Where’s the beef? At Milt’s!

Cards on every table at Milt's offer one-liners, brain teasers or thought-provoking questions.

Cards on every table at Milt’s offer one-liners, brain teasers or thought-provoking questions.

We recently spent a few days in Chicago, more to catch up with old friends than to see the sights. One couple suggested dinner at Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, a kosher spot in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood, and it was a great choice.

A "half-slab" of beef ribs at Milt's Barbecue for the Perplexed

A “half-slab” of beef ribs at Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed

First of all, the name intrigued us. Who is Milt? And why is his barbecue joint for the perplexed? The restaurant’s website provides interesting but frustrating information.

Who’s Uncle Milt?

“My Uncle Milt was priceless,” it says, under the heading “Who is Milt?”

“Everyone has, or knows, an Uncle Milt. He was the one who taught us how to play craps, taught us to drive at age 14, and took us to the track on Sundays. He was always eager to do the things your parents wouldn’t do, and oftentimes wouldn’t let you do either. Known to “stir the pot,” you could count on Uncle Milt to keep things interesting.

“The perfect day for him was spent out on the dock with us kids teaching his foolproof method for catching fish. (“Here, fishy, fishy!”)

“With endless stories of near successes and tales of his life’s adventures, Milt was unconventional, unabashed and an unbelievable uncle. With a heart the size of Texas and a personality to match, he was the Uncle who always had the time to hang out and make you feel like the coolest kid in the world.

“Thank you, Uncle Milt — this is for you!”

Whose Uncle Milt?

But the writer doesn’t say who he is, so I had no idea whose Uncle Milt was being described. And a web search produced no useful information.

Luckily the friendly folks at the Chicago Public Library came to my rescue, sending me links to three articles about Jeff Aeder, Milt’s founder.

Jeff Aeder

Jeff Aeder

The second part of the restaurant’s name, by the way, refers to one of the classics of Jewish philosophy, Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, written around 1190.

Aeder was quoted as saying he chose the name because “Maimonides emphasizes giving credence to all perspectives. He drew from Jewish, Islamic and ancient Greek philosophers to explain the Torah.”

And so Aeder uses his restaurant to provide a variety of perspectives by hosting a range of visitors who drop by to speak. Dennis Ross, the former envoy the the Middle East, has spoken there. So has Hillary Clinton, before her run for president.

So great food, a cute name and interesting speakers from time to time. But there’s more, and that’s what’s most impressive about Milt’s.

Owner Aeder is a real estate investor and a partner in Chicago’s JDI Realty, LLC. He opened Milt’s in 2013 as a way of giving back to the community. Each month he donates 100 percent of the restaurant’s profits to a local charity. Beneficiaries have included a local elementary school, a shelter for homeless women and a food pantry.

Back to the food. I ordered a “half slab” of beef ribs; the two ribs were so huge they looked like they came from a dinosaur. I gave about athird to my husband, ate my fill, and still took some home to the friend we were staying with. Paired with “brisket baked beans” — sweet and savory beans with chunks of brisket in the sauce — and vinegary coleslaw, it was a yummy dinner.

Another popular dish on the menu is braised short ribs. The recipe below is not from Milt’s, but it’s a great way to cook short ribs so they’re very tender and tasty. You can halve the recipe if you like. The recipe calls for boneless short ribs, but it works just as well if you have the bone-in type.

Slow-Cooked Short Ribs

Slow-Cooked Short Ribs


  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 tsp. salt (less if you use kosher meat)
  • ¼ tsp. ground black pepper
  • 2½ lbs.boneless beef short ribs
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • ¾ cup red wine vinegar
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup chili sauce
  • 2 Tbs.catsup
  • 2 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 Tbs. minced garlic


  1. Put the flour, salt (if you use it) and pepper into a plastic bag. Add the ribs and shake until they are evenly coated. Shake off the excess flour.
  2. Heat all but 1 Tbs. olive oil in a large skillet, and brown the meat on both sides. Move the meat to a slow cooker.
  3. Combine the beef broth, vinegar, brown sugar, chili sauce, catsup, Worcestershire sauce and chili powder.
  4. Heat the remaining oil in the skillet and sauté the onion and garlic for a few minutes, then add the other ingredients that you have mixed together. Bring to the boil while stirring, and pour over the ribs.
  5. Cover and cook on the low setting for 8 or 9 hours.
  6. Serve with rice, noodles or garlic mashed potatoes




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Categories: Meat, Poultry & Fish

Louis ‘Eli’ Finkelman: ‘Tolerable Failure’

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If only our home gardens matched the seed catalogs! This colorful image was featured in a 1902 catalog and calendar for home gardeners in the U.S.

This column is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopfcelerygefilte fish and home-made cheese. Eli is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner. He calls this column …


Tolerable Failure

I went fishing with a friend many long years ago. We dragged fishing lures back and forth in the lake for a long while. No fish were damaged in the course of our time together. We would not bring home any fish to fry for our dinner.

My friend observed that he felt happy that he did not depend on catching fish to earn his living; he still could fall back on his regular job as a psychologist.

Decades later—this morning, actually—I went out to inspect my backyard vegetable garden.

It looked sad.

Most years, some insect or other bores into the base of the stem of the zucchini plants. The plants get weak, and then they shrivel up. By the time they die, though, we have usually eaten our own fill of zucchini, and often given away baskets of the stuff. By that time, we have long lost our enthusiasm for harvesting zucchini, and willingly say goodbye to the season.

This year, most of the zucchini plants have detached stems, and will shrivel after producing only a few fruits.

An animal of some sort has discovered my pepper plants. This animal takes one fastidious bite out of each fruit, and then deposits the remains on the ground between plants, or it chews the fruits thoroughly, spitting out small fragments in neat little piles. I do not know what kind of animal likes the peppers. I have seen rabbits and squirrels around the vegetable bed; I would not have seen other possible pepper-eaters, shy, nocturnal animals such as raccoons, opossums, skunks or even deer.

From the pepper plant’s point-of-view, this might have been a successful season. With the help of the neighborhood forager, each plant gets to scatter its seeds all across the vegetable bed. Or maybe the plants would do better to please their human gardener, so that I decide to put in peppers again next year.

My neighbor shot a rabbit last summer, and reverently buried its carcass in the vegetable garden that it loved to haunt. I do not plan to do that.

I think next year I will have to go back to planting hot peppers.

My tomato plants stand festooned with beautiful green fruits. As each fruit turns red, though, I see that about half of have blossom-end rot, a condition just as disgusting as its name. I suppose I could still salvage one bite from most of these tomatoes, but in practice I throw them into the compost bin.

A farmer would not tolerate that level of failure. If I depended on those plants for my living, I would have to test the soil to find out what nutrient my tomatoes need. Dilettante that I am, I found on the Internet that eggshells in the soil may serve to prevent blossom-end rot, so I just may bury some eggshells before next season.   A serious farmer would have to find the right poison to protect the zucchini plants. I do not want to spread poison in my garden, even to protect the zucchini plants, so I do not bother to find out what kind of poison would work.

The garden has produced some successes this year. I collected all the scallions my wife could use for cooking, and then gave away baskets and baskets of scallions. The currant bushes produced a fine crop of jewel-like sweet-and-sour fruits, which I enjoyed juicing with the wine press. I have harvested a good collection of garlic bulbs. The kale looks sturdy. Whether these successes count as adequate recompense for the hours of work in the garden, I do not know, but then, I enjoy working in the garden.

In sum, my garden has produced some food; it will not win any awards.

Looking at my partially ruined, perhaps-good-enough garden, I remember that I am a couple of years short of my seventieth birthday. Perhaps I have many active years left to live. Perhaps few. I can, with effort, remember endeavors that I have undertaken which bore fruit, and others which did not. I can wonder about projects in which I never did invest much effort, which, predictably, stayed at might-have-been. Some acquaintances have devoted their lives to accomplishing great things; I can look up at them with admiration. Some never had a chance. Others have made messes of their lives in one way or another.

What future I have, I cannot guess. I can feel thankful for the quiet life I have led, and the good-enough harvest it continues to bring in.

It does not need any awards.

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Categories: Uncategorized

That’s so cheese-y!

Homemade soft cheese, photo by Jason Riedy via Flckr Creative Commons

Homemade soft cheese, photo by Jason Riedy via Flckr Creative Commons

Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopfcelery and gefilte fish. Eli is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. An expanded version of this article first appeared the Detroit Jewish News and it is reprinted with permission. (Part of the article dealt with making kosher cheese—a whole other dimension—and so the article bore the creative title “Jews for Cheeses.”)

Where does cheese come from?

The supermarket, obviously. It comes in neat plastic-wrapped packages.

David Barth cooks up a batch of cheese.

David Barth cooks up a batch of cheese.

David Barth of Oak Park, Mich. says he has “long had an interest in how people used to do things for themselves, things that we buy in a store. Once upon a time, people made them at home for themselves.”

When he retired after serving as in-house counsel for Consumers Energy for 33 years, he finally had the time to indulge that interest.

“My brother bought me a book of one-hour cheese recipes,”he says. “They all looked doable. I just followed the recipes and, with one exception, got what I wanted.

“The exception: I bought some goat’s milk for one recipe and then noticed that it was ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk. The chemistry is fascinating. You need the natural bacteria to help curdle the milk, as the experts warn, and ultra-pasteurized milk has no live bacteria.”

Ready in almost an hour!

Barth says that “one hour” in the book’s title amounts to a bit of gimmickry. Many of the recipes take a bit longer, but they are worth the effort. Guided by the book, Claudia Lucero’s One-Hour Cheese, Barth produced:

  • A very successful mozzarella. “I use it in all Italian recipes, like lasagna and pizza.”
  • A cheddar. “Not a true cheddar because it is not aged, but it tasted pretty much like cheddar you could buy in the store.”
  • Removing a strained cheese from the cheesecloth

    Squeezing the drained cheese curds through cheesecloth to remove even more of the whey.

    A halloumi. “This was the one that did not turn out exactly right. I made it half from the ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk and half from cow’s milk. It was pretty good, but it did not have the texture of a halloumi.

  • A farmer cheese. “I recommend that anyone who wants to start with cheese-making start with farmer cheese. It is extremely easy; it takes 15 minutes and it’s perfect, crumbly and with just the right taste.”

Soft cheeses are easy

You make these soft cheeses by adding coagulating agents to milk. Add vinegar, lemon juice or the sap of fig trees, and the milk solids (curds) promptly separate from the liquid (whey). That, according to Barth, constitutes the most exciting moment in cheese making.

“Seeing it happen…seeing the liquid milk, and adding a coagulating agent, and watching it turn solid has an ‘Oh, look at that!’ factor. You might feel like this is produce you pay money for in the store. It needs an expert to make it. Seeing that you can do this at home is thrilling.”

(Note: This recipe features farmer cheese. It’s similar to cottage cheese but drier and denser. If you don’t want to make your own and can’t find it, you can substitute small-curd cottage cheese, but drain it first; wrap it in cheesecloth and squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. If you do want to make it, here’s a recipe adapted from one I found online:  Pour a gallon of milk into a large pot, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil over medium heat. When it boils, turn off the heat and stir in the juice of one lemon. The milk will curdle within 5 to 10 minutes. Line a sieve or colander with a cheesecloth and pour the milk through the cloth. Gather the cloth around the curds and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. What remains in the cloth is farmer cheese. Wrap in plastic or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)

Farmer Cheese Casserole

Yield: Serves 4

Farmer Cheese Casserole


  • 3 Tbs. butter or olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • half a bell pepper (I used yellow), diced
  • 1 small tomato, chopped
  • 1 10-oz. box frozen spinach, thawed and drained
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup farmer cheese
  • 1 oz. cheddar or Monterrey Jack cheese, cubed
  • 1/4 cup cooked rice or 3 Tbs. flour
  • salt and black pepper to taste (the cheese may be salty enough that you don’t need to add any)
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano or basil


  1. Heat half the butter or oil in a medium skillet and saute the onions and peppers until soft. Add the chopped tomato and spinach, and continue cooking until any liquid is evaporated. Set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Put the remaining butter or oil in an 8-inch square baking dish (or use a glass pie plate) and put it in the oven for a few minutes until the butter melts or the oil is heated.
  4. Beat the eggs and add in the farmer cheese and cubed cheese, then the cooked and cooled vegetables, rice or flour, and spices. Mix well.
  5. Pour the melted butter or hot oil into the mixture, and then put everything into the greased baking dish or pie plate.
  6. Bake for about 40 minutes or until firm and slightly browned.


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Categories: Vegetarian Dishes

A broccoli cheese salad for Shavuot

Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

This week the Jewish community is getting ready for Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks” because it takes place on the 50th day (a week of weeks) after Passover. On the Christian calendar, it often coincides with Pentecost.

The holiday has a double meaning. Primarily, it celebrates the giving the Torah, the central document of the Jewish faith, at Mount Sinai after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It marks the occasion where a wandering tribe became a nation governed by God’s commandments.

Shavuot is also the spring harvest festival, which is probably one reason it’s customary to read the Book of Ruth. This lovely story shows how Ruth, a Moabite, followed her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel after the death of Ruth’s husband, uttering the famous words, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

Ruth gleaning in the fields.

Ruth gleaning in the fields.

The story takes place at the time of the spring harvest, when Ruth goes out to the fields to glean; one of the Torah’s commandments was to leave the corners of the field uncut during the harvest, so that the poor people in the community could gather grain for themselves.

A good time to study Torah

Another tradition is to study Torah (the first five books of what’s commonly known as the Old Testament) all night. At my synagogue, they start around 9 p.m., with 40-minute to one-hour study sessions on a wide variety of subjects continuing through the night and ending with morning services at around 5:30 a.m. No one is obligated to stay all night, but a few hardy souls do so every year, fueled by ample refreshments and lots of fresh coffee.

The other big tradition is to eat dairy foods, but no one knows why. One scholar found the first letters of the four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26, which describe sacrifices to be offered on Shavuot, spell mei halav (from milk). Others feel dairy foods symbolize the status of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai: they were as innocent as infants, whose primary food is milk.

Cheesecake is a traditional Shavuot food.

Cheesecake is a traditional Shavuot food.

Eat cheesecake!

Yet another theory is that once the Israelites received the Torah, they realized they had to follow the laws of kashrut, which meant meat had to be prepared in certain ways before it could be eaten. Since this would take a bit of time, it was easier for the first meals to be dairy instead of meat.

Whatever the reason, it’s a good excuse to eat blintzes, cheesecake and other dairy-rich delights.

My friends and I have been celebrating the second day of Shavuot with a potluck picnic since our 30-something kids were toddlers. Today’s recipe is a great potluck dish. In fact, I first encountered it at a workplace potluck. Everyone was raving about it, but because the original recipe calls for bacon, which I don’t eat, I didn’t try it then.

I found this recipe, which I have altered a bit, on a site called BellaOnline. The original recipe calls for 4 slices of bacon, which we obviously don’t use in a kosher kitchen. It also calls for mozzarella cheese, which I found rather tasteless, so I substituted cheddar. And I use about half the amount of dressing called for in the original, which is plenty (my quantities are what I list here). If you’re concerned about the sugar, you can substitute Splenda, which I have done with no ill effect.

Broccoli Cheese Salad

Broccoli Cheese Salad


  • 1 head of broccoli
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • ½ cup soy “bacon” bits (or 4 strips of crisply cooked bacon, crumbled)
  • 1 cup shredded cheese
  • ½ cup low-fat mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs. cider vinegar


  1. Finely chop the broccoli, onion and hard-boiled egg. If you use a food processor for this (a good idea), do the vegetables first and add the egg at the end for a few pulses
  2. Mix in the cheese and “bacon” bits
  3. Make a dressing by mixing the mayonnaise, sugar and vinegar together until the sugar is dissolved. Mix the dressing into the broccoli mixture.
  4. Chill for at least one hour before serving




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Categories: Salads

Celebrating 150 years: Three cheers for Vernors!

Vernors ad with the mascot Woody

A Vernors ad with the mascot Woody the gnome.

We had never heard of Vernors before we moved to Detroit in 1976. To me, “ginger ale” meant Frank’s Pale Dry Ginger Ale, a Philadelphia brand and a staple at the home of my grandparents. As a teen I also got to know Canada Dry, another ginger ale of the “pale dry” variety.

Detroiters are inordinately proud of Vernors, a locally born company that made nothing but ginger ale. The brand is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Company lore says James Vernor, a clerk at a Detroit drugstore in the mid-1800s, experimented with flavors to duplicate a popular ginger beer imported from Ireland. When he was drafted to serve in the Civil War, he stored his syrup base in an oak barrel. When Vernor returned after years of service, he opened the keg and and discovered that aging in wood had changed the flavor of the syrup. He declared it to be “deliciously different,” which became the company’s slogan.

It’s a lovely legend, but the founder’s son, James Vernor, Jr., admitted that the formula wasn’t actually developed until later. A trademark application from 1911 says it was first sold in 1880.

That doesn’t  stop the company from declaring this to be its 150th anniversary, and who’s to quibble? Even 136 years is a long time to be making and selling the same food product.

Vernor opened a drugstore of his own on Detroit’s main drag, Woodward Avenue, and sold his ginger ale at the store’s soda fountain. Soon he started selling bottling franchises, with franchisees required to adhere strictly to the recipe. In 1896 he closed the drugstore to concentrate on the soda.

An old Vernors ad on the side of a Detroit building; photo by David Marvin via Flickr Creative Commons.

An old Vernors ad on the side of a Detroit building; photo by David Marvin via Flickr Creative Commons.

A Detroit staple

The company expanded during the Prohibition era, and James Vernor, Jr., who succeeded his father, built a large bottling plant and headquarters that took up a whole block of Woodward Avenue. The plant moved a few miles north in 1954 to a site that many of my Detroit friends remember touring as children.

Originally called Vernor’s, the soda lost its apostrophe in 1959. The Vernor family sold it in to an investment group in 1966. Subsequently owned by American Consumer Products, United Brands, A&W Beverages and Cadbury Schweppes, Vernors is now part of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. The flagship Detroit bottling plant was closed in 1985.

Is Vernors still aged for four years in oak casks? It’s doubtful, and Vernors has stopped making that claim, changing “barrel aged bold taste” for “authentic bold taste.” Purists says it’s not as good as the old stuff.

While Vernors is distributed nationally, Michigan accounts for 80 percent of sales.

Vernors is somewhat more strongly flavored than the pale dry type of ginger ale, and a little sweeter. Some of my friends remember being given warm Vernors to treat an upset stomach.

Woody the gnome

Vernors mascot Woody in a fanciful post card image

Woody even made public appearances. Here is a 1930s post card featuring Woody pointing to an enormous hollow log, a reminder of the company’s oak-aging process.

For many years starting in the early 1900s, Vernors had  a mascot: a gnome nicknamed Woody.  The gnome was dropped in 1987 but returned in 2002.

We actually have a tandem bicycle, bought via Craig’s List, that was produced as a marketing gimmick for Vernors; the green-and-gold painted frame includes a picture of Woody.

Vernors can be used in recipes, especially as an ingredient in glazes for meat, chicken or fish. You can use it in any cake recipe that calls for ginger ale.

A popular Detroit treat is the Boston cooler, made from Vernors blended with vanilla ice cream. No one knows why it’s called a Boston cooler. Some say it was invented on Boston Boulevard, a Detroit residential street. Others say the drink was around before Boston Boulevard was developed.

I just learned that some Detroit McDonald’s franchises are selling Boston coolers. Here’s the lowdown from Susan Selasky, the Detroit Free Press’s food writer.

Here’s a recipe I found online that sounds good; I haven’t had a chance to make it yet. It’s from a blog called My North. The photo is by Steve Wertz, via Flickr Creative Commons.

CB's Vernors Chicken

CB's Vernors Chicken


  • 4 whole chicken legs (aka chicken quarters), skin on
  • 2 cans of regular Vernors
  • 2–3 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Couple good shakes good-quality paprika
  • Cayenne pepper to taste, mixed with salt


  1. Rinse chicken legs and pat dry.
  2. In a non-reactive bowl mix remaining ingredients except cayenne pepper. Add chicken legs and marinate 6 hours to no more than overnight.
  3. Place chicken on a medium grill (test by holding your hand 2 inches over the flame for 6 seconds), and cook pelvis side down for about 40 minutes covered.
  4. Once chicken is on the grill, sprinkle the skin with a little cayenne-salt mix.
  5. Leave it be, but check frequently for flare-ups. Bottom skin will burn, but that’s okay.
  6. Flip, cook another 10 minutes or so or until done through, and the sugar in the marinade caramelizes to make the skin a rich brown. (The sugar in the marinade can burn, so watch carefully.)


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Categories: Meat, Poultry & Fish

Yalla Eat! showcases an ethnic neighborhood

A variety of Middle Eastern cheeses at the Dearborn Fresh market

A variety of Middle Eastern cheeses at the Dearborn Fresh market

For the third time, my husband and I joined an Arab-American culinary walking tour sponsored by the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, a suburb adjacent to Detroit that has the highest density of Arab-Americans in the country. These families began moving to Dearborn in the 1920s for factory worker at Ford Motor Company. The Arab population burgeoned in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly with immigrants from Lebanon. Others came from Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen and Iraq.

In the 1980s, our guide told us, one particular village in Lebanon had 2,000 residents while Dearborn had 6,000 people who had originated there!

The museum calls the program “Yalla Eat!” which means “Let’s go eat!”

The first Yalla Eat! was in Detroit’s Eastern Market, where we visited a number of wholesalers, cafes and retail stores, including Gabriel Import Co. Last year we toured Warren Avenue in Detroit, on the border with Dearborn, which was run-down and derelict until around 40 years ago, when recently arrived Arab immigrants began opening restaurants and other businesses there. The district is now thriving and is the heart of the city’s Arab-American community. Of the 200 Arab-owned businesses on Warren Avenue, about half are food-related.

This year the museum added a new tour, of food-related businesses on Michigan Avenue, about a mile from Warren. This wide and busy thoroughfare was once the commercial heart of Dearborn. There was a Montgomery Ward on one corner and a Federal’s Department Store—where the museum is now located—across the street, as well as numerous restaurants, banks and retail establishments. Then, in the early 1980s, a large, enclosed mall opened just over two miles away. You can guess the rest.

Fahsa from Sheeba Restaurant in Dearborn, Mich.

Fahsa from Sheeba Restaurant in Dearborn, Mich.

An expanding commercial area

But where everyone else saw empty storefronts, the Arab-American community saw opportunity. With few vacancies on Warren Avenue, younger restaurateurs, tradespeople and professionals (salons, accountants, pharmacies, physicians) started moving onto Michigan Avenue. We visited a half-dozen of them and came away impressed and sated. (For the hosts, it was great,cheap advertising—give away a few taste samples and leave your visitors with an overwhelmingly positive impression!)

Our first stop was Dearborn Fresh, a former Kroger supermarket that now sells a huge variety of foods preferred by those from the Middle Eastern—everything from sour plums and green almonds to a wide variety of cheeses, fresh meat and baked goods. We sampled hummus, tabouli and baklava.

Then it was on to Sheeba, run by immigrants from Yemen, with a cuisine somewhat different from the more common Lebanese fare.

Our host brought out bubbling bowls of fahsah, a stew of shredded lamb and mashed potatoes, and seltah (most recipes, like the one I copied below, spell it “saltah”), a vegetable stew topped with whipped fenugreek, along with large loaves of “tandoori bread” similar to pita. Both stews were served in stoneware bowls that kept them bubbling for about 10 minutes after they were set on the table. The recipe for the lamb dish, the owner told us, includes 43 different spices.

Yemeni desserts from Mocha Cafe in Dearborn, Mich.

Yemeni desserts from Mocha Cafe in Dearborn, Mich.

Mocha Cafe is not a coffee shop

On we went to Mocha Cafe, which everyone expected to be a coffee shop. Not so—the restaurant is named for Mocha, a city in Yemen. We associate the word with coffee because it was major marketplace for coffee from the 15th century until the early 18th century.

At Mocha we nibbled on a variety of sweets, including moshabak, made from dough dyed red with food coloring that was deep-fried and then covered with a sugary glaze, kind of like a bright red funnel cake. The star of the dessert plate, though, was the “mango smoothie,” which we all thought of as a drink. At Mocha Cafe, it’s a mango custard topped with fresh banana, strawberries, pineapple and raisins. It’s served and eaten like an ice cream sundae and is every bit as yummy.

At Habib’s Cuisine, a higher-end restaurant, we were served pita with basil-infused olive oil, beef shwarma in a pita, and Chef Habib Bazzi’s “famous” potato balls, tiny whole potatoes coated in a secret blend of spices and deep-fried until crispy.

Finally we rolled over to Adonis, a small catering hall with a smaller attached restaurant next door to the museum, to wake ourselves up from our food stupor with steaming cups of Turkish coffee.

For me the moral of the story is that if you want to make friends with people, feed them! It’s hard to be angry with a full stomach and tingling tastebuds. Maybe Donald Trump should visit Dearborn and take one of these food tours.

The recipe below is from the Queen of Sheba Yemini Recipes blog, where there are lots of other intriguing offerings. It doesn’t look like an easy one, because each step includes something else that you first have to make from scratch. If you want to be adventurous, give it a try. It was certainly tasty!




  • 1Tbs.oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1 green chili, more or less to taste
  • 2 tomatoes, fresh or canned
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. coriander
  • ¼ tsp. cumin seeds
  • ¼ tsp. ground black pepper
  • 5 pieces of okra, chopped
  • 1 potato, peeled and chopped
  • Optional:1 small squash or ½ eggplant, chopped
  • 1 1/4 cup water
  • Prepared hulba
  • Hulba
  • Water
  • 2 tsp. ground fenugreek
  • 2 Tbs. bisbas
  • Bisbas
  • bunch of green chives (green pepper also works)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/4 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1-2 green chilis, more or less depending on taste
  • 1 dried chili
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbs. water


  1. Blend all ingredients using an electric blender or by hand using a mortar and pestle. Serve with yogurt, lahooh, or hulba. Store in refrigerator for up to 3 days.
  2. Hulba:
  3. Place ground fenugreek in a small bowl of water and let sit for at least one hour.
  4. Drain water. The fengureek should have absorbed water and is now ready to be whipped
  5. Whip the fenugreek by hand or using a mixer. Whip until the color has changed from brown to white and the bitter taste is gone. This should take about 10 minutes beating by hand.
  6. Add prepared bisbas to the fenugreek and whip in. Add more or less depending on your taste for spiciness. Serve on top of saltah, fahsa, or as a condiment.
  7. Saltah:
  8. Chop onion, garlic, and green chili and sauté in oil over medium heat until onion and garlic are browned, about 7-10 minutes.
  9. Add coriander, cumin, pepper and salt. Add chopped tomatoes and cook in oil until the liquid from tomatoes has evaporated, and oil turns red, about 5 minutes.
  10. Add okra, potatoes, and water. Cover and boil over medium heat until potatoes are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 20-30 minutes. Watch the vegetables to make sure they do not burn.
  11. Place the stewed vegetables in a stoneware pot on the stove. Make sure your pot is burner-safe and will not crack over high heat.
  12. Break up vegetables into small pieces with a spoon. Add just enough water to make a broth, about cup. Don’t add too much water or the taste will be diluted.
  13. Add an extra pinch of salt and pepper to taste, and a few chopped green chilis on top of vegetables if desired. Also add as an option, 1 egg or beef broth.




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Categories: Vegetarian Dishes

The great gefilte fish fight



Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopf and celery.

Gefilte (pronounced guh FILL tuh) fish is a Jewish delicacy that’s eaten year-round, but it’s popular at Passover because we celebrate the holidays with festive meals. Those who make gefilte fish from scratch don’t often do so for an ordinary meal–it has to be worthy of the considerable bother.

Gefilte fish literally means stuffed fish. Originally the European Jews who developed this dish would take a whole fish, scrape out and debone the meat and chop it (often adding chopped vegetables), put it back in the fish skin and bake it.

These days, few bother with the fish skin, instead forming balls out of the ground fish mixture and boiling them. You can get gefilte fish in jars and cans in supermarkets in Jewish areas–but it doesn’t hold a candle to home-made. Recently stores have also started selling frozen “gefilte fish” loaves that you can boil whole and then slice. These products are tastier than the canned or jarred products–but home-made still reigns supreme.

There are as many variations as there are European towns where Jews once lived. The biggest dividing line seems to be sweet vs. non-sweet. Sugar in a fish dish may sound weird, but trust me, the end result is delectable!

Here is a link to a delightful 14-minute film about three generations of women and their relationship to gefilte fish.

By Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

My grandparents made the big family seder at their apartment in the Bronx every year. When Grandma could no longer do all the preparation, other women in the family, including my mother, teamed up to clean and cook.

When Grandpa died, my father took over the role of leading the seder. When my mother fell ill and could no longer prepare for the seder, my sister Miriam (Mimi) took a few days off from work to get the house ready, and to help get Dad ready to host the seder each year.

This was a declaration, not a proposal to discuss.

The first seder without Dad

Preparing fish stock to cook gefilte fish; photo by Almog Shair Joseph via Flickr Creative Commons

Preparing fish stock to cook gefilte fish; photo by Almog Shair Joseph via Flickr Creative Commons

And so my sister came to visit us in California a few days before Passover, in time to help with the planning and cooking to get us ready for the seders. My wife, Marilyn, and my sister Mimi did the work together, to prepare; other relatives would come later, to join the celebration.

But it would be a bittersweet celebration. Dad had died in November. The seder would be in California, as he had foretold, but he would not be there.

By 1993, my wife and my sister had known each other for 24 years.  They had become friends almost immediately after they met, good friends. By 1993, they might have even been best friends to each other. On the rare occasions when they disagreed, they talked things over and decided together. They even worked together smoothly in the same kitchen.

And so preparation for the 1993 seders went smoothly, as everyone expected.  Marilyn and Mimi planned the menus, shopped together, assigned each other tasks, and cheerfully worked together preparing festive meals. Until they had a fight, their first real fight ever.

It had to do with who would prepare the gefilte fish.  My sister – who generally does not insist — insisted that she would prepare the gefilte fish. My wife – who generally decides in an instant what is important and what is not important – refused. This was important; she was going to prepare the gefilte fish. They could not talk this one over; they could not break the impasse. Neither of them could do any more cooking that day.

My wife suffered a night of interrupted sleep.  How could she sleep well, in the middle of a fight with her best friend? And why did they have to fight over a pot of fish?

Why did it matter?

By morning, Marilyn had figured out why who made the gefilte fish mattered, and why it would not matter anymore. Either recipe would taste fine, but the fish had a back story, or rather, two back stories.

My wife learned her recipe from her Grandmother Keanig. Her grandmother did simple cooking, only a few foods she learned to cook the old-country way.  Grandma did not work from written recipes – who knows if she had learned to read in any language? – but her hands knew what to do.

The last decade of Grandpa Keanig’s life, Grandma had stayed right beside his sickbed every single day.  After he died, Grandma Keanig flew out to visit us. During that visit, she taught my wife her recipes by showing her and cooking with her. My wife would recite her grandmother’s instructions out loud, and my daughter – then a first-grader — sat in the kitchen with a pencil and a notebook writing down those instructions in a childish hand.

Every year, in a ritual telephone call before Rosh Hashanah and another before Passover, Grandma would want to know how the fish came out. And every year, before Rosh Hashanah and before Passover, my wife would report, “The fish came out good, but not as good as yours.”

Gefilte fish is traditionally served with grated horseradish. Photo by Marcelo Trasel via Wikimedia Commons.

Gefilte fish is traditionally served with grated horseradish. Photo by Marcelo Trasel via Wikimedia Commons.

In my family, Grandma did just about all the preparations for the seder herself.  Grandpa made fresh grated horseradish with fresh-squeezed lemon juice,  touch of sugar and fresh grated beets. Grandpa made haroshes, a sauce of apples, nuts and sweet red wine. But Grandma did the cooking.  She had daughters and daughters-in-law, whom she loved and appreciated, but who were not allowed in the kitchen when Grandma worked.

Also unwelcome in the kitchen were the granddaughters, except for my sister. Grandma appreciated the way Miriam, even as a young girl, got things done, efficiently and quickly, with a minimum of fuss, cleaning up as she worked, taking instruction easily. Making gefilte fish was among the many skills Miriam learned in Grandma’s kitchen.

The question did not really hinge on the difference in flavor between the two recipes. My grandma, originally from Zlotopol in Ukrainian Russia, made a peppery version, perhaps in the Ukrainian style, or perhaps just because Grandma liked pepper. Marilyn’s grandma, from Brisk in Byelorussia, used less pepper and more sugar.

The root of the question

The real question hinged on whose traditions would go into making this seder. Which style of fish got served, and which person made the fish, really stood for whose seder we would have.

Of course in practice, the seder would have elements from both families. The fight was over. Mimi made the gefilte fish that year. The next day, Marilyn summarized the experience with the observation that she and her friend Mimi could manage “one fight every 24 years.”  I hope that does not mean they have another fight coming up next year.

As for the recipes, the notebook with Grandma Keanig’s gefilte fish recipe showed up a few years ago as we packed for a move. We gave the notebook to our daughter, who has become quite an accomplished cook.

A recipe in my wife’s card catalogue reads “Grandma’s Gefilte Fish.” It does not specify whose grandma, but it has sugar and not much pepper.

Note: Buy fresh fish and ask the person at the counter to fillet it for you and give you the skin and bones in a separate bag.

Grandma's Gefilte Fish

Grandma's Gefilte Fish


  • 2 sliced carrots
  • 3 sliced onions
  • Fish heads and bones (save when you fillet the fish)
  • 4 Tbs. Salt (2 tbs.)
  • 3 tsp. Pepper (1 tsp.)
  • 4 Tbs. Sugar (2 tbs.)
  • 2 lbs. ground carp
  • 4 lbs. ground whitefish
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 grated onions
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 tbs. salt.
  • 2 tsp. pepper


  1. Cover bottom of a large pot with the carrots, onions and fish heads and bones
  2. Add water to cover along with 2 Tbs. salt, 1 tsp. pepper and 2 Tbs.sugar. Bring to a boil.
  3. Mix the carp, whitefish, eggs, onions, remaining salt, pepper and sugar.
  4. Form fish into slightly flattened balls or patties and place in the boiling stock.
  5. Simmer 2 hours, covered lightly.
  6. Cool before serving.


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Categories: Meat, Poultry & Fish