Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Vignettes from Vermont: Eat Your Heart Out, Latke

Natasha Garder Littrell,
owner of Crazy Russian Girls bakery,
Main Street in downtown Bennington

BENNINGTON -- Hey, mom, you'll be glad to know that the Crazy Russian Girl did not ruin your recipe and sully my mouth with awful latkes.

It began Friday during an exchange of messages on Facebook after she made a post announcing that this week would be Jewish/Israeli food week as part of the bakery's international cuisine series:

"Joey from Fiddlehead here. So, I'm Jewish and I take my latkes seriously. Done wrong they're awful. I've only ever used my mom's recipe, which was her mom's recipe and so on. I pass it on to you, with love, because latkes need to be made the right way with the right ingredients so using anything other than Matzo Meal ... would be a sham."


3 white potatoes
half an onion
piece of carrot
Matzo Meal
2 eggs
salt and fresh pepper

Peel potatoes, skin the onion,
clean the carrot, shred the stuff,
squirt of lemon juice

Crack the eggs and beat them
then pour into the potato mixture
maybe third to half cup of Matzo Meal
season and fry in peanut oil

Art Gallery Dude and the Crazy Russian Girl traded a few more messages about matzo ball soup and blintzes and and rugelach and other Jewish delicacies on the menu this week, which coincides with the Jewish festival of Purim -- GROGGER! GROGGER! GROGGER! Purim is the story of deliverance featuring Mordechai, Queen Esther, King Ahasuerus and Hamen the Dickhead. Just when Hamen is ready to slaughter Mordechai and the rest of the Jews, Mordechai, Esther and a bout of the king's amnesia reverse things and lead to Hamen's death -- and 75,000 of his closest Jew-hating friends. It's pretty much a commandment for Jews to get drunk during Purim. During the reading of the story, Jews boo and hiss and spin the grager (grogger) every time Hamen's name is mentioned.

The most traditional Jewish food during Purim is hamentashen. Basically, we eat the soul of the idea of Hamen. Made to represent Hamen's 3-sided hat, hamentashen are triangular pastries filled with jams and marmalades, sometimes chocolate, possibly cinnamon. The Crazy Russian Girls are using Jennifer McGettian's recipe to make hamentashen galore. If you forgot who Jennifer McGettigan is, click HERE. (Hint: she got married at the hot dog cart.)

That being said, what's wrong with serving Hanukkah's main treat -- latkes -- a few months later. There's never a bad time to eat latkes. And, well, it's Jewish/Israeli Week.

"Cool," AGD wrote during the Facebook exchange. "Let me know, and thanks for the latkes. Looking forward to them. If they stack up I'll something about them. If not, I'll forget I ever sullied my mouth with them. Ha."

"Oh the pressure, the pressure," she wrote. "You sound as bad as my mom."

They say the way to a man's heart is through his belly and at 8 o'clock this morning Natasha Garder Littrell, who has owned and operated Crazy Russian Girls bakery on Main Street since 2009, used his mom's time-tested latke recipe to win Art Gallery Dude's heart. She did good. This was the taste of latkes AGD remembers from a long time ago in Long Beach, California. This is the way latkes should taste, forevermore.

Crazy Russian Girls became a reality after heavy persuasion from her fans, which included the powers that be in from the Better Bennington Corporation. Until that point Natasha made her baked goods at home and sold them in a vending cart on Main Street.

"I didn't think I had enough experience to open a bakery," she said this morning during the 21-minute video in which she makes AGD his latkes.

She took the leap of faith because "I just wanted to do it."

Natasha Garder Littrell's ancestry is tied to Russia, Switzerland, Germany and France. She's half-Russian and half-Swiss, raised Russian Orthodox before converting to Catholicism. She's pretty sure her mom's great-grandfather was Jewish while religion on her dad's side "is a big mystery." She was the first one from her family born in the United States, and while she calls herself a "true-blood American" she quickly says that "There's no greater patriot than my babooshka, who risked her life and my dad's life to get here."

Irene Garder and her son, Leonid, walked out of Russia during World War II and wound up in Germany, then Paris, before the Tolstoy Foundation brought them to America.

"We grew up with this appreciation for the wonderful gifts that having freedom gives you," Natasha said, "but also the generations of brainwashing of don't throw food away, you don't know what it's like to be hungry, treat people the way you would want to be treated and finally be strong -- my babooshka always had a thing about women being tough, and strong, so it was a good background."

That background also gave her ideas about cuisine far and wide, aided in part by Leonid, who grew up spending summers in France. Years later he fed his family octopus one day and artichokes and snails the next. "In the back of my head I had a dream that if I opened my own place I would mimic how I ate growing up."

The Crazy Russian Girl has is taking that idea around the world, and back.

Natasha was pleased with her jerk chicken during Jamaica Week thanks to a woman who is married to a Jamaican and "sat in a chair next to me and supervised me." You can count the number Vietnamese Benningtonians on one hand yet Crazy Russian Girls celebrated the culture a few weeks ago: "A Vietnamese woman showed up and demanded to inspect the pork. She gave me her own cookbook with annotations, so I learned how to make Pho and spring rolls." Last week was New Orleans Week.

Today, to make sure the Jewish/Israeli menu featured world-class latkes, Art Gallery Dude showed up to make sure Natasha didn't ruin his mom's simple recipe that dates back to her great-grandmother's days in Odessa, Russia.

For future batches of latkes, AGD told Natasha to let the shredded potatoes drain on paper towels for 30 minutes or so. But for this demonstration he told her to expedite the process. Bottom line is that the mother of five used the right ingredients and fried the latkes till they were golden and crispy on the outside and perfect on the inside.

A dollop of sour cream on top, and what a treat for breakfast! Latkes just like mom's.

Now, as this "latke smackdown" took place in the Crazy Russian Girls kitchen at 8 o'clock on a Tuesday morning in downtown Bennington, Vermont, the heavily pierced Chris LaFountain was in the middle of browning schmaltz and diced onions in a pan, and that concoction will flavor matzo balls for the homemade matzo ball soup. Schmaltz is that stuff -- rendered chicken fat -- that settles at the top after chicken stock has cooled in the fridge overnight ...

... so if you make matzo balls without the schmaltz, you're doing it all wrong, Bubbeleh.

According to the Crazy Russian Girls Facebook page, today's menu of Jewish/Israeli food features chicken and matzo ball soup, marak kubbeh adom (red vegetable soup with bulgar and beef meatballs) and latkes with sour cream and apple sauce. The rest of the week features homemade pita, hummus, fattoush (Israeli salad), falafel and Yemeni stew.

And being Purim, there will be hamantaschen galore in the bakery. Even the ghost of Hamen would enjoy the Crazy Russian Girl's flair for Jewish cuisine. Poor Hamen.

Natasha wrote this on the CRG Facebook page today re: global cuisines:

"Whenever I'm researching new recipes, I always choose the ones that have an interesting story or a great anecdote attached. I want recipes that speak to me, that are linked to memories of their childhood and family, recipes that come from adventures in interesting places, recipes with stories that excite me and make me curious, and stories that make me laugh. I don't want to just cook a recipe from another country out of a book. I want to know and feel and taste something of the people that prepare that dish in their homes. I want to understand a little bit about their traditions and why they cook their food in that particular way with those particular ingredients. I guess the best gift my parents gave me was a relentless curiosity about food from all over the world. I've been sharing some of those dishes with you and I guess I should be sharing a bit of the story or the anecdote that made that recipe pop out of the book and make me just have to cook it. Some of those stories are going to come from all of you because so many of you have been sharing recipes, giving me advice, and bringing me hard to find ingredients. That's my favorite part of the Global Specials. I'm having great conversations with customers and fans about the food and dishes that excite them and mean the most to them."

Here are Natasha and Art Gallery Dude talking life and latkes. In case you're wondering about "Crazy Russian Girls" you'll just have to watch the entire video. It's a sweet story.