Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Secret Agent Men - Parshat Shelach

Your Mission, should you choose to accept it, is to spy on the promised land. You will represent your tribe and bring back a report of the lay of the land, the people in the land - oh and bring some fruit back too.

This is pretty much what God commands Moses to tell 12 representatives from the tribes of Israel in this week's portion, Parshat Shelach. They are given some specific questions to research: Are the people who live there strong or weak, few or many? Are the towns fortified, is the soil good, is it full of trees?

So these 12 guys set off on their mission and spend 40 days gathering the answers to these questions. They return from their journey with a huge cluster of grapes so big that two people have to carry them on a frame, and they bring figs and pomegranates as well. They deliver the fruit and their report to Moses and the whole nation; "The land does indeed flow with milk and honey, and here is it's fruit...BUT the people who live there are powerful, the cities very large and fortified and the people are huge." Gulp. This wasn't the most positive report of God's promised land, the place they were all headed. One of the spies, Caleb Ben Yefuneh, from the tribe of Judah, tries to recover hope and faith in the dream; "Let's go up and possess the land- we can overcome these obstacles!"

But the other spies refute him; "We can't attack people who are that much stronger than us - the country devours it's settlers. We were like grasshoppers compared to those who live there." Oh God. God is not gonna be happy.

At the conclusion of this back and forth the nation starts to panic. They start in with their favorite guilt trip; "If only we had died in Egypt, it would be better for us to be back in Egypt." When they start actually talking plans to go back to Egypt an intervention is necessary. Joshua (Mose's right hand man who accompanied the spies) and Caleb make a valiant attempt. "Listen, the land God is giving us IS a GOOD one. We saw it ourselves and it's really good, ok? If God is happy with us He'll bring us there to the flowing milk and honey and he'll just give it to us. But you've got to trust Him and behave. There's no reason to be afraid of the people who live there when we've got God on our side." Apparently this it doesn't go over well - the community gets ready to pelt them with stones.

God takes it all pretty personally "Why do they continue to spurn me? How long will this faithlessness last? Even though I've pulled out all the stops and shown them these great miracles, still, it's not enough for them. We'll I've had enough, and this time I mean it. I'm going to send a plague to wipe out this whole generation and make you a new and better nation." Oy thinks Moses, this can't be Noah and the flood part deux. Despite Moses's attempts at persuasion God is sticking to his plan- "No one who I took out of Egypt will live to see the land of Israel. The nation wander through the desert until this generation has all died out. You'll wander for 40 years exactly - a year for each day that the spies were in the land of Israel. Except for Caleb and Joshua- I'll make an exception for them since they remained loyal to me." And the rest of the spies are immediately killed by a plague.

In one last unfortunate turn of events in the portion, when the people hear their fate, they are filled with grief and guilt and want to make it up to God. So they go too far to the other extreme and try to show how much they are prepared to enter the land of Israel. They go over the border to fight- but God warns that he doesn't want them to do it and when they go ahead anyway they are all killed by the inhabitants of the land.

Ok, I think it's about time I got around the the recipe right? I bet you're thinking, oh boy she's gonna do grapes again. Well no, I just did that the other week (bad planning on my part - the grape picture above is from the delicious rustic grape tart that I made the other week). Instead of focusing on the huge grapes in the portion I want to pay some attention to the figs. I really love figs. Fresh figs are beautiful to look at, to slice and to eat, but the dried and jellied versions also have a special place in my palate. Many people find figs sensual and I definitely think it's a fruit with drama, which is appropriate for this portion where there is so much tumult and emotion. A lot of places I've been shopping lately have had these alluring bottles of fig spread that aren't kosher. And I'm jealous. So I'm going to make my own.

I actually got this idea from a cookbook my mom gave me over the weekend- The Charleston,SC Junior League's Receipts Cookbook from 1950. Published in the south with some recipes dating back to the 1700s it's got some funky recipes for roasted possum and a turtle soup, but there are some other recipes that I'd really like to try like the mint julep and the fig spread. My mom picked it up on a road trip with her sister last week when they were in the Historic Charleston Foundation gift shop. Unfortunately, I forgot to take it back with me at the end of our lovely long weekend with my parents, so I made my mom send me the recipe and book credits. Emma- thanks for the cookbook and for your patience! I'm also going to tie in the milk from "the land of milk and honey" here.

And happy birthday to Emily! Maybe you can extend your eating exceptions to this weekend and enjoy this dish yourself. I may just be stopping by Haymarket in your hood for some fresh figs at bargain prices on Friday.

Crostini with Fig Spread and Chevre
Adapted from Charleston Receipts, 1950, Junior League of Charleston,SC

I debated making baked brie slathered in fig spread, wrapped in phyllo dough, and this tart recipe looks great too, but since I'm making the fruit spread myself, I'm going to keep it simple. The recipe doesn't actually have honey in it 9as in the lank of milk and honey) but it's so sweet that it'll do the job.

Loaf of french bread
Log of plain chevre (I get this at Trader Joe's or Costco)
1 qt fresh figs**
4 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 sliced lemons
1 cinnamon stick
12 cloves

Rinse the figs. Bring the water to a boil with the sugar and then add the lemons and figs, as well as the spices. Simmer for about an hour until figs are tender.

In the mean time, slice the french bread, and towards the end of cooking the figs broil them in the oven or toaster oven for a minute until they look toasted. Spread the chevre with a spoon or a knife on each slice of toasted bread and then spread the cooked figs on top. Serve on a platter. Store the spread in glass jars.

** If you prefer to use dry figs and have less time on your hands (more like 35 minutes) try this Martha Stewart recipe.

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