What’s kosher? (Part 2, with beef and eggplant ragout)

Kosher meat in a supermarket.

Kosher meat in a supermarket.

The basics of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, were in my column last week (along with a delicious easy recipe for blintz souffle). This is the second part of my introduction to keeping kosher.

Some people “keep kosher” because they truly believe it was commanded by God. Others do it so that members of their family–usually more religious parents or, increasingly, newly religious children–will eat in their homes. Some like the reminder, every time they eat, that they are part of a people with a history going back more than five millennia. Some feel the practice helps elevate the act of eating into something meaningful, even holy.

The vast majority of Jews do not “keep kosher” but some avoid certain inherently unkosher foods such as pork. If you invite someone Jewish to a meal, it’s a good idea to ask if there’s anything they do not eat. (Actually, considering how common food allergies have become, that’s a good question to ask when inviting anyone!)

Hosting kosher- or halal-keeping guests

Strictly orthodox Jews will not eat any food that is not certified kosher and prepared in a kosher kitchen, even if all the ingredients are kosher. Many who are less strict (like me) will eat in restaurants or in non-kosher homes, as long as the food itself is kosher.

If you want to invite a kosher-keeping Jew or a halal-keeping Muslim to eat with you, you’ll probably want to prepare a meal that revolves around fish and vegetables, or find a restaurant where there are vegetarian options or a lot of fish (but not shellfish, a category of food that’s not allowed).

If your recipe calls for chicken or beef stock and you want to use it for a meatless meal, substitute vegetable stock.

For Muslim guests, be sure to avoid using wine or liqueur in cooking and also make sure that there’s no alcohol in any of your ingredients, such as red wine or balsamic vinegar.

A wide variety of symbols signify a product is kosher. The product at bottom right also has a Halal designation for Muslims.

A wide variety of symbols signify a product is kosher. The product at bottom center also has a Halal designation for Muslims.

Kosher certification

Be careful about using prepared foods in cans, jars or boxes.

Kashrut-observant Jews rely on a complicated system in which religious authorities supervise the production of food products and certify that they are kosher. The manufacturers indicate this status with a “hechsher.” But it’s not that hard to find food with a hechsher.

Sue Fishkoff, in her book Kosher Nation http://www.suefishkoff.com/main/kosher-nation/ says about one-third to one-half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher. That means more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales is of items that are certified kosher. Not bad for a religious group that makes up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population!

The most common hechsher is the one provided by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis: a “U” inside a circle,” commonly called the “O-U.” You probably have many cans and boxes in your cupboard with this symbol without realizing what it means.

Other common symbols include the “O-K” (a K inside a circle), and the “triangle K” (a K inside a triangle).

If there’s a “D” next to the symbol, it indicates the product contains dairy ingredients. A “DE” indicates it was made on equipment that is also used to make dairy foods. A “P” indicates it’s kosher for Passover, a holiday that provides an additional set of dietary demands.

A simple “K” on a product means the manufacturer believes it contains nothing unkosher–but the production has not been supervised by any Jewish organization. This is acceptable to some but not to others.

There are nearly 1,000 known kosher certification symbols from all over the world. You can find an illustrated list here. 

In areas with large Muslim populations, you may see some packaged foods with a “halal” certification.

For an interesting perspective on kosher certification, read this Huffington Post blog by Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller, founder of the Kosher Michigan certification organization.

Last week I shared a kosher dairy recipe, so this week I’m sharing a recipe for meat. This came from my friend Ruth Marcus. She called it “moussaka” but it doesn’t have the traditional béchamel sauce you find in Greek moussaka (because that is made with milk and it wouldn’t be kosher). So I’ve renamed it Beef and Eggplant Ragout. The eggplant disappears in the cooking so it’s a good dish for families with kids who hate veggies. And it freezes very well.

What’s kosher? (Part 1, with an easy recipe for blintzes)

A kosher food stand in Niagara Falls.

A kosher food stand in Niagara Falls.

I maintain a kosher kitchen, and I eat only kosher foods outside my own home. The restrictions of a kosher diet can be baffling to non-Jews, so I thought I’d explain something about them.

We’ll start with a joke that you might have to be Jewish to understand. If so, I apologize. God is giving Moses the Torah – the Way by which the Israelites should live their lives – and he tells him, “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moses ponders a bit and then says, “Oh, you mean we should cook meat dishes and milk dishes in separate pots and eat them from separate dishes with separate utensils.”

God says, “What I said was ‘Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

Moses scratches his head for a few minutes, then says, “Aha, you mean we have to wait six hours after eating meat before we eat milk!”

God says (a little testily), “What I said was ‘Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

Moses thinks some more and then says, “I’ve got it! You mean we have to set up elaborate inspection systems to make sure our prepared foods don’t include anything we shouldn’t eat.”

At which point God throws up his hands and says, “Moses, do whatever the heck you want!”

A complex system from simple rules

This just illustrates the complexities of a system that grew from relatively simple beginnings.

“Kosher” (pronounced KO-sher in Yiddish and English ka-SHARE in Hebrew) means “proper” or “fit” to eat, and the laws of kashrut (kash-ROOT) – keeping kosher –  as presented in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) are fairly simple. They fall into three broad categories:

Only certain creatures are permitted as food. Animals that chew their cud and have cloven hoofs are kosher. So cows, lambs, goats, deer are OK; pigs, horses and rabbits are not. Birds of prey are not kosher. Sea creatures are kosher if they have fins and scales; shellfish, eel, catfish and shark are not kosher.

Do not eat blood. There are numerous Biblical injunctions against eating blood, an animal’s life force, starting with Genesis 9:4. From these prohibitions the Jews developed a system of kosher butchering that involves severing an animal’s jugular vein with one cut and draining the blood immediately. Halal slaughter for Muslims is similar. Both kosher and halal butchers say a prayer for the animal before killing it. Animals killed any other way are not kosher – so no hunting, no roadkill.

To be kosher, meat must also be soaked in water and then salted to further draw out the blood. In the past, this was done at home, and many housewives had a grooved wooden “koshering board” where they would lay the salted meat to drain. Today, these steps are usually handled by the butcher.

Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. No one knows why this prohibition was so important that it appears in the Torah three times (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21). Some speculate that cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk was a common pagan practice at the time. Others think the prohibition was against cooking a kid in its mother’s fat, which is a similar Hebrew word. But “milk” is the accepted wording, and from this seemingly simple prohibition have evolved the regulations for strict separation of milk and meat and a waiting period (that varies from one hour to six hours) after eating meat before eating dairy.

Jews who keep kosher have separate pots, dishes and utensils for cooking and consuming milk dishes and meat dishes.

Chicken and other poultry are considered meat, even though a chicken does not give milk and eating one would not result in boiling it in its mother’s milk.

Lots of foods are “parve”

Foods other than milk or dairy foods – fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, flour, sugar, oil – are “parve” (neutral) and can be eaten with either milk or with meat.

Muslim halal regulations regarding permissible animals, proper slaughter and the prohibition to eat blood are so similar to those of kashrut that Muslims will usually permit the use of kosher meat. Some Muslims also avoid shellfish, but they have no prohibition against mixing meat and dairy.

Here is an easy dairy recipe that’s a favorite at Jewish brunches. Paired with a tossed salad, it also makes a nice simple dinner. You can find frozen blintzes in most supermarkets in Jewish areas. I found these at Costco!

What food rules does your faith or ethnic culture impose? Do you have any questions about kashrut or kosher food?

The Risotto Lesson: A shortcut may not be so wonderful

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
― James JoyceUlysses

The shortest way around may not be the shortest way home. Photo by Trond Ramsvik, via Wikimedia.

The shortest way around may not be the shortest way home. Photo by Trond Ramsvik, via Wikimedia.

When I was in third or fourth grade, more years ago than I care to admit, our reading book included a story called “The Shortest Way Round is the Longest Way Home.” I might be misremembering the title, because most of the references I found have the expression switched: the longest way round is the shortest way home.

But the meaning of the story stuck with me: Some children wanted to go somewhere—maybe the ol’ swimmin’ hole—and instead of walking on the road that led around a big hill from their house, they took a shortcut path down the hill. They had a great time swimming or whatever it was they set out to do, but when they came home, they discovered that the shortcut wasn’t so easy on the way back. They had to climb the big hill, and they arrived home tired and sweaty.

Risotto in the microwave?

I thought of this story recently when I tried a “shortcut” for making risotto in the microwave.

I had always been a little afraid of risotto, because I had read how long it takes to make and how you have to watch it every minute. When you see it on restaurant menus, it’s usually with a warning that it will take 20 minutes to prepare.

So when Cooking Light magazine ran this recipe for microwave risotto a few months ago, I thought I’d give it a try.

Well, first it took me about 10 minutes to find a microwave conversion program online and figure out how long each of those steps would take for my 825-watt microwave instead of their 1000-watt machine.

Making the risotto was easy enough, but whenever the timer dinged, I had to get my potholders, take out the dish, stir the risotto, put it back in the microwave, then reset the timer. It was a real nuisance.

Trying it the “real” way

In order to see if “real” risotto was so much more difficult, I found another recipe from Cooking Light (printed in March, 2002). The ingredients are almost identical, but the method is different.

The verdict? Both versions tasted good, but I preferred the traditional method, even though it took a little longer. I felt more in control stirring it on top of the stove, compared to waiting for the microwave to ding. And I could read a magazine while stirring, just as I could while waiting for the microwave.

Both recipes are printed below.

This experience reminded me that in cooking, patience is often a virtue. We’re all busy these days, with many competing demands on our time. We’re all looking for shortcuts that will make life a little easier. But sometimes what looks like a shortcut really isn’t.

If there’s a spiritual message here, I think it may be that there’s no shortcut to spiritual fulfillment. Many people complain about church and synagogue services because they don’t find them “spiritually fulfilling.” Others flit from one religion to another, seeking enlightenment, and then they are disappointed because they don’t find it.

Perhaps spiritual fulfillment comes only at the end of a long journey that one has to put some effort into. I’m sure there are some people who have heard a particular guru speak or attended a service somewhere and had a spiritual awakening. But those who expect this to happen are more likely to be disappointed.

(The photo in the first recipe is my microwaved risotto. The photo in the second recipe is by Ewan Munro, taken at Telegraph at the Earl of Derby in London, courtesy of Wikimedia.)




Welcoming strangers warmly, kindly and with cookies

This week Jews are in the middle of the eight-day festival of Sukkot. One of the customs of the holidays is to recite a prayer welcoming seven imaginary “ushpizin” (exalted guests, prounounced “oosh PEA zinn”) into the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.  Sukkot, when we eat our meals in little huts in our yards or on our patios – or at least try to, weather permitting – is also a great opportunity to invite real guests for a meal. So it’s a busy week, with much hosting and much visiting.

A poster for the Israeli film Ushpizin

A poster for the Israeli film Ushpizin

(For a very funny take on Sukkot customs among the Orthodox in Israel, you’ll enjoy a 2005 award-winning Israeli movie called UshpizinHere is a good review of it. The movie is available currently via Amazon video streaming and through Netflix.)

Thinking about the ushpizin started me thinking about hospitality as a religious value. It’s quite a popular topic right now. In fact, our intrepid publisher, David Crumm, did his Read the Spirit  column on exactly this topic last week, with an interview with the Rev. Nanette Sawyer author of Hospitality—The Sacred Art. I also came across warm words about another book on the topic of religious hospitality, The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality by Henry Brinton, a Presbyterian pastor.

A religious value

I know that welcoming the stranger is intrinsic to Judaism. It starts with Chapter 18 of Genesis, where Abraham, still recovering from circumcising himself (can you imagine?) sees three strangers approaching his tent. He immediately jumps up to prepare food and drink for them.

Throughout the Bible, there are stories of people who were shown favor by God because they were hospitable to strangers. The Israelites are repeatedly told to welcome the stranger, because they were once living in a foreign land.

Welcoming guests—especially strangers—is important in just about all religions.

The Qu’ran tells a similar story about Abraham as a way of showing Muslims that they should make the guest feel comfortable by meeting all of his needs before the guest even mentions them.

The law of karma in at least one Hindu tradition holds that  one who treats others with hospitality will be offered hospitality in turn. We can make the world a better place through our acts. The thinking is, “God himself may come to test my character, therefore let me treat every guest as God”—again echoing Abraham’s experience with the angels.

In the Detroit area, 30 interfaith leaders have joined together in a program called the Hospitality Initiative, looking to find ways that religious groups can be hospitable to one another. It’s coordinated by Charles Mabee, director of Christianity studies at Oakland University. Read more about it here.

Being hospitable means making people comfortable, which often means putting yourself in your guest’s shoes. Here is a delightful story by political consultant Frank Luntz, about the hospitality shown to him by Tricia Lott, wife of former U.S. Senator Trent Lott.

What could be more welcoming than a cozy afternoon tea?

What could be more welcoming than a cozy afternoon tea?

Hospitality is tied to food

Hospitality is also inextricably tied to food. How often do we measure the worth of a host’s welcome by the bounty of the table at which we are fed?

The expression “cold shoulder” comes from the opposite of hospitality. In times of old, a cold roast of mutton would be to served unwelcome guests instead of a nice, hot meal.

Such a custom could come in handy. Even when you are warmly hospitable, sometimes you have to give your guests a little nudge that they are coming perilously close to wearing out their welcome.

“Time to go” without the cold shoulder

My husband’s Aunt Hannah taught us a brilliant way to let guests know it’s time to go. We had been visiting with her for an hour or two, enjoying tea and cakes and wondering how to extricate ourselves gracefully. Finally Aunt Hannah asked, “Would you like another cup of tea before you go?”

“Oh no, no, no,” we said, “we really must be going.” Problem solved without the cold shoulder.

I like to keep cookies on hand to welcome drop-in visitors. This recipe is called Trailside Oatmeal Cookies because they’re good to take along on a picnic or hike. You can convince yourself that they’re good for you because they contain lots of healthy stuff like oats, peanut butter and dried fruit. And they freeze really well, so you might want to stash some away in the freezer so you don’t eat them all up yourself before you get a chance to serve them to guests.

One more thing before I leave you: I recently received this question on my other blog, Bobbie’s Best Recipes. I have no clue about the answer, so I’m asking all of you! If anyone can help this reader, please let me know.

This is not a comment but a question. Years ago at a friend’s house for dinner his mother cooked a meal of Egg Noodles, shredded cabbage, Polish sausage. There was also fennel seeds in it. I am sure there was other things like butter, and spices, but I do not have the recipe and sadly that dear lady is passed away now. Can you possible help me to figure out what might have been in this recipe, it was so good. I know she baked it in the oven before serving it, as she brought it right out of the oven to the table. I hope you have some suggestions as to how I could recreate this recipe.
Thank you
Joan Abbott

Sweet and sour stuffed cabbage to celebrate the harvest

A cabbage leaf ready to roll.

A cabbage leaf ready to roll.

HOW CAN SOMETHING that smells so awful taste so delicious? I’m talking about cooked cabbage, that cliche of novels and movies of immigrants in tenement houses. Specifically stuffed cabbage, this week’s recipe. I will be the first to admit that the scent of cooking cabbage is not up there with fresh bread and popcorn as an enticing aroma. Cooking it as stuffed cabbage tempers the problem a bit, because you also get the bouquet of cooking meat and tomato sauce. But don’t be put off by the fear of cooking cabbage! The end result is well worth it.

Before the recipe, let me tell you why I am coking it this week.

In the Jewish world we are preparing for Sukkot (usually translated as “Tabernacles” or “Booths”), a lovely seven-day festival (eight days outside of Israel) that is known as “Zeman Simchateinu,” the season of our joy. It starts this year at sundown on Wednesday. The festival has a dual purpose. It celebrates the fall harvest, and it also commemorates the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.

Sukkot is a plural word (the singular is “sukkah”) that sounds like “sue COAT.” You might also hear it pronounced in Yiddish as “SOOK iss.” A sukkah can be built of anything—wood, plastic, canvas—but the roof has to be made from plant material without any nails or other metal fasteners—for example wood slats covered with pine branches, corn stalks or reed mats. You should be able to see the sky through it. In Israel, where the rainy season hasn’t yet started and it’s still warm, it’s not hard to eat and sleep in a flimsy hut with a partly-open roof. In Michigan, and anywhere else in the northern part of the United States, it can be difficult, especially when the holiday falls in October as it usually does.

When our kids were younger, they’d often declare their intention to sleep in the sukkah. Fine, we’d say, getting out the sleeping bags, foam pads and flashlights. There may have been a year—maybe two—when a child actually made it through the night. Usually the good intentions lasted until the wee hours of the morning, when they’d slink back into the warm house.

(Care to read more? This week, Debra Darvick is sharing a chapter on Sukkot from her book, This Jewish Life.)

Zayda Joe Lewis gets help decorating the sukkah.

Zayda Joe Lewis gets help decorating the sukkah.

Kid-centered decorations

The kids always enjoyed decorating the sukkah. We’d hang up their artwork and the paper chains, along with plastic fruit (real fruit rots too fast and attracts bees). We were delighted last year when our granddaughter visited from New Jersey and helped her Zayda decorate the sukkah! We add twinkly Christmas lights—bought at deep discount one year in January. We even have some lights shaped like chili peppers that I bought from the Lillian Vernon cataglog. I covet my friends’ lights that are shaped like bunches of grapes.

Plastic Thai fruit for sukkah decorations.

Plastic Thai fruit for sukkah decorations.

My friends Mandy Garver and Allen Wolf have a unique collection of plastic fruit in their sukkah. They spent two and a half years in Thailand, as employees for Ford Motor Company, and brought back a nice collection of plastic dragonfruit, jackfruit, durian and other weird-to-us southeast Asian edibles.

Fall harvest foods are popular at Sukkot. These include sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage, a recipe developed by Jews in Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries. Some call the meat-stuffed cabbage rolls holishkas. My Grandmom Anna, who was born in Russia, called them prockas. This is the way she used to make them.

Tips for making stuffed cabbage

Lots of recipes tell you to boil the head of cabbage and then separate the leaves. This is a mess, because you need a huge pot, and then you have to handle a hot head of cabbage. Others say to cut the leaves off the head of cabbage and parboil them. This is also unsatisfactory, because it’s very hard to get intact leaves off a raw head of cabbage—and then you still have to deal with hot cabbage leaves dripping hot water all over your kitchen.

I have a better way, which I learned from my Aunt Lili. The only drawback is it takes some planning. At least a week before the holiday, buy your cabbage, wrap it well in foil, and stick it in the freezer. After a few days  take it from the freezer and put it in your fridge. A block of frozen cabbage takes a long time to defrost, so allow at least five days! You can speed up the process by defrosting it on your counter, but you’ll still need a day or two. Put the frozen cabbage into a large bowl or deep platter, because a lot of water will seep out as it defrosts.

When the cabbage is completely defrosted, cut out the core and the leaves will just fall away, nice and soft and ready for rolling.


You can see what I mean in this little video. Try to ignore the videographer (my husband) telling me to look at the camera and smile.


Still Life With Brandied Peaches

th Food-writer-Bobbie-Lewis-in-her-kitchenA NOTE FROM BOBBIE LEWIS: In the mid-1970s, it seemed like everyone had a big glass jar of brandied fruit on their kitchen counter. It looked so pretty: yellow pineapple chunks, orange peach slices, maraschino cherries. And it tasted so good as a topping for pound cake or ice cream!

We got a “starter” cup from a friend. We added fruit and sugar, waited a week or so for it to ferment, then dug in. We needed to “feed” it every couple of weeks with more sugar and fruit. The idea was that when the jar was full, we’d  give some to a friend so they could start their own pretty glass jar full of brandied fruit. This was the pyramid scheme of desserts. It didn’t take long to run out of friends—because all the friends we’d already given it to now had growing quantities of brandied fruit that they needed to foist onto their own friends! And there’s only so much boozy pound cake and ice cream one can eat.

After about six months, we euthanized our brandied fruit by eating it all up. I thought of those happy days when I read this lovely essay by guest blogger Eli Finkelman, who last instructed us about making pickles. He is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a cook, brewer, vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his home.

By Louis “Eli” Finkelman

He loved the United States of America. After all, he had come here as a teenager, alone in a strange land, and had found opportunities to raise the money to bring just about his whole birth family to America. He worked hard and planned efficiently, so that after his brothers and sisters came here, he continued to bring other relatives. He had to. His people had no future in Europe.

The Lang family, with the author's mother, age 11, at left

The Lang family, with the author’s mother, age 11, at left

He took one job after another here, whatever people would pay him to do. At one point he even had a little kosher butcher shop, but he had little aptitude for butchery. His wife saw him try to handle a meat knife and after that would not let him cut the meat. Eventually he earned enough to move his young family from Harlem. He bought a new house in the farmland of the Bronx. He immediately arranged to join the other homeowners in buying land for a synagogue.

Summer in a tent city

Soon he could afford to take his family to the tent cities of Orchard Beach for their summer vacations. The tent cities divided by ethnic group. He could have chosen to live in a Jewish “neighborhood,” but he preferred an integrated one so that his children would see that non-Jews in America were decent people, and the non-Jews would see that the Jews were good neighbors, dependable people. He saved enough money to buy some rental property elsewhere in the Bronx, but even before the official start of the Depression, he earned very little. His tenants could not always afford to pay their rent. He would sometimes take his precocious middle daughter to ask for the rent. If his tenants could not pay, they would not take out their frustration against a little girl. He believed in observing American law scrupulously, both because he was an honest, law-abiding man, and because he owed a great debt to America, the land that had allowed him to rescue his family. One American law, though, he could not take seriously. Prohibition made no sense to him. He planted grapevines in the backyard in the Bronx, so he could have homemade wine for Kiddush: a glass of wine should always accompany the prayers that introduce festive meals. Even the law of Prohibition allowed a person to make sacramental wine at home.

A still in the basement

A jar of brandied peaches, photo by Mike Willis

A jar of brandied peaches, photo by Mike Willis

Not quite as legal, he had a still in the basement, for making overripe fruit into brandy. He knew someone who had a fruit store, so there was always a source of fruit. After synagogue every Saturday morning, and every festival morning, he would invite the people from the synagogue over to his house to share huge pieces of cake or great oblong fruit pies, and one small shot of brandy each. He understood that in America there were men who drank the rent money, who came home drunk and beat their wives, or who got drunk and did not come home at all. But he could not understand how those poor women would be helped by a law that prevented the folks who visited his home in the Bronx from having their one shot each of fruit brandy. The still lasted longer than Prohibition. He lived to see the beginning of World War II, and the beginning of the realization of his worst fears about what Europe meant for Jews. He would read the newspapers, in those days, and say one bitter word: “Civilization.” After he died, his youngest son took the still apart and got rid of all those copper pipes. So I never saw the still; I saw only the ceramic crocks that once held homemade wine and brandy, made by my grandfather, Elias Hirsch Lang, who died before I was born. I know these stories because I heard them, more or less in these words, from my mother, the precocious little girl who tried to collect rent in the Bronx.

An elixir called Rumtopf

The following recipe is for an elixir the Germans call Rumtopf. They use layers of fruit as they come into season, so they get a mixed fruit liquor as a result. The Joy of Cooking calls it Tutti-Frutti Cockaigne, the name for an imaginary country where people have enough to eat. (It is also the name of the authors’ country home;  they append the word to their favorite recipes.) I like the single fruit model. The alcohol and sugar should keep the mixture fresh indefinitely. Make it now, and sometime in the winter, open up the crock and enjoy a taste of summer! (For more about spiked fruit, see this terrific article from the New York Times.) 

Mmmmmm, brisket!

The best brisket is cooked for a long time with moist heat.

The best brisket is cooked for a long time with moist heat.

There’s an old Jewish joke about cooking traditions—but there’s nothing Jewish about it. I’ve heard the same joke told by Lutherans.

A mother is showing her daughter how to cook a roast. “The first thing you do is whack off the end, like this, and put it aside,” the mother says. The daughter thinks this is odd.

“Why do you cut off the end?” she asks.

“That’s the way my mother always did it, and that’s the way she taught me.”

The girl goes to her grandma and asks her why she cuts the end off the roast before cooking it. “That’s the way my mother always did it, and that’s the way she taught me,” says the grandma.

The daughter is lucky enough to have her great-grandma still living, so she goes to her in an effort to solve the mystery. “Why do you cut off the end of the roast before you cook it?” asks the daughter.

“Because it was too big to fit in my pan,” says the great-grandma.

Ah, tradition! I think of that joke whenever I make brisket, a staple of the holiday table in Jewish families from a European background. Brisket is popular for holidays because it’s not only delicious, but it’s easy to make. Unlike a rib roast or other cut that’s best served medium-rare, it can cook for a long time. As long as you use enough liquid and keep it covered while it’s roasting, you won’t need to worry that the meat will get dried out or overcooked while you’re waiting for your guests to come home from synagogue services. And it’s even better made ahead and reheated. This week, cooks all over the world are preparing festive meals for Rosh Hashanah, the two-day Jewish New Year celebration that starts at sundown on September 4. I thought this would be a good time to share this terrific brisket recipe from my step-aunt, Irma Zigas, who died a few months ago at the age of 83.

Cooking with Grandma

Here is a delightful video in which Irma shows her grandson Caleb how to make her famous “California” brisket.

I think it’s a very worthy memorial to her. I’ve watched it numerous times and I smile every time. It’s part of a series of multi-ethnic “cooking with grandma” videos on the www.chow.com website. The video was made for Passover, but brisket is an equal-opportunity entrée! Here’s a little bit more about Irma. She married my Uncle Art a few years after my mother’s younger sister died at 39 of breast cancer, bringing two daughters into the family with my three cousins. Art and Irma were married for 46 years. They were both New Yorkers, and at first they lived in East Meadow, on Long Island. I would see them when I visited my grandmother in Brooklyn, or at family events with my New Jersey cousins. In 1978, Art and Irma moved to San Francisco and I saw them only a few times after that at major family celebrations.

CLICK ON THE VIDEO SCREEN, below, to watch the video. If a video screen does not appear in your version of this column, try clicking on the main headline, “Mmmmmm, brisket!” to reload this column.


A feisty, flaming liberal

What I remember most about Irma was her feistiness. She never hesitated to let people know what she thought—you can get some sense of that in the video. And she was an ardent liberal, active in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. She was a draft counselor and a leader in the National Council for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty for draft resisters and  in Women Strike for Peace. Irma was also artistic, and she had canny business sense as well. As a young woman she performed with the Yiddish Dance Theater. After moving to San Francisco, she worked as director of retail operations for the San Francisco Opera. Later she started Banana Republic’s travel book program and the Book Passage bookstore. Before retiring in 2003, she was director of retail and wholesale for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she grew the museum shop into one of the best in the country. She left wonderful, accomplished children and step-children. I’m glad I had the opportunity to know her.