2018-01-03 / Voice at the Shore

Local rabbi coauthors new book on Jewish food

RABBI RON ISAACS

It’s been said that the story of Judaism can be condensed into nine words: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

“Food is linked to every facet of Judaism,” said Rabbi Ron Isaacs, the new rabbi of Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood, who is also Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, NJ, and the author of over 100 books on Judaism. “The food that Jewish people eat is part of their connection to their faith, culture and history.”

Isaacs recently co-authored a new book called “Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith,” along with food writer Lori Stein. This unique book serves up 40 recipes, provided by Stein, in a savory stew that includes rich and detailed explanations from Isaacs on how these recipes relate to Jewish life, values and religious practice.

Surprising connections between food and culture, as well as links between holidays and traditional Jewish dishes, permeate this new book, which addresses questions such as: Why have certain foods ended up on the Jewish menu? Which recipes for Jewish food have influenced or been influenced by other cuisines? How does cooking traditional Jewish dishes help us understand such fundamental concepts as the importance of community?

Addressing these questions, “Let’s Eat” follows the calendar of Jewish holidays and includes foods from many different

Jewish communities around the world.

“The book has some unique features,” explained Isaacs. “In addition to its special recipes, it helps inform the reader about how the philosophies, values, and character of Judaism are intertwined with the ways that Jews grow, prepare, eat, and distribute food.”

Is there a connection between food and tikkun olam? Absolutely, said Isaacs. “The responsibility for fixing the world is at the core of a Jew’s relationship to the earth as well as to other human beings,” he noted. Practically speaking, food plays a large role in these relationships.

Other Jewish values discussed in the book are “guarding nature and agricultural sustainability,” and their influence on the Jewish approach to growing food, said Isaacs.

The intimate connection between Jewish ritual and food also figures prominently in the book, which “describes the variety of different food customs of Jewish people around the world and the symbolism of so many of the foods that Jews eat,” said the rabbi.

A primer on Judaism—or what Isaacs called a “short but very useful guide to Judaism”— is also included in the new book. This primer describes “important books of Jewish law, kinds of Jews, and Jewish geography.” There is also a chapter on lifecycle events, said Isaacs.

“Readers who are interested in a review of the role of food in Jewish life will enjoy the book and its more than 40 recipes,” he concluded. “It will be of special interest to readers who want to explore the way that certain foods have ended up on the Jewish menu and how Jews, as they wandered through the world, have influenced and been influenced by other nations and cuisines.”

Here are a few recipes by Lori Stein from “Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith”:

CHRAIMY FISH
(Baked fish in spicy tomato
sauce)
3 tbsp olive oil
2 to 3 garlic cloves
1 small onion
12 ounces fresh tomatoes,
peeled if you wish, cut into
1/2-inch chunks (canned diced
tomatoes can be substituted)
6 ounces red or green bell
pepper, cut into strips
(optional)

Zest and juice from 1 small lemon, mixed with 1/4 cup chopped parsley or cilantro (or a mixture of both)

Salt to taste

Cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes to taste

1 pound fish fillets, washed, patted dry, and cut into 4 servings (see note on fish)

SPICE MIX:
1 small chili pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp paprika, sweet or
smoked 1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp ground coriander
2 cloves
1 bay leaf
1 large clove garlic

Prepare the spice mix. Remove most of the seeds from the chili pepper (consider how hot the pepper is and how hot you want the dish to be when deciding how many seeds to leave) and dice it. Combine all the ingredients in a mortar and pound to a paste with a pestle. Or, put it all in a food processor or mini-chopper and whirl until combined.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion, and sauté until they are softened and start to brown, two to three minutes. Add the spice mix and stir until evenly browned and fragrant, just a minute or two. Add the tomatoes and peppers to the saucepan. Lower the heat and stir until the tomatoes lose their form and the peppers soften, about five minutes. Add the lemon and stir for another minute; the tomatoes should now be a thick, chunky sauce. Add the parsley/cilantro, reserving one tablespoon for garnish, and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings; add salt as desired. If you want more heat, add cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes—but remember that the sauce will become spicier as it cooks.

Spoon half of the sauce on a rimmed baking dish large enough to hold the fish. Arrange the fish fillets over the sauce and top with the remaining sauce. Bake for five to eight minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets, then turn over each fillet and return to the oven for another five to six minutes. The fish is done when it flakes easily when prodded with a fork.

Garnish with remaining parsley/ cilantro. Serve hot, cold, or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

Recipe notes: When the Jews were expelled from Spain after the Inquisition of 1492, many fled to North Africa and set up vibrant communities in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco. Chraimy fish incorporates the spicy sauces of that region into a dish that is often served on Friday nights in Sephardic homes. Chraimy sauce is a variation of harissa, a chili paste used in North African cooking—you can substitute packaged harissa for the spice mix below.

This version of chraimy fish is baked; the fish fillets can also be breaded and pan-fried before the sauce is added. The sauce is also a zesty addition to gefilte fish balls, for a fusion of Ashkenazi and Sephardic tastes.

Note on fish: Any kind of fish—including salmon, whitefish, trout, tilapia, and cod— can be used in this recipe. Adjust the baking times depending on the thickness of the fillet.

JERUSALEM KUGEL –
KUGEL YERUSHALMI
8 ounces egg noodles
1/4 cup vegetable oil plus
more for greasing
1/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp salt, more or less to
taste
1/4 tsp pepper, more or less to
taste

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Cook the noodles according to package directions in a large pot; drain completely. Return the cooked noodles to the pot.

Heat the oil in a small frying pan for about a minute; it should be quite hot, but not smoking. Add the sugar, stirring constantly. In about a minute, the sugar will dissolve almost (but not quite) completely. Keep stirring. In another minute or two, the mixture will begin to turn brown. Remove from heat immediately and keep stirring. It will darken more for the next minute or so; it may separate a bit.

Pour the caramelized sugar into noodles and stir to coat. If the caramelized sugar begins to harden in clumps, turn on a low flame under the pot and stir until the mixture softens. Allow to cool slightly, then add the eggs, salt, and pepper, and stir until the noodles are completely coated and the salt and pepper are distributed.

Generously grease a nine-inch round or square baking dish. Spoon the noodles into the baking dish and smooth the top slightly; noodles that stick up will become slightly burned (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Bake for thirty minutes or until the top is completely browned. Allow to cool, cut into wedges and serve hot or cold.

Variations: Add a quarter cup of toasted slivered almonds and/or a quarter cup of plumped raisins when you add the salt and pepper. Or, for something different, add candied pineapple or mango and chopped macadamia nuts.

To increase the vitamin level, add a half-cup of chopped kale, chard, or spinach to the noodles while they cook.

An alternate method for making this dish: Instead of cooking the noodles beforehand, add them to the caramelized sugar (before you add the eggs) along with a quart of water. Cook, stirring constantly, until the water is absorbed and the noodles are fully cooked, then proceed with the rest of the recipe. This means there is one less pot to wash—and the noodles absorb more of the oil and sugar. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Recipe notes: Jerusalem kugel actually originated in Europe. Some sources say that it was created in the kitchen of the famous Vilna Gaon (the Sage of Vilna); others say it was first made by Eastern European Hasidim. It was brought to Jerusalem in the eighteenth century, where it became a Shabbat staple. It tolerates long cooking— it can be left on a low flame over a blech overnight after it’s baked. The tricky part is caramelizing the sugar; it must be taken off the flame as soon as it begins to darken or it will turn into a black, gooey mess.

To make a truly impressive kugel, double (or triple) the recipe and bake it in a large, well-greased Dutch oven. Unmolded, it’s like a piece of sculpture that tastes and smells divine.

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