Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hard at Heart - Parshat Va'eira

Moses and his brother Aron are tasked with some negotiating in this week's portion, Parshat Va'era. Together they have to tell Pharoh to let their people go. Their first attempt at this was in last week's portion and it didn't go so well - Pharoh had never heard of "this God of theirs," got pissed off at the prospect of losing his huge, free workforce and therefore made the work of the Hebrew slaves even harder.

Moses and Aron's attempts at negotiations seem doomed from the beginning since in last week's portion God tipped them off to the fact that he would be metaphorically hardening Pharoh's heart around the matter. "He what?" you might ask. That's right, God essentially makes Pharoh his puppet king and causes his heart to become "heavy, strong, hard and stubborn." As a result, Pharoh flip flops between being dead set against letting the people go and giving in - and then right back to ordering them to stay put. Sounds like a complicated thing to orchestrate, but God can handle it.

It does seem kind of mean of God to set Moses and Aron up for failure like that and be such a control freak. But there is a grand plan: the miracles and ten plagues that Moses and Aron set into motion gradually wear down Pharoh's hardened heart. They won't break him completely and in the next portion God will have to come to the rescue and take the Nation of Israel out of Egypt. Not only will the Jews be impressed by this rescue, so will all of Egypt - which is the point of the whole heart-hardening process. So God isn't being mean, just trying to make a point.

We do see Pharoh's heart flip flopping and being worn down and several times through out the plague process in this week's portion. It stinks to have frogs in your bed (plague #2), swarms of wild beasts trampling your city (#5) and fiery hail raining down on you (#7). Pharoh is so uncomfortable in these situations that after each he has a change of heart and tells Moses that he and his people can leave. But once the plague stops, he is back to being hard-hearted and no Hebrews are going no where. Flip Flopper! Spoiler alert: It will take three more plagues, namely the death of the first-borns, in the next portion before he changes his mind again. But then, as the nation is finally heading out of Egypt he changes his mind again and God swoops in to shuttle his people through a split see - wowing them all.

Now at this point in the story with heavy hearts, villains and near death experiences you may not be in the mood for any kind of food. But there is a recipe coming. Two actually.

I wanted to play on the heavy heart idea (since it is such a determining factor in the portion) but not in a gross way. Two dishes seem good and heavy to me are Shepherd's Pie and Tart Tatin, which are not gross at all. These dishes have actually been on my mind lately, and here's why.

Sam and I spent New Year's weekend at a sweet B&B just outside of Portsmouth, NH and we enjoyed some Sunday afternoon Irish jamming at the Dolphin Striker's Tavern in Portsmouth. This middle aged group and the jolly crowd singing along transported me to a family trip to Ireland we took several years ago. I even nursed a hot toddy, the very first thing I had on that trip. Sam enjoyed a Guinness and we enjoyed the music, which we kept wishing wouldn't end. After many encores the band did wrap up and one of the female members came over to our table to say hi. I noticed she had several charms on a gold chain around her neck - one of which was a Celtic knot and another a Jewish star. "Are you part Jewish, part Irish?" I asked. "Yes" she said, to which I quickly responded "me too."

While Pat O'Brian might not sound like a Jewish name, her mom's family moved to Northern Ireland from Eastern Europe and her dad was native to Ireland. My maternal grandmother was born in Ireland and my dad's family is from Eastern Europe. I have always been proud of this mixed heritage of mine (I am known to sport my Urban Outfitter, everyone loves and Irish girl T-shirt). The pub experience and Jewish connection put me in the mood for some Irish eating and drinking and together with this heavy hearted theme I was reminded of a great Shepherd's pie I made several years ago with Guinness!

A shepherd's pie is a heavy dish on its own, all that meat slathered with a blanket of potatoes, but add in some heady Guinness and it gets even heavier. I haven't been able to find the recipe I originally used but below is what I hope will be an acceptable recreation. The dish feels like a good fit this week, given both the portion and the weather in Boston.

The second dish, Tart Tatin is one whose name trips all over my tongue and makes me feel like I'm back in Paris eating one. I have never made the dish myself but saw it being made on a Food Network show last week and loved how beautiful it looked to caramelize the sugar in a cast iron skillet, drop plump white apple slices in and tuck it under the cover of a pastry dough. When this tart is served, the apples look like glistening heavy jewels that have embedded themselves into the bottom (which then becomes the top) of this dish. I also think this will serve nicely after the Shepherd's Pie.

Shepherd's Pie with Guinness

I make this version without any extraneous vegetables.

2 lbs ground meat
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove or garlic
1 bottle of Guinness
5 potatoes, peeled
1/4 cup of soy milk
4 tbsp of butter substitute
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Start with the potatoes. Boil them until they are very tender (test by poking with a fork). Drain the potatoes and mash in a bowl with the soy milk, butter substitute and salt and pepper.

Heat olive oil in large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and saute for 5 minutes. Add the ground meat and quickly brown it. Then pour in the bottle of Guinness and lower the flame slightly. Cook until the liquid has almost evaporated (this will take a while). Add tomato paste and stir.

Transfer the meat mixture to the bottom of a baking dish and cover it with the mashed potatoes. Bake for 20 minutes.

Tarte Tatin

This is based on the recipe I saw on the Food Network show. Here is a link to a video from the show.

1 stick butter, cut into pea size pieces
1 cup flour, plus extra for rolling
1/4 cup sugar
1 lemon's zest
1 egg yolk
2 to 3 tablespoons ice water

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup apple cider or water
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 stick butter, cut into pats
6 apples, such as Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, peeled, cored and quartered

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

To make the crust combine the butter, flour, sugar, salt and lemon zest in a food processor. Pulse until it looks like Parmesan cheese. Add the egg yolk and 1 to 2 tablespoons of the water. Pulse until the mixture comes together in a ball (add more water a bit at a time if it seems dry).

Transfer the ball onto a cookie sheet with a non-stick mat on it. Press the dough with your fingers out to an even circle that is an inch or two wider than the skillet you will bake the tart in. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour.

Start on the filling while the dough chills. Place the sugar, apple cider or water, and lemon juice in a 10-inch nonstick ovenproof pan - a cast iron skillet close to that size is best. Stir to combine. Over high heat bring the mixture to a boil. After 6 minutes the mixture will turn light brown. There is a fine line between perfecting and burning sugar so don't let this go a minute too long!

Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, 2 pats at a time. The mixture will bubble up - be careful not to burn yourself with the liquid. When all of the butter has been incorporated, neatly arrange the apples rounded side down in circles (make it pretty - the bottom will be the top).

Take the chilled pastry from the refrigerator and place it on top of the apples, tucking it in around the edges. Bake for 20 minutes in the oven (the dough should turn a golden brown). Cool for 15 minutes. Carefully put a serving platter upside down on top of the pan and flip the platter and the pan over. Let the tart fall gently out of the pan.

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