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Purim options

standard cookie-dough hamantaschen

Regular hamantaschen with prune lekvar

Almond meal-based low-carb hamantaschen

Almond meal-based low-carb hamantaschen

Purim is here tonight, a little late thanks to the “leap month” this year (drawbacks to a lunar holiday calendar) but none the worse for it–it’s over 80 degrees here, which means it’s almost time for Purim. Los Angeles is the only place I’ve ever been, including Israel, where people were slathering sunblock on their kids and gasping for water bottles at a Purim carnival well ahead of lining up for hamantaschen and games. It was 94 degrees that year. Fifteen years of this and I’m still not used to it.

Purim, of course, means manic baking, heat wave or no, because the adults’ reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther) had…ummmm….last-minute planning and no one thought about hamantaschen as part of the refreshments until midweek. I think I’m the only one left in our  shul who still doesn’t care about having a fabulously original themed cocktail party for the adults afterward. Any kind of cocktail party is more drinking than I want to do, and I’m damned if I wanna dress up in full office battle array again after so many years sidestepping all the suits in my closet, just so I can fit in with the Mad Men theme. I’ve never even seen the show.

But I actually make hamantaschen at home once in a blue moon instead of schlepping over to the Valley to buy them from a kosher bakery.

So I did the stupid, crazy thing and volunteered. How many people? I asked–maybe 60. So I have SIX batches of dough sitting in my freezer relaxing. It took about half an hour, about 5 minutes apiece,  to do all the batches in the food processor, one after another and weighing out the ingredients so they’d be consistent. And yet…after all the excitement from two weeks ago, I’m just not all that geared up to roll it all out and bake it just this minute. Maybe when things cool down slightly–half an hour? Maybe?

Friday happens to have been Pi Day as well–and to my daughter, who was supposed to be my second-in-command for this delicate operation, and to her algebra teacher this morning, that meant Pie Day. They had about four different kinds of pie for all the math classes, and none of them had to calculate the areas or volumes of the wedges they sampled. My daughter, of course, was so elated that she ate two entire meals’ worth of carbohydrate in about fifteen minutes, and still came out with a pretty good blood glucose number an hour later–good on the calculated guesses, there–but at the cost of running through insulin that could have lasted her three or four more hours if she’d eaten an ordinary lunch. Teenagers! Mothers of teenagers!

Still, not to lose the spirit of things too much. It occurs to me that hamantaschen qualify as very small pies, only triangular. So we eventually started the process of inscribing a triangle inside a circle–240 times, if we can get through all the batches before showtime. Me, I’d settle for 3 or 4 batches and call it a week.

The raspberry jam filling–all that hard work for the first batch of rolling and filling–leaked all over the place. Too bad there isn’t still a vogue for vampire-everything; the first batch would have qualified! Too thin. You need a thick serious filling to stay in place during the baking.

So–time to nuke the prunes for lekvar and the figs for the heck of it (plus toast a small sampling of the poppyseeds in my freezer to see if they’re still okay to use for a filling, and to make sure I don’t pour in the bag of nigella seeds instead by mistake!). I rarely see these anymore, but I still believe in doing traditional fillings alongside the modern, newfangled apricot-jam-and-chocolate-chip ones. It’s true that if we keep skipping the prune filling, we might not turn into our own grandparents, and if we miss out on the poppy seed filling (known in Yiddish as mohn) we might pass the all-critical drug tests (à la Seinfeld) with no interferences, but then again we’d miss the ta’am, and what’s the joy of hamantaschen without a taste of the past?

Hamantaschen Recipes

Low-Carb Almond Meal-Based Hamantaschen

My version of Joan Nathan’s Hamantaschen, with four fillings: poppyseed, prune, apricot/chocolate, labaneh/cheesecake

Microwaveable dried fig and dried apricot fillings (originally for fillo pastries, but still good for this, and a lot less drippy than jam)

However–if you are feeling “Mad Men”, you might think of reconfiguring the hamantaschen motif for cocktail party fare instead. I was thinking about this Thursday but figured it would be too weird. Then I saw an article about it yesterday in one of the big three newspaper cooking sections–dammit! scooped again! In any case, if you’re feeling a little avantgarde, you could do a batch of savory hamantaschen if you feel like it. Use rugelach, bureka or olive oil tart dough instead of the standard sweet dough. Roll it out fairly thin, and fill with feta or bleu cheese mixed with labne or very thick sour cream, plus a little onion and some thyme, maybe a pecan or two. Or something with very cooked-down mushrooms and onions (so they don’t get soggy). Or pesto and cheese. Or spinach with cheese and nutmeg and lemon rind. Or tapenade. Etc.

Chickpeas of all sorts and descriptions

Since Esther supposedly refused meat and ate only chickpeas, chickpea recipes are also more or less relevant to Purim. Mine are not particularly traditional–look up Iranian Jewish recipes elsewhere on the web.

Chickpea crêpes  These can be savory or sweet, and they don’t require eggs or milk

The “other” moussaka–eggplant and chickpea stew

Hummus from scratch (aka how to nuke dried chickpeas)

Fast Hummus made with chickpea flour (microwaved)

There’s also the possible “nahit”–fry chickpeas in olive oil, drain and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Or a cold chickpea salad with mint, scallion, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar.

Or channa masala dal, something like the red lentil dal but with chickpeas (and not mashed)

Post-Kiddush: our leftovers are better than yours

Round spare spanakopita just for us after the big kiddush

Round spare pinwheel-style spanakopita just for us at home. The big ones for the brunch had three pounds of spinach apiece (and were cut in small diamonds), but they still went together pretty fast–except for squeezing all that spinach dry…

This weekend I did it again–I made the kiddush, or in common speech a lunch buffet, for my congregation’s Saturday morning service. My husband kind of volunteered us for this week and because he doesn’t cook, most or all of the cooking, shopping, chopping and schlepping landed on my shoulders.

Last time he volunteered us, it was for our anniversary, and  I was ready to skip ahead to the divorce until I got over it, because it’s a lot of work to cook for 60 or so people who like to eat. And kibbitz. Especially when the 60 suddenly turns into 80-plus and having to use the synagogue kitchen with the more complicated and confusing rules on only a week’s notice. As they did this time…..

Soooo….a two-day hell of shopping and then marathon cooking-and-juggling in my little galley kitchen. The microwave got a serious workout. So did the food processor and the oven. Sometimes all at once. And it was raining hard for three days, so bringing things over to the synagogue kitchen as I went got a little tricky. I triple-wrapped the chocolate cake and stuck it in a USPS Priority Mail box so it wouldn’t get left out in the rain. Same idea for the spanakopita trays.

A few hints about cooking big and real for a synagogue brunch, learned the hard way by moi and passed on for your edification and safety (and sanity):

1. You can buy a 6-lb can  of chickpeas for massive half-gallon batches of hummus (Mid-East brand, maybe Goya as well). Cost? about $5. But–as I found out, and I’m glad no one was filming the process–industrial-sized can equals industrial-strength steel. A dinky hand-operated can opener is no match for such an item. I got just far enough to be able to pry open a kind of spout but there were tears and long-fluent-repetitive-all-throughout-the-house swearing sessions involved.


2. If you have a good corner greengrocer, you can buy quantities of eggplant for cheap–eleven or twelve eggplants made for a large tray of roast eggplant and onion slices (with garlic slivers and za’atar sprigs and olive oil) plus a large vat of baba ghanouj. Only the five eggplants I nuked for the baba ghanouj didn’t feel like cooperating fully when it was time to peel them. Might have been easier to peel first, then nuke, since it was all going into the food processor eventually. Next time…

3. Whole smoked whitefish for whitefish salad comes two ways–cold-smoked or hot-smoked. What’s the difference? I asked the counter guy at my favorite Armenian grocery. “Cold-smoked is a little less hard,” he said. So I bought it, thinking he meant the hot-smoked was tough as shoeleather and twice as chewy. I was wrong. Cold-smoked actually means the fish is smoked raw, like lox, only a little drier and tougher. But you don’t necessarily want to put it in whitefish salad that way. Man, it still had the scales on too. I couldn’t get it off the bones for love or money, and there were a lot of bones.

However, the microwave came to the rescue. I cut the fish in half and Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: Melts and other Hot Sandwiches

Microwaving the cheese and eggplant while the bread is toasting makes homemade panini a lot quicker

Microwaving the cheese and eggplant while the bread is toasting makes homemade panini a lot quicker--though not necessarily neater

Last year for his birthday my Italophile in-laws gave my husband the ultimate kitchen gadget. Because they loved theirs so much, they gave him…a panini press. I gawked. My husband is almost famous for not cooking. At all.

In more than 20 years of life together, I’ve rarely seen him make an actual sandwich for himself–does shmear on a bagel half count? I’m sure he believes in his heart that he still remembers how to flip one piece of bread on top of the other and seal the deal, but I’ve yet to see evidence of an attempt. Even without grilling.

Somehow I don’t in my heart of hearts believe this panini press is going to be removed from the box and used. Not by my husband, and not by me. It’s not that we’ve never been to Italy or eaten actual panini (we have, on both counts). It’s not that we hate panini or toasted sandwiches in general (we actually like them quite a bit).

It’s that the free-standing real, authentic, Michael Chiarello-approved-and-branded panini press weighs even more than the professional-grade waffle iron my in-laws gave us 10 years ago (and which we’ve used a total of 10 times since, because it’s such a pain to clean). The panini press also takes 3-4 times as long to preheat before you actually get to make the panini. Somehow a grilled cheese sandwich of whatever nationality just shouldn’t take 45 minutes to make. Which it did, when my in-laws, with all the innocent gadget-happy enthusiasm of Toad and his motorcar in Wind in the Willows, brought theirs out to demonstrate.

As a cheese-and-toast fanatic of some standing, I have a few very specific criteria for my grilled cheese sandwiches, grinders, melts, etc., etc.:

1. They have to be substantial and taste good–classic or adventurous, they have to be worth eating. That means the bread, the cheese, and any other fillings under consideration.

2. The toasted bread must be crisp. It must not crush, mush, squash, crumble or absorb tons of cheese grease. It must stand up to the fillings.

3. The cheese must have body and flavor even when melted–it shouldn’t run away, sink into the bread, turn into a pile of salty but otherwise flavorless grease, swamp everything else on the plate, or become a rubber eraser.

4. The whole sandwich must not take longer than about 7 minutes to put together and toast.

Normally you’d say panini fit the bill for an ideal toasted cheese sandwich, and I’d agree–if I were eating out and didn’t have to put up with preheating the grill. If you’re running a corner grill in a touristy Italian city, you’ve got a hot press at the ready and you’re turning out panini by the score for large crowds of passersby, an individual panino probably doesn’t take more than 5-10 minutes. At home, though, all you want is your d–n sandwich. You don’t want to heat an expensive and cluttersome gadget 45 whole minutes just to get there.

You’d also say that the standard white-bread-and-Velveeta fried cheez sandwich was out of the running. You’d be right there as well. No exceptions or passes.

However, in my kitchen, with its limited counterspace and my dislike of extra washing-up, waiting, or fussing, I sometimes get impatient even with the toaster oven classics of good bread, good cheese, and foil underneath to catch the drips.

A quesadilla is obviously no trouble in the toaster oven. Practically designed for it. Neither, really, is a simple sandwich-bread-and-cheddar grilled cheese. But for anything more complicated, or any thicker, more substantial filling, sometimes melting the cheese is the longest part of waiting, and in the meantime you’ve either pretoasted the bread so it stays crisp (in which case it burns around the edges waiting for the cheese to melt) or else you didn’t pretoast the bread and it remains too soft underneath the cheese (and maybe absorbs some of the grease while it’s doing that). Sometimes the other filling ingredients–tomatoes or tomato sauce, mushrooms, lentils, artichoke hearts, etc.–make the bread soggy while you’re trying to melt the cheese on top. Sometimes they don’t cook all the way through.

Here, surprisingly, the microwave comes to my rescue, particularly with fillings that aren’t just cheese but rather cheese melted onto vegetables or sauce or lentils or tuna or some combination. Continue reading

The Hummus Debate

Hummus from scratchHummus is a highly politicized food these days, a situation most eaters outside Lebanon, and at a guess, most inside as well, consider slightly ridiculous. “Owning” hummus has become a point of national pride for a few higher-ups in Lebanon, which has in the past year or two followed Greece’s feta-labeling strategy and tried to appropriate sole credit for authentic hummus. At its more light-hearted, this struggle for hummus supremacy takes the form of an annual stunt in which chefs produce a hummus bowl almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool (or at least an Olympic-sized wading pool) and the triumphal photo makes the international news. But those who really take the Lebanese official origin issue seriously and grimace whenever hummus is served somewhere else are, as far as I can see, only hurting themselves.

The trouble with demanding official status is that both feta and hummus long predate the borders of the countries trying to claim them. Both are simple enough to make and so consistent from batch to batch that they don’t really exhibit much in the way of “terroir” the way aged cheeses, wines, vinegars and so on might. Feta–equally good, equally real, equally part of the native fare–is made in a lot of places neighboring modern-day Greece. Places like Bulgaria, which don’t have as much political clout in either the EU or the Slow Food organizations, and which don’t get half the international tourism. Also places further away, notably Denmark and France, which still have reasonably large sheep’s milk production. Greece may actually have succeeded for the moment in the food labeling tug-of-war, but it’s made the country look somewhat silly and petulant, unwilling to face the fact that they’ve closed the barn door at least a century after the sheep got out. Will they profit from the exclusive labeling? doubtful–and it might have been better ambassadorship to claim credit for spreading feta’s popularity and offer more recipes and products made with it.

Much to the chagrin of whoever decided in the past couple of years that hummus should be exclusively Lebanese, this simple spread is made and eaten in lots of other countries. In Egypt, it’s made with a half-and-half mixture of favas and chickpeas. And Israel, which is probably the “other country” being targeted most directly by the Lebanese hummus campaign, has eaten, breathed, and slept a more or less chickpeas-only version of hummus as an essential food (along with felafel) for longer than the state has been independent.

Unlike the partisanry in Lebanon (not that Israel has no partisanry of its own), when it comes to food, everyone in Israel–Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druse–gives credit with a certain degree of pride that hummus is Arab food, especially if they’ve made it themselves rather than trotting down to the corner grocery to buy the bland ready-made version from a vat in the deli at the back.

That’s because everyone likes to eat it. It’s also because being a good host is really important and something of a formal habit and a chance to show off just a little–actually, I think that’s still true all throughout the Middle East. Everyone expects friends and neighbors and friends-of-friends to drop by at a moment’s notice, without invitation, especially on the weekend. The least you can do is have a bag of roasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds and a pot of hideously sweet mint tea to bring out if they show up to schmooze after supper, but in the afternoon, better if you can bring out a platter of pita, vegetables, and a bowl of hummus.

Hummus is simple Arab fare at its best–humble, nutritious, appetizing, and (now that we have food processors) easy to make a lot of so you can bring out a wide platter of it for your guests and drizzle a little olive oil and some za’atar or sumac or cumin or paprika over it for the finishing touch–right before everyone tears pita and dips in. The ceremonial thing is what makes it good hosting and is part of the fun.

Here in the US, most people buy their hummus in little plastic containers at the supermarket–not elegant at all, and a lot of money for what you get. Kind of depressing, even. Look at the ingredient list and it’s as long and discouraging as any other processed food–that’s so it can be shipped nationally and stored for a week or two in case it doesn’t all sell out the first day. Look at the nutrition label and you see highish salt, lowish protein and fiber. It’s been fluffed out with canola oil to stretch the expensive ingredient, tehina (sesame paste), and there’s not so much in the way of chickpeas even though they’re supposed to be the base.

While I’m not so much against the fluffy smooth stuff (it tastes ok, if all you’re expecting is a spoonful or two of party dip), I prefer homemade because it’s denser and more nutritious, with more iron and protein from the chickpeas, something you could eat packed in half a pita for lunch and not be starving within an hour. Continue reading

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