By my bedside at any given time, I have two or three books on rotation. Currently one of those books is Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach. The main idea is simple, but often overlooked: good food comes from good ingredients. In today’s world, how many of us know to store an onion, or a potato, a peach, or a pear? Do we know when fruits ripen, or even when they are in season? Can we tell when they are not, now that strawberries are always a bold, eye-popping red and peaches always a fuzzy pink? And even if the ingredient is good, which variety of pear is the best? Do we know how to core that pear? Poach it?
A practical guide to buying and cooking produce, revealing both the art and science of cooking, is what Parsons has written. And in light of Tu b’Shvat last week, the topic is natural, and easy, as we wind down. With the Jewish Arbor Day having coming and gone. I want to suggest that the holiday continue. In looking at what makes good cooking, we need to look at both the ingredients in order to understand the various ways to choose, store, and prepare them, as well as the issues that surround produce in today’s markets.
“I beg to differ…what you have made is NOT a kugel.”
This is the opening line to a comment by Jezzie in Scottsdale, AZ in a recent New York Times article, named “Kugel Challenge.” What started out as simple question to replicate a quinoa kugel featured at a dinner has turned into one of the greatest comment battles about Jewish food in a while (read: since the annual High Holiday brisket and matzo ball soup discussions).
Martha Rose Shulman, of the “Recipes for Health” column of the Times offered five recipes for healthy, alternative grain kugels for this wary reader. Naturally, “healthy” and “alternative grains” have struck some serious cords within the Jewish (or otherwise) kugel-consuming communities out there.
I have often wondered what would happen if I was able to meet the matriarchs and patriarchs of Jewish food in one place. In my mind, I imagine a council of dignified cooks, cookbook authors, culinary historians and restaurant critics, some donning aprons and carrying wooden spoons, others carrying historic Jewish cookbooks, all passionately debating the best Jewish food. In this dream, there’s smorgasbord of global Jewish food.
In reality, when five of the major thinkers in Jewish food gathered to speak at the Roger Smith Hotel Cookbook Conference’s panel “Eat and Be Satisfied: Jewish Cookbooks, Past Present and Future” last Friday the situation wasn’t terribly different from what I had imagined — minus the smorgasbord and aprons. Cookbook authors Gil Marks and Joan Nathan were joined by historian Jenna Weissman Joselit and James Beard Foundation VP, Mitchell Davis for a series of mini-lectures moderated by food historian and writer Cara De Silva.
Elaine Benes was onto something when she declared “You can’t beat a babka” in a 1994 episode of “Seinfeld” (clip below). Next to brisket and latkes, babka may be the ultimate Jewish comfort food. (For those unfamiliar, babka is yeasty, risen dough that twists around a sweet filling to create striations, or, in laymen’s terms, layers of deliciousness.) Sometimes spelled bobke, recipes for this treat have been passed down by Eastern European grandmothers throughout the Diaspora. And while it may appear as though chocolate is the traditional babka (didn’t Elaine also declare cinnamon “the lesser babka”?), the truth is that it is a decadent, twentieth century American addition.
According to Gil Marks in “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food”, babka originated in Poland or Ukraine where the word baba (similar to the Yiddish word bubbe) means grandmother. Babka is the diminutive, and the name arose either because grandmothers were the primary purveyors of this treat or because the tall, fluted pans originally used resembled folds in a grandmother’s skirt. Marks notes that the Jewish-style loaves probably came about in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to turn extra challah dough into a Shabbat treat.
Imagine removing the sweet and sticky poppy seed filling from a hamentaschen. Now, roll this into soft and light yeast dough to form a log. After baking, cut into slices, and admire the black swirl against the light pastry, a kind of Ashkanazi yin-yang delicacy. It used to be a classic Purim treat, both in my family and in Poland and Israel.
My family tradition of delicious and sweet poppy seed rolls stems from my late grandmother Rachel. Born in Poland, she made aliyah to Israel in her youth. Throughout her life, she prepared traditional Ashkenazi dishes. Her yeasted poppy seed rolls were Purim favorites, and also frequently made an appearance during the rest of the year. Even into my father’s adulthood, my grandmother baked huge batches of these pastries for Purim and packed them up to give to my father and his siblings. With Purim approaching, I decided to recreate the recipe that I had heard so much about.
As with many other Jewish holidays, the tradition of poppy seeds for Purim is rooted in symbolism. Apparently, we Jews blot out the name of the evil Haman by gobbling up poppy seed desserts. According to the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” by Gil Marks, the Yiddish word for poppy seed, mohn, is similar to the Hebrew pronunciation of the villain of the Purim story, Hamohn. Thus, the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe celebrated Purim with the poppy seed hamentaschen that are well known today, as well as poppy seed cookies and filled yeast pastries like my grandmother Rachel’s poppy seed roll.
Nowhere do form and function meet so well as in a warm bowl of cholent. The hearty Sabbath stew known by an endless array of names and flavors in Jewish communities around the world is essentially an outgrowth of two seemingly opposing forces: The Jewish laws prohibiting cooking on the Sabbath and the encouragement offered by the rabbis in the Talmud to have a hot lunch on Saturday afternoon. These dishes cook sleepily at low temperatures from Friday afternoon onward, coming together brilliantly right on time for post-synagogue feasting.
The word cholent, probably stemming from the Old French term chald/chalt meaning warm, and lent, or slow, refers to the Eastern European version of this dish. Its origins date back to the Talmudic period and possibly before, most likely becoming common in Medieval France, inspired by the French dish cassoulet. Many Jews who were expelled from France in the 14th century fled to Germany where the term for the stew was morphed into the Yiddish, cholent. Today, the Ashenazic variety of the dish generally contains potatoes, barley, meat, beans and some salt and pepper for flavor.
A mug of warm apple cider, a glass of mulled wine, or a cup of hot chocolate is the perfect thing to take off the chill as the air gets nippy and sometimes coming in from the cold isn’t quite enough to warm us up. But what do Israelis – in a country that historically doesn’t grow cocoa beans and doesn’t cook much with apples or wine – drink when the weather turns (albeit later in the season)?
Sachlav, sahlab, salep, or saloop (depending upon where you are) is the quintessential warm winter drink of the region and is particularly popular in Israel. A thick milk-based drink traditionally made with orchid tubers called sahlab in Arabic, its preparation varies from country to country. Some recipes call for orange blossom or rose water, while others add coconut and cinnamon or nuts and raisins. In Israel it is usually made into a thick but drinkable substance, while in other countries like Turkey, where it is called salep, it can be thickened into a sweet pudding that must be eaten with a spoon.
I re-joined the Hazon staff at the beginning of the summer, after a three-year stint at ADAMAH. Since then, one of my major projects has been pulling together the East Coast Hazon Food Conference (our California staff is simultaneously working on the Hazon Food Conference – West Coast).
At Hazon, people often ask about what goes into planning a food conference, particularly one that represents the New Jewish Food Movement. Our conferences are the center of the conversation about Jews, food, and contemporary life, and they must show those values, as well as talk about them. We can’t just teach, we must also do. There are a lot of questions that we ask ourselves while planning the conferences. Here are some examples of how we begin to them.
Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Gil Marks, author of the new “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” first developed the food bug when his mother told him that if he was going to keep complaining about her food so much, he should just make his own. So he did, experimenting with old and new recipes, which after rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University and a foray as a guidance counselor, led him to found the Kosher Gourmet magazine in 1986.
Marks went on to write several food-focused books including the James Beard Award-winning “Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World”.
It’s hard not to be awed by the new “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” by Gil Marks. With over 650 entries about almost every Jewish food imaginable and 300 recipes, the elaborate book spans the mundane (almonds, spinach) to the foreign (manti, a Bukharan Purim dumpling). Marks fills his reference guide with history, stories and interesting asides from Jewish communities around the world.
“To know a community is to know its food,” Marks writes in his introduction and by including a “Timeline of Jewish History” from 1230 BCE to 2010 CE, it is clear that he is attempting to create not just a history of Jews’ culinary preferences but a history of the Jewish people.
How many times have you thrown away the seeds when slicing a melon? Probably every time, unless you’re a fan of pepitada.
Pepitada is a beverage made not from the juicy flesh but from the toasted seeds of melons. A small glass of this sweet, milky drink, that is similar to Mexican horchata, is a traditional way to break the Yom Kippur fast in parts of the Eastern Mediterranean such as Greece and Rhodes.
It has a distinctly familiar yet also unfamiliar taste. With a hint of melon, the predominant flavor is a rich and toasted note reminiscent of a very light latte or a sesame confection. Tiny drops of oil from the nutrient-rich seeds dot the surface of the liquid. A little honey and just a few drops of rosewater round it out to create a refreshing and compelling beverage that will bring you back to life after hours without food or drink.
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