The Genius, All-Dairy Dish That Kids of All Ages Will Love
Growing up in northeastern New Jersey, I had mixed emotions when I turned five years old, went to kindergarten, and became a latchkey kid at the same time. Certainly, I was bewildered that I, the youngest of three children, was no longer enough for my mom, although I shouldn't have been. She was such a progressive thinker for her day that she was president of the League of Women Voters and once made my sister into a suffragette for Halloween.
On the other hand, I was delighted to have unfettered, after-school access to the kitchen, as was my sister. From a very young age, we'd been taught the slice-and-dice basics, and we took it to the next level on our own, paging through mom's Julia Child cookbooks for fun. With our mother employed and back in school earning a master's degree, we reveled in preparing our own after-school snacks, baking wholly unnecessary desserts, and making dinner.
We were still kids, though, so sometimes it was necessary to satisfy after-school hunger quickly so that we could play box ball with our neighbors or ride bikes before it grew dark. For this, we relied on a 50-50 mixture of cottage cheese and sour cream. Sometimes we ate this plain; other times with fruit like bananas and strawberries, as well as a little sugar; and occasionally with whatever was in the vegetable bin (cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, celery), along with a little salt.
Sweet or savory, this satisfying combination took mere minutes to make and eat. It was hard to get bored with it, given the endless variations. And leftovers were easy to store. We just put them right back into the same containers.
Recently, I recommended making this dish, which sounds fattening by today's standards but is actually filled with hunger-flattening protein, to an overworked friend who has cooked way too many pandemic meals for her children. She'd never heard of it. Was it a Jewish cultural thing, she wanted to know?
Was it? I never really believed that it was my mother's recipe, something she invented to make when she didn't feel like cooking during the humid summers. I'd seen other relatives — who kept kosher, whereas we did not — whip it up for their meat-free meals. As an adult, I've run into other food professionals who have mentioned their contact with it, albeit usually in the context of "weird" dishes they like that no one else does. Most of them were also sweet versions; I've heard about an awful lot of banana-and-brown-sugar stylings.
It turns out that the vegetable version, at least, does have a name: Farmer's Chop Suey, and before that, Jewish Chop Suey. While the latter sounds offensive now, it wasn't meant to be. Two of the earlier immigrant groups in America, the Jews and the Chinese had an outsider's affinity for each other. Jews especially loved Chinese food, and still do, so much so that Chinese restaurants are a traditional destination for us every Christmas Eve.
And so this dish was named for chopped vegetables that are likewise featured in chop suey. Variations on the vegetable theme abound, however, with inclusions ranging from cherry tomatoes to radishes to onions. Recipes for both Farmer's Chop Suey and Jewish Chop Suey come up on the Internet, especially from Jewish archives. And according to the blog Mae Food, Farmer's Chop Suey makes an appearance in three vintage cookbooks and one more modern one: Modern Kosher Meals (1934); The Jewish Sentinel Cook Book (1936); Love and Knishes (1956); and Blue Plate Specials (2001).
As far as religion goes, it was indeed popular among Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian, and Hungarian Jews for their kosher dairy meals, especially in the summertime. (It seems to be a specialty among Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews as opposed to Sephardic Jews, who generally hailed from the Iberian Peninsula, northern Africa, and the Middle East, and who ate far less dairy.)
In Mother Russia, to choose one country, the base for Farmer's Chop Suey was, and still is, made with tvorog. Russia Beyond writes that "In Russia, tvorog (quark or cottage cheese) is a childhood favorite. It is eaten fresh with sour cream or milk, as well as inside pies, buns, and pastries."
Indeed, tvorog is the standard-bearer for stuffing into classic items like vareniki (dumplings), blintzes, and syrniki (pancakes). These are all generally eaten with sour cream and are versatile, made savory for dinner with scallions or dill or sweet for breakfast with honey or jam.
Blending American-brand cottage cheese — a reasonable substitute for tvorog — with sour cream now makes gastronomical as well as historical sense, given that this combination permeates dairy-dominated Eastern European cuisines. And it's not limited to the tables of Jews, either. Pashka, for instance, is also a dish comprising both tvorog and sour cream. Molded into a pyramid with candied fruit, brandied raisins, and nuts, the sour cream-inflected cheese is a special treat to signify the end of Lent for the Russian Orthodox.
Nor is the combination of cottage cheese and sour cream limited to Eastern Europe. It's also popular in the Balkans. In fact, Croatia has a packaged product, Président Zagreb Sir i vrhnje (cheese and cream), which also breaks down the average nutritional value per 100 grams: 16 grams of fat, 7.6 grams of protein, and 2.8 grams of sugars/carbohydrates.
If you want to lighten this up, use substitutions like Greek yogurt for the sour cream, or light sour cream. If you're more interested in flavor combinations, play around with crème fraiche, Mexican crema, or mascarpone to get a different kind of tang. As for cheeses, anything somewhat crumbly will work: feta, goat, blue, queso blanco. Just keep in mind the ideal is not to minimize the cheese or blend it away; when Jews had to substitute the original tvorog, they went with large-curd cottage cheese.
Otherwise, feel free to experiment. Make it the base of your next açaí bowl. Add crunchy toppings like granola, nuts, or packaged chow mein noodles (which may have been part of the Jewish Chop Suey recipe). Put out containers and bowls of vegetables or fruits and allow the family to mix and top their own. Not only will lunch or dinner be interactive and nutritious, but it'll also be a no-heat, no-fuss way for the cook of the family to finally catch a break.