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Archive for May, 2020

Well, today just may be the day that I turn on my air conditioner for the first time this year. I’ve cleaned the filter of my unit, so it’s ready for action, but, like all years, I try to hold out for as long as I can. I just don’t like air conditioning. Don’t get me wrong, I love having it – they sure didn’t have such a luxury in the shtetl – and I love standing in front of it every once in a while, but I like being able to keep the fresh air flowing rather than recycled. And so, two windows flung open, all three fans cranked up, I’m hoping that the heavy humidity breaks into a quick cooling downpour soon.

Eventually, I know I’ll have to bring the temperature of my apartment way down so that I can once again turn on the oven for two, almost three, hours to melt some cabbage. This is another cult classic of Adeena Sussman‘s from her Sababa cookbook that itself has developed a cult following. This dish transforms the humble crucifer into a complex yet comforting dish by braising it with other shtetl staples and then a splash of white wine (like air conditioning, not a shtetl staple). You end up with spoon tender cabbage, garlic and onion softened and sweetened and nestled in the leaves, and pools of what can best be described as potlikker.

Hot, cold, room temperature, it’s all good any which way you want to eat it. (The photo above was second day cabbage, eaten cold, straight from the pan, straight from the refrigerator.) So, even if I could resist the air conditioner through the end of the month, I doubt I’ll make it that long without this melted cabbage.

Adeena Sussman’s Melted Green Cabbage

Just barely adapted from Adeena Sussman’s Sababa (recipe published here). While I typically rewrite recipes in my own language, I’ll let Adeena’s stand on its own. I’ve noted any substitutions or tips I have in italics.

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 2 1/2 to 3 hours

1/3 cup (75 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp (10 mL) kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp (2 mL) coarsely cracked black pepper, plus more to taste
2 small heads of green cabbage (2 lb; 900 g), quartered (but not cored)
10 whole garlic cloves, peeled
4 shallots, peeled and halved (no shallots, so I substitute 1 medium or 2 small yellow onions)
1/2 cup (125 mL) dry, acidic white wine, such as Albariño or Grüner Veltliner
1/2 cup (125 mL) chicken or vegetable broth, plus more if necessary (I’ve even used water)
4 sprigs fresh thyme (I’ve omitted)
3 tbsp (45 mL) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup (50 mL) crème fraîche or sour cream
Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)

STEP 1

Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C).

STEP 2

In a heavy, large, high-sided skillet or shallow Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) of the pepper directly onto the oil, then arrange the cabbage wedges in the pot, making sure that each is lying on a flat side (you can cram them in; they’ll relax into one another as they release liquid). (I had to do this in 2 batches.) Let the undersides get nice and brown, resisting the urge to move them too much but checking once to make sure they’re not burning (reduce the heat slightly if they are), 6 to 7 minutes. Using tongs, flip the cabbage wedges, then tuck the garlic cloves and shallots into the pot, and brown the undersides of the cabbage, another 6 to 7 minutes. Add the wine and broth, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and add the remaining 1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt and 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) pepper along with the thyme. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, transfer to the oven, and cook until soft, slumped and mahogany brown, 2 hours, or 2 1/2 hours for even softer cabbage. Uncover, cool slightly, and serve the cabbage with the liquid accumulated in the pot. Season with salt and pepper and top with butter and crème fraîche. Serve with lemon wedges, if desired.

Serves: 4

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Walking distance from my mom’s place in South Florida, we discovered earlier this year a no-frills Russian grocery store. Well, we always knew it was there, and that it drew large crowds seated on plastic chairs at plastic tables on the sidewalk, but this year I popped in. After checking out the produce (a pretty normal assortment) and the aisles of Cyrillic-labeled bottles, jars, and cans, I was drawn to the buffet that ran the length of the store. I bee lined to the cold section: an overabundance of cold salads consisting of combinations of vegetables, heavy on the dill and cabbage and pickling. I got hooked on the more vinegary of these salads, taking home more than a few pints and quarts of them and rounding out most lunches and dinners with a little of this, a little of that.

Fast forward to the “pause” and “stay-at-home” orders that keep getting extended, and I’ve returned to my Eastern European roots. I’ve been loading up on what my friend and I like to call shtetl vegetables – beets, potatoes, carrots, cabbage – ones that are hardy and last for weeks, months even, helpful during these times of limited grocery runs. As I’ve grown weary of soup and look forward to more spring vegetables, I’ve been using up these shtetl staples to make big batch salads that stay good in the fridge.

My most recent batch: salat vinegret*.

In watching a discussion of Soviet-Jewish Cuisine featuring Bonnie Morales of Kachka and author Boris Fishman, I learned the word zakuski – a spread of appetizers similar to mezze – that are always in the fridge, ready to pull out when a guest drops by, a tangible element of hospitality, usually served with vodka. Each of the participants had prepared zakuski, and my friend Gabi who was leading the talk showed a bowl salat vinegret, pink-tinged cubes of beets and potatoes, dressed with pickled cabbage, vinegar and traditional sunflower oil.

Remembering how much I loved the salads from Matryoshka’s buffet, I looked up salat vinegret and – not surprisingly, has most of the ingredients. I made do with what I had – those shtetl genes run deep, I tell you – and have been eating from this huge bowl for days. No guests allowed, so I shared with a friend who lives across the street from me.

* Of course I have a footnote. Vinegret comes from the French vinaigrette which is a diminutive of the word vinaigre (vin aigre = sour wine = vinegar). Most agree that the term came eastward due to the Russian nobility’s Francophilia and Francophonia, and the preparation – using vinegar to hide any off flavors – became popular in the early Soviet era when fresh produce was scarce, and frozen or canned goods dominated. Over time, vinegret has come to refer to any beet salad. It can also mean a mish-mash.

Salat Vinegret

Recipe developed in reviewing this and this, and rummaging through my fridge and pantry.

Makes a lot, 2 quarts perhaps (I didn’t measure)

– 1 lb new potatoes potatoes (4 medium)
– 2 lbs beets (2 large)
– 4-5 medium pickles (and 1/4 C pickle juice, optional)
– 1 small yellow onion
– 1 T chopped dill
– 1 T chopped parsley
– 2-3 T vegetable oil (ideal is sunflower from Ukraine, but it’s not something that I had in my pantry)
– 1-2 T mild vinegar (I used cider vinegar)
– Salt
– Other traditional ingredients: cooked carrots, peas, sauerkraut

Roast. Roast (or boil) beets and peel. I roasted by wrapping them individually in foil with a little salt and vegetable oil and cooking in a hot oven (400F – 425F) for a little over an hour (depending on size) until a paring knife pierced easily through to the center. When cool enough to handle but still warm, the skin will slide off pretty easily with your hands (the hotter, the easier). If you’re having a hard time peeling, they may need a little time in the oven.

Boil. While the beets are roasting, boil the potatoes in salted water over high heat, 10-15 minutes until that same knife pierces easily through the center. Don’t overcook, or they potatoes can get water logged.

Cut. Cut the beets into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes/pieces. Transfer to a large bowl, and clean off the cutting board and knife. Cut the potatoes and pickles into pieces roughly the same size. Finely dice the onion. Add the vegetables and chopped herbs to the bowl.

Mix. Drizzle in oil, vinegar, and pickle juice, and mix. Start tasting. Add some salt. Keep tasting until it suits you.

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I went to Israel on Friday!

Ok, it was just an hour. And it was over Zoom. But the challah workshop I attended truly, truly transported me to Mattat in the Galilee, to the kitchen and garden of Erez Komarovsky. Guided by my friend (and Sababa author) Adeena Sussman and hosted by The Jewish Food Society, dozens of us worldwide baked wild spring challah alongside Erez, whom Adeena calls the godfather of artisanal baking in Israel.

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In his kitchen, at a stone-paved, wood-covered counter and against the soundtrack of chirping birds, Erez kneaded and rolled and braided challah, incorporating greens and herbs and roots and flowers plucked from his garden. Fittingly, he prepared two different versions – one stuffed with artichoke confit, studded with artichoke leaves and flowers and herbs, then showered in rose petals. I’ve photographed my version of the second type – infused with garlic oil, stuffed with garlic confit, and interwoven with root-to-stem strands of wild garlic, green onion, and scallions (he uses freshly dug entire garlic cloves, but I used what I was able to get at the greenmarket and grocery store).

Erez explained that moving to Mattat, just south of the Lebanese border, nearly two decades ago completely changed his life: “I improved my skills as a chef and baker because I live in nature, see seasons, grow my own vegetables.” He laments that baking has been slow to embrace the idea of cooking locally, seasonally, and with terroir. Adeena nicely summarizes that with challahs that come straight from the garden, Erez can bring the essence of nature and one’s surroundings into his bread. And, so could we.

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The virtual audience peppered him with questions to which he and Adeena responded with equal parts technical culinary knowledge, commitment to season and locale, dry humor, and near-continuous laughter.

On the mechanics of challah baking, Erez advises:

… store your yeast in the freezer, it’ll last a year, more than a year, probably longer.

… use the highest protein flour you can find. In Israel there is specialized challah flour, ground from inner part of the kernel, that is less elastic so that when you open the challah (which is how Israelis refer to rolling out the strands), they don’t spring back. Bread flour is nearly as good, AP will suffice if that’s what you have. 

… instead of whole wheat, try spelt, it’s nutty but not as coarse.

… add salt only after kneading dough for a few minutes because it slows yeast growth.

… after rolling out the strands, twist them to give them more strength.

… braid challah loosely to give it room to expand in the oven

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But more fun are his dramatic responses that demonstrate his philosophy on food and life, tempered with an understanding that we each have our own reality and we can’t (unfortunately) all live in Erez’s world:

What if  you can’t find fresh young garlic? If you can’t find fresh garlic, do not make garlic challah. 

Can you use canned artichokes instead of fresh? No. Use what’s in season. You can use mushrooms if mushrooms are in season. If you have good tomatoes, you can roast the tomatoes. Onions, onion confit. You can do peas. You can do mushrooms. You can do chicken liver. 

Do you make sweet challah? Yes, 100%! I love making sweet challah. Now is the season for apricots, so I make knoedel – marillinknoedel – an apricot dumpling. What about using jam? No, too sweet. Well, maybe you can use apricot jam. Or roast the apricots and then drain in a colander. 

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Is there a point in the process when you can freeze the challah dough, so you can bake it in the future? Freezing is good in Wyoming and for the wolves. Freezing challah, why do you have to freeze the challah? Make it fresh. I do not freeze challah. And I know, but really, you can freeze it any time you want. 

How do you store challah, how do you keep it fresh? You eat it. You don’t store it. But, if you want some for tomorrow, if you have some extra, keep it in a paper bag or wrap it in a towel overnight. 

What if  you wanted to make smaller challot? Rolls even? Sure, you can do small, very small if you are obsessive. Go ahead if you have a lot of time because you’re still in quarantine…You can do very small, you can make even microscopic challah if you’d like.

Ahem, guilty:

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And then there’s using baking to honor tradition and history.

What flavor will the rose petals add to the artichoke challah? Smell, and rose flowers do not have a lot of flavor. My grandmother used to make rose jam, so it’s memories here, and my family. 

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After leaving the loaves to rise, Erez and Adeena led us out to the garden. First stop is one of Erez’s several outdoor ovens: This was my first taboon. It’s straw and mud, like in Egypt, by our ancestors. We follow as they meander through the greenery, pausing to look at flowers, pull herbs, taste leaves, pick strawberries, sigh at the views.

Erez approaches some sunflowers: I also use sunflower leaves, and the sunflowers for baking. It’s very good, it’s kind of nose to tail baking. It’s something I don’t know why we’re not doing it. I use every part. Exhibit 1: his sunflower challah.

Adeena asks, how did you learn to grow these vegetables so well? I didn’t learn. I don’t do it so well. It’s trial and error. You just put down good earth. And give it a good compost, and a lot of sun and a lot of water. 

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I think Erez would appreciate the moniker that a new friend, Eve Sicular (bandleader of Isle of Klezbos and Metropolitan Klezmer) dubbed a photo of my challah: vilde challah*. 

Vilde challah. So perfect.

Erez Komarovsky’s Wild Spring Challah 

I’m not going to recreate Erez’s instructions here because they speak for themselves. Here is Erez’s challah recipe shared by the Jewish Food Society. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll find instructions for artichoke and garlic confits. 

However, I do have to make a confession: I used Adeena’s challah recipeYears ago, my father had lost a good amount of weight using the Diet Center meal plan; when asked by a friend whether he had added exercise to his regimen, he responded, “of course not, I didn’t want to add too many variables. I have no doubt that Erez’s base challah recipe is top notch, but as my father’s daughter, I stick with Adeena’s which has been a constant since receiving her cookbook last year. The confit and leaves and roots provided enough variables for me at one time. 

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* In Yiddish, vilde means wild, and vilde challah is a play on the phrase vilde chaya which translates to wild beast. It’s a term often used to describe a kid who is especially rambunctious. Maurice Sendak’s mother used to call him a vilde chaya, and he went on to write Where the Wild Things Are.

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You’ve heard the story of stone soup, right? A stranger comes to town, hungry, but no one will help him. So he makes a big production of scrubbing a stone and placing it in a big pot of water set over a fire. The locals watch. As the “soup” comes to a boil, the stranger dips a spoon for a taste. “It’s great, but would be even better with some potatoes.” Someone runs inside to their cellar for a few potatoes and dumps them in.

“This is delicious, but a few carrots would make it even tastier.” And a kid sneaks into his garden and yanks out a handful of carrots by their tops.

And on and on until the whole town contributes to the soup and everyone eats dinner together.

Stone soup was one of the first things I cooked. As a kid, I actually did drop a (cleaned) stone into the pot. We used V8 as a base and threw in whatever vegetables we had around.

It remains part of my winter repertoire but I’ve replaced the stone with a large chunk (or two) of Parmesan rind, taking a cue from classic minestrone. During these stay-at-home days with limited grocery runs and a need for comfort, stone soup season is still running strong. Each batch larger than the next, and I’ve finally graduated to my largest stock pot and a wooden paddle so long (18 inches!) that I feel like a witch toiling over my bubbling brew.

The majority of the soup goes straight into the freezer in quart containers and zip-top bags. And while I can’t invite people over and share in person, I’ve dropped off frozen quarts for a few friends and my sister.

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Kitchen soup (aka stone soup, vegetable soup)

I started calling this kitchen sink soup, and then I shortened it to kitchen soup. This is more guideline than recipe. The basic formula that I’ve found to work, to give me the right consistency and balance, is as follows 2:1:2:1 – vegetables : crushed tomatoes : liquid : beans

So, here are the quantities that I consider a single batch (about 4-5 quarts):

– 8 C vegetables: bite-sized pieces of onion, celery, carrot, cabbage, kale, new potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, spinach (in approximate order of when you should add them, with zucchini and spinach last as you can just add them in the last 30 minutes)

– 4 C crushed tomatoes (1 28-ounce can is ~3.5 C, but this is close enough)

– 8 C liquid: even mix of vegetable broth and water (1 box of broth = 4 C; 1 tomato can of water = almost 4 C)

– 4 C red kidney beans (2 15.5-oz cans = 4 C)

– Plus a stone, aka Parmesan rind (approximately 2×3 piece)

– other stuff to gather: olive oil, salt

– other stuff that’s optional: 1/2 t red pepper flakes (if you like spice), 2 T tomato paste (to deepen tomato/umami flavor)

Sauté. In a very large pot over a medium flame, heat up enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom (2-3 tablespoons, depending on the size of your pot). Stir in onion, carrot, and celery and sauté until soft but not browned, 7-10 minutes. Add tomato paste and red pepper flakes, and cook, stirring, until the tomato paste changes from a bright red to a deep maroon, about 5 minutes, turning the heat down if it starts to burn.

Deglaze. Pour in a cup of broth or water and scrape up all the bits of tomato paste.

Keep stirring. Add the Parmesan rind and a good pinch of two of salt. Stir in crushed tomatoes, the remaining vegetables (except zucchini or spinach), and drained beans.

Simmer. Add rest of liquid and bring to a slow boil, then turn the heat down to low or medium low to simmer for at least an hour, covered. Keep tasting and adjusting for salt and spicy-ness. Like tomato sauce, the longer you cook, the deeper and richer the flavor. I typically let the soup simmer for about 2 hours. If the soup comes out too thick, call it stew or add more broth. If soup is too thin, keep simmering uncovered until some of the liquid evaporates. If you’re using zucchini or spinach, add it about a half-hour before you plan to serve it.

Serve. Remove from heat and fish out the rind(s). Sprinkle with shredded Parmesan and serve with a nice hunk of bread (or matzah).

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Today’s installment of quasi food science – or is it food quasi-science? – will also involve salt and water and protein.

Last time, we used a salt (or sugar) solution to prevent (egg yolk) proteins from denaturing and aggregating during the freezing process. This week, that same salt solution (no sugar here) causes partial (fish) protein denaturation and also prevents aggregation which in this situation is a good thing because it creates a water-retaining gel. I turned to Harold McGee and Cook’s Illustrated (here and here) for a little help.

So, let’s talk fish protein for a sec. Like meat, fish protein is largely muscle fibers. Unlike meat, fish proteins are shorter and run perpendicular to very delicate connective tissue made of collagen. When heated to 120F-130F, the collagen dissolves into gelatin and the muscle layers separate – the fish flakes.

For tender flakes, we don’t want the muscle fibers to contract any more than they need to before the connective tissue dissolves. A salt-water brine helps. It allows salt to enter cells through diffusion (there’s more salt in the brined than in the cells), and then water follows by osmosis (cells have a greater concentration of “things” floating around in them than the brine does). Salt partially dissolves the contracting fibers and also disrupts their ability to aggregate. As with the yolk, salt ions trap charged protein groups and the proteins can’t bind as tightly to one another or fold onto themselves. This loosening up makes more space for water molecules to wedge their way in. When you apply heat, protein fibers contract but not as much as they might if those water molecules weren’t in the way, and the fish loses less moisture as it is heated.

Brining offers two more benefits. One, it seasons the fish, giving it better flavor. Second, it reduces albumin, the white protein (egg white albumen is a type of albumin) that often congeals on the surface of the fish and really noticeable on pink salmon. So, it’s prettier too.

If you’re still awake, here’s the recipe. Finally.

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Quick-brined salmon with miso-lemon glaze

Makes 8 4-ounce servings

Adapted from Food & Wine. The recipe calls for 2 pounds of salmon but I typically make one pound at a time (I’m just one person, especially during “stay-at-home” orders) and save the leftover glaze in the fridge for a few nights later. Make sure to bring the glaze to room temperature and stir well before spreading on fish. I’ve only ever used this on salmon, but I suspect it’s quite good on milder white fishes as well. 

– 1 T kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
– 2 lbs salmon (with or without skin)
– 3 T canola oil
– 2 T fresh lemon juice
– 1 T shiro miso (white)
– 1/2 t grated garlic (one medium-large clove)
– Sesame seeds, for garnish
– Lemon wedges, for serving

Prep. Preheat the oven to 450F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Brine. In a shallow bowl or baking dish large enough to fit all of the fish in one layer, combine the salt with 2 cups room temperature water and stir to dissolve. Add the salmon and additional water to make sure it’s submerged. Let brine at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Whisk. In a small bowl, whisk the oil, lemon juice, miso, and garlic until smooth.

Bake. Drain the fish, pat dry with a paper towel, and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Generously brush all over with the miso lemon glaze. Roast until golden and just cooked through, 10-12 minutes. Transfer to plates, garnish with sesame seeds and serve with lemon wedges.

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