Thursday, April 29, 2010

Barley There - Parshat Emor

In case you were wondering where the heck most of the Jewish holidays come from, you'd find the answer in this week's portion, Emor. Most of the heavy hitters appear here - Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. You might have some fond memories associated with these holidays around family, food, traditions and rituals, but the text in the portion takes us back to the agricultural roots of these holidays.

We're actually in one of the agricultural periods described in the portion right now - the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. On the second day of Passover we're commanded to bring part of the barley harvest to the Temple: "when you get to the land that I will give you and you reap a new crop you are to bring the Omer [a sheaf of barley] to the Cohen who will wave the Omer in front of God." You can't eat any grain from the barley harvest before bringing that offering. Starting with the second day of Passover, we count 49 days of the "Omer" until we bring a similar offering from the new wheat harvest on Shavuot.

There are all sorts of spiritual explanations given as to why we still count the Omer when we no longer have a Temple in which to bring offerings. There are also lots of tricks people have for helping themselves or others to remember to count. When I was in SAR elementary school, whoever remembered to count all 49 days of the Omer got to go to a cheese cake party with our principal, Rabbi Cohen. I never got invited because I always forgot to count somewhere along the way. It wasn't until high school, when I learned about counting charts and email reminders, that I got all the way through the 49 days.

One of my favorite website reminders is where Homer Simpson helps you remember to count the "hOmer" and instructs you on how to say the blessing. A teacher of mine in Israel told me about a friend who gave his son a 49ers hat to wear only during the counting of the Omer. Someone asked him if he was a foot ball fan and he looked at them and said - "No, this is my Omer hat!" Sam and I simply keep a little sheet on our dresser that we see each night as we're going to sleep which reminds us to count.

Whatever methods you may employ to remember this Biblical commandment, and whatever explanations you find meaningful behind the counting, the ideas in the portion of Emor bring us back to the roots of the customs and the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. They're about showing appreciation to God for what one was able to grow on the land and understanding the message that giving back is part of that. Within the same paragraph of text that covers the counting and Shavuot, a law from a previous portion is repeated: when you harvest your land you shouldn't cut all the way to the corners of your field and you shouldn't pick up the produce that you drop while harvesting - these items should be left for the poor and the stranger.

This sounds like a built in welfare system - a way to teach the whole community about giving to those who are in need. Between the offering and this law the nation gets the message that even though they will have their own land on which to grow crops, they shouldn't think that they are the ones who made the crops grow or that they own it all. Rather it is because of God that things grow, and they need to share the bounty with others and need to feel a responsibility to do so. As a modern day fundraiser I think this is a great concept for us all to internalize.

To mark the Omer and the Parsha I'm sharing an interesting barley recipe that I came across on With the upbeat predictions for the weekend weather here, I didn't want to send out a heavy recipe like barley soup or risotto, so I was glad to find this recipe for barley with cumin and mint. Now I must say that Sam HATES mint. It's almost like Kryptonite to him - if he get's within 50 feet of the stuff he can smell it and will already be covering his nose and exclaiming incredulously "is that mint?!" I, on the other hand, adore mint and want it with everything in the summer - mixed drinks, salads, fruit, tabuli, ice cream - you name it. If I do go rogue and indulge in a mint dish I'm on kissing probation until the smell dissipates - Sam can always smell when I've had mint. But sometimes it's worth the sacrifice. I don't normally serve mint around Sam but maybe this week there will be an exception.
Also in the spirit of the parsha and this time of year, I'd encourage you to maybe make a little bit more than you need for this dish and share it with someone who is hungry. Or consider donating to a charity in your area. As we start to enjoy the spring bounty let's think of those who we need to take care of in our communities.

Barley with Cumin and Mint
Adapted from a July 2002 Gourmet Recipe found on Epicurios

2 cups water
1 cup barley
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp turmeric
1/4 cup chopped mint leaves
3 tbsp finely chopped shallots
1.5 tbsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon cumin
3 tbsp tehina
1 tsp olive oil
pepper and salt to taste

Bring the water to a boil in a medium sauce pot over high heat with the barley, salt and tumeric already in the pot. Simmer for 30 minutes and then drain the barley in a colander. Transfer to a bowl with the mint, shallots, lemon juice, cumin and oil. Sprinkle with tehina, salt and pepper.

Thanks again to Sam for this week's pictures.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Got Your Goat - Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

It's time for God to lay down the law. Set some parameters. At the beginning of this week's double portion (again!), Parshat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, God references the boundaries that have been overstepped by Aron's sons, Nadav and Avihu. This is a pretty sad story that I glossed over a few weeks ago when it appeared in the Parsha but now let me catch you up. Nadav and Aviyhu, also priests themselves, were excited during the dedication of the Tabernacle and brought an unsolicited sacrifice. But God was not happy with this, and instead of sending a fire down to consume their sacrifice the fire sent consumes them.

This is a tough story to take in. It's hard to wrap our heads around why God wouldn't be touched by this kind of spontaneous gift. Some commentators, such as Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, try to explain that it was because these guys were too focused on their personal experience of the dedication instead of the national experience, and as leaders they needed to be focused on the latter. Others interpret the paragraph following the story, which contains a precept for Priests to refrain from drinking any alcohol before entering the Tabernacle, as an indication that Nadav and Avihu were in fact drunk when they entered the sanctuary with this unsolicited sacrifice and that wasn't cool with God.

So now, in this week's portion, God reestablishes the boundaries that Nadav and Avihu broke and decrees that Priests can only come to the Holy area of the Tabernacle at certain times. The very next time God commands Aron to come there it is with a bull, a ram and two goats to perform a complicated atonement service. The atonement seems to be a combination of repenting for the sins of Aron's sons and for the sins of the Nation before they can continue to build a relationship with God. It entails a lot of back and forth trips for the High Priest between sacrificing on the inner and outer alters, costume changes and ritual immersions. After this account the text commands that this ceremony will be a perpetual yearly holiday of atonement - which we all know as Yom Kippur. The service which was enacted in the Tabernacle and then later the Temple in Jerusalem certainly looks different than what we're used to at High Holiday time. For instance I'm not sure when the last time was that any of you saw a goat or two around on Yom Kippur.

Let's zoom in on these two goats. Aron brings them to the Tabernacle entrance; one gets marked for God and one for "Azazel" (translated as wilderness). The one marked for God gets offered as a sin offering on behalf of the nation, and its blood gets sprinkled around the Tabernacle. Then Aron lays his hands on the goat marked for "Azazel" and "confesses over it all the sins of the nation... and puts them all on its head." The goat gets sent off to the wilderness along with the sins of the people. Here you have it - the original scapegoat.

So this week I'm thinking of goat cheese salad. But not just any old goat cheese salad. My very favorite one. With roasted beets and my go-to lemon and garlic dressing. I would literally eat this salad every day if I could. And as my colleague Emily can tell you, I do eat it pretty often - she can smell it from the cube next door. I would just need someone at home to be peeling and roasting the beets each day for me. I'm not a huge fan of the red stains beets leave on my hands while I peel and cut them so I either wear gloves during this process or just scrub the beets real well and skip the peeling. But I do love how the roasted beets turn the cheese pink after being tossed together. I'm also a big fan of the combination of the two very earthy tastes in the goat cheese and the roasted beets. The beets have a crispness to their flavor, even after they have been roasted, that compliments the more mature taste of the cheese.

The farmers markets will be opening at the end of the month around Boston and I can't wait to pick up a bundle of beets there and roast them for this salad. We buy logs of goat cheese (look for "Original" after the link) from Costco, and we run through it pretty quickly for a Costco of cheese. I'm sad that there are no local kosher cheese CSA's in our neck of the woods. Free summer concerts will be starting up at the end of May too and this is one of our favorite picnic meals, especially for those evenings at the Hatch shell. The picnic version of this simple salad consists of lettuce, crumbled goat cheese, roasted beets, dressing, and cucumber if you're in the mood. If you want to get fancier than picnic fare you can try following the recipe below. Make sure you factor in an hour for the goat cheese to rest in the fridge covered in bread crumbs before you pan fry it. Watermelon can be a good substitute for the beets when it's too hot to roast any veggies over the summer; on those days feel free to also use the raw goat cheese.

Fried Goat Cheese and Roasted Beet Salad
The fried goat cheese portion of this recipe is an adaptation from this Epicurious Recipe

3 medium beets, scrubbed well
1 head of red leaf lettuce (or whatever you like best), washed and ripped into bite sized pieces
8 tablespoons of goat cheese, each pressed into a 1/2 inch thick disc
1/2 cup of panko bread crumbs (I got some Iron Chef ones from Costco, and have enjoyed using Jeff Nathan's in the past)
Some herbs for encrusting the cheese such as rosemary, tarragon, thyme (you can skip this if you buy an herbed panko crumb)
1 egg white
4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

For dressing:
1 garlic clove
1 lemon
2 teaspoons of olive oil
Dash of water
1 teaspoon of coarse salt

Coat the goat cheese discs in the egg white and then the bread crumbs and herbs. Put on a dish, cover and refrigerate for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut the beets into half moon slices about 1/2 inch thick. Lay the slices out on a Silpat lined baking sheet and coat with 3 tbsp of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for an hour - test with a fork to make sure they are very soft and pliable at the end of their cooking time - if not, let them go a little longer. Cool.

Heat a skillet over medium heat and add 1 tbsp of olive oil. Put the refrigerated cheese discs into the skillet and fry on each side for 3 minutes.

To make the dressing: Cut the lemon in half and squeeze both halves with a handled squeezer into a cup. Crush the garlic clove with a good quality crusher into the cup. Add oil, water and salt. Mix it up. Pour over the salad before serving and prepare to pucker and dig in for more.

Toss lettuce, beets, and dressing and serve on individual plates with 1-2 cheese discs.

Thank you to Sam for all the pictures in the post this week!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Cure - Parshat Tazriah-Metzorah

I had two thoughts when I read over this week's Torah Portion; 1- Yay it's another Double Portion. 2- Oy Vey, there's nothing I want to talk about in relation to food.

You see Parshat Tazriah-Metzorah is full of a bunch of unappetizing concepts - a skin disease that can also effect ones clothes and home, a menstruating woman, a woman who just gave birth and a man who has a seminal emission. Are you still reading?

OK stick with me and we'll figure something out here. I already used my "I need a cookie" line. Um... just so as not to gross everyone out I think I need to go for another stretch.

I spend a lot of time on a home decorating website called Apartment Therapy. I get daily emails from them with pictures of other people's homes, ideas for DIY projects and resources for stuff for your home. Right now they are running what's called their Home Cure. I have participated in 1.5 of these. For my 26th birthday my brother bought me their book which outlines exactly why one's home would need a Cure and how to embark on the eight week process that they formulated. It involves steps like creating an inventory of everything that needs fixing in the house, creating an inspiration board of images you like, purging room by room, and filling your house with a few new things that are in line with your newly defined style.

This week's portion actually mentions a Biblical Home Cure. That skin disease I mentioned is called Tzara'at and is often incorrectly translated as leprosy, but is really more like vitiligo or psoriasis. If it got into the walls of a home during the time of the Temple you needed to Cure your home of the disease with the help of a Cohen (aka Temple Priest). Boy those priests were quite the jack of all trades- slaughtering animals, inspecting skin diseases and assessing houses!

Anyway, here's the deal. If you lived in the land of Israel way back when and saw some brown, red or green moldy looking things in your home (fridges didn't count and weren't around then) you had to completely empty your house and have a Cohen make a house call. The priest would inspect this colorful blight and if it looked suspicious to him he sealed the house for a week. At the end of the week he took a peek - if the decay spread you could remove the "infected" stones from the wall to a place outside of the city where it won't infect anything else.

Then you had to scrape down all the walls and purge the resulting dust to a place outside of the city too. The next step was bringing in new stones to replace the old ones and re-plastering them. If the mold came back again the house was a gonner and you had to tear it down. But if it didn't come back the Priest declared it "cured" and performs a ritual slaughter and sprinkles some blood on the house - not sure if they were allowed to clean that off after.

When Sam and I were in Mexico in March we saw people making what looked like a Hummus dish. I inquired about it with my deteriorated Spanish and after a lot of pantomime I got the recipe below. I whipped it up several times over Passover and everyone loved it. I've been wanting to share it with you so I'm stretching things to say that it represents the plaster that covered the new walls in the Biblical homes that were attempting to cure themselves of Tzaraat.

This traditional Maya dish and has a name that can get caught inside your mouth. Xuiclepax - with the "X" pronounced as "sh" so it should sound like Sheek-le-pak. When I made it in Florida I was doing it from memory and not from the scattered notes I had written on the brochure from the water boat tour we had taken that day. I got mixed up and used sunflower seeds instead of pumpkin seeds and can tell you that that worked too. This dish comes together pretty quickly and is as addictive as guacamole but with a nuttier, roasted flavor. Pair it with tortilla chips (we love Abuelita chips in our home which we buy at Costco) and you'll be scraping the bottom of the Xuiclepax bowl for those final traces of dip.

Roasted and salted shelled pumpkin/pepita seeds (or sunflower seeds)
Salt and pepper
Tomato sauce
3 tomatoes diced
2 onions diced
Olive Oil
Cilantro finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Pulverize the roasted seeds in a food processor until they are finely ground and resemble a thick flour. Add pepper to taste.

Spread the diced tomatoes and onions on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for 30 minutes until soft.

In a large bowl combine the ground pumpkin seeds, the tomato sauce and the roasted vegetables. Mash it all together with a potato masher and then stir in the chopped cilantro. It's preferable to serve warm with chips, challah or even matzah!

On Monday night we will celebrate Yom Haatzmaut - Israel Independence Day. This is a great holiday - it's all about the partying and being thankful for a Jewish State. They really know how to do it up in Israel - silly string flows in the streets, ceremonies with elaborate flag dances are everywhere. One year as a spectator I sat a few seats away from Ariel Sharon at the International Bible Contest in Jerusalem. Crazy stuff. At Stern College I used to enjoy the tradition of eating a black and white cookie decked out for the occasion in blue and white. This year I'll don a blue and white outfit and try to dig out my Star Of David cake pan and whip up a batch of brownies to be slathered with blue and white frosting. Unless of course I purged that cake pan in the last Home Cure I did.

This graffiti tag on the streets of Jerusalem says "Am Yisrael Chai" which translates to "The People of Israel Live!"

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Something Fishy - Parshat Sheminy

I'm pooped! Sam and I have been traveling for the last two and half weeks and now I'm sporting a nice tan and can hardly peel myself off the couch to get anything done. So please excuse the shorter post.

Our travels first took us to a long overdue (as in 2 years and nine months overdue) honeymoon to Tulum, Mexico. We spent a week lounging on the picture perfect beach, exploring Maya ruins and enjoying some delicious dishes. Then it was onto Boynton Beach, Florida to my parent's new snow bird nest for lots of family time, Passover cooking, Seders and more beach! It was all 100% enjoyable. But I think I just got a little more tired thinking about it all - and our suitcases still aren't unpacked.

Ok so onto the Parsha and the food - the reasons you've stopped by. In this week's Parsha, Shmini, we learn all about the animals which are kosher and those which are not. Lots of people ask me - "What makes something kosher?" and I have to think about where to start my answer - well this Parsha is a great place to start. At the basic level there are some animals that are just never gonna be kosher - if a mammal doesn't both chew it's cud and have a split hooves it's off the list. If a bird is a bird of prey (such as a hawk or vulture) same deal. If a fish doesn't have fins and scales no dice. And if it's a four-legged creepy crawly or a flying insect you can't eat it (with a few explicit exceptions). And that's what the Parsha lays out as "abominations" - the other pieces of the kosher answer are about how those permissible animals are killed and processed. But that's a longer explanation so ask me after class if you still have questions.

Fish are actually a pretty cool thing in the kosher world. It doesn't need to be ritually slaughtered and it's not considered meat or dairy but pareve (neutral), however it can't be served with meat (hence a smaller gefilte fish plate and fork).The part of Mexico we were in is known for amazing fish (both for snorkeling and eating purposes), thus I'm inspired to offer you two fish dishes - both strictly follow the kosher rules, only one doesn't look it.

The first is ceviche. I have always loved serving and eating this citrus cured fish with lime soaked onions, avocado, cilantro and tomato (I believe I've just named the building blocks of Mexican cuisine). It's best to start with a firm white fish like cod that will stand up to the curing and not fall apart. You can vary the other ingredients (mango can be a bright addition). I love to serve ceviche in margarita glasses.

The second sneaky dish is one with imitation crab meat. I love this brand of imitation crab and shrimp - no clue if it tastes like the real thing, but I like it anyway. We serve the "shrimp" whole with wasabi or cocktail sauce as appetizers, munch on the "crab" sticks as snacks or when we're feeling fancy throw it into sushi or sushi pie. The latter is a great dish I learned to make from Sandy, a family friend. It's sort of like a lazy man's sushi - you start with a layer of seaweed on the bottom of a pie dish then add cooked sushi rice with vinegar and top that with a layer of blended crab, mayo and wasabi sauce. Soy sauce and pickled ginger still make great accompaniments.

2 lbs of wild cod or perch
1 cup of chopped onion
1/2 cup of chopped cilantro
2 avocados cut into one inch cubes
Juice of 4 limes

Cube the fish into bite size pieces (try to get them as uniform in size as possible). Place the pieces into a glass bowl along with the onion, cilantro and avodaco. Completely cover with lime juice and then with plastic wrap and leave over night in the fridge. Drain from the lime juice, add salt and serve cold.

Sushi Pie with Imitation Crab

4 sheets of seaweed
2 cups of cooked sushi rice with vinegar (follow instructions on the pack you buy)
1 package of Dynasea imitation crab meat
1/2 cup of mayo
1/4 cup of wasabi sauce
1/4 cup of sugar
soy sauce
pickled ginger

In a food processor blend the crab meat with the mayo and wasabi. Layer the seaweed at the bottom of a 9 inch pie plate so that it covers the bottom and sides of the pie plate. Spread the sushi rice over the seaweed at the bottom of the pie plate using your fingers. Using a spatula spread the crab meat mixture on top of the rice. This dish is best served at room temperature. Cut into slices and serve with soy sauce and pickled ginger.

Thanks to Sam for some of these vacay pics (including the ones of the fish underwater). I look forward to sharing more adventures and inspiration from our trip in the upcoming weeks.