My mother is a superb cook. She was born in Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania. I have long been convinced that the reason my mother is a superb cook has exactly nothing to do with the fact she was born in Vilna. Then again, I’d neither met nor heard of Fania Lewando.
In the most memorable line of The Price—one of Arthur Miller’s most brilliant, if not most celebrated, plays—Miller has Esther say to her husband, Victor: “Just because it’s ours why must it be worthless.” She was talking about the possessions he and his brother had inherited from their just-deceased parents. But after reading The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook—Lewando’s brilliant, just-published (in English) book—it seems possible she was talking about Ashkenazi Jewish cooking.
As I taught myself to cook I thought little of my Ashkenazi heritage. I honored classic European technique, valued Asian ethnic flavor profiles and saw a lot to like in Sephardic cuisine. But Ashkenazi (and Mexican) flavors—the ones I grew up with—were ones I took very much for granted. They seemed to lack ambition.
Enter Fania Lewando, courtesy of Eve Jochnowitz and legendary Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan. Jochnowitz—the book’s translator and midwife—approached Nathan following a lecture at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester County, New York with a copy of the manuscript in hand. Nathan new what to do from there.
At one level, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook is something of a culinary and cultural time machine, giving us a window into a time and a place that no longer exists and never will again. The Jerusalem of Lithuania, Vilna was a major Jewish cultural center with robust intellectual infrastructural institutions. Lewando’s restaurant, Kuchina Dieto-Jarska Jadlodajnia was one of those institutions. More than a restaurant, it was also a gathering place where the intelligentsia discussed art, politics and storm clouds. A review of the list of restaurant guests (some included in the book) reveals luminaries like Marc Chagall and Itzik Manger, Otto Schneid and Shlome Mendelson.
But the book is more than a museum piece. It is, in some ways, a startlingly modern document. Both Kosher and vegetarian, Lewando’s cuisine was about transforming meatless meals—often a sign of mourning and suffering—into glorious celebrations of bounty, health and wellbeing. The recipes—expressed in Lewando’s unique voice (lovingly delivered by Jochnowitz) —reveal a searching mind, finding new ways to do Ashkenazi things, featuring étude-like variations on themes. Small changes in a latke’s starch, for example, yield intriguing flavor variations.
And Lewando gets there with ideas that are as current as the morning paper: “There is only a small difference in price between the best and worst produce, but in cooking there is a great difference, in taste as well as nutrition,” she wrote, in 1938.
Fania Lewando’s book is not just a historical document nor merely a collection of old—even nostaligic—recipes. It is today as it was in 1938 an introduction to a living cuisine. It is a proposal, a campaign white paper. And it is with that in mind that rather than presenting a recipe from the book I set out to offer one inspired by Lewando. It is a variation on the classic Mexican antijito, sopes: mushrooms and corn, two ways, seen through a lense of cauliflower.
The key to the dish is the sope itself. Sopes look like overly thick corn tortillas with the edges pinched up, usually topped by refried beans or meat with cheese. Here, though, I’ve replaced some of the water and corn flour with cauliflower reduced to a rice in a food processor. Doing so gives the sope a freshness that plays off well against the earthiness of the corn masa and mushrooms.
It is a dish that is very much in the spirit of Fania Lewando. It—and this marvelous book—helps me see that perhaps the reason my mother is such a good cook is because of where she comes from rather than despite it.
MUSHROOMS | CORN | GUACAMOLE
FOR THE CAULIFLOWER SOPES:
1 head cauliflower
1 cup masa harina
½ – 1 cup warm water
FOR THE FILLING:
½ cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 bulb fennel, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, diced
1 cup vegetable stock
1 cup good quality red wine
1 cup button mushrooms, sliced
1 ear corn, kernels off the cob
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup Castillo Real cheese (or other soft textured cheese)
FOR THE GUACAMOLE:
1 shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
½ tomato, skinned and chopped.
4 ripe medium avocados
2 tablespoons, sherry (or balsamic or red wine) vinegar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons, extra virgin olive oil
Several sprigs, fresh thyme
FOR THE GARNISH:
1 bunch of cilantro (optional)
Grated cotija cheese
- Prepare the Mushroom-Corn Filling Ingredients. Soak the porcini mushrooms in warm water. Meanwhile, sweat the onion, carrot and fennel in a sauce pan, covered, for five minutes. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Add in the tomato, season with Kosher salt, and continue cooking until the tomato loses its texture, about another five minutes. Add in the stock, wine and 1 cup of the porcini soaking liquid and continue cooking until reduced by half. Add in the botton mushrooms, corn kernals, woaked porcini mushrooms and cook until reduced by half again.
- Prepare the Cauliflower. Preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Trim the head of cauliflower discarding the thick hard stems. Place the remaining florets of cauliflower in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the “S” blade and process to a fine rice texture. Place the cauliflower rice in cheese cloth and squeeze to drain the liquid from the solid.
- Begin Preparing the Sopes. Combine 1 cup of the masa harina, 2 cups of the cauliflower rice and a ½ cup water in a bowl and knead to achieve a uniform dough, about a minute or two. If it is too dry add a little water, if it is too wet add a little more masa harina. Roll the dough into one large ball cover with plastic wrap to keep the dough from drying out.
- Make the Guacamole. Combine the shallots and garlic in the bowl of a food processor. Process for 10-15 seconds until finely chopped. Add the tomato and process for 30 seconds until the tomatoes have combined with the other ingredients. Add the avocados and process to as smooth a taste as possible.
- Make the Sopes. Line a hotel pan with parchment paper. Cut the masa ball into four to six smaller balls, rolling each one out with a rolling pin or clean wine bottle until you achieve thin 3 inch disks of about ¼ inch thickness each. Build up the edge around each disk (to about ½ inch around the edge).
- Bake the Sopes. Bake the sopes until they just begin to look dry, about 20-30 minutes depending on the water content of the dough (which will be more than it seems at first blush because of the water content of the cauliflower). Lightly cover the indented surface of each sope with the grated cheese and return to the oven, baking until the cheese is melted, about five minutes.
- Plate the Dish. Chiffonade the cilantro, if using. Place one sope at the center of each plate. Ladle the filling over each sope until it is just filled but not overflowing. Drizzle each sope with liquid from the filling. Garnish with the avocado puree. Top with the chiffonaded cilantro and/or cotija cheese, if using.