Milk and Honey

Last week I went outside to Rich who was busy working on his bicycle. “Honey, right now I’m cooking some wheat berries in the pressure cooker. They should be done in about 15 minutes.” “Um, OK…” Rich responded. I could hear the skepticism in his voice.

“But I’ve realized that the dish I had in mind would instead be a perfect dish for Shavuot,” “Jewish Pentecost?” he asked, making sure he was thinking of the right holiday.  “Yup!” I said. “So tonight, we’re having macaroni and cheese,” then I paused, “from a box!” (There weren’t a lot of kosher mac and cheese options growing up, so it’s a totally foreign dish to me.) “Yippee!” Rich replied with a genuine enthusiasm for a true dish of his childhood.

Let me unpack this a little, starting with the wheat berries. A few months back, I went a little wild in the bulk bin aisle. I had come across some new recipes, and was so excited by them that I filled up my sack with all sorts of goodies. Along with wheat berries, I now have containers of mung beans, Kamut and other grains lining the shelves of my pantry.

But excited as I was with my bounty, I quickly remembered that I wasn’t going to be the only one enjoying the new dishes. Rich, of course, would be dining with me, and as willing as he is to try something new, quite often something completely foreign to him, I realize that sometimes I’m asking a lot of him. I took a good look at the small, round green mung beans and asked myself, Am I really going to feed my husband mung beans?

You see, Rich comes from a world of meat and potatoes, with a strong dose of dessert (cake and ice cream, not fruit). I, as you can probably gather from the blog, was brought up kosher and with a vegetarian streak. Our childhood palates are only the least of our different beginnings. When I first met Rich, I could have never imagined him ever being my husband. And how could I? He was raised in a very traditional Catholic household – an altar boy until 18, no less.  And I was raised in an equally if not more traditional Jewish household, with years of Jewish day school and a degree from Jewish seminary to boot.

So when we first got together, I asked myself the same question that I did looking at those mung beans: Is this really going to work?  And it’s been challenging at times, but my husband has proven to be a very capable student of Judaism. And he’s taught me about Christianity, especially where the New Testament has borrowed from the Old. More importantly, being in a relationship with Rich has taught me tolerance and acceptance of the unknown.

Next up: Shavuot. It’s the day the Jewish people celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We actually count down the days from the second day of Passover, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, to their arrival at Mt. Sinai — in total, a seven-week journey. As Rich put it after I explained it to him: “So that’s where we got Pentecost from.”

Shavuot is also one of the three harvest festivals on the Jewish calendar, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. There are more customs than laws for this holiday. Some observant Jews mark the occasion by staying up all night studying Torah. Reading the Book of Ruth, the story of the righteous convert which takes place during the barley harvest, is another popular tradition.

Jews eat dairy on the holiday. There are many explanations to this one, but most focus on the Children of Israel receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. And with the Torah, they also received the kosher laws and discovered that their pots and pans, and even their meat itself, would not pass muster.  Eating dairy, even today, is considered the easiest way to circumvent these issues.

This recipe is all of three ingredients, but each one touches on a Shavuot tradition. The Ricotta cheese is straight-up dairy, and the wheat berries pick up on the harvest theme. Finally, the whole thing is mixed with honey – as in “the land of milk and.” But most importantly, it’s an accessible dish for my husband, who’s still impressing me with his openness to my religion and cuisine.

Wheat Berries with Ricotta and Honey from The Italian Country Table by Lynn Rossetto Casper

This dish has its origins in southern Italy, where it is eaten for lunch, dinner or a snack. In the United States, it’s viewed as more appropriate for brunch or dessert. I cook my wheat berries for 18 minutes in the pressure cooker.

Ingredients

1 cup (5 ounces) hard wheat kernels (wheat berries)

Water

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups high-quality creamy ricotta

Honey to taste

½ cup currants or raisins

Generous pinch of ground cinnamon (optional)

  1. Soak the wheat in cold water to cover overnight in the refrigerator
  2. Drain and place in a 3-quart saucepan along with the salt and enough water to cover by 2 or 3 inches. Cook at a slow simmer, partially covered, about 1 hour, or until tender. The kernels will open up slightly.
  3. Drain the wheat and combine it with the ricotta. Blend in honey to taste and the currants or raisins. Turn into a deep serving bowl and dust with cinnamon, if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature in small bowls.

All About Aleza Eve

When I was in college, I took some time off and moved to Jerusalem. I lived at the top of a very high hill, on a street lined with jasmine trees that perfumed my daily walks. A hammock was strung between two loquat trees in the backyard, upon which I read all the English books I could get my hands on at Steimansky’s book store.

I spent that spring studying Jewish texts at a co-educational, non-denominational yeshiva, something that’s still of a bit of an anomaly.  The traditional Rabbinic approach to learning is to study a shared text with discussion and debate. My partner was named Aleza, and we really were a pair that year. We spent nearly every day together, in and outside of school. From Cairo to the shuk, we were partners. I remember bumping into classmates at the market and being asked where Aleza was. “Oh, she’s in the dairy section,” I answered. We were inseparable.

When you’re in Israel, everyone tells you how great Purim is, like no other celebration you’ve ever seen. Brazil might have Carnival, and New Orleans has Mardi Gras, but Jerusalem has Purim. The night of the megillah reading, I wore the homemade wings my friend Jonathan fashioned for me out of wire and white muslin. I ended up getting a terrible migraine that night, so I fluttered home and crawled into bed.

The next day Aleza and I hosted a Persian-inspired meal full of saffron and nuts. I don’t remember for certain everything we cooked, but I do remember that I mistook the salt for the sugar in a potato dish. It was dreadful. The next month, my 21st birthday coincided with a visit from Aleza’s father, and she cooked us a wonderful vegetarian feast with bright curries and pestos. Truly magnificent.

Without a doubt, Aleza remains my favorite home chef, and the recipe I have here is her inspiration. She actually told me about one of these hamentashen fillings last year. Hamentashen, the tri-cornered cookie typically filled with jam, is a Purim must. I’ve been taught that the three corners of the cookie represent the hat that the evil Haman wore. I’ve also heard that these are Haman’s pockets, and another source calls them his ears. Whatever body part or article of clothing, this year’s hamentashen have been coopted as part of my cardamom jag.

The cookie recipe is from Spice and Spirit: The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook. This is a terrific cookbook, put together by a guild of Lubavitch women. It’s a wonderful source for those interested in learning more about kashrut, and all the recipes in it are pitch perfect. I have never had a better latke than the one from this book. I actually found my copy of “the purple book” in a second hand bookstore. I was so worried someone would snatch it from me that I hid it under my shirt as I ran to the register.

I’m offering a mix of sweet and savory fillings. The pistachio, cardamom and honey one is pure Aleza, while the toasted pine nuts, honey and thyme is definitely a holiday treat. Pine nuts are not cheap, so I am only suggesting to use 2 tablespoons worth. You should still get about 8 cookies from just those two tablespoons. And please don’t use cheap pine nuts. The ones from China are sketchy and will leave a terrible metallic taste in your mouth that won’t leave for about two weeks. The rest of the cookies I baked were the standard jams — this year it was apricot and mixed berry.

I will be perfectly honest and admit that most of my hamentashen would not win any beauty contests. A fair number of the cookies’ bellies burst open, spilling their sweet insides all over my baking sheets. I’m not worried though. I guarantee there won’t be a cookie remaining by the end of this weekend.

Fillings (these are my recipes)

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey

Combine in a bowl:

1/4 cup pistachios

2 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

Pine Nuts, Honey and Thyme

Combine in a bowl:

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (I roasted mine stovetop in a small pan, carefully watching to make sure they didn’t burn. Toasted pine nuts are delicious. Burnt pine nuts are garbage.)

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon thyme

The rest of the cookies are up to you. You can never go wrong with the traditional prune butter (lekvar) and poppy seeds (mohn). I’ve read about Nutella ones this year. Sadly, we had none in the house.

Hamentashen

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup oil

Rind of 1 lemon, grated

Juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

5 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

To Make The Cookies

Preheat oven to 350

Grease cookie sheet.

Beat eggs and sugar. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Divide into four parts.

On a floured board roll out each portion to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a round biscuit or cookie cutter cut 3-inch circles.  (Please note: I have never used either of these things in my entire life. Always, always, always have I used a drinking glass turned upside down for this step.)

Place 1/2 to 2/3 teaspoon of desired filling in the middle of each circle.

To shape the triangle, lift up right and left sides, leaving the bottom down, and bring both sides to meet at the center about the filling.

Bring the top flap down to the center to meet the two sides. Pinch edges together.

Place on greased cookie sheets 1 inch apart and bake in 350 preheated oven for 20 minutes.

While the first batch of cookies are baking, gather up the remains of the dough, and roll it back out and start cutting out new circles.

Hello, Old Friend

I’m a big proponent of the well-stocked pantry, but there is one staple that has until recently been banished from my larder: tamari.

You see, tamari and I have a history. When I was in college, I went on a bit of a tamari bender. The darker, thicker, wheat-free cousin of soy sauce found its way into nearly everything I cooked. Back in the day I was a pretty strict vegetarian, and tamari is as flavorful as a piece of meat or hunk of cheese. It enhances the flavor of everything from rice to tofu to steamed vegetables. Tamari is umami incarnate: a concentrated blast of that “fifth taste” that makes meats and hard cheese so mouth-watering.

It took an intervention from my friend, Ben, to get me off the sauce. After eating endless tamari-spiked dishes from my kitchen, Ben began to comment on the tamari addiction. Considering that Ben is finishing up a Psy.D. in counseling, I am glad I took his observations seriously. Under Ben’s watchful eye, I finished up my last bottle and went cold turkey. I haven’t had it in the house for about a decade.

All that changed last week. How I came across this recipe is a fine example of social media. I am Facebook friends with my sister’s sister-in-law, Sarah, and a few weeks back, Sarah posted a question about purchasing some vegetables, and her friend, a perfect stranger to me, responded with this recipe.

It looked good. So good, in fact, that I wrote on Sarah’s wall, to her friend, that I was going to steal the recipe. I did not mention the part about posting it to my blog, but her friend encouraged me to do so, telling me it was the best salad dressing. Ever. The secret? My old friend, tamari. So, judging myself a decade older and wiser, it was off the wagon and off to the market.

Tamari, meet Tahini

And let me tell you, WOW, this dressing is fantastic. Rich hasn’t stopped eating salad all weekend long. I think I’ve counted him eating 7 separate servings of salad in a two-day period. Since I have never served Rich tamari before, he was blown away by the smooth, rich flavor of it. He could totally see why I had the addiction; low in calories and animal-free, tamari is pretty darn remarkable. Now I have a fresh bottle of it in the house, and I will work hard to make sure I don’t abuse it.

This is a pantry recipe if I’ve ever seen one. You really should have everything here on hand at all times in the house. I’m not very particular about my tahini brands; I’ve tried maybe 3 or 4, and there’s no one that really jumped out at me or I didn’t like. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t have nutritional yeast on hand, most people don’t, but it’s good idea to have a hunk of parmesan hang out in the fridge to top off pastas, risottos or in this case, for dressings. You can whisk this altogether in a bowl, but I wanted the smoothness of a blender. Either will work.

Ingredients

2/3 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup tahini
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (or finely grated hard cheese)
1/4 cup tamari
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients in a bowl or blend together in a blender. I served this with some crunchy romaine and crisp discs of cucumbers and radishes, simply because that’s what I had on hand in the fridge. I have a feeling this dressing will work with just about any vegetable, but use a stronger lettuce than say, mesclun.

For now, the leftover dressing is in a jar in the fridge. I’m not sure how long it stays, but I don’t think it’s going to be around for more than couple more days.