Archive for the ‘Food and Cooking’ Category

Something from Nothing East End Jewish Style

November 6, 2009

I work part time in an organic vegetable shop, which is run as a sort of community enterprise to ensure the availabliity of organics locally, and to be an outlet for the produce of local growers. Last week another clerk really made me laugh, labelling truly delicious satsuma with mottled, darkened rind: “Beauty is only skin-deep.” They were the sweetest I’d ever tasted.

Yesterday, a customer came in. Standing over a box of beetroot, he chatted about his mother, an old-timey East End of London Jewish lady, and how she made her borscht simply with boiled beetroot and citric acid, then beat in a raw egg and maybe some sour cream to make it pink.

A few months ago I did some experiments fermenting beetroot with carrots and garlic and a hunk of sourdough bread. An incredible tart sweet flavour and a kind of viscous texture for a cold soup. Heated would be lovely, thinned or with beef stock might have been traditional. I can’t imagine many people eat this way anymore.

Peter told me another incredible story. His grandmother would always ask the butcher for the head of the chicken. (Everyone it seems was happy for the feet, to scrape them down and use in stock, along with various of the gizzard bits.) But the head was useful for the neck, which would be stuffed with a mixture of flour and chicken fat, melded together with fingers like pastry dough. Then it would be cooked, in broth, and become like a sausage, an incredible delicious savory confection. Something from nothing, Peter said. All that love, preparing something for your family.


Somebody Misses Me! (But Not Someone Who Would Be Especially Interested in this Little Discourse on Meat Eating)

November 3, 2009

A friend wrote to me with concern that I might have stopped blogging. It felt nice to be missed. In fact, my computer charger was broken and my children have been with me 25 hours a day since half-term holiday. I liked being off-line, compelled as I ever am towards the internet. I was reminded that I could do different things with my down-time than facebook or idle www reading. For one I’ve rediscovered my love of making tarts, and for Halloween with the flesh from the squash George and Ned carved I made a really nice pie: a modified Martha Stewart recipe, with honey and cream and ginger, and really nice pastry with a new combination that was 1 part whole wheat spelt to four parts white flour– I am always trying to figure out really tasty ratios that are healthful but not overwhelmed or made leaden by whole-grainness. This one worked.

I also took out my Fuchsia Dunlop books, on Sichuan and Hunan cooking, to make a list of ingredients to ask some friends who are visiting from Oxford next weekend to bring. She is an inspiring cookery writer, and I have chosen her for my guide. I am determined to become a passable cook of yummy Chinese dishes with all our local produce and meat. Condiments and specialist ingredients to come from the kind of cavernous shops that fill me with ecstatic glee. The nearest good Chinese is Birmingham, and that’s too far for my terrible cravings.

(Oh yes, at the Fairtrade shop on Cornmarket in Oxford, they sell a really first rate bottle of pickled chillis from Eswatini Swazi Kitchen, would like to link but their server seems down, must remember to put this on the list for Helen…)

Meat: It’s so clear to me that livestock rearing in a big big problem and we as a family must eat lower on the foodchain. We try in so many ways, in fact most ways, to have our lifestyle meet our values, and in this way we could do better. My husband really likes his meat, and so does my daughter. My son and I have more of a cheese tooth, and dairy is a problem too, though perhaps not quite as much of one (something to investigate actually).

Eating meat– the animals command food resources, the issues that Diet for a Small Planet began to get at years ago… and skew the global market, and prices, and create hunger. And of course the belching digestive methane of ruminants, a potent and immediate warming gas. Let alone the unbearable cruelty of industrial animal rearing. I truly respect vegans, and could be one, but I don’t think my family would participate and as the primary cook and an inveterate nibbler and taster I don’t see how I could remain one. My determination is to cook better (meaning more with less), as below, and when outside the home and given a choice, to choose whatever is impact lowest (local, vegetable, NOT global soya, etc.)

But: it is possible to get extremely local, free range and often organic lamb and pork/bacon and chicken around here. It’s more expensive, obviously, but I’d rather barely eat meat at all and pay more than eat lower quality stuff more often. This kind of meat is truly delicious. Last spring I bought a cut of beef brisket from a farmer up the road and made a very memorable Vietnamese Pho (a noodle soup with warm spices) with the stock. Last night we had chicken wings and because they were from organically raised birds I saved and rendered the fat from the stock from the tips. I will use this fat somehow, not sure yet. But then at least from that purchase of the wings comes four uses: the grilled meat itself, the stock from the tips which I used to simmer some kasza, the chicken fat from that stock to sautee something sometime, and the stock from the bones of the wings…

There’s also the idea simply to bulk meat out, to extend the meat experience as in loaves and meatballs. I have made lamb meatballs (really local meat, minced) verily expanded with leftover bread or rice, onions, cinnamon, baked, then put in a sauce of tomatoes, onions, bay, cinnamon, ginger– tastes uncannily eerily similar to Swanson’s TV dinner Meatloaf Meal that was a true excitement of my American youth.

I think as I start to cook more Chinese I’ll also find more ways to be resourceful (ie resource careful) with meat… I also think of Asian cuisines as using meat as a condiment rather than a focus– the scent of bacon or shrimp, a moment not an hour… Seems like for meat eaters learning to make these shifts would go a long way towards improving things…

One last food thought: with the leftover kasza (tasty buckwheat groats) I’d like to sautee (hey! in the chicken fat!) a chopped leek and some nice mushrooms, maybe some parsley from the pot on the windowsill and roll in a nice crepe made from buckwheat flour and wheat and the eggs from my friend Michelle’s chickens. This is the kind of cooking that is really inspired by Rebecca Wood’s The Splendid Grain, another book I am loving these days.

Nicola my dear, if you would happen upon my doorstep in time for this Ladies Luncheon I’d make you a vegetarian version with the Fairtrade Extra Virgin Palestinian Olive Oil for sale in our local cooperative organic veg shop! LOL!

(But, OMG, there’s an incredible story to why a jar of those Palestinian black olives have to cost over £5– so much travail, turmoil, suffering and sadness in that one small jar. Someday I will write up the story. It’s a horrendous tale.)

Slow Food/ Jewish Food

October 4, 2009

I would not say that I believe in “God,” or am inclined to follow prescriptions of a religion, but I couldn’t deny that I feel myself to be Jewish culturally.  At the most straight-forward level, I was raised by people who were raised by people who were raised by people who were…   There’s the humour, the inner turmoil, the Yiddish phrases, the yes-i-have- to- include -it guilt….

My husband is not Jewish; he’s a pork-pie and buttered bread and pint of bitter kind of Englishman, but he is supportive of the (admittedly paltry) efforts I make to have at least an echo of Jewish culture in my house– latke parties at Hanukah, truncated seders, a honey cake at the new year.  The only efforts seem to center around food (though I have found some Isaac Bashevis Singer tales that I’m getting read to read as the nights draw in.)

This morning I was looking at the plum jam I made last week, an incredible almost unreal and lurid pink with a bright and  tart and deep flavour, and I thought how fun it would be to make blintzes. (Yum!  Blintzes are a thin pancake folded around a nice mild simple cheese mixture, the whole thing fried in butter and served with cooked fruit or jam.)  The taste of cooked plums seems very eastern European to  me, I don’t quite know why, because I haven’t eaten them there and wasn’t really served them as a child.  I considered the lekvar (a prune butter) that fill hamentashen, a yummy Purim pastry, and thought of prunes as a necessary result of the incredible gluts that good plum trees offer– and the fact that when plums fall, you need to start cooking or eating them really quickly, so having ways to preserve them and ways to use those preserves– very important.

Eastern European Jewish food as a culinary tradition comes from eating locally, seasonally, frugally– not a political or aesthetic choice, but a fact of life.  And of course this tradition has within it creative responses to keeping dairy and meat separate, so it will often feel similar to the cuisines of other cultures (Polish, Russian, German, Italian, etc), and of course it will never have anything of shellfish or the pig, like bacon and sausage which are so central (and in fact crucial to preserving traditions, and poor cultures) to other national/ regional ways of eating.  It’s main incredients are foods that are cheap and easy to find.

Parsnips, carrots, potatoes, turnips, onions, beets.


Barley, rye.

Eggs.  Split peas.

Simple farmer cheeses,  Cheaper, longer-cooking cuts of meat. Whole chickens as something really special.  Liver, chopped.  Gizzards to flavour the broth.  Using the bones.

Herbs like parsley and dill.

Years ago, where I cannot remember, I saw a mind-opening museum exhibition of product packaging of mid-20th century American foodstuffs marketed to the Jewish consumer.  The idea was, here we have people we can sell stuff to, let’s help them to make this product their own.  I think there were the Jewish companies like Manischevitz and that other one I can’t remember, but also mainstream food companies like Kraft and Heinz.  The exhibition had a “we-are-a-melting-pot” kind of approach, showing how Jewish consumers (probably women) would take on the buying and cooking habits of other middle-class Americans; this was the story of assimilation.

My mother would have been at the tail-end of this moment of culture and cooking.  She taught me to cook with Heinz”s ketchup as an ingredient, to make matzoh balls literally from the recipe on the spine of the box, to sweeten the sauce for prakhes (stuffed cabbage) with a famous-brand “grape jelly” as the mother of Barbara Walters had done (how she knew this detail escapes me, but she deemed it interesting.)  (Can I tell you I don’t cook this way anymore?)

I think there was a feeling amoung our people that the food we’d traditionally eaten was lumpen and heavy and probably signalled “poor.”  And then of course “health” started to seem important, so cooks abandoned schmaltz (chicken fat) in favor of industrial food oils and margarines. (And probably threw all that good resource in the bin!)  At some point in the world of American Jewish cooking that I received, international elements were celebrated, like Israeli cuisine (hippies cooking cous cous and hummous, coriander and cumin in the carrots….) which began showing up in our holidays and events.

When I find myself cooking traditional Jewish foods, I try to imagine something different.  For one my general interest and attraction to the Slow Food Movement means trying to shed elements of  industrial agriculture, industrial processessing with additives and preservative (ready-ingredients for example) as well as global marketing and shipping– meaning, I’d always prefer local, seasonal, accessible. There is on the positive side a real celebration of place, the way that food comes from a place and a culture and in fact makes that culture.  In reference to Jewish cooking, I feel a kind of  plain, undecoratedness adds to both the beauty of the food and a kind of “authenticity” that helps us remember who we were, and are.

One experiment: sauteeing (organic, too icky to think of using otherwise) chicken livers in chicken fat, which is traditional  obviously, but everyone I know in the rich world now chucks out the animal fat and imports the oil– be it olive or sunflower or safflower or canola.  The flavours of liver and onion, and nothing else–  now that tastes like the past to me, like the Chopped Liver at R&W Deli in Philly circa 1968– absolutely revolting to a young child like me being also fed TV dinners and cherry sodas.  As my friend Alix perfectly described it, chopped liver is “mud and onions.”  Slow Food, Yiddishe style.

For non-vegetarians, re-learning how to cook with animal fats (actually if organic and fed proper forage not industrial feed develop a really great Omega ratio [see Nourishing Traditions] is critical. When you think of how much embodied energy, and how much greenhouse gas emission, let alone how much living spirit, is entailed in the raising of animals for human food, it’s unconscionable not to use every bit you can.  Traditional Jewish cooking would have done this for reasons of economy.  

Seasonality would have been similarly tacit.  A Jew in the shtetl  would have placed that egg on the seder plate knowing that the egg was a thing of spring, that chickens didn’t lay methodically through the year in overcrowded henhouses.  Dandelion would be more bitter on a seder plate than romaine (which is hardly bitter at all, let’s admit)…  This is all stuff just flying off my head, and I’d like to think it through.  So by the next passover I could make a seder meal with traditional yet easily gotten local foodstuffs– and prepare all really simply, yet beautifully.

A friend inquires how/where one might get matzoh that was natural and nice.  Any ideas anyone?

If you are finding this interesting, let’s talk about what your next seder might be, what you might cook, what a real Slow Food Climate Aware Seder might look like on that white tablecloth, or feel like in our bellies.

Well, all this makes me want to go dig out my Claudia Roden…