Stuffed: Thanksgiving on Hope Street


Last Sunday, my job was to make stuffing for 400 people. I said I’d do it because there’s a part of me that prefers to forget that it’s been 25 years since I was a caterer, and I assumed it would be as easy now as it was then.

Every year for the past nine years, Nashuva, the spiritual community led by my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, hosts a Thanksgiving meal at Hope Street Family Center downtown. Hope Street provides childcare, counseling and other social services to thousands of at-risk families. About 100 Nashuva volunteers from the Westside, the Valley and Silver Lake provide a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, along with arts-and-crafts projects for the children and care packages to take home. 

So, on the prior Thursday evening, I went to Costco and bought 20 pounds of onions and 15 pounds each of carrots and celery. I filled my car with enough croutons to stuff a twin-sized mattress. At home, I reached far into our storage closet to find the industrial-sized pot I last used to photograph our infant son in, with his head poking over the rim. He’s 20 now.

Things started simply enough. I chopped the vegetables, sautéed them over two burners in two quarts of canola oil, added seasoning and broth. The kitchen smelled good, like Thanksgiving.

I tossed the croutons with some chopped chestnuts, then portioned it all out in large foil banquet pans. I ladled the hot broth over the croutons and began to mix. I used a big spatula, and the boiling-hot stuffing lifted up and — onto my hands. I screamed. The glutinous mass attached the heat to my skin like culinary napalm. I jumped away — and the whole tray tumbled onto the floor, splattered my ankles. I screamed again. I lurched for the sink, my feet slid in a mound of stuffing, and down I went.

I lay on the floor, burned, bruised. My dogs wandered in to lick the turkey dressing off my wrists, like jackals on the battlefield.

Eventually, I cleaned up, cut my losses and assembled the remaining pans. On Sunday morning, I cooked them, and by lunch they were beside the turkeys in the buffet line, just like I’d planned it.

Hundreds of moms, dads and kids came to the center at Hope Street, just south of Pico, that day. People sat down with their food and began to eat. Tania Benacerraf, director of the family preservation program at Hope Street, spoke about all the things the organization does, day in and day out, to help people raise their children in health and safety. 

Over the years, as Nashuva and Hope Street collaborated on many projects, I’ve listened to the stories — of women escaping abuse; of fathers overcoming addiction; of people working two, or even three jobs to make a life for their children. I’m a very lucky person to be able to complain about my mishaps making stuffing. 

We ate together at long tables in a large function room. On a patio outside, the children created spin-art and decorated picture frames. 

Around this time of year, countless Americans stand where I stood that day: helping to serve Thanksgiving dinners in a homeless shelter, a halfway house or a soup kitchen, doing something small, even symbolic, to share this country’s enormous bounty with those less fortunate.

Nashuva’s Thanksgiving meals with Hope Street have spawned deeper ties between the two organizations. But there can be no pretending that by serving turkey and gravy we are somehow righting deep systemic wrongs. The morning after we volunteered, Congress is still debating a Farm Bill that plans to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — a program so many of the hard-working moms and dads at Hope Street depend upon to feed their kids and help lift their families out of poverty. The morning after, Washington, D.C., is still treating the right to decent health care as a political game, rather than a national priority. The morning after, these people are still struggling, and I have a funny anecdote about stuffing.

But while the debates in D.C. all seem to diminish us as a nation, shared moments can still lift us up. We reach out to help some others, and they are kind enough to accept our need to help. 

Perhaps we need to help because we know from experience that ours is a nation of enormous, almost unbelievable wealth. We have seen with our own eyes that we waste more food than those we serve can ever eat. We have been in private homes larger than all of Hope Street. We need to serve because something needs to change.

Just as the families of Hope Street were settling into the meal, my wife stood and offered a blessing in English, as Julie Drucker, a Nashuva member and organizer of the event together with Carol Taubman, translated Naomi’s prayer into Spanish.

“Sometimes life can be very difficult,” Naomi said. “And we struggle to make a living and take care of our families. Thanksgiving is a time to take hope in the future and to know that together we can help each other to make a better life. And we take a moment to give thanks to God for our lives, for our friends, for the gift of community and for being together here today.”

Amen — and Happy Thanksgiving.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Blending Persian, Jewish cuisine


Chef Louisa Shafia has been crossing culinary borders and bridging gastronomic gaps all her life. Shafia’s father, a Muslim from Iran, and her mother, an Askenazi Jew, raised a family around a very full dinner table laden with traditional Persian dishes right alongside the Jewish ones. Last month, she staged a sold-out pop-up restaurant at Cortez in Echo Park, which, along with the release of her new cookbook, “The New Persian Kitchen,” demonstrated how Shafia has rediscovered her Persian and Jewish roots — to delicious effect. 

“I grew up with a very diverse food background,” Shafia said. “My mom came from an Ashkenazi Jewish background; her repertoire was matzah brei and borscht — traditional Ashkenazi food.” 

Her father brought to their home an array of Persian ingredients and flavors. “Not that he was cooking them himself,” Shafia said. “My mom would cook saffron rice, lamb kabob, yogurt with dill and mint and cucumber. … My mom was a gourmet cook. Her idols were James Beard and Julia Child. At the same time, she was cooking Iranian and Jewish food.”

Shafia returned to her family’s roots to research “The New Persian Kitchen.” Born in Philadelphia and now residing in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 43-year-old Shafia said she came to Los Angeles for the better part of her research for the book, to be with her father’s Persian family. 

“There’s a huge Shafia tribe out here,” she said in an interview, and from them she learned traditional preparation of various dishes, as well as the best places to source Persian ingredients, and cultural protocol for serving the food. She arrived in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve 2010 to begin her research. 

“Ironically, the only thing that was open that night was Canter’s Deli. So I started out the trip with a big bowl of matzah ball soup.” 

Conducting her research in Los Angeles was a critical part of developing the book, as Los Angeles is a nexus for both Persian and Jewish cuisine. 

Shafia said she found inspiration in places like Elat Market on Pico Boulevard. 

“You can get as many kosher Iranian ingredients as you want! I found my favorite Persian gaz candies there, and I could send them off to my Jewish family who keep kosher,” she said.  

“Reprinted with permission from The New Persian Kitchen, by Louisa Shafia, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.” Photo credit: Sara Remington © 2013

This fully cross-cultural experience is indicative of how she approaches her craft as a chef, and her understanding of the food she makes. 

“When I started researching Persian food, it was important that I search out the Jewish contribution. It’s part of my heritage,” she said. 

Iran continues to be home to one of the oldest populations of Jews outside of Israel. Estimates vary on the size of the community in Iran today. It is believed to be between 10,000 and 20,000 — vastly diminished since the 1979 revolution — yet the Jewish population there continues to be one of the largest in the Muslim Middle East. 

“Even though Jews have struggled — like other minority groups since the revolution — there’s so much love and loyalty to the country,” Shafia said. “Their contributions to the cuisine are hard to parse out because Iranian Jews feel like other Iranians. Their food is indistinguishable.”

Almost indistinguishable, that is. With some interesting exceptions. A Persian matzah ball soup calls for chickpea flour and ground chicken to make the matzah balls. There’s sweet and tangy Persian charoset with pomegranate molasses and cardamom, and date-and-walnut-filled cookies for Purim: the Persian hamentashen. 

These are the dishes Shafia remembers from her youth. Her family celebrated Jewish holidays but always with Iranian dishes on the dinner table. 

“We always had my dad’s rice cooked with lentils and dill. Still, to this day, that’s what he makes for Passover, Thanksgiving … every holiday,” she said. 

“My dad was raised Iranian and Muslim, but he wasn’t practicing,” she said, citing this as the reason he ended up marrying her mother, a practicing Jew. Shafia and her sister grew up as Reform Jews, and that cultural identity has manifested in different ways over the generations. “My sister has gone on to have a very full Jewish life. Her children are bar and bat mitzvah,” Shafia said. 

Shafia said she can’t wait to build on the success of the pop-up event at Cortez. For just one night, she took over the restaurant’s kitchen, and with the help of Cortez’s skilled staff and thoughtful approach to sourcing ingredients, presented a unique Persian menu for 60 guests. Shafia is planning similar events for this fall. And with the release of “The New Persian Cookbook,” she’s also auditioned for the Jewish Book Network, an event in New York that helps Jewish authors connect with representatives from Jewish community centers and synagogues nationally for potential book events around the country. 

Shafia said she wants her message to extend beyond just cooking: “I think that food can be a way to embrace differences and find commonality, because it’s something that brings everyone so much joy. Sometimes Jews that have left Iran have felt they’ve been faced with a choice they must leave behind everything they loved about Iran in order to be a good Jew,” she said. “There is a Jewish-Iranian identity, and a wonderful way to embrace it is to appreciate the food.”

Save the self-pity, choices abound for Passover meals


For the many who feel overwhelmed by Passover because of the demands of cooking without leaven, a word or two: That should not be an obstacle.

After all, on this most celebrated of Jewish holidays, we are allowed to eat fish, meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, fruits, most vegetables and fresh herbs.

All of the recipes featured here  are nutritious, attractive, flavorful and easy to prepare. They emphasize fresh, seasonal ingredients, fewer complicated techniques, and stylish, elegant dishes. What more would you want for Passover?

The seder meals, when we recount the Exodus story, are the most important events of the holiday.  Most people, like myself, favor their own traditional menu. Each year I repeat the seder menu as a way to hold on to cherished family traditions.

The recipes are from the new cookbook “Helen Nash's New Kosher Cuisine” (Overlook Press).

BEET SOUP
With their magnificent color, delicious flavor and vitamin richness, beets are one of my favorite vegetables. In the summer I serve this soup at room temperature; in the winter I like it hot.

Ingredients:
1 1/4 pounds (570 g) beets, plus 1 small beet for garnish
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 McIntosh apple, peeled and sliced
4 1/2 cups (1.08 liters) vegetable broth
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Peel and slice the beets (see note below). Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion, garlic and apple, and saute for 5 minutes. Add the beets and broth. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the beets are tender. Cool a little.

While the soup is cooking, wrap the reserved beet tightly in foil. Bake in a toaster oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 Celsius) for 30 minutes, or until just tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife. Cool, slip off the skin, and grate.

Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Season to taste with the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper.

To serve, garnish with the grated beet; makes 6 servings.

Note: I always wear thin plastic gloves when I work with beets, as this avoids staining my fingers with beet juice, which can be hard to remove.

CHICKEN SALAD WITH RADICCHIO AND PINE NUTS
This is a colorful and delicious salad with an interesting mixture of textures and tastes. The currants and pine nuts add an unusual Mediterranean piquancy.

Ingredients: 
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for greasing the chicken
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper
1 head radicchio, shredded
1 to 2 bunches arugula, leaves torn if they are large
1/2 cup (20 g) loosely packed flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Preparation:

Place the onion slices in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Place in a large serving bowl.

Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and grease with oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Place each chicken breast in the center of a piece of cling wrap and wrap it so that it is completely covered. Place the packages in a steamer, cover and steam over high heat for about 9 minutes. (The inside of the chicken should still be pale pink.) Turn off the heat and let stand for 1 minute.

Remove the chicken and cool, still wrapped. When cool, unwrap the chicken and cut it on the diagonal into thin strips. Place in the bowl with the onions; makes 6 servings.

SWEET AND SOUR DRESSING
Ingredients:
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70 g) pine nuts 
1/2 cup (115 g) raisins or currants
2 tablespoons Marsala wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Preparation:
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the pine nuts and raisins and saute over low heat until the pine nuts are lightly golden. Remove from the heat and add the Marsala and vinegar.
Add the radicchio, arugula, and parsley to the chicken and onions; toss with the dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

MARINATED SALMON
This is a variation on the traditional pickled salmon sold in every Jewish delicatessen. The difference: The salmon is more delicate and less vinegary, and has a richer color. It makes a perfect Sabbath luncheon dish.

Ingredients:
6 skinless center-cut salmon fillets (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil for greasing the pan
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 200 F (95 C). Grease a glass or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold the fillets in a single layer.

Pat the fillets dry with paper towels and season them lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Place them in the dish and bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cooked to your taste.

Remove the baking pan from the oven, cover with foil, and let cool completely. (The fish will continue cooking outside of the oven.)

MARINADE 
Ingredients:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons rice vinegar (for Passover, replace with white wine vinegar)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced (see note below)
15 dill sprigs, snipped finely with scissors, plus 2 sprigs, snipped, for garnish

Preparation: 
In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and salt. Add pepper to taste. Pour the marinade over the salmon, add the onion and sprinkle with the 15 snipped sprigs of dill.
Cover the dish with wax paper, then foil and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days without turning.

To serve: Bring the salmon to room temperature. Place on individual plates along with some of the marinade and onions. Garnish with the fresh snipped dill; makes 6 servings.

Note: I use a mandoline to slice the onion, as it makes the cutting easier.

CHICKEN WITH POTATOES AND OLIVES
I am always pleased to come up with a dish that is a meal in itself — one that combines either chicken or meat with vegetables. This is one of my favorites, and because it is so easy to make, I often serve it at Passover. I bake it in an attractive casserole, so it can go directly from the oven to the table.

Ingredients:
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
9 garlic cloves
Kosher salt 
1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
Leaves from 10 thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
5 plum tomatoes
1 pound (450 g) Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled, quartered
1/2 cup (67 g) pitted black olives, quartered

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C). With 1 tablespoon of the oil, grease a glass, ceramic or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold all the vegetables in a single layer.

Coarsely chop 4 of the garlic cloves on a cutting board. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and, using a knife, crush them into a paste. Place the paste in a small bowl and combine it with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the oil, half of the thyme leaves and pepper to taste.

Pat dry the chicken breasts with paper towels and season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Coat the chicken with the mixture and set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water; bring the water back to a boil and drain. Core the tomatoes and slip off the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half widthwise and squeeze gently to remove the seeds. (Some seeds will remain.) Cut the tomatoes in quarters.

Thickly slice the remaining 5 garlic cloves and spread them in the prepared baking pan along with the tomatoes, potatoes, olives, the rest of the thyme leaves, and the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until almost tender.

Place the chicken breasts on top of the vegetables and bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Turn them over, spoon on some pan juices and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the chicken is slightly pink on the inside. Cover with foil for 1 minute; makes 4 servings.

STIR-FRIED SPINACH
This is a delicious recipe that captures the very essence of spinach. Now that prewashed spinach is available in almost every supermarket, you can prepare this dish in minutes.

Ingredients:
20 ounces (570 g) prewashed spinach
1 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Break the stems off the spinach leaves and discard.

Roast the pine nuts in a toaster oven on the lowest setting for 1 or 2 minutes, until they are golden. (Watch them carefully, as they burn quickly.)

Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add the oil. Add the spinach and stir quickly until it is just wilted, no more than a minute. Season with salt and pepper. With a slotted spoon, transfer the spinach to a serving dish. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top; makes 6 servings.

CHOCOLATE MERINGUE SQUARES
These meringue squares are like cookies, but they are light, chocolaty and surprisingly low in calories. I often serve them at Passover.

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon (15 g) unsalted margarine for greasing the pan
1/2 pound (225 g) blanched almonds
6 ounces (170 g) good-quality imported semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
8 large egg whites (see notes)
1 cup (200 g) sugar

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Line a 9-by-13-by-2-inch (23-by-33-by-5 cm) baking pan with wax paper and grease the paper with the margarine.

Chop the almonds in a food processor, in two batches, until medium-fine. Transfer to a bowl. Chop the chocolate in the processor until fine, and combine with the almonds.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Using the balloon whisk attachment, beat at high speed until foamy. Gradually add the sugar and beat until stiff.

With a large rubber spatula, gently fold the chocolate-almond mixture into the egg whites, making a motion like a figure 8 with the spatula. Do not overmix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out 
almost dry.

Cool on a wire rack. Invert onto a cutting board and peel off the paper. Cut into 1 1/2-inch (4 cm) squares; makes 3 1/2 dozen squares.

Notes: It is easier to separate the eggs straight from the refrigerator, when they are cold. Make sure the whites have come to room temperature before beating.

To freeze the squares, place them side by side in an air-tight plastic container, with  wax paper between the layers.

Slice of Life: Cooking with pears


One of my favorite best childhood foodie memories was sharing the plate of sliced pears and cheese that my mom had waiting for me after a long day at grade school. I so loved the concept of sharing a healthy snack and continued the tradition with my boys. Finding out that not only were they lactose intolerant but allergic to pears (and bananas and a few other fruits I’d been giving them on a regular basis) put kind of a kink in my good mom armor. Needless to say they ate other stuff after school and I ate my pears all by myself.   My boys are now men, have moved on to other locations to feed themselves so I’ve decided to bring back the pear with a vengeance.

Pears are super delicious fall fruit that is related to apples and can often be substituted for them. Like apples, the color of the skin of the different varieties of pears range from yellow to green to brown and red or a combination of two or more of the colors. The inside fruit is dcream colored, juicy and runs the gamut from tart to sweet. They’re a terrific source of fiber and vitamin C. for only 100 calories per serving. Add to the fact that they’re sodium free, fat free, and cholesterol free and you have one excellent fruit.

Pears, like apples, come in a multitude of sizes and types. There are two main varieties, the bell shaped European varieties and the round Asian pears there most popular varieties available in your grocery or farmers markets include but are not limited to:

Anjou pears they are red and green, sweet can be cooked

Asian pears are round and crunchy, great raw

Bartlett’s are the juiciest of the pears, great raw, not for cooking

Bosc pears are great raw or cooked. These are the ones with brownish skin

Comice pears great raw.

Seckel pears are smaller, tart and have a green/red skin. Can be cooked

To find the best pears look for ones that give a little when pressed at their neck and have a slight floral fragrance. Most people don’t know that pears actually ripen off the tree and if they’re hard when you buy them they will soft soften when left at room temperature or stored in a sealed paper bag with a banana for a few days.

The following recipes are all yummy and can be used to introduce your youngsters to the joy of pears as well as reminding you that sometimes a simple plate of cheese and fruit is all you need to bring back the best of your childhood.


CARAMEL COATED PEARS (dairy or pareve)

  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons butter or margarine
  • 2 medium firm ripe pears
  • sweetened whipped cream or pareve whipped  topping
  • 2 teaspoons sliced almonds, toasted

Preheat oven to 350. In a small sauce pan combine sugar, water, and butter. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for 3 minutes or until slightly thickened. Remove the caramel mixture from heat and set aside. Peel and core pears, and cut pears in half lengthwise. Arrange pear halves, cut sides up, in a baking dish and drizzle the caramel mixture over the top of the pears. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 25 minutes or until tender.  Place pear halves in dessert dishes; spoon 2 tablespoons of caramel mixture evenly over pears. Top with whipped cream and almonds.

Serves 2 to 4.

My files, source unknown


PEAR, MANGO AND CABBAGE SLAW (pareve)

  • 3 ripe pears, cubed
  • 2 cups fresh mango peeled and cubed
  • 4 cups green cabbage sliced very thin
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seed
  • 3/4 cup oil
  • 6 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 dash salt

In a large salad bowl combine the pears, mangos and cabbage. Toss to combine. In a jar with a tight fitting lid combine the vinegar, oil, soy sauce, sugar, garlic powder and salt. Shake to combine. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss to coat. Sprinkle the seeds over the top and serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

My file, source unknown 


CHICKEN WITH SAUTEED PEARS WITH ROSEMARY SAUCE (meat) 

  • 3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 cups apple juice
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons dried rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
  • Pinch of dried crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 1 Bosc pear, quartered, cored, thinly sliced
  • 4 skinless boneless chicken breast halves
  • 1/4 cup Marsala

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add apple juice, red wine, vinegar, rosemary, thyme and crushed red pepper; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer until mixture is reduced to 1 1/2 cups, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Strain mixture into small saucepan; discard solids. Add cream and simmer until reduced to sauce consistency, about 12 minutes.

Meanwhile heat 2 teaspoons oil in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add pear slices; sauté until tender and golden brown, about 8 minutes. (Sauce and pears can be prepared 2 hours ahead. Cover separately and refrigerate. Rewarm pears over medium-low heat before serving.)

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Add to skillet and sauté until cooked through and golden brown on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. Add Marsala and bring to boil. Stir in reserved sauce, turning chicken once to coat. Cook until heated through, about 2 minutes longer.

Divide chicken among 4 plates. Spoons some sauce around chicken on each plate. Garnish with pear slices.

Modified from Bon Appétit April 1997

The Jews, stuffed cabbage and Simchat Torah


It’s almost encoded in your Jewish DNA: How you make your stuffed cabbage all depends on where your grandmother came from.

For many, the delicacy is served on the holiday of Simchat Torah much the same way that latkes are associated with Chanukah, hamentaschen tag along with Purim and Shavuot comes with a plethora of dairy dishes.

So how did the overcooked, gelatinous, rolled-up dish become associated with the last festival of the High Holidays season?

“Most of the traditional foods we eat on Jewish holidays start out with a seasonal reason as to why we eat them, and later a religious significance is tacked on,” says Gil Marks, a Jewish food historian and author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” “Vegetables like cabbage were in season during the fall and very cheap, so stuffed cabbage became one of the most popular traditional foods eaten. Cabbage was the odor of the shtetl.”

Travel back some 500 years to the 16th century, when Jews first started living in shtetls. The Jews mostly kept to themselves, but the food they ate often was a kosher adaptation of what their non-Jewish neighbors were eating, Marks says.

Stuffed cabbage was a staple dish for peasants during the cold season in places such as Turkey and Persia, and it arrived to the Jews of Europe from the south and the east, according to Marks. Jews living in places like Russia and Poland learned the dish from the Tatars, a Turkish group that ruled the area in the 16th century, while Jews living in southern European countries such as Hungary and the Balkans learned it from their Turkish neighbors, who then were under the control of the Ottoman Empire.

Eastern European Jews adapted the dish with cabbage and kosher meat, naming it after a dove because the rolled up item resembled a bird in a nest. So in Russian it was called golub, in Ukraine holub and in Yiddish teibel — all words for dove.

Those living in the Ottoman Empire made the dish using local grape leaves. They gave the dish a more literal name in Turkish, like sarma, which means wrap, yaprak for leaf, or dolma for stuffed.

From here, Jewish communities added their variations. Many Hungarian Jews use a dash of marjoram, Syrians add cinnamon, Persians throw in some dill and mint, and Romanians toss in lots of garlic and paprika.

As meat was expensive, many Jews in the Middle East and Romania would add rice to reduce the share of meat needed, while Eastern European Jews would add bread, barley or kasha. Some Middle Eastern varieties use only rice for the stuffing.

“They didn’t always have money to buy meat, but when they did, they saved it for special occasions and served their best dish on Simchas Torah,” Marks said, using the Ashkenazic pronunciation for the holiday.

When Jews began to immigrate to America in the 19th and 20th century, the dish took on new variations, like cooking it in a tomato stew or a sweet-and-sour sauce.

“I’ve met so many people over the years that like to make their own little variation of the dish, adding a little sour cream or parmesan cheese,” Joan Nathan, a Jewish cuisine author and television producer, told JTA. “But honestly, why change a recipe that has been through so many generations and is perfect the way it is? We use the same recipe, year after year, and that’s what makes it so special.”

With the dish appearing at the end of Sukkot year after year — Simchat Torah comes the day after Sukkot ends, and some American Jews spend the holiday’s first day, called Shemini Atzeret, eating in the sukkah — Jews began ascribing new meanings to stuffed cabbage. (Or, perhaps, those points of significance were hidden in the folds of the cabbage all along.)

“Some believe stuffing a food represents the time of harvesting, since Sukkot marks the fall harvest. More importantly, it was easily transferable in and out of the sukkah,” Marks said. “It also has an interesting visual. One stuffed cabbage on a plate noticeably resembles a rolled up Torah scroll — and two, side by side, also looks like a Torah, rolled up halfway.”

Tori Avey, a Jewish convert who writes the culinary blog Shiksa in the Kitchen, says readers from all over the world have sent recipes to her. Some were identical.

“For a sweet and sour flavor, readers wrote to add sour salt, although some opt for lemon juice or apple cider vinegar,” Avey told JTA via email. “One reader with Russian ancestors uses lemon peels. Some readers said they use sauerkraut for the sauce, and others use convenience ingredients like cranberry juice, V-8, and even grape jelly.”

Whether you stew it, boil it, saute it or steam it, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to preparing stuffed cabbage. The important thing, Marks says, is to remember your roots.

“People remember the different variations of stuffed cabbage based on their mothers and grandmothers,” he said. “It’s not just about food. Eating something as traditional as this is a cultural experience, one that is spiritual and nostalgic. It manages to transcend time, its food for the soul.”

Sunday at Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen


More than Jews have kept delis, the deli has kept the Jews.

Yes, that’s a direct ripoff of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous dictum about the Sabbath.

I didn’t know Heschel, but I bet if I could have gotten him alone over a cup of cold beet borscht at Rattner’s, he would have thought it over, wiped the sour cream from the corner of his mouth, and said, “You know, you may have a point.”

The deli is where we eat, meet, laugh, commiserate, celebrate, feast, deal, cry. Take pulpit and prayer out of a synagogue, add corned beef, and you’d end up with something like a deli.  God is, of course, in both.

Read more at jewishjournal.com/foodaism.

Opinion: At the New Year, let’s give animals a new Jewish chance


Shortly after I became a vegan, around 20 years ago, I ordered my first “vegan option” at a Jewish organizational dinner.

It arrived: a plateful of raw celery and carrot sticks arranged around a cup of something ranch dressing-ish that probably wasn’t even vegan.

Since then, things have changed considerably.

Teenage servers at fast food places know what vegan means even if they have to deliver the news that there is nothing there that fits the description. And at most Jewish organizational dinners today, the vegan option is so delicious that others at my table invariably cry, “Oh, I wish I had ordered that!” when they see it.

Things have changed, but not nearly enough for animals.

Enter the Jewish new year for animals—an initiative to transform an ancient and largely forgotten holiday, Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser Bemeima, or New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals, into Rosh Hashanah l’ Beheimot, a New Year for Animals devoted to considering how Jews can improve their relationships with animals.

Animals raised for food, whether on factory farms or “free range,” live and die in unspeakably horrible conditions, treated not as living beings but as the commodities they are. Dairy cows are crammed into tiny stalls and kept impregnated so they will produce milk perpetually. Their calves are taken from them shortly after birth and raised as veal in crates too small for them to turn around in.

Chickens, as several recent undercover videos now available on YouTube have documented, are kept in cages so small they can’t even raise a wing, and they are de-beaked without anesthesia so they don’t peck each other to death, as animals kept in such unnatural conditions are wont to do.

And that’s not even mentioning animals in circuses, product testing labs, the fur trade and other forms of what writer I.B. Singer called “eternal Treblinka.” Nor does the list address other related issues such as human health and its connection to diet and the link between animal agriculture and climate change.

The so-called new Jewish food movement, laudable though it may be, is more concerned with issues of locally grown produce, sustainable agriculture, healthy eating and social justice for workers than with the treatment of animals.

And yet animal cruelty is very much against Jewish teaching. As Richard Schwartz, the president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and a tireless crusader for animal rights and a plant-based diet, points out, “tsa’ar ba’alei chaim,” causing harm or sorrow to animals, is a Torah prohibition.

That’s evident in many ways, from the mandate that farmers not muzzle an animal while it is threshing in the field (so it can eat some of the grain) to the admiring way the Torah treats the compassionate actions of Moses and King David toward their sheep.

Yet today, as Schwartz writes on the Jewish Vegetarians website, “with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more compassionate teachings related to animals.”

That’s why Schwartz and a coalition of Jewish groups have proposed the initiative to turn Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser Beheima into a New Year for Animals. (Disclosure: I am a member of some of these groups.) The holiday occurs on the first day of the month of Elul (this year, beginning Saturday evening) and initially was devoted to counting domestic animals intended to be used for sacrificial offerings.

This wouldn’t be the first time an ancient holiday has been reclaimed for a related but very different purpose.

Tu b’Shvat—the New Year for the Trees and a day originally intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings—has evolved into a holiday devoted to appreciating and healing the natural world.

Schwartz, who along with Jewish Vegetarians of North America is leading the campaign to establish the new holiday, suggests that Jews use it to consider ways to apply traditional Jewish teachings on compassion toward animals to today’s issues, such as factory farms and moving toward a plant-based diet.

That seems particularly appropriate since Elul is considered a month of introspection as Jews examine their words and actions in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The initiative’s first event is a seder set for Sunday evening at Caravan of Dreams, a vegetarian restaurant in New York City. Other vegetarian seders are taking place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., and at a resort in Ontario, Canada.

A number of other groups are supporting the initiative, and several prominent Jewish leaders have endorsed the idea of the new holiday. Modern Orthodox scholar and author Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says in a statement that “it is a beautiful idea to renew/revive a classic day … Your contemporary application … in the form of addressing humanity’s relationship to animal life and the widespread mistreatment of food animals and environmental abuse in today’s economy, marked by industrial farming and animal husbandry, is inspired.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles succinctly summarizes the idea of the holiday, writing in a statement, “The Jewish tradition mandates that we are stewards of all God’s creation. In our day we are increasingly sensitized to suffering of those living creatures in our care; this initiative helps us recognize our obligation to animals and so helps us be more fully human.”

Schwartz and others realize that restoring and reclaiming an ancient holiday can’t be done all at once. Plans include setting up a website and Facebook page that would feature a collection of material on Jewish teachings about animals and creating a haggadah for a seder, modeled on the now-widespread Tu b’Shvat seder.

For now, I’m hoping that awareness of these efforts leads to greater attentiveness to issues related to animals, issues that many of us would like to push out of our consciousness, along with other “inconvenient truths,” as we buy our neatly wrapped and packaged meat.

To start things off in a modest way? Read more about the initiative and find links to related sites at www.JewishVeg.com.

And think about having a veggie burger for lunch or dinner.

(Pauline Dubkin Yearwood is managing editor of the Chicago Jewish News.)

Healthy, kosher hot lunches rare in L.A. Jewish schools


On a Thursday this past March, at around 11:40 a.m., the alluring scent of chicken schnitzel – freshly breaded and pan-fried — wafted through the parking lot of New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills.

The source was a truck from Alex Felkai’s kosher catering company, Kosher on Location. Though the company does the majority of its business over the weekends, catering elegant weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, to keep his core staff busy during the week, Felkai had been selling lunch at NCJHS – every day except Friday – since the school opened 10 years ago.

But when NCJHS’s approximately 370 students (including one of Felkai’s children) return to school this fall, the kosher lunch truck won’t be there.

“We tried,” Felkai said, explaining that the cost of preparing and serving sandwiches and salads, burgers and burritos to the approximately 80 students, faculty and staff who bought lunch from the truck, was prohibitive.

“It was a difficult decision, but I never really made money on it,” Felkai said. “I kind of did it hoping that things would grow.”

In Jewish day schools across Los Angeles, Felkai’s story is a common one. With the first day of classes less than a month away, NCJHS isn’t the only high school that may not offer an in-school alternative to bringing lunch from home.

The Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Girls School’s caterer is going into his third year, but the campus of the boys school on Pico Boulevard doesn’t have a kitchen or a cafeteria, nor is the school planning to build one anytime soon. At Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school located on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard, the caterer who had been cooking in the kitchen during the last academic year just left.

“We’re busy interviewing caterers for next year,” Robyn Lewis, the new executive director at Shalhevet High School, told the Journal on Aug. 6.

On the whole, elementary schools seem more committed to providing a hot lunch program for their students, even if only a minority of students opts into the program.

Schwartz Bakery is about to start its third year providing food at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Hancock Park.

“After working with our nutritionist, and after working with the school on a number of issues, we are very happy,” Yavneh Executive Director Lev Stark said.

According to Stark, about one-third of the approximately 470 students are signed up for the school lunch program.

At Yavneh, lunches can be bought in advance on a semiannual basis or purchased for $6 per day. The hot lunch program at Valley Beth Shalom Day School (VBSDS) in Encino offers parents and students more flexibility, to the point that students can choose to eat as few as two meals each month, or eat a hot lunch every single day.

“Overall, the parents appreciate the program,” said Gabrielle Baker, a mother of two students at the school who has been coordinating the hot-lunch program with another volunteer parent.

In addition to the flexibility, Baker said that parents appreciate the convenience of not having to make lunch for their children every day and feel that the food prepared by the synagogue’s in-house caterer, Starlite Catering, is reasonably nutritious.

“The only complaint is the cost,” Baker said. While it’s cheaper to purchase meals in advance, students can pay a little over $7 for a day’s lunch. “But there’s only a very limited amount that we can do to bring cost down.”

That’s because, Baker said, the food at VBSDS has to be certified kosher, and kosher food – and kosher meat in particular — is expensive.

Yavneh’s Stark also said cost was a hurdle to overcome.

“The big problem is the combination of trying to get a fantastic meal for $5. No one wants to pay $10 a meal,” he said. “This is where we worked very hard with Schwartz to make sure that it’s a viable business for them,” and that students still get a healthy and tasty meal that’s affordable.

Or, at least somewhat affordable. While Yavneh students pay $6 for lunch if they buy it that day (less if they sign up at the beginning of each semester), elementary school students attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District this fall will, by comparison, pay $1.50 if they buy lunch at school.

That lower price is due in part – but only in part — to the lower cost of non-kosher ingredients. It’s also a result of the subsidy (27 cents this year) the district receives from the United States Department of Agriculture for every meal it serves. The district receives more when it serves meals to the 80 percent of its students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But the low prices also undoubtedly stem from the district’s being able to work on a massive scale. Compared to the LAUSD, which has more than 640,000 students in about 1,100 locations, each of Los Angeles’s private Jewish day schools is a boutique-sized operation.

“It just doesn’t work when maybe 80 kids eat,” said Felkai, who said that if NCJHS had been willing to charge all the students a lump sum of money (he said about $800 per year), he would have been able to feed everybody and make a profit.

“You have to make enough money to cover all the costs,” he said, “and if you only have a small volume, you just couldn’t do it.”

When a Jewish high school approached Brenda Walt to prepare lunch for its 200 female students, Walt, who runs her catering company from a synagogue’s kitchen, turned them down.

“It’s very, very hard because they really want it [the food] for nothing,” Walt said. The modest student volume also limits her ability to hold down per-meal costs.

Stark said Yavneh doesn’t mandate all of its students participate in its hot-lunch program, and that he didn’t know of any Jewish schools in Los Angeles that did so.

“But I do know if they did, it would solve the hot-lunch problem,” Stark said.

To keep their school-based caterers in business, small private Jewish schools at least should consider ways to protect them against the challenge of competition from other food vendors.

Randy Fried owns R House Foods, the catering company that recently left Shalhevet after occupying the school’s kitchen for a bit less than one year. Fried said he decided to leave the school in part because too few of the school’s approximately 200 students and faculty bought lunch at school for him to make a profit.

“By the time we got there,” Fried said, “the culture that existed was that 20 percent ate at school.”

Most students, Fried said, ordered food to be delivered to Shalhevet, and the most popular choices appeared to be fried chicken and pizza from kosher restaurants nearby.

Nancy Schiff, the school administrator at YULA Girls High School said that they specifically don’t allow students to order food to be delivered to the cafeteria.

“That would take away from Dudu,” the in-house caterer, who serves a made-to-order breakfast and a variety of set-meal and a la carte options for lunch, including sushi, wraps and various “kid-friendly foods” like lasagna, grilled cheese and quesadillas.

Students at YULA Girls School are allowed to bring their own lunches from home, of course; a few years ago, the overwhelming majority of the students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy did just that, leading the school to seek out a new caterer, who is going into her second year at the Orthodox elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Every Friday is pizza day at the Orthodox elementary school; getting the crust right took some tweaking.

“At the beginning of the [2011-12 school] year, we tried out all whole wheat [pizza crust],” the school’s principal, Jeffrey Tremblay, said last May. “Didn’t go so well there. The kids were picking off the cheese, and that’s about it.”

That Friday, a few minutes before their lunch period ended and the middle school girls entered the cafeteria, a few boys headed back to the kitchen window for another slice.

“After the seconds,” Tremblay explained, “then they can, if they’re still hungry, they can pay for a third if they want to.”

To Tremblay, that sixth-grade boys want a bit more pizza at lunchtime is a sign that the school’s caterer is doing her job well – better than the previous caterer, who served only canned fruits and vegetables. But nutritionists see second helpings as problematic.

“It’s not like in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where there are certain nutrition standards,” said Leeann Smith Weintraub, a registered dietician in Los Angeles who works with children enrolled in private Jewish day schools and in public schools. At private Jewish schools, she said, “there tend to be a lot of issues with portion sizes and not really getting a good balance between the food groups.”

The menu, Tremblay said, is still a work in progress. This fall, Hillel students who buy lunch at school will be able to serve themselves from a salad bar that has improved from last year, when the only vegetables were mixed greens, cucumbers and tomatoes.

“Now, we’ve added onions, sprouts, garbanzo beans for protein,” Tremblay said. “And low-fat and nonfat dressings only.”

Still, nearly everyone — nutritionists, parents and even school administrators — agrees that bringing a homemade lunch could be the healthiest choice for any student.

“My friends’ children take their food to school,” said Maryam Maleki, a registered dietician who works with Jewish and non-Jewish clients. “They would rather their children take their food to school because it’s healthier, and they’ll sparingly allow their children to eat the food at school.”

That perfectly describes Chavi Wintner, a mother of two young students at Hillel. “I like to know what’s in the food that I make,” Wintner said, over a late-morning breakfast of oatmeal and unsweetened decaf iced coffee.

Her children don’t participate in Hillel’s hot lunch program; instead, Wintner packs lunches that always include some fresh fruit and might feature some roasted vegetables or a sandwich of melted cheese on bread.

Still, Wintner was very vocal in the push to eliminate the vending machines selling Gatorade at Hillel. “I think that nutrition is part of the school’s responsibility to teach,” she said.

Position yourself for Passover’s traditions


After many years of reciting the Passover story around our dining room table, we made a major change. My family decided to re-create the seders held long ago. According to the haggadah, when people live in freedom, they can eat in a reclining or relaxed manner.

We asked our guests to bring pillows or cushions to lean against as we celebrated Passover with a seder on our living room floor, which began with the symbolic foods of the holiday displayed on the seder plate.

During the first part of the evening, we eat the required foods of Passover that families have eaten for generations. Charoset is one of the few dishes that may require a recipe. A mixture of fruits, wine, nuts and spices, it represents the mortar our ancestors made while laboring as slaves in Egypt. It is prepared differently in Jewish communities all over the world depending on the ingredients available. We prepare several kinds for our seder, and one that we serve is made from a Yemenite recipe, a combination of dates, dried figs, sesame seeds, ginger, wine and a little matzah meal. Included is fresh grated horseradish, a bitter herb that is eaten with charoset and matzah.

A roasted egg, which many families dip in coarse salt, is usually served, but our family’s custom is to prepare a cold, salted, chopped egg soup instead. We eat spring onions or parsley that are dipped in saltwater, as well as boiled small new potatoes that symbolize the coming of spring. Also on the seder plate is the roasted lamb shank, representing the Pascal lamb, but vegetarians may substitute a roasted beet. 

Reclining on cushions and pillows while reading from the haggadah was a wonderful experience, but serving food on the living room floor – especially matzah ball soup – would be difficult. After we finished recounting the Jewish people’s liberation from Egypt, we would move to the dining room table for a traditional Passover dinner.

We begin seder dinner with homemade gefilte fish, followed by chicken soup with matzah balls. The soup is prepared with whole chickens that are tied and put in the pot with a variety of vegetables. When the soup is done, the chickens are taken out and roasted in a tomato sauce to be served for the seder dinner. When cold, it can be made into a delicious chicken salad eaten for lunch or dinner during the remaining days of Passover.

The main course is served buffet style; everyone helps themselves to platters of roasted lamb shanks, sliced turkey with vegetable stuffing and candied sweet potatoes.

After dinner, Passover desserts include sponge cakes, cookies and chocolate-covered fruit. For a special treat this year, I am adding a Chocolate Marble Cake With Chocolate Glaze. The rich flavors of cocoa, strong coffee and chocolate make this cake extra-special. Grape Truffles are an easy addition — seedless grapes dipped in chocolate and then coated with cocoa powder are a surprise when they burst with flavor in your mouth.

Wine is an important part of the seder, and sweet concord grape wine has always been synonymous with Passover. But today, dry Passover wines are gaining in popularity, and the availability and varietals are remarkable. They are available from California, New York, France, Italy, Chile and Israel. At our seder, we provide both sweet and dry wine — as well as grape juice — to satisfy everyone’s taste. 

In recent years, our seders have moved back to the dining room. But as friends and family gather around our table for Passover, they recall with fondness how we reclined on the floor to read the haggadah. I’ve considered moving the seder back to the living room, but on one condition: We keep dinner in the dining room.


YEMENITE CHAROSET

1 cup pitted, chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped dried figs
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch coriander
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and minced, or pinch of cayenne 
2 tablespoons matzah meal
1/3 cup sweet Passover wine
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
 
Blend the dates, figs, ginger, coriander, chili pepper, matzah meal and wine in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the knife blade. Mix in sesame seeds and transfer to a glass bowl. Roll into 1-inch balls or serve in a bowl.

Dessert variation: Dip charoset balls into melted chocolate and place on wax paper-lined baking sheet.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups or 12 balls.


GRANDMA GENE’S GEFILTE FISH

Buy whole whitefish. Have it boned, and wrap the bones, heads and skin separately for the Fish Broth. If you’re lucky, you might find roe inside the fish, which you can poach with the fish balls.

Fish Broth (recipe follows)
3 1/2 pounds filleted whitefish
2 yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 small carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 small celery stalks, sliced
2 eggs
1/4 to 1/3 cup matzah meal
1/4 to 1/3 cup cold water
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, sliced beets and horseradish sauce

Prepare the Fish Broth and keep warm.

Grind the whitefish with the onions, carrots and celery in a food grinder. Put through the grinder again. Place the ground mixture in a large mixing bowl and blend with the eggs and matzah meal. Transfer the mixture to a large wooden chopping bowl and, using a hand chopper, chop the fish mixture, adding the water gradually with 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon pepper as you chop. (Mixture should be soft and light to the touch.) Wet your hands with additional cold water and shape the fish mixture into oval balls. Bring the Fish Broth to a boil over high heat, and place the fish balls in the broth. Cover, reduce the heat to medium high, and cook for 1 hour, or until fish is tender; do not overcook. Cool, transfer to a shallow glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and foil, and refrigerate.

To serve, arrange a lettuce leaf on each plate; top with fish and garnish with sliced cucumber and beets. Serve with horseradish sauce. 

Makes 24 small fish balls.


FISH BROTH

1 1/2 yellow onions, coarsely diced (reserve peels)
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sliced celery tops
1 1/2 pounds fish bones, heads and skin from filleted white fish (wrap in cheese cloth)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 cups cold water

Place the onions, onion peels, carrot, celery tops, wrapped fish bones, heads and skin, and salt and pepper in a large pot. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 hour, adding water if needed. When the broth is very flavorful, strain out the fish bones and vegetables and discard. Keep the broth warm.

Makes about 4 cups.

Following the carp — the fish in gefilte — from lake to plate


Big fish, cheap fish; sport fish, gefilte fish.

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, that’s a decent summary of the situation for carp today.

The fish has its share of devoted fans — some like it dead on a plate, others prefer it alive and tugging on a hook — nevertheless, by and large, carp still struggles with a bad reputation that’s as hard to shake as fish oil smell from clothes.

“I’m not a carp expert, but it’s a major ingredient for us in gefilte fish,” Paul Bensabat, one of the Manischewitz Co.’s two CEOs, told me.

“Carp, mullet, whitefish,” Bensabat said, rattling off some of the species that go into gefilte fish, a food with no particular symbolism that has long been a staple on the Sabbath and festival tables of Ashkenazi Jews, and is widely consumed every Passover. “Depending on the type of formulation you want, there’s more fish or less fish in the different styles,” he added.

The fish are shipped whole from the Great Lakes region where they’re caught to the Manischewitz factory in New Jersey, where they are processed into more than 50 different varieties of gefilte fish. The vast majority of Manischewitz-brand gefilte fish, Bensabat said, includes carp.

But even a gefilte fishmonger like Bensabat can’t deny that, broadly speaking, carp isn’t a highly regarded species.

“Carp doesn’t have a great name, for reasons that are beyond me,” he said.

That it’s cheap might have something to do with it.

“I was told that, by your family recipe of gefilte fish, you can tell how well-off people were,” Motti Polityko, the owner of Gordon’s Fish Emporium on Pico, said. “If the recipe consists primarily or solely of carp, it means you were dirt poor — and that was my family.”

Every year, around Rosh Hashanah and Passover, Polityko spends the week prior to the holiday filling orders for people making gefilte fish, and each order is slightly different from the next. Most customers buy his “classic fish mix,” made from three different types of fish (he wouldn’t say which kinds); a good number of customers want to make their gefilte fish exactly according to their grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s recipe.

“Some people will take a filet and grind it at home,” Polityko said. “Some people will not only allow me to grind it, but they will also allow me to season the fish and shape it so they can take it home and cook it. And some people want me to cook it here also, and they pick it up here already cooked. We meet them at every stage of the way.” The stock is fresh but not alive; it comes packed on ice from the Great Lakes, including German carp and Buffalo carp as well as Spiegel carp, but the last has to be special-ordered.

A tiny fraction of Gordon’s customers actually ask for the fish whole, without even a slit in its belly. Usually that’s for reasons of kashrut — Passover is a time when many Jews observe more stringent restrictions on what they will and won’t eat, after all — but there is also another time of year when Polityko sells whole carp.

“Chrismastime, I have lots of Poles, Czechs and Germans calling me for carp as well,” he said. “Guess what they call it — ‘Jewish carp.’ ”

It was a Christmas carp at a friend’s house that turned Reggie McLeod, the publisher and editor of Big River, a bimonthly lifestyle magazine that covers the upper Mississippi River, into a carp fan. He remembers how his own father always told him that carp was inedible, but now he counts the fish among his favorites.

“People are kind of crazy about these sorts of things,” McLeod said of various food prejudices. “A lot of people like shrimp and lobster — and they’re bugs.”

Some call carp ugly, but McLeod notes that koi, the very expensive and beautifully colored fish that can be found swimming in Japanese gardens around the world, are relatives of the common carp.

“It’s exactly the same fish,” McLeod said.

In 2008, McLeod started a carp-cooking contest in Big River magazine as a way of promoting carp as a fish worth eating. “We had two entries last year,” he said, “and not surprisingly, they both won — first and second prize.”

McLeod still remembers that first Christmas carp, though; it was in his friend’s basement — alive, swimming around in a tub of water.

“I said, ‘Joe, there’s a carp in your washtub,’ ” McLeod recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s Christmas dinner.’ ”

“The Carp in the Bathtub” is the title of Barbara Cohen’s 1972 children’s book, in which two children try to save a fish from meeting its fate in advance of their Passover seder. Cooks traditionally put the carp in the tub for a few days to fatten it up before cooking.

These days, for Jews in Los Angeles wanting to follow exactingly the old traditions, there is at least one store where live carp can be purchased — the Seafood Paradise Fish Market in Rosemead, which gets its stock from a farm in Northern California. According to manager Vincent Truong, almost all of Seafood Paradise’s customers are Asian or Asian-American, and most of those who buy carp are Chinese and Vietnamese.

“We usually cook it with soup,” Truong said. “It’s very tasty.”

There’s also one more way to find a live carp in Los Angeles: Grab a pole.

“Carp are in virtually every body of fresh water in Southern California,” Andrew Hughan of the California Department of Fish and Game told me. “They’re what’s called a non-regulated species. There’s no limit and no season — so you can catch them to your heart’s content.”

Most anglers who fish for carp don’t eat what they catch, though.

“We practice catch and release angling purely out of respect for another animal’s life along with the environment it lives in,” Wayne Boon,  director of the American Carp Society, wrote in an e-mail. Boon mostly fishes the lakes around L.A., but he said that some sections of the Los Angeles River are known to be home to carp as well.

Whether the carp in any given body of water is safe to eat is another matter. “Carp are in the middle range among game fish,” said Sherri Norris, executive director of the California Indian Environmental Alliance, a group that works to educate members of tribal communities about the dangers posed by legacy mining toxins, like mercury, that can seep into certain species of fish that live in particular areas.

In some waterways, carp is off limits to all people; in others, adult men and women beyond childbearing age may eat the fish sparingly.

“In that case,” Norris said, “you really do need to know for a fish like carp whether the body is highly contaminated or not.”

For instance, the carp in Magic Johnson Park Lake, an urban lake in South Los Angeles that is stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game with trout and catfish, should not be eaten by anyone, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Anglers, for their part, are mostly out in search of big carp to catch — and those might be the most dangerous carp to eat. Carp can live for decades, and the longer they stay in any body of water, the more pollutants they can pick up.

What’s more, the big carp are also believed to be less tasty.

“In the case of Carp, the smaller fish — up to 10 pounds — are the tastiest, so I’m told,” Boon told me.

Then again, if your carp’s ultimate destiny is to become gefilte fish, you can just douse it in horseradish.

Rack ‘em up


A mural of shadowy black silhouettes covers the wall with just one splash of color: a solitary red man. As the jazz-era-style mural stretches along the length of the restaurant, it follows the red man as he meets a lone red woman, and they end up sharing a table … and a drink. The painted walls illustrate the overall theme of The Rack, an eclectic Woodland Hills eatery designed with the kind of intimate atmosphere that makes it an ideal meeting place.

The Rack opened on Topanga Boulevard in late 2005 as a family-run business. Originally from Ramat Gan, Israel, owner Yossi Kviatkovsky began formulating the idea for a high-end pool hall while making pool tables in Gardena. Admiring the craftsmanship of the hand-made tables, but disliking what he calls the “Sopranos”-type roughness of most pool halls, Kviatkovsky wanted to create a more sophisticated space in which to enjoy the pastime.

“Notice there are no Budweiser signs,” Kviatkovsky said of the low-lit area that houses 14 carved-wood pool tables, which cost $16 per hour to play.

Between the red-felt-topped tables, communal dining table and the bar, guests are given an easy opportunity to meet one another, while the couple on a first date has ample excuses to get close as they assist each other’s game. The Rack’s menu of fun, flavorful cocktails — with sometimes scandalous names (see sidebar) — tasty entrees and satisfying bar snacks also makes it an ideal nightspot for a get-together with friends. And during football season, the place is transformed into a roaring sports bar. Normally hidden from view, 15 projector screens — six of them 112 inches — descend to display the action. The pool tables get covered up and surrounded with chairs as the space’s typically classy atmosphere is put on hold to make room for about 300 cheering fans.

The Chosen Drink

Four bartenders pooled their expertise and their imaginations to create The Rack’s inventive cocktail menu, which features wild drinks such as Sex With an Alligator, The Heretic and Blue Balls. Nick the bartender decided to stray briefly from his go-to recommendation, the Lemon Drop Martini (made from real muddled lemon rather than sweet-and-sour mix), to concoct something special just for TRIBE. Nick adapted a fresh mint — nana in Hebrew — mojito to include a fruit that holds much meaning in Jewish circles, the pomegranate, and a very Tribe-friendly alcohol: vodka.

One warning: Beware how many you knock down — as with all fruity drinks, this one will sneak up on you!

THE TRIBE

2 ounces Mojito Libre mojito mix
1 1/2 ounces pomegranate juice
1 1/4 ounces Grey Goose L’Orange vodka
1/2 ounce Agavero orange liqueur
5 to 6 fresh mint leaves, muddled
1 fresh-squeezed orange wedge
Soda water
Splash of cranberry juice

In a tall glass, combine all ingredients except cranberry juice. Mix well, then add cranberry juice and a few ice cubes.

Order this exclusive drink at The Rack, or make The TRIBE at your next holiday party!

The triple threat of the venue — good entertainment, good drinks and good food — is carried out by the collaboration of CFO Kviatkovsky; his wife, Robin; and sons Rami and Elon, who serve as general manager and executive chef, respectively.

Aside from writing witty drink descriptions for the cocktail menu, Rami, who is in charge of the bar, regularly alternates four craft beers of his choice while maintaining a great selection of 10 more draft beers, including the Sam Adams brew of the season. In addition, there is a full bar stocked with Rami’s own collection of scotches. The wide-ranging drink choices are paired with an extensive menu of freshly prepared items.

“Everything is made in-house,” Kviatkovsky said. “Nothing is canned or bottled,” including salad dressings, pasta sauces and pizza toppings.

Patrons can enjoy all the kitchen has to offer right up until the lounge closes, which is as late as midnight on weekends. The menu features everything from an artful caprese salad to jumbo chicken wings, and it got an extra boost in September — a long list of pizzas was added to the menu when The Rack merged with nearby restaurant/rock museum Rock & Roll Pizza. Now the enclosed front patio houses a treasure trove of rocker memorabilia as well as live shows throughout the week.

In a space plastered with posters of bands like The Beatles and The Clash, accented by electric guitars and lit by snare drums artfully repurposed into lamps, Kviatkovksy works with former Rock & Roll Pizza owner Dave Vieira to create authentic NewYork-style thin-crust pizza. The dough is shipped in twice a week from New York, and the cheese is purchased from Wisconsin.

The Rack expands its repertoire even further during the holidays. Every year, 150 pounds of potatoes are ordered for making in-house latkes from scratch.

“No latke’s good without a couple of knuckles in it,” Yossi joked.

For New Year’s Eve 2012, the stage that is regularly brought out four nights a week will feature live performances from different bands. A dinner special that evening will be followed by a free champagne toast at midnight.

Whether it’s a special event, a special someone or a special love of stripes and solids that brings you out this holiday season in the 818, The Rack is a sure bet to meet those you know, and those you’ll soon get to know.

The Rack, featuring Rock & Roll Pizza, 6100 Topanga Canyon Blvd., No. 215, Woodland Hills (in the Westfield Promenade Mall, next to the AMC movie theaters). (818) 716-0123. therack.us.

High Steaks Dining


In the dining history of the last century, the American steakhouse was the place for special occasions — dark, plush, vaguely English, manly and old- fashioned, with limited menu choices and unpredictable quality. It was where families went to mark an occasion.

Bocca Steakhouse, on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, was conceived as a special place, but with a decidedly different take. Four years ago, the space was transformed from a popular hummus and falafel spot called Tempo into a spacious, elegant dining room where the observant Jewish community could enjoy the pleasures of a fusion-oriented steakhouse with the security of Glatt Kosher certification. Owner Harry Seltzer chose muted gold and earth tones for the walls, added a new skylight and created a clean, elegant style using chic simple china and linens. There are tables outdoors, private dining rooms and a neat, super-civilized bar near the entrance. Beautiful red and gold artworks throughout proclaim — some in English, some in Hebrew — harmony, blessing, love. 

On a recent Tuesday night the room is, not surprisingly, quiet. A family arrives carrying bags of gifts for some lucky person’s birthday, and they gather happily at a large table near the back. At a more intimate table in the central room, a husband and wife lean in to talk, apparently on one of those delicious evenings out alone that married people savor. At a booth on the other side of the room, two well-dressed young couples share a lively conversation that continues long after the coffee and dessert. A few people at the bar chat amiably about music and keep one eye on a game playing on the flat screen above the array of bottles. The mashgiach, attentive to issues of kashrut, hurries by on his way to the kitchen.

The menu is large and reasonably varied, including several fish dishes and salads, along with the steaks. Although tandoori chicken also is offered as a main dish, the fusion influence is most evident among the appetizers, including a much-touted house avocado roll in a won-ton wrapper and intriguing-sounding brisket tacos as well as lamb Moroccan cigars. The wait staff is serious and attentive and interested in the food. A diner undecided about a glass of wine receives a suggestion and a tasting glass. Specials are described carefully. Recommendations are thoughtful. 

Of course, this is first and foremost a steakhouse, and it does not disappoint. Kosher rib eye and tournedos come to the table tender and flavorful, along with a generous serving of fresh steamed and lightly sauced vegetables. Tasty cubed, herbed potatoes replace the standard baked or mashed, and the whole is attractively presented on square, stark white plates. Bocca’s chef, Moti Chemelinker, is Israeli, an expert on working out the requirements of kashrut and fine dining.

Chemelinker also oversees a parve dessert menu worth sampling, including a flaky, brightly flavored apple strudel topped with luscious, creamy vanilla gelato.  There are also two chocolate choices, a tempting lemon delight and an irresistible-sounding gelato with espresso syrup.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Bocca’s young wait staff start folding up tablecloths at 10 p.m., but on Thursdays, live music begins at 9 p.m. and can go on until 2 a.m.  The performers come from the traditions of the community — Israeli, Persian and Mediterranean — and customers dance on the cleared area in front of the small bandstand, and, as the evening gets going, between and around the tables.

Recently, Bocca expanded its hours to include lunch. Neighborhood business people can now find seats at quiet tables indoors or at the outdoor tables thoughtfully shielded from the sidewalk and street by a glass partition. A new buffet will offer all the specials Bocca is known for, and, for the Don Drapers among us, the full bar is open. (The selection of wines by the glass, as well as by the bottle, includes interesting new Israeli offerings.) 

On Friday afternoons, Bocca offers takeout and closes early. As explained on its menu and Web site: “Shabbat is a time of peace and joy all over the world, and involves prayer, food and relaxation. It begins Friday night at sunset and ends when there are three stars visible in the sky Saturday evening.”

And so, on Saturday evening, once those three stars appear, the restaurant reopens for another special evening. Depending somewhat on the season and how late it is when the stars appear, Bocca fills up anew with diners, music and dancing as the patrons take a little of the sweetness, the specialness of the seventh day with them into the new week.

Appetizing oscar night


It will be a night of glitz and glamour, surprises and speeches. From red carpet hits and misses to backstage interviews with the winners, the Academy Awards is Hollywood’s biggest night. Celebrate the 83rd Oscars on Feb. 27 with an award-worthy viewing party.

Whether you invite 10, 20 or 30 guests, the real key to any fabulous event is to have a great mix of friends and delicious foods. Feel like a star chef by keeping your Oscar party food simple — serve a variety of hors d’oeuvres and movie snacks.

While at lunch with chef Bruce Marder, owner of Capo, Cora’s, Brentwood and House restaurants, he mentioned that he was planning a comfortable Oscar party at home this year with his wife and eight friends. The Marders have a family area with a large television screen adjoining the kitchen, where guests can watch the Oscars and sample an assortment of delicious food.

His menu of favorite finger food includes a Yogurt Dip served with spears of Persian cucumbers, Blue Fin Tuna Ceviche Crostini and a panini filled with cheese and green onions that is grilled until the cheese is oozing out the sides.

Chef Jason Ivener, owner of Artful Foods Catering, also shares two of his favorite crostini recipes, which would be perfect for an Oscar party. The first, Mushroom Crostini, features a combination of button and oyster mushrooms sautéed and spooned onto slices of French baguette, which is then topped with cheese and heated in the oven. The other, Charred Vegetable Crostini, is a mixture of charred vegetables accented with balsamic vinegar, currants and sun-dried tomatoes.

Two of my favorite appetizers are: Tiropita, a filo dough pastry filled with Monterey Jack and Swiss cheeses, and Gougère, light pastries made with gruyere cheese. (Both can be prepared in advance and stored in the freezer on baking sheets. Simply defrost and bake just before serving.)

Nothing says “the movies” quite like popcorn. Savory Popcorn tossed with grated Parmesan cheese and homemade Caramel Popcorn are the perfect munchies for Oscar night. They’re simple to make, going together in minutes.

Also, be sure to set up an open bar area, where guests can select from white or red wine, a large pitcher of champagne punch and soft drinks.

GOUGÈRE

From Judy Zeidler

1 cup milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 cup flour
4 eggs
1 1/4 cups finely shredded Gruyere or Swiss cheese

Place milk in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and scald.

In a medium bowl, knead butter, salt, pepper and mustards together. Add to milk, and blend with a wooden spoon. Bring to a rolling boil. Add flour all at once, stirring vigorously, until the mixture forms a ball and leaves the sides of the pan clean.

Transfer the mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer and add eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Blend until the dough is shiny and smooth. Add 1 cup shredded cheese; blend well.

Spoon into a pastry bag fitted with the plain round tip. Place a silicone mat onto a baking sheet and pipe gougère in mounds 1/4 to 1/2 inch apart. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup cheese and a few drops of milk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to bake.

Bake in a preheated 400 F oven for 35 to 45 minutes or until well puffed and golden brown.  Serve immediately.

Makes about 24.


YOGURT DIP WITH PERSIAN CUCUMBER SPEARS

For this recipe, Bruce Marder likes to use FAGE, a thick Greek-style yogurt, which is available in many local supermarkets.

8 ounces Greek-style yogurt
1 tablespoon chopped dill
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon coarsely grated black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 2 Persian cucumbers, sliced lengthwise into sticks

In a bowl, mix together yogurt, dill, garlic, salt and pepper. Add olive oil and mix well. Transfer to a bowl and serve with cucumber spears.

Makes about 1 cup.


BLUE FIN TUNA CEVICHE CROSTINI

From Bruce Marder

Blue fin tuna ceviche crostini

1/2 pound blue fin or sushi-grade tuna, chopped
1/3 cup minced white onion
1 tablespoon Japanese yuzu or lemon juice
1 teaspoon wasabi
1 tablespoon minced chives
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small French baguette, thinly sliced and toasted

In a large bowl, mix together the tuna, onion, yuzu, wasabi and chives. Add salt and olive oil and mix well. Spoon onto toasted baguette slices.

Makes about 24 crostini.

VideoJew’s VideoGuide to L.A. #3 — Jewish Los Angeles


Dining, shopping, living, praying—VideoJew Jay Firestone shows you how it’s done Los Angeles-style.

 

Table for none?


It was to be the restaurant that would change kosher dining in Los Angeles.

In December 2006, the Prime Grill, a branch of the popular New York kosher steakhouse, opened its doors in Beverly Hills promising a new experience in kosher dining. “There’s never been a kosher restaurant like this in Southern California,” Samuel Franco, the restaurant’s director of operations, told The Journal at the time. “New York has always been ahead of L.A. in certain ways. With the Prime Grill’s opening, L.A. now catches up.”

But little more than a year after it opened, rumors spread that the luxurious restaurant on Rodeo Drive was about to close.

“There is absolutely no truth to this rumor,” general manager Mikael Choukroun said in January, noting that the restaurant was adjusting its menu to more moderate pricing.

But by February, the doors were closed and a message on the voicemail said, “The Prime Grill regrets to inform that due to rainwater damage from the recent storms, we will be temporarily closed.”

Numerous calls to the New York restaurant management (including owner Joey Allaham) have not been returned, and the Beverly Hills locale now appears closed for good, its phone line disconnected.

And the Prime Grill is not the only kosher restaurant that has closed in recent weeks. Mamash, an Asian fusion restaurant in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, also closed in March, after opening only last December. And Pico Boulevard’s 15-year staple, the Yemenite restaurant The Magic Carpet, has closed, as well.

Why are all these kosher restaurants closing? What does it take to make a successful kosher restaurant in Los Angeles?

Prime Grill’s problem, many say, was the prices. The owners seemed to recognize the problem and began offering lunch and happy hour specials toward the end of the restaurant’s short run. Others say it was the location — off the “strip” (Pico-Robertson).

But the Prime Grill’s downfall also might have been the image presented as its selling point: its outsider status.

“The bottom line is that owners have to be there — you can’t manage a kosher restaurant from New York,” said one successful kosher restaurant owner who asked that his name be withheld. “Restauranting is a passion — it’s not just a business.”

New York cannot be duplicated in any market — and that includes the kosher restaurant business, said Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s Restaurant, a high-end kosher venue on Pico that has outlived others for the last 15 years.

“The market is different here,” he said.

“I think it’s more common to go out to dinner in New York than it is in L.A.,” Fine said, because New York has 10 times the kosher population. “There’s a saturation point. Maybe there’s not enough population to support all these kosher restaurants that have sprung up — there’s only so much of a kosher pie that gets divided. People have to make their choices.”

Most agree that the kosher restaurant business in Los Angeles is not easy.

“It’s a really hard game — the community is a really hard community to satisfy,” said Warren Bregman, an architect and contractor who was one of the three partners at Mamash. “Overheads are the killer — that’s what killed Prime Grill, too.”

He said location wasn’t the problem — Mamash was situated on the south side of Pico Boulevard near Doheny Boulevard — but finances were. The restaurant practically closed before it opened, the partners having underestimated costs. And kosher restaurants cannot survive on the kosher clientele alone, Bregman said.

“If you’re going to do high-end you have to do more corporate involvement,” he said. They’d planned to attract the Fox Studios and Century City crowd in their more than 160-square-foot space.

Every restaurateur seems to have a unique economic plan to make it work. Mamash’s owners thought they would draw the corporate clientele; Prime Grill hoped for celebs like Paris Hilton and Larry King. The Magic Carpet’s Nili Goldstein believes it’s all about catering.

“A kosher restaurant has to establish a catering business,” she said, because it has to be closed on Friday evenings and Saturdays — the main profit days for non-kosher restaurants.

“You lose Friday and Saturday, you’re left with Sunday, and you take away Jewish holidays — it doesn’t leave much for the owner to survive,” she said.

When one of her three business partners died three years ago, she cut down on catering — which should ideally be 15 percent of the business.

“There are a lot of non-licensed people operating catering businesses,” she said — non-restaurant owners who provide food at shul and private events — cutting into restaurant profits.

But the poor economy, difficult parking situation and increased competition also made her eager to sell. With the Pico-Olympic parking proposal, which would limit evening parking and hurt businesses like Magic Carpet, Goldstein decided it was time to get out. She sold her business to an Indian restaurant.

Even as she did, Delice Bakery opened its own restaurant across the street. It was perfect timing.

Julian Bohbot had been trying to buy the lot next to his French bakery since he opened Delice in 2001. He finally secured a 40-year lease and opened the Delice Bistro in March. The French steakhouse is centered around a faux Eiffel Tower that disappears into a circular crevice painted to look like the sky, and the dim lighting and close seating — fitting 80-85 people — give the place a bustling but cozy feel. It’s haimish — warm; kind of like the two restaurants Bohbot ran in Paris.

Although it’s too soon to tell whether Delice Bistro will be a success, in the weeks before Passover the restaurant was full. Bohbot said he pays attention to the menu — and prices.

“I am the cheapest kosher restaurant in the U.S.,” he claimed, noting that his steak is priced at less than $30.

Exercise your right to read — without censorship


The last week of September is Banned Books Week.

Ever read a book from the “Harry Potter” series or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”? Then you’ve read a banned book — a book taken off of shelves in a classroom or library at one time because people complained about it.

Sometimes, people who want to ban a book get so mad they actually burn copies of it (like in “Pleasantville” and “Footloose”).

The American Library Association got more than 400 requests to ban books last year. But most of those requests were unsuccessful, because of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other people who make sure books stay on shelves.

Use this week to support your right to read. Here are some banned books to consider reading this week:

  • “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, which someone wanted to ban because it was “a real downer.”

  • “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume
  • “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier
  • The “Goosebumps” series by R.L. Stine
  • The “Captain Underpants” series by Dav Pilkey
  • “James and the Giant Peach” by Roald Dahl
  • “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss
  • “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson
  • …. And don’t forget the Torah and the Talmud

For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>Kids@jewishjournal.com with Kein v’Lo in the subject line.

I Ate the Whole Thing!


I Ate the Whole Thing!

Rap music and matzah balls? Hey, Jews can rap. Just ask the group, Chutzpah, which showed up in full rapping gear for the weighing of the 26-pound-matzah ball at Canter’s Deli last week to celebrate the DVD release of “When Do We Eat?” The weights and measures officials arrived in uniform to record the official weight to send to Guinness, and guests and regulars ogled the giant treat. Not exactly like grandma used to make, but in this case bigger was better.

The matzah ball weigh-in was all part of the 75th anniversary celebration for the legendary L.A. deli, with Assemblyman Paul Koretz doing the honors of presenting an official proclamation from the state of California. Alan Canter, representing the second generation of family ownership, accepted the honor; he has spent practically his whole life keeping Canter’s one of Southern California’s most beloved and long-lasting dining establishments.

Koretz saluted the restaurant for its many years of great food, legendary service and extensive community involvement.

Two longstanding employees, head waitress Jean Cocchiaro and manager and main sandwich man George Karkabasis — considered by many to be the fastest and best sandwichmaker in town — were also surprised with certificates of commendation.

Together, they have worked at Canter’s for more than 100 years! Jacqueline, Gary and Mark Canter were on hand to celebrate their family’s famous fressing history with Dad, Alan.

The Canters reminisced about old times with Koretz, noting the table where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller sat on Friday nights, the visits from sports stars like Wilt Chamberlain and Hank Aaron, the joking of regulars like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett.

Solidarity Brother

Responding to the crisis in Israel, Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple, and the synagogue’s director of education, Metuka Benjamin, quickly organized a solidarity mission to Israel. The group of 21 congregants met with high-level military and political leadership for a crisis update, visited military bases directly involved in the conflict and experienced first-hand the mobilization of essential services for Israelis in the north who were directly affected by this war. Herscher and Benjamin led the temple’s leadership as they brought gifts to wounded soldiers at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. They also visited a summer camp organized by the Joint Distribution Committee to serve children affected by the bombings in the Haifa area and met with handicapped Israelis who were evacuated to hotels in the center of the country. The temple has scheduled three other Israel missions for the coming year and raised $1.4 million dollars toward meeting Israel’s immediate crisis needs.

Zev on the Mount

Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries named Bob Zev director of marketing. Zev, who has a bachelor’s from CSUN and an MBA from USC, has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience serving as the vice president of marketing for a financial institution.

Zev grew up in Los Angeles, became a bar mitzvah at Sinai Temple, and attended Hillel Hebrew Academy, Hebrew High School, Camp Ramah and spent a year in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

‘Lost’ in the Art World

Even though Jack Bender didn’t win the best director Emmy Sunday night for his work on “Lost,” he was very much a winner at the premiere of his one-man show, “Found” at the Timothy Yarger Fine Art Gallery in Beverly Hills on Aug. 26. The exhibition was a “lost and found” of sorts for Bender’s friends, colleagues and admirers, who all converged onto the swanky gallery floors to view his colorful, explosive mixed-media paintings and, of course, to socialize.

The paintings could hardly be viewed through the talkative crowd of well-dressed art lovers, gallery clients and Bender’s circle of friends, who were sipping vodka-based cocktails named in Bender’s honor, such as “On a Bender” and “Castaway.” Across from “The Hatch Painting,” made famous for its appearance in “Lost,” students from View Park Prep in South L.A. played smooth jazz for the guests.

Among the celebs present to gush over Bender’s artwork were actress Blythe Danner; Jacqueline Bisset; J.J. Abrams, creator of “Lost”; Carlton Cuse, “Lost” producer; “Lost” star Evangeline Lily (who plays Kate) and “Sex and the City” actor Evan Handler (Charlotte’s Jewish husband).

“I don’t know how he did all of these,” Danner enthused to Entertainment Tonight, at the gallery.

Works exhibited are those he completed during breaks from filming “Lost” in Hawaii these past two years. Bender has been painting ever since he was a teen.Lilly, however, wasn’t surprised by Bender’s creative output on display: “It’s an expression and extension of himself,” she told The Journal in the gallery’s backroom, where Bender shared exhibition space with Chagall and Picasso. “He’s very spontaneous as a director and doesn’t like to premeditate things.”Bender summed up the evening: “It’s wonderful to be in this extraordinary environment. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a long ride.”

— Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Beit T’Shuvah’s New President Honored

Brindell Gottlieb recently opened her home to celebrate Nancy Mishkin as the new president of Beit T’Shuvah. Mishkin’s two-year term with the Westside congregation and rehabilitation center began in July. The annual Steps to Recovery Gala on Jan. 28, 2007, honoring Ron Herman, Dr. Susan Krevoy and Diane Licht, will be the first event highlighting Mishkin’s presidency. Beit T’Shuvah’s mission is to insure the physical, emotional and spiritual health of individuals and families within a supportive Jewish community. For more information, call (310) 204-5200, ext. 211.

Oxnard Kosher Dining Is a Sur Thing


“Kosher gourmet” sounds like an oxymoron. And “Oxnard kosher” sounds like the nocturnal ravings of some deluded diner.

Well, get used to it. Gourmet kosher dining has arrived in the Southern California farming community of Oxnard. Paris, London, New York maybe. But Oxnard? Home of big-box grocery chains, Mexican cantinas and strawberry fields forever.

Oxnard’s population is more than 70 percent Latino, which could explain why Tierra Sur, the finest new kosher restaurant on this coast (or almost any other), has decided to open with a decidedly Mediterranean-Spanish flavor, with a large dose of Tuscany thrown in for good measure.

So what’s a nice kosher restaurant doing in a place like this?

Tierra Sur is found deep in the heart of Oxnard’s industrial section, 60 miles north of Los Angeles and a mile and a half off Highway 101, nestled in the confines of the Herzog Winery.

Herzog itself has come a long way. It began making kosher wine back in 1848 in the small Slovakian village of Vrobove, where Philip Herzog crushed grapes for Austro-Hungarian royalty. The winery moved to upstate New York in the early 20th century, and then switched to California, where it is now headquartered and makes surprisingly good wines.

The front of its $13 million state-of-the-art winery houses an elegant tasting room and gift shop, which features high-end table wear, glasses and gifts appropriate to the sophistication of the entire operation.

But the pièce de résistance is Tierra Sur, with its high-ceilinged dining room, flanked by tall windows draped in heavy silks, soft leather dining room chairs pulled up to intimate-sized tables adorned with white table clothes and Reidel crystal stemware. The lighting is subdued, and the color scheme — earth tones of soft olive, gold and browns — highlights the elegant Mediterranean menu.

All this décor is very nice of course, but what about the food?

It more than measures up to the ambience.

Chef Todd Aarons, who grills some of his best creations in an outdoor wood-burning fireplace on the patio, grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from the California Culinary Academy and cut his kitchen teeth at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. Two years later he moved to Savoy in New York’s Soho district. However, his cooking chops and tastes were really formed during a sabbatical in Tuscany, working at four restaurants and imbibing the culture of the Mediterranean table through his pores.

Following his return to California, Aarons went to a post-graduate program at Beringer Vineyard’s School for American Chefs in Sonoma, developing his skills in matching wine with food.

But it was while working for an Italian coffee company in Israel, and developing menus for Italian-Mediterranean restaurants in Netanya and Tel Aviv, that Aarons rediscovered his Jewish roots, fell in love with an Orthodox young woman and eventually became a ba’al teshuvah. Now the dietary laws of kashrut have became the most important element of his cooking.

Aarons commutes to the new restaurant from his home in North Hollywood, where he lives with his wife and three young daughters within the eruv.

Before his Oxnard venture, Aarons ran Mosaica, an upscale glatt kosher French Mediterranean restaurant in New Jersey. But the opportunity to create a restaurant from scratch with the financial support of the Herzog brand was impossible to resist.

So with sous chef Chaim Davids, Tierra Sur opened in late 2005 with kosher supervision by the Orthodox Union. But if you expect pickles, corned beef on rye, or matzah ball soup — fuhgeddaboudit.

Dinner with five-star service — on a par with a dining room in a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton — changes not just with the seasons but every evening according to the chef’s whim and the availability of the finest and freshest ingredients.

The Mediterranean influence is most visible in the appetizers, many of which come directly from the Spanish tapas or Greek mezes so beloved of the countries bordering that sea.

Platillos were small plates of delicate salt cod beignets; mushrooms a la Greque, cooked in truffle oil (one of the many instances where the absence of butter in the kitchen does nothing but improve the flavors); and a baba ghanoush that is fire roasted in the patio oven. The boudin blanc was a house-made veal-and-chicken sausage with roasted pink lady apples and turnips, and a corn and salt cod chowder was a warm starter on a foggy Oxnard eve.

The dinner entrees, which range in price from $25 to $44, include a farm-raised venison imported from the Mashgichim farm in Goshen, N.Y.; a delicate pan-seared wild Pacific king salmon with braised leeks, root vegetable Spanish tortillas and tarragon salsa; a marjoram and honey roasted chicken leg stuffed with porcini mushroom and chick pea ragout; and a pomegranate-marinated roasted lamb with sautéed broccoli rabe and fresh fava beans. Hannibal Lector eat your heart out. (A more modestly priced menu of soups, salads and sandwiches is available for lunch.)

Desserts like orange almond flan, a warm Mexican chocolate cake with caramel frozen custard and churros y chocolate are simple, inexpensive and delicious.

And, of course, the food can be accompanied by a dazzling selection of kosher wines — by the glass or by the bottle — from winemaker Joe Hurliman.

Already Tierra Sur, which also offers a wine-tasting menu, has been discovered by the Ventura dining cognoscenti and its private dining room has become a popular spot for everything from award dinners held by the Ventura’s Jewish Federation and its various offshoots to dinner celebrations for local corporate heavyweights such as Camarillo’s Amgen.

And the Orthodox are coming from miles around. There is always a fair sprinkling of men in kippot and women in wigs lining up to wash their hands at the small stainless steel sink hidden discreetly in a corner of the dining room.

On the night we went, customers included a couple who had driven up from Hancock Park, a family from the San Fernando Valley headed by a lady who doubles as the Jewish chaplain for the Los Angeles womens prison and a grandmother from Leisure Village in Camarillo who was treating her grandson and his wife from Philadelphia to a wedding anniversary dinner.

And in all cases, their food reviews were a unanimous thumbs up.

Tierra Sur Restaurant is located at 3201 Camino Del Sol in Oxnard. The restaurant is open everyday but Saturday for lunch, and Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday for dinner. For more information, call (805) 983-1560 or visit http://www.jewishjournal.com/local/KosherEats.php for links.

Sally Ogle Davis is a Southern California-based freelance writer. Ivor Davis writes a column for The New York Times Syndicate.

 

Create Festive Table in a Blue Mood


 

Following are pointers on livening up your Chanukah table from “Kosher by Design” by Susie Fishbein (Mesorah, 2003).

1. In the Beginning: Dress your dining table with a snazzy tablecloth. A gold one will glitter. Using narrow runners and/or yards of wide ribbons, preferably in shades of blue and gold, weave them under and above each other, creating a lattice effect.

2. Gifted Settings: Create place settings that look like Chanukah presents by using placemat-sized rectangles of Styrofoam (about 2-inches thick). Cover them with blue fabric. Straight pins will secure the fabric to the underside of rectangles. To simulate a bow, wrap gold tulle ribbon on a diagonal around two opposite corners of rectangles.

3. Box Appeal: Find boxes about 3-inches square. Cover boxes with Mylar foil wrapping paper. Tie a bow around them with gold ribbon. With two-sided tape, attach them to the upper left-hand corner of placemats.

4. Got the Gelt: In front of each placemat, situate a gold netted sack of Chanukah gelt. Write each guest’s name in gold ink on place cards. Then, with narrow gold ribbon, tie place cards to gelt sacks.

5. Twinkling Fantasy: Flood the center of the table with as many blue votive candleholders as you can find in every size and shape. Fill them with candles and light just before guests arrive.

6. Gaming Table: Scatter around dreidels in varying sizes and shapes, ones made from silver, gold, porcelain, plastic, wood — and anything blue. Antique dreidels are particularly decorative.

7. Blue Plate Special: Set the table with blue dishes, preferably ones that mix and match. Place a salad plate of one pattern over a dinner plate of another. Wal-Mart sells glass blue plates for $1.25 each.

8. Color Wave Silverware: Set the table with gold-plated flatware or stainless steel with blue plastic handles.

9. Crystal Collection: Buy glasses and wine goblets with blue striations or purchase glassware with a blue tint, found at stores such as Crate and Barrel.

10. Clear Water: Buy mineral water in blue bottles.

11. Fruit of the Vine: Buy wine in blue bottles.

12. Congratulations: You’ve created a show-stopping setting! Photograph your table for inspiration when planning your next holiday meal.

 

On Shabbat, Stay Cool as a Cucumber


Miami is hot. In the summer, even sometimes in the winter, the air arches off the streets radiating heat circles that bend but do not break as you walk though them, slowly, slowly.

My grandparents, Oma and Opa, bought an apartment in Miami Beach that my family of eight piled into for visits. It was a small unit with one bedroom and a galley kitchen that emptied into a simply furnished dining and living area. But the center courtyard, where each of these tiny apartments faced, was opened to the sky and bathed in Florida sun. And the beach and the Atlantic Ocean were only two lazy blocks away.

So when we got our driver’s licenses, my brothers and sisters and I drove ourselves from our Atlanta home to Miami. Opa would find us a little room close by so we could run around all day and night and touch base for meals or chats in between. Oma, a fastidious and controlled woman, loved our visits. Her serious and beautiful face would break into a child’s laugh when my sister and I shared stories about the boys we met while strolling the beaches and dancing at nightclubs. And Opa, a sparkling and wise man, managed to find us once every day on the beach. From a distance, we would see him coming, wearing his summer suit and beige cap and carrying a brown paper bag holding our carefully prepared lunches of cold chicken, homemade challah, and light sugar cookies.

But for Saturday lunches, we came to them. Since they were Orthodox and didn’t use appliances on the Sabbath, Oma had an array of simple but wonderful dishes she prepared in advance to be eaten cold. In the Miami heat, her Cucumber Dill Salad was one of my favorites. It was always served in a rectangular glass container with gold flower foiling on the sides. The pale green slices were always perfectly thin and even. And when we sat together around the dim unlit dining table — me sunburned and tired from the day before — her cool salad felt like a mint mist, a slow fan. Outside their window, the palm leaves baked yellow in the sun, but inside, eating pale green cucumber circles with my Oma and Opa, I was filled by a moment where there was nothing I’d rather do.

Oma’s Cucumber Dill Salad

My grandmother marinated her cucumbers in distilled white vinegar, but I replaced it with rice vinegar for a less sharp taste. She also cooked with a very light hand when it came to spices, so play with the seasonings until it is perfect and refreshing for you.

2 large cucumbers (approximately four cups sliced)

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon water

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon sugar

Pinch of white pepper

Fresh dill (approximately 1-2 tablespoons)

Peel skin off cucumbers and slice thinly. Arrange in long rectangular sealable container. In small bowl whisk vinegar, water, salt, sugar and pepper. (Season to your taste, but don’t add too much salt as it draws liquid from the cucumbers.) Pour vinegar mixture over cucumbers and mix well. Cut fresh dill and sprinkle over cucumbers. Close container, toss to mix and refrigerate overnight to marinate. Toss again before serving.

Serves five as a side dish.

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