Iconic Ashkenazi favorites—with a modern twist—for your holidays

Chef Laura Frankel shares recipes for mushroom barley soup, brisket and kasha varnishkes.

kasha varnishkes 2 image
Kasha varnishkes

Every Jew knows that a home-cooked meal warms the heart and delights the soul. While food is important to everyone, it is extremely important to the Jewish community.  

Meals are not just a casual affair, but often are an expression of history, ritual, culture, and attitude. Each community's palate is developed by years of history, struggle, geography, and tradition. When we cook for the holidays, we are making food for friends and family, those we love. It is gift from the heart when we serve a meal.  

I love the notion of keeping old traditions alive while welcoming new traditions. For this holiday season, I hope you will consider some classic and iconic Ashkenazi dishes, comforting and familiar to so many of us.  

Mushroom Barley Soup 

Cooking for the holidays is gratifying. As summer's dainty appetites wane and the temperatures dip, everyone comes to the table hungry. 

Creamy and rich mushroom barley soup is the perfect holiday starter. Barley is a commonly used Eastern European grain and one of the oldest cultivated crops. Barley is also one of the Seven Species named in the Torah.  My version of the New York Deli classic is comforting and perfect for vegetarians, but hearty enough for meat lovers.  

Serves 6 

  • 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms 
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 ribs celery, small diced  
  • 2 medium carrots, small diced
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped 
  • 1 pound mixed mushrooms (button cremini, shiitake, chanterelle, or a mix), thinly sliced 
  • 8 cloves garlic, finely minced 
  • 2 teaspoons tomato paste 
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine 
  • 8 cups beef, chicken or vegetarian stock (preferably homemade) 
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley 
  • 2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves 
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 
  • Finely chopped parsley for garnish 
  1. Rehydrate porcini mushrooms in a small bowl with 1 cup boiling water for 20 minutes. Remove mushrooms and strain soaking liquid to remove any sediment. Reserve liquid. Chop mushrooms. 

  1. Heat a large soup pot or Dutch oven, lightly coated with extra virgin olive oil, over medium heat.  

  1. Brown celery, carrots, onion, and mushrooms in batches until golden brown. Be sure to season each batch with salt and pepper.  

  1. Add all browned vegetables back to the pan and add garlic and tomato paste. Continue cooking, stirring constantly until garlic has softened slightly and tomato paste has darkened.  

  1. Add wine, broth, barley, and thyme. Stir to combine and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer for 45 minutes until barley is tender. 

  1. Add lemon juice, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, and garnish with parsley. 

Slow-Braised Brisket with Ancho Chiles and Prunes

Nothing says "holiday" like a sliced brisket, all glistening and gorgeous, fanned out lovingly on a platter. I love that moment when the aroma of onions, garlic, and beef collide, my mouth watering in anticipation. I doubt I am the only one who thinks that a holiday isn't a holiday without brisket.

A great brisket is rich, homey, and -- yes -- fatty. I know many people like to use a first-cut brisket, but I disagree. A first-cut brisket has all the fat and the precious brisket topper called the deckle removed. Deckle means "to cover." In cooking terms, that means tender and juicy end results. 

First-cut brisket is a stringy, dry, and a selfish cut of meat. Harsh? I think not. There is no flavor! You go through the same amount of work as you would to cook a whole brisket, and yet the first-cut brisket has zero flavor. Go for the whole brisket and get beautiful, big, and bold flavor. As every home cook knows, fat equals flavor. 

I cook my brisket for 4 to 4½ hours and allow it to cool before slicing. Then, I cut thick, wobbly slices, and drape each one with rich, mahogany braising liquid. This is meat that would make Bubbe proud.  

I make my brisket a day or two ahead of serving. I strayed from the traditional brisket recipe a bit here. I added ancho chiles to my braising liquid. Dried ancho chiles are not hot or spicy, but are instead earthy, rich, and almost raisin-like, enhancing the beefy flavor of the meat. Bubbe would approve!  

Serves 10 

  • 1 whole brisket, about 8-12 pounds 
  • 2 medium yellow onions, sliced
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced 
  • 2 celery ribs, sliced 
  • 2 whole heads of garlic separated into cloves and each one smashed (You don't need to peel the cloves.) 
  • 2 cups sliced, pitted prunes 
  • 3 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded 
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste 
  • 1 bottle dry red wine such as Cabernet or Merlot 
  • 2 cups homemade or purchased chicken stock 
  • Kosher salt and pepper 

1. Preheat oven to 325°F. 

2. Place a large Dutch oven or sauté pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium -- high heat. Pat dry the brisket and season with salt and pepper. 

3. Sear on both sides until dark brown (about 5 minutes per side). Transfer to a roasting pan. 

4. Add onions, carrots, and celery to the pan and sauté until deep brown and very fragrant (about 7-10 minutes). 

5. Add ancho chiles, garlic, prunes, tomato paste, wine, and chicken stock. 

6. Cover and braise for 4 ½ hours or until a fork can be inserted and removed without resistance.  

7. Cool brisket before storing, covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. 

8. Before serving, spoon off fat from brisket and discard. Slice brisket across the grain. Strain out vegetables from braising liquid and discard. Reduce braising liquid until thick and coats the back of a spoon. Heat brisket, covered, in a 300°F. oven for up to 45 minutes.  

9. Shingle slices on a platter and spoon sauce over. 

Kasha Varnishkes 

Kasha is an earthy and fiber-filled grain. It is one of the oldest known food staples in Eastern European cuisine. Also known as buckwheat groats, kasha is popular with descendants of Ashkenazi and Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Cooking groats with rich porcini mushrooms and fresh herbs updates the classic dish by substituting vegetable stock for chicken stock. Everyone, including your vegetarians, will enjoy this rendition of European comfort food. 

Makes 6 servings

  • 2 cups bowtie pasta 
  • 1/2 ounce dry porcini mushrooms 
  • 1/2 cup schmaltz or extra virgin olive oil, divided 
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced 
  • 1 large leek, sliced thinly 
  • 1 tablespoon salt 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 
  • 1 cup kasha, preferably coarse 
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper 
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves 
  • 1 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock 
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 

1. Cook pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside. 

2. While pasta is cooking, in a small bowl soak porcini mushrooms in 3/4 cup of warm water for 10 minutes until softened. Drain mushrooms, retaining the soaking water. Mince mushrooms and set aside. 

3. In a large saucepan over medium-high, melt 1/4 cup of schmaltz or oil. Add onions, leek, and salt. Sauté until well-browned.  

4. Add mushrooms and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes until garlic is fragrant and has softened. Add kasha, pepper, and thyme sprigs and cook for 3-5 minutes to toast the kasha. Stir in stock, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.  

5. Add cooked pasta to the pan and stir together. Garnish with parsley. 

Laura Frankel is a kosher chef and author. Previously, she was the Culinary Director for Jamie Geller's Test Kitchen and Kosher Network International. Frankel is the author of two Jewish cookbooks, with a third forthcoming. She is the founder of Shallots Restaurant in Chicago, Skokie, and New York, and served as Executive Chef for Wolfgang Puck. 




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