September 24, 2018

A Holiday Cake That Brings the Love and Saves You Time

By the time sukkot rolls around, many home cooks may be feeling burned out from the constant stream of preparations they have been making for large family dinners and gatherings from Rosh Hashanah through the break-the-fast meal after Yom Kippur.

Even though I’m a chef and caterer, I also feel pressure when I host special meals. In many respects, I feel that expectations for a meal at my house are higher than they would be at the home of someone who isn’t a professional chef. Also, isn’t this the time of year when we ask ourselves hard questions and meditate on the past and the future? Thinking about what we need to do differently and what habits and thoughts aren’t serving us anymore is hard work. 

It’s so important to recharge yourself because you’re not very useful to anyone else if you’re exhausted and running on empty. I’m not saying you shouldn’t cook that special fish dish or kugel that’s traditional in your household, but do you have to cram one side of the table to the other with specialty foods over the holidays? 

I say no. Your kids, your spouse, your parents, your friends — they love you for more than your cooking. They love your company, your hugs, your kisses, your humor and your caring face. All the therapy in the world won’t help you hold on to your relationships if you take for granted your primary sources of joy and happiness. Imagine if everyone concentrated on themselves and their loved ones. Then imagine what a better place emotionally and spiritually your environment would be if people took care of themselves, felt special, and even pampered themselves a little.

When facing challenging and busy times, less is more. Keeping things simple and easy can help you find moments of calm and sanity. Rather than taking on more, even if your family relies on you to execute the holiday menus, it’s important to take a breath and think about your well-being. It’s one thing to want to please everyone in your life; it’s another to be so stressed that you forget yourself completely. 

If you are hosting people for Sukkot, make only dishes that are simple and enjoyable for you. If your specialty is complicated and time-consuming and you are overwhelmed — stop! Readjust your plans. Ask guests to bring a dish or buy prepared cuisine.

There is no shame in saying no, either. Don’t be the person whom everyone counts on for holidays if you feel crushed by the burden of cooking. Trust that the people who love you would rather have you vital and happy and dancing around your kitchen than to eat the most delicious thing you could possibly offer them. 

“Your kids, your spouse, your parents, your friends — they love you for more than your cooking.”

While I’m not suggesting that you forget about everything that makes the holiday feel special to you, I am giving you permission to do less. Take a page out of the French playbook and make a simple dessert or, better yet, buy one.

According to baker extraordinaire Dorie Greenspan, who lives part of the year in Paris, the French don’t bake at home much. This makes sense because why would you try to compete with the amazing patisseries on every corner? But when they do, most everyone has a yogurt cake in their arsenal.

I’ve been making this one for years, not knowing that it’s a French staple. It’s easy enough that even after I’ve been at work and on my feet baking fancy pies and tarts for days on end, I can still manage this cake. I’ll call it my “charity begins at home” cake because it’s barely baking at all and every ingredient is probably already in your pantry. It’s also such a winning cake for a casual holiday table because it’s rather plain and will remind you of days gone by when Entenmann’s and Sara Lee were the only choices instead of the 4,000 brands available in stores today. It also has a homey, endearing split on top when it comes out of the oven. 

This recipe is adapted from Greenspan’s. I use one of her tricks when making this loaf that will make you happy (see recipe). I’m going to pass down the secret with a wish that you serve this under your sukkah this year. You can dress it up and make it fancier by cubing it trifle-style and layering it with berries or coconut whipped cream, but honestly, no one will complain if you serve it as is.

I make the cake in two small loaf pans, but you can make it in one standard 9-by-4-inch pan. It also freezes well, so you can double the recipe to have a spare on hand for when people drop by for coffee or tea. It comes out like a light pound cake with a slightly orange flavor and a comforting, cakey crumb.

Here’s to being more generous with your time this Sukkot — time for yourself. 

YOGURT CAKE

Rind of 2 clementines (use lemon or orange if you wish)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup plain yogurt (or vanilla-flavored or Greek yogurt)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup neutral-tasting vegetable oil
2 tablespoons raspberry jam (optional)
2 tablespoons honey, warmed

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Greenspan’s trick: Take the rind of both clementines and rub into the sugar with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and the citrus scent hits your nostrils. Rubbing releases the oils in the rind and makes the cake zing with flavor. 

In the same bowl, add the yogurt and mix well. Add the eggs and vanilla and whisk until smooth.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and add them to the egg/yogurt mixture in batches, or until you no longer see flour. Then, switch to a spatula and fold in the oil until the batter is smooth and shiny.

Pour into your loaf pan and spoon jam (if using) onto the batter using a knife to disperse the jam and create some swirls.  Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry or with just a few crumbs.

Glaze the cake with warm honey after it comes out of the oven for that nice holiday touch.

Cool for 30 minutes and then turn out onto a cooling rack. Serve warm or cold. Store in refrigerator in a sealed container.  


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda. 

Why I Will Eat an Israeli Salad on Yom HaAtzmaut

Being raised by two intensely patriotic Israelis while living outside of Israel was confusing. Although both my parents had been proud soldiers in the Israeli army, I had little connection to Israel because they immigrated to the United States when I was very young. We also moved around so much for my father’s job that, even though my parents had a few Israeli friends, we were, for the most part, on our own and perpetually on the move.

Air travel was prohibitive for my young parents, who were trying to save enough money to return to their country with the chance of buying a home. I was 11 when we finally did return, so much of that time was a blur of the emotional drama of adolescence and anxiety over being the new girl again.

But the year we returned, the Israeli economy took a downturn after the Yom Kippur War, which proved too much of a strain on my parents, who, by that time, had grown accustomed to the gentler ways of their lives in the far less chaotic United States.

By age 12, I was already back in the States. I’d experienced a taste of Israeli life, having learned the language and grown close to my uncles and aunts. The byproduct of this constant tumult was that while I’d felt like an American in Israel, now, after studying in an Israeli school, I felt like an Israeli in America.

As an adult, perhaps trying to bridge this gap and my feelings of rootlessness, I moved back to Israel. One morning, while driving in Tel Aviv, my cousin called to warn me that in a few minutes there would be an air siren to commemorate Yom HaShoah. I barely had time to digest what she’d said when traffic came to a sudden and complete halt while the 10 a.m. siren that sounds in every corner of Israel blared. I watched people get out of their cars and stand solemnly in the street, on balconies and the sidewalk with downturned eyes. To the American in me, this was the sound of war, a warning to take shelter and to find cover, but to the Israeli in me, I knew something much deeper was happening. It was the first time I realized that I and all of those surrounding me were the survivors of something unimaginable. We were there, able to stand in the streets of Israel in the knowledge that our people had somehow built this country out of a tremendous collective sorrow.

It was one of the proudest moments of my life — having the privilege to stand in the country of my birth, in a thriving Jewish homeland. Strangely, when I heard that frightening siren, for the first time I felt like a “chosen” person. By some miraculous combination of stamina and defiance, we were the ones chosen to carry on a legacy. Remembering our dead in this visceral way, in silent meditation before going about our day, was indeed a privilege afforded to very few. I knew I was there not by accident but because my grandparents managed to survive and, just barely, to get their children out alive.

By some miraculous combination of stamina and defiance, we were the ones chosen to carry on a legacy.

My grandparents were separated during the war when my Russian grandfather was drafted to serve in the army in Siberia. My grandmother somehow managed to keep my mother and her brother alive, walking thousands of miserable miles to Uzbekistan and back again. When they finally reached their native Romania, they found their house in shambles, nothing left inside but rubble.

Even though my mother was a young girl, she remembers the hunger, how my grandmother sold the few possessions she managed to carry and the gold jewelry she had to obtain food. She remembers the smell of the dung her mother used to cook what little she had bartered for and the heady aroma of the rice pilaf made by the local Uzbekistanis that her mother could not afford to buy her.

It is unfathomable that my grandparents were reunited at all, and then that they were courageous enough, after the trauma they endured, to make a new life in Israel. To think they considered themselves the “lucky ones” gives new meaning to the concepts of faith and optimism.

When they finally made it to Israel, my grandparents were middle-aged, and my mother was 11, the same age I was when we moved back. My mother was so thin and frail, so unhealthy from all the years of war, that my grandmother sent her away to a mountainous region of Israel to breathe clean air and eat fruits and vegetables. She describes the taste of the sour cream in Israel, full of sugar that they fed her to fatten her up — as all the riches promised to them in the land flowing with milk and honey.

Even before I cooked professionally, I found it impossible to waste food. My mother never wasted anything in our house. She used every part of an animal or vegetable, and perhaps I inherited that from her. But I’m not sure this sensibility came from watching her cook. I could almost convince myself that I am a reincarnation of an old Jewish soul, one who came out of the war only to find itself in a foreign land, one where the soul didn’t speak the language and was mocked for being the new kid.

Maybe I, like every Jew, carry around a little piece of that burden and legacy with me. In each one of us who are left, there is a bit of that old soul waiting and wondering: Can it happen again? Maybe it is this collective memory that makes an inordinately high percentage of our people strive and push for greatness. Maybe it’s to make up for the fact that we lost so many and so few of us are left to make great music, beautiful art and advances in every field. Maybe it’s why we are programmed to educate and why it’s the hallmark of a Jewish soul to remain vigilant and fight social injustice.

For all these reasons, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate both the remembrance of the Holocaust as well as Israel’s birthday than by eating an Israeli salad. To me, it’s the ultimate symbol of grounding and successful assimilation of a people.

What started as the Salat Aravi, or Arab salad — the most popular salad of the region — became Salat Katzutz, or chopped salad. When we eat it, our souls might remember that we came to a foreign land because they tried to kill us, but we prevailed. It is with this salad that we showed the world that we could feed ourselves despite unfamiliar and hostile surroundings.

When we hear the siren that symbolizes our very existence, it doesn’t matter what we’re going through now, individually or as a nation. It means we shouldn’t forget that we are the children and grandchildren of survivors — a precious, chosen few. No matter our origins, as Jews, we are an expression of the Israeli salad, chopped small but abundant in our defiance, full of soul and present at tables around the world.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

The Sephardic Answer to Gefilte Fish

Although I’m an only child, I was compensated for this unfortunate circumstance in the form of cousins whom I regard as brothers and sisters. The dynamics of a relationship with a cousin can be an extraordinary thing. You have enough diluted shared DNA to recognize a family resemblance, but you don’t have the competitive baggage that siblings often have. It’s like having the best of all worlds: a deep and binding sibling-like shared history without the tension that can come from growing up in the same household.

My cousin Dudi and I barely knew each other until recently, yet we share a connection that feels like it was cultivated over a lifetime. When my parents immigrated to the U.S., Dudi was not yet born. Our 10-year age gap prevented us from getting to know each other until a few years ago.

Dudi’s grandmother and my maternal grandmother were sisters, and they had a love-hate relationship until Dudi’s grandmother’s death. According to Dudi, they would fight on the phone and hang up on each other regularly, like two little girls, full of drama even as old women. My mother adored her Aunt Adela and would often spend weekends off from the army at Adela’s house, which was near where she served. She often speaks of the food she ate there, mainly the Romanian Ashkenazi classics such as sarma and kozunak.

While both of our grandmothers focused on Romanian food, their daughters, my mother and Dudi’s, ventured in the opposite direction. My mother married into a Sephardic family of Bulgarian cooks, while her cousin, surrounded by Moroccan Jewish neighbors, developed a passion for Sephardic cuisine and ignited that hunger in Dudi.

While both of our grandmothers focused on Romanian food, their daughters, my mother and Dudi’s, ventured in the opposite direction.

Although we didn’t grow up together, Dudi and I are shockingly similar. We had mothers who worked full time and can trace our love of kitchen work back to childhood when we preferred cooking the family meal to doing our homework. Like me, Dudi came to professional cooking relatively late in life. Four years ago, at the age of 40, he left Israel and an established career in engineering to join our cousin Marion and his wife, Angelina, in their incredible restaurant La Luna in Nosara, Costa Rica.

Similarly, at around the same age, I left my corporate job at The New York Times to pursue my own business in Israel. A few years later, my husband’s new post brought me to Uganda, where finally I was able to focus on my passion for cooking. For Dudi and me, the idea of working in the food space was a faraway dream until an unexpected turn led us to take the ultimate plunge, culminating with my opening my restaurants and now serving as a chef at the American embassy, and Dudi opening his first restaurant later this year in Costa Rica.

We regularly find ourselves making the same dish and swapping stories about kitchen life. Neither of us feels right when we are away from cooking for long, and although we love to travel, we feel happiest in the action and intensity of a kitchen. We lean toward Sephardic food, preferring chraime to gefilte fish but we love that, too. We have cookbooks on our bedside tables and read them for fun like novels. We eat mostly for the condiments and possess an infuriating struggle for perfection, playing with a recipe or a food concept until we drive ourselves and others mad.

Unsurprisingly, Dudi and I make chraime (fish in spicy tomato sauce) almost identically. I’ve merged our recipes so you can benefit from both. Dudi calls this dish “fish for lazy people” because it’s so simple to prepare. And that’s true — it’s a straightforward recipe I often make in my paella pan from Spain to add an extra Sephardic touch. Dudi likes it with bread, preferably challah, not sliced but torn straight from the loaf. I love eating chraime with plain, white rice cooked in some chicken fat and broth from chicken soup.

This Sephardic mainstay dish uses any variety of firm, white fish. In Israel, it’s usually made with Nile perch or grouper and is a must for Sephardic Jews on Rosh Hashanah and Passover. While Dudi lives on the beach in Costa Rica and is spoiled for choice, I live on the shores of Lake Victoria and am limited to using tilapia or Nile perch, whichever of the two is freshest in the market that day.

I’ve found that the flavor of this dish dramatically improves if you cook it with fish that still has its bones attached so they can impart the sauce with a more unctuous texture and flavor. Dudi makes his chraime with fillets, but you can buy yourself a whole fish and ask your fishmonger to fillet it for you keeping the head and tail to stew in the sauce along with the fillets. That way, like a perfect cousin mind meld, you too can enjoy the best of all worlds.

CHRAIME:
SPICY SEPHARDIC FISH
½ cup light olive oil
8 cloves garlic, chopped or sliced
½ large fresh sweet red pepper, chopped
1 15-ounce can chopped Italian tomatoes
or 4 very ripe red tomatoes
with their juice
2 heaping tablespoons sweet paprika
1 heaping tablespoon hot paprika
(or to taste — we like it spicy)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
½ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
(optional)
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
1½ cups boiling water
Juice of 1 lemon (about 4 tablespoons)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
to taste
1½ pounds firm white fish (fillets or
bone-in steaks)
1 bunch fresh cilantro (optional, roughly
chopped for garnish)
Lemon wedges for serving

Heat olive oil on low heat in a medium-size saucepan (a paella pan is ideal for this). Add garlic while the oil is cold and cook on low heat until fragrant but not brown. Add chopped red pepper and canned or fresh tomatoes with their juice and saute until reduced. Add the dry spices and tomato paste and cook until oil is bright red, about 1 minute. Add boiling water and lemon juice and cook partially covered until sauce has reduced and thickened and oil is beginning to pool around the sides of the pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place fish into the sauce and turn up the heat to medium-low. Cover pan and cook approximately 15 minutes or until cooked through. Uncover and gently simmer on low heat to reduce the liquid produced by the fish until the sauce is thick. Add chopped cilantro, if using. Let fish rest in the pan a few minutes. Serve warm with lemon wedges and plenty of bread or rice and for mopping up the sauce.

Makes 4 servings.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

The Saudade of Cake

Aside from the fact that my father is a remarkable storyteller, he has been swimming upstream for many of his 79 years on Earth, and I’ve been along for much of the ride and inadvertently have followed in his footsteps.

In 1966, he left the relative security of his close-knit Bulgarian family in Israel and plunged into the great abyss of New York City. He had very little money to his name and a wife and small child to support. My mother had little desire for adventures like these and was struggling enough with the responsibilities of being a new mother. She also didn’t speak more than a few words of English.

Back then, New York City was not the gentrified Disneyland of today but a rough-and-tumble town with opportunities and dangers in equal measure around every corner. My father says he was so thin then that he and his friend, another Israeli emigre, could effortlessly squeeze through the subway turnstiles together so they could ride on one fare. When he rode the subway, he carried an umbrella in case he needed to fend off would-be muggers.

My father reinvented himself again and again, always carrying us along, bolstering my mother and me with his seemingly never-ending fountain of optimism and energy. He moved us to six states before I was 11 years old, pushing forward ahead of technology until finally building a successful company. We even did a brief stint back in Israel, the intended goal from the start, before both my parents realized that they felt more comfortable in the once-foreign land of America that had accidentally become their home.

“To ground myself, I decided to use my challah dough to make a version of Kozunak.”

Because I now live in Uganda and my parents are still in the U.S., our time together when I visit is limited and can be somewhat fraught with tension. We race to tell one another stories and fill in details of conversations that shouldn’t have started on the phone in the first place. While my husband and I struggle with jet lag and the cold weather that chills our Africa-thinned blood, my parents fill the inadequate time with us by passing on their knowledge and experiences from which they think we might benefit.

During my most recent visit, I found myself marinating in stereotypical reverse culture shock. After not living in the U.S. for 15 years, I began lamenting the “old” version of America I once knew. An America where people weren’t staring at smartphones and wearing headphones in public places. I longed for the days when there wasn’t a minimum of two Starbucks on every corner, and the city still had grit and flavor. I was experiencing saudade (sow-DAH-jeh), a Portuguese word that means a constant feeling of absence or sadness for something that’s missing.

Perhaps sensing my discomfort, my father told me a story about his childhood that mirrored the saudade I was feeling. During World War II, Jewish residents of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, were expelled from the city and forced to move to surrounding villages. Because my grandfather was an officer in the Bulgarian army, he had the opportunity to relocate his family to the destination of his choosing. They ended up in his birthplace, Pazardzhik, a small town 70 miles southeast of Sofia. There, they were fortunate to spend the war years without experiencing much hardship. Food was plentiful, and they considered themselves among the fortunate ones, even if the austerity of the village in wartime granted them few of the luxuries they were accustomed to before the war.

My father was 9 years old when his family returned to Sofia after the war. In the summer, he and his friends would travel via electric tram to enjoy the swimming pool in a city park named after King Boris. They also were drawn to the park by a special treat sold in a stall there, a Kozunak, a sweet, cakelike bread from Eastern Europe, known as babka by American Jews. My father told me he still remembered the smell and taste of that cake, such a treat after years of wartime deprivation.

Back in Uganda, saudade struck me again, this time in reverse. After having been in the States for a month, I had become accustomed to the abundance in the grocery stores. I now felt stifled by the lack of choices. I also missed my parents, my mother’s food and my friends. I realized I was, indeed, stuck — not feeling at home anywhere.

Because I cook for a living, I had no choice but to go back to work and immerse myself in the bakery. To ground myself, I decided to use my challah dough to make a version of Kozunak, perhaps to indulge myself in the sweet memories of my father.

I cut 40 ounces of the dough in half, rolled each half out into a rectangle and smeared each with pastry cream. In honor of Tu B’Shevat, I then layered each half with fig jam, chopped dates, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, slivered almonds and a sprinkling of brown sugar.

I rolled up each half jellyroll-style. Then, with a sharp knife, I cut each roll through the middle horizontally to expose the layers. I braided the four, layered strands and placed them in a large loaf tin to double in size.

After the loaf had risen, I brushed it with butter, sprinkled almonds all over it and baked it into a puffed bronze braid. I then doused the hot pastry liberally in a simple syrup made with honey for added moisture.

Standing in my kitchen at work, inhaling the scent of still warm challah with sweet fruit, I suddenly understood how the intoxicating aroma of this sweet cake could make my father’s childhood memory — even 70 years later — feel like it came from yesterday.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Me and Borscht

What do Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and I have in common? We all spent a day at Veselka, an iconic Ukrainian restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The actresses were filming a trailer for their upcoming girl-power caper, “Ocean’s 8,” and me, well, I spent a far more exciting day watching the borscht-making process in Veselka’s 63-year-old kitchen.

My guide for the day, Veselka’s Ukrainian-born executive chef Dima Martseniuk, a French Culinary Institute graduate and veteran of some of the city’s most competitive kitchens, showed me around the various stations that churn out absurd amounts of Eastern European classics like pierogi, cabbage rolls (sarma) and stroganoff, but I was here for another classic: Veselka’s world famous borscht, of which 5,000 gallons a year are made by one powerhouse Polish grandmother named Malgorsia.

The day I stepped into Veselka’s seemingly endless, underground kitchen happened to be the day that a cataclysmic blizzard dubbed the “bomb cyclone” befell the city starting at 5 a.m. Stabbing icicles of snow and wind made visibility grim when I reached the restaurant in the morning. But inside, sheltered by the warmth and coziness of Veselka, with the sweet smell of stock and savory meat all around me, I met a cyclone of a different variety and no less powerful.

Polish-born Malgorcata Sibilski, affectionately known as Malgorsia, has been making Veselka’s iconic staple, as well as all its other soups, for more than three decades. For five hours straight, I watched the diminutive 71-year-old grandmother of five lift, chop, paddle, schlep, taste, stir, hoist and smile. She didn’t talk much, so I just watched her until a bit past noon, when, in the middle of the lunch-rush chaos, she disappeared up the stairs for a few moments leaving me to contemplate my lack of energy in her wake.

Four minutes later, she reappeared with a plastic pitcher of coffee, two chipped Veselka mugs and a brown paper bag. She poured us coffees, adding cold milk from the walk-in fridge behind me and downed hers, her first of the day she told me, in a matter of seconds. She unfolded the paper bag, offered me a slice of bread from it and proceeded to shove half a slice into her mouth, tucking the other half into the pocket of her white chef’s coat, presumably for later.

There was no sitting, no resting, not even a moment to lose because there were 100 gallons of borscht to prepare for the weekend. All the while, workers trudged in and out of the kitchen, wearing coats, hats and scarves, remarking about what I assume were the weather conditions, speaking Polish, Russian, Ukranian and a language that one of the workers informed me is Malgorsia language, a mashup of Polish and English with a sprinkling of Ukrainian.

All the while, Malgorsia was stirring and talking, smiling, charming and stopping for a second to kiss a cheek here and there and greet workers who come or go during their shifts. She beckoned me to an enormous eight-burner stove, all burners bearing 25-gallon soup pots bubbling away with various fragrant liquid concoctions.

I followed her in an overwhelmed daze and watched as she explained in broken “Malgorsiaspeak” the various contents of the pots. One pot was full of cabbage and other vegetables that I watched her chop by hand the whole morning. Another, with huge white lima beans in a different broth, potatoes and onions in another swimming in meat stock. Yet another contained shredded beets with vinegar (for color I was  told), and a final pot containing a strong version of beet juice that was squeezed the previous Sunday and was reducing. The meat has been cooked and is in the cold room waiting to be chopped because it is “easier to slice when it’s cold.”

She stood on tiptoes and used an oar about the size a person would use to paddle a canoe, but with a shorter handle. Martseniuk, the head chef, tried to help her reach the pots on the back burners but failed to get the stirring technique exactly right. He told me that he can’t quite use the oar the way she does although he is bigger and stronger; only she can paddle the soup with the oar in the right way.

I asked him what would have happened if the weather had prevented Malgorsia from coming to work that day, seeing as she lives 35 miles away in New Jersey and the cyclone bomb had some people sheltering in place that day. Martseniuk laughed and said, “No chance of that. War, no war, rain, snow, cyclone bomb, nothing would keep Malgorsia from work. Nothing!”

“What would we do without her to make
the borscht?” — Tom Birchard

Later, Veselka’s owner, Tom Birchard, told me that Veselka employs a high percentage of older workers and is being given an award later in the month by Columbia University for being a leader in the industry in this regard. “Older workers are mature and have an incredible work ethic, as you can see. What would we do without her to make the borscht? Can you believe her passion and dedication?” he asked me. I admitted to him that Malgorsia has astounded me with her speed, efficiency and passion for her “art,” as she called it.

“This is my play,” she said when we finally were ready to put together the borscht eight hours later, six pots and pans of cooked ingredients in front of us along with her trusted paddle, to be mixed into a huge cauldron and then separated into 50, one-gallon empty plastic Hellman’s mayonnaise containers.

For five minutes, she mixed and seasoned until finally she stuck one of her gloved pinkies into the soup for a taste. I looked at her expectantly. Silently, she handed me a spoon the size of my head and nodded toward the pot. “Try,” she said.

I got the feeling it was a test to see what I’m made of, and sure enough, to me, the soup needed salt and acid, so I told her so. A smile broke across her face, an indication that I didn’t fail her. “Bravo!  Yes, we add,” she said as she mixed in some more vinegary beet juice and Maggi. “Now we play until we are happy.”

Upstairs in the restaurant, after the woman The New Yorker dubbed the “Queen of Borscht” had played with her soup enough to be happy, I was served a steaming bowl of “Veselka Red” (a real term in New York) beet soup with chunks of potatoes, lima beans and tender meat. On the side were two perfect slices of the house-baked challah and a dollop of sour cream that seems to have come from some heavenly planet.

I contemplated the snowy wonderland outside the steamy windows, and the huge “Veselka is Love” sign made out of foot-tall red, wooden letters hanging above my head. I was surrounded by young and old people speaking many languages, some laughing and some just sitting in quiet meditation in this little piece of old New York on Second Avenue. I raised a spoon to my mouth and remembered a sentence from the Talmud: “A person will be called to account on Judgment day for every permissible thing he might have enjoyed but did not.”

Rest assured, at Veselka, full enjoyment regularly ensues — and with great abandon.

Stay tuned next week for Veselka’s borscht recipe.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Soup DNA: The Secret Behind the Best Chicken Soup

Soup is the culinary equivalent of love. I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but I fiercely stand behind it.

I once read that Chinese families used to keep a pot of soup on the stove — for generations. They would top it off all day with vegetable and meat scraps, bones and herbs, and keep it on the stove simmering away ad infinitum. This means that every time they ate soup, they ate a part of their ancestry. Imagine always having your grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s soup DNA in there nourishing you.

As a half-Ashkenazi Jew, the concept of a perpetual pot of soup on the stove is very appealing. After all, have you ever met an Ashkenazi who didn’t begin his or her meal with soup? This hardy stock of folks historically has been raised on hardy stock — literally.  In the frigid winters of Eastern Europe, a nourishing and comforting bowl of soup was the difference between life and death.

One day, on a trip to visit family in Israel, I was invited to lunch by one of my mother’s Romanian cousins. I walked into the house and was almost struck speechless by an incredible smell. A nearly visceral image of my grandmother came to mind, and I rushed into the kitchen to see what was cooking.

“Leustean,” my cousin Beatrice said, laughing. “I put it in the chicken soup. Your grandmother used it — all Romanians do.”

And there it was, that special smell and flavor I had been chasing for my entire life summed up in a word I’d never heard.

“Leustean?” I asked, sticking a spoon in the pot to taste.

“Leustean is Romanian for lovage,” my smarty pants uncle chimed in.

I called my mother to tell her that I had finally found a clue to safta’s soup. We ordered a pound of dry lovage and added it to our chicken soup. Suddenly, my mother’s face lit up.

“Leustean,” she said. “I’ve been chasing this taste for years.”

Since the day my grandmother reached down through the great divide to remind me about lovage, I’ve never made chicken soup without it. Lovage, an herb from the dill family, is what is used to flavor bouillon cubes. Surprisingly, even though it’s one of the most ubiquitous taste profiles, most of us don’t have a name for it, and I’ve yet to find a customer who can identify it.

So now that you know the secret to great chicken soup, here is my “recipe” for chicken stock. This is the quintessential Jewish mother’s remedy to everything that ails you — from a cold to heartbreak.

If there is one thing you learn to do in the kitchen, learn to make stock. It will fill your home with the aroma of your ancestors, it’s a bowl of vitamins in disguise, and it will earn you a lifetime of accolades from admirers who can’t quite figure out why your chicken soup tastes so special. And if you have kids, this just doubles the incentive because there is never a time when I make chicken soup that I don’t hold my mother and my grandmother in my heart and mind the entire time.

If that’s not love in a bowl, I don’t know what is.

WORLD’S BEST CHICKEN SOUP STOCK
Bones of at least 3 chickens or 1 whole chicken
1 head garlic, unpeeled
3 carrots, washed, peeled and cut into chunks
8 ribs of celery, washed and roughly chopped
2 parsnips, washed, peeled and cut into chunks
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 whole celery root
2 large yellow onions, unpeeled, washed
and cut into quarters
1 small green pepper, washed, deseeded
and cut into quarters
Handful parsley stems
Handful cilantro stems
Handful dill stems
Handful lovage stems (or 2 tablespoons
dry lovage)
6 whole black peppercorns
1 inch fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 hot green pepper left whole (optional)

BEFORE SERVING
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Sugar to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped leaves of parsley
and dill, for garnish

Put all ingredients into a large pot. Cover all with cold water and turn the heat to high. Skim the scum that rises to the top of the pot as it heats and discard.

At the first boil, lower the heat to a slow simmer and partially cover pot for a minimum of 2 hours — 4 is better. If you used a whole chicken, feel free to remove the meat after a few hours and leave the bones in the pot to continue simmering; that’s where the flavor comes from, anyway.

And there it was, that special smell and flavor I had been chasing for my entire life summed up in a word I’d never heard.

When your stock is done, turn off the heat and let the liquid cool until you can handle it. Take a large sieve and put it over another pot and strain out all the solids. At this point, you should have a dark, yellow, fragrant stock and a heap of mushy vegetables and bones in the strainer. If you didn’t remove your chicken and you enjoy stringy boiled chicken — I sometimes do — then pull the chicken out and keep it in the refrigerator to add back into the stock later. If not, feed this resulting mush to your pets; they will enjoy it much more than you will. (Warning: Dogs should not eat onions or garlic, and never give a dog poultry bones.)

Strain the stock one more time. (The French strain 7 times, but I don’t. The clearer you want your stock, the more you strain.)

Leave your stock in the fridge to jell overnight. The stock will separate and the fat will rise to the top in a hard yellow layer. This is the gelatin and collagen from the bones and marrow of the chicken, and it’s great for your hair, nails and skin, and part of the reason that chicken soup is a wonder drug for the flu. Keep this golden schmaltz and use it to cook rice or vegetables or to fry latkes or sweet potato fritters.

You can put some stock in the freezer in jars or continue on and make any type of soup you fancy: lentil, split pea, black bean or tomato. Do you want to make chicken soup? Add back some chopped raw carrots, chicken breast and some snips of fresh herbs — and maybe even some matzo balls or noodles. Important to note, this is unseasoned stock.

When you are ready to serve, be sure to season your stock with salt, black pepper and a touch of sugar to taste.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Thanksgiving With More Joy and Less Oy

Photo by Lynn Pelkey

I have an important message about the Thanksgiving meal for all you moms, dads, bubbes and holiday feast-makers out there: It’s not about the food.

There, I said it.

The truth is, holiday meals are never about the food. They are about family traditions, friends who are family, lively discussions, screaming kids and ranting in-laws. They are about making memories and laughter and having enough leftover turkey to make sandwiches the next day.

No matter how creamy your mashed potatoes are or how many Michelin stars your meal might earn, the fact is, no one is going to remember the food. What they will remember is your radiance, your happiness, your warmth and maybe even your dance moves.

So please, if you are preparing for the upcoming Thanksgiving meal, give yourself permission to take some shortcuts. If your meal is five-star but your face says “I just want to crawl back into bed,” you have lost. This year, commit to not being that frazzled person who is too stressed to be grateful on the official day of gratitude.

This year, commit to not being that frazzled person who is too stressed to be grateful on the official day of gratitude.

I speak from experience. For many years, I’ve prepared the Thanksgiving meal for almost 200 Foreign Service Officers at the U.S. Embassy in Uganda. Not only do I have the added pressure of cooking for people who would rather be home for the holiday, but I have to start well before Thanksgiving arrives — after all, I’d end up in a straitjacket if I woke up Wednesday morning still needing to make hundreds of pies and peel 200 pounds of potatoes.

Yet, many home cooks do just that sort of thing before big meals. This Thanksgiving, take it from a person who cooks for a living: Follow this schedule I’ve put together to take some anxiety out of the holiday.

Monday, Nov. 20: Do your shopping
Nothing spells heartbreak faster than running to 20 stores on Thanksgiving morning in search of croutons — or cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie filling. Don’t forget extra herbs and seasonings, salt, butter (or schmaltz or oil), flour, cream, milk, coffee, tea, sugar and large, disposable foil containers. Also, buy a meat thermometer with a pop-up timer. They cost next to nothing, and you will need to know when your turkey is cooked.

Tuesday, Nov. 21: Start preparing
Today is the day to make dough and desserts, and to prep the veggies, the frozen turkey and the fridge.

Apple pies can be made in advance and frozen unbaked. Pumpkin and pecan pies can be made today, and they will sit happily in your fridge until Thursday.

Figure out the challah/roll/biscuit situation and deal with that. You can make the dough and shape it in advance, then put it in the freezer to pop into the oven on Thursday.

This is also the day to peel regular and sweet potatoes and cover them with cold water. Trim the ends off string beans, blanch them in salted water and freeze in bags.

For the stuffing, prepare croutons, celery, onions and garlic before storing them in the fridge in Ziploc bags.

Clear out your fridge to make as much room as you can. Be brutal: Throw away those jars of condiments you’ve had in there since 1986. Then — and this is critical — if your turkey is frozen, put it in the fridge to thaw. Many Turkey Days have been ruined by underestimating how long it takes to thaw a big bird.

Wednesday, Nov. 22: Side dish day
Make the stuffing, the mashed and sweet potatoes, the green bean casserole, rice, couscous or whatever dishes your traditions dictate. Grease those disposable foil containers, put side dishes in them, cover them with foil and throw them in the fridge, ready to go into the oven the next day.

And if you bought a kosher turkey, you have even more to be grateful for. You can skip all that messy brining because kosher turkeys have already been brined.

Thursday, Nov. 23: Thanksgiving
While everyone else is trudging to the store looking for cranberries, here’s all that’s left for you to do this morning:

Preheat your oven and remove the side dishes and turkey from the fridge, so they come to room temperature. Rinse your turkey well with plenty of cool water, dry it with paper towels and let it sit on the counter for about an hour.

If you need to bake a pie or rolls/challah/biscuits, now is the time. While those are baking, set the table. Go all out. This is the most fun part of entertaining, and if you have mismatched plates and platters, all the better. If you’re like me and almost each one of your serving dishes tells a story, recalls a place you’ve been or reminds you of a relative you miss, this is a great chance to remember.

When the bread and pies are out of the oven, turn up the temperature to 500 F. Put your meat thermometer in the deepest part of the turkey’s thigh — where it meets the breast — and rub oil all over the bird. Season the inside and outside with your choice of herbs and spices. In the roasting pan, pour a few cups of wine or water and add the giblets and neck you reserved.

Pop the turkey into the oven for 30 minutes to brown all over. Then remove the turkey from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 F. Cover the breast meat with a small piece of foil and put the turkey back in the oven until your timer goes off or your thermometer reads 165 F.  An unstuffed turkey will take about 9 minutes per pound.

Basting is unnecessary, and opening the oven door will just increase the cooking time. Let your cooked bird rest for at least 30 minutes or longer. This allows the juices to redistribute and make the meat moist and flavorful. Avoid covering the turkey during the resting period to prevent rubbery skin.

While the turkey is resting, put the foil-covered side dishes in the oven to warm.

Before getting showered and dressed, take a few minutes to remove the pan drippings from your resting-turkey pan, discard the giblets and neck, and prepare the gravy. If you want to be a super chef, pour the gravy into microwave-safe gravy boats to be warmed for 2 minutes before serving.

At this point, you’ll probably be remembering frantic meals of holidays past and wondering why you’re done already — without even breaking a sweat. Keep the good times rolling: Talk someone else into carving the turkey and browning the tops of the side dishes before transferring them to serving platters. Then kick back and enjoy a pre-dinner Thanksgiving l’chaim!


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Perspective and the Avocado Seed

For a chef, kitchen disasters are simply par for the course.

You have a 600-person catering job for an important function? “Ha, ha, ha,” says the universe. You can be pretty darn sure your suppliers won’t show up on time, your sous chef, prep chefs or waiters won’t be in a cooperative frame of mind, and anything that goes right falls under the category of suspect.

Recently, after one of these particularly brutal weeks, I found myself irritable, hungry and tired. I felt uncharacteristically troubled, and all I wanted to do was go home and take a nap. Instead, though, I decided to have a little cooking session, because, in my experience, there is no problem so great that an afternoon of puttering around the kitchen at home can’t cure it.

My first step was to go shopping because I’m a chef who inevitably has an empty fridge by the weekend. The traffic where I live in Uganda was delirium-inducing, and by the time I got to my local “Italian grocer” — even though it’s not Italian, and in fact, would barely be considered a grocery store in the more developed world — I was beside myself.

The traffic where I live in Uganda was delirium-inducing.

As always, I found the parking lot full of small children. I call them the banana kids because they perpetually surround my car trying to sell the same product — bananas. Not nice bananas, mind you, but overripe, ugly, fruit fly-infested, past-their-prime bananas that even a banana bread factory would shun. We always perform the same dance, these kids and I: I joke around with them a bit, they try to sell me their fruit, their little carvings, their bracelets. They range in age from around 7 and 14, and they are beyond cute — just sweet, innocent little souls who need to earn money for school fees. Watching them from inside my car in all their glorious, unaffected, youthful disarray let’s me forget my troubles for a moment.

On this occasion, I realized that I was in a huge 4X4 with enough money in my wallet to buy more food than these kids probably have ever seen at one time. Usually, rather than buying their rotten bananas, I like to buy them treats. I figure these kids rarely have sweetness in their lives or parents who can provide them anything more than the tattered clothes and shoes that have been handed down from older siblings. I’m pretty sure most of them don’t have parents to look after them at all. Perspective.

I’d recently been away, so they questioned me in typical Ugandan fashion: “Why are you lost, Auntie Yam?” a phrase reserved for people you haven’t seen in a while. I told them I was busy with work and with life. What I didn’t tell them was that I’ve just gotten done traveling, for the second time this month. It would be inconceivable to them that one could travel, or ever afford a plane ticket. I struggled to smile, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I broke the circle surrounding me and saw in their faces that they were disappointed I wasn’t spending much time with them. The sea of children parted, and I left them already anticipating my return. Perspective.

In the store, my usual fruit and vegetable vendors greeted me with hugs and kisses, shrieking with excitement. “Where have you been Yam? You are lost,” they said. I sank into the hugs and started to tell my favorite salesgirl that I was in a bad mood. “You’ll be all right. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” this wizened 20-year-old said, hugging me tighter and tighter with the confidence of the young mother of three that she is. Perspective.

I bought the kids some lollipops, the kind that come in a “fancy” wrapper with gum you can enjoy in the middle when you are done with the candy. I was thinking about how their eyes would light up at these sweets, a mere 600 Ugandan shillings apiece (about 15 cents) — but completely out of reach to these poverty-stricken kids. Perspective.

I went outside, already feeling better from the hugs and the thought of giving out the candy and was surrounded once again by the circle of too-ripe bananas and toothy smiles. I handed out all the lollies and watched as, one by one, a mixture of wonder and joy crossed the brow of each and every one of them.

Suddenly, the smallest of the bunch, a quiet, shy 7-year-old stepped forward and said, “Here, Auntie, we made this for you.” In his tiny hand was a small carving in the shape of a heart with my name inscribed on it.

“How did you know my full name, kids?” I asked in amazement. “What is this material you used and how did you carve it so fast?”

“It’s soft wood, Auntie, and your name is here,” another boy said, pointing at the insurance sticker on my car window. “You look sad, Auntie, and we appreciate the sweets you always give us.” I stared at the little carving in disbelief and gratitude, trying hard to swallow down tears. Perspective.

“It’s an avocado seed,” explained the oldest, “It is wet now, but it will dry and become like wood.” Sure enough, I inspected the moist little chunk and recognized that it was indeed a small part of an avocado seed roughly carved with a rusty razor blade clutched in the hand of the boy.

“Wait, Auntie, let me carve a hole in it so you can wear it near your heart.”

He removed the lollipop that I had just given him from his mouth and easily punched a hole with the stick through the soft seed, presenting me with a little pendant, now sticky from the heat and the already melting candy. Perspective.

Driving home, I felt awash in shame and guilt over how little these children have and the sweet gift they gave me. How could I feel sorry for myself when they have next to nothing yet are smiling and trying to make me happy? And then it hit me. Jewish scholars answered the question, “Who is the happy person?” long ago in the Talmud. The answer: The person who is grateful for their lot.

How can I feel sorry for myself when they have next to nothing yet are smiling and trying to make me happy?

I realized these kids aren’t unhappy. They are young and free and have their friends and siblings to play with, even though it’s in the parking lot of a ramshackle strip mall. And now they were happier still because they got an unexpected treat from the nice lady in the big green car. They’ve seen how bad things can get, how one day you have parents and the next day, they fall ill and die. They have been hungry, sick and cold, yet they are happy for what they have now. They have perspective.

But the other thing they have in abundance is gratitude. Their delight in receiving a bit of attention is greater than the joy some far more privileged people might feel. They don’t feel entitled to anything, nor do they take anything for granted.

Gratitude and perspective — that’s all anyone really needs to feel better, even after a terrible week at work. And you might even get a pendant with your name on it out of the deal, which, quite frankly, is worth more than all the diamonds and gold in the whole world.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

End-of-the-Line Herb Salad

Yamit's Garden Herb Salad-Four Tastes

One of the first games children learn in grade school is called telephone or grapevine. All the students in the class form a line, and the teacher whispers a sentence into the ear of the first child, who then whispers the sentence into the ear of the child next to him or her. On and on it goes until the last child in the row reveals a sentence that is usually much different in meaning than the original.

It’s a fun, silly game but also one that offers a few deeper lessons: The game often is used to show how quickly rumors become gossip, which tends to be factually incorrect.

But another takeaway is far more intriguing, and that is the unreliability of human recollection. Some children genuinely mishear the sentence whispered to them; some change a word here and there according to their understanding; others deliberately change the sentence to make it more humorous or interesting.

As a child, I was extremely anxious about getting the sentence wrong and not making a mistake. To make matters worse, instead of standing at the beginning of the line, where no one could blame me for getting it wrong, somehow fate always had me standing in the middle. Try as I might to repeat the sentence exactly as I’d heard it, my anxiety over making a mistake would render me unable to hear the whispers in my ear. It took a while, but once I realized that the last one in line got rewarded with all the laughs, I always tried my best to be that kid.

Since I first tasted this salad in Israel 12 years ago, everyone I’ve fed it to falls in love with it.

Belting out that punch line might inadvertently have made me realize I was good at improvising and led to a lifetime of learning to build on other people’s ideas. It’s certainly served me well in the kitchen.

I was reminded of this recently while talking to my cousin Tali about a salad. This incredible herb salad is so unusual that it has appeared on every one of my restaurant menus and is a regular staple on my table at home, particularly when I’m entertaining.

In my restaurants, it’s called Tali’s Garden Herb Salad-Four Tastes. The four tastes are salty, sweet, sour and spicy. It features feta and caramelized pecans on top of cilantro, parsley and mint, dressed simply with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and chili flakes.

Since I first tasted this salad in Israel 12 years ago, everyone I’ve fed it to falls in love with it.

I phoned my cousin the other night to tell her about my intention to write about her famous salad, and the conversation went something like this:

“Tali, I want to write about that herb salad you make. Can you remind me how you came up with the idea?”

“I didn’t come up with that salad.”

“What do you mean? I thought you used to make it when pecans came into season on Uncle Leon’s farm, and Aunt Viola would caramelize them in big batches.”

“That’s so romantic, but we never used our farm’s pecans for the salad! My mom used to make salted pecans on the farm, not sugared ones. I buy the ones for the salad at the store.”

“Really? I must have misunderstood. Other than the cilantro, parsley and mint, do you ever use any other herbs in the salad? Like basil?”

“No, you’re the one that added parsley and mint. I use only cilantro, and I got the recipe from the owner of the bakery on a nearby farm. I was annoyed because I had to wait for my order to finish baking and he made me this salad to distract me. You make caramelized pecans yourself?”

“Wow! I wonder why I started adding parsley and mint to it.”

“Remember Aunt Dora hated cilantro, so you probably added parsley for her and then Aviva suggested mint may be good in it.”

“And did the baker come up with the dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar
or was that your idea?”

“I hate to tell you this, but there is no vinegar in the salad, Yamit. Only olive oil and garlic.”

“But what makes the sour fourth taste?”

“You made it by adding vinegar! Now, get over it already and teach me how to caramelize pecans.”

As I hung up the phone, I smiled, remembering that life is a little like a game of telephone. Although it’s human nature to want to avoid making mistakes, sometimes it pays to be at the end of the line.

YAMIT’S GARDEN HERB SALAD-FOUR TASTES

Better double or triple this recipe for a gathering. No matter how much I make for a party, the bowl is always empty in 10 minutes.

1/2 cup Caramelized Pecans, coarsely chopped (recipe follows)
2 large bunches (about 4 cups) fresh cilantro,
leaves only
1 bunch (about 2 cups) fresh flat-leaf parsley,
leaves only
1 handful (about 1 cup) fresh mint,
leaves only
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 clove crushed garlic
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 grinds freshly ground black pepper
1 cup crumbled feta cheese, preferably
Bulgarian
1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Make Caramelized Pecans; set aside.

Use sharp kitchen scissors to cut the leaves of the herbs from their stems. Wash herbs thoroughly and dry using a salad spinner or paper towels. Chop the leaves, leaving some whole leaves, and chopping others medium to fine. I use a mezzaluna for this, but kitchen scissors work great as well.

In a bowl, whisk together olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic, vinegar and pepper, and toss with herbs an hour before you want to eat. Store salad in the fridge to chill.

Right before serving, crumble in the creamy feta and the chopped pecans. Give it a final mix and taste to adjust salt.

Makes 4 servings.

CARAMELIZED PECANS

1 tablespoon butter
1 cup pecans
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Over medium heat, melt butter in a pan. Add pecans and sugar and let cook slowly, frequently stirring with a wooden spoon. The butter/sugar mixture will become syrupy and then evaporate and glaze the pecans. Keep stirring until the pecans turn a dark, shellac brown, about 10 minutes. They are easy to burn, so keep an eye on them.

Carefully, pour the glazed pecans onto a plate covered with a sheet of baking paper, sprinkle on salt, and let cool to harden thoroughly for about 30 minutes. Nothing hurts more than caramel sugar burns, so consider wearing gloves.

Makes about 3/4 cup.