Friday, July 29, 2011

Recipe for Disaster

This is a story about the week I didn't cook.

As part of our training (and part of the way it keeps itself afloat) the kitchen often takes on catering jobs. We split up the work. Some women cook, some women work the event. On this particular week, I was working the event. Despite the title of this post the event was not actually a disaster, it just felt like it was going to be a disaster. First bump in the road- the space we were using for the event didn't have a refrigerator large enough for the drinks, so we had to find a way to transport them to another building that supposedly had adequate refrigeration. We found someone to lug them there. Check. Then, the rental equipment (i.e. the tables, chairs, tablecloths, hot boxes etc) arrived late, and when it did the delivery men refused to unpack the wares leaving us 6 women to unload, drag and open all the very heavy equipment. Well, we got the tables set up and were in the process of spreading out the tablecloths (which, of course, were the wrong shape and color), when the client emerged from her office, all in a huff, because she wanted the tables set up a completely different way. So off came the tablecloths and the few hotboxes we had managed to set up. And drag, drag, drag went the tables. The rest of the set up really does read like a grown-up version of Alexander and his Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. The plates were dirty, the samovar didn't work, we were missing knives, the drinks never actually made it to a refrigerator; and when I walked into the room where we were storing the few drinks we could stuff into the one itty bitty refrigerator at the event space, there was water all over the floor and a strong smell of electricity in the air. (There were lima beans for dinner, and I hate limas.) The good news is that nobody was electrocuted. The bad news is that we had lukewarm drinks on a hot day. But hey, that's what panicked calls to the kitchen for "ice, lots and lots of ice", are for, right?

Then, the guests arrived and everything fell away. A friend of mine noted that the thing she loves most about these events is watching how a plain space turns, almost magically, into an elegant one. And I concur- there is a lot of magic and comfort in a set table and vase of flowers. But for me, the thing that I love about these events is the feeding people. Once I was set up behind my station and the guests were lined up with their plates in hand, all the stress and worry just sort of dissipated. My feet didn't hurt. I forgot that I was thirsty. I wasn't annoyed. The smile on my face was real.  There is simply something so potent about the moment of contact when you're feeding people, because you know that's it's not a simple business interaction. You're not just supplying a service. Food is laughter and friendship and family and cups sweating in the heat and memories and the moment you taste something new and just stop; it's deals made, and lingering conversations about politics and literature and greasy hands wiped on napkins, or jeans and shirts. It's a fried egg, eaten alone. It's a room full of hungry guests. Food is dirty and strong and bold and subtle and elegant and whispering. Food is comfort. Food is.

I came home that day exhausted and grumpy. The clean up was just as chaotic as the set-up. The high of service had completely faded away. I crawled straight into bed, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars. I took a nap, had some coffee and thought about my aching muscles. Then I made myself some comfort food.

Grilled Cheese with Harrissa

This is the ultimate comfort food. (Also, I am currently obsessed with harrissa)  It's good for nights (or days) when you can't move, or don't want to move and you just want something warm and gooey. You could, theoretically, serve this with a green salad and feel virtuous- but, why?
Good cheddar cheese is quite difficult to find in Israel. Sometimes I import from the States (thanks, Mom!) and sometimes I splurge and go to the fancy cheese store at the shuk. What I am trying to say is that if you don't have cheddar, use something else.

-bread of your choosing, sliced
-good cheddar

Butter your bread as you would for regular grilled cheese. Spread a thin layer of harrissa on the insides of the bread. Layer on a few good slices of cheddar. Heat your frying pan, griddle, or iron. Grill. I'm sure y'all know how. Eat hot. Lick your fingers. Make another.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sweet Pepper

I've been living in Israel for almost eight years now, and I would like to think that my Hebrew is fairly fluent. I mostly understand what is going on around me, and even when I don't, I'm pretty good at figuring it out from the context. And yet, every day, I learn new words. (For instance, yesterday I learned that the word for "nibble" is כירסום. Who knew?)  A few weeks ago, C. asked me to bring her some גמבה-gamba from the refrigerator. I looked at her blankly. I'm pretty good at culinary terms- especially those that come up often, but I had no idea what C. wanted from me. It turns out that gamba is the word for sweet peppers. (In this case they were red, but sweet peppers come in many colors.)  It was a word I had never heard used before. As in English, in Hebrew, it is more common to differentiate peppers by their color- green pepper, red pepper, etc. I suspected that the term, gamba, for sweet pepper comes from the Arabic, since most Hebrew words that I'm unfamiliar with have their roots in the other Semitic language spoken in these parts. But no, it does not derive from the Arabic. In fact, I could not figure out where in the world it derives from. And trust me, I did some dictionary trawling. My uncle, who is a language teacher, ventured to guess that it is from Ladino. But that is just a guess. (Hungry Souls- where food and etymology meet! I'm such a geek. Sigh.)

In any case, gamba. Sweet peppers.  Good stuff. Also good, Ajvar, from Turkish by way of Serbia, made with roasted red peppers, eggplant and garlic. Once upon a time, when I wasn't quite as allergic to eggplant, I used to make this all the time. Nowadays, it graces my table less often. But don't let my allergy stop you from making this dip/sandwich spread. Make it. It's sweet and bright and surprisingly cool. You will dirty very few dishes-just a roasting pan and a food processor. You will put it on everything. I promise.

By way of The NYTimes who adapted it from Julia Jaksic

4 large red bell peppers
1 medium eggplant
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste.

1. Heat oven to 475 degrees. Place peppers, eggplant and garlic on a baking sheet and roast; remove garlic after 10 minutes and place in a large bowl. Continue roasting peppers and eggplant until blackened and soft, about 20 minutes more, then add to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap/ place in a paper bag and let steam until cool enough to handle. Remove and discard all peels, seeds and stems.

2. In a food processor, combine the pepper, eggplant  and garlic with the oil and salt and pepper; pulse until  the mixture is almost smooth. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Noble Potato

In the community kitchen potatoes are ubiquitous. We serve potatoes (mashed) at least once a week, and very often they get thrown into other dishes as well. Making mashed potatoes, though not the most challenging aspect of kitchen work, is one of the most fun. After the potatoes are boiled, we set the huge pot down on the floor and shovel out most of the water with a bowl. Then, one of us, usually whoever has the most upper-body strength, takes a long handled potato-masher and starts to mash. Every one has their own potato-mashing method, but I find that the best way for me to do it is to hold the masher as if it were a jackhammer and then lean. There's something that's just so much fun about the whole process. It might be the hugeness of it all-the big pot, the ton of potatoes, and the masher that, when set on the floor, reaches my waist. Or, it could be the way the masher squelches through the potatoes. Whatever it is, mashing potatoes is one of my favorite kitchen activities.

Potatoes, in general, elicit in me a kind of childlike glee. I may have inherited this from my father who has been known, on more than one occasion, to hold a roast potato up in front of him in wonderment, and exclaim, "just think of all the things you can do with a potato!" And indeed, in my family we eat a lot of potatoes, in many forms. What can I say, they're cheap, versatile and damn good.

I got the following recipe from my grandmother. My grandmother, who is turning 80 this coming month, is altogether amazing. She is a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother; she is an artist, a teacher and a master of indoor gardening. She swims 30 lengths a day. Until two years ago, she still worked as a kindergarten teacher. And if you ask her, she will insist that she is unemployed, not retired. She is also the source of my culinary heritage- not only in the sense that I have an affinity for Jewish-Hungarian food, but also in the sense that she imparted, by example, what food is meant to do. Food is meant to be nurturing. It is meant to be a part of what home is. The absolutely first thing my grandmother will do when you walk into her house (and I mean this in a literal sense) is to sit you down and "just have a little sandwich." (Of course, said sandwich usually comes with a salad, and some orange juice and coffee, and here, have some honey cake, I'm not sure it came out so good this time, I tried something a little bit different...) Food should also be associative. It should evoke specific times and memories.  My grandmother was slightly flummoxed when I called her to ask for her recipe for chremslach in the middle of July, because chremslach are traditionally eaten on Passover. They are a Passover food. It would not occur to her to make them any other time. To do so would be to remove the experience of the food from its context, and to cook food without association, without memory, is to somehow lessen it.
I have learned from my grandmother how to follow a culinary tradition- she travels with her recipes for cocosh and challah, you know, just in case--and how to be an inventive cook- she never makes bread the same way twice. What follows is her recipe for chremslach- a sort of latke made with cooked potatoes and served sprinkled with sugar. They are a Passover food, but I'm going to be slightly sacrilegious and say that they're pretty good the rest of the year as well. Happy birthday, Babbe.


This is not so much a recipe as a set of instructions. This is the way my grandmother cooks:

"You take the cooked potatoes and grate them, or mash them well. Add a couple of eggs and some salt and pepper. And maybe some sugar. No, just salt and pepper. Then you fry them [form them into patties first, like latkes] and when they're done, you sprinkle them with sugar. If you want them to be light and fluffy, you can separate the eggs and make a snow. But I don't do that. Maybe add an egg yolk. I just do them with whole eggs. Enjoy."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Soup, Beautiful Soup

R is the co-head of the kitchen, along with C. I don't get to cook with R. much since our schedules don't match up very often, but I feel privileged to work with her every time I do. R has a booming laugh, a sure hand and wide breadth of knowledge. She's also an excellent and inventive cook. The food she makes is a marriage of the Old World and New. She once asked me to taste piece of kubbe that she had filled with sun-dried tomatoes and walnuts instead of meat. It was probably the best kubbe I had every tasted, and I don't even like sun-dried tomatoes.

It was R who explained to me, as I was chopping a mound of cauliflower, that cauliflower leaves are edible. Like the stems of swiss chard, cauliflower leaves can be chopped and sauteed, or steamed. They are slightly bitter and have intense cauliflowery taste. There's no need to waste them. These are things I have learned in the kitchen, from women like R. and C.  If you can avoid waste, do so. Be creative. Use your cauliflower leaves.

You don't always have to eat your cauliflower leaves in order to use them.  You can also do with them what I did as I was making this soup- toss them in a pot with the core of the cauliflower, some onion scraps and what ever else you've been chopping, cover with water and make a quick vegetable stock. Then, throw 'em in the compost.

North Africanish Roasted Cauliflower Soup

Adapted from The Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home by the Moosewood Collective

I've been thinking about this soup for a while. Ok, well, not really a while- since I decided to write about cauliflower.  Long enough for it to be on my mind. I used to make it all the time, and then, for no reason at all, I just stopped. But I missed the soup and was thinking about. More specifically I was looking for ways to make it deeper. Then, a few weeks ago, I was at my uncle's house nibbling on a plate of roasted cauliflower as if it was popcorn, and it hit me. In the original recipe you cook the cauliflower along with the potatoes. That's lovely and all, but there is very little in the world that beats the taste of roasted cauliflower. So then next time I made the soup I roasted the cauliflower and reveled in the results. Here is a soup that is both light and deep. It will serve as first course, or, if served over couscous, as a meal all on to itself. Yes, it's summer, and who wants hot soup? But I promise you actually do want hot soup. Really, you do.

2 1/2 cups chopped onions
2 tbl vegetable oil
2 potatoes (about 2 cups, diced)
1 medium head of cauliflower (about 5 cups chopped)
olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp ground fennel
5 cups hot vegetable broth, or water

2 tbl fresh lemon juice
salt, pepper

chopped tomatoes (optional)
chopped green onion (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Break the cauliflower into florets. Toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread on a roasting pan in one layer and roast for 20-25, until brown and crispy along the edges.

In the meantime, saute the onions in the vegetable oil until translucent. Stir in the cumin, fennel and potatoes and cook for a minute. Add the hot broth/water. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer for around 10 minutes, until the potatoes are hot.  Remove from heat. Add the cauliflower, which, at that point should be ready.

In a blender, or food processor, or with a hand blender, puree the vegetables until smooth. Add the lemon juice, and the salt and pepper to taste.  Reheat the soup, if necessary

Serve garnished with tomatoes and green onions, if you'd like.