Kugels with a conscience

Savory kugels, packed with cheese and eggs, but also sauteed vegetables, can be the easy answer for Shavuot.

kugel 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kugel 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the list of foods I love, few rank higher than pasta and cheese. To me, they reach their ultimate stage of deliciousness when they are baked together as a dairy-rich kugel, a perfect Shavuot dish. As a child, I felt lucky that my mother baked not only sweet kugels but tasty savory ones too, often flavored with browned onions or sauteed mushrooms. For me, the more kinds of kugel, the better. Her Shavuot kugels were enriched with cottage cheese and often sour cream as well. At that time dairy kugels were especially luscious, since full-fat cottage cheese and sour cream were the only kinds available; nobody had come up with ways of producing these dairy products in low-fat or nonfat forms. In fact, regular cottage cheese was considered healthy, diet food. Once I got to know European cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta, parmigiano and kashkaval, I found them to be wonderful enhancements for savory Shavuot kugels. Following my mother's example, I often stir cooked vegetables into the mixture of cooked noodles, cheese and beaten eggs, including Sephardi ones like eggplant, zucchini and spinach. Sometimes I layer cooked vegetables or vegetable-based sauces with the pasta like lasagne, with the filling appearing as a festive surprise between the creamy layers of kugel. Actually, pairing pasta with vegetables has long been popular in the Jewish kitchen. Noodles with cabbage is a Hungarian specialty. In the homes of Italian Jews, artichokes sauteed in olive oil embellish thin tagliolini, wrote Edda Servi Machlin in Classic Italian Jewish Cooking. With a little creativity, it's easy to turn such dishes into kugels. A scrumptious broccoli and noodle kugel enriched with sour cream appears in What's Cooking Around the World? a cookbook published in 1980 by Chug Tzameret of Ezrat Nashim in Jerusalem that features recipes from my mother and her friends. Michelle Goldstein's spinach-noodle kugel in The Kitchen KATalogue, published by Kehillat Ahavat Tzion in the Ramat Beit Shemesh area, features a tasty trio of sauteed onions, mushrooms and spinach. Her kugel is moistened with non-dairy creamer to make it parve but you could certainly use sour cream or milk for a Shavuot version. Jayne Cohen, author of Jewish Holiday Cooking, also uses vegetables to make savory noodle kugels. Her Shavuot kugel has an unusual addition - tangy leaves of sorrel (often used by Ashkenazim in a cold soup called schav) cooked with sauteed onions and added to a noodle mixture enriched with cream cheese, sour cream, milk and grated Parmesan. Incorporating nutrient-rich vegetables into these kugels serves not only to assuage my conscience; I find that the added textures and flavors of the vegetables make the kugels actually taste better. And that's saying a lot for an already-delicious comfort-food casserole of noodles, eggs and cheese. MACARONI AND EGGPLANT KUGEL WITH SWISS CHEESE Serve this hearty kugel as a main course for Shavuot or for any meatless meal, accompanied by tomato sauce if you like. I bake it in a water bath to keep its texture creamy. Makes 4 to 6 servings 450 gr. eggplant, preferably a slim, delicate one, peeled if desired 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil Salt and ground white pepper 2 Tbsp. butter 1 small onion, minced 21⁄2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour 11⁄2 cups milk cayenne pepper to taste freshly grated nutmeg 11⁄2 cups elbow macaroni 3⁄4 to 1 cup grated Swiss cheese 2 large eggs, beaten Cut eggplant in 1-cm. dice. Preheat oven to 190ºC. Butter a 5- to 6-cup souffle dish or deep baking dish. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet. Add half the eggplant cubes, sprinkle with salt, and saute over medium heat for 3 minutes. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, about 4 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Remove eggplant. Heat another 2 tablespoons oil in skillet and saute remaining eggplant. Melt butter in a heavy medium saucepan. Add onion, and saute over low for heat about 5 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a whisk. Add salt, white pepper, cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Cook over low heat, whisking often, for 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Cook macaroni uncovered in a large pan of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 9 minutes, or until just tender, al dente. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Add macaroni and eggplant to sauce and mix gently. Gently stir in cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in eggs. Spoon macaroni mixture into buttered dish. Set dish in a roasting pan and put in oven. Add enough very hot water to roasting pan to come halfway up sides of souffle dish. Bake kugel for about 40 minutes, or until it sets. Remove from pan of water. Serve hot. LASAGNE KUGEL WITH RICOTTA PARMESAN AND TOMATO FILLING Like lasagne, this sumptuous kugel is composed of layers of noodles, filling and plenty of cheese. The kugel is easier to make than traditional lasagne because there is no need to dry the noodles individually after pre-cooking them. You can assemble it a day ahead, ready for baking, and keep it covered in the refrigerator. Makes 6 to 8 servings Hearty Tomato Filling (see next recipe) 2 cups ricotta or cottage cheese 3⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese 1⁄4 cup minced parsley Freshly grated nutmeg to taste Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 large egg yolks or 1 large egg (for ricotta mixture) 12 ounces wide noodles 3 Tbsp. olive oil 2 large eggs, beaten (for noodle mixture) 225 to 450 gr. Swiss or kashkaval cheese, shredded (2 to 4 cups) Prepare tomato filling and let cool. Mix ricotta, 1⁄2 cup Parmesan, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper in a bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning; mixture should be flavored generously with nutmeg. Add egg yolks and mix well. Cook noodles uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes or until just tender but firmer than usual. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Add beaten eggs and toss to coat. Preheat oven to 190ºC. Grease a 33 x 23 x 5 cm. baking dish. Spoon 1 cup tomato filling on bottom of dish and spread evenly with spatula. Top with 1⁄4 of noodle mixture. Sprinkle with 1⁄3 of shredded Swiss cheese. Top with another 1⁄4 of noodle mixture. Top with all of ricotta mixture by spoonfuls; carefully spread it evenly. Top with another 1⁄4 of noodle mixture, then with 1 cup tomato filling. Sprinkle with another 1⁄3 of shredded Swiss cheese. Top with remaining noodle mixture. Spoon remaining tomato filling over top. Sprinkle evenly with remaining Swiss cheese, then with remaining Parmesan. Bake kugel for 30 to 40 minutes or until bubbling and lightly browned. Let stand 5 minutes in a warm place before serving. HEARTY TOMATO FILLING Using ground "meat" made of soy turns tomato sauce into a satisfying filling for lasagne kugel. If your soy meat comes as dry granules, combine them with hot water following the package directions to hydrate them, then weigh them to use in the filling. Instead of soy, you can use an equal weight of finely chopped mushrooms. 6 to 8 servings 2 or 3 Tbsp. olive oil 1 medium onion, minced 1⁄2 medium carrot, chopped 1 celery stick, chopped 350 gr. soy ground "meat" 900 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or two 800-gr. cans tomatoes, drained well 5 large garlic cloves, minced 1 bay leaf 1 tsp. dried leaf oregano, crumbled 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes, if desired Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 3 Tbsp. tomato paste Heat oil in a heavy medium casserole over medium heat. Add onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring, about 10 minutes or until onion is soft but not brown. Add soy meat and saute over medium heat, crumbling with a fork, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, garlic, bay leaf, oregano, pepper flakes, salt and pepper and bring to a boil, stirring. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes; if using canned tomatoes, crush them with spoon a few times. Discard bay leaf. Stir in tomato paste and simmer uncovered medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring often, until sauce is thick. Taste and adjust seasoning.n Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Sensational Pasta.