Gimme some gribbies (AKA gribbenes)

The 2013 championship word in the National Spelling Bee was “knaidel,” the Yiddish word for matzoh ball. The fact that a Yiddish word was even in the National Spelling Bee was a cause of consternation for many people who cherish European Jewish culture.

Yiddish, after all, is written in Hebrew characters, and there are many ways to transliterate it into English. For the Spellilng Bee word, varients include “kneydl” (the spelling preferred by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Culture), “knaydel” and “kneidel.” (The “k” is not silent, and the emphasis is on the first syllable. It rhymes with “cradle.”)

What other Yiddish food word will make it onto the spelling bee list? I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them is “schmaltz” – literally chicken or goose fat, but a word that has come to mean something overly emotional or corny. If you want to stick with food-related similes, you could say “cheesy,” though a kosher cook would never mix schmaltz with cheese.

A related word that I don’t think we’ll ever see on spelling lists is gribbenes, again because there are so many ways to spell it in English, including grieven and grievenes.

A rare treat

Growing up, we called it “gribbies” – and it was a real treat.

Gribbenes (rhymes with CRIB-a-miss) is what was left when thrifty homemakers of yore rendered chicken or goose fat. The word literally means “scraps.” Most Jews in those days observed the dietary laws separating milk and meat. For meat meals, they couldn’t use butter for frying, there was no such thing as margarine, and oil was a luxury, so most Jewish housewives kept a crock of schmaltz to use in cooking.

Gribbenes are completely unhealthy – but oh so delicious! Eating them once or twice a year won’t kill you. Eat them as is as a snack, or mix into noodles or a cooked vegetable as a side dish.

Here’s how to make schmaltz and gribbenes. Save the schmaltz (you can freeze it) for the next time you make knaidlach (the plural of the infamous “knaidel”).



It’s not Passover without matzoh balls!

It usually happens in early- to mid-March. I’m in my local supermarket, quietly doing my normal shopping, and there it is—a display of Passover foods. Immediately my heart starts to beat a little faster and I feel an impending sense of doom.

Why should the anticipation of Passover—one of the most joyous celebrations in the Hebrew calendar and a time for family togetherness second only to Thanksgiving—cause me such tzuris (a great Yiddish term meaning troubles or woes)?

I’ll tell you why: For those of us who keep kosher, Passover is a whole other dimension!

Eat matzoh for seven days!

It all starts with the Book of Exodus 12:15: Seven days shall you eat flatbread. The very first day you shall expunge leaven from your houses, for whosoever eats leavened bread, that person shall be cut off from Israel from the first day to the seventh day.

From this simple command we developed a system of religious practices that include:

  • cleaning your house thoroughly, from top to bottom, to rid it of anything that might contain any trace of anything leavened.
  • making sure any packaged or processed foods are not only kosher but “certified kosher-for-Passover,” with no ingredients that are leavened or that could become leavened.
  • packing away all the dishes, silverware, pots and pans and small appliances you use all year round and replacing them with “Passover” dishes and utensils that you use only during the eight-day festival (it’s still seven days in Israel, eight days everywhere else). Often these are stored in the basement or garage and the changeover involves much schlepping. And when you keep kosher, you need separate sets of everything for milk and meat. Unless you go vegetarian, this means two sets of Passover dishes, utensils and pots.

Those of us who host the festive seder meal on one or both of the first two nights of Passover usually have many guests, requiring a mammoth amount of cooking. But the cooking can’t start until all the “regular” dishes have been put away and the Passover dishes brought out.

Spring cleaning on steroids

And we can’t bring out the Passover dishes until we’ve thoroughly cleaned every room where we’ve had food during the year. In the kitchen, we have to scour every nook and cranny, including the refrigerator, freezer, oven, stovetop, microwave, cabinets and countertops. It’s spring cleaning on steroids! Once the kitchen is “kashered” (made kosher) for Passover, we can no longer eat “regular” food there, so we have to carefully plan our menus for the week leading up to the holiday. Although fruits and vegetables, kosher meat, fish, eggs and many dairy products do not require special Passover certification, it still takes effort to keep the “Passover” separate from the “regular.”

So there’s no cooking and freezing for the big meal weeks in advance like we can do for other holidays. Usually the kitchen isn’t Passover-ready until a day or two before the holiday starts, and then there’s a frenzy of cooking and baking in the few days leading up to the seder.

As I write this, my stomach starts to clench, along with my jaw.

Even in households where the husband is super-supportive, the wife is the chief executive officer of Passover prep, making the to-do lists and issuing orders to anyone else unfortunate enough to live there. Most of us women start the holiday exhausted.

Many years ago I worked for a hospice that served an interfaith population and was encouraging “cultural competency” among the staff. As Passover approached, I wrote a piece for the employee newsletter about what the care staff might expect to see in a Jewish home as Passover approached.

The staff rabbi thought it was funny because it showed such a female perspective. I wrote about cleaning and food, nothing about the wonderful spiritual aspects of the holiday. “Hmph,” I thought, “only the men have the luxury to think about the spiritual aspects of this holiday!” And furthermore, I thought, his wife was probably as overwhelmed as I was!

A time to celebrate at last!

But once the food has been cooked and the family and friends gather around the festive table, we are able to relax. Then Passover changes from a dire burden to my favorite holiday of the year. Then I can enjoy the seder, which is a retelling of the reason for the festival: We were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us forth with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and now we are free.

The quintessential Passover food, besides matzoh itself, is matzoh balls, also known as knaydlach (just one is a knaydl)—which is Yiddish so you can spell it any way you want in English: knaidlach, kneydlach, kneidlach. They are so good we eat them year-round, something that can be said about very few kosher-for-Passover foods.

Here is my recipe for matzoh balls, but let me give you a caveat. You need to get a feel for the mixture before you let it rest. It can’t be too loose or your matzoh balls will fall apart. It can’t be too hard, or your matzoh balls will be rubbery instead of fluffy.

If the mixture seems a little too soupy after you’ve added the matzoh meal, sprinkle in a few teaspoons more, but realize that the mixture will thicken quite a bit as it rests. When you first make up the mixture, it should not be stiff enough to form balls.

I recommend starting with the stated amounts for the ingredients. When you’ve made matzoh balls a few times, you’ll be able to tell if the consistency feels right or needs adjustment.

One more note: rendered chicken fat makes the best matzoh balls, but I realize that few of us have chicken fat on hand these days. You can use solid vegetable shortening or margarine instead.

You can make the matzoh balls any size you like. I like them large, one per person, and this recipe will make about eight large balls. If you want to serve two per person, just make them smaller.

This recipe can easily be halved if there are just a few of you, or doubled to serve a crowd.

Enjoy the matzoh balls in a steaming bowl of chicken soup. (The photo with the recipe is by Hot Hungarian Chef via Flickr Creative Commons.)


What Jews Do on Christmas

On Christmas Eve this year, my husband and I will do what American Jews all over the country do on Christmas: eat Chinese.

There’s a simple reason why so many Jews eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas: when almost everything else is closed up tight, Chinese restaurants are open and welcoming.

But the love affair between Jews and Chinese food is deeper than that.

Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s via the West Coast, where they worked on building the transcontinental railroad. By the late 19th century, there was a thriving Chinatown in New York City, adjacent to the Lower East Side which housed the city’s largest Jewish population.

A number of reasons have been put forth about why Jews latched on to Chinese food. It had to be more than proximity, because the Lower East Side was also adjacent to Little Italy. But the most popular day for Jewish families to eat out was Sunday, and for Italian immigrants, Sunday was typically a family day when restaurants were closed.

Welcoming and inexpensive

The Chinese and the Jews were the largest non-Christian immigrant groups in New York. Chinese restaurants were open all the time and welcoming of everyone, no matter what their religion or color. And they were inexpensive.

Chinese food was familiar to Jews in some ways – the use of onions, garlic and rice, and serving family-style, with everyone sharing a number of large dishes, rather that each person eating a separate meal.

But it was also very different from the food most Eastern European Jews were used to. In the 1920s and 1930s, eating Chinese food was seen as urban and sophisticated. To the sons and daughters of Eastern European immigrants, it was a way to demonstrate their American identity.

“Safe Treyf”

One interesting theory is that Chinese food was “safe treyf” – treyf meaning food that was forbidden by the Jewish dietary laws. If pork was in wontons (which looked very much like Jewish kreplach) or in tiny pieces in chop suey, it didn’t seem as bad as chowing down on a ham sandwich. And the Chinese typically don’t cook with dairy products, so no one had to worry about mixing milk and meat.

A couple of scholars, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine even wrote a paper on the topic for the journal Contemporary Ethnography (1992: Vol 22 No 3. pp. 382-407). The article also appears in The Taste of American Place: A Reader on Regional and Ethnic Foods edited by Barbara G. Shortridge & James R. Shortridge (Roman & Littlefield, 1997). And you can read it online here.

For many Jews, Chinese food was the first non-kosher food they ate. It’s not uncommon for Jews who keep a kosher home to eat non-kosher food when they are away. I’ve even known a few who bring Chinese takeout home – but eat it only on paper plates so as not to sully their kosher kitchen dishes.

When I was growing up in Philadelphia, if my family “ate out” it was most often at the Jade Palace, our local Cantonese restaurant. My family didn’t keep kosher, and I grew up loving wonton soup, shrimp in lobster sauce, and other Chinese delicacies (but not barbecued spareribs: “All bone, no meat,” my mother would sniff.)

My eating habits may have changed, but my love of Chinese food has not diminished. Luckily, it’s usually easy to get vegetarian dishes at a Chinese restaurant.

Some major metropolitan areas with large Jewish populations even have kosher Chinese restaurants. The first of these was Bernstein’s-on-Essex-Street, at 135 Essex Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

A pioneer in kosher Chinese food

Bernstein’s, which started as a deli and catering hall, has a special place in my heart because it’s where my parents were married on March 25, 1945. It was then known by its original name, Schmulka Bernstein’s. In 1959, owner Sol Bernstein began serving Chinese food. He substituted beef and veal for pork and avoided dishes that used shellfish.

My husband and I were in New York for a conference in the mid-1970s and trekked down to Bernstein’s-on-Essex-Street. The waiters wore black Chinese skullcaps with red tassels, and even the Chinese ones spoke a decent Yiddish. The food wasn’t as good as what I remembered from the Jade Palace, but for us it was a real treat to be able to eat meat at a Chinese restaurant.

Unfortunately, the Bernstein family sold the restaurant in 1989 and it closed a year later.

Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American woman who wrote a book about Chinese food called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, has what may be the final word on why Jews love Chinese food.

“I sought out the Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, on the Silk Road, for more profound insight (these are like not like European Jews who escaped to Shanghai, they look like me but are Chosen like the Jews),” she says. “When I asked the sole Jewish Chinese woman there ‘Why do American Jews like Chinese food?’ She answered me with koan-like simplicity: ‘It tastes good.’”

Here is a recipe for eggrolls that I clipped many, many years ago from the Jewish Exponent newspaper in Philadelphia. It includes the eggroll wrappers, which I confess I have never made since it’s so easy these days to buy eggroll skins in grocery stores.

You can easily make this dish vegetarian by omitting the chicken and adding an extra cup of vegetables.

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

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.)




Pickles with character! Tips for pickling more than cucumbers.

This week’s blog is by Louis (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home.

UPDATE: Got questions on pickling? Just ask by adding a comment below. Eli already has answered one set of questions here.

Robust cucumber plants in my backyard garden have started to flower, and when that happens, my thoughts return to pickles.  About this time of year, I remember Mr. Fenster’s sour pickles, which contributed significantly to the joy to my childhood.

Barrel pickles by the pound

We bought our pickles at Mr. Fenster’s Appetizing Store under the elevated subway station a few blocks from the New York house where I grew up. We walked to that store about every week; I even worked there one summer. Pickled cucumbers and green tomatoes floated in a huge wooden barrel near the entrance to the store. Like the other customers, we would bring a glass jar, washed since it last held jelly or peanut butter. Other customers might ask for “half sours,” but we would ask for “sours.” While we watched, Mr. Fenster stuffed the jar with the maximum number of pickles, and poured brine, “pickle juice,” over them to fill the jar.

These pickles had character.

When the experts at Consumer Reports rated commercial pickles last year, they were not looking for anything like Mr. Fenster’s sour pickles. Consumer Reports wanted vinegar-cured pickles that have bright colors, crispy skins and crunchy textures. I have no nostalgic feelings for vinegar-cured pickles.

Produced by natural fermentation

Sour pickles get produced by natural fermentation, just like bread, sour cream, yogurt, wine and beer. Microorganisms change the sugar in cucumbers into lactic acid.  If you want to make anything that relies on fermentation, you learn to keep the little microorganisms happy. When they’re happy, they will do nice things to your food.

The trick to sour pickles is having the right amount of salt in your brine. Too much salt and the microorganisms do not thrive, the brine stays clear, and you wind up with something that tastes like a salted cucumber. Too little salt, and who knows what might happen! If you get the right amount,  the microorganisms thrive. After a few days, gas bubbles out of the salt water, which turns greenish and cloudy, giving off a magic aroma. What were once mere cucumbers turn first to half-sours, and then to that triumph of culinary art, the sour pickle.

Keep those microorganisms happy!

So how much salt makes the right little microorganisms happy? Sandor Katz, in his book Wild Fermentationsays between two and three tablespoons per quart of water, yielding a solution between 3.6 and 5.4 percent salt by weight. Jamie Geller, author of the “Joy of Kosher” blog,  recommends one-half cup per gallon, which agrees with Katz’s lower number. Use kosher salt or pickling salt, not iodized table salt.

Some recipes insist on stuffing as many cukes as possible into your fermentation jar. That seems to me like nostalgia for what Mr. Fenster did after the pickles had fermented. You can do this if you want to; it may help keep the cukes below the level of the brine. But the cukes will pickle just as nicely if they swim freely in a tub. The important thing is not to let them above the brine.

The pickles turn sour because the little microorganisms produce lactic acid. The longer you wait, the more intense the sour flavor.  Eat them when they are as sour as you like them.

Add some spices

Besides the salt and water, it’s spices that give the pickles the traditional “kosher pickle” flavor. Do not use a package of pickling spices from the supermarket; it  might include all sorts of spices that belong nowhere near a sour pickle, such as cloves and allspice other items that belong with a vinegar pickle.

For every quart of brine, add a few whole, peeled cloves of garlic, a few peppercorns, a few mustard seeds, and some dill – either dill seeds or feathery dill leaves.  Mr. Fenster also added a few tiny dried hot peppers, and you should too, unless you cannot stand the heat.

Use fresh, small cukes. Keep them whole, but cut off the blossoms.

If you pickle cukes in a glass jar, shake it up a couple of times a day, to make sure that the brine can touch every spot on every cucumber. Be sure there are no air pockets. If you make pickles in a plastic bucket or a crock, swirl it around and make sure that no cucumbers float above the surface. The surface might turn moldy, but the pickles, under the moldy surface, are doing fine.

In Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz suggests putting a weighted plate on the surface of the brine, to keep the cukes below sea level. You can let keep them in the fridge, or you can let them ferment faster at room temperature, like Mr. Fenster did. (Katz also has a blog with the same name, Wild Fermentation.)

Try this idea to speed things up

I never saw this next idea in a recipe for pickles, but it works for every other fermented product, so I bet it would help with pickles. If you happen to have a jar of fermented pickles – the real thing, not the shelf-stable vinegar pickles – then you can add a splash of the brine from the pickle jar to your pickling brine. This will give a head start to the right kind of microorganisms in your jar or bucket or crock.  Mr. Fenster did not have to do that, because the right kind of microorganisms had been living in his wooden pickle barrel for years.

When the first frost warnings appear this fall, you might have a bucketful of green tomatoes in your garden and no good ideas for what to do with them. Do not despair!  Pickle the tomatoes the same way you pickled the cucumbers, or pickle a mixed barrel of cukes and tomatoes.

How do you know when the pickles are done?  A half-sour looks like a cucumber, maybe a little more translucent, and tastes like a cucumber, but saltier, and with a little sourish snap. A sour pickle looks translucent, is dull olive green in color, and tastes like, well, like one of the joys of my childhood, like a link to my ancestors.

When your pickles are sour, move them to the refrigerator, and keep them in the brine. Serve them with meat sandwiches, or chopped up in potato salad. Or, on a hot day when you have been working in the garden, just eat a whole sour pickle right out of the barrel!

If you need another pickle recipe or two here is one from Cookography and one from the New York Times.

Since making pickles is more of a method than a recipe, today’s recipe is for potato salad that includes a chopped sour pickle.

What foods bring you back to your childhood? Can you share a story and a recipe?

Welcome to Feed the Spirit! Got a story, a recipe, a question?

ReadTheSpirit is proud to introduce our newest department: FeedTheSpirit, a section we are launching to share stories, recipes and questions from readers about foods that are linked to faith and culture. Your host for this new department is veteran food writer Bobbie Lewis. She will keep stirring the pot in this new department, week by week, so you’ll always find a fascinating new story or recipe or Q&A each week.
Here is Bobbie’s first column …

In the immortal words of James Stockdale (who you’ve probably already forgotten was Ross Perot’s running mate in his third-party campaign for president in 1996), “Who am I and what am I doing here?”

There are a lot of words that could describe me: retiree, public relations professional, wife, mother (of 3), grandmother (of 1), Conservative Jew, liberal, feminist. If I had to sum up my professional career in one word it would be “writer.”

I started as a general assignment reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. After moving to Michigan more than 36 years ago, I had a long career in communications for nonprofit organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, Sinai Hospital, Hospice of Michigan and Lutheran Social Services.

I’m also someone who loves good food. I love to cook and as my scale shows—I also love to eat.

After I retired from full-time work last summer, I determined to get my recipes in order. They were scattered among a file box, an accordion-file folder, and more than one manila folder, not to mention several dozen cookbooks. In the course of transcribing all the clippings and handwritten cards I actually want to keep into a gigantic Word document (I reckon I’m about one-third of the way there), I decided to share my fave recipes via a blog, Bobbie’s Best Recipes.

This caught the attention of David Crumm, editor of ReadTheSpirit. I knew David from his days as religion writer at the Detroit Free Press, when I would pitch him religion-related stories about my employers. I’ve subscribed to ReadTheSpirit since its inception.

I have long been interested in interfaith relations. This may stem from seven years as the only Jewish girl in an almost completely Protestant elementary school class. I am active with WISDOM, which stands for Women’s Interfaith Dialogue for Solutions and Dialogue in Metro Detroit and is a group dedicated to promoting cross-cultural friendships. (WISDOM literally wrote the book on that, called Friendship & Faith.) Currently, I also serve on the planning committee for the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) conference to be held in Detroit in August 2014.

So when David invited me to moderate a blog about food and its relation to faith, family and culture, I leaped at the opportunity.

I hope many of you will help me in this effort by sharing, commenting or asking a question.

Do you have a great story about food that’s also about faith, family, friendship or culture? Please share it with me—I’m looking for guest bloggers who can take over this space from time to time.

Don’t hesitate to share your comments about any of the stories or recipes that appear here, And feel free to ask a question—about anything that might be unclear in a post or about something you’d like to see here. Perhaps you’re looking for a recipe connected to a religious holiday or an ethnic community and you haven’t been able to find it. We’ll put out the request, and maybe another reader will be able to help.

I hope you’ll think of FeedTheSpirit as an online community of people interested in food and in faith—and in how the twain often meet.