Friday, February 26, 2010

The Foods of Purim -- The Whole Megillah

Purim, a Jewish holiday with lots of 21st century appeal, begins at sundown this Saturday night.

It's a story of a king's love of a beautiful and wise woman (Esther), the wisdom and strength of her relative Mordecai and the evil machinations of the royal advisor Haman and how he is foiled in his plot to destroy the Jews in ancient Persia. Oh, and a queen (Vashti) who stood up for herself and is now seen by some as unjustly punished and a early progenitor of woman's rights.
You can read more about this holiday and the traditions associated with it here (from a very traditional resource so not so much on that women's rights angle, but lots of good info and recipes).

One of the ways the holiday is celebrated is with public reading of the Book of Esther, or the "Megillah," which has become slang for telling someone the whole story. Whenever Haman's name is mentioned in the story, the listeners stamp their feet, shake noisemakers and generally try to make sure the name can not be heard.

Another tradition is to give gifts of food to friends as well as the less fortunate. A third way the holiday is celebrated is for children (and many adults) to get dressed up as either the main characters in the story or in any other fanciful getup they choose. Another tradition is to enjoy spirits. It's quite a site to see your fellow congregants dressed up in queenly regalia (sometimes even the men) as Esther or dressed as some ancient Persian might be in robes and fake beards (sometimes even the women) passing a bottle of fine whiskey or throat-burning plum brandy (slivovitz) from hand to hand during the Megillah reading.

The most popular food of Purim are probably hamanstachen (see recipe below), the Ashkenazi cookie symbolizing Haman’s tri-cornered hat. 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 in trying to trick the king and harm the Jews and the redemption that followed.

Bake challah (a rich egg bread) 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. I have links to challah recipes here and give my favorite French toast recipe here.

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? Try my Limoncello Tuna or Martini Chicken recipes.

Below is the "official" recipe for the tri-cornered official hamantaschen cookie recipe from the Gan Avraham preschool at Temple Beth Abraham. If you are making them for kids -- the jam or chocolate chip fillings are the most popular

Serves 12-15

2 cup flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup sugar
¼ lb. margarine (1 stick)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preserves, various flavors such as apricot or raspberry
Chocolate chips
Canned pastry filling such as poppy seed or prune lekvar (prune butter)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder and sugar. Cut in margarine. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix dough until it forms a ball. Add extra flour if necessary. On a floured board, roll out until ¼ thick and cut into circles using a cookie or biscuit cutter or the top of a drinking glass. Fill with jelly, pastry filling, or chocolate chips. Pinch up three sides to form triangles. Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Note: You can substitute butter for the margarine. If you use a margarine without any dairy ingredients, this recipe would be "pareve" and therefore suitable to serve after a meal that contained meat. If it has any dairy ingredients, a Jew who observes the traditional dietary laws could not immediately eat it, hence the use of margarine in the preschool's recipe.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Menu Decoder -- Your Guide to Eating Well in Any Language

Thanks to Budget Travel for this link to decoding the world's menus, including a Chinese menu decoder just in time for the Lunar New Year.

Other menu coders are for Barcelona (Catalonia region of Spain), France, Germany, India, Italy, Morocco, Portugal and Prague (Czech Republic).

Happy reading and eating.

FYI - I've been to Barcelona, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Prague and China, so I can say the decoders are a good place to start but not at all comprehensive if you are traveling. They will help you spot more "authentic" dishes on your local ethnic restaurant menus. If you are looking for more information about the food ways, recipes and eating habits, I recommend the excellent (but out of print) Lonely Planet series "World Food," still available new or used from some bookstores and on line.

About the photo: Candied hawthornes, or bīngtáng húlu, and other candied skewered fruit from the night market on Goldfish Street in Beijing. (The snack is listed in the Budget Travel China food guide.) The candied hawthornes were somewhat like candied apples, only with lots of seeds in the middle. A teahouse in Beijing served them as well, but they seeded the hawthornes before candying, which made them much more enjoyable to eat.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Post Valentine's Day Card

Happy Day After Valentine's Day -- Sorry I missed posting, but my husband had to travel about two hours into the Sierra foothills for business and I decided to ride along. My Valentine's Day reward? A chicken Cesaer salad at Costco's on the way back (well, we did pick up a new TV set since the one I prefer to watch my old movies on imploded a few days ago).

I thought I might post from an internet cafe while Gary was busy, but couldn't find one. Instead I enjoyed walking around some old gold mining towns repurposed as tourist destinations. The weather was beautiful. I had a great corn beef hash for breakfast that made me try to think how I could do something similar in a lower fat or vegetarian format -- watch for that sometime (hopefully) soon.

I'm not sure what I would have written about if I had posted, probably something about the changes I see in my stats around Valentine's Day (and Christmas and Mother's Day) -- searches for the number of calories in See's candies.

I did have a menu with recipes in mind, I'll post that soon as well. After all it shouldn't take a "Hallmark" holiday such as Valentine's Day to spur you to have a romantic dinner with your special someone.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Being Energy Efficient in the Kitchen -- Plus a "Baked" Apple Recipe to Make in the Oven, Toaster Oven, Microwave or Steamer

Baby it’s cold outside and the gas and electric meters are humming, so I thought saving energy (and money) while you cook would be a good topic for a post.

True, covering your pot won’t save you as much as replacing inefficient appliances, turning down the heat, insulating your home, wrapping your hot water heater and getting your kids to turn off the lights, computer and television, but every little bit helps. Here are some basics to start with:

Don’t preheat your oven – most things will only take a few more minutes to cook if you don’t preheat. Put that casserole in a cold oven and take advantage of all the preheating time and energy.

If you are using the oven, use it – You are already paying for all that energy anyway, so why turn on your stove top and burn money there, too? Make a whole meal in your oven. Roast vegetables and potatoes to go along with that chicken. Make a dessert in there, too. Baked apples with raisins, almonds and honey (see recipe below), maybe? Or cook several meals at once to take advantage of all that hot, hot heat.

Grill friend – All those little kitchen helper appliances could be your worst enemy or your best energy-saving friend. Just use them in place of other cooking resources not in addition to. If your countertop grill saves you from having to preheat your range’s broiler, that’s great. But if you have the oven on anyway, maybe you should bake that chicken breast instead of grilling it. Try to use the toaster oven instead your full-size oven.

Home on the range –If you are using your range or stove top, make the whole meal “on top.” Consider using a multilevel steamer. Boiling water on the bottom, your main course in the middle and some tasty vegetables up top. You can even adapt the baked apple recipe below for a steamer. A personal favorite of mine is to use a pressure cooker. They create wonderful stews and soups in a fraction of the time and energy.

Putting a lid on it – Using a lid for a pot is a good idea. Water will boil faster if you can’t see it. Honest. Another tip is to only put enough water in the tea kettle for what you need at the time. I know some people who fill it up to the whistle. It takes forever to come to a boil and tea really needs fresh water every time to taste its best.

Magic Box – The microwave is one of the most efficient appliances in our kitchen arsenal, especially if you work it right. It’s great for one potato, two. But a family’s worth are better being cooked in the oven with yesterday’s dinner and just warmed in the microwave. Planning ahead to have “leftovers” or “pre cooks” not only saves energy, but your time.

Baked Apples with Raisins, Almonds and Honey
Serves 4

These versatile apples can be baked in an oven, toaster oven or made in the microwave or steamer, so pick the method that saves the most energy for you. Directions below are for the baked version. See the notes after the recipe to adapt it for a microwave or steamer.

4 granny smith apples
Juice of large lemon
1/3 cup apple juice or water
1/3 cup of raisins
1/3 cup of slivered almonds
½ tsp. of ground cinnamon
2-3 teaspoons of honey
1 Tbs. of butter or margarine

Preheat oven or larger toaster oven to 350 degrees. Core the apples, reserving a bit of the core to “plug” the bottom of apple. Place in a baking dish. Pour lemon juice over top of apples. Add juice or water to bottom of dish. Combine raisins, almonds, cinnamon and honey in a small bowl, mix well. Pack the filling into the cored out apples (you may have extra). Cut butter or margarine into small pieces and scatter on top of the apples. Cover the baking dish loosely with foil. Baste occasionally with liquid from bottom of baking dish. Bake for about 30 minutes or until apples can be pierced easily with a knife. Serve with syrup from the pan and with whipped cream, yogurt or ice cream if desired.

Microwave Variation: Use microwave safe baking dish and cover with plastic wrap or waxed paper. Reduce apple juice or water by half. Cook on high until done.

Steamer Variation: Place apples in rimmed dish or pan that fits within a steamer. Reduce apple juice or water by half. Cover with steamer lid. Steam over boiling water until done.
Adapted from an article originally written for the Temple Beth Abraham Omer newsletter.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Noodling about Noodle Pudding with Kugel Recipes Sweet and Not

In my latest column in the j. newsweekly, I celebrate my rediscovery of the noodle kugel, a baked noodle and egg dish often called a noodle pudding. I’ve eaten my share of gloppy, indiscriminately sweet noodle kugels (also known as luchen kugel in Yiddish) and had kugels served with dinners that were nothing more than desserts in disguise.

Then I had the kugels made by my friend Karen Bloom. Hers were light and fluffy, tasty and varied. Her noodle puddings were in a different class. She comes by it naturally; her cousin, Nina Yellin, has written two kugel cookbooks and Bloom has based several of her creations on her cousin’s recipes. Bloom recommends whipping the egg whites separately and folding them in last to keep kugel lighter. I took her advice and made a fragrant and sweet Cinnamon Bun Kugel. It was adapted from Yellin’s latest cookbook -- Kugel, Knishes, and Other Tasty Dishes, Smylan Reed Books. (FYI -- The book was published in 1993 and seems only to be available used.) The kugel’s spicy warm scent entices as the oozing cinnamon, brown sugar and butter topping melts into the creamy noodles.

But a kugel need not be sweet and creamy. Onions, garlic, and all sorts of vegetables are featured in Yellin’s recipes, so I devised a savory kugel that draws on Sephardic influences including toasting the pasta to add extra flavor. Baked Fidellos Tostada with Sephardic Flavor combines the nutty flavor of the pasta with the earthiness of chickpeas, cumin and saffron, and the bright tastes of lemons and tomatoes. Use vegetable broth to keep the dish vegetarian or punch up the flavor with chicken broth.

You can read my article in the j. here.

Cinnamon Bun KugelServes 8-10

A small piece is perfect for dessert or as an accompaniment to brunch. If you want to trim back a bit on the fat without loosing the lusciousness, substitute low-fat sour cream, cottage cheese and milk. If you want to try Yellin's original recipe, use a 10x10-inch pan, a full stick of butter, 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts instead of the pecans and crushed, drained pineapple instead of the applesauce.

8 oz. medium wide egg noodles
3 eggs, separated
½ pint sour cream
½ pound cottage cheese
½ cup milk
½ cup sugar
1 cup chunky apple sauce
1 and ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon, divided
4 Tbs. butter
½ cup brown sugar
Heaping 1/3 cup roughly chopped pecans
1/3 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook and drain noodles. Beat yolks and mix with sour cream, cottage cheese, milk and sugar. Combine apple sauce with ¼ tsp of cinnamon, add to egg yolk mixture. Mix in noodles and combine. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into noodles.

Melt butter and pour into 8”x8” baking pan, being sure to fully coat inside bottom and sides. Scatter remaining cinnamon, brown sugar, pecans and raisins on bottom of pan. Stir. Pour noodle mixture into pan. Bake for 50 minutes or until kugel is firm to the touch. Invert on serving platter to serve immediately, serve out of pan, or store in pan and warm before inverting and serving.

Baked Fidellos Tostadas with Sephardic Flavors
Serves 10

I ate the leftovers for lunch for several days -- it only got more delicious, so try making this one in advance and reheating it.

Oil spray
12 oz. angel hair pasta, broken into pieces about 1” long
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground oregano
½ tsp. ground thyme
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
½ tsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk diced
1 red pepper, chopped
1 yellow pepper, chopped
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes (undrained)
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
¼ tsp. saffron threads
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp. lemon zest
½ cup chopped parsley plus extra for garnish
6 eggs, beaten
½ tsp. smoked or regular paprika

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray baking pan(s) with oil spray or grease with olive oil. Spread broken pasta pieces out in a single layer. Toast in hot oven until lightly browned, turning over often. Cook in boiling, salted water until just cooked. Drain.

Set oven to 350 degrees. In a large frying pan over medium high heat sauté onion until golden, add garlic, sauté a minute or two, add cumin, oregano, thyme, salt, black pepper and pepper flakes. Sauté a minute and then add in carrots, celery and red and yellow peppers. Sauté until vegetables are browned then add the tomatoes with liquid, chickpeas, stock and saffron threads. Simmer until vegetables are just cooked. Mix in lemon juice. Combine with cooked pasta. Add in lemon zest and ½ cup parsley. Taste and correct seasonings. Mix in eggs. Spray or grease a 10”x14” baking pan. Pour pasta mixture into pan. Sprinkle paprika on top. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until lightly brown and firm to the touch. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Other kugels on the web: a traditional style noodle pudding from Smitten Kitchen and a cornflake topped one from David Lebovitz. My friend Karen makes a similar one using frosted flakes as a topping.

Update: 12/10 -- I've posted my California Kugel recipe full of chopped fruit and granola.

About the photos: Top -- my cinnamon bun kugel oozing. Bottom -- whipping the egg whites.

Update: I had a lovely email based on my j.column from Nina Yellin -- Kugel Maven. Here's some background on her and her books from that email:

My cookbooks have been self published since 1988 under the name of Smylan Reed Books. The first title was "The Kugel Book Featuring Madam a la Kugel." Only 500 copies of that title were printed. I revised and changed the title to "The Kugel Story, Not Just Noodle Pudding" and "The Kugel Story, Not Just Noodle Pudding 2" printed in 1991, 1992 and 1993. In 2001 I released another revised edition titled "Kugel, Knishes and Other Tasty Dishes." I believe that is the edition you took the recipe from for your article. Copyright date is at top of copy right page and the book was actually self published in 2001. There are only about 6,500 copies of my books in the world. The have appeared recently online in the rare book market for over $200.00.