Restrictions have nothing on her.

Sustainable Kosher

Posted: November 25th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

For Shabbat dinner a few nights ago I went to a program at 92Y Tribeca, a local Jewish cultural center, to eat professionally prepared local foods and learn a bit about the local, sustainable foods movement and how it relates to Jews today. Two speakers were on the program, Zachary Adam Cohen who runs the Farm to Table blog, and Nancy Lipsey, who works for one of my favorite food organizations, Hazon.

It goes without saying on a site like this, but eating healthy, fresh, seasonal foods is something I care deeply about, and the more local and sustainable food is, the better! You can really taste a difference in quality, and knowing that you’re supporting a local farmer or business is a gratifying feeling. Have I mentioned how much I love farmers markets?

I wouldn’t call the menu for the evening local, though, despite the fact that a local chef prepared it: salmon in beurre blanc, salad with pine nuts, crisp green beans, couscous, cauliflower and parsnips with carrots. Dessert was strawberries and grapes (neither in season!) and homemade rugulah from the chef’s bakery in Staten Island. OMG – yum! Will find out later the name and location of said bakery.

Once most of the room had finished munching on their cauliflower, Zach and Nancy addressed the audience, Zach spoke about his blog, the kinds of topics he covers and why. Later, Nancy spoke about what Hazon is and does and their contributions to the Jewish food movement, which is basically the current trend in sustainable, seasonal food but with a Jewish bent. Unfortunately, while both were charismatic and spoke well, neither got to cover much of what they were billed to talk about, both going off onto tangents, like genetically modified foods (GMOs) and Whole Foods and how they’ve been raising the “local/organic” profile to mainstream consumers.

Just about the only relevant topic mentioned – briefly, was “What does kosher mean,” literally. “Pure?” came a suggestion from the audience, but the true answer is “fit,” as in, “Is this fit for me to eat?” Hazon is one of the leading organizations advocating the eco-Jewish movement currently on the rise across the United States, and they’re asking questions such as “If the first ingredient in this food is high fructose corn syrup, is it fit for me to eat?” and “If this cow has been slaughtered by a 16 year old illegal immigrant earning less than minimum wage, is it fit for me to eat?”

That last question and others like it are being raised by other groups trying to change the definition of “kosher” to include ethical eating practices relating to the conditions of the workers preparing kosher foods, so that not just that the meat is fit to be consumed on a physical level, but on a morally sound one as well.

So, a lot to chew on, so to speak. But it was frustrating for these topics to be touched upon only briefly and I would have liked to hear more.

I’ll definitely update soon with that rugulah info though.

A Very Zen Thanksgiving

Posted: November 18th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays resplendent with color: vibrant oranges, browns and reds; harvest time. A cornucopia centerpiece never graced my family’s table, but if it did, I’d make sure it burst with colorful seasonal fruits. While Thanksgiving is an American holiday, I believe the Japanese have the right idea when it comes to a complete meal: everything should be balanced by the varieties of color, texture and flavor, which is why when creating meals, I strive for harmony, case in point, my colorful dinner party the other week. No better time to put this in practice than now, when seasonal fruits and veggies are a huge component of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

This year I’ll be home and in all likelihood, my mother and aunt will insist on cooking everything themselves. Usually we’ll feature the standards — turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, canned cranberries that none of us will actually eat, and of course pumpkin. Despite autumn’s bounty of seasonal options, my clan tends to go for the heavy stuff and far too many starches.

If I distilled down to a bento box of what Thanksgiving foods mean to me, here’s what I’d feature:

- Pumpkin phyllo cups (hors d’ourves)
- Apple and butternut squash soup
- Arugula and cranberry salad with almond slivers
- Wild rice with parsnip and squash
- Smashed sweet potatoes
- Sauteed collard greens, meatless
- Roast turkey with rosemary sage stuffing
- Pumpkin pie made with homemade whipped non-dairy cream or pumpkin whoopie pies (using Tofutti cream cheese for the filling in this case)

When hosting guests, a great bite-sized hors d’ourves is pumpkin phyllo cups, which are also super easy to make. Take a 15 oz can of pureed pumpkin, stir in 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 tsp nutmeg; adjust to taste. Scoop them into little phyllo dough cups and bake at 350 on a cookie sheet until phyllo becomes golden. It’s like mini pumpkin pies!

The first time I ever tried pumpkin, in fact, was eating a variation of this, in boreka-like phyllo pockets, rather than cups. My love affair with pumpkin started then.

The rest of the menu has links to their recipes or are pretty standard, but combine well altogether to highlight the bounty that nature brings us this time of year, as well as sharing it with the bounty of our loved ones. Happy Thanksgiving!

Birthday Shabbat Dinner – now with pictures!

Posted: November 10th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments »

For most people, birthdays are a time when you try to put aside stresses and responsibilities; at least, that’s in an ideal world. Since I enjoy coming up with ideas and executing them, I insisted on undertaking and cooking a full three course birthday Shabbat dinner (with help from a friend) as part of the festivities this year. Doing it my way would sidestep the usual overly heavy, starchy and store-bought meals that tend to be the case when it comes to such dinners, and it can be as healthy and unique as I want! Woo!

The menu was mentioned in a previous post, but basically everything I made was a veggie since my friend took care of the salmon appetizer and spiced baked chicken main. There were also pumpkin swirl brownies. I am very happy to have discovered such a potent, delicious recipe!

Here’s how it went down. Once the menu was set and the ingredients purchased I spent a couple of days prepping like seeding a pomegranate myself instead of paying $6 for fresh pomegranate seeds and spending about 45 minutes handwashing four bunches of rainbow chard, but it was all totally worth it, because everything came out great except the quinoa. Can’t win ‘em all.

The day before the dinner I prepared the beets, the chard and the butternut squash and sweet potato puree; the rest was made at my friend’s apartment. Now, I like experimenting but for this dinner everything came from a recipe. The beets with cumin and tamarind dressing is something my mom tends to make as one of the salads at a Shabbat meal and I don’t often experience such a dish anywhere else, so I consulted my copy of Aromas of Aleppo the Syrian-Jewish gourmet cookbook. It calls for ot’ (pronounced “oot”), which is a tamarind syrup found easily in the Syrian-Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn but nearly impossible to get anywhere else. Luckily I had some in my fridge. The cookbook also has a recipe for making your own.

Diced beets in cumin and tamarind dressing

The rainbow chard came out great. The recipe I used called for regular swiss chard but rainbow chard is more colorful and festive.

Rainbow chard stems Rainbow chard with golden raisins and pine nuts

The puree recipe came from a leaflet at a farmers market. I’ve been collecting the recipes they give out at farmers markets for years and put them in a three-ring binder to consult later. This particular one originally came from The Hudson River Valley Cookbook. It’s pretty easy, but time-consuming.

Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Puree

Serves 4

2 large sweet potatoes
1-pound butternut squash
1 cup fresh orange juice – I halved this
1 tablespoon unsalted butter – I used margarine
A 2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
I added 1/2 cup of brown sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut the sweet potatoes in half. Cut the squash in half vertically and scrape out the seeds. Put the veggies, cut side up, in a baking pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake, uncovered, until they are very soft, at least 1 1/2 hours. Scoop the potato and squash out of the skins, combine them and smash until smooth.

Put the orange juice, butter, cinnamon stick and brown sugar in a small saucepan and reduce until it is about 1/4 cup syrup. Discard the cinnamon stick. Stir the orange syrup into the mashed vegetables, season with salt and pepper, transfer to a small casserole and reheat gently in the over or on top of the stove.

I doubled this since it was meant for 10. Only using 1/2 a cup orange juice even after doubling the rest is plenty, otherwise the whole thing will be overpowered by the citrus flavor.

The next day I prepared the quinoa, the sesame broccoli and a mixed green salad at my friend’s apartment, where dinner was held. No kidding, I brought a whole pushcart of the prepared food and supplies!

The quinoa was mushy because my friend didn’t have a proper sized lid for the size pot I needed. Oh well. The sesame broccoli was another farmers market recipe, this time coming from something called The Recipe Source. It’s super easy and quick. Just cut the broccoli into florets and cook in boiling salted water until tender, about 8 – 10 minutes, or you can steam it in salted water for about 5 minutes. Mix together sesame oil, soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds, and toss. Done! I think properly salted water is key because I needed to add a bunch more soy sauce to make this have any flavor but it turned out alright in the end.

Quinoa with chickpeas, pomegranate seeds and spices

Then, dessert. I had made the brownies the night before so that was all ready to go. They came out denser than I expected and stayed super moist. The comments for the recipe really helped. I will definitely make them again!

Pumpkin swirl brownies

I’m ok with not doing another dinner party for a while. This was a lot of food!

Shabbat Birthday Dinner

Posted: November 6th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Hi all,

Long time no write! I apologize for the hiatus but between work and technical difficulties I wasn’t able to write about any fabulous kosher creations of mine. But let’s look forward, not back. Autumn is a great time of year for food and I look forward to incorporating seasonal fruits and veggies in my cooking as much as possible.

What else is great is that my birthday is in autumn, next week in fact. A friend of mine graciously agreed to host Shabbat dinner as a dinner party/birthday celebration/Shabbat meal. I’m very excited, not only to share a meal with good friends but also because as always, I’m dying to cook for a dinner party.

A Shabbat meal is the epitome of dinner parties, with certain items that are musts. (Challah; some sort of chicken or meat, usually; wine.) These can be tweaked if necessary — I’ve been to many a vegan and vegetarian Shabbat dinner and lunch, for example.

Preparing and cooking for the ten of us who are attending this week gets expensive, which is why I don’t do this more often. However, my friend who’s hosting alerted me to a wonderful program run by Taglit Birthright, which you may have heard is the program that sends Jews 18 – 26 years old on a fully subsidized 10 day trip to Israel, so they can be more connected with the country and see what a great place it is. I did this the summer of 2003. (That’s right, I missed the big Northeastern blackout because I was on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights at the time.)

Anyway, what I didn’t know until two weeks ago is that Birthright will sponsor alumni of their trip to host any Shabbat meal — dinner, lunch, Havdallah (end of shabbat dinner), for at least four and no more than 16 adults… at $25 per person. Wow. Granted, you’re only allowed to do this once every 30 days, and I gotta say, kosher food is really pricey. And so they know you’re not gaming them, you have to take a picture of you and all the guests holding a customized sign so they know how many people to reimburse you for. Or, if you don’t roll on Shabbos like John Goodman in the Big Lebowski, take a picture beforehand of the set table and prep-work. No cash advance though, only reimbursement. But! Great deal! I plan on taking this opportunity as much as possible. So, this is how this week’s Shabbat meal will be funded.

Since my friend is a big wine and scotch connoisseur, he’s taking care of that and allocating a big chunk of the budget for drinks, as well as buying and preparing the meat. I’m very excited for kosher meat, since I don’t eat it too often; I’m practically a vegetarian.

Adding to the challenge of cooking for 10 — I insisted on creating and executing most of the menu, is that diner will be held not at my apartment, where I am familiar with the kitchen and the things in it, but at my friend’s, who, while I’m guessing has necessary supplies and cookware, doesn’t even have garlic and onions on hand! (I asked.) By necessity I will make some dishes there and transport the rest. Oh boy.

Here’s the full menu:

- Hummus, Tahini, Turkish/Eggplant Salad (all store-bought)
- Diced Beet Salad in tamarind dressing
- Mixed Green Salad with red onion, apple slices and cherry tomatoes
- Salmon (my friend is taking care of this)

Entrees and Sides
- Baked Chicken (my friend is taking care of this)
- Rainbow Swiss Chard with golden raisins and pine nuts
- Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Puree
- Quinoa Pilaf with chickpeas, pomegranate and spices
- Sesame Broccoli

- Grapes
- Pumpkin Swirl Brownies

The brownies were baked last night and omfg they look mouth-wateringly beautiful, a perfect pale orange swirled with wisps of chocolate. Pictures will be posted in my next entry. I know Bakezilla wrote about cakes making the best birthday dessert and I definitely agree! But I can’t resist a pumpkin-chocolate combo, ever. Even if I have to substitute butter for margarine.

I tweaked the brownie recipe based on the comments posted beneath it — thanks, Internet! They were actually very helpful, so if you’re going to try it out (please do!), take a look there first for tips. Last night I also seeded a pomegranate and washed four bunches of chard, but I still have a lot of work to do to get it all ready!

Tonight: make the sweet potato/squash puree, soak the red onions in cider vinegar for a couple of hours, make the chard and make the beet salad. I’ll do everything else at my friend’s place day of.

I’ll update next week to share how it all went down! Whew.