As we step away from fasting on Yom Kippur, and we move towards the celebration of the fall harvest during Sukkot, I have been finding myself thinking more and more about food. Perhaps I’m just getting REALLY excited for this year’s Hazon Food Conference. I applaud Hazon for all that they do, be it organizing bike trips, getting people involved in CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or educating and raising awareness around issues of food security and food justice. I’ve found myself reflecting on a statement I’ve heard tossed around in recent years that Hazon uses in their literature, “The New Jewish Food Movement”.
Awareness around the country and around the world is increasing around the environmental and health benefits of home and community gardens and eating locally grown organic produce or sustainably raised animals. Jewish communities have jumped on board, like many communities, and are becoming more and more interested in fresh, fairly priced produce which is both environmentally conscious and healthy. And this has brought me to reflect on “Jewish food”.
First I had to ask myself, what is “Jewish food”? Clearly, this will depend on the nature of one’s Jewish family and where one’s family lived and when. A friend of mine was clever enough to point out that there is really only one Jewish food, being matzah. Everything else is just food that Jews eat.
So let’s look at what that is. I grew up in an assimilated, secular, “culturally Jewish” home, the second child of second generation born and bred Americans. To me, Jewish food was bagels, brisket with potatoes, kishke, herring, latkes, kneidlach, lox, kreplach, gefilte fish (from a jar, of course), smoke-fish, kugel, borscht and tzimmes–in other words, Ashkenazi food. Now, clearly, for our Sephardi and Mizrahi brethren, we are talking about MUCH different (not to mention tastier and healthier) foods. But I am going to focus on Ashkenazi foods, as that is what I know and is relevant to a majority of the Jewish population in America.
So I set out asking folks, “What is your favorite Jewish food?” Unknown to them, this was a sort of loaded question. I had been asking this question under the presumption that an overwhelming majority of people would answer something that is made of wheat, meat or both. A person here or there answered with Arab foods like kuba or felafel, or deli foods like pastrami on rye, but as expected, most people gave answers like cholent, or matzo balls, and one person truly answered cholent with matzo balls. I think overall, kreplach won out, which frankly surprised me. But out of the foods people responded with, they were nearly all wheat and meat.
What’s my point?
How do these Jewish foods fit into the concern that communities around the country are facing, that many would like to see their diets become more sustainable, more environmentally conscious and more healthy. Granted, a topic like this should probably be considered by someone with biological and medical knowledge. I am merely an individual with a sensitive body who has spent a good amount of time pondering and experimenting what is best for me to eat.
I am no doctor, and I am no nutritionist, and I am certainly one of the farthest things from a saint, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the meat, potatoes and bread with a huge side of refined sugars and high fructose corn syrups and plethora of lab-made sugar substitutes that make up the Standard American Diet (yes, that does read “sad”) is probably responsible for our out-of-proportion issues with obesity in both children and adults. It doesn’t take an investigative reporter to look around the Jewish communities in America and see that the weight epidemic has affected us as much as any other group. Couple this with our genetic disposition to certain colon disorders, and one has to wonder… how much of this has to do with our diets?
So I say this: In order to create a truly “New Jewish Food Movement” we need to begin to redefine new “Jewish food.” As I mentioned earlier, Jewish food is really whatever food Jews eat, which happens to correlate generally to where they live. Now, we can actually trace back in history certain foods that were brought to different regions by Jews (we are thought to have brought the garbanzo bean to Spain, for example), so we’ve certainly kept certain things we like to eat and incorporated them into the new foods we encounter. It doesn’t even take a Jew to realize that Jews like to celebrate with food.
Now, I’m not saying that we should abandon all of the delicious foods that Ashkenazi culture has to offer; I’m saying let’s make it new. It is possible to enjoy many of the same delicious foods and make them healthier, more environmentally sustainable and locally sourced.
If I had the time and energy, I would tell you the story of a bag of enriched white flour and what the various processes do to the nutrition of the grain, or the history of the genetic manipulation of wheat and the resulting constant increase of gluten in the grain (anyone notice the shocking rise of gluten sensitivities and allergies? 1+1=?). Or the rise of corn, which itself is a nearly 10,000 year old history, and the transformation of a grass grain to a vegetable and how that has affected our rate of degenerative disease, and how corn plays into the politics and economics of oil. There is so very, very much that is connected to our diets that often goes unconsidered, but I don’t really want to get into politics and issues of environmental ethics and the like, at least directly.
Creating a “new Jewish food” does not mean abandoning our traditional foods. But we must take a step back and look at how our food sources have changed over the years and how we, in 2009, acquire and interact with our foods.
We no longer go to our butchers for our unsalted meat which we make kosher at home. We no longer even buy our meat from butchers! We are even further removed from sourcing our foods ourselves, i.e., growing our own. When my grandmother serves brisket, it came frozen; when she serves gefilte fish it came from a jar. When she makes borscht or schav she pours it out of a jar. I don’t know specifically how her own mother prepared foods, but at some point we go back to a time when someone bought and gutted a pike, ground up some flour or matzo meal and made themselves a loaf of gefilte fish. There was a time when beets were harvested, boiled and made into soup. These are things we think of as incredibly difficult or time consuming, as in my opinion, we have become jaded or spoiled by the ease and and convenience.
Why is it important for this “new Jewish food movement” to revert to less “convenient” ways of food preparation and sourcing? Because each additional element to a food item–the packaging, the marketing, the preparation–add “food miles.” Not to mention, packaged food items are by and large pasteurized and/or irradiated thereby destroying nearly all of the nutritional value of the food. The health benefits of a real orange as compared to a cup of pasteurized orange juice is not even remotely comparable–that’s why a cup of fresh squeezed juice tastes so much different than a glass of Tropicana.
So, what can we do with all of this? You will do with it what you will, but here’s what I do with it. I am proud of my culture and I like to honor it and celebrate it by sharing in our traditional foods. So, for Ashkenazim this is root veggies (beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes), this is baked puddings (kugels), and all the foods mentioned above. So, here are some recipes for you all to enjoy which utilize these traditional foods but also incorporate into the recipes the values embraced by “green” lifestyle and a “new Jewish food movement.” If you can grow it yourself, do it! If you can buy it local, do it! If you can buy it organic, do it! And here are some ways to make Ashkenazi foods that aren’t processed, boiled or fried.
Raw Beet Carpaccio Salad
Peel beet immersed in cold water, continue to immerse and rinse until water runs clean.
Using a mandolin or very sharp blade and steady hand slice beet very thin, but not so thin that it easily tears, rinse again until water runs clear.
Mix fresh squeezed lemon juice, white or apple-cider vinegar, olive oil and sea salt, enough to cover all of the sliced beets. Mix well with whisk or blender and pour over sliced beets.
Leave the beats to sit at room temperature for up to 1 hr, or in fridge for up to 36 hours. The longer they soak, the softer they get, so it’s really up to you. The warmer it is, the faster it cures. The beets should lighten in color, turning almost pinkish, and should start to become translucent.
Arrange beets in layers like a spread out deck of cards and sprinkle chopped fresh dill over and shredded fennel bulb.
Veggie Kugel Redux
Kugel, as we know, is a baked custard pudding. The most commonly still eaten today is raisin kugel with egg noodles and custard. However, savory kugels that are noodle free are just as delicious and MUCH more nutritious.
Saute yellow or sweet onion on medium heat in olive oil until soft and slightly browned, reduce to simmer and add as much garlic as desired until fragrant (1-2 min). Season with salt and pepper, add in any veggies you’d like–zuchinni, carrot, celery, cauliflower, broccoli work great, but anything goes–the order which the food is added to the pan should be in accordance with how much water is in the food item, the more water the earlier it should go in (carrots and celery before broccoli and cauliflower, e.g.). Return heat to medium, add enough stock or water to just barely cover what’s in the pan, cook on medium till most liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally, but not too often as to hasten absorption too much. Put aside.
In a blender, or with a hand-mixer, mix one whole egg, plus one egg yolk plus 1/4 cup of olive oil until totally blended and fluffed up. This will make an aioli, or a loose mayonnaise. This can be flavored with any herb of your choice or spices like cayenne, paprika or cumin, for example. Put veggies in casserole dish and pour egg/oil. If you have excess, this can be blended with lemon juice to make a set mayo or can be turned into delicious dressings or saved in fridge as an aioli for a few days. Bake until browned at 375 degrees, around 30-40 min. An alternative is to thinly shred potatoes and mix with olive oil, patting into the bottom of the baking dish and cooking for 15 minutes before adding the veggies. This creates a crispy crust which is nice for consistency.
Carrot and Sweet Potato Cold Tzimmes
Shred carrots and raw sweet potato, stir with a dash of salt and juice of 1/2 a lemon.
Soak raisins in red wine or fruit juice like grape or apple 12 hrs or more. Gently rinse and stir into carrot mixture. Optional: add dash of cinnamon and nutmeg, or a teaspoon of honey (not really necessary if using soaked raisins); doesn’t necessarily sound good, but adding diced green onions is delicious
Mushroom Stuffed Kohlrabi
Remove and save greens from kohlrabi root. Parboil whole root for 5 min, remove from water and allow to cool. The pieces on the skin of the kohlrabi will either fall off in the boiling or will easily come off when pulled after boiling. With melon baller, or however you manage it, remove the bulk of the inside of the kohlrabi bulb leaving aroud 1/32 in. or more of the walls. Save what is removed from the inside of the kohlrabi. Wash greens well, removing tough stems. Chop finely and saute with onions and garlic. Add saved kohlrabi to onions and garlic. Add finely chopped mushrooms of your choice. Stuff each hollowed kohlrabi bulb with mushroom/greens mixture. Bake at 425 degrees for 45 min to 1 hour, until kohlrabi is totally soft and easy to cut. Delicious on its own, even more delicious with a basic tomato sauce.
I hope you enjoy these, additional recipes are welcome, critique on the whole concept is welcome and encouraged. And share your recipes too!