Bubbie’s Latkes

latkes 2 wikiAs the eight-day holiday of Chanukah starts, we present Susan Gartenberg’s remembrance of her grandmother’s potato pancakes (latkes in Yiddish). This dish is traditional for Chanukah because it is fried in oil, recalling the Chanukah miracle when one day’s oil in the rededicated Temple lasted for eight days. Susan Gartenberg grew up in Detroit and is a retired preschool and elementary school educator. Her three grandchildren now enjoy their bubbie’s latkes!

Susan Gartenberg

Susan Gartenberg

My bubbie made the best potato latkes and coffee cakes!

Like many Jewish grandmothers in those days, she never had a recipe.

One day, when my children were very young, Bubbie came to help me make latkes. She wore her usual cotton house dress with a zipper in front. She put on a cotton print apron and watched me peel potatoes.

“Oy vay, you’re wasting half the potatoes!” she cried as I continued peeling with my fancy new left-handed peeler.

She took over and, one-two-three, those potatoes were peeled! I invited more families to celebrate Chanukah with us, and before I knew it, we had 15 pounds of potatoes

Many Chanukah menorahs use oil instead of candles to commemorate the Chanukah miracle.

Many Chanukah menorahs use oil instead of candles to commemorate the Chanukah miracle.

peeled and grated by hand (no food processors in those days)!

We fried the latkes, overwhelming our guests with the aroma.

Nothing was too much for Bubbie, not even 50 guests for Chanukah.

Bubbie’s coffee cakes were known throughout our community. She kneaded the dough filled with cinnamon and raisins and allowed it to rise, covered with a cloth, on the top of her gas stove, then baked the cakes in white enamel pans with red trim.

After baking she would cover the warm cakes with a kitchen towel and place them in an empty cardboard tomato  basket. Some of the cakes remained on the stove in her home so she could greet guests with tea and cake and a “shtekel” (cube of) sugar.

My zadie believed women shouldn’t drive, so Bubbie, wearing a flowered front-zippered housedress and a white sweater, and I would walk – and

Susan and her bubbie, Esther LeZebik

Susan and her bubbie, Esther LeZebik

walk, and walk – to bring her fragrant coffee cakes and latkes to family and friends for the holiday.

I could never replicate the coffee cakes but I can remember that the most important ingredient was the love Bubbie incorporated into every recipe. I can feel it even as I remember her cooking.

Another thing I remember is that I, as the first grandchild, could do no wrong in Bubbie’s eyes.
When my mother would become  angry at me for some childish infraction, Bubbie would say, in Yiddish,  “She won’t do it again.”  I always felt very special and very loved.

The recipe below is adapted from Epicurious.



Grandma’s Stove

Today’s piece is by Sharon Buttry, an ordained pastor in the American Baptist Church and licensed a social worker. She works as associate director of training and education at the International Hope Center based in Hamtramck, Michigan, and is active in civic affairs and interfaith work. Sharon is married to Dan Buttry, the international peacemaker who frequently contributes to Read the Spirit.

Sharon Buttry with her replica antique wood cook stove.

Sharon Buttry with her replica antique wood cook stove.

Every summer during my childhood my family traveled from central Ohio to southern Illinois to visit my grandparents. They lived in a sturdy old farmhouse up in Pancake Holler, one turn off the Mississippi river road between Pleasant Hill and Grafton.

I loved watching my Grandma Crader take biscuits, cherry pie, and roasted, stuffed chicken out of her old wood cook stove. She had a water pump in the kitchen too! The big silver handle on the pump required a strong arm to get a steady stream of water from the ground to the kettle. And that chicken–well, it was alive earlier that morning. And the cherries in the pie–they came from my favorite tree to climb, right outside the kitchen door.

My grandma knew how to do things that my mother also knows how to do, but no longer “has” to, being a modern woman with a modern kitchen.

Sharon's grandmother, NAME, in 1912 when she was 17.

Sharon’s grandmother, Cordelia Jane Crader, in 1912 when she was 17.

A connection to Grandma

One of my dreams came true this year, when I installed a wood cookstove in my Hamtramck, MI kitchen. My wood stove is my connection to my grandma and the pioneer strength and spirit I so admired in her.

We bought an old house in Hamtramck in 2008. It had a leaky roof and needed a lot of work. We put in our own sweat equity and the rest we contracted out with the vocational training program that is one component of the ministry where I serve part-time in Hamtramck.

We tore out some walls to expand the kitchen to make room for the Elmira wood cook stove I found on Craigslist. It was not an antique but a replica, so we could meet the fire code standards required by the city for installation.

We bought a load of antique salvage bricks in nearby Highland Park and my neighbor bought a diamond masonry saw blade from Arizona to slice the bricks into “tiles” to make a firewall behind the stove. My husband and I cruised around north Detroit looking for downed trees near curbs. We found and sawed enough wood for the winter. A neighbor took down an elm tree and offered us enough wood for a second winter.

Fire in the hole!

Cooking the old-fashioned way requires a supply of wood. (Photo by Priit Tammets via Flickr Creative Commons.)

Cooking the old-fashioned way requires a supply of wood. (Photo by Priit Tammets via Flickr Creative Commons.)

The stove and stack installation was done by Alpha and Omega (www.alphomegachimney.com). They are experts and I highly recommend them if you are installing any kind of fireplace or wood stove. The straight stack chimney they built created a strong draw for the firing up of my stove and looks very beautiful from the street.

A retired chimney sweep (another neighbor’s Dad) came for the first “fire up” and showed me how to build a slow but steady fire so I wouldn’t over-fire and damage my stove. The little thermometer on the oven crept up to 250 degrees after an hour and a half.

The Elmira stove is fabulous! Lighting a fire and getting it to draw up the chimney could not be easier.

Using it gives me a profound resurgence of respect for my grandmother and the tedious task of coaxing a stove up to baking temperatures. The fact is, I haven’t mastered it yet. I need “hotter’ wood than I currently have–like sugar maple, hickory or apple–to get my oven hot enough to bake bread, pies or cookies.

I remember now that besides giving birth at home and raising 12 children, my grandma worked as a seasonal worker in the apple orchards near the homestead. I am wondering now if she bartered for apple wood! So now I am back on Craigslist and putting the word out looking for free wood of these varieties.

Using a stove like a slow cooker

Sharon hopes to cook a complete Thanksgiving dinner on her wood stove. (Photo by Jypsygen via Flickr Creative Commons.)

Sharon hopes to cook a complete Thanksgiving dinner on her wood stove. (Photo by Jypsygen via Flickr Creative Commons.)

I currently use my wood stovetop for cooking evening meals that require skillets and covered saucepans. I installed a pot-filler water faucet next to the stoves so that as I get older I won’t have to carry heavy pans of water from the kitchen sink to the stove.

I capture the stovetop heat in large pans and in the tea kettle (see photo) that the editor of this blog kindly gave to me in exchange for a donation to WISDOM, a Detroit-area women’s interfaith organization. The kettle belonged to her grandmother, and I enjoy it so much! I use the hot water for cooking and for washing dishes and sometimes for a bath in my claw-foot tub after a long hard night of cooking!

Since I can get the oven up to only 250 degrees with my current woodstock, I treat my oven like a slow cooker, similar to a crock pot. I slow roasted a whole chicken as my first experiment. I marinated the chicken for two hours while I got my stove up to temperature. I also marinated small sweet peppers (red, yellow and orange) with lemon slices, using a quarter-cup of olive oil, a quarter cup of lemon juice and a little salt and pepper). I started the process so late in the day, I had to set my alarm for 2 a.m. to get the chicken out of the oven!

As time goes on, I hope to become maybe one-third as proficient as my grandmother in the art of wood stove cooking. If I get some red oak to use as fuel, I may even try to roast a small turkey for Thanksgiving. My son is bringing his fiancé over for the day. I wonder what she will think as I pull my slow-cooked squash and stuffing dishes out of the Elmira stove?

Meanwhile, here is Grandma Crader’s standard poultry stuffing “receipt.” (The photo is by Danny Howard via Flickr Creative Commons.)

Sorry, Charlie, we don’t like tuna much anymore!

Tuna sandwich, photo by Jeffrey W via Flickr Creative Commons

Tuna sandwich, photo by Jeffrey W via Flickr Creative Commons

The information in this blog comes primarily from a longer article  by Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post in August, 2014.

When my daughter was in school, she took tuna sandwiches for lunch almost every day. But later, when she was pregnant or nursing, she had to give it up except on very rare occasions: Her doctor told her it contained too much mercury, which was a threat to the baby. She’s a perfect illustration of a national phenomenon.

Tuna at a Tokyo fish market; photo by Jay Bergesen via Flickr Creative Commons

Tuna at a Tokyo fish market; photo by Jay Bergesen via Flickr Creative Commons

For five decades, from 1950 to 2000, canned tuna was America’s favorite seafood. It was a staple in 85 percent of American households. One of the first dishes I learned to cook in junior high cooking class (along with many American girls of the era) was tuna-noodle casserole, that all-American classic combining a half-pound of egg noodles (cooked), a can of tuna (drained and flaked) and a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup, topped with canned French-fried onions and baked till bubbly. You can be fancy and gussy it up with frozen peas, fresh mushrooms or the like, but say “tuna-noodle casserole” and just about everyone will know what you mean.

But since the 1980s, tuna has become increasingly unpopular.

A 20th century phenomenon

Tuna peaked and faded within the 20th century. Americans didn’t even know what tuna was before 1900, says Andrew Smith, author of American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Fish.

Americans didn’t eat much fish at all, consuming a per capita average of only seven pounds a year, compared to nearly 60 pounds of beef, more than 60 pounds of pork, and more than 15 pounds of chicken, according to US Department of Agriculture estimates. Most of what they did eat was fresh or cured, a bit of it was frozen, and most of it was salmon.

In the early 20th century, new fishing technologies enabled fishermen to catch 40-pound tunas, and canners found a way to remove the excess oil, creating a product that tasted more like chicken than like seawater. It was high in protein, low in fat – and low in price.

Annual per capita consumption of canned tuna jumped. Except for the World War II years, when nothing was available from Japanese fishermen, Americans ate more tuna every year. For those of you who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, here’s a vintage Starkist Tuna ad featuring the inimitable Charlie Tuna. …

Then, between 1999 and 2013, canned seafood sales (of which tuna is by far the leading variety) fell by 30 percent, and accounted for only 16 percent of all US fish and seafood consumption.

A variety of factors

What happened? The decline can be blamed on a variety of factors:

  • Health concerns: Tuna absorbs  methylmercury, and consuming it can have a negative affect on many aspects of health. In 1970, after testing canned tuna and finding unsafe levels of mercury, the US Food and Drug Administration recalled almost 1 million cans of the fish. The National Fisheries Institute blames misreporting of the 1970s data and points to the nutritional benefit of canned tuna. But many  groups, including the Environmental Protection Agency, recommend limiting tuna intake.
  • Many tuna brands advertise that they are "dolphin safe."

    Many tuna brands advertise that they are “dolphin safe.”

    A concern about dolphins: Tuna fishing, which uses nets, can kill dolphins, sharks and other fish that share the same waters. In the late 1980s, consumers began boycotting tuna out of concern for dolphins. Some canners began buying from fishermen who didn’t  harm dolphins, labeling their products “dolphin safe,” and the USDA created a legal definition for that term. The US also prohibited importation of tuna from countries whose fleets killed more dolphins than US fishermen did. The “dolphin safe” label does not entirely satisfy many American consumers, who remain leery about buying tuna because of the danger of tuna fishing to dolphins.

  • Expense: Tuna isn’t as cheap as it once was, partly due to a declining supply. Canned tuna is now more expensive than canned salmon. If the price of the tuna brand you buy has not gone up in the past few years, you can bet the size of the can has decreased.
  • A preference for fresh food: Americans are less interested in canned foods of all kinds, and instead prefer fresh.
  • A distrust of imported food: Many people don’t trust animal products produced in Asia or South America. Starkist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea control nearly three-quarters of the US canned tuna market, but all three are foreign-owned.

Market monitors expect canned seafood sales volumes to dip by an additional 3 percent by 2018.

Me, I still love a nice tuna salad made with celery, scallion and mayo with lettuce and tomato on multigrain bread. The tuna salad recipe below includes macaroni, so it’s not for sandwiches. It’s a great picnic dish, but also good for potlucks and school or office lunches.



Meet the Candy Man

Walter Blake Knoblock, the Bocandy man.

Walter Blake Knoblock, the Bocandy man.

This piece, by Kim North Shine, is reprinted with permission from Metromode, a monthly e-magazine for Southeast Michigan, originally posted on May 22, 2014. All Photos by David Lewinski Photography.

The contents of one month's Bocandy package.

The contents of one month’s Bocandy package.

Walter Blake Knoblock is a grown-up kid in a candy store, his own 21st century version: an online, global, social-media driven start-up he hopes will balloon into other businesses. His model? Monthly subscriptions for treats and snacks delivered to doorsteps everywhere and anywhere.

The first version of his membership-based, online pre-order biz for premium treats is Bocandy.com.

Knoblock started Bocandy nearly five months ago and just over 100 subscribers are signed up. For $9 a month [now $11, with half-sizes available for $8 – Ed.]  they receive Bocandy’s candy apple red bubble envelope filled with 7-10 candies from around the world.

Knoblock’s newly formed relationship with candy wholesalers in Chicago and New York, means an unexpected treat – roasted seaweed, anyone? – from another continent will be thrown in.  Bocandy.com subscribers come from metro Detroit, but the bulk are from other states and other countries, he says.

Bocandy comes packaged in a distinctive red bubble envelope.

Bocandy comes packaged in a distinctive red bubble envelope.

Rekindling childhood memories

Some Bocandy customers are looking for a reunion with the candy of their childhood, often products they left behind when they took jobs in other countries. Some subscribers are candy adventurers who want to break away from America’s M&M, Mars, Hershey monopoly to more exotic or unusual confections. Other Bocandy buyers are gift givers looking for that something different.

“Yesterday I got about five orders: Virginia Beach to Miami to El Paso and Utah,” he says. “Some are organic traffic. Some are Facebook ads…One of my goals is I want people to form a relationship with Bocandy.”

Knoblock’s business is small enough to make that happen. He hears personal stories about pining for tartouche from Lebanon or an Aero bar from the U.K.

He uses a low-tech customer service survey that’s an email with a tracking number and a quick, 300-word welcome appeal to tell why they came to Bocandy. “No wasted trees, and people are more apt to reply to an email rather than a survey that I could have sent with the candy.”

“I’ve had three or four people say they remembered from their childhood one particular hard candy from Holland. People talk about the memories the candy brings back,” he says. “What I want is to make this fun. When it comes down to it what I’m not selling is sugar. In my mind, what I’m selling is an experience. Once a month you get this fun present… a red package, easy to see so you know what it is and when you open it up it gives you something you really can’t get anywhere else.”

Bocandy delivers treats and a cultural hello without the travel: Relleritos from Mexico, Pipp Bars from Iceland, Konpeito from Japan, Hitschler Softi from Germany.

“It’s not sitting down and going to a lecture or whatever, but it’ s a little introduction to something from another culture.”

Knoblock runs Bocandy from his Detroit apartment, where he is website designer and operator, e-sales management, inventory control (don’t eat the merchandise), accountant, packager, marketer, and salesperson. It’s a one-man Willy-Wonka-esque operation with the only nearby river being the Detroit, not one made of chocolate.

The candy idea came to him one day, and he started building the website, writing code, etc. the next.

Walter loves his candy!

Walter loves his candy!

Everyone loves candy

“I figured it was the easiest market to get into and the easiest thing to sell…You can go into a gas station, grocery store, any retail counter and what do you always see? Candy and cigarettes,” he says.

“I’m not going to sell cigarettes. Candy is the logical thing. It gives people immediate satisfaction,” says Knoblock, who has a sweet tooth and also sees himself as an accomplished snacker. (His discovery of trout jerky has him planning to start Bojerky.com by fall.)

He got the business off the ground with a $5,000 grant from Start Garden, an unconventional venture capital fund founded by Rick DeVos and based in Grand Rapids. It invests in more than a hundred ideas a year in small increments. Today, Knoblock goes back with sales to ask a second round of support.

Like one of the world’s most famous candy entrepreneurs, the 25 year-old Knoblock is launching his candy career at a young age. The founder of Hershey’s Chocolate started his candy-making company at age 18.

But lest you think he’s playing catch-up, candy wasn’t the first of Knoblock’s entrepreneurial endeavors.

From comedy to candy

In college he was a standup comedian. He gave that up when he tired of the travel. He then solicited and compiled writings for his Great Lakes Book Project, which was nominated for a Michigan Notable Book in 2013. His foray into publishing gave him the knowledge that bookstores rely on things other than books for sales, and he launched a line of stickers and bookmarks that are sold in 200 stores nationwide.

Early on Knoblock tapped his candy memory bank trips to Mexico, Canada and backpacking from Amsterdam to Sicily  to gather international products for the mail-order company. The Traverse City native went to school in England and Mexico and then closer to home at Hillsdale College and eventually Eastern Michigan.

“In my mind I had candies I wanted in the first few shipments,” he says. “Now I’ve exhausted the ones of my own experience.”

That sent him on a search for candy importers and new product. He found them in Chicago and New York.

“Now I can buy in quantity, and I’m dealing with people who have been doing it for years and years and are importing all these cool candies,” he says. “Every day I learn something more about how to run this business.”

Research is a big part of Knoblock’s days. It’s put him on international calls to candy shops and factories and in possession of factoid fodder for Facebook posts and Tweets.

Did you know World War II soldiers were given Tootsie Rolls with their rations because they held up over time and in all kinds of weather? Or that Oregon can claim the most searches for gluten-free candy; Alabama the most for candy corn? Knoblock has made it his mission to educate his candy lovin’ customers.

Is there a downside to running a candy business? Depends on your point of view.

“Inevitably,” Knoblock says, “I will have leftovers.”

Few people actually make candy, but here’s a very easy recipe you can make at home.

Chili is perfect for chilly days

Chili with chorizo, photo by Jeffrey W via Flickr Creative Commons

Chili with chorizo, photo by Jeffrey W via Flickr Creative Commons

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

Chili con carne, photo by JaBB via Flickr Creative Commons

Chili con carne, photo by JaBB via Flickr Creative Commons

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 dished up chili from stands on San Antonio's Military Plaza.

The Chili Queens dished up chili from stands on San Antonio’s Military Plaza.

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.

Coney dog, photo by Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons

Coney dog, photo by Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons

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

Grapevines shade my husband's garden swing.

Grapevines shade my husband’s garden swing.

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.

Grapes on the vine!

Grapes on the vine!

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.






What to Do with That Etrog?


Etrogs growing, photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons

Etrogs growing, photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons

This article by Toby Sonneman originally appeared in Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. Toby Sonneman is the author of Lemon: A Global History and is working on a website www.thegreyfolder.com, an intensive search for how the Holocaust affected her family.

The etrog, or citron, which looks like a large, lumpy lemon, plays an important ritual role in the Jewish festival of Sukkot. People pay big bucks to get a particularly beautiful specimen. (For a humorous look at the importance of the etrog during Sukkot, rent the Israeli film Ushpizin.)

An alternate pronunciation of the word, common among Jews from Eastern Europe, is “esrog.” The plural is etrogim or esrogim.

This year Sukkot began at sundown on September27, 2015 and ends at sundown on October 5. Toby discusses what to do with etrogim after the holiday is over.

An etrog looks like a large, lumpy lemon.

An etrog looks like a large, lumpy lemon.

There’s a Yiddish expression to describe something that has no value: “an etrog after Sukkot.” Considering that an etrog can cost $30 or more before Sukkot—the holiday in which this citrus fruit is ritually important—and yet seems to be worth nothing once the holiday ends, it’s an apt expression.

So, what can you do with an etrog after Sukkot? It would be wasteful as well as disrespectful to simply toss this exotic fruit in the garbage — especially when there are, in fact, many uses for it.

There is a rich folklore of Jewish customs concerning the post-holiday etrog.

A woman’s thing

Traditionally, once it was retired from its ritual role, the etrog was turned over to women for secular uses. In The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, Michael Strassfeld notes that the fruit, with its breastlike shape, was considered to have a special relationship to women, and a variety of Old World practices connected it to pregnancy and birth.

Etrog marmelade, photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons

Etrog marmelade, photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons

A childless woman who wanted to bear a son was advised to bite the pitom (tip) of an etrog. A pregnant woman who ate the etrog after Sukkot, according to the Talmud, would give birth to a “fragrant” child – the equivalent of a “good” child. And a woman in labor could ease the pain of childbirth, it was said, by placing the etrog’s pitom under her pillow.

The belief that the etrog could ease the pains of childbirth also extended to jam or jelly made from the fruit. My grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Russia, soaked etrog peel for days to decrease its bitterness and made it into marmalade, saving the precious jars of golden preserves to give to postpartum mothers, including my own mother, to help them recover their strength after childbirth.

There are other classic ways of preserving etrog, or citron, that have less to do with folk wisdom and more to do with traditional uses of citrus fruits in general.

Citron-infused liqueur

The etrog can lend itself to a number of drinks. After Sukkot, John Kirkpatrick, an etrog-farmer in California, sells great quantities of the remaining fruit, as well as a related citron called Buddha’s Hand, to St. George Spirits for its citron-infused vodka.

In Italy, a liqueur described as “the noble cousin of limoncello” is made with the rind of citron rather than lemon; Zaide Reuven, a Dallas supplier of etrog-and-lulav sets (willow and palm branches used in Sukkot services) and author of The Esrog, calls such a liqueur “etrog schnapps” and provides a simple recipe (see below). The citron peel could also be used to flavor other beverages, such as lemonade or sangria.

Remember, Jews aren’t the only people who use the etrog. Candied citron, in particular, has a long non-Jewish history. Since the 15th century, when citron peels were soaked in seawater brine for

The etrog has much more pith and much less juice than a lemon; photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons.

The etrog has much more pith and much less juice than a lemon; photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons.

40 days before being submerged in a sugar solution, it has been a signature flavor of Christmas cakes such as Italian panettone and English fruitcake.

David Lebovitz, a pastry chef and cookbook author who lives in Paris, has experimented with making candied and glazed citrons. (As with all culinary uses of the etrog, it’s always a good idea to wash and scrub the peel to reduce any pesticide residue.)

Candied citron and citron preserves are fundamental to pastry making in Sicily, where the etrog (cedro, in Italian) is grown and sold. Tourists, seeing these giant citrons for sale alongside lemons and oranges at fruit stands, often remark that these are the largest lemons they’ve ever seen. But if they buy one expecting to find abundant juice, they soon realize their mistake: The pulp of the etrog is seedy and dry.

The pith, however—that white spongy layer beneath the peel that is often bitter in lemons and oranges—is a wide expanse in an etrog and can be surprisingly sweet. Sicilians cut the pith into thin slices and sprinkle them with salt or sugar for a snack, or combine them in a salad with fennel, oil, salt, and pepper.