Piece of Cake

I turned 34 last week. Once upon a time, that meant that I’d be ripe for a mid-life in just a year or two, but the way things are going these days, barring any terrible illness, it’s only a third of my life at this point. Heaven knows what sort of crazy discoveries they’ll make in science 50 years from now. There are flecks of grey in my hair, and the one true marker of age that my face reveals are the laugh lines that form around my mouth when I smile. Although it’s a little scary, I tell myself that laugh lines are much more becoming than wrinkles and worry lines.

We didn’t have a big party this year. A friend of mine from college baked me the same carrot cake he baked me when I turned 19; I guess we’re on a 15-year schedule, so mark your calendar for 2027. There are not one, not two, but three birthday cards depicting cats doing cute things on my mantel. One friend brought me a small piece of fancy goat cheese aged in a grape leaf. Another friend brought me gray and smoked salt caramels. And another friend brought me a large bag of farro. My mother-in-law made me a gorgeous quilt in blues and greens. My in-laws also gave me a gift card to Barnes & Noble with a note suggesting that I might want to use it to buy a new cookbook. One of my brothers-in-law gave me a gift card from Williams-Sonoma. The same brother-in-law gave me a gift card for Sur La Table for Christmas. Am I that predictable? The stores actually face each other in the mall so part of me thinks he just flips a coin to decide which shop to pick me up a gift card from. I’m not complaining.

With the last gift card he bought me, I was able to replace the mortar and pestle that Rich had lost (along with his kitchen privileges) last year. Because I now once again have a mortar and pestle, for this past Shabbat dinner, I was able to make this cucumber with smashed garlic and ginger salad from Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian masterpiece Plenty (which I received for Christmas from another brother-in-law; the third gave me a gift card to Crate and Barrel). As I wrote a few months ago, I was a bit aggravated to discover I had ordered the wrong Ottolenghi at the library, but was thrilled with the recipes. Well, now that I have this cookbook, I understand what all the fuss was about.

This cucumber salad takes a little bit of time. The red onions sit in the dressing of rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and sugar for about an hour which mellows them and removes any sort of bite. The recipe also calls for Maldon salt flakes. If you can’t find it readily available in your area, Amazon has it, although it’s actually much cheaper at Whole Foods. It doesn’t have to be Maldon; any flakey salt will do.

Finally, this salad comes with a warning: Be very careful when tasting it to make sure everything is seasoned right. I almost ate the entire dish on the counter with my fingers. It’s that kind of salad. You’ll notice that I didn’t manage to stage a shot. Getting too near this salad meant I would eat it. We ate this alongside the cabbage and baked tofu dish. It was perfect.

Cucumber Salad with Smashed Garlic and Ginger

Serves 4 – 6 as a condiment or a side salad

Ingredients

Dressing

3 tbsp rice wine vinegar

2 tsp sugar

2 tbsp sunflower oil (I use olive with no unfortunate results)

2 tsp toasted sesame oil

Salad Ingredients

1 small red onion, very thinly sliced

1 ½ inches fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

1 tsp Maldon sea salt

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

4 small (or 8 mini) cucumbers (1 ¼ lbs.) peeled

1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

3 tbsp chopped cilantro

Directions

To make the dressing. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients in a medium mixing bowl.

Add the sliced red onion, mix well and leave aside to marinate for about an hour.

Place the ginger and salt in a mortar and pound well with a pestle. Add the garlic and continue pounding until it is also well crushed and broken into pieces (stop pounding before it disintegrates into a paste). Use a spatula to scrape the contents of the mortar into the bowl with the onion and dressing. Stir together.

Cut the cucumbers lengthwise in half, then cut each half on an angle into ¼ -inch-thick slices. Add the cucumber to the bowl, followed by the sesame seeds and cilantro. Stir well and leave to sit for 10 minutes.

Before serving, stir the salad again, tip out some of the liquid that has accumulated at the bottom of the bowl, and adjust the seasoning.

Right Now

The past few days have involved transitioning the Pesach kitchen back to its wonderful, chametz-filled self, so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve been thinking about lately.

  • I know I mentioned in passing a few weeks back, but next week is the first ever Boston Jewish Food Conference. I’m leading a conversation about healthy Jewish eating which will feature an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, a specialist in Kripalu yoga and Ayurveda, and a personal chef. This week I interviewed Leora Mallach, co-founder of the conference. And here’s a description of the workshops and the link to register.
  • The Garum Factory is one of my favorite new sites for recipes. I bookmarked this recipe for roasted cauliflower and dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend, at the start of Pesach, and I can’t wait to make it. (Dave Lebowitz featured a dukkah recipe this past week, too.)
  • I wrote about a wonderful essay by Tamar Adler nearly a half year ago, but now her book, An Everlasting Meal, has been picked up a number of places. I’ve fallen in love with the video shorts on her site. All of them are great, and I love all the music, as well.
  • I bookmarked this recipe for a magical-sounding dessert when I was first injured. Now that I’m better, I can’t wait to get into the kitchen to make these.
  • Someone recently sent me The Meat Free Monday Cookbook, the intro to which is written by the meat-free day’s creator, Paul McCartney — Sir Paul McCartney. I’ve found myself curling up on the couch and bookmarking the vegetarian recipes and enjoying the photos. I’ll be sharing some recipes from the book in the next few weeks.

So Much More To It

For the past month, I’ve read piles of Passover recipes from all sorts of bloggers who have explained about chametz and unleavened things, and maybe some people have even talked about kitniyot. But what I haven’t read about is that, in order to make Pesach (that’s what I’m going to call Passover from now on) it’s much more than just not cooking with unleavened things. Every pot and pan and knife and cutting board and plate I use in my kitchen all year long is chametzdik – contaminated, basically. So everything I use to cook and eat all year long cannot be used during the eight days of the holiday. Think of them as chametz cooties.

In my basement — and I promise you, in Jews’ basements all over the world — lives an entire separate kitchen of pots and pans, cutting boards, tablecloths, dishes and a teapot. In my case, this includes a Pesadik pressure cooker. And remember, Jews don’t mix milk and meat, so it’s really double of everything – the meat pots, pans, knives, cutting boards and dishes, and the dairy pots, pans, knives, cutting boards and dishes. To simplify things, I keep vegetarian during Pesach, so I only have to deal with half as much stuff as other people.

So the kitchen is brought up, box by box. And then you have to “turn the kitchen over” for Pesach: scrubbing down the oven and stove, cleaning out the whole refrigerator and locking up the the cupboards. Those countertops you prepare your food on all year long are also chametzdik, so you have to cover those counters. Thankfully, I have granite countertops so I just have to pour boiling water over them to kasher them. But if you walked into my kitchen tonight you would see a stove covered in tin foil and each burner wrapped in foil as well. Like I said, chametz cooties.

And then there is the shopping. Just as the dishes and pots and pans have to be specially set aside for Pesach, everything you cook that has been processed has to also be kosher l’Pesach. Your favorite olive oil, your favorite vinegar, your favorite Aleppo powder and your favorite vanilla extract might be fine the rest of the year, but you need to make sure all those things are kosher for Pesach. For some unexplained reason Ocean State Job Lot has been selling kosher l’Pesach olive oil all year long for the past few years, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

I always grumble about having to take off vacation days to prepare for Pesach, as I spent Thursday’s “vacation” morning pushing through the crowds at Russo’s to pick up my produce for this week. My cart was piled high with zucchini, mangoes, avocadoes, mushrooms, and a jicama, to which I decided I’d make a nice citrusy salad with a little kick of hot pepper to it.

And then I had to get everything into the house. I’m much stronger than I have been in months, but I’m not allowed to wear a purse – thankfully I’ve been able to find a cute backpack – so the 17 bags of groceries I picked up at the market had to be carried in one-at-time from the car, which itself took about 20 minutes to do before I could even unpack everything into my empty refrigerator.

Friday morning Rich and I flew down to DC because Sylvie hosted seder this year. I poked around in her kitchen and discovered that she had picked up zucchini, mangoes, avocadoes, mushrooms and a jicama – pretty much everything I had, and probably with the same dishes in mind.

Jicama – which is pronounced Hee-Kah-Mah – is a Mexican yam or turnip. Its flesh is white and its taste is crisp and fresh and just screams for a contrast of heat and tart. I’ve noticed people tend to serve it sliced in matchsticks although Sylvie pointed out it’s much easier to spear a cube of it with a fork then maneuver smaller pieces of them.

She made her salad with a supremed grapefruit, but if that’s too bitter for you, try it with orange. Even still, if your reflux is acting up, skip the massive amounts of citrus and replace it with just a squeeze or two of lime juice.

Jicama Salad with Grapefruit

Ingredients

1 jicama, peeled and cubed

1 grapefruit, supremed – make sure to supreme the fruit directly over the bowl so all the juices are caught

1 small chili pepper, minced

1/4 of a small red onion, chopped

1 large handful of cilantro — about 2 Tablespoons — chopped

3 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 scant teaspoon salt

Several healthy grinds of fresh black pepper

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir to combine. Refrigerate the salad for at least an hour before serving, allowing the ingredients to get to know each other and marinate.