oil had escaped contamination by the Greeks, yet, when they lit the seven-branched candelabrum, the one-day supply lasted for eight days.
Bogartz wasn’t about to mess with the oil ritual, but he wasn’t opposed to changing up form and flavors, like shaping latkes into tater tots, a wildly popular item from his food truck days, or adding pumpkin to the traditionally fruit-filled kugel, or going the savory route with brie beignets, his riff on traditional sufganiyah, aka jelly doughnuts.
As he grated the potato for the latke, he shared a few tricks. First, he uses baked potatoes, rather than raw, which make for easier grating; the mealy softness helps with binding. While matzo meal typically is used as a binder, Bogartz prefers to use rice flour, because it is gluten-free and still results in a light latke; all-purpose flour is too heavy, he said.
His version would hold rough-chopped smoked trout, sautéed chanterelles, spring onions, fresh rosemary, corn kernels and gruyere cheese. “The potato is just a vehicle to carry other flavors,” he said.
We shaped them as patties and oval tots, then put the former over heat on a saucepan and left the latter to swim in the deep fryer.
“It’s like a latke pu pu platter,” Bogartz joked as he plated them with bread and butter pickles, tomato jam and a thin horseradish sauce.
The brie beignets, another big seller for the Jewish food truck dudes, was a revelation for this home cook. A creative alternative to baked brie, the beignets are simply made by shaping bits of yeast dough around 1-inch cubes of the soft cheese and pinching the sides of the dough to secure it. Once it hits the fryer, it expands into a round, puffy ball. He plated these over a bed of arugula to soak up excess oil, and gave the plate an extra cheffy touch with dabs of red pepper jelly.
Duck taquitos held a filling of duck confit, along with a tablespoon or so of mashed potatoes, candied kumquats and shredded gruyere. Duck confit too much trouble for you? You can find it easily enough at stores these days — or just substitute dark chicken meat.
The taquitos were surprisingly easy to tackle. Once a corn tortilla is dredged in hot oil, it’s just a matter of adding the filling, rolling it up, securing it with a toothpick, and tossing it into an oil-filled skillet.
Hanukkah may not be on my social calendar, but there’s nothing stopping me from making these at home come Dec. 2, or any other time of year.
Bogartz mentioned that his Appalachian grandmother made some mighty matzo balls. Chopped chicken liver, too. If I show a bit of chutzpah, I think I can muscle my way back into that kitchen and get Bogartz to teach this gentile a few more Yiddish tricks.