The goat herd: A story of chevre, Shavuot and backyard goats [RECIPE]


The most common question people ask when they visit our home is: “Why the goats?”

We live in the city. A few houses west of us, four lanes of Lincoln

Boulevard traffic roar past day and night. Planes from cursed Santa Monica Airport buzz overhead. And on any given night, sometime between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., an LAPD helicopter will make sure to flood our bedroom with its searchlight. It’s Venice, man.

Two years ago, into this urban landscape, I brought our first goat.

Yes, I said goat. Yes, I said first.

My daughter and I were at John’s Feed, buying chickens. John’s, I assume, is a holdover from the days when Huntington Park was surrounded by farmland; there is no other reason for a ramshackle feed store in the midst of a treeless landscape of warehouses and strip malls. 

John’s Feed stockpiles the chickens that end up next door at a live butcher shop called La Princesa. I usually buy chickens there for egg-laying. They are already full-grown, and I get the added pleasure of taking a creature off death row. On this day, when my daughter and I showed up, we noticed that, in the same crowded, feces-filled pen with the chickens, stood one miserable goat.

She was standing on her hind legs, straining to look out the window to the street.

We took her.

But why have goats? I often wonder if it’s in my blood. Eskimos have 30 words for snow. Jews have more than a dozen words for goat. You and I are generations removed from our agrarian ancestors, but their relationship with the world’s first domesticated animal lives on in our language. Azmaveth and tsaphir are he-goats. Gaddiel, a holy goat. Gedi, a young goat. Jaala and seirah are young she-goats. Ez, a she goat. Tayish, a butting he goat. Uzzah, a strong goat. Zibiah and aqqo, zemer, dishon and yael — mountain and desert goats. Ancient Jews depended on goat meat and milk for food; they slept in goat-hair tents. Their closeness created empathy: Jews were revolted by the thought of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and so, today, we can’t eat cheeseburgers. There is a Hebrew word for hell: azazel, familiar to us from Yom Kippur. It translates literally as “lost goat.” Hell, for Hebrew, was when you lost your goat.

The Christians saw goats as the devil. The apostles saw themselves as sheep and Jesus as their shepherd.

Sheep huddle together and look to the shepherd for direction. Goats are stubborn and willful. The word capricious, meaning picky and discerning, comes from the Latin capro, for goat. Goats break fences and, thus, rules. Sheep are grazers, content to munch the grass at their feet. Goats are browsers — they refuse the grass and strive to eat the trees and bushes just beyond their reach.

Goats are deeply communal, bonded to one another. Sheep run, goats stand their ground. (Thoroughbred trainers used to calm their skittish horses by placing a fearless goat in their stall. To throw a race, you would sneak into the stall at night and get someone’s goat. A cliché was born.)

Story continues after the jump.

Rob Eshman’s goats: Ollie, left, and Goldie Horn

In Matthew 25:33, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus tells how he will judge nations when he returns: “And [Jesus] will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on his left.” Sheep go to heaven, goats to hell. The horns Christians imagined on Jewish heads did not make them look like the devil: They made them look like goats.

Is it any wonder that goat beside the butcher shop called out to me? It’s not just that I couldn’t see her ending up as birria — Mexican goat stew — or chavito — split, grilled goat. It’s that we shared cultural DNA.

I had driven my wife’s Prius to John’s Feed Store that day. The goat, a black-and-white Nigerian pygmy about the size of a small spaniel, went into a cardboard box and into the trunk. Somewhere on the 110 Freeway North, I heard a crash. Her two devilish horns had busted the packing tape, and I drove home with a goat in the rear view mirror.

We named her Goldie Horn. When my wife arrived home from a work trip, she found her car had been completely waxed outside and detailed inside. She said I was the nicest husband in the world. Then she saw the goat.

We moved Goldie into a spacious side yard. But goats, every goat book informed me, care about two things: food and companionship. See, I explained to my wife, they are Jewish. Soon my daughter and I visited a goat rescue and returned with a dun-colored mutt goat we named Ollie.

But why goats, people still ask.

To which I often answer: Why not? Nobody walks into your house and asks, “Why dogs?” even if your pet is not fit to protect, or hunt, or even play. No one asks, “Why fish?” though you can’t eat them, or, “Why canaries?” though they don’t lay eggs. And no one asks, “Why cats?”— except me.

Goats don’t bark or scratch. In our urban ecosystem, their odorless pellets work like plant steroids, replacing the need to buy fertilizer. They come when I call them, will stand on two legs for treats and enjoy a good scratch. As I write this, Goldie is rubbing her head against the card table I’ve set up in my backyard. In a moment, I’ll let her butt the palm of my hand.  It’s a game we play.

It is weird, I know, but it really isn’t.

On Sunday mornings, I use a broom and dustbin to scoop up the layer of goat pellets, crushed dry hay and soil that carpets the animal pen. The dust plumes up and coats my face and fills my nostrils. It’s a fantastic smell — exactly like a fine unlit cigar passed under your nose. Next time someone is reaching for words to describe their $200 Cohiba, just say, “Hay, dust and goat s—-.”

I don’t even mind when I forget to feed them first thing in the morning. I have to go out after I’ve showered and dressed in my suit, carrying a slice of timothy hay, their pebbly poops squishing under my black polished shoes. I can see my wife, Naomi, at the window, watching — just like she did at the window of the Mendocino B&B one morning of our honeymoon when she saw me down by the shore tasting the seaweed. It’s a look that says, “Who, exactly, did I marry?”

I don’t tell her that when they break out of their pen and tiptoe into my study, Goldie always tries to nip a page from the same book — one of Naomi’s ancient Hebrew treatises on Jewish mysticism.

These goats, I swear to her, have made me a better Jew. Abraham, Itzhak, Yaakov, Moses and David were not scholars or preachers. They were the original men who stare at goats. Not surprisingly, the cycles of our holidays play out according to the cycles of these animals. That’s especially true now, during the holiday of Shavuot. 

Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It’s traditional to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and blintzes during the festival. The rabbis will tell you that’s because Torah is like mother’s milk to us. But my goats teach me something different.

Goldie and Ollie have been fixed. But when spring arrives, Ollie still yearns after Goldie, and a long-dead urge reawakens, and he tries. If they weren’t city goats, rescued from other people’s appetites, Goldie would be kidding now, her milk flowing. There would be more than we could drink, and we would be making cheese, and out of the cheese, blintzes.

The first milk the Hebrews drank, the first simple cheese they made, came from goats.

“Why goats?” people ask, and then they answer their own question with another: “Do you milk them?”

No, but a few months ago, my goats inspired me to take a cheese-making class from Steve Rudicel, owner of Mariposa Creamery in Altadena, the only goat dairy in Los Angeles. Rudicel, a young, sturdy farmer type, started the class with a brief explanation.

“Milk needs to be small,” he said. “Milk needs to be local. Seek out quality dairy ingredients. It makes a big difference in the lives of the animals. The hardest-working part of the dairy farm is the animals. We’ve lost respect for the animals.”

Rudicel paused. 

“Goats are some of the sweetest creatures I’ve ever met,” he went on. “I’m often moved by the milk we make.”

In front of about 75 people, Rudicel had to stop to compose himself. 

“Why goats?” That’s the answer. These animals start out in your blood, but they quickly make their way to your heart.

STEVE RUDICEL’S CHEVRE CHEESE

Fresh goat cheese is one of the easiest foods you can make. It takes five minutes of active cooking time, over two days. And its taste is far superior to the standard logs of chevre cheese product available in gourmet stores.
All specialty items are available by mail-order at dairyconnection.com.

Tools:

Good liquid thermometer
Large spoon
Large, clean pot
Cheese maker’s muslin or molds

Ingredients: 

1 gallon pasteurized goat milk (I use Summerhill Dairy, which is readily available at Trader Joe’s. It costs $3 quart, or $12 a gallon, which yields just over 1 pound of goat cheese.)
1/8 teaspoon MM100 or MM101 starter cultures 
3 drops vegetable rennet
1/4 cup spring or distilled (not tap) water 

Heat milk gently to 74 degrees F.

Add a scant 1/8 teaspoon starter culture and stir for two minutes.

Dissolve rennet in spring water. Add to milk and stir for 2 minutes.

Drape a towel over pot and leave at room temperature for 12 to 20 hours. The curds are ready when they appear solidified and liquid whey floats on top. 

Ladle curds into cheese maker’s muslin, tie around a wooden spoon or dowel and suspend over a pot. Allow to drip at room temperature overnight. Or, you can ladle into cheese molds and allow to drain overnight.

Unwrap cheese, sprinkle with sea salt, drizzle with great olive oil, and it’s ready to eat. You can also stir in seasonings (salt, chives, etc.), then cover and refrigerate.

Makes slightly more than 1 pound of cheese, enough to fill about 6 chevre molds.

Say Cheese: Recipes for Shavuot


During Shavuot, it’s a custom to serve dairy foods, such as cheese blintzes, cheese noodle kugels, cheesecake and even ice cream. But have you wondered where this tradition comes from?

There are many explanations, but I like the theory that, at this time of the year, sheep and goats are still feeding their young, and milk products abound.

Dishes prepared with wheat, barley, honey, olives and other “first fruits” of the spring harvest are also customary.

Using many of these ingredients and updating the traditional Shavuot dairy dishes, this menu includes some of my favorite dishes, inspired by my new Italian cookbook, “Italy Cooks.”

When your guests sit down for the holiday meal, welcome everyone by sharing a platter, placed in the center of the table, containing a goat cheese and tomato appetizer. It is a great way to start the evening.      

Cold tomato soup topped with mozzarella cheese is a refreshing perfect first course, as it can be prepared in advance, stored in the refrigerator and ladled into soup bowls when you are ready. I developed this recipe while we were renting a house in Italy, where we often picked tomatoes from the garden. Based on the famous Italian caprese salad, it is fresh, colorful and easy to prepare, especially if you have a tomato press. (This handy little Italian-made gadget separates the seeds and skins from the pulp, leaving a fresh tomato puree. The device is made of heavy red acrylic, with a stainless steel strainer and a strong suction cup on the bottom that attaches to any work surface. You can find it at most cookware stores.)   

Zucchini squash blossoms are easily found in farmers’ markets at this time of the year. Stuff these delicate flowers with a ricotta mixture and bake in the oven.  Serve with a classic marinara sauce. This light vegetable dish makes a perfect small course for a dinner that consists entirely of primi piatti (first plates).

Instead of the traditional farmers cheese-filled blintzes, prepare crepes filled with ricotta cheese and spinach, baked and served with a chunky, spicy tomato sauce. It is an Italian country crepe dish known as Crespelle con Ricotta e Spinaci.  This recipe is most appealing with the filled crespelle (crepes) presented on a pool of tomato sauce.  Think blintzes, with an Italian accent.

Fried Cheese is another dish that is perfect to serve during Shavuot. This one is so impressive in Italian restaurants, and easy to replicate at home. It’s just a mixture of mozzarella cheese, eggs, breadcrumbs and seasoning, cut into squares. The mozzarella squares should be soft and melted inside, so it’s important to fry them just moments before serving. Have the fresh tomato sauce prepared and ready to spoon onto the individual serving plates, place the fried cheese on top, and serve at once. (Recipe online.) 

GOAT CHEESE AND TOMATO APPETIZER 

8 ounces montrachet or other goat cheese
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup mascarpone (optional) 
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped basil
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil or more to taste
Classic Marinara Sauce (recipe follows)

Combine the montrachet, cream cheese, mascarpone, garlic, basil, salt and olive oil in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Mix until smooth, about 2 minutes.  Add more olive oil if needed for smoother consistency.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, preheat broiler. Cover bottom of 12 small (3-inch) shallow custard cups or ramekins with Classic Marinara Sauce. Using an ice cream scoop, place a scoop of cheese mixture in the center of each custard cup or ramekin. Heat under the broiler for about 5 minutes, or until top is brown. Do not let the cheese mixture melt. Sprinkle with parsley and drizzle with a little olive oil.

Makes 12 servings.


FRIED CHEESE WITH CLASSIC MARINARA SAUCE

It is important to fry the mozzarella cheese cubes just before serving so they will be soft and melted on the inside. The sauce can be prepared in advance; simply spoon onto individual plates when serving.

1 pound mozzarella cheese, finely diced
6 eggs
1 1/4 cups dried bread crumbs
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons dry vermouth or brandy
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 parsley sprigs, stems removed
4 fresh basil leaves
1 cup flour
Vegetable oil for frying
Classic Marinara Sauce (see recipe)

In a double boiler, soften the mozzarella over hot water. Transfer the softened cheese to the large bowl of an electric mixer and beat in two of the eggs at medium speed. Add 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs, the oregano, half the garlic and the salt; mix well. Press the cheese mixture into a lightly oiled 5-by-7-inch glass dish. Cover and chill at least 1 hour, or until firm.

In a bowl, lightly beat the remaining four eggs. Blend in the vermouth. Set aside.

In a food processor or blender, blend the remaining 1 cup bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, basil and remaining garlic. Set aside.

Cut the cheese mixture into 1/2-inch cubes (about 15 pieces). Dip each into the flour, then the egg-vermouth mixture, and finally into the bread crumb mixture to coat evenly. Place on paper towels and chill 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

In a heavy skillet or deep fryer, heat 3 inches of oil until it registers 375 F on a deep-frying thermometer. Fry the cheese cubes, a few at a time, until evenly golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve at once with Classic Marinara Sauce.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.


 
CLASSIC MARINARA SAUCE

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 small white onions, finely diced
1 can (1 pound, 12 ounces) whole plum tomatoes, with liquid
4 cups peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes
8 whole basil leaves, sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Minced parsley for garnish
Olive oil for drizzling

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook gently until browned. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the canned and fresh tomatoes, basil, and simmer until soft, about 5 minutes. Using a wire whisk or fork, mash the tomatoes. Simmer over low heat until the mixture thickens into a sauce, about 45 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.  Let cool. May cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days or in freezer for up to one month.

Makes about 4 cups.


 
CRESPELLE WITH RICOTTA AND SPINACH

24 Blini (recipe follows)
1 pound ricotta cheese
8 ounces spinach, steamed, squeezed dry and finely chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Salt to taste
Classic Marinara Sauce (see recipe)

Prepare Blini; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

If ricotta is very soft, place in a strainer set over a medium bowl for 30 minutes to drain. Mix the drained ricotta, spinach, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To assemble, spread about 2 tablespoons of the ricotta-spinach filling over the entire surface of each crepe. Fold 2 inches of each side over the filling and roll up tight. Cut each roll into 4 pieces and place on the baking sheet. Bake at 350 F until heated through, about 5 minutes.

To serve, heat the Classic Marinara Sauce and spoon some in the center of each plate. Arrange 4 or 5 rolled crepes, cut side up, on top of the sauce. 

Makes 12 servings.  


BLINI (Crepes)

5 eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 3/4 cups flour
Pinch salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

In bowl of an electric mixer, beat eggs and egg yolks. Blend in milk and cream.  Add flour, salt, and oil; blend well.  Pour into a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl and allow to slowly drip through.  Or push batter through the strainer with a rubber spatula. Batter should be the consistency of heavy cream.  If too thick, add a little more milk.  It can be used immediately or covered with plastic wrap, refrigerated, and used the next day.

Brush a well-seasoned crepe pan with butter and heat. Pour in about 3 tablespoons batter; tilt and rotate the pan to distribute it evenly and thinly, pouring off any excess.  The first crepe will be thicker than the rest.  Cook until underside is lightly browned around the edges, 2 to 3 minutes.  Turn and cook on other side 1 to 2 minutes.  Repeat with remaining batter, stacking cooked crepes on a dish with a piece of wax paper between each one.

Makes about 12 crepes.

Cheese for Shavuot wrapped in tradition and variety


More than 50 years ago my grandmother took me to a friend’s apartment. “Bertha turns out blintzes by the dozen,” Granny explained. “Even if there’s no company expected, she makes them and stocks her freezer.”

I stood on a stool and watched melting butter turn frothy before meeting a smooth batter. The combination filled Bertha’s kitchen with the scent of sweet dough. As I sat at her speckled Formica table, the taste of cheese tinged with vanilla oozing from an airy crepe left a lasting impression, as passionate as a first crush, long before I was old enough to date.

Since then I’ve been relegated to eating blintzes at delis, where they’ve been decent but far from sensational. However, with Shavuot approaching, a craving for Bertha’s blintzes drove me to replicate the nirvana of that first experience.

The blintz, a flexible pancake wrapped like an envelope around fillings such as cheese or fruit, is a cousin of the French crepe. With humble roots, the blintz probably originated in Poland and spread from there. Blintz pancakes are called blini in Russian and blintse in Yiddish.

In Hungarian the word pancake is palascinta. Prevalent in Austria, too, palascinta are often filled with apricot preserves or walnuts finely ground with sugar.

My husband David’s fondest childhood memories revolve around the palascinta his mother made for her three children every Sunday night — one at a time.

“I’d be right there next to mom, pressuring her to go faster,” David says. “I couldn’t wait for my next palascinta.”

Reading his mother’s recipe, the one she brought with her when she emigrated here from Vienna, I saw that it dovetailed with the directions for blintzes.

One Sunday I whipped up batter and began ladling it in a frying pan. David hung around the kitchen waiting for a delicious payoff, the way he did as a child.

“I have to intervene,” he said. “Your pancakes are too small and thick. Instead of being tissue-paper thin and covering the entire bottom of the pan, they’re more like flapjacks, too fat to fold around a filling.”

“What am I doing wrong?” I asked.

He gave the batter a brisk stir and ladled some in a buttered pan. I watched in awe as he lifted the handle, twirling quickly, guiding the thickening dough to evenly cover its bottom.

He returned the pan to the flame, waited a couple of minutes, and gave it a shake. “So the batter doesn’t stick.” When the lower side sizzled to a gorgeous golden brown, he flipped over the blintz shell. A couple of minutes later, he turned it onto a plate.

“Now you try making one,” he said.

Once the batter hit the pan, I attempted to imitate how he coaxed it to cover the entire cooking surface.

“Your movements are too staccato,” he said. “You’re using too much elbow. Relax, roll the pan, and the dough will cooperate.”

Several lumpy blintzes later, I mastered the technique.

David just kept piling the sauteed shells on a plate.

“They’re not as delicate as you’d think,” he said.

We spent hours frying, filling and folding pancakes before browning the finished blintzes, which we nibbled as we worked. It was a labor-intensive job, but well worth the time and calories.

It’s no wonder that blintz-making is a dying art. Yet in the Old Country, where Jews had less money and more time, blintzes were a treasured part of Shavuot celebrations.

“Why do we eat blintzes on Shavuos?” asked Tevye, the beleaguered father in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I’ll tell you why. I don’t know why. It’s tradition.”

This reason is as good as any to explain why Jews love blintzes on Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates God giving the Torah and its laws to the Children of Israel.

While no one knows for sure what the ancient Israelites ate after receiving the Torah, historians speculate that they didn’t keep kosher until encountering the dietary laws found in this sacred scroll. Because they couldn’t immediately change their ways, their only option was to eat a dairy meal until they could make kosher their cooking utensils and meat.

Shavuot traditionally has been a dairy holiday, a time to celebrate God for giving the Jews “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a line from the Torah that has tied Jews to their ancestral home for centuries.

In Eastern and Central Europe, blintzes were filled with curd cheeses such as pot cheese or farmer cheese. But in America, Jewish housewives began using cottage cheese.

“My mother bought large dry curd cottage cheese for blintzes,” says Ann Amernick, author of “The Art Of The Dessert” (John Wiley and Sons, 2007). She is also a co-owner and the executive pastry chef at Palena restaurant in Washington, D.C.

“Back then, there were stores where people bought fresh dairy products packed in boxes similar to Chinese take-out containers,” Amernick recalls. “Creamy by comparison, today’s cottage cheese doesn’t have the intensity of flavor of old-fashioned dry curd cheeses.”

In 20th century America, the blintz met highs and lows. Cream cheese, with its smooth texture and subtle tang, was mixed with cottage cheese, becoming a velvety but pleasingly assertive blintz filling.

However, the quality dipped when food manufacturers started freezing and mass-marketing blintzes, relieving housewives of this arduous task. On the upside, the blintz souffle was born. A casserole with layers of soft dough surrounding cheese, these souffles are easily assembled and delicious.

As David and I made blintzes that Sunday, I thought of the “Fiddler on the Roof,” who kept playing music in spite of hard times and hard work.

Perhaps Tevye was right. We make blintzes on Shavuot because it’s tradition. Or perhaps some of us were lucky enough to have a bubbe or a Bertha who left us with a taste for warm blintzes fresh from the pan.