Thursday, March 20, 2008

Purim Tonight!

Purim, the feast of Esther, begins at sundown tonight. Want some info on the holiday and how to celebrate it? Check this out. Want to know what to eat? Read some adapted excerpts from an article I wrote for the Temple Beth Abraham Omer below.

The Foods of Purim: The Whole Megillah (FYI -- the Megillah is used to mean the whole story in Jewish "slang" and refers to the Book of Esther which is where the story is told.)

The most popular foods of Purim are probably hamanstachen (the link above has a recipe), the Ashkenazi cookie symbolizing Haman’s tri-cornered hat and the other pastries associated with the evil vizier. But that’s not the whole “megillah;” there are many foods that add to a Purim celebration.

Some say the meal should be vegetarian or dairy or at least include beans since Esther is said to have eschewed meat for legumes during her time in Ashaheurus’ court. Others include fish or dishes with chicken, lamb, and other meats. Based on these diverse customs, here are some ideas for your own Purim feast:

Serve kreplach. This meat-stuffed noodle is traditional for Purim because of its shape reminiscent of Haman’s ear and/or hat. Or try a modern twist – tortellini, it has the right shape and is readily available.

Try serving a dish that is not what it seems to be. Dressing up and disguise are part of Purim, so try vegetarian chopped liver or spaghetti squash instead of pasta and/or vegetarian “meatballs.”

Go sweet and sour. Sweet and sour foods suit the nature of the holiday, reminding us of the bitterness of Haman’s actions and the redemption that followed. Try sweet and sour meatballs or sweet and sour lentils.

Bake challah in triangular loaves to represent Haman’s ears. Use some of it to make French toast, known as Queen Esther’s Toast or Purim Fritters, once a popular way to celebrate Purim.

Drink up. Rabbis have said that one should drink on Purim until one can’t distinguish the difference between “blessed is Mordecai” and “cursed is Haman.” Go with the flow. Splash some vodka or tequila into your chicken marinade. Add wine to your beef or fish recipes. Want to give it a try? My Limoncello Tuna recipe here.

See my previous write up of Purim here.

Want to get recipes for the dishes mentioned above? Check out Temple Beth Abraham's cookbook From Everyday to Holiday. It is available for $25 including U.S. postage from the TBA office. Call 510.832.0936 to order.
About the photo: A quick snap of Temple Beth Abraham's Purim Celebration featuring the Purim Rock 'n Roll Band.

Monday, March 17, 2008

China -- A Sense of Place

I didn’t take a slow boat to China, it was a non-stop jet, and when I landed I found that many of my preconceived notions about what I’d find and what China would be like were just as outdated as that old steamboat.

It was altogether an amazing experience, especially for someone who grew up in an age when China was a forbidden and forbidding destination. Every so often I’d have to stop and just blurt out “I’m in China. I’m really in China.”

Sometimes that would happen when I was experiencing places I had only read about – the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors museum, the Forbidden City. Sometimes it was when I was surprised by sites and scenes I hadn’t known about or hadn’t know what to expect such as the old neighborhoods along the canals in Suzhou; the Muslim district in Xi An; the night market, the Lama Monastery, Prince Gong’s garden and the old neighborhoods in Beijing. It was the sight of seniors everywhere practicing tai chi and folk dance in the morning, taking their birds in their cages for an airing in the afternoon, working out in open air gyms in Beijing, and overflowing the long corridor of the Temple of Heaven performing for their friends and passersby.

Sometimes it was when the cities I visited could have been major cosmopolitan capitals almost anywhere with skyscrapers, trendy high-end shops, Starbucks and Mercedes. (There were also KFCs, McDonald’s and occasional Subway fast food restaurants.) I have to admit, at those times I said "I'm in China" almost in disbelief.

But just when China (I was mostly in very urbanized China) began to seem just like it could be anywhere, something would happen or I would catch a glimpse of something and, bam, my sense of where I was in the world would be switched on by observances small and large.

A few times it was by babies toddling around swathed in thick quilted jackets and pants with the back of the pants slit for easy access. Other times it was by street food stands with smoky charcoal braziers offering the familiar, the identifiable and the I-can’t-believe-they-eat that, all cooked and served on skewers to munch on while you strolled with friends. Sometimes it was a bicycle or motor scooter loaded down with people or goods or the occasional stray vendor with a scale in his hand peddling piles of fruit or vegetables from bamboo trays suspended from a pole across his back. Or a line of rickshaws parked for the night in a shadowy street that evoked a movie set from the 1930s. Or the huge plastic thermoses of hot water with cork bungs that every worker everywhere I went seemed to keep handy to refill their tea mug.

There was so much more that I saw, experienced (and, of course, ate), and while China enriched, entranced, entertained and enlightened me it also left me wondering. Recent news reports have complicated my feelings, but have not dimmed my enthusiasm for the people, places and activities I encountered during my visit.

Please watch for my reports on my trip to China here in Blog Appetit. Some will be food oriented, with recipes on occasion. Others might be about what moved me or made me think or react. I look forward to sharing my adventure with you.

About the photo: A snack street in Shanghai

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Something's Fishy and I'm Home ...

... and full of stories, photos, experiences and, of course, Chinese food.

I hope to download the 1,500 plus photos I took in the two weeks I was away this weekend. (It could take all weekend, that's a 4GB card and half a 2gb one, too! The pix with this post actually comes from my trip to Vietnam in 2005.)

Watch this blog for assorted write ups, recipe adaptations and more (I'll probably start with my Shanghai cooking school experience and recipes for what we cooked there.) More to come.

Xi Xi for your patience while I recover from jet lag, catch up in the office and brew myself some more green tea.

To keep you cooking until I post my new recipes here's one I have used and honed throughout the years, inspired by one written by the late Barbara Tropp in her classic The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking.

Fish Steamed with Ginger, Garlic and Black Beans
Serves 4

1 Tbs Chinese rice wine OR dry sherry
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 Tbs soy sauce
1 tsp Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
1 Tbs minced fresh garlic
¼ tsp dried hot red pepper flakes OR a half of one small hot chili, seeded and minced
4 fish steaks, about 1 - 1.5 pounds total, cut about ¾” thick – try salmon or halibut, any stray bones or scales removed
1 Tbs salted Chinese black beans (sometimes called fermented black beans)
2 Tbs fine shreds of ginger peeled
½ of a large red bell pepper, cut into thin matchstick pieces or shreds
¼ cup chopped green onions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a small bowl combine wine, oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Set aside.

Rip off 8 long strips of aluminum foil and double them up with shiny side facing up. In the middle of each put a fish steak. Stir the wine and soy sauce mixture and dribble one fourth of the wine and soy mixture over each fish portion. Scatter each steak with one fourth of the black beans, ginger shreds, red bell peppers and green onions.

Fold the foil around each piece of fish to make a sealed packet, crimping the ends so no liquid can escape. Place the packets on a baking tray and cook in the oven until the fish is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Serve hot, room temperature or cold. Remember if not serving right away that the fish will keep cooking in the foil packets.