Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Finger of God - Parshat Vae'ira

Did you know that the Pharoh of the Exodus story was a pretty hygienic fellow? Each morning he would bathe in the Nile - and in fact that is where Moses often has his confrontations with him during the period of the plagues. And did you know that Moses was 80 years old when he goes to confront Pharoh and his brother Aron is 83? In this portion the two of them team up with God to bring seven out of the ten plagues to bear on Pharoh's court and country.

Moses's first demand of Pharoh is to just let his nation go on a three day road trip to sacrifice to God. But Pharoh isn't even cool with that. So then come the plagues. The first happens right as Pharoh is bathing in the Nile - it turns to blood and he is grossed out when dead fish start to surface around him. Pretty soon all of Egypt is smelling pretty putrid and there's no potable water. But, since Pharoh's magicians were able to do the same to the water with their spells, Pharoh is unimpressed.

Next, Moses threatens Pharoh with a frog infestation so bad they'll be in people's beds, oven and mixing bowls. At first Pharoh doesn't flinch, but he does get irked by the multitude of frogs that Moses summons from the Nile and begs for Moses to reverse the plague. So all the frogs die, making Egypt smell even worse. But Pharoh goes back to being stubborn and refusing to let anyone go anywhere.

It isn't until the third plague rolls around that Pharoh and his assistants finally recognize God's handiwork. When Aron turns all the dust of the earth to lice with a flick of his rod the little creatures crawl over every Egyptian human and animal. Try as Pharoh's magician's might they can't produce the same effect with their wands, nor can they reverse Aron's plague. The magician's declare, "This is the finger of God." But of course this revelation is short lived as Pharoh again refuses to let the people go. And even after Moses, Aron and God bring on swarms of insects, a blight on livestock, blistering skin boils, and deadly flaming hail, Pharoh is unmoved.

Not to gross you out but I've got a recipe that combines the first and third plague. There will be no actual blood or lice, but this savory rice dish is colored bright pink from beets which results in a well seasoned and visually pleasing bite. I had never thought to add beets to rice but when I saw the recipe in my Italian Jewish cookbook I knew it would probably be as good as everything else I've made from it. And indeed, it's made repeat appearances on our Shabbat table and will likely leave you wanting double portions..

Beet Rice
This recipe is adapted from Classic Italian Jewish Cooking by Edda Servi Machlin

3 large beets, washed and peeled
1 cup basmati rice
2-3 cups water
Pinch of salt

Place the peeled beets in a medium pan and cover with water. Boil for 15 minutes, until you can easily poke a fork 1/2 an inch into the beets. Remove the boiled beets from the water and measure out 2 cups of beet water. If you have less than two cups add regular water to get two cups total.

Lay the beets on a cutting board to cool down and place the 2 cups of beet water into a clean pot. Add one cup of rice to the liquid and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

Dice the beets and mix the pieces into the cooked rice and serve.

New Year

Lot's of blogs that I read are doing a year in review this week, highlighting some of their favorite posts from the last year. I'd actually like to take an opportunity to share some things from the last year that never made it to the blog because I couldn't make a portion connection. Mostly, they're things I ate around town and want to share.

I had my second kosher hot dog at Fenway this year. The first time I had one I kept our seats warm while Sam procured the hot dogs. But this summer, on a small work outing, I got to see the workings of the kosher hot dog machine myself. The machine is located under a large Kosher Food sign and you get a glimpse into it's working mechanism. Digital messages narrate the process - "Your Bun is Warming" sent Emily and I into a laughing fit. Sadly, they were a bit more exciting than the hot dogs themselves. The bun and the hot dog were both rather limp and I was wanting for some sour kraut.

On a tastier note, Sam and I discovered new bourekas at Cafe Eilat (the Brookline Pizza Shop) and one tasted like a kosher croque monsieur in a triangular crispy puff pastry packet, with muenster cheese, tomato and instead of ham, some black olives. Yum.

Around Chanukah time I finally made it out to Donuts with a Difference in Medford, an off-the-beaten path kosher shop with a small window of operating hours. Holiday jelly donuts seemed worth the early morning pre-work venture and indeed they were the best jelly donuts I've eaten outside of Israel. The dark blueberry/strawberry jelly was well distributed inside of each donut - half of the ones I bought were covered in thick gooey sugar glaze and the other half we're powdered (Sam favored the latter and I the former). Every bite was thick and doughy, giving me a good teeth sinking experience, and while at first my Hebrew College coworkers stayed away claiming necessary diets, there were soon chunks missing from donuts and a family trip planned to sample the plethora of other different donut flavors.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Parshat Shemot

Last time around for Parshat Shemot, we talked about the trepidatious beginning of Moses's life. This time, let's take a look at how the guy turns out. Despite having grown up in the palace of Pharoh, his allegiance doesn't lie with the Egyptian king. When he witnesses an Egyptian task master beating one of the Hebrew slaves he's unable to stand by and watch such a ghastly act. Moses confirms that the coast is clear before he knocks off that Egyptian task master and buries him in the sand.

Moses continues on this valiant path and next reproaches two Hebrews for fighting with each other. They do not take kindly to this feedback and ask Moses "So, what are ya gonna do about it? Kill us like you did that Egyptian?" That's when he realizes he's in trouble and soon Pharoh sets out to kill him so Moses flees. And like the good Israelite that he is, he ends up at a well outside of the Kingdom of Egypt. It's evident that Moses is a descendant of Jacob when he flexes a little muscle well-side and saves damsels in distress from some harassing traveling herdsmen. The impressed women bring Moses to their father, the king of Midyan. Grateful for Mose's bravery he gives him his daughter Tziporah's hand in marriage.

Now a family man, Moses lives in Midyan until the Pharoh with the vendetta against him dies. It is after this that he encounters God in the form of a burning bush while tending his flock. God calls on him from amidst those branches, to be the leader that will take the Hebrew nation out of Egypt. But despite the fact that he's already stood up to power in three situations, this makes Moses nervous.

His self confidence gets put to the test when he finally makes it back to Egypt, and together with his brother Aron goes to face the new Pharoh. Despite Moses' cry to let his people go, Pharoh is unmoved. Instead he decides to make the Hebrew nation's work even harder; from now on, he orders, we won't provide the slaves with straw to make bricks, they'll have to go and collect the straw themselves. And they'll still have to meet the same daily quota for brick production. The nation blames Moses for this harsher situation they find themselves in, which isn't much of a confidence booster for Moses. But God assures Moses that He's on his side and that soon Pharoh will bow to a greater power and let them go. But you'll have to wait till next week to see how that gets resolved.

In the mean time, I've got the idea to make something related to the straw in the story. Not that straw itself is a particularly delicious ingredient, but a dish that looks like straw could actually be quite tasty. Especially if that dish is puff pastry strips twisted into sticks (or straws if you will) and dusted with zaatar. Sounds delicious and easy right? Zaatar is a Middle Eastern spice that has a green color and is made up of sesame seeds, thyme, marjoram, and sumac. It's musky flavor is used in falafel balls as well as Israeli cheeses and salad dressing. Most pizza shops in Israel will also have some zaatar in a glass salt shaker next to the requisite garlic salt and red pepper flakes. You can buy zaatar in specialty or kosher supermarkets and I promise that after you use it in this recipe you'll find many other ways to enjoy it (it's great over eggs, baked with chicken and labane yogurt with pita).

Zaatar Straws
I found this delectable recipe at recipes.com

1/2 cup flour
1 package of puff pastry
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp zaatar
1 egg
2 tbsp water

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Set the puff pastry dough onto a floured surface and roll the dough out with a rolling pin to an perfect 8 x 12 inch rectangle.

Brush the olive oil all over the dough and sprinkle one half of the rectangle with zaatar. Fold the clean half over the zaatar covered half. Sprinkle with flour and roll out to an 8 x 12 rectangle again. Again brush with oil, sprinkle zaatar over one half of the rectangle and fold the clean half over the zaatar half. Roll with a pin a few times and then slice with a sharp knife into 1/4 inch long strips aka straws.

Take each straw one at a time and twist a few times. Lay the twisted straws on a baking sheet. Mix the egg with water and paint the mixture over the straws.

Bake the straws for 12 minutes until golden brown. Let cool for a minute before loosening from baking sheet. Serve alone or with a dip like hummus or tatziki.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bless You - Parshat Vayechi

Did you miss me last week? Sorry about that - with Chanukah celebrations, a trip to visit family in Florida and adjusting to the new job (which is going very well!) I didn't make it over to Double Portion. But I'm back for the final portion in the Book of Genesis, Parshat Vayechi.

We loose two of our trusty Biblical characters in this portion and learn of the legacy they leave behind. At the age of 147 Jacob passes away surrounded by his family and at the end of the portion his son Joseph passes at 110. But before either of them expire Jacob leaves Joseph with a double portion of inheritance for his two sons Ephrayim and Menasheh.

These two boys are the first Jacob wishes to bless when he is ailing. He announces that these grandsons will be like actual children to him. "Ephrayim and Menasheh shall be mine no less than Reuven and Shimon." Grief and a feeling of loss are what motivates him - since his beloved wife Rachel was taken before she was able to have more children. We know that her two children we're Jacob's favorite, and the fact that they have healthy children of their own is a blessing to Jacob "I never expected to see you again Joseph, and here God has let me see your children as well."

These words must have made Joseph swell with pride, but a moment later he is confused by his father's actions. As Jacob stretches out his hands to bless his grandchildren, he puts his right hand on the younger Ephrayim. However, the right hand is typically used to bless the older child and Joseph tries to correct his father. But it becomes clear that Jacob wasn't experiencing any confusion himself. He explains that though the older son Menasheh will become a great people, the younger one will be even greater.

The blessing that he gives them are now lyrics to the children's lullaby "Hamalach Hagoel" (which translates to the redeeming angel) -
The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked
The God who has been my Shepard from birth till today
The angel who has redeemed me from harm, bless these boys.
In them may my name be recalled and the names of my fathers Abraham and Issac and may they be teeming nations upon the earth.

Jacob concludes the blessing by stating that all parents of Israel will bless their children to be like Ephrayim and Menasheh and indeed, to this day parents bless their sons before Shabbat Dinner with "May God make you like Ephrayim and Menasheh. May God bless you and guard you ..." (daughters get blessed to be like Sara, Rivkah, Rachel and Lea). Sam's father calls each week before Shabbat to give him this blessing over the phone lines, and my father does the same for me and my brother when we aren't together for Shabbat. But in our families we are strict about giving these blessings in birth order - I get mine before my brother gets his. However, Jacob does just the opposite with his grandchildren and succeeds in switching the status of Ephrayim to that of the older and Menasheh to the younger. This flip flop reminds me of the way Jacob stole the rite of the first born from his brother Esav and got his blessing from his dad. I guess that old habits die hard for Jacob.

To remember this Ephrayim and Menasheh switch we're going to take an item that appears at the beginning of the meal and bring it back at the end - to serve challah for dessert. I've found a bread pudding recipe that you can make in a crock pot! Now I love to cook in the crock pot, but I have never ventured into the realm of slow cooker desserts. I got the idea from a cookbook that I recently added to my collection - Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes by Laura Frankel. So far I have only tried one recipe from her book because I'm finding that the recipes call for a bit too much hands on attention for a cooking method that is praise for the fact that one can throw a bunch of things in and come back eight hours later to a savory dish with well developed flavors. But I guess I should trust this kosher chef who worked for Wolfgang Puck.

I can't share pics because my plan it to put it in the crock pot about an hour before Shabbat and then keep it on warm until dessert time - which is sounding like a perfect idea after seeing that the temperature is going to drop to 22 degrees here in Cambridge!

Slow Cooker Bread Pudding
Adapted from Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes by Laura Frankel

2 tbsp shortening (like buttery sticks, see image below)
1 lb challah loaf
4 eggs
4 cups full fat soy milk
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 sugar
1/4 maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/ cup chopped toasted pecans
1 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg

Optional Sauce
1.5 cups maple syrup
1/2 cup honey
1 tbsp cinnamon

Grease the bottom of the slow cooker insert with some shortening. Slice the challah into 1.5 inch slices and lay them in the bottom of the insert.

In a bowl whisk the eggs, soy milk, sugars, syrup, vanilla, pecans, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour this mixture over the bread and cook on high for 3 hours. Keep on warm until ready to serve.

If you would like to make the sauce, bring the syrup, honey and cinnamon to a boil in a small saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve this drizzled over your plated dessert.