Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Drama - Parshat Baha'alotecha

Get ready for drama! This week's portion, Baha'alotecha kicks off a series of great stories in the upcoming portions. And this portion in particular is packed with drama- jealousy, revenge, spite, gripes, animosity, gossip and killing.

There's a lot to tell and I hope you're on the edges of your seat. The portion starts off innocently enough- the huge golden Menorah for the Temple is described, the nation travels a bit and a special ruling is made for those who missed out on eating the Passover offering because they were in a state of ritual impurity. But then the manna hits the fan and the nation starts to complain bitterly about life in the desert.

Animosity - The nation's grumbling makes God angry. God sends a destructive fire throughout the camp, which only stops when Moses intercedes at the request of the frightened nation. But, as always, they don't learn their lesson.

Spite - The nation of Israel starts to cry about not having enough meat to eat out there in the desert. They go on a trip down culinary memory lane, recalling all the amazing food they ate in Egypt when they were slaves - meat, fish, watermelon, cucumbers, onions, leeks and garlic (this mouth watering menu can be found in chapter 11, verse 5). "Now all we've got is this manna!" they say spitefully to God. Never mind the fact that they no longer have to do back breaking work as slaves. To the reader of the portion the nation certainly seems ungrateful since we know that manna can be a tasty daily treat. So the nation is cranky, which gets Moses distressed, and makes God angry.

Gripes- Moses throws a litany of complaints at God. Why did you make me the leader of these (ungrateful) people? Why are they my responsibility? Where am I supposed to get them meat? Why don't you just kill me?" Moses does literally ask God to kill him if he has to deal with this on his own.

Revenge - God has the situation under control. First he'll deal with Moses feeling overwhelmed, then he'll deal with the whiny nation. God gives Moses some side kicks when he appoints 70 elders to share the burden of leadership. Then He instructs Moses to alert the people that they'll be getting meat - but they won't eat meat for just one day. They'll eat it for an entire month "until it comes out of [their] nostrils" and they get sick of it. Hey, they pissed God off by making it sound like they missed Egypt, the very place they'd been praying to be rescued from. So to strike back God sends a month's worth of meat (I too am getting a lot of meat lately, luckily none has come out of my nose- check out my contributions to Golden West's blog ).

Jealousy - In appointing these 70 other leaders, they too are given a connection to God. Joshua, Moses's long time apprentice (and eventual successor) has a hard time wrapping his head around this new division of leadership. When he sees two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, prophesying in the camp he runs irately to tell Moses and demands that Moses go and stop them. "Oh Joshua," Moses thinks, it's so sweet of you to be jealous on my behalf. But calm down man, it's cool with me.

Killing - OK here comes the grim bit. God provides a speedy and abundant meat delivery and sends loads of quail to the nation. The nation is all about the free meat and they fall all over it. As the people are gathering and eating this meat God sends down a plague to strike the nation. You might say they had it coming.

Gossip - Ready for the last bit? Aaron and Miriam, Mose's brother and sister, start to bad mouth Moses. First they take a stab at his choice in a wife. Then they question how great Moses actually is "Has God not spoken through us as well?" Well God won't tolerate people talking about his Moses that way and lets them know that Moses is indeed extra special since he's the only one who God speaks with directly and not through a dream or a vision. How dare they speak against him. God strikes Miriam with Tzaraat as punishment - but the loyal brother that he is, Moses prays to God to heal her.

Whew, I hope you followed all that action in this fast paced portion!

This portion was particularly exciting to me, not only because of all the intense story lines, but because of the amazing list of ingredients in the text! Meat, quail, fish, watermelon, cucumbers, onions, leeks and garlic. So in an attempt to use as many of them as possible, here's a recipe for watermelon salad as well as a recipe for fish with cilantro garlic sauce. If you were so inclined, and could figure out where to buy quail, you could also make a sauteed leek and roasted quail dish.

Before I get to those recipes though, this is my dad's bar mitzvah parsha. Aside from just generally being a daddy's girl, I have always shared a special connection to my dad around our bar and bat mitzvahs. The two of us share the same Haftorah- a portion from the Prophets or Writings in the Bible which is read after the portion each Shabbat.Ours is called Roni Vsimchi- which translates to "rejoice and be happy" and discusses the Menorah, just as the beginning of this portion does (there's usually some kind of thread like these connecting the portion and the haftorah read on the same week). It gets read twice a year- once on Shabbat Chanukah (when my bat mitzvah took place) and again on the Shabbat when we read the portion of Baha'alotecha.

My dad and I used to joke about forming a Roni Vsimchi club for who ever had this bar/bat mitzvah Haftorah- we knew a handful of other people in our synagogue whom that applied to. This idea thrilled me as a kid- being in a club with my dad. I imagined my dad would be the head - wearing a golden crown reminiscent of the Menorah (which of course he would have made himself), bringing cheese or raspberry danishes to the celebratory kiddush for the club (a treat he would often bring the the kiddushes he made for his parent's yartzeits, the Jewish commemoration of the date of someone's passing) and leading us in joyful melodies in the spirit of "rejoice and be happy." That's who my dad is - someone who loves to make Judaism beautiful, who creates with his hands and his heart, who likes to take care of other people, and boy does he know how to celebrate. Happy Barmy to ya Abba! I love you very much.

Fish with Garlic Cilantro Sauce and Roasted Onion & Tomatillos

Mahi Mahi or any sustainable firm white fish (I chose Mahi Mahi because it was on sale at whole foods and is listed as ok to buy on the Seafood Guide)
1/4 cup of Cilantro
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
8 tbsp Olive Oil
3 tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 Tomatillos
1 onion diced

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Prepare the tomatillos for roasting. You can pull their papery skin up into a petal for a pretty presentation or remove it all together. You will roast the tomatillos whole. Place them on a baking sheet along with the chopped onions and drizzle with 2 tbsps of olive oil. Roast for 30 minutes.

In a blender combine the cilantro, garlic, 3 tbsp of olive oil and lemon juice. This should make a pesto like sauce.

Heat 3 tbsp of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Wash the fish in cook in the olive oil for 3 minutes on each side. Plate the fish and cover with the sauce. Serve the tomatillos on the side.

Watermelon and Cucumber Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette My friend Shira made this recipe to the delight of my friend Anna and after some emailing around it arrived in my inbox. Shira and her fiance Ari adapted it from this Oprah recipe, using watermelon and omitting the fish sauce. I added in the cucumbers to further tie it to this week's portion.

2 tbsp shredded coconut
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1/2 cup peanut oil
1/4 cup grated ginger
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 tbsp flour
Kosher salt to taste
3 cups watermelon peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup of thinly sliced cucumbers
1/3 cup chopped peanuts, toasted
1/4 cup mixture of chopped basil, cilantro and mint

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add coconut and toast it for 2 minutes. Set the coconut aside. Add the sesame seeds to the skillet and toast, stirring for 2 minutes. Add 1/4 cup peanut oil and ginger. Cook and stir for 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and whisk in lime juice, and sugar. This is your dressing.

In a medium bowl, toss shallots with flour and shake off the excess. Heat 1/4 cup peanut oil in a large skillet over medium high heat for about 30 seconds. Add the shallots and cook until brown for about 5-7 minutes. Transfer the shallots to a plate and season with salt to taste. Set aside to cool.

Now make the salad. Combine the dressing, melon, cucumbers, peanuts, herbs, coconut, and shallots. Toss well and serve.

** Hey readers. Sam and I are planning a very short stay in Paris this summer and are looking for a cute boutique hotel in a central location. I'd love to hear any suggestions you have!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Grape Escape - Parshat Naso

I had a wonderful Shavuot Holiday, full of friends, dairy food, teaching and learning. But having the holiday fall out on Tuesday night, Wednesday and Thursday makes this week feel like a Shabbat and holiday sandwich. I'm kind of pooped and have work tomorrow and then- Shabbat again (the end of the "sandwich") so this is going to be a quick post. In case you were wondering, the key lime cheesecake came out very well (I poured it all into one pie crust instead of two and have amended the recipe) and the class on Dairy Products in the Bible that I taught on Tuesday night was a lot of fun (we ate herbed goat cheese, Kefir, chocolate covered pomegranate seeds and Toblerone).

On Saturday morning, Parshat Naso will be read in Synagogues. One section describes the rules for when someone makes a Nazarite vow, where they "set themselves aside for God." The rules that apply to the Nazir include not drinking any wine or alcohol. In fact all grape products are off limits - wine vinegar, fresh grapes, dried grape, skins and seeds. Tough stuff. But a vow is a vow. The Nazir also can't cut their hair for the entire length of their Nazir commitment nor come into contact with a dead body- even if it is the body of a close relative. If the Nazir accidentally comes into contact with a dead body they must shave their head, bring a bird offering and then rededicate themselves to God and start growing their hair out again. When the terms of this vow are over the Nazir's hair is cut and that gets offered as a ritual offering as do lambs, rams, breads, oil and libations. So the wine and grape ban is lifted.

This collection of passages show us that making a vow is a serious thing and that we can always dedicate ourselves to a cause, and rededicate ourselves if we get thrown off track. We can commit ourselves to something forever or for a set period of time, and can feel a sense of accomplishment when that commitment is fulfilled.

Living, as I do, in the land of Universities, you can feel graduation season in the air. The student population is thinning at Harvard Hillel and the rowdy crowds walking back and forth between the Radcliff Quad and Harvard Yard are fewer and further between (utter peace is almost here for it's four month summer visit!!). Even though it has been three years since my last graduation (and nearly ten years since my high school graduation - only two more weeks till the reunion!) I still feel excited at this time of year. I share with the students in a sense of accomplishment, an anticipation of a season of freedom on the horizon and beyond that new beginnings. Maybe that's just what most people feel at the end of Spring.

This Shabbat I'll prepare a few dishes that would be sure to appeal to anyone who had just graduated from their time as a Nazir (p.s. this doesn't happen in the post-Biblical era, this is just for fun). First, my friend Miriam makes an amazing salad with fresh spinach, strawberries, candied pecans, grapes and a balsamic dressing that I'll have to get the recipe for. Then for a main dish I'll cook some chicken pieces (remember the bird offering?) with plump raisins, sliced ginger and chopped onion (keep the skin on, place chicken pieces in a Corningware or Pyrex baking dish, throw the raisins, ginger and onions on top, cover the dish with foil and bake at 350 for 1.5 hours). To finish things off - a non-dairy version of grape tart for dessert.

Mazal Tov to all the graduates!!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Camping We Will Go - Parshat Bamidbar

Three down, two to go. This week we begin the book of Bamidbar, which is Hebrew for "In the Desert" - and that's where the people spend a lot of time during this book. The book got the English name of "Numbers" because the nation also gets counted twice while hanging out in the desert. So call it what you want but picture a lot of sand. If the Book of Exodus tracked the nation's journey from Egypt to Mt Sinai, the Book of Numbers tracks their journey from the desert to the land of Israel.

The first Parsha, Parshat Bamidbar (named after the book), contains the census and the layout of the nation's camp. This census is actually the 3rd time the nation gets counted (it happened twice in the book of Exodus) and the count is now up to 603,550. That's way more than the 210,000 Jews in Boston! And that Biblical number only accounts for the men eligible to fight in the army, so really the nation was a lot bigger. Now-a-days, a Census is a snap shot of a country, and helps to figure out things like how many hospitals, schools and resources are needed (have you filled out your 2010 Census yet?). But in Bamidbar it was about how they'd be able to conquer the land of Israel.

As for the camp layout, God commands the nation to set up around the Tabernacle, the portable temple, by tribes. This is the formation in which they will dwell and travel for the 40 years in the desert. The Levite tribe forms a ring around the Tabernacle to protect it, and it's also their job to carry the tabernacle when the camp moves (by the way, they aren't counted in the census). To the north camped Dan, Naphtali and Asher. To the East was Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevulun. To the south was Reuven, Shimon and Gad. And to the West was Ephrayim, Menashe and Binyamin. Picture the organized chaos of camping with that many people. In the text the camp of the nation was called machane, which today is the modern Hebrew word for Jewish summer camps. Organized chaos still applies.

I loved going to Jewish overnight summer camp as a kid - the food, the friends and a hearty dose of Zionism. Sam never went to camp, but we now enjoy going car camping with just the two of us. When we got married, we registered at REI for camping gear, and now we've got a great tent, high end sleeping bags and mats to cushion us from the rocks, separate meat and milk camping dishes and a Coleman stove. So my concept of camping is pretty different from how my Biblical ancestors probably thought of it. And since Manna was available to them all the time I don't think they ever whipped up some of my camping favorites- franks and beans with smores for dessert. But if they'd tasted these delectable dishes I bet they'd have tried to imagine their manna tasting like them.

In homage to the camp set up in the parsha, the machane, here's my modern take on franks and beans for Shabbat. I'm trying to be classier than just heating up the can of Bush's vegetarian beans, but man are they good. I actually started craving them when writing this post and had Sam pick them up on his supermarket run. You can follow this the fancy franks and beans dish with an assemble-at-the-table-smores-bar. Put out a plate of graham crackers, another plate with pareve chocolate squares, and a bowl of marshmallow fluff.

If you're craving some more meat, check out my contributions to Golden West Cattle Company's new blog. You might recognize their name from when I ordered oxtails from them for my oxtail soup. Well that order turned into more than just a soup- they now send me their glatt kosher meat and in return I come up with recipes and blog entries. My first one just went up on their new site this week.

Baked Beans with Mustard and Pastrami
Adapted from an Epicurios recipe

1/3 cup of tomato paste
2 tbsp of grainy and spicy mustard
1 tbsp of vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp of pepper
1.5 cups of cola
3 cans of 15 ounce beans (like kidney, black and pinto)
6 slices of pastrami

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the first five ingredients in a medium bowl. Add in the cola and then drain the beans and add them too. Transfer to an 8 inch baking dish and cover the mixture with the slices of meat. Bake for one hour.

Shavuot Bonus Recipe

Shavuot is coming up next Tuesday night and will be celebrated through Thursday. It is a fun Jewish holiday, and one of the three major pilgrimage holidays (the others are Passover and Sukkot), though not as well known as some of the other Jewish holidays on the calendar. The holiday has both agricultural and historic aspects. It marks the culmination of the barley harvest and the kickoff of the wheat harvest. Sheaves of wheat were brought to the Temple as an offering of thanks.

Historically it is the occasion when we received the Torah at Mt Sinai, though this instance isn't mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with the holiday. Since the agricultural piece isn't as accessible to us now, we play up the Torah side and relive, reenact and remember the revelation. We reenact by staying up all night learning Torah, we remember by reading the revelation text in synagogues and we relive by eating lots of dairy (there are many explanations for the latter tradition).

So I thought I could be helpful in the dairy department. First, if you happen to be in Cambridge and want to learn all night - come over to Harvard Hillel on Tuesday night. You can stop by my 11pm class on Dairy in the Bible. (Can't make it and still dying to come to a class of mine? Check out Jewbilee in Boston on June 13th).

Secondly, I'll give you a neat new recipe to try in your own kitchen. Last week Sam requested a key lime pie for his Shabbat lunch birthday celebration. I'd never made a key lime pie before but wow was the recipe I used from Cooks Illustrated simple and delicious! So in honor of the Shavuot tradition of eating dairy I'm remixing it cheese cake style.

Key Lime Cheesecake
Adapted from a Cooks Illustrated recipe for Key Lime Pie. I skipped making the crust myself and went with a store bought version to save time.

20 small key limes
4 egg yolks
1 14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
1 block of cream cheese
1 pre-made graham cracker crust

Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees.

In a medium bowl grate 8 tsps of lime zest. Whip in the 4 egg yolks and keep beating for about 2 minutes. Add the sweetened condensed milk and then the juice of the limes. Let the mixture stand for ten minutes.

Add the cream cheese and whip until smooth (this may be easier to do in a stand mixer). Spoon the mixture into the crust and bake for 20 minutes or until set.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Birthday Boy - Parshat Behar/Bechukotay

You must be wondering how it has come to this. We're on the last two portions of the book of Leviticus (both read this week in another case of a double portion)
and I haven't given you a SINGLE grilled meat recipe. I'm sure you thought the entries for the whole book of Vayikra would be filled with them on account of all the Temple sacrifices. But I was trying to steer clear of the predictable at first and save the BBQ for later portions when I would really need it. It's a classic case of saving something for the right occasion and then never getting a chance to enjoy it. But never say never, because I'll make good use out of it this week, I promise.

This week, aside from being very special due to the impending meat recipe, is also a bar-mitzvah anniversary for another family member- my husband Sam. That's right 25 years ago he blew dry his blond hair just so in preparation of the Shabbat services where he would chant his haftorah and give a speech covering his bar mitzvah double portion, Behar-Bechukotay.

This really is the perfect portion for Sam - who in two words is upstanding and honest (he's also cute and fun but that has nothing to do with the parsha, and it's two more words). The laws in these portions are meant to cultivate proper treatment and respect between people. Sam is a great connector to people. While I am rushing around trying to get things done he reminds me to slow down and acknowledge people around me. The portion also deals with justice and keeping one's word. He takes anything he says as a serious commitment and will stand by his word (fortunately or unfortunately for me, he holds me to the same standard).

Shmita, the Sabbatical year for the land, and Yovel (aka Jubilee), the celebration of seven sabbatical cycles, which are both mentioned in the portion, are not only meant to cultivate a closer relationship with God - they are meant to connect people to each other. Imagine the Sabbatical year - an agricultural society is told to take a year off from planting and harvesting. What will they do with all the time on their hands? The text doesn't tell us but I imagine they are sitting outdoors with their neighbors while chatting over drinks, strolling in each other's fields, choosing what they will eat for lunch or dinner and getting to know the poor of their community better than the years where only the corners of their fields are open to all. This time off and potential for connection is so important to God that He promises to make the 6th year of each cycle so incredibly bountiful that everyone will be able to eat off the land for the 7th and 8th years without doing a thing (the 8th year is when they'll be planting again but needing to wait a while for the crops to come up).

Aside from these results of Shmita and Jubilee (which literally means the blowing of a ram's horn) debts are also forgiven, slaves are let free and land returns to it's original owner in the year of Jubilee. This is justice at it's core. A general prohibition against charging your fellow interest is found in the Parsha (given our car payment I know Sam would love a society where this was true again). In the second portion, Bechukotai, vows are dealt with. If anyone vowed to dedicate the equivalent of person, an animal, a home or land to God - that is taken seriously and must be paid up. No reneging, downgrading or replacing is allowed. You are your word. This last phrase is one that my Sam lives by.

There are lots of things that I love about Sam and one of them is how genuine and fair a person he is with everyone. I often have a lot to learn from him so it's good that we'll be hanging out together for a while, as in for ever after.

"Now where does the meat come in?" I bet you're wondering. Well the portion of Bechukotai is kind of one big quid pro quo between God and the people- if you're nice to Me, God says, I'll be nice to you. Follow my laws and "I will grant you grain in the rainy season so that the earth shall yield it's produce and the trees of the field their fruit" (Levitukus chapter 26 verse 3). A few verses later we learn what will happen if we're not so nice to God. He'll make our lives miserable in all sorts of ways- sickness, hunger despite having food, persecution at the hand of enemies and then if you're still bad, your land won't produce nada - and no fruit from the trees. Still at it? Beasts will destroy you. Slow learners? Pestilences will be sent and it just gets worse and worse. But finally some people will repent and God will remember the covenant with our forefathers. The portion and the book wrap up with a discussion of tithes- from "seed from the ground or fruit from the tree" a 10th goes to God. Seeing as the fruit tree gets mentioned another time I was thinking of a fruit salad but then read that the same tithe applies to a herd or flock - every 10th animal goes to God says the portion.

So now we have our ingredients for the following Kabobs that I know Sam will enjoy. Kabobs are such a summer food to me and you don't need a real grill to cook them - I easily make them in my kitchen oven. You can either use wooden skewers to make these- in which case you should pre-soak them in water for 30 minutes so they don't burn during cooking, or you can use steel reusable ones - we have a set from Crate and Barrel that we like. I love grilled fruit in general - particularly pineapple, plum, peaches. That was quite a puckery alliteration. The fruit is even better paired with the meat but if you're a vegetarian make them all fruit or to use extra firm tofu instead. There's a lot of choice in how you make them. You can also use either chicken or red meat for these kabobs and really any firm fruit cut into large cubes will do. So if you want to be creative and come up with your own combo - please do. Happy Birthday Sammy.

Grilled Meat and Fruit Kabobs
I have played with many variations of Kabobs that I concocted after reading the August 2002 edition of Martha Stewart Magazine. This is my 2010 version.

1/2 cup of cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup of olive oil
1 tbsp of sugar
1/2 cup of fresh squeezed lime juice
2 lbs of chicken or beef, skinned and cubed
2 lbs of cubed pineapple and peaches
a pinch of salt and pepper

Mix the cilantro, olive oil, sugar and lime juice in a bowl. Toss the cubed meat and fruit into the bowl and coat with the dressing. Thread the meat and fruit on the skewers in what ever pattern you would like. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the skewers on a broiler pan and turn on your broiler. Put the kabobs under the broiler for 6 minutes, flipped once halfway through. Make sure meat is cooked through. Can be reheated- good served warm or at room temperature. (If you have an outdoor grill you can always make them on there. My mom suggests pre-cooking them in the microwave and then putting them over the coals briefly for a BBQ taste. I don't have a grill or a microwave so we'll have to defer to her).