This is the seventh (and last) in a series on my favorite home cooks. (Read previous posts about Mimi, Leora, Batya, Ilana-Davita, Sigal, and my mother here.) I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but one of the first things the Cap’n and I nixed when we went on an austerity plan (i.e. when we had children and I opted to stay home) was eating out. The pickin’s were slim in Boston for kosher food anyway, and my tastes ran to slightly more exotic cuisine than deli, pizza, and Chinese. Since I’ve learned to cook the stuff I like, I can’t help but be one of my favorite cooks.
Please introduce yourself in a few sentences.
I’m Shimshonit, the authoress of this blog. I was born in Seattle, but lived in 13 houses in six states (in New England, the Deep South, and the West Coast) by the time I was 18 years old. I have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, and underwent Orthodox conversion in 1998. I’m 42, married with four young children, and live in Efrat (Israel). I love to read recipes, cook, and of course, eat.
From whom did you learn to cook? (If not from a person, how?)
The first time I entered the kitchen to do anything other than get a snack or wash dishes after a meal was when my mother had just learned from a friend how to make chicken marsala and decided that my brother and I should learn to make it too. (I was 20 years old.) I left home armed with a few simple recipes, but no real idea of cooking technique. I am largely self-taught, with some help from cookbooks, friends, and—joy of the modern home cook—the Internet.
In what style do you cook predominantly (e.g. Mediterranean, Jewish, Asian)?
When I was young, my family ate out once a week. In the early days, it was pizza, burgers, and eventually, Chinese. As we got older and our tastes broadened, it would sometimes take us hours to decide where to eat out. Mexican? Thai? Japanese? Greek? Moroccan? Italian? Lebanese? Kashmiri? Once I began to keep kosher, I realized that if I liked ethnic food, I’d have to learn to make it myself.
My day-to-day cooking is vegetarian, centered around lentils, beans, rice, a little pasta, and vegetables, with some grated cheese or plain yogurt on the side. My style is largely Tex-Mex and Mediterranean, and I go through a lot of onions, garlic, and crushed tomatoes. For Shabbat meals, I often make chicken and several vegetable dishes. One of my favorite cooking inspirations was when we lived in Newton (Mass.) and subscribed to an organic farm; whatever vegetables arrived in a large crate on delivery day was what was for dinner.
What dietary guidelines do you observe (kashrut, vegetarian, vegan, Paleolithic diet)?
We keep kosher, and eat very little meat.
What are your favorite foods? What food aversions do you have?
Mushrooms and green peppers are not to be found in the Crunch household. Favorite foods include chicken soup with matzo balls, split pea soup, vegetarian chili, salads of all kinds, bittersweet chocolate, and sourdough bread (which I still haven’t got the hang of baking yet).
What is your relationship to your kitchen, to food, to cooking?
My kitchen is small but lovely, with blond maple cabinetry, dark green granite work surfaces, and two enormous sinks. My oven is small but ample for most of my needs. However, about one-third of my cooking and baking vessels (including all of my cake decorating supplies) live in the basement in cupboards because my kitchen cannot store them all.
One of the things I realize from the fast days in the Jewish calendar is how much time I spend thinking about food, planning meals, shopping and cooking. One of my primary roles in the Crunch family is to see that the children take wholesome food to school and eat well at home. I enjoy having guests on Shabbat, and am willing to undertake any challenge to meet our friends’ dietary needs when coming up with a menu. (We have friends who are vegans, have Crohn’s Disease, lactose intolerance, food allergies, avoid beans or margarine, and break out in hives if they ingest MSG.)
I waver between feeling like an artist and a slave in my kitchen. I love to create, and prefer home cooking to eating out. I like making the food to my (and my family’s) taste, and knowing exactly what goes into it. On the other hand, my kids can be picky eaters, and I often have to refrain from making things I like because I’ll just have to make something else to suit my kids’ more pedestrian tastes.
What do you think cooking and food say about identity?
I made up this question, but I don’t really have an answer to it. (I was more interested to see if other people did.) I do know that any time people are asked to name something that identifies them as being part of an ethnic group, it’s usually something to do with food. As to the relationship between personality and food, I know some people who only eat 30 things, yet are very open-minded and accepting. And I know others with very cosmopolitan tastes who are not so open-minded.
I have traveled widely and enjoyed the cuisine of almost every place I’ve visited. Now that I keep kosher, I am making an unambiguous statement that I am Jewish by only eating food in that category. But in my heart I am still a world traveler and enjoy a variety of styles of cooking, modifying recipes to fit my dietary limitations.
Please share one of your favorite recipes, either from a blog post or from your own repertoire.
One of the features on the “Bend It Like Beckham” DVD has Gurinder Chadha, the director, cooking aloo gobi (curried potato and cauliflower) under the critical eyes of her mother and her auntie. The feature was very amusing to watch, and aloo gobi quickly became a favorite with the curry-loving adults in my extended family. A humorous note: The recipe calls for the whole tomatoes to be grated with a vegetable grater. In the feature, Chadha says she adds the tomatoes whole and breaks them up with a spoon while they’re cooking to avoid a mess. Her mother and her auntie shake their heads and say, “Doesn’t matter!” and insist that they must be grated. Do what you have time and patience to do for this step.
Indian food can be a potchkee, but once you start cooking, it goes quickly. Eliminate stress by making sure you have everything chopped and measured before you begin cooking. (I love making aloo gobi because I get to use all those lovely glass nesting bowls I got for a wedding gift.)
Allow extra time for it all to cook, as it takes longer than the directions say. And remember: “Anyone can make aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
Large bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), separated into stalks and leaves, coarsely chopped
3 or so small green chilies, minced
1 large cauliflower, cut into small florets
3 large potatoes, well scrubbed, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 can whole peeled tomatoes, grated with a vegetable grater
Fresh ginger, peeled and minced (about a 2” or 3” piece)
Fresh garlic, minced (about 4-5 large cloves)
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons garam masala
Heat oil in a large frypan. Add onion and cumin seeds. Stir together and cook until onions become “creamy golden” (her mother’s words) and translucent. Add coriander stalks, turmeric, and salt and mix. Stir in chilies and tomatoes. Add ginger and garlic; mix. Add potatoes and cauliflower and a few teaspoons of water. Stir vegetables to coat with curry sauce. Cover and simmer 20 minutes or so. (Stir periodically and check for doneness. When I make it, it actually takes the vegetables closer to 40-50 minutes to cook.)
Add garam masala; stir. Sprinkle coriander leaves over. Turn off heat, cover, and leave as long as possible before serving. Delicious as leftovers or gently rewarmed for Shabbat lunch. Chadha says she loves it the next day between two slices of white bread.