of mortar, sandwiches, and feline elijah: passover 2011

Chag sameach, happy Passover, and all that.  Yes, that’s a knob of ginger standing in for the shank bone.  It’s brown and elongated, no?  For bitterness, we have a slightly mauve maror, since I added a bit of pickled beet as filler to the hand-harvested horseradish, and arugula flowers.  Karpas is from my healthy parsley crop. The haroset is a properly leaden mortar (oops).  Still, not bad for a relatively quickly organized pseudoseder.

Proof of participation, Ikea miniature whitefish dumplings.  Guess who was seduced by the idea of EZ cocktail gefilte fishies?  (Alas.  They tasted slightly better with the carrot salad on top.)

And my friend’s almond torte wasn’t bad at all, and not the least bit dry with a sauce made of last year’s frozen sour cherries.  And yes, that’s a meat-based white dollop there.  Shh. Don’t tell Elijah.

Actually, this year was a little bittersweet.  One year when we lived in a tiny house in Berkeley where the dining/living room opened up to the front porch, we opened up the door for Elijah at the appropriate time in the seder.  And lo, there sat our beloved cat Sylvia, who made the grand entrance of her life, to the delighted exclamations of everyone present.  This is the first year she hasn’t been with us in person, as she passed away in November.  A little part of me thought she might be there when I opened the door this year.  So indeed, she was.  And will be next year, too.

Passover Menu 2011

  • Bitter tears and spring greens
  • Deviled eggs
  • Bread of affliction (with and without freshly ground horseradish)
  • Hillel sandwiches with pear-date-almond and apple-pear-walnut-pine nut mortars*
  • Miniature Scandinavian gefilte-fish disks d’Ikea topped with carrot salad**
  • Braised beef brisket à la mode de Joan Nathan, tomatoes and red wine
  • Roasted fingerling and butterball garlic rosemary potatoes with crunchy potato croutons***
  • Asparagus with caperberries and bay leaves
  • Foraged arugulas, fennel fronds, and pine nuts with apricot vinaigrette
  • Almond-meal torte with local sour cherries****
  • Evesham Wood Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Coffee

*why is it on this night only do we eat Hillel sandwiches?

**why is it on this night only do we serve garbage fish from cans and jars to complement those delicious sandwiches?

***why is it on this night only do we gild the lily?

****why is it on this night only do non-practicing Jews omit the crème fraiche?

culinaria eugenius in baltimore: in a pickle and a corn

Howdy, Eugeniuses!  I’m writing to you from the wrong coast, the first of many long-distance trips I’ll be making in the next few months.  As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t been posting many recipes and food-substantial posts lately.  My blogging has been like my cooking — I manage to squeeze in a few steps of a multi-step process, then just can’t finish.  So I have photos and experiences and notes, but no time to finish off something palatable for general consumption.  So everything goes in the compost pile.  Them’s the breaks.

I’m finishing the last few weeks of my first year of employment as a professor, and it’s been a tough term administratively, with increased demands on my time from all quarters: teaching, emailing/form-filling/grant-applying, researching, writing.  All I want to do when I get home is fall asleep, not wrestle with raw meat, bread dough, unwashed greens, unroasted peppers, unmashed potatoes, etc.

But with the school year ending imminently, I am excited to spend more time with my great love, food.  I organized a special session panel on literature, food, and desire, for my discipline’s big conference (the MLA convention in January 2011), and it was accepted!  I’ll be presenting on the iconic fruits of modern literature.  To prepare, I’m going to Zurich, Switzerland, in August to take part in a workshop on James Joyce and food.  And tomorrow, I’ll be at the University of Maryland archives researching the little-known food journalism of another modernist, Djuna Barnes.

For yes, I’m in Baltimore!  My husband grew up here, and we lived here for a couple of years together.  He knows the city far better than I do, but what I do know is that eating Jewish deli is one of my favorite things in the world.  So why do I look so crabby?

Well, it’s not the crabs.  And we’ve had our fill of crabs.  I’ll fill you in on another post.  It’s the Jewish deli.  I’ve written about Jewish deli before, even scooping the NYT on a story on new Jewish deli.  But I have to say that I’m absolutely floored by the oldest, probably least sustainable (?) Jewish deli techniques I’ve found back in Baltimore.  Because they are SO GOOD.

Now, I make a pretty good corned beef.  This one from last month was made from well-aged (i.e., a near save from rottenness; see paragraph one), local grassfed beef, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

And yet!  My corned beef is a pale, sad imitation of Attman’s corned beef, the best corned beef on the planet.  I mean, my corned beef tastes like you’re chewing on a piece of cardboard (and this is certainly not helped by the crap-ass rye bread we have in Eugene) compared to this:

It’s the same d&#%$@ cut!  And sure, they use a slicer to shave the meat, which makes a difference, and I spied with my little eyes that the flat cut of the brisket was topped by a thin portion of the fattier point cut, so each slice gets a bit of fat in it, but even without that delicious, magical trickery, I swear the brisket is actually silky.  The texture is SILKY.  How does that even happen to a hunk of meat?  This was what I was muttering and cursing to myself, holding up a slice of corned beef to the light, stretching and poking at it at Attman’s the other day.  Attman’s is the famed deli at the corner of Lombard and Horseradish Lane one of the very last remnants of the old Jewish district, Corned Beef Row, in East Baltimore. Here is one part of the dining room, with a small glimpse of the adjoining deli and its omnipresent line of customers:

Can I even tell you how hard it was for me to concentrate, what with the crooked picture setting off my OCD tendencies, the vintage self-named host chatting up the old ladies about Our Greatest Generation and “Kids Today…” and a homemade model of the H.M.S. Bounty (courtesy of said gentleman) and the mustard and the sign telling you how to order (Corned beef.  Rye.  Mustard.) (and the menu charging  you extra for tomato and lettuce and othersuch nonsense) and the tubs of pickles.  Pickles!  Green tomato, sour pickle, green new pickles.  Sauerkraut.

And Jewish deli pickles drive me mad.  MAD!  I can taste how they are different from mine (above, in their clean, West coast jar, bubbling away) and it’s maddening.  God.  It’s like I’m missing an entire range of subtle flavors and I don’t know how to get them.  Don’t know if it’s POSSIBLE to get them when you’re pickling in a glass jar and you don’t have the aged must of pickle fairy dust seeping from the barrels into your murky, menschy brine.

We went to Miller’s deli in Pikesville the next day.  I wasn’t that hungry, but I had to buy an assortment, including green tomatoes and “health salad,” a quick-pickled cabbage, cucumber, and carrot salad made with vinegar, water, salt, and sugar.  To my health!

Gobbled them down (with the help of relatives, of course).  But not before I inspected every inch of that bright green new pickle.  Holes to let in brine?  NO!  Fermentation fizz?  NO!  Bright salt as a predominant flavor?  NO!  Signs of pickling at higher, lower temperatures?  NO!  Partial pickling?  NO!  Vinegar?  NO!   Smaller cukes?  NO!  (Huge, in fact.)  Lots of garlic?  NO! Then what?  The pickle is new, but the brine tastes old, mostly of well-integrated pickling spice, hefty garlic but not all garlic, and not all that salty.  Not much dill.  Then what?

I am flummoxed.  Flummoxed.  O the secret society of the Jews and their magic preservation techniques.  Help meeeee!

happy passover

I won’t tempt any of my practicing Jewish friends with pictures of the bread I’ve been baking.  Instead, I’ll talk about Passover.  You can see, clearly, that we aren’t doing anything for Passover this year.  It’s yet again too busy a time to make a holiday meal, to have friends over.  But as my husband makes his own Crypto-Jewish snacks, I am thinking about it.

I really love Passover.  Passover is everything I always wanted Easter to be.  I love the celebration of freedom from bondage; I love the bondage jokes; I love the food; I love the wine; I love the symbolism of the food and wine; I love the reclining and the questions and the seder plate and the way the message can be translated into so many ways.  I love the silly “dayenu” song and its profound, truly profound, synthesis of grace and gratitude.

Dayenu: the word means “it would have been enough,” and the song’s chorus is a repetition of that single word.  The versus explain:  Had God only given us this, dayenu.  Had God only given us that, dayenu.  It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not; it’s about being grateful at the very core.

But it’s also more.  It’s about graciously giving, too.  There are all kinds of ways one can read the transmission of a gift, many of them troubling the gesture.  But when I think of the celebration of Passover, I don’t think much the many bad aspects of disciplinary power or why some people have the right to give and others the need to receive, I think about the simple, uncomplicated pleasure of giving/getting something you want, something perfect.  I think about generosity, both from the side of the getter (freely accepting the gift) and the giver (freely giving it).  It can be, when it’s not complicated and vexed, so simple and beautiful and life-affirming.

I just hope I won’t be receiving the bountiful gesture of a gefilte-jalapeño Hillel sandwich for dinner.  Bitter tears, indeed.

deli diaspora and the preservation renaissance

dscf0540New York-style Jewish delis ain’t what they used to be.  In yesterday’s New York Times, Joan Nathan reports on one family-run deli in Newark, NJ.  Hobby’s Deli still serves up traditional fare, but serves it to a changing demographic, due to new racial mixes in old Jewish neighborhoods and health concerns plaguing so many of the classics.   Delis have introduced salads (like with the green stuff!), and don’t sell nearly as many corned beef briskets as they once did.

If the traditional New York Jewish deli changes fundamentally due to changing customer taste, I’ll be sad, but also interested in how it will evolve in New York.  Like so many aspects of Jewish communities, deli food has moved on in other areas of the country.  My husband, who grew up eating Attman’s corned beef in Baltimore, chef d’oeuvre of one of two surviving eateries on Corned Beef Row, and my own salt-cured self, who scouted out any corned beef sandwich she could in the Jewish neighborhoods of suburban Detroit, are both products of what I call the deli diaspora.

I can happily recall the moment of rapturous discovery in each place we’ve lived when we discovered the local Jewish, or sometimes, Jew-ish deli:  Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, for example, or Rein’s New York-style Deli in Vernon, CT.  Rein’s Deli even has a glossary of deli terms.  (No, Totowitz, we aren’t in New York any more).  Saul’s, only a few blocks from our first house together, has always featured creative interpretations of deli specialties, but I see that they now specialize in seasonal foods, offering chard dolmas, chopped liver with tomato and onion jam, Moroccan chicken, and a side of long beans, almonds and white chard.  Hey, that doesn’t sound that bad at all to me.  A good cook is a good cook, and there are so many possibilities with the deli canon that it’s hard to believe that more hasn’t been done.  There is a huge and wonderful range of Jewish cookery, both Sephardic and unexplored regions of Ashkenazi cuisine, that would do very well in any deli if prepared with love and skill.

I know I’m usually wearing my Superior Oregonian hat when I talk about northern California (and almost always when I talk about New York), but we Eugeniuses have so much to learn from the Bay Area in terms of our local tastes.  I think even traditional deli would be seen as exotic here in Eugene, unfortunately.  But could we attempt a sustainable, local, deli-style restaurant?  Saul’s Deli surely is inspired by Chez Panisse, just down the street, as well as from Michael Pollan, who is a frequent customer.   In Eugene, we can similarly learn from restaurants like Belly, which makes French bistro new again in its seasonal, PNW-inflected dishes.

Saul’s has a lot to say about reinventing Jewish deli; you can read on the deli’s blog about their take on reviving traditions of Jewish vegetarian cooking, using sustainable beef, and reducing the size of sandwiches.  The Jewish deli, they emphasize, will not survive on nostalgia alone.

I couldn’t agree more.  After all, no one is particularly nostalgic about shtetl food, far more traditional than the deli.

But for those of us who love traditional kosher-style deli, we can keep some of the deli traditions alive in our own homes.  Joan Nathan seems to disregard the preservation renaissance when she writes:

In the old days, everybody cured their own corned beef and pastrami, made their own pickles, and used bread from a neighboring bakery. Now, few even make their own matzo balls.

This demise, of course, contributed to the rise of the deli and kept it flourishing in its heyday.  City life did not lend itself to the big crock of smelly sauerkraut in the studio or curing meat hanging from the ceiling of the bedroom.

DSCF2537But on the West Coast, where we’re preserving our hearts out, and even in some pockets of hip outer boroughs of NYC, where they’re acting like they invented preservation, the old days are new again. In Eugene, since we don’t have anything resembling a Jewish deli (although Barry’s on 13th does have matzoh ball soup, and my husband says he likes their other soups) and we undeniably make some sketchy moves (e.g., my tempeh Reuben and liberal-elite Reuben phyllo appetizers), we have to do what we can.

I thought I’d archive some of my deli-worthy recipes, so you can make your own deli at home.  I’m not a New Yorker, or an expert on deli food preparation, but I have to say my preserved food would give a deli a run for its money.  And yours can, too, because what I’m doing is not magic or difficult.

Here are some of my resources for making various deli specialties:

  • Kosher-style dill pickles.
  • Fermented full-sour and half-sour pickles.
  • Sauerkraut for Reuben sandwiches and soups.  Now is harvest time for fat, juicy cabbages, and if  you’d like to make red cabbage sauerkraut, the red cabbages are particularly good right now.
  • Brisket made with local dried cranberries and mushrooms.  This is my favorite brisket recipe.  (The other one in my recipe binder is titled “Traditional, if Dull, Passover Brisket.”)  I usually cheat and use prepared dried cranberries and mushrooms in this recipe, but why not dry your own?
  • Old-world chicken soup.  This often means “with cow bones added,” to beef up the broth.  My recipe is inspired by several old Jewish ladies, and one middle-aged one, who made the absolutely best chicken soup I’ve ever tasted in my life.  Mine’s not nearly as good as hers, I’ll admit, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a chicken soup in a deli that’s as good as mine.  They’re often washed out and watery.  Sigh.
  • Corned beef or tongue. I’ll be sharing my techniques at the October 10 Master Food Preserver meat class.  Please join us, if you’re local and interested in preserving meats!

I’d like to add to my repertoire in the upcoming months.  Here are my two quests:

  • Rye bread.  Polish rye bread, unseeded, is one of my great quests in the West.  I had to control myself when I was on fellowship in Buffalo because they had an entire shelf of Polish rye, freshly baked every day.  My project for 2009, to become an ace bread baker, did not even sorta kinda come to fruition.  OK, OK, I did help for a couple of hours at a fabulous MFP bread baking class, I put some baking cookbooks on my Amazon wish list, and I watched a friend bake bread in my kitchen.  Does that count?  No?  Really?  OK.  Onward to 2010!  If I can figure out how to make a Polish rye loaf at home, I will expire of happiness.
  • Potato pancakes.  We put the Ore- in Ore-Ida, yo.  Oregon potatoes are excellent, so excellent they were bought up by Heinz.  : /  But anyway, I’ll post a latke recipe this winter.  My recipe is quite good, if I do say so myself, but I am a latke purist, and I don’t even like onion messing up my pure, crisp potatoey pillows of heaven.  I’ll figure out the proportions and all that, but it might take a while.

DSCF2807And of course, you’ll need applesauce to accompany the latkes.  Don’t wait up for me!  Now is the time for canning and freezing fall apples as applesauce.  Homemade applesauce is about a thousand times better than commercially processed stuff.  I don’t have a preference, really, taste-wise, between canning and freezing, but a good, tart apple is essential.  Ask at your market which local apples are best for saucing.  I always, always freeze at least a cup of applesauce made with fall apples, since winter apples are kept fresh by cold storage, via a method that makes them reluctant to mush up nicely.

And that, my friends, is everything I’ve always wanted to say about deli.