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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.

 

 

An Appreciation of Lox

bagel with nova lox

Homemade bagel with nova from a local Los Angeles smoked fish company

 

For its annual Mother’s Day brunch, the Men’s Club at our synagogue always serves a surprisingly lavish spread with the woiks–lox, bagels, fruit salad, eggs and mimosas. Although I’m not a huge fan of big and slightly-kitschy gatherings featuring big and slightly-kitschy piano acts, I really deserved someone else making me a lox-and-eggs Sunday brunch right about then. But at the last minute I had to miss it in order to hock my kid about her last oversized ridiculous semester projects for 8th grade (due the next day, naturally). Better mothers complained to the principal, who just smiled nicely but did nothing useful. I just figured we’d get through it all so my daughter never had to be an 8th grader again. It worked–salutatorian, even–so, moving on but not required to give a speech: win/win.

But the lost lox! and the not having to cook or do dishes for Mother’s Day! Then I agreed to chaperone a school science camping trip the last week before graduation and  ended up with sand, grime, KP duty, outdoor showers, iffy Boy Scout Camp-style food, and not just one but 32 whole teenagers preoccupied with their hair and late to class.

So now that it’s all over I’m in serious need of payback.

My local Armenian greengrocer has locally-smoked nova lox (they have sable, too–I was tempted) and I had a bowl of dough in the fridge just sitting there waiting to be used up–so I made a few impromptu bagels the last Sunday morning of the school year, as soon as I’d gotten all the sand back out of everything and my kid was done with classes for the year. The bagels weren’t quite as dense as they ought to be because I used my standard pizza/pita/calzone dough instead of the genuine classic, but they did well enough because the dough was several days old, cold-proofed and straight from the fridge, and I boiled them before baking. And there was lox. Throw in a few once-over-medium eggs and some shmear and some fruit and hot coffee and you’ve got the ideal late-spring/early-summer breakfast, even if you have to make it yourself.

Now I know lox is a high-salt item–even the Nova. I anticipate it not for the salt, which I always think we could do with a little less of, but because it’s lox. A delicacy. Something to enjoy on the rare occasion when you get to celebrate. Something to treat with respect.

I’m not going to apologize for enjoying it, either. In the modern world of food publishing, people are forgetting how to do that. Even Jews. Maybe especially Jews, some of whom act as though our traditional deli and “appetizing” (bagels, cream cheese and smoked fish of all kinds) is suddenly something to shove under a rug or apologize for liking on the grounds that it’s not organic or locally sourced or Whole Foods or food-mag-trendy enough, and because it doesn’t include bacon or pancetta. Or kale.

The idea that enjoying lox simply because it’s lox isn’t cool enough anymore has gained a lot of traction in the past few years of foodieism. A couple of years ago, Martha Rose Shulman committed a serious travesty in the New York Times with “Lavash Pizza with Smoked Salmon” (she didn’t even call it lox). Toasted lavash is perfectly good for other things, but not for lox. Too fragile, and frankly too flavorless. I mean, why not rice cakes, as long as you’re being tasteless? But it wasn’t just the bread choice.

Somehow Shulman had abandoned the Joy of Lox. Shulman actually called her lox on lavash “a great way to work more salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, into your diet.” I have to ask, are most of us really having that much trouble “working in” more salmon? More to the point, does any lox fanatic really want to be thinking about fatty acids of any kind while eating it?

But at least she wasn’t agonizing over it as too Jewish. Mark Bittman pulled this inexplicable self-flagellation-in-print a few weeks ago in the New York Times, apologizing publicly for eating lox and bagels on a Sunday morning. In New York, yet. (Maybe it’s because he moved to Connecticut?) He’s kvetching about skipping his morning run, his usually-so-virtuous-but-betrayed-just-this-once-by-shameful-genetic-temptation stance on (gasp) farm-raised salmon, his devouring of shmear, which he says is too bland for the calories to like officially. He even had the nerve to blame his decision to eat it all on a sudden mental breakdown. And then he went further and called bagels and lox “comfort food.” As though it were in the same low-grade category as mac and cheese or mashed potatoes from a box.

Vey ist mir! I mean, come on. I’m pretty sure Woody Allen still eats lox without apologizing for it.

Bittman should be apologizing for being ashamed of enjoying lox (all the while glupping it). Along with apologizing for promoting pancetta and guanciale while professing a greener and more affordable diet. And for forgetting to add garlic to his recipes. That’s almost worse than deprecating lox.

More recently, Melissa Clark met with one of the scions of Russ & Daughters, which by now you’d think was the only serious lox and whitefish emporium left–it’s the subject of a documentary I just missed at the last LA Jewish film festival. The two laid out a spread for at least thirty or forty very lucky people, by my standards, but I think they were doing it mostly for a few family and friends–maybe 10-15 people–and posing it all on the table for the camera. It was beautiful but way too much. At least, though, she was both thrilled and nostalgic, the right way to be when faced with a complete beauty pageant of smoked fish.

Altogether, I could only think Shulman, Bittman and Clark all grew up in big cities with too much lox around. Because when I was a kid in the small-town South, we could only get lox twice a year when one or another set of grandparents came down from New York.

Other people’s grandparents bring toys. Ours brought pastrami, corned beef, half-sour kosher dills, pickled green tomatoes, real bagels, serious breads you just couldn’t get down South, and lox. All of them were special, not just to us but to our grandparents–real deli was part nostalgia, part roots, part pride, part simply great eats.

Pastrami and corned beef to go with the pickles and the tough, chewy pumpernickel and rye with the union label pasted on the end (you were supposed to fight for it)–these were the working people’s foods of their youth on the Lower East Side and the Bronx,  and they still loved them. And so did we.

My mother’s parents, born in the shtetls of Poland and Ukraine, came to America as children and, thank G-d [only instance of poverty being worthwhile], couldn’t afford to go back when their parents got homesick.

Fast forward to the ’70s: My Grandma Thel, short, plump but ladylike, coiffed, and wearing those pale oxford pumps I used to think of as librarian shoes, would step off the little regional plane in Charlottesville loaded down with huge grocery bags full of chewy, crackle-crusted bagels, Jewish kornbroyt or “corn bread” (a heavy European wholegrain sourdough; no actual cornmeal except what’s dusted on the baking sheets to keep the loaves from sticking), rye bread laced with bitter caraway seeds, sometimes a babka, and always, a huge half-wheel of her own light chocolate-flecked sponge cake (for which I’ve inherited the recipe but haven’t tried it yet–will post when I get it right). I hope the other passengers were smart enough to be jealous. The aromas alone should have clued them in. Grandpa Abe, of vishniak fame, was a lucky man.

On the drive home from the airport, Grandma Thel would tell me and my sister how she just managed to argue another customer at Andell’s or Goodman’s out of the last loaf of kornbroyt with seeds because she was bringing it down to her very special grandchildren so we would grow up knowing the real thing, and that the other lady Continue reading

Baking with “Inside the Jewish Bakery”

A few weeks ago I reviewed Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg’s new book, “Inside the Jewish Bakery” for my local Jewish book festival committee by testing out the key recipe: bagels. Ginsberg and Berg give the inside scoop on what bakeries do and don’t do to make things work better than you usually can at home. Along the way–and the most interesting part for me–they give a huge helping of Jewish Bakery history. Not just nostalgia (“Weren’t those marble ryes worth wrestling over?”) but the fascinating cultural developments that gave rise to such things the Bagel Maker’s Union (local 338 [number corrected thanks to Stan Ginsberg]) in Brooklyn, and they’d break your legs if you tried to make nonunion bagels, at least through the 1960s.

Ginsberg’s the son of a baking family and Berg is a professional baker; between them they tell the story of Ashkenazi baking and the inside story of what it’s like to start work at 10 pm and head for home around 7 in the morning, all the while giving what turn out to be great technical baking notes.

And yet the recipes themselves are full of errors–and yes, this is the print edition we’re talking about, not an advance reader’s copy. The authors have a 6-page correction sheet (errata) up on the book’s web page, so if you’re going to get to it and try it out–and why not, if you’re ambitious about baking–check it out carefully against the recipe in the book, read everything over very carefully first, and then get to it in a way that won’t send you scurrying for specialty ingredients. NOTE: per Stan Ginsberg (see comments below) the 2nd edition’s recipes have been corrected so things should be easier.

If you can read between the lines and have some experience with bread under your belt, you’ll find the recipes do work (once corrected). My bagels came out very well, with that crunchy crust and dense, chewy bite all of us ex-New York types have missed for decades out here in California (actually, I’m posting this from Montreal, where the bagels are lighter and sweet? have to try, probably won’t love them).

I do have pictures to post (once I can get home and edit them down) of the bagels proofing slowly overnight in the fridge and one of the last remaining survivors–my daughter still had it in her bookbag when we came east this week. Ten days, obviously not still fresh, but not spoiled either. As tough as the dough it came from (which, again with the asides, is very tough compared with regular pizza or challah doughs, and you have to knead it by hand unless you have the dough hook of the century. If not, you’ll develop the right hook of the century.)

So here are my notes to the local Challah Club, which was interested in trying out some of the other recipes. Good luck and eat nice!

Notes for the Challah Club members up for a challenge:

1. Read all the instructions several times first and double-check the errata sheets. It’s 6 pages of corrections for the whole book and it’s up at the Inside the Jewish Bakery web site under a top menu link on the right (Errata). Hopefully we can get the second edition in soon.

The book web site also has lots of info, interviews, links to other related stuff.

Also check notes on special ingredients in the front for unfamiliar names–diastatic malt in the bagels and elsewhere is defined up front; it’s just malt. I think they get a little technical on flour grades–they’re tied in with an aggressively technical bakers web site/forum (NY Bakers, you don’t expect them to be laidback, do you? but most of it’s just futzing around with professional stuff). Chernushka seed is nigella seed–available here at the Armenian groceries. And then do whatever makes best common sense and doesn’t have a huge cash layout just for one loaf!

2. The recipes in this book are weighable on a food scale in grams, which is how I did the bagels (just this once, just to see if it needed me to be that nerdy). Some of the flours are technical grades beyond what you can easily get in the grocery store; you can mix flours to get the right consistency. For example, bread flour is 13% protein, but I added a teaspoon of vital wheat gluten to bring it up to the 14% protein specification for the bagels, and for something that really needed stretch, like rye, maybe, I would have added a little more. Don’t know that you really need to, but if you’re gonna be nerdy, a food scale and a calculator are handy tools.

3. If you go for the pastries, some have a mix of butter and shortening-plus-butter-flavoring. I’m not a shortening fan; I’m just not; I prefer butter or margarine. The laminated doughs add these things in stages, so read the errata pages and double-check the recipe instructions for how much fat to put into the pastry dough when. Gets confusing occasionally.

4. One thing that’s not in the corrections pages: watch the salt. You do not need as much as they throw in for the breads–not for flavor, not for texture. The bagels I made with only half the salt in the recipe because the original would have been 400-500 mg. of sodium per bagel, which is getting up into Campbell’s Tomato Soup territory (or half a South Beach Diet frozen microwaveable “lunch”). And they tasted fine without it and did most of the right things without me having to join the bagel-makers’ union.

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