Posts Tagged ‘challah’

The Table

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Right now, I’m not in Maine.

This Sunday, we hosted an Open House as part of our effort to sell our house in our hometown in the mid-Atlantic US.  Simultaneously, we are selling the entire house contents, a process that has been ongoing for the past year.  This includes pieces of antique furniture, beds, sofas, and our dining room table.

What an amazing table it is!  It is a solid maple table that we’ve had for at least 35 years, bought second hand in Los Angeles.  It came with us when we went to to live in Israel in the 1980s; it returned with us to the US when we moved to the Mid Atlantic.  It is a gate leg table, so it folds down to a mere 24″ width to seat 2, but when fully expanded , it’s 97″ long and can seat 12 – 14.  Its 2 extra leaves are butterflied (hinged in the middle) so they fold and store right in the table – – a clever, space-saving design.

While the table is very sturdy, it is nowhere near in perfect condition.  One side has a long gouge-like scratch from a careless grandchild, and the finish had discolored unevenly due to sunlight exposure from a nearby window.  Hence I was impressed when a young Jewish couple, due to be married in 2 weeks’ time, were not put off by its imperfections, and bought it with the great excitement that comes with the first blush of love, hopes, dreams, and establishing a new home.

Other than a woman’s Sabbath candlesticks, there is perhaps no more important object in a Jewish home than the dining room table and the challah (Sabbath bread) that rests upon it.  It is an object that totally transcends its physicality as it becomes a sanctified gathering place for family Sabbath meals; Jewish and American holidays; guests holy and plain; happy events and sad; heated arguments and intellectual and religious discussion; celebration and mourning.  The source for this is from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem:

One of the central Temple vessels is the golden Table for the Showbread, which stands within the Sanctuary itself, on the north side. This table is constructed of wood overlain with gold, and the specific instructions for its design are described in Exodus Chapter 25.

The priests are commanded to see to it that 12 loaves of bread are constantly displayed on this table before the presence of G-d, hence the name showbread: “And you shall place showbread on the table before Me at all times” (Ex. 25:30).

“These 12 loaves were baked in pans which gave them a specific form, and when done they rested on golden shelves upon this table. The loaves were replaced every Sabbath with new ones.

It is said that bread is the staff of life, and represents man’s physical sustenance. This is certainly so, and it is important that G-d’s blessing for goodness and bounty be found in the bread which we partake of… for without His munificent blessing, all of man’s efforts would neither satisfy nor satiate. Thus we endeavor to fulfill His will throughout every aspect of our endeavors, and in so doing, we earn His favor and blessing… for each area wherein man fulfills the Holy One’s will becomes a channel receiving Heavenly blessing.

(from The Temple Institute website:  https://www.templeinstitute.org/table_showbread.htm)

As the bride and groom drove away happily with the table in their borrowed 12-seater van, I suddenly imagined a rather unpleasant scenario.  Perhaps their well-meaning family or friends would take the wind out of the couple’s sails and chide them for buying a used table with its imperfections, when they might have bought something new!  And so I texted them this message:

Over the years, we had many important people eat at that table, including HaRav Simcha Wasserman ztz’l, Rav Shmuel Kaminetzky, Rav Meir Chodosh, and Rav Akiva Tatz, plus many more.  I’m not saying this to be a name-dropper but rather, my blessing to you is that as you gather around your table, that you may continue the holiness from its past as you host guests in the spirit of  Avraham Avinu and Sara Imeinu!

To which he replied,

Wow! That’s amazing! Thank you for telling me!

And to which I wish to add:

Yes, we were privileged to have many “celebrities” from the Jewish world sit, eat, talk, and expound words of Torah at our table. But we also hosted dear friends and neighbors; people who were lonely, abused, sick and bereft; mentally ill or substance abusers; travelers; strangers who became friends and some who didn’t; righteous gentiles; cult members; grandparents and parents and friends no longer in this world; and children and grandchildren, who are our future.

We ate meals there that consisted of little more than a bowl of cold cereal, and multi-course meals that were fit for a king.  We celebrated the pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born) of a grandson at that table on the night before 9/11, along with the sheva brochos (festive post-wedding meal) of our children and friends’ children, including for a newlywed ba’alat tshuva couple I met in a supermarket line only the day before.  We conducted our Passover seder from that table, year after year after year; we kvelled (felt happiness and pride) as the numbers of family members increased and required the table’s full extension, and then the addition of a folding table to accommodate everyone.

Unlike the  table of gold from the Temple, our table was made only of wood.  It carried its imperfections with dignity, like all the people of every stripe who completed it and made it the holy vessel that it is.

For us, our table was golden.

 

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Healthy Shabbat Meals

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

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

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

brown basmati rice with hand-picked organic Maine cranberries, toasted walnuts, and kale, seasoned with thyme, parsley, sage, and rosemary, salt and pepper

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.

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.

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.

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, sunflower seeds

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, 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.

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 to a hot pan; cover with the gril cover and within moments the bottom will be ready for turning.  After turning, 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.

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.

This shows chicken being grilled on top of my propane gas range.