When I lived in Israel, there was an elderly man who supplied the Shabbat cholent (a long-cooking stew similar to cassoulet) whenever there was a simcha (celebratory event) in our little town. It was absolutely delicious: glistening stew meat amongst beans, barley, potatoes and onions, spiced heavily with garlic, salt and pepper. The ingredients were really not that different from typical Ashkenazi cholent, but there was that je nais se quoi secret ingredient that really packed a savory punch.
In honor of my youngest daughter’s birth, we held a kiddush in our home following prayers at the synagogue, and I hired Mr. G to make me a batch of his amazing cholent. Because he was an older gentleman he simply couldn’t carry the heavy pots of cholent from his house to mine, so he asked if it would be okay if he assembled and cooked the ingredients in my kitchen. “Great!” I thought to myself, “now I will get to find out what the secret ingredient is to his fabulous cholent!”
Mr. G. started peeling potatoes and cutting up onions. He added lots of beans, barley, and meat, layering the ingredients with the usual pepper, salt and garllic, adding water to within an inch of the top of the pot. Nothing different so far. But then! Mr. G. reached into his bag and brought out . . . a 500g. (1 lb) stick of margarine. He placed the entire stick of margarine into the pot and so the cholent began cooking.
I was completely grossed out!
One of the advantages of being a Baalas Tshuva (“BT”, or someone who becomes an Orthodox Jew later in life) is that I have few preconceived notions about how things “should” be. It’s not that I don’t respect tradition. But in most cases, like most assimilated or barely observant American Jews, I simply wasn’t raised with any concept of doing things the way my forefathers did it. That’s because when my grandparents came to this country from Europe in the early 1900’s, they were trying to escape their former identities as Jews, which had only gotten them into trouble back in anti-Semitic Poland and czarist Russia, and instead hoped to start a new life as Americans who happened to be Jewish by birth.
Having grown up with lots of processed food (aka “real” American cooking: remember those canned mushroom soup noodle casseroles, and jello molds from the 1960s?) as well as Chinese and Mexican take-out food, it took me years to get used to Orthodox, American Ashkenazi (Jews who originally came from Europe)de rigeuer Sabbath foods such as gefillte fish and potato kugel and luxshen kugel, kishke, chicken soup with globules of fat floating on the top, sweet egg challah made with white flour, and several types of cookies and cakes for dessert. It seems like the DNA of Jewish cooking is fat, sugar, and white flour, with a little soul mixed in. But healthy, it is not.
The surge of BTs has really shaken up the FFB (Frum From Birth, aka Orthodox Jews from birth) world of Jewish comfort food. First, our numbers are so large, that by population count alone our different cooking style was bound to have gravitas. And BTs were media-savvy way before FFBs got into the act, so the appearance of lavishly produced, graphically gorgeous gourmet cookbooks whose emphasis is on more healthful eating could not be ignored even by the frummest (most religious) of the frum balabustas (female heads of households).
No, I don’t use sickly-sweet, Robitussin-like concord grape wine for kiddush; it is more likely to be a kosher cabernet from California or Israel. Our Sabbath tablecloth is not pure white, but rather a taupe and silver weave that matches our dishes. And our Friday night and Saturday day meals probably don’t seem very Sabbath-like to a Jew in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Even our cholent (overnight cassoulet) is fat-free. Or, instead of cholent, we may have a curried stew or chili.
But before you sugar, fat and white flour traditionalists turn up your nose in disgust, let me take you on a tour of a typical Sabbath meal that won’t leave you reaching for the Alka-Seltzer.
The truth is, we ba’alei tshuva – Jews who have discovered their Orthodox Jewish roots and become religiously observant later in life – – have both a blessing and a curse. The “curse” of years of assimilation and non-observance is that we lack the continuity and transmission of many religious family customs (besides Chanuka and Passover, which seem to be universally celebrated by religious and non-religious Jews alike). At times this ignorance of Jewish tradition is not just inconvenient; it’s sad and tragic and forces us to look outside our own family elders for a frame of reference.
Ironically, the “blessing” is that we lack the transmission of many religious family customs. And by that I mean, we don’t feel we have to have certain foods prepared certain ways; the Shabbat tablecloth doesn’t have to be white; we can wear certain clothing that, even while modest, a Frum-From-Birth (born into a religious family) person would never dream of wearing lest they be thought of as “eccentric” or worse (hiking boots and a denim skirt – ahem). Another example: BTs grew up listening to many different styles of secular music that have influenced the more traditional religious music scene, which until recently was limited to the cantorial “ay-yay-yay oy-yoy-yoy” range; now, for better or worse, there is Yiddish hip-hop (okay, maybe for worse).
If there is a “nouveau” kosher cuisine in the U.S., it’s because of the tremendous amount of ba’alei tshuva whose more modern take on ancient culture has captivated and intimidated FFB’s into being a little daring about experimenting with new ways to celebrate tradition within the bounds of Jewish Law. Okay, for some FFBs, their extent of “daring” translates into going from sickly sweet concord grape wine to 6% Moscato. But imho, the explosion of truly fine wine that happens to be kosher, instead of the formerly standard syrupy stuff that was akin to Robitussin, could not have happened without the BT phenomenon. There is also an explosion of gorgeously graphic kosher cookbooks, authored mostly by . . . BTs. The other reason that new Jewish cuisine has exploded is due to Israel. The quality and availability of a very wide range of produce in Israel are phenomenal; and because Israel is such a small country with a large number of Jews from different world cultures, the populace has been exposed to a huge range of dishes and cooking styles. Besides Jewish holidays (which always involve a lot of eating besides the praying), Israelis love to eat “out,” visible on the street and in sidewalk cafes.
As much as I love the stunning pictures of elegant cuisine, I’m not one to potchke. (If you do not know what potchke means, you are probably from Maine.). Traditional Jewish Shabbat foods you will not find at my table include potato kugel; lukshen kugel; chicken soup (unless someone is sick); very well done brisket; braised chicken that is greasy and overcooked and underspiced; kishke and gefilte fish. Partly it’s the potchke (it’s labor-intensive) but also, the high concentration and obscene amounts of fat, carbs, white flour, sugar, and few spices are just not exciting nor – – if I must be honest – – healthy, especially week after week after week. Do FFBs keep eating these bland, acid-reflux-producing foods every Shabbat out of obligation to tradition? Do they never tire of the same old, same old – – is it out of anticipation or loyalty to tradition that they remain steadfast? I understand the origin of many of these foods – – Ashkenazi Jews in the shtetl were desperately poor and they had little to eat other than root vegetables in the colder months. But must we continue to “suffer” for the sake of tradition? And can alternative choices – – ones that are healthier, to boot – – still make for a delicious Shabbat meal?
I am enclosing pictures of foods I made for our Shabbat meals over the past few weeks. I make whole-wheat challah, and while I know how to do the fancy shmancy braiding on large challah loaves, I usually only make individual rolls unless I’m having a large crowd. That is our way of doing portion control (otherwise my husband and I can finish off an entire loaf of homemade challah and then we hate ourselves afterwards!) There is also no waste this way like there is with leftover bread (additional whole rolls can be stored in the freezer in zip-lock bags for the following week) I do make traditional cholent, but I am just as likely to make a curried stew, or chili instead. I also love quinoa because it’s great plain or mixed with a variety of fruits of vegetables, herbs and spices, and can be served hot or cold. I also commonly serve “Israeli salad” which is finely diced cucumbers, tomatoes, green onion and garlic with a touch of olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice.
As you can see, there is nothing fancy here, just good, basic food with a lot of flavor, spice and color.
roasted brussells sprouts, zucchini, and eggplant brushed lightly with olive oil and seasoned with basil, rosemary, garlic, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper
Thick yellow split pea soup. We have a wide variety of different soups, including lentil, barley mushroom, vegetable, potato, carrot ginger, butternut squash, spinach lemon, bean, or Chinese hot and sour soup, but rarely plain chicken soup.
3-potato roasted combo: sweet potatoes, yams, and white sweet potato
brown basmati rice with hand-picked organic Maine cranberries, toasted walnuts, and kale, seasoned with thyme, parsley, sage, and rosemary, salt and pepper
Crunchy kale chips: separate kale leaves from stems. Combine leaves, small amount of olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, bit of rice vinegar, and dash of maple syrup; mix; and dry on cookie sheet in oven for several hours at 170 degrees until crispy.
Roasted sweet potatoes, version 2: cut peeled sweet potatoes into small pieces, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon and rosemary, roast uncovered at 375 F til edges are brown.
Scalloped potatoes: slice very thin and place in pan. Sautee onions till caramelized; add 1 tsp flour, stir, add 1 cup soy or almond milk and stir til thickened, add seasoning and herbs and pour over potatoes, bake til brown on top.
spinach salad version 1- tomatoes, cukes, mushrooms, colored peppers, avocado, sunflower seeds
spinach salad version 2. I love spinach salad. The organic baby spinach is exceptionally clean right out of the package, even if you like to go over it with an eagle eye. The great thing about spinach salad is it goes with anything and everything. Suggested add-ons include: hard boiled egg, Persian cucumbers, red pepper, kiwi, toasted pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, sugar snap peas, mushrooms. A great dressing is olive oil with a touch of apple cider vinegar, rosemary, salt, pepper, fresh garlic, scallions, oregano, thyme, and a tsp. of honey mixed together briskly and then tossed into salad.
This is a must-have for your kitchen! It’s a cast iron grill pan and cover (sold separately) made by Lodge Logic (they’ve been around for decades, and their products will last 100 years if well cared for). If you very lightly spray the pan with oil, you can add skinless boneless chicken (I like to season it with shwarma or mixed-grill or kabob seasoning from Israel) to a hot pan; cover with the grill cover and within moments the bottom will be ready for turning. After turning the chicken to its other side, replace grill cover for a few more minutes of grilling. Voila! You have amazing grilled chicken that even has a real-grill flavor, minus the mess and fuss, and the fat goes into the indentations away from the meat. It’s super juicy, too. And it works for any kind of meat, from hamburgers, steaks, chicken, turkey chops, etc. I love Lodge Logic cast iron pots and pans, and am slowly replacing my old Farberware with all Lodge Logic cast iron.
This shows chicken being grilled on top of my propane gas range.