Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Don't Mess Up - Parshat Bechukotay

This week we got a gorgeous new GE stove (complete with Sabbath mode!). While I'm terribly excited to have kissed my squeeky-doored, off-by-100-degrees oven, I'm kind of nervous about messing the new one up. Right now it is so sparkly and clean and I just want to keep it that way forever.

I'm sure that something similar was going on for the people of Israel in the weekly portion, Parshat Bechukotay. God tells them that if they follow the laws and commandments faithfully, all sorts of good thing will come - produce, peace, and a multiplying nation. But mess it up and there will be hell to pay - enemy domination, sickness, famine and more bad, bad stuff. So I think they'd be trying to keep things nice and tidy.

The first thing they're promised if all goes well is an overflowing of grain and grapes. The important makings for wine and bread, and many a comfort food recipe. Things are super busy for me this week as I get ready for the PresenTense launch night where I'll be pitching the Jewish Teacher Corps but I wanted to leave you with a delicious, warming dish that includes grains and wine - very appropriate if you've had to spend the week in the North East.
Beef Ragu and Whole Grain Spaghetti from epicurios

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jubilant - Parshat Behar

Well now, how did I let a whole month go by without posting here at all? Shame on me.

I had a wonderful Passover - though it was book-ended by boughts of the flu (the upside was I got to watch the royal wedding from my couch). We spent the holiday with my family in Florida - enjoying the seders, the beaches, discount shopping and a trip to the Evergaldes.

After ten days in the land of palm trees, alligators and identical Spanish-tiled housing developments - where we can only identify my parents home when my dad's large red van is parked out front - returning to new England in it's spring bloom was a nice welcome home.

Amongst all the activity of Passover we started the period of counting the Omer. The Omer was a wheat offering brought in the temple seven weeks after Passover - on the holiday of Shavuot. The Torah commands us to count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot - the time of the wheat's growth and harvest. Although the sacrifice isn't around anymore we still keep tabs on these weeks - counting them with a blessing each night.

A similar custom of counting in sevens is mentioned in this weeks portion, Parshat Behar. Every seventh year the fields were given a break - no planting and no massive harvesting. You could munch on whatever sprouted up in your own field, or in your neighbor's field, but the year was a real time out for everyone - a Sabbatical. Every seven sets of seven years there was the ultimate Sabbatical - a Jubilee was celebrated, when all debts were forgiven and again the land would lay fallow.

I'm sure you're thinking - "Hey I could do with a Biblically mandated Sabbatical from my job." But this year of rest came with some anxiety - what would there be to eat in the 8th year if there had been no planting in the 7th? That's where God comes to the rescue - the portion tells us about God's promise for a super sized surplus in the 6th year - an embarrassment of harvest riches that will carry everyone through years 6, 7 and 8!

With all that produce, easy access to your neighbors' fields and time off from planting and harvesting, you'd have a lot of time and produce on your hands. This would give you plenty of opportunity to make an amazing, but time consuming (heavy on the fine dicing), gazpacho that my mom made for us over Passover. She had a stroke of genius and ordered a bunch of catered food, which meant we saw her out of the kitchen a lot more this year - and she augmented the menu with lots of fresh dishes, like this gazpacho.

This gazpacho is the kind of thing I want to eat every weekend from now until the leaves fall off the trees - preferably on a blanket in the park across the street from our apartment, in a spot that is perfectly situated for me and Sam - half in the sun for me (while of course wearing sun screen) and half in the shade for him.

This gazpacho almost looks like fresh salsa in a bowl of tomato juice but trust me it tastes like gazpacho. The trick is that by dicing all of the vegetables by hand instead of chopping them in a food processor it had a much crunchier texture -and much in the way I love how juicy vegetables can be, this soup is full of fresh vegetable crunch. The sweetness of the seedless cucumbers, the frangrant tomatoes and the savoryness of the vinegar made this recipe worth the work (and as you can see in the photograph I didn't dice as finely as the recipe calls for below). So give your food processor a break and if you can, wait a day to eat this, when it tastes even better - especially when you serve it with warm crusty bread and simply sauteed fish.

Adapted from a recipe in Chef's Confidential - the recipe is from Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Serves 10.

8 plum tomatoes
2 small seedless cucumbers
3 medium red bell peppers
2 medium red onions
5 garlic cloves
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 can 46 ounce tomato juice (equal to 6 cups)
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp salt
1.5 tsp ground black pepper

Dice the tomatoes, cucumbers, red bell peppers and red onions to a fine 1/4 inch dice.

In a bowl, crush the garlic cloves and add the diced vegetables. Toss in the chopped cilantro and pour in the tomato juice, vinegar and olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Give this a good stir and refrigerate. Serve chilled.