Whenever I’m away from my home in Melbourne, wherever I find myself on a Friday night, I love nothing more than to sit down with the local Jews at their Shabbat table. Ideally with some kosher meat to break the traveler’s drought.
Sometimes though, simply being a hungry-eyed, friendly stranger at a Kabbalat Shabbat service isn’t enough to attract a dinner invitation; and normally, I would have thought, a linguistically deficient stranger notable from across the room for his rivers of tropical sweat would have been distinctly unattractive.
Yet, such is the hospitality of the Jewish community of Tahiti, that one balmy Friday night almost two years ago, as I was leaving the Papeete synagogue that my fellow worshipers fought over me. I was able to decipher that much French. “Where is he sleeping?” “He can stay with me.” “But where is he eating? He can eat with us.” “No, I’ll have him.” “No – I’ll have him. Who speaks English? He doesn’t speak French, who speaks English?” Merde. (My own little embellishment) And then it was settled: “Chichiportiche, your son speaks English.” “Oui. D’accord.”
Food was also a hot topic at the URJ Biennial [URJ RAC]
Find out what happens to “Jewish” food when Eastern European Jews end up in Mexico… [WNYC]
…or San Francisco! [SF Weekly]
Growing interest in kosher organic meat gets a boost in the UK [Barnet Today]
But non-organic meat in the US will see no relief from antibiotic use [Grist]
Happy New Year!
With the New Year comes the New Year’s Resolution. Polls say 45% of all Americans make at least one resolution, the most popular of which is to lose weight. But according to Opinion Research Corporation, one out of every four people never follow through on their resolution because they set a goal they can’t achieve. I believe the whole process of goal-oriented resolutions is a bit dangerous. Goal-type resolutions set behavioral patterns that are often out of character for who we fundamentally are, and they risk our self-esteem when we miss our mark or give up. Think of it this way: If you resolve to lose 100 pounds but only lose 50, did you achieve your resolution? If you are too goal oriented, then your achievement (50 pounds!) is for naught. Resolutions based on goals are too flat. We need something deeper.
Elsewhere I wrote that the core problem of our food system is that our food has become flattened into mere objects or commodities to be consumed. The solution to this flattening is the reclamation of the depth our food represents. More than a mixture of ingredients, our food is freighted with values, memories, and political processes. When we place a morsel in our mouth we immerse ourselves into these depths. I called this process Deep Kashrut. When it comes to making resolutions for the New Year, instead of thinking of resolutions as flat goals, let’s think of them as life-adjustments to deepen ourselves.
You don’t need to see the movie “American Pie” to know that there’s a complicated, but very real relationship between food and sex. Earlier this month, an Islamic cleric in Europe called for a ban on women touching the seemingly innocuous banana and cucumber, for fear that foods resembling male sex organs would arouse them.
Even innocent cookies have been linked to such wanton behavior. Loved by Girl Scouts and other s’mores aficionados, the graham cracker was originally developed by Reverend Sylvester Graham in 1829 as a way to stifle sexual desires. And if Islam and Christianity have complicated histories conflating food with sex and repressing the desires associated with both, then it’s not surprising that the religion behind both Sigmund Freud and the plump Hebrew National dog must, too.
Not all desserts have milk or dairy products in them. But let’s be honest: the good ones do! And being health and environmentally conscious, I wasn’t about to jump on the margarine and soy-milk bandwagon to make creamy things with fake cream. So I’ve gradually adopted two strategies to address this conundrum:
I love the notion of hiddur mitzvah, this idea that beautifying a ritual object enhances and heightens the mitzvah related to that object. Hiddur Mitzvah can apply to a mezuzah, to a pair of tefillin, to a tzedakah box, to an etrog and, of course, a menorah, and it’s this principle that has brought us the fine works of Judaica art through the ages. There’s something fascinating about a religion not of minimum requirements, but of maximum aesthetics.
So here’s my question: what about a cupcake menorah?
You may think that cupcakes, which at this point have become a bizarre cultural phenomenon, are over-hyped. Well, you’re right. But I love them anyway and I love – with a convert’s zeal – Chanukah. Put the two things together and you have a cupcake menorah. It’s like a delicious and decorative dayenu. So if we’re encouraged to go the extra mitzvah mile, then why not do so with baked goods?
A popular Italian saying advises: “Dress like a Turk, and eat like a Jew.”
Jews have enjoyed an uninterrupted presence in Italy for more than 2,200 years, producing a delicious cuisine with almost endless regional variations, that profoundly affected broader Italian cuisine. Contrary to the all-too-common American assumption that most Jewish food is bland or boring, Jewish Italian cuisine tends to be seen as a delicacy by non-Jewish locals. Some of the most popular restaurants in Rome serve traditional Jewish dishes, like the famous fried artichokes.
Rome’s unofficial Christmas dessert, cassola, or a baked ricotta cheese cake, was originally a Jewish dish. In the 16th century, while some Jewish communities in Northern Italy made a fresh cheese baked sandwich-like dish sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon called pizza dolce, Roman Jews used ricotta to make large sweet pancakes cooked in a skillet. The dish was called “casciola” (from “cascio”, cheese), says Italian food historian A.Toaff in his “Mangiare alla Giudia.”
Cook the book makes “Kosher Revolution’s” Be-All, End-All Chicken Soup. Check out the recipe. [Serious Eats]
Two Jewish brothers are heating up the kitchens at some of Brooklyn’s hottest restaurants. [Jewcy]
Microbrews for Hanukkah and some Jewish beer history. Bottoms Up! [NPR]
My Hanukkah-season fixation with Brooklyn’s Dough bakery is due neither to the teeny corner shop’s amazing size-to-price proportions (ginormous donuts; a mere two bucks) nor to the selection of heartbreakingly good glazes (including but not limited to the “rich enough to stop time” earl grey and the simultaneously sweet and tart hot pink hibiscus). And while their yeast-donuts-only policy is exciting to me (a total yeast donut devotee), that’s not my reason, either.
As a person of Chinese and Jewish heritage, I have inherited two wonderful, though often divergent culinary traditions. My favorite moment in our kitchen is when the two traditions converge on Christmas Eve at our annual Dumplings of the World Festival. We gather with family friends to make steamed barbecue chicken buns, potstickers, samosas, empanadas and pierogi and whatever new recipes we decide to throw in the mix.
The potstickers, which are a staple of the festival, are made from an old family recipe from China. Last year, we added a little twist to these dumplings by morphing them into our take on Shanghai xiaolongbao, which are delicate steamed dumplings that are filled with meat and soup. To our potstickers, a soup filling component was added, and then the shape changed from a crescent into a symmetrical little pouch. They were a tasty, exciting, and slightly messy success!
On Agripas Street in Jerusalem, between the workers’ diners and the outdoor market, there is a Kurdish Cultural center. With a dwindling number of native born Kurds, each year their legacy slowly declines. Many of their descendents have naturally assimilated into Israeli culture and no longer keep the traditions of my family’s ancestors.
Sadly, the language, dress, music, folklore….the entire way of life of my ancestors is now almost exclusively confined to the pages of academic research. Food is often the last vestige of a bygone era to survive. It is what differentiates one ethnic group from another and it is also what binds them.
With the recent opening of Kutsher’s Tribeca, which bills itself as a modern Jewish-American bistro, much of the New York food world has been abuzz with talk of whether Jewish food can be gourmet. New York magazine and Chow.com took on the question this month, both citing Kutsher’s gefilte fish, which is made with poached wild halibut and topped with micro greens, as an example of the cuisine’s gourmet potential.
Food writers and avid Jewish foodies, however, seem unsure if Kutsher’s has accomplished this in this one dish — and perhaps it’s because they’re looking at the wrong food. While certain humble Jewish foods like gefilte fish, may never “go gourmet” — and arguably shouldn’t — others with more versatile ingredients lend themselves well to being elevated to gourmet status. Latkes, which at their most basic call for only five ingredients — potatoes, onions, oil, matzo meal and eggs — but exist in countless iterations fall cleanly into this category.
The winners of last night’s Third Annual Latke Festival, which pitted 17 chefs’ latkes against one another at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, proved that. The judge’s and my personal favorite, prepared by Jason Weiner from Almond restaurant, topped a classic and delicious latke with a superb house-smoked blue fish and goat yogurt. The latke was inspired by his grandmother’s recipe and his great uncle’s passion for fishing blue fish.
During Hanukkah, there’s nothing like a nice cocktail to wash down the epic amounts of fried food. Rob Corwin and Danny Jacobs, who created the popular Sipping Seder have come to the holiday rescue once again with their newest Maca-bee Cocktail, a mix of bourbon, honey syrup, lemon juice, and macadamia nut liqueur. “The Maca-bee Cocktail takes its name from a crossing of macadamia nuts (i.e., “maca”) and honey (i.e., “bee”),” they explain on their website. “It’s a bit more tongue in cheek than the drinks on our Passover list, but no less delicious.”
Their latest cocktail came about as a request from friends who enjoyed the Sipping Seder and wanted something similar for their holiday party. Corwin and Jacobs teased that “At Hanukkah we serve only flaming drinks. How’s your insurance?” While that was a joke, it did put the wheels in motion for a Hanukkah-themed drink. “We toyed around with actually putting together a list of eight flaming drinks,” says Corwin, “but it just felt too involved to be practical for most folks at such a busy time of year. Instead we decided to focus on crafting a single signature drink for the celebration. We wanted it to be accessible, seasonal and exceedingly sippable.”
The miracle of Hanukkah was not, alas, brought about by a latke. The eternal flame, it seems, was kept alive not by everyone’s favorite fried Jewish food, but by olive oil. According to historians, there can be little doubt that the oil used to light the menorah 2,200 years ago was olive oil. In ancient times it was used for everything from lighting to food to cosmetics.
Today, we honor the place of oil in our history by making fried food the centerpiece of the Hanukkah feast. No one seems to be able to say exactly why fried food, as opposed to olive oil, gets the spotlight, but it’s likely because olive oil was not available in Eastern Europe, from whence comes the latke. The next best thing, which was plentiful, would have been rendered chicken or goose fat, otherwise known as schmaltz. By frying up potatoes in schmaltz, a European Jew of modest means could make a dish that commemorated the miracle of Hanukkah closely enough.
When folks think of Israel’s reigning culinary monarch, they think of the falafel. While this might indeed be true, behind every good falafel ball is an equally delicious and every bit as loved food that is far easier, and far more nutritious: tahini. Oh the tried and true tub of tahini, lurking in an Israeli pantry near you, so often overlooked, but nevertheless, so deeply loved.
Pronounced “t’hina” (the “t” and the throaty “h” blend together that it almost sounds like “trina”), tahini is an ancient Middle Eastern paste or butter that comes to us from the sesame seed. Traditionally the seeds are hulled. Although, unhulled tahini, celebrated for its higher calcium content, is also readily available in Israel. Humble, distinct and delightfully diverse, tahini is perhaps comparable to the United States’ ubiquitous peanut butter, but without all the sugar. High in copper, manganese, magnesium, calcium, B1 and iron, and despite its high caloric numbers, tahini is most definitely a “health food.”
Like Jews around the world, Italian Jews, who make up one of the oldest Jewish communities, mark Hanukkah with a fried feast, but with their own spin. Holiday tables are covered with with dishes like fried chicken, mashed potato pancakes, olive oil fried eggplant and honey-soaked dough fritters.
Italian Jewish cuisine traditionally varies greatly by region and even community. However, some Hanukkah foods, like Pollo Fritto per Chanuka, or simple fried chicken seems to have almost universal appeal. Now, get those images of the heavy Southern American version out of your head. This rendition is marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, nutmeg, and garlic before being dredged in flour and egg (in that order) and fried. The marinade keeps the chicken moist and flavorful while the outside crisps in the hot oil.
Everything you would ever want to know about making the perfect classic latke. [Serious Eats]
If you’re looking for more innovative latke recipes, here are five. [The Kitchn]
And what to serve with those latkes? Here are some suggestions, including a delicious recipe for Orange Olive Oil Cake with Candied Walnuts. [Serious Eats]
A menorah made of chocolate that you can eat? Yeah, we’re pretty excited about it too. [New York Times]
Get that frier ready! Jewish fried treats from around the globe, one for each of the eight nights. [Philadelphia Jewish Voice]
You may not be familiar with many of the authors of this year’s top Jewish food books, but don’t let that keep you from devouring their delicious books. They preserve the recipes of the classic Jewish bakery, provide an easy primer for Persian Jewish cuisine, explore global vegetarian fare and chronicle the path of America’s only Jewish beer. Each would make a great addition to your cookbook collection or the perfect Hanukkah gift. If you’re giving them as a present, consider preparing one of the recipes or purchasing a bottle of wine or beer from the book to go along with the gift.
Hanukkah often feels like a week-long calorie splurge. Between the fried latkes, sufganiyot (Hebrew for doughnuts), and chocolate gelt, the extra calories can really add up quickly in our diets. But maybe there’s a way to enjoy the holiday’s celebration of oil and sweets a bit more healthfully? Indeed there is!
Resist the urge to deep fry. Try a baked latke recipe, and if you really are craving that extra crispiness achieved from frying, pan-fry them in a small amount of oil and then finish them off by baking in the oven.
Pack in some fiber. Instead of using white flour, use whole wheat flour to get some extra fiber into your latkes. You can also mix in other vegetables into your potato latkes, like zucchini, carrots, and parsnips, to boost the fiber and antioxidant content.
My maternal grandparents had come to America from Eastern Europe; my grandmother from Minsk, my grandfather from Riga. While the reason was religious persecution, their houses and apartments they set up felt void of Jewish rituals. But of course, they were Jewish to their cores.
Friday night dinners at their enormous penthouse near Beekman Place in New York City in the ’60s were elaborate, as were meals every other night of the week. My blond, petite Belarusian grandmother was a stickler for manners and Friday night felt more Masterpiece Classic than borscht-belt buffet. Sam, my grandparents’ chef, butler and maitre of all apartment-centric matters, created rich, decadent dishes. This warm, wonderful man, always dressed in a serious white coat, was constantly thrilling us by putting a down-home spin on my grandmother’s sophisticated menu — especially desserts.