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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Rosh Hashanah DIY: Coming around again

Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jewish food goes through phases of trendiness in America, and it’s coming around again.

When I was about twelve, in the mid-1970s, The Jewish Catalog by Richard Siegel and Michael and Sharon Strassfeld sparked a renaissance of enthusiasm among younger and non-Orthodox Jews for everything from Israeli dance to Hebrew calligraphy to tying the knots correctly on the corners of a prayer shawl (the early 1970s was not just the “me decade,” it was also the era of macrame). Siegel and the Strassfelds took a DIY approach to creating a full Jewish life outside the shtetl. They made it hip, interesting and fun to observe Shabbat, understand the holidays, gather friends to plant trees, bless the sun and the new moon, cast bread on the waters, pen your own Hebrew inscriptions, and make–and of course blow–your own shofar. The book quickly became a top bar and bat mitzvah gift and influenced not only the way our synagogues practiced and our religious schools taught children but how young adults, affiliated or not, felt about being Jewish in public. Everything became more hands-on and more celebratory.

What would a Jewish DIY catalog be without food? The diagrams for how to braid challah in three, four or six strand loaves were unprecedented. So were the cartoons, which leavened everything but the homemade matzah. Cartoon matzah balls flirted at the edge of the bowl before diving in, one of them tipping his kreplach hat. A man up to his armpits in a garbage can full of grapes asks if this is really the way zaydeh (Grandpa) made his Shabbos wine, and another explains ruefully to his girlfriend that he thought more yeast would make the challah lighter, not more aggressive, as it overflows the bowl and oozes toward his foot.

The Catalog also introduced a lot of people to their first taste of Israeli and Sephardi food–felafel and hummus recipes were included alongside the chicken soup and cholent, even though they were admittedly limited to ingredients most people could find in a suburban supermarket in the mid-’70s.

All in all, The Jewish Catalog set a very high bar and is still something of a classic.

By the mid-1990s, though, bagels were mainstream American food and very different from the real, crackle-crusted deal. Rye bread was soft and bland and delis were dying. Meanwhile, Sephardi and Mizrahi food were becoming more familiar and more popular in the US and UK. Prepared hummus started appearing in supermarket refrigerated cases along with spinach-artichoke party dips. Hummus from scratch started requiring dried chickpeas, not canned.

In the past few years, delis have been making a comeback–though mostly not kosher ones–and so has traditional Ashkenazi baking, though mostly via cookbooks. Kosher and otherwise Jewish cookbooks of every culinary stripe have been churning out of the big publishing houses, and Jewish authors are prominent in vegetarian and vegan cooking as well. We’re in the midst of another DIY Jewish renaissance–though more foodie- than observance-oriented.

The Gefilte Manifesto is one of the newest and possibly best of the books from a new generation of Jewish food artisans and restaurateurs, and it manages to capture some of the spirit of The Jewish Catalog.

Authors Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a pickle maker and fermentation enthusiast, and Liz Alpern, a former aide to Joan Nathan, own and operate the Gefilteria, a millenial-style craft food business based on their gefilte fish and accompaniments. It currently combines a line of frozen gefilte fish loaves and jarred condiments with direct sales at farmer’s markets and pop-up catered events in several cities around the country.

This book is the product of that collaboration, and it’s remarkable this year not least because its authors actually respect the traditional Ashkenazi foodways they’re representing. There’s no braggadocio (eep! hints of 3 pounds of bologna on white bread! sorry!) and no slavishness toward food glam, or what the Los Angeles Jewish Journal likes to call “foodie-ism.” They keep the recipes kosher and avoid the temptation (such as it is) to add tired treyf tropes like bacon or shrimp (although they do have some kimchi-infused recipes). Instead, they refresh the classics by making them fresh, with real ingredients and good technique.

Gefilte fish becomes an elegant terrine with herbs or smoked whitefish (the authors’ limited-distribution frozen signature gefilte loaf,  featuring a whitefish base and a pink salmon top layer, is also pictured in a picnic shot but not given a recipe in the book). Horseradish gets a citrusy twist, and pickles range from classic half-sour dills to cardamom-spiked pickled grapes. Soups–mushroom barley, borscht for those who like it (I unfortunately never have, except for the color), chicken, blueberry, and an unusual one–zurek, an unusual Polish soup based on rye sour starter. Kreplach–Jewish ravioli–join pieroshki and include both meat and vegetarian fillings.

Yoskowitz and Alpern update cholent, brisket, chicken and tsimmes. They show you how to cure your own corned beef and pastrami, work out gribenes and knishes, and offer a selection of desserts both traditional–rugelach–and not so traditional, as in beet-chocolate ice cream.

DIY pantry items like homemade sour cream and farmer cheese, spicy mustard, wine vinegar and “everything” butter join fresh salads and breads and several varieties of pickled herring or trout. Drinks include beet kvass–there’s a general direction toward fermentation, one of Yoskowitz’s specialties–and flavored syrups for nostalgia sodas along the lines of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray and Cream sodas.

The book isn’t comprehensive but exploratory. Yoskowitz and Alpern trade cooking and tasting notes, childhood and family memories, and their experiences discovering and recreating Ashkenazi foods they didn’t necessarily grow up with. Along the way they adapt recipes and refer readers to a number of other Jewish cookbooks and authors whose ideas and food they’ve liked.

The results are attractive, modern, humorous and appetizing. Except perhaps for the shot of the two of them grating horseradish–and wearing safety goggles and kerchiefs soaked in vinegar or, as Alpern puts it, “classic protest gear.” Altogether, a Jewish Catalog-worthy production.

Yoskowitz and Alpern are touring the country this fall to promote The Gefilte Manifesto. Locally they’re staging a couple of tasting events across Los Angeles in early November and will appear at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair.

 

 

“The Dorito Effect”: Fervor over Flavor

So, the party’s over, the halftime show’s over, Denver won, a variety of pop stars are brushing off media criticism over what they wore, and a nation is figuring out how to deal with the caloric aftermath of buffalo wings and a variety of dips and chips. (My biggest excitement: locating the owner of a red Corvette with a leaking gas tank in time to deal with it and avoid a more dramatic spectacle. Luckily it was mid-afternoon and the owner was alert, sober, and not smoking. She  also wasn’t whining about having to go out to look at the car. As some of the male guests might have been, Corvette or no.)

Mark Schatzker’s recent book, The Dorito Effect, is an energizing read for those of us who aren’t really into the classics of Superbowl Sunday.

Kroger Superbowl recipe booklet

I’ll spare you the inside pages, but the closest to nutritious was Kroger’s own recipe for double-coated baked cauliflower “hot wings”–ingredients: a head of cauliflower, a little flour and water, garlic powder, Kroger’s store-brand hot sauce, and some melted butter to doll up the cauliflower florets before dipping in…ranch dressing. 

Not that it’s really so much about Doritos, but rather that it takes the 1960s invention of Doritos–a “taco-flavored” taco chip without any actual meat, cheese or salsa, just what has become known to all as orange cheez dust–as the first serious divorce between food and intrinsic flavor.

It isn’t really the first, of course, and Schatzker traces the history of post-WWII mass agriculture as the story of more food, grown quicker, with less and less flavor. Everything from tomatoes to chickens to broccoli to wheat comes under the microscope lens here. Yes, it’s another Michael Pollan-style examination of some familiar complaints about how and why nothing tastes the same anymore.

He collects reactions from champion kvetchers as diverse as Julia Child (she did it first, he claims, calling modern–1960s–American chicken tasteless and with the texture of “teddy bear stuffing”) to the Slow Food Movement (no relation, ahem!) to Michael Pollan himself, to a variety of old bickering couples who remember the flavor of old long-legged breeds of chickens now relegated to the remote gourmet sidelines of the vast factory-farming chicken industry…

Schatzker tells a fairly entertaining version of this tale–how Big Food and Big Agro convened with flavor chemists to alter the course of human gastronomy in the wake of WWII. As we breed livestock and produce to grow more, bigger, faster, he discovers, we lose not only flavor but nutrients and replace them with water and carbohydrate filler even in things like broccoli and tomatoes. And then we try to make up for that by dousing them in ranch dressing and orange cheez dust and artificial flavorings; hence the title of his book.

Coatings, dressings, artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and oils–these, he says, have become the substitute for intrinsic flavor in real foods, and a mainstay of the unsubstantial snack foods–starting with Doritos–that have pushed out bulk produce and unprocessed ingredients in the American diet.

Schatzker takes it a couple of steps further, though, presenting his theory that the loss of flavor in real foods is the key factor to blame for American overconsumption of calories, and that flavor is one criterion we should work to restore at a national level.

Yes, we’ve read much of this before elsewhere, but his interviews are still eye-opening. He interviews flavor chemists at McCormick, which does a lot more of its work behind the scenes of the restaurant and processed food world than you might think. Those little bottles of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schatzker also profiles one of the original breeders of today’s heavy-breasted, fast-grown, efficient-feeding mass market chickens–though the man is still proud of that early work given the economic pressures on postwar America. He gets the inside story on the decline of flavor and nutrition in broccoli, kale, tomatoes, strawberries and other common produce, and learns why some top agriculture researchers eventually quit the corporate world to try and restore some of the diversity and quality that had been lost during the peak years of their careers. Continue reading

In search of good rye bread

I’ve been attempting rye bread and kornbroyt (Jewish sourdough whole wheat bread) on and off since about last Chanukah–almost a whole year! You would think this was unnecessary, since I live close enough to North Hollywood/Valley Village, the eastern hub of LA for Jewish bakeries and delis (the older western hub is “the Fairfax” neighborhood and the Pico/Robertson area). The rye bread you can get at these places isn’t terrible; my synagogue orders it regularly along with 6-braid challahs for big events, and it’s okay. It just isn’t much better than Arnold’s or Sara Lee, the lightweight commercial supermarket versions I grew up with in the south when we couldn’t get the real thing from New York more than once or twice a year.

Last spring I bought the big crusty half-boule loaves of wholewheat sourdough from Trader Joe’s to sub in for kornbroyt at a big synagogue brunch and they were wonderful–and also not screamingly high in sodium as most hard-crust sourdoughs are (Whole Foods, most bakeries, certainly La Brea and friends). Certainly less per serving than the French loaves and ciabattas and other items on the gourmet bread stand at TJs. The Pain Mich’ demi-boule was a very good deal all the way around, and I’ve bought it weekly for years.

But shortly afterward, TJs switched bakers and the new ones produced something that only looked similar. The crust was flabby and the crumb was like the stuffing of old office chairs–crumbly and weak, lacking flavor, not springy and full of moxie like the real thing. What could have happened to my favorite shortcut to the good life? They still haven’t fixed the problem. Which is probably at least partly due to an inferior use of sour culture. Or CUL-choo-ah as my mom says (Brooklyn accent hard to miss).

So I was going to have to figure it out for myself if I didn’t want to remain a deprived child.

For the past 30-40 years, according to Stan Ginsberg and Norm Berg in their book Inside the Jewish Bakery, the flavor and texture of commercial rye bread  have really been watered down as companies went national and American-style with it. It became paler and lighter in texture, with less rye flour and more additives–oils, conditioners, salt. And they used commercial dry yeast instead of sourdough culture, which takes too long and for a long time wasn’t generally considered reliable or controlled enough a process for mass production–probably not for FDA and local health inspectors either. So most commercial rye bread lacks the true rye sour starter flavor, and is no longer really chewy or dark. Or crusty. Which is how I want mine.

All of those lost characteristics from my childhood memories of real New York rye bread and kornbroyt, made by local union bakers and brought down to Virginia once or twice a year by my grandparents, have now regained popularity in the US foodie arena. Well, not rye bread as such, but “old world” artisan wholegrain sourdough breads that seek to copy Poilâne’s legendarily crusty round loaf. Enthusiasts bring up a lot of sinister-sounding bakers’ terms: levain, cloak, slash, hydration percentage, etc. And they’ve come respectably close. But they’re still lacking the sign of authenticity: the union label pasted on the endpiece!

One major American bakery to achieve similar cult status to Poilâne is Tartine. Complete with three lengthy baking manuals so far on how to build a sour, incorporate all kinds of grains and let the sour culture digest them for the right number of days until they’re ready to set up as loaves.

The books are filled with gorgeous, crusty loaves that cost a fortune at gourmet bakeries if you can find them at all in your town. But it’s like looking through the bakery window, hungry, with your nose pressed up against the glass. Most people don’t have the singlemindedness to follow all the steps at home more than once, much less for more than one or two varieties of more-expensive, Whole-Foods-only, alternate grain breads.

The books are also filled with testimony as to just how many years it took each baker on the team to fulfill his or her apprenticeship and perfect the technique.

Years, though. That’s a lot of time to get yourself a decent home-baked loaf of rye bread that tastes like it could stand up to corned beef. Which makes me wonder whether a mere cookbook can really teach it.

So why bother (except for the perverse curiosity that drives me to mad-scientist-like experiments that probably won’t win the Nobel this year, or any year)? Because once in a while you want good rye bread even if you live on the West Coast.

Looking at the pictures and even reading the instructions can’t give you the exact right sour or air temp or humidity or other conditions that make Tartine’s bread award-winning. Your yeast may vary. You may not have the same sensitivity in your hands or know exactly how moist or elastic or heavy or whatever the dough needs to feel like at each stage. You have to be willing to experiment and fail a couple of times and pay attention to how it looks, feels, smells, and be willing to fiddle around and adjust the next time.

That’s okay. Perfection is not a Jewish ideal, so much, and rye bread is not so hard to improve with practice. Our great-(great-etc.) grandmothers were making rye bread pretty often in the shtetls with whatever starters they had and could keep going throughout some pretty challenging winters. And every spring they’d have to get rid of their sour cultures right before Passover and start over from scratch as soon as it was over. In Russian-Polish spring weather. (My grandfather always said you knew it was spring when the first oxcart got stuck in the mud. It meant the ground had finally thawed.)

So you could probably figure that the women in the shtetls weren’t always overjoyed to have to throw away their sour cultures every spring, and the first loaves of bread in the shtetls after Passover ended might not have been a lot of good for a week or so extra. Or they could have turned out like my first one, especially if it took an extra week for the miller to supply new rye and wheat flour.

To tell you the truth: getting a rye sour started is no big deal–I seem to have done it on the first try, even while taking the onion shortcut (see the bottom of the post) and being much too casual with the flour and water proportions in Ginsberg and Berg’s rye bread instructions from Inside the Jewish Bakery. It’s just that getting the sour ready for baking takes a while–like 3 to 5 days. And then it gets more refined and hopefully consistent as you feed it sequentially over time. Professional bakers guard their established sours like gold.

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

What went wrong on my first try, right before New Year’s, was that I didn’t put in quite enough wheat flour for the final dough. I was still thinking loose, elastic, relatively wet dough like my usual pizza dough or challah dough, and this needed to be stiffer to match the picture in the book, which showed an actual spherical ball of dough. I figured my usual dough would be a little moister and give nice, big ragged holes–however… Continue reading

“Deli Man” is out on DVD

"Deli Man" DVD

Source: Cohen Media Group, delimanmovie.com

Well–that’s it, really. Need I say more? Actually, yes, there are a few new things to say other than to keep recommending that you see Deli Man by getting yourself a copy of it and screening it with all your favorite people who didn’t get to see it last spring.

In the half a year or so since it started showing up in theaters, David “Ziggy” Gruber (the deli owner whose story anchors the film) and director Erik Greenberg Anjou have done a lot of interviews together to promote it–they did one on Fox News Radio early on, and then more recently a long, in-depth interview on YouTube with Judith Gelman Myers, film critic for Hadassah Magazine.

Gruber in particular emerges in these interviews as an insightful observer on modern Jewish food and culture, its history and the history of the restaurant business as a whole. It’s an overtly intellectual and analytical side of him that wasn’t as apparent in the film.

Deli Man focused primarily on his daily life, the stresses and rewards of running a deli, his sense of humor and his gift for schmoozing with his customers. To provide a national context in the documentary, Anjou filmed and cut in interviews with the owners and customers of the historic big-name New York delis, and two or three of the younger generation of deli men from Toronto and San Francisco. Much of the historical perspective and big-picture analysis he assigned to David Sax, Michael Wex, and Jane Ziegler, three prominent authors on Jewish immigrant culture. But Anjou seems to recognize that if he hadn’t divided up the roles in service to the pace and emotional/informational balance of the film, Gruber could easily have taken a seat amongst the trained historians.

Like most of the other deli owners featured, Gruber is not an academic by inclination–too much personality and too little sitzfleisch. As he tells Myers, he knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a cook and from his high school grades he was not necessarily ever going to be college material. He’s underselling himself a little here (well–not in every respect; there are a few moments in the interview where he breaks out and guarantees the audience that if they try his blintzes they’ll be hooked for life, or words to that effect).

But when he gets serious, which is often, the interviews bring out his head for detail and his broad-based perspective on Jewish food culture and the restaurant industry as a whole. These are things he knows a great deal about, both intellectually and as an active participant, but didn’t always get a chance to voice in the film, and which weren’t brought out by the other commentators. You’re suddenly reminded that he did intensive training at one of the best culinary schools in Europe and worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in France for several years before coming back to the US, and he’s been keeping a keen eye on market trends, business and people ever since.

So the interviews, which might otherwise have been standard pleasant-but-bland film recaps, become much more engaging and worth a listen even if you’ve already seen Deli Man. And doing them in tandem with Gruber is one of the smartest things Anjou could have done.

French reaction to food waste

Some things that rarely make it into US newspapers are considered more serious in Europe. Large-scale destruction of food, crops, livestock or arable land is one of the topics that really sets the French off, no matter what their political leanings. It’s an offense they’ve considered beyond the pale ever since Henry V invaded Normandy and Aquitaine in the 1400s. His officers and gentlemen destroyed crops and livestock wherever they went, siege or no, to the point that even their Burgundian allies wouldn’t forgive or forget.

Hence Le Figaro’s detailed account today of Moscow’s latest reaction to European and US sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine last year:

Le Figaro 8/6/15: Moscou détruit des tonnes d’aliments

The French newspaper reports that Russia’s agricultural agency has stopped merely confiscating and returning embargoed out-of-country produce to its country of origin and as of today is now destroying it outright within Russia, either at the borders with Belarus and Ukraine, or seizing it from store shelves. Tons of tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, and other produce, meats and cheeses from Poland and western European countries that have participated in sanctions against Russia are being crushed and dug under with farm equipment or else incinerated at a plant near St. Petersburg.

Given the likely hardship and isolation the Russian populace has experienced since Putin embarked on reseizing chunks of Ukrainian territory without admitting to it, you might think the best thing to do as a deterrent would be to seize the contraband and redistribute it evenly to the poorer citizens, and deny profits to the smuggler-importers. Grinding all that European-produced food under with tractors and the like may be a satisfying symbolic response for Putin, but it’s horribly wasteful and, as with the whole Ukraine project, not  a benefit to the citizens at large.

According to the article, the head of the Russian agriculture service admitted that destroying all that food doesn’t look good on TV. The country’s public media, including Tass, are portraying it pretty negatively.

He hinted that the contraband is suspect in quality as well as in political origin–some of the cargoes had been deceptively labeled as coming from Turkey or the like, but had really been produced in places like Ireland. From what I can gather, the reporter at Le Figaro wasn’t too impressed with that argument, and it’s possible that the head of the agriculture service wasn’t too happy about being ordered to destroy the food either but couldn’t say so.

And from the frequency of individual foodstuff mentions in the article, I’d say the waste of tons of peaches, nectarines, tomatoes and carrots and meat might be the greater part of the injury, but to the French, the destruction of all that fromage under tractor wheels was the final insult.

The only thing I can think is, it’s a damn good thing it’s still summer, because if the government did that in the winter, or close to winter, the public reaction might quickly become something other than merely unhappy.

Movie and a Pickle: “Deli Man”

About a week ago, my husband and I decided we were finally grown up enough to take ourselves out to a movie (and leave our slightly attitudinal teenager home to watch some sort of awful teen tv series without us). We’d heard from friends about a documentary called Deli Man that was showing at reasonable hours downtown, and it sounded not bad. We found parking at the bookstore next to the theater, ignored most of the threatening new signs about being towed if we didn’t shop the bookstore and get back out within 90 minutes (it was a Sunday evening, and the bookstore was closing early), and walked into a sparsely attended theater.

Which (the sparseness, I mean) was a shame for the theater and everybody who wasn’t there more than it was for us, because Deli Man is terrific.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder what a Cordon Bleu-trained chef is doing in Houston kibbitzing with his customers in a strip mall deli while sweating the details behind the counter and agonizing over the memory of his grandfather’s idyllic but lost gravy recipe as he serves up gargantuan matzah balls, stuffed chops, and sandwiches you need to be a python to get your jaws around. Cue Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Larry King and other New Yawk old-timers, the local Jewish community fans in Houston, and some of the best–and hopefully not last–deli men in the business.

See the trailer on YouTube.com

 

In between the semi-humorous profile of David “Ziggy” Gruber, third-generation deli man and one of the last under 50, plus (of course) all the kibbitzing from family and friends who wonder when and if he’s ever going to be marriage material, you get interviews with the old hands who themselves are sons and grandsons of the original great deli owners.

Sarge’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, Stage Deli, Carnegie Deli, Ben’s Best–most of the guys who are still in business and some who aren’t. They’re famous, they’re well-established, they dress nice…they’re still working backbreaking hours themselves and pushing their kids to get out and go to law school or into engineering because it’s such a hands-on business and training juniors with the right attitude is so difficult. And attitude is what counts.

David Sax (Save the Deli), Jane Ziegelman (97 Orchard) and Michael Wex (Born to Kvetch and Just Say Nu) trace the roots of the deli through the waves of Jewish immigration on the Lower East Side, the move to Jewish-style as opposed to kosher, and the decline in our times of a great old-neighborhood tradition as the old urban neighborhoods changed hands and Jews struck out for the suburbs.

You get a chillingly clear picture of why the number of Jewish delis has shrunk from thousands in New York alone after WWII to only about 150 nationwide today. At the same time you see why the deli guys hang in there–and so do their customers.

Jewish delis, kosher or not, are not the usual kind of American casual restaurant. They’re extremely personal and familial, as Jews still tend to be with each other. The old-style Jewish waiters would argue a lot; sometimes they’d tell you rather than ask what you were going to eat, and it became a classic shtick. But as Gruber pointed out on Alan Colmes’ Fox News Radio interview (and no, I can’t believe I’m providing a link to anything Fox either, but it was a good interview), the days of the cranky waiter are more or less gone.

And on the other hand, delis still deliver more for the money than the nouveau-hip places with $50 plates and $18 drinkies. The regular customers expect more–not necessarily more food (though that’s an impression you might get from the outsized portions), but for the deli owners and waiters to know them, talk with them, argue even–and remember exactly how they like their food.

We come from a culture that thrives on argument as a form of intimacy. If you’re not arguing (lightly, not nastily) with your wife, husband, kids, friends, shul members, and pretty much everyone else you care about…how can they be sure you’re really paying attention? It’s become a lost art, though–even Jews of my generation cringe when we hear our parents bellowing cheerfully up and down the stairs at each other. I had to train my genteelly brought up husband that there’s a huge difference between yelling out to him from the far end of the house and yelling at him, and I expected him to just yell back the answer and not get mad or insulted. He’s almost got it by now…

That kind of personal is what makes the give and take between kvetchy customers and ebullient owners work so well and it adds ta’am, flavor, to the whole experience of going to a deli. They know you, and they pay attention whether you’re a CEO or an average Joe.  You can’t get that in a chain restaurant; you don’t get it at a three-star haute palace.

Delis have also, at their best, been the kinds of places where seemingly hard-nosed owners were known to sustain their neighborhoods in hard times, sometimes secretly comping a free meal if a customer was out of work.

Deli Man is deliberately and intelligently personal even as it traces the history, the economics, the fans among the Broadway stars, and the paradoxical Americanness of the Jewish deli. There are plenty of old black-and-white vintage photos, a bittersweet tour of the Lower East Side and its remnants, and klezmer music from one of the modern greats. Far from becoming a Ken Burns wannabe, though, it’s funny, wry, well-paced, modern–and most of all, it gets to the heart of what makes a deli matter. From start to finish, this is a documentary that cuts the mustard. In fact, my only serious kvetch is this: too much pastrami, not enough corned beef.

Or pickles. So in honor of this movie I’m trying out a long-planned jar of pickled green tomatoes, something I remember with fondness and bemusement from my childhood. Whenever my grandparents would come down to Virginia to visit us, they’d schlep bags stuffed with good tough breads, real bagels, packets of corned beef and pastrami. Along with precariously packed containers–were they plastic tubs, or were they, as I remember, merely stapled glassine Continue reading

Purim: Poppyseed filling with a Persian-style twist

poppyseed filling with orange blossom water

Tonight is Purim, when we dress up in costume, make fun of dire villains and dull kings, cheer modest heroes and most of all praise a heroic woman, Esther, who risked everything to change the king’s addled mind and spare the Jews of the Persian empire.

In previous years, I’ve done the Hamantaschen thing–low carb, medium carb, all homemade, no pasty white horrors, praise of Joan Nathan’s basic recipe from her first cookbook…lots of non-Dayglo, non-candy fillings from figs, prunes, apricots, and so on…

Today I’m probably not going to get a chance to bake anything or even cook very much, because I decided to take a leaf out of Esther’s Megillah this year and read part of the fifth chapter, splitting it with my (much-wiser-than-Ahashverosh) husband. So about three days ago I decided I was going to go for it and learn the Purim cantillation (trope marks for chanting) system. Which takes more nerve than usual, because it’s tricky and somewhat deceptive, like the entire story. And it’s been almost two years, since my daughter’s bat mitzvah, since I’ve even chanted Torah. And, like I said, three days ago. Not brilliant.

Luckily there’s Youtube. And a number of synagogues post recordings by their hazzanim (cantors, male and female) for the cantillation marks and for the readings as a whole. Only there are so many versions for Purim! It’s a late holiday in our history, after a lot of us were living in the Persian empire, and the different melodies reflect our already dispersed community. One interesting version was by a Moroccan hazzan–his system actually had a couple of trope mark tunes that are nearly the same as ours for the regular weekly Torah and Haftarah readings. Maybe those are the oldest ones that everyone has more or less in common? Cool!

So–our daughter is chanting a few verses with her youth group for Chapter 7 tonight, and the director is bringing kosher Persian food from a restaurant on the West Side of LA, where the largest Iranian (and Iranian Jewish) community outside of Iran resides. I wish I were a kid tonight, for sure.

Still, in honor of the occasion and the roots, I did get around to making poppyseed filling for the hamantaschen I’ll make tomorrow.

I went to my local Armenian greengrocer yesterday morning for vegetables and picked up a new bag of poppyseeds, hoping they were fresh, really fresh enough to use. My previous latest bag in the freezer has puffed up suspiciously with air–suggests it’s no good and starting to release gases even though I didn’t open it before freezing, dammit.

I tasted the new poppyseeds raw–okay. But rancid sometimes only shows up when you toast them, so I poured a spoonful in a metal pan and swirled them around on the stove until the aroma came up. Then I test tasted those once they were cool enough. Still good, still lucky.

Poppyseed filling is quite an elaborate affair in my trusty 1984 spiralbound edition of Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Figs, apricot jam, brandy, egg whites? Oy. Ten or more ingredients. A production, and kind of expensive considering how many younger people don’t like poppyseed filling. Including my daughter, I’m sad to report (see below)…

But I do, which is the important thing, and my supermarket no longer carries those cans of Solo in the Jewish Foods section. So I decided it was fine to simplify. And while I was at it, to add a hidden Persian-style element or so for the occasion of Purim.

So this filling looks black…but holds the essence of early spring and orange blossom within it. And if anyone doubts that it’s completely effective in its ability to transform, at least temporarily, I should add that my daughter, who insisted she tells me every year she hates poppyseed filling with a hot hate, and that I never listen, took a tiny bite and looked surprised and pleased…at least for about five seconds, until the bitter toastiness of the poppyseeds came through like a bagel at rush hour, poor kid, and she pulled a Tom Hanks (from Big, the caviar scene). She even did the wiping-the-tongue-desperately-with-a-napkin bit. And no, I’m not sure I should be telling you this. Five seconds delay, though. From her, I’m gonna have to count that as a win. And it was pretty funny, another point to Purim.

Poppyseed Filling With a Persian Twist

  • 6 oz (172 g; it was the size of bag they sold) very fresh poppyseeds
  • 6 oz. sugar (again, 172 g, but anyway, the same amount as the poppyseeds)
  • 1/4 c (60 ml) water
  • juice of a lemon
  • orange part of the rind of an (organic, washed) orange or tangerine (in this case), grated or if that’s too much of a pain, shredded with a knife and ground in a coffee grinder or food processor with an additional spoonful or so of sugar
  • pinch each of ground cloves and cardamom (if you have it)
  • very tiny shake or grinding or pinch of nutmeg
  • up to another 1/2 c. water (see instructions and PS note at the bottom)
  • 1/2 t. vanilla
  • 1 t. orange blossom water (yes, this was my idea of the Persian twist, and it’s good, though probably it should have been rosewater for authenticity–I just wasn’t ready for that)

Taste-test the poppyseeds raw, then toast a spoonful in a dry steel saucepan on the stovetop until you start to smell their aroma. Cool and taste-test again before using to make sure there’s no funky, off, or rancid flavor to them.

ground poppyseeds

Then grind them a few pulses in a coffee grinder (in two batches) or in a food processor or blender.

In the steel saucepan, combine the sugar and water with a squeeze of lemon and let the sugar wet down all the way before turning on the burner to medium. Bring just to a slow simmer without stirring–the slurry should start to go clear as the sugar dissolves.

poppyseeds cooking in syrup

Add the ground poppyseeds and stir gently. It should be a thick dark-gray grainy mass. Keep the pot on a low heat so it bubbles gently but doesn’t spit for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally but not hard or you might cause the syrup to seize. As it cooks add the lemon juice, spices, grated orange or tangerine rind and stir in, then [see the PS below] test-taste–if the seeds are still kind of hard, add 1/4 c. water, let simmer with a lid partway on for a few minutes, stir and do it again here until the seeds soften a bit and the raw-poppy edge is off. Add the vanilla and just before taking it off the heat, stir in the orange blossom water. Take a tiny bit and let it cool enough to taste and adjust any flavorings, then take off the heat and pour into a container to cool to room temperature. It will thicken further, especially after you put it in the fridge.

B’te’avon, bon appétit, and Chag HaPurim Same’ach!

PS…AKA, next-day “Do-over,” kind of. Because I wouldn’t want anyone to try this, be happy for a few minutes, and then kind of hate the result when they took a second taste. If it needs a fix, it needs a fix, and I felt this did…

The next day I took it out of the fridge for a taste test before deciding if I really wanted to bake…it was pretty grainy and the top was crusted sugar. I stirred it and realized the seeds were pretty hard still and kind of bitter–not rancid, just really raw-poppyseed. Very strong. I think I didn’t have enough liquid in the recipe compared with Joan Nathan’s, even without all the jams and things. She had “juice of an orange” in there somewhere next to the juice of a lemon, and I’d assumed it was mostly for flavor, but probably the extra liquid helped cook the poppyseeds too (hence, the “up to another 1/2 c. water” bit I’ve just added to the ingredients list).

Never one to look away from a challenge (oh yeah? I hear someone muttering sarcastically in the background)…I decided to reheat the filling in the microwave with some extra water and a lid for a minute or so and see if that would induce the poppy seeds to absorb some of the water and soften up a bit. I stirred in about 1/4 c. of water, which immediately went cloudy-white, kept stirring, and the filling thinned almost to pancake batter consistency. Put a lid on and heated 2-3 minutes in the microwave, let sit a few minutes to absorb. It was better as well as thicker, and a little of the poppyseed bitter edge was out as well. So I did it again with another 1/4 c. water, heated 2 minutes or so, let it sit again and it thickened back up but the seeds were definitely softer and a little more brown than black (although I admit it’s pretty hard to tell).

In any case, I’d do this the first time around while it’s still cooking on the stovetop. Add the extra water in bits after you’ve added the poppyseeds and spices, and before adding vanilla or orange blossom water (so you don’t evaporate them off). Expect to cook it down from about pancake batter looseness until it becomes very thick, a grainy paste. Then taste a little and feel to see if the seeds have softened and mellowed in flavor–add more water and cook longer or else do the microwave thing instead if you’re impatient, but I think it might only take maybe as much as 15-20 minutes on the stove rather than the 5 minutes I’d expected.

Safety: The only thing about heating syrups in the microwave (this is basically a syrup with seeds) is that they can get very, very hot. So 1. keep an eye on it while it’s heating and be ready to stop the microwave if it starts to boil over (this didn’t, either time, but you just don’t know) and 2. don’t use a plastic microwave container because the mixture could melt or scar plastics. Proper microwaveable ceramic or old-style borosilicate pyrex is ok if you still have some from 20 years ago or can find it in Europe and tote it home. (NOTE: “new Pyrex” that clanks and is made outside the US is made of soda lime glass and is not very heat-stable–see right sidebar warning).

 

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