A kosher kitchen compromise


My boyfriend of four years and I finally decided to move in together. But there was one problem: What to do about the kitchen.

Dov was raised in a Conservative Jewish household in Los Angeles where milk and meat never mixed. I grew up in a Reform home in New York where chicken kebabs were marinated in yogurt and saffron. When we spent our weekends apartment hunting in Manhattan, we looked not at the brownstones before us but stood stuck on the sidewalk debating whether our new kitchen would include my great-grandmother’s Descoware Dutch oven.

“Well, the pot is not kosher because it’s been passed down through non-kosher homes,” Dov said.

“Does it matter?” I argued. “It belonged to my great-grandmother. I’ll store it in a separate area of our kitchen.”

“But then our kitchen wouldn’t be kosher,” he said sadly.

I had imagined that moving in with my boyfriend might include the delightfully self-indulgent arguments from romantic comedies. I pictured purging outfits from my closet to make room for “his stuff” and paring down the nine perfume bottles that adorned my vanity. But I found the one boyfriend who wanted me to clean out my kitchen cabinets.

Before I met Dov in my mid-20s, my interaction with kosher food was limited to Hebrew National all-beef hot dogs. My Iranian mother, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, converted to Judaism when she married my dad. My parents spent their weekends shimmying past one another in the kitchen as herbs and beef sauteed on one burner and rice steamed on another. Although we mostly ate Persian food, my parents could cook anything.

Sure, we ate traditional Jewish foods around the holidays, but my feelings toward those dishes were somewhat similar to the way Nora Ephron described her tzimmes recipe: the medley of sweet potatoes, carrots and dried fruit “is delicious with a pork roast.” In our home, tzimmes was served alongside roast beef and Yorkshire pudding during our traditional Christmas Eve dinner with our longtime Jewish friends.

I had started cooking as a teenager, making chicken cutlets stuffed with prosciutto and spinach-and-meat-and-cheese lasagna. Giada De Laurentiis and Mario Batali were like my surrogate Italian aunt and uncle, and I browned and broiled my way enthusiastically through their Food Network shows.

But when I met Dov, I realized that even though our interests aligned on nearly everything, I lamented that he would never be able to try my specialty — chicken parmesan.

“Well, you can make it with non-dairy cheese,” he said brightly.

Milk and meat lived so harmoniously in my kitchen — and my stomach — that the thought of separating the two rattled my belief system more than I would have anticipated. Could  I embrace kashrut for Dov? After all, he knew that I would never be one to keep Shabbat, so he’d altered his lifestyle from keeping the tradition. He also moved to New York City to be with me, despite his love for living in California. So maybe I could bend, too.  There was a chance I might even enjoy it.

No such luck. A year into our relationship, I roasted my first-ever chicken — a kosher one — in my inaugural attempt into treating meat and milk like separate lovers. I turned to Ina Garten’s perfect roast chicken recipe for guidance. I followed the directions so closely that without thinking twice, I threw a half stick of butter on the stove to melt. I stood over my beautifully stuffed kosher chicken holding a spoonful of culinary liquid gold.  Then I saw the flying cow image on the Horizon Organic butter wrapper and I panicked: Until that moment, I’d never considered butter dairy, but a class unto itself, like tofu. Separating these two food groups felt deeply unnatural; it was like seasoning a dish with just salt and not pepper.

Still, despite those disasters, Dov still wanted to share a home with separate sets of everything — pots, pans, plates and silverware. I understood that kashrut was key to Dov’s Judaism. But eating kebabs with rice and yogurt was key to mine. Granted, I didn’t have the Talmud behind me, but I had the “Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.” And even though keeping kosher was consistent throughout generations of Dov’s family, why didn’t the recipes and cookware that were passed down through my family — major aspects of my heritage as a multicultural Jew — carry the same weight?

So we did what most stubborn 20-somethings would do: We compromised on a “kosher-ish” kitchen. No separate sets of dishware, and my great-grandmother’s Dutch oven would be grandfathered into our new home. We would use glass plates (a kosher get-out-of-jail-free card, if you will, as they don’t “absorb” meat or dairy). No shrimp or pork in the house, which I could accept, since these are the only forbidden foods I admire but am particularly unskilled at preparing.

But it was still the fundamental request that made me almost lose my appetite.

“Could we please avoid mixing meat and dairy?” Dov asked. “I’m just too uncomfortable combining the two. Could we keep all the recipes that have been in your family that don’t combine meat and milk, since there are so many?”

I fell in love with Dov for reasons that had little to do with religion. He was brilliant, thoughtful and a stellar guitar player who already traded in his rock star aspirations for law school applications by the time we met. But I also admired his respect for tradition. If I cooked yogurt-marinated kebabs in our shared kitchen, he wouldn’t eat them.  I wasn’t moving in with my boyfriend to eat dinner alone.

Regardless, I found it tremendously difficult to hold myself to the standard that I was expecting of Dov.

“He can live with one set of glass dishes, but I need to round out the flavors in my Bolognese sauce with two tablespoons of butter,” I thought to myself, simultaneously committed to my rationale and yet embarrassed by my childish obstinance.

“We can try,” I said. And as we unpacked all our stuff — my nine perfume bottles spread out untouched across the vanity, our new glass dishes in the kitchen next to my great-grandmother’s Dutch oven — I understood that it was compromise, not kashrut, that we would have to work on: to be less like the families we came from and more like the family we would create together.

‘Kitchen’ Lets Kid Chefs Cook Up Fun


Before I had a chance to flip through Susie Fishbein’s new “Kosher by Design: Kids in the Kitchen,” my 9-year-old, Yair, had swiped the hardcover off the pile of mail and bookmarked the recipes he wanted to try.

And try — and succeed — he did.

In “Kids in the Kitchen,” best-selling author Fishbein has translated into kids lingo her formula for great cook books: interesting recipes that tweak the traditional, with points for presentation and originality. The full-color photos and cutesy thematics in this book are as bright as her others (her “Kosher by Design Entertains” is known universally as “The Pink Book”), with a few more smiley faces.

But what’s really nice about this book is that the recipes aren’t for silly foods that let kids patschke (mess) around but don’t actually get them cooking. As Fishbein says in her introduction, no gummy worms crawling out of cookie crumbs in this book.

Rather, she includes recipes for kid-friendly real food like burritos and meatballs and breaded cauliflower and lots of desserts. What makes this book for kids is that the recipes are written in a way that any beginner — even a latecomer adult — can easily understand and follow.

Fishbein has an intro for parents and one for kids, and each recipe is rated with one to three chefs’ hats to show the level of difficulty. She gives great advice — like read through the whole recipe before you start, set out your tools and pre-measure your ingredients. She has a pictorial glossary of kitchen gadgets and basic safety and kashrut rules, and starts every recipe with an equipment list.

So when Yair set about making alphabet vegetable soup for Shabbat, he needed only hovering supervision from me. While an adult recipe might read, “one onion, diced,” she starts off with “on the cutting board, use the sharp knife to chop the onions into small pieces.”

In no time, Yair and his helpers, Ezra, 7, and Neima, 4, were chopping, sautéing, measuring and simmering, all with an eye on the timer so as not to overcook the creation.

The soup was fantastic, as was the chocolate cake Yair made for dessert. But what was even better was his newfound confidence in the kitchen. And my favorite part: He did his best to follow Fishbein’s “clean as you go” rule, and took to heart her advice that “leaving your kitchen clean is key if you want to be invited back into it to cook.”

Carrot Muffins

Level of Difficulty: One Chef’s Hat

Equipment list

Measuring cups and spoons
Medium mixing bowl
Small silicone spatula or spoon
Electric mixer
Paper muffin cups
Cupcake or muffin tray
Toothpick

Ingredient list

1 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup canola oil
12 ounces baby food carrots (usually 3 jars)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place the sugar, flour and oil into a medium mixing bowl. Add the baby food carrots, using your small spatula or spoon to get all of the baby food out of the jar.

Add the baking soda, cinnamon and eggs.

Mix with an electric mixer at medium speed for three minutes, until the batter is smooth.

Place the paper muffin cups into a muffin or cupcake tray.

If your bowl has a spout, pour the batter from the bowl into the muffin cups; if not, use a large spoon. Fill the muffin cups almost to the top.

Place the tray into the oven and bake for 30 minutes.

Open the oven and carefully pull out the muffin tray. Stick a toothpick into the center of a muffin; it should come out clean. If it comes out gooey, return the muffins to the oven for another two to three minutes. When the muffins are done, remove from the oven and allow the muffins to cool.

Makes 12-14 muffins.

 

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner


Although it might seem a little early for Passover discussions, Jewish law does mandate that one should begin studying the Passover laws and details at least 30 days before the actual holiday. This is probably because no holiday requires more detailed preparation than Passover. Most of the preparations for this holiday tend to focus on koshering our homes, kitchens and utensils, and, of course, the menu for the big seder meal. What we often seem to forget is that the seder is not a meal, per se, nor a gathering to sing Hebrew folk songs, but it is an educational experience that requires no less preparation than koshering your oven or preparing your main dish.

The seder table is a classroom, with the haggadah serving as a curriculum outline, and the main educators being all those who consider themselves knowledgeable enough to conduct and lead a seder. The educational responsibility of the seder leader is to be prepared to teach the meaning of the Exodus and the Passover rituals to a wide variety of audiences.

Parashat Bo sets the stage for how we are to prepare for this great educational event known as a seder. Based on the rabbinic interpretation of three verses from this week’s parsha and one more verse from the Book of Deuteronomy, the rabbis of the Midrash Mekhilta, the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Passover haggadah all state that regarding the mitzvah of teaching the Passover story: "The Torah speaks in reference to four children." Following are the four key areas of focus:

1. "Your children may ask you what is this service to you? You must answer, it is the Passover service to God." (Exodus 12:26-27)

2. "On that day you must tell your child: all of this is because that which the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)

3."Your child may later ask you what is this? You must answer him, with a show of power God brought us out of Egypt, the place of slavery." (Exodus 13:14)

4. "In the future your child may ask you what are these rituals rules and laws that God has commanded you? You must tell him, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

The rabbis asked why the Torah could not consolidate all of these seemingly repetitive instructions (regarding teaching the Passover story to children) into one unified verse. Why is one mitzvah being repeated four separate times?

The answer is that although on the surface the verses seem thematically repetitive (children, Passover story), each verse actually addresses a different type of child, and, therefore, each verse is teaching its own separate mitzvah. Because of the importance and centrality of the Passover story, the rabbis teach us that each type of child requires a unique and different approach to the effective teaching of this story. When the Mishnah dealing with the Seder in Tractate Pesahim 10:4 states "According to the son’s intelligence, the father instructs him," it means that it is a commandment to address each child in his own appropriate, meaningful and relevant fashion. In other words, know your audience.

The fact that we have an entire year to prepare this Passover lecture implies the power and importance of its message. This annual lecture challenges us to link our past experiences to the present in a relevant, meaningful and updated fashion for every Jew.

So it really isn’t too early to start thinking about Passover. When you stop and think about how difficult and challenging it is to convey a meaningful message to such diverse Jewish audiences, the educational preparation for the seder should take a lot more than 30 days.


Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.