That’s so cheese-y!

Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopfcelery and gefilte fish. Eli is 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. An expanded version of this article first appeared the Detroit Jewish News and it is reprinted with permission. (Part of the article dealt with making kosher cheese—a whole other dimension—and so the article bore the creative title “Jews for Cheeses.”)

Where does cheese come from?

The supermarket, obviously. It comes in neat plastic-wrapped packages.

David Barth of Oak Park, Mich. says he has “long had an interest in how people used to do things for themselves, things that we buy in a store. Once upon a time, people made them at home for themselves.”

When he retired after serving as in-house counsel for Consumers Energy for 33 years, he finally had the time to indulge that interest.

“My brother bought me a book of one-hour cheese recipes,”he says. “They all looked doable. I just followed the recipes and, with one exception, got what I wanted.

“The exception: I bought some goat’s milk for one recipe and then noticed that it was ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk. The chemistry is fascinating. You need the natural bacteria to help curdle the milk, as the experts warn, and ultra-pasteurized milk has no live bacteria.”

Ready in almost an hour!

Barth says that “one hour” in the book’s title amounts to a bit of gimmickry. Many of the recipes take a bit longer, but they are worth the effort. Guided by the book, Claudia Lucero’s One-Hour Cheese, Barth produced:

  • A very successful mozzarella. “I use it in all Italian recipes, like lasagna and pizza.”
  • A cheddar. “Not a true cheddar because it is not aged, but it tasted pretty much like cheddar you could buy in the store.”
  • A halloumi. “This was the one that did not turn out exactly right. I made it half from the ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk and half from cow’s milk. It was pretty good, but it did not have the texture of a halloumi.

  • A farmer cheese. “I recommend that anyone who wants to start with cheese-making start with farmer cheese. It is extremely easy; it takes 15 minutes and it’s perfect, crumbly and with just the right taste.”

Soft cheeses are easy

You make these soft cheeses by adding coagulating agents to milk. Add vinegar, lemon juice or the sap of fig trees, and the milk solids (curds) promptly separate from the liquid (whey). That, according to Barth, constitutes the most exciting moment in cheese making.

“Seeing it happen…seeing the liquid milk, and adding a coagulating agent, and watching it turn solid has an ‘Oh, look at that!’ factor. You might feel like this is produce you pay money for in the store. It needs an expert to make it. Seeing that you can do this at home is thrilling.”

(Note: This recipe features farmer cheese. It’s similar to cottage cheese but drier and denser. If you don’t want to make your own and can’t find it, you can substitute small-curd cottage cheese, but drain it first; wrap it in cheesecloth and squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. If you do want to make it, here’s a recipe adapted from one I found online:  Pour a gallon of milk into a large pot, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil over medium heat. When it boils, turn off the heat and stir in the juice of one lemon. The milk will curdle within 5 to 10 minutes. Line a sieve or colander with a cheesecloth and pour the milk through the cloth. Gather the cloth around the curds and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. What remains in the cloth is farmer cheese. Wrap in plastic or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)


Yalla Eat! showcases an ethnic neighborhood

For the third time, my husband and I joined an Arab-American culinary walking tour sponsored by the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, a suburb adjacent to Detroit that has the highest density of Arab-Americans in the country. These families began moving to Dearborn in the 1920s for factory worker at Ford Motor Company. The Arab population burgeoned in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly with immigrants from Lebanon. Others came from Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen and Iraq.

In the 1980s, our guide told us, one particular village in Lebanon had 2,000 residents while Dearborn had 6,000 people who had originated there!

The museum calls the program “Yalla Eat!” which means “Let’s go eat!”

The first Yalla Eat! was in Detroit’s Eastern Market, where we visited a number of wholesalers, cafes and retail stores, including Gabriel Import Co. Last year we toured Warren Avenue in Detroit, on the border with Dearborn, which was run-down and derelict until around 40 years ago, when recently arrived Arab immigrants began opening restaurants and other businesses there. The district is now thriving and is the heart of the city’s Arab-American community. Of the 200 Arab-owned businesses on Warren Avenue, about half are food-related.

This year the museum added a new tour, of food-related businesses on Michigan Avenue, about a mile from Warren. This wide and busy thoroughfare was once the commercial heart of Dearborn. There was a Montgomery Ward on one corner and a Federal’s Department Store—where the museum is now located—across the street, as well as numerous restaurants, banks and retail establishments. Then, in the early 1980s, a large, enclosed mall opened just over two miles away. You can guess the rest.

An expanding commercial area

But where everyone else saw empty storefronts, the Arab-American community saw opportunity. With few vacancies on Warren Avenue, younger restaurateurs, tradespeople and professionals (salons, accountants, pharmacies, physicians) started moving onto Michigan Avenue. We visited a half-dozen of them and came away impressed and sated. (For the hosts, it was great,cheap advertising—give away a few taste samples and leave your visitors with an overwhelmingly positive impression!)

Our first stop was Dearborn Fresh, a former Kroger supermarket that now sells a huge variety of foods preferred by those from the Middle Eastern—everything from sour plums and green almonds to a wide variety of cheeses, fresh meat and baked goods. We sampled hummus, tabouli and baklava.

Then it was on to Sheeba, run by immigrants from Yemen, with a cuisine somewhat different from the more common Lebanese fare.

Our host brought out bubbling bowls of fahsah, a stew of shredded lamb and mashed potatoes, and seltah (most recipes, like the one I copied below, spell it “saltah”), a vegetable stew topped with whipped fenugreek, along with large loaves of “tandoori bread” similar to pita. Both stews were served in stoneware bowls that kept them bubbling for about 10 minutes after they were set on the table. The recipe for the lamb dish, the owner told us, includes 43 different spices.

Mocha Cafe is not a coffee shop

On we went to Mocha Cafe, which everyone expected to be a coffee shop. Not so—the restaurant is named for Mocha, a city in Yemen. We associate the word with coffee because it was major marketplace for coffee from the 15th century until the early 18th century.

At Mocha we nibbled on a variety of sweets, including moshabak, made from dough dyed red with food coloring that was deep-fried and then covered with a sugary glaze, kind of like a bright red funnel cake. The star of the dessert plate, though, was the “mango smoothie,” which we all thought of as a drink. At Mocha Cafe, it’s a mango custard topped with fresh banana, strawberries, pineapple and raisins. It’s served and eaten like an ice cream sundae and is every bit as yummy.

At Habib’s Cuisine, a higher-end restaurant, we were served pita with basil-infused olive oil, beef shwarma in a pita, and Chef Habib Bazzi’s “famous” potato balls, tiny whole potatoes coated in a secret blend of spices and deep-fried until crispy.

Finally we rolled over to Adonis, a small catering hall with a smaller attached restaurant next door to the museum, to wake ourselves up from our food stupor with steaming cups of Turkish coffee.

For me the moral of the story is that if you want to make friends with people, feed them! It’s hard to be angry with a full stomach and tingling tastebuds. Maybe Donald Trump should visit Dearborn and take one of these food tours.

The recipe below is from the Queen of Sheba Yemini Recipes blog, where there are lots of other intriguing offerings. It doesn’t look like an easy one, because each step includes something else that you first have to make from scratch. If you want to be adventurous, give it a try. It was certainly tasty!




A Russian Tart to celebrate Spring Equinox

This week we mark the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, when the hours of light and the hours of darkness are approximately equal. Such occasions were important in pagan societies, and today the Spring  Equinox is known by Wiccans as Ostara (O-STAR-uh), one of their minor Sabbats (festivals).

The name of the festival comes from the Teuton lunar goddess Eostre, whose chief totems were the rabbit, noted for fertility, and the egg, a symbol of creation and rebirth. (Can you say “Easter bunny” and “Easter egg”?)

Eggs are important in many faiths, and they play an important part in the spring religious festivals of two major religions, Judaism and Christianity.

A roasted egg is one of the foods on the Passover seder plate. Jewish scholars will say the egg represents the sacrifices made at the Temple in Jerusalem, and that because hard-boiled eggs are traditionally the first food served to mourners after a funeral, the egg symbolizes mourning for the Temple’s loss. But no one will convince me that there’s no connection to our pagan past.

Similarly, Christians may have adopted use of hard-boiled eggs from their Jewish forebears. The Last Supper was a Passover seder, and early Christians may have wanted to preserve some of its symbols. Or it may have come directly from ancient pagan practices, many of which were co-opted into Christianity. Eventually the egg, a symbol of renewing life, began to be associated with the resurrection of Jesus.

Whatever meaning you want to assign to eggs, the Spring Equinox this week seemed like a good excuse for providing an eggy recipe.

This Russian Tart is also vegetarian so it’s a good one for those refraining from meat during Lent. It’s a bit of a to-do to make, and the ingredients may strike you as a little odd, but it’s worth the bother.

There’s quite a lot of filling, so be sure to use a large and deep pie plate for the baking.

Dining for Women: Helping the world 1 meal at a time (with a recipe for beans and rice)

My friend Sharona invited me to dinner last week–but I had to bring a dish to pass and pay $25. The dinner was part of an international movement called Dining for Women.

Here’s the idea: Instead of eating out in a restaurant, groups of women get together for a potluck in someone’s home, church or community center, and donate the money they would have spent on a restaurant meal–usually $25 to $40–to a nonprofit in a third-world country that benefits women and girls.

It all started in 2002. Marsha Wallace, a former nurse and mother of four, read an article about a group of women who met for potluck dinners and donated the money they would have spent in a restaurant to needy families.

“Dining out dollars” to help the needy

Marsha liked the idea of using “dining out dollars” to help others. On her birthday in 2003, she invited some friends to her home to celebrate, passed the proverbial hat, and raised $750 for Women for Women International.

The idea spread. Every month Dining for Women chooses one charity in one third-world country, and all the Dining for Women groups across the US and other countries hold a potluck featuring food from the chosen country. They learn a little bit about that country, and then see a short video about the chosen nonprofit and how it will help women.

Maybe a few hundred dollars won’t go very far – but multiplied by 428 Dining for Women chapters, the program can raise a significant amount.

The group’s founding values:

  • All women deserve to be self-sufficient
  • Education transforms the giver and the receiver
  • Connections are the engine that power giving
  • Transparency and integrity will mark our work
  • To reach all, we must believe we can

Help for Nicaragua

The dinner I attended was to benefit the Americas Association for the Care of Children in Nicaragua. The organization aims to reduce the impact of poverty through compassionate, holistic education to enable the empowerment of primary caregivers, nutritional adequacy and preventative healthcare, special needs therapeutic support and sustainable community and economic development.

Our host read some background information about Nicaragua, the poorest country in South America, and we feasted on foods that had a South American flavor, including lots of beans and rice.

The group’s website has a wealth of information about projects they have funded and how to get involved by joining an existing chapter or starting a new chapter. There are even recipes tied to that month’s featured country.

Dining for Women also sponsors trips to third-world countries, where members can see the good work being done with their dollars and get a sense of additional needs.

This would be a great project for church or synagogue women or for any group of friends that wants to have a good time and do good at the same time.

My recipe today comes from the Dining for Women website, where it was reprinted with permission from: The recipe photo is by Lablascovegmenu via Flickr Creative Commons.


Food at the Smithsonian—and corn casserole


We spent Thanksgiving weekend at the home of my sister, who lives just outside Washington, D.C.

One of the advantages of being retired is that we can travel home on Monday, instead of Sunday when traffic is heavy on the Ohio Turnpike and there are often restroom lines at the service plaza (for the women at least!).

Since we weren’t traveling on Sunday, we visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. (Another great thing about visiting Washington is that almost all the museums are free–your tax dollars at work!)

The museum has a nice exhibit about American foodways, called “Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.”

Julia Child’s kitchen

The highlight of the exhibit, for us and probably for many other visitors, was Julia Child’s actual kitchen. It was brought from her Cambridge, Mass. home and rebuilt inside the museum.

Next to the kitchen, which is protected from the too-curious by Plexiglas, is a mini-theater where videos of Julia Child’s television shows were playing, starting with the best known, The French Chef, which ran for 10 years on PBS. She also had four later series, Cooking with Master Chefs, In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking with Juliaand Julia Child & Jacques Pépin Cooking at Home.

When I was a teenager, my younger sister just loved watching Julia Child on TV. I couldn’t figure out why, because she was too young to cook, until I watched it one day with her when I was about17. Julia was just so delightful! I would have gotten hooked too if I’d had time to watch TV.

At the Smithsonian, we could have sat for hours watching clips of Julia whipping up treats alone or with one of her guest master chefs.

Is new always improved?

A exhibit section called “New and Improved!” talked about attitudes towards progress and better living in the 20th century, but raised questions about the long-term effects of mass production of food and of consumerism.

“Resetting the Table” showed how American food changed over 50 years through the influence if immigrants, world travelers and activists. If you were around in the 1950s, you probably ate Chinese and Italian food – and Mexican if you lived in the West or Southwest.  But who knew from Thai, Indian, Korean, sushi  or vegan?

A display of “Food on the Go” showed how snack foods and take-out had changed over the half-century.

At the exhibit on American wine I learned something very interesting. There was a variety of grapes called Norton that were native to Virginia, but they were all uprooted during Prohibition. Winemaker Dennis Horton brought some Norton cuttings to Virginia from his native Missouri in 1988 – and bottled his first vintage from the grapes in 1992.

If you find yourself in Washington, D.C., check out this worthwhile exhibit!

I wanted to include a quintessentially American recipe with this piece, and what could be more American than corn? This simple casserole is best with fresh corn, which of course is not readily available in winter, but frozen corn will work almost as well. Serve it as a main dish for a light vegetarian supper or as a side dish.


Chili is perfect for chilly days

As soon as there’s a nip in the air, I know it’s chili season. When I worked in an office , every fall we would have a chili cookoff, which was great fun. I even won third prize once, a gift card to Chili’s restaurant! But aside from having several delicious recipes, what do I actually know about chili? I needed to do some sleuthing before writing.

Just for fun, I checked the 1991 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia that we bought when our kids were in school and still takes up an inordinate amount of space on our bookshelves. It has this illuminating entry: Chili con carne is a Mexican dish that consists of minced red chilies and meat. Cooks often add kidney beans to this highly seasoned dish. The Spanish word chili means red pepper. Con carne means with meat.

Less than enlightening.

Internet to the rescue

Now, thanks to the Internet, just a few clicks of my mouse brought me many interesting and useful tidbits so that I can write this piece without having to take myself to a library and search through the stacks.

From Wikipedia I learned that the word chili comes from a Nahuatl word, and that the very first chili con carne consisted of dried beef, suet, dried chile peppers and salt, which were pounded together, formed into bricks and dried, a great way to preserve meat in the days before refrigeration. Cowboys took them out on the trail and boiled them up in pots.

From the International Chili Society’s website, I learned some other nifty facts:

  • The mixture of meat, beans, peppers, and herbs was known to the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayan Indians long before Columbus and the conquistadores.
  • Chile peppers were used in Cervantes’s Spain and show up in the great ancient cuisines of China, India, Indonesia, Italy, the Caribbean, France, and the Arab states.
  • Don Juan de Onate entered what is now New Mexico in 1598 and brought with him the green chile pepper. It has grown there ever since.
  • Canary Islanders, transplanted in San Antonio as early as 1723, used local peppers, wild onions, garlic, and other spices to concoct pungent meat dishes – improvising upon ones they had cooked for generations in their native land, where the chile pepper also grew.

There’s a ongoing question about whether chili is a Mexican dish or a Texan (Tex-Mex) dish. Many Mexicans foodies indignantly deny any responsibility for it. Though there’s no documentation, chili as we now know it probably originated in San Antonio around 1880.

The Chili Queens of San Antonio

A group of Mexican-American women sold highly seasoned concoctions called “chili” from carts on San Antonio’s Military Plaza.  The vendors became known as the Chili Queens. With dozens of “Queens” on the plaza, competition led to refinement of the recipes.

The Queens made their chili at home and then loaded it onto colorful little wagons to transport it to the plaza, along with pots, crockery, and all the other gear necessary to feed the hungry night people. They built mesquite fires on the square to keep the chili warm. All this went on from nightfall until just before sunrise, when vegetable vendors came along with their carts to occupy Military Plaza, which had become known as “La Plaza del Chile con Carne.” Chili became so associated with San Antonio what there was a “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

The Chili Queens kept the chili stands going until the late 1930s, when the health department shut them down.

Meanwhile, travelers were taking chili beyond Texas. As early as 1904, “chili parlors” were opening in other states.

There’s much controversy about what exactly defines chili. Some recipes use beef chopped into small cubes, some use ground beef or even ground turkey; some use beans, some don’t; some use tomatoes, some don’t. It can be topped with chopped onions, cheese or sour cream – or not. These days it’s easy to find vegetarian chili recipes, like the one below.

The only constant seems to be the red chile pepper (except for “chili verde,” which uses green hot peppers). Often ground chiles (also called cayenne pepper) are combined with other spices, such as paprika, oregano and garlic, and sold as “chili powder,” though many cooks prefer to prepare their own blends.

Cincinnati-style chili

Greek immigrants in Cincinnati developed something completely different, using Mediterranean spices,that came to be called “Cincinnati style chili.” It’s usually served over spaghetti or atop hot dogs.

(We in Detroit are quite familiar with “Coney dogs” – hotdogs topped with bean-free chili meat sauce, mustard, onions and sometimes cheese – made popular by restaurants called Coney Islands run by Greek immigrants and their descendants. They have nothing to do with Brooklyn’s Coney Island, except that the original Coney Island was where the hotdog was born.)

My favorite vegetarian chili recipe has a list of ingredients about a page long, and it makes an enormous amount, so I’m not featuring that one today. Instead I offer this lovely recipe that uses a variety of beans and butternut squash. I got the recipe from a friend, who adapted it from one she found in Cooking Light magazine.


Grape Leaves from My Garden

My husband has a wooden swing in the backyard where he likes to hang out on summer afternoons, but it’s right in the sun and can get a little uncomfortable.

To provide some shade, he planted two grapevines next to the swing, one on each side, a couple of years ago, hoping they’d climb up over the swing. I have no idea what kind of grapes they are – one is white, and one is red.

Last year we even had two minuscule clusters of grapes, which the birds enjoyed. This year, we had enough to make a couple of pints of grape juice.

But I was also interested in the vines for grape leaves. Living in Detroit, with its large Greek, Chaldean and Arab populations, we’ve been enjoying stuffed grape leaves for decades. They’re often stuffed with lamb, but we eat vegetarian versions. I’ve never made them, but with lush grapevines growing right outside my kitchen window, I thought this was a great time to try.

Stuffed vegetables are popular for the seven-day Jewish festival of Sukkot, which we finished last week. Sukkot is partly a harvest festival, and stuffing freshly harvested veggies is a good way to celebrate. Long-time readers of this blog will remember my piece from two years ago about stuffed cabbage for Sukkot.

Everyone says it’s better to pick grape leaves in the spring, when they’re younger and more tender. But I found enough leaves on our vine that weren’t yet old and tough.

I’d been interested in trying my hand at stuffed grape leaves since last spring, when I participated in a program about food with Jewish and Chaldean (Iraqi Catholic) women. One of the Chaldean women told how almost every cook in her community keeps a large supply of grape leaves on hand.

The women frequently gather in groups to stuff grape leaves, she said, kind of like a Middle Eastern version of a quilting bee.

One family she knows almost got in trouble because of her grape leaves. The family had a house fire, and after the firemen took care of the emergency, they were about to arrest her; they had looked in her freezer, which was full of grape leaves, and thought she was growing marijuana illegally!

Thank you, Joan Nathan!

What convinced me to finally take action was this video and recipe from Joan Nathan, the doyenne of American Jewish cooking, which showed up in my Facebook feed. Her book, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, is one of my all-time faves.

I followed her recipe and her directions, and the result was dee-lish! As she says, you don’t need to grow your own grapes or raid a neighbor’s vine; jarred grape leaves, available in any Middle Eastern or specialty grocery store, will do equally well.

These Armenian stuffed grape leaves are super-flavorful, with onions, tomatoes, currants and pine nuts, and a variety of seasonings including mint, dill, cinnamon, cardamom and allspice.

The filling isn’t hard to make; the only fiddly part of the recipe is actually stuffing and rolling the leaves, which was a little challenging to one used to making the much larger stuffed cabbage rolls.

I took them to a holiday lunch at a friend’s house and they were scarfed up in no time!

Joan suggests trying the same stuffing with chard leaves. We had some chard in our garden, so I made a few that way. The taste was great, but the chard leaves, which are long and thin, were actually harder to roll than the grape leaves.

If you make more than you can eat at once, you can freeze them. Put the extra rolls in a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss gently to make sure all the rolls are lightly coated with oil, then place them in a plastic freezer bag. Defrost in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving.