Monthly Archives: March 2011

Chesapeake Retreat

I spent this Shabbat at the National Havurah Committee Chesapeake Retreat outside of Baltimore.  I’ve been hearing about NHC for years from many different people in my life, but this was the first time that I’ve directly been part of this community myself.  I’m really glad I went and was really impressed with lots of things about the experience.  I also will readily admit that I’m in an interesting place to be thinking about how I fit into new communities, so I perhaps was not engaged as I might have been at other points in my life.  All that being said, better jump in.

Since, at least in theory, this blog is about food, it’s convenient that the theme of the weekend was food ethics and eco-kashrut, especially because the food we actually ate isn’t so noteworthy to write about in and of itself.    Because Pearlstone Conference Center is attached to Kayam Farm, they compost food waste after the meals, or at least they did Friday night.  Pearlstone also has a Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal.  Those two things, along with the incredibly strict kashrut standards of the retreat center (and hanging out with a bunch of Jews over Shabbat), mean that food can never be too far from your mind while you’re there.

The best thing I ate this weekend was the gefilte fish on Friday night, and I was also delighted to have a piece of rainbow cake, a dessert that I associate so strongly with Baltimore that I couldn’t possibly have spent a weekend there without eating some.  I didn’t take this picture (it’s from usa.kosher.com), but I need a visual aid in case you’re not sure what I’m talking about.

Yum.

On Saturday, I went to two workshops dealing with food.  The first was about the sacrifices in this week’s Torah portion, relating those animal sacrifices to how we eat and how other cultures offer sacrifices of food.  I was amazed by how many people described the sacrifices as a “holy barbecue,” since I’ve always pictured them as a mess of blood and gore and bad smells not at all related to something anyone would want to eat.  I’ve also struggled with understanding the anthropomorphism of God as a deity that requires “a pleasing odor,” from the burning meat.  I heard a great point at this session, though, which is that the idea of a pleasing odor was a step less anthropomorphized than the idea of a deity eating food sacrifices, so it actually made the Hebrew God less human than other gods at the time.

The second workshop was about eco-kashrut, the idea that laws regarding what is and is not acceptable for Jews to eat extends beyond Torah and rabbinic law in order to incorporate modern sensibilities about taking care of the earth.  For example, some people, including the presenter, say that eating certified kosher food on disposable plates might not really be “kosher.”  The discussion forced me to think about the amount of waste that my job produces.  I am so glad to be able to provide Shabbat meals for so many people on such a regular basis, but I really do wish there were a way to do it without disposables, with more organic and local produce, and with more sustainably produced animal products.

A few more random thoughts about my NHC experience:

  • This community exists completely independently of me!  I had a wonderful time sitting back, letting other people facilitate, and watching a fully functioning community do its thing without any input from me.   Even though I knew a lot of people there, I felt anonymous in a spiritually liberating kind of way.
  • I spend too much time with people my own age.  Spending Shabbat with an intergenerational community was a refreshing reminder that 20s and 30s are just a slice of the Jewish demographic and there are places where Jewish continuity is already tangible.
  • I graduated from college a really long time ago.  The first time I went to Pearlstone was for a Goucher Hillel retreat in, oh, say, 2001.  Then again, I spent some time this morning talking to a man about his college experiences in the ’50s, so all things are relative.
  • Being alone is an important skill to cultivate.  I say this not only because I went away for the weekend without Marc, but also because I spent a good deal of time Saturday night wandering around the grounds by myself and thinking “This is what it’s like to be a loner.  How interesting!”
  • The people I encountered this weekend were remarkably less likely to comment on my belly than the people I see in my everyday life.  I realized that at the same time that I often resent the comments and the second glances, I have also come to rely on them to some degree, and just being a person rather than “the pregnant person,” positively impacted the way I saw myself in this weekend’s context.
  • My priorities lie in building communities where I live.  Maybe I’m too impatient to invest in a community whose continuity I could see in 20 years after having long-lasting relationships with people I would see twice a year.  Or maybe it’s a need for rootedness: needing to have community that’s tied to my home and the people I see every day.  I think both formats need to exist and both nourish different needs in different people.  I’m glad to have a taste of this variety, and I’m glad that there are places for me to fit in here and there.

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Mac and cheese and hamentaschen

After literally months of anticipation, Friday was “mac and cheese Shabbat” at Alex’s place.  That meant four very different types of baked cheesy deliciousness.  (There were also some veggies on the side, plus a very yellow – so as to fit with the theme – butterscotch ice cream from Marc.)

My contribution was the only mac and cheese I ever make: the version with sweet potatoes from “Entertaining for a Veggie Planet,”  by Didi Emmons.  Here’s the recipe, with my comments (of course):

2 medium sweet potatoes
kosher (or regular salt to taste
16 oz (3 2/3 cups) grated sharp cheddar cheese
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (I always omit this)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
8 oz cream cheese
2 cups milk
1 garlic clove, minced
16 oz elbow macaroni (or whatever kind of pasta)
freshly ground pepper

1. Scrub and pierce the skin of and the sweet potatoes and microwave until tender, about 7 minutes.  Cut into bite-size pieces (I leave the skin on).

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a large casserole dish or 13×9 inch baking dish.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

3.  In a large bowl, combine the cheddar, Parmesan, and flour and toss until well combined.  Set aside.

4. In a small, heavy saucepan, melt the cream cheese over low heat, stirring with a whisk.  Slowly whisk in the milk and garlic until smooth.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

5.  Add the pasta to the boiling water and boil for 5 minutes, or until just al dente.  Drain the macaroni and immediately return it to the pot.  Add the cheddar mixture to the macaroni and stir well.  Add the cream cheese mixture and sweet potatoes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Mix well.

6.   Transfer the whole thing to the prepared dish.  Cover tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes or until piping hot.

We enjoyed the leftovers for Shabbos lunch, then stopped by Beverly and Naomi’s to say hi just when they were sitting down to lunch, so we got a bonus meal.

This week, the end of Shabbat also meant the beginning of Purim (the celebration of which also lasts 25 hours), so I’m gonna throw that in here too.  Back on Wednesday, I had a bunch of grad students come over to bake hamentaschen.  I am even more particular about how to make hamentaschen than about how to make mac and cheese, so here is the recipe I swear by, from “A Russian Jew Cooks in Peru,” by Violeta Autumn, a real cookbook, I swear, but apparently one that no one actually owns besides my mother:

1 cup cornstarch
2 cups flour
½ cup sugar
less than ½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon baking powder
¾ cup butter
3 eggs

Sift together cornstarch and flour. Add sugar, salt, and baking powder. Blend with butter using two forks or your hands (or an always-helpful mixer)!  Beat the eggs separately, then add to mixture.

Roll out on floured board to ¼ inch thick. Cut circles and fill.  Pinch corners really tightly.  You can use water or milk to help them stick.  (I cannot stress the importance of not overfilling the circles and of closing the corners tightly.  If you don’t, you will end up with burnt jelly on your cookie sheets.  The ones we used Wednesday night are goners.)

Bake on ungreased pan at 400 degrees for 12 minutes (but check at 10 minutes just in case).

These are the best hamentaschen.  There’s just no way around it.  (I think it’s the butter…)  Naomi helped me make poppyseed filling from scratch, and I’m not sure if it’s because I hadn’t done it for a couple years or what, but it didn’t turn out the way I remember.  The gist of it, though, is to grind whole poppyseeds until they turn dark black, then put them in a saucepan with some milk and honey and simmer until thick and tasty.  Even if poppyseeds aren’t really your thing, at least try to appreciate the old-world nature of this project.

Over the course of the holiday, I heard megillah in a bar and in a Chinese restaurant, made up and performed some ridiculous (yet instructive) songs (see below), thoroughly enjoyed dressing up as Juno and Pauly Bleeker, encouraged lots of (safe, overage) drinking, facilitated lots of fun (hopefully) for lots of people, and tried to use the word “lots” in as many instances as possible to call up the literal meaning of Purim: lots.

Sing this to the tune of “With a Little Help from my Friends.”  Go ahead and laugh; it’s part of the holiday.

What will they do when we sing out of tune?
Will they come and clear out the buffet?
Eat haman’s ears while we sing you a song
‘bout the mitzvas for Purim today
It’s when we go to give gifts to our friends
It’s when we go to get drunk with our friends
Gonna go celebrate with our friends.
First, what we do is we read from a scroll
(we’ve taken care of that one for you)
Make lots of noise, till it’s outta control,
When you hear “Hamen” that’s just what to do.
Oh it’s the day to give gifts to your friends.
Do you need anybody
To share your mishloach manot
It can be anybody
Just give two portions of food.
Two mitzvas down and the next ritual,
Is the seudah (that’s a Hebrew word for meal).
Veggie Chinese might not be traditional,
But 15 a head, you know it’s a steal.
Oh it’s a day to get drunk with your friends.
Do you need anybody
For the mitzvah of gifts to the poor
It can be anybody
Like that guy hanging outside the door
It’s a day to give gifts to your friends
Oh it’s a day to get drunk with your friends
So get drunk with your friends…

With Purim behind us, we are now officially in Passover-planning season, so that is definitely some food-related commentary to look forward to!

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Heymish at home

Marc and I hosted Heymish Minyan Friday night, and since dinner was potluck, that meant I only had to cook one thing, and because it was at our place, it meant I didn’t have to go anywhere.  Best of all possible worlds!  It was a really nice crowd in terms of both size and the people who were there, and, the blessing of the potluck, the combination and quantity of food was really perfect.

I made crustless mozzarella, tomato, and basil quiche, and in the process, I learned from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” that quiche filling is essentially 6 eggs, 2 cups of milk or cream, and up to two cups of add-ins, in this case, cheese and veggies, plus salt and pepper.

Speaking of add-ins, Marc made “mint chocolate grit” ice cream, which means he made awesome mint chocolate chip, and thanks to the many different types of chocolate and cocoa nibs in there, the texture was on the gritty side.  But no matter – it was delicious.  It was also the largest quantity of ice cream he’s ever made at one time, and nearly all of it disappeared.  Click on the picture below for this huge batch of awesome in progress.

Everything was really delicious, but the one dish I keep coming back to in my mind is Sara’s spinach, tomato polenta pie.  It was a simple, perfect combination of flavors.  Plus, because I never make polenta, it seems fancy and mysterious to me. And, speaking of fancy, Warren made homemade pasta, and it too was really great!  (I worry about my level of effusiveness in these posts coming across as less than genuine, but I really do delight in the access I have to so much incredibly good food.)

Though the commandment for Shabbat is to eat three meals, our eating on Saturday was kind of a blur of constant noshing, including leftover quiche, honey ricotta ice cream from earlier in the week with bananas, and (this was actually pretty meal-like) chicken with satay/mole sauce that Marc also made earlier in the week and was just perfect after our long Shabbos nap.

There’s no transition here, just something else I want to talk about…

This week, we start reading the book Vayikra, Leviticus.  There is a whole lot about sacrifices and about the salt required for sprinkling on some of these sacrifices.  I knew there was some connection between the sacrifices and why we sprinkle salt on challah on Shabbat, but it wasn’t all that clear to me, and I spent some time with the google learning more.

As with most elements of Judaism, there are multiple explanations for the custom of salt on challah.  One of the most common is that since we no longer have the Temple in which to perform sacrifices, our table is like an altar – not one where we make sacrifices, but a place where we have an obligation towards holiness.  Salt is a way to remember the Temple, yes, but also a way to remember our obligations that go beyond the Temple.

Another that I came across this week is that salt is a symbol of hospitality: it makes guests feel welcome to know they can season their food to their taste.  Some commentators recommend keeping salt on the table at all times to communicate that sense of hospitality.  Apparently Lot’s wife was not so forthcoming with the salt, and she got what was coming to her in the end.

With this much variety, hopefully guests feel welcome in our home:

I learned two other good tidbits in my research: I’ve often seen people do kind of a fake-out knife cut on their challah before saying ha-motzi, and I found out that this is because nothing is supposed to stand in the way of eating the food once you’ve said the blessing on it.  But, because on Shabbat, the commandment is to say ha-motzi over two whole loaves, you can’t cut them in advance.  This little scratch on the surface represents starting to cut the bread while still allowing them to stay intact for the blessing.  A perfect Talmudic compromise.

And why two loaves?  To represent the double portion of manna the Jews received in the desert on Shabbat so that they didn’t have to work to gather their food on the day of rest.  One explanation goes on to say that the manna was covered in dew above and below, and that’s why we have the challah on a board and with a cloth on top.  I do like the other popular explanation that the challah would be embarrassed during kiddush if it weren’t covered up, but this one’s nice, too.

Finally, it’s now been two weeks since I first had the donut muffins, and I actually made them this week, which is a helpful reminder to include the recipe.  I used half whole wheat flour and a whole lot less butter on top, but the results were still incredibly yummy!

And, just so you know spring is on the way, here’s the current scene on my dining room table:

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Happy 100th

Traditionally, the only thing that trumps Shabbat is saving a life.  But, as I like to make tradition work for me, this weekend, celebrating a life took precedence over my typical Shabbat activities as we traveled to New Jersey for Marc’s grandfather’s 100th birthday party.

An oft-repeated Jewish wish for good fortune is “May you live to be 120,” since that’s how long Moses lived.  When someone has already made it to 100, though, the expression feels kind of empty.  It sounds more like, “your days are numbered,” than “live long and prosper.”  But it was truly a happy day, and there’s no reason to let my own existentialism get in the way of that. And, like any good party, there was cake:  goopy, sugary cake with tons of frosting, something I learned to love from my father, who insists that the green frosting has extra nutrients.

Before New Jersey, though, there was Friday night, and Marc and I had dinner, just the two of us, at home: turkey chili and homemade bread bowls, both of which Marc seems to have conjured out of thin air in our kitchen while I was at work.  We sang Shalom Aleichem in our kitchen while the food was still on the stove, another not-quite-traditional way of celebrating Shabbat, but a really perfectly authentic way of being us and having a Jewish life together.

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