Getting My Dairy On

Posted: May 20, 2010 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »

We all know that many Jews love their brisket, pastrami and other heavy meats. But did you know that one of the most important Jewish holidays mandates eating dairy? Yup, Shavuot, which started Tuesday night and ends tonight, is one of the biggest holidays of the year; it celebrates when Jews received the Torah brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai in the desert, after the Exodus. Since this is when officially “the Hebrews” became actual “Jews”, we were mandated to follow all the commandments and mitzvot (good deeds), including keeping kosher. Well, since people didn’t want to make any mistakes at first and eat non-kosher meat by accident, everyone ate only dairy products during this time. Contemporary Jews honor this by eating cheesecake. Really! We also stay up all night learning Torah or topics that relate to Judaism. It’s a very fun holiday.

This year I spent Shavuot amongst thousands of people at the JCC on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a heavily young, Jewish neighborhood. For the first night the JCC as well as many synagogues host all-night programming such as lectures and discussion groups; the JCC also had live concerts, yoga, Israeli karaoke and of course thick slices of cheesecake! Coffee and chocolate candies were liberally distributed too, to keep everyone awake until 4 AM, when the last sessions ended. Unfortunately I could only keep my eyes open until about 1, and went home then.

A cousin had invited me for Shavuot lunch yesterday and it was a typical homemade Syrian dairy meal: green salad; quinoa tabbouleh; samboosak — savory, flaky pastries stuffed with munster cheese; noodle casserole with cheese calsonnes (doughy dumplings, stuffed also with cheese); baked salmon; spinach and chickpeas in a baked filo dough (kind of like spanakopita); and kousa jibneh, which is a squash and zucchini quiche sans crust. The eight of us ate very well! Incredibly, the enormous amount of food served was actually quite typical. Leftovers are a given and are usually eaten later for dinner or the following day.

Troubling, for me, is the Syrian custom of leaving all the food on the table during the entire meal which means I will end up picking at far more than I am able to eat! Case in point were my cousin’s homemade brownies; I ended up eating about five or six of them. Eeep!! Note to self and everyone else: don’t leave food in front of you unless you want to eat it all.

My cousin gave me leftovers of everything (of course) so my plan for the rest of this dairy-tastic holiday is to eat smaller portions and spread it out over the course of a couple of days. I’ll still be getting my dairy on, just not so intensely!

Oil Alternatives

Posted: December 9, 2009 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

It seems like every week there’s another Jewish holiday, right? Coming up starting the night of December 11th is one of my faves, Chanukah (or “Hanukkah”, whichever spelling works for you). I’m still a bit annoyed that my Thanksgiving was sadly pumpkin-less, so at some point I’m going to have to figure out a way to incorporate it into the festivities.

The big food deal for Chanukah is oil. It wouldn’t be a festival of lights if there wasn’t any oil in which to create the lights! Of course, since oil must be incorporated into what’s eaten, like all Jewish holidays this makes for a fattening time of year. Since I’m concerned about being healthy and not having a heart attack due to deep fried sufganiyot (jelly donuts) or deep fried latkes, it was with interest when I read recently somewhere that what some people are doing now are not necessarily deep frying potatoes or sugar, but splashing olive oil atop dishes, like a garnish. Hey, that counts!

I’m not much of a soup person, but one cool suggestion is creating a butternut squash soup or pureed veggie soup of choice and drizzling high quality olive oil just before serving. Or, an arugula, walnut, cider-soaked onion salad tossed lightly with olive oil and spices. Unless you like salads, though, this isn’t particularly exciting. But at least if someone asks why you’re not downing latkes like everyone else, you have an excuse, “I had my fill of oil already, thanks!” (Assuming you have enough willpower to turn that stuff down.)

Another thing you can do which I snack on at home sometimes, is, just like in a fancy restaurant, pouring a small plate of good quality olive oil and either shaking in tons of zahtar spice mix or balsamic vinegar and wiping it up with doughy slices of challah. This isn’t exactly healthy though… but you can tell yourself at least it’s not a donut.

What other oil alternatives can you come up with?

A Very Zen Thanksgiving

Posted: November 18, 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!

Anti-food and Yom Kippur

Posted: September 26, 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.


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!

- 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.


Johanna: The Improviser

Never quite follows the recipe. Doesn't really measure. Tastes with her fingers. Somehow, it always works.

Alyssa: The Triple Threat

Can do it all. And modest to boot.

Bakezilla: We Use Mixers Too

She likes to bake. Actually, baking is the only thing she does. It's a passion.

Rita: The Kosher Chick

Restrictions have nothing on her.