In a pickle: Meditation on Yonah Schimmel


I can’t help but think that the fact that I am mired squarely in middle age has a lot to do with my return to pickles. In college, I started making sourdough bread, which, like pickles, is a product of natural fermentation. By junior year, my hobby became a job — I turned out 20 loaves at a local bakery each morning before classes. 

Then I had kids and the busy schedules they come with. Full catastrophe living, as Zorba the Greek says. And, I felt, the last thing I needed was one more living thing to nurture, even if that living thing was bread dough.

My memories of wild yeasts lay dormant until last May, when my wife and I went to Yonah Schimmel’s on a trip to Manhattan. The first time I visited the venerable Lower East Side knishery was in 1980, and I was instantly taken with its homemade yogurt. According to legend, the yogurt it sells today is a descendant of the first batch made in 1910. On this last trip, it occurred to me I could just take a bit of yogurt home and use it to start my own. It wasn’t theft, I rationalized, it was adoption.

Just before we got on the F train, I popped into Duane Reade and bought a set of travel-size shampoo bottles. Then, at Schimmel’s, we ordered yogurt to go. In his thick Eastern European accent, the owner told us it wasn’t ready yet. “More wait, more thick,” he explained. “More wait … more thick.” I bought some anyway. If the yogurt hadn’t fully set yet, it would by the time it sat in an overhead bin for the seven-hour flight back to L.A.

When we got home, I took the yogurt from the mini-shampoo bottles in our toiletry kits, heated and cooled some milk, added a few tablespoons of the “starter” and set it aside overnight in our oven with the light on. By morning, it had the consistency of Junket, impossibly fresh — alive. Whatever cultures grew in the basement of that ancient tenement had come alive in our Venice kitchen. And so, too, had my fascination with all things fermented. 

Within a month, our kitchen counter began to look like a set from “Crossing Delancey.” I shredded 12 pounds of cabbage, layered it with salt, caraway seeds and juniper berries, and turned it into hundreds of Reubens’ worth of sauerkraut. I bought pickling cucumbers at the farmers market — 16 pounds for $16 — and with not much more than salt water, created a barrel’s worth of crunchy garlic dills. I pickled string beans, carrots, cauliflower, zucchini and peppers. I was the kind of guy spoofed on the IFC series “Portlandia,” breaking up a CD case and declaring, “I can pickle that!” Honestly, I wasn’t sure what had gotten into me.

But it had gotten into my wife as well. Throughout our marriage, Naomi, the rabbi, handled the Judaism, and I handled the foodaism. But it was Naomi who took over yogurt-making duties. And when the Los Angeles Fermentation Festival brought dozens of vendors to Venice a couple of months ago, Naomi came with me, sampling the gin and beet kvass cocktail, touching the slimy kombucha at the “culture petting zoo.” Now, between us at every meal sits a dish of homemade pickles. We are well on our way to becoming old Jews.

Of course, now pickles are cool. Home fermenting is as hipster as a tattoo on the back of your calf. That is due in part to the foodie movement, but also to solid evidence that all those molds and bacteria we’ve tried to Purell out of existence actually can make us healthier.

Fermenting begins when microorganisms in the air and on the skin of fruits and vegetables penetrate cell membranes and transform the starches or sugars inside. Grapes become wine; milk, cheese; and cabbage leaves, kraut. The older the culture, like Judaism, the more entwined it is with the wisdom of culturing. Our modern society, enthralled by antibiotics and antiseptics, is just beginning to awaken to the science of probiotics.

I do feel better, but I know there’s more to this new phase in my cooking life than that. I suspect it has something to do with time and age itself.

Fermenting is unique among cooking techniques in that it requires no external heat. Those busy microbes generate their own energy. People intervene, but nature cooks. We are partners in a process that existed long before we arrived and will go on long after we disappear.  In fact, it’s how we will disappear.

“As one of the primary processes by which nature breaks down living things so that their energies and atoms might be reused by other living things, fermentation puts us in touch with the ever-present tug, in life, of death,” Michael Pollan writes in “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”

We spend our youth and early adulthood burning through life, trying to shape and stir and sear it into the dish we want. But with middle age comes a letting go, the realization that there are forces beyond our control; that entropy is a thing; that death looms.  

So I am drawn to pickles. The same process that improves our health echoes our decay. 

“The dust returns to earth as it was,” Ecclesiastes says. Or, as a wise man once said, “More wait, more thick.” We will improve with age — until we don’t. 

PICKLING RECIPES:

This is the basic recipe I’ve been using, adapted from many that are out there. 

Lacto-fermented Pickles

Serves 8

  • 2.5 tablespoons  kosher salt (non-iodized)
  • 1 quart spring, distilled or filtered water (no chlorine!)
  • 3 cups washed vegetables (carrot slices, cauliflower florets, string beans, zucchini chunks, red pepper slices, okra, etc)
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled

  • 1-2 bay leaf
, preferably fresh
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

  • 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns

  • ¼ teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1-2 grape or oak leaves (optional, to help keep pickles crisp)

 

Combine salt and water in a measuring cup and stir until the salt is dissolved.

Place the remaining ingredients in a very clean, large jar (a half-gallon mason jar works well). Pour the salt water over the vegetables, leaving at least 1 inch of headspace at the top of the jar. If necessary, add more water to cover the vegetables.  I bought little clay weights from a pickling/canning web site that keep everything down.

Cover the jar tightly and let  stand at room temperature.  “Burp” the jay daily by twisting the lid slightly then retightening.  If scum forms on surface scrape it off.

The pickles take about 3 days.  Taste, and taste again.  When you’re happy with them, place in refrigerator. They last about a month.

Dill Pickles

  • 4 tablespoons kosher  salt
  • 1/2 gallons distilled, spring or purified water 
  • 3 pounds (about) pickling cucumbers, washed
  • 5 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 heads or bunches dill
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seed
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorn

 

Dissolve salt in water.

Cut tips off each end of cucumbers. 

Place in jar, layering in spices.

Make sure water covers by an inch.  Weight down with clean stones or other weights. Keep things under water.

Tighten lid.  Burp daily.  After 3 days check for doneness.  Refrigerate when they reach the right taste for you.

Homemade Yogurt

  • ½ gallon milk
  • 4 T. natural yogurt

 

Heat milk in large pot to 180 degrees. Stir occasionally.

When ready, remove from stove and let cool to 110-112 degrees.  You can pour into a cool bowl and place in an ice water bath, or just let cool on its own.

When cool whisk or stir in the yogurt starter.   The better the yogurt the starter came from, the better your yogurt will be.

Cover and place in an oven with the light on for 8-12 hours (overnight works).

Remove and place in the regrigerator.

Going forward you can use 4 T. of this batch to make a new batch.

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 and Instagram @foodaism.

2nd Avenue Deli is movin’ on up, to the East Side


New York’s Second Avenue Deli now has two locations—neither of which is on Second Avenue.  JTA has video of the new branch’s opening, featuring a cameo by television and Yiddish stage star Fyvush Finkel.

Easy smorgasbord to break the Yom Kippur fast


During Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a strict fast is observed — no food or drink for 24 hours. So, it is always important to remember that the Yom Kippur Eve menu has special requirements.
 
The prefast dinner should be quite light, ending with a delectable dessert to help the sweet tooth stay on hold. Cut down on salt so that the thirst that comes with fasting will not be unbearable, and for the after-the-fast meal, people will want to savor the flavors and spices again, but the food should not be too heavy.
 
My bubbe always told me that after fasting on Yom Kippur, our bodies needed a lot of salt, and I remember that her break-the-fast dinners always included several types of cured herring.
 
The Scandinavians can take credit for inventing a perfect menu for this occasion. The creators of the smorgasbord enjoy an array of salads and pickled and smoked fish served on their favorite breads that offer a large variety of open-face sandwiches. It is a meal that combines the perfect ingredients necessary for your post-Yom Kippur meal.
 
To begin, greet your guests with apple slices dipped in honey and challah or honey cake when they return from the synagogue. Then serve this simple meal either as a buffet or in separate courses: several salads, open-face sandwiches and delicious, homemade strudel for dessert.
The menu is amazingly easy to prepare. Everything can be made in advance and refrigerated. It is not necessary to spend a lot of time in the kitchen while everyone suffers from acute hunger pangs.
 
My Signature Strudel had been a family tradition since we lived on a ranch in Topanga Canyon and our children were very young. After making strudel for family and friends for several years, a local restaurant asked me to bake it for their dessert menu — and I was in business. I would deliver the strudel wrapped in aluminum foil, frozen, and they would bake it to order. When customers asked for the recipe, they said it was a secret — but, not any more. Enjoy!
 

Cucumber Salad With Dill
 
1 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 large (hot-house variety) cucumbers, sliced paper-thin
2 tablespoons dried dill weed or 1 tablespoon fresh minced dill
1 head Bibb lettuce
1 bunch arugala
Cherry tomatoes for garnish

 
In a large glass bowl, mix the water, vinegar, salt and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Add the cucumbers and toss. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours. Drain; serve on lettuce leaves and garnish with watercress and cherry tomatoes.
Serves six to eight.

 
Beet and Onion Salad
 
5 pickled beets, drained and sliced (recipe follows)
1 large red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
1/3 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
1 cup minced parsley
Lettuce leaves
 

In a large salad bowl, toss together the beets, onion and cucumber.
 
In a small bowl, combine the olive oil and lemon juice. Just before serving, pour the olive oil mixture over the beet mixture and toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in a bowl or in individual servings on a bed of lettuce. Garnish with chopped egg and parsley.
Serves eight to 10.
 

Pickled Beets
 
5 large raw beets
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1 (2-inch) stick cinnamon or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
 

Trim the beets, leaving one inch of the stem. Wash the beets, place them in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat and simmer for one hour or until the beets are tender. Reserve one cup of the liquid. While the beets are still warm, slice off their stems and peel off and discard the outer skins. Transfer the beets to a large ovenproof bowl. Set them aside.
 
Place the mustard seeds, allspice, cloves and cinnamon stick in a cheesecloth bag and tie securely. In a large saucepan, combine the vinegar, reserved beet liquid, sugar and the spice bag. Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes. Pour this mixture over the beets, cover and refrigerate. Chill overnight.
 
Serves eight to 10.

 
Kerstin Marsh’s Beet and Herring Salad
 
From the first taste of this salad, you will be hooked. The contrasting flavors of the herring, pickled beets, noodles and crispy apples are so delicious.
 
This recipe comes from the Swedish kitchen of our good friend Kerstin Marsh’s mother. We have been enjoying it in Kerstin’s home every year during the holidays for at least 20 years. I finally got Marsh to copy her cherished recipe from the original tattered and torn pages of her handwritten cookbook.
 

1 (8-ounce) jar herring in wine sauce, drained and diced
1 1/2 to 2 cups pickled beets, chopped or thinly sliced (see recipe)
2 cups cooked macaroni
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf, crumbled
 

In a large bowl, combine the herring, beets, noodles, apples and onions and toss to blend. Blend in the mayonnaise and vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix well with the bay leaf. Cover with plastic wrap and chill.
Serves eight to 10.
 

Open-Face Herring Sandwiches With Horseradish Sauce

 
12 thin slices limpa bread

The Meatiest Offer in Town


The tables were filled and the clock turned back at Canter’s on Monday, as the landmark Fairfax deli lowered the price of a corned beef sandwich to 75 cents in honor of the restaurant’s 75th anniversary.

Cashier Tom Gordon, who answered questions between fielding phone calls and ringing up tabs, said his crew expected to serve 10,000 corned beef sandwiches during the one-day, 24-hour promotion. That’s about 5,000 pounds of corned beef, by his reckoning. But that’s nothing compared to the restaurant’s estimates of their cumulative servings of 2 million pounds of smoked salmon, 20 million bagels and 24 million bowls of chicken soup.

It’s been 75 years since the Canter brothers moved west from Jersey City and opened a restaurant in Boyle Heights, east of downtown, in the center of what was then a bustling immigrant Jewish neighborhood. As the tribe migrated westward, Ben and Jenny Canter opened a second location at its current spot in 1953, eventually closing the original Eastside spot. The family also owns a restaurant in Las Vegas, which opened in 2003.

Some things at Canter’s never seem to change. The pickles are still made onsite according to Ben’s original recipe. And the few sugar-free baked goods are overwhelmed by the markedly sinful display of sweets that you must pass as you enter. But the updated and ever-gargantuan menu also includes Mexican-style offerings and healthier plates like the Orange Almond Salad, which is what Wade Twitchell would have ordered if corned beef wasn’t selling for 75 cents. Twitchell had brought along Brian Ewell, 13, who would have ordered coldcuts, but couldn’t resist the 75-cents logic either. But Dawn Sharpe, originally a deli-goer in Dorchester, Mass., has been a pastrami/corned beef gal from the word go. She conceded, however, she might not have made the drive from Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley if the price hadn’t been so right.

The line outside varied in length throughout the day, but it was never short. Still, it seemed to move fast — a good thing since the appetite-maddening smell of corned beef wafted at least two blocks away.

The topsy-turvy prices had consequences up and down the street. For one thing, a street person in black boots and a knit cap was asking passersby for 75 cents, as though that were the going price. And it looked as though some familiar street denizens were actually in line for sandwiches. But things were not going well at the nearby Schwartz Bakery, where the line of Canter’s customers effectively blocked the storefront.

“No one is breaking through the line to get to my store,” complained the woman behind the counter. “It’s been like this all day.”

Reporter’s Postscript: The situation was no better for me, a regular Canter’s customer, after all, who was able to get close enough to photograph and takes notes on the corned beef, but lacked time to stand in line. Luckily, the poppyseed danish from Schwartz’s was first-rate.

 

Sweet Break From Sour Reality


“Pickles, Inc.” is an unpretentious PBS documentary about eight Arab widows from a village in northern Israel, who break all kinds of traditions by starting a tiny factory producing homemade pickles.

As modest as it seems, “Pickles,” which airs Tuesday, Aug. 30 at 9 p.m. on KCET, can be viewed on surprisingly varied levels: as part of the recent trend by Israeli filmmakers to explore sympathetically the daily lives of their Arab countrymen; as the struggle of Arab women to stir against generations of submission by testing the boundaries of their independence; as a portrayal of the joys and pitfalls facing novices trying to start their own small business.

Finally — and this matters, too — the film provides a bit of lighthearted news from a land of generally shrieking and frequently depressing, doom-saying headlines.

When Israeli filmmaker Dalit Kimor first approached the eight women from the village of Tamra in the Galilee, she faced a mutual language barrier and the insistence of the “cast” on an all-female film crew.

Once Kimor gained their confidence, the mostly middle-aged women proved to be high-spirited, salty characters, whose resilience — in the face of permanent widowhood, troubled children, lack of education, social taboos, and complete ignorance of business — is truly bracing.

As the proprietors of the Azka Pickle Cooperative spend long hours slicing, dicing and preparing their product, jar by jar, according to old family recipes, they have to teach themselves such arcane skills as marketing, distribution, and accounting.

Samara, as the only one with a ninth-grade education and a knowledge of Hebrew, is elected as the director of the enterprise.

Almaza, the sole car owner, becomes the sales director and distributor.

After their shifts, Fatma and Marina each have eight children to take care of.

Like many other first-time entrepreneurs, the pickle-makers ultimately find themselves in over their heads, but each emerges as a stronger, more independent woman.

Happily, there isn’t a single scene or complaint about Israeli checkpoints, discrimination or dispossession. The sole inter-ethnic question is: Will Israeli Jews like Arab pickles?

“Pickles, Inc.” airs at 9 p.m. on the “Wide Angle” program www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle.