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Tasting the Seasons

by Claire Rosenberg, Staff Writer

May 6, 2011

 

ClaireThere are numerous services available which can keep one abreast of the Jewish calendar, but my personal favorite is provided by Chabad. While the Chabad website lists exact dates and ensures that I am aware of upcoming Chagim weeks in advance, I do rely on one other foolproof method as well…my stomach. It is no secret that food is a huge component of any Jewish individual’s connection to their faith, and as I will discuss here, it may just be the most meaningful component of the holiday celebration for many. While the cooling of temperatures and beginning of school cue most to the approach of Rosh Hashana, my craving for honey cake is another telltale sign. I always begin to envision bowls of matzoh ball soup before buds are on the trees, although I am admittedly thinking of pasta with the same endearment only hours into Pesach. Latkes and their accompaniments are expected on Chanukah…but does every family also recount the Maccabee’s miraculous victory de rigueur? I didn’t think so.

 

Food has in many respects replaced the historical foundations of Jewish Holidays as their focal point, becoming the most recognizable aspect for Jews and Non-Jews alike. A traditional meal is often the most accessible venue for numerous young professionals who do not belong to a synagogue, as well as for those who find themselves somewhat overwhelmed by the restrictions of traditional observance. Even if one does not keep strictly Kosher for Passover, the holiday options abound at all the large grocery chains, and with a simple soup mix, it is possible to bring an element of the tradition into your home. While Passover cuisine might be the most recognizable and easily accessible, it is admittedly, far from my personal favorite.

 

The counting of the Omer, which begins during Passover, leads to Shavuot, when we commemorate the day the Jews received the Torah from GD.  While it does not get any of the cuisine publicity of a Passover or Chanukah celebration, I feel strongly that a celebration calling for the consumption of cheesecake should not be overlooked. It is traditional to consume copious amounts of dairy on Shavuot (with accompanying Lactaid for my fellow lactose-intolerant), and the thought has crossed my mind that relating our receipt of commandments to dairy products is a connection apparent only in Judaism, although with my sincere love for cheesecake and blintzes, I am far from demanding a reevaluation.

 

One of my favorite parts of the Jewish holidays is the opportunity to share my food customs with others, and in turn to be introduced to culinary treats from another’s tradition. One of my personal favorites is a recipe for homemade falafel, a treat that is great on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), but delicious throughout the year. I have yet to achieve a product as ethereal as that of the booths in Machane Yehuda (the open air market in Jerusalem) but I have received compliments from Israelis; quite possibly the highest form of praise when fried chickpeas are in question. My go to rendition is loosely based on Joan Nathan’s version from The Foods of Israel Today, improved (in my opinion) through years of alternating successes and failures  in preparation. I can only wish you the same in your falafel adventures; as I find experimentation to be the true mark of a Jewish Cook.

 

Israeli-Style Falafel

Ingredients

 

1 15 ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 small onion, roughly chopped

4 tbs chopped fresh parsley

½ tsp cayenne (optional, I like a little kick)

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp baking powder

¼ cup chickpea flour (regular unbleached white will work also, but I like the added flavor from the chickpea flour, also sometimes called Garbanzo flour or Besan)

S+P to taste

Vegetable oil for frying

 

Directions 

  1. Combine all ingredients (except oil) in a food processor, and pulse until uniform. You do not want to puree this; the individual ingredients should be more or less recognizable.  Pull a spoonful of the mixture from the bowl and roll into a ball in your palm. If it sticks to your hand add more flour and stir. If it is a bit tacky but retains the shape of a ball, you’re in good shape.
  2. If you’ve got time, I find that refrigerating the mix for at least 30 minutes does make it a bit easier to handle, although you can skip this step if necessary.
  3. Heat at least 3 inches of oil in a deep skillet, pot or wok to approx. 375F. You don’t want your oil nearing any sort of rolling boil, but a pinch of flour thrown in should sizzle. 
  4. Once the oil is heated, start assembling your falafel. There are several options for this; You can use your hands to roll walnut sized balls, a teaspoon will make a simple cannel shape, or you can purchase a “falafel scoop” online like the one I own, which is completely unnecessary but fun.
  5. Start by dropping one falafel into the oil, since more likely than not, the first attempt will become the sacrificial lamb. If it stays together and turns golden brown, flip and cook through. If the falafel disintegrates or does anything else unsatisfactory, play with your mix, adding either liquid or flour until you get the desired effect. Depending on humidity, time of day, and the vessel I am frying in, my results have varied widely.  Do what works for YOU. Try not to over-crowd the pan, and once falafels are golden brown, remove from the oil and drain on plates covered with paper towels.
  6. Serve in pita with hummus, tahini, salad, and anything that comes pickled. For a distinctly Israeli touch, serve with “chips” inside the pita pocket, known on this side of the pond as fries.

One of the best parts of Jewish culinary traditions is how diverse they are, much like the Jewish families in which they originate. A Sephardic group might make a traditional rice dish for Passover, since that is permissible in their tradition, but you will not find such ingredients at my family’s celebration. I have had the pleasure of enjoying Shabbat with a friend’s Morrocan-Israeli family, and was introduced to numerous spicy salads and grains that they tie closely to the Sabbath, but which were unfamiliar to me. I was also introduced to centuries old Jewish culinary treats when I attended a Shabbat meal in Turkey, although the dishes I ate were quite new to me at the time. A powerful component of Jewish celebrations for me has always been our ability as a people to put our individual stamp on them, and to then share our edible family treasures with others. I cook Shabbat dinner for anyone who wishes to attend at my apartment every week, and while many of my attendees are not even Jewish, they all leave with an appreciation for the traditional Shabbat meal, won through whichever intrinsically “Jewish” food I choose to serve that week.

 

 

Claire Rosenberg is a staff writer for the New Vilna Review. She also writes for Examiner.com as the Hartford Jewish Examiner, teaches, does yoga, runs the occasional 5k, and has a Vegetarian food blog, www.bokchoybohemia.com.  As of August 2011, she will be making her home in Jerusalem, Israel, where she will begin studying towards her Masters in Israeli Politics and Society at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

Copyright Claire Rosenberg/The New Vilna Review 2011. 

 

Welcome to the New Vilna Review

*A Note From the Publisher - February 8, 2012*

 

Dear readers and contributors,

The New Vilna Review has been going through some changes the past few

months, and our focus has shifted to offering an expanded selection of

poetry, fiction and arts writing. We are once again accepting submissions,

and look forward to continuing to publish some of the most interesting and

thought provoking work in the world of Jewish arts and letters.

-Daniel E. Levenson

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

The New Vilna Review

 

 

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