Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Passover: Or, And then, G-d, uh, Roughed Up the First-Born

So, keeping in mind that I dropped out of Brandeis Sunday School in fourth grade, I decided that it was time to Jew my kid up a little. After all, he’s four, and he was baptized, and he peppers his Nana with all kinds of Catholic-related queries, but I wanted him to learn a little bit about my side of the family. So this year I held my first attempt at what I like to think of as a Slob Seder—quick, chaotic, but well-intended.
Now, I know that during Passover, anything even remotely leavened is not supposed to be in the house, and everything is supposed to be Kosher for Passover. Since I decided to do this maybe ten days before the fact, plus, I am slightly morally lazy, I settled for cleaning the house and not having anything overtly leavened (which would be a good name for a pretentious college band) during dinner.

Well, except for one thing: my kid has an egg allergy and hates what we refer to in common parlance as “food.” He subsists on carbs, and when I handed him a matzo he looked like I had handed him someone’s spleen. So  he had a biscuit and a Danimals while Nana, my husband, and I had this feast.

I roasted a chicken, which normally I do quite well, but I was rattled. See, Joy of Cooking says to make your oven 450 degrees and then the minute you put the chicken in, turn the oven down to 350. Princess forgot to do that. So the chicken was a mite dry. Okay, it was like my grandmother's balsa wood chicken. But I still made a fine gravy with very cheap white wine, lemon, and chicken juices.

I also made matzo balls from the fantastic New York Cookbook which came out, well, like matzo balls, and put them in frozen homemade chicken soup that my husband had made a month earlier. Since the chicken soup came from a chicken roasted with lemon and thyme, that was a pretty swell batch of soup. 

The charoset was a snap...Manischewitz, walnuts, random apples, cinnamon, ginger. I did not realize that Manischewitz is only $3.99. How come I never see bums drinking it, then? Are there no old school Jewish bums anymore? I digress.

So we had a ten minute seder because my son kept on looking at me plaintively, asking if he could go. He memorized the first of the four questions in Hebrew, and then I did the rest. But I suck because I forgot most of them, and I wrote the phonetic translation on my Haggadah like crib notes, so I could pretend I had Jew street cred.

The only sticky part was the whole Plagues thing. See, as a kid, I remember the plagues being this festive interlude during the meal because 1. you got to dribble bright red wine on someone's nice tablecloth and 2. the plagues were lurid and creepy. But when you're four, perhaps learning that God decided it would be a swell idea to kill a bunch of first-born children might be a little much. Princess don't go for that senseless violence, you know. I said, coughing, that He, uh, roughed up the first-born and then said, "Hey, how about watching 14 episodes of Adventure Time?" Now that's parenting.

The real point of this post is the dessert. I made Simone Beck's Passover Chocolate Cake because it is the only dessert that is kosher and un-chometz and all that jazz that actually tastes good, largely because the glaze consists of butter, bittersweet chocolate, and coffee, three of my favorite things. Regard the wonder:

The cake is basically an afterthought. I mean, it's good-- not too sweet, moist, doesn't feel like an anvil in your stomach-- but the glaze is where all the action is. I could develop a deep and meaningful relationship with that glaze.

Arid chicken notwithstanding, the seder was pretty good. Most important, my kid is learning about both sides of the family, sorta-Catholic and somewhat Jewish-- hopefully, he'll be really confused by the time we're done with him. But that's okay. Like cooking, like parenting, it's all made up as we go along anyway, right? 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Meatloaf, Why You Do This To Me?

Remember in The Exorcist when Father Karras goes to see his mother in the hospital and she's all, Why You Do This To Me, Dimi? Well, damn it, that's how I feel about this effing meatloaf.
Oh, sure, you look luscious, you bacon covered bastard, and you smell great. But then, when I sink my teeth into you, why do you taste vaguely like Comet-scented meat? That meatloaf was covered in half a package of bacon, by God. Bacon I could have otherwise fried up all crispy-like, and, you know, jammed into my mouth.

I should have known. I have never liked meatloaf. Well, that's not strictly true. There was a meatloaf I made based on an Emeril Lagasse recipe that I thought was swell-- which is saying a lot, because I don't really like Emeril's shtick-- but apparently my husband thought was the equivalent of meat-covered vomit. Since he knows I am a fragile wildflower, he did not admit this to me until a year after the fact.

My mom used to make meatloaf and I hated it, but I assumed that was because my mother used to make all sorts of appalling things with ground beef. Normally, my mother is a dynamite cook, but there are three hamburger based dishes in her repetoire that make me go pale.
1. Hamburger Noodle Casserole-- like chop suey, but with egg noodles. Please. I can't even discuss it.
2. Stuffed Peppers- what I imagine might be served in Soviet-era cafeterias: greyish green peppers, rice, hamburger, and extremely thin tomato sauce, the kind you get from a can of Hunt's.
3. Meatloaf- grey, nondescript, a little dry. The food equivalent of mild depression.

Meatloaf, I am terribly, terribly disappointed in you. I want you to sit in the sad chair and think about what you've done.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Jewish Foods of my Youth

The Motherlode.

Jewish food does not rank high in my list of preferred cuisines. Part of it is psychological—my initial exposure to Jewish food was during tension-filled visits to my grandmother, who lived in the Bronx and hadn’t left her apartment in years. She was a profoundly terrible cook, but, like all good Jewish mothers, was filled with anxiety at the thought that her family wasn’t eating enough. I still remember her baked chicken—I think it was Mimi Sheraton who once referred to badly baked chicken as balsa wood, and my grandmother’s tasted like paprika-soaked balsa wood. It was so dry that when I started choking on a piece, it took me a while to realize I was choking on a bone fragment rather than a piece of meat. Capped off with a goodbye which involved my grandmother shrieking and pressing bottles of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda on us,this did not make me associate classic Ashkenazi cuisine with good times.
My father had a lot of nostalgia for the foods of his youth and one of the few times I remember him cooking, he’d make matzoh brei. I dimly remember jars of Manischewitz gefilte fish in our house around Passover. My mother, a nice Midwestern Methodist who converted, was a good sport and I think she tried to make gefilte fish.  Once. To this day, I can tell she shudders when the phrase gefilte fish pops up.

It could have been worse—in From My Mother’s Kitchen, Mimi Sheraton’s terrific collection of Jewish recipes and family stories, she mentions her parents buying a live carp and keeping it in the bathtub. The freaking bathtub.  If I went into my bathroom and saw a carp swimming in my tub, I would calmly turn around, walk out the door, and move into a hotel, thanks.
Bagels were a big deal to my dad. He was very depressed that my brother and I liked Lender’s Onion Bagels, and still do. He maintains that no one outside of the five boroughs knows how to make a proper bagel. I cannot confirm or deny this. I will say that when the husband and I were courtin’, I would travel from Boston to Staten Island to see him, and before he dropped me off at the train station, I’d stop for a bagel at Tottenville Bagel, and it was AWESOME—a crusty poppy seed bagel, with a generous frosting of especially creamy and not oversweet scallion cream cheese.
According to my father, the only remotely acceptable source of bagels in the Boston suburb where we lived was a place called Eigerman’s, on Route 9 in Natick. At this point, I think the store is now home to the politically incorrect Oriental Furniture Warehouse.  I believe the store had a sign in the shape of a bagel, and to my taste, the bagels were about as edible as that piece of lit-up plastic. These bagels were leaden, but my father didn’t care—every weekend, he’d buy a dozen. My brother liked their onion rolls, at least, while I always found them to be a big disappointment. I mean, the outside has these nice burned bits of onion, but the inside has no damn onion; it’s like eggy Wonder Bread in there. Give me a bialy any day. Now, there’s some damn onions. 

Really, the food that seems the most Jewish to me is distinctly non-kosher Chinese food, because it was usually what we ate to break our Yom Kippur fast. I use the term “fast” loosely. Our observance of the High Holidays, particularly Yom Kippur, involved waiting for my Dad to get into a good mood. During Yom Kippur we would tiptoe around Dad because this was a man who loved food, and fasting was his idea of hell. Yom Kippur was not a time to ask him anything—in fact, it was a great time to completely avoid eye contact.  We would not eat breakfast, or else we’d pretend we hadn’t, except for my mom, who serenely drank her Sanka; this was clearly Dad’s show, not hers.

Every year, we reluctantly accompanied him to Conservative services in an auditorium at Brandeis University. Since my brother and I didn’t have much Jewish education--we were Brandeis Sunday School dropouts (like Beauty School Dropouts, only less fun), we couldn’t understand anything and we were bored out of our minds. I remember being appalled that the eternal light in the space was clearly an-ill concealed light bulb. If my dad was feeling especially melancholy, we’d sit there for a couple of hours, during which time I would contemplate throwing myself in the aisle and screaming from boredom. The only thing that piqued my interest was the singing of the Aveinu because it sounded sort of operatic and dramatic to me. The rest of the time I would stare at the Hebrew and the English translation of various meditations and prayers and think, OH GOD, WHEN CAN WE EAT?
Eventually, when my father had decided we’d all atoned enough, or, more likely, he got tired of my mother hissing, "No, we're not leaving yet, stop asking," we would get out. Leaving services and getting outside was like emerging from a coal mine. I am surprised, given my penchant for dramatics, that I didn't weep and kiss the ground. 

In the car I would hold my breath, waiting for my dad to decide that we needed to go get something to eat. And then, oh then, a glorious Chinese lunch, with completely trayf pan fried pork dumplings, mu shu, and beef with broccoli. Happiness and peace restored!  My family is always happiest around a table. In contrast to the relentless, thudding solemnity of the morning, the spice and the bright colors of stir fry, the lunatic abundance of dishes (we always ordered way too much), the cheerful excess of it all-- it seemed to help us find our balance again, and be grateful for what was, after all, a pretty good life.

As we sat in the Pine Garden, I’d burrow into my booth, look at the red flocked wallpaper, the Chinese Zodiac placemats (I was born in the year of the Tiger but my brother was born in the year of the Rat, which was an unending source of pleasure to me, HA, my brother’s a rodent) and Chinese lanterns, and think, damn, I love me some Jewish holidays.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

That Giada, She's Onto Something

In another life, I would make soup all the time, because it just seems so wholesome. I feel you can trust a person who makes their own soup. They may be smug, they may be self-righteous, but I bet you they wouldn't stab you in an alley. One notable exception, clearly, would be Al Yeganeh, the original Soup Nazi.

When I am capable of thinking clearly, I make this soup on a Sunday and then serve it on a Monday. I maintain the perhaps faulty belief that it's good for soups and stews to chill for a day because it intensifies their flavor. Or, more likely, I've simply lost the will to live.

The recipe comes from Giada DeLaurentiis. I am suspicious of her because she weighs three pounds, but sister knows how to cook. Plus, her grandfather is Dino DeLaurentiis, who produced countless entertaining movies, including Conan the Barbarian. For the record, at least three times I day, I channel James Earl Jones and mutter, "Contemplate this on the tree of woe." Yup, I am a soup-making Thulsa Doom.

Giada DeLaurentiis's Tuscan White Bean and Garlic Soup


  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 1 sage leaf
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 4 cloves garlic, cut in 1/2
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 slices ciabatta bread
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling


Place a medium, heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the butter, olive oil, and shallot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sage and beans and stir to combine. Add the stock and bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the garlic and simmer until the garlic is softened, about 10 minutes. Pour the soup into a large bowl. Carefully ladle 1/3 to 1/2 of the soup into a blender and puree until smooth. Be careful to hold the top of the blender tightly, as hot liquids expand when they are blended. Pour the blended soup back into the soup pan. Puree the remaining soup. Once all the soup is blended and back in the soup pan, add the cream and the pepper Keep warm, covered, over very low heat.
Place a grill pan over medium-high heat. Drizzle the slices of ciabatta bread with extra-virgin olive oil. Grill the bread until warm and golden grill marks appear, about 3 minutes a side. Serve the soup in bowls with the grilled bread alongside.

If I were a better person, I would serve this with a salad, but I am not so good with salads so BACK OFF. And yes, the Sicilian Twist Bread (from the bakery at Wegmans) might be a tad charred but damn it, my husband likes burned toast so you shut your pie hole, you.