Blessings of growing your own: from lettuce to rhubarb crisp

Rhubarb growing in the gardenIn Judaism, there’s a blessing for everything, including the eating of food from plants: “Blessed are you, God, ruler of the universe, who creates food of the earth.” It seems especially appropriate when eating food you pick from your own garden because you can see the direct connection between the food and the earth.

There is something spiritual, almost magical, about growing your own food. You throw some tiny seeds onto the soil, and a few weeks later you can pick something delicious and nutritious.

Today, I’m giving you a delicious—and easy—recipe for rhubarb crisp. But, first, take a moment just to consider the joys of gardening. Do you share our passion? (Please, add a comment below.)

Do You Love Gardening This Much?

I never had a vegetable garden growing up. My mother hopefully planted a few blueberry and bush cherry shrubs, as well as a dwarf apple tree, but we never got any fruit from them. My first home as a married woman was in a ticky-tacky graduate student apartment building at Temple University in Philadelphia.

We lived on the ground floor of the mid-1960s era building. Our two windows looked out on the back of the building, a parking lot—and a small strip of lawn outlined by a cast iron fence. Someone on the resident activities committee had the bright idea to turn that little strip of grass into garden plots, and we eagerly signed up for one.

But, the apartment building had been constructed on the site of demolished Philadelphia row houses, and the little garden plots were full of broken bricks and hunks of concrete. We spent many hours digging and screening the soil. One hapless neighbor pulled an entire marble doorstep from her plot. Finally the soil was deemed suitably rock-free, and in went the tomato and pepper plants and the lettuce and cucumber seeds.

One night a few weeks later we were just getting to sleep when we were awakened by the gleam of a flashlight and cries of glee outside our window. “Oooh, look at that!” one neighbor called out. “Wow, is that a carrot?” marveled her roommate.

We had to ask the resident activities committee to decree that gardening be done in the daylight hours only. Since then, we’ve always had some sort of vegetable garden, even if it was only a few potted tomatoes on the windowsill of our second apartment, which was on the second floor.

Our first rhubarb plant

Our first rhubarb—producing just enough to enjoy!

Early lettuce and turnips

Early lettuce and turnips

The Long Odyssey
of the Prized Rhubarb Plant

In our garden, we now grow tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, beans, zucchini, eggplant and more. A few years ago we bought a rhubarb plant, and this year, for the first time, it produced enough rhubarb to eat.

Rhubarb developed in Asia, where for millennia it was valued for medicinal purposes. As an import to Europe, it was more valuable than cinnamon, opium and saffron. Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, a Castilian diplomat, wrote in the early 1400s of his stay in Samarkand, “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand (in Uzbekistan) was from China, especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls and rhubarb…”

Rhubarb had become very popular as a tasty dish by the 1700s. By the early 20th century, Americans were consuming 30 tons of it every year. But I had never even heard of rhubarb until I was at least 10, maybe older, and then it was something in stories about early American life, not something people I knew actually ate. I recently read a convincing theory that rhubarb fell out of favor in the latter part of the 20th century because of sugar rationing during World War II. Rhubarb is inedible without a lot of sweetener. With sugar in short supply, practical cooks in the 1940s turned to fruit, such as apples, for their pies and crumbles.

The edible part of rhubarb is the stalk; in fact, the leaves are toxic. The stalks, which resemble celery stalks, can be green tinged with pink or bright red, depending on the variety. Don’t try to eat them raw; they need to be stewed or baked. A surfeit of rhubarb can be easily frozen, either in whole stalks or cut in pieces. You can cook it directly from the freezer, without defrosting it first. Here is a simple recipe for Rhubarb Crisp that we made with the first batch we picked. I adapted it from a recipe I found on food.com, contributed by “Selfie,” a cook who proudly declared: “Mom’s recipe! Easy to make and easy to eat.”

Do you have a great rhubarb recipe to share? Or a comment about some other old-fashioned but newly discovered food? Are you looking forward to cooking with produce you’re growing yourself? Let us hear from you!

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Challah tops our list of holy breads

WELCOME to FeedTheSpirit with host Bobbie Lewis. 

Bobbie and Joe Lewis with our first challah!

Bobbie and Joe Lewis with our first challah!

BREAD is a cornerstone of faith and ritual, Lynne Meredith Golodner writes in her book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, the first in a series of books about the many ways food carries rich associations with religious traditions. In Judaism, Lynne points out, the bread known as challah is the hallmark of the weekly Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

What most people don’t know is that “challah” actually refers not to a loaf made with eggs and oil but to the separation of a small portion of the dough before the bread is baked. In Numbers (15:17-21) the Israelites were commanded to take some of the dough and give it to the Temple priests as a “contribution for the Lord.” Since the Temple no longer exists, we fulfill this commandment by taking a piece of dough at least the size of an olive and burning it. This small sacrifice also reminds us of the destruction of our holiest site. Separating and burning a piece of the dough is called “taking challah.”

How do you pronounce and spell challah?

One word; many spellings. I spell this type of bread with a “ch” because the first sound is guttural, like in the German “ach.” But below you’ll see it spelled with just an “h” because that’s the way the recipe creator spells it. It’s a Hebrew word – there’s no “correct” English spelling!)

How do you make challah?

Jewish Catalog

Our oft-used copy of The Jewish Catalog

For us, challah is a life-long tradition. Soon after my husband and I were married we bought The First Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit. It became our guide as we created new traditions of our own from ancient customs. The book had a whole chapter on challah, including recipes and diagrams showing how to make braids with three, four or even six ropes of dough.

That photo of Joe and me with our very first challah was taken in 1973. We’re smiling—but the truth is: That loaf was hard as a rock! Completely inedible! We literally used it as a doorstop. I’m guessing we didn’t let the dough rise properly.

Needless to say, we’ve gotten a lot better at bread baking! Since he retired a year and a half ago, Joe has been baking all our bread. He tried a bunch of different challah recipes, but has stuck with this one, adapted from The Hallah Book: Recipes, History, and Traditions by Freda Reider. We eat it every Friday night to welcome the Sabbath!

HOW DO YOU WEAVE OR BRAID A CHALLAH LOAF?

Don’t worry! It’s easier than it looks!

Many cookbooks have step-by-step photos and sketches, but millions of cooks go online these days. Joe and I just added to the YouTube collection of challah videos with this little gem we produced in under 2 minutes! Most braided challah instructions show three strands. Joe likes to use four! So, if you really want to impress friends and family with an elaborately woven loaf—check out this 2-minute video featuring Joe at work.

Tah Dah! A four-strand challah!

today's challah

We’ve gotten better at this!

And here we are with the finished product! I put myself in the picture for symmetry’s sake—I can’t take any credit for this one!

Another good challah recipe comes from one of my children’s favorite grade school teachers. Riva Thatch taught Hebrew at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, Mich. for many years, and gave this recipe to all her students. My daughter, Miriam Gardin, says she was impressed by Mrs. Thatch not only because she was an excellent teacher but because of her efforts to survive the Holocaust.

“It wasn’t just luck; it was a lot of her own initiative, strength and creativity that got her through,” Miriam says, looking back more than 20 years. “I also remember her teaching us that they made soap in the ghetto from ashes and I thought that was almost unbelievable. Soap from ashes? No way! But Mrs. Thatch was totally believable!”

You can find Mrs. Thatch’s wonderful recipe, along with many more, in Lynne Meredith Golodner’s new The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.

Now it’s your turn!

Have you ever made bread “from scratch”?

What did you learn from the experience?

What bread traditions reflect your faith or your family’s culture?

Please, this new project depends on you, our readers! In addition to leaving a comment or a question, you’ll help us spread the word by clicking on the Facebook button with this column and telling your friends.

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.