Passover panic

fb5c40e8259a0c32549d3af2d870d453Ummm I think I just agreed to hosting the seder this year at my house.

All these years, I’ve managed to duck that responsibility by visiting my parents in Arizona or getting ourselves invited elsewhere. Even though El Yenta Man and I planned and cooked the Passover meal in Savannah a couple of years ago, the deed was actually done at my in-law’s house a few blocks away.

This year, with my mother-in-law barely breathing yet still hanging on to life from her adjustable bed in the back room, I think it’s just too much for my father-in-law logistically and emotionally to host. So it’s our turn to be the grown-ups, even if we don’t own a set of matching dishes.

You’d think after attending 40-something seders in my life, I would have a handle on what all this entails. And I do, mostly: There’s the cleaning of the chametz and the brisket and buying both colors of horseradish and digging out the recipe for that marvelous pea paté “faux gras” everyone likes until they find out what’s in it.

But something’s eluding me. Oh yes. That would be my EVER-LOVING SANITY. Even in the non-holiday times, I am barely hanging on with the full-time job and the full-time wife-ing and mothering and the neverending laundry and unrealized ambitions and remembering to take my Graves’ disease medication. (Errm, actually, forgetting it several times this week may be contributing to my mental confusion. Add that to the list.)

There is just something about being responsible for the continuation of the Jewish people’s epic five thousand seven hundred something year history that I find VERY OVERWHELMING. While no Orthodox rabbi would ever approve of my unkashered kitchen, it’s still important to try and do things as correctly and meaningfully as I can, even if it means I end up rocking in the corner of the pantry trying to remember if kidney beans are kitniyot. (They are, and I’m not sure I care.)

Anyway, I was quite glad to run across this lovely article, 10 Steps to a More Serene Passover by Rivka Caroline on chabad.org. Rivka is a rabbi’s wife and has seven children, so if she can stay sane during Passover, surely I can figure this out.

First thing I’m going to do is make good on my yearly promise to clean out–really clean out–the pantry. (More on that DIY project to come next week.)

Then, I’m gonna pack up my in-laws’ gathering-dust-in-the-cabinent china and shlep it over. For the better prepared, Passover (aka “Pesach” with an “acch”) requires its own set of special dishes.

The least I can do is borrow some matching ones.

*coveting this gorgeous hamsa seder plate at Moderntribe.com!

Chicken Three Ways: Goopy, Porny and Mine

This week the internet went apesh*t after Gwyneth Paltrow announced that she and her husband/twin/rock star Chris Martin are separating, or rather “consciously uncoupling.”

The news made me quite sad, as those of us married folk know it ain’t no fairy tale. If the gorgeous tall blond people with all the money can’t keep it together, what chance do us common folk have? So far El Yenta Man and I always manage, but I would not judge what goes on in another couple’s marriage.

However, the way some jerks behave during their divorces certainly brings on the stones, and I say we gotta respect Gwyneth and Chris for doing their best to act like grown-ups during this process. While “conscious uncoupling” may sound like the pretentious mishegoss everyone’s always accusing her of, I agree with Jen Lemen’s view that our society can offer more options than devolving into “bitches and ogres” as a union dissolves. (Read her insightful piece at Medium.com.)

images-1Gwynnie honors her Jewish roots, and it makes sense that she would post a chicken recipe on Goop.com during this tumultuous week. Actually, she posted three, because she clearly suffers from some type of overachiever complex. (There must be some guilt there, having inherited the blond hair and the long leggies AND the cooking talent.)

Jewish mothers know that chicken is the original comfort food. There’s something just so nurturing and nourishing about a plump little bird in the pot. I also theorize that our Jewish ancestors weren’t so much hunters as thinkers, and eating more fowl than red meat evolved for us because raising chickens so much less gross than skinning and gutting a deer. (Not that I’ve had the courage to sacrifice one of my menopausal layers just yet.)

Of course, it’s chicken soup that our people are famous for. Speaking of honoring one’s Jewish roots, everyone’s favorite Naughty Jewish Boy James Deen recently posted his recipe for Ramen Matzah Ball Soup as part of his James Deen Loves Food series at Woodrocket.com.

While James is always a cute hoot, I must recommend a Hebrew school refresher—dude got the Exodus story all kinds of wrong. (If cussing and nudity in the border ads makes you nervous, check out the interview and printed recipe over at Heeb.com.)

Me, I prefer my chicken soup with classic balls. Here’s my tried-and-true recipe, guaranteed to heal heads and hearts:

Yo, Yenta!’s Chicken Matzah Ball Soup

1. Start with a whole, cooked chicken. You can bake your own (2+ hours at 375*) but we prefer to buy one of those fancy organic ones from the market, already roasted and spiced to perfection. Pick off the meat and set aside for tomorrow’s sandwiches.
2. Break apart the bones to get to the marrow. The more the carcass resembles something mauled by a wild animal, the better flavor for the soup. If getting in touch with your inner wolf seems distasteful, give thanks you didn’t actually have to kill and defeather the bird.
3. Boil the hell out of it. Toss the bones in a full pot of water with a bit of skin (the chicken’s, not yours) and let it reduce itself down to an couple of inches. Fill the pot again and repeat two or three times until the broth becomes a shimmery golden color that smells like heaven.*Shortcut: If you have minutes instead of hours, plop in some Better Than Buillon for a nice strong broth.
4. Add a chopped onion, three or four sliced carrots and five or six celery stalks. But make sure you scoop out the bones beforehand with a slotted spoon. Add salt and pepper to your liking (don’t get insane about it, though; you can always add more but you can’t take it out.) Simmer, simmer, simmer down now.
5. Here comes the schmaltz! Prepare the matzo balls by beating 4 eggs, 2 tablespoons. of chicken fat (skim it off the top of the broth), a few pinches of finely chopped parsley. Add one cup of matzo meal and a pinch of salt. Mix well and refrigerate for 20 minutes, or until you can stand it anymore.
6. The secret to fluffy matzo balls is a gentle hand. We’re not hard-packing snowballs for maximum density here. Pretend you have your bubbie’s arthritis. Drop in boiling broth, which should be roiling with vegetables. Simmer under a lid for 20 minutes.

Enjoy with friends and neighbors. If your sinuses and sadness don’t clear after the first bowl, I recommend mainlining it.

Shalom Y’all Food Festival this Sunday!

El Yenta Man rises before dawn most every day weekday to meet the masochists who pay him to make them cry, but if he’s up that early on a Sunday it can only mean two things:

The fish are biting or it’s the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival. Tapped for his particularly useful combination of brawn and brains, EYM has been in charge of loading up trays of challahs, rugelach, corned beef and latke mix into the refrigerated truck for the past six years. He spends the whole day ferrying reinforcements as the booths sell out right around the time church lets out – everybody in Savannah wants to be Jewish on Food Fest day!

The whole shebang is 25 years old this year and I wrote a lil’ something over at the day job about these fabulous matriarchs:

Shalom Y'all balabustas Peggy Harris, Joan Levy and Ellen Byck. Photo by Jon Waits/jwaitsphoto

Shalom Y’all balabustas Peggy Harris, Joan Levy and Ellen Byck. Photo by Jon Waits/jwaitsphoto

“25 Years of Noshing” from Connect Savannah

Come October for the past 25 years, the kitchen at Congregation Mickve Israel has erupted into a tzimmes. For those who know their Yiddish, that could mean a mess of traditional European carrot and squash stew dripping from the walls. But it also translates into the less literal definition: A big fuss. [Read the rest here.]

In the meantime, I’m making sure EYM gets to bed early all week – he needs his strength!

Paula Deen, Afroculinaria and Kosher Soul

Y’all may have heard about a little brouhaha happening down Savannah way.

Yup, the Yenta’s been at ground zero for the carmelized meltdown of Paula Deen, and I had a few words about it in last week’s Civil Society Column at the day job.

Though just about everyone and their mama has had something to say about Our Lady of Perpetual Butter, no one electrified the interwebs more in the last weeks that Michael W. Twitty. The D.C.”ish”-based culinary historian became an instant star for his “Open Letter to Paula Deen,” which was picked up by the Huffington Post and has been lauded as genuine, brilliant response to allegations of racism against Deen.

I think what struck us all about Twitty’s letter – first published on his blog Afroculinaria – is that he points out that Deen’s success as a celebrity chef owes much to the culinary traditions of Africa — a fact that should be obvious but isn’t much discussed on the Food Network. That Twitty is also black, Jewish and gay makes him something of reluctant authority on all types of the kind of back-handed oppression in our society that appears mostly as omission rather that outward prejudice.

Michael Twitty at the Torah. Copyright photo by Jerome Colt.

Michael Twitty at the Torah. Copyright photo by Jasper Colt.

Most interesting is his very Jewish attitude of reconciliation instead of anger towards Deen:

As a Jew, I extend the invitation to do teshuvah — which means to repent — but better — to return to a better state, a state of shalem — wholeness and shalom — peace.

In other words, forgiving Paula Deen — whom I have met on a number of occasions and found to be a genuinely nice lady — is the Jewish thing to do.

I dig Twitty’s rabbinical musings; though he is not a rabbi, he shines a unique light on Jewish food and our faith in general. In his Afroculinaria post Passover: A Black-Jewish Food Musing, he writes that Judaism’s imperfect, ever-evolving beliefs resonate in his neshama (soul):

One of the reasons I am madly, passionately, head over soles in love with Judaism is unrestrained passion it has for questions, analysis, study, review, revision and that dance it seems to revel in between tradition and intellectual anarchy.

 

This wonderful man is welcome at the Yenta Shabbos table ANYTIME. Also, Gentleman understands that at the end of the day, it really is ABOUT THE FOOD.

At the conclusion of his letter, Twitty invited Paula — and the rest of us — to Durham, NC for the Historic Stagville Harvest Festival and Benefit Dinner on Sept. 7, featuring the true traditions of Southern cuisine and whence it came:

We will be making a pit covered with saplings and will barbecue all day over oak, hickory and fruit woods for the meal, and we will turn fresh produce and fruit into cast iron cooked delicacies for our side dishes and desserts.  Nearly all the food will be cooked according to 19th century methods and the recipes will reflect the celebratory foods as eaten by enslaved North Carolinians and Free Blacks in antebellum times.

Why friends, that’s the day after Rosh Hashanah and during the great Days of Awe, when we are meant to delve deepest into our souls before atoning on Yom Kippur. Seems to me this would be a soul food fest in every way — it’d be a serious shlep, but I hope to check it out.

In the meantime, I am so trying out Twitty’s Jerk Chicken Spaghetti recipe!

Southern Shabbat Dinner: What, No Shrimp?

imagesDelish post today on the Forward’s The Jew and the Carrot about NYC’s City Grit, a culinary salon that hosted a four-course Shabbat meal last week. But questions remain.

First of all, what the hosanna is a culinary salon? Can I get my toes done there while noshing? Sounds awfully lofty to be taking on the Southern Shabbos meal.

I’m not denying the fabulosity of beet puree and benne seeds (really, the only truly Southern ingredient, as there is no such f*cking thing as “rice grits”. Grits are made of corn. Period.) I have no problem AT ALL with leeks, morels or heirloom tomatoes, even in my cereal. I am all about adventures of the palate. I would eat a locust if someone else cooked it. I get all up in Leoci’s Rasperry Jalapeno Jam with some duck prosciutto and have a freakin’ gastronomic party any chance I get.

But messin’ with the Shabbos meal? I dunno. I dig the innovation behind Chef Sarah Simmons’ deconstructed brisket, but also it just made me nervous. Shouldn’t be something sacred about the Shabbat meal, something as unvarying and solid as the tradition itself? What’s next, shrimp couscous? A roasted pig wearing a yarmulke?

It’s not about the kosher. ‘Cause y’all know trayf happens plenty around here. But we Jewish Southerners (oh dear, Lawd. Did Ah just call mahself a suthenah?!) don’t like to mess with a good thing.

Shabbos at the Yenta home almost always consists of roast chicken, quinoa and kale from the garden. Sometimes we get meshuggah and have salmon. It is the way it has always been. It is the way it should always be.

Unless someone opens a culinary salon and serves up that tasty-sounding latke-chocolate mousse dessert.

2am Knishes on Broughton? Oh HELLS yeah

Here in Slowvannah party people have a problem: Bars are open as late as you can hang, but there’s nothing to eat north of Victory after 10pm but ick pizza that looks and tastes suspiciously like snot on cardboard.

It’s an entrepreneurial no-brainer, really: Drunk people need food. Make something cheap, easy and utensil-unnecessary and get it to them. Seeing as downtown rents are stupid high, it makes sense that you might mobilize your supply to meet the demand of the hordes of stumblers who have bathed in Pabst Blue Ribbon and Jell-O shots for the last few hours and want to end the evening with a full belly of goodness.

Lots of smart people have figured this out and put a kitchen on wheels. They’re called food trucks. They’re kind of a big deal in other cities, where this economic niche has been met with epicurean creativity in the form of rolling Korean barbecue, fresh tacos, ice cream sandwiches, Mexican-Chinese fusion, paninis and all kinds of other delicious snacks.

In Savannah, food trucks are illegal just sort of impossible to get a license for. Or so I hear. I called the City of Savannah’s Revenue Department to find out if and why but didn’t get very far with the woman on the other end of the phone who said food trucks were perfectly legal as long as one jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops and paid the fees. (Dammit, Jim, I’m a blogger, not an investigative journalist!)

But the Savannah Street Food Coalition has made it its mission to “campaign for safe, affordable, and legal access to street food in Savannah” by “persuading local and state lawmakers to revise current restrictive vending ordinances which hinder the proliferation of street food culture,” so someone must be standing in the way of late-night gastronomical progress. I’m salivating over their Facebook updates and dreaming of Nutella crepes. And empanadas. And tofu hot dogs with chopped relish and a perfect dollop of mayo…

Meanwhile, some Savannah Twitter user has registered @kosherfoodtruck—which could mean latkes and other yiddishe yums. It’s been many years since I could keep my eyeballs open past 11, but I’d find the party in my pajamas if it meant hot knishes scarfed on the sidewalk.

UPDATE: The Savannah Food Coalition so nicely responded with this:

Food trucks aren’t necessarily outlawed – but the restrictions and regulations makes it near impossible to open and run one. Probably not intentional on the city’s part. I imagine the regulations were placed for good intentioned health code. But as we both know – there’s some great, safe food cooked on food tucks daily in other cities…We ran into a lot of contradicting information and dead ends. We were inspired by Atlanta Street Food Coalition to make it easier for all involved, potential small business owners as well as city employees.

Nice. So that it means it could happen sooner than later. Also, I found out the identity of @Kosherfoodtruck and I can tell you that this Savannah son is gonna ALL bizzy on Jewish Southern style cuisine…

Bring on the Squish and the Seven Year Scratch

Well, it’s been a minute, hasn’t it? Passover has almost passed, which means two things:

This evening the Family Yenta will be scarfing pizza and beer (the root variety for the kiddies, natch) in front of Glee. (Speaking of which, after you’re done here, check out Jay Michaelson’s breakdown of the seder’s Four Sons as imagined through everyone’s favorite show choir characters in last week’s Forward.) After all that bread of affliction, we need some squishy dough and teen angst, STAT.

Eight days with no bread is no big deal for me since I do my best to avoid it anyway, like that friend from college who you always think might be fun to spend a night trolling the bars with but instead you end up with your wallet stolen and three days of hangover. I haven’t yet graduated into full-on gluten-free status (El Yenta Man complains I’m already high-maintenance enough) but I’ve finally had to accept that a bread bowl salad or even a sandwich puts me in a carb coma that makes people think I’ve been drinking wine at lunch. Still, a girl’s gotta leave the door open for exceptions like cupcakes and donuts and a real bagel once in a while.

The rest of the family had a harder time. Throughout our Scottsdale sojourn, Yenta Boy deemed himself the Chametz Police—he literally texted me five times from the same restaurant whilst out with Grandpa, asking me if the flat crackers they served were kosher for Passover (no) and if he could eat rice balls (yes.)

To our family, KFP means we don’t do anything fluffy or the five forbidden grains (wheat, spelt, rye, barley and oats) but none of us are so observant that we go down the road of ketinyot (which includes corn, rice, legumes and anything else besides matzah, which would make me crazy and constipated.) It’s heart-warming that my little rabbi wants to follow the Torah’s laws to the point of driving everyone nuts, but I finally had to explain to him that bossing around his elders is a much more egregious sin—the last straw was when he shrieked at my mother for eating a bit of a cookie.

The truth is that my family made an amazing effort to keep us all well fed and within the confines our observance this week with the most delicious results: From EYM’s tender brisket and my dad’s giant kosher turkey at the seder to Brother the Doctor’s delicately folded goat cheese-and-tomato omelets to his French girlfriend’s effortless zucchini salad to rack of lamb served on my parents’ patio, the standards of home cooking have been raised. I’ve already warned the kids to return to more mundane epicurean tastes now that we’re home.

And then—OMG—the meals had out: The locally-sourced roasted vegetables and tofu at the cafeteria in the aurally-orgasmic Musical Instrument Museum. Sweet potato tamales at the Cup Cafe in Tucson followed up by late-night salted caramel ice cream from Hub. A ladies’ lunch of cucumber lemonade, spaghetti squash casserole and dairy-free choco pudding at health guru Dr. Andrew Weil’s True Food Kitchen. And the grand finale, dinner with everyone at Roka Akor, hailed as one of the top ten sushi spots in the U.S. by Bon Appétit with sister restaurants in Dubai, Hong Kong and Macau. I swear I ate everything on the table, including the tempura leaf garnishes and every drop of the mango sorbet that came cradled in a tiny crate of ice.

Who needs boring old bread when the rest of the world is a gluten-free gastronomical paradise? Passover could be ALL THE TIME as far as I’m concerned.

Oh yeah, pizza. And beer. Right.

Which brings me to the other significant thing about the end of Passover: It marks Yo, Yenta!’s SEVENTH bloggiversary!

If you’d like to give me a present and you know enough about Savannah to have a few favorite ideas about our fair city, you could head to Connect Savannah’s Best of Savannah ballot and vote for Jessica Leigh Lebos of Yo, Yenta! for “Best Blogger.” You have to fill out at least 25 categories—I’m happy to provide suggestions; here’s one: Mark Lebos as “Best Personal Trainer.” Voting ends April 30!

Yes, this blog is seven years old this week, which in interweb years is like middle-aged. But in spite of my recent visit to Scottsdale, there are no plans for Botox or implants here—this Jewish mama promises to keep flashing y’all au naturelle with uncensored stories from an unorthodox life. Thank you so much for clicking through all these years!

A Loaf of Love

I do so love to bring in Rosh Hashanah right, considering it sets the tone for a whole year and I secretly believe I can bribe God into putting us into the Book of Life with baked treats. So this morning I got up extra early to wake the family with sweet, cinnamony smells before I left for work.

I mixed the honey and the flour with the spices and poured it into the pans. I gently placed them into the oven and went to take a shower. As I was putting on make-up and rousing the children from their slumbers, the perfume of golden cakeyness began to waft through the rooms. I hummed as I finished straightening my bangs (it is still soooo humid in Savannah) and presided over cereal preparation. Mediated bickering about who would feed the chickens and who would empty the compost. Reminded the boy to walk the dog. Wondered why brushing two sets of small teeth takes ten minutes. Did the breakfast dishes and consulted with El Yenta Man about the evening’s synagogue schedules as an aroma of Happy Yiddishe Mama enveloped our little home.

But somewhere between making lunches and discovering I was wearing two different shoes, the lovely smell took on an acrid edge. By the time I spazzed over to the oven after tripping over the dog, my loaves of love were no longer the golden-brown pounds of perfection I envisioned in the wee hours of the same morning: They looked like bricks from the belly of a coal mine, the slivered almonds little chips of charcoal.

“Nooooo!” I screamed. “This is no way to begin a New Year! We’re doomed!”

“Don’t worry, Mommy,” consoled my son. “It’s the thought that counts.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t matter,” chirped my little girl. A pause. “Can I eat it anyway? It still smells kind of good. Like steak.”

*sigh* I think the message here is that trying to do too much is just as bad as not doing enough–and I guess 5771 is about finding balance.

I would have posted a photo of my blackened honeycakes, but at this point I didn’t want the morning to deteriorate any further by making myself late for a staff meeting. I suppose I can try to salvage them by slicing off the really crusty parts or maybe I’ll leave them outside for the squirrels. Perhaps our Lord will consider and accept them as a baked sacrifice.

Here’s the recipe, from Savannah’s own, much-missed Gottlieb’s Bakery:

Sister Sadie’s Honeycake
(with a few Yenta additions)

1 cup sugar
2 cups honey
4 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cold strong stale coffee or flat Coca-Cola [I use a combo of both if I can. Why does it have to be stale or flat? I don’t know. Sister Sadie isn’t around to ask anymore.]
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 sliced almonds

Preheat the oven to 325*. Grease and line and line with wax paper two loaf pans. Cream the sugar and honey together til it’s drippy. Beat in eggs, oil and coffee and/or Coke. Sift the dry ingredients together and beat like a bad dog. Divide between pans, sprinkle almonds on top. Bake until top springs back, about 45 minutes. It might be 50 minutes depending on your oven. But an hour is too long, I promise.

L’Shana Tovah Umetukah, my dear friends!

Mmmm…Matzoh Crunch Ice Cream

Oh, it’s hawwwwt out, my mishpotech, and I don’t mean like Hugh Jackman in a pair of Levi’s.

Savannah in the summertime is a little like residing within a steamy bowl of soup, except there’s less carrots and no lid to escape. Lawdy, have mercy on my sweaty soul.

Fortunately, there is a glorious respite from this scalding misery called frozen treats, and lookie what I just found on the interwebs: Chozen, kosher vanilla ice cream swirled with flavors to make your bubbie swoon.

Who wouldn’t at the thought of licking a scoop of rugelach, chocolate babka or matzoh crunch on the stoop watching the neighbor kids splash around in the fire hydrant spray? Wait, that’s my cliché mind kicking in the false memories I have of growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s.

Too bad for me and my real life of an overheated pug lapping at the sewage overflow washing down the alley, Chozen is currently only available in New York.

Presenting the Chametz-Free Lunchbag

matzah bagWho can’t wait to schlep matzah to and fro all next week?

Never mind, don’t answer that. But how much do you love this plastic-free, machine-washable insulated lunch tote from Lori’s Crafts?

If we’re all gonna be answering questions in the cafeteria about our giant crackers, we might as well be doing it style, right?

Check out more of Lori’s handmade Pesach fabulousness!