Monday, March 29, 2010

My Idiosynctratic Seder Table

Last year my family and I began a new tradition. Instead of eating a Passover Seder meal and having a separate Seder plate, we combined the two, incorporating each part of the traditional (and newer egalitarian) Passover plate components into the meal itself. Because so much of my personal Jewishness is enacted in my relationship with the environment, social justice, and--most of all--food, it only makes sense to translate the ritual objects of the Jewish spring holiday into a satisfying meal shared with people I love. Some of you may know that I'm finishing up my bachelors' in Religious Studies, and writing my thesis on ethical and sustainable kosher food movements, so I spend a LOT of my time thinking about the meanings of food, both in relationship to Jewish tradition and to my own (still developing) value system. So here's my idiosyncratic, hodge-podge of a Seder plate-turned-meal. And, most warmly, Chag Pesach Sameach!

So, quick background for the unfamiliar (Pesach in 140 characters!):
Jews: slaves in Egypt, were liberated, ate flat bread, sacrificed goats. Today, we don't eat chametz*, eat symbolic foods, & tell the story.

*"Chametz" includes anything made from wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water. Some Jews also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes as if they were chametz. All of these items are commonly used to make bread, so the use of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion. Such additional items are referred to as "kitniyot." (Ok, so I love how that explanation was longer than the first...)

Aside from the ubiquitous matzah, my table was full of new and old Passover dishes and symbolic foods. At last year's Hazon food conference (a weekend of exploring the intersection of Jewish life and contemporary food issues), I had the pleasure of meeting Roberta and Robert Kalechofsky, the uncontested Queen and King of Jewish vegetarianism and animal rights. They are responsible for creating the standard vegetarian haggadah, Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb, in which the replace the lamb shank with:

"Olives, grapes, and grains of unfermented barley, which symbolize the commandments of compassion for the oppressed, to be found in the Bible. We use olives to commemorate the commandment to leave the second shaking of the olive trees for the poor, we use grapes to commemorate the commandment to leave the second shaking of the grapevines for the poor (Deuteronomy 24:20), and we use grains of unfermented barley (or other unleavened or unfermented grains), to commemorate the commandment not to muzzle the ox when it treads out the corn in the fields (Deuteronomy 25:4), in other words, to recognize the natural appetites of the animal and not interfere with them. This commandment is considered to be the oldest extant concept of 'animal rights,' and enshrines the dignity and rights of the animal."

I'm not a strict vegetarian (though that's a post for another day) but I love this idea, and while it may not be traditional Seder fare, I'm a firm believer in the adaptability of Jewish cultural traditions to progressive interpretations.

Another option for the vegetarian replacement of the lamb shank is a beet: the blood-red color recalls the Pesach sacrifice, though Cynthia Baker of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University offers a different explanation for the beet.

"What is the meaning of the beet? It is here to remind us of an incident that occurred in 1945, when women slave laborers in Buchenwald concentration camp changed a negative definition to a positive one. 'It hit me suddenly that the Haggadah could have been written for us. If I only changed the tense from past to present, it was written about us.... At this time, the scene in the barracks was bad, there was really fighting, cursing, and yelling... so when I asked the women to be quiet it was like a miracle, this absolute silence in the barracks. I started the seder by asking why is this night different. And I said that every night we quarrel and we fight and tonight we remember. There were close to a thousand women there. I picked up the slice of sugar beet and I said, this is the bread of our suffering.... And then we made a vow that if we survived, a beet was going to be on our seder table.'"

I decided to incorporate the beets into my main dish, a roasted curry beet and carrot casserole:

One of the best parts of the Passover meal is Charoset, a mix of fruit, wine, spices and nuts that represents the straw and clay which the Jewish slaves used to construct Egyptian buildings. One of my dinner guests is a huge Charoset fan, so I kept this pretty traditional. I did choose to cook my apples down with cinnamon, then added currants, pecans, red wine, and honey.

For the bitter herbs, Maror and chazeret, which represent the bitterness and harshness of slavery, I used the traditional horseradish and romaine lettuce to make a salad. The dressing was made of olive oil, yogurt, horseradish, apple cider vinegar, and salt. Is it wrong that the "bitterness of slavery" turned out to be really, really tasty?

The Beitzah, or roasted egg, on the Seder plate was replaced with deviled eggs, simply because I LOVE DEVILED EGGS. I'm a total traditionalist, just mayo and eggs, but I go crazy for them. The egg represents a lot of different things, and many people have a different interpretation of it's place at the Seder. It may represent the korban chagigah, or festival sacrifice, prepared at the Temple, but I usually talk up the connection between Pesach and earlier pagan holidays of springtime, fertility, and renewal:

Then there's the karpas, any vegetable other than the bitter herbs--though parsley is the standard--that is dipped in salt water representing the tears of oppression. This is typically the first thing eaten at a Seder after kiddush over wine, when bread would usually be consumed, prompting the four questions of why the first night of Passover is different from other nights. I turned the parsley and salt water into a tabouli (sans grains). I make so much tabouli, this was a no-brainer. I call it kitchen-sink tabouli, because I throw in anything I've got in the fridge--here I used cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, Israeli feta, and toasted walnuts, with a dressing of olive oil, lemon, and plenty of salt. Tabouli should be salty!

Lastly, to connect the Passover holiday to the beginning of Spring, I roasted up my favorite vegetables from the market this time of year: asparagus and raab. I used collard raab here, and simply tossed the veggies in olive oil and salt and put in under the broiler until tender. So good!

I also have an orange on my Seder table, representing the fruitfulness of a Judaism that celebrates the inclusion of all Jews: women, the GLBT community, and patrilineal Jews. The tradition comes from Jewish scholar Susanna Heschel, and you can read about the evolution of this symbolism here.

So that's how I celebrate, with good wine, good food, good friends, and new traditions as well as old. If you celebrate Passover, how do you explain the individual parts of the Seder plate? If you're making Easter Dinner instead, what new and old traditions do you incorporate? However you celebrate this season, enjoy the Spring (with it's crazy weather here in Portland) and the great foods that come with it.

Eat Well!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Browned Butter Eggs with Ramps and Miatakes

I don't have too much time to rhapsodize this week (my Thesis draft is due on Friday!) but I picked up so many quintessential spring foods at the market yesterday that I couldn't not share.

I used to hate eggs - my sisters would always ask for fried egg sandwiches for breakfast before school, but I was usually happier eating leftovers from the night before. I still like savory things for breakfast, and have never really craved pancakes or waffles, but my attitude about eggs has completely changed. I don't want to insult my parents, but the eggs we ate as kids weren't anything like the kind I can get at the market. If I had access to these eggs back then, with their near-orange yolks and adorable blue and brown shells, I'd likely have eaten them every day.

Miatakes from Springwater farms (above) and ramps in my market basket.

For this rather decadent meal, I sauteed chopped miatake mushrooms and spring ramps (also known as wild leeks, great wild-gathered spring onions that have a great garlicky flavor, pink and white stems, and flat, green leaves) in a bit of butter, and in a separate pan, made a bit of brown butter, and fried some fresh eggs. They weren't the platonic form of fried eggs--they were, in fact, kind of brown--but oh, goodness, they were delicious. I piled on the mushroom and ramp mixture, added some chives, and toasted up some sourdough. Yes. Eggs have certainly come a long way.

Some people think you need to do something elaborate and time-consuming with local produce to really get the most out of it, but I think it's the opposite. Simple preparation, a little butter and salt, and you've saved time and tasted our local foods at their best. Using things like eggs, pasta, good bread, and good butter and olive oil, you don't need to have fancy tools or techniques to eat really, really well. And don't worry if things get messy - if it tastes good, and it makes you happy, eat it. Even if its a rather ugly egg.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Portland Farmers' Market Week 2

I think the second week at the farmers market was even better than the first. We were all a little less frantic, and could actually appreciate the produce and conversation without being constantly distracted by the new layout. Potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, and winter greens are still the cornerstone of the market, but we're getting glimpses of our favorite spring treats. This was the first week for ramps and miners lettuce (both of which I'll be covering this week) and the fiddlehead ferns, rhubarb, sunchokes, and this year's market darling--raab--are still piled high.

One of my favorite things about PFM is how often I overhear strangers sharing recipes and preparation tips. Newbies to the local food scene might feel a bit intimidated by Northwest specialties this time of year, but locals and visitors alike are quick to provide help to someone looking at a basket of fiddlehead ferns, pea shoots, or nettles with a skeptical face. Some of the best resources are farmers themselves. I know I can trust my friends at Springwater to tell me their favorite mushrooms, how best to store them, and how to cook them so that they'll make you cry (hint: butter). Market staff and volunteers are also full of tips. Many of them have been watching the Portland seasons come and go for years, and their front row seat at the market has provided some great experiences that they're eager to share. The incomparable Ann Forsthoefel, our executive director, taunted a few of us behind the scenes at the market booth with tales of her recipe for crepes with raab, sausage, mushrooms, and white sauce, layered like lasagna in a cake pan... So, Ann, when are you making me dinner?

But my favorite tips come from shoppers - I met a lovely woman named Ruth who, while juggling two towheaded toddlers and sorting through baby potatoes at Rainyway, shared a tip she'd learned recently: In order to keep potatoes from sprouting, store them with an apple. I got to gossip with Andrew Gregory, the sous-chef at Clyde Common, about Oregon truffles, and I overheard someone waxing poetic about fiddleheads, advising a young couple in line behind her to saute them simply with garlic and lemon. Portlanders are amazing, and I honestly believe the best of them can be found gathered together on a Saturday morning at the market. I hope you'll join us next week if you're in town, or that you'll make a trip to PDX sometime soon if you're from anywhere else. I'd love to show you around!

Here's my bounty from today's market: Miner's lettuce, ramps, collard raab, sunchokes, chives, Maitake mushrooms, baby golden potatoes, Carrots, and a loaf of Gabriel's Pumpkin Raisin bread.

Here are some of my shots from this morning. What did you buy this week? What are you going to do with it?

Eat well!

P.S. You can now follow me on Twitter @allisonejones and check out all of my photos on my Flickr.

Sassafrass Relish! You guys rock!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Farmers' Market: Opening Day

 y emotions upon waking up yesterday morning could have been likened more to those of a five-year-old on the morning of a trip to Disneyland than to those of a twenty-two-year-old waking up at 7 am on the next to last day of Spring Break two weeks before her thesis draft is due. Improbable as it was, I was grinning even before I was fully conscious. I couldn't wait to get up, get dressed, and walk down the park blocks before the first opening bell of the year rang. My first surprise of the day was how ridiculously short that walk actually was. I knew that moving downtown would put me close to the market, but I hadn't thought it would take me all of three minutes to stroll past budding trees, an ambush of daffodils, and shining streetcar tracks before I came to the white-topped tents of the market vendors. I was giddy - the market is in my backyard, and it's back!
The weather was record-breakingly, breath-takingly, earth-shakingly gorgeous. Not a cloud in the sky and reaching 70 degrees, the sun seemed just as excited as I was to greet the farmers after what felt like a year, but I suppose was only three months. I arrived just in time to hear the opening bell, its ringing met with the cat-calls and happy cries of farmers and foodies glad to be back in the sun after a winter of cold storage and/or shipped-in produce. The air smelled like wood smoke, coffee, wet wool and Pine State biscuits and gravy. Truth be told, it was a little overwhelming. The market has doubled in size, everyone has moved around to new spots, and the market staff were energized but a bit frazzled with all of the new logistical changes and early-season pressures, but there was no doubt that we were all glad to be back.

I had friends coming to meet me for brunch at my apartment around ten, so I had an hour and a half to shoot photos for the market newsletter and Lemonbasil, plan a menu based on the available veggies, and gather everything while eagerly greeting and catching up with my favorite farmers and market enthusiasts. I was so happy to see my friends at Rainyway Farms, Gathering Together, Jacobs Creamery, Spring Hill, and so many others, not to mention new vendors and the PFM volunteers and staff that make it all possible.

I grabbed my first bunch of asparagus of the year as soon as I saw it (only Spring Hill had it this early, a small batch with cute tiny stems, so I knew I needed to get it before it was gone) and a basket full of other goodies, including kohlrabi, french breakfast radishes, gorgeous rainbow chard, a gluten-free sesame sourdough loaf, a dozen fresh eggs, some Holy Habanero pepper jam from Rose City Peppers, leeks, yukon gold potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, and a dozen eggs. I'm lucky my building has an elevator - walking up nine flights of stairs with all that would have been a bit tricky.

All in all, it was a day to remember. My fridge is so colorful, my brunch went well, the asparagus went far too quickly (I might run by the Hillsdale Farmers' Market today to see if they've got some more) and Spring is here! It finally feels like the new year. Even though Sunday has brought back the rain and clouds (this IS Portland, I suppose) I got a glimpse of great things to come.

Were you at the market? Let me know what you bought and what you plan to do with it! Here are some shots from Opening Day - hope to see you there next week!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Field Roast Grain Meat Chipotle Tacos

First off, let me geek out for a moment and say that this time next week I'll be showing off my gleanings from the first Portland Farmers' Market of the year. ONE WEEK. Also, I'm going to be writing for the PFM eNewsletter this year - so click here to sign up!

I've always been skeptical of "fake meat". Don't get me wrong, I've gone through many a stage of filling my freezer with veggie burgers, fake sausage, and chickenless nuggets and my cheese drawer with fake lunch meat, but something felt funny. It's probably because, since I've lived on my own, I've really fell in love with ethnic vegetarian cooking, food cultures that adore the vegetables, pulses, and grains of the world, that I haven't felt the need to mimic meat. I much prefer getting the goods "from the source" and avoiding all the processing and stabilizers necessary to a lot of widely-available meat-less meats. If you've ever felt the same way, it's time for us to look again at that often intimidating section of the supermarket that caters to those wishing to cut down on or eliminate their meat intake. A few years ago, soy was the ruling class of the vegetarian world. As food sensitivities, phyto-estrogen concerns, and GMO fears have us all thinking about soy with a skeptical face, different forms of vegetarian foods have started making their way to the scene. Grains, mushrooms, legumes, and seeds are being used in really interesting ways. Even better, if you're in Portland or a similarly-minded locale, it's getting easier and easier to find products from local producers with readable ingredient lists.

My favorite by far is the grain meat sausages and loafs from Seattle-based Field Roast. These wonderfully seasoned, ready-to-eat sausages are really great, mostly because they aren't really trying to taste like meat, they're aiming to replicate the taste of the flavors that have traditionally been added to meat (which is one of my own tricks in the kitchen). From lentil-sage loaf with fresh garlic, pardina lentils, and rubbed sage, to a chorizo-like sausage with smoked chipotle and chili de arbol peppers, the flavors that hit you are the spices and herbs, and it totally works. Their Celebration Roast is filled by hand with sausage-style stuffing, fresh butternut squash, Granny Smith apples, and mushrooms seasoned with rosemary, thyme, and sage. I was introduced to them a few months ago by my friends Ryan and Allie, who fried up a couple sausages and served them up with pancakes for Thanksgiving breakfast. Everyone, even the carnivoriest amongst us, was floored by how great they were.

Today I sliced up one of their Mexican Chipotle sausages and sauteed the bits with red bell pepper and onion, cumin and dried oregano, threw them on a few tortillas. I topped them with greek yogurt, salsa, and fresh oregano. Then, in a flash of inspiration, I added a little lemon zest, which proved to be a very good choice. They were a great, spicy, and filling distraction from writing my thesis. Which is pretty much the best thing I can say about food right now.

I hope to see you at the market next week!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beet Greens and Blues: The Falafel-Off

I’ve always loved cover songs. There’s something eminently delightful about hearing a favorite song reinterpreted, especially when that reinterpretation occurs decades later, in different languages, or across radically different genres. There’s Cat Power’s take on “I Found A Reason”… Cloud Cult doing “Mr. Tamborine Man”. Covers can be wonderful, but at the same time, I think it’s easy to harbor a sense of loyalty to an artist – hence the oft-repeated “the Original was WAY better” shtick. Peter Gabriel just released Scratch My Back, a selection of orchestral covers of Regina Spektor, Bon Iver, Magnetic Fields, Talking Heads, Arcade Fire and Radiohead songs, and the covers are bound to elicit more than a few lamentations from purists. I’m all for authenticity in the music world, but a good cover song is a beautiful thing, shooting winks to the original while going somewhere new. Kind of like a certain PDX food cart. Stick with me here.

(Tzfat, home of Kabbalah and THE BEST FALAFEL EVER.)

Inspired by the goods served up by European falafel and kebab carts, the owners of Magic Beans are putting out a sort of cover album with their menu. By serving up re-imagined Middle-Eastern fare up at Mississippi Marketplace (the bustling food cart plaza in NoPo on Mississippi and Skidmore) Magic Beans is up against a Goliath of a culinary original. I’ve spent the past few weeks in Israel, on a culinary tour of all things, noshing my way through the Land of Milk and Honey… and Olives and Hummus and, yes, Falafel. It was, uh,‘Thesis Research’. Anyway, as he was assembling my lunch, falafel fryer Scott got a bit nervous that I’d judge my lunch against the “Best Falafel Ever” in the Holy Land, and laughingly informed me that their food isn’t exactly ‘traditional.’

While tipping their hat to the ol’ fried chickpea balls in a pita, the falafel at Magic Beans is simply a different breed – much more herby, crisp, topped with a rotating selection of unique condiments, and served up with great fries. This week they had black bean hummus and winter squash ghanoush, and the fries came with a choice of lemon pepper or rosemary salt. The sandwiches are $4 (a combo with fries and iced tea is $6) and filled with tasty additions like feta, crunchy cabbage, tomatoes, and pickled peppers. The flavors were great – fresh, savory, a little spicy – and the lemon pepper fries were beyond delicious. Thinking back to the falafel restaurant on the top of the hill in Tzfat, I might put on my food snob hat and say the original was WAY better, but the truth is that Magic Beans is doing their own thing, and they’re doing it really well.

Magic Beans

Location: N Mississippi at Skidmore in Mississippi Marketplace
Hours: Daily, open around 11 until late afternoon, with plans for
late-night soon.