Latkes for Chanukah

 

Potato latkes frying, photo by Melissa Goodman via Flickr Creative Commons

Potato latkes frying, photo by Melissa Goodman via Flickr Creative Commons

Sheri Schiff

Sheri Schiff

The eight-day festival of Chanukah starts Tuesday evening. It’s customary to eat foods fried in oil, to commemorate the miracle of one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days at the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the victory of the Jews over the Greek Syrians. A common Chanukah treat is latkes–fried pancakes. They can be made with almost anything edible, but the most common latkes are made with potato and onion.

And a quick note on spellings: There are a couple of common spellings of this holiday’s name as various groups have tried to render the Hebrew sounds in English letters. Elsewhere in ReadTheSpirit magazine you’ll find “Hanukkah” used. Same word; same holiday; and now you know that both are correct.

Here with a wonderful story about latkes is guest writer Sheri Terebelo Schiff, a leader in human relations and multicultural and interfaith relations in the Detroit area. She is active with the American Jewish Committee, WISDOM and Jewish Historical Society, and serves on the boards of many Jewish agencies and organizations.  She was a co-convener of the Race Relations & Diversity Task Force, which under her leadership the group received the Closing the Gap Award from New Detroit.

My family loves my potato latkes.

Every Chanukah I’d have everyone over for dinner–my parents of blessed memory, my brother and his family, friends–and make about a hundred latkes with sour cream, applesauce, bagels and lox, veggies, fruit and donuts to remind us of sufganiyot, the Israeli delicacy of fried dough.

Everyone loved the latke feast–except me. I smelled of latkes and frying oil. The odor permeated my clothing, my skin, my hair and the whole house. It took days to get rid of that potato-and-oil smell. As much as I washed and scrubbed my body and hair, it took days to smell clean. The smell was in the carpeting, the upholstery, even in the dog’s coat.  I just hated it.

Inspiration!

Potato latkes by Olga Massov, via Flickr Creative Commons

Potato latkes by Olga Massov, via Flickr Creative Commons

One year I had an inspiration. I could make the latkes outside and instead of smelling up me and my house, I could smell up the neighborhood!

I had an electric frying pan and electric outlets outside. I had a winter down jacket that I hated and didn’t care if it smelled, and I could put all exposed parts of my body under a hat and gloves. My neighborhood was not very Jewish and I thought no one would know what I was up to.

On a snowy Sunday, my family gathered. Everything else was out on the table. My husband and children thought my plan was the result of a stroke. Everyone questioned my sanity. I thought, no more latke-smelling house.

I grated my potatoes, added the rest of the ingredients and moved outside. First problem: the cement front porch was not level. I tried putting the pan on an outside porch end table. I tried putting it directly on the cement. The oil was deep on one end and non-existent on the other end. I shored up the deep end with a dish towel and started heating the oil. Icicles dripped into the fry pan from the roof of the house and splattered. I burned the top of my hand. I discovered one cannot make potato latkes with gloves.

The frying started. The potato latke smell enveloped the night air. My neighborhood started to smell like frying oil and potatoes.

Joggers like my block, a through street that gets plowed early and frequently.

Two joggers came through and I heard one say they could smell the latkes frying. Another jogger came by after the first batch went inside to my family, and made a similar remark.

Feeding the neighborhood

Making latkes involves lots of oil; photo by Teena Wildman via Flickr Creative Commons

Making latkes involves lots of oil; photo by Teena Wildman via Flickr Creative Commons

I brought another batch of latkes in to my family, and when I returned, there were strangers on my porch. They wanted latkes! I’d never met them or seen these people before. They announced they lived three blocks from me, asked for a plate and some applesauce, and ate. They each took a latke in each gloved hand for the road. I spooned another batch into the electric fry pan, walked down my front walk to the street and was overwhelmed and overcome by the smell of oil and potatoes.  My neighborhood smelled like latkes!

I made about 100 latkes that evening. I usually flash-freeze some for a later date, but I ended up giving a few dozen away. Since the smell was in the air, people I knew and people I didn’t know stopped in front of my house, attracted by the smell of latkes. My kids came outside and I chased them back in to put on their coats. My husband visited with a guy from down the block.  There were no leftover potato latkes for us. When the last latke was fried, I unplugged the fry pan, emptied the leftover oil into a jar and deposited it into a garbage bag for the trash collection later in the week.

I took my oil-splattered down jacket and the kids’ jackets downstairs and threw them into the dryer with eight scented dryer sheets(one for each day of Chanukah). We lit Chanukah candles, gave the kids presents, cleaned up, visited and said our good nights. I was thrilled. My house did not smell like oil and latkes. However next morning our neighborhood still did. And it would for a couple days.

Every year since then I’ve made latkes on the front porch. By the third year, it became common knowledge and people started coming by. Some joggers, some friends, some neighbors, some strangers. One hundred latkes became two hundred. The kids grew up, my parents aged and passed away. I still make latkes and people still jog and drive by. And my neighborhood still smells like potato latkes for a couple of days every year.

 

 

This Thanksgiving, don’t potchke! (Make spinach kugel instead.)

Thanksgiving turkey shared via creative commons by-Betty-Crocker-Recipes

Photo courtesy of Betty Crocker Recipes via Flickr Creative Commons

Listen up, all you non-Ashkenazi Jews out there. I’m going to teach you a useful Yiddish word, just in time for Thanksgiving.

That word is “potchke,” which can also be spelled “patchke” or “potschke.” It is pronounced POTCH-kee.

It means to fuss or bother. Originally it meant “in an ineffectual or ineffective way” like when you say, “I spent all day potchke-ing around and didn’t get anything done,” or “Stop potche-ing, let’s go already.”

But lately it’s come to mean to make a big production out of something, or to do something that involves a lot of fuss and bother. I often dismiss difficult or involved recipes I come across because they’re “too much of a potchke.”

I bring this up now because I associate the word with a memorable Thanksgiving we spent with friends more than 35 years ago, before any of my children were born. It was at this Thanksgiving dinner where we first ate spinach kugel, the recipe I offer below. “Kugel” means “pudding”; it’s really a kind of firm casserole that you cut into squares to eat.

This is not a traditional Thanksgiving dish, and I don’t think I have eaten it at Thanksgiving dinner since then, but it is delicious and easy to make. It’s been in my repertoire since that day long ago, and I’ve shared it with many friends who also make it often. So if you’re looking for something a little different for Thanksgiving dinner this year, this could be it.

She knew how to potchke!

A pu pu platter, photo by Brian Dixey via Flickr Creative Commons

A pu pu platter, photo by Brian Dixey via Flickr Creative Commons

On that Thanksgiving many years ago we went to stay with friends who had recently moved from Detroit back to their original hometown of Chicago. I’ll call them Henry and Diane to protect the innocent.

Thanksgiving dinner was to be at the home of Henry’s brother and his wife, Richard and Donna–also not their real names. Henry and Richard’s parents were also there.

As Donna, who was about eight months pregnant, finished up the turkey and trimmings, she invited us into the basement rec room for hors d’oeuvres. They came in the form of a pu pu platter, something popular in Chinese and Polynesian restaurants in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a large tray of appetizers, like mini-eggrolls and wontons, complete with a volcano-shaped mini-charcoal grill that we could use to toast the tidbits. We were goggle-eyed with admiration.

Then Donna decided their dog, a huge, rambunctious German shepherd mix, deserved a holiday treat too. She took out a gigantic chargrilled bone that must have once been the thigh of some unfortunate steer. The overjoyed mutt dragged it around the gold-colored carpet of the living-dining room, spreading the char from the grilled bone all over the rug.

As we hovered around the table, preparing to take our seats, Donna got out the rug shampoo machine to clean the carpet.

The defining comment on the dinner came from Henry’s mother. “Boy,” she said, “Donna really potchkes.” Afraid that she might be insulting her daughter-in-law, our hostess, she added. “Diane potchkes too. But Donna POTCHKES!”

Although we haven’t seen Henry and Diane in more than 30 years, I think of that story every Thanksgiving.

I wish you all a happy holiday. Enjoy your family, enjoy your food–and don’t potchke!

(This recipe calls for Coffee Rich, a non-dairy creamer, so that people who observe the Jewish dietary laws can eat it with meat meals where no dairy foods are permitted. If you have no such concerns, you can use milk–or even half-and-half if you want a richer dish. I actually prefer to make it with water. You can also use butter instead of margarine.)

 

 

A love affair with beets

beets, red ace, flickrA Note from Bobbie Lewis: Here’s another wonderful guest blog from Isaac DeLamatre, head of the kitchens at Antioch College. Personally, I don’t like beets, even though I’m a big veggie fan and I’ve been tempted by many beet dishes that look delicious. I think it’s genetic, because my dad, who also loved veggies, wouldn’t eat beets. Someone once said beets taste like dirt smells; that about describes it for me! But my husband loves them, and I know lots of my readers do too, so enjoy Isaac’s offering.

Velvety, blood red, roasted and peeled. Beets resemble recently removed hearts floating in post-op flotsam. It would be grim if they were not so delicious.

The voluptuous tuber of this particular beta vulgaris (known colloquially as the “beet root” or in days gone as the “blood turnip”) absorbs from the earth esoteric wisdom and is an apothecary of vitamins and medicinal applications. Carbohydrate sugars and amino acids abound; you will not tire of the copious amounts of beets coming in from markets and gardens throughout the fall and winter months.

When roasted, cooled, peeled and sliced, the beet root acquires the soft, velvety texture of sashimi. It slithers as it is chewed, releasing its flavors, and happiness, and satisfaction.

Beveled, slender, scarlet and fuchsia stalks burst upward towards the sky elevating and supporting deep green, red veined solar snares. Each leaf perfectly able to use raw sunlight as a catalyst to transform UV rays into plant energy and edible carbohydrates. Each tuber perfectly able to harvest minerals from the soil and make them available for human consumption. Each plant perfectly succulent.

Beet greens are yummy too! Photo by Chuck and Laura via Flickr Creative Commons.

Beet greens are yummy too! Photo by Chuck and Laura via Flickr Creative Commons.

In search of the inherent wisdom of beets and the truths that they seem to embody, I have come to realize that the beet is the personification of truth itself. I cannot yet define how or articulate why, but slice open a fresh beet and gaze at the infinite fractal display of beauty within. Then count yourself lucky, as the universe has just shown you its face.

Sweet and juicy, the peppery citrus-flavored leaves of the young beet are fantastic eaten raw. As the plant matures, gentle-heat cooking methods are suitable for preparing the green tops.

Steam the greens and season them with salt, pepper and a little vinegar or toss them with a little tamari and sesame oil for a basic dinner side. Sauté them and fold them into an omelet or scrambled eggs to get your fiber and energy; beets are high in B vitamins, making them great vegetables for which to break-fast and start your day.

Innumerable ways to cook them

The beets are of such outstanding virtue they have lent themselves to be prepared utilizing any culinary preparation currently employed by human beings. The humble beet has graced my palate as deep-fried roasted beets with schichimi togarashi at Austin’s famed East Side Kings food truck,as lacto-fermented beet kvass from Fab Ferments in Cincinnati, and as raw slaws shredded up at home.

One of my mother-in-law’s favorite preparations is beets cubed, tossed in salt, pepper and oil, and roasted with other root vegetables of the season like sweet potatoes and turnips. Everyone I know has a grandmother with a recipe for borscht, each one different from the other, like so many snowflakes.

If you decide to take a stab at growing beets yourself, beware. The deer and bunnies love the tops of beets and will appreciate the imprudently guarded garden. They will thank you by mowing them to the ground.

When selecting beets, choose those that are very firm, with stout, crisp, intact greens and stems. They should shimmer and glow when halved, revealing the complex patterns and rich colors inside. Old or low-quality beets will appear dry, ashy and limp. Do not bring these beets home with you. Reject the beets that are soft and doughy or misshapen.

Below is a recipe that will deliver satisfaction to the most novice or senior beet aficionado. You will have no problem creating a worthy dish with even the most elementary of techniques and preparations.

 

 

A Brit acclimates to American cuisine (with a recipe for baked beans)

flags

The new AmericanThe new American

The new American

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: Twenty years ago my husband, Joe Lewis (who was born in Poole, Dorset, England) became an American citizen. This seemed like a good opportunity for him to reflect on the culinary changes he encountered as part of the Americanization process. (To read more about our nation of immigrants, you’ll enjoy this series by Michigan State University’s Joe Grimm.)

By JOE LEWIS

On the Fourth of July 20 years ago I joined more than 100 people born in dozens of countries as we became citizens of the United States. The sunny summer day was perfect for a joyful but serious ceremony at Hart Plaza on the riverfront in downtown Detroit.

Baked beans on toast, a British staple. Photo by version3point1 via Flickr Creative Commons.

Baked beans on toast, a British staple. Photo by version3point1 via Flickr Creative Commons.

This was 22 years after I’d arrived in the United States, and while I chafed at being taxed without representation, I was perfectly happy being a “resident alien” in possession of a green card that enabled me to study and work here.

But I heard that the price of the green card was going to go up to more than the price of a passport. When my card was up for renewal, I applied for citizenship.

It didn’t take much to transfer my gastronomic allegiance to the U.S. British food was not a heritage to cling to. We British long ceded culinary expertise to the French, even though (in our opinion) they smelled of garlic and couldn’t make a proper cup of tea.

British food: at least it fills you up

British food could be satisfying. Baked beans on toast makes a filling breakfast. Or spaghetti on toast—not the Italian kind of spaghetti that requires boiling pasta in water but the kind that comes out of a can. For a bold international experience, we might use an American condiment like ketchup, good for ketchup sandwiches! Our food may not have been chic, like French food, nor tasty, nor nourishing, nor sophisticated, but if you ate enough you could fill yourself up.

Photo by Allen via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Allen via Flickr Creative Commons

My father was the family cook. My mother never felt confident as a cook after a setback in elementary school. She was given the opportunity to cook the cabbage for school lunch—imagine the smell!—and despite all her careful cutting and rinsing and stirring, the cabbage never cooked. Finally, the teacher realized that nobody had turned on the heat. Of course, the child shouldered the blame.

My father, on the other hand, had been a cook in the British army and developed a fine reputation, because he knew how to make tea drinkable, which put him a full step above the finest French gourmet cook. At four o’clock in the afternoon, he’d run a tea towel up a pole to indicate a fresh pot of tea was available, and the soldiers would come running. His secret was simple: he cleaned out the pot; if need be, he’d use some sand to remove the tannic residue.

A nasty introduction to American cuisine

I arrived in the U.S. in August of 1972, hot and thirsty in 90-degree heat and 90-percent humidity. “Oooh, you have to try root beer, it’s a real American drink,” said my beloved as we reached the New York Port Authority from JFK Airport, sweating and woozy with jetlag. I took one sip from the frosty can and almost gagged. How could anyone drink such stuff? I have never drunk it since.

I spent my first weeks in America living with my in-laws in Philadelphia. Shortly after we arrived they took us out for a real treat: a trip to Greenwood Dairies, in then-rural Bucks County, for ice cream. I like American ice cream—British ice cream rarely rose above the gustatory level of a Klondike bar with the metal wrapper that sets your teeth on edge—but quantity sometimes seems to be more important than quality.

At Greenwood Dairies, the scoops were the size of softballs. On one of my first visits there I was horrified to see a young child, his scoop only half-eaten, puking in the parking lot. Suddenly, my appetite for ice cream disappeared.

Greenwood Dairies pigGreenwood Dairies had a concoction called the Pig’s Dinner, similar to the well known Pig’s Trough at Farrell’s. It was five gigantic scoops of ice cream with a banana, a half-dozen flavored syrups and whipped cream. If you ate one unassisted you received a button that said, “I was a pig at Greenwood Dairies.” I never sought to qualify, but my beloved has one of the buttons in her vast button collection, picked up at a flea market.

After my swearing-in ceremony as an American citizen, we held a backyard barbecue for our friends. We served those all-American favorites: hot dogs and apple pie. (I’ve always liked soft, bouncy sausages with apples. When I was a child, occasionally the family cook would treat us to boiled viennas from a can, which we could dip in applesauce. However, as the American poet Walt Whitman might have said, I hear America retching.)

Brits eat Vienna sausages right out of the can. (Of course Joe ate a kosher version, sans pork.) Photo by babnoyndamix via Flickr Creative Commons.

Brits eat Vienna sausages right out of the can. (Of course Joe ate a kosher version, sans pork.) Photo by babnoyndamix via Flickr Creative Commons.

We also served home-made baked beans, which are different from Heinz (but would go very well on buttered toast and a decent cup of tea). The beans used for baking are native to North America, and the idea of baking them in sauce probably originated in New England, which is why they’re often called Boston baked beans and why Boston is often called Beantown.

This recipe came from Robert Wright, who ran the graduate program in religion at Temple University, where my wife worked the first year after we married.

It takes some advance planning, because you need to soak the beans overnight, then boil them, then cook them in a slow oven for eight hours. If you don’t want to have your oven on that long in the summer, use a slow cooker, or just sit outside all day, instead of in the hot house, and enjoy the warm weather. If you’re not kosher, halal  or vegetarian, you can throw in a hunk of salt pork when you put the beans in the oven..

(Recipe photo by Sonia, via Flickr Creative Commons)

 

A celebration of spring asparagus

Photo by Albert Wong, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Albert Wong, via Flickr Creative Commons.

In the mid-1960s, I enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a hotbed of liberal education (or as Antiochians themselves like to say, bootcamp for the revolution). Antioch College fell on hard times in the later years of the century. It had become part of a university whose administration no longer saw the value of a small, innovative liberal (in every sense of the word) arts college. They decided to close the residential college and invest the university’s resources entirely in programs for commuters and in distance learning. Alumni rallied and raised enough to take over the college name and property from the university but before the deal was final the college closed, in June 2008. Antioch reopened in 2011 as an independent, residential college. The revived Antioch will see its first graduates next year.

One of Antioch’s goals is to teach the skills needed for sustainable living, and the college practices what it preaches. Antioch has a working farm that produces much of the food for the college kitchen. Every month the alumni newsletter includes a piece called “From Antioch Kitchens.” This is the latest, written by kitchen director Isaac DeLamatre.

As a reward for surviving a long and brutal winter, spring’s bounty brings us a magnificent vegetable. Asparagus officinalis, whom we know colloquially as asparagus, begins punching through the thawing soil when temperatures finally begin to hover around 50 degrees.

If unpicked, asparagus shoots turn into ferns. Photo by Annalea Hart via Flickr Creative Commons.

If unpicked, asparagus shoots turn into ferns. Photo by Annalea Hart via Flickr Creative Commons.

While the rest of the garden is still shaking off winter residue, the asparagus harvest rolls in. As a harbinger of spring it is one of the very first locally available vegetables and is one of my favorites.  I enjoy the grassy, juicy flavor and appreciate its gastronomic versatility. It holds a symbolic significance to the changing of seasons (and the promising relief of more hospitable temperatures).

I think what I admire most about asparagus are the values that it represents. Asparagus embodies the practice of patience, one of the most admirable and sought-after virtues. The plant produces edible shoots for a short period of time only once a year; the wait in and of itself is a lesson in patience. But not only is there a yearly intermission between crops, the plant does not produce viable shoots for three to five years after planting.

A long-term investment

The planting of asparagus is a long-term investment of time, one that has been known to pay off for upwards of 100 years. So far is it removed from the modern ideas of instantaneous gratification and planned obsolescence! Asparagus appreciates attention and pampering; it likes its growing beds to be free of all other weeds and plants, and enjoys a generous top dressing of compost and leaf mulch every year. I feel that the plant’s cultural attitude is to be held in high regard and that asparagus has a lot to teach us if we are willing to listen and learn.

One of our most recent preparations of asparagus in the Kitchen involved lemon vinaigrette. It is a refreshing and simple composition that can be served warm or cool as a side or starter to any spring time meal.

Select evenly sized shoots. When I cook them I like them to all be the same size but the size that I choose for each batch falls within a range. I only accept pencil-sized to magic marker-sized asparagus. Any stalks smaller than a pencil shouldn’t have been cut in the first place and are a waste of everyone’s time. Parts of the plant that small need to be left alone so that the young plant it came from will stay healthy.

Anything larger is too woody and fibrous with therefore less usable stalk. The really big ones are good for using the asparagus tips in stir fries or soups. I like the stalks to be no more than six inches tall—when they get taller, the crowns start to branch out and they are not as tender.

Taller or longer stalks also mean I am buying a bunch of unusable product that I will trim off so that the stalks fall within six inches long. It is a general courtesy the grower should have extended so that I would not pay for more than I could use.

Some people like to peel asparagus. I generally do not.

After the vegetable is trimmed and washed it can be cooked in a variety of ways. For this pairing I like to steam or blanch it.

Tips for a successful vinaigrette

By slowly adding the oil to the vinegar, we are creating an emulsion. Two liquids that would ordinarily separate are going to allow for the fat (oil) to become suspended in the vinegar. Our emulsifying agent, in this case mustard, will prevent the oil and vinegar from separating or “breaking.”

When successful, we should end up with a viscous opaque liquid that holds its form as a sauce. An unsuccessful attempt will break. It will resemble an immiscible oil/vinegar project from science class.

 

Persian rice with tahdig is perfect for a lazy day

Persian rice with tahdig, photo by Azita via Flickr Creative Commons

Persian rice with tahdig, photo by Azita via Flickr Creative Commons

Before I get started on today’s topic, I want to put in a plug for Detroit Soup, which I wrote about in June (one of the earliest Feed the Spirit columns). As you can see from this article in Deadline Detroit, they may have to close due to a lack of funding. If you’d like to donate, go to http://www.detroitsoup.com/donate. It would be a shame if this creative community support program were to disappear. And now for something completely different…

My husband’s cousin married a woman who emigrated to England from Persia as a young woman—the emigres never called it Iran.

Rice with potato tahdig, photo by Azita via Flickr Creative Commons

Rice with potato tahdig, photo by Azita via Flickr Creative Commons

One day shortly before we moved from England to America, they invited us for a meal. Freda served the most incredible rice dish. Every grain was separate and perfectly cooked, but mixed in with the fluffy rice were bits of really crunchy, golden brown potato.

“Wow, how do you make this?” I asked her.

“Oh it’s easy,” she said. “You cook the rice part way and take it out of the pan. Then you heat up some oil, put in sliced potatoes, put the rice on top of the potatoes and let the rice steam to finish cooking while the potatoes cook.”

I couldn’t wait to try it. But when I did, what I got was a gummy mess.

She forgot a few details!

Freda had forgotten to tell me a few important details:

  • You have to use basmati rice, or at least extra-long grain rice.
  • You have to rinse the rice to get rid of the starch and then soak it.
  • You have to cook the potatoes on one side and flip them over before steaming the rice.
  • When you steam the rice, you have to line the pot lid with a kitchen towel to absorb the moisture.

It would be 40 years before I tried to make Persian-style rice again. When I got a copy of The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia, it was one of the first recipes I wanted to try.

I was only slightly intimidated by the basic recipe for tahdig. (Pronounced “tah DEEG,” it’s the name of the crispy layer as well as the whole dish.) The recipe takes a page and a half in the book! That’s for the plain rice version–adding potato adds another few paragraphs of instructions.

Read the recipe repeatedly

I read the directions about a dozen times until I felt comfortable trying to make it. And I watched a couple of videos online; this one was helpful, although each video had a slightly different method, and none matched my cookbook exactly. One soaked the rice for two hours, one didn’t soak it at all. Some added oil to the water before parboiling the rice; some added water to the oil before making the tahdig layer. Some added turmeric or saffron to give the rice some added flavor and a nice yellow color.

Tahdig unmolded from the pan onto a serving plate; photo via Wikimedia Commons

Tahdig unmolded from the pan onto a serving plate; photo via Wikimedia Commons

After I made it a few times, I felt I could do it even without a recipe, the same way I make plain white or brown rice. Well, I could if I made it more frequently. The last time was long enough in the past that when I do it again I’ll at least read the recipe carefully before starting.

The basic steps are these:

  • Rinse the rice several times.
  • Soak the rice for at least 30 minutes, up to a few hours.
  • Parcook the rice for about 5 or 6 minutes, then drain.
  • Make the tahdig layer using some of the rice and optional lavash or potato.
  • Mound the rest of the rice on top of the tahdig layer and steam it.
  • Invert the pot over a serving plate, or scoop out the steamed rice and then remove the tahdig layer, which you can serve whole or broken into little pieces.

This recipe makes a lot – about double the amount of rice I usually make.  The first time I made it, we gorged ourselves and reheated it the next night, which was less than ideal. The second time, I was confident enough to serve it for company — and it got rave reviews.

I don’t have a large, deep skillet or a paella pan so I used a Dutch oven. If you halve the recipe, you can probably use a large saucepan.

Many variations on the theme

There are lots of variations to the basic tahdig. You can put a layer of lavash bread at the bottom of the pan the same way you would potatoes. Cut the lavash to fit the pan, or make pie-shaped wedges of smaller breads so they’ll cover the whole pan in a single layer. You can probably use a tortilla just as well.

You can add a few tablespoons of plain Greek yogurt to the rice you use in the tahdig layer, or you can mix in a whisked-till-foamy egg white; both the yogurt and the egg white will keep the tahdig layer from falling apart, but neither is essential.

If you have a free afternoon and want to be adventurous, give this intriguing rice dish a try!

What I Learned from the Yeasts

th Food-writer-Bobbie-Lewis-in-her-kitchenA Note from Your Host, Bobbie Lewis: Today’s post is by guest blogger Louis “Eli” Finkelman, a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer in the Detroit area. He is also a cook, brewer, vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his home. He previously wrote about his father’s rumtopf and making pickles.

I wanted a recipe that includes white wine vinegar to go with this story. The recipe for Crispy Cauliflower with White Wine Vinaigrette comes from a fairly new cookbook, Balaboosta, by Einat Admony. Balaboosta is Yiddish for housewife, but it has the connotation of a woman who keeps an immaculate home and is an excellent cook. To call someone “a real balaboosta” is high praise! The author called it “Cauliflower Everyone Will Love,” and she spoke the truth! I don’t love cauliflower, but this recipe was a hit at a company dinner where the guests included four children; in fact it was the only one of many dishes that was devoured completely.

By ELI FINKELMAN

Eli Finkelman

Eli Finkelman

Late in the summer of 2010, I happened to gain possession of a few ounces of not-very-appetizing grape juice.  Give me a while to get around to telling you how that happened.  For the moment, let it suffice that it took some effort to get the juice.

I had a bit more than I needed, and I did not feel like just throwing that extra juice out. So I kept it in a Mason jar. Someday, I thought, I might think of what to do with this; until then, I can keep it someplace in my closet, where it won’t get in my wife’s way.

A few weeks later, I had another few ounces of fresh grape juice, and nothing to do with it. By now, however, I had a plan. I added it to the juice in the Mason jar in my closet, where no one would notice a bit more juice.

Yeasts at work

A few weeks later, I remembered to loosen the cover of the Mason jar. Grape juice ferments, even if you do not add yeast. Wild yeast will grow in grape juice, and, as the juice ferments, it gives off carbon dioxide. If I had not remembered to release the pressure, the Mason jar in my closet might have exploded. A few weeks later, I tightened the cover. Yeasts do not need oxygen to work. Who knows, I thought, maybe the grape juice would turn into wine.

I must have gone though this cycle of loosening the cover and tightening the cover a few times. Eventually, I forgot all about the jar of grape juice in my closet. During the next three years, the jar just sat in my dark closet, undisturbed and unloved. It waited there.

This might be the right time to tell the story of how I got the juice in the first place.

Recreating medieval recipes

My wife likes to reconstruct medieval recipes from Europe and the Middle East. Many of these recipes call for the juice of unripe grapes, called verjus, and we had no supply of verjus. That summer, our neighbor offered us the grapes that grow in her yard, but said, “do not plan to pick them just yet; they’re not quite ripe.”

With our neighbor’s permission, we dashed over and picked a load of unripe grapes.

Pressing unripe grapes takes more effort than pressing ripe grapes because they are not as juicy.  When we had pressed the grapes, we felt tired of the whole project, but we had a pitcher of verjus. We poured it into little freezer containers, ready for the next medieval reconstruction recipe.

The green verjus in the top of the pitcher looked somewhat clear and attractive; it had a sharp, sour taste, just as the medieval cooks said it would.

Eli's Mason jar in the closet

Eli’s Mason jar in the closet

Using the dregs

When we had filled all the containers, a few ounces of muddy-looking unripe grape juice from the bottom of the pitcher remained. I did want to throw that out, but it looked too ugly to use. So I put it in my Mason jar.

A few months later, when local grapes ripened, my wife and I picked enough grapes to put up a year’s supply of wine in our fermenter. After we had filled our fermenter, we still had a few cups of grape juice, the muddiest grape juice from near the bottom of the pail. I could have thrown that out, but I did not want to. Instead, it went into the Mason jar in my closet.

And it stayed there, more or less undisturbed, for three years.

I finally paid attention to the Mason jar again this summer. The bottom of the jar held a layer of repulsive brown opaque stuff, and the top had a few fragments of whatever, but in between was a perfectly clear, yellow liquid; it looked like a delicate white wine. I had a wine bottle ready to store that middle liquid.

I loosened the cover of the Mason jar, and smelled the heady aroma. I thought I recognized that bouquet. Then, bravely, I sipped a bit of the liquid.

No doubt about it.

Wine vinegars, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Wine vinegars, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An unanticipated treasure

It was vinegar.  I had a wine bottle filled with delicious, delicate, lovely, white wine vinegar.

When my wife had a chance to smell it, she agreed. A few days later, when we had emptied a vinegar bottle and relabeled it as homemade wine vinegar, we filled it with the new wine vinegar.

That gave me an idea. I threw out the muddy dregs from the bottom of the Mason jar, and put just a few ounces of the clear wine vinegar back into the jar. Then, after an evening of celebration, the last few ounces from a nearly empty wine bottle went into the Mason jar.

When I bottled this year’s wine, at the bottom of the fermenter I found a few ounces of imperfectly clarified white wine. That went straight into the Mason jar, too. If all goes well, I should have more homemade vinegar one of these weeks.  I may have learned how to make vinegar at home.

The moral of this story

So what else have I learned from this experience?  Only this: While I was not paying attention, unseen forces were busy at work, patiently turning my muddy remnants of grape juice into clear, delicious vinegar.

I did not need to direct the project.  I did not need a recipe. I did not need the illusion that I could control the process. I just needed to set up conditions where the unseen forces could work their magic, and then, patiently, let them be.

We had the word “yeast” long before Louis Pasteur discovered that yeasts are little living creatures, hard at work turning sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. “Yeast” meant the froth on top of the fermenter. Vintners, brewers and bakers knew that the froth helped the invisible forces ferment their wine and beer and raise their bread.

Vintners, brewers and bakers knew how to treat these unseen forces to let them work. Pasteur discovered why we cannot see them–because the living creatures are so tiny.

The invisible forces that turn wine into vinegar also have a name, a wonderful  one: “mother of vinegar.” Like yeast, “mother of vinegar” turns out to be a different bunch of Pasteur’s little creatures, hard at work making a product that we value, so long as we let them be.

Here’s the moral of the story:  If I pretend that I have control, and can get to a certain goal directly, I often fail. If I let the right conditions obtain, and have patience to let them be, sometimes humble tiny unseen forces, undisturbed and diligent, bring about the change I desire.

Sometimes the change they bring is not the wine we expect, but vinegar we can use–if we have the courage to taste it and the wisdom to recognize it when it appears.