I was originally going to post a recipe for tripe cooked with peppers and tomatoes, served over rice. It was really good. However, the butcher’s poor food safety practices seem to have given me food poisoning, which I have spent the past two days recovering from. (I knew something was off when he was lackadaisical with his gloves, but I was too excited for tripe.) The tripe was good, but it was not worth that.
Anyway, I am mostly feeling better now. I was originally going to rant about the poor safety practices of the kosher meat industry, but that has been covered extensively in Jewish media. So instead, I am going to provide some Jewish reading materials, liquids, foods, and advice for getting through a bout of food poisoning.
Read: so a shameless plug here – my cousin Lexi Freiman wrote a very Jewish, very gastric novel called Inappropriation that is absolutely fantastic. If you want to follow a satire of left- and right-wing identity politics told through the coming of age of an anxious teenage girl, this book is for you. You will laugh a lot.
Read: but if laughing is hurting your stomach, save Inappropriation for when you are not feeling ill. For this circumstance, I am going to recommend reading a nice history book or series of articles, so that you can feel elegant even as you feel violently sick. How about browsing through the Early New York Synagogue Archives from the Center for Jewish History?
Drink: soup! Clear chicken broth is not just the “Jewish penicillin” – it’s also easily digestible even when you can’t digest anything else. Slow sipping prevents vomiting, and will also both hydrate you and provide much needed electrolytes. It is also way better tasting than Gatorade.
Drink: South Africans drink rooibos tea when sick – and my South African dad definitely gave me quite a bit when I felt ill at times. Steep a bag of rooibos tea (yes, just get the bags like any South African) for three minutes in hot water, and add honey or sugar to taste. The caffeine-free tea will hydrate you and make you feel better.
Advice: do not guilt trip yourself! Food poisoning happens to most everyone at some point, and making yourself feel bad for eating something or drinking something sketchy will only make you feel worse. In Jewish communities we often like to guilt-trip, but that’s not healthy! No one deserves to vomit out their insides.
Ruby Tandoh is great. Ever since she was catapulted to food fame by her appearance on The Great British Bake-Off, I have been gleefully following her. Her recipes are straightforward and delicious, she is unapologetically queer and nerdy, and she celebrates food for what it is! Reading her writing or hearing her talk feels like one of my friends sitting on my famous metal mesh chair, holding a glass of wine and telling you that yes, fancy hazelnut porridge and Cream of Wheat with Raisinets are both great. (Confession: the second one is something I have eaten more than once.) So I was thrilled to finally read her new book, Eat Up.
It was so good.
Eat Up is a manifesto, but it does not tell you what or how to eat. Instead, it tells you how to live ethically with food. Tandoh walks you through all the ways you relate to food: as sustenance, as a vehicle for emotions, as a vehicle for politics, and as something that engages all the senses. Sometimes, the book is political, arguing against fatphobia, ableism, classism, or racism as made manifest through food. Sometimes, the book is meditative, asking you to savor whatever it is that you are eating. And sometimes, it is a food memoir, and that is where the writing is best. I laughed as I read of Tandoh seeking her Ghanaian great-aunt’s groundnut soup recipe, and grimaced right alongside her as she ate eels by the seashore. Most of all, though, this book is a response to the same authenticity-obsessed, elitist, snotty food world that irritates me.
Tandoh makes short shrift of the cute world of the food movement, the tyrannical one of the diet industry, and all the ways status is disguised by concern. There are many books that talk about the sugar lobby and the corn lobby. One of Tandoh’s strongest points is when she points out how, contrary to a lot of scientific evidence, a diet lobby also exists. The world of health foods and weight loss plans is not just about fake concern, but a multibillion dollar industry. It just happens to be an industry supported by the elite. Tandoh’s point regarding this is pretty unusual in the food world, and it is welcome. She also skewers the food movement, pointing out how unrealistic the locavore, artisan world it promotes is for so many. Some of this is direct – but some of it is simply honoring the food that the food movement often ignores. Tandoh might sing the praises of home-baked cake, but you will find love for cheap tea, Wotsits, and Burger King here too. Above all, Tandoh has little patience for the fake concern of much of the food world. People in the food world, she rightly points out, are not actually concerned about your weight or your tastes or your exposure to something. They often just enjoy the power and making fun of you. And Tandoh proposes resisting that temptation – and eating while we do it. After all, we need to eat to be strong.
Like me, Tandoh traces an emotional world through food. Recipes interspersed throughout the book seek to summon up a feeling – of joy, of ease, or of comfort. More than that, she talks about the meanings of food, and how different foods are needed at different times. She also discusses, effortlessly, the distance between what is socially “acceptable” to eat and what we actually crave – and how the latter is sometimes more helpful than the former. Many food books tell you not to eat Kit-Kats. Tandoh reminds you that, of course, it is okay to have one – and that your attachment to them is not a bad thing. This is the book’s strongest point: that food and emotion does not always go in a specific marketable, status-oriented direction.
The book can get repetitive at points, and sometimes a bit wordy. Tandoh herself jokes about this as a former philosophy student. I also think the recipes may be a bit hard for some people to follow, since they are written in a highly narrative style. That said, the book is still incredible as a resource and as a way to think about food. Tandoh is young, and Tandoh is bursting with ideas, and I think this is going to be the first of many incredible books about food. You should absolutely read Eat Up, so that you can join me in eagerly waiting for more.
I am starting this piece in Israel, where I am visiting my grandmother at the moment. Israel, as I have written before, is a really weird place in terms of food. There is plenty already written about the influence of Palestinian cuisine on Jewish cooking, continued diaspora traditions, and the “kashrut wars” in Israel. I have even watched a fantastic documentary about the pork industry in Israel. What I find most interesting, though, is that it is ground zero for industrial Jewish foods. Most of the canned gefilte fish, powder-mix matzah ball soup and latkes, and instant farfel have some link to industrial food companies here. If they were not invented here, they are certainly made here.
My grandmother is a fan. At the age of 91, she still enjoys her jarred gefilte fish on Passover, Mandelbrod from big boxes, and the smell of soup made from powdered mix. (She also eats some food that is unlikely to ever have an industrial market, like baked fish heads.) I used to dismiss these products as industrial dreck. But now I find them fascinating, because they still influence our homemade cooking. And just as Israel’s government uses nostalgia to drum up support for Zionism, so too do these food products use nostalgia to not just sell their wares, but redefine Jewish cuisine.
We who write about food are too quick to dismiss these products as unimportant to the grand story, or only negative. Except we often end up imitating them. For people whose first experience of Jewish food was these foods – and we have sixty years of this – that is the “benchmark” for whatever we make. It also becomes the norm. And we end up adding more of the things that people want … which often circle back to these products. Never mind that some people do not have the time, energy, ability, or resources to make everything “from scratch.” Making stock, making kneidlach, and making farfel takes time. The industrial manufacturers hit on a market – and the result is fascinating. Why? Because of how it plays with our psychology.
Makers take memories, smash them together, and create food products out of them. I find that fascinating. The company of course uses that “authentic” taste to sell the food. And eventually those tastes – which are often similar – become fixed. So then we have to adjust our handmade recipes to reflect those. We cannot remember the pre-industrial food that we never tasted! What we mistakenly call authentic is as much a product of marketing as anything else, even foods like p’tcha that do not have a version from the box. Some mourn this reality. I do not.
We have to remember that industrial food came about and stayed for a reason. Well, actually, it came about for many reasons, right alongside the development of capitalism, redistribution of wealth, and redistribution of cuisines. Food has also, in all civilizations, been industrial to a certain extent, with products being made, processed, and consumed in separate places. To return to the point though: industrial food made it far more efficient, practical, and possible to make food, make different types of food, and make a variety of food available. Canning made vegetables more regularly available during the winter. Dried pasta made noodles affordable. The packaging of rice made it shippable. Industrial bread made affordable bread without dangerous or unsavory additives that often caused illness or debilitating pain from indigestion. (The latter was common in Europe before the 19th century.) The natural next step in some ways was to industrialize other foods. That went well with the faith in scientific everything of the early and mid-20th century. True, these foods were seen as suspicious, and the women who were first to embrace them were often criticized for not doing things “the real way.” But the ease and simplicity of cooking them made industrial foods much more popular. Women, who still do most of the housework in homes today, had more time. (The use of industrial food maps closely to the ability of women to enter the workforce.) Fewer people were malnourished than before – a fact that goes contrary to many screeds about the obesity epidemic. Things that were once rare for most common people, such as chicken in the United States and pasta in Italy, became common. For Jews, festival foods also became more common – though the gefilte fish from the jar was certainly quite different. In Israel, industrialized food got a population of refugees dumped by the Israeli state into transit camps through a long period of austerity. Industrial food also ameliorated the malnutrition common in Palestinian refugee camps – as it still does today. The high-end “organic, handmade” cuisine that later developed in Italy, France, and the Bay Area is not natural or historic. It is an elitist reaction to a new common availability of food, which happens to be industrial. And though industrial food can improve, we should not simply dismiss it.
What would Jewish cooking look like today without industrial food? The honest truth is, I do not know, and nor do you. Industrial food has changed our tastes: it is so common that it is part of all of our memories of taste. It has been around and popular for generations. I would hazard that what we considered the central parts of Jewish food would have a lot less meat, a lot less complexity, and many more foods reserved only for the most important holidays. Perhaps there would also be less salt. I do not think it is useful, though, to recreate pre-industrial Jewish cooking. We are at five generations of cooks who have grown up with stock cubes and bouillon powder, canned tomatoes and packaged noodles, jams from the store and premade matzah meal. Those tastes are in all of our palates – even the ones with organic, fair-trade labeling. We cannot reconstruct that taste. We simply have to move on and acknowledge that these jarred and canned foods, whether or not we like them, a part of our cuisine. We should partake, and participate in how they are developed.
In short, we should embrace what I call modernist Jewish cooking. (The term is an adaptation of Rachel Laudan’s term “culinary modernism”). It is pointless and unhygienic to masturbate to fantasies of the authentic Jewish kitchen. Why complain about frozen gefilte fish, when we can make it different or better for us? Why judge the person who makes matzah ball soup from the box? (Would you rather they not eat?) Why should we be so scared of the shortcuts our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew better to malign? Why should we romanticize the misogynist misery of cooking “in the old days,” a misery that hundreds of millions of women still live? Why should we embrace the myths of the “natural” kitchen, when nothing about human cooking is ever fully “natural”? And can we even run away from these tastes, that shape us as much as anything that is celebrated?
For more reading on industrial food, I highly recommend the work of Rachel Laudan and Josh Ozersky. “A Plea for Modernist Cuisine” (Laudan) and “In Defense of Industrial Food” (Ozersky) are two of my favorite articles ever written about food. For more on how industrial food products emerged, read Laura Shapiro’s Something From the Oven. For more on industrial food in Israel, Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nationis spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.
And now for the second in our series of potato dishes for Passover – a dish most people associate with Spain, the potato omelet. In Spain, this dish is made with chunks of potato and known as a tortilla española. It is a common favorite at tapas bars around the world. However, a similar dish exists across Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewish communities. It is called frittata de patate by Italian Jews, kuku sib zamini by Persian Jews. It is also named makroud fil-batates in North African Arabic or a variety of things in Ladino.
One of the great things about many of the Jewish versions of the frittata is that it is made with mashed potato instead of potato chunks, which does wondrous things for the texture. Instead of admittedly delicious chunks of potato, you get a creamy, almost mousse-like texture. I based my recipe off of Claudia Roden’s, but with a few adjustments. I swapped the parsley with cilantro, and added a touch of another New World introduction – chili peppers – to give it a bit of a spicy kick. This dish makes for a great sharing food, or as breakfast for Pesach and the whole year. However, I skipped the onions in the North African version and made a riff off of the deceptively simple Italian version. I have been eating it for breakfast, piece by piece. Enjoy!
Potato Frittata for Passover
Based on several recipes by Claudia Roden
2lbs/1kg potatoes, peeled
5 cloves white garlic, minced
2 fresh hot chili peppers, finely diced
4 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower seed oil
1 fistful fresh cilantro, chopped
8 eggs, beaten
Salt and black pepper to taste (I used about 2 teaspoons of salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper)
Boil the potatoes in water until soft. Then, drain the potatoes and rinse them under cold water to cool them. Mash the potatoes and set aside to cool further.
In the meantime, heat a deep non-stick or cast-iron skillet and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Then, add the garlic and chili and sauté for 1-2 minutes, or until the garlic is browned. Pour out the oil, garlic, and chili, and mix them into the mashed potatoes.
Mix the cilantro, eggs, salt, and pepper into the mashed potatoes until you get a thick batter.
Heat the skillet again, and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, pour the egg-potato mixture into the skillet. Cook for 15-20 minutes on a medium-to-high flame, or until the omelet is set and browned on the bottom. If you want it brown on top, you can bake the frittata afterwards for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can bake the frittata in the skillet or a pan for 35-45 minutes in an oven preheated to 425F/220C.
Remove from heat. Serve the frittata in slices, hot, warm, or cold.
A number of readers have asked me for advice on how to host a Shabbat dinner and not become upset, lose one’s metaphorical spoons, or have a fairly unpleasant time. Hosting a Shabbat dinner is a great mitzvah, a lot of fun, and a nice way to combine Jewish food, ritual, friends, and a good time. It also does not have to be upsetting to host. I am no domestic goddess, but I do have some sage advice that I think can serve us all. Here are thirteen basic guidelines to follow when hosting a Shabbat dinner – or any dinner party or event that you cater yourself, really.
Do: plan ahead. You should know, before you begin to cook:
what you are cooking,
what your ingredients are,
how many people are eating,
how much time you need, and
what equipment you have in your kitchen.
From there, you can adequately prepare for your meal. When you buy ingredients, you know what to buy. You know roughly how much time to set aside to cook, and you have an idea of how much to cook. I generally have an idea of who is coming for a Shabbat dinner and what I am cooking by Tuesday. If you are less experienced, you will need more time.
Do: know your limits. You should know how long it takes you to cook and to prep for cooking – from chopping an onion to making a full meal. Know how much time you have, and how much energy you have, and how much you can afford to spend on ingredients. Plan from there. It’s hard to do an elaborate meal you do not have the energy to make, or the time, or the money. There are plenty of affordable and time-efficient dishes to make, and if you can do more money-wise or time-wise, feel free to go ahead. This also requires you to know how experienced you are in the kitchen. If you do not have a lot of experience, you may want to make simpler things, because your limits are not as wide as, say, someone who’s cooked for fifteen years.
Do: know how to troubleshoot. Things go wrong in the kitchen – dishes boil over, an ingredient is not very fresh, you drop an egg. You should know what might go wrong with your dishes, and at the very least how to do without an ingredient or to make something up on the fly. Some of this is from experience, but you can also get an idea by reading various cooking books. If you are not sure what could go wrong with a dish, make it for yourself or your family first before you try it on guests.
Do: cook with your guests in mind. Cook things based on what your guests can eat. This means that you should take into account dietary restrictions, allergies, and aversions whenever possible before planning what you will cook. I will nowadays shoot a Facebook message to my invitees asking this question before I even plan a single dish. For friends who I have cooked for before, I also take into account their allergies, practices, and aversions – for example, one friend has an aversion to raw fruit, and another has an allergy to certain types of chili. Then, once you have this information, plan your menu. This makes preparing the meal far less stressful – you will not end up cooking things that only you can eat.
Do: cook things you would make normally. This sounds counter-intuitive: don’t you want to make guests something special? But other than one “ta-da!” dish, it is actually fine to have things that you are used to making. Not only does it let your labor shine, but “normal” food can be good food too! Besides, it is far easier to make.
Do: have only one or two labor-intensive dishes. A labor-intensive dish might be good, but it definitely takes a lot of time and energy to prepare! And so it is best to only have one dish that requires heavy preparation time – be it in mincing many ingredients, a complicated assembly, or a long cooking process. Keep the other dishes fairly simple. This means that your efforts will be appreciated and you can have the focus you need to make the dish.
Do: allow your guests to contribute. There is nothing wrong with asking for a bit of help – and it is okay to ask your guests to bring some smaller things! (In fact, this is the custom in many Jewish communities.) I routinely ask my guests to bring some challah, a bottle of wine, or lemonade. If a guest offers to bring something, do not automatically say no! That said, be sure to offer things when you go over to others’ houses too.
Do: balance out the dishes. Generally speaking, try not to have everything be the same flavor or the same type of dish. So, for example, don’t have three carbohydrates and a green salad, or have everything taste like maple syrup. Even a taste-themed meal should have variety so the guests are not bored, overwhelmed, or do not eat enough. I usually aim for one protein, one carbohydrate, and two vegetables.
Don’t: be afraid of simple dishes. Simple food is often good food. So though we rightly celebrate complex dishes, do not be afraid of the simple things! Potatoes, simple vegetables, and bread still have their places in great meals. In addition, allowing the flavor of something to be alone or almost unadorned is a hallmark of many great cuisines, from China to France to Mexico. Simple foods also go well with complex dishes. Besides, they are much easier to make.
Don’t: make it too complicated. This is the death of so many good parties. If you make your dinner too complicated, there are many more places where things can go wrong: a sauce burns; an allergy appears; the cat eats a key ingredient. (Yes, the last one happened.) Besides, a complicated dinner is really exhausting to put on. Best to only have one complicated thing at most, and keep the other things pretty simple. It makes for a better dinner and a better time.
Don’t: make too many new recipes or use too many new ingredients. One thing about cooking with ingredients is knowing how they behave: how they cook, how long they cook for, what they do to your food, and what can go wrong. It is great to try new things: a different vegetable or fish, a new spice, or a new starchy food. But in order to learn how this item cooks, and to feel less overwhelmed, stick to only that new item, or maybe two new items. Otherwise, cook with ingredients you are familiar with. It is much easier to lay out a meal if you know what you are cooking, and you feel comfortable cooking it. As for new recipes, even if they are with ingredients you are familiar with, you may want to only stick to one or two totally new recipes at a time for a meal. Otherwise, cook things that you have cooked before to reduce the stress. For example, for a recent Shabbat dinner, I made an Iranian herb omelet called kuku sabzi – which was delicious! Though with familiar ingredients, I had never made it before – and the preparation method is somewhere between an omelet and a frittata, but far more reliant on fresh herbs. I also made the Eggplant with Lentils and Pomegranates. For everything else, I used recipes that I was not only familiar with, but I had made many times before. I was barely stressed, and the dinner was a success.
Don’t: be scared of mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes in the kitchen, even when cooking for guests. Don’t feel embarrassed: it is part of the learning process. Merely make a note of where you went wrong, and try again next time! Even the most experienced cooks mess up from time to time – I myself messed up while trying to thicken a soup the other day. After all, our sages said it best: “no one is perfect but G-d.”
Thank you to Alex Cooke and Jeremy Swack for talking through points in this piece with me.
Here’s a quick recipe in honor of the Nine Days before Tisha B’Av. It is traditional in this time to eat foods associated with mourning, to avoid meat, and to avoid alcohol, all in honor of the destroyed Temples – and for many modern Jews, other tragedies as well. Garlic has an interesting duality in traditional Jewish cuisine – it is simultaneously a food of pleasure for Shabbat but also traditional for mourning, along with eggs and lentils. I haven’t found very much on the Jewish history of cashews, but I do know that they are frequently found in the cuisines of Brazilian and Indian Jewry.
Cashew and Garlic Spread
6oz/170g raw cashews
2 cups water
16 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Soak the cashews in water for fifteen minutes. Then, drain the cashews.
You can optionally saute the garlic cloves whole in the olive oil and then save both. Or you can use them raw for a stronger flavor.
Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth but with some chunkiness. I have a hand-crank food processor and find that I can better get the consistency I want with that. You will get a smoother product more quickly with an electric food processor.
Let it sit for ten minutes before serving. It will keep for up to a week refrigerated.
Thank you to Alex Cooke, Jonathan Bressler, Rebecca Galin, Berakha Guggenheim, Akiva Lichtenberg, and David Hughes-Robinson for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
Even today, each Jewish community’s pickles have a strong toehold on Jewish tables around the world. In Ashkenazi communities, cucumber pickles are found seemingly everywhere – at Shabbat tables, in sandwiches, as snacks. In the United States, the “kosher dill” pickle has transcended ethnic boundaries to become something of a regional food in the Northeast. (I remember a Catholic friend from New Jersey who brought back a jar to the United Kingdom from a visit home.) In other countries, but especially France and Israel, meanwhile, many preserved Mizrahi foods are popular: pickled eggplants from Iraq, preserved lemons from Morocco, and preserved onions from everywhere among them. Today, in any food shop catering to Israeli expatriates, you can find cans of Kvutzat Yavne pickles for sale. At all stages of assimilation and cultural and culinary change, pickles have accompanied Jews for the ride – even if the pickles themselves have changed.
In an age of mass pickling and a stronger food supply (both of which are good things), fewer people are pickling. I do not hold by arguments that something is lost here: let’s not romanticize a past in which death by food poisoning was common and nutrition more lacking than today. This is a view that Rachel Laudan correctly described as ahistorical in her wonderful book Cuisine and Empire. What is true, though, is that pickling is a lot of fun. The work is satisfying, and a new generation of millennial picklers are bringing new flavors to the table. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, for example, included not only classical Ashkenazi cucumber pickles and sauerkraut in their book The Gefilte Manifesto, but also kimchi-like sauerkraut and shallots in red wine. Not authentic at all, totally Jewish, and stunningly delicious. Other cultures, too, are playing with their pickles – I recently found a recipe for Iranian torshi that used Fuji apples!
In this recipe I used some pickling spices from South Africa. The blend includes turmeric and paprika, which lend the pickles I made a spicy undertone and a bright color. You, of course, can have your pickles as plain as possible. Remember to use the freshest vegetables for the best flavor. This recipe is very easy since the fermentation and preservation all take place in the refrigerator. This recipe is suitable for canning – remember to follow safe canning guidelines.
Easy Refrigerator Pickles
Makes one quart
2 cups chopped and peeled vegetables (I used kohlrabi and turnips for one pickle, onions for another, cucumbers for another, and lettuce – yes, lettuce – for the last. The recipe is easily scalable.)
1 cup water
1 cup vinegar (any should do)
1 tablespoon coarse salt (do not use table salt)
1 tablespoon pickling spices of choice (optional)
Wash thoroughly and dry a liter- or quart-sized container with a lid. This can be a jar, Tupperware, former peanut butter vessel… you name it.
Stuff the chopped vegetables into the container, leaving room between them and at the top for the brine.
In a saucepan, blend the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. This makes the brine.
When the brine is boiling, stir again, then turn off the heat.
Ladle the brine into the container with the vegetables until full, leaving a bit of space at the top. Close the container completely.
Place the container in the back of the refrigerator for three days at least before eating. The pickles keep for up to six weeks.
Remember to can safely if you can!
Thank you to Evan Bialostozky and Jessie Thompson for selling me the vegetables used in this recipe.