April 25, 2019

Tradition, Longing and ‘Not Very Good’ Cake

There are moments in life when you suddenly find yourself looking at a situation from a different perspective. It could be the tint of your glasses or the state of your hormones or maybe it’s a combination of both that drives a point home at a certain time.

During the blur of Passover and the intensity of the preparations, I phoned, as I always do, my family in Israel: one cousin, the daughter of my Aunt Dora, who had been my mother’s and my culinary mentor, told me she had just been to the cemetery where we had buried her mother almost two years before. 

She told me that she had a hard time reconciling the fact that it had been 14 years since we had buried her father (my uncle) in the cemetery that will eventually hold most of my family. I reflected on those days, the before and the after, the funerals, shivahs, the weddings and the births — all the events that had unfolded since. I suppose it’s natural during holidays to reflect on the past but there was a longing in her voice, a heavy veil that weighed down our conversation that had me lamenting both losses as though they were fresh.

We discussed the menu she was serving for our traditional family celebration on the morning after the seder, our Sephardic version of matzo brei called burmolikos and all the accompanying salads, terrines and pies, complete with Passover cakes made with layers of meringue, lemon curd, cream and fruit. The burmolikos and the Passover seder leek-and-meat patties from the night before had always been my aunt’s purview. She would begin to clean and grind the leeks weeks before and stash away plastic containers of them in the run-up to the holiday. The day before the holiday she would mix the leeks with eggs and a bit of ground beef, season and fry them. She always set them on paper towels to absorb the excess oil before putting them on the table, where they had the place of honor: our must-have food.

Then the next day she would soak and fry the matzo patties and make the traditional sugar syrup that half the family would eat with them. The rest would be eaten with salty Bulgarian feta and some (myself included) would eat them with a combination of the two. 

As if in the transference of anguish, I suddenly longed to be in Israel, back in my aunt and uncle’s sky-high apartment, which at the time looked out over the city, stealing leek patties right out of the pan. I could almost hear my aunt’s voice reprimanding me, playfully swatting my hand away from the plate. Her hands, those soft and slightly puffy hands, the hands of a cook, beautiful yet strong and weathered, supple yet slightly red from being immersed in water for so many hours of the day, were an image I couldn’t get out of my mind for days. I looked at my own hands, suddenly shocked to see that they looked very similar to my aunt’s. After having cooked for days before the holiday — the chicken soup, the fish croquettes, the spinach and zucchini pie and roasted vegetables — indeed, my hands had the telltale signs of a working woman’s — hands not even the best manicure could save. 

Even though I had so much to do and many tasks on my mind, I decided that nothing could be as important as creating a food memory with another generation. I called one of my closest friends, remembering that her 8-year-old son had been asking to cook with me since seeing photos of some of my creations in the bakery when he was playing with my phone. My friend told her son we would make something together before the seder, a busy time in any kitchen and not ideal for dessert making.

I suddenly longed to be in Israel, back in my aunt and uncle’s sky-high apartment, which at the time looked out over the city, stealing leek patties right out of the pan.

We decided to make a no-bake matzo cake, the kind you see in all the magazines and food blogs this time of year — a towering concoction of soaked matzo, chocolate ganache, cream and sprinkles. We had a rather crushing deadline, to get out of the way as quickly as possible while still creating a Passover-friendly dessert that could be kept in the freezer until we served it after the seder. 

As we were whipping the cream and melting the chocolate, my little friend was telling me stories about things he liked to eat, and the matzo brei his father made him, even on non-holiday weekends. I learned about his family recipe — they put Parmesan or aged gouda in their matzo brei — and we created our own little Passover tradition, one I hope we will continue for many years. Only this time, it’s my kitchen-weary hands that he might remember, how after we soaked the matzo layers in milk and vanilla, we laughed as he put a straw in the casserole dish that held the soaking liquid and drank it — making that sound a straw makes when it hits an unexpected air pocket. And the whole time we were stacking our cake, layer after layer, I couldn’t help but remember all the times I “helped” my aunt in the kitchen or cooked side-by-side with my mother, my cousins and my friends. 

Earlier that day — in fact, right before my arrival — my little friend’s mother got news that her grandmother had died that morning. I hugged my friend who was trying not to let her emotions get the better of her before her guests arrived at the seder, busying herself by immersing her energy in the setting of the table.

I knew that her grandmother had been an incredible cook and that my friend had memories of her mom’s food stored for a lifetime. After the seder, my cooking buddy and I served the matzo cake to much cheering and fanfare. While the guests assured us that it was beautiful and delicious, I turned to my co-chef to see what he thought. “It’s not really very good,” he said with the honesty and bluntness that can come only from a child. I took a bite and sure enough, he was entirely correct in his assessment. 

Still, I couldn’t help but recognize the beauty of the food memories we had created that day in the frantic chaos of that hot and busy pre-seder kitchen. When we lit the yahrzeit candles that night and recited the prayer, I silently promised myself that I would continue to create as many beautiful food traditions as possible, even if, like the matzo cake, they didn’t come out perfectly. I thought of a saying I’d probably been too blinded by longing to fully comprehend until now: “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” 

Amen to that, even if the memory comes in the form of a wobbly and crooked and “not really very good” matzo cake.


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.

Jewish Bucket List Item No. 4: Kosher Cooking

As a child, I remember sitting on a stool in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching her prepare Jewish delicacies ranging from kishka (made from matzo meal, shmaltz and spices) to kichel (a sweet treat that resembles a scone). We were always sent home with a “packala” (large grocery bag) full of leftovers.

These memories came flooding back as I prepared to take on my Jewish bucket list kosher cooking adventure. Over the last few years, I have really gotten into cooking. I particularly enjoy making soups as well as chicken and meat dishes, but my palate was ready for some new flavors, so chef Lenny Nour of Charcoal Grill & Bar on Beverly Boulevard invited me into his fleishig kitchen to prepare some tasty kosher food. 

Billed as a “Mediterranean restaurant with a taste of Jerusalem,” the restaurant opened last summer and plays Israeli music. 

“Every dish that I make is a microcosm of my life,” said Nour, whose mother is from Italy and father is from Iran. “I was born [in Los Angeles], raised in Israel and Italy, and brought all of my experiences into my menu. Every dish mimics this pattern of where I have been and the memories I created and my love for food.” 

The first dish we made was one of Nour’s specialties: Charcoal Eggplant. This hearty vegetarian offering is one of his most iconic at this wood-burning steakhouse. 

“It’s literally fire and vegetables,” he said. “This is the one I am most proud of, because I took something like an eggplant and made it more popular than some of the meat that I have.”

We started by charring and peeling the classic Israeli vegetable before smashing it into a dish. After sprinkling it with a little bit of sea salt to bring out the flavor, we covered it in tahini (ground sesame seeds). 

“This is the classic [Israeli dish], eggplant and tahini,” Nour said. 

“A lot of chefs say, ‘How do you cook without butter?’ For us, it’s not an issue. Because Israeli food was designed without ever having to use milk in its meat.” — Lenny Nour

I then decorated the eggplant with a drizzle of silan (Israeli honey made from dates), then added garlic confit (garlic melted in oil), the house chimichurri (a mixture of cilantro, parsley, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and dried red chiles), and roasted and crushed candied pecans. We topped it off with freshly cut cilantro before adding deep-fried pita chips for scooping.

“This is where we take it to the next creative level,” Nour said. “I actually woke up one morning, had this idea, and it just flowed and kept evolving until I got this.” And this particular dish, he added, is the culmination of his upbringing and travels. 

“For me, it’s important to have a connection to my heritage, to my religion, to my people, to my culture, but also express that through the creativity in my food,” he said. “I think for a long time in America kosher cooking was looked at as a limitation. But in Israel, everything is pretty much based on kosher cooking. A lot of chefs say, ‘How do you cook without butter?’ For us, it’s not an issue. Because Israeli food was designed without ever having to use milk in its meat.”

It was the most beautiful and yummy eggplant I have ever tasted. Simple and delicious. I think these are important elements not just in kosher cooking, but also in any cooking. I can’t wait to try this — or my version of this — at home.

I am still seeking items for my 2019 Jewish bucket list. Please send your ideas to deckerling@gmail.com.

Why Are Sephardic Seders Different from Ashkenazic Seders?

Sephardic Passover customs include Bibhilu, a Moroccan ritual. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Daniel Bouskila

When Rabbi Daniel Bouskila was a child, his teacher asked him to share something from his family’s seder. Bouskila sang “Chad Gadya,” in Judeo-Arabic, the way his Moroccan family did at home.

His teacher was shocked. 

“ ‘Jews speak Arabic?’ ” Bouskila recalled his instructor saying. 

Bouskila told this story as part of a talk he gave about Sephardic Passover customs on April 13 at Westwood Village Synagogue.

The Journal spoke with several community members about growing up with or incorporating Sephardic rituals and customs in their seders. 

Traditions

Sephardic Jews, originating in Spain before relocating to regions including North Africa, the Mediterranean and Southern Europe, have diverse Passover traditions. Among them are whipping one another with scallions to recall how the Egyptian taskmasters beat the Hebrew slaves.

Lesser known practices include Bibhilu, a Moroccan ritual in which the seder leader holds the seder plate over the heads of others while reciting, “In haste, we went out of Egypt with our bread of affliction and now we are free.”

Bibhilu is connected to the kabbalah’s 10 sefirot or divine attributes, Bouskila said, explaining how kabbalists say the three pieces of matzo on the plate represent “crown,” “wisdom” and discernment”’ the bone is “kindness”; the egg is “strength”; maror is “splendor”; Charoset is “eternity”; karpas is “glory”; hazeret, a bitter green, is “foundation”; and the seder plate is “kingship.” 

“The presence of God is on the seder plate,” Bouskila said. “It’s like you’re blessing them one by one.”

Another Sephardic ritual is the practice around the Ten Plagues. Instead of dipping a finger or utensil into the wine cup for each of the Ten Plagues then placing a droplet of the wine on the plate, as is Ashkenazic custom, the leader of the Sephardic seder pours wine into a bowl for each plague while another person pours water into the bowl, adding more wine and water for each additional plague.

One theory behind this practice is that the mixture of water and wine re-creates what happened when the Nile River turned red with blood from the first plague, Bouskila said.

Marcia Weingarten, a longtime member of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, expanded on this ritual in an email to the Journal, noting that after the plagues are recited and the water and wine have been poured into the bowl, the women solemnly leave the house, carrying the bowl, then pour the contents onto the ground. 

“Then, in a very kabbalistic way, the plagues turn into blessings,” Weingarten said. “Each woman touches her hand to the ground that has now been covered with the liquid and says a blessing with her wishes for her family for the year to come.”

“Wherever we live and whatever community or background we’re from, we’re all telling the same story, in the same order, in the same steps, with slight variations and traditions.”

 — Marcia Weingarten 

Food

Ashkenazic charoset usually is made with chopped apples mixed with wine and walnuts, while Sephardic charoset usually includes dates, walnuts, wine and vinegar.

Ashkenazic Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, said he became hooked on Sephardic charoset when he was in college. His medieval literature professor gave him a 14th-century recipe with dates, figs, orange rind, pine nuts, brandy and honey.

“It is amazing,” Artson said in a phone interview. “And it looks like mortar used for bricks. And so [my family] makes a big batch of that stuff and we shape it like a pyramid and put little plastic Moseses and Pharaohs around the bottom. We don’t even make the Ashkenazi charoset anymore.”

Weingarten, whose mother was one of the founding members of Sephardic Temple, is the author of the Ladino cooking and lifestyle blog “Bendichas Manos” (“Blessed Hands”). Explaining the differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic seders, she said Sephardic Jews use celery instead of parsley for the karpas, and romaine lettuce instead of horseradish for the maror. Most Sephardim dip the karpas in vinegar rather than salt water, and they eat lamb, whereas Ashkenazic Jews merely have a shank bone on the seder plate. 

Some of these differences in cuisine are geographical, Artson said. Ashkenazic Jews eat spicy horseradish as the maror to remember the bitterness of slavery because horseradish root was available. The bitter-tasting romaine lettuce that is part of the Sephardic seder was not available in Europe at that time of year,
he said. 

“Ashkenazim like to use horseradish because their grandparents and their bubbes and zaydes used horseradish,” he said. “That’s because they came from Poland, where they didn’t have lettuce.” 

Kitniyot

During Passover, Most Sephardim are permitted to eat kitniyot, which includes grains and seeds, rice, corn and peas.

“Thank God for not making me Ashkenazic on Pesach,” Bouskila joked. In
his home, American-Jewish influences found their way into his family’s Moroccan seders because Bouskila’s parents were as committed to being American as they were to being Moroccan, he said. So on Pesach, they eat Moroccan salads along with matzo ball soup made from Manischewitz matzo meal.

The Haggadah

Weingarten, whose grandparents were from the Greek island of Rhodes, incorporates English and Hebrew as well as the Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino, into her seder. 

“Even though it is not a language we use often, the third and fourth generation are learning different passages and songs [including “Chad Gadya” and “Echad Mi Yodea”] in that language,” Weingarten said of Ladino. “It is something uniquely special to our families. It is nice to see the next generations carry those traditions on.”

At Bouskila’s home, guests sing from the haggadah rather than just read. They follow punctuation in the Sephardic hagaddah indicating where to pause in the chanting, Bouskila said. 

“If you look in an Ashkenazi haggadah, the text is punctuated according to the grammar of how you would read a paragraph. Sephardic haggadot are typically punctuated to reflect a rhythmic chanting,” he said. “There is no one person who sings. Everyone sings it together.”

Universal seder

Despite the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic seders, they nevertheless follow the same universal framework, Weingarten said.

“Jews everywhere are doing the same thing. We all have the same experiences. That is the beauty of the Jewish world. Wherever we live and whatever community or background we’re from, we’re all telling the same story, in the same order, in the same steps, with slight variations and traditions,” she said. “And we’ve been doing it for generations.”

Jewish Veg Holds First Vegan Seder in L.A.

Attendees could choose between chocolate peanut butter vegan cheesecake or blueberry vegan cheesecake. Photo by Aaron Bandler

Jewish Veg, the Maryland-based nonprofit that advocates for Jews to embrace veganism, held its first Los Angeles event on April 14: a vegan seder at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) in Pico-Robertson.

BCC Executive Director Rabbi Jonathan Klein led the nearly 80 attendees through the seder. He began with the first blessing of the wine, pointing out that the four cups of wine are meant to parallel the four promises given to the Israelites that were enslaved in Egypt.

“For vegans, the four cups might serve to remind us of the current state of affairs, but remind us to maintain hope,” Klein said, noting that while it’s “easy for animal rights activists to lose hope in this era of factory farms and animal enslavement,” the Israelites were eventually redeemed after being enslaved for 480 years by the Egyptians.

“We lift our cups in blessing as an affirmation that our drive to overcome servitude is divinely inspired,” Klein said.

He then proceeded to the washing of the hands, explaining that it’s a requirement in Judaism to take care of the human body, and that veganism has several health benefits, including healthy heart function, lower cholesterol, lower rates of certain kinds of cancer and protection against chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

“As we wash our hands tonight, let us reflect on the ways in which we clean and care for our bodies and our souls,” Klein said.

The vegan seder plate consisted of the traditional parsley, Charoset and maror, but used beets and flowers in place of the lamb shank bone and roasted egg. According to the Jewish Veg Vegan Haggadah, the use of the beet “dates all the way back to the Talmud and mimics the blood of the sacrifice, without causing actual harm to any animal.” The flower symbolizes “the natural world in bloom.”

Klein pointed out that the first items that are eaten from a traditional seder plate are plants, which is a “reminder that you can survive with a plant-based diet.” 

The Four Questions part of the Vegan Haggadah asks, “How did we choose to make a commitment to vegan living and what brought us to that choice? How do we continue to reaffirm and uphold that choice?”

The Four Questions part of the Vegan Haggadah asks, “How did we choose to make a commitment to vegan living and what brought us to that choice? How do we continue to reaffirm and uphold that choice?”

Of the Four Children, the Vegan Haggadah asks, “What can we say to the wicked child, who believes that animal suffering is not their responsibility? How do we explain to the simple child, who does not understand the ways in which animal agriculture poisons the planet? And what of the wise child, who already knows all there is to learn and yet does not act?”

The Vegan Haggadah also uses each of the Ten Plagues as “a call for change.” For the first plague (blood), the Vegan Haggadah states, “The global slaughter of 60 billion farmed animals a year is the biggest source of bloodshed and violence on Earth.” For the plague of hail, the Vegan Haggadah states, “Animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, producing even more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.” And for the plague of the death of the firstborn, the Vegan Haggadah states, “Millions of babies are born each year without enough to eat, while more than a third of the world’s corn, soy and alfalfa are grown for and fed to livestock.”

During the meal portion of the seder, attendees were served vegan matzo ball soup, and vegan gefilte fish made out of chickpeas and seaweed. The main course was portobello pot roast; brisket braised red cabbage, and roasted vegetables with sage, thyme and rosemary. Sides were sweet potato kugel, green beans and asparagus. 

For dessert, attendees could choose between blueberry or vegan chocolate cheesecake.

Toward the end of the seder, Klein explained that the final cups of wine signify the hope that “we can overcome the evils of animal agriculture and factory farming. We pray, we hope that the healing that all of us so desperately desire will become manifest and live fully self-actualized to who we are, as Jews, as animal rights activists.” 

Attendee Paulette Gindi told the Journal that she liked how she was “finally” able to go to a Jewish event in Los Angeles where she didn’t have to question if the food came from “an unethical source. I really appreciated how [Klein] and the vegan seder that [Jewish Veg] put together really created a modern-day approach to celebrating Passover while also being cruelty-free and compassionate to animals and the environment.” 

Aaron Ferber said although he isn’t normally a vegan, he thought the event provided a “great treat” in having “a break from eating animals” and becoming healthier.

 Mmamalema Molepo, who is visiting from South Africa, said although he also isn’t a vegan, he enjoyed the food because it was still the type of food that even a meat-eater or vegetarian would eat. He also said that the seder’s focus on animal rights made it a unique event.

Jeffrey Cohan, the executive director of Jewish Veg, told the Journal that the event met the organization’s expectations.

“I was so proud to see the room packed with so many people and to see people really enjoying every aspect of it,” he said, “from the haggadah to the food and everything in between.”

A Healthy, Happy Passover

Debby Segura

Passover is truly a celebration. It’s a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless. Each year, we clean and shop and prep and cook our way to the seder. As I write out my menus and shopping lists, I make sure I have something for everyone, always blending the traditional with the new. And like every year, I’ll probably make the same classic meat and chicken dishes that most everyone loves, and watch them get eaten to the last morsel.

But this year, I’m planning a quiet shift, a move toward an especially healthy and fresh Passover filled with more vegetables, more crisp and more crunch. 

So what led me to this greener Passover? Was it all the winter rains that blessed us and our wildflowers this season? Was it learning from those vegetarian, gluten-free and low-carb guests who graced our table this year? Was it perhaps the memory of a little too much meat and matzo at seders past? Or was it maybe all of the above? 

Perhaps this move in a healthy and liberating direction is a little like the Exodus, freeing us from the weight of a heavy cuisine and leading us to a lighter and more natural way to eat. It is my goal to create a meaningful and healthful Passover for everyone, one that is rich in symbolism and yet fresher, lighter and more joyful than ever. Have a healthy, happy Passover, and live it up!

For starters, instead of using lots of little dishes and serving bowls, I’ll serve all of our symbolic seder foods artfully composed on one big board. If you don’t have a big board, a large tray or kale covered cookie sheet pan will work just fine. I’m calling this my Seder Board, not to be confused with the time-honored Seder Plate at the head of the table. This Seder Board will be my centerpiece. It will be placed in the middle of my seder table, for everyone to behold and share, according to the order of the haggadah service. Seder foods vary from one tradition to another, so please use all your favorites. 

THE SEDER BOARD

(Serves 10)

1. Karpas and hazeret (vegetables to dip): I like to include fresh Italian parsley (1 to 2 bunches, carefully cleaned), fennel (two large bulbs sliced carefully, plus one small bulb for decoration), celery (separated into stalks, fresh and clean with leaves on or off, according to preference) and dipping liquids in small glass cups: salt water (6 ounces) and Passover apple cider vinegar (6 ounces). (Dipping liquids may vary by tradition. Ashkefardically speaking, we’ll include both Ashkenazi salt water and Balkan/Ladino Sephardic vinegar.

2. Maror (bitter herbs): Romaine lettuce (two large heads of carefully cleaned whole leaves), one head of separated green endive leaves and one head of separated red endive leaves or Treviso (if you can find Treviso, it’s more dramatic). And for a huge jolt of color, include red horseradish. If you use other bitter herbs, display them beautifully, too.

3. Charoset: About 1 cup each of Turkish charoset and Lebanese charoset (recipes for each version to follow). 

4. Eggs: White and mahogany hardboiled eggs, one per person. (We eat the usual white hardboiled eggs alongside our special and dramatic-looking mahogany brown eggs that get their rich color by being slowly boiled with lots of brown onion skins.) 

Turkish and Lebanese Charoset

TURKISH CHAROSET(Adapted from “Sephardic Holiday Cooking,” by Gilda Angel) 

1 pound pitted dates, checked and       coarsely chopped
1 cup seedless black raisins, soaked and rinsed
1/2 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup dried or fresh apricots
1/2 cup sugar (optional)
1 green apple, peeled, cored and cubed
1 orange, peeled, pitted and cubed
2 tablespoons lemon juice or 1 tablespoon Passover apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup coarsely ground walnuts

In a saucepan, combine the dates, raisins, prunes, apricots, sugar (optional), apple and orange cubes, lemon juice or vinegar, water and cinnamon. Cook over low heat, stirring often, until the charoset is soft, about 20 minutes. Add an additional tablespoon of water here and there if necessary to prevent the charoset from sticking to the pan and burning. Remove from the heat and stir in the walnuts. Coarsely chop in a food processor to create a chunky paste (this symbolizes mortar). This may be frozen.

Garnish with a big curl of orange or lemon zest. 

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts.

LEBANESE CHAROSET
1/2 pound pitted dates, checked and coarsely chopped
1/2 pound seedless black raisins, rinsed
Water
Walnut halves or blanched almonds for garnish (optional) 

Rinse the raisins and dates thoroughly with cold water. Drain. Combine the raisins and dates in a large bowl with 2 or more cups of water, to cover. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the fruit to soak about 8 hours or overnight. 

By morning, the fruit will have absorbed all of the water. If there is excess juice, reserve it.

Place the fruit in a sauce pan and simmer until the liquid has evaporated, leaving a jam-like mixture. Cool.

Place the cooked fruit in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse until the charoset is coarsely but uniformly chopped. If the mixture seems too thick, thin with some of the reserved juice, adding a teaspoon at a time. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, or up to three days, before serving. Serve at room temperature.

Garnish with walnut halves or blanched almonds. This may be frozen.

Makes about 1 pint.

Pasticcio di Cavofiore

Pasticcio is about as close to kugel as we get in my Ashkephardic home. Instead of lots of eggs and margarine or oil, this kugel has no eggs and only a little olive oil. It’s low in carbohydrates, and the recipe can be doubled or tripled. The pasticcio can be frozen to be thawed and reheated later. It can be served with meat entrees such as brisket or chicken, or topped with a hearty vegetarian sauté such as shallots, cremini and shiitake mushrooms, with Italian parsley and garlic.

PASTICCIO DI CAVOFIORE (CAULIFLOWER PIE)

(Adapted from “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews,” by Etta Servi Machlin)

2 large or 4 small heads of cauliflower, washed, trimmed and separated into separate florets; cut stems into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus oil to grease the pans
3 cloves minced garlic
Kosher salt, to taste
White or cayenne pepper, to taste
2 eggs and 2 egg whites
2 tablespoons matzo cake meal (optional, for gluten free)
2 tablespoons matzo meal (optional for gluten free)
1 tablespoon pine nuts (optional garnish)

Steam the cauliflower pieces at a simmer until tender, about 20-25 minutes, drain and reserve.

In a deep frying pan, gently heat the olive oil and add the minced garlic. Sauté until the garlic just begins to give off its fragrance, being careful not to let it color. Add the steamed cauliflower and mash it with a potato masher or fork until it forms a slightly lumpy puree. Continue cooking the puree until the liquid has evaporated and it is very thick. Season to taste with kosher salt and white or cayenne pepper.

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Slightly beat eggs and egg whites to blend. Add the beaten eggs and matzo cake meal to the cauliflower puree and stir to combine.

Grease two pie pans with olive oil and dust with matzo meal. Spoon the cauliflower mixture into the prepared pans evenly, dimple the top with the back of a spoon and drizzle with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with matzo meal and pine nuts.

Bake in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes or until golden brown. Pies can be served immediately or reheated before serving. Pies also can be frozen, double wrapped in aluminum foil. 

Makes two 9-inch pies, which each serve 8-10.

Confetti Quinoa Pilaf

Confetti Quinoa Pilaf is a colorful and versatile choice for people who eat quinoa on Passover. One approach to this kind of pilaf is to make straight quinoa for one meal, and then for the next meal, just sauté the pilaf ingredients and add them to the leftover cooked quinoa. This quinoa can be served alone or topped with a chicken breast or a salmon steak. For a dairy meal, Confetti Quinoa Pilaf can be topped with a fried slab of Halloumi cheese.

CONFETTI QUINOA PILAF
4 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon onion soup mix (or salt)
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 cups quinoa
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small brown onion or two shallots, peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon dried or fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated, cleaned, stems removed or 6 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
1/2 cup Craisins or raisins
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
6 ounces spinach or baby kale leaves, sliced thinly
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large saucepan, bring water, kosher salt, onion soup mix and canola oil to a boil. Add the quinoa, return to a boil, cover the pot and simmer 20 minutes. Let it rest for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork. Reserve.

In a large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over a low flame. Add the onion or shallot slices, thyme and chile flakes. Sauté gently until the onions or shallots are translucent and fragrant.

Add the garlic and stir. Add the mushrooms, Craisins or raisins and almonds and stir. Add the cooked quinoa and spinach or kale leaves and stir just enough to heat the quinoa and distribute the spinach. Season to taste. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Serves 8-10.

Zebra Meringues

Pareve Custard Cups With Roasted Blueberries are rich little custards that are equally at home in custard cups, small plastic cups, Moroccan tea glasses or small wine glasses. Add this garnish of some roasted blueberries for some ultra-vivid color and a flavor spark. And as long as you’re making those custards, which use only egg yolks, it also makes perfect sense to me to make Zebra Meringues, which use those egg whites. 

ZEBRA MERINGUES WITH ORANGE-INFUSED BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SWIRLS

MERINGUE:
4 large egg whites, room temperature
1 1/4 cup superfine sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract (or both)
1 teaspoon strained lemon juice or white vinegar
2 tablespoons potato starch
4 tablespoons boiling water

TOPPING:
1/4 cup chocolate chips
2 tablespoons of hot water or coffee
1 large curl of orange zest
Garnishes can include berries, sorbet, ice cream or shavings of bittersweet chocolate.

Preheat oven to 225 F.

Draw one dozen 3-inch circles on the back of a sheet of baking parchment. Flip over the baking parchment, place it on a large baking sheet. Put the parchment on the pan and spray very lightly with non-stick baking spray. 

Place all meringue ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on high speed until mixture is very stiff and glossy, about 7-10 minutes.

While the meringue is being mixed, place the chocolate chips, orange zest and water or coffee in a small cup and microwave, covered, for 25 seconds. Allow the chocolate mixture to sit for a couple of minutes, remove the rind and whisk chocolate and water together until smooth. 

Place a tiny bit of meringue under each corner of the parchment to keep it from moving on the pan.

Working quickly, pipe or spoon 12 mounds of meringue onto prepared parchment. Lightly drizzle each mound with a small amount of the melted chocolate and swirl with a skewer or toothpick.

Bake in the center of the preheated oven for 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Completely cool the meringues and then peel them off the parchment. If placed in an airtight container, the meringues may be stored frozen for up to two weeks. 

Makes 12 individual meringues.

Vanilla Custards With Roasted Blueberries

(From a recipe on Smitten Kitchen, adapted to be pareve and kosher for Passover.)

CUSTARDS
1 1/3 cup almond milk
Seeds from 1/4 to 1/2 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons potato starch

BERRIES
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
Juice from a wedge lemon, or to taste

In a small saucepan, combine almond milk and vanilla bean seeds (if using extract instead, don’t add it yet). Heat the mixture until it is warm, then pour it in a cup with a spout, and reserve. 

In an electric mixer, beat egg yolks and sugar vigorously, until it pales in color and a ribbon of batter falls off your whisk when you lift it from the bowl; this will take a few minutes by hand or a minute or two with an electric mixer. Whisk in the potato starch until fully incorporated.

With the mixer on low, very gradually drizzle the warm milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture. Once you’ve added about one-quarter of the milk, you can add the rest in a thin stream. Pour the custard into a saucepan.

Over medium low heat, whisk the custard constantly, until it barely begins to bubble. Turn the heat to low and continue to whisk 1-2 more minutes, until quite thick. Remove from the heat and immediately stir in vanilla extract (if using) until combined.

Press the custard through a fine-mesh strainer, pour it into a glass measuring cup and carefully press a film of plastic wrap against the top of the custard so it doesn’t form a film as it cools. Refrigerate until ready to serve. The custard will keep in fridge for up to two days.

For the topping, preheat oven to 450°F.

Place blueberries in a heatproof, shallow roasting dish and sprinkle with the sugar.

Roast for 5-6 minutes, rolling around once or twice during to ensure they roast evenly. If desired, add a squeeze of lemon juice to the berries when they come out of the oven.

Spoon the custard into small cups and top with roasted blueberries.

Makes 4 small custard cup servings. This recipe can be doubled.


Debby Segura lives in Los Angeles. She designs dinnerware and textiles, and teaches
cooking classes. See more recipes at debbysegura.com.

Matzo Mezze for Passover Brunch

When people complain about not eating bread or flour-based products during Passover week, I confess that I don’t know what they’re talking about. To me, Passover is a perfect opportunity to eat my favorite thing: finger food in the form of open-faced matzo sandwiches with Mediterranean toppings. What’s better than a crispy cracker loaded up with zingy condiments with interesting flavor combinations? And who doesn’t love a casual finger food celebration after all the formal sit-down structured meals? 

Traditions typically dictate Passover food. Most families tend to make the same thing every year — bubbe’s brisket, mom’s kugel or auntie’s tzimmes — so the rebel in me likes to get creative with the rest of the week’s meals. Each year, I try to outdo my toppings from the previous year, but this year I found a special touch: Manischewitz has come out with triangle-shaped matzo — small crackers that lend a more stable base for piling on the toppings.

It’s a perfect Passover brunch plate when there’s a house full of guests. The best part is you make all the toppings in advance and serve them on a large board or decorative plate after you’ve topped the matzo at the last moment. You can make it even easier on yourself and set out toppings in bowls and let guests make their own. It’s foolproof entertaining and a guaranteed win. I like to serve this dairy brunch with a leafy green salad dressed simply with a vinaigrette to cut the richness of the toppings, but I often feel almost obligated to serve it with an Israeli chopped salad. Then for dessert, I make my Bulgarian version of matzo brei called Burmolikos. 

I haven’t gotten too fancy this year with my toppers but the flavor combinations are tried and true (we ate them after the photo shoot). No special equipment is needed to make them except a good blender or food processor. All of these recipes are good to have in your arsenal for parties at any time of the year to serve with bread or with crackers, but beware: It’s so good you might just start a new tradition with the matzo mezze, and your friends and family will urge you make it every year. The following four toppings will serve about 10 people for brunch with salad. Figure about one triangle of each type of matzo per person or, if using regular square matzo, then two matzos per person, cut in half.

It’s foolproof entertaining and a guaranteed win.

EGGPLANT JAM – FETA –BALSAMIC FIG REDUCTION
Eggplant jam:

2 large eggplants
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup olive oil, plus 4 tablespoons, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1/8 cup water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
Crumbled feta cheese (garnish)

Fig-flavored balsamic reduction (optional)

Make this jam in advance if possible because it benefits from a day or two in the fridge.

Peel strips off eggplants lengthwise using a vegetable peeler, leaving 1-inch gaps of skin between strips. Slice eggplant crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices. Salt liberally and let stand in a colander over the sink for 1 hour to extract the bitter juices.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Dry the eggplant slices well with paper towels and coat both sides generously in olive oil and lay in a single layer on two baking trays. Bake for about 30 minutes, flipping the slices halfway through baking until soft and golden brown.

Transfer warm eggplant to a bowl and, using a wooden spoon (contact with metal turns eggplant black), mash the eggplant into chunks. This will be cooked again so don’t worry about the size of the pieces. Set aside.

In a large skillet, pour 4 tablespoons of olive oil and add the chopped garlic, onion and tomato. Stir in the spices and cook for another minute.

When the vegetables are soft, add the mashed eggplant and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until mixture is very thick. Add water if it’s sticking to bottom of pan.

Remove from heat, add in lemon juice and chopped parsley and check for salt. Serve with crumbled feta and balsamic reduction drizzled over top.

SMOKED SALMON MOUSSE, SMOKED SALMON, SALMON ROE AND AVOCADO

5 ounces smoked salmon (Nova, Scottish orgravlax), chopped
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons cream cheese, room temperature
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Rind of 1/2 lemon
5 ounces smoked salmon, thinly sliced, for draping
2 ounces salmon or trout roe, for garnish
Avocado, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped dill, for garnish

Tip 5 ounces of chopped smoked salmon into a high-speed blender or food processor and process until paste. Drizzle in the heavy cream and room-temperature cream cheese and process until cream is thick. Add the lemon juice, a grind of salt and pepper and lemon rind and process for another 10 seconds. 

Chill until serving. Alternate mousse, salmon slices, roe and avocado. Top with dill.

WARM SPINACH AND ARTICHOKE DIP

1/3 cup Greek yogurt
1/3 cup mayonnaise
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup gruyere cheese, finely grated
3/4 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
1 pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 cup chopped frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry
8-ounce jar artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
Salt to taste (cheeses are salty)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Combine yogurt, mayo and cream cheese in a bowl. Add grated cheeses, lemon juice, spices, spinach and artichoke hearts and mix until thoroughly combined. Bake in a dish greased with olive oil or butter for 20 minutes until brown and bubbly on top. Taste to adjust salt.

Make in advance and then gently warm in the microwave for 1 minute before topping matzo. 

WHIPPED RICOTTA, DRIED ZA’ATAR TOMATOES, BASIL PESTO, PRESERVED LEMON AND JALAPENO

Whipped ricotta (recipe follows)
Za’atar tomatoes (recipe follows)
4 tablespoons of prepared basil pesto
1 tablespoon preserved lemon, chopped and more for serving
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
Drizzle of olive oil, for serving

For the whipped ricotta:
1 14-ounce tub Italian whole milk ricotta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon diced preserved lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Whip ingredients in a high-speed blender for 1 minute until light and fluffy. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Dried za’atar tomatoes:
2 cups cherry or baby tomatoes
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon za’atar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 500 F. 

Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise and set on a baking tray. Sprinkle with seasonings and then drizzle with olive oil. Place tray in oven and then immediately shut it off. Leave in oven overnight or at least 8 hours without opening oven door. Leftovers can be kept in olive oil and used like sun-dried tomatoes. 

Spread matzo with whipped ricotta, 1 teaspoon of basil pesto, top with dried tomatoes and a jalapeno slice and drizzle with a bit of olive oil.


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 Miserable Side of Dining Out

Dining out always has cost a lot more money than eating at home, but these days, it could cost a small fortune. I can make myself a dinner at home for about $2 or $3. At a restaurant, it might cost me $30 or more. 

Recently, I was in a vegan restaurant and ordered a buckwheat shake and cage-free melon. When I got the recycled paper check, I wanted to start eating meat again. 

For me to take my family out to dinner at an upscale kosher restaurant, I must either start a Go Fund Me page or call my broker to sell some stock. I’m waiting for the day that they tell me that the meal is over my credit card limit. 

I figured with all the money I’ve spent in kosher restaurants, I could have installed an Olympic-size pool in my backyard. That’s if I had a backyard. But I live in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles, so what I have is a few blades of grass and concrete. I once timed a fly going from one end of my yard to the other. Three seconds and it wasn’t even out of breath. 

Going to restaurants has gotten so complicated. You used to walk in and a server set glasses of water on the table. But in 2015, because of the long-running drought, it became against the law for restaurants to provide diners glasses of water if they didn’t ask for them.

And now, if you ask for a plastic straw, you’re labeled a porpoise killer.

I don’t remember anyone ever dying from drinking tap water in a restaurant, but I’m sure there have been plenty of heart attacks when the bill came.

Today, if you order tap water, they make you feel like you’re drinking water out of a rat-infested sewer filled with muck, slime and bubonic plague. “Tap water? I hope you’re not planning to have more children. May I suggest some bottled water?” And of course, it’s $8 for a bottle of water; $10 if you want sparkling water. It’s cheaper to get a 2-year-old with a plastic straw to blow bubbles into your water. And you can’t take the water bottle home with you if you don’t finish it. “I’ll have a to-go cup for my water.” It sounds so cheap. 

Some of these upscale joints have a different person just for drinks. “Hi, I’m Ed. I’ll be taking your drink order.” 

“I figured with all the money I’ve spent in kosher restaurants, I could have installed an Olympic-size pool in my backyard.”

My wife might order a glass of wine. Most places used to have a “house” wine. Now, if you order the house wine, they treat you like you’re some wino derelict who doesn’t care if you destroy your liver. “Oh, the house wine? I’ll go out back into the alley and grab the bottle from the homeless guy in his tent. I’ll be right back.” 

And whatever you do, don’t ever ask them to recommend a wine. That’s like asking a dog to recommend a nice steak. Once the waiter says to you, “We have a lovely …”, the word “lovely” means expensive.

Why not just be honest with us? “We have a very, very expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, which you can get by the glass.” Which is a lie. You never get a full glass of wine. Restaurants sell it by the thimble. Maybe a third of a glass, if you’re lucky. They pour it like it’s liquid gold. This will ensure you’ll need another three ounces in the next minute and a half. 

I don’t know about your family, but when mine knows I’m paying for dinner, suddenly everyone acts as if they’ve just ended a 12-year hunger strike. They want soup and salads and appetizers. They walk around the restaurant to see what other people are having so they can order that.

Going out with my family is like going out with a family of chimpanzees. They sit with the menu in their hands, jumping up and down, making sounds. Bring on the bananas.

Then when the appetizers come, if I try to take one, they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. I recently had to beg them for a lettuce wrap.

I get nauseous listening to them order, “I’ll have two of these and three of those” while I sit there adding up the bill in my head. By the time the waiter is ready for my order, I’ve lost my appetite.

Worst of all, when we get outside, they want me to pay for valet parking. I give up.


Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.

The Jewish Love Affair with Food

The seder plate at Spago features braised beef short ribs and homemade grated horseradish, among other symbolic foods. Photo by Maxine Picard.

Anyone who has heard a Jewish joke here and there has probably heard the one about how every Jewish holiday is the same. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat. While certainly comical in nature, there is something truthful about how intrinsic food is to Judaism.

Think about it. Panera Bread recently made waves around social media for their bread-sliced bagels. Before that, Cynthia Nixon, caused an outrage in New York when she ordered a cinnamon raisin bagel with lox, cream cheese, capers, tomato and onion (gag!). Then there’s the debate over bagel bread, bagel thins, the list goes on. Jews are very opinionated about our bagels!

As if that isn’t enough, every holiday has some sort of signature dish. Even on Yom Kippur when we are fasting, we have carefully planned out our meal to “break the fast.” Try heading over to “The Nosher,” an entire website devoted to all things Jewish and food. My favorite is the March Madness Jewish Food Bracket. What is it about Jews and food?

I thought about a lot of this lately, as I spent the month of March doing the Whole 30 diet. It is incredibly restrictive, but as someone with almost no willpower and a lifelong battle with weight, I needed to do it. The Biggest Loser competition at work was definitely a motivating factor as well. I lost fourteen pounds, but what I gained was a greater understanding of just how hard it is to be Jewish and struggle with food issues.

Not wanting to pass on the fun, I took my five-year-old daughter to communal hamantaschen and challah bakes. And did not eat either. This was the first Purim I can ever remember not having a single piece of hamantaschen. The challah is in my freezer. Potatoes were the only carbohydrates I ate during the entire month of March. Passover this year will be a breeze! I’ve already done it four times over and as of this writing, rice is the only thing I have re-introduced into my diet. Dairy and sugar are still out…for now. Sugar and various forms of it are in just about everything. For those who abstain from corn syrup for Passover, you know. I read more labels in the past month than I have in my entire life.

So what did I learn? Yeah, I learned that sugar (and various forms of it) is in just about everything. But, I also learned that as you go about your daily life in the Jewish community, it is hard to eat healthy. None of the foods on that “Bracket Challenge” are what could be called healthy. Now imagine going through the communal motions as a Jew—an oneg, a holiday celebration, a Shabbat dinner. I did it all. And I often had to eat later when I got home. Aside from the synagogue dinner for Purim where I ate a plate of very tasty roasted vegetables, the healthy options are rarely there when it comes to Jewish celebratory meals.  

Purim itself includes the Talmudic custom of drinking so much that the “person cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). While I have never been one to drink, I can imagine that this can be problematic for someone who struggles with alcoholism.

I am in no way trying to be the “Debbie Downer” of Jewish food. I fully recognize and appreciate the rich value that food brings to our culture. I can think of no stronger symbolism in Judaism than the upcoming Passover seder. And I was choked up when I read about how Joyce Feinberg’s z”l (one of the 11 murdered at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh) daughter-in-law still has a batch of her matzah ball soup in the freezer.  But, I also recognize and appreciate the value of inclusiveness and embracing modernity.

So, just as you might add an orange to your seder plate, I hope you will consider that Passover, like all holidays, is about more than just the food. It is about celebrating the fact that indeed, they tried to kill us and they failed. And, we eat. And drink. Whatever that might be. And be supportive of others in their own choices. As my dad reminded me, “It’s not a sprint, but a journey.” True that.


Lisa Rothstein Goldberg is a social worker and Jewish educator living in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and their two young daughters.

Nowruz: A Time for Renewal

“And still, after all this time, The sun never says to the earth, “You owe Me.”
Look what happens with A love like that, It lights the Whole Sky.”   

These are the words of Persian poet Hafez, who extolled the joys of love and zeroed in on political and religious oppression as early as the 14th century. His books of poetry are considered the pinnacle of Persian literature and usually can be found in the homes of Persians who learn his poetry by heart and recount them as proverbs.

This is just one of the reasons that I consider myself so fortunate that there has never been a time when I haven’t had at least one Iranian family in my life, and at many times, more than one. 

I think I’d be a considerably different soul had I not been blessed to inhale the scent of a Persian home, a place where decades of cooking have permeated every surface, the perfume of saffron and turmeric and the lingering aroma of tea heavily laced with bergamot and served in a seemingly endless stream. I would have missed out on seeing elegant, manicured hands in the delicate balancing act of pinkie and forefinger around the rim of small glasses of the hot liquid, taking sip after sip with a sugar cubes poised just so — in perfectly lipsticked mouths. 

And it is during this time of the year in particular, the Persian New Year called Nowruz, when I’m most reminded of my first encounters in the homes of these mysterious people, with their colorful traditions and delightful customs, many centered around food, ones that reminded me so much of my own family, which was too far away in Israel. It’s the time of year when I remember myself as a young student, invited into the home of a Persian classmate and recognized in her mother’s kitchen a pot with a towel-wrapped lid that contained rice. Up to that point, my house was the only one in which I’d ever seen that trick used, meant to create a barrier between lid and pot so that the rice could steam perfectly without the condensation falling back into the pot. This familiarity, this connection to family and celebration of food that I found among the Persian community gave me goosebumps and added incentive to learn to re-create their incredible sabzis and khoreshts, perfect saffron rice with crispy tadiq (crust) and rose- and orange-flower water flavored sweets. With each new friend came a recipe, more lessons ranging from how to brew tea to how to use herbs and the intoxicating Persian spice mix called advieh, a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger, combined in faultless proportion to highlight the taste of the herbs, vegetables and meat in the dishes. 

Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans and many other cultures celebrate Nowruz on the first day of the spring equinox and continue the celebration for 13 days. It’s a secular holiday celebrated by Muslim and Jewish families across the world by decorating a table in their home with different foods. Much like a Passover seder, where each food symbolizes something to come in the new year, the Nowruz table, called a haftsin table, is a tradition that dates back at least 1,000 years to the ancient Zoroastrians. The haftsin means the seven S’s, and the table decoration reflects that with seven different foods that each begin with the letter S, all symbolizing the seven days of creation. 

The first ‘s’ is sabzeh: lentil, wheat and barley sprouts that are sprouted in a dish weeks before the holiday. They symbolize rebirth and renewal. Serkeh (vinegar) represents the patience that comes with age. Seeb (apples) are put on the table to represent health and beauty, and seer (garlic) for medicinal value. Samanu, a sweet brown pudding made from cooked wheat germ, represents affluence, and sumac, the bright red spice berry, represents the colors of the sunrise. Last is senjed, the dried fruit from the oleaster tree, which symbolizes love.

The word Nowruz means “new day”; it’s a time for renewal and purification. I learned from my friend Maryam, who grew up in Iran and left her family there to make a new life for herself in the United States, that it’s very important that at the exact moment that the radio or television announces the equinox, there is a countdown when all family members should be around the hafsin table so that they can kiss and hug, hold hands and pray that they may be together for the rest of the year.  

Throughout the 13 days of the Persian New Year, friends and family gather and eat traditional foods such as sabzee polo mahee, a Persian herbed rice dish with baked fish and a tangy condiment. Nowruz is the time to do spring cleaning, to let go of grudges, apologize, hug, to make up and ultimately to start all over again. 

It’s a beautiful holiday of reflection that everyone can celebrate and relate to, and if nothing else, you can never go wrong when you make a pot of aromatic tea and sit down with an inspiring book of poetry or philosophy. Take a page from my friend Taranay’s mother’s book: Make these wonderful rice cookies sprinkled with poppy seeds you might have left over from Purim. The combination of these not-too-sweet, gluten-free cookies called nane berenji with tea is traditional for Nowruz but will become a cookie staple in your arsenal for other times of the year too.

NANE BERENJI – PERSIAN RICE COOKIES

2 cups rice flour
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup unsalted butter (soft)
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons rose water
1 teaspoon cardamom powder
1/4 cup poppy seeds for topping 

Sift the rice flour through sieve and place in bowl. In same bowl, mix all ingredients except poppy seeds with your hands until dough is smooth.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Roll dough into walnut-sized balls and place 1 inch apart on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Flatten the top of each ball (use a glass or make a pressed design with a cookie stamp). Sprinkle the top of the cookies with poppy seeds.

Bake for 10-12 minutes. Check the cookies at 10 minutes to make sure the bottoms aren’t burning.

Cool cookies on a rack for an hour before
serving.

Makes 2-3 dozen cookies.


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. 

Hamantashen

Flip Haman’s hat upside down
And it’s the symbol for birth
Filled with the fruit of life and yummy jam
Purim is the evil and the good
It is the whole of our names
And the more we expand, the more layers and costumes we understand,
The more the naked God is
Revealed.

Accidental Culture and Why You Should Make Your Own Yogurt

Some of the most beloved foods were created by accident. Cereal, potato chips, ice cream cones and Worcestershire sauce — all happy accidents. And one of my favorite accidents is yogurt.

Of the few things I’d find it difficult to live without — cooking, sleep, exercise and yogurt — I can live without exercise and can get by on very little sleep, but cooking and yogurt — not a chance. Yogurt is one of those staples I grew up with; something doesn’t feel quite right if I’m not eating it on a regular basis and it’s rare when my fridge doesn’t have a lineup of jars full of the stuff I’ve made. 

It’s thought that the Neolithic herdsmen inadvertently created yogurt in 6,000 B.C.E. after milking their animals and traveling around Central Asia with the liquid in animal stomachs. The natural enzymes in these makeshift milk transport vessels curdled the milk, thus creating a fermented drink with a longer shelf life and a better taste. Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, reportedly lived on yogurt as did his vast armies.

Being half Bulgarian means that yogurt is in my blood: It was a Bulgarian scientist, Stamen Grigorov, who was the first to identify the bacteria that caused milk to ferment and turn into yogurt in 1904. After studying yogurt made in the Trun region of Bulgaria by the village women in a traditional clay pot called a rukatka, Grigorov went to study in Switzerland, taking a sample of homemade yogurt with him. After examining the fermentation process, he identified the microorganisms and named them Lactobacillus bulgaricus as a nod toward his homeland and ended up linking Bulgarians with yogurt production forever. 

By the 1920s, because of the scientific community’s interest in Grigorov’s work, Bulgarian yogurt was all the rage in health-minded communities, particularly after Russian Nobel Prize-winning zoologist Elie Metchnikoff established a link between yogurt consumption in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria and the large concentration of centenarians in the villages there. Soon, news of the life-prolonging benefits of consuming yogurt spread across Europe and was introduced to much of the continent, where it remains a staple food.

“News of the life-prolonging benefits of consuming yogurt spread across Europe.”

The world’s biggest consumer of yogurt products is Russia, where it’s considered essential for weight management and healthful eating. The United States ranks second, and for that, we have a Greek-born, Sephardic Jew named Isaac Carasso to thank. 

In 1919, having immigrated to Barcelona, Spain, Carasso was the first to industrialize the production of yogurt. He named his company Danone (little Daniel) after his son, who in the 1940s took over a small yogurt factory in the Bronx, N.Y. That small company became the yogurt empire Dannon and was the first company to introduce fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt flavors after it was clear that Americans were less interested in the tart, plain yogurt eaten by Turkish immigrants to North America as early as the 1700s. Thus, the popularity of yogurt soared by the 1960s, making it one of the most important health foods ever marketed.

Today, while every supermarket seems to sell 47,000 types of yogurt ranging from Greek to goat to coconut and beyond, yogurt quality tends to differ from country to country and even store to store. Unfortunately, when you grow up on Israeli yogurt, labne and kefir, you get fussy and selective about the yogurt you consume. Not that American grocery store yogurt isn’t good, but the tang of yogurt that has been cultured in a long process rather than a product that has been thickened artificially and therefore doesn’t contain the probiotic benefits of fermentation tastes inferior to me.

Yogurt triggers vitamin B production when you consume it with the whey. Vitamins B and K are produced in our bowels when we eat yogurt, and this is thought to be protective from autoimmune and neural diseases. It’s also a must to eat yogurt when you are using antibiotics. Moreover, the lactic acid bacteria in yogurt boost your immune system. Like all fermented foods, yogurt prevents infections, gastrointestinal diseases and is even thought to prevent fluctuating blood sugar levels because it’s absorbed slowly by the bowels.

Of course, these health benefits rely on the quality of the yogurt. Only commercially available brands that are low in sugar and contain live active cultures can provide you any real benefits. While there are plenty of industrially produced yogurts on the market that are safe, there are also plenty of imposters out there, thickened with starches, containing high fructose corn syrup as well as preservatives that do not contain any active cultures. 

Yogurt is simple to make. Making yogurt at home allows you to control the ingredients, and you’ll taste the difference. 

Below is my yogurt recipe for the Instant Pot pressure cooker, which has a reliable yogurt setting. If you don’t own an Instant Pot or a yogurt maker, I’ve had great results using an oven preheated to the lowest setting and then shut off, and covering a pot wrapped in a beach towel to keep the temperature overnight a consistent 100 degrees F. Different strains of culture produce various tasting yogurts. I use a bit of my previous batch of yogurt to provide the culture but if I’ve forgotten to set some aside, I always keep a dried form of culture in my refrigerator. 

Lastly, I use ultra-pasteurized whole milk to make yogurt, which allows me to skip the boiling step. If you are using unpasteurized or raw milk, boil the milk first and then cool it to 100 degrees before adding the starter.

WHOLE MILK YOGURT IN INSTANT POT

8 cups ultra-pasteurized whole milk
1/4 cup yogurt with active cultures
(from a previous batch or a store-bought yogurt with Lactobacillus bulgaricus in it*)
*Substitute 2 tablespoons dry yogurt starter culture 

Sterilize all utensils, measuring spoons, whisk and the Instant Pot container with boiling water and let sit for 5 minutes or pour 2 cups cold water in the Instant Pot and pressure cook utensils for a few minutes to sterilize. This is an important step so as not to introduce a competing bacterium into your yogurt.

Pour 1 cup cold milk into the Instant Pot and add the 1/4 cup yogurt or the starter. Whisk well to combine. Add in the other 7 cups of milk and whisk well again.

Lock the Instant Pot lid into place and set it to yogurt normal function. I usually do this overnight before bed. I ferment yogurt for 10 hours but a time frame of 8 1/2 to 12 1/2 hours is fine, depending on how tangy you like it. The longer it’s fermented, the sourer it is.

When time is up, cover and place yogurt in the fridge to set, at least 6 hours or until thoroughly chilled, then transfer to clean glass jars. Set aside the 1/ 4 cup for the next batch. If you prefer thicker yogurt, strain in cheesecloth in the refrigerator until desired thickness. 

Makes 8 cups yogurt. 


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.

Best of 2019: Must-Have Kitchen Gear

When you grow up in a home with an inventor, you can either reject or embrace change. In our home, my father was the embracer; my mother and me the rejectors.

Dinner at our house was always a brainstorming session. Ideas floated above the dining room table like suds percolating out of a bubble machine. As my father’s inventions and gadgets gained popularity and his company grew, our family conversations became marketing-oriented, but he always was trying to get my mother and me to be more efficient in our tasks. Aside from patenting his inventions, he also designed a method for us to stack dishes, to put cutlery in the dishwasher efficiently and computerized our home before there was even a whiff of technology anywhere. 

We always had the latest: I was among the first of my friends to own a computer, use an electronic organizer, to play video games and own a cellphone. Yet, my mother and I didn’t always adopt all of my father’s time-saving strategies. 

But the desire for innovation must have subliminally taken hold because today I can’t resist buying cooking gadgets even though as I am buying them, I realize they will likely just be stuffed into my rarely opened gadget drawer. I own so much cooking equipment and gadgets that I could probably open a shop, not much smaller than Williams-Sonoma and live off the sales of my stash for a year. After all, I’ve used most of them only once.

After working at the American embassy for only a few months, one of the supervisors called me into his office and told me that I basically had a blank check to replace the 13-year-old embassy kitchen with all new and more modern equipment. “You mean I can order anything I want?” I asked with eyes as big as saucers. “Yes, within reason, feel free to order anything you’d like.”

The wild-eyed dervish who left his office that day spent the next few weeks scouring government-approved sites for kitchen equipment. This was much more difficult than I imagined, especially after it dawned on me that I was spending taxpayers’ money, not mine. I needed to choose wisely and buy only items that would get used regularly and would save time and energy during prep before a busy service. 

Here’s a list of some high- and low-tech kitchen equipment that an active home kitchen shouldn’t be without. You may own many of these items but if not, most of them are under $50. None of them will disappoint you or be seldom used. My mother’s latest acquisition recently arrived in the mail. It’s an automated grape leaf filling machine. I rest my case.

Immersion blender: This phenomenal tool will enable you to puree and blend in a pot of sauce or soup. It’s also the quickest way (30 seconds) to make homemade mayonnaise and certain dips. Some come with a whisk attachment so there’s no need to use a hand or stand mixer to whip cream. Favorite brand: Kitchen Aide five-speed with whisk attachment

Potato ricer: This may seem like a frivolous purchase but it’s the only way to ensure smooth mashed potatoes. Usually, items that can be used only for one task end up not being used often, but if you value lump-free potatoes — this is a must. Favorite brand: Chef’n FreshForce.

“I own so much cooking equipment and gadgets that I could probably open a shop.”

Magnetic knife strip: Storing your knives (even your most expensive ones) rattling around in a drawer is the surest way to ruin them and make them imbalanced and dull. An easy-to-hang magnetic knife strip will enable  you to easily store and peruse your knives without wasting valuable counter space with blocks. For everyday cooking, you’ll need a good chef’s knife, a paring knife, a serrated bread knife (which can double as a blade to cut through pineapples and tomatoes) and a knife sharpener.

High-speed blender: I love the new high-speed blenders that chop, mix, blend, whip, grind and puree for smoothies, dips, juices and soups. When you own a blender with blades that whip and grind quickly, you won’t know how you lived without one. Favorite brand: Magic Bullet

Storage containers: If you cook a lot at home at home I recommend storage containers that go from dishwasher to oven and are made of shatterproof, tempered glass. Favorite brand: Glasslock 18-piece oven safe

Salad spinner: There’s no replacing a salad spinner to dry vegetables and herbs and ensure salad greens stay dry before being dressed. Don’t settle for a pool of water at the bottom of a salad bowl. Favorite brand: OXO Stainless Steel Spinner with integrated colander

Instant pot: The most well-marketed electronic pressure cooker ever invented is a staple in many households these days and for good reason. Unlike a standard pressure cooker, which is one of the best tools ever created for busy cooks, an instant pot also steams, slow cooks, sous vides and can be used as a rice cooker. It even bakes and sautés. It’s an all-in-one that replaces a number of other kitchen items. Favorite brand: Instant Pot Smart Wifi 6 Quart

Food processor: There’s no replacement for a multipurpose food processor. It can make hummus, grate cheese, chop vegetables and even pie crust. I make scones and puff pastry in a food processor. Favorite brand: Of the many on the market, Cuisinart DFP-14BCNY stands out

Spiralizer: It may seem like a frivolous gadget but spiralizers are a versatile tool that can make ribbons and “noodles” out of a variety of vegetables. Great for salads and interesting vegetable dishes. Favorite brand: Veggetti

Digital scale: Proper baking relies on two things – proper measuring and proper oven temperature. Measuring cups can’t compete with weighing ingredients on a scale. If your baked goods and breads come out differently every time, start to bake like a professional: Get a scale. Favorite brand: The My Weigh KD-8000

Oven thermometer: Home ovens often are uncalibrated. In my bakery, we wouldn’t dream of baking something without an oven thermometer to gauge the oven’s true temperature rather than relying on the dial. Keep an inexpensive oven thermometer hanging in your oven and never over- or undercook your baked goods again. Favorite brand: CDN DOT2 ProAccurate

Bench scraper: This tool is indispensable when working with dough or pastry but also picks up excess flour or waste from countertops. It’s great for cleaning vegetable scraps and herbs and also makes a great dough cutter for rolls, pizza dough or scones. Favorite brand: Orblue pastry scraper and cutter

Mezzaluna: Italian for “half-moon,” the mezzaluna has been in use since the early 18th century, for mincing and chopping tasks, and as a pizza cutter. The big cutting surface catches all of the ingredients on your cutting board, ensuring all pieces are uniformly cut. Perfect for herbs, chocolate blocks, nuts or even lettuce. Nothing beats a vintage mezzaluna but a good one is hard to find. So go with the next best thing. Favorite brand: Wusthof Double-Handle.


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 Kosher Adventure Maker

Avicam Gitlin

Avicam Gitlin has no shortage of swashbuckling vignettes to tell about his job cooking and planning vacations for observant Jews through his work at the Kosher Culinary Travel.

Four years ago, Gitlin was sleeping on the deck of a yacht he had chartered for a family vacationing around the Greek Isles. The yacht was moored off a desert island some 40 nautical miles from the Greek coast. In the middle of the night, Gitlin awoke to shouts of ‘Help!’ coming from the island. He filled a dinghy with water and food and together with a couple of crew members rowed to the island. There, they found two Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland. Gitlin called the coast guard, which picked up the men, who eventually were able to start a new life in Europe. Back on the yacht, his clients remained asleep in their opulent cabins, completely unaware of the adventure that had transpired. 

On another occasion, Gitlin, 38, was in Tuscany, Italy, when he walked into a butcher shop owned by the legendary Dario Cecchini. Cecchini loomed over half a cow splayed open on the block, knife in hand with a crazed look in his eye. But when he noticed Gitlin’s yarmulke he dropped the knife and ran over to greet him with an ebullient “Shalom.” Over a glass of kosher wine he kept for special occasions, Cecchini told Gitlin how, as a young orphan, a Jewish family took him in and, since then, he has had an unwavering affinity for the Jewish people. During their shop-talk, Cecchini also divulged the recipe for a semolina olive oil cake, which Gitlin uses to this day. 

“I was always interested in seeing the world and this was my way of combining my passion for food and my passion for travel.”

 “My take on travel is to be immersed in as much of the local aspect as you can,” Gitlin said. That’s why his business has been designed to allow observant Jews to experience global travel without forgoing one of the paramount aspects in encountering foreign cultures: food. 

You won’t, for example, find Gitlin in Zambia boiling gefilte fish for his clientele. Wherever he is in the world — and he’s been just about everywhere — he sources local ingredients and recipes. In Tuscany, for example, Gitlin took over a restaurant for an entire week. The restaurant was owned and operated by four generations of the same family. Gitlin kept the staff and chef on, and they served a slightly modified version of the existing Tuscan menu, without the pork. He found a local liquor-maker who made the hard stuff kosher; a cheese maker who agreed to make kosher cheese; and partnered with a local, kosher organic winery.

Israeli-born but raised in Orlando, Fla., Gitlin said cooking has always been a part of his life. As a child, he clung to his mother’s skirts in the kitchen, helping her cook traditional Iraqi fare. He made aliyah in his early 20s, earned his undergraduate degree in political science, and opened a telemarketing call center before packing it all in to pursue a culinary career. 

Nearly a decade later, Gitlin has cooked up a kosher storm alongside renowned chefs in some of the world’s most famous restaurants, including  Montage in Maui; La Cabro d’Or in Provence, France; and La Taverna del Pittore in Tuscany.

 “I was always interested in seeing the world,” Gitlin said, “and this was my way of combining my passion for food and my passion for travel.”

Albert Allaham on Reserve Cut Being New York City’s Largest Kosher Steakhouse, L.A. Expansion

New York City has its fair share of world-renowned steakhouses, but only a few notable kosher steakhouses. Reserve Cut manages to be both Downtown Manhattan’s only kosher steakhouse and Manhattan’s largest kosher steakhouse overall. Located in The Setai at 40 Broad Street, the restaurant seats well over 200 people in dining rooms filled with black leather chairs and grey banquettes.

Owner Albert Allaham came to New York from Damascus, Syria in 1999 at the age of 12. He comes from a long lineage of expert butchers dating back over 200 years from Syria, with The Prime Cut in Brooklyn being an example of his family’s meat expertise.

However, fans of Reserve Cut know to expect a modern approach to kosher fare, with plenty of interesting fusion fare blended into the menu. Its A5 Grade Kosher Kuro Wagyu is one of its more popular dishes, while The Volcano — combining spicy tuna, Asian pear and avocado — is one of its surprising menu options available. While being a popular “kosher steakhouse” may be the initial hook of Reserve Cut, Allaham aims to bring in “non-kosher guests to try its superior cuisine.”

Highlights of my Q&A with Albert Allaham about Reserve Cut’s past, present and future are below.

Jewish Journal: What came first: Your idea for a kosher steakhouse, or the idea of opening up a steakhouse?

Albert Allaham: The idea of opening a kosher steakhouse was what definitely piqued my interest rather than the latter. Being that my family had always been the purveyors of kosher meats, not only was it what made the most sense, I was following my heart’s desire.

JJ: Are you the one and only kosher steakhouse in the Financial District? In Manhattan?

AA: Reserve Cut is the largest kosher steakhouse in Manhattan, and the only kosher steakhouse in the Financial District. Although there are a number of kosher steakhouses located in Manhattan, this highly-competitive industry faces us with a challenge every day to be the very best. We continuously do this by offering an amazing quality, a variety of options, and being innovative in the way we prepare our cuisine. 

JJ: For someone that isn’t concerned with food being kosher, how would you describe Reserve Cut?

AA: Reserve Cut is a contemporary steakhouse providing creative, high-quality cuisine and experiences to New Yorkers and international guests alike. Our restaurant has been described as high end, but also offering an inviting atmosphere with unique and delicious dishes that guests can’t get enough of.

Since opening in 2013, Reserve Cut remains at the helm of the fine dining scene in New York City, preparing specialties like an exclusive A5 Grade Kosher Kuro Wagyu steak, crafted signature sushi rolls, and one of the largest kosher-reserve wine menus in the country. 

JJ: You were a butcher before opening up Reserve Cut. Is there anything you miss about being a butcher?

AA: You never lose the feel of being a butcher. It’s been engrained in the family for so long. You will find me many times in the back of the kitchen decked out in chef whites and working right alongside my team of butchers. It’s such a great sense of camaraderie that you never lose.

JJ: Did anyone in your family lineage wind up in a non-meat-oriented career? Any teachers?

AA: When my family first came to the United States in the 90’s, all we knew was the meat business and we’re all still heavily involved in it. My family still owns Prime Cut in Brooklyn, and the biggest venture away from our butcher shop was the creation of Reserve Cut in 2013.

Photo courtesy of Reserve Cut

JJ: What is your favorite item on the menu at Reserve Cut?

AA: Of course everyone thinks I should say steaks, but in reality, what I love most are the dishes that reveal technique. Whether it’s the crispy Mediterranean salad with a pistachio and olive hummus, or the veal tongue carpaccio and schnitzel duo, I’m happy to move freely through our menu at any given meal.

JJ: Do you have any plans to expand Reserve Cut to Los Angeles?

AA: Brand expansion is definitely on our horizon. We’d love to expand to L.A. in the near-future to bring the West Coast elevated kosher dining that the east coast loves so much. Los Angeles is the third most popular city in the world for Jewish residents, after New York City and Jerusalem, so we’ve definitely identified a need for our brand in L.A. and look forward to serving a new region. 

JJ: Anything else you love about L.A. that you can share?

AA: I love to travel to L.A. to enjoy a peaceful retreat from New York City. The culture is so relaxed, and it’s a great change in pace from my normal day-to-day. When I’m in L.A., I love to go to all of the gorgeous beaches, jog on the boardwalk, and catch a Lakers game when I can.

JJ: When you’re not busy with the restaurant, how do you like to spend your free time?

AA: I try to get in as much family time as I can get being that the restaurant business entails such long and grueling hours. My family means the world to me and I attribute my success to them. Without them in my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

JJ: Are there any neighbors of Reserve Cut that you enjoy visiting for fun?

AA: I love being located in the Financial District, partly due to the great shopping options. Not exactly our neighbors, but I love going to Brookfield Place and Westfield World Trade Center for shopping for fun. I’m typically in a suit every day at work, but I actually love wearing and shopping for new sportswear. In my free time, I also try to catch every [Brooklyn] Nets game and watch a ton of basketball and soccer.

JJ: Finally, Albert, any last words for the kids?

AA: No matter how tough the going gets, keep pursuing your passion. Don’t listen to the naysayers and always surround yourself with those who are smarter than you. In order to succeed, you need to have unrelenting faith and belief in yourself. Do the things that most people don’t want to do and most of all, be disciplined.

Reserve Cut can be experienced online at www.reservecut.com, while social media die-hards can follow it through FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Schooled on Stuffed Peppers

I inadvertently started a family spat the other day when I asked my cousin in Israel and my mother for their Bulgarian stuffed peppers recipes. I expected the recipes to differ a bit from mine but I wasn’t prepared for the pushback I encountered. I also asked another cousin, who is a chef from my Romanian side but grew up in a Moroccan neighborhood in Israel, to weigh in. Talk about a mind-bender: After the passionate debates that ensued, I started to doubt myself. 

To my surprise, my mother insisted that she used basil and oregano in the tomato sauce in which the peppers are cooked. I thought this was impossible. Why hadn’t I ever picked up on those flavors and what do they have to do with Bulgarian food? My mother’s explanation was seconded by father, who has only coffee-making and eating abilities, so was easy to disregard. Mom said that the Bulgarian spice chubritza — a blend of savory, paprika, thyme, salt and oregano — was the rationale here and because it was unavailable in the United States — she’d substituted spices that seemed right to her palate.

That made sense to me so I called my cousin to verify. “Do you put chubritza in our family stuffed peppers recipe?” I asked her. “What? Chubritza? Of course not.” “And do you put garlic in the tomato sauce?” I asked haughtily, positive that I would prove to my mother that garlic was a mandatory ingredient in stuffed peppers. “Garlic? Are you crazy?” she said. “Surely, you put onions in the stuffed peppers though,” I said, but with less confidence than before. “I don’t put onions because my mom did not put in onions, and she is the one who taught your mom,” my cousin said.

Apparently, according to my mother and cousin — whose recipes differ — my recipe is completely wrong and not Bulgarian. To make matters worse, my cousin’s best friend was sitting next to her during our conversation. She got in on the debate, too, and an argument ensued between them. “Of course, you can’t cook different stuffed vegetables together,” my cousin said to her friend. “Why not?” Malka said. “I’ve been cooking them together for years!” “Yuck,” my cousin said to her friend. At least they agreed on something though: “Whatever your recipe is — call it what you want but don’t call it Bulgarian.”

“I had to admit that my mother’s stuffed peppers were the best I’d ever had and that I’d never been able to replicate them.”

Apparently, not a soul in my family would “ever in a million years” cook a variety of stuffed vegetables in the same pot, which I’ve done for years. “Every vegetable has its own filling and should be cooked separately,” my cousin emphasized. I can relate to their apprehension over the issue. I’ve read many American chefs’ recipes for stuffed peppers that feature cheese or quinoa or Mexican flavorings, and I admit that most of them seem unappetizing. Of course, in cooking there is right and wrong — right?

With my mother and cousin in such adamant agreement that there was no garlic or onions in stuffed peppers, I called another cousin — this one a chef, for backup. “That’s insane!” he shouted. “My mother puts tons of onions and garlic in her stuffed peppers and lots of coriander, too.” We agreed it was the craziest thing we’d ever heard. “You aren’t trying to make Polish stuffed peppers, are you?” he asked, a dig at the stereotypical sweet and bland palate of Polish immigrants in Israel. I told him I couldn’t even imagine making stuffed peppers without onions and garlic. He said that to do that was almost a matter of honor. “No garlic? Tons of garlic, in fact, more garlic.” “I know right?” I said, but I had to admit that my mother’s stuffed peppers were the best I’d ever had and that I’d never been able to replicate them. That thought perhaps was the reason this irked me. 

My chef cousin and I then talked about the implausibility of cooking stuffed vegetables without onions, and smugly concluded that we are the chefs and we would know! We ended the conversation by proclaiming the necessity of “doing your own thing” and ignoring the old-school way of thinking. Yeah! That settles it — garlic and onions stay in — basil and oregano — out! I mean, what are we — Italian?

But then my mother, as if to ingrain a hard lesson into me, used ground turkey in the stuffed peppers instead of beef. “Mom, what is this?” I asked her, deflated. “It’s stuffed peppers. What do you mean?” she said with annoyance. In an effort to lower the fat content of our family favorite, she’d stuffed the peppers with a mixture of beef and turkey. Instead of the toothsome texture and caramelized color of her filling, they looked and tasted completely different. 

That’s when I understood what was wrong with my hypothesis and also why my stuffed peppers were never as good as my mother’s. It’s not that you can’t do your own thing — chefs live to put their spin on traditional dishes. But sometimes the taste memory of your soul food alters your palate forever, rendering the tastes that come after them inferior. Some food — your mother’s food, in particular — there’s just no need to mess with, and pity the poor fool who tries. However humble or lacking in sophistication, some things are perfect just the way they are.

MOM’S “BULGARIAN” STUFFED PEPPERS

For the peppers and filling:
2 pounds ground beef, raw 1/2 cup short-grain white rice, uncooked
but rinsed and drained to remove debris
1 medium zucchini, grated and squeezed dry
1 large fresh tomato, skin removed, grated 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
12 red peppers, cored and seeded with tops cut off (freeze tops for future use)

For the tomato sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 28-ounce can tomato puree
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

For the sauce, heat olive oil in a pan and add paprika, cooking until the oil is red. Add the remaining ingredients. Simmer until oil gathers around the side of the pan and sauce thickens. If too thick, add a bit of boiling water to thin. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.

Mix all filling ingredients together by hand and set aside. Prep the peppers by cutting off tops and removing white pith and seeds. Place peppers snugly side by side in a greased casserole dish and fill each pepper three-fourths of the way (rice will expand during cooking and fill the peppers). With a sharp paring knife, make 3 small slits in each pepper after filling. 

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Pour cooked tomato sauce all over the tops of the peppers and cover tightly with heavy duty aluminum foil. 

Bake for 45 minutes. Remove dish from oven and increase temperature to 400 F. Remove foil and discard. With a spoon, taking care not to break the peppers, spoon sauce on top of the peppers from the bottom of the dish and return to oven for about 20 minutes, to concentrate the sauce and slightly brown the tops of the peppers.

Serves 12 as a first course, 6 as a main course.


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. 

Valentine’s Dessert: The Passionate Pavlova

According to polls, 40 percent of Americans have negative feelings about Valentine’s Day. The El Paso Zoo announced “Quit Bugging Me” for the holiday, in which patrons can name a cockroach after their ex and watch as it’s fed to a meerkat. The event proved so popular that the zoo added monkeys to the list of animals being fed. The Bronx Zoo has the same program, which calls it an “eternal and timeless gift.”

Each year in the U.S., billions of dollars are spent on greeting cards, and a few million roses are imported from South America. For a society obsessed with saving trees and lowering carbon emissions, this hardly seems loving (not the planet, anyway). 

In the restaurant industry, holidays like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day are known as amateur nights, when obligatory clichés are on the menu. That doesn’t feel so … well, romantic. For one thing, chefs, bakers and other kitchen staffers rarely get to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s one of the busiest nights of the year for restaurants, which means the staff and chefs aren’t with their special someone and sometimes resent being at work. The evening is fraught with pressure — expectations, proposals that could go wrong, or tables for couples who want to eat and run in order to get to the “main event.”

Ask chefs what their idea of a perfect Valentine’s Day is, and most probably would say it’s a night off, avoiding the expensive prix fixe menus, roses and hoopla, and staying home, watching a movie and enjoying a bottle of bubbly and a bed picnic with their lovers. 

“Find your passion; chase it as Anna Pavlova did.”

Not that chefs aren’t romantics. I’d think most people who are passionate about food are romantic by nature. But what about singles? What about widows? Perhaps what we should celebrate on Valentine’s Day is passion. After all, what’s sexier than a person with purpose and passion, whatever the passion is? True love for one’s passion, be it a passion for cooking, teaching, music or architecture — that’s worth celebrating. And when two people bring together their passions — and nurture the passions of one another, the effect is a magical connection.

Take, for example, Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, considered the most influential ballerina of the early 20th century. After seeing the ballet “Sleeping Beauty” when she was 8, Pavlova decided she would become a dancer. At age 18 she was already a prima ballerina, touring all over the world and impressing audiences with her vivid facial expressions and her body’s fluidity.

Pavlova’s passion for dancing was boundless; her natural talent and incredible work ethic live on in the dance companies and schools named after her — even in one of the world’s most famous desserts. Legend has it that a diner in Australia proclaimed their dessert — crisp meringue with a fluffy marshmallow interior topped with lightly sweetened cream and fruit — to be “light like Pavlova.”

Find your passion; chase it as Pavlova did. You don’t need grand gestures to show you care; sometimes the simplest embrace can be the most romantic. If you don’t have a special someone in your life on the “official” day of love — but you have passion — love could be lurking around the corner. 

In the meantime — sweet consolation — more Pavlova for you.

VALENTINE’S DAY PAVLOVA

For the meringue:
5 ounces egg whites (about 5 eggs worth, cold)
1 cup baker’s sugar (fine sugar)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon white vinegar

For the cream:
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled (or 1 can coconut cream chilled)
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla paste (or extract)
1/2 teaspoon rosewater or orange flower water (optional)

Passion fruit gelée:
1 cup passion fruit pulp
1/8 cup cold water
3/4 teaspoon powdered gelatin

Topping:
2 cups fruit of choice (berries, sliced nectarines, peaches, bananas, pomegranates, figs, nuts, chocolate shavings, honey)

Preheat oven to 340 F.

Separate egg whites from yolks while eggs are cold, then allow them to come to room temperature. 

Using a clean, oil-free mixing bowl and beaters (or a stand mixer), beat whites until soft peaks form. Add sugar 1 tablespoon at a time and beat until thick and glossy or until a bit of meringue rubbed between your fingers doesn’t feel gritty (about 5 minutes.)

When the mixture is smooth, add cornstarch and vinegar and work in by hand until mixed through. 

Tracing around a cake pan, draw an 8-inch circle on a piece of baking paper. Turn over the paper onto a flat baking tray, dabbing a bit of meringue in corners of the paper to make it stick to the pan. Coax half the meringue mixture into a circle with a spatula and then pile the other half on top of the base coat, leaving it no more than 2 inches high with a dome top and edges sloping in. 

Gently transfer the pan into the oven and immediately turn down temperature to 240 F. Bake for 1 1/2 hours without opening the oven door (jarring the over door could collapse the meringue).

After baking, turn off the oven but leave the Pavlova in the oven to cool completely. You can do this the night before and leave the meringue in the oven overnight. Or store cooled meringue in an airtight container on your counter; don’t refrigerate.

To make the passion fruit gelee: Sprinkle gelatin on top of 1/8 cup cold water until powder absorbs. Then stir into passion fruit puree.

Microwave (or stovetop) for 1 minute until gelatin is dissolved. Pour into a small flat container to gel. When hardened, cut into cubes to decorate the top of dessert.

For whipped topping: Place cold heavy whipping cream or chilled coconut cream into a cold bowl. Using cold beaters, whip gently until thickened, then add in confectioners’ sugar and extracts, if using. Whip until soft peaks form, taking care not to overbeat. 

Assemble the dessert right before serving. Carefully loosen meringue from paper with a knife and place on a cake stand. If there are cracks, hide them with the cream.

Pile cream in the center leaving a border so meringue shows.

Carefully top with fruit and passion fruit gelée cubes. 

Serves 6 to 8. 


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. 

Chef Lior Hillel Puts Openness, Hospitality on Menu

Chef Lior Hillel is the successful co-owner of several popular restaurants. He and his partners, Robert and Danny Kronfli, recently renovated and updated their old restaurant, Bacaro LA, reopening it as Bacari West Adams. Although he’s been openly gay for years, Hillel struggled with coming out, and his experiences in restaurant kitchens were not always positive. Because he doesn’t want others to go through similar challenges, he ensures that his restaurants foster an environment of acceptance and nondiscrimination. Born and raised in Israel, Hillel has a well-regarded, established culinary presence in Los Angeles.

JewishJournal: You moved from Israel to the United States is 2005. Was that for professional reasons?

Lior Hillel: Partially. At the time, being gay in Israel was somewhat difficult. My dad was sick and the decision was made not to let him know — to keep it under wraps. So, part of the decision to move was to advance my career, but also so that I could live life to the fullest. 

JJ: How was the culinary experience different here?

LH: It’s less restrictive. It was a dream of mine to go to Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and work with ingredients that didn’t have kosher dietary restrictions. It was profound to my development as a chef. 

JJ: How difficult was it to adjust to living in America?

LH: It did not feel natural at first. As an Israeli, I was used to being around family. Family is your safety net and they keep you from falling through the cracks. I had parents, siblings and other family back in Israel. But I had one brother in Pasadena, and I wouldn’t have moved here if he wasn’t here. The transition was difficult and challenging. 

JJ: When did you decide to be more open with your family about your sexuality?

LH: The secret was buried in 2009 when my father died. I confessed over an open grave right before they put the soil on. I confessed and completely buried that secret. I knew that I didn’t bring any shame to my family. 

JJ: You got married in Israel. What was that like?

LH: It was beautiful. My brother was a little apprehensive at first, but he melted a little when he saw the ceremony. He knew it was special. It was intimate and full of love. It embodied the Jewish traditions that I connect with, such as respect for others and having good values. From that foundation, you can do whatever you want, but you need to have that basic human decency. 

“It did not feel natural at first. As an Israeli, I was used to being around family. Family is your safety net and they keep you from falling through the cracks.”

JJ: Did you consciously decide to become an advocate for LGBTQ people in the restaurant industry?

LH: It’s something that evolved over time. I got involved in the ROI community (an international network of Jewish change makers/innovators/entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s). I wasn’t always treated well throughout my career in kitchens. I was humiliated, put down. There were times when my work was sabotaged. When I got into a position of power or privilege, I knew I wanted to offer a place to work that accommodates the needs of others. If I can make someone’s life easier or smoother, I will definitely do so. Also, part of being Jewish is providing for others, just like some people did for me on some occasions. 

Interior of Bacari W. 3rd

JJ: What role does your Judaism play in your life?

LH: I’ve been questioning the religion part because we’ve lost a lot of family members due to cancer. I’ve been wondering why God is allowing this to happen. But I don’t question the values or culture. I embrace the traditions and values fully. My husband, Zachary, is not Jewish, so we have discussed how we will handle having kids. 

JJ: What type of food do you serve at your new restaurant?

LH: The food is Mediterranean. When I joined the restaurant group in 2008, I put more of my imprint on the menu. What we have today is an emphasis on fresh, small plates. It’s almost like we’re taking people on a Mediterranean tour. We also have some American dishes. We’re known for using fresh, mostly local ingredients that are full of flavor. I like well-rounded dishes with an acid component, spices, crunch and colors. 

JJ: Your business partners are Lebanese. What commonalities do you have that make it a good partnership?

LH: It’s interesting, because we eat the same foods, like the same flavors and have the same type of cooking. We were also raised in many similar ways — things like respecting your elders and having a strict upbringing. 

JJ: What kind of experience can guests expect at your restaurant?

LH: They will be treated with great hospitality. This applies to everything from the food to customer service. We treat our guests like they walked into our house. This is a part of Mediterranean hospitality. 


Allison Futterman is a writer based in North Carolina.

Less Politics, More Dumplings

As I bit into the soup dumpling, warm stock shot out of it and onto the face of the stern-looking older woman across from me. The liquid dribbled a tear down her cheek, leaving a trail across her makeup.

Oops!

I quickly grabbed a tissue and dabbed her face, as if I were her mother, which prompted us both to burst out laughing.

This funny, life-affirming moment occurred in a midtown Manhattan restaurant where I was taking a soup-dumpling workshop with other devotees of the famous Shanghai Xiao Long Bao.

One of the great joys I find in traveling is learning about a culture through its cuisine. I like to take as many cooking classes as possible while on a sojourn. I often know how to make the dish being taught, but I still learn something.

I’ve learned how to make risotto in Milan — stirring only clockwise to evenly cook the grains; pommes frites in France — always double-fry; croissants in London — they take more patience than skill; pad thai in Bangkok — don’t cook the noodles first; and perogies on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — don’t overfill them. 

Why would a professional chef want to take a class alongside home cooks? First, it’s extremely difficult to find a professional-level course while traveling that I don’t have to commit to for days or even months. Second, in each of my workshops around the world I’ve been in the delightful company of men and women who like to be around food, who like to learn new things, and who just want to learn to make their favorite dish. Some, like me, just want to absorb the delights of a kitchen that’s not theirs. Food is fun and engrossing, and even if you don’t cook in your day-to-day life, cooking classes are are a pressure-free zone where you can learn some words in another language, use your hands, eat tasty morsels and then leave without having to do the dishes.

The soup-dumpling class where I made my big splash was given by the China Institute, a cultural center in New York that was founded in 1926, and whose mission is, according to its website, “to advance a deeper understanding of China through programs in education, culture, art, and business.” The China Institute is the go-to resource on China — it offers films, language and art classes, and classes about the rapidly shifting Chinese business culture. I must have been looking into a film at the institute because I received an email asking if I wanted to participate in its first cooking workshop. 

Xiao Long Bao has long been considered by dumpling aficionados to be the king of dumplings. A xiao long is a bamboo steamer and a bao is a steamed bun. I fell in love with them while eating plenty in Hong Kong and all over Asia. The filling is made of minced beef or chicken (generally pork and crab roe in China) that is seasoned with scallions, ginger, soy sauce and a touch of sesame oil. But what makes them legendary are the gelatinized broth cubes that are mixed with the filling so that when the dumplings are steamed, the rich stock melts and creates a soup inside the bun. Although I had made them many times at home, I had never seen them made by a Chinese master chef — as promised in the course description.

I was intrigued. 

I signed up for the class, but as the date got closer I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Oddly, I’d never taken a cooking class in the United States and didn’t know what to expect of fellow enrollees. In the current political climate, where vitriol plays such a large part in our day-to-day reality, I began to worry that I would have to listen to politically correct banter or politically incorrect bravado from a bunch of strangers. I worried about this a lot in the days leading up to the class.

Amid the chaotic, ratings-driven greed of many media corporations and the fearmongering coming out of our nation’s’ capital, it seems our relationships and conversations are getting more strained. And our friendships — the ultimate gift to the soul — can be impacted. I’ve had more than one uncomfortable conversation with friends about politics, and watching television in the U.S. (I don’t have a TV in my home in Uganda) feels like being stuck in a minefield of annoyance. 

But I needn’t have worried. It was a snowy day when I stepped into the warmth of that midtown Chinese restaurant with at least 50 other soup-dumpling fans. About five people were seated at each table, which was decked out with small dough balls (the dumpling wrapper), a few long and thin Chinese rolling pins, a bowl of filling and, of course, the requisite pot of Jasmine tea and miniature cups.

As I initially took a seat at a table, alone, I was immediately and enthusiastically greeted by the guests at an adjacent table — a banker, an advertising executive and an interior designer. My table quickly filled up with a Chinese-speaking American graduate student; his pretty friend, herself a student; and a Chinese woman who spoke very little English.

We introduced ourselves, but rather than talking about my least favorite and dreaded subject, we started to talk about dumplings — where we had eaten them, which NYC restaurants had the best ones, what we did for a living, where we had recently traveled and where we lived. All the while, an old dumpling master, Chef Wu, and a female sous chef — neither of whom spoke English — demonstrated the signature bao rolling and pleating technique. 

As we lightly floured our work surfaces, rolled the wrappers with the pins, filled them and pleated them, not one negative word was spoken — not about anything going on in the nation’s capital, not about Cheetos or the state of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ wardrobe, nothing about anti-Semitism or women’s marches or any of the hundred other topics we expect to hear about at every social occasion or family get-together.

It was blissful.

For over two hours, life was like it was before, when we were unaware of strangers’ (and many friends’) political affiliations. Other than snapping pictures of our slightly misshapen, sticky, round balls of dough, perfecting pleats was the only thing on our minds. We all watched in rapt attention as the dumpling master chef pleated baos with two hands and then, mind-bendingly, with only one hand. We were not Republicans or Democrats or even Independents. For that afternoon, in that cozy, fragrant, midtown Chinese restaurant, we were all just foodies, united in our love of a good Shanghai-style soup dumpling.

To my friends, many of whom are regular readers of this column, you are on notice. I’m not going to let a lifetime of memories get chipped away by a difference of opinion about a political candidate or about something as important as national security or climate change. Fundamentally, without the support and love that are part and parcel of life-sustaining friendships, the environment is not worth saving anyway. We may not always agree, but luckily for you, I’m now quite a master soup-dumpling maker.


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.

A Recipe to Savor Every Minute

My birthday is this month, and while I’m thrilled to have made it through another year relatively unscathed, in February my mind always turns to a little review of the past 12 months.

I suppose it’s a natural impulse to want to press rewind and recognize some mistakes and victories in order to brace yourself for what’s to come. As the years have gone by, I’ve realized I have fewer minutes to waste. Time takes on more meaning when you have less time ahead of you than the time you’ve spent.

The good news is that each year of life presents us with 525,600 minutes for change. We’re told that even the smallest change in thought and action can have a profound impact on our happiness potential each day. Even if about 150,000 of those minutes are spent sleeping, we still have more than 375,000 minutes to fill with positive intentions and action.  

And so … “GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!”

Sorry to startle you. That’s the shouted mantra I always hear from the ripped, microphoned drill sergeant who leads the early morning spin class I take when I’m in New York City. Recently, as she repeatedly hammered us with that phrase throughout the 50-minute session, it occured to me how much of human experience is shared. As much as we think we are special individuals and our problems are exceptional, most of us fall prey to the same drives, desires and routines. What makes us unique is how we choose to parse and process the information that impacts our lives.

Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific science fiction writers, once wrote: “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” While writers may spend more of their time living in their heads, allowing them to feel sheltered in the little worlds they create, the pursuit of happiness for most of us may boil down to living in the moment as often as possible and learning to appreciate the struggle.

If you think about it — the 100 relatively effortless minutes you spend baking these beauties will make at least a few hundred other minutes enjoyable to the loved ones with whom you share them.

If only we could just buy happiness. Actually, if there’s anything a decade in Africa has taught me, it’s that it’s very possible to have all your needs satisfied on a material level and still be unhappy; some of the poorest people I’ve met here are some of the most joyful.

While most people on the planet desire a life full of meaning and purpose, it seems like a cultural imperative for Jews. After all, from childhood we are taught to ponder the unthinkable — all the Jewish lives that were denied their full existence. We learn how much audacity went into creating a country like Israel, an unreasonable dream and a downright miracle of obstinance and chutzpah. My maternal grandparents struggled beyond belief to make sure their children survived the war. I think I best honor their memory by creating as much joy in the world as I can and by appreciating the fact that, because of them, I have the opportunity to struggle through life’s ups and downs. After all, if I was born with the DNA of people who faced the ultimate hardships and still persevered to make a life in a country like Israel was in her infancy, well, I won the lottery. 

Although I’m hardly a planner, this year I broke down my minutes so I could try to figure out how to spend them wisely. The results are surprising. If I spend about 110,000 minutes cooking; 45,000 minutes writing about cooking; 22,000 minutes exercising; 22,000 minutes eating (to offset the exercising); about 5,000 minutes making plans; 10,000 minutes traveling; 50,000 minutes with family and friends; 22,000 minutes shopping, cleaning, primping, doing chores, paying bills, filling out spreadsheets and slogging through miscellaneous drudgery; I’m left with almost 90,000 minutes to spare. (As a chef, I’m fortunate that many of my cooking minutes are folded into my work minutes, so I don’t need to pick between working and cooking. This was intentional.)

I want to spend those 90,000 minutes helping people, training, tutoring, volunteering, taking cooking classes, reading, listening to music, watching movies, making new friends, nurturing old relationships, sinking into time-honored Jewish rituals and — if I haven’t already — consistently challenging myself.

I’m hoping, for your sake, that you spare some time to enjoy these remarkable roasted beet galettes, a recipe from Eva Barnett, chef/owner of the wonderful Café Adella Dori in the Catskills and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.  I can hardly think of a better way to use 100 of your minutes, precious as they are. 

If you think about it — the 100 relatively effortless minutes you spend baking these beauties will make at least a few hundred other minutes enjoyable to the loved ones with whom you share them.

Oh, and while you’re baking these … “GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!”  

Eva Barnett’s Roasted Beet Galettes

For the dough:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting work surface
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 cup (226 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes and chilled until very cold
½ cup ice water

For the filling:
1 ½ pounds raw beets, peeled and cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil + 1/8 of a cup for brushing
1 cup feta or goat cheese (I prefer goat cheese to feta in cooked preparations)
1/8 cup chopped fresh herbs — thyme, rosemary, sage or a combination

Preheat oven to 400 F. To make the dough, put flour, salt and rosemary in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add very cold butter cubes to the processor and pulse until dough forms pea-sized clumps. Add ice water ¼ cup at a time and pulse just until the dough is combined. Do not over-process or dough will be tough. Turn out dough onto work surface and knead gently into a smooth disk, working quickly so as not to melt the butter. Cover disk with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator while you cook the beets (about 1 hour — I prefer to do this a day ahead.)

Peel and clean beets. Slice each in half, and with the flat side down on a cutting board, cut into ¼-inch slices. Toss with ½-cup olive oil, salt and pepper until thoroughly coated. Spread beets out in a single layer on a baking tray and roast until tender — about 40 minutes. 

When beets are completely cool (room temperature) take the chilled dough out of the refrigerator.  Divide dough into 6 equal portions and roll each portion into a ball (this may take some gentle kneading but do not overwork the dough.) On a lightly floured work surface, use a rolling pin to roll out each ball into a flat circle until approximately 1/8-inch thick and 6 inches in diameter. Transfer each disk onto a parchment-lined baking sheet (you may need two) and pop back into refrigerator or freezer to chill for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, remove dough from refrigerator and fill the center of each disk with beets, leaving a 1 inch border uncovered. Brush beets with remaining olive oil and crumble cheese over top. Fold in the sides of the circles to partially cover the beets, leaving them uncovered in the center. Sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs. Bake for 40–45 minutes or until crust is golden brown.

Makes six, 6-inch galettes.


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.

Soy Vay: Teriyaki and the Magic of the Unexpected

Like almost every Jew I know, I seem to have a microchip installed somewhere in my body that is programmed to a default factory setting that considers fatty fish, beef, chicken or tofu covered with a heavy shellac of salt and sugar and served over rice or noodles to be, for lack of a better term, the bomb.

Just the word “teriyaki,” for example, conjures up fond memories of Chun King mini egg rolls that are still sold in the frozen food section (but rarely seen at parties anymore) and the packets of sweet chili sauce or Chinese mustard “included” in the box. If you grew up a Jewish kid in the suburbs, eating in restaurants close to your cul-de-sac that served pupu platters with flaming blue gel in the center and Mai Tais (with orange slices, maraschino cherries and paper umbrellas), or if your Christmas tradition involves Chinese food and a movie, this is your soul food!

Teriyaki is a simple Japanese technique for meat that’s been around since the 17th century and produces a gorgeous piece of protein. In Japanese, “teri” means “to glaze” and “yaki” translates to “grill”; but in America, teriyaki is a flavor profile borne out of decades of immigrants adapting to cheap and plentiful local ingredients. Although the Japanese developed the concept of umami (the savory fifth taste), Asian cooks tend to let the freshness of the ingredients shine through and use sugar, salt, soy sauce and spices to their advantage, not to overpower a food. But American teriyaki is defined by excess — overly sweet, overly salty, boldly flavored. It’s an overt and direct attack on the taste buds, and we’ve come to really like it that way.

Modern Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean food in the U.S. has come a long way from the days when fried rice and orange-colored sweet-and-sour pineapple chicken were the go-to orders for restaurant patrons. But there is something remarkable and nostalgic about a flavor profile like teriyaki, and it has little to do with its origins. Certain foods have infiltrated Americana through chain restaurants and fast-food establishments to become part of our national taste memory. Like lasagna and tacos, these American staples bear just enough resemblance to their origins to make them recognizable; but they are, first and foremost, a perfect example of an adaptation of immigrants to their environment. Teriyaki, for example, was brought to Hawaii by Japanese sugar cane workers in the mid-1800s, but ingredients for the simple-to-prepare sauce — soy sauce and mirin (a sweet rice wine) — were quickly modified to save money. Soon, the sweet mirin was replaced entirely by cane sugar (which makes sense on a sugar plantation), and by the 1920s ginger, garlic and green onion were added — most likely an influence brought by the influx of Chinese immigrants to Hawaii. 

Teriyaki really got interesting after World War II. American GI’s serving overseas became obsessed with all things Polynesian.

But teriyaki really got interesting after World War II. American GI’s serving overseas became obsessed with all things Polynesian. By the 1960s, cheap wheat to make soy sauce and mega sugar cane production created a perfect storm in which the flavors of the East slowly infiltrated restaurant menus, home décor and party food. Egg rolls, rumaki and crab rangoon became all the rage, but teriyaki sauce was the gateway drug — salty, sweet, sticky, simple to prepare and not too exotic as to intimidate. We knew these flavors and they became part of us. 

Today, most American households have a bottle of teriyaki sauce in the fridge, and what’s more incredible is that teriyaki has completely changed from a description of a Japanese cooking technique to a pourable sauce, marinade and food category. Kikkoman’s original teriyaki sauce is the best-seller on the market today and is considered “best in its class,” boasting the sugary, pineapple flavors of Hawaii and the salty authenticity of a Japanese brand. But it shouldn’t surprise you to know that Soy Vay’s Veri Veri Teriyaki, the brainchild of a Jewish and Chinese-American couple, comes in a solid second. Soy Vay adds more Chinese ingredients to the sauce: ginger, garlic, onion, sesame seeds and sesame oil. Soy Vay managed to produce an entirely new (and kosher) teriyaki by building on the suburban Jews’ Chinese restaurant flavor profile in an authenticity-obsessed foodie landscape. And Soy Vay did this unashamedly by moving further away from the original Japanese soy sauce and mirin formula, and without being “authentic” about it in any way.

The result — one of the many ironies of modern-day cooking — is that now when I make teriyaki chicken, salmon or meatballs in my café, I have to adapt the original technique and recipe to the American palate, which unexpectedly merged to form a whole other thing. We’ve distilled the abundance of flavors, methods and ingredients from centuries of other cultures into some of our own, and what we’ve come up with is magically delicious and quintessentially American. 

Here is my version of Soy Vay, just in case you don’t like soy as the first ingredient in your food and sugar as the second. But don’t worry. It still tastes like what you remember from your teenage years — that favorite strip-mall Chinese restaurant with tiki torches lighting up the corners.

YAMIT’S “AMERICAN” TERIYAKI GLAZE
2 parts tamari (tamari is gluten-free, but low-sodium soy sauce is fine)
2 parts sake (Japanese rice wine)
2 parts mirin (Japanese cooking win similar to sake but with a higher sugar content)
1 part rice vinegar or white vinegar
1 part white or brown sugar or sugar substitute (I use an erythritol-based sugar substitute called Sukrin)
1 part juice of freshly grated ginger (grate and then squeeze out the juice)
1 part juice of freshly grated garlic (optional but I use it)
1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil (optional)
1/4 teaspoon white pepper (optional)

Ingredients are listed as a ratio so cooks can scale up or down accordingly. It keeps in the fridge in a clean glass jar for at least a month. Use in the last moments of cooking to glaze fish, poultry, steaks, tofu or vegetables. You can also use it as a dipping sauce or add it to hamburger meat to create a fantastic teriyaki burger. 

Note: Don’t marinate food in teriyaki; it pulls the juices out of the meat and you don’t want to start caramelizing the sugar in the sauce until you have crisped up its exterior.

Combine all ingredients (except for sesame oil) in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until a drizzle of sauce is thin enough to run down a plate but thick enough to stick.

The sauce thickens upon cooling. After it thickens, whisk in a drop or two of sesame oil and store the glaze in a jar until you want to use it.

You can use any unit of measurement, from tablespoons to cups. The only exception is sesame oil. Sesame oil needs to be subtle or it overpowers.  Its taste should barely be discernible here. I never use more than a teaspoon even for a big quantity of sauce. 

Trust me, make extra.


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. 

Ply Them With Schnitzel

In Israel, when you are a child, you pretty much live on schnitzel with mashed potatoes, with fries, as a sandwich, in a pita with hummus or just by themselves, eaten cold after school. It’s a very popular food that was introduced by Ashkenazic Jews, mostly of German origin, when they immigrated from Europe. During the early years of Israel, because veal was not obtainable and pork is not a kosher option, chicken was the meat of choice; it’s tasty and inexpensive.

In Israel, there are entire frozen food sections devoted to schnitzel, in case you don’t or can’t make your own. These tasty cutlets usually are made from processed chicken or turkey with skin and organ meat included — kind of like McNuggets — not that there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think I ever met a kid (or a man) who doesn’t love these and can’t eat them by the plateful right out of the frying pan. 

On my last trip to see my maternal grandmother, she asked me if I still like schnitzel. She was 90 years old and in an assisted-living facility but still had her own kitchen. I watched as she gingerly floured, egged and breaded the schnitzel and then fried them with her grandmotherly hands so I could enjoy my childhood snack. Her eyesight was not very good at that point and I think she put about twice the salt in them than she should have but they were more delicious for it and I have since always generously salted my schnitzel. 

My favorite way to eat schnitzel, though, is cold, on a soft bun smeared with mayo and a bit of ketchup, preferably on my way to or from the beach. This is pure memory food. My auntie or cousin used to pack us a lunch for a day at the beach; we could never wait until lunchtime and would gobble them up in the car on the way. The delectable nature of a schnitzel sandwich is almost too much to believe and hard to hold out for. When I make them, I always make two per person because even fussy eaters love them. I’ve noticed that the people who eat your schnitzel sandwich will always be the ones who claimed not to want one in the first place. Don’t fall for that trick. Make them one anyway!

The delectable nature of a schnitzel sandwich is almost too much to believe and hard to hold out for.

I had some hungry kids over recently and, much like when I make this in the café, I served my schnitzel with sweet red cabbage, mashed potatoes and lots of gravy, but for kids, all you really need is some fresh buns and some ketchup and they couldn’t be happier. As much as I love every single component of this meal, the red cabbage is such a big star here. It’s by no means dietetic, and I don’t even try to make it so because I’m from the “go all-in once in a while” school of thought. I sauté onions and red cabbage low and slow until they are melting and soft in olive oil. I add chopped sour apples, salt, sugar, freshly ground pepper and apple cider vinegar and I let the whole mass just barely caramelize in its own juice. I think it cuts the richness of the schnitzel and gravy beautifully.

All around, if you have some calories to spare, this dish has definite “last meal before prison” status in my book and it goes without saying that if there are little people in your life who are in need some good cheer, you’d do right by them to ply them with schnitzel. They will love you until the end of time.

CHICKEN SCHNITZEL

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs or matzo meal
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon mustard
Water
Vegetable oil for frying (canola, grape seed, peanut, avocado but not olive oil)
Lemon wedges for serving
Fresh buns (if serving to kids)
Ketchup for dipping or a combination of equal parts ketchup and mayonnaise 

Butterfly chicken breasts by using a sharp knife to cut each breast in half lengthwise. Place a long strip of plastic wrap on your kitchen counter and place one half of one breast down. Lay another piece of plastic wrap on top and, using a meat mallet or a rolling pin, gently flatten the meat between the two pieces of plastic wrap until it is 1/4-inch thick and even. If the piece is too thick when flattened, then cut it in half again.

Set up a frying station with three flat bowls. Combine half the salt, black pepper, white pepper, paprika and garlic powder in the bowl with flour, and the other half of the spices into the bowl with breadcrumbs. In the third bowl, place beaten eggs mixed with mustard and a few tablespoons of water to thin. Place a flat sheet pan or plate nearby where you will place your coated schnitzels.

Pour 1/2 inch of oil into a frying pan and heat over medium. Place a small corner of bread into the oil; when oil is ready, the bread will begin to fry and sizzle. While you are waiting for oil to heat, begin coating the chicken breasts. Start with seasoned flour, dip into egg mixture and then into breadcrumbs, making sure to coat each part of the surface area in crumbs.

Set up a paper towel-lined plate to hold your cooked schnitzels. They should take 3-4 minutes per side to cook. Fry only a few at a time without crowding the pan so that the oil temperature doesn’t drop because that leads to oily schnitzel. Ideally, the frying temperature should stay at 375 degrees, so let the oil reheat between batches.

Sprinkle schnitzel with additional salt to taste, if desired, and serve with lemon wedges or with ketchup and mayonnaise on fresh buns for kids. 

Serves 4 adults or 8 kids.


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. 

Jewish Journal City Guide 2019

Need to know what’s happening around the Greater Los Angeles Jewish community? Fear not, The Journal has compiled everything you need to know right here (just click the magnifying glass).

 

 

Table of Contents:

Community

 

 

Summer Camp

 

 

Education

 

 

Religious Life

 

 

Goods & Services

 

Heaven-Scented Hamin: Slow Food for Warm Souls

There are some dishes that require a few chefy techniques to come out well, although I maintain those are few and far between. Then there are classics, like chicken soup, that once you know the tricks, they require no more measuring or tinkering to be consistently pleasing.

Then there is a hamin or a cholent, depending on where in the world your people came from, which like all good peasant food requires very little in terms of technique, rather some tips passed down through the generations. 

A cholent, a uniquely Jewish food, is a Shabbat dish that was born out of its observance. It is prepared on Friday afternoon before sundown and cooked overnight at a very low oven temperature, then eaten Saturday for lunch after returning from services. This provides a hot, hearty meal without violating the commandment against cooking on the Sabbath. In Israel, there are still whole communities in Jerusalem that cook their cholent communally, usually in a town baker’s wood-fired oven; a revival of dish’s popularity in Tel Aviv has many restaurants selling it made to order by the pot.

Food historians attribute the word cholent to the French chaud lent, meaning “to warm slowly.” Food journalist and cookbook author Joan Nathan theorizes the dish likely originated in ancient Israel and migrated to France and then to the rest of Europe. Apparently, when the Spanish Inquisition forced the Jews out of Spain and into Eastern Europe the dish’s ingredients changed from lamb and chickpeas to beef, beans, barley and potatoes. 

For the Jews who escaped Spain and fled to northwestern Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar, the ingredients of the hamin evolved according to what was available locally, and called a dafina, which means “covered” in Arabic. The dish traditionally was buried in a pit and covered with hot ashes on the eve of Shabbat, with household residents picking up their cooked treasure on their way home from synagogue. Although the recipe for a Moroccan dafina varies from city to city and from family to family, every Jewish house was distinguished by its dafina, and legend has it that the noble rabbis could sense the peace and holiness of the house from the smell of the Shabbat stew. While the spices of an Eastern European cholent usually are restricted to salt, pepper and paprika, a Moroccan dafina usually includes sweet potatoes, honey, cinnamon, cumin and dates. 

Sephardic Jews tend to include packages of rice and brown eggs called haminados in their hamin but Ashkenazi Jews tend to use root vegetables and kishke, a sausage made of shmaltz, flour and vegetables. The Jews of France adopted a version of this stew and called it schalet. Jewish food historian Gil Marks said all three versions — hamin, schalet and cholent — consisting of beans and meat, seasoned with onions and slow-cooked overnight, were the basis for the iconic southern French cassoulet, and that there is a good chance the medieval dish had its roots in Judaism.

Because Jews have been scattered all over the world for centuries, there are as many recipes for a hamin as there are cooks. In Israel, I once sampled an exquisite hamin prepared by an Argentine cook who slow cooked duck breasts stuffed with pasta and stewed with prunes. The long tradition of hamin, distinguished by region and imbued with the flavors of many cultures, is also one of extended family and even neighbors. After all, one cannot make a cholent for two; by definition, it is an experience of communal eating. And although you must plan ahead to make it, soaking the beans and grains overnight is hardly cause for concern. From there, it is a straightforward and meditative one-pot wonder that hardly involves the interference of the cook except for the very beginning of the process. 

While I prefer to cook my cholent in the oven, I know there are many who use a countertop slow cooker, a tool that can be turned on and forgotten about until the next day. I also don’t, as many do, add ketchup, cola or honey to my cholent; rather I employ some techniques using caramelized sugar, onion skins and a tea bag to deepen the signature brown color of the dish.

Cholent enthusiasts are divided over whether to pre-sear the meat but I am adamant in searing it although it’s an extra step.

In addition, I also always include chicken thighs and homemade chicken stock in my cholent. The reasons for this are obvious: Shmaltz imbues the flavor of beans and everything it touches with a savory quality that cannot be replaced, and the gelatin produced by the chicken bones in the stock creates a “protein crust” and a viscosity that is otherwise impossible to achieve without it.

Even though I tend to identify with my Sephardic side, certainly when it comes to my food tastes, this is one case where I move more toward my Ashkenazic side. I prefer kishke over rice and white beans over chickpeas. I don’t use any Middle Eastern spices, opting for the more traditional paprika, salt and pepper only. The nod to my Sephardic side ends with the insistence on adding haminados in the pot. I tend to serve my cholent with a variety of fresh salads and pickles. I find the acidity in the dressing necessary to cut the richness of the stew.

As for leftovers, this is one stew that guests are happy to take home but if not, it makes a wonderful soup the next day, thinned with some extra broth and served with toasted bread. It’s almost like another dish entirely.

As we enter the darkness and chill of winter, it doesn’t matter what you call it — cholent or hamin, dafina or schalet — as it always has been, this is one dish that will perfume the houses of Jews on Shabbat until the end of time. 

YAMIT’S CHOLENT
2 tablespoons oil or chicken fat
4 large kosher chicken thighs (skin on)
2 pounds fatty, kosher beef-brisket, flanken or short rib, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 large yellow onions, cleaned and chopped (reserve skins)
5 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 large marrow bones, soaked in salted water until very white
1/2 pound dried white beans or cannellini beans, soaked overnight
1/2 cup pearl barley (or wheat berries or freekeh), soaked overnight
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon sugar, caramelized in a pan until brown
1 quart (or to cover) strong chicken stock
1/2 pound kishke, plastic casing removed
6 large eggs, boiled for 3 minutes and drained
1 black tea bag

In a large, 10-quart, heavy-bottomed pot with a tightly fitting lid, brown the chicken thighs and beef in oil. Remove the meat, set aside and fry the onions until soft. Add the garlic and fry until the aroma rises.

Add half the potatoes and sweet potatoes to the pot, add the marrow bones and arrange the beef, chicken, drained beans and barley on top, and then the other half of the potatoes sprinkling each layer with salt, pepper and paprika as you go. Add the caramelized sugar.

Cover with stock. Steep teabag in a cup of boiling water or stock and add the liquid to the pot. Add onion skins. Bring pot to a boil. Remove any scum that rises. Arrange kishke on top and then the eggs. Make sure all items are submerged at least 3/4 of the way in liquid and then put the lid on and transfer to the lowest-temperature oven (200 degrees F.) overnight.

Check on it in the morning and add boiling water should the stew look dry. Cook for at least 14 hours and up to 18 hours before serving.

Serves 12.


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. 

Reuben Tots With Russian Dressing, Rye Toast Crumble

As featured at Festival of the Holidays at Disney California Adventure Park
By Pam Brandon

Russian Dressing
½ cup mayonnaise
1 ½ tablespoons ketchup
⅛ teaspoon Worcestershire
½ teaspoon prepared horseradish
1 ½ teaspoon dill pickle relish
1 ½ teaspoon chopped parsley
1 ½ teaspoon chopped onion
¼ teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
½ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Blend all ingredients in a blender. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Rye Crumble
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
2 slices rye bread, cut into ½-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 300 F. Melt butter and garlic in small saucepan over low heat. Add salt. Toss rye cubes in butter and place on baking sheet. Bake for eight minutes, stir bread crumbs and bake additional five to eight minutes, until toasted. Cool for 20 minutes. Pulse in food processor to make coarse crumble.

Reuben Tots
1 pound tater tots, cooked according to package directions
¼ pound corned beef, diced
½ cup sauerkraut
1 bunch chives, chopped

Divide tater tots evenly among four dishes. Top with corned beef and sauerkraut. Drizzle Russian dressing on top. Sprinkle rye crumbles and chives on top of dressing.

Serves four as an appetizer.

Challah and Sufganiyot in the Clouds

Winston Churchill was so impressed by Uganda during his 1907 safari that he wrote a book about it titled “My African Journey.” Published in 1908, Churchill wrote of the then-British Protectorate: “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.” 

Churchill’s arduous journey took him from Mombasa and Kisumu in Kenya, across Lake Victoria and into Entebbe and Jinja in Uganda. 

Upon reaching Ripon Falls, he left “modernity” behind, walking, bicycling and canoeing until he reached Murchison Falls, the world’s most powerful waterfall. Although he continued by boat along the Nile through Uganda into Sudan to Khartoum, it was Uganda that he fell in love with. Most visitors to Uganda still do, only now, much more comfortably than Churchill did and enjoying much better food than was available in 1907.

Indeed, after living in Uganda for over a decade and having traversed the continent, I’m left breathless every time I venture outside its lively cities. A two-hour drive outside the capital Kampala’s perimeter delivers nature’s full bounty with plentiful wildlife and endless swamps of papyrus, forests and vast African plains. As a chef and founder of two of Kampala’s first Western restaurants, I’m often asked to train to various lodge staffs around the country, some with remote bush kitchens, little more than tin shacks without running water or sometimes even electricity. 

Last week, I was elated to have a four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend free and an invitation to southwest Uganda to a remarkable award-winning lodge called Clouds, part of a five-star franchise of safari lodges in isolated locations around the country. Wildplaces camps are remote, luxurious throwbacks to a more glamorous era with personal butler service, spas, gourmet food and some of the world’s most stunning views. The brainchild of Montreal-born Pamela Kertland and her British husband, Jonathan Wright, I’d been to some other of their properties, and they never disappointed in a single detail. 

Clouds, Uganda’s highest-elevation lodge, is located near the Nkuringo trailhead, ideal for gorilla tracking. It sits on a mountaintop at an elevation of 7,000 feet overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and is ringed by active volcanoes that glow red in the night sky. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to almost half of the remaining endangered mountain gorilla populations, making it a “bucket list” destination for international tourists who buy tracking permits for a few hours of up close and personal time with these mesmerizing behemoths.

I left Kampala at daybreak on Thanksgiving and was driven seven hours until the fully paved roads gave way to gravel trails that hugged the side of the steep mountain for another two hours until I reached Clouds. 

We arrive in the afternoon under heavy black clouds hanging above the volcanoes into a breathtaking, warehouse-sized reception hall with a ceiling rimmed in Swiss chalet-style beams of wood. There is no mistake, though, that this is Africa in between the wooden sculptures and masks, I recognize the works of the most famous Ugandan painters and photographers in frames on the walls. 

I’m greeted by the young resident manager, chef Annabelle Wright, daughter of the lodge owners and a graduate of the London’s Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall and the revered Bocca di Lupo. My job is to teach her staff some American favorites in the form of bagels and doughnuts, challah for French toast and New York-style pizza dough recipe. 

That evening, dinner is eaten by candlelight and we all inhale Wright’s fresh butternut squash ravioli dressed simply in browned butter and sage from the vast garden behind the property.

The next morning, I spend the day in the kitchen with Wright hand mixing challah dough, teaching her the blessing as I braid it, and then how I turn it into sufganiyot or Hanukkah doughnuts. We decide to make a crème patisserie and, while it’s chilling in the refrigerator, I shape the remaining half of the challah dough into balls for sufganiyot. While they are rising, I paint the now-risen challah with egg wash and place it into a charcoal stove for baking (there is no thermometer-regulated oven in the kitchen). I push in the loaf and hope for the best.

After frying the sufganiyot, letting them cool and filling them with pastry cream, we garnish them with fresh borage flowers from the garden. We present them on a bed of coarse sugar to an American couple drinking champagne in the lodge. I explain the meaning of Hanukkah and the eight-day tradition of eating food fried in oil, and they proceed to taste them.

Their eyes widen at first bite. “We can’t believe we came to Uganda to eat the best doughnut we’ve ever tasted!” they exclaim. 

I bet that’s exactly what Winston Churchill would have said.

CHALLAH SUFGANIYOT
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 egg yolk, beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus 4 1/4 cups for frying
4 to 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup seedless jam or jelly, any flavor or pastry cream
Powdered sugar for garnish

To make the dough, put lukewarm water in the bowl of stand mixer. Add yeast and sugar, and stir to combine. Let the yeast mixture rest for 5 minutes.

Add the beaten eggs and egg yolk, along with 1/4 cup of oil, to the bowl and stir to combine.

While the mixer is running slowly, add the flour, salt and nutmeg, and mix until the dough comes together. Mix for 5 minutes to knead the dough well. Turn off mixer and let the dough sit in the bowl of the mixer for 15 minutes.

After the rest period, turn the dough out into a lightly oiled bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least 8 hours — preferably overnight.

When ready to form sufganiyot, remove dough from the fridge and portion into about 1 1/2- to 2-ounce balls, resting each on a baking paper-lined sheet tray.

Cover the doughnuts with lightly greased cling film or a cloth kitchen towel and let them rise in a warm part of the kitchen until doubled in size, or about one hour. 

To fry the doughnuts, heat the remaining vegetable oil in a pot or wok until the oil reaches 360 F on a thermometer. Carefully add a few doughnuts to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 1 minute per side. Use a slotted spoon to remove the doughnuts from the hot oil and place them on paper towels to absorb extra oil. 

Let the doughnuts cool completely. To fill, place filling of your choice in a plastic bag or piping bag. Using a chopstick, make a hole in the top or side of doughnut. Remove chopstick and insert the tip of the piping bag. Pipe in 2 or 3 teaspoons of jam or cream into the center of each doughnut. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

Makes about 20 sufganiyot.


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: The After Party

After making hundreds of cakes and pies, pounds of stuffing, zillions of biscuits and rolls and gallons of gravy for customers for Thanksgiving in my cafe, I am extremely grateful to have a four-day weekend when the embassy where I work is closed.

I also usually host Thanksgiving at my house, so when the day after the holiday rolls around, it’s time to relax with my feet up. My tradition most weekends, but particularly during the days after Thanksgiving, is that I don’t cook. Rather, I assemble a few salads and spreads that get better over time as flavors marry. It’s so pleasurable to have a sofa or veranda picnic with friends and family — high-flavor foods you can eat while drinking a Bloody Mary or champagne. It’s made even more delightful when you don’t come back to a messy kitchen and dishes to do.

After Thanksgiving is over, there is something liberating about a casual meal that isn’t made up of leftovers. You have the whole week ahead of you for turkey salad sandwiches (I have a great recipe) but in my house, tradition dictates a break from the leftovers.

My parents and I do something similar each time I visit: We go to the store and we each pick a few of our favorite things. Once home, we don’t even bother to use dishes. We just take our precious finds and throw them onto a cutting board or large plate with only knives or some good crusty bread to use in place of forks. It’s such a fortifying ritual and I try to re-create it as often as I can.

I won’t even be slightly judgmental if you just pick up a few baguettes or fresh pita from your favorite bakery for this lazy extravaganza, but I want to teach you how to make a No-Knead Focaccia that will take you mere moments to put together right before you go to bed after the Thanksgiving meal. All you do is throw the ingredients into a bowl, stir them, cover the bowl and let time work its magic on your counter.

The next morning, just spread the now puffy dough on a baking sheet, cover it in extra virgin olive oil and herbs and watch as it puffs up in your oven. I like to douse it in more olive oil after it comes out of the oven, scatter some fresh basil atop it and once cooled, transfer it to a wooden board surrounded by some fresh and simple salads and dips.

By all means, go for any of your family-favorite dips or salads, but I’ve included a shortcut version of one of my all-time favorite Israeli-Moroccan salads, the flavorful madbucha, also known as a Salade Cuite, a warm salad similar to an Italian tapenade, made with peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Also, a spectacular chickpea salad recipe that takes about five minutes to prepare but somehow manages to be infinitely superior to the sum of its humble ingredients.

You’d be hard pressed to find a punchier, more savory dip than the Bulgarian version of Taramasalata called Ikra, made with caviar or roe and ready in seconds.

If you can motivate yourself to spend a few minutes mingling some flour, water and olive oil, even if it’s midnight Thanksgiving night and you’re tired, you will be rewarded immeasurably the next morning when your kitchen fills with the aroma of a Tuscan farmhouse. And if you’re still in your pajamas at 3 in the afternoon, a bottle of bubbly by your side surrounded by your favorite people or even just one special person, giggling and eating the afternoon away, I think you won’t be able to help but feel the gratitude.

NO-KNEAD FOCACCIA
8 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon dry yeast
3 cups room temperature water
1 1/2 tablespoons flaky sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons for drizzling
1 tablespoon fresh or dried minced herbs, rosemary and thyme
A handful of fresh basil leaves (optional)

In a large glass bowl, mix together the flour, water and yeast with a chopstick or fork until you get a shaggy dough. Add salt and olive oil and stir until a soft dough forms. Oil a piece of plastic wrap, place on top of the bowl and leave on the kitchen counter in a warm place or a turned off oven for 12 hours to rise.

After dough has doubled in size and is very bubbly, preheat oven to 450 F. Using oiled hands, gently lift the dough (it will be sticky) out of the bowl and onto an oiled full sheet pan. Spread it evenly, creating dimples on the entire surface of the dough (don’t worry if you tear it.) Drizzle the top with olive oil, rosemary and thyme (if using) and some extra flaky sea salt and
bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown on top.

After it has cooled, scatter fresh basil leaves on top and cut into irregular triangular or square pieces. Serves 10.

QUICKIE VERSION OF MADBUCHA (SALADA CUITE)
Usually, this warm salad is made with roasted peppers but this quicker version will get you there without roasting and peeling peppers.
1/4 cup neutral vegetable oil (corn oil is traditional)
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, skins removed, chopped
1/2 pound green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1/2 pound red peppers, seeded and chopped
2 jalapeno or Cubanelle peppers, seeded and deveined, chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 /4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Heat oil in a pan and place tomatoes, peppers, garlic and seasonings into the pan and sauté over low heat, stirring frequently until all liquid has evaporated, about 1 hour. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 6.

CHICKPEA SALAD
2 15-ounce cans garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained and rinsed
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
2 cloves garlic minced
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 6.

IKRA
8 tablespoons smoked (or unsmoked) carp or cod roe
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 tablespoon onion, finely grated
Paprika for garnish

Put all ingredients, except paprika in a tall cup that fits your immersion blender head. Put your immersion blender into the cup and pulse for 20 seconds or until all ingredients are well incorporated and spread thickens to a mayonnaise consistency. Thin with a tablespoon of water if too thick.

Serve in a bowl garnished with paprika and a drizzle of olive oil. Serves 6.


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.

Wrestling with Food Traditions: A Thanksgiving D’rash

Jewish and partaking in a Thanksgiving meal this year? It’s time to wrestle with the impact of participating in the most food-centric American holiday.

Many if not most Jews in the US have come to celebrate Thanksgiving as a secular holiday with secular origins since its proclamation as a national holiday in 1863. Influenced by the food traditions that have emerged since that time (which reflect few, if any, of the actual ingredients the original pilgrims would have had available), Jewish Thanksgiving tables mirror their fellow Americans’ in featuring the requisite cranberry sauce, stuffing, and—most of all— a turkey.

At the Jewish Initiative for Animals, we’ve worked for several years to help Jewish communities understand why, of all factory farmed animals, broiler birds—that is, intensively hybridized chickens and turkeys bred and raised for meat—suffer the most egregious abuses of any land animal we raise for food. The Los Angeles Times featured an article in 2016 explaining why the Broad Breasted White, which is essentially the only type of turkey Americans eat anymore, endures an especially horrendous life. As articles like these surface and enlighten the broader public, Jewish communities are taking action. Earlier this year, our partners at Hazon committed to no longer serving conventional turkey at their central campus retreat center, because the product does not align with their religious and ethical values. In addition, they committed to incrementally transitioning their poultry to kosher heritage chicken—chickens raised from healthy genetic lines outside of the factory farming system.

Heritage turkeys are available, too, but not yet in the kosher market. So what is a kosher-keeping Jew to do for Thanksgiving?

The Torah portion that coincides with Thanksgiving this year imparts some relevant wisdom. Parshat Vayishlach includes the seminal scene in which Jacob wrestles with an unnamed “man” in an evening-long struggle. Finally, Jacob triumphs over the angelic being and receives a new name: Israel, a compound title meaning “to struggle with God. ” That scene births the Jewish archetype for wrestling with the biggest questions of faith, identity, and tradition. The narrative conveys to us the need for introspection to become who we are, and that process can be challenging, if not painful. Curiously, the story ends with our first ever negative commandment in the Torah: a dietary restriction. During the encounter, Jacob sustains an injury to his hip. The text introduces a law in commemoration, prohibiting people from consuming the sciatic nerve in bovids (e.g., cattle and sheep), which runs along the lower back into the hindquarters (Genesis 32:33). Kosher meat companies and kashrut-observant Jews abide by the rule to this day. And as with the rest of kosher food preparation, we have little reason to investigate the practice ourselves—with farms out of sight and out of mind, we rely on kosher certifiers to ensure that an animal is slaughtered and processed in accordance with Jewish law. We trust the system.

But in a time when halacha doesn’t necessarily mean that animals were spared awful treatment in industrial hatcheries and farms, how do we make an informed, values-based decision about the meat we eat? Even if slaughter was carried out to the letter of kashrut, can we, as the People of Israel, consume factory-raised turkey in good conscience?

As a ritual to which we have no particular religious ties, Thanksgiving may be the perfect opportunity for considering the impacts of our food traditions. Maybe, in taking a more honest inventory of our participation in the holiday, in addition to the animal welfare implications, we could also examine how we respectfully take part in a day that is rife with trauma for other minority communities. For many indigenous peoples, the holiday is a somber reminder of surviving genocide. One of the ways indigenous peoples continually practice cultural reclamation also happens to be through food: native food educators and chefs research and promote “decolonizing” indigenous diets by uncovering and reinstating a food heritage that relies on original native ingredients. This process involves eschewing what has become a typical westernized US diet, high in animal protein and processed grains and sugars. Importantly, decolonizing food is about restoring a more respectful relationship between humans and the plants and animals we use for sustenance. Perhaps the extreme suppression of that very impulse—to live in a state of reverence towards nature and other living beings—is what allowed, and allows, people to mutate, torture, and consume en masse the Broad-Breasted White turkey.

Jewish author Jonathan Safran Foer highlights the Thanksgiving turkey as the quintessential paradox of eating animals today: what we do with their carcasses may feel right and enjoyable, but how we breed, confine, and ultimately kill turkeys paves an evil-strewn path towards the relatively short-lived pleasure of human consumption. Toward  the end of the book, Foer contemplates:

And what would happen if there were no turkey… Is the holiday undermined? Is Thanksgiving no longer Thanksgiving?

Or would Thanksgiving be enhanced? Would the choice not to eat turkey be a more active way of celebrating how thankful we feel? Try to imagine the conversation that would take place. This is why our family celebrates this way. Would such a conversation feel disappointing or inspiring? Would fewer or more values be transmitted? Would the joy be lessened by the hunger to eat that particular animal? Imagine your family’s Thanksgivings after you are gone, when the question is no longer “Why don’t we eat this?” but the more obvious one: “Why did they ever?”

Most Jewish people have a plethora of choices for creating a healthy, delicious, and often less pricey vegetarian or vegan meals. It only takes a quick Google search to find an array of plant-based recipes compiled by Martha Stewart, The Food Network, and countless food bloggers. Some Jewish people and institutions can afford to spend more on a kosher heritage chicken or 100% kosher grass-fed beef, instead of conventional kosher meat. But most of all, all of us have the ability to consider alternatives to a food system that, animal treatment aside, continues to devastate our natural ecosystems, heightens the threat of climate change, and disproportionately burdens lower-income communities of color.

Perhaps before Thanksgiving this year—in the same spirit as a Passover seder, where we hold up each food and consider its significance to the holiday and to us as people—we will consider the turkey, and wrestle with its meaning. Maybe we will question what it is to have a more gracious, harmonious relationship with animals, nature, and other people, and how that should be reflected in all of our meals. Perhaps, just like Jacob, we will emerge from that intellectual and physical struggle with a new sense of self and purpose that defines our tradition—and our dietary choices—for generations to come.

A Food Pyramid for Stir-Crazy Kids

I’ve loved being in the kitchen since childhood. I had a slew of aunts who cooked and a mother who always had something pickling, simmering or baking. In an extreme case of foreshadowing, my favorite toy as a child was my Easy-Bake Oven. I vividly remember watching my cakes bake, which took a long time considering the oven’s only heat source was a small light bulb. Because I was an only child, I’d gather my stuffed animals and serve them tea and cake and fuss over them much like I do now over my customers in my cafe. 

I’m now that “auntie” with whom parents are slightly reluctant to leave their kids. The weekends my friends have let me entertain their offspring, the kids are returned sugar-rushed, overly excited, sleep-deprived little monsters covered in flour or chocolate — usually both. I have a special weakness for children, and I like to get them into the kitchen (preferably their parents’ kitchen) and let them go wild. Food fights ensue, singing and dancing always figure into it, and crazy lava-like experimentations occur. Usually, I’m the one who gets the stern looks and the worried pleas to “please just don’t blow anything up.” In all fairness to me, that happened only once but parents have such long memories.

No sooner than the pesky adults are out the door, utter mayhem ensues. Even introverted children can be brought out of their shells by spending some time in the kitchen. It’s almost miraculous to see the transformation in a child during a no-holds-barred cooking session.

“Even introverted children can be brought out of their shells by  spending some time in the kitchen.”

Sometimes, if I sense a child is distracted or losing interest, I’ll take something gooey and I’ll just lob it over to them or smear it on their faces. I live for their expressions of shock as they return the favor, watching them realize that they can have a food fight with an adult without fear of penalty. There’s only one rule in my kitchen time with kids — no phones, iPads or computers of any kind — unless it’s a music device. After all, disconnecting children from electronic baby-sitters and screens for a few hours just can’t be a bad thing.

Even surly teenagers enjoy kitchen time, especially when the result is mastery of something they love to eat, such as pizza or quesadillas. I’ve had the deepest conversations with teens while cooking with them — sometimes they will even confide in me about something that is bothering them and ask my opinion about it. It’s so soul filling when a child opens up and tells you their hopes or fears. Bonding with kids in this way, besides being one of life’s supreme joys, invariably cements their affection for life.

The kitchen is one part of a home that is a sacred space where most of us feel safe. Positive connections and feelings that are associated with it can stick in a child’s mind well into adulthood. Rather than associating stepping into the kitchen as a chore, like many adults do, the simple act of baking, letting the house fill with the aromas of cinnamon and vanilla is magical and apt to leave an impression that never goes away.

This is the time of year in Israel when the weather gets chilly, the sweet shops begin selling sufganiyot for Hanukkah, and it’s when the ultimate kid sweet comes out: Krembo. Krembo, an Israeli confection that consists of a delicate dome of marshmallow-type fluff that sits atop a round biscuit base covered in a thin coating of cheap, waxy chocolate. It isn’t sold during summertime because it melts easily.   

In Uganda where I live, there’s no Krembo, and most times I can’t even find decent marshmallows, so I’ve made do with a cake that approximates the heavenly Krembo combination and is a fun project to make with kids. It’s more of an assembly project and requires no baking and very little kitchen equipment — only a hand mixer, although a wire whisk will do in a pinch. I’ve made it when I have last-minute dinner guests because it’s elegant enough to serve to adults and can be ready in under an hour. It’s a lovely cake my aunt used to make called a pyramida (pyramid), and I dare you to find a kid who will not love you for it, not only for teaching them how to make it, but for letting them eat it for breakfast or in place of dinner. 

Pyramid Cake
1 package vanilla-flavored instant pudding
5 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
1 3/4 cups whole or 2-percent milk
1 cup mascarpone cheese
42 Petit Beurre cookies (2 inches by 3 inches)
4 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/2 teaspoon instant coffee
1 teaspoon honey
4 tablespoons white chocolate shavings or sprinkles (optional)

For the filling, place pudding mix, sugar, 1 cup whipping cream, 1 cup milk and cheese in a medium-sized bowl and whip with a hand mixer until thick and stiff peaks form. Refrigerate cream while you prepare the base.

On a countertop, put 2 layers of extra heavy aluminum foil (or wax paper) down on top of each other. Pour 3/4 cup milk in a bowl and proceed to briefly dip each cookie in the milk and lay them down in 3 rows, side by side — vertically. You should end up with a rectangle of cookies that is 3 rows wide and 7 rows long. 

Remove cream from refrigerator and spread a bit more than half the cream on top of the biscuits evenly until the surface area of the cookies is covered. Add another layer of cookies on top of the cream — but this time, the middle row of cookies should be placed vertically while the 2 outer rows of cookies should be laid down horizontally. This will make a pyramid shape. With a spoon, put remaining cream only on the center row of cookies. Don’t spread the cream onto the outer biscuits.

Using both arms, slip hands and forearms underneath each length of the foil and gently bring hands together, pressing the two flaps together to form the pointed top of the pyramid. Peel back foil, and using an offset spatula or knife, neaten up the cream and remove excess. Wrap the cake in the foil it’s on but be sure to close both ends well so as not to dry out the cream. Place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes. 

After the cake has hardened, make the ganache. Break or chop chocolate into smaller pieces, add to remaining 1/2 cup of cream and instant coffee in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 1 minute. Let mixture sit for 1 minute, add honey and whisk until chocolate is melted and ganache is shiny and homogenous.

Remove cake from freezer, unwrap and evenly pour ganache on top of pyramid, taking care to cover all the cookies in chocolate. Decorate with white chocolate or sprinkles before the ganache hardens and return it to freezer or refrigerator to set for at least 1 hour.

After cake has set, slide a spatula under the base and transfer to a long serving dish, discard the foil and slice into 1-inch wide triangles for serving.

Serves 10.


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. 

Time’s Running Out on Uganda’s Poor ‘Rolex’ Vendors

One of the best ways to get insight into a culture is through its street food. And currently here in Kampala, Uganda, what you discover can leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Food here is eaten sitting down rather than on the go, and roughly 95 percent of the local fare is based on cheap, nutrient-deficient carbohydrates such as cassava or posho, a finely ground maize flour cooked into a thick, white paste and eaten with peas or beans. Even Uganda’s national food, matoke, a variety of banana cooked in its own leaves over charcoal and then mashed and served with a sauce made from ground peanuts (called “gnuts”), is rarely served with protein, although sometimes you can get it with a small amount of bony meat cooked in a watery stew. But there is one notable exception to this rule: the Rolex. While the Swiss watch of that name may be a status symbol for the rich and powerful in the West, a Rolex here is a decidedly different thing. 

Rolex, translated from the local language, means “rolled eggs.” It is essentially an omelet rolled up in a chapati, an Indian flatbread that, when made correctly, has flakey layers like a croissant. The Rolex was the brainchild of a resourceful entrepreneur who set up a stand to feed hungry students at Makerere University, also known as the “Harvard of East Africa.” Until recently — more on that later — you could easily pull up to one of the thousands of Rolex carts that lined every thoroughfare and watch as a nimble-fingered Rolex man (only men make Rolex for some reason) cracked two eggs into a plastic mug and cut in shredded cabbage, tomato and red onion with a rusty knife. He would then cook the omelet on a charcoal stove with an iron plate resting precariously on top. When the omelet had browned on both sides, he would roll it up in the chapati like a burrito before depositing it in a small plastic bag for the ravenous customer — all for a mere 1,500 Ugandan shillings (less than 40 cents).

It may not sound like much, but to the tens of thousands of students on a meager budget, or the expats­­ with nary a fast-food option for miles, the Rolex is the hot, fresh and filling snack that dreams are made of. Its simple concept in this city’s protein-deprived, carbohydrate-laden street food landscape caught on like wildfire.

“It may not sound like much, but to the tens of thousands of students on a meager budget, or the expats­­ with nary a fast-food option for miles, the Rolex is the hot, fresh and filling snack that dreams are made of.”

Kampala, like most other sub-Saharan African cities, has grown exponentially over the past few decades with little to no infrastructure improvements to bear the load. As the middle class has swelled, so has the number of cars and traffic. During the rainy season, the potholed and weathered roads are reduced to rivers of terra-cotta-colored mud and rushing waters. Navigating your car in those conditions — between the reckless boda boda mopeds and the old matatus van “buses” that are rolling deathtraps — is akin to driving in a video game. Add to that mix the fact that most people buy their drivers licenses rather than sit for an examination or pay hefty fees for a legitimate driving school, and you end up with traffic jams that make Los Angeles rush hours seem like moments to put the top down and let the wind blow through your hair. 

Enter government bureaucracy in the form of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), which recently decided to take the estimated 10,000 Rolex and other street vendors and arrest them for operating without licenses. As a result, thousands of these vendors shut down almost overnight rather than risk being arrested for operating an illegal stand and possibly going to jail. Unlucky vendors could lose not only their stock and carts, but they could also be on the hook to pay a minimum fine of 100,000 Ugandan shillings (about $27), which may as well be $10,000 to a cart owner barely eking out a marginal living from 12-hour workdays. To make matters worse, if the corrupt Ugandan police want to put the squeeze on a particular vendor who is unable to pay their fine (or bribe) on the spot, that vendor can be thrown in jail. A Ugandan jail shares greater similarities with a Third World dog kennel than it does with a place fit for humans.

Consequently, weary vendors can either take their chances at operating an illegal stand or pursue the nearly impossible option of obtaining an extremely expensive KCCA license — which still doesn’t guarantee they won’t be harassed by police. While the logic behind regulating food carts, and the fees charged to vendors to license them may have some merits, the uprooting of thousands of food cart owners in Kampala has contributed to yet another sad downward spiral of poverty and joblessness.

By the way, I still frequent my favorite Rolex vendor as often as I can — when I can find him. These days he’s always moving around to avoid the police.

I fear the writing is on the wall: As Kampala’s skyline continues to expand, its food cart entrepreneurs will soon disappear — perhaps to be replaced by fancy, solar-powered stands run by companies making “legalized” carts. The costs of those units will be well out of reach of any of the original stand owners who support their families on their meager, hard-earned profits. The new model will also create another potential revenue stream for Uganda’s already bloated government officials. 

While some could argue that the government’s action is progress — after all, the legal carts won’t require charcoal, so they won’t pollute the environment; and customers of the carts will benefit from the “health and hygiene” mandate of the city council — I’m reminded that in much of Africa, the story of progress usually spells disaster for those who can least afford it.

Most of the current vendors are as likely to come up with the money to buy a compliant cart as they are to purchase an actual Rolex watch. 

Yes, you can tell a lot about a culture by its street food. For the vendors, their families and their customers in Kampala, the probable demise of the Rolex carts will be hard to swallow.


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. 

With Special-Needs Education, One Menu Doesn’t Fit All

Photo by CHLOE.

I recently saw an advertisement for The Lemon Tree Kids and Family Restaurant in Koreatown. Intrigued, I Googled it, to see if “family friendly” meant a play space, pizza and sugar, and indeed it didbut with a twist. The main menu consists of authentic Korean food; the pizzas and paninis are alternatives.

Ever the education-analogy-geek, I wondered about this as a model of inclusion. If you’re in Koreatown for Korean food and you have kids, and/or pizza loving friends, or if you’re looking for a place to have a quiet meal while your kids empty the contents of the ball pit, this is for you. People with differing taste buds can dine together, having their mozzarella or spicy noodles and eating them too.

This, the food court model of different classes for different needs, does not  – yet – exist in Jewish day schools in Los Angeles. Instead, we aspire to include students with needs in our mainstream set-up. Sure, they may be pulled out for resource, but there is no “special day class.”  Ideally, as Dr. Bruce Powell suggested in a recent interview with the Jewish Journal, we should include everyone, and not just accommodate, but “replace the word ‘accommodate’ with ‘embrace’:

‘If you’re coming to my home and you tell me you’re a vegetarian, I accommodate you,” he said by way of explanation. “You’re the other, [but] if I’m going to really embrace you, I’m going plan a meal that looks the same. And nobody [will know] which one is meat and which one is vegetarian.’”

“What if you have 20 students in a classroom and five of them need accommodations, or in Powell’s terms, embracings? Is it possible?”

Rather than be embarrassed with an obviously special meal, you can blend into the gathering. This may be manageable with guests in the home, but what if you have 20 students in a classroom and five of them need accommodations, or in Powell’s terms, embracings? Is it possible?

You might stay up all night adding secret ingredients to make a lesson palatable for Sam, Molly, Jacob and Annabelle, but you’ll be exhausted – maybe resentful – when it comes to serving it up. And believe me, the kids you’re struggling to embrace will pick up on your mood. Children with special needs sometimes have the cognitive and/ or sensory equivalent of allergies that give them rashes, or that exclude them from activities in which they long to participate. This can cause them to hide under tables, hit, scream, or run from the room. How can a teacher simultaneously embrace students with “big feelings” and students with their, or their parents’, big academic dreams?

When you’re at a restaurant in Los Angeles, you often hear customers ask for adaptations to a dish. Maybe you do it yourself. Sometimes it’s because you just have a preference for a mixture of two different dishes. That’s child-centered education. Sometimes it’s because you have a health condition that makes a dish with nuts or butter a no-no. That’s a series of meetings and carefully drafted goals for a child with special needs, otherwise known as an IEP (Individualized Education Program).

No matter how much you try to make your accommodations, or embracings, subtle and well-meaning, the mainstream is the mainstream, with its focus on language skills. We Jews prioritize language. Not just because of the way education is designed, but because of the very underpinnings of the Jewish tradition. We talk; we question; we opine. And it’s divine. After all, didn’t God create the world with words? Didn’t the commentators have at their fingertips every verse of Torah? What does that mean for a child with a language disorder?

The Lemon Tree is unusual. Usually, if you walk into an Italian restaurant wanting Korean food, you’ll be sent away. If you’re lucky, you’ll be pointed in the direction of a really good Korean place right around the corner.

Most of us wouldn’t think of going into a Korean restaurant and demanding fish and chips. If we own an Italian restaurant, we wouldn’t think twice about gently sending away a customer asking for spicy noodles. So why do we do this in education? Why do we seat, and keep seated, students we cannot feed, because even if we embrace them in our hearts we don’t have the resources to provide a dish that will nourish them? If they want a different menu and it’s elsewhere, let’s direct them with compassion to the appropriate establishment. And let’s become familiar with, and talk to, the establishments in our extended community, so that we know where to send the students we just cannot keep.

As Jewish institutions, we might worry that by denying our children kosher sustenance, we’re sending them into the abyss of an un-hechshered establishment. This is why the model to which we should aspire is perhaps a hechshered Lemon Tree. If you can handle the main menu, that’s great. If you want an alternative, something that’s familiar to you, it’s here— with chefs on staff who know how to prepare it. And when it comes to the jungle gym at the heart of the restaurant, we can all hang together.


Orley Garber is the founder of Builder Bees.