Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Feed your head

It has been hot as hell around here lately, making the thought of eating hot food slightly unbearable. So this weekend faced with the prospect of feeding 12 people, I decided that the meal should resemble a picnic and feature lots of different salads and absolutely nothing that requires oven mitts. On the menu was Mark Bittman's Tomato-Melon Gazpacho (which is fast becoming the go-to recipe for cold summer soup in this household), as well as his Bean Salad (Italian Style), Lemon-Tarragon Chicken Salad which I yanked from Bon Appetit via Epicurious.com and Santa Rosa Plum Crumble (another summer favorite), among other tasty salad and not so salad-like items. (Yes, this is a lot of food. It's in my genes- I can't help it. It was my sister and me in the kitchen. "We don't have enough food" neuroses abound.) I'm sharing the chicken salad recipe. It was super easy and really good. Lemon and tarragon are the sandals and short skirts of summer fare-light and elegant. We ate it for three days straight-over lettuce and in sandwich form. Highly recommended.

Lemon-Tarragon Chicken Salad
Adapted from Bon Apettit, August 2001, via Epicurious

1 1/4 pounds skinless boneless chicken breast halves (about 3)

3/4 cup finely chopped celery

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
, plus a handful for the poaching liquid
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

Bring large saucepan of salted water (or chicken broth, if you so desire) to boil. Add a handful of tarragon sprigs and chicken breasts; reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until chicken is just cooked through, about 12 minutes. Transfer chicken to plate; cool.

Mix celery, 1/2 cup mayonnaise, onion, tarragon, lemon juice, and lemon peel in large bowl to blend. Cut chicken into 1/2-inch cubes; stir into mayonnaise mixture. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 4 hours ahead. Cover; chill.)

Serves 6.

In other unrelated news, I am moving at the end of this month, I need to finish my thesis by the middle of September and last night I went out on a blind date that was so bad it could have been a scene out of a rom-com (you know, part of that ubiquitous montage of bad dates that the heroine has to endure before she meets the one. I'm not so fond of rom-coms, but maybe that's because I have been on one too many bad dates) It was so awful it was funny. But these are tales for another post.

Thesis Watch: See above

Music Rec: Kings of the Rodeo, Kings of Leon

Cubbie Watch: How is it that we suck and yet are only 3.5 games out? It's like a cosmic tease or something.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door

About three years ago the son of close family friends was severely injured while serving in the Israeli army. He was, in a way typical to this family, highly motivated, overachieving soldier, commanding troops during the second Lebanon war. His experience was particularly harrowing. A few days before he was injured he took part in a mission to extricate the bodies of his fallen comrades from behind enemy lines. One of those fallen soldiers was his best friend. A few days later he was back in the field. He stood up at the top of his tank to gain a better look at the landscape and that moment his tank was hit. For the first few days it was unclear whether he would live. For the first few weeks it was certain that he would lose a leg. He didn't. In a miraculous turn of events, he lived and kept both his legs. He'll use crutches for the rest of his life-but he walks. And despite all the trauma he has maintained a surprising level of normalcy in his life. Last year he started medical school. A few weeks ago he got married. A miracle indeed.
To me, his injury three years should have been just one more step in the process of my naturalization as a member of Israeli society. After all, in my 6 some years here I have lived through two wars, been witness to a terrorist attack and in this, begun to experience the awful diminishing in degrees of separation between myself and loss. But three years ago, when it happened, I didn't feel that way. The American in me, or maybe the me in me, could only feel this widening gap between myself and these family friends whom I had been so close to. With this tragedy they had taken their place in the Israeli national religious ethos. It seemed to me that the belief, which perhaps they had always held, that there is meaning in suffering for one's country, that the scars we bare are honorable, and that we must heal clean and fast, lest we show weakness, now became paramount. And all I could think was, what a waste. What a bloody damn waste is war.
A few months after their son's injury I spent a weekend at their home, as I often did. The house was filled with noise and laughter. Their son, still in his wheelchair at that point, was always surrounded by a protective bubble of rambunctious friends and family. He went out and raced through the streets of their small town, with sheer determination and no sign of consternation on his face at all. Their daughter's boyfriend was visiting, there were mouths to feed and things to discuss. Life continued and I could barely breathe. And then, in the middle of it all the youngest daughter, who was then just barely an adolescent, threw a tantrum in the way only a pre-adolescent can. There was screaming and tears and slamming of doors and dramatic pronouncements. If I recall correctly the tantrum was centered on an article of clothing and its lack of availability. It was the most hopeful thing I had witnessed all weekend. It meant more than the laughter and the motherly advice in the kitchen; more than the sight of an injured boy getting up on his own two feet and shuffling his way from wheelchair to chair- here was proof of life.
I don't mean to sound derisive or condescending. I believe in their belief. I believe that it has power and meaning. I'm aware of the strength and courage that faith like that demands. I admire it. I admire the tenacity of spirit and self-assured belief in the value of the sacrifices made. I admire the determination it takes to allow life to go on. But I also find it terribly claustrophobic. It doesn't leave room for doubt, or anger or grief. It doesn't acknowledge weakness or loss. It doesn't allow for anything other than a love of country and people above all. But why can't there be room for sorrow? Why can't we mourn the loss of a boy who will never run again? Why can't we acknowledge the sheer horror of his experiences? Why can't we throw a tantrum? Does the belief that most war is just one terrible waste inherently negate the meaning of loss? Can one still believe in the nobility of sacrifice without believing in its inherent value?
All of these questions visited me again a few weeks ago at this young man's wedding. It was a huge, highly emotional affair. But I found myself strangely unmoved. I didn't cry as he walked on his own two feet toward his bride to cover her face. I didn't cry when the father of his dead friend stood up as a witness under the wedding canopy. Even the smashing of the glass,with all its potent symbolism, left my cheeks dry. Only later, at the site of his whole family (new wife included) dancing together was I moved to tears. They stood in a haphazard circle with their arms wrapped around each, broken yet whole in the way of all families- with their own private dynamics and emotions; their own ebb and flow. It was the sheer intimacy of the moment that got to me. It was the private joy; the private love. Here was healing. The music played but they swayed with their own rhythm, and in that moment I almost believed.

Thesis Watch: 16 pages into the second draft.

Book Rec: Until the End of the Land, David Grossman

Cubbie Watch: Ugh.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Forays into food

A few weeks ago I decided that I desperately, desperately needed to make delkalach for the summer holiday of Shavuot (Pentacost). Delkalach are a barely sweet, yeasty Hungarian cheese pastry that, courtesy of my grandmother, would always grace our tables for the holiday. I'd never made delkalach before, but I figured it was worth a try. Since I have not yet mastered the art of food writing, I'm just going to post some pictures (with comments) detailing my adventure in Hungarian pastry making.

The Cheese:

My grandmother uses farmer's cheese*, which doesn't exist here in Israel, so I decided to use a mix of equal parts ricotta and tuv tam (a soft, crumbly cheese with a bit of a tang, like farmer's), which needed to be drained overnight to get it dry enough to resemble the farmer's cheese my grandmother uses. I lined a strainer with some coffee filters, placed it over a bowl and left it to drain overnight in the fridge.
Mise en Place

I just really like using that term.

The Dough, pre-rise

What a nice, soft yeasty dough it was.

Strawberries, duh

While the dough was rising, I cleaned the oven (ugh) and quickly put these lovely strawberries (which my sister so nicely washed and hulled for me) up to stew with some sugar, a slice of ginger, a chili pepper and a few cinnamon sticks. Strawberry soup in the making. By then the dough had risen and was ready to be rolled out. By then I had also realized that I had lent out my rolling pin to a neighbor months ago. So I left the strawberries simmering and ran to retrieve my rolling pin, hoping that the dough would not over-rise and deflate, or anything else my overactive imagination could come up with as the consequences of not following my grandmother's very vague instructions to a tee. Upon my return I discovered that the strawberries had boiled over and my once clean range was now covered in sticky bright red ooze. Yum. The dough, however was just fine.



Cheese, a very little bit of sugar and an egg to bind it.

And here we go

Delkelach are a bother and a half to make. The dough has to be rolled out into a thin (but not too thin) rectangle and then cut into 3 inch squares. The squares are then filled- (I actually did not fill mine enough. My grandmother said to use a teaspoon full of filling and I ended up using about a half a teaspoon-full. The cheese was barely discernible in the end product, which is what happens when you don't follow your grandmother's instructions to a tee. In my defense though, this was the first time I was making them and I was having visions of exploded cheese pastry all over my clean oven.)- and folded into a cute little packet. It's fun the first 20 times you do it, but when you get to cute little packet number 35, you're slamming the little buggers into untidy square shaped things, all the while cursing yourself for every thinking that this was a good idea.

It was worth it in the end

Aren't they pretty, the little darlings?

So what did you think of this foray into food-writing. Good? Bad? Should I post more of the same (after all I have a running commentary going in my head every time I make dinner. All I need to do is take pictures). Should I start working on my photography skills?

Thesis watch: I gave a lecture. There were blank faces. My advisor liked it though

Book Rec: The Art of Simple Food, Alice Waters

Cubbie Watch: 2 games over .500. 3.5 games back. Our bullpen sucks. I miss Kerry. Can we have our Kerry back now please?

*Ah, yes, the cheese. Evidently, farmer's cheese is actually a substitute for the traditional Hungarian soft cheese called tourosh (or something like that), which is found nowhere in the world except Hungary. Or at least that's what my uncle says, and my uncle knows all. So I don't feel all that bad about my lack of farmer's cheese.

**Also, I have been trying and trying to figure out how to create an expandable post, so that these ultra long posts don't take up so much space. If anyone can give me a tutorial on how to change my template please speak up. Thanks.