Ronnie Fein is the author of Hip Kosher. She has appeared in cooking segments on such shows as “Good Day New York.” She lives in Stamford, Connecticut.

Dairy foods for Shavuot

Blintzes, cheesecake, and kugel — all holiday favorites

June 6, 2008

Most holidays have some culinary component: turkey on Thanksgiving, chocolate on Valentine’s Day. It’s no different for Jewish holidays. On Hanukkah we eat fried foods (latkes and doughnuts); on Passover we have matzo; Purim’s specialty is hamantashen (three-cornered cookies); and so on.

For those who aren’t Jewish, Shavuot isn’t as well known as those other holidays, but among observant Jews it is a time to celebrate. It’s when we commemorate Moses’ receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. The word Shavuot (say sha-voo-ote) means “weeks,” an appropriate name because the holiday comes seven weeks after Passover. This year it begins Sunday evening, June 8, at sundown.

Shavuot is a cheese-and-dairy-eating holiday. No one really knows why this is, but there are stories galore. One is that Mt. Sinai has been referred to by many names, including one that has the same root as the word for cheese.

Another is in the spring, when fields are lushly green with grass, the animals have more to eat and therefore produce more milk.

Still another theory is that by the time the Hebrews went back to their camp after receiving the Ten Commandments, their milk had soured into cheese.

It doesn’t really matter; cheese and dairy items are traditional menu items during Shavuot. In the old days, this was the time when Grandma made blintzes: fluffy fried crêpes filled with sweetened cheese and served with a dollop of thick sour cream. Or when we got to eat noodle kugel — rich with cream cheese or cottage cheese, sour cream, and eggs — and baked so that the top crust was crunchy but the insides still moist and soft. If we were really lucky, there would be a cheesecake for dessert: tender, tangy, lush, extravagant.

Shavuot is a good time to eat cheesecake.

Fattening. High-calorie. Loaded with cholesterol.

I love all the old-fashioned foods; my grandma’s blintzes, which she baked instead of fried, could have been contest-winners. Frankly, I indulge in these old favorites on special occasions. Who among us who has feasted on blintzes could say no? Who hasn’t fallen off the diet wagon when presented with a slice of cheesecake?

And yet, for anyone looking to avoid cholesterol-and-fat-laden foods, there are delicious ways to indulge and to celebrate Shavuot, even while using cheese and other dairy products.

Yogurt helps. There are several reliable kosher brands and they are available plain and nonfat. I use nonfat yogurt in place of sour cream (or other milk products such as heavy cream) in soups, dips, pancake batter, muffins, and even on top of blintzes. My book Hip Kosher includes a recipe for Pea Soup with Mint. It’s a lovely-looking, seasonal dish (it’s on the book’s cover) that would be a nice prelude to a fish meal for the holiday; you can find fresh peas now, but thawed frozen ones are fine too. Or use it as a first course to a sandwich or salad dinner.

Yogurt also comes in handy for dessert. I can’t tell you that a bowl of plain, nonfat yogurt can ever take the place of cheesecake, but if you’re watching your diet, try some with a small amount of honey and some crumbled walnuts or toasted almonds. It’s healthy, tasty, low-cal, and celebratory in its own way.

Another idea is to serve dairy products in salads. When the weather turns warm, usually right around Shavuot, I often serve salads for dinner. Some are bulked up with meat, but in the last several years my husband and I have chosen to eat more meatless meals. I won’t suggest that lettuce and cucumber is filling enough for dinner, but grain, bean, and pasta salads are, and if you add some dairy protein, the meal becomes filling and nutritionally substantial; bulgur salad is a good example. In the recipe in Hip Kosher, I’ve paired bulgur with feta cheese. Salads like this one are so versatile you can change the ingredients and make several different recipes out of it: make the salad with barley; use thyme or tarragon instead of dill; goat cheese rather than feta.

There’s enough cheese in the mix to claim it’s a good Shavuot dish, and you’ll be saving on fat and calories too.

Third, consider low-fat cheese and dairy products. They may not be as rich and luxurious as the higher-fat versions, and some low-fat cheeses lack flavor, but for most purposes, low-fat products are interchangeable with higher-fat ones. In some cases you can add a flourish to give added taste — a slice of tomato inside a grilled cheese sandwich, a slice of pear and a sprinkle of curry powder or cinnamon (see the recipe for Grilled Cheese and Pear Sandwich in Hip Kosher), bits of fresh or dried fruit and a grating of fresh nutmeg on low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt.

And if you want to indulge in the Shavuot favorite kugel, use low-fat cream cheese or cottage cheese.

On this happy holiday that we are about to celebrate, this is just some (low-fat) food for thought.

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