Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Week Away

How easily I've slipped back into my life. Less than a week ago I was traversing the narrow alleys and crowded squares of the Old City of Jerusalem. Dodging tourists and pilgrims, rabbi's and priests, merchants and yeshiva students. Time was all my own, there was nowhere I needed to be and nothing I needed to do, I was released into my own custody. I was free. I'm not going to lie and say that this freedom was anything other than fantasic. But this real life is good too, because contained within it's folds are these moments of freedom, joy and discovery.
The night I arrived Debo's family held a Henna. A Henna is a pre-wedding event that is a custom among Moroccans. It is a celebration that features all the best life has to offer: Food, music, dancing, family and friends and a bit of ritual in the form of a dab of henna on the palm for luck and good fortune. I had seconds and thirds of the couscous (however I couldn't go all the way with the lambs brains). I busted out some of my belly dancing moves, and gratefully offered my palm for a nice shmear. I got to meet many of Debo's French and Moroccan relatives, they were demure and lovely, and if they thought I was a loud and gauche American with my vocal praise and even adoration, of French culture they did not let on.
The next morning I enjoyed one of those tasty Israeli breakfasts that are an essential part of Israel for me. Hub's brother and sister and sis-in-law are really like blood family to me, and the deliciousness of this breakfast definitely was due in large part to their easy and warm company. I feel loved and appreciated by them in a way that can only come with a deep connection. And I felt satisfied and well cared for after my skillet of shakshuka (which included roasted eggplant and feta crumbles) in a way that only comfort food can. The pita served alongside was soft, fluffy and warm, the tea was strong, sweet and minty. For me, these are the flavors of Israel: warm, aromatic, and decisive.
After breakfast it was on to Jerusalem. My uncle has a house in an old neighborhood called Yemin Moshe. It is right outside the walls of the Old City, and if you go out onto the balcony you can see the walls, and the church, mosque and other ancient structures contained within. At night this sight is breathtaking! The lights reflect off the famous Jerusalem stone and it appears mythical and magical like some medieval fantasy. And the sounds.... I fell asleep on friday night, which happened to be Christmas Eve, to the steady ringing of heavy ancient bells coming from somewhere behind those walls. I woke up on shabbat to the faint sound of a twisting and winding muezzin. I visited the Kotel, the Wailing Wall, and really understood the meaning of Shabbat Shalom, it's a peacefulness and tranquility that the sabbath brings that separates it from the rest of the week. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jerusalem.
Sunday brought us to Safed, a mystical arts colony up North. We toured the cobblestone arcade which is the main drag of the arts district. Every doorway was an opening to another mini-gallery/art studio. A lot of the subject matter in Safed is biblical and kabbalistic, probably because it is an ancient center for Kabbalistic and mystical study. I was so excited by seeing local art that I bought a couple of lithographs from the first gallery I visited. I probably should have been a little more restrained. The bright colors and organic shapes in the folksy lithographs that I purchased are attractive and engaging, but I probably would have been happier with the oil painting of a pomegranate a few doors down.
While in Safed, I had one of those "Sliding Doors" moments. I stopped in one of the studios, to get a closer look at a painting. I started talking to the Gallerist/Artist, and I felt an instant connection, a sort of magnetic tug, the attraction of chemicals and ions an neutrons and all of those wordless things. It surprised me, because things like that don't usually happen to me. I rarely feel instant connections, and almost never with strange men. It had me thinking on the two hour drive to Tel Aviv about how in life you can go in a multitude of directions. I met Hub, was instantly attracted, and ten years later we got married. We lead our life together with our kids in our home and our friends. But what if I did something else? What if when I went to Israel on one of my trips I met Safed guy and we got together, had kids, lived in a little boho domecile in the hills near Safed, scraped together a living and I was never the wiser about Hub and the kiddles? Until one day while visiting New York, I stopped to get a coffee and positioned near the natural sugar was Hub, and the shape of his glasses and the way his hair flopped over his forehead ignited a chemical reaction.
On the day of my brother's wedding, I had my second skillet of great shakshuka at a cafe in Jerusalem. This version was spicy and wonderfully savory. I covered squares of onion focaccia with the Israeli equivalent of cream cheese, really a cross between sour cream and cream cheese, and piled the shakshuka on top. I was licking my fingers and scraping the skillet it was thatm good.

Scene: The reason for my trip to Israel- my brother Leo's wedding. Since my arrival the weather had been great- shortsleeves kind of weather. An outdoor wedding in December seemed obvious, and the setting could not be more gorgeous. Hors d'oeuvres were called for 7, guests arrived through a gate and all along the wooden walkway were lit torches guiding the way to the smorgasbord stations. On the grass behind the stations glowing chinese paper lanterns the size of beach balls were strewn hither and thither. As guests arrived every one marvelled at the sparkling glamor of the location. The appetizer selection was impressive, they had sushi, chinese noodles, merguez sausages, salads, carving station, and a well-stocked bar. After an hour or so of small bites and chitchat it was chuppah time. The chuppah faced rows of wooden benches, and was covered in beautiful fresh flowers. I told myself I wouldn't cry, but the minute I caught sight of Debo coming down the aisle flanked by her parents and twin brother the tears broke through my resolve. Weddings always make me cry, I feel like they are where hope, and expectations, uncertainty, and romantic celebration converge. After the ceremony we all went into the hall, which was large and open and airy due to the wall of windows. And we danced- all night long. It was fun.
The next morning got off to a late start, and the third shakshuka of my trip was not so good, it was bland and overboiled. After brunch, my Mother and I went to Mahane Yehudah; a very large and old marketplace in Jerusalem. Mom and I decided we would host a post wedding dinner for the new couple and assorted family and friends. We had most of it catered with the usual Israeli standards. Despite my adamant declaration that I would not cook for the entire week, I knew that a few homemade dishes would be just what the dinner menu needed. I decided on a big bowl of Pasta Aglio Olio, a chinese cole slaw, and a french potato salad made with dijon moutarde and tarragon.
If I was a movie locations scout and needed a spot for a middle eastern bazaar scene, Mahane Yehudah would fit perfectly. In Hebrew it is called the Shuk, and it is crammed. Crammed with people- merchants hawking their wares, and customers trying to get the best deal. Crammed with products laid out on the tables and stands of each stall; fruits, veggies, spice mixes, pita, baked goods, fish, candy, chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, prayer books.... And it also contains, in my opinion, the best and worst of Israeli types. At one stall I wanted to purchase a lemon- the merchant was a mean unsmiling type who stared me down and scoffed at my accented Hebrew. I was so infuriated I threw down the lemon and stormed off. Remembering that I needed shallots I stopped at a stall a few feet away. The vendor smiled at me and brushed away the money I offered him "I like you" he said, and gifted me with the shallots.
That's the thing about Israel, there'll always be some jerk who will trip you, but then there'll be someone to help you up to your feet, and then of course a chorus of bystanders to yell at the jerk for tripping you.
The dinner party was convivial. I chatted with my extended family and Leo's new family and we recalled highlights from the wedding the night before. My Aglio Olio was well received, the cole slaw as well, the French potato salad had good flavor but the potatoes were a bit too al dente. My dishes confirmed what I already know; homemade food conveys a message that goes beyond flavor and nutrition, it's effects can almost be magical.
And then, even before I had time to be tired or jet lagged I was back in the airport going through the seven rings of security on the way back to New York. It'd be overstatement to say I came back a different person, but it would be accurate to say I came back lighter, more balanced. It's almost as if my week in Israel took away some of the junk and clutter that was weighing me down. I got a little perspective when I sat up on my uncle's balcony and faced those ancient and durable walls. People are always going through stuff, their own disappointments and setbacks, minor betrayals and petty dramas- but if you can remove yourself every so often and realize there is a whole world out there to discover, a zillion personal stories that spread throughout time, there is something quite liberating about that.
I missed the kids and Hub and I enjoyed feeling that kind of longing. Searching for the perfect gift for each of them was a pleasurable experience. Thinking about them and deciding what object would please them the best made me feel close to them. I looked forward to calling them whenever time permitted, and delighted in hearing their voices. I felt loved and appreciated by Hub when he urged me to enjoy myself and my free time. And I now know that I love cooking for people. I get a thrill from conjuring the right dish and choosing the best ingredients and then preparing it.
Bolstered by these impressions I've slipped back into my life. I went to the supermarket to restock bare cupboards and an empty fridge. I made a big pot of spaghetti bolognese. I was getting stymied by the foot notes, I needed to stand back to get the big story.

French Potato Salad

3-4 lbs. new potatoes
3 tbsp. grainy dijon mustard
1 tbsp. honey
juice of half a lemon
2 diced shallots
1/2 c. olive oil
1/2 c. finely chopped tarragon or parsley

Cover potatoes with water and boil until they yield smoothly to a knife. While potatoes are boiling, prepare dressing in a small bowl: mix together mustard, honey, lemon juice, and diced shallots- slowly and in a steady stream whisk in olive oil.
Once potatoes are ready, drain, and cut into quarters. Pour half of the dressing over steaming potatoes so that the potatoes absorb the flavor. Sprinkle with chopped tarragon or parsley and the remaining dressing just before serving.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Going Solo

I leave for Israel the day after tomorrow and the timing could not be more ideal. I am going to my brother's wedding, sans les enfants et sans le Hub! I don't have the imagination to even wonder what this will be like, the longest I've been away from them was for 2 nights. I've arranged for my FIL and their babysitter to help out when Hub is at work. I've stashed a few homecooked meals in the freezer. I've stocked up on snacks and baked a jar full of oatmeal cookies. I'll make lists and schedules and a copy of my key. I'll leave them each a note and small gifts on their beds. I think I'll miss them, but I'm not sure. It's been a tenuous few weeks, their mouths are overused and their attitudes are overdeveloped. Their bickering and the surly undercurrent that swirls through the house is tough to take. Sometimes I feel like all they want is a Rent-a-Mom: someone to cook for them, ferry them around, help them with their homework. Anyone will do as long as their only reason for existing is to take care of them and their many needs. Lately Hub has me feeling like a 1950's housewife. It's true I've recently gotten into "Mad Men", and even though Don Draper is a steaming hot dish of a man, I think I'd poison the guy after a while. So, in short, I'm about ready to sprint to the airport without even a backwards glance.
But on the other hand, a week without them seems like a very long time. A week of being ten thousand miles away feels almost impossible. A week devoid of planning meals, food shopping, cooking, and then cleaning up the mess....well, that just seems like a nice slice of chilled time.
It has been a bit of a drag lately, but maybe it's not all their fault. OK, so I have a case of the blues, there's no getting around it. I've been a little low for a few weeks now, but it's nothing that a little sun and a little sleep can't redress. This trip will be like hitting the reset button on the treadmill that I feel like I've been dragging myself on. It will be good to spend some time with my Mom and Dad and three brothers. It will be good to flee the kitchen for a few days. It will be good to miss Hub and the kids. I think that after a few days away I will begin to crave them- like someone on a diet who misses her favorite sweets.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Light and Dark Of Hanukkah

I'm far too compulsively Jewish to let Hanukkah end without some sort of commentary. For me, Hanukkah is the perfect holiday. It doesn't require religious observance any more rigorous than lighting the candles. And the glow that a lit menorah emits amidst the wintry darkness is spectacular. Bringing light to dimness and bleakness, is what the greater message of Hanukkah is about, and one that I think of during this holiday season. Sometimes it all feels so dark and murky, it's as if the world is passing through a period of shadows and obscurity. The news is never good, people are really suffering, and good manners and thoughtful behavior seem to be an outmoded way of being. It is depressing to think too much about it. All there is left to do is to provide sparks of light in the form of positivity and kind acts.
So from dark chocolate I made light joy and easy bliss in the form a nice-sized Hanukkah order. There are a few things that are as irrefutable as: " Everyone's favorite thing is free chocolate". As hokey and corn-fed as it sounds, I get a real thrill from making something that gives people such enjoyment and happiness. Nice work if you can get it.... and I get it sometimes.
Another brilliant thing about Hanukkah is the food. Most Jewish holidays and festivals have some sort of food association, but Hanukkah fare outshines all the rest in that fried food is encouraged and celebrated, and surely those calories do not count if it's practically a mitzvah (good deed) to eat all that good stuff. Hanukkah eating traditions include potato latkes and jelly donuts, but as I wrote in my December article the main point of Hanukkah cuisine is using oil which commemorates the miracle of the small vial of olive oil found in the desecrated temple that burned for 8 days. In light of this, I decided that my Hanukkah article would be a break from my usual health-conscious and balanced eating recipes and I let loose with some truly decadent fried treats. The piece featured recipes for crispy mac 'n cheese squares and crunchy fried ice cream scoops.
At home, for the family, I made potato latkes, and also Indian onion bhajees. Onion bhajees are thin sliced onions coated in batter and fried up until they're crispy and delicious- with a sweet chili sauce to dip them in, they definitely give the humble latke some serious competition. Tonight is the last night and I tried to make some Thai corn fritters, which really weren't as successful as the bhajees. On Sunday I made an Olive Oil Cake that considering the amount of olive oil I used was surprisingly dry.
This year the light/dark motif of Hanukkah took on a personal aspect. Due to the solitary nature of what I do; writing and cooking, I have been struggling with what I call a winter-state-of-mind which is internal, secluded, and at times cold and lonely. I both guard and value my personal space but also need external stimulation on a regular basis, for whatever reason, a couple of the friends I turn to when coming up for air and out for light, weren't there. Relationships are like years, both are subject to cycles. Right now I am deep into winter. Winter is bare but can also be pure. Winter is cold darkness, it is austere and difficult, but if you are lucky, it is also a warm glowing fireplace, hot chocolate, and soul-saving cuddles. Challenging the dark with the light, I need to get into a Hanukkah-state-of -mind.

Onion Bhajees
1 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs, beaten
4 onions, thinly sliced
1/2 c. parsley, finely chopped
oil for frying

Combine well first five ingredients in a large bowl, until a batter forms. Mix onion slices in and then parsley until onion is coated in batter. Heat oil in frying pan over medium high heat. Drop large spoonfuls of onion batter in pan and fry for 2-3 minutes on each side- until golden brown and crispy. Let drain on paper towels, serve while still hot.

Crispy Mac 'n Cheese Squares
1 casserole pan of prepared macaroni and cheese, chilled overnight and cut into 12-15 squares
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 egg beaten + 1 tbsp. water
1 1/2 c. crushed cornflakes
Oil for frying

In a heavy frying pan, heat up about 2 " of oil (approx 2 cups) until it reaches 350F. Lightly coat the mac 'n cheese squares with flour, dip in egg mixture and then coat in cornflake crumbs. Carefully slip into hot oil and fry for about a minute on each side. Remove and let drain on paper towels. Enjoy immediately.