Celebrate Shavuot with a vegetable and goat cheese tart

Next Sunday and Monday will be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a term not heard much outside the Jewish community. In English you may see reference to the Feast of Weeks, because it takes place 49 days (a week of weeks) after Passover. It roughly coincides with the Christian observance of Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter, which usually occurs around the same time as Passover.

Shavuot is supremely important: It celebrates the giving of the Law (Torah)–the first five books of the Bible–to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. Yet it’s probably the least observed of all the Jewish holy days.

My theory is that this is because there are no fun home-based holiday customs for Shavuot. No decorating and eating in a little hut, like for Sukkot; no candles and gifts, like for Chanukah; no costumes and noisemakers like for Purim; no big family seder like for Passover.

A cerebral celebration

The customs we do have are rather cerebral. We read the Book of Ruth from the Bible because the story it tells takes place at this time of year – and also possibly because Ruth, probably the best known Jewish convert of all time, accepted the authority of the Torah as her own when she told her mother-in-law, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

We also spend the first evening of the holiday (before the first day) studying the Torah, sometimes all night. My synagogue has hour-long study sessions, led by clergy and lay members, starting at around 7 p.m. and continuing – with numerous breaks for food, of course – until 5 a.m., when the few hardy souls still remaining hold an early morning service and then go home to sleep it off.

This is well and good, but it’s not something for children to get excited about or a reason to plan a cross-country trip to be with family.

By far the single most observed Shavuot custom, at least among Jews descended from the communities of eastern and central Europe, is eating dairy foods. Why? No one knows!

Some say the custom comes from the Bible, because dairy foods symbolize the “land flowing with milk and honey” that the Israelites were promised.

Dairy is easier when you can’t cook

Some say it’s because the Israelites received the Torah on the Sabbath; once they knew the Law, they were no longer permitted to cook on the Sabbath. They couldn’t slaughter and roast an animal, but they had to eat. The solution? Dairy!

There’s also a mystical reason using gematria, a technique that combines the numerical and literal meanings of Hebrew characters. The Hebrew word for milk is chalav. Add up the numerical value of chet, lamed and mem, the three Hebrew letters that spell the word, and you get 40 – the number of days Moses was on the mountain receiving the Torah!

And we’re told the Torah has 70 facets. Add up the numeric value of the letters that spell the Hebrew word for cheese – g’vina – and you get – ta daaah! – 70.

Another sage discovered that the initials of the four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26 that describe the meal offering for Shavuot spell mei chalav, from milk.

Of course everyone familiar with gematria and similar tricks knows one can “prove” just about anything this way. But it’s always fun.

For us, Shavuot is a good time to get together with friends for a potluck lunch. The weather is usually nice, and we have lots of fruits and veggies to cook with in addition to cheese and milk.

Here’s a recipe for a rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese that works well as a main dish or as an appetizer. It’s good hot or at room temperature so it makes a great potluck dish.

Hotdish: Lutheran-land’s favorite dinner

This week’s guest blogger is Fran Ginn, whom I have never met. When I started this blog—a year ago now!—my “ideas” list included hotdish, an integral part of Lutheran culture (well at least according to Garrison Kiellor). When I did the obligatory Google search on the term, I found a piece by Fran that said everything I wanted to say and probably said it better. It appeared on the website of the  Marion County Informer newspaper in Mississippi. The newspaper is now defunct, and the link to the article no longer works, but I tracked Fran down via Facebook and she sent me a copy, along with permission to use it. Fran is a good writer and cook who runs a restaurant called the Back Door Cafe in Hattiesburg, Miss.  It’s in a historic building and is accessible, via an alley, by (you guessed it) the building’s back door. One final note: In Lutheran-ese, “hotdish” is also a synonym for “potluck,” as in “The Ladies Guild will hold its annual Hotdish Supper on Friday.”

Garrison Keillor’s tales of Lake Woebegon have long been a favorite of mine. The stories of the stalwart Scandinavian Lutherans of Minnesota always make me smile. I noticed that Garrison often mentions “hotdish.” He uses it in several contexts, including jokes, such as:  “You must be Lutheran—if you think anyone who says ‘casserole’ instead of ‘hotdish’ is trying to be uppity (or maybe even Episcopalian!)” Or: “You must be Lutheran—if you think ‘hotdish’ is one of the major food groups.”

I went right to the source, the Prairie Home Companion website, where I found an explanation of “hotdish” from Garrison himself. These are his words:

It’s a meal in one dish, vegetables and grain and perhaps meat, and it’s good peasant cooking and it exists in every culture. Surely you ate it growing up. It might have rice or noodles and it needs some sauce and then you add what ingredients you are moved to add. Be inventive. If you want to start with a classic, do the tuna noodle hotdish, which employs a can of cream of mushroom soup (don’t add water), a can of tuna, a bag of egg noodles, and perhaps a package of frozen peas. Cook the noodles, glop in the soup, add the tuna and peas, and if you want to be fancy, crush some potato chips for a topping.”

Ubiquitous in the northern Midwest

As I explored further, I learned that hotdish did originate in the basement halls of Lutheran churches in the frozen northern states, especially Minnesota. It is as ubiquitous there as rice and gravy is in the South.

In the early days of the last century, farm wives discovered a new ready-made ingredient: cream of mushroom soup. This miracle ingredient gained such favor with the church ladies of the region that it became known as “Lutheran binder” and was considered a de rigueur ingredient in recipes submitted for church cookbooks. As flavors of condensed cream soups were added, it became fashionable to combine flavors of soup in the same hotdish. As time passed, home-cut potatoes and onions gave way to Tater Tots, canned French-fried onion rings and chow mein noodles.

I have been told that confession is good for the soul—and I have to admit this is hard for me—but I must disclose that one of my favorite dishes in the world is the green bean casserole recipe on the side of the onion ring can. And, I love Tater Tots with a passion usually reserved for things like lobster.

It’s easy to make

It is easy to see how hotdish became so popular in the frozen north. The basic ingredients often were ground meat (from a cow raised on the farm and butchered and in the freezer), canned soup, canned corn or the canned vegetable mixture known as “Veg-All,” and some type of starch, noodles, rice or potatoes, all grocery items that could be purchased in bulk and stored in a pantry when deep snow made the trek into town difficult.

In the early days, these farm wives used few foreign spices, such as thyme or (God forbid!) Tabasco. Common seasonings were good, plain salt and pepper. As time passed, the inventive Lutheran ladies began to vary their ingredients. A search of recipes on the Internet shows some the range of hotdish variations:

  • Sauerkraut Hotdish
  • Reuben Hotdish
  • Chicken Crouton Hot Dish
  • Pasta Ham Hotdish
  • Creamy Chicken Hotdish
  • Pepperoni and Tomato Hotdish
  • Sweet and Sour Chicken Hotdish
  • Tater Tot Hotdish
  • Church Supper Hotdish
  • Hamburger Hotdish
  • Mashed Potato Hotdish
  • Hula Hotdish (Spam and pineapple)
  • Cheeseburger and French Fry Hotdish
  • Wild Rice and Sausage Hotdish

Midwest Living, which I gather is similar to our Southern Living, has more than 50 different recipes for hotdish.

Can you name the No. 1 condiment for hotdish? It’s ketchup.

To give you an idea of how dear this very basic food is to the hearts of the people of Minnesota, I’d like to leave you with a very tongue-in-cheek version of the Christmas carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” as sung on A Prairie Home Companion.

Hark, the herald angels sing Is there hotdish we can bring?
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
Tuna hotdish, family style.
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Casseroles and shepherd’s pies –
With angelic hosts proclaim,
This is really good chow mein.
Hark the herald angels sing,
Is there hotdish we can bring?

The best hotdish ever?

This week’s recipe is touted as the best hotdish recipe ever. It draws on a number of the delicious, carb-laden ingredients that are popular in this food group. For this version of the recipe, we have amended the more bland seasonings from “up North,” and spiced up this hotdish Southern style.

A note from Bobbie: Fran didn’t have a photo of her hotdish recipe, so I found this one online. It’s a little different in that the Tater Tots are atop the green beans, rather than beneath them. I think this makes sense, since the Tater Tots will get crispier that way, but I present Fran’s original recipe.