“I’ve wanted to be Jewish since I was 6-years-old,” said Sarah Simmons, founder of the culinary salon City Grit, which hosted a four-course Southern Shabbat meal last Friday. After tasting Simmons’ twist on brisket and latkes, one would believe her claim as being “the most Jewish Gentile in New York City.”
The meal was made up of fresh new takes on traditional Jewish dishes, with inspiration drawn from Simmons’ southern upbringing, Israeli cuisine, and seasonal veggies. It’s one of a few of Simmons’ reoccurring meals in City Grit, which she started in 2011 after hosting private dinners in her home for a few years and being named Food & Wine magazine’s Home Cook Superstar of 2010. Other meals in the salon include an evening of southern comfort food, a “Butts, Legs, and Sides” menu with Korean influences, and a series with guest chefs.
After an informal blessing over the challah, the first course was brought out to the 40 or so guests, which ranged from what appeared to be a group celebrating a bachelorette party to people who weren’t Jewish but love the cuisine. First up was Simmons’ take on the fattoush salad — a roasted beet puree, greens, and a buttermilk tahini made with benne seeds (sesame seeds grown in the South, according to Simmons). It was light, nutty, and refreshing. It had diners requesting more challah to sop up the excess beet puree on the plate.
I was in New York last week so I know firsthand what sort of spring the east coast has had. I was more than happy to shed my winter wardrobe and return to the balmy warmth of Israel, where spring has fully sprung. Since the growing seasons here tend to be a bit ahead of the States, I have a preview of what will be hitting American farmer’s markets any day now: artichokes, fava beans, asparagus, and the like.
I wanted to make a Shabbat meal that would celebrate springtime, a promise of what’s to come for those still shivering and seeking comfort food. So I came up with a light, healthy, clean meal bursting with the flavors of the season that can be served warm, room temperature, or even made ahead and served cold. The entire menu is parve and gluten free, so it can accommodate a variety of diets.
There are few things healthier than simple poached fish, nor easier to make. It takes about 3 minutes of prep and 5 minutes of cooking and you have perfectly cooked fish. Firm-fleshed salmon is an excellent choice for this cooking method, but halibut or cod would also work well.
I was, quite literally, born to cook traditional Shabbat dinners for large groups of hungry guests. Named for two of my great-grandmothers, I grew up being regaled with tales of their culinary abilities. My maternal great-grandmother, Pesha, was known for her Shabbat challahs, pastries and cookies. Even as adults, all of her children visited her on Friday afternoons to pick up that week’s batch of Shabbat sundries.
According to family lore, my other namesake Malya was renowned throughout 1930s Brooklyn as a hostess and entertainer. Her son and daughter-in-law, my grandparents, repeatedly told me that several women met their husbands-to-be around Malya’s dining room table. When I got married, my friends compiled a cookbook for my bridal shower, and my grandmother contributed Malya’s famous homemade blintzes, often discussed, but only once, to my recollection, reverently produced by my father in an extravaganza of oil and butter that lasted into the wee morning hours.
On a balmy afternoon in January of 1969, my mother and her family left their sprawling farm in Cuba for the promise of a new life filled with opportunity in the United States.
Like many other immigrant families, they worked hard to assimilate into the culture of their new home country. My grandfather went to work at an automobile factory, while my mother and her siblings attended school in an unfamiliar language. With a picture-perfect house in a sunny southern California suburb, they soon morphed into a seemingly typical American family — but anyone invited over for dinner would quickly realize that their Cuban traditions remained.
While her neighbors busied themselves by hosting cookouts on their backyard barbecues, my grandmother spent the better part of her day sweating over that night’s offerings, which she made with the produce from her small makeshift replica of the family’s old farm that she built in the backyard. Dinners featured classic Cuban dishes like starchy yucca smothered in sauce, cumin-scented black beans to drape over white rice, a fresh and crisp salad jeweled with plump slices of avocado, and aromatic and savory meat dishes, which slow roasted in her tiny oven — the scent wafting through the neighborhood like an unspoken invitation to come by for dinner.
Being an African-American who is a Jew-By-Choice means having to do a lot of culinary negotiations. The table is where I integrate both sides of my hyphen. The plate is a means of “locating” myself squarely in the history of both Diasporas — African and Jewish, and all the places those Diaspora’s represent from Angola and Alabama to Ashkenaz, from South Carolina and Senegal to Sepharad. Cooking is how I pull all of my parts together and articulate who I am to those who might not understand how someone like me could be culturally “possible.” Shabbat gives me an opportunity to look within and use my cooking to tell stories that friends of all backgrounds have never heard — stories of history and migration, struggle and triumph, loss and recovery.
I often serve this West African Style Brisket on Shabbat, which is inspired by recipes from Nigeria, Senegal, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. The dry spice mixture is a take on suya, a very old spice mixture from West Africa, hearkening back to the days of the medieval salt and gold trade. Certain flavors like garlic, ginger, bay leaf, and onion are common in both culinary traditions; while others like the inclusion of peppers, olive oil, horseradish, and the use of stock, point to different stops on the map as each Diaspora wound its way to North America.
Fall has settled in with its colorful leaves and a bounty of autumn-hued produce at the market. The switch of the seasons is invigorating as a cook, inspiring us with a fresh palate of fruits and vegetables to play with. Winter squash, woody herbs, root vegetables and hearty greens take center stage, just asking to be roasted, braised and served as part of dinner during the week or on Shabbat.
Sweet and nutty butternut squash is a personal favorite. This year, I’ve started adding it to everything from salads to stews. My new favorite combination is fiery harissa (a spicy North African red pepper paste) with breadcrumbs, ground walnuts and mint (recipe below). The mellow sweetness contrasts with the pleasant spice of the harissa (the heat of which can vary greatly), while the walnuts complement the nutty undertones of the squash. Add in a great mix of textures and you’ve got yourself one killer side that’s as good with roasted chicken as it is with steak, fish, or even tofu. The dish is packed with vitamin A and is also a great source of fiber and potassium and when the squash is roasted, it’s pesky tough skin becomes tender and entirely edible.
It’s also around this time of year that I move away from delicate greens and towards grains as the base for my salads like vibrant red quinoa (yes, it’s technically a seed). I toss it with whatever vegetables I have on hand for a nutritious side or light but filling lunch.
People love to ask, “what did you grow up eating?” Having a professional food writer for a mother makes this a particularly complicated question to answer. Yes, I grew up eating amazing homemade food. I have fond memories of ox tail stews and fresh pasta with sauce made of vegetables from our garden. I was undoubtedly a spoiled child when it came to food. I had the palate of a mature adult, requesting escargot on my 6th birthday. But, after all the lavish multi-coursed dinners, and made-from-scratch snacks that I was so lucky to grow up with, my most profound childhood food memory is one of the simplest dishes: roast chicken.
Every Shabbat, for as long as I can remember, roast chicken had a place at my family’s dinner table. People might have expected my mother to be kneading challah dough all day, or basting a brisket, but instead she opted for chicken every time.
Maybe she chose it because Shabbat came at the end to a very long week of taking care of two young, constantly bickering little girls. Maybe she chose it because she knew she could make an entire dinner, adding whatever vegetables or potatoes were around, in the same pan. Or maybe she chose it because not even the pickiest of eaters can resist the comfort of perfectly roasted chicken.
If Jewish chefs were rock stars, then the weekend of October 12-14 would be their Lollapalooza, a veritable festival of culinary treats and talk. As part of the NYC Food and Wine Festival, Noah and Rae Bernamoff, the minds behind the Montreal-style deli Mile End, are co-hosting a nine-course Shabbat dinner, complete with bone marrow matzoh balls, deconstructed babka, and braised lamb brisket from many of the top Jewish restaurants across the country. (As the website remind eaters, those with dietary restrictions need not apply.)
And in case you don’t get enough talk about gefilte fish and brisket there, the following day ABC Home, in conjunction with Tablet Magazine and Mile End, will host a Future of Jewish Food panel that will leave you drooling. “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons tops the list, joined by James Beard Foundation Vice President Mitchell Davis and Time Out Food and Drink Editor Jordana Rothman. Panel moderator Joan Nathan will lead the discussion about Jewish food in the home, followed by a conversation with some of the country’s top deli men, including Wise Son’s Evan Bloom and Peter Levitt from Berkeley’s Saul’s Delicatessen. But after the talking comes the best part: House-made pastrami from each of the featured delis.
The Nosher’s Shabbat recipe round-up includes a recipe for fig taleggio pizza and roasted peaches served with lavender ice cream. If you’re cooking this for Shabbat, we would love an invitation! [My Jewish Learning]
Take a tour of Jerusalem’s Machneh Yehudah market in photos. [The Kitchn]
As we opened the door of my Sephardic immigrant grandparents, Nonno David and Nonna Giulia’s Manhattan apartment, we might be greeted by the seductive sounds of Eartha Kitt singing Ushdakara, the Turkish lullaby, or perhaps Melina Mercouri’s Ta Pedia Tou Pirea. Nonno David, who had little formal schooling, spoke eight languages and often played some of his favorite music before Shabbat. I loved watching him happily dancing in the living room, getting in the mood for a splendid meal with family.
The smells of Nonna Giulia’s delectable cooking, which we all looked forward to, filled the apartment. There was usually a plate of Borekitas waiting for us — little pies filled with either spinach, eggplant or cheese, to wet our appetites before dinner. Of course, the house was immaculate, the table was set with her special Shabbat cloth and the candlesticks were ready to be lit on the living room coffee table.
Shabbat happens every week. Twenty five hours of it. That means that over the course of a year, there are 1300 hours of Shabbat for relaxing, eating, and sharing with others. At least that’s how I usually spend those hours, and for all of 2011, I decided to document those experiences, especially the eating, in a blog I called 25×52. 2011 was a big year for me; I turned 30, I had a baby, and since I knew my life would never be the same again, I wanted to document the cooking, the hosting, the impending sleeplessness, and the incredible hospitality of my community. Plus, the year started on Shabbat; everything aligned.
My year of blogging came and went. It was fun and rewarding and challenging in many ways, and it felt only right to end the project with as much panache as I started. For most of the blog, I reported on what happened at Shabbat meals without going too far out of my way to find things to write about. But, in honor of the final Shabbat of 2011, I orchestrated two incredible meals (I also decided 2012 is not the time to be bashful). I cooked my heart out, and I encouraged my friends to do the same. The results transcended my expectations. And, while some may say I have a proclivity towards over-ambition when it comes to cooking and entertaining, especially with a baby around, somehow it all came together.
I spent the first two years of my marriage begging everyone who came to my wedding for recipes. It’s how I taught myself to cook. Imagining that we had to eat something different every week, my repertoire grew quickly. My husband fondly remembers disasters like Chicken Chips (totally burnt cutlets), Banana Goo (cake under-baked and inedible), and Horrible Ugly Mess (a most delicious meatloaf that just looks horrid). But what he really wanted was brisket.
I had a very tenuous relationship with brisket. While I didn’t mind eating it once in a while, I had no idea how to make it. It may have had something to do with my mother’s incredibly frightening pressure cooker. She would drag it out once a month or so and drop some veggies, a giant hunk of meat, and who knows what else in the pot, secure the cover, put the stove on, and walk away. Sometimes, in the next few hours, tender, juicy meat with yummy gravy and vegetables would appear. Other times the damn thing would explode and leave a huge mess all over the kitchen. After getting over the shock of the noise, the dogs would go crazy trying to eat as much meat as possible before my mother ran into the kitchen and burst into tears. I learned that the pressure cooker (just like the bathroom scale) makes you cry. My brothers and I also learned that when you see a package of brisket on the counter, get out of the house.
Fridays meant one thing to me growing up: the smell of my mother’s challah. Sometimes I would come home from school, ready for the weekend, and it would already be there — that comforting aroma of bread and honey. I would quickly run to the oven where the bread was baking and check to its color. When it turned the perfect shade of golden brown, I would remove it.
Other times my mom waited for my triplet sisters and me to get home from school before she started baking. We would run upstairs to change, trading our school clothes for t-shirts that would soon be caked in flour. We would pull up benches to the island in the kitchen, and get to work.
I began sharing Shabbat meals with my husband Jeff when I was 19, while living in the dorms of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva. Each student apartment was equipped with a small kitchen and, as an aspiring cook and baker from a young age, I was thrilled to have my own cooking space. Each week I would return from the dusty shuk with a wide (and random) variety of produce and no plan whatsoever for to how to turn it into a cohesive menu.
This was during a delightfully naive and unselfconscious phase in my journey as a cook. I cannot remember questioning my culinary ability once during that year and a half in the desert. I chopped, sautéed and boiled our food into dishes that my then boyfriend was quick to declare the best he’d ever tasted. In retrospect, my food was heavy on the beans, potatoes, and cumin (Jeff smelled vaguely like New Delhi after a week of eating my vegetable soups), and my onions had not yet found that happy medium between nearly-raw and somewhat-carbonized. But I felt very adult dishing out my version of vegetarian Shabbat hamin, vegetable soup, and little apple cakes to my future husband, roommates, and anyone else who happened by, and I happily used our two little burners, electric kettle, and small toaster oven to their utmost potential.
If there’s anything that reminds me of a day’s end, it’s a hot pot of tomato sauce bubbling on a stovetop. There was often one in my home on Friday nights growing up, attended to diligently by my mother, who would stir the ground veal meatballs within gently.
Spaghetti and meatballs: the perfect Shabbat meal. My lawyer father worked brutal hours early in his career, and though we didn’t eat dinner as a family every night, on Friday we waited until he finished with work, made it through rush hour traffic, offloaded his briefcase, snapped open a bottle of beer and plopped down to eat. The meatballs would simmer away patiently, soaking up sauce and getting only more delicious as we waited.
When finished, they were spooned over bowls of whatever noodles we had in the house. Sometimes it was spaghetti and sometimes it was cappellini, but if it was linguini, my father might muster his best Felix Unger and say: “It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguini!” We’d laugh, recalling the scene from “The Odd Couple” in which Walter Matthau, at his wit’s end, throws Jack Lemmon’s plate of noodles at the wall and proclaims, “Now it’s garbage!”
“Stop picking,” my grandmother always scolded, swatting away our little hands. “There won’t be enough for everybody else.”
While waiting for the men to return from synagogue, my grandmother and all the women in our family busied themselves in the kitchen, beautifully arranging plates of food. We grandchildren stealthily poached samples from those plates, grabbing the bite-sized Syrian pastries that comprise the first course — mazza — for Sabbath and holiday meals.
“Come on, Grandma,” we begged, “at least give us the rejects.”
The way I always saw it, Shabbos dinner was a meal with a sizable reputation to uphold. It had to be not only festive, but also massive. When I was a kid, weekday dinner would involve a main dish, a side dish, maybe a salad. But a typical Shabbos meal at my parents’ house was a parade of at least seven courses.
There was the wine and challah portion of the evening, the latter accompanied by a series of sweet and savory dips (honey, hummus, guacamole, tapenade). Then there was the gefilte fish course, followed by the sweet-and-sour-meatballs-on-a-bed-of-rice course. Then came the soup course (chicken or vegetable), the salad course, all leading up to a hefty chicken (plus a vegetarian alternative) and variant sides. Then, inevitably, there was always room for more challah, which was always followed by several desserts.
Julie Powell is conked out on the sofa while the alarm clock runs down and the boeuf bourguignon burns to cinders. She leaps up, pulls the rubbery mess out of the oven, and flops down in despair. The one, the only, dish to impress famed cookbook editor Judith Jones at dinner, is ruined. She takes the next day off work to cook her braise of beef and red wine again, risking her job and her marriage to get it perfect. Our sentimental hearts throb with sympathy as we watch the culinary drama unfold in “Julie and Julia.”
At least, mine did. But as much as I wish for the fresh charm of Amy Adams as Julie, smiling up to a handsome New York butcher, I must deal with real life. I shop in Israel’s shuks — noisy, crowded open markets. My butcher is an abrupt, elderly man who answers to Shlomo. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t find bacon, the traditional first ingredient for boeuf bourguignon in the whole length and breadth of the shuk.
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.”
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.
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