Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Make Me a Match - Parshat Chayay Sarah

If you told Patty Stanger that the first Biblical matchmaker was a guy, she might get a little pissed. But the Millionaire Matchmaker may have a thing or two to learn from Eliezer, Abraham's attendant, who goes to fetch a wife for his master's son Issac.

First, he listens to the parents. Abraham gives him the following specs - he wants a nice girl from his home town for Isaac, but she must be brought to Isaac in the land of Canaan (guess the wedding won't be in the bride's town).

Then, hoping to get a knockout girl, Eliezer brings 10 camels along with him on his matchmaking trek.

He stays hydrated, stopping outside of Abraham's hometown to drink from the public well. Lots of ladies are drawing water while he's there and this newbie shadchan (Yiddish for matchmaker) is overwhelmed by his choices. He asks for a sign from God to show him the right girl for Isaac (bet Patty wishes she could call in that card sometimes).

"I'll ask someone for water, and whoever offers me and my camels water to drink, that's the one for Isaac." Just as he finished saying so, Rebeccah comes along and generously draws water for Eliezer when he asks and further offers to draw water for each of his camels. It was a sign and it was bashert (meant to be).

Eliezer gives Rebeccah some cool golden accessories, bangles and nose rings, and she tells her family that she'd like to go meet the eligible bachelor Isaac. After a long journey back to the land of Canaan she finally lays eyes on Isaac. It's for sure love at first sight, and to slow things down a bit she covers her face with a veil. Eliezer gets Isaac caught up on the whole story, and Isaac is convinced of Rebeccah's specialness.

With out much further ado they were husband and wife. Success, a match made in heaven.

And to think it all sprang out of a well.

I want to recognize the centrality of water in the story of our matriarch and patriarch's union. You probably all know how to make ice water so we'll kick it up a notch (though it is a gift to know how to achieve the right ice to water ratio). I have tasted some wonderful agua frescas and enjoy making them at home. Literally meaning fresh/cold/refreshing water, these drinks were popularized in Mexico and the basic recipe requires mixing fruit with water and sugar and blending. They were the predecessors to sodas, but made fresh daily with some good-for-you ingredients.

I make a mean melon agua fresca which has already appeared on this blog. You can make citrus agua fresca, tamarind, coconut, hibiscus, you name it. We're going to take a stab at a few new flavors - mango, strawberry and for a more savory hit, cucumber lime. I sometimes find that substituting agave nectar for sugar helps the flavors blend better, and you don't end up with sugar at the bottom of your cup.

Master Agua Fresca Recipe

3 cups fruit
1.5 cups water
4 tbsp sugar or agave nectar
juice of 1 lime (optional)

Puree the fruit in a blender or food processor. Strain if you prefer or serve with pulp. Mix the pureed fruit with the water, sugar and lime in a pitcher. Add more ingredients as necessary based on your tastes.

Mango Agua Fresca

Use two mangos, peeled, cubed and seeds discarded.

Strawberry Agua Fresca

Use three cups of cut and hulled strawberries.

Cucumber Lime Agua Fresca

Use peeled seeded cucumbers, fresh squeezed lime juice and reduce the sugar by half.

P.S. Join me this Sunday at LimmudBoston. I'm giving a class at 1pm and there's a ton of incredible sessions going on all day long - I hope you'll join me.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Worth Her Salt? Parshat Vayeyra

In this week's portion, Parshat Vayeyra, the merits of transparency are grappled with. God has a debate with Himself and some angels as to whether or not He should alert Abraham to His plan to destroy the wicked city of Sdom. On the one hand, God has already made up His mind, but on the other hand He is expecting a partnership from Abraham in creating a family/nation that will follow in God's ways. Shouldn't God show that He too can be a good partner with open communication?

So God tells Abraham His plans, and immediately Abraham protests on the grounds of justice. He questions; "God can you really destroy a whole city if there are some good people still to be found in it?" And therein begins the famous bargaining between God and Abraham over the city of Sdom.

"If I find 50 good people, I'll spare the city."
"Do it for 45"
Back and forth until they have gotten to ten.
"Can't you find just ten good people in that God forsaken place?"
And it's settled- if there are ten good people in Sdom, the city will be spared.

But as the narrative continues it's clear that there aren't even ten decent people there, save Lot and has family (even they become questionable, but they've got protectsia by being related to Abraham). They are spared and get to leave the city before its fiery destruction. They are commanded to flee and not turn to look back at Sdom. But Mrs. Lot can't help herself and turns around to catch one last glance of her hometown. She immediately turns into a pillar of salt.

Fish baked in a crust of salt has long been a marvel to me. I've sen it on the pages of food magazines and in scenes of TV food shows, but it has yet to appear in my kitchen or be served on our table. I've had it in mind to try this dish for this particular parsha for many months, delighted with the tie in with Lot's wife in the narrative. I'm excited to finally give it a try. I'll be making my way to the local fish monger to buy a whole fish. I've typically seen red snapper prepared this way, but they're on the fish to avoid list.

I found a great recipe in one of my mother's a cookbook's for sea bass in a salr crust and see that some options look like they get the
green light. The fish cavity gets stuffed with lemons, garlic and herbs and then thick sea salt is whipped with eggs whites and spread in an even layer on the whole fish, nestled into a baking dish. The salt forms a hard crust which insulates the fish as it bakes, keeping it moist and flavorful, and is broken away before serving.

Now, in the spirit of transparency I want to share with you that in another two weeks this blog will come full circle and we'll reach the portion that first started Double Portion last year - Parshat Toldot. I'm trying to decide whether I will continue blogging once I reach that point and come up with new recipes for the weeks I have already covered or if I'll take a break to focus on the cookbook based on the blog. I'd love to hear your opinions in the comments here - I've got two weeks to make a decision so let me know what you think. Challenge me, debate, bargain!

One last thing before the recipe. Today is the Yartzeit (the Jewish anniversary of someone's
passing) of my paternal grandmother, Ethel Radel, who I am named for. I never met her but have several pieces of jewelry that belonged to her that I treasure as much as I treasure snippets of her family history (which my father insists that I most often revise in some way).

Some things that I remember hearing (and double checked with my dad) was that she was an incredible cook - making gefilte fish and ground horseradish from scratch to self cater my father's bar mitzvah luncheon in their home. She was very supportive of my father's desire to be an artist, while the rest of the family would have preferred for him to go into the typical Jewish male professions. I'm grateful for those things and more that she did for those who came before me. This blog post is dedicated to her, a woman most certainly worth her salt.

Thank you to Sam for all the photos this week.

Salt Encrusted Fish
Adapted from Feasting on Fish, by Louise Pickford

4 lb whole striped bass, scaled and cleaned
2 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
1 lemon, scrubbed and thinly sliced
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
salt and pepper
1 lb sea salt
4 egg whites
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Stuff the inside of the fish with the herbs, lemon slices, salt and pepper and garlic cloves.

Whisk the egg whites in a bowl until frothy and then add the salt and mix well.

Oil a glass or ceramic baking dish that the fish easily fits into (without leaving too much empty room in the dish). Carefully place the stuffed fish in the dish and spread the salt mixture over the top of the fish to completely coat the top and sides of the fish.

Bake the fish for 40 minutes so that the salt turns light brown. Let it rest for ten minutes outside of the oven and then break the salt crust open with a fork and knife. Remove all of the salt crust and serve the fish in slices.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Piece by Piece - Parshat Lech Lecha

If you've ever been to a bris and had to close your eyes out of squeamishness, you may need to do so while reading this week's portion. In Parshat Lech Lecha there's actually more than one of these incidences. A bris - or a brit, means covenant, and in this week's portion there are two covenants. One is the commandment for the old school version (the ceremony done on an 8 day old baby boy), and the other is a one time deal between Abraham and God. It too involves blood and drama, but no sensitive areas are harmed.

Early on in the portion God repeatedly promises Abraham that he will become a great nation - as numerous as the sands on the earth and the stars in the sky. But Abraham really can't figure out how God is going to pull through on that promise since he and Sarah are getting up there in years.

So, like any good man, Abraham asks for some assurance, some proof that he is in fact going to be the forefather of a great nation. God wants to prove that he'll stick with Abraham and make good on his promise so He enacts a new covenant, a fantastical one to really impress the pants off of Abraham.

God instructs Abraham to gather some materials together for this covenantal performance. Abraham herds a young cow, goat, ram, a turtledove and a young bird. Faithfully following God's next instructions Abraham cuts each animal in two and places each half opposite the other on the ground. This covenant is titled "brit ben habetarim" which literally means, the covenant between the pieces.

But before God gets to the good part of the performance, He delivers a Debbie downer. "Your offspring will be strangers in a land, enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. I will execute judgment on that nation and your nation will go free with wealth." While the length of the nation of Israel's slavery in Egypt ends up being a few hundred years shorter than this decree, and sure we do end up nice and wealthy, it's still a pretty depressing thing for Abraham to ponder on.

Now that Abraham hears the news of the bad fate that will eventually befall his supposed nation, God kicks things up a notch. The sun sets and it's showtime. A smoking pillar of fire appears and slowly passes through the pieces of cut meat splayed out on the ground. Right there and then God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising the land of Israel to him and his nation again, laying out it's boundaries. And Abraham almost believes him (it's not till the next portion that Sarah actually gets knocked up).

This fantastical covenant story had me first thinking turduken. That's where a chicken gets stuffed into a duck which gets stuffed into a turkey. While I never made this myself it would be kosher - and if you stuffed it into a goat or cow you'd get ever closer to the Biblical text here. But seriously how would one cook through all that meat? Instead I'm going to play off of the young bird used in the covenant and bake a Cornish game hen, a young chicken. These frequently go on sale in Florida near where my brother lives and he's perfected a recipe and shared it with me. He even said I could share it with all of you.

Orange Glazed Cornish Hens
Adapted by Ben Horen from this recipe

1.5 cups rice
2 tbsp of olive oil
1 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 orange
2.5 cups chicken stock
6 cloves garlic peeled
2 Cornish game hens
1/4 cup honey
1/4 vegetable oil
1 tbsp grated orange peel

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a skillet over medium flame warm the olive oil and saute the onions and celery. Add the rice, thyme, sugar and salt after several minutes and continue to stir for another minute.

Spread the rice mixture into the bottom of a baking pan, cover with chicken stock and whole cloves of garlic. Place the hens on top of the rice mixture, breast side up.

Remove 1 tbsp of zest from the orange and set aside. Peel the orange in one continuous piece. Cut in that peel in half and put one piece in each of the hens. Juice the remainder of the orange.

Mix the orange juice with the honey, vegetable oil and orange zest. Spread this glaze over the Cornish hens.

Bake the dish uncovered for 40 minutes, then cover and bake for 40 minutes longer. You can brush any leftover glaze over the chicken from time to time as it bakes.

A picture of the Cornish Hen chef (aka my brother) on a recent trip of his to Boston.

Thank you to Sam for the stunning poultry shots.

And thank you for all of your votes - the contest ends at 12pm this Friday - I really appreciate all the support so many of you have shown.