Guest Post: An Interfaith Seder, by Michael Faccini

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. 


Table with food and seder plate
Michael and Luis’ seder table (photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

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. 

Seder plate with beet instead of bone and a glass of salt water
Michael and Luis’ seder plate (photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

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. 

Roast chicken with rosemary
Roasted chicken for the chag. Jonathan thinks this is a masterpiece of roast poultry. (Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

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. 

A whole rectangular flan
The flan. (Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

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. 

A slice of flan on a blue and white plate
(Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

Hearts Pyrizhky – A Guest Post from Ilana Newman

Today we have a guest post from my friend Ilana Newman. She is a fantastic Canadian Jewish librarian in Toronto with a keen mind and a witty sense of humor! Though we often have different perspectives on things like authenticity, she is an incredible person to discuss food with, and has a keen eye for historical and current recipes that go beyond the box of what we think of when we think of Ashkenazi Jewish food.

Ilana wrote up a recipe for pyrizhky – pasties – stuffed with hearts. This recipe is part of a longer tradition of Jews eating treats stuffed with organ meat. Many Lithuanian Jews would stuff pierogi with lung, dumplings with liver, and of course, put a stuffed kishke (intestine) in the pot. Polish Jews often prized the gizzards and other organs of chickens, geese, and ducks. (You can learn more in Gil Marks’ and Claudia Roden’s works. I am personally a fan of these foods, and it pleases me very much to publish Ilana’s recipe.

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I will let Ilana take it from here.


For the last couple of years, I’ve been on something of a mission to learn to cook the foods of my culture- so, Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Of course, I’ve been eating some of this food my whole life, so on one level it’s intimately familiar to me. But I also grew up as a middle class American child of culinarily-adventurous Ashkenazi Jews, one second generation and one third generation, making me something like Gen 3.5 – and as a result, I have ended up eating the foods of other peoples more than my own.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, by any means. I’m grateful to my parents’ “foodie” natures (and their financial stability), which meant I got to try saag paneer, sushi, ojingeo bokkeum, and other culinary delights, early and often. But my experience with Real Jewish Food* was limited to a few staples: gefilte fish (from the jar), my mom’s challah, matzoh brei, latkes, matzoh ball soup, bagels and lox, salami and eggs, and pickles. It wasn’t until I left home and met Jews other than the ones I grew up with that I tried cholent, kishke, holishkes, and more.

As a kid, I also instinctively understood that there was something embarrassing, if not even shameful, about Ashkenazi food. Just as I absorbed the notion that Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew was embarrassing, in comparison to the Israeli pronunciation we were taught in Hebrew Sunday school and at synagogue, I learned what “acceptable” Ashkenazi foods were. These included challah, brisket, matzah ball soup, and bagels. They were sweetish, soft, cakey rich bread, roasted meat, bready dumplings, and, well, everyone knows what a bagel is.** Who wouldn’t like those things? Gefilte fish, on the other hand, is obviously “disgusting,” or “smelly.” Cholent? Tzimmes? Holishkes? Unpronounceable, unrecognizable, and frankly inedible, to the WASPs with whom I grew up surrounded in Maine in the 1990s. (Even today, articles like “7 foods I would never touch if I wasn’t Jewish” abound.)

All this is to say that I grew up somewhat divorced from my own culinary heritage. I was taught to have as adventurous a palate as I could, even eating some kinds of treyf, like a fiery Korean squid dish. I was not taught the same for the “deep cuts” of Ashkenazi food, like tongue, p’tcha, chopped liver, pickled herring, kishke, knishes, and more.

It is with this in mind that I have started to explore eastern European cooking in general, since Ashkenazi food is generally an adaptation of the same, with changes made here and there to allow for kashrut. And one recipe I tried recently is for heart-stuffed pyrizhky, Ukrainian stuffed buns. Pyrizhky are made with a yeasted dough wrapped around some kind of filling- it can be cabbage, beef, cheese, potato, or anything, really. They are often baked, but can also be pan-fried.

I used Olia Hercules’ recipe from her cookbook Mamushka, but made several adaptations to make it kosher . They came out really delicious, and while they were not unbelievably challenging to make, prompted some amount of awe in friends and family (my dad’s response was that I was “taking it old school! Hearts!”). Here’s the recipe, by Olia (with a few edits by me). Olia’s recipe provides other fillings, including egg and green onion, and potato filling. Her original heart filling calls for chicken livers instead of mushrooms, but I improvised as I didn’t have livers, and I ended up loving the result. But you might try using livers instead if you prefer.

Heart-Stuffed Pyrizhky

For the dough:

  • ½ tbsp sunflower oil** (or substitute canola or olive)
  • 1 cup room-temperature water
  • 2 tsp active dry yeast
  • ½ tbsp granulated sugar (I think I forgot this, but they came out fine without)
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2.25 – 2.5 cups flour

For the filling:

  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil (or substitute canola or olive)
  • 125g shallots (or substitute onions), sliced
  • 2 tbsp Madeira (I didn’t have any and used ordinary cooking wine)
  • ½ lb chicken hearts, quartered
  • ½ lb mushrooms (any kind), diced very fine
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper (to taste; I used about 2 tsp)

For frying:

  • About 6 tbsp sunflower oil (or substitute canola or olive), or as much or as little as necessary depending on preference

 

Method:

  1. Whisk oil, yeast, salt, sugar, and water in a large bowl. Sift in the flour gradually. Cover and leave to rise for 45 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
  2. Knead dough until soft and pliable but not sticky. Divide into 8-10 equal pieces and cover.
  3. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Cook the shallots or onions until golden, then deglaze with your cooking alcohol and cook until the liquid evaporates. Remove the shallots from the pan and set aside.
  4. Add more oil if necessary and saute the mushrooms until their liquid has evaporated. Add the chicken hearts on medium-high heat. Saute until they are fully cooked and begin to get some colour on them. Add your salt and pepper, add the shallots back to the pan and stir until the mixture is even. Take it off the heat to cool slightly.
  5. Flour your work surface well and roll out each piece of dough into as perfect a circle as you can, ideally about 10 cm in diameter. Put some filling in the middle of each circle (about two tbsp of filling) and fold over the dough. Fork the perimeter of the dumpling so the edges stick together.
  6. Heat your pan again and add some oil if needed. You can either fry the pyrizhky very hot in the oil (in which case add the full 6 tbsp), or use a little oil and steam-fry the pyrizhky. If frying, cook three minutes on each side. If steam-frying, cook about 2 minutes on the first side, covering, then flip the pyrizhky over and cook another 2 minutes covered. (I don’t love heavily fried foods, so I prefer the second method, which Olia doesn’t mention. She’s team fry all the way I guess!)
  7. Turn each bun out onto a paper towel on a plate, and let drain if necessary. Serve immediately for best results, but honestly, they’re still delicious even days later. (Just make sure to refrigerate them once they’ve cooled completely.)

—-

*“Real Jewish Food” is obviously a really subjective measure, dependant on time and place. All the foods I mentioned are Ashkenazi (not the only kind of Jewish and certainly not any more “real” than any other kind), and several are a specifically American variety of it. Authenticity, as has been discussed on this blog before, is itself subjective, mutable, liable to change – in short, very much a cultural construct. But nevertheless, the heart understands that some things are indeed Very Real.

** Olia says that unrefined sunflower oil is one of the cornerstones of southern Ukrainian cooking. For me it hasn’t been easy to find (I’d have to go to a specialty store), and I found that olive oil works just fine for this recipe.

Many thanks to Ilana Newman for this guest post! She describes herself as such: “Ilana is a librarian currently based in Toronto. She is also a frequent baker of challah, a stewer of fruit preserves, and a pickle enthusiast (half-sours are the best; no questions). You can find her on Instagram at @ketzelekitchenpreserves.”

 

 

Guest Post: Spinach Artichoke Blintzes

Happy Tu Bishvat! Today marks a “New Year for trees” in the Jewish calendar, and many food traditions exist surrounding the day. I have talked about eating foods from the Seven Species before, but in Israel and the United States it has become a sort of Jewish Arbor Day, when it is customary to eat all the various green bounties of the earth. And so we have a slightly un-seasonal, but very delicious recipe from a guest!

Ashley Goldstein is a vegan professional chef and writer based in Tel Aviv, and a dear friend and mentor to me. Her website is Tipsy Shades of Earl Grey, which also has a deeply tantalizing Facebook page. A lot of her culinary and written work is on updated and vegan versions of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, as well as inventive pastries and cakes. This recipe, for Spinach Artichoke Blintzes, is a beautifully modern – and very Tu Bishvat-appropriate – take on a classic Ashkenazi recipe, with an almost Italian twist. In her own words:

Who can deny the pleasure of eating a stuffed pancake? Common across many cultures, blintzes are an Eastern European answer to crepe envy. With a slightly springy pancake, embracing a warm, and hearty filling, they are a food traditionally eaten for Shavuot, and other holidays where dairy is customary [Jonathan notes: including Tu Bishvat!]. Traditional savory fillings range from some sort of potato to white cheese, while the sweet version is again cheese or fruit. I wanted to update the filling a little bit, in order to heighten the flavor profile, and possibly allay some of the guilt of eating a buttery pancake by upping the nutrition with some veggies. Inspired by spinach artichoke dip, this blintz is the perfect combo of a creamy and dare I say “cheesy” filling, covered in a soft pancake blanket, while remaining as pareve as can be. Indeed, this recipe is entirely vegan, perfect for your egg or dairy allergic friends, while also proving to be an option for holiday meals the rest of the year.

Spinach artichoke blintzes with a gold pancake and a green and beige filling, ready to be served on a white plate
Spinach artichoke blintzes, ready to be served. (Photo Ashley Goldstein, 2018)


And now, Ashley’s recipe, exactly as she wrote it:

Spinach Artichoke Blintzes

 

Spinach artichoke filling

1 cup raw cashews, soaked or boiled for 15 minutes

2 cans artichokes, drained and rinsed

1 large bunch of spinach

1 medium onion

2 tbsp olive oil

1+3/4 tsp salt divided

1/2 cup water

Juice of half a lemon

1 tsp black pepper

1 tbsp nutritional yeast

Crepes

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups chickpea flour

1/4 cup oil

1 tbsp sugar

1 tsp salt

2 cups soy milk

1 1/2 cup water

Blintzes

Olive oil or non hydrogenated vegan margarine

 

Spinach Artichoke Filling:

Drain the cashews into a blender. Blend with the 1/2 cup water until smooth. In a large pan, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until softened. Add the artichoke and sauté for another 10 minutes before adding the spinach and half of the salt. Let the spinach just wilt, then add to the blender with the rest of the filling ingredients. Pulse until the artichoke and spinach are finely chopped. Set aside and make the crepes.

Crepe:

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients together. Whisk in the soy milk and water, taking care not to over mix. Set aside for about 15 minutes. In a small, nonstick frying pan, pre-heat over medium heat. You can put a tiny bit of oil down, but if your pan is truly nonstick, it’s not needed. Pour a small ladleful of the batter into the pan, then quickly tilt the pan so the batter covers the bottom of the pan entirely. Let cook for about 5 minutes, until the top of the crepe is dry. Remove to a plate and cover with waxed paper. Repeat the process with the rest of the batter, covering each one as you add it to the plate.

To Assemble:

It’s important to assemble the blintzes while the crepes are still warm, though once assembled, they can be refrigerated until you are ready to warm and serve them. Take one crepe, and dollop about two tablespoons of filling into the center. Fold one edge of the crepe over the filling, then tuck the two sides in. Once the sides are tucked, continue rolling to the end.

To Serve:

Blintzes can be browned a few at a time on the stove with a tablespoon or olive oil or non-hydrogenated margarine, or they can be lightly brushed with the fat of your choice and baked in the oven at 350F (175C) until slightly browned and warmed through, about 10-20 minutes, depending on how chilled the filling was when the blintzes were made.

Ashley can be found at Tipsy Shades of Earl Grey. Ashley’s former blog is also linked with other blogs in our Links section. (The Facebook is here.) You can also watch her in action on a recent i24 video, discussing vegan Hanukkah treats.