Cauliflower "Schnitzel" from The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook


By Danielle Crittenden Frum

What Marc Chagall thought of his vegetarian meal in Vilna is not something he noted in the guest book of Fania Lewando's restaurant. Perhaps his signature was enough to signify the importance of Fania's culinary contribution to the intellectual and artistic Yiddish circles of pre-war Lithuania. Other prominent names haunt the guest book -- those of poets, writers, playwrights, journalists, painters, politicians -- although none so well known today as Chagall's.  The once thriving Yiddish high culture of Eastern Europe as recorded here would be wiped out just a few years after Lewando published her vegetarian Yiddish cookbook in 1938. As would Lewando herself.

It's easy to imagine that between the wars, serving guests or one's family a meal of cauliflower may have seemed impoverished and even humiliating.  There was no culture then of gourmet vegetarian cuisine as there is today. The offer of an all-vegetable main course would likely be anticipated as a plate of boiled turnip. This attitude was precisely one that drove Fania crazy. In her book's introduction, entitled, "To the Housewife: A Few Words and Practical Advice," she opens with an admonishment to the reader: "It has long been established by the highest medical authorities that food made from fruits and vegetables if far healthier and more suitable for the human organism than food made from meat..."

Still, even vegetarians find it creatively challenging to come up with satisfying, filling meals on a daily basis. Fania wrote her book not least to meet that challenge and prove otherwise -- as she demonstrated every day in her restaurant, and as she does in the 400 recipes she collected and published. These recipes too might have perished in the Holocaust if one of the few remaining copies of her book had not found its way into the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. There it languished until two women -- Barbara Manzur and Wendy Waxman -- found it and understood its importance. They had the book translated from the original Yiddish by Eve Jochnowitz, who also tested and modernized the recipes. Joan Nathan introduced the manuscript to the publisher. Now Fania's resonant and authorative voice can be heard again, hearkening us back to the tables of pre-war Vilna, where her ingenuity with the simplest vegetables left diners full and happy.

While there are many recipes for soups and rice/kasha dishes, including those made from fruit, I was intrigued by a section titled simply "Cutlets." My family are unabashedly meat eaters;  more and more lately, however, we are trying to eat meatless meals -- which is hard to do if you are also trying to avoid big dollops of carbs, like pasta. I skimmed through these -- "Chickpea Cutlets," "Bean Cutlets" and even "Nut Cutlets" -- until my eyes rested on a recipe for "Cauliflower Cutlets." When I was last in Israel, there was a vogue for whole roasted heads of cauliflower. Maybe this would be similar.

The main gist of Fania's cutlet recipes, as I quickly discerned, amounted to this: take a cooked vegetable, whiz it in a food processor, add eggs and bread crumbs and fry, nella scuola di vegetable latkes. Hard to go wrong with that. 
So earlier this week, I announced to my family that we were going to have a vegetarian meal a la Vilna. I bought a head of cauliflower, per the recipe. ("One head of cauliflower to feed, like, four people? Seriously?!") Secretly I had a meat back-up, ready to go, assuming contra Fania that the cauliflower so-called cutlet would mostly amount to a side. 

Like all of the recipes in the book, even with Eve Jochnowitz's updates, there's a charming -- or scary -- old-fashioned vagueness to the instructions. "Cook a cut-up large head of cauliflower in salted water and push through a food mill or puree in a food processor."Cook for how long? In how much water? And puree to what consistency?
You're just going to have to wing it. And so I did -- including adding grated fontina cheese to the mixture, and garnishing with chopped fresh parsley and lemon slices, none of which Fania specified. The result, truly, was astonishing. (I have replicated my cooking instructions below, which are more specific than Fania's.)
Served with a side salad, the "cutlets" -- which I renamed "schnitzel" -- made for more than a filling supper. Moreover you could eat two or even three guiltlessly, unlike say a veal or chicken schnitzel.  I quietly put away my meat back-up meal in the refrigerator. Fania won her point -- and also emboldened me to explore this style of eating further.

Serves four.

1 large head of cauliflower
2 tbs unsalted butter, melted, plus more for frying
4 tbs bread crumbs, plus more for breading
3 eggs
3/4 cup grated fontina or gruyere cheese
Salt, freshly ground pepper to taste
Fresh lemon slices and chopped parsley for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Trim the cauliflower and cut a large X in its stem. Cover and cook until the cauliflower is just tender, approximately 5-7 minutes. Let cool enough to handle and cut up in large chunks. 

Place the cauliflower in a food processor and chop it up into fine pieces that can be easily molded into patties. Add the processed cauliflower to a large bowl and mix in the melted butter, bread crumbs, grated cheese, and 2 eggs. Season generously with salt and pepper. Gently whisk the third egg and put it in a second bowl. Pour bread crumbs on to a separate plate. Now form the cauliflower mixture into hamburger-shaped patties, dipping each one first in the whisked egg and then the bread crumbs to coat.

Meanwhile in a large heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, melt approx. 2-3 tablespoons of butter over medium high heat. Add 2-3 patties but do not crowd them. Brown each side well and then move to a warm serving platter. Continue adding more patties to the pan and cooking them the same way, adding more butter if necessary. The amount of patties you end up depends on the size of the patties you make. Mine were about the size of medium hamburger patties, and the recipe resulted in about six. Garnish with the lemon slices and chopped parsley.

Fania suggests you serve these with stewed carrots. A fresh green salad would also work perfectly.

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