Cilantro Heaven: Aliyah da Gomi

Chicken stew with tomato, cilantro, and onion, with cornmeal porridge and zucchini medallions
Aliyah da Gomi – chicken stew with tomatoes and cilantro (Aliyah), served with cornmeal porridge (Gomi), and some zucchini is in there too. (Photo mine, January 2017)

My love for cilantro is legendary among my friends. I eat it raw when I cook with it; I garnish many dishes with it; my colleague once brought me cilantro from her father’s garden. So when I happened on a Georgian recipe for chicken stew with tamarind, tomatoes, and much cilantro in Claudia Roden’s book, I pounced: here indeed was a recipe I absolutely had to make. But, on a whim, I also decided to add a very different ingredient – ginger. The result tasted somewhat different from the nutty, rich food I had eaten in Georgian restaurants in New York and Israel – it was almost Thai. Delicious, though, with the fine dance of cilantro. In many ways, I had made an authentic-inauthentic recipe.

Interior of The synagogue in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia.
The synagogue in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia. (Photo Uri Yachin via Flickr/Creative Commons)

The ingredients, though, are all indeed common in Georgia’s delicious and incredibly rich cuisine. The Caucasus country – which has been home to Jews for 2,500 years – has been well known for its rich spice combinations, succulent cheese, incredible love for all forms of tree nuts, and hearty food since ancient times; in the Soviet era, Georgian food swept across the socialist empire and outpaced that of the Russian overlords. The food recalls both the tart and sweet tastes of Eastern Europe and the sour, earthy tastes of nearby Iran and Anatolia. The wine, too, is spectacular – and, after all, Georgia is likely the first place where wine was produced. The Jewish cuisine of Georgia is no less rich, and merits much attention.

Fresh cilantro
Delicious, fresh cilantro. (Photo QFamily via Flickr/CC, July 2008)

This dish is based on a Georgian one called Aliyah, from the Hebrew word for migration to Israel – and “to rise up.” Indeed, the cilantro and sweet-sourness does make one feel that a culinary ascent is occurring. I served the recipe with gomi – a simple cornmeal porridge common in Georgia. Like in Italy, Romania, and Southern Africa, corn became a hit crop when it was introduced in the Caucasus from the New World in the 17th century via Spanish and Ottoman trading networks. Today, it is so common so as to be local – but belies the very global traditions of Georgian cuisine.

Laying out tomatoes, garlic, tamarind, spices, and onions for the stew
Laying out tomatoes, garlic, tamarind, spices, and onions for the stew (Photo mine, January 2017)

Georgian-Style Chicken with Cornmeal Porridge (Aliyah da Gomi)

Based on the recipe by Claudia Roden

Chicken

2 tbsp olive oil

1 lb/500 grams onions, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced (or ¼ tsp powdered ginger)

2 lbs/1 kg chicken meat, chopped or cubed into 1-inch pieces

1 lb/500 grams tomatoes, diced

1.5 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tbsp tamarind paste (substitute: 1 tbsp lime juice mixed with 1 tbsp brown sugar)

1 tsp apple cider vinegar

¼ cup water

¾ cup fresh cilantro, chopped, plus more for garnish

1 tbsp dried basil

Gomi (Corn Porridge)

8 cups water

2 cups cornmeal

¼ tsp salt

1 tbsp olive oil

  1. Heat the oil in a deep skillet or pan. Add the onions, garlic, and ginger and sauté for two minutes, or until the onions begin to wilt.
  2. Add the chicken, tomatoes, salt, pepper, tamarind, vinegar, and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and the sauce has reduced. Stir occasionally.
  3. In the meanwhile, bring the water for the gomi to a boil in a separate pot. When the water is boiling, add the cornmeal and salt and cook, stirring regularly, for ten minutes or until all the water is absorbed.
  4. Turn off the heat for the gomi and add the olive oil. Let sit, covered, until ready to serve.
  5. When the chicken is soft and tender, and the sauce has reduced to be somewhat thick but still soupy, turn off the heat. Add the cilantro and dried basil and mix in thoroughly with the stew.
  6. Serve the stew hot with the gomi, which should have thickened. Add some fresh cilantro for garnish.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Daniel Moscoe, and Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Great Books: The Gefilte Manifesto

The cover for The Gefilte Manifesto.
The cover for The Gefilte Manifesto. (Photo Amazon)

Normally, I don’t tend to fall into cookbook or food book hype. Yes, I tell you about “Great Books” but that is because a lot of Jewish food books simply don’t live up to the hype promised to us by marketers, the media, and the priests and priestesses of the Cult of Authenticity. (Authenticity in cooking is bullshit.) So I was a bit nervous when I picked up a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, promising that Ashkenazi cuisine was “one of the world’s great cuisines…right under our noses.” Another well-publicized book, a historical one, on Ashkenazi cooking earlier this year did not live up to hype. The authors, essentially professional Ashkenazi chefs, were proclaimed to be revitalizing Eastern European Jewish cuisine itself. That is quite a lot of hype.

Thus I was more than pleasantly surprised when I opened the book to find a true gem. This is a cookbook that celebrates the wonders and underrated glory of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine: some of the classic dishes, but some of them with a new twist. The crisp, delightful flavors of Eastern Europe are rendered lovingly, but not cloyingly. As someone who grew up with these tastes, this book is delightful. It must be even more so for those who were not as exposed to traditional Ashkenazi cooking. And the hype, if hyperbolic, was appropriate for the book. You should all buy a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto as soon as you are able.

I will briefly state what the book is not before I go through all the things that it is. It is not a book on authenticity, it is not a book of manufactured memories, and it is not a book that makes demands of certain dishes for the reader’s Jewishness. Rather, it approaches Ashkenazi cuisine as a tradition embodied in methodology and memory, and for that alone it is valuable. As it happens, Yoskowitz and Alpern are excellent arbiters of memory and new taste. Recipes are preceded by and placed in the context of recollection – be they historical, personal, or somewhere in between. But the food that is remembered is not taken as a given – and homage is given to how memory in fact influences the way we eat.

The book is incredibly well-written, and practical too. Within the book’s contents, you have guides to dressing poultry, making kreplach, and braiding challah – and not to mention all types of pickling. Thus readers are taught at a variety of levels how to make all of the book’s tasty treats – and in language that is neither cloyingly saccharine nor sentimental.

And the recipes themselves? They are wonderful! Some of them are what are popularly called classics: matzah ball soup, savory blintzes, and the namesake gefilte fish. Others are inspired by the Ashkenazi tradition but are certainly welcome departures from the “canonical” dishes: Polish sour rye soup, kimchi-stuffed cabbage, or a gluten-free buckwheat bread. My current favorite new recipe is for a spiced blueberry soup, which promises all the tart-sweetness of yagdes and the creamy indulgence of dessert for dinner. In addition, many of the “basics” are covered – such as pickled cucumbers, farmer’s cheese, and bread. All are well-presented, and all have an eye not to the idol of authenticity in the past, but that Ashkenazi food is still in evolution.

Red Cabbage With Apples

Rosh HaShanah is coming up, and with it, hours upon hours of cooking in Jewish households across the world. The Jewish New Year is a traditionally a time for much feasting and many dishes, and is more generally two days of deliciousness. Over the next few weeks, this blog will feature a few recipes common to Rosh HaShanah and the subsequent holiday of Sukkot.

Red cabbage with apples, cooking in the pan
Red cabbage with apples, cooking in the pan – the delicious smell had already taken over the apartment! (Photo mine, August 2016)

One of the “classic” dishes in the Ashkenazi tradition is cabbage with apples. It is made from simple, accessible ingredients, and exhibits the sweet-and-sour combination frequently found in much of Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Though not as celebrated as chicken soup, kugel, or even tzimmes, the dish is a recognizable one for many Ashkenazi families. Similar recipes exist across Central and Eastern Europe – from Hungary to Germany to Finland. Cabbage, after all, was a winter mainstay for centuries in this part of the world. The combination is so common, in fact, that it is apparently referenced in a video-game called Skyrim. (I ask my readers who are gamers to confirm this.)

Red cabbage and apples, served with fenugreek-spiced rice.
Red cabbage and apples, served with fenugreek-spiced rice. (Photo mine, August 2016)

Hundreds of variations of this dish exist. Even within my own family, three generations disagree on what best constitutes this dish. My grandmother’s recipe has a strong taste of caraway; my mother prefers the dish without any caraway. I myself the additions of both caraway and garlic for a more pungent final product. Others use pepper and vinegar for a sour taste, or raisins for a sweeter one. Across the variations, however, a sweet-and-sour taste is maintained.

On a recent trip to Atlanta, I found a most interesting cookbook in a secondhand bookstore: the 1973 cookbook of the employees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book itself is beautiful, and provides a really great insight into what the intellectual class of the 1970’s liked to eat. Some of the recipes are quite quaint to American readers nowadays – think “molded rice” and other wobbly “salads” – and many are quite familiar, such as the Korean Spinach Soup. Yet others are extremely complex, and generally of Continental European origin – even including the infamously difficult Sauerbraten. Among this cornucopia of recipes, I found a not unfamiliar – albeit not kosher – recipe for red cabbage! It is said to be a Hungarian recipe. This version is unusual, however, in that it uses pears, which makes the final product far sweeter. “Sweet and sour” indeed!

I provide my somewhat more garlicky recipe here. This recipe is based on my grandmother’s, which was very heavy on the caraway – a taste, though welcome, which can become quickly overpowering. The garlic and caraway balance each other out well.

Red cabbage and onions, just beginning their cooking process
Red cabbage and onions, just beginning their cooking process. (Photo mine, August 2016)

Red Cabbage With Apples

Based on the recipe by Annushka Smit Freiman

1 medium-sized white onion, finely diced

7 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon table salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried caraway seeds

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 medium-sized red cabbage, diced

2 medium-sized tart apples (Granny Smith or Antonovka*)

 

2 tablespoons butter or a vegetable seed oil, for frying

2 cups water

  1. Heat a saucepan or other broad, slightly deep pan on a high heat. Then, add the butter and melt across the pan’s bottom, or add oil and spread evenly across the bottom of the pan.
  2. Add the onions and garlic to the pan and sauté.
  3. When the onions and garlic begin to soften, add the salt, pepper, and thyme. Mix thoroughly into the onions. Sauté for 30 seconds, then add the vinegar.
  4. Once the pan stops sizzling, add the apples and cabbage to the pan and mix thoroughly with the onions, garlic and spices. Then, add the water.
  5. When the water is boiling, reduce the heat to medium and braise for 20-30 minutes, or until the cabbage and apples are soft and the water has reduced. Serve hot.

*If you are so lucky as to have access to Bramley cooking apples – which are easy to find in the United Kingdom but not so much in the United States – you can use one of those large ones instead.

Thank you to Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing.

 

On Herring Literature: The Barrel Always Smells of Herring III

Herring on an English muffin
Herring on an English muffin. (Photo mine, June 2016)

Read about the history and memory of herring here and here. Get a recipe for chopped herring here and for herring marinated in beer here.

In my brief and wonderful adventures researching the history of Jewish and global herring, I’ve had the bizarre experience of reading through a tiny library of books and articles about herring, the people who make it, those who sell it, and those who eat it. Given that herring created and sewed together a world in early-modern Northern Europe and the early 20th century, it is perhaps not surprising that a “herring literature“ – only a tiny fraction of which I have cited on this blog – has grown up to document this fish. But why, one may ask, would one write a book about herring?

Of course I cannot make predictions as to this drive to write a book about herring – better, then, to point at three common trends. One is nostalgia: books like Herring: A Love Story, Russ and Daughters, and Rhapsody in Schmaltz, all of which touch on herring if not obsess over it, take us down a route of exploring the various roles herring played in those days of yore. Yore might be the Lower East Side in 1928, yore might be Germany in 1548. None of these books, however, are uncritical. A second is scientific: herring is a big part of the history of Norway and Iceland, and one can’t really understand Iceland’s industrialization without knowing its herring industry – one that fed many a Jewish stomach. Articles like LC Hamilton’s discussion of the herring economy of Siglufjörður provides an essential snapshot into what was, at one point, a backbone of several countries’ economies. And some books seem to just be a product of lifelong obsession – like that by Donald Murray, Herring Tales. As a fellow herring fanatic, I understand the urge to write about one’s love. All of these slices of herring literature provide us yet another insight into the wonders of this fish and the people who eat it.

More broadly, these herring books allow those of us interested in Jewish food history to examine how Jewish dietary practice intersected with non-Jewish lives and economies well beyond the intensely researched, discussed, and romanticized rhetoric of separation and difference – which were important, very much so, but not the complete story. Yes, we kept kosher. Yes, we died for our right to do so. But we also did so as we bought fish from Norway in barrels sold by Dutchmen shared by our Gentile neighbors. That’s actually incredible – and these books and articles, from Donald Murray’s to Cathie Fidler’s – illustrate that reality. And through that demonstration, herring literature gives us the proof of a simple fact: herring is our cosmopolitanism and our influences, wrapped up into one delicious and delightful little fish.


And now, a few recommended herring reads and articles, to finish off our series. I’ve literally read, skimmed, or browsed all or part of dozens of articles and books on herring, and this is a selection of some of the best.

Coffee table book: Herring, A Love Story, by Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler, profiled on this blog in April – it’s quite Jewish-centric but embraces all of Northern Europe.

History: Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, by Donald Murray – a Scotland-centric history of the social structures surrounding herring. It’s a bit meandering but a great book!

Memoir: Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built, by Mark Russ Federman – a wonderful and funny book by the now-retired third generation of Ashkenazi Jewish New York’s herring castle, Russ and Daughters

Dining: This 2002 article by the late, great RW Apple in the New York Times is a wonderful plunge into the tasty and laborious world of Swedish herring: “Herring, the Fish That Roared.”

 

 

Turnips with Date Molasses (Shalgham Helu)

Cooked turnips with date molasses
Shalgham helu or shalgham bi-dibs – turnips with date molasses. (Photo mine, June 2016)

I was browsing through Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food the other day and happened upon this delightfully simple and incredibly tasty Iraqi recipe. Shalgham helu – or, as it also seems to be known, maye al-shalgham or shalgham bi-dibs – is simply turnips cooked with silan, also known as dibis, rub, or date molasses. The latter is a syrup, made from dates, that acts as a sweetener in Iraqi cooking. Iraqi Jews frequently use silan in pastries, stews, and with bread – and also in their charoset for Passover. Turnips cooked with date molasses is a common Iraqi dish – and one recipe I found (Hebrew) says that some Iraqi Jews serve this as a dessert.

This dish is two things: incredibly delicious and ridiculously easy. I made this while making something far more complicated and talking to my future roommate on the telephone. The result is spectacular and I may have had some turnip pieces as my midnight snack that night. Even someone just getting started in the kitchen should not have too much trouble with this recipe.

You can buy date molasses at most Middle Eastern or Jewish shops. Many health food stores also carry date syrup.

Shalgham Helu (Turnips with Date Molasses)

Based on the recipe by Claudia Roden

1 ½ pounds small white turnips, peeled

3 tablespoons date molasses (silan)

½ tsp salt

Water

  1. Chop the turnips to the size you want – smaller pieces cook faster, larger pieces are prettier.
  2. Place the turnips in the bottom of a medium-sized sauce pan, and drizzle the date molasses over them. Then add the salt.
  3. Cover the turnips with water to 2 cm/2/3 inch, and set the pot on a high flame.
  4. Bring to a boil, then cook uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the turnips are tender and the liquid has reduced. Serve warm or cold with the “sauce.” (Note: The longer the turnip pieces sit in the sauce, even in a container in the refrigerator, the darker their color becomes.)

Thank you to Lexi Freiman, who participated in User Acceptance Testing of this recipe.

Great Books: The Book of Jewish Food, by Claudia Roden

Fenugreek seeds
Fenugreek seeds, which are common in Yemeni, Ethiopian, and Indian Jewish cooking, and Palestinian cuisine as well. Roden gives several recipes involving fenugreek. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons via CC Open Domain, undated)

This book is the grand monarch of all Jewish cookbooks, for The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by the Egyptian-British Claudia Roden, is enormous. And amazing. The book contains 800 recipes from across the Jewish world – and neatly flips the demographics of the Jewish world too. Though the majority of Jews are Ashkenazi – and what we in the United States think of as “Jewish food” is often Ashkenazi – the book is only one-third Ashkenazi recipes, and two-thirds from the Sephardi and Mizrahi worlds. One Israeli reviewer called the Book “the Sephardim’s revenge.”

The book itself is well-written, if a bit romantic at times. But the real reason to acquire this book is that it is almost encyclopedic – it has everything from the Ashkenazi p’tcha (underrated!) to the curious Almond and Spinach Dessert of Florence. The only Jewish cuisine not covered is Ethiopian. But beyond that one short-coming there are recipes from most of the Jewish world for every major food ingredient in Jewish cuisines. I’m currently hankering after a turnips in date syrup recipe from Iraq after reading this book.

Claudia Roden herself is one of the greatest living food writers today. Born to an Egyptian family in Cairo, she has dedicated her life to researching the food cultures of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Jewish world. Her books on Middle Eastern and Jewish food are now considered standard in English-speaking kitchens, and it is well worth your time and money to invest in several of her volumes.

The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden. New York, Knopf: 1998.

Author’s note: this book goes very well alongside Joan Nathan’s Jewish Food in America, which I wrote about back in February. Roden’s book is far more Sephardi- and Mizrahi-centric, whereas Joan Nathan is more interested in Ashkenazi cuisine in the United States.

Great Books: Herring, A Love Story

Cover of book in French
The cover of the book in French, with some of the herring plates portrayed. The image is from Merci.

Firstly, mo’adim le-simkha – a Happy Passover – to all of the readers. I hope you are having a pleasant and joyous Passover!

Anyone who knows me well knows my lifelong obsession with herring – one that I’ve documented for several publications, New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms among them. I eat some form of preserved herring – pickled, smoked, canned, or dried – at least a few times a week, and for long stretches the fish is part of my daily diet. I grew up with herring, and still love it. You should all look forward to a herring series in June.

Now, herring was long part of the Ashkenazi Jewish diet, since at least the Middle Ages. The fish – whose industry, pickling, and trade has encompassed most of Northern and Central Europe for a millennium – was incredibly cheap in its preserved forms across the regions where Yiddish-speaking Jews were settled. Herring was so common that the British-Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant claimed, “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” This herring also produced, in the 19th and 20th century, a whole corpus of artistic media evolved around the fish.

It is this media that Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler profile in their new book, Herring: A Love Story. The book was originally published under the title Hareng, une histoire d’amour  in France – another country which also loves its herring. In the coffee-table book, Rozensztroch and Fidler exhibit the former’s enormous collection of “herring art.” The bulk of this collection are the beautiful, 19th– and 20th-century ceramic serving dishes that factories across Central Europe produced for a rising consumer class that wanted their daily herring plated nicely. Alongside these, you have postcards, posters, stamps, and paintings that depict the fish, its fishing, and its consumption in all its glory. From the herring industry of Iceland to the newfound popularity of herring among many American Jews, the artistic heritage surrounding this fish is celebrated.

I have the English translation from the original French, and the writing between the postcards is, to me and others fluent in both languages, very obviously translated from the French. That aside, the information in the book is fascinating, and the art is beautiful and magnificent. Some of it is also quite funny! I strongly urge you to buy this book, and explore with me the history of the glorious herring.

 

Herring: A Love Story, by Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler. New York, Pointed Leaf Press: 2015.

Disponible en français en Europe.