Welcome to the South.
Atlanta, to be exact.
I spent last weekend with my adopted Atlanta family. They “adopted” me years ago when my parents had moved to the West coast and getting home for the holidays proved difficult. The first time I went home with Meira was Rosh Hashana. I met the family – Monica, Caroline, Micah and relatives from Montreal – over dinner. A dinner that included simanim – eating symbolic foods to represent hopes for the coming new year. A dinner served on three tables that snaked around the dining room. (You know how much I like snaking tables for the holidays.) A dinner that included so much food and so many guests that it had to be served buffet style in the kitchen.
When we had gathered around the buffet, Meira pulled me aside and whispered “FHB.” In response to my tilted head and furrowed eyebrows, she explained, “family hold back – I’m afraid we won’t have enough food for our guests.”
At that point, I knew I was part of the Katz family.
The next morning when I stumbled downstairs, I found Deborah at the kitchen table, having popped over for breakfast. (Deborah! I used her first book as a source for my high school senior thesis. So, I’ll just say it again: Deborah!)
Over the course of the next few days, we had lunch with Roberta and Allen, Leslie and Chuck, and countless Atlanta families who have welcomed me back into their homes and their community many times since.
Over the course of the next few years, the Katz family grew, and I’ve joined in for many of their simchas (celebrations). First Caroline met Randy. Natanel soon followed as they purchased a house just a few blocks from Monica. Then came Eden with those long gorgeous eyelashes. Then Micah met Eliana. Meira and I visited them out in San Francisco last year. Amanda Lynn and Chipper Jones rounded out the family. Caroline and Randy bought a mini-van for this growing brood.
The kids got nicknames. For a few months each, I called them Monkey and Duckie after the stuffed animals I bought when they were born. But, leave it to the Katz family – they are a family of nicknamers. Nanz and Shaindy quickly emerged. As Nanz grew, everyone around him got new names. Monica became Maman. Caroline and Randy became Mommy and Abba. Meira became Dodah. Micah and Eliana became Uncle Macah and Auntie Ana (with the British pronunciation of auntie, not the American “antie”). Deborah became Dodah Deba. This trip, I became Dodah Gayle (though I’m still pushing for Tante Gayle). Natanel also started calling me Miguel — I’m thinking he means My Gayle, and I’m cool with that.
As a birthday gift to Maman, I offered to cook shabbat dinner last week. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. When she heard I was visiting, Monica (I’m still getting used to calling her Maman) emailed me immediately to ask if I would cook for her and the family. In the days leading up to my trip, she and I emailed back and forth to decide on a menu and prepare a shopping list. Mere hours after my arrival, we went grocery shopping. For fifteen people. That’s right, fifteen family members and guests would grace our table that Friday night. I’ve never cooked for that many people in my life.
We filled a giant shopping cart at Kroger. We bought over 8 pounds of mushrooms (that soup recipe will follow in a few days), 3 bunches of red chard, 10 pounds of potatoes, 4 heads of cauliflower, and on and on. While I’m mentioning Kroger, let’s talk about their in-house (kosher) butcher for a moment. When he saw the two of us pondering the ribs in the refrigerated section, grumbling that they were not quite what we wanted, he approached and asked if he could help. I explained what we were preparing and that I needed thick short ribs – about 2-3 inches of bone – and cut in one or two rib pieces. He returned with a piece of meat, cut to my specifications, asking if it was OK. It looked great. He then spent the next 30 minutes while we filled that giant cart, cutting and packaging the meat exactly the way I wanted. I might actually consider that this year’s Hanukkah miracle.
While on line, Monica sent me back to the butcher to pick up a few more pounds of short ribs (again, exactly to my specifications). At this point we had north of 13 pounds of ribs. I can say for sure that I have never had that much raw meat in my posession in my life (though, I did once come close).
We got home and I set to work. I seared and I braised. I stirred and I blended. And then we all went out for Chinese food for dinner. The next morning, Sylvia showed up.
Given that Sylvia is wearing an apron and cleaning chard and the fact that I’m wearing makeup (well, I did put it on special for the picture) and hugging her, you might think that Sylvia did the bulk of the cooking on Friday. And you would be correct. I was finishing up a project for work, and my “study breaks” included seasoning the cauliflower florets she had cut up, sauteed the chard she had washed, roasting garlic, mashing the potatoes she had cut and boiled, and observing the chicken she was breading with pretzels. I was in heaven!
Before the guests arrived, Monica fretted that we wouldn’t have enough ribs to go around. The rule of thumb is one pound of ribs per person, but I had figured that 13 pounds would suffice for 15 people since a few of those people were kids. Like a good Jewish mother, Monica was concerned that someone might go home hungry.
So, I made an executive decision. We were not going to serve buffet style. We were going to plate in the kitchen and serve everyone individually. You should try this because everyone thinks its fancy.
And no one in the family had to hold back.
Ana Sortun’s tamarind-braised beef short ribs (“Sultan’s Delight”)
This recipe is from Ana Sortun’s Spice” Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean with just a few modifications. It serves 8, but it’s easy to modify using the formula of 1 pound of meat per person. This is one of those recipes that can be made in advance and is better the next day. I like to use a cocotte (dutch oven) with a heavy cover because you can sear and braise in the same pot. If you don’t have one, use any other ovenproof pan covered with heavy duty aluminum foil.
– 8 pounds beef short ribs (1 pound per person)
– kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
– 1 C medium-bodied red wine (I used a shiraz)
– 1 C balsamic vinegar
– ½ C packed brown sugar
– 3-4 garlic cloves
– 1 large onion
– 1 carrot (or a handful of baby carrots)
– 2 T tamarind paste/concentrate (see directions below to make your own, or buy the kosher Golchin brand)
Prep. Bring meat to room temperature. Pat dry and then season meat on all sides with salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 350F. Roughly chop the onion and carrot, and mince the garlic. Whisk the tamarind into a cup of water and set aside.
Sear. In an ovenproof pot (a dutch oven/cocotte is great), sear the seasoned meat in a tiny bit of olive oil – you don’t need to add much oil because short ribs do have a fair amount of fat. Sear the meat until there is nice caramelization on all sides. You know it’s ready when the meat shrinks away from the bone. You may need to do it in 2 batches, depending on the size of your pot. Put the seared ribs on a plate.
Deglaze. Deglaze the pan with the red wine. Add the vinegar, brown sugar, and garlic and mix until the sugar dissolves. Pour the liquid into a bowl.
Fill. Lay the ribs in one layer on the pot. They can be a little bit crowded. Pour the liquid mixture and the tamarind paste dissolved in water over the ribs. The liquid should come ¾ up the sides of the short ribs. Add more water if necessary.
Cover. Cover the meat in the pot with parchment paper and then cover the entire pot with heavy duty aluminum foil. Then cover the whole thing with a heavy lid or an extra layer off foil. Essentially, you want the pot tightly closed.
Braise. Place the pot in the oven and braise for 3 – 3.5 hours. You know the short ribs are ready when they fall apart when poked with a fork. Some of the bones will probably be completely separated from the meat.
Strain. Use tongs to remove the meat onto a platter. Strain the liquid into a bowl.
Chill. Place the bowl of liquid into the fridge for at least an hour until the fat rises to the top and completely solidifies.
Boil. Boil the de-fatted liquid in a pot and then simmer until reduced by ¼. Whisk every once in a while – the sauce will thicken and glisten.
Reheat. Return the short ribs to the cocotte/dutch oven. Add half the sauce and about ½ C water. Cover tightly and reheat for 20-30 minutes, rolling the ribs around in the sauce every 10 minutes.
Serve. Pour a little extra warmed sauce over the ribs when you serve them with mashed potatoes, sauteed red chard, and “popcorn” cauliflower.
Tamarind is a fruit in a pod. You can buy the dried pods in Indian grocery stores. Making the paste from scratch takes a while but isn’t too labor intensive – I’ve actually made it a few times. What you’re interested in is turning the sticky stuff into a concentrate. This recipe is adapted from Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.
– 1 pound tamarind pods
– 1 C sugar
– 1 T lemon juice
Peel. With your fingers, gently crack the dried pods and pull out the sticky seeds. The seeds are linked in a chain and have a fibrous “spine” running down the length of the fruit. The “spine” comes off pretty easily – discard this along with the pod shells.
Soak. In a large bowl, cover the sticky seeds with warm water. Cover and soak overnight (at least 6 hours).
Strain. With your hands, mash the pulp, separating out the fibers and pits. Cut out a large piece of cheese cloth and double it up. Place it in a bowl and fill it with the pulp. You want to have a lot of extra cheese cloth around the edges. Pull the edges of the cloth together around the pulp and keep twisting to strain out as much of the pulp as possible.
Soak and strain again. In a new bowl, dump the pulp that was left in the cheesecloth in more water. Again, mash up the pulp. Strain through cheesecloth again. You may need to do this a third time.
Boil and simmer. Bring all of the strained liquid to a boil in a large saucepan. Lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Mix in sugar and lemon juice.
Boil again. Increase the heat to medium and slowly boil, stirring with a wooden spoon. The mixture will continue to reduce and eventually turn very dark brown and take on a silky consistency.
Store. Once the concentrate has cooled, pour it into a glass jar. You should have about a cup. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to a year.