At the end of a winding road through a cul-de-sac in Columbus, Ohio, lived my maternal grandparents, Lillian and Marty. They were always there when we pulled up, smiling through the screened door.
My grandmother was always cooking. I don’t think I ever saw her without her apron on. I remember her mostly from behind; skinny legs protruding from sweat pants, stirring something delicious smelling in an enormous metal pot. They had raised my mother on gefilte fish, chicken paprikash, and boiled cow tongue; recipes passed down from the generations that came before them. Though she was born and raised in Columbus, she had a knack for cooking traditional Eastern European food so authentic you’d think you were dining in the shtetl.
The home she lived in with my grandfather, smelled perpetually of brisket and other stewing meats. Chopped liver was a fixture at the table; it sat in a glass bowl as casually as salt. Her meals began with chicken soup and culminated in mountains of homemade mandlebrot. I was resolute in my distaste of her plat du jours, like roasted chicken and slow cooked meats, but I held tight, pushing food around with a fork in case her famous lemon meringue pie might make an appearance. The truth was, I loved her foods but I didn’t like them. By 15, I was a hard fast vegetarian who preferred kale to kreplach. But I was so endeared by her commitment to her meals; she lived to please us and feeding us was the best way she knew how.
The kitchen walls are coated, floor to ceiling, in tiny bags of Chinese herbs, their Chinese names transliterated beneath them. In the living room the art is simple — charts of the body, the channels and meridians for acupuncture. There are enough couches to seat a family of fifteen. You don’t expect Chabadnicks to become acupuncturists. Not usually. But this is Berkeley.
Now a student at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, the walls of Daniel Feld’s home have become textbooks. It is like an old Polish synagogue, how they wrote the new prayers on the wall, only these prayers involve reading the patterns on a tongue, understanding what a hot or cold system imply, and learning, in detail, how to balance them using acupuncture needles and herbs. Think Baal Shem Tov meets Isaac Luria: the 2014 California edition.
The biggest Shabbat dinner in town is when Daniel, 25, the son of the late and well-loved Berkeley Chabad Rabbi and Mohel Chanan Feld, hosts a meal. It happens once a month in his two-story California walk-up apartment. We are asked to remove our shoes before we enter, sometimes up to 50 pairs littering the doorway to the entrance.
In a seemingly logical (and tasty) move: Brooklyn’s own Mile End Deli is teaming up with Pop-Up Shabbat, a Jewish-themed pop-up dinner series, to host bi-monthly events at new Mile End’s commissary kitchen on Pier 41 in Red Hook.
Over a year after Mile End’s kitchen/meat processing facility was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, it is entirely up and running (with the help of Fleisher’s butchers, which now shares the space). And there’s a brand new addition, too: A 1,300-square foot event space.
The first event in the space, a Russian-themed “Night Among the Tsars” Shabbat meal featuring salmon coulibiac, potato dill challah with horseradish vodka butter, and a blini flight, prepapared by chef is Boris Dubnov will take place Friday night, February 21.
Photos by Molly Yeh
I love a good fried chicken. I love schnitzel, I love katsu, I love anything fatty and breaded and crispy. If my Valentine presented me with a heart-shaped schnitzel on the 14th, I think I’d propose right then and there.
The problem is, I also love feeling good and fitting into the cute Valentine’s Day outfit that I’ve had picked out for weeks. In other words, I want my Valentine’s Day dinner to be as yummy as a schnitzel but much healthier than one.
Oven frying (baking a breaded cutlet, rather than deep frying it) is an obvious answer but I’ve never been a fan of it. With the fake fried food experience, I feel sad and cheated, and cheated is the last thing anyone wants to feel on Valentine’s Day. So… Za’atar to the rescue! It’s one of my favorite spice blends and I am a firm believer that za’atar, like chocolate, can make anything better.
Let’s also not forget that Valentine’s day falls on Shabbat this year. The amazing earthy flavor of za’atar with the crunchiness of panko on this chicken is a beautiful thing, and it is bound please a crowd for your Friday night dinner or a special date without an overwhelming amount of prep. This dish will leave you feeling great, and you may even gain a whole new respect for oven fried chicken like I did. It’s breaded without being heavy or oily and it’s paired with a sweet balsamic date chutney, to add a little extra sweetness to your night.
My love affair with roast chicken began long before I converted to Judaism. Growing up, my mother made a delicious recipe with preserved lemons that was the meal I requested on birthdays and special occasions. During college in upstate New York, my roommates and I would get rotisserie chickens from Wegman’s supermarket that we would eat with our fingers straight from the plastic containers. If I see a roast chicken on a menu, I can’t stop myself from ordering it.
Last spring, as I prepared to host my first Shabbat dinner, serving my mother’s roast chicken seemed like the perfect choice. My fiancé and I had just completed Exploring Judaism, a six-month Jewish fundamentals course for potential converts and their partners at our synagogue, and we were having our whole class, as well as the rabbi who taught us, over to celebrate. I knew the roast chicken would be a hit.
“But we’re having 20 people,” said Adam, my fiancé. “Isn’t roast chicken a bit ambitious?” It was true that to feed our guests I would somehow need to roast four or five chickens in my tiny New York City oven, in which I also planned to bake two loaves of challah.
“I can do it,” I said, having a tendency to approach hosting dinner parties like an extreme sport where I’m left panting, sweating and near unconscious by the time my guests arrive.
As the Shabbat dinner approached, the demands of my full-time job, planning a wedding, and studying for my conversion began to take their toll. I found myself lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, puzzling over a viable chicken roasting strategy.
The day before the party, I went to the grocery store to purchase the chickens. I loaded four of them into my basket and the weight nearly pulled my arm out of its socket. Oh, Forget it, I thought, realizing that waking up at 6 a.m. to begin a ten-hour roast-a-thon was the scheme of a mad woman. I put the chickens back, marched straight over to the prepared food counter and ordered two platters of chicken fingers.
When I started grammar school in my hometown of Vienna at the age of ten, Christian religion classes were part of the schedule. As a Jew, I was allowed to opt out and spend the two hours a week doing my homework in the school cafeteria. This peace only lasted a few weeks into the school year — until the religion teacher asked if I wanted to hold a presentation on Jewish holidays and practices for her class.
I was the only Jewish kid in a year of 70 students, and one out of a handful in a school of roughly 400 10- to 18-year-olds. I was proud of my family’s history, being a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors who managed to make peace with the nation that persecuted them. I felt special to be part of a minority. In my juvenile idealism I also had the strong need to lecture my pre-pubescent classmates, who I hardly knew at that point, about the diversity of religious beliefs in the world and the universal message of tolerance. I saw the presentation as an opportunity to gain school-wide fame as the Jewish Mahatma Gandhi.
There was only one problem: I didn’t actually know very much about my religion. The experiences of my grandparents had left them — to put it mildly — disillusioned with religious belief. My parents didn’t connect much with tradition, either. The high holidays and Shabbat were celebrated in a secular fashion. The whole family came together for dinner most nights anyways, so Fridays really weren’t that different. There were candles and blessings and wine and the occasional yarmulke, but I was usually more occupied with arguing with my cousins and indulging in the copious amounts of mostly Austrian food like beef broth soups with noodles and goulash.
I met Nadia in the summer of 1986, when I was 17 years old. We had both just graduated high school, and were among a handful of Americans who participated in a French language program in the south of France for a month. That I ended up in such a program was totally against my will; my parents were going to be in Paris all summer. My mom found this program and signed me up; just another occasion in which I have to admit, of course she was right. Beach-going, familiarizing ourselves with French wine (not that we had much of a taste for it at that age) and other activities took precedence over learning French. I had a fantastic month.
So when Nadia invited my husband and me for Shabbos dinner recently during a recent trip to Paris, I was thrilled.
Nadia and I, both Jewish, she from New York, me from California, had a ton in common from the moment we met. We spent most of our time with two others, Scott, another American graduate student, and Erik, a Dutch guy who had never met an American, but made it his mission that month to improve his American slang rather than his French (which, of course, was already much better than any of ours). While Nadia and I have remained in touch over the years, for a long period we had lost contact with the others.
Enter Facebook. A few years ago, the four of us found each other there, and decided that we had to get together, all four of us, in the next few years. While some of us had seen each other a handful of times over the 27 years, all four of us had never been together, as a group, since the Chateau.
I’ll admit it — I’ve always wanted to be a Sephardi Jew.
When the thought of handmade couscous excites you more than the prospect of a Lady Gaga and Rihanna world tour, when you take desperate and unsuccessful measures to work on your tan despite your freckly fare skin and when schug (Yemenite hot sauce) is in tow at all times — you’re a Sephardi wannabe.
With roots in Belarus and Polish shtetls I easily could have grown up with Yentl Mendle’s crew. However, since early childhood, my Shabbat dinners, holidays and sometimes even entire summer vacations were spent exclusively with Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. This, perhaps, explains my blatant obsession with Sephardi food and culture. Raised by Askenazi-Israeli parents in the U.S., our adoptive family was made up of other Israeli immigrants who took us in when we moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia.
My mother, a true master in the kitchen, quickly adapted her famous chicken soup with matzo balls and secret gefilte fish recipe to make room for delectable Sephardi goodies. Israeli food, she would explain, is the product of diverse cultures. “The food I make is a combination of Mizrahi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Arab elements and styles of cooking, where kreplach is served alongside chraima (North-African red braised fish) and Tunisian carrot salad is plated beside chopped liver.” She would go on to tell me that the Jews of the Diaspora brought their far-flung cuisines to the table and incorporated additional ingredients and ideas from regional Arab and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Every family has that one dish. The one that makes your stomach grumble in anticipation, that brings up childhood memories of crowded Shabbat dinners and cozy one-on-one gabfests with bubbe (or Mamie, as I call my grandmom).
In my family, that dish is boulettes aux petits pois (meatballs with green peas). Like any comfort food, it soothes, satisfies and cajoles the stomach into submission. Moroccan cuisine isn’t lacking in amazing dishes. Couscous royal piled high with dried fruits dripping with honey, nuts, vegetables and fall-off-the-bone tender lamb is also pretty high on my list. But there is something about this simple meatball and green pea stew that makes me salivate.
More than any other, it’s a dish that symbolizes home. Far from its origins in northern Morocco, it the recipe traveled with my grandmother to Montreal. It has since traveled from her kitchen to places near and far: 770 miles east to Halifax via plane where my brother fed his entire dorm at Dalhousie University; west to Ottawa, where my cousins rushed towards the sounds of Mamie clattering in the kitchen during a visit; south to New York, where I smuggled frozen Tupperware filled with thick, gooey goodness past airport security (sorry TSA) in order to hold on to one last taste of family.
I’ve never visited my ancestral hometown. Mashad is located at the north-eastern part of Iran. It is a holy site for Shi’ite Muslims, a famous destination for pilgrims who visit the golden shrine of Emam Reza, resting place of the eight Imam of Shia. The history of the Jews of Mashad is unique and intense: In the spring of 1839, a few days before Passover, a pogrom occurred, in which dozens of Jews lost their lives. The surviving Jews were presented with a cruel choice: death or forcible conversion to Islam.
This started a long period of “hidden Jewishness.” We (the story was always told to me in the first-person-plural) took on Muslim names and appearance, prayed at the mosque, bought non-kosher meat (later throwing it to the dogs) and fresh bread during the seven days of Passover (secretly feeding it to the birds). Prayers were held in secret and Shabbat candles lit in basements. Some of the more affluent men were expected by their non-Jewish neighbors to perform the Islamic custom of Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) which they did, wearing miniature Tefillin under their robes and sometimes stopping in Jerusalem — to pray at the Western Wall and establish synagogues, orphanages and poor-houses — on their way back home, to their double life in Mashad.
Even in hiding, families preserved the recipe for the traditional Mashadi Shabbat dinner, Cholow Nokhodow, a hearty beef and bean stew, rich with chopped fresh herbs and wedges of kohlrabi. We treat our signature Friday night dish with affection, it is unique to our cooking culture and not served by other Persian Jewish communities. For me, it is the taste of Shabbat.
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.
Last week, I impulsively decided to host my first Shabbat diner. Like buying a far too expensive pair of black patent leather pumps, I had hastily decided to embark on this meal on a gutsy whim with little foresight into the physical and emotional ramifications. One cab ride after being defeated by four bags of Trader Joes groceries, four (or more) glasses of wine, and several dishwasher loads later, I am here to tell my tale.
Shabbat dinners in my twenties have been the perfect way to catch up with friends while providing an excuse to go through multiple bottles of wines. More intimate than a house party and with far better food, these meals have produced the funniest and richest conversations about jobs, families, relationships — and, most importantly, which character on Girls we each most resemble (I’m a cross between Hannah’s lack of professional commitment and Shoshanna’s innocent neuroticism, in case you were wondering).
I relish these evenings, so when I moved into my first apartment, hosting a Shabbat dinner was one of my first goals. But the limited space and number of chairs (five) in my humble abode, as well as my fear of cooking stymied my Shabbat meal plans. I love reading food blogs, watching cooking shows, and playing sous-chefs to my friends in the kitchen. But, I have an intense, panic attack-inducing fear that if I cook on my own for others, my food will be so bad, they will starve to death before my very eyes.
With all the cooking that leads up to Thanksgiving — there turkey to prepare, cranberry sauce, all those pies and don’t forget the gravy — no one, not even the most dedicated cooks, wants to exert that energy all over again for Shabbat the following day. But plain leftovers, in the form of a turkey sandwich doesn’t quite seem fitting for Shabbat dinner either. Fortunately, Thanksgiving leftovers can be turned into a flavorful and special Shabbat meal.
Start preparing your Shabbat meal at the same time as your Thanksgiving. While preparing your Thanksgiving feast, for example, don’t throw away all your vegetable ends and peels. Instead, save those herb stems, garlic and onion skins, celery leaves and carrot tops in a sealable plastic bag in the refrigerator or freezer. When it comes time to clean up after dinner, put your turkey carcass along with those vegetable scraps in a big pot and make a soothing and flavorful stock that can become the base for a delicious turkey matzo ball soup (get the recipe below). Even if you don’t use it right away, homemade stock can be cooled and frozen for later use. I like to freeze it in ice cube trays so I can easily use as much as I want.
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.
Growing up in a small Jewish community in the Northwest, Shabbat in my family was celebrated with Kiddush, an occasional family dinner and a loaf of challah if we were not too late stopping by a local bakery that knew what this braided treat was. My experience bared little resemblance to the Shabbats of my counterparts in larger Jewish centers in the States.
So, it wasn’t until I moved to Israel earlier this year that I truly understood why so many describe as being “home” on Shabbat. There’s a certain ambiance and feeling when you’re in Israel that cannot be duplicated. Whether you are in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv on a Friday, the rush and excitement throughout the city as it prepares for the holiday is palpable. From the fragrant smelling shuk on Friday morning, to the overflowing tables of challot in the many bakeries, to the bus driver wishing you a “Shabbat shalom,” that makes Shabbat un-ignorable and meaningful.
On Fridays, you don’t have to go far before someone is inquiring about your Shabbat plans. “What are you doing for Shabbat?” I’m often asked. Before responding, I’m bombarded with an invitation: “You’re coming over to our house,” they say. Striking up a conversation on the bus or in a shop, it’s not unlikely that you will be invited to random stranger’s home for a Shabbat meal.
We didn’t observe Shabbat. Well, maybe once or twice. Or perhaps I should say, not formally. Yes, we sat down for dinner as a family. Delicious food was served and we talked about our days. But we didn’t light candles. We didn’t say prayers and we didn’t break bread.
Growing up in Long Island’s suburbia, we were the type of family where the kids went to Hebrew school three days a week but we rarely ever went to services. We went to Jewish sleepaway camps and spent weekends on youth group retreats, but religion was not part of home life. Pepper steak, however, was.
It’s rare that food is served with as much ceremony as my paternal Grandmother Millicent Bloomberg’s pepper steak. In old-school style we’d start our meal with a halved grapefruit (carefully pre-sectioned until the serrated edged grapefruit spoon was invented) or slices of cantaloupe before moving onto the flank steak-and-green pepper stew. A portion would be scooped over rice (usually white) and sided with a lettuce-based salad.