Chautauqua: Haven for Learning and Culture

The landmark Miller Bell Tower at Chautauqua

The landmark Miller Bell Tower at Chautauqua

My husband and I have become evangelists—for the Chautauqua Institution, a unique and wonderful community in the westernmost county of New York, between Buffalo and Erie, Pa.

It’s a combination of college campus, music festival, writers’ workshop,  arts enclave and summer resort, with a little more than a hint of the religious movement that gave it its start 143 years ago. One person we met called it “summer camp for the adult brain.”

And it’s nestled into a picturesque small town chock full of Victorian-era houses, gardens galore and quiet streets. Walking and biking are the primary means of transport (though shuttle buses are available).

Training for Sunday School teachers

The Baptist House at Chautauqua

The Baptist House at Chautauqua

Originally called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, the institution was created in 1874 as a two-week program for Methodist Sunday School teachers. The assembly took place following a revivalist “camp meeting” held annually on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. Founders John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller thought religion teachers needed more than revivalist spirit. They brought in speakers on a variety of academic subjects and provided music, art and physical education opportunities. It wasn’t long before the assembly totally eclipsed the revival meeting.

The Chautauqua idea caught on quickly, attracting the general public as well as religious educators. Soon there were numerous “daughter Chautauquas” and traveling Chautauquas throughout the country.

The founders’ vision still drives the institution, which now has a nine-week season every summer, from the end of June to the end of August.

Every week has a theme, and every weekday morning there is a lecture from a nationally known speaker on that theme. Every weekday afternoon there’s a lecture on a related theme in the “interfaith” lecture series. And every evening, six days of the week, there is fabulous entertainment: from the resident Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, from the music school’s orchestra, from the opera program or resident ballet company, or from top-notch visiting artists.

In between there are more lectures, book reviews, movies, discussion groups, recitals, art exhibits, nature walks and other activities – more than any one person can do.

For an additional fee there are three productions by the resident theater company and  a whole catalog of “special studies courses” on a wide variety of topics. There’s a golf course, tennis courts and indoor pool, and a lake with small beaches and boat docks. There are reasonably priced day camp programs for children from 3 to 16.

Religious life at Chautauqua

The Episcopal House at Chautauqua

The Episcopal House at Chautauqua

In deference to its history, Chautauqua provides many avenues for religious expression, including daily Protestant services with visiting clergy in the large amphitheater and a Sunday evening “sacred song service.”

Quite early in Chautauqua’s history, various Protestant denominations began operating guest houses so their congregants could stay at Chautauqua for a reasonable fee. Catholics and Jews weren’t particularly welcome in the early days, but now both groups have residences among the “denominational houses” on the grounds – and a Muslim house is in the discussion phase.

The newest of the denominational houses is the Everett Jewish Life Center, which opened in 2009. My husband and I started staying there for a week at a time in 2014. Last year we learned that they were looking for a new “host couple” and we jumped at the opportunity.

This year we spent 10 weeks at Chautauqua. Our duties included welcoming the guests to the Everett Center’s five guest rooms, shopping for food, preparing and cleaning up from breakfast, helping set up seats for the weekly films and speakers, and general trouble-shooting. Others handled the cleaning and maintenance and the programming.

In return, we got to enjoy almost everything Chautauqua had to offer. We heard incredible speakers, including Dahlia Lithwick, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Lewis Black, Jacques Pepin, E.J. Dionne, Bill Moyers and Stella Rimington, the former head of British intelligence and the model for Judi Dench’s “M”.

We saw fabulous entertainers, including Jay Leno, the Capitol Steps, Garrison Keillor, Sheryl Crow and the Beach Boys.

The landmark lakeside bell tower at Chautauqua.

Not a denominational house, just a pretty one!

Visitors can stay at one of the 15 denominational houses with  guest rooms, the beautiful Victorian Athenaeum Hotel or at a rental house, apartment or room. There are also less expensive hotels and cabin communities a few miles away.

A word to the wise: The denominational houses get booked up fast! The Everett center has only a few openings left for 2018. The United Methodist House starts taking reservations October 1 and continues until the rooms are filled. The Catholic House has a lottery: get your application in between November 1 and November 30 and they’ll let you know soon afterwards if you’re “in.”

All of the denominational houses welcome people of all faiths, though some give preferences to church members; some allow you to become an official member of the tribe by paying a small membership fee.

Like any good evangelist, I’m willing to “testify” for Chautauqua! If you have any questions about the program or about the Everett Jewish Life Center, please contact me.

The recipe below is for one of the breakfast casseroles I served to our guests at the Everett center. I got it from food.com. It would be a great brunch or potluck dish. Be sure to plan ahead, because the recipe calls for the dish to sit overnight in the refrigerator. You can probably get by with letting it sit just a few hours, but I don’t recommend baking it right after you mix it up; the bread needs a chance to soak up the eggs and milk.

Spinach and Artichoke Strata

Spinach and Artichoke Strata

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cut into 2-in. long thin strips
  • 9 eggs
  • 1 (10 oz.) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and thoroughly drained
  • 3½ cups milk
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 9 slices day-old Italian bread, cut into cubes
  • 2 (6 oz.) jars marinated artichoke hearts, drained
  • 3 scallions, sliced thin
  • 3 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese

Instructions

  1. Heat oil in medium skillet over medium heat.
  2. Add the peppers and saute until tender, about 6 minutes; set aside.
  3. Beat eggs in a large bowl until frothy.
  4. Stir in the spinach, milk, Parmesan cheese, nutmeg, salt and fresh ground pepper.
  5. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with a little bit of the butter.
  6. Use the rest of the butter to butter one side of the bread slices, then cut the bread into 1-inch cubes; you should have about 9 cups of cubes.
  7. Spread half the bread cubes evenly in the casserole, then top with half the pepper strips, 1 jar or artichoke hearts, half the scallions, half the spinach mixture and half the cheddar cheese.
  8. Repeat layers in order, ending with the cheddar cheese.
  9. Cover dish and refrigerate overnight.
  10. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking.
  11. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  12. Bake uncovered about 1 hour until golden brown on top and firm in center (a knife inserted in the center should come out clean).
  13. Let stand about 15 minutes before serving.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/chautauqua-haven-for-learning-and-culture/

 

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Categories: AppetizersBreadsDessertsMeat, Poultry & FishSaladsSide DishesSoupsUncategorizedVegetarian Dishes

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

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  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
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/milts-barbecue-for-the-perplexed/

 

 

 

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Categories: Meat, Poultry & Fish

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

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  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.)
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/celebrating-150-years-three-cheers-for-vernors/

 

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Categories: Meat, Poultry & Fish

The great gefilte fish fight

 

gefilte_fish_symbol_oval_sticker

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

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  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.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/the-great-gefilte-fish-fight-by-eli-finkelman/

 

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Categories: Meat, Poultry & Fish

Clay oven chicken the medieval way

 

Cooking the medieval way; photo by Hans Splinter via Flickr Creative Commons

Cooking the medieval way; photo by Hans Splinter via Flickr Creative Commons

Marilyn Finkelman

Marilyn Finkelman

For years Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written several guest blogs in this space, and his wife, Marilyn, have participated in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), where they join other like-minded people in living for a few days or a few weeks in true medieval fashion. For months I’ve been badgering Marilyn to write a piece about medieval cooking, and she finally came through.

Marilyn Finkelman has been a teacher of writing and research in law schools, a teacher of adult Jewish studies, and a homeschool mom. In the SCA, as Lady Miriam bat Pessah, she does archery, embroidery, cooking, calligraphy, brewing (wine and mead), cheese making, illumination, and Jewish cultural studies. 

The Finkelmans are planning a clay-oven cooking extravaganza as part of their celebration of the festival of Sukkot, which started this year at sundown Sunday, Sept. 27. The festival in part celebrates the fall harvest, so that seems entirely appropriate!

Historic cooking is among my many hobbies in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an organization that encourages study and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe, the “Middle Ages.”

It always amazes me that we have cookbooks from that period given that, even in very wealthy households, the cook probably couldn’t read and no one would allow anything as valuable as a book to go anywhere near a place as dangerous as a kitchen.

Islamic recipes more user-friendly

Marilyn and Eli Finkleman's clay oven

Marilyn and Eli Finkleman’s clay oven

I find the medieval Islamic recipes more user-friendly than northern European recipes. There are several wonderful translations available, including Nawal Nasrallah’s Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen, a huge collection of recipes from 10th century Baghdad, and Charles Perry’s A Baghdad Cookery Book, a shorter collection of recipes from the 13th century.

But even the recipes that make sense intuitively present challenges. These dishes were cooked on open fires or in clay ovens, using different utensils and cooking methods. Some of the ingredients are hard to identify, and even those that are familiar may not have been very much like the ingredients available in our local market. The recipes are much sketchier than modern recipes, rarely including amounts or precise instructions. Typical is the instruction to add a given ingredient or cook the dish “enough.”

All of the Islamic cookbooks include several versions of judhaba, which involve making some sort of bread pudding, and cooking it in an oven while “hanging over it a fat chicken.” Here is the first of about 15 variations from Caliphs’ Kitchen (p.374):

Take a whole bread made with the finest … flour, let its weight be 1 ratl. Cut it into morsel sized pieces, which you then soak in water in a green glazed bowl for about an hour. When the bread pieces are saturated and puffed, put them in the pan. Pour on them 1 ratl honey, 2 ratls sugar, and 1 ratl water. There should be enough to cover the bread and a little more. Mix in aromatic spices and saffron, too. Put the pan in the bottom center of a hot tannur, suspend a plump chicken over the pan, and [let it roast until done], God willing.

As many questions as answers

Doesn’t that sound delicious? But it presents as may questions as it answers. What kind of bread would be considered “made with the finest flour”? Does the “green glazed bowl” matter? This recipe calls for equal weights of bread, honey, and water, and double the weight of sugar. Doesn’t that seem cloyingly sweet? What spices and how much of those spices? How do you suspend a chicken over that pan? Would it work in a modern kitchen oven, or do you need the live fire cooking?

And there are lots of variations in other judhaba recipes. Some call for different types of bread, cut to different sizes. The bread is soaked in different liquids, for example milk or berry juice. Proportions and types of sweetener vary. Recipes call for additions of different ingredients, for example apricots, dates, raisins, rosewater syrup, bananas, walnuts, almonds, sesame oil, eggs, onions, mushrooms, and more. Some recipes call for a thin bread laid under and over the bread pudding.

I tried a version of this in my kitchen oven, just laying chicken pieces over some soaked bread mixture, but it came out dry and dull.

Then, last summer, we built a clay oven in our backyard, and I decided to try this concept again.

Working from the base recipe, I used a loaf of medium density bakery bread. I soaked it in my metal mixing bowl, letting it get soggier than my usual bread pudding would be. I could not get myself to make it as sweet as the original recipe suggested, so I used the honey but not the sugar.

I looked through the other recipes for spices that might be mentioned, and ended up adding salt, cinnamon, sesame oil and cloves. I wanted to do one of the additional flavors, and settled on dates. I used some thin pita I had in the freezer for the bread above and below the bread pudding.

Hanging the chicken

Marilyn's chickens ready for the oven

Marilyn’s chickens ready for the oven

I was stumped on how to hang the chicken over the bread pudding until a friend solved the problem for me. “What’s wrong with you, girl?  Haven’t you ever heard of beer can chicken?”  I used tomato cans instead.

There was a steep learning curve as we started using our oven. Once the oven was fully heated up, after about two hours of fire, we cleared the coals out and cooked with the residual heat. (We have since started doing some of the cooking on the fire while the oven is heating up.) We put the judhaba in right after the sourdough breads came out, so the oven was probably around 400 degrees, and left it in for about an hour or maybe a little less.

The result was superb. The pita on top of the bread pudding crisped up, turning into chicken flavored pita chips. And with the pita on top, the bread pudding stayed nice and moist. It was sweet and delicious.

The chicken was clearly not the point of the recipe, but it was crisp-skinned and delicately flavored. We served on a large platter, with the cut up chicken in the middle, surrounded by the bread pudding, with the pita chips around the edges.

My redacted recipe is still less precise than most modern recipes. And I do not know whether it would be as good cooked in a modern oven. But we are planning a “clay oven greatest hits” cook day this fall, and judhaba was tops on everyone’s list.

Judhaba al Tamr: Clay Oven Chicken

Judhaba al Tamr: Clay Oven Chicken

Ingredients

  • 1 loaf medium density bakery bread, about 1½ lb., preferably a little stale
  • 3 or 4 thin pitas or flour tortillas
  • ½ lb. dried dates, preferably medjool
  • 1 whole chicken, rubbed with fresh garlic
  • ¼ to ½ cup honey
  • 2 Tbs. sesame oil (not toasted)
  • Spices to taste, including salt, cinnamon, cloves
  • ½ cup walnut pieces, optional

Instructions

  1. Boil dates until they are soft and mushy, drain and mash. Remove any pits.
  2. Cut bread into bite-size pieces, and soak in water until the bread is thoroughly sodden. Drain gently.
  3. Mix the soaked bread with the mashed dates, honey, sesame oil, spices and walnuts (if using them).
  4. Line the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with pita or tortillas.
  5. Take a tomato can or other similarly sized can, remove top and bottom, and place it in the middle of the pan. Add the bread mixture to the pan, placing it around the can. Add water to the bread mixture to make sure it is thoroughly wet.
  6. Cover the top of the bread mixture with pita or tortillas. If they don’t fit, they can be torn to appropriately sized pieces.
  7. Balance the chicken on top of the can.
  8. Bake in clay oven until the chicken is just done.
  9. Remove the chicken. Remove the top pita or tortilla and break into pieces. Empty any juices that have accumulated in the pan into the bread pudding.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/clay-oven-chicken/

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Categories: Meat, Poultry & Fish

Dishes pop with paprika

Paprika for sale in Hungary, photo by A. Marga via Flickr Creative Commons.

Paprika for sale in Hungary, photo by A. Marga via Flickr Creative Commons.

When we were in Budapest three years ago we brought back little containers of paprika as gifts. It’s probably the best gift you can bring someone from

Paprika peppers, photo by Miklos via Flickr Creative Commons.

Paprika peppers, photo by Miklos via Flickr Creative Commons.

Hungary, because Hungarian pepper is regarded as the best in the world.

Unfortunately, we neglected to buy any for ourselves, but luckily a friend visited Budapest a few months ago and brought us back little sample-size sacks of hot paprika and sweet paprika. These will join the jar of smoked paprika I already had in my spice collection: a paprika for every occasion!

Paprika is one of the world’s most popular spices. Even cooks who have little more than salt, pepper, garlic and oregano on hand will likely also have a bottle of paprika. Made from dried and ground red chili peppers, it adds a dash of color to any dish just by being sprinkled on top.

A New World spice

Chili peppers were unknown until the discovery of the New World—amazing when you consider how popular they have become in Asian and European cooking.

Hungarians were particularly drawn to the zesty flavor of paprika. When the laborious process of turning dried peppers into paprika was mechanized during the Industrial Revolution, the Hungarian city of Szeged became the center of the industry. Cheaper than black pepper, paprika became a staple forHungarian  home cooks.

Hungarian paprika, photo by Francis Bourgouin via Flickr Creative Commons.

Hungarian paprika, photo by Francis Bourgouin via Flickr Creative Commons.

Until the 1920s, the only kind of paprika available was the hot kind. Then a breeder in Szeged discovered a sweeter variety of the pepper, and propagated it by grafting. The sweet plant is the most popular type today.

Spain also produces paprika, mainly the smoked variety.

Paprika came back to the New World with Hungarian immigrants in the 19th century.

High in Vitamin C

A Hungarian scientist Dr. Szent Gyorgyi won a Nobel Prize in 1937 for his work with paprika pepper pods and Vitamin C research. Paprika peppers have seven times as much Vitamin C as oranges. (Though one must take such statements with the proverbial grain of salt; you’d never eat as much paprika as orange!)

The paprika you buy in the supermarket doesn’t have much flavor and is best used to give color to dishes. For real paprika flavor, use sweet or hot paprika labeled “Hungarian” paprika.

Paprika is an important part of many Hungarian dishes, including (duh!) Chicken Paprika (also called Chicken Paprikash). This recipe comes from my old standby, The Joy of CookingIf you are kosher or want to cook the dish dairy-free, you can use a soy-based product from Tofutti called Better Than Sour Cream.

Chicken Paprika

Chicken Paprika

Ingredients

  • 1 frying chicken, about 2 1/2 lb., cut in pieces
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. butter or margarine
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. vegetable oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 tsp. to 2 Tbs. sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups well-seasoned chicken stock
  • 2 tsp. flour
  • 1 cup cultured sour cream

Instructions

  1. Melt the butter or margarine with the oil in a heavy pot.
  2. Add the onion and paprika and simmer until glossy and red.
  3. Add the salt and chicken stock and bring to the boil.
  4. Add the chicken and simmer, covered, until tender, about 1 hour.
  5. Stir the flour into the sour cream.
  6. Stir the sour cream mixture slowly into the pot and simmer until thickened and smooth, about 5 minutes. Do not boil.
  7. Serve with noodles or rice.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/dishes-pop-with-paprika/

 

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Categories: Meat, Poultry & Fish

A new look at classics, including striped bass with curry

Sussman cookbookI’m always tickled when someone I knew “when” makes good.

These days, the famous people I knew when they were nobodies are not so much my own former neighbors or high school and college friends but young adults my kids knew growing up–like Max and Eli Sussman who went to school and summer camp with them.

Now the Sussmans are celebrity chefs with a great PR agent. Seems like every week their proud parents, lawyer Marc Sussman and artist Lynne Avadenka, are posting yet another article or blog about the boys (which is how I’ll always think of them even though they are now 32 and 30).

They’ve just published a new cookbook–their fourth–called Classic Recipes for Modern People. They describe it as “a collection of culinary favorites reimagined.”

I caught up with the Sussman brothers a few weeks ago when they were home for Passover from New York, where they live and work.

Max, left, and Eli Sussman; photo by Eilon Paz, courtesy of Saveur magazine

Max, left, and Eli Sussman; photo by Eilon Paz, courtesy of Saveur magazine

Both recently left chef jobs at trendy New York restaurants to open their own eatery later this year. The Mediterranean-style restaurant will feature homemade pita, non-traditional dips such as beet hummus and lentil pistachio dip, anchovy fattoush salad and other dishes still in the development stage.

Though they didn’t grow up dreaming of restaurant careers, the brothers have been interested in cooking since they were kids.

Talented kids

Their parents discovered their talent during a family vacation in Cape Cod when the brothers were 12 and 10. “They were not being cooperative, whining about food and about what was for dinner,” said Marc, “and Lynne just said, ‘We’re leaving!’”

The parents went out for several hours. When they returned, they found a gourmet fish dinner awaiting them.

Eli was the front-of-the-house man, greeting his parents with a napkin over his arm, handing them a hand-written menu and escorting them to their table. Max supervised the food prep. To this day, Eli wonders how he knew what to do.

Their first experience cooking together professionally was at Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Michigan, where they were campers for many summers.

Max, then 21, was working on an American studies degree at University of Michigan and Eli,19, was studying international relations at Michigan State University. They were supposed to be counselors at Tavor that year but the cook threw his back out and they took over the kitchen.

Discovering haute cuisine

Through college, both brothers worked at restaurants. When Max took a job at Eve in Ann Arbor, his first experience with haute cuisine, he realized cooking could be a career and not just a hobby.

Max returned to Eve (which is, sadly, now closed) after he graduated, working his way up from line cook to chef de cuisine before moving to New York.

Eli, left, and Max Sussman, photo by Erin Kunkel

Eli, left, and Max Sussman, photo by Erin Kunkel

After a stint at The Breslin, he went to Roberta’s, helping it grow from a grungy neighborhood pizzeria to an innovative new-cuisine hot spot. The New York Times awarded Roberta’s two stars, and Max was nominated for a James Beard Award, won a Zagat NYC award and was named one of Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30.” Most recently he was executive chef at The Cleveland for a year.

Eli moved to Los Angeles after college and worked in advertising, but after five years he decided to return to cooking, At Max’s suggestion he moved to New York and got a job as prep cook at Mile End Deli. Within a few years he was executive chef, running two restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Eli was a James Beard Awards semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year and was one of Zagat New York’s “30 under 30.”

The Sussmans’ first cookbook, Freshman in the Kitchen, was published in 2008 while they were still in college.

“The point was to talk to an audience who had even less experience than us. They wanted to cook but didn’t know anything about it,” said Max.

That was followed in 2012 and 2013 with This is a Cookbook: Recipes for Real Life, aimed at young adults looking to up their cooking game, and Best Cookbook Ever, a collection of new recipes suitable for dinner parties, potlucks and cooking to impress a date or a spouse.

All kinds of classics

The new book features classic dishes that the brothers have, in their own words, reinvented, rejiggered, reordered and recreated. It includes childhood classics, “TV dinner classics” such as new takes on potpies and meatloaf, French cuisine classics, and more.

The brothers want their recipes to be fantastic but say they don’t aim for perfection. “I don’t want to think anything is perfect,” said Max. “There’s always a way to improve a dish.”

Max says he hopes this recipe for striped bass with red curry, from the “Worldwide Classics” section of the book, will act as an intro to cooking Thai food at home.

Striped Bass With Red Curry

Striped Bass With Red Curry

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
  • 1 small red onion, minced
  • 1 Tbs. peeled and minced fresh ginger
  • 1garlic glove, minced
  • 1 Tbs. red curry paste
  • 1½ cups coconut milk
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 4-inch stalk lemongrass, white part only
  • 2 skin-on striped bass fillets, each about 6 oz.
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1 cup cooked wild rice, kept warm

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. In a saucepan, heat 1 Tbs. olive oil over low heat. Add the onion, ginger and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 10 minutes, adding a few more drops of olive oil if the ingredients start to stick.
  3. Add the curry paste and saute for 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Add the coconut milk, lime juice and lemongrass and bring to simmer. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm. Discard the lemongrass bnefore serving.
  5. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and season lightly with salt.
  6. In a large, heavy frying pan, heat the remaining 2 Tbs. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the fish, skin side down, and press lightly with the back of a large spoon to bring the skin in contact with the oil.
  7. Cook for 2 minutes, then transfer the pan to the oven and cook until the fish is opaque throughout, 4 to 7 minutes, depending on the thickness ofhe fish.
  8. Spoon the curry sauce onto individual plates, top with the fish aa garnish with the cilantrol. Serve the wild rice on the side.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/a-new-look-at-classics-including-striped-bass-with-curry/

 

 

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Categories: Meat, Poultry & FishUncategorized