I’m getting ready to move in a few weeks – only a few miles, to an apartment my partner and I will share. Part of this move, of course, includes packing our various sundry kitchen items from our currently two separate kitchens. This process has led me to think about that first meal I will cook in the new kitchen – whatever it may be.
I’ve had to cook in a number of new kitchens over the past decade: dorms, my college apartment, the places I lived during each master’s degree, my New York City apartment, and places that I’ve spent good chunks of time in in South Africa and other places. Some of this moving about has been because I’m as peripatetic as any overeducated millennial. Some of this moving about has also followed my career. And each kitchen has been different: from a narrow New York City kitchen to the huge kitchen in the apartment I shared in college.
I usually make the same round of things my first few weeks in a new kitchen. I make an apple cake, I usually make a lentil and okra dish, and I usually make a shakshouka. The last move I made, in 2019, also included a black bean soup. Some of this habit is to reduce the cognitive overload while I adjust to a new space. Some of this cooking, however, is intentionally strategic.
Stoves and ovens, as it turns out, have their own idiosyncrasies. Some ovens tend to run hotter than others – and though an oven thermometer is always handy, knowing what “200C” actually means for your oven takes a bit of experimentation. There’s always the burner that runs a little wonky, or that electric stoves vary wildly in quality. When one makes something that one knows well, it’s easier to spot – in the differences – what one needs to be watchful for in a new kitchen. Hence the apple cake helps me figure out how much hotter an oven is than the displayed temperature, and a shakshouka can help me figure out how reliable an electric cooktop is.
Google did not turn up much for me. So I want to know: do you have a similar practice? My partner usually makes his favorite food – Cincinnati chili – but not as a way to “test out” the kitchen. Do you cook something easy post-move? Or do you try to get to know your new kitchen and its various quirks, whatever they may be?
Here in the US, things are beginning to change around COVID. Obviously, these changes are a good thing – and we hope the same for elsewhere. However, there are some things that we will need to readjust to, and for some, that includes all the habits around returning to the office. Given commutes, we might need to cook more quickly on weeknights now.
In preparation for this, I have been trying some new recipes that do not take too long and make for hearty, tasty dinners. Some do require a bit more work than others in chopping vegetables, but none takes too long, and can easily feed a family or just yourself. Four of the five are by other authors, and I strongly suggest you make other recipes from those sites, blogs, and books!
Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa – Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe
This recipe is one of my favorites, and comes from the south of Italy. The convenient part is that the vegetables and pasta are cooked in the same pot – something that, before learning how to make this myself, I thought was quite untraditional. This recipe also comes together quite quickly, and you can substitute kale or mustard greens for the rabe. Some people cook this with anchovies, but I leave the anchovies out and swap in a few more cloves of garlic and a bit of salt.
This is a classic Japanese summer recipe. Silken or other soft tofu is simply dressed with a few sauces and things for seasoning – scallions, ginger, and soy sauce are most common. It is very refreshing and filling and has a lovely, pudding-like filling. I use this recipe from a Japanese author, which also adds katsuobushi – very delicious dried bonito flakes. The optional black sesame seeds add a nice touch.
This recipe from Mexico is tasty and very balanced – the green beans add a vegetal texture and taste to the richness of the eggs. There are also many regional varieties. I’ve made a few different recipes, and these two really stand out to me. One is from Maricruz Avalos’ excellent blog, and the other is from Oaxaca by Bricia Lopez, which is a truly excellent cookbook. I usually eat this with corn tortillas and some salsa macha or some cheese and cilantro. I use vegetarian chorizo in Bricia Lopez’ recipe.
This is one of my favorites – and, contrary to what people tell you, is probably from North Africa. That said, it has become – in various forms – a classic around the Mediterranean, including in Israel and Palestine. It is also quick to make and quite flexible – you can take all sorts of delicious vegetables and use them. This recipe was one of my first for the blog, and I am still quite proud of it. My only new addition is to suggest making it in a cast-iron skillet, which makes for a lovely serving presentation and adds a bit of weight to the flavor.
This is a traditional Catalan recipe with a long Jewish history – Claudia Roden mentions a similar recipe in her Book of Jewish Food, and such recipes spread throughout the Mediterranean after the expulsion from Spain. This recipe is also delicious and very easy to make with canned chickpeas. I eat it with nice bread, which you can get from a store – after all, you are busy.
Today we have a guest post from my dear friend, Michael Faccini, who is a social worker and all-around Jewish advocate in New York. Michael and I speak quite often, and he offered to write a post about his experience hosting his non-Jewish partner for a seder this year – including some delicious food photos and an exploratory experience. This piece is really lovely, and it’s an honor to have it here on Flavors of Diaspora. Also – I covet Michael’s ability to make flan and I will definitely ask him to teach me soon.
For the past few months, I’ve been dating someone really wonderful and quite unexpected. He’s kind, considerate, supportive, and…not Jewish. I’ve been in a lot of communities in which that is automatically A Problem. So, even as he was asking respectful questions and watching Fiddler with me on a date night, I was worried about Pesach. With hesitation I asked if he wanted to do a seder with me and he said yes, without hesitation.
After some questions, he said, “I’ll try any Jewish food…as long as it has flavor.” Uh oh. You see, my partner is Puerto Rican. His bar for flavor is a lot higher than most traditional Pesach foods that are often too bland, even for me. Challenge accepted, but with trepidation. As I planned the menu, I felt pangs of guilt. Yeah, this would have flavor, but it was all food from my culture, none from his. It’s not exactly a cultural exchange if the only culture present is mine. Remembering how he talks about his aunt’s flan, I came up with the solution: a traditional seder (with flavor) and flan for dessert.
I looked at all the Pesach recipes I could find. Which had flavor? Where could I add flavor? How was I going to do that with still impaired smell and taste from covid (recipes and memory, mostly)? I decided on: matzo ball soup, tzimmes, potato kugel, and rosemary lemon chicken. Much of the flavor for the soup came from this lovely site’s vegetarian broth recipe (Jonathan note: this compliment was unsolicited!), but also a last minute innovation in the matzo ball mix: adobo seasoning. Matzo balls are often too bland for me, but these were flavorful and delicious. For the kugel, I tried caramelizing the onions before adding them. Not really worth it and I learned that no one cares that a kugel is “bland.” The rest was standard. I made the full meal except the matzo balls themselves and the chicken. Partially this was for Shabbat, but as someone with chronic fatigue issues I find that premaking and then reheating food for stuff like this allows for pacing that reduces stress and prevents exhaustion.
Now for the Puerto Rican side. I am a baker, but I have never made baked custards and they are notoriously easy to mess up. I went into this nervous from a technical perspective, but also because flan is a cultural food. I always worry that doing cultural foods poorly will be seen as insulting, even though he said he appreciated that I was even trying. So, I settled on this recipe and proceeded with anxiety, justifiably. My loaf pan was a little larger than the recipe. My oven is notoriously unreliable and decided that it wanted to be at 350 that day, not 300. I set the timer much earlier than the recipe and pulled it when it looked like the appropriate jiggle, until I moved it again and it looked too set. I did a video of the jiggle for amusement and sent it to him, captioned: “Here’s the (probably overbaked) flan for tomorrow.” He responded, “it looks fine.” Doubtful.
Hopefully you’re asking yourself what he contributed to the food. My apartment is shomer kashrut even if I’m not, so I actually didn’t ask him to bring anything, and I kind of tried to discourage him. But he’s a Puerto Rican that likes to cook, so I should have known that wasn’t going to happen. He surprised me with maduros made from the blackest plantains and tostones because he knew it couldn’t have flour and that I love plantains. He also for the first time in his life bought kosher wine, requested to be sweet. And, y’all, he and the guy at Jay’s liquor delivered. I usually don’t like wine, but I enjoyed this one.
Oh, wait, isn’t there more to a seder than the food?
That was also a challenge. If you think New Yorkers are all Jewish literate, I have news for you. He is a New Yorker through and through, but doesn’t know a lot about Judaism. I wanted to make his first seder one that would be educational, but mostly engaging and enjoyable. He’s a comic book nerd, so I got us the Graphic Novel Haggadah (generally enjoy, but lacks translation for a lot of things) and freely did some skimming, often with me explaining while we admired the artwork (it’s very well done). For maggid, we watched the Rugrats Passover special and Prince of Egypt. No finer maggid exists. For it all, he was engaged and curious, exactly how you should be at a seder.
Back to food. We couldn’t eat until late because I needed to wait until Shabbat ended (like 8pm) to put the chicken in. While we enjoyed our maggid options, I prepared the chicken and soup before reheating the rest. The chicken, well, the chicken had some oven related issues. We had that much later than the rest. This was the first time he’d had tzimmes and kugel. Both were hits, with the tzimmes suggested as particularly good for ham (he’s probably right and I’m pretty sure I may be asked to recreate them for just that purpose). He’s had and enjoyed matzo ball soup, so that was not new but eagerly anticipated. The broth particularly was a hit (y’all, this broth really is delicious and refreshing) and the adobo made the matzo balls themselves much more enjoyable. He enjoyed it all immensely and it definitely filled the flavor requirement.
It was time for the part of the night I’d been looking to most anxiously: the flan. I warmed the caramel by putting the pan in hot water briefly and then unmolded. I cut us slices and could tell immediately that it was not, in fact, overbaked. It was set well but still very creamy, almost like a soft cheesecake. The couple of times I’ve had flan, it was less creamy and more rubbery. I watched carefully as he took a bite and I knew before he’d said anything that I’d done well. The flan, he insisted, was perfect. His mother would be the final judge.
When he went home in the morning after flan for breakfast, I gave him a hefty portion of flan to take with him. As soon as he got home, he had his mom try to the flan. He called me on speaker right afterward. His mom tells me how good the flan is and says, “Will you teach me? You’re Jewish, right? A Jew teaching a Puerto Rican how to make flan.” I responded that of course I would. My partner ended the call by saying that I was honorary Puerto Rican now.
The seder was undramatic and enjoyable. But it was also transgressive. I, a white Jew, invited my Puerto Rican non-Jewish partner to seder. Even as leaving rabbinical school frees me to be open about this relationship, none of us can pretend that interfaith relationships are accepted in many Jewish communities. While we are often not read as a interracial couple because I’m often assumed to be Latine, we similarly cannot pretend that such couplings are universally accepted. There are a lot of “don’t do this” messages for our relationship just because of our demographics. That alone is transgressive, but also the act of genuine, curious cultural exchange. How often do we interact with people who are different from us in which we both are full humans and we talk about our differences? It went beautifully. I was Jewish, unapologetically. He was Puerto Rican, unapologetically. And we got to spend the evening sharing ourselves and our cultures. May we leave the narrow places in our worlds and minds so that we can have more of that freedom.
After years of waiting, I finally got around to making one of my favorite Ashkenazi dishes: chopped liver. This recipe has become a sort of “catchall” dish for the entirety of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, much as other specific recipes have become “representative” of entire cuisines. It is also something that can be very controversial: vegetarians have told me that this is the last meat thing they miss, and others, including my partner, will not touch it. It is also laborious, so I wanted to make it when enough liver-eaters would be with me to share a decent quantity – something stymied by the pandemic. Finally, that moment came, punctured by a few anti-organ-meat comments from my partner.
The history of chopped liver is quite interesting. The dish originates in the Middle Ages with goose liver – which was often consumed as a byproduct of rendering schmaltz (fat, traditionally from poultry). Though preparing liver to be kosher requires salting and broiling to eliminate blood, Jews quickly developed a taste for the rich organ. A preparation of liver chopped with onions and salt quickly became popular in medieval and early modern Jewish communities, and spread in two directions. One was into France, where it became foie gras. (Yes, it has a Jewish origin!) The other was to Eastern European Jewish communities, where the dish became popular with calf and chicken livers. Eggs and more onions were added, usually to stretch the costly and strongly flavored liver. The dish has remained popular in Jewish communities ever since, though after World War II there was some decline, just like with organ meat generally.
Not everyone has to like chopped liver – it is an acquired taste. That said, I do quite enjoy it. I enjoy the deep, earthy flavor good liver has – and the way that these flavors can be accentuated by a tart rye bread, a soft challah, or crunchy matzah. Then again, I have eaten chopped liver since I was a child. Not everyone has – and if someone decides they do not like it, well then, there is more for me.
I break the tradition in this recipe in two ways. One is that I use oil instead of schmaltz for a lighter final product – though many recipes nowadays use oil too. Oil was expensive into the 19th century, so many of our ancestors would probably think of an oil-based chopped liver as more luxuriant than schmaltz – which was much more common in Eastern Europe. (The schmaltz from a large goose could last a family several months.) The other change I embrace is how I blend the final product. Though the tradition is to chop it by hand, I use the food processor for a smoother – and more quickly produced – final product. Technology can aid us in deliciousness. Be careful when making it, because liver is easy to overcook. After three and a half minutes on each side, I check the livers every thirty seconds until they are finished cooking.
If you have not had it before, I strongly recommend that you try it from someone else before you cook it. Liver is a laborious thing to prepare, and if you do not like it, you will have saved yourself the effort of preparing it (as outlined in steps 3 through 4). Delis in Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods often have very good liver to try. Feel free to ask in the comments if you want a recommendation for a particular area – I have recommendations in New York City, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Chicago.
Boil the eggs for ten minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.
Turn on your oven or broiler to a high setting.
Wash the livers under running water until the dark liquid is mostly gone. Pat dry. Then, cut off the green bits and the black bits from the liver – this takes a bit of work. These bits are a bit softer and different in texture from the rest of the liver. Place the livers in a bowl and toss with a few generous sprinkles of kosher salt. The salt draws out the blood.
Place the livers on a foil-covered sheet and spread them out. Broil for 3 ½ minutes on each side, or until dark with no pink on the outside and with a smoother, more solid texture on the outside of the liver. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Heat a skillet or saucepan, and then add the oil. Then, add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring regularly, for 20 minutes, or until the onions are a rich brown color and have a sweet smell and very smooth, soft texture. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
While the onions are cooling, peel the hard boiled eggs and mash with a fork into coarse crumbles.
In a food processor, puree the livers and onions together to your preferred consistency – my family enjoys a smooth chopped liver.
Pour the liver mixture into a bowl. Add the salt and black pepper to taste – I usually add twice as much salt as pepper. Then, mix in with the crumbled eggs.
Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve on your chosen vehicle for chopped liver. The liver keeps in the fridge for about four days.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
I decided to have a little fun, in honor of Tu biShvat this year – one of my favorite holidays, and well-suited for socially distant celebrating. Many fruits and nuts are common, but there are also many allergies and aversions. Here is a chart of some traditional Jewish things you could eat to celebrate a giant birthday party for trees.
All nuts and seeds
No nuts, seeds okay
No nuts or seeds
No dried fruit or nuts
Pomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, fruit salad with an almond-butter-based dressing, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit and almonds, pastries with almonds, savory stews incorporating fruit
Pomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with sesame seeds, savory stews incorporating fruit
Pomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit, savory stews incorporating fruit
No raw fruit
Applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit and almonds, pastries with almonds, savory stews incorporating fruit
Applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with sesame seeds, savory stews incorporating fruit
Applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit, savory stews incorporating fruit
No solid fruit*
Applesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies, smoothies with tahini, almond milk, cashew milk
Applesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies, smoothies with tahini
Applesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies
*For guidance on creating liquid cuisines for people who cannot or can no longer swallow, see this wonderful article from NPR and the cookbooks linked there.
Hello! I have not posted much content in a while. Graduate school keeps one busy – although, I am pleased to say, the work is applicable to the community! And part of this work has involved lots of fieldwork and lots of writing. But now I have the time, during my break, to write a new post – on a topic near and dear to me.
Something I have recently thought quite a bit about is dementia. A good chunk of my graduate and recent professional work has been about social infrastructure and facilities for older adults, especially those with memory loss. We live in a culture that does not value people with dementia, and it is a shame. Even other discussions about disability, including some of mine, do not adequately consider people with dementia and their needs. To make better lives for older adults with dementia, we do not just need proper infrastructure, nor is it only keeping them out of congregate facilities. (Both are essential.) Rather, we need to have a cultural overhaul – and that includes food.
We often forget that people with dementia have personalities and preferences – and that extends to palates too. As memory loss progresses, people with dementia have different experiences. Sometimes, they prefer one thing that is somewhat new. In other cases, and especially for immigrants, their preferences revert to those of their teenage or young adult years. When it comes to food, these tendencies might manifest as a strong desire for one food, or a preference for food from a home cuisine. Institutional food usually does not meet these desires. Nor do many standard programs that encourage “healthy eating” – while forgetting that “healthy food” is different from person to person.
Regularity and independence matter a lot when we talk about food and dementia. Many older adults with memory loss are given no agency over their lives – and though support is sometimes needed, support is different from forced dependence. Often, no preference about food is offered – or the opportunity to control how much is eaten, and how. At the same time, routine is grounding. Often, a regular meal or snack on the same day or at the same time is helpful and empowering. Variety, often forced, can be disquieting or distressing for some people. Yet we live in a food culture that often considers repetition or leftovers “boring” or “dull.” This problem is part of a wider one: people with dementia are also often excluded by the food practices of everyone else. Older adults with memory loss are often talked past when food is discussed, and their preferences and needs are often dismissed. We can start by allowing for their independence and need for regularity.
What does that look like for Jewish food? We already have regularity: challah and other traditional breads on Shabbat, weekly festive meals, and traditions around what food gets eaten when, like herring, cholent, brik, and bourekas. Keeping up these traditions can help include people with dementia in two ways. One is providing that grounding regularity. The other is that, for many Jewish older adults, these foods may meet a need grounded in an earlier stage of life. Encouraging these traditions can be a powerful form of inclusion. At the same time, all of us can do more to encourage independence. People with dementia should have the chance to eat independently, and their preferences should be respected. If they do not want “Jewish food,” that’s okay. Jewish tradition and food should not be forced.
A quick corn recipe this time. Polenta has an interesting history in Jewish tradition – like other maize products, it really only became a thing after corn was brought from the New World in 1492. Polenta and similar corn porridges like mamaliga and gomi became common in certain pockets of the Jewish world: Italy, Romania, and Georgia are primary among them. Unlike rice, breads, and noodles though, there was no broad swathe of cornmeal-eaters. Georgian gomi tends to be white; Romanian mamaliga tends to be mushier, and Italian polenta tends to be firmer.
I made this casserole back over the summer when our internet was out for three days during Isaías, but had the wisdom to write this down.
6 cups cooked polenta (about 2 cups uncooked)
2 ½ tablespoons olive oil or butter + more for greasing
1 medium white onion, chopped
6 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped finely
1 15-oz can cannellini beans, with the fluid
Salt and black pepper to taste (I find the goat cheese adds enough salt.)
1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar
3 cups frozen spinach
2 cups goat cheese crumbles
If you haven’t already, make the polenta according to package directions. I use Bob’s Red Mill Polenta.
Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a 9×13” casserole with a very light layer of olive oil or butter.
Heat a large skillet, then add the oil or melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté for a few minutes, or until the onions begin to wilt.
Add the beans and fluid, salt, and pepper. Stir, then add the vinegar. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for five to ten minutes, or until the fluid is mostly gone.
Add the frozen spinach and mix in thoroughly, until it is cooked through. Remove the skillet from the heat.
Spoon the polenta into the casserole. Then, spoon the skillet mixture on top. Add the goat cheese crumbles in an even layer on top of that.
Bake for ten minutes, or until the cheese starts to brown. Serve hot.
Shana Tova! I hope you are well and safe in this time. Though I am going to continue to spend much less time on social media, I feel ready to come back and make some blog posts, and some food- and planning-related posts again. I want to do things that I enjoy – without affecting my mental health.
There’s more content forthcoming: a lemonade recipe, a polenta recipe, and a post about dementia among them. But first, I want to talk about a little project that has helped me process this time.
Every day, I write whatever I’m thinking about food into a diary. Often, it is a recipe, with some thoughts about what I made or how I served it. For the first two months, each day was about an ingredient or a method. Later, I started tying food to the politics of the time: to the fight for black lives and racial inequities in food systems, the way fights over the food industry during COVID tied with political assumptions, and how food reflected how reactionary some left-wing claims were. Sometimes, it was just how I was feeling, with a food-related tinge. Disorganized as this may sound, I now have about 28,000 words worth of diary entries from the past six months.
This food diary has helped ground me through the bizarre evolution of this plague. Through it, I am able to track how things have changed – sometimes for the better, sometimes not as much. Furthermore, it’s helped me realize once again the connection between what and how we eat to our political, social, and economic realities. I wrote in April and June about how coronavirus has changed our cooking habits. This diary has given me a glimpse into that on a personal level.
I’m not planning to share more than one post here – the writing is far too raw, and the recipes are written telegraphically. (To give you a sense, I literally wrote “LMFAO it’s going to be sticky” as a transition in one recipe.) But what I will say is that it has helped me – and is likely to be the basis of some future writing. Watch this space.
I was originally going to write a long resource post about how to share food safely and what to make in this time of cautious life. I hold by an ethic of harm reduction: I take it as given that you will socialize and that food will be a part of that, and not always “bring your own.” How to do that safely is something that is useful to know.
I dithered on this post, which was handy, because other resources came out! So in this brief post I will share a few resources, a few foods, and then the blog’s first ever video: a sharing mechanism.
Yes, it is probably safer to “stay home” or to not share food, but realistically, I know that that is not going to happen. So do public health departments. I found the Washington DC guide for cookouts to have a lot of broadly applicable information:
Also, take a look at the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance here. (Yes, I know they got some things wrong early on. But many epidemiologists have said the same things as this.)
Here is an awkward video I made with two of my friends to demonstrate a safe way to serve and share a food at an outdoor picnic. The food is chocolate babka. Thank you to Joe Jeffers and Hannah Cook for starring, and to David Ouziel for filming! The video is captioned. A transcript with or without descriptions of what is on the screen is available on request.
If you prefer a text description of what to do, here it is:
Have one person serve the food. Let’s say it’s you.
Wash or sanitize your hands.
Put on your mask. Wash your hands again.
Put on gloves if you wish – it is helpful for reducing anxiety, and for avoiding things other than COVID.
Set out your serving tools – knife, cutting board, etc.
Cut/make a serving and place it on a plate or napkin.
Step 6 feet/2 meters away.
The other person should come and take it.
Step back. Repeat steps 6-8 for each person.
Remove gloves, wash your hands.
Remember to wash your hands between removing your mask and going back to serve any more food. Don’t reuse gloves!