Restrictions have nothing on her.

Anti-food and Yom Kippur

Posted: September 26th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

After sunset in a couple of days, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar begins and for the next twenty-five hours there will be no eating or drinking of any kind by Jews all over the world. Fast days, quite literally, are anti-food: in order to ritualistically purify ourselves for the day we have to elevate ourselves spiritually by temporarily denying ourselves unnecessary bodily activities we enjoy, like eating; snacking on cake or samosas, say, won’t put anyone in the right mindset of atoning for a year’s worth of sins. Bakezilla’s samosas however: I’d sin for those any day. Not eating is a method of focusing ourselves, of not being concerned with our regular day-to-day lives but setting that aside in order to concentrate on more spiritual matters and also to be uncomfortable. It is the Day of Atonement after all, who said it had to be comfortable?

As far as I’m aware, there are no particular foods directly associated with either the before or after of Yom Kippur, but there are some guidelines on what to eat beforehand in order to make the fast be as easy as possible.

The first tip requires a little advance planning. If you’re a coffee freak like me, you will definitely want to cut down or wean yourself completely in the weeks before YK. If in general you’re a bleary-eyed, grumbling ogre in the pre-caffinated AM, then that ain’t how you want to be on the day that there is zero you can do about it. Also, coffee withdrawal gives many people headaches, so cutting down from three cups to two, one or none might be annoying at first but you’ll thank yourself later and you can always pick the habit back up the morning after anyway.

Ok, so now your veins are more blood than caffeine. Congrats! Next, you will want to increase your water intake. Drinking more water than usual will keep your body more hydrated (duh) but since you’re not allowed to sip even water on YK, the more your body has to work with in advance, the easier it’s going to be to not pass out from dehydration, especially if celebrating the holiday in a hot, humid place like Florida, which is what I’m doing. Note: I have never passed out from dehydration on YK but some friends of mine have come close, so watch out!

Alright, so far you’ve re-proportioned your coffee and water intake. Say the fast starts this evening and pre-YK dinner is late this afternoon. Pop quiz: what do you make for dinner? If you said huge juicy steak and fries with lots of ketchup and hot sauce you would be… dead wrong! But that sounds really tasty. No, the trick to a successful fast is to eat light and unsalty foods the night before. One of the worst feelings in the world is toddling along with a brick in your stomach from eating too-heavy foods but you have things to do and all you want to do is sleep it off and you’re not allowed! In addition, salty things such as fries (delicious, delicious fries) will make you want to drink lots of water, which you won’t be able to do once the fast starts.

So, what do you eat before a fast?

In my experience, the best preparatory dinner is a salad plus something dairy, perhaps a quiche or pasta dish. Nothing too sweet or any baked goods for dessert, best is fruit, which won’t make you as thirsty.

As it turns out, this type of meal is what you’ll want for the break-fast as well. A lot of people eat bagels with lox and cream cheese once YK is over, because even though you’re starving you’re not going to have the energy to weigh yourself down with any heavy foods.

In honor of Yom Kippur, here’s a recipe for gravalax that you can serve with bagels and cream cheese at your break-fast or at your next DIY brunch.

Gravalax

Note: requires 48 hours of advance prep. You can use inexpensive salmon for this recipe; if it’s too expensive you might as well buy prepared lox!

Ingredients:
- Fillet of salmon (debone beforehand) – can use only 1/4 of a fillet depending on amount of people to serve
- 1/4 cup of kosher salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Couple of bunches of fresh dill, enough to cover one side of fillet
- 1/2 tsp all spice (optional)
- Slice of fresh ginger (optional)
- Fresh pepper

In a bowl, combine salt and spices. Rub both sides of the salmon fillet with the spice mix. If the salmon has its skin, just rub the exposed side. Garnish with fresh pepper and smother it with dill. Slice the fillet in half and fold it together. Wrap the salmon tightly with plastic wrap and place in a ziplock or other airtight bag. Store it in the fridge for 48 hours, minimum, with a weight on top to press down on it, turning it every 12 hours. After refrigeration, rinse off the fillet, pat it dry, slice and serve.

Enjoy!


Happy Rosh Hashanah!

Posted: September 19th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Today is Saturday, September 19th; it is also the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the Jewish holiday season. It’s kind of a big deal. It’s impossible to decouple food from Jewish festivity, from the High Holidays down to Tu B’shvat, a kind of Semitic Arbor Day. You may have heard of the Passover seder but in truth every holiday has its own “seder”, ie, major meal where symbolic foods are explained (and explained, and explained) and then consumed.

Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year” actually does entail eating or at least displaying on the dinner table, a fish head or cow’s tongue (or lamb’s head, but I’ve never, ever seen that), so that the coming hear will bring the “head” or best of things rather than the “rear” or as I will put it less delicately, the crap. Another major component of Rosh Hashanah is apples dipped in honey, so that the new year will be sweet. Most children will sing a little ditty that is just the phrase, “Apples dipped in HO-ney for ROSH Ha-SHA-a-NAHHH!”

There is much, much more that could be mentioned but I’d like to discuss pomegranates. By now everyone’s heard that they’re the greatest superfood this side of acai berries, filled with anti-oxidants and other things that will help keep us young and healthy. I’m not sure how much they were on everyone’s radar before, but I’ve been eating pomegranates for years because it’s a very good and important deed, a mitzvah, to eat pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah. The reasoning behind this is that the Torah has 613 mitzvahs that Jews are commanded to do, and the pomegranate has numerous seeds. To eat one is symbolic of doing all these good deeds in the coming year.

Right now I am home in sunny, mosquito-ridden Florida for the holiday. While my mom is an excellent cook, I thought it would be nice if I made a dish for the holiday meal and give her a chance to worry about one less thing to make. Since it’s a holiday we will definitely be eating meat which means no dairy will be present at all, since we all keep kosher too. A dairy restriction dashed my hopes of a pomegranate-flavored souffle. (Never heard of it before but hey, why not, I’d eat that!)

Curiously enough, there don’t seem to be many pomegranate-based recipes out there, despite all the hype. POM’s website, however, has tons of options. Most of them call for using its products, surprise, but a couple of recipes caught my eye: Butternut Squash, Sweet Potato and Pomegranate Soup and Chocolate Covered Arils. What I like about the soup is that it’s adaptable to the kosher constraint, since I could either cut the milk and cream or substitute veggie stock rather than chicken stock if making it for a dairy-laden meal. It also utilizes butternut squash, another traditional harvest-time vegetable, as Rosh Hashana requires that you serve a type of gourd at the big holiday dinner. (Usually we do pumpkin in filo dough appetizers to fill that requirement — mmm pumpkin.) Also, it can be made in large quantities in advance! Chocolate covered arils (pomegranate seeds) is easy enough to make, and sweet chocolate together with tart pomegranate is a formidable and delicious match!

Unfortunately, dashing these plans is the fact that my mom already made matzoh ball soup, upon request by some guests coming over for dinner — she makes awesome matzoh balls. So there goes that. And she’s trying to be healthier, so she nixed the clusters of chocolate covered pomegranate seeds. But how can someone say no to such a thing??

Instead we will be eating the usual, traditional holiday meal, already basically complete by the time I arrived home. Oh well. So I leave you, dear readers, with my fantasy holiday meal, one that I will hopefully be able to prepare part of if not next year, then soon:

Appetizer
- Butternut Squash, Sweet Potato and Pomegranate Soup (made dairy-free)
- Mashed Pumpkin dolloped into filo dough cups
- Green salad with dates and sliced apples
- Cow’s tongue

Entree and sides
- Roast chicken with dried apricots and pomegranate seeds
- Garlic-sauteed swiss chard with black-eyed peas
- Butternut squash drizzled with honey
- Yebra (stuffed meat grape leaves in a tamarind sauce)

Dessert
- Apple honey cake
- Chocolate Covered Arils
- Fresh cut fruit

Shana tova! Happy new year!


Microbrewed Root Beer?

Posted: September 12th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A “sophisticated palate” is a concept that has always eluded me. What do you mean, a sip of this wine evokes elderberries and freshly trimmed grass? Oaky? Floral? I’ve just never gotten it. I suppose with practice I’ll be able to train myself but for now let’s just say I’m confused at best.

Recently I had the pleasure of tasting a microbrewed root beer, Virgil’s. It came highly recommended by a friend who saw the elusive elixir once, years ago, in a high end grocery store, never to see it again until Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s began to carry it. His girlfriend was away for the weekend and since as usual I bought far too much produce for one person to consume before it spoils, I invited him over for a home-cooked meal. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll bring the root beer.” It hadn’t occurred to me that root beer as well as beer can be microbrewed, but that makes sense, sure, and hey I’m adventurous. Ok!

My friend described Virgil’s as fragrant, with a strong wintergreen and anise after-flavor. Anise is one of the few flavors I detest and licorice flavored products make me ill — don’t even get me started on absinthe – ick! — so I was a little hesitant!

Meanwhile, as my friend read the comic books tucked on my bookshelf, I prepared dinner. Ever since I saw the Tomatoes Stuffed with Bulgur and Herbs recipe on NY Times I’ve been dying to try it, not only because tomatoes are in season and will therefore be tastier, but also because I keep bulgur wheat on hand in my pantry; it cooks way faster than rice or quinoa, has a pleasantly grainy texture, it’s tasty and pretty good for you. Also, I realized I had an extra heirloom tomato on hand from the farmer’s market I had forgotten about, so there was enough to make for lunch the next day, yes! In addition, in my earnestness to buy things in season, I purchased two ears of fresh local corn from the grocery store and several nectarines that I knew I’d never finish before they go bad, so as an appetizer I whipped up a grilled chili corn and nectarine salsa. Pretty tasty!

First I started on the bulgur wheat. After pouring boiled water onto it, it had to sit for half an hour or until fluffy. While that was resting, I chopped everything else up for both dishes. I accidentally threw out the caps to the tomatoes; they were supposed to be the lids when the tomatoes were stuffed but I didn’t read the recipe carefully enough. Oh well. When the bulgur wheat was fluffed enough, I combined it with chives and mint and a tablespoon of olive oil. I wish I had pine nuts too but I had to do without. Their crunchiness would have been a nice addition to the soft bulgur and roasted tomatoes.

Herbs and bulgur combined reminded me of tabouli, but without lemon. Instead, and this is what made it fantastic, I shook a whole bunch of cinnamon in the bulgur mix. Now, I love cinnamon. I eat it everyday with breakfast, either on yogurt or oatmeal. My opinion: you can’t go wrong with cinnamon. And wow, it really made the flavor pop!

After that, I salted and peppered the scooped out tomatoes and stuffed them. I drizzled olive oil onto my lidless tomatoes, wrapped it up in tinfoil and baked it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. I think I was supposed to add water to the pan but decided against it, as that always causes a mess. Or maybe I’m just a klutz?

Then while the tomatoes were roasting I grilled the corn. I sliced off the kernels of both ears, seasoned it with chilli pepper and some salt. When cooked through for a few minutes — the kernels slowly turned a bright yellow, I turned the gas off the stovetop and added half an onion, chopped. The recipe I was going by called for scallions but unfortunately I had none. Same difference. I let the corn and onion breathe in the still-warm pan while I pitted and chopped a nectarine into little pieces. Again, I was going with what I had on hand — really there should have been at least two juicy ones, and peaches at that. Whatever. About one tablespoon of chopped mint was tossed in with the nectarine bits and then I added the corn and onion saute all together. Instead of lime juice I squirted in lemon juice and salt to taste, then tossed.

It was absolutely addictive. The starchiness of the corn played off the sweetness of the nectarine just enough to balance each other and there was but a hint of chili flavor to make it interesting. Perhaps it should have been saucier but I preferred the salsa a little dry, and we easily scooped it up with crackers. By this time the tomatoes were done. Quickly I whipped up a garnish: greek yogurt with two cloves of garlic and a bit of chopped mint to dollop on top of the tomatoes, then served. The root beers had been opened and were breathing in tall glasses. We cheered – “To cooking!” and took a sip.

There was indeed a strong anise aftertaste, but pleasant. Soft. Not the sharpness of licorice but diffuse, with flavor. You know, I could taste the wintergreen too, but not as strongly. With the tomatoes the flavors were intensified. I don’t think I’ve ever had that much flavor in any non-alcoholic beverage before. Beat that, wine!

Later I discovered that root beer pairs perfectly with pizza. Was it the tomatoes, the cinnamon in the bulgur stuffing or the garlicky, refreshing yogurt that the root beer was reacting to? Who knows. But as my friend remarked after we wolfed it all down, “This root beer has never tasted better.”


Best Sangria Ever

Posted: September 5th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Recently, my roommate of three years moved out to live with her boyfriend, and as a thank you for helping her move the two of them took me out to their favorite restaurant in my ‘hood, Guadalupe. Since it’s such a heavily Dominican neighborhood, opening a Mexican restaurant around here takes some cojones, but since it opened a couple of years ago its thrived. Here’s a reason why: the food is damned good. And setting aside the fact that it’s sexy, romantic, a scene in the late evening and has superb service and reasonable prices, a major reason for its success, it must be said, also has to do with their sangria.

I’ve sipped my fair share of sangria and this is the only spot where I begged for the recipe. At first I thought it was so tasty due to the type of wine used, but I quickly ruled that out since both red and white had their own distinct complexity, fruity of course, but with a bite. Could it be brandy? Something else was at play too because any old bartender can dump wine, brandy and fruit chunks together and tada, sangria, but Guadalupe’s version has more layers to it.

After admonishing how fantastic the sangria was and asking for the recipe, the waiter returned with instructions for what I hope will fuel many great parties of mine (and yours) to come. He said the bartender starts with either red or white wine, then adds triple sec, peach schnapps, brandy or Henessey, orange juice AND pineapple juice, and tops it off with bits of fruit. Vodka can also be included, especially if using white wine.

This explains why I was knocked out after one glass.

Pineapple juice! That was the ribbon of flavor running underneath the brandy, what gave the sangria its tart sweetness. I urge everyone to try this at home or at least come up and visit my area sometime, so you can experience how the experts do it yourself.