Social Distancing Recipe Matrix

A lot of you are learning to cook for the first time with this social distancing that we all have to do because of the coronavirus pandemic. I want to write relatively little on that, and instead provide a recipe matrix you can use for easy meals with long-lasting goods.

The recipe matrix consists of three sections: a separate carbohydrate section, identifying plant matter, proteins, and spices, and a way to combine them. As a note, for all combinations, you will need onion and garlic cloves, as well as cooking oil and vinegar.

Pasta
(Photo CC)

Carbohydrates

Rice and pasta keep for a long time, as do potatoes, tortillas in the refrigerator or freezer, and bread in the freezer.

Rice: prepare according to package directions. For jasmine rice, I add one and a half cups of water for every cup of rice. Set in a pot to boil with a splash of oil and a dash of salt, then simmer while stirring regularly. If you have a rice cooker, as I do, I strongly suggest you use that.

Pasta: prepare according to package directions. I can’t suggest more than that, because every package is that straightforward. I usually aim for al dente texture when I cook pasta.

Potatoes: my preferred method to cook potatoes is to wash them, then boil them in salted water for 25-30 minutes or until tender to the fork. Then, slice them. Minimal effort and minimal equipment. For new potatoes, or small potatoes, 15-20 minutes will do.

canned tomatoes, canned veggies, canned beans, spices, chopped onions and garlic, and elbow macaroni laid out
Social distancing-appropriate ingredients! (Photo mine, December 2019)

Bread: Make sure bread is sliced before you freeze it! Toast bread from the freezer for about a minute longer than if it was fresh. You can usually defrost bread quickly in the microwave – about 30 seconds for two slices – but it will be much softer. If you didn’t slice the bread, or you have rolls, I recommend defrosting the loaf or rolls in an oven at 350F/175C for about half an hour. Then, slice.

Tortillas: Wrap up to six tortillas in a wet paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds.

Choose vegetables, proteins, and spices

Vegetables

Fresh winter squash, fresh peppers, and fresh whole mushrooms keep for a long time in the refrigerator. You can also use frozen vegetables – I prefer peas, carrots, squash, zucchini, kale, and corn here. Or you can use canned vegetables – my top choices there are peas and corn.

To prepare the fresh squash, wash it, then chop off the top and the bottom, and then chop it in half. Remove the seeds, and then chop into thin, small pieces. You will need to remove the peel from butternut squash first, but you do not need to do the same for acorn squash, delicata squash, or kabocha, so I suggest buying those when you go out for your grocery run.

To prepare the fresh peppers, wash them, then chop off the top. Remove the seeds, and then chop the remaining pepper into small pieces.

To prepare the mushrooms, wash them, then chop into small pieces.

All you need to do for frozen vegetables is to massage them in the bag until they are broken apart.

All you need to do for canned vegetables is drain the contents.

Bags of frozen vegetables
Frozen vegetables are handy for social distancing. (Photo public domain)

Protein

The easiest protein in this circumstance is a can of beans – all you have to do is drain out the fluid, and you’re ready to go!

The other protein I recommend is tofu: drain a block or two, then chop it into small cubes. Firm tofu works best.

This recipe does not really work with meat or fish.

Spices

The spices should vary based on your vegetables. Always add a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of black pepper. For sweeter vegetables like squash and pepper, I recommend using (ground) cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, curry powder, allspice, sugar, and/or red pepper flakes to taste. You can also add more salt or black pepper too. For mushrooms or frozen savory vegetables, use oregano, thyme, red pepper, paprika, or rosemary. Soup powder (avkat marak) works well here too.

Chickpeas with kale in a bowl in a black and white image

Ratio for every two to three servings

Carbohydrates: one of: 1 cup raw rice, 8oz/225g raw pasta, 2-3 medium potatoes, 4-6 slices of bread, or 6-8 tortillas

Vegetables: 1 squash, 1-2 bell peppers, 1.5-2 cups mushrooms, 1 8oz/225g can vegetables, or 8oz/225g frozen vegetables

Protein: 1 8oz/225g can beans or 8oz/225g tofu

Spices: should add up to about 1-1.5 tablespoons

Potatoes on the counter

Recipe!

Make your carbohydrate separately. Get started with rice, potatoes, pasta, or defrosting bread in the oven now. Tortillas and bread in the toaster can be done after you’re finished cooking.

Chop ½ a medium onion and two cloves of garlic.

Place a medium saucepan over high heat, and add a drop of water. When the water sizzles away, add enough oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for one minute, moving the onions around with your spatula. When your onions start to wilt, add the spices and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for 30 more seconds, and then add your vegetable, and mix thoroughly. Then, add 1 tbsp of vinegar – apple cider vinegar or white vinegar will do. Sauté for two more minutes, and then add the protein. If you are using fresh vegetables, add a few tablespoons of water. Mix thoroughly, and when the mixture starts to boil, lower the heat. Stir regularly until either: the squash, peppers, or mushrooms are soft, or the canned or frozen vegetables are thoroughly cooked. Serve over or alongside the carbohydrate.

Shabbat Brownies

As a busy graduate student, I have largely been sticking to these simpler recipes during my semesters. Sometimes, these are very obviously Jewish, but this time, I am providing a brownie recipe. I call these Shabbat brownies, because they taste great a day or two later – making them suited for baking for a Shabbat lunch! Make them on Thursday night or Friday afternoon for a tasty end to the meal. (Have one or three as a snack in the meantime.)

While the origin of brownies was likely in church communities in central Maine, they became quite popular among American Jews – just like everyone else in North America. There is a certain type of very fudgy brownie that seems to be popular among synagogues across North America. While they are good, I tend to prefer a cakey brownie – one that relies heavily on eggs.

brownie on parchment paper with brownies behind
This stock photo’s brownies look oddly similar to mine, if a tad denser. The photographer is more talented than I, hence… (Photo Pixabay/CC)

Hence this recipe. I used to have a different recipe, but here is my updated version. Thank you to my boyfriend, housemates, colleagues, and classmates for testing the various iterations.

Shabbat Brownies

Makes 24 brownies

2 sticks (1 cup) butter + more for greasing

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup granulated white sugar

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 large eggs, room temperature

1 ½ cups sifted white flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
  2. Grease a 9”x13”/23cmx33cm (or similarly sized pan) with butter. Line the pan with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper again with butter.
  3. Melt the butter and chocolate chips together until smooth. You could do this in a bain-marie, but I just do it in the microwave: put the chips in a deep, microwave safe bowl, add the butter in chunks, microwave on high for a minute, then stir together. Put the melted chocolate-butter mixture in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Add the sugar and cocoa powder and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the milk and vanilla extract, and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  6. Crack the eggs into the bowl, and then whisk together until thoroughly combined and the mixture is smooth.
  7. Add the flour, baking powder, and sugar. Whisk together until the batter is thoroughly combined and is a smooth, thick consistency. Make sure all the flour is thoroughly mixed in!
  8. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean or with only a few crumbs. Let cool before cutting.
  9. Store in an airtight container for up to four days.

A Quick Addendum to the Pantry Article

Bags of frozen vegetables
 (Photo public domain)

I moved to Maryland in July from New York State. Though the move is fairly short – about 200 miles or 360 kilometers – my new home state does have a slightly different climate from New York. This difference does have some nice benefits, like the persimmon trees in my neighbor’s yards, or the slightly warmer winter. However, this also affects food storage. Maryland is just enough more humid and just enough balmier that food lasts for different lengths here. I have to be particularly more careful about flour and rice storage, and things like cake and bread do not stay fresh for quite as long as in New York. The difference is about a day.

So I need to add something quickly to my pantry guide: the fact that you need to take climate into account. Humidity, heat, and temperature changes will make some foods go off more quickly – and may necessitate different storage techniques. For example, in a hot, humid climate, tomatoes will last much longer in the refrigerator – and will go off more quickly when stored at “room temperature.” (Yes, this will affect the taste slightly.) Flour, rice, and noodles will need to be very carefully sealed to prevent bugs from getting in. On the other hand, in a cool, dry climate, it is important to make sure that your containers are fully closed – especially for things like bread, which can go stale quickly.

This knowledge can seem overwhelming. So I recommend: ask around with your local friends and see what they do! No doubt some people will have tips and tricks relevant for you. One example is that I’ve learned many people here keep their flour in the freezer, because Maryland has a particularly big population of flour mites (which are not nice).

Climate change will affect this. As climactic conditions become warmer, more humid or more dry, and with more extreme weather, food is affected in more ways than growing. One thing that has been less discussed is how storing food may need to change – and, if more refrigeration is needed, the resultant energy use and carbon emissions. On a macro level, that could be a big impact. On a micro level, it means that you may end up changing what you consume and how much as the impacts of climate change continue to play out.

Budget accordingly, buy accordingly, and store accordingly! Use tips and tricks for your climate to store things and to make sure things stay yummy and good to eat. Keep an eye out, especially given that extreme weather is sadly here to stay.

Trip-Chaining and Groceries (With A Recipe)

When I am not writing this blog, I am in graduate school for urban planning at the University of Maryland. I primarily focus on disability access and aging, and how we can do better planning for cities that are livable for everyone (Sometimes this means that I write about toilets.) A lot of what we look at revolves not just around how people should move about the city, but about how people actually do so. And some of that includes the fact that some travel is simply not facilitated.

Double decker bus with the text "53 Plumstead Station"
Photo by David Geib on Pexels.com

One thing we planners often discuss is “trip-chaining.” In our jargon, this means “a trip with one or more stops on the way.” So, instead of say a single-purpose trip – a trip to work or from work – it is more of a trip that might include dropping your child off, picking up some medicines, working for a few hours, and then swinging by the supermarket on the way back. Everyone trip-chains at some point. However, women, children, and people with disabilities are far more likely to trip-chain on a daily basis than men. The problem is that much of our extant transport infrastructure is planned around the assumption of a commute to work in the morning and a commute back from work in the evening. This case is especially apparent for public transit schedules. But for women still largely charged with childcare and household responsibilities, and others who are less likely to work in big job centers on those schedules, navigating the transport system becomes more difficult. Trip-chaining is easier for many – and besides, logically makes more sense – than doing one trip to get the groceries, another to drop off a child, and so on. Planning is finally cottoning on to this reality.

A shelf of canned fish
Canned fish – easier to carry than the fresh version. (Photo public domain)

Trip-chaining affects how we buy groceries and what groceries we buy. Firstly, when we go to buy groceries, our cognitive bandwidth is not always focused on the groceries. Anyone who has cared for a child while shopping or had to do it in a rush to catch a bus can tell you this. Secondly, it means that groceries will be carried sometimes a fairly long distance – especially if it’s not the last stop on a trip. If, like in some countries, distances are not that far, it means that it is not too terrible to carry around fresh vegetables, dairy, or other perishables. But in places with long travel times, or where transit is unreliable, perishable food becomes risky. Hence it is easier – and less wasteful – to buy things that do not need a refrigerator or can be outside of a fridge for longer. Think canned beans, fruit and vegetables that travel well, and not as many fragile leaves or berries. (Which, besides, are prohibitively expensive for some.) Difficulty in travel also makes big trips to the supermarket with a car far more likely – people in places that are heavily car-dependent go to the grocery store less often than people elsewhere, and the bulk and length of those visits are hard to chain.

A refrigerator with four shelves stacked with packaged dairy products
The lines of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

I think processed foods have other benefits, especially for certain folks and people in certain places. But one advantage that is not always acknowledged is that they are something someone can actually buy and cart around effectively. If you have to grocery shop while doing three other tasks, it is harder to select and lug around fresh foods – especially if you don’t have a car to stow them in or if you have a long way to travel. Sometimes, it is easier to just buy a can or a box. Not to mention that it is already hard, with overwhelming choice, for many people to grocery shop anyway. Add the labor on top of that of child care or coordinating three schedules or three tasks, and then the cognitive load for many is overwhelming. The fact that I can eat and cook with so many vegetables has much more to do with the fact that I have lived walking distance from a good grocery store my entire adult life, and not nearly as much to do with my (lacking) virtue.

What does this mean in the Jewish context? Well, I think it illustrates the fact that things like pre-made latke mixes, canned soups, and “hacks” to make traditional dishes actually have a place in our kitchens. They make Jewish food much more manageable and feasible for some people, and there should not be shame in doing what is possible in the system you cannot change as an individual alone. And certainly not with consumption wrapped in deeply privileged ideas of propriety.

canned tomatoes, canned veggies, canned beans, spices, chopped onions and garlic, and elbow macaroni laid out
Ingredients that one can buy and schlep! (Photo mine, December 2019)

I have attached a simple recipe for a soup made entirely from ingredients you can buy while trip-chaining. It is an adaptation of pasta e fagioli for the vast majority of us who do not have the time to lovingly caress beautiful ingredients every day. The soup takes under half an hour to make.  You could probably swap frozen vegetables for the canned option, but it is harder to travel with those! (I use frozen, but I live five minutes’ walk from a grocery store.) These are also items that could easily be stored for a while in a pantry. I use soup powder, but you can use stock as well. The recipe multiplies well. My boyfriend enjoyed this soup, and I hope you do too!

Bowl of soup and mug of water on wood table)
(Photo mine, December 2019)

Bean Soup with Pasta (Trip-Chainers’ Pasta e Fagioli)

Serves 2-3 (or 1 person for two-three meals)

1 small onion

2 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons soup powder/avkat marak (if using water)

1 teaspoon table salt (add 1 ½ tsp more if using stock)

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 15oz/425g can cannellini beans

1 15oz/425g can diced tomatoes

1 8oz/212g can mixed vegetables

1 cup elbow macaroni

Olive oil or vegetable oil

Apple cider vinegar

Water for pasta (and soup)

Ready-made vegetable stock for the soup (optional)

  1. Put some water on to boil in a small saucepan for the pasta. Dice the onion and garlic however small you like them.
  2. Put a bigger saucepan on the heat for the soup. Add the oil – maybe two tablespoons – then the onions and garlic. Sauté, stirring, for two minutes, or until soft.
  3. Add the soup powder (if using), salt, pepper, and oregano, then mix in. Add a splash of vinegar. Sauté for 30 more seconds.
  4. Add the canned tomatoes and mix in. When they are boiling, add the beans, then 2 cups of water or ready-made vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the pasta is ready. If you like your soup very liquid, cover the pot so the steam gets trapped.
  5. When the pasta water is ready, add the elbows. Bring to a boil, then cook for five-six minutes or until al dente. Drain, and set aside.
  6. Add the canned vegetables to the soup when the pasta is done. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for two minutes. Turn off the heat.
  7. To serve, ladle pasta into the bowl, then soup, to the serving size of your choice.

Arugula Salad for the Fall

Shana Tova! I made a salad at my Rosh HaShanah dinner that I was quite proud of, and after a few more tries (and a lot of arugula), I got the recipe down enough to post it here. Here is to a 5780 in which we are prickly when needed – like arugula – but sweet like pears and rich like goat cheese.

Black and white photo of arugula salad in a bowl

Salad itself has a very long history for Jews – salted raw vegetables were common in the Roman Empire, and it is where we get the word “salad” from. However, like other raw vegetable dishes that were not pickled, salads begin to become much more popular with the advent of refrigeration, when raw vegetables became safer and more readily available. That said, they were somewhat common in the Middle East, and the early Zionists borrowed/took the Palestinian custom of eating salads – which may have been of relatively recent vintage – and christened it as “Israeli.” Since then, certain kinds of salads have been nigh-ubiquitous in Jewish communities – and have only grown more so as Jewish communal life has become more centered on Israel. Meanwhile, in Israel, many feel that no meal is complete without a salad.

As for arugula, I wrote about the Jewish history of arugula for the Jewish Daily Forward back in 2016. Shall we say that this salad may serve as a proverbial “pick-me-up?”

Arugula Salad for the Fall/Tishrei and Marcheshvan

For every 8 ounces/225 grams of fresh arugula, add:

½ cup finely chopped walnuts

½-1 cup crumbled goat cheese (to taste)

1 small-medium red onion, finely chopped

2 medium pears, cored and finely chopped (you can use any pear, I prefer D’Anjou)

Toss these together. Then, make a dressing of the following proportions. Double as necessary for every 8 ounces/225 grams of arugula.

1.5 tablespoons maple syrup

1 tablespoon strong mustard

1.5 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

A few dashes of table salt

Mix these together, then pour over the salad and toss. The salad keeps for three days but tastes best right after you make it.

Pareve Pie Crust

I am moving to Maryland and in the midst of packing, but I did not want to leave you, my loyal readers, hanging. So, here is a quick recipe for a dairy-free pie crust. I have seen many people complain about the lack of quality generally present in pareve desserts. Though I love butter and sour cream, I do not think that a lack of dairy means that your dessert needs to be bad. Here is my tested pie crust recipe, which works for most dairy-free and vegan pies.

Thatched apple pie in a glass tray
An apple pie I made with the crust. (Photo mine, October 2018)

Pareve Pie Crust

For one double-crust 9-inch/23cm pie or two singe-crust 9-inch 23cm pies.

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

½ cup oat milk

½ cup corn oil

Up to ½ cup cold water

  1. Sift the flour and salt together in a large bowl with a fork or a whisk.
  2. Add the oil and oat milk. Then, with a pastry knife or your hands, meld the flour and liquids together to form a dough. Add a teaspoon of water at a time until you have a pliable but not dry dough.
  3. Refrigerate the dough until ready for use. You do not need to have the dough at room temperature to work it. Use like a dairy pie crust in your pie recipe.
  4. Do note that when it is done, it will be slightly lighter than a dairy pie crust.

Mistakes Made Jewish Cuisine

My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.

Fish on ice in a market
Cooking a whole fish for the first time – or after a long time – can result in various mistakes. (Photo mine, December 2017)

So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.

As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:

Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl
I have not made this soup for a while, and I am liable to make a mistake while making it. (Photo mine, February 2018)

That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.

Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
Aspics, like the pictured Serbian pihtije or the Ashkenazi p’tcha, were maybe invented out of a mistake. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.

Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.