In its original incarnation, this was going to be a fun and frivolous post - truly Floozie-ish. A winding tale about a ridiculous but fabulous little concoction of Jewish-style nachos, using potato latkes as the base, that was inspired by my friend and blogging buddy Daniel Saraga of The Haggis and The Herring - the culinary adventures of a nice Jewish boy and his Scottish wife.
I had written on July 30 about Totchos - nachos made with tater tots. They're unbelievable, and also unbelievably good!
Dan wrote to me:
"Walking across the office it hit me: If you can make a really thin latke (thicker than a potato chip, but not too thick - maybe made with pureed potatoes), then you've got a plate of Yiddish nachos .... Dunno if I want to even attempt it - it sounds good, but it also sounds like a heart attack on a plate."
Well, I was hooked! So we bounced ideas back and forth a bit, and decided that instead of chili or refried beans we would use cholent [CHOH-lehnt] - an iconic Jewish stew that cooks slowly over a Friday night, so that Jews can return home from Saturday morning Shabbat services to a hot meal without violating prohibitions against cooking on the Sabbath. And we decided to make it a vegetarian cholent, incongruous as that notion is (since it's traditional to battle over who gets the marrow bones that are often put into it), because we determined we should respectfully honor the dietary laws and thus prohibit any mixing of meat and dairy products despite not keeping kosher ourselves. And it's just not a proper plate o' nachos without cheese, after all.
I'm not quick-witted by any means - it's a gift I admire and envy in others. When I asked Dan what this little taste treat should be called, he immediately wrote back to me: "Well, as long as we can get Mandy Patinkin to endorse them, 'My Yiddische Nachos,' of course :-)" [YID-ih-shuh]
Dan said: "Now we've talked about it enough that I might need to actually do something about it. I might wait until December, tho." I promised to get to work sorting out some details, trying to figure out how to cook the latkes to the proper consistency, how to make a good vegetarian cholent. I wanted to be ready for Chanukkah, when latkes are the mandatory food - fried in celebratory oil as they are - which would be the perfect occasion for our dish.
I left services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 17, and went to the store to pick up a few things. I saw a package of soy chorizo and thought to myself that I should get some, precisely because I intended to work on Dan's inspired nacho notion after the Jewish High Holidays and knew I would need this ingredient for the cholent.
I got home from the store, turned on my computer, and was surprised to find an email from Dan's wife Meredith. I couldn't believe what I was reading - it made no sense, it wasn't possible. Tears started streaming, because what Meredith told me was such a horrific shock: her Darling Daniel, as she always called him, had died suddenly just three days earlier after making dinner for his family, which he loved to do. Sadly, the very heart attack Dan feared from this dish is what apparently took his life. He was only 37.
Meredith wrote that Dan had considered me a friend, which I feel was truly an honor; he was a good, good man, a great guy, smart, funny, with a heart that shone even through a computer screen. He left behind two very young sons - Jacob just learned to ride a bike this past summer, and their Jeremy isn't yet 2 - with a third baby, affectionately known as "J3," on the way. And he left behind Meredith, whom he cherished and who adored him in return. Even though Dan and I never met in the real world so that I could see his face light up when talking about them - we had bonded in cyberspace over food and Judaism - his love for his family was abundantly clear in everything he wrote.
And so, what should have been a silly post about devising a plate of Jewish-style nachos - as two friends bantered back-and-forth from Toronto to Ann Arbor over the nitpickiest, yet critical, details - has instead turned into a bittersweet tribute to my friend Daniel Saraga, without whom this recipe would not exist. He devised the idea and named it; and his combined respect for tradition, love of food, multi-cultural worldview, creativity, and distinct playfulness and humor all shine through in this delicious mishmash.
I debated whether to make these with a Moroccan influence (Daniel's heritage - he teased me when I used my traditional tea glasses to serve peanut butter pudding!) or a Mexican-ish one; instead, I decided to focus on the "Yiddische" aspect, leaning towards Eastern Europe. Dan and I had considered the difficulty of choosing a cheese, but never settled upon anything in particular.
So I am immensely grateful to Simone of Morgan and York, a lovely shop offering exceptional wines and gourmet foods, who took on my quandry and recommended a wonderful Cheddar. She gave me two choices that would honor the ban against mixing meat and dairy products (cheeses without animal rennet), and also a wide variety of others that I could use in further experimenting for my own supremely treyf ([TRAYF] = non-kosher) purposes, such as adding brisket to the cholent before topping it with cheese. (She also provided a personal tasting session for my Jeremy and me, which was so fantastic!) I also offer thanks to Eric the Cheesemonger at The Produce Station, another fabulous specialty food and wine market, who suggested Comté ([kohm-TAY] - a Swiss-like cheese) for its exceptional melting qualities. Together, the cheeses offer the ooey-gooey factor coupled with an "oomph" of flavor.
It makes me so, so sad that I didn't get to share the final concoction with Dan, that he didn't get to try it or share it with Meredith and the boys; I would have waited anxiously, after sending him the instructions, to read his report back about who looked askance, who dove right in, how many days the house smelled after frying all the latkes ... :) I smile as I contemplate it, and as I write this remembrance of my friend.
But he won't be writing to me, won't be making me laugh with his comments, won't be sharing this last stretch of the Yiddische Nachos adventure with me. And I realize that this loss for me so greatly and inconceivably pales by comparison to knowing that Dan won't watch his boys grow up, won't hold his new baby, won't grow old with Meredith.
Dan led me to this dish, and I hope he was guiding me as I prepared it. Either that, or he's shaking his head and offering up a pained, "Oy!" I hope I came close to approximating his vision.
With many, many thanks to Dan for the smiles, the laughter, the thought-provoking questions and comments, and especially for his kindness and his friendship. Never doubt my philosophy that people bond over food, even in cyberspace. The term "blogging buddy" is so woefully inadequate to describe some of the truly wonderful people I've met online, like Dan, but never had the thrill and privilege of meeting in the real world so that we could share a meal. I am so grateful for having known him.
May Dan's memory be for a blessing ....
My Yiddische Nachos
- 1 egg
- pinch of kosher salt
- pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons matzah meal
- 3/4 cup water
- 2 cups frozen hash browns
- oil, for frying
Heat 2 tablespoons oil at a time in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add batter by the scant 1/4-cupful and fry for 4 minutes per side until golden brown. Remove to a plate and continue until batter is gone.
- 1 cup dry kidney beans
- 1 cup dry pinto beans
- 10 cups + 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 2 large scallions, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 12-ounce package Trader Joe's soy chorizo
- 1 14.5-ounce can stewed tomatoes, chopped, with their liquid
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2-1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon salt-free seasoning
- 1/3 cup quick-cook barley
- 1 cup beer
Rinse the Dutch oven, then add the oil. Add onions, scallions, and red pepper flakes; cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chorizo, tomatoes, and mustard; cook for 5 more minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and cook for 5 minutes.
Place the cholent into a crockpot, and cook on "low" for 8 hours or more.
(If you prepare just the cholent, rather than the entire dish, it's a great vegan meal.)
- 4 ounces grated Comté cheese
- 1-1/2 ounces grated sharp Cheddar cheese
- sour cream, for serving