Full disclosure: I grew up in a big Irish/Welsh/Catholic/Protestant family, emphasis on Irish and Catholic. These four descriptors—and ensuing emphasis—mean that, growing up, I (almost) never received a nutritionally-sound, much less delicious, meal. I include the parentheses because sometimes a neighbor would invite me to eat at her house. It didn’t help matters that I was a maddeningly picky eater and for the entire year I was nine, refused to eat anything that wasn’t white. I consumed a lot of potatoes that year, which, come to think of it, I was probably genetically programmed to do.
I like to congratulate myself that things have changed considerably since then.
Still, when my latest craving hit me, brick-like, a couple of weeks ago, I was nine years old again. I wanted a knish. I wanted mashed potatoes wrapped in pastry: the ultimate all-white food. And, let me tell you: once the word “knish” gets implanted in your brain, there’s no shaking it. Knish. Knish. KNIIIIIISH!
Here’s the weird thing, though: I’d never eaten a knish. I had no idea what a knish actually tasted like. But, the heart (belly) wants what the heart (belly) wants. And mine wanted a knish.
The knish is surprisingly uncomplicated to make…and by uncomplicated, I do not mean quick. Give yourself an entire afternoon (although not all hands-on time) for full knish production. Be prepared to swoon over the aromas of caramelizing onions for much of that time. Ready yourself for nibbling bits (and bits and bits) of mashed potato and moaning audibly.
I followed the recipe on Smitten Kitchen pretty closely (borrowed from Joe Pastry), but I used duck fat instead of vegetable oil for the pastry dough and I added in some of my homemade lamb pastrami with the potatoes and caramelized onions. I’m not sure if this means what I made wasn’t truly a knish, but I will venture that it was knish-ish.
And if knish-ish is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Friends, we were in knish nirvana (knirvana?). Salty, peppery lamb. Hearty potatoes. Tender, savory pastry. We added some zing with coarse mustard and horseradish, and had pickled green beans and peppers on the side. It was a damn fine way to fight off the bitter chill that blew through New England this weekend.
I still have no idea what a proper knish tastes like, but I can’t wait to find out. This might require some field research on the Lower East Side. In the meantime, I’ll keep nibbling on the leftovers of this experiment and plan for another go. Next time, though, I will likely not make them so huge. Honestly: these things weighed a ton. I blame my Texas rearing for the bigger-is-better tendency.
A knish, with its tenacious stick-to-your-ribs quality, calls for cold weather; this is polar vortex food. Therefore, I officially declare the next several months as the Winter of the Knish.
Another thing that suits a cold, crisp night is this fantastic Mike Doughty tune, “I Hear the Bells,” off the divisive (but to my ears lovely) 2005 album Haughty Melodic. The song speaks with an aching hope for joy and love.
I hear the bells, they are like emeralds, and
Glints in the night, commas and ampersands
Any song that can use “ampersands” in the lyrics is all right by me.
Finally, mega-massive thanks to my dear (and exceedingly groovy) friend Nina Insler, who gave me lots of knish tips during the intermission of the Mike Doughty show last week at the super-hip Columbus Theater in Providence. Nina not only has impeccable taste in music and literature, she’s fantastically generous and she knows her knishes!