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Archive for May, 2009

Thought (or hoped) I’d forgotten?  Nope.  I’m plugging away at mine, and I hope to see at least one other.  Even if you don’t finish, send me what you have.  I really want to see what you would write.

In the meantime, I plan to make an absolute buffoon of myself and post mine.  It ain’t gonna be great, but since no one is paying me for it, it doesn’t have to be.  And neither does yours.

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Two turtledoves

I always loved the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a child.  It was fun to sing, and a challenge to remember all the absurd but dramatic gifts one lover gave to another.  (The Cap’n says an amusing lover’s response to the gifts has toured the Internet and includes an exasperated query about the giver’s obsession with birds, i.e. 23 birds in all!)  And turtledoves, particularly, have powerful associations both Biblically and with romantic love.

However, after a recent experience I have been forever disabused of any romantic notions about turtledoves.  They are native to the Holy Land, rust-colored, but otherwise no different from the mud hens and feathered rats that plague urban areas of Europe and the U.S.

Until last week, we had a pair of them nesting atop our yunkers (boiler) cabinet on our second floor balcony.  When I say “nesting,” I use the term very loosely.  What they had really managed to do was collect a few stray twigs, shed a few feathers, and furnish the rest of their love nest with their own droppings.  I would never have noticed them at all if they had not occasionally gotten the urge to “clean house”, and knock all their spare droppings onto the floor of the balcony (no doubt to “refresh” their nest with newer ones).  I don’t know how many clutches of chicks they had planned to rear in this utterly disgraceful environment, but I hope not many.

After the shocking discovery of this affront to good housekeeping on the balcony where I usually hang my laundry in warm weather, something had to be done.  I spent part of an afternoon decked out in grubby clothing, rubber gloves, rags, highly disinfected water, and my government-issue gas mask, removing all signs of these derelicts.  I superglued rows of spikes to the top of the cabinet, and then gave the floor of the balcony a thorough wash.  After double-bagging the waste (including the rags and gloves) and delivering it immediately to the dumpster, I hope I’ve seen the last of that lot.  (Next job: those damned “calling birds” at 4 AM.)

I would never complain about something like this on the Beit Shemesh chat list because there was a militant animal and bird advocate named Ludmilla on there who would give anyone complaining of filthy birds, feral cats, or Palestinian vipers (the reptilian variety) an earful about the animal’s life, habits, and superior right to existence over humans.  But on my own personal blog I am free to call the shots, and I’m here to tell my readers, bird-lovers and the bird-indifferent, that under NO circumstances should anyone give as a gift two turtledoves to someone they love.

Their worst enemy, on the other hand…

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Mazal tov!

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Yesterday, an extraordinary event took place in Efrat.  A couple of gerei tzedek (righteous converts) were married in an outdoor ceremony, and the entire town was invited.

Despite the fact that Efrat’s population is over 9,000 souls, it felt very much like an experience one would have had back in a shtetl 150 years ago, where the towns were so small that all the Jews knew one another and everyone—from the town patriarchs to grubby beggars—would be invited to the celebration.

The preparations included an invitation to the entire yishuv to attend, including requests for baked goods for the kabbalat panim, and a person to contact with donations to help with wedding expenses.  I received a call from a neighbor who was helping to recruit bakers, and offered to deliver my cake (pictured above) to the person organizing the food.

It may not always be easy to get a divorce in the Orthodox world, but the community does its best to make it easy to get married.  Although some people have the desire and means to make a wedding that costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, one can also make a perfectly beautiful wedding on the cheap, outfitting the bride and her attendants in donated wedding and bridesmaids gowns, a chuppah from a gemach (donation center), and cakes and pastries baked by the townspeople, in a beautifully landscaped park in the spring with the sun setting in the west.

When the Cap’n and I got married, our families were able to cover the expense of a mid-priced wedding.  What we lacked, however, were the numbers of family and friends.  Our families were fairly small, living grandparents too elderly or frail to travel, and relatives and friends scattered over the country.  Of the 125 guests invited to our wedding, only 25 were family; the rest were friends, mostly from our community.  As a convert and a ba’al teshuva, we wondered how much direction we should provide about how an Orthodox wedding is executed.  To address this, the Cap’n and I wrote and photocopied a small leaflet explaining the various customs for guests who might be unfamiliar with the procedure.  But the main reason the evening went smoothly was the large number of friends from our community who came and carried the event fluidly from kabbalat panim to chuppah to seudat mitzvah.

I had walked several times through this park in Efrat, admiring the landscaping on the slopes and the wooded area above, with a pergola and brick-paved areas, wondering what the designers could have been thinking.  Last night’s wedding showed how perfectly suited that area could be for a simcha, with the bride holding court in a natural alcove of large rocks and flowers, the groom sitting at one of the tables (where the surface is inlaid with a chess or backgammon board) signing the ketubah with his witnesses.  A large bricked area (suitable for parking) had been set up for dancing, and other areas for tables covered with sweets.

The wedding between two converts was also beautifully timed, falling just before Shavuot.  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who read the ketubah, underscored this connection in a short speech beforehand, reminding us that Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot, was King David’s grandmother and will, according to tradition, be the ancestress of the Mashiach.

In the morning blessings, we read that one of the mitzvot whose fruit we enjoy in this life and whose benefit we reap in the world to come is that of escorting a bride to a chuppah.  It doesn’t say escorting a bride whom we know well, or to whom we are related.  This is why there is no sense of strangeness in participating in and contributing to the wedding of strangers.  The wedding last night was a win-win for the Jews (a situation in which one can see the truth in the expression mitzvah goreret mitzvah, or one mitzvah leads to another); the community helped a couple to marry and fulfill the mitzvah of p’ru u’rvu (be fruitful), and the couple enabled the community to fulfill the mitzvah of escorting the couple to their chuppah.  In addition, the many families who attended (including the Crunches) were able to teach their children about both mitzvot.

The early spring in our community was a period in which many people lost family members, and shiva houses were dotted all over the Gush.  Early summer, on the other hand, has been a season of simcha: a wedding last night, a brit in our community tomorrow (preceded tonight by the neighborhood children going to the home of the new baby and singing Shema and other songs to him to welcome him to our covenant and community), and the festival of Shavuot, followed by Shabbat.

May we merit to know this much joy always.

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Tale of two brains

This was sent to me by one of our local rabbis who had just given a shiur on the concept of “nashim daatan kala” (just so you know there was some context).  I think it explains a lot about the world, don’t you?

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As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, dairy meals on Shavuot are not possible or appealing for everyone.  But one can still avoid meat (treif and otherwise) with a little imagination.  Here is a parve meal that should prove satisfying, without the dairy content.

Menu
Lentil soup
Vegetarian shepherd’s pie
Broccoli with olive oil and garlic
Spinach salad with toasted hazelnuts
Parve cheesecake

For the lentil soup, coarsely chop two medium onions and about six medium carrots.  Sauté the onions in about two tablespoons of canola oil until translucent.  Add the carrots and stir to coat with the onions.  Add 1½ cups of dried lentils (sorted, stones removed), seven cups of water, and ½ cup of rice (I use the long, black Canadian wild rice).  Simmer covered for about 40 minutes, until the lentils are soft and the rice is cooked.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

I developed a recipe for shepherd’s pie while working the food bar in a pub in Cambridge, England.  I learned that what most people call shepherd’s pie is actually “cottage pie,” the former being made with ground lamb or mutton, and the latter with ground beef.  This one is neither, so call it what you will.  I usually start by making the mashed potato topping.  In America, I found potatoes that boiled gracefully, but not in Israel.  The ones here disintegrate, so I bake six large ones at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) for about an hour, let them cool, then peel and mash them with a dash of soy milk, about ¼ cup of canola margarine, and salt and pepper to taste.  Next, brown about a pound of vegetarian ground (thawed, if frozen) with a little oil, breaking it into small bits with a spoon.  Using a packet of vegetarian brown gravy mix, add the water (usually a cup) and sprinkle the powder in a little at a time, stirring constantly.  When the gravy begins to thicken, add about half a bag of frozen mixed vegetables straight out of the freezer.  (If you’re not lazy like me and want to chop and par-cook fresh vegetables, kol hakavod.)  Stir to incorporate.  Pour this mixture into the bottom of a deep pie dish, and spread mashed potato over the top.  At this point you can cover the cooled dish with foil and refrigerate.  Before serving, place on a hot plata for about an hour and a half, or in the oven for about 40 minutes at 350 degrees F.

My favorite way to prepare broccoli these days is to make a sauce of olive oil and garlic cloves to accompany it.  Steam fresh broccoli (for about 7 minutes) and let cool completely in a colander.  If serving the next day, store in a bag or container in single layers with paper towel between; this prevents the moisture from making the broccoli mushy.  Break apart and skin an entire head of garlic, just trimming the bottoms of the cloves.  Heat about ¾ cup of olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Add the garlic cloves and cover, letting them fry in the oil.  Check every minute or two, tilting and shaking the pan to fry the garlic evenly.  When the garlic is evenly browned, remove from heat.  Let cool, then store in a separate container.  To serve, let the broccoli warm to room temperature, then toss with the oil and garlic mixture.

There are plenty of delicious spinach salads out there.  This one happens to have caught my fancy because of my love for toasted hazelnuts (called “filberts”) in my native Oregon.  Start by toasting about ½ cup shelled hazelnuts on a baking sheet at 275 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius) for 20-30 minutes or until skins crack.  To remove the skins, rub nuts while warm in a rough dish towel.  Cool and store in an airtight container if making in advance.  (To chop, I put them in a small ziplock bag and beat them with the dorsal side of a heavy knife or cleaver.)  To make the dressing, combine the following ingredients:
2 T. olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 T. Dijon mustard
2 T. honey
1 t. Worcestershire
½ t. salt
¼ t. pepper
Wash a pound of fresh spinach (baby spinach works best in the States; the spinach sold fresh in Israel is all very tender) and place in a salad bowl.  Add ½ cup of Bacos and chopped hazelnuts.  Add dressing and toss well.  Garnish with sliced or chopped hard-boiled eggs.

This cheesecake recipe was published on the Shemeshlist (the Beit Shemesh chat forum) after Shavuot 2007 and utilizes the most innovative advance in vegetarian technology: Tofutti.  For the base, either crush up some biscuits, mix with margarine and press into the base of a tin, or use a ready-made graham pie crust.  Or don’t have a base!  Mix 1 tub of Tofutti Cream Cheese, 1 tub Tofutti Sour Cream ( if not available use another tub of Tofutti cream cheese), 2 eggs, and ½ C. sugar (or ¾ C. sugar depending on how sweet you like it) with a standing or hand mixer until smooth, then pour into base.  Bake in a 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) oven for about 50 minutes.  It shouldn’t get too brown on the top, only a bit round the edges.

Of course, if you aren’t hosting anyone for Shavuot, you can always take advantage of being allowed to cook on the holiday and just enjoy a proper brunch.  This year, the Crunch family isn’t having guests for Shavuot, so I think I’ll haul out the pan that makes heart-shaped pancakes and delight the Crunch girls with pancakes, maple syrup, vegetarian sausage patties, and fruit salad.  When they get older and—b’ezrat Hashem—a little more sophisticated, perhaps we’ll have shakshuka (eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce), Spanish tortilla with salsa, or scrambled eggs and home fries.

Chag Shavuot sameach.

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It is customary on Shavuot to serve dairy foods.  For those for whom meat is not a mitzvah d’oraita every Shabbat and holiday, Shavuot is a breath of fresh air and a nice break from chicken, brisket, and kishke.

What’s the reason for the custom?  Before I looked it up, I had heard that the Jews didn’t learn the laws of meat and dairy until Shavuot.  In that case, I thought, we should grill cheeseburgers (at least on erev Shavuot).  But no, that wasn’t it.  Then I heard it was because the laws of shechita (kosher slaughtering) had not yet been handed down.  Then, I thought, let’s all go to the treif butcher at the supermarket and order a nice Porterhouse, pay one-quarter the price of kosher beef, and let it drip from our chins.  Well, it’s true that after the laws of shechita were given, the Jews had to throw away their pots and pans and kasher their tents, but we’re still not allowed to eat treifah.

Then I looked it up.  Here are six reasons from Aish.com for why it’s customary to eat dairy on Shavuot.  Note that Aish’s Reason #4 calls for having one of the meals be dairy and the other meat to symbolize our dedication to separating the two.  I think that’s a good plan.  And since no one needs my help to plan a festive meat meal (most Jews I know can plan one in their sleep), I will offer my own idea for a dairy meal below.

(Note: I know there are problems with this custom of eating dairy, of course.  People who are lactose intolerant or have dairy allergies want to go hide under a rock during this holiday.  Tomorrow I will offer a suggested menu for a hearty parve meal to enjoy on the holiday.)

Menu
Strawberry soup
Salmon with lemon and capers
Lasagna di trei Colori (do I have the Italian right?)
Caesar salad
Ruins of the Lord’s Castle cake (for a new take on this cake, see my later post)

For the strawberry soup, thaw about a cup of frozen strawberries per person.  When soft and juicy (but still cold), dump the strawberries into a blender with their juice.  Add about half a cup of red juice (strawberry, cherry, cranberry, or pomegranate) per cup of strawberries, and blend.  Taste for sweetness, adding a little sugar if necessary to take out the tartness.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.  Since this is a dairy meal, feel free to garnish with a dollop of vanilla yogurt and some mint leaves.

I do salmon very simply: buy a filet large enough for about 150-200g per person.  Place the whole salmon filet in an oiled baking dish or on a baking sheet, salt and pepper the top, place thin slices of lemon all over, and sprinkle capers over that.  Bake until salmon flakes with a fork in the thickest part, about 25 to 35 minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees Celsius).

Red lace, cream sauce, pesto.  Can’t decide which kind of pasta sauce you like best?  Why choose?  A version of this lasagna recipe was given to me by a friend in Portland, Oregon, who, with his friends, had an annual lasagna bake-off.  This was the defending champion for several years.  My friend’s version had dollops of each kind of sauce scattered all over the middle layer; I’ve simplified mine with separate layers of each kind of sauce.  Just build a lasagna in the usual way, starting with a layer of red sauce on the bottom of the pan, adding a layer of uncooked standard curly-edged noodles (not the quick-cook kind), ricotta cheese, an optional layer of finely chopped spinach, cream sauce, noodles, ricotta cheese, pesto sauce, noodles, about a cup of hot water, and a top layer of red sauce.  Cover tightly and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) for about 1 hour 15 minutes.  Test for doneness by poking through the layers with a sharp knife.  When noodles are tender, turn up heat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).  Uncover lasagna and sprinkle with a layer of mozzarella cheese.  Return to oven and bake uncovered for 10-15 minutes until cheese is melted and beginning to brown.  Serve immediately, or let cool completely before covering with foil and refrigerating.

My recent post about salmonella notwithstanding, my mother never trusted raw eggs in food.  Therefore, her recipe for Caesar salad calls for chopped hard-boiled egg rather than raw egg in the dressing.  Here it is:

2 medium heads Romaine lettuce
1/3 cup olive oil
Garlic salt
Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground pepper
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
2 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs
6+ tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 cup croutons (homemade are best)

Break lettuce into large pieces in a large salad bowl.  Drizzle oil over lettuce; toss.  Sprinkle a couple of dashes of garlic salt, 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce, pepper, vinegar, lemon juice, eggs, and parmesan cheese.  Toss well.  Add croutons and toss again.  Serve.

Most of the energy that goes into this meal is the dessert; it’s a real potchkee.  That means, of course, that making a cake look like castle ruins is probably a fun activity to do either with kids or other adults; the messier it looks, the better.  The recipe comes from a Russian exchange student my parents hosted many years ago.  My recommendation is to have two families split the labor in making the stuff for it, and then assemble and eat it together.  Otherwise, just make some decadent chocolate chip cookies with butter (and, if you’re like the Cap’n, throw in some butterscotch chips too), or just buy a cheesecake.

Cake
1 egg white, beaten
1 cup sugar, divided
1 egg yolk
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda mixed with 1 tablespoon vinegar
Dash salt
2+ tablespoons cocoa
½ cup chopped nuts, moistened with water
Dash cinnamon

Dried fruit, diced (the Cap’n doesn’t eat dried fruit; I would substitute chunks of white, milk, and dark chocolate, or leave it out)
Assorted nuts, chopped

Meringues
3 egg whites, beaten
1 – 1½ cups sugar

Cream filling
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1 cup milk
2 tablespoon flour
1 cup sugar
Dash vanilla
½ cup butter

Chocolate glaze
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon cocoa
1 – 2 tablespoon brandy or whisky
½ cup butter

To make cake, add 1/3 cup sugar to beaten egg white.  Add yolk, then remaining sugar.  Mix together sour cream, cornstarch, flour, soda, salt, cocoa, nuts and cinnamon.  Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.
Combine egg whites and sugar for meringues (castle tops).  Drop onto greased baking sheet by mounds.  Bake just a few minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Make cream filling by cooking ingredients (minus butter) over low heat, stirring constantly.  When it starts to simmer and thicken, remove.  Add butter and stir well; cool.
Make chocolate glaze by mixing ingredients (minus butter) over low heat.  Add butter; cool.  If too thick to drizzle, add milk in small amounts and stirring until the right consistency.
To assemble, spread bottom layer of cake with cream filling, then add top layer.  Coat bottoms of meringues and arrange on top cake layer, then glaze.  Between meringue mounds, sprinkle diced dried fruit and chopped nuts.  Drizzle cream filling between meringues and coat sides of cake.  More nuts and fruit bits, then drizzle glaze all over.

This menu is extremely rich, and pretty intemperate for those counting their calories.  However, Shavuot comes but once a year, and if I’d just had a mountain turned upside-down over my head with the offer to drop it on me if I didn’t take on the Torah and its 613 commandments (as the midrash says Hashem did to the Israelites), I’d be less than concerned about a few calories here and there.  Live it up, people!

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It’s graduation season.  How many of us remember any of the graduation speeches given at high school, college, or beyond?  For me, high school was a yawn, college was a drag.  Graduate school was better—Anita Hill.  (Wish I had every word she said on paper to reread.)

Graduates are so giddy from delight at being finished with the long haul of studies, and full of emotion (delight at being through with exams, regret at the cessation of parties and late-night nacho fests, and perhaps fear at the more sobering future staring them in the face), that it’s usually impossible for them to focus on or remember what was said to them on that day.  I remember lining up for my college graduation, being handed a red carnation to drop at the feet of the trustees on my way to get my diploma (a gesture to protest the college’s investment in businesses that dealt with the then-apartheid South African government), and the popping sound as Irene Zuckerman, the last student to receive her diploma, uncorked a bottle of champagne and poured it on her head and the heads of those sitting near her.  And that’s about it.

So here’s a challenge: If you were to write a graduation speech that’s worth listening to and even more importantly, worth remembering, what would you say?  What’s required to keep the attention of kvelling parents, bored faculty, and spacy students?  Where does the correct balance lie between substance and humor?  (Yes, I said “humor.”  Let’s not take ourselves too seriously here.)  How short can you make it and still make you earn your imaginary honorarium?  What do you have to say that would be of use to a bunch of kids about to be unleashed on the “real world”?

Now write one.  Post it on your own blog, or email it to me at hashimshonit@gmail.com and let me post (part or all) of it here.  Pass this challenge on to other people, and post the challenge on your own blog, too.  Let’s get these things written by June 4 (two weeks from now).

Aaaaaaaannnnnnndddddddd, GO!

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