Making matzah

Several years ago, my friend Reb Jeff taught me how to make matzah. Early this morning, when Drew was still in his PJs, I made it again.


The recipe is very simple -- you can find it in my 2004 post Hametz and matzah. The ingredients are really just flour and water. (I meant to add a bit of salt this time, but I forgot. Whoops.) I measured out the flour and the water from our well and set the oven to preheat. Once it was hot, I asked if Drew wanted to help. He was a bit dubious, but when I opened up the step-stool and offered him a wooden spoon, he was intrigued enough to climb up and lend a hand.

Drew stirs.

He enjoyed taking turns with me doing some of the stirring. I tried to interest him in rolling out the balls of dough with the rolling pin, but I think that was a bit sophisticated for two and a half; he poked at the dough a bit with the rolling pin and then announced "all done!" So I released him to play with his toys while I finished the matzah. I was on a deadline, after all; no more than 18 minutes could elapse between the moment when water hit flour, and the moment when the matzah entered the oven.

One matzah, cooling.

I rolled and floured and rolled, and used a fork to prick the resulting sheets of dough. My efforts yielded five beautiful matzot. (Also one badly torn one -- I rolled out my first attempt too thin, and it tore irrevocably while I was getting it into the oven, so I let that one go.) I know that at the first-night seder at my sister's house we'll have gorgeous handmade matzot from Clear Flour, so I'll probably save these to serve at the second-night community seder at my shul.

I like the stuff that comes from a box, too. That's the matzah of my childhood, the matzah with which all of my lifelong seder memories are linked. Its crunch, the way it tastes lightly spread with horseradish (the flavor of our affliction mingled with the bread of our freedom), its texture and flavor. But there's something wonderful to me about making homemade matzah. It's the easiest of breads, after all: the waybread our ancestors baked in tremendous haste to take with them on the journey. And maybe, if I'm lucky, the work of baking these will have helped to prepare me for my own journey, too.

Mishloach manot for me!

Found on my desk this morning.

Yesterday after I taught the b'nei mitzvah prep students a bit about Purim (and then we spent a while decorating masks for them to wear on the holiday if they're not otherwise costumed), I dashed south to fetch Drew at daycare, as is my Monday routine. The students stayed at the synagogue for a youth group event -- making hamentaschen which I will deliver later today to some of the elders in our community.

Among Purim's central traditions are the delivering of mishloach manot -- gifts of tasty snacks given to friends -- and the giving of food, or money for food, to those who are hungry. The hamentaschen made by our youth group kids were intended to enable them to fulfill the mitzvah of sending mishloach manot. Apparently they also made a few special extras -- like this one which awaited me when I arrived at the synagogue this morning.

I get virtual gifts each year at Purim from friends, but it's years since I've received an actual package of edibles in celebration of the holiday. I've never tried a mint-chocolate-chip / raspberry-jam / chocolate-sauce hamentaschen, but I'm looking forward to braving it later today! Happy Purim to all.

Etrogcello for Tu BiShvat

Remember last Sukkot? The sound of cornstalks rustling on the roof of my car as I drove slowly home from Renton's farmer's market. The trees on our hills still bright with fading leaves. Carrying my lulav and etrog out to the sukkah in the rain-washed morning, and shaking them in all four directions as I dodged the raindrops still dripping from the sukkah's so-called roof.

And then, when the festival was over, my reluctance to discard the beautiful fragrant etrogim. They had come such a long way to reach us, just in time for the festival! So I peeled them, and poured vodka over the thin shavings of yellow skin, and set them in a cupboard to wait in the dark. At first the shavings sat at the bottom of a bottle of clear liquid. Over time, some alchemy transpired. The liquid became golden, the peel ever-more translucent. Now, some months later, they have been transformed from this:

Etrog, sliced open.

To this:

Before decanting.

I open the jar and am washed with a heady wave of the scent of etrog. Surely smell is one of the most evocative senses: one whiff and I'm transported back to the day before Yom Kippur when I first lifted last year's etrogim out of their foam cradles and brought them to my face to inhale their extraordinary scent. Nothing else smells quite like an etrog. It's lemony, yes, to be sure, but it's more than that. Richer, sharper, more complicated. Over the years I've experimented with etrog preserves, but no jam ever quite captures the way an etrog smells -- the way it makes me feel -- when I first press it to my nose before the festival begins.

But this etrogcello comes close.

A few weeks ago I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the jar, then returned it to the darkness. Yesterday, Tu BiShvat almost upon us, I washed out two plastic bottles and prepared them for their new contents.

The 2012 vintage.

We actually still have a couple of tiny flagons of last year's etrogcello left over. It's not as bright or as pungent as this year's stuff, though it's still tasty. I brought some to our Simchat Torah celebration last fall -- after we danced the Torah scrolls around the Williams College Jewish Center, when the traditional schnapps and vodka were brought out for toasting, I added a wee bottle of etrogcello to the table. It was a surprise, a special treat -- a little taste of Sukkot although Sukkot had just ended.

But really the reason I make the etrogcello is so that we can drink it at Tu BiShvat. The New Year of the Trees; the birthday, according to Talmud, of every tree, no matter when it was planted. The date when (our tradition says) the sap begins to rise to feed the trees for the year to come; the time when cosmic sap begins to rise, renewing our spiritual energy for the welter of spring festivals ahead. How better to celebrate Tu BiShvat than with this pri etz hadar, this fruit of a goodly tree, which we so cherished back at Sukkot? It stitches the harvest season to this moment in deepest New England winter. It reminds me that everything which has been dormant can once again bear fruit.

Tonight at our seder I will raise a glass: to the memory of last Sukkot, to the anticipation of next Sukkot, to the trees which bore this etrog, to the many hands which brought it here, to the Source of All from whom all blessings flow. L'chaim!

Recapturing a family tradition

Roast goose with knedliky.

Many years ago, when my grandparents Isaac and Alice ("Eppie" and "Lali") were still living, their children hired an oral historian to take down their life stories. We have hours of recorded audio (and also a beautiful hardbound transcript, which sets out their stories in print accompanied by photographs.) It's an incredible treasure.

One of the questions the oral historian asked had to do with memories of holidays and food. It's a resonant subject: what do you remember being cooked, in your household, as the major holidays rolled around? For me that list would include the cornish hens and honeyed carrots we used to eat at Lali and Eppie's house at Rosh Hashanah, my mother's kreplach (and her blintzes for break-the-fast at the end of Yom Kippur) -- and her mango mousse (and also cornbread dressing) at Thanksgiving -- and her "chicken Leslie" with artichoke hearts and mushrooms at Pesach.

When the oral historian interviewed them, my grandfather recounted all sorts of culinary holiday memories from Russia. Even outside the oral history context, he used to love to tell stories. About cheder, about accompanying a fellow villager to the market to sell eggs, about learning Latin in gymnasium. And, yes, about food; he was the cook in their family, and food always comes with stories. So he had plenty of stories to tell when the oral historian came to call.

My grandmother, much to my surprise, told the oral historian about eating roast goose (and sometimes carp with a sweet sauce) on Christmas Eve, alongside their tree decked with chocolates wrapped in colored foil. This was in Prague in the 1920s, well before the second World War changed the face of Europe (and drove my grandparents, and their young daughter, to flee in 1939.) My grandfather told endless stories about his smalltown Russian Jewish upbringing; my grandmother was more reticent in general, and didn't talk much (to me, anyway) about growing up as a "kind of Reform" Jew in Prague. The oral history offers me tantalizing glimpses; I wish now that I had asked more questions while she was alive.

This winter, Saveur magazine, to which Ethan and I have subscribed for years, offered a recipe (designed to be prepared on Christmas Eve) for roast goose with chestnut stuffing. "Goose," I said; "I think that's what my grandmother said she used to eat on Christmas Eve as a girl in Prague!" I couldn't resist the prospect of trying to walk, just a little bit, in her culinary footsteps.

So we ordered a goose from Guido's, though we gulped a bit when we discovered how much a 12-lb goose cost. (I suppose the expense just makes the whole thing seem more Dickensian.) Ethan prepared it according to Saveur's recipe. We decided to go Czech with our side dishes, in homage to my grandmother's childhood memories, so we made made zely -- red cabbage spiced with carroway seeds; we also flavored ours with cider vinegar, allspice, and juniper berries -- and knedliky, the Czech bread dumplings my grandfather used to make which were a major part of my childhood foodscape. I helped Ethan form the knedliky, which we boiled wrapped in cheesecloth and then sliced, as is customary, with string.

And on December 24th, after lighting Chanukah candles, we sat down for a festive meal with my in-laws and some close friends of ours (and their kids). Drew, predictably, didn't eat a bite of goose (right now he's emphatically not interested in foods he doesn't already know) -- but we did, and it was delicious, dark and full of flavor. The wild-rice stuffing was fantastic. The knedliky reminded me of childhood. The zely reminded me of visiting Prague. And despite the one broken goblet, and the occasional toddler scuffles over sharing toys, it was a lovely evening -- and while this was probably a far less formal Christmas Eve dinner than the ones my Czech grandmother remembered, it was a wonderful way for me to remember her.

On clementines, and there being nothing new under the sun

"I know what I should write about," I thought. "I just bought the year's first box of clementines." I was so excited that I ate one in the parking lot of the grocery store before driving home. I made the blessing for fruit of a tree, and recited a shehecheyanu too -- the blessing sanctifying time, which is also recited the first time one tastes something new, or the first time one tastes a beloved flavor again in a given year.

I hadn't had clementines since the tail-end of last winter, which was last year in Jewish time. The last of the clementines are always overpriced and not quite as sweet and juicy as I want them to be. The first, on the other hand -- glorious! Here in western Massachusetts our summer is full of fresh produce and seasonal delights; November, not so much. Cranberries and clementines are all that's seasonal here and now -- and neither actually comes from our soil, though they're very much the flavors of this time of year for me.

Fine, then: I would post something about my first clementine of the year. Except, when I sat down to rhapsodize about these little orange suns, I had the niggling feeling I might have made such a post before. So I looked, and found "Oh my darling..." -- written as a one-sentence blog entry in 2004, in companionship with a blog which no longer exists.

I suppose there's something comforting in recognizing that each year, as the wheel of the seasons unfolds, I find joy in the same little rituals which repeat. Though there's a bit of chagrin in recognizing that the post I wanted to make today is one I already made -- with more concision and beauty than I might have managed this morning -- seven years ago!

Happy new year!

Challah dough, rising.

As I knead the dough -- Leah Koenig's apple cider challah; thanks, Jew and the Carrot -- I pray aloud that this bread contain all of the blessings with which I hope my loved ones will be graced in the coming year. Blessings of joy and contentment, blessings of parnassah (income), blessings of togetherness, blessings of love, blessings of peace.

It's 8:30 in the morning; Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow night. Two honeycakes are in the oven. The challah dough is rising. The new year is almost, almost, almost here.

I can't serve these baked goods to most of y'all who are reading these words; leaving aside for the moment the reality that you live all over the world, there's also the non-negotiable fact that I am not, at this point in my spiritual development, capable of turning two loaves of apple cider challah into a feast for thousands.

But I hope all of you who read these words know that I mean for this blog to be a kind of feast, and that I consider all of you to be sitting around my metaphorical holiday table, and that the blessings I hope to bake into the bread for my family are also blessings I hope for each one of you.

L'shanah tovah tikatevu v'techatemu: may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Etrogcello, part 2

Back in the autumn, I posted about making etrogcello, a variation on the sweet lemon-flavored liqeur limoncello. Instead of being made with lemons, this is made with etrogim, the nubbled citrons of which we make ritual use during Sukkot. I based my attempt mostly on the recipe at When life gives you lemons: peeled the etrogim, set the peels to soak in a large sterile jar filled with vodka, put it in the dark, and waited.

We tasted a tiny bit of it back around the winter solstice (after it had been sitting there for about two and a half months), sweetening our individual nips with sugar or with Splenda. It was pretty awesome. It's bright and citrusy and smells distinctively like etrog, which is an amazing scent and not quite like anything else I know. Ethan liked it well enough that he asked whether we could finish the etrogcello with a diabetic-friendly symple syrup. So I did some digging to see if that would work.

On this limoncello recipe, one of the commentors, blgpts, offered insights on how to make limoncello using Splenda instead of sugar. (I also spent some time reading How to make limoncello, an astonishingly comprehensive post about the making of this liqueur. I'd like to note, for the record, that I was not nearly as obsessive about filtering as it sounds like that guy tends to be...) From all accounts, Splenda adapts beautifully to simple syrups. So I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the quart jar... and then returned it to the darkness of the pantry, to remain dormant for a few weeks more.

After I got home from my ordination, I decanted what was in the jar:

The fruits of my etrogcello labors.

The little bottles are meant as gifts (at least one is going to Jeff, who graciously gave me his leftover etrogim to work with) and the big one is for us. I'm planning to save it for Tu BiShvat, the "new year of the trees." We'll toast that new year with a nip of our own homemade etrog liqueur -- a reminder of Sukkot and autumn and our sukkah and the crunch of leaves underfoot, a reminder to look back to last fall and also forward to next fall even as we inhabit this moment in deepest midwinter.

I love (re)connecting Judaism with its seasonal roots. At the full moon of the month of Shvat, Jewish tradition teaches us, the sap begins to rise and trees begin to nourish themselves toward the growing season that's coming. Tasting the fruit of actual trees helps me to remember that this isn't just an intellectual and spiritual teaching. I love all the mystical teachings about the roots of the Tree of Life, but this isn't only a celebration of those things -- it's a celebration of real live trees and their continued existence, too.

Torah is famously compared with a tree ("It is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it"), but at this moment in the year I like to think about the ways in which trees are like Torah: they are beautiful, they nurture us with their shade and their sustenance, and even though they change in appearance as the year unfolds there's something constant and solid about them, something we can hold on to.

And Torah is yummy. Just like our etrogcello. L'chaim!


The etrog a fascinating fruit. (Don't believe me? Try reading The Trail of the Elusive Etrog.) Nothing else smells quite like an etrog (or, to use its English name, citron); every year when mine comes in the mail and I lift it out of its packaging, I inhale and suddenly I'm hyperlinked with every Sukkot of my life. The etrog is described in Torah as pri etz hadar, the "fruit of a goodly tree." The etrog has all kinds of symbolism: it represents the heart, it represents the womb, it represents one of the letters of God's name, it represents a person who is learned and does good deeds... One way or another, it seems a shame just to throw it away when the holiday is done, and I enoy canning and preserving, so I'm always on the lookout for things I can do with my etrog after the festival ends.

In years past I've tried making all sorts of etrog jams and marmalades, all of which have been quite tasty. I always try to eat some of the previous autmn's etrog when Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, rolls around in deep midwinter. But it turns out I just don't eat that much bitter marmalade in a year, and we've still got some etrog marmalade from last year kicking around. What to do with my etrog and the other couple of etrogim I was handed at the end of the festival this year?

Make etrogcello, of course!

A jar of future etrogcello.

I'm a big limoncello fan. I first developed a taste for it while visiting Italy a couple of years ago, and in more recent years have sipped it in Buenos Aires and also here at home -- it's one of my favorite summertime aperitifs. So this year I decided to try making a limoncello variant featuring our etrogim. (Before you ask, yes, I know that etrogim are often grown with pesticides. I scrubbed them as well as I could, and I don't plan to overindulge, so hopefully I won't ingest too much that's not good for me.)

I based my recipe on several I read online, most especially this one from Patty Mitchell. Ethan and I often make flavored vodkas (easy: fill an infuser with fresh fruit, cover with vodka, let the fruit steep and then decant the liquid) and it turns out that the first step of making limoncello (or etrogcello) is exactly the same... though raspberries or strawberries only need to steep for a few days; th citron peel is supposed to stay under vodka for at least a month or two.

I sterilized a two-quart jar, carved the peel off of my etrogim and collected the golden shavings in the bottom of the jar, and then filled it most of the way with vodka. It will sit in the dark for a couple of months; I'll try to swirl it a bit every now and then to stir up the flavors. Sometime in deep midwinter I'll make a simple sugar syrup, mix it with the fruited vodka and strain off the fruit, and bottle the results for sipping. We'll see whether or not it's any good! (And I took one of the peeled fruits and studded it with cloves to serve as besamim, spices, for havdalah. Mmm, citron-and-clove.) One way or another, it feels satisfying to have taken steps to preserve my etrogim again. Sukkot is gone, but won't be forgotten...

ReadWritePoem prompt #102: Homemade


Little cubes, packed
with plump golden raisins
between sheets of waxed paper

I can still taste
their sweetness
creamy on my tongue

the recipe, reliant
on jarred marshmallow fluff,
was never the point

unlike her husband
or daughter, my grandmother
never loved to cook

but she let me use up
all the tinfoil in the house
making armor, let me

draw on their china plates
with blunt wax pencils
and said it was good

said I was good
whatever I created
with my own small hands

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem invites us to consider our associates with particular foods -- a resonant theme for the week during which American Thanksgiving falls!

My response to the prompt arose out of remembering one of my favorite dishes that my maternal grandmother, Alice Fried Epstein (of blessed memory), used to make. Of course, the poem is more about her (and about being her granddaughter) than it is about the recipe on the back of the marshmallow fluff jar -- but I think that's probably the point.

If you'd like to see how others have responded to the same prompt, check out this week's Get Your Poem On post at RWP.


Michael Pollan's gospel of sustainable food

I'm tag-teaming today, as I did yesterday, with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"This is one of the sessions I've been most looking forward to," says Andrew Zolli, calling it a session of "incredible bounty." (He adds that he is a "recovering hyperbolic," given how often he calls things here 'incredible' and 'wonderful' -- though it does seem to me that often as not, sessions here really do fit that bill.) "It's hard not to use those words when describing the impact that our next presenter has had on the world. Michael Pollan has changed, fundamentally, the way many of us understand what we eat, how it's made, how it gets to us." By the way, Pollan's book The Botany of Desire has been made into a PBS documentary which will air next week, on October 28th at 8pm Eastern, so if you don't know it, check it out on PBS.

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Michael Pollan (Pop!Tech bio) appears as part of the Edible Futures module. "I brought us lunch as we approach the lunch hour," says Pollan, putting a McDonald's bag on the podium, "and like Chekhov's gun on the mantel, we'll see if it gets eaten."

A few years ago he set out to conduct an investigation and trace a McDonald's double quarter-pounder with cheese back to its origins. He bought a steer, Steer #534, in South Dakota and followed him to a feedlot. "I had never been to a feedlot." If we haven't been to see one of these, he says, we must go. "It's one of the most hideous landscapes in the 20th century." This is where our burgers come from.

But he realized when he was there that he had to go further still. Burgers come from corn and soyfields in the Midwest, where feed is grown. From ther ehe had to go further, to oilfields from the Middle East because feed is grown with petroleum-based pesticides. The burger can be traced all the way there.

The food chain is not only complex but implicated in three of the most serious problems we face: the energy crisis, the health care crisis, and the climate crisis. 20% of the fossil fuel we burn in this country goes to feed ourselves, to produce this processed food. Five hundred billion dollars of health care costs go to preventable chronic diseases linked to our diet. And a third of greenhouse gases are produced by the food system. This is "not a pretty picture or a happy meal."

Continue reading "Michael Pollan's gospel of sustainable food" »

Sukkot harvest

Etrog slices.

One of the ways I mark the end of Sukkot is by preserving etrogim. They're such precious and beautiful fruits (especially their fragrance -- the scent is intense and unmistakeable) that throwing them away seems ridiculous. Better to make something of them; better still to make something which will allow me to savor another festival more fully. So the last few years I've preserved our etrogim to eat at Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees which comes on the Gregorian calendar sometime in February.

As always, at this time of year the hills where we live have shifted into their short-lived but spectacular orange and yellow and red clothes. The icy snows of February are almost inconceivable. But I love knowing that on some cold winter day, when the hope for spring is fierce but the days of increasing light still feel far away, we'll open these jars and their contents will remind me of sitting in our sukkah this fall.

One of my favorite food/cooking resources, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, tells me:

Perhaps the first citrus fruit to reach the Middle East around 700 B.C.E. and the Mediterranean around 300 B.C.E., citrons are native to the Himalayan foothills. They gave their name to the genus, and their name came in turn from their resemblance to the cone of a Mediterranean evergreen cedar (Greek kedros.) The several varieties have little juice, but an intensely aromatic rind that can perfume a room -- citrons are used in both Asian and Jewish religious ceremonies -- and that has long been candied.

McGee says that in China's Sichuan province, the rind is made into a hot pickle. (Anybody have a recipe for that? It sounds amazing.) Experimenting with the genre is tough; last year's attempted spicy etrog pickle wasn't really a success. (Now that I've preserved lemons -- which I did during the month of Elul, wanting to serve a dish which required them on erev Rosh Hashanah -- I understand why etrogim don't work in the same way: they're too much pith, too little fruit, and there just wasn't enough juice to marinate them in.) So I decided to reprise the etrog-ginger marmalade I made in 2007, with a few tweaks.

Resting overnight.

Continue reading "Sukkot harvest " »

Sunshine in a jar

Bowl of lemons.

This year for erev Rosh Hashanah dinner -- historically the big "festive meal" in my family of origin -- I want to do something simple but awesome. Homemade challah goes without saying; local apples and honey ditto. But what to make for a main course? Right now I'm contemplating a recipe for Moroccan chicken with preserved lemon and olives which I found in Saveur. The only thing is, I don't know where to get preserved lemons around here. Fortunately for me, Saveur has a recipe for those, too.

Some of you may remember that I experimented with sweet and spicy etrog pickle once last Sukkot was over. The recipe I used was a highly-spiced preserved lemon recipe; I just made it with etrogim instead. The trouble is, etrogim have almost no juice; their fragrance is incredible, but they're mostly pith, with only a little bit of pulp in the middle of each fruit. I tried to compensate for that with some storebought lemon juice, and I packed the etrogim in their cooking syrup, but I knew as I was making them that this wasn't quite how the recipe was supposed to go. I did bring a jar of etrog pickle to our Tu BiShvat seder at my shul this winter, and a few brave souls tasted this version of preserved etrog -- but I'm not sure anyone loved the results. (I think this year I'll return to jam.)

Saveur's preserved lemon recipe is ridiculously simple, though... and already I can see how these are going to turn out very differently than my preserved etrogim. The first thing I did was juice half a dozen lemons, yielding two cups of bright pale lemon juice. Then I sliced four lemons almost into quarters -- making each one into a kind of  tulip shape -- and rubbed their insides with coarse kosher salt, which will get washed off before we cook with them; it's just there to help the rinds soften and preserve.

I packed them into a sterile quart jar -- four lemons just barely fit inside -- and then poured the two cups of lemon juice over them to cover. (You can also just salt the lemons and pack them into a jar and let them generate their own juice, but that takes longer, and since the moon of Elul is already full, I opted for the speedier version of the recipe in order to be able to cook with them when the new moon of Tishri rises.)

Continue reading "Sunshine in a jar" »

A taste of far away

Argentina's Ruta Nacional 40 is legendary. It runs most of the length of the country, a distance of more than 3000 miles. A recent article in La Nación [Spanish] notes that the task of paving the remaining dirt stretches has a hefty price tag. When we spent a day driving RN 40 last month, we drove past some paving machinery, though I don't remember seeing anyone at work. I was glad we got to drive some of the original road before it got paved over, anyway.

That day offered up some of the most exquisite vistas of our trip. We started out in the town of El Calafate; our destination was El Chaltén, which Lonely Planet told us is Argentina's newest settlement, built in recent years to ensure sovereignty over that particular patch of mountainous land, since the Chilean border isn't far at all.

It took us three or four hours to drive from one town to the other, and most of that time was spent on RN 40. The drive was extraordinary. Great sweeping plains which drew the eye to distant mountains, some capped with snow. Here and there, glacial lakes, a surreal shade of mint-green or aquamarine-blue, like tropical seas wildly out of place. Between them, the rushing waters of glacial streams. From time to time, turnoffs for estancias, usually little more than signs pointing offroad to tell us that someone owned property here, that there might be a house if one turned and drove far enough. Maybe.

Continue reading "A taste of far away" »

Continuing adventures in etrog preservation

Despite this toxic etrog warning at The Jew and the Carrot, I wanted to make something out of my etrogim again this year. They're so beautiful and fragrant that I couldn't bear to just throw them away. So nu, it's possible that our etrogim are pesticide-laden; I still couldn't resist. Besides, whatever I make was likely to be a condiment, something we'll eat in small bites. I decided it was worth the risk.

Last year I made etrog-ginger marmalade, which was tasty although flawed; it's somewhat bitter, and also denser than I really wanted. (I was afraid of winding up with fruit sauce again, so I cooked it for too long. Whoops.) In some ways my most successful etrog preservation to date was the spicy blueberry-etrog jam I made two years ago, which was delicious. But maybe because the blueberries provide the dominant color and flavor notes, it was slightly dissatisfying as a mode of etrog preservation. It felt like I was putting the fruits to good use, but the end result didn't feel like etrog.

Still, the combination of sweet and spicy made me happy, so this year I decided to try something wacky and new: a sweet and spicy etrog pickle.

Continue reading "Continuing adventures in etrog preservation" »

Cider doughnuts


At nine on a Sunday morning
the orchard is quiet, but
as soon as I exit my car
I can smell the sweetness.

I spend too long wavering
over ten kinds of apples,
the red and the green of them
heft and roundness in my palm.

But the best part is the circle
I bite into on my way out the door
scattering cinnamon-sugar
all over my barn jacket.

Crisp and then airy, the hint
of apple cider a tantalizing reminder
of exactly where I'm standing.
I know the blessing should be

borei minei m'zonot, but
I say shehakol because
God speaks these doughnuts
into being one by one

the name of each in God's mouth
like a taste of the manna
that fell like ripe apples
from the tree.

(The blessing one says over foodstuffs made out of grain which are not bread -- crackers, pasta, doughnuts -- is Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, borei minei m'zonot: Blessed are You, Source of all Being, creator of diverse kinds of grains. The blessing one says over foodstuffs which are neither bread, nor vegetables from the earth, nor fruits from a tree, ends instead with shehakol yihiyeh bidvaro: Blessed are You etc, Who created all things with Your word.)

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Jars of summertime

Summer is short in the Berkshires.

At least, compared to summer in south Texas, where I was born and reared. Warm weather there stretches for more than half the year. Here in western Massachusetts, especially in the hills where Ethan and I live, summer's really a three-month phenomenon.

And this year I spent two of those three months in Jerusalem. Where the climate feels much more like what I remember of Texas, actually -- granted, Jerusalem's dry in the summertime in a way that Texas isn't, but the heat was familiar to me, and the plant life. Oleander and crepemyrtle and bougainvillea all grew in my parents' backyard when I was a kid. Prickly pear cactus. Fig trees.

But now I'm home in the Berkshires. For once, I've gotten my share of heat for the season; I don't mind that the days here are already growing cooler, because I feel like I got enough exposure to sun to last me through the coming winter! But I find that I'm trying to pack a whole summer's worth of Berkshire experiences into the short time that remains before it's time to start celebrating the advent of fall.

I missed our local baseball season this year, and the nearby drive-in movie theatre that we love so much has closed early because the proprietors have moved. (Anyone want to buy a movie theatre and reopen it for next summer?) But some of our seasonal pleasures are still here to be enjoyed. We'll be ringing in Shabbat tonight by gathering friends on our deck for a barbecue, which makes me happy. And I've been savoring Caretaker Farm since I got back in town, and pickling up a storm.

I started a batch of cucumber pickles on Thursday. The container in which they're slowly fermenting is lined with grape leaves I picked in our own backyard. The pickling spice is made from scratch: fennel and cumin seeds, peppercorns, allspice berries, bits of cinnamon stick and chipotle pepper. Fresh dill and garlic cloves. Covered the whole thing with a saltwater brine, weighted the proto-pickles down, and draped a towel over the top so nothing falls in. In a few days I expect to see bubbles forming. Soon I'll start skimming schmutz off the top of the brine. They should be ready to eat in about three weeks; I might can some for the winter.

And I picked a bag of string beans, and put up six pints of them -- all with mustard seeds and garlic; some with dill, some with hot peppers, one with both. They'll make good gifts this winter. (I'd hoard them for us, but our baker's rack is -- delightfully -- already loaded with jars of pickled green beans from previous years' harvests.)

I have plans to do more, this weekend. I want to hit a local farm stand, get an armload of fresh local corn, and put up corn relish; it's one of our cooking staples, in the wintertime, and I love the sweetness of real fresh corn. And I keep dogearing pages in our canning and pickling books, finding new recipes I want to try.

There's a lot of joy in canning and preserving, for me. I like that it's a physical task, a nice break from sitting at my computer. I like that it's productive, a way of preserving the harvest. I like that it's a discrete task with tangible results. And I like the emotional resonance of it, the opportunity to consciously be grateful for the bounty of the life I'm blessed to lead. I'm grateful for the farmers who maintain Caretaker Farm, for the incredibly hard work of coaxing our hills into yielding this amazing abundance. I'm grateful for their time and energy, and for mine, which allows me to do the work of putting things up for winter. And I'm grateful for the knowledge that when sleet whisks against our windowpanes, I'll have some of this sweet Berkshire summer in gleaming rows of jars, waiting to be savored all over again.

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Brich rachamana

On my last day of ulpan, I got into conversation with a classmate about Birkat hamazon, the blessing we recite after meals. The idea of making birkat hamazon is rooted in a verse from this week's portion: "And you shall eat and you shall be satisfied. And you shall bless Adonai, your God, for the good land he has given you." (That's Deuteronomy 8:10.) Gella and I were talking, and I mentioned one of my favorite versions of the birkat hamazon, a one-liner in Aramaic: brich rachamana malka d'alma ma'arey d'hai pita ("blessed is the merciful one, ruler of the world, creator of this bread.")

The Babylonian Talmud (Brakhot 40b) describes how a shepherd named Benjamin coined the phrase after making a sandwich. It also describes the sages' conversation about that form of the blessing and whether it "counts." Intriguingly, although the Talmud records one opinion which says that anyone who alters the traditional formula of blessings has not fulfilled his obligation to bless the food, it devotes much more space to the opinion that one may make the blessing after food in any form: even if it's said without explicit mention of God's name, and even if it's said in secular language rather than the holy tongue.

The one-liner is often referred to as the minimum one may recite if one is strapped for time. (The example the Talmud gives is, what if one were being pursued by robbers on the highway and didn't have time to pray the whole grace after meals? I'm guessing that experience is a relative rarity for most of us in the modern world, but we can extrapolate.) Anyway, in this conversation about brich rachamana I mentioned that I know two tunes for it and I like both of them a lot. "Hm, I should learn those," Gella said. Oh, I'll record them for you, I promised. And then this week rolled around and I saw that the verse that sparked our practice is in this week's parsha, so I figured it was time to record the tunes.

So I did. And I'm going to append them to this post, in case anyone else wants to learn a couple of nifty melodies for a one-line grace after meals. (Even though there's a part of me that wonders whether making recordings of myself singing birkot hamazon and posting them on the internet is endearingly dorky or incredibly lame.) Okay, enough with the disclaimers; time for the tunes. The melody I first learned at Elat Chayyim was written by Hazzan Jack Kessler and Rabbi Shefa Gold, and it's a round. Here are two recordings: one of the round sung straight through, and another that attempts to show how the parts of the tune interlock:

Download brich.mp3

Download brichround.mp3

In more recent years, the ALEPH community has added another melody to our box of tunes. I've heard it called "the gospel melody," but I don't actually know its provenance. (ETA: And now I do! It's from a Shaker hymn called "Sanctuary," which I've sung before -- in English and Hebrew -- though I didn't realize that "O Lord prepare me / to be a sanctuary" etc. were the hymn's original words.)

Download gospelbrich.mp3

The "Sanctuary" one sounds strange to me solo; I'm so used to hearing it in a medley of voices, usually with multi-part harmony. (I tried singing harmony over the track, but got weird static; apparently my setup isn't quite sophisticated enough to handle that. Sorry, y'all.) I have some sweet memories of singing that one in Jerusalem with my housemates and friends. On my last night in Jerusalem, after dinner at the Village Green a small cluster of us stood outside and sang it quietly together. I suspect I'll always remember that when I sing that tune now.



2012 Edited to add: I've posted sheet music for both of these melodies in my post Brich Rachamana - now with sheet music!

To market, to market

Colorful abundance at Machane Yehuda market.

On Monday afternoon, as soon as I got out of class at 5:15, I dashed home and dropped off my backpack and grabbed our little grocery cart on wheels and headed down the street toward the part of town where Machane Yehuda market is located.

When I was here ten years ago we were supposed to visit the market on a Friday around lunchtime, but there was a pigua (bombing) there that morning, so our trip was canceled. And during my first two weeks here this time around, I'd been shopping at the Supersol across the street from the Conservative Yeshiva. It was exciting at first (kind of cool to see all of those products, familiar and unfamiliar, labeled in Hebrew!), and there are a few things there of which I've grown enduringly fond (cottage cheese with green olives, Froop, kiwi-pear juice), but it's come to seem like any other Western supermarket anywhere. This is a city with a real market; I should be shopping there! So I went.

Inside the covered market.

As soon as I stepped past the security guard at the gate I was grinning. The market is covered by translucent greenhouse-style ceilings, and everywhere are piles of beautiful vegetables: peppers, eggplants, leeks, potatoes. (It reminded me a little bit of the Hungarian indoor farmer's market where Janet took us last year.) The air is redolent with parsley and mint and cilantro, with spices and fish scales and baked goods. I walked past spice merchants (burlap sacks filled with brilliant colored powders), tea merchants (rooibos and green tea speckled with flowers), piles of honeyed baklava. Glass cases containing cheeses. Chickens and hunks of beef and piles upon piles of whole glistening fish.

The aisles were fairly crowded. From what I could tell (based on dress code), the market is frequented by religious and secular alike, tourists as well as locals. At one far end I saw someone selling tin pots, beside a display of knitted kippot.

I could have spent hours there, walking and admiring the wares, snapping furtive photographs of the bounty. But I was on a mission: Monday night was my night to cook, so I was there with the intent of purchasing supper. Michal, our ulpan instructor, had told us that the days to buy fish are yom sheini or shlishi (Monday or Tuesday); by the end of the week, she said, what's left is only good for gefilte! So I paid special attention to the fishmongers, though I realized pretty quickly that I had no idea what I was looking at. I'm used to choosing among neat filets labeled in a language I understand; here I had no idea what the different fish were called, nor what they might cost.

So I took the plunge: after dithering for a short while, I pointed at a pair of fairly sizeable silvery fish and said, "Shtei dagim, b'vakasha?" ("Two fish, please?")

The fish vendor, gutting my mystery fish .

The fellow plucked them from their pile and asked me something I didn't understand, then gestured to the chopping block behind him. I nodded, and he cut the fish open and gutted them. Afterward, he went over them with what looked like an electric razor, which buzzed the scales off. And then he handed me my two whole fish -- heads and tails and all -- triple-wrapped in plastic, and I put them in my shopping cart.

From that point on I had to hurry; it wasn't that dreadfully hot an evening, but it seemed unwise to linger with raw fish on-hand. I bought fresh figs, a bundle of parsley, a handful of small pale zucchini, some pita breads and an ovoid sesame bread (the texture, it turns out, of a breadstick) and a handful of rugelach and a box of bureka (triangular puff pastries with cheese inside and sesame seeds on top -- one of my favorite edibles here so far.) At a store on the way out I nabbed bottle of red wine, and then I headed home.

I haven't quite figured out how our oven works, so it took slightly longer than anticipated to cook the fish, but they were delicious: tender and delicate, flavored with lemon and parsley. I served them alongside a kind of calabacita (flavored with a local hot pepper paste) and big-gauge Israeli couscous, with figs and rugelach for dessert. A feast.

I'm already looking forward to my next visit to the market. I'd like to try some of the different kinds of tea, and the baklava is totally calling my name...

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Eat At Joe's

I'd never been to Joseph's Storehouse Restaurant & Bakery before. It was founded in 1992, the year I left town, so it wasn't even on my mental map of San Antonio. Not until we ate lunch there today.

Joseph's is run by a pastor named Patrick. When Patrick came over to our table, I told him it was my first visit, and asked if he would tell me about the place. He seemed happy to oblige, and told the story of how his wife got into milling grains and baking bread, back when he was a fulltime pastor. Eventually he founded his own non-denominational church, and his family found themselves in need of funds. One day his wife asked him whether if she baked some bread, he'd take it someplace and sell it.

Needing a name for the nascent business, he remembered the Biblical story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dreams about the years of feast and the years of famine. He thought of how Joseph stored up grain so that the famine would be survivable. So they named the business Joseph's Storehouse. Out of that, the restaurant and bakery were born.

(I learned later in the day that Patrick ran for mayor of San Antonio last year. And from Rising to the Top I learned that the denomination he left when he struck out on his own was the Baptist church, and that he's been leading services at Joseph's every Sunday since 9/11/01.) As the window makes plain, the restaurant/bakery doubles as a small church:

From what I've learned so far, I'm guessing Patrick and I have fairly divergent theologies. There's probably a lot on which we wouldn't agree. But watching Patrick at work -- taking orders behind the counter; moving throughout the restaurant, checking in with everyone he sees, saying hello and clasping hands and greeting people -- makes me realize the extent to which running a restaurant is about service. Not just "good service," as in "that restaurant has terrific waitstaff" -- but "good service" as in serving one's fellow man.

On my last visit to San Antonio, I got into a conversation with my oldest brother and my father about the best desserts in town. They agreed that the best chocolate cake in the city comes from Joseph's, and my dad brought a tiny one home in a plastic container for me to sample: thick, rich, slathered with frosting that tastes like homemade fudge. We'll have some of that cake on Friday, at my mother's birthday dinner. I'm kind of tickled that Joseph's is catering our Shabbat supper!

Anyway. Joseph's. I like it there. Good simple food, and a blessing for the road.

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