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Posts Tagged ‘Rosh HaShanah’

My son Eliezer was about nine years old and heavily into grossing his sisters out.

“I’ll eat anything,” he boasted. “Even fish eyes.”

Eeeww. When had I ever served him fish eyes? But it caught his imagination. He strutted around talking about fish eyes, knowing he was safe. Who would ever test him on it? His friends were  impressed. Wallah, that’s macho, eating fish eyes!

Then Rosh HaShana came up and I started cooking simanim. I’d never cooked black-eyed peas before, but they’re one of the traditional foods, so I simmered some up. Then I noticed how much like little eyes they looked.

Hm.

I made up a little salad with the peas, and bided. On Rosh HaShana day, we all sat down to eat and I casually put a bowlful of black-eyed pea salad in front of my boy.

“Fish eyes for you, honey,” I said. “Since you like them so much.”

He looked down at all those little white beans with the black dots, and turned green. His  sisters watched, horrified. Was he really going to eat all those fish eyes? My parents, in on the joke, exchanged amused glances. He bravely poked his fork into the bowl and winced as the beans yielded.

“I’m kind of full already, Mommy,” he said. “I’ll eat them later.”

I looked at him sitting there and I melted. He was just a rambuctious little boy trying to prove himself. Finally I explained that it was really just beans. He accepted the joke with good grace, but never did eat any.

Eliezer is now 29 and says he has forgiven me, but he still doesn’t eat black-eyed peas.

I remembered this a few days ago when I was making fish soup out of the bones and heads of some fresh bass. With carrots, celery, tomato, a bay leaf, onion, chunks of potato and cilantro, it did make a rich, flavorful broth. A little drizzle of olive oil – a squeeze of lemon. Perfect.

I was pleased to have used up all the fish, even the bones, which still had some meat clinging to them. But I knew I had to remove every trace of the heads, because The Little One can’t bear to see fish heads. When she orders fish in a restaurant, I have to ask for the head to be removed in the kitchen. On Rosh HaShanah, we hide the fish head siman under a napkin.

So I took a slotted spoon and began straining out the bones. Oops. The heads fell apart, bones and cartilige separating all over the pan, and – where’d the eyes go? Oh no. There were four little boiled eyes in the soup somewhere, and I had to get them out or risk my daughter fainting at the table.

Sighing, I took up the strainer and ladled the soup into it. Aha – got one in there with all the carrot and celery pieces. Got two. Got three fish eyes, but where was the last one? I strained everything twice, poking under the vegetables with a spoon and turning every piece of fish over. No fish eye.

Well, maybe I’d already strained it out or something. It was lunchtime, and I had to get the soup on the table. I’d made a particularly savory herb bread to go with it, and the smell of fish and herbs and fresh bread was driving the family insane.

I must say, the soup was good. The Husband and The Little One served themselves seconds and sliced more bread. I looked into the pan – there was still enough for me to have seconds too. I ladled it into my bowl, put my spoon in, and sat frozen, looking into an eye.

There it was, in my bowl. I turned it over with my spoon, but it floated up again, iris side up.

Was this some kind of karmic retribution for tormenting an innocent nine-year child all those years ago? I don’t know, and I don’t care.

What I did was, I threw the damn thing out.

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When I saw fresh quarters of lamb of in the supermarket, I decided that for Rosh HaShanah, it was worth the price.  The butcher sliced off the chops and cut the shoulder and breast into thin pieces about 3 inches across. Not the way I would have liked it cut, but try to argue with a determined butcher who’s already pushing the meat through his electric slicer.

I froze the chops for grilling later and looked at the rest of the cut-up meat. Lots of little pieces with bone in them.  C0oked slowly in wine, they would make a fine, light stew. Could be worse.

NOTE: Israeli Kitchen has moved. You’ll find the recipe for Lamb with Chestnuts on my delicious new blog:

http://www.israelikitchen.com

All the old posts and recipes are there – and new ones, too. See you there!

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Been Baking

I bet a lot of Israeli women are baking today. Mixing, kneading, stooping to slide trays into the oven, cramming the goods into the freezer. Are they all cheerful, energetic Jewish mamas, or are some of them  tired, like me? Damnably hot weather to be turning the oven on. And the flies at this time of year – they burst forth out of thin air and zoom around the kitchen, threatening my freshly baked lovelies with bacterial feet. I dance a frantic jig and wave a towel around, but they only buzz on.  I wonder: would make one tiny bit of difference to the ecology, if all the flies in the world were to suddenly drop dead?  I like that notion…they’d better stay off my baked stuff in the meantime. Today, it was challah and lekach. Tomorrow, carrot cake. After carrot cake – the world. The hands of my mind’s clock point to the sieve and the mixing bowl, not  to meditation and prayer.

In the welter of shopping and cooking, it’s easy to forget what this holiday is about. But my fellow Jews kindly remind me. Anywhere I stand for a few minutes – at the ATM, in line at the supermarket – I hear people blessing each other. May you have a good, sweet year.  May you have health and fulfillment.  A good year to you and your family. Sometimes it sounds formal – just what people are expected to say before Rosh HaShannah – but most times, those blessings sound sincere.

Well, that was this afternoon, when I was out in the street. Now, I’m hot and grumpy in my kitchen. I’m going to take a break.

I sit down by my open bedroom window. There’s a senior’s club right behind my building, and on Tuesday nights, they hold a sing-along there. A man called Moisheleh comes with his accordion, and leads the folks through an evening of traditional Israeli songs. I hear the singing clearly as I lean out into the warm, humid air. It’s a pleasure to hear how well the grandmothers and grandfathers sing, sometimes in harmony. They’ve been doing this together for a long time. But apparently the evening is winding down over there. I’m sorry to have missed it.

I’m just turning away when Moisheleh starts the final song, a kindergarten tune that falls for clapping, one, two, three.  The refrain goes, “Shana tova, shana tova” – a good year. The elderly folk sing and clap and sounded delighted.  And I;m delighted, with the song and with them.

So what am I going to put into my baking this year? In case I had forgotten, the old folks have just reminded me again. Put in a little prayer, Mimi. A prayer for a good year, a year sweet as honey and fulfilling as bread.

Please, and thank You, G-d.

*

Recipes for challah and honeycake next entry.

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It’s a beat-up, musty old book whose pages are spotted with cooking splashes. Jewish Cookery is the title, printed square in the middle of the front cover in angular letters resembling old-fashioned Yiddish print. Inside the front cover my father scrawled his signature and the date: Caracas, 1954. There is no ISBN number, but an interior page informs me that this was the sixth printing, 1952, and displays the name of the author: Leah W. Leonard. It is a classic Jewish cookbook.

The recipes inside are called “retro cuisine” today: fish rollups, macaroni casserole, herring salad in cucumber boats. Lots of meat recipes, lots of cakes and desserts. Leafing through the book, I see that the pages most stained indicate old favorites. There they are: rich, solid lokshen kugel, crisp matza brie, blintzes rolled over a sweet cheese filling. I sigh and smile, remembering the Shabbat and Yom Tov meals of my childhood. I’m searching for one particular recipe: Lekach, honey cake. That was one of my Dad’s specialties. He would bake it for Rosh HaShanah, and it was always honey-golden, honey-fragrant, light, and good. “I know the recipe by heart,” he would say. “The secret is to throw in a shot-glass full of slivovitz.”

When we were growing up, there was usually a squat round bottle of slivovitz – potent plum brandy – in the house. It has a heady, fruity aroma, tempting to the nose but chokingly strong and stinging in the throat. Dad loved it. Driving past a plum orchard in full pink blossom, he would say in a pleased tone, “Ah, slivovitz trees!” We kids would hoot and tease him for miles after.

Over the years, his hands gnarled with arthritis and his face, so quick to light up with intelligence and humor, seemed all beaky nose. We kept the empty slivovitz bottles for their odd beauty, but stopped replacing them with new. With age and illness, Dad had lost his taste for the fiery drink.

Yes, but look, now. The book opens easily here, to the pages most stained of all: honey cake recipes. Which was Dad’s? This must be the one: “Lekach (Traditional Honey Cake).” A line of ancient flour fills the crack between the pages. I don’t dream of dusting it away. This is flour spilled by Dad, when he assembled the eggs, sugar, honey, spices, and that one shotglass full of slivovitz instead of the brandy called for in the recipe .

What was in my father’s heart as he shooed Mom out of the kitchen and set to work? Was he anticipating our pleasure as he bore the beautiful Lekach, cut into diamond shapes, in triumph to the table? Was he remembering past Rosh HaShanahs, when the cookbook was new and the family was young? Or was he simply focusing on getting the measurements of his famous cake right? I will never know, for Dad died of heart failure a week before Rosh HaShanah four years ago. We had just celebrated his 80th birthday.

My own heart feels empty as one of Dad’s empty bottles, tonight. On the table where the Shabbat candlesticks stand, the yortzheit flame flickers over a 24-hour candle. How fine the thread of Jewishness can become; how lucky that it survived in Dad. My Jewish grandmother rejected her heritage when she married Grandpa. Dad chose, early in life, to rejoin the Jewish people. It was hard; my grandparents never understood or accepted his decision.

I whisper a prayer, asking G-d to raise my father’s soul even higher in the world of truth. I set aside some money for charity in his name. After all the years of living and working for us, this is what we can do for him. It seems little.

But here is the cookbook in my hand. Tucked between its yellow pages are recipe notes in three languages: English and Spanish jottings in my mother’s hand and a  Portuguese recipe for a Brazilian sweet, cut off a package of sugar. Jewish Cookery traveled with us on our roundabout circuit of Latin America, the USA, and back to Latin America. It finally came to rest, as did my Dad, in Israel. No one has cooked out of it since he died.

This year, though, I want to bake his Lekach. I will flavor it with a wine I made several years ago of dried fruit – it has the aroma of slivovitz, if not the potency. The honey cake will revive happy feelings, make us tell old jokes again, round out our holiday with the warmth of shared memories. And maybe – maybe – if I make it every year, my children and grandchildren will remember the taste of Lekach when they themselves have grown old, and will remember me.

Donn Michael OMeara, 1924-2004

Donn Michael O'Meara, 1924-2004

Photo by Ilan Ossendryver

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