Unlearning Vegetarianism: A Journey To Situational Omnivorousness

Eating is the catalyst and the conduit for so many cultural and social experiences that I hated missing out on as a vegetarian. I was born and raised that way- both of my parents became vegetarian years before I was born and my entire family remains committed vegetarians.  Over the past few years, I have departed from this value system, receiving responses from my sisters and parents ranging from bewilderment to concern.

When I was young, I would say, “When I grow up, I’m going to eat Big Macs and chicken wings!”  (I also, for the record, desperately craved squishy white bread and creamy peanut butter to replace the crumbly whole wheat home baked loaves and oily separated natural peanut butter I was served). Of course once I was autonomous, I was disgusted by the thought of any of it and could not imagine putting those processed dead substances in my body.

When I began actually trying real meat, at first I was frustrated with how little I could handle.  I could taste little bites but was still too weirded out by the texture of flesh in my mouth to eat much of it. Now I am grateful for this sensitivity. I am horrified by the thought of eating unclean, unhealthy animals who were brutalized. However, even ethically raised or harvested animals are still living beings whose lives are being taken and this always has been and will always be a heavy, complicated process – one that I will never engage in casually. So as I have been unlearning my vegetarianism, I have been learning as much as I can about the processes by which animals end up as food- different slaughtering and butchering techniques and traditions, the differences between grass fed and corn fed beef, the ways that unseasonably warm waters on the west coast affect the taste of the oysters, the impact of overfishing and the rising acidity of the ocean on sea species central to sushi production…if I was not eating from the ocean I guarantee I would not be as attuned to the crises playing out there. I feel more plugged into the planet now that I eat (some) meat and seafood.  I pay attention more. I feel the affects of what’s going on in our ecosystems and food production systems more than ever before. I also feel more connected to the people of the past in this place I live- Brooklyn, Long Island, the coast of the Atlantic- a place where the indigenous people, and then all of the colonizers and immigrants following them, ate from the ocean because it’s right here!  (If I were still living in Ohio, I would not be as passionate about learning how to eat from the sea responsibly because the responsible thing to do there would be to not eat from it). Feeling more plugged into the planet through consuming meat feels somewhat ironic for me because I know my mother, who is so disturbed by my digression, is vegetarian precisely because of how plugged into the planet she feels.

A proto-omnivorous moment I had years ago took place in the home of a Palestinian farmer family in a village near Jenin. I had been helping their cooperative sell their fair trade olive oil in the States and was being hosted by this family during my first visit since the collaboration began. It was Id and they had just slaughtered a lamb and grilled it, serving it in small dark juicy chunks accompanied by a mouth-watering array of sauces, dips, spice mixes, pickles, yogurt, bread, and veggies. I ate a small amount (I remember exactly 5 pieces but may have projected that number onto the memory in retrospect). It was a space within which my commitment to vegetarianism did not feel as important as gratefully participating in the intimate, generous experience of this family’s celebration. I had been concerned that my stomach would be upset given that it had never had such things in any substantial quantity. I was totally fine.

Years later, I had the privilege of visiting the tiny magical universe of Sutton Island in the Gulf of Maine. My friends kayaked out to the big rock near the dock in front of our house and harvested some mussels. After they cleaned them on the front porch, we made paella with them, throwing them into the large pot, covering it, and as they were coaxed open by the steam, we smelled their oceanic juices seep out and infuse the rice and vegetables.

I knew that if I were to ever try eating mussels that THIS was the moment- mussels harvested by my friends’ hands in a small and sustainable amount, in the cleanest water I had ever been in. And I asked myself if eating a plastic-wrapped processed soy product could in any way, spiritually or nutritionally, feel better than eating these sea creatures freshly plucked from a rock. The answer was no. Thus began my more deliberate mission to expand my food experience to include animals. These were both experiences in which the values and logic of what was right to eat came into focus as more layered and complex than any YES/NO position on meat could encompass.

I tease my mother by calling her a fundamentalist vegetarian because she believes that everyone should be vegetarian all the time. There are no other points to be considered other than avoiding taking unnecessary life as she sees it. And this is a serious question- is it necessary for us to kill and eat animals? (“Us” being urbanized people living in the year 2013). The answer might, on a certain level, be NO. Not technically. But it all comes down to the interconnectedness of all the systems involved in what we eat- it makes it so that it is very difficult, and possibly not ideal, to maintain a pure and singular set of dietary restrictions if one’s aim is to eat most ethically and healthily, for planet and self. One meal might offer the choice between processed soy product and sustainably farmed fish, in which case the fish might be the most ethical and clean way to eat in that situation. In another context, one might have to choose between factory farm chicken and a vegetable dish containing avocado flown half way around the world with fossil fuel guzzling engines. In that situation, the harm and health dichotomy get complicated.  This might be a pick your battles situation, and one in which there’s no guaranteed clear winning position because either way, you are implicated in a losing food production industry. With an industrialized food system relying on so much fossil fuel, plastic, chemicals, and so on, eating vegetarian is not automatically a less harmful choice. It can be- if whole, local, seasonal, sustainably grown and produced foods are the boundaries around one’s eating decisions. But just going for the non-animal option at a restaurant or the grocery store doesn’t guarantee righteousness unfortunately.

Adding a different dimension of decision-making factors, there are contexts in which one is being offered special dishes prepared lovingly by people who are sharing their knowledge, their heritage or their home.  For me, fully experiencing different cultures and communities requires responding to such welcomeness with openness, curiosity, and gratitude. It is the only way to learn. And show respect. There is no room for rigid restrictions that negate the wisdom of a cuisine being presented.  There are dishes that are so central to cultures, classics enjoyed on sometimes obsessive levels by entire countries and larger geographic areas, that I feel must at least be tried.  Otherwise a significant element of a place that I am in will be missed. And I HATE missing out. (This is admittedly the most questionable of my reasons for abandoning vegetarianism personally.)

So I have developed a situational omnivorousness that I do not claim to be righteous but is at least an attempt to live fully and cultivate a multifaceted relationship to food.  I am sure it will continue to evolve, especially as our planet keeps changing and I learn more.

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I love food. So what?

As a Jew raised vegetarian, with a sprinkling of Italian heritage, I learned life through food.  The kitchen has always been my comfort zone.  For my sisters and I, food was never something that appeared out of nowhere ready to eat.  We were our parents’ kitchen staff- garden assistants and prep cooks- peeling whole heads of garlic, picking green beans, serving soup, stirring the polenta, slicing the pickles for the requisite first course of the epic feasts for Shabbat and every one of the dozens of annual Jewish holidays for which the framework is primarily “they tried to kill us, they didn’t… lets eat!”

I am not a fancy chef. However,I have a passionate relationship with food- a deep reverence for the processes and people that make it happen.  (My partner laughs at me because I am often deeply moved by a recipe or a description of a meal and I can get the chills while reading an article about a chef). I was so emotional this summer when I harvested baskets of tomatoes that I grew from seed for the first time that I had to laugh at myself.

Although I have no professional cooking training, I do have to say that my forced conscription into the Sabbath feast preparations every single week until I left home, instilled in me a useful solid understanding of how to host- how to bring people together with artfully prepared delicious food, how to ritualize a meal, how to set a table with seasonal, conceptual unity between garden flower arrangements and colorful dishware, how to serve and clean up after large numbers of (often demanding) people.

Shabbat Dinner during a parental visit to BK

Brooklyn Shabbat dinner during a parental visit

My brain tends to work like a switchboard. In this way I am an apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree; being the daughter of a rabbi and an artist-educator, I grew up directly witnessing my parents’ community organizing skills in action.  I think I just absorbed the understanding that what one does in life is build things- relationships, projects, communities, spaces. In a society where people do not often learn how to effectively communicate, get organized, solve their own problems, express love, connect with others…I was taught that those were the most important parts of being alive. And for me, food is a central part of that- a simultaneously creative and mundane act, an opportunity for gathering and for individual expression and experience.  Cooking is a collaboration with nature- it’s about drawing out the essence of the ingredients you’re working with, capturing them at the right moment, combining ingredients thoughtfully, understanding their needs, powers, and particularities, paying close attention, being humble yet confident, balancing age-old wisdom with innovation and discovery…just like effective cooperation amongst people.

There was a period of time during which I was in graduate school, helping produce the film Slingshot Hip Hop, running an after-school program, coordinating a collective of activists & artists doing workshops internationally about the struggle for self-determination in Palestine. I was so busy and so exhausted (while also, for the record, feeling excited and inspired) that the only time I ever felt ok stepping away from working was when I was cooking for the crew. I was never able to justify reading  a book or watching a film- I couldn’t escape the never-ending to-do list running through my mind. But cooking was a creative act and a form of decompression that I didnt feel guilty about because it was necessary in order to live.  I was able to relax into it. To this day, even though I’ve managed to balance out my schedule a bit more, one of the only times I feel completely present and never doubt my choice of place and activity is when Im cooking.

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Along with my gratitude for my food-loving family and the wisdom it has provided me with, I have questions at times about the potential lack of healthy balance in my family’s relationship to food and drink.  Sometimes it seems that we could benefit physically and energetically from letting go and taking a more casual approach every once in a while.  There is a fine line, as it turns out, between intentionality and obsession. Boundaries and balance in terms of food and alcohol can be tricky for us as individuals and collectively. There are times when we need to challenge ourselves to focus on other elements of culture, other ways of being together.

I am trying to learn how to let go sometimes- knowing that my culinary ideas and organizational skills are valuable during my crew’s myriad celebrations but that even benign bossiness ain’t cute for too long 😉 Plus I want to be able to enjoy receiving as much as giving and to trust others to make things happen and teach me things.

Surprise Feast for Giovanna's Bday

Cava & Oysters feast in honor of our dear Giovanna’s birthday

I am currently in a period of transition in my life. I am considering shifting away from the community education work I’ve been doing within the Jewish community for a decade.  Although I have always bounced between worlds and woven together interests and communities, I am committing now to focusing in on culinary art/culture/community. BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!! In the current context, in which white 20 & 30-something-year-olds throughout urban centers of the U.S. are r(e)discovering food like Columbus discovered America, what is useful? What is necessary? It is not enough for me to say food makes me happy. I try not to consider my life choices in a void, ignoring the big picture of the country and world I live within.  Happiness is of course a goal (and one we all need to embrace more) but also purposefulness. While brooding over this recently, I found Patti Smith‘s questions in Just Kids resonant. She was speaking of art, I am thinking of the world of food:

“Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.”

“Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”

As someone exploring possibilities of jumping more fully into the word of making and serving food and the culture that surrounds it, I too should certainly feel concerned about not just participating in the gluttony that Patti Smith refers to. Otherwise I am just aligning myself with the wealthiest people on the planet- those with the resources and time to indulge in such things while the rest of the population is being pushed off their farmlands, picking fruit covered in poison, losing their olive trees to bulldozers, struggling to hold on to their food traditions, grocery shopping at Walmart, being served processed animal garbage in their schools….

Patti Smith created her boundary-crossing collaborative poetry-music-art as a heartfelt rebellion against the social and economic systems the music of her day was being shaped  by.  Her words, although originally written about rock n roll, provide us with perfect metaphors as we reflect on the “new food movement” we are a part of, wary of, reliant upon, and hopefully making an intervention into:

“We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity.”

So where to from here?

Storm Love

Waking up in Brooklyn today, still dark, windy, and rainy, we’re so grateful to not have been directly impacted by the power of the storm. However, we are so saddened by the damage done to our beloved city and all of our neighboring communities.

Last night we were looking at the mostly dark Manhattan skyline that normally twinkles in my bedroom window. We were thinking about our fellow traveler, Una, and her family, as they were going through the madness of the storm’s impact on their home just across the river–Stuyvesant Town in Alphabet City. It is one of the most confusing elements of the human experience–the way that one can be so close to and have such dramatically different experiences from others. (The different daily realities between neighborhoods in the same city, the different experiences people have walking down the same street in bodies that are read and responded to differently, the different levels of mobility and freedom people experience at borders and checkpoints and airports, etc.)

For those of us in this part of the Global North, we are accustomed to the damage and difference in experience being separated from us by many more miles and borders. With fires raging in the Rockaways, flooding shutting down lower Manhattan and the edges of Brooklyn, and Staten Island devastated, we are now experiencing the sadness and stress of the kinds of powerful storms we’ve watched hit other communities further away throughout the past several years.

So we were very cognizant of this existential dilemma as we hunkered down in Crown Heights, with wind pounding the building and lights flickering, but us safe and dry inside our cozy home. As we kept track of the storm’s path and the whereabouts of the people we love, we joined our fellow New Yorkers who were able, in gathering our peeps to cook, drink, and take care of each other. It was kind of an organic and surreal celebration of the goodness of life, home, and community borne of necessity. We created so much color and warmth within these walls, countering the scary night outside.

Blessed by a tribe of loved ones too big to fit in one Brooklyn apartment, we had two encampments a few blocks apart. Seeing as food is the most natural and immediate way we know how to connect with each other, we devised a playful process for merging–brunch in our two households became a creative culinary competition judged by the Honorable Judge Miriam of Big Ceci fame.

Each “team” prepared our menus, plated our food, and sent our write up and photographs to Miriam for judging. Here is what ensued:

The Bergen Brunch Boos

Maple bourbon pancakes with apricot peach preserves & maple yogurt
Rosemary purple potato hash
Hurricane harvest garden kale-cheddar-corn scramble

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Bergen Street brought a strong showing to the competition, with careful attention to form and technique in their preparation of maple bourbon pancakes, topped with apricot-peach preserves and maple yogurt; purple and red potato hash w/garlic and rosemary; hurricane harvest garden kale, corn, and cheddar scramble.  The plate demonstrated a sophisticated use of color and texture, and held a strong seasonal resonance.  In essence, this brunch created an idyllic autumn day that was a perfect foil to the apocalyptic demon storm raging outside.  This judge would recommend a slightly more acidic preserve to balance the sweetness of the maple-bourbon pancakes.  The tang of the yogurt helped a bit but a citrus or tart component might add more balance to the plate.  The hurricane harvest kale was an immediate crowd-pleaser, and elevated this traditional egg preparation to an innovative and delicious farm-to-fork level.

Presentation: 9.0 out of 10
Creativity: 9.2 out of 10
Balance: 8.6 out of 10
Concept: 9.8 out of 10

Overall score: 9.15 out of 10

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza 

Spiced-apple pancakes with homemade apple butter
Veggie-sausage nutmeg greens
Zuke-tomato-basil-cheddar scramble
Sweet potato home fries

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza drew an immediate wow-factor with their precarious-crane-in-a-hurricane reminiscent stack of spiced apple pancakes with homemade apple butter.  Accented with sides including veggie-sausage nutmeg greens and a zucchini-basil-tomato scramble, and served with sweet potato home fries, this summer-to-fall harvest feast brought diners a compelling tale of two seasons, where the summery warm sea temperature flavors of zuke/basil/tomato collided with the winter storm system of apples, nutmeg, and sweet potatoes.  A thoughtful eye to color and palate made brunch stand out, and the brilliant marriage of sweet and savory flavor profiles made this a complex and inspired meal.  This plate’s greatest strength may have also swung as its deepest challenge; the heft of this hearty meal could intimidate the carb-sensitive or starchaphobe.  A lighter lifting aioli for the home fries, or a touch of parsley or fresh green salad might help this meal slide more confidently into the clean-plate club, but overall this july-september romance of a plate could convince even the firmest brunch cynic to fall in love again with the meal that knows no bounds – hurricane brunch.

Presentation: 9.6 out of 10
Creativity: 9.1 out of 10
Balance: 9.4 out of 10
Concept: 8.5 out of 10

Overall score:  9.15 out of 10

A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.

The Good, The Bad, and The Bubbly

During the last week of April I joyfully drove to Jersey to pick up Ryvka from the airport. She was returning from a 6 month stay in Bethlehem where she was doing research on the tourism industry (stay tuned for more on the political, economic, discursive, and environmental battles Israel wages on Palestinians under the guise of eco-tourism).  I wanted Ryvka to feel good coming back to the holy land of Brooklyn and I knew that a big part of that was going to be assuring her that good, fresh dairy exists here (even if not as prevalent or accessible as in the Middle East).  Luckily, there happened to be that very evening an Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn event entitled “Good Dairy.” After letting her nap for a bit, I escorted her directly to the most appropriate homecoming ever.

Stocking up on some delicious dairy goodies at Edible’s Good Dairy event.

Now one might assume that this is a post about dairy. That would be a fair assumption. However, this is actually about seltzer- a beverage that I’m not very passionate about but is very dear to the hearts of many of my loved ones. How are we making this transition? Well…upon arrival at the Good Dairy event, the first vendors we encountered were the charming gentlemen behind Brooklyn Gin. They were enthusiastic about their small batch locally distilled spirit and so were we. We thoroughly enjoyed the on-the-spot carbonated cocktail they were serving featuring their citrusy liquor. However, Ryvka pointed out to all of us that the origin of the seltzer maker they were using sadly was not such a pure or locally-based process. SodaStream, an Israeli company producing a do-it-yourself, countertop seltzer and soda maker, has been marketing its wares as a “green alternative” to soda cans and bottles. But SodaStream’s main production site is in Mishor Edomim, a settlement and industrial zone in the occupied West Bank, on confiscated Palestinian land. The company is participating in the theft of Palestinian land and exploits Palestinian labor while selling its product with a “Made in Israel” label.

Our new Brooklyn Gin friends were shocked to hear about the oppressive system of production behind their seltzer maker and were really receptive to Ryvka’s suggestion that they find another way to make their cocktails that aligns more with their vision for quality on all levels (taste and process).

Ryvka, being the thorough lady that she is, followed up with an email just the other day. She was excited to discover that there is an alternative to SodaStream that matches the local pride of Brooklyn Gin- Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie, Brooklyn! Gomberg Seltzer Works is the last remaining seltzer factory in NYC and Ronny Beberman is the Brooklyn Seltzer Man. He’s 63 years old and still drives a wooden slatted truck full of vintage glass bottles. You can watch “Seltzer Works,” a documentary film about Gomberg Seltzer, at Rooftop Films on July 17th, and you can read a brief and entertaining write-up of this old school seltzer making and delivering operation here: http://reclaimedhome.com/2010/07/01/brooklyn-seltzer-delivery-how-old-school-is-that/

So…getting into Gomberg Seltzer Works is a way to divest from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and invest in the traditional liquid culture of Brooklyn.

Speaking of tradition, liquid culture, and seltzer…while I was home in Cincinnati celebrating the 20th anniversary of my father being the rabbi of his synagogue, I made up a little summer spritzer cocktail to loosen us up before diving into the 600 person dinner (at which the CEO of SodaStream was a surprise performer, being a dear friend of my family’s and the high holiday cantor of our shul. Oh the complexity of the universe). I don’t remember exact measurements but here’s the gist of it:

The Roaring Twentieth

1 oz Cointreau

1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 generous bar spoon of mixed berry preserves

2-3 oz Sauvignon Blanc (or any available dry-ish white wine)

top off with seltzer

Shake all of the ingredients (except for the seltzer) with ice in a cocktail shaker. Then strain into a chilled wine or champagne glass and top with seltzer. Garnish with a lemon or lime twist. Then clink glasses and toast all to the people fighting the good fight to make food and drink not just delicious but ethical! L’chaim!

I forgot the onions!

My friend Sandra, organizer extraordinaire, once said to me that whenever she’s organizing a meeting she makes sure to put some food on the table for people to share. She said that food can play a powerful role in bringing people together (or something like that; it was a long time ago).

Whatever the exact words, her idea that the simple act of sharing food has a powerful impact stuck with me. For me, the best thing about cooking has always been the way sharing a meal helps people come together, have a good time, and feel the love.

I find cooking really relaxing and fun, one of the few ways I get to express some creativity (given that I’m the world’s worst singer and can’t draw at all). I love to come home on a Friday evening and cook a meal with my partner Judy and spend the evening with her. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy, just something that we prepare with care. We often make pasta with broccoli rabe or some other green cooked in a little olive oil with garlic and hot pepper. We open a bottle of wine and wind down from the week together.

And I do find it relaxing. Still, everyone in our family can recall at least a few moments when I go, “OH, NO!” – most likely when I’m trying to slide a pizza that I’ve spent a few hours preparing into the oven, and it sticks to the peel.

One such moment occurred on New Year’s Eve. We had some friends over for dinner as we usually do. A chance to catch up with each other and talk about the state of the world as we pass into a new year – in this case, the multitude of ways that the Obama administration hasn’t been much better than the Bush fiasco, and how heartened we are by Occupy Wall Street. Not all of us were that hopeful, but still…

I started cooking early and made a couple of pizzas (a la Jim Lahey) as appetizers, and two galettes from a recipe given to me by my daughter and great cook, Naomi. Everyone thought they were amazing. Very rich, though; I wouldn’t make them too often. I also made a Palestinian lentil and rice dish that’s always a favorite, and Judy made one of her great salads. We were halfway through the meal. I put out the rice; everybody liked it, but it didn’t feel like anything special. All of a sudden, Judy says, “John, you forgot to put the onions on the rice!”

The thing is, the onions are what make the dish special. It’s a very simple recipe. Lentils and rice, a little cumin. But you caramelize a couple of big onions and sprinkle them on top and, lo and behold, the dish is amazing.

I had spent about a half hour sautéing the onions that afternoon. When they were a beautiful brown color, I took them out of the pan and put them on a plate between layers of paper towels to remove some of the oil, and there they sat.  I totally forgot to add them in when I put out the rice. I was bummed out. But, of course, no one else cared. We were all having too nice a time to worry about that. We finished the meal and walked up to the park to watch the fireworks.

That's the galette in the foreground and the Palestinian Rice and Lentils (desperately needing onions) in the rear

Here’s the recipe, with only slight modifications, from World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey…try it. I think you’ll like it. Just don’t forget the onions!

½ cup of lentils, picked over and washed
2 cups basmati rice, washed and drained
¼ cup of olive oil
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt

Soak the lentils for 3-4 hours. Drain.

Soak the rice in cold water for 30 minutes. Then drain.

While the rice is soaking, caramelize the onions. This takes a while. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onions. Cook them over medium high heat at first and gradually turn down the heat as they get soft. When they turn brown, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula, and spread them out on a paper towel to absorb the oil.

Turn the heat back to medium and add the drained lentils and rice to the remaining oil. Add the cumin, black pepper and salt. Sauté, stirring gently, for several minutes, so the rice gets coated with the onion flavored oil. Add 3 ½ cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, turn the heat down low, and cook for about 25 minutes. There’s some variability to the cooking time and the amount of water you need because of the lentils, so I make sure to check the rice at about 20 minutes and add some water if I need to.

Turn the lentils out into a serving platter, fluff them up, and sprinkle with the caramelized onions.

A Passion for Peppers

In an age of faddish interest in spicy foods and hot sauces, some people focus more on who can eat the hottest food (i.e. The Macho Syndrome) rather than how hot sauce can influence the culinary experience by enhancing flavors and nuances. Stores are filled with packaged spicy products with clever names and flashy labels, but this is a spicy side dish that you cannot buy in a bottle.

But first, let me give you the back story…

Growing up with my mother’s (a.k.a Bubbie Wise) excellent Ashkenazic-American cooking, I knew a lot from garlic and onion, but nothing about hot peppers and spices.

However, once the door was opened, I not only entered the room but made myself at home.

Based on the rabbinic principle of “b’shem omro” (literally “in the name of the one who said it” or giving credit where credit is due), my old college friend, Arnie Lewin, not only turned me on to cooking in my senior year at Indiana University, but turned me on to spicy food. The first two dishes that he shared with me were couscous with spicy vegetable sauce and Italian sausage and an Indian curry dish.

In 1971, the year after our graduation, we took our backpacks and hopped on an Icelandic Airlines flight to Luxemburg (that being the only cheap airline at the time).  We worked our way down from Europe to West Africa, via the Canary Islands. In Senegal, Gambia, and Ghana, the food we ate was very simple (roasted root vegetables, fish, and rice) but was always accompanied by some type of spicy hot sauce. The most memorable one being a hot peanut sauce that was served with fish and rice.

On the freighter from Barcelona to the Canary Islands, we met Ali, a Gambian who was returning to his home in Bathurst, and we ultimately ended up staying with his family for 3 weeks. During the first meal we ate together on the freighter, he took out a package of dried cayenne peppers and explained that he never went anywhere without them.

Today, when going to lunch meetings or dinner at friends’ houses, I often bring with me a bottle of hot sauce or fresh hot peppers to slice up. I keep a number of bottles of hot sauce by my desk and grab one if I feel confident I can successfully achieve the art of spicing up my meal while avoiding offense to my host. Some folks, knowing this about me now, even generously provide an assortment of spicy condiments.

My relationship with hot peppers was dramatically upgraded when I began gardening and growing my own back in the early 1970s.  I grow at least half a dozen or more varieties every summer. Some I dry, some I pickle, some I marinate, and some I use to cook with.

A couple of years ago, I had such an abundance of hot peppers, I was trying to figure out some new things to do with them and ended up creating this dish.  For this particular recipe, you can use a range of different peppers (jalapeños, serranos, chiles, cayenne, Thai, etc) but NO habañeros, their flavor doesn’t work in this dish.

So here I am gathered with our family in Los Gatos, California, for our annual Thanksgiving celebration. It is a collectively prepared feast, and my contribution this year is my sautéed hot pepper dish.

In a skillet, heat up a generous amount of olive oil (at least 4 tablespoons).

When it’s hot, put in one large onion, diced.

Then add at least 8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced.

Cook on a medium flame for ten minutes.

Add whole hot peppers with the stems sliced off (about 18, depending on their size).

Stir thoroughly and cover.

Cook for another 10 minutes.

Add kosher salt (don’t be shy with it) and pepper to taste and about a teaspoon of white vinegar or lemon juice.

Then add a couple tablespoons of white wine and coarsely cut up fresh cilantro and parsley, about 1 cup each loosely packed.

Stir and cover.

Let it cook on a low flame until the peppers are soft (the peppers will continue to soften on their own after taken off the fire so take them off when they’re soft but not mushy).

**Note: you should probably stick to the measurements of the vinegar/lemon juice and the wine. However, all of the other ingredients can be increased according to your taste.

You can eat this dish warm but it’s best at room temperature.

Store it in the fridge and remove it before serving so it warms up to room temperature and the oil liquefies.

It goes well in soup, on pizza, as a side with rice dishes… basically just about everything other than cold cereal in the morning.

A special thanks to Uncle Tom for his delicious and flavorful photography.