Bean soup from the Jews of Greece

I recently attended another program in the series “The Forgotten Jewish Refugees,” presented by our local Sephardic synagogue.

“Sephardic” usually refers to Jews who are descended from those who were kicked out of Spain and Portugal in the late 1400s. Many resettled in Northern Africa and the Middle East–but most of those areas already had Jewish communities dating from the time of the Romans. These are technically not Sephardic, but usually identify more with them than with the Ashkenazic Jews, descended from those who lived in Central and Eastern Europe.

The original Greek Jewish community is thought to have started in the first century BCE, when Jews were being taken to Rome as slaves after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the ships ran aground. Some of the prisoners made it to shore and settled among the Greeks in the area that would become Ioannina. This is thought to be the oldest Jewish settlement in Europe.

These “Romaniote” Jews kept themselves separate from the “newcomers,” the Sephardic Jews who arrived from Spain after 1492. They spoke Yevanic, a form of Judeo-Greek, while the Sephardim spoke Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish.

In the 12h century, traveler Benjamin of Tudela documented large Jewish communities in Corfu, Arta, Corinth, Thebes, Thessaloniki and other Greek towns.

By the early 20th century, about 40 percent of the population of Thessaloniki were Jews.

The Jewish population of Greece was savaged by the Holocaust; approximately 86 percent were slaughtered by the Italians and Germans. Today, only 4,000 to 6,000 Jews remain in Greece. Most of the others live in the U.S. or Israel.

As usual at these presentations, we were served a sample of several delectable Greek-Jewish foods. There were spinach and cheese burekas, salad with beets and feta cheese, baklava, sesame candy, and this delicious bean soup, called Fasolada.

As soon as I got home, I made a big pot. It’s easy to make, very tasty, and the perfect thing for a cold winter day.

I chopped the onion and grated the carrots in my food processor, and used bottled crushed garlic, making the prep very easy.

Making my grandmother’s rugelach


Margot Kahn is a writer-in-residence with Seattle Arts & Lectures and the author of the biography Horses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith. This article originally appeared (on August 17, 2015) on Tablet Magazine, at, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture.

My grandmother fled Poland in 1938 when she was 19 years old, bound for Cuba, where she and her mother and sister would spend two years before immigrating to the United States. She didn’t bring much with her from Poland, but she did bring recipes. Whether it was her chopped liver or her blintzes, her gefilte fish (from scratch) or her carrot ring, she brought the flavors of her old home to her new home.

She also baked—desserts from Europe, as well as purely American ones she mastered after she arrived. There were cheesecakes and pound cakes and rum balls to beat the band, but there were five standbys that she made the most: chocolate chip cookies, macaroons, banana cake with chocolate chips, “chocolate bar cake,” and rugelach.

Each of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren had their favorites, and she never wanted to be without someone’s dessert of choice, so she produced in quantity: Her freezer was full of aluminum-foil-wrapped, plastic-bagged baked goods. Whenever she came to visit she would bring a little something. “In case you have company,” she would say, stuffing another bag into our freezer with the rest. It became a nuisance and a joke. We’d open our freezer for a bag of peas, and a few of her frozen Bundt cakes would inevitably topple out. “More bar cake!” we would exclaim, opening another cold, silver package. No matter how well my grandmother’s baked goods had been wrapped, the taste always included a touch of freezer burn. But we still ate them. Her cakes and cookies were always the same, which left us wishing for something different, something new—until she died in 2012, at which point the last of the chocolate bar cake, the last of the cookies, became something rare and beautiful. They sat in my mother’s freezer drawer untouched. No one made fun anymore when a silver brick of baked goods fell out on their foot. These cookies were the last we would ever have made by my grandmother’s hands.

A year after my grandmother’s death, my parents sold their house of 30 years, and my mother realized she could not transport my grandmother’s cookies from one freezer to another. So, we ate the last of them. And then there were no more. Even though we had her recipes, nobody else in the family baked any of her famous desserts. Maybe no one craved chocolate bar cake—we’d eaten enough of it to be satiated for a lifetime. Or maybe nobody wanted to try to fill her shoes.

Trying Grandma’s recipes

But last Mother’s Day, some relatives were coming over for tea. Unlike my grandmother, I didn’t have a stockpile of treats from my freezer to serve. So, I opened her recipe book and made the chocolate bar cake myself. A simple shortbread-type cookie base layered with chocolate chips and a nut topping, it was quick and easy and completely delightful. As I shared the sweet squares with my family, I was struck by how much more delicious they were when they were fresh from the oven, rather than not-so-fresh from the freezer. I made them again, this time swapping out some of the white flour for whole wheat and some of the walnuts for pecans—superb!

Soon after that, I turned the page in my grandmother’s recipe book: banana cake. This recipe called for sour cream, a substance to which my husband has an extreme aversion. But I had a few old bananas, and my 4-year-old son loves anything with chocolate chips. So we got out the bowls and flour, butter, and eggs. My son brought a chair from the dining room and stood next to me at the kitchen counter. He did the scooping. I cracked the eggs. I used low-fat sour cream and coconut sugar instead of refined, but the result was just as moist and flavorful as my grandmother’s cake.

The next two pages I skipped: Chocolate chip cookies are already a standby in our house, and I’ve made them enough times to not need my grandmother’s recipe. Her macaroons I never actually liked, the recipe coming from a can of almond paste popular at the time. But then came the rugelach—a cookie that had grown on me over the years. These were, without a doubt, the most culturally significant and beloved tastes of my grandmother’s fare. What I noticed when I was young was how all the grown-ups reacted to the rugelach: Of all the desserts my grandmother churned out, the rugelach never failed to garner reactions of amazement and something close to rapture. Whatever disagreements the family might have, whatever familial tension in the room, no one ever argued about the rugelach. It was the cookie of peace. As I got older and tasted rugelach from other kitchens and bakeries, I started to realize what a gift my grandmother had. While a store-bought rugelach has little texture or taste, rugelach from my grandmother’s kitchen had the perfect mix of sweet and spice, flake and crunch.

If at first you don’t succeed…

I tried to make rugelach from my grandmother’s recipe once and failed, but after that first attempt, I’d learned a few things about working with dough from my pie-baker friend, Kate. Good rugelach, like a good pie, must be made by hand with a delicate touch. The dough and the filling are of equal importance. The dough must not be overworked, or else it will lose its lightness; the filling should taste divine all on its own, before it is baked into anything. Putting the two together will yield excellent results—if you remember a few key details: When making the dough, the ingredients need to be nice and warm. When rolling the dough out, it should be plenty cold—keeping the balls of dough in the fridge until the exact moment they are needed is key. Whacking the balls down with the end of a rolling pin until they are flat discs makes for a more consistent roll-out with far less handling of the dough. The less handling, the more flake.

Keeping Kate’s suggestions in mind, I tried again to make my grandmother’s rugelach. This time, when I opened my fridge for ingredients, I saw the red plum jam Kate had just made for me. The plums had come from our Japanese plum tree, and they were the sweetest, most delicious plums we’d ever eaten. The resulting jam was heavenly. My grandmother had always preferred apricot jam, but in a pinch she would use whatever she had on hand, which gave me the freedom to do the same. I didn’t have apricot jam in the pantry, so I took the plum. My new skills and the excellent jam matched up beautifully. My rugelach turned out subtle, flaky, and not completely misshapen. They reminded me very much of my grandmother’s rugelach, and yet with my little modifications they became completely my own.

I was the eldest of my grandmother’s six grandchildren, and I spent the most time with her, since we lived close by. While her children often chided her for spending too much time in the kitchen, I never faulted her for it. She took care of me for many years when my mother was single and needed help. Sitting at her kitchen table, she would tell me about her friends, her travels, her memories. When she was very old, she told me more than once that she felt I knew her better than anyone.

Since she died, I have tried to hold on to her by keeping some of her traditions: planting marigolds in the garden, squeezing orange juice fresh in the morning, wrapping my son in towels like a blintz after he bathes, lighting an extra Yahrzeit candle at holidays for those who have no one else to light one for them. And now, baking. I always wanted to record her voice on tape so that I would never forget the sound of it, and so I could play it for my son—but I never did, and my grandmother died when he was just a year old. So, baking isn’t just how I hold on to her; it’s also how I make sure my son gets to know her just a little: I show him how to scoop the flour, baking soda, baking powder. I show him how to mix the wet ingredients into the dry.

Together we have put my grandmother’s recipes back into heavy rotation. This week, my son and I have been eating banana cake for a snack every morning. Last week, I cut chocolate bar cake into thin slices and took it to the neighborhood block party down the street. I packed up a little bag of rugelach for my friend’s 40th birthday, and another to welcome a friend who just moved back to town. With each gesture, my grandmother is with us. This nourishing legacy is what I have left of her, and this is what I will pass on.

This  is Anna Zylberberg’s recipe adapted by Margot Kahn.


Seeds to Table helps feed a neighborhood

Urban farming is all the rage in many cities, and Detroit is no exception. Detroit may actually be out in the forefront because we have so much empty land here as a result of lots being cleared of houses so derelict and/or burned out that they’re beyond repair.

There are many blocks of Detroit with only a handful of occupied homes. Enterprising residents put the empty space to good use by growing garden crops in the summer. Some have added greenhouses to extend the growing season.

Some “urban farms” actually fill a whole city block or more. Others make use of just a single empty lot, maybe two.

Eden Gardens on the east side of Detroit is one of the smaller ones. It’s a cooperative effort of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS) and the Eden Gardens Block Club.

A synagogue known for urban outreach

The Downtown Synagogue was established in the 1920s. For many years it was a haven for people working in downtown Detroit who needed a quorum of 10 to say the daily memorial prayers.

As people and jobs moved away from the city, the synagogue was neglected. It was in danger of closing about 10 years ago when a group of young adults, representative of the Millennials who were moving back into the city from the suburbs where they grew up, discovered the tiny synagogue and revitalized it.

The congregation has become known for its community outreach and social justice programs like the Eden Gardens partnership.

For three summers, synagogue volunteers and Eden Gardens residents have joined to maintain a large community garden on two empty lots. The varied produce goes home with the volunteers or is used for the regular Sabbath dinners and  lunches at the synagogue.

In 2014  they added a rain catchment system to irrigate the crops. Previously, they had to haul water from nearby homes in wagons.

On January 24, the eve of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish “New Year of Trees,” the congregation rolled out a new project called Seeds to Table.

Nurturing seeds into plants

A small group of volunteers took home seeds, containers, growing medium and instructions for transforming the seeds into plantlets; they’ll report back about what works and what needs to be tweaked before the program’s official rollout later this winter.

Noah Purcell, 36, of Detroit, co-chairs Seeds to Tables with Erin Piasecki, a fellow at Repair the World: Detroit. They came up with the idea while cooking together in the synagogue’s kitchen one evening.

Synagogue and Eden Gardens partners regularly meet for meals called Building a Bridge Over Dinner. Seeds to Tables materials will be distributed at the February and March dinners.

In the spring the program coordinators will invite the seed growers to a “transplant day” at the community garden, encourage them to care for “their” plants through the summer, and bring them back to the Downtown Synagogue in the fall for a harvest dinner.

“How wonderful will it be when we invite those same folks to IADS to eat meals featuring the plants they nurtured from seeds?” asked Noah, an energy analyst for EcoWorks, a Detroit nonprofit. “We think it will be pretty special.”

What kind of recipe would go well with this article, I wondered? Well, my recipe for Massaged Kale Salad last July went over pretty well, and kale was a major crop at Eden Gardens, and it’s available in stores all winter, so here’s another yummy kale salad. Massage the kale in this one too; it makes the kale much easier to chew.


An apple renaissance

Are we in the midst of an apple renaissance?

Every time I go to the fruit market, it seems, there are new types of apples that I hadn’t heard of just a few years ago: Pink Lady, Cripp’s Pink, Cameo, Ambrosia and more.

And then there’s the Honeycrisp, the current darling of apple lovers, usually 50 cents to $1.50 more per pound than less exalted varieties.

Honeycrisp was one of the first of a new breed of apple called “club apples” – varieties that are controlled in such a way that only a select “club” of farmers, who pay for the pleasure, can grow them.

Some new apples start by happy accident: a mutation in the orchard that is then reproduced by grafting.

Other new types come about when growers intentionally cross two or more existing varieties in order to create an apple with the best characteristics of its parent fruit.

Sons of Honeycrisp

Honeycrisp was created by cross-pollination at the University of Minnesota in 1991. It is crisp and juicy but the flavor is inconsistent and it doesn’t do well in long storage. It is also difficult to grow.

So even though customers are now snapping it up at premium prices, growers are already  hard at work looking for its successor.

One may be Cosmic Crisp, developed in 1997 at Washington State University.

So many growers were interested in it that the university held a lottery for Washington growers to see who would get the privilege.

SweeTango, also derived from Honeycrisp, was introduced in 2008; it ripens a month earlier than Honeycrisp and is said to have a zestier flavor. Two more Honeycrisp descendants, Juici and one currently named MN55 (a more appealing name is being discussed) will be available in 2017.

“Club” varieties

The “club varieties” are offered by the breeders to a limited number of growers, and the name is trademarked. No one who isn’t in the “club” is allowed to grow these apples.

The patents don’t last forever; Honeycrisp’s patent has expired.

Of course other breeders and growers can come up with something very similar – they’ll just have to give it a different name, one that may be less familiar to the buying public and may be much more difficult to market.

Tim Byrne, president of the Next Big Thing cooperative that is handling the SweeTango, says the club model has several advantages. The coop can control the quality of the fruit by managing the growing, harvesting, packaging and marketing.

They also control quantity, producing enough to satisfy customers but not so much that they drive down prices.

As various types of apples compete for shelf space, the marketing muscle of the managed brands will give them an advantage.

Another coop, the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, is selling another child of Honeycrisp, the EverCrisp. But their club is less exclusive than Next Big Thing, and anyone can join. If you want to grow Ever Crisp, you just have to join the club and pay your dues.

Here’s a nice recipe for Apple Pie Muffins that was posted by Jan Brown on the Allrecipes website.

The Red Delicious Apple: What went wrong?

When I was young we had only a few variety of apples to choose from at our local markets. There were McIntosh, which I didn’t like because they were soft to the bite, the great big Romes that were good for baking, and, occasionally, Jonathan, Winesap, Northern Spy and Ida Red.

And then there were the Red Delicious and Yellow Delicious, which were ubtquitous, especially the reds. Both were delightfully crunchy and sweet.

Michigan Red Delicious  are still similar to those of my childhood, but somewhere along the line, the Washington Red Delicious, the most common apple in America, went off the rails.

Originally a roundish, mostly golden fruit blushed with red, it became a huge, dark red, almost oblong monstrosity with bitter skin and mushy flesh. Bleah!

The rise of the Red Declicious

In an article in Atlantic from September, 2014, Sarah Yager gives an interesting history of the rise and ongoing fall of the Red Delicious apple, which has dominated apple production in the U.S. for more than 70 years.

Its history starts in 1893, when Stark Brothers’ Nursery in Missouri held a contest to find a replacement for the Ben Davis apple, then the most widely planted variety in the country.

Jesse Hiatt, an Iowa farmer, submitted a new variety of apple that had grown from a mutant seedling in his orchard. He called it the Hawkeye. Clarence Stark, president of the company sponsoring the contest, reportedly took a bite and said, “My, that’s delicious!”

Stark Brothers secured rights to the Hawkeye and changed its name to Stark Delicious. (When the Golden Delicious came out in 1914, the earlier variety was rebranded the Red Delicious.)

Clarence Stark spent a small fortune promoting the new apple, which quickly became a favorite of growers and apple lovers.

In 1923, a chance genetic mutation resulted in apples that reddened earlier and had a deeper, more uniform color. The Gettysburg Times called it “the marvel apple of the age.” Growers began to seek out and cultivate similar mutations.

Shoppers loved the uniform deep red color and sweet taste. Unfortunately, the growers began to prefer apple genes that produced beauty over those that produced good taste. They developed Red Delicious varieties tolerant to being stored in warehouses for up to 12 months. Red Delicious skins grew tough and bitter and the fruit became extra-sugary and mushy.

Washington apparently has the ideal environment for growing the redder and more oblong apples  (which may explain why Michigan Red Delicious apples are still smaller, lighter in color—and tastier).

By the 1980s, Red Delicious accounted for up to 75 percent of Washington State’s apples, where the market was controlled by a few big nurseries.

The fall of the Red Delicious

People bought them, but they didn’t like them. How many thousands of pounds of them were discarded after one bite? The Red Delicious became “the largest compost-maker in the country,” said Timothy Buford, author of Apples of North America.

In the 1990s, new varieties of apples originally developed for overseas markets–such as Gala and Fuji–started becoming popular in America, leaving the Washington growers with a surplus of Red Delicious.

Since then, Red Delicious production has declined by more than 40 percent. By 2003, Red Delicious accounted for only 37 percent of the Washington crop. While it’s still the most common U.S. apple, a greater percentage of the harvest is being shipped abroad. The biggest markets for Red Delicious now are in Southeast Asia.

Despite its decline, many Washington growers think there will always be a market for Red Delicious. Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and retired orchardist in Pittsboro, N.C., disagrees, feeling the Red Delicious is “an apple that has done its duty and is on its way out”–like so many heirloom varieties that preceded it.

Coming soon: What’s the story with all these new apples?

Red Delicious apples are not usually good for cooking, but they work well in the recipe below, especially if you can get the smaller, pinker Red Delicious, not the giant, thick-skinned type. This recipe isn’t that hard to make but it has a real “wow” factor! The recipe comes from the Detroit Free Press, which also has a video showing how to make the dish.


Aunt Helen’s 30-Day Cake

Today’s piece is by veteran journalist Desiree Cooper, who describes herself on her “Detroit Snob” website this way: “As the editor of the alternative newsweekly, the Metro Times, and a columnist with the Detroit Free Press for 11 years, Cooper was well-regarded as a compassionate writer who gave voice to the city’s everyday heroes. ​In 2009, she reinvented herself as a blogger, author and content specialist for non-profit organizations.” (And she has the cutest grandson in the world!)

By way of full-disclosure, she says Aunt Helen has never shared her recipe for 30-Day Cake. Desiree put the recipe together after doing some online research, but she hasn’t tried it yet – after all, it takes 30 days to make!

They weren’t born relatives, but circumstances made them sisters: two African American Air Force brides on the small Japanese island of Kyushu in the late 1950’s.

Back then, Helen Jennings was already the mother of four boys. My mother, Barbara, had been struggling with infertility, but was finally expecting her first child (me!). For my mom, it was a gift from God to find a sister who could help her navigate new motherhood when she was so far away from home.

Even after our families left Japan, we remained close friends. Helen’s family settled outside of Baltimore, Maryland. My parents moved to the Virginia Beach area. All my life, “Aunt Helen” has been my godmother and prayer warrior. I was the little girl she never had, and she was my fairy godmother.

Now 85, she’s never missed my birthday (all 55 of them). In between special occasions, a package from Aunt Helen would often appear on my doorstep with surprise finds at unbelievable prices (eventually she had five boys and became an expert at bargain-hunting).

Christmas brought the best gift

But the best gift came at Christmas. That’s when I’d receive one of Aunt Helen’s special “30-day” cakes chock full of coconut, walnuts, pineapples, raisins and so much love.

The cake was made from a starter that she reused over the years, linking each Christmas to the one before. The outcome was a moist, gourmet cousin of the fruitcake–except Aunt Helen’s cakes never lasted long enough to be re-gifted.

Helen and Barbara’s friendship suffered after my mother’s slowly encroaching Alzheimer’s made it difficult to stay connected. These days, they rarely see each other. My mother has become isolated, and as both couples aged, the five-hour drive between their homes may as well have been 500.

Aunt Helen and I continued to communicate when my mother couldn’t, me trying to fill my mother’s shoes as Aunt Helen’s “sister.”

A tragedy and a reunion

This year, Aunt Helen and her husband, Uncle Ollie, lost their home of nearly 60 years to a fire. Aunt Helen has survived cancer. My mother is slipping further into dementia, making it hard to even stay in contact by phone. So my god-brothers and I decided it was time to bring the sisters together again.

On the day of their surprise reunion in Maryland, Aunt Helen’s mouth flew open and the tears flowed as my mother knelt before her and put her head on her sister’s lap. They’d held hands through young womanhood and through mid-life. Now they were back together to support each other through life’s last journey.

Aunt Helen hopes that she’ll be able to move into her new home in February. I check on her now and then, worried that she will sink into despair while she waits. How do you overcome losing your family home, along with all of your treasures, so late in life?

But that’s not my Aunt Helen. She has taught me so much about faith and sisterhood. Even without the convenience of her own kitchen, Aunt Helen baked and sent us our 30-Day cakes in time for Christmas!

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.