From Israel to your table: Salad, salad day and night

My husband and I recently returned from three weeks in Israel. This was not our first trip. I first went for a junior year abroad program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Joe went for a “gap year” living on a kibbutz near Nazareth before college. Years later, our children went on long-term programs in Israel during high school and college and so we had a good excuse to visit. Our eldest even planned to make Israel her home, but during her second year as an Israeli immigrant she met her future husband–who grew up around the corner from us in Michigan, but that’s another story. Though they lived in Washington, D.C. at the time they married, they wanted their wedding seven years ago to be in Israel, so that was our last trip before this one. We felt this year it was time to go back.

One thing I always appreciate about Israel is the plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables, many grown locally on kibbutzim  and moshavim. But it wasn’t love at first sight.

The view from the teachers' college in the Negev Desert where I attended a Hebrew language program in 1969.

The view from the teachers’ college in the Negev Desert where I attended a Hebrew language program in 1969.

On my first visit to Israel, in 1969, I was in a group of about 100 students, from colleges all over the U.S., who would be part of a much larger group studying at Hebrew University’s School for Overseas Students (now the Rothberg International School) for the year. Because our knowledge of Hebrew was minimal at best, our group would spend seven weeks in the summer doing an ulpan–an immersive language course–at a teachers’ college  in the Negev desert.

Salad for breakfast?

Talk about culture shock! The program organizers had prepared us for lots of things: Don’t do drugs or you’ll be deported, know that you’ll have your bags searched at building entrances, remember that you need to buy special tokens to use a pay phone. But they didn’t tell us that Israelis eat salad for breakfast.

If you’ve ever been to an Israeli hotel, you know that breakfast is a sumptuous buffet of gorgeous salads, fruits, cheeses, fish and pastries. That’s not what we got at the teachers’ college. I kept a journal that year. Here is my description of breakfast at the ulpan:

The dining hall is one huge rectangular room filled with long tables. I am with Joan and another roommate. A fat Israeli woman in a grease-stained white apron motions us to a table. There are only two places. Joan and I sit there and our friend goes to the next table. To do otherwise would be to bring a stream of angry Hebrew down on our heads from the chick in the greasy apron.

The table is piled high with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, hard-boiled eggs, bread and muddy coffee. Midway through the meal, the fat Israeli comes around with a big bowl filled with an Israeli concoction similar to yogurt. “Leben please?” she asks, and slops out a ladle-full to all who so desire. Every morning it is the same.

Our tablemates unfortunately include several of the sorority types [I was a pseudo-hippie snob in those days], still wearing gobs of makeup even out here in the middle of the desert.

“God,” one of them whines. “Salad again! I think I’m going to turn into a tomato!” She giggles at her joke. Another fingers the bread. “Stale!” she says in disgust, replacing the slice. “That’s not all,” answers the first. “Yesterday I found an ant in the bread basket!”

We eventually got used to it. At the end of our stay in the desert, we had a goodbye party where every ulpan class did a skit. My class set our skit in the dining hall. We sang a song, to the tune of, “Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon…” More than 40 years later, I still remember it:

“Salad, salad, day and night, vegetables from green to white, make your stomach die of fright, that salad, salad, salad.”

At the end, the class clown came in dressed like the leben lady, in a greasy apron and black wig. One of the other students took the bowl of yogurt and dumped the contents on his head. It brought the house down.

Israeli Salad

Israeli Salad

Salad anytime!

Now I have a much healthier opinion of fresh vegetables for breakfast, or any time of day for that matter.

We often make “Israeli salad,” a very simple mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. Here’s how you make it:

Take a couple of small, firm, ripe tomatoes and a small, edible-skinned cucumber (e.g., Persian or Armenian), and dice them all into small pieces; you want an equal amount of tomato and cuke. Dice half a small onion and mix all the vegetables together. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Optional: add chopped red or green pepper, chopped hard-boiled egg, kalamata olives, chopped white cheese (e.g. white cheddar or Muenster) or crumbled feta cheese.

Because that one is so simple–more a method than a recipe–I thought I’d give you another Israeli recipe as well, the kind of dish you might find at an Israeli hotel buffet. Once you peel the carrots, separate the parsley leaves from the stems and separate the pomegranate seeds from the pith, making this salad is a snap!

(Helpful hint: quarter the pomegranate—carefully, because the juice will stain everything it touches—and then put the pieces into a large bowl of water before breaking them apart. The seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the pith will float to the top. Skim off the pith, and then drain the seeds in a strainer or colander.) 

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.)




Mindfulness with Geri Larkin in cooking and in eating


Buddhist author Geri Larkin cooking dinner in her Oregon kitchen.

Buddhist author Geri Larkin cooking dinner in her Oregon kitchen.

When people ask me why I keep kosher, which greatly limits what I eat, I answer that one of the reasons is that it helps me be mindful about food. I can’t put just anything into my mouth. First I have to be sure that the food itself is kosher. Then I have to be sure I’m not mixing meat or poultry with anything made from a dairy product. For me, this elevates eating into a holy act that connects me with the Jewish community and with more than 5,000 years of Jewish history.

Interested in reading more? I do plan to devote some future Feed the Spirit columns to the meaning of keeping kosher.

But, today, I’m turning farther East—to tell you a little about Buddhist mindfulness and food. When I read one chapter of Geri Larkin’s latest book, Close to the Ground, recently, I got a new appreciation for the idea of mindfulness. You can meet Geri today in a new in-depth author interview.

A factor in enlightenment

Geri is a well-known Buddhist writer after nearly two decades writing books for various publishers. In this, her 11th book, she turns to the nuts and bolts of enlightened living. She draws on a 2,000-year-old portion of Buddhist teaching that lists seven factors that can contribute to enlightenment, including mindfulness, energetic activity and joy.

Geri doesn’t give readers long sections of Buddhist analysis. Instead, she tells delightful stories of experiences that made her, and the people around her, vividly aware of these seven factors in their own lives.

In an interview, Geri said she was determined not to get “too Buddhist-y” in the book.

“Many Buddhist teachings and practices take years to appreciate and develop. It takes a long time in life to approach what might be called mature spirituality, but we have to start somewhere. And we all can start, every day, with small things we experience and choose to do,” she said.

Mindfulness in meal preparation

Carefully preparing meals can be an experience of mindfulness. Geri’s first experience in real cooking was at a Buddhist retreat, when she was asked to chop a box full of onions. She didn’t even know enough to peel the onions first, and hacked away at them with a dull knife, onion pieces flying everywhere.

Geri says since then she’s prepared countless meals, she’s eaten food at many retreats and she’s been served many meals as a guest. “And I can always tell when things were prepared mindfully, when the cooking itself was a spiritual practice,” she said.

She adds, “Whenever I want to know how I’m doing, vis a vis mindfulness, including today, all I have to do is look at an onion I’ve chopped up. The same is true for all fruits and vegetables. When the pieces are even and neat and piled somewhere carefully, mindfulness is in the air.”

Along the way, Geri became an accomplished cook. Her latest book includes this recipe, which will serve 4 to 6, depending on how hungry everyone is. (And many thanks to loyal reader and Read the Spirit contributor Debra Darvick for taking the time to make the recipe and photograph the result.)

Bolani: A vegetarian treat from Afghanistan for Ramadan

Feed the Spirit columnist Bobbie Lewis

Feed the Spirit columnist Bobbie Lewis

Parwin Anwar’s suburban Detroit home was bustling. She had offered to show me how to cook some of the dishes her family eats during Ramadan, which falls during the longer summer days this year. Her two daughters-in-law had come to enjoy the fruits of her labor, bringing with them two friends and three toddlers. The room hummed with activity and love.

In addition to learning how to make some Afghani foods, I wanted to get a sense of how Muslims cope with the month-long fast, especially when Ramadan falls in the summer when the days are so long. Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, with no correction to bring it in sync with the solar calendar, Ramadan occurs approximately 11 days earlier every year.

Ramadan: It’s a long, hard fast in the summer

Going without food and drink between dawn and dark would be hard enough in the winter, when there are about 10 hours of daylight. How much more difficult it must be in the summer months, when—in Michigan anyway—the fast stretches on for more than 15 hours. And, when it often is hot enough to easily dehydrate anyone, let alone a fasting person.

In Muslim countries, schools, stores and offices close or modify their hours so that people can eat and do their business after dark and sleep during some of the daylight hours. In countries where Muslims are a minority, Ramadan is a challenge.

Parwin Anwar with a platter of bulani.

Parwin Anwar with a platter of bolani.

Parwin says many women start shopping and cooking weeks in advance for Ramadan and for Eid al Fitr, the festival that marks its end. She often makes curries, soups and other dishes and freezes them for use during Ramadan. Then all she needs to do to make a meal after the fast is defrost something, cook up some rice or noodles and throw together a salad.

Iftar: Breaking the Ramadan fast

Muslims like to break the fast by eating dates and sipping water—something the Prophet Muhammad did to break his fast. Many then get together with family or friends for the iftar meal.

Parwin and her husband, Qadir, are empty nesters with four adult children. Every night during Ramadan they go to communal prayers at the mosque starting about an hour and a half after the fast. That doesn’t leave them much time to have a large meal.

“By the time we get home it’s close to midnight, and we don’t want to eat a lot,” said Parwin. “So we eat something simple before the prayers, then rest for a few hours. We eat our big meal for sohor (the pre-dawn meal)—around 2:30 or 3 a.m.—so we can be finished before daybreak.”

Parwin fries the stuffed bulani.

Parwin fries the stuffed bolani.

The Anwars’ Ramadan meals usually start with a soup. They often eat pakora—thin slices of potato dipped in a chickpea-flour batter and deep fried—and bolani, a pan-fried turnover filled with chopped scallions, pumpkin or potatoes. The meal often ends with fresh fruit.

Ramadan iftar favorites—
cooked with love … and memory

Getting a recipe from Parwin posed a problem. Like many traditional cooks, she does not measure her ingredients using standardized cups or weights. She knows from memory how much of what should go into each dish and she cooks by sight, feel and taste.

This week’s Feed the Spirit recipe for bolani—the Afghani stuffed fried bread that they enjoy in their home—was adapted from what I saw Parwin do in her kitchen and recipe resources I found online. The best online recipe I found comes from an Afghani family in Australia. The web page includes a good video showing how to make bolani and links to other Afghani recipes.


Wish your friends and colleagues well in Ramadan

To all my Muslim friends and readers: “Ramadan mubarak!” (That’s “A blessed Ramadan!”)

Would you like to greet Muslim friends and colleagues? All this week, the popular Our Values column is reporting on 5 surprising things about Ramadan—and the first column is about how to greet our Muslim neighbors. Want to read more about the holiday itself? Stephanie Fenton’s Holidays column has a complete report on the fasting month and the way it affects communities around the world. Finally, if you like this recipe, today, please share it with friends: Click the blue-“f” Facebook icons and “Like” this column and recipe; or you could click the little envelope-shaped icons and email this to a friend.

Enjoy a good movie after dinner? Film critic Ed McNulty serves up A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Best Films on Food and Faith, which includes Hollywood favorites as well as one feature film about fasting in Ramadan.

Come back next week!

Come back to Feed the Spirit next week, when I’ll share another one of Parwin’s recipes, along with the dramatic story of how she and her family left Afghanistan.

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

Bobbie Lewis in her kitchen, armed for this new challenge. BUT, the success of FeedTheSpirit ultimately depends on you, as readers, to share your stories, recipes, ideas and questions!

Bobbie Lewis in her kitchen, armed for this new challenge. BUT, the success of FeedTheSpirit ultimately depends on you, as readers, to share your stories, recipes, ideas and questions!

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.

recipe folder

My recipe file – you can see why it needs organizing!

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.