Quick & Easy Fatoush

fatoush02In an earlier post about Fatoush, made the old-fashioned way, I wrote about “value-added products.” There are some good ones out there, and here’s one I love:  a “Salad Kit” from Eat Smart, which I get at Costco. Most of the bag is made up of a slaw-type preparation of broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and chicory.

What a great idea to run the unused parts of vegetables through a shredder to make a salad! The package contains a pumpkin seed and craisin packet — and unfortunately the package also contains a poppy seed salad dressing with ingredients I don’t want to use, which I generally have to discard.

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I use at least one of these 28 oz. packages every week. It’s a great source for important nutrients and allows me to put things together very quickly. Early in the week I use it for salads, and later in the week, as it gets a little older, I can use it in a stir-fry.

One of my favorite things to do with the slaw is to use it for a quick Fatoush, a salad that is characteristically made with leftover toasted or dried broken pita pieces. I like to use whole wheat Lebanese pita for this salad.

QUICK FATOUSH 
Fatoush means “crushed” or “broken” and refers to the Pita croutons that are a prominent feature of this salad.

  • Salad Kit – two large handsful of slaw
  • Avocado – 1/2 ripe, sliced
  • Tomato – 1 plum, petite diced or cut into slivers
  • Whole Wheat Lebanese Pita – one piece, heated in oven until crisp, broken into pieces

VEGAN DRESSING

  • Lemon – juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 TB) or to taste
  • Tahina – 1 TB
  • Salt – 1/4 tsp. or to taste
  • Pepper – freshly ground, to taste

This recipe is enough for two large salads.

Less is more — but for whom? Fatoush

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As the only vegetarian cafe in the area, I have many health-conscious customers. Increasingly they ask for gluten-free products. Most of my food happens to be gluten free naturally, but for those who want some kind of bread with their meal, I stock gluten free crackers.

Last week we ran out of our regular product and I had to run to a local store to pick up a substitute: $7.00 for a small box of rice crackers with just enough in it to provide a few small crackers to four customers. $7.00 for a product that has little nutrition, no fiber and is high on the glycemic index.

This same $7.00 would buy me seven bags of whole wheat pita, each with 10 “loaves” of six inch pitas, from a small bakery in Chicago that makes the bread fresh on their premises. Enough for 70 customers. Wheat with protein, vitamins B1, B2, B3, E, folate, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and good fiber content.

Why does it cost so much more to get so much less? This question aggravated me all week. I understand some of us need gluten free products — yet I cannot help but feel we are being duped by a food industry that creates a health problem and then offers “solutions” from which it profits enormously. Gluten-free sales reached more than $2.6 billion by the end of 2010 and are expected to exceed more than $5 billion by 2015. (Source: Packaged Facts, 2011).

On the other hand, I wonder if many of us go gluten-free thinking it’s healthier but choose “substitutes” that are not only more expensive but nutritionally inferior?

Two years ago I first heard the term “value added product.” I wasn’t familiar with this term so did a little research. “Value added” refers to any step in the production process that improves the product for the customer and results in a higher net worth.

I suspect the operative words are “production process,” which in my experience results not in added value for the customer, where value should be defined as enhancing health, but for the food industry, where value is defined as profit.

Those rice crackers I bought might be considered “value added”. They are simple grains of rice subjected to a series of steps involving water, heat, expensive machinery and sprayed on seasoning.

Chicken McNuggets would also be an example of a “value added product.” A few weeks ago, a report revealed the real content of a Chicken McNugget, renaming it “Chicken Little.” The Nuggets turn out to be no more than half chicken “meat” and the rest fat, cartilage, bone, blood vessels and nerves. While the real content of Chicken McNuggets may disgust some of us, there is nothing inherently wrong with using otherwise unusable parts of a chicken to create tasty food. People have always found ingenious ways to make the inedible edible: witness chit’lins (chitterlings) and gribenes.

Chit’lins are the intestines of a pig, stewed for several hours and sometimes fried into what some consider a delicious treat. Gribenes are a by-product of schmaltz making. Excess chicken skin is cut into small pieces and sautéed in a pan until the schmaltz (fat) is rendered. The “cracklings” are removed, and caramelized onions and seasonings added for a treat that in pre-low-fat diet days was well-loved by many Jews. Now that we know that fat, even animal fat, is not the cause of weight gain, diabetes and sickness in our American diet, who knows? These items may become popular once again. Coming soon to a summer near you: Gribenes and chit’lin stands!

What we do know is that when a “value added” product comes to us via the food industry, we can assume the way the product was turned into something that will “add value” for the industry probably decreases value for us. We can expect the raw food is subjected to heat and/or speedy, mechanized processes that result in undesirable changes in the food product (from the health standpoint), or cheap oils high in omega 6s are used, or sugar or undesirable chemicals are added.

A real value-added product is one made from scratch with the best, whole food ingredients. An example is “Fatoush,” a way that Middle Eastern cooks found to use up stale pita.

For a gluten free version, leave out the pita. Although delicious with it, it is substantial, satisfying and delicious without it. A few chickpeas thrown in will replace the protein and B vitamins of the wheat, some avocado or olives will add fat, and walnuts will add crunch. No designer gluten-free products needed, just real food!

FATOUSH
Fatoush means “crushed” or “broken” and refers to the Pita croutons that are a prominent feature of this salad.

Ingredients

  • Romaine, 1 “head”
  • Spinach, 1 quart
  • Radicchio, 1/2 “head”
  • Plum Tomato, 4 large
  • Cucumber, 1 large or 2 small
  • Green Onions, 1 bunch
  • Radishes, 5-6
  • Mint, 4-6 sprigs (1/4 cup chopped)
  • Garlic, 1-2 cloves crushed
  • Lebanese Pit,a 1 quart toasted pita strips
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1/4 – 1/2 cup
  • Lemon, Juice of 1/2 – 1
  • Sumac, 1 TB
  • Salt, to taste

Directions

  1. Cut 2 Lebanese pitas into 2″ x 1/2″ strips and toast lightly or dry in oven. Set aside.
  2. Shred (slice thinly) the Romaine, spinach and radicchio. All greens should be in 2″ x 1/4″ strips.
  3. Deseed tomatoes and cucumbers. Petite dice (1/4″-1/2″ dice) tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes.
  4. Chop green onions and mint.
  5. Crush garlic.
  6. Toss the veggies, garlic and pita croutons together gently with the sumac.
  7. Toss again with extra virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt to taste.
  8. Gluten-free: leave out pita and add chickpeas, avocado, olives and/or walnuts.

Tabbouleh (Middle Eastern Cracked Wheat Salad)

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For many, Tabbouleh is an acquired taste. A staffer convinced me at one point that Americans would be more likely to appreciate a less green Tabbouleh, so we added lots more cracked wheat. Now I prefer the more traditional version with lots of parsley and a sprinkling of cracked wheat, and that’s what we serve. It is a beautiful counterpoint to the many red and yellow salads that might accompany a meal.

Ingredients
(Makes about 4 cups)

  • Cracked wheat, medium (#2), 1/2 cup soaked, squeezed
  • Garlic, 1/2 clove, minced
  • Green onions, 2-3
  • Lemon, 1-2 lemons, juiced (to taste)
  • Parsley, 1-2 bunches, minced (8-12 oz.)
  • Sea salt, 1 tsp, rounded
  • Cumin, 2 tsp
  • Szeged hot paprika, pinch
  • Mint, ½ cup +, minced
  • Plum tomatoes, 2-3 petite diced
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup

Directions

  1. Prepare parsley. Wash by immersing in slightly warm water and agitating.  Lift from water, refill sink and repeat process. Drain parsley, then wrap in clean, dry towel to dry for at least 1/2 hour. I like to prepare the parsley several hours or even a day ahead.
  2. Soak the 1/2 cup of cracked wheat in warm water to cover until it softens (at least 20 min.)
  3. Squeeze cracked wheat dry and set aside.
  4. Mince parsley very fine. I find it easier to start by cutting off the lower stems so all are even, then cutting across the bunch starting from the stem end. If I roll the bunch as I work to tighten it, I can make pretty close cuts the first time through and don’t have to chop over it repeatedly, which mashes it. Place finely chopped parsley in a bowl.
  5. Finely chop mint and green onions. Add to the bowl.
  6. Mince garlic and deseed and petite dice the tomatoes. Add to bowl.
  7. Toss salad lightly with drained and squeezed cracked wheat, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and remaining seasonings.
  8. Taste and adjust seasonings.

*The salad should taste lemony – number of lemons varies with size of lemons and amount of juice.

Samosa Double Baked Potatoes

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Two cuisines have inspired my cooking, first with vegetarianism and now with veganism: Middle Eastern and Indian. I have much more experience with Middle Eastern food since I have not only visited there but have had many Middle Eastern friends who shared recipes with me, have cooked Middle Eastern style foods for many years for my own family and based my Cafe around Middle Eastern foods. Now that I’m cooking more in my own home again, though, I’m trying more Indian foods.

Both traditions have a long history of making foods that are vegetarian or vegan or at least easily converted. I like foods that are not imitations of something else but just . . . well, are what they are, and that happens to be vegetarian or vegan or at least so heavily laden with wonderful treatments of veggies that you aren’t likely to even notice the absence of meat or cheese.

So I’ve long known my philosophy for making vegetarian foods, but I’m in unfamiliar territory with vegan cooking. I’m still looking for good vegan cheese and cheese sauce recipes and good egg substitutes — but as with vegetarian cooking, I’m not sure that substitutes will finally be the right direction. I’ve wanted to find things I like that don’t try to imitate something else.

This week I had a brainstorm! I wanted to make stuffed potatoes — but every recipe I found included butter or cheese or a cheese substitute.  I often make a little dish of stewed potatoes for myself with just olive oil and tumeric, salt and pepper. I like the taste and texture of mashed potatoes made with the same ingredients, and I suddenly realized my little dishes of potatoes are somewhat similar to the filling of samosas.

I love samosas! I’m very fortunate to have a small Indian grocery store walking distance from my house, and I stop in whenever I get a chance, hoping they might have fresh samosas. The robust seasoning and substantiality of these fried dumplings make a completely satisfying little meal-on-the-run for me. If I take it home and put together a soup or salad to go with it, I suspect it is a respectable part of a nutritious meal. It occurred to me that the filling for this item doesn’t use any dairy products or eggs, just two of my favorite veggies, potatoes and peas.

So I thought, couldn’t I use a samosa filling in a potato skin? And I started searching for a samosa recipe. I found one at The Tiffin Box and set about to make it with some changes suited to my needs. The seasoning in this recipe is exactly what I was looking for — perfect samosa flavor. I am going to add to the recipe a sauce recipe I found on Pinterest, which I’ll include below, and a fruit salad for a delicious plate in the Cafe.

The great thing about this recipe is that it has the deliciousness and satisfaction of a samosa without the deep fat frying, and it is vegan without all kinds of odd substitutions to approximate something different.

Samosa Double Baked Potato Filling Ingredients
(for every 2 large potatoes)

  • Extra virgin olive oil, 2-3 TB
  • Cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp.
  • Spanish onion, 1 diced finely
  • Ginger, 1″ piece chopped finely
  • Jalapeno, 1-2 chopped finely (I used half of one, about 1 TB – I love the heat, but I cook for heat sensitive folks)
  • Tumeric, 1 tsp.
  • Cumin, 2 tsp.
  • Amchur (dried mango powder), 1/2 tsp. (I didn’t have this)
  • Garam masala, 1/2 tsp.
  • Peas, 1/2 cup fresh or frozen
  • Lemon, juice of 1/2
  • Salt, 1 tsp. – to taste
  • Cilantro, large handful chopped

Directions

  1. Wash, oil and bake the potatoes in a 400 degree oven until fork tender, one to one-and-a-half hours. Remove from oven and cool.
  2. Prepare all veggies and seasonings.
  3. Heat the oil in a saute pan, then add the cumin seeds. When seeds sizzle, add the onion, and fry until the onion is soft but not colored.
  4. Add the ginger, jalapeno, turmeric, ground cumin, amchur and garam masala. Fry together for a couple of minutes, then add the peas, turn off the heat and set aside.
  5. Cut peeled potatoes in half, or alternatively cut a “lid” off the whole potatoes.
  6. Scoop the interior of the potatoes into a bowl being careful not to break the shell of the potatoes.
  7. Break up the potato flesh slightly in the bowl. It should remain somewhat chunky — I like it a little more on the chunky side.
  8. Put the pan with the onions, seasonings and peas back on the heat and stir in the chunky potato flesh. Add lemon juice and salt. Stir all together while heating until well mixed.
  9. Refill the potato shells with the pea and potato mixture.
  10. Store until ready to reheat in the microwave or oven, or serve, garnished with chopped cilantro.

Samosa Sauce Ingredients

  • Cilantro, 1 bunch (about 1 cup , packed)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1 TB
  • Ginger, fresh, 1″ chunk
  • Garlic, 1 clove
  • Salt, to taste
  • Vinegar, 2-3 tsp.

Alternate Samosa Sauce Ingredients (if you like it hotter)

  • Cilantro, 2-1/2 cups
  • Mint, fresh, 1/2 cup
  • Spanish Onion, 1/4
  • Garlic, 6-8 cloves
  • Ginger, 1/4″ peeled
  • Jalapeno, 1 in chunks or to taste
  • Lemon juice, 2 TB
  • Cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp.
  • Water, 2-3 TB or as needed to make pesto consistency
  • Salt to taste

Directions for both sauces

  1. Pulse all but the liquid items in a food processor until evenly and finely chopped. Run for a second or two.
  2. Add liquid items and pulse one or two more times.

This is not necessarily a combination I would have planned, but I happened to be double-checking my Tabbouleh recipe the same day that I made these Samosa Double Baked Potatoes — so I enjoyed them together for dinner:

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Spicy Moroccan Chickpeas with Cauliflower

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Cauliflower is moving onto the list of “superfoods” these days, but it has always been a favorite part of dishes in the Middle East. I love this spicy chickpea dish with cauliflower. I picked up the recipe on the internet — I have forgotten where just now — and have used it many times with a couple of small changes, mostly related to procedure.

I served the chickpeas and cauliflower this time with a tumeric-tinted quinoa, seasoned with lots of chopped onion, salt and pepper. I also made a raw sweet potato and beet salad with a bit of chopped mint and an extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice dressing.

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Spicy Moroccan Chickpeas with Cauliflower
(Serves 4-6)

Ingredients

  • Chickpeas, dried, 1 lb.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, 2 TB
  • Spanish onion, 1 petite diced
  • Cumin, 2 tsp. ground
  • Coriander, 1 tsp. ground
  • Turmeric, 1 tsp. ground
  • Szeged hot paprika, 3/4 – 1 tsp.
  • Cinnamon, 3/4 tsp.
  • Ginger, 1 TB fresh minced
  • Garlic cloves, 2 minced
  • Celery, 1 lg. stalk diced
  • Cauliflower florets, 1 quart
  • Plum tomatoes, 8 petite diced or one 19 oz. can
  • Parsley leaves, 1/2 cup chopped
  • Cilantro leaves, 1 cup chopped
  • Lemon, juice of one + wedges for garnish
  • Salt, 1.5 tsp.

Directions

  1. Prepare chickpeas. I like to soak them the night before and in the morning drain them, put them into a pot with water to cover, bring to a boil and drain — then repeat that boiling and draining process two more times before I put them into the pot covered with water one last time for cooking. Cooking will take at least an hour, maybe two. Check periodically to see if more water is required.
  2. Add the extra virgin olive oil to a second pot. Petite dice the onions, and add them to the pot to saute until soft.
  3. Add the ginger, seasonings (except salt) and celery and saute.
  4. Add the petite diced tomatoes and simmer with the seasonings with the lid on the pot until the tomatoes give off their water.
  5. When there is plenty of moisture in the pot, add the cauliflower and steam briefly until fork tender. Turn off the spices and cauliflower and set aside until the chickpeas are ready.
  6. When the chickpeas are ready, drain them. You may want to put your colander over a bowl to catch the remaining cooking liquid in case it’s needed for the dish. I have never needed more liquid, but your preferences may vary.
  7. Put the drained chickpeas back into the pot in which they were cooked. Add the tomato and cauliflower with seasonings and most of the chopped cilantro and parsley.
  8. Gently fold tomato mixture and chopped greens through the chickpeas.
  9. Garnish with additional cilantro and parsley and lemon slices and serve.

Red Lentil Kefta

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Back: Kefta. Front, L to R: Cauliflower & Zucchini Salad, Spinach Salad, Moroccan Carrot Salad. Center: Harif / Harissa.

Red Lentil Kefta is one of my favorite foods! Kefta are typically made with cracked wheat and shaped into ovals. They may contain meat and are often fried. This vegan version is not fried. It’s just a zesty, addictive little ball of great flavor and nutrition, a mixture of red lentils and cracked wheat. In addition, they are easy to make!

The kefta mix can also be left loose, as a delightful red lentil and cracked wheat salad.  It can be used this way in a wrap. Leftover balls can be pressed flat as a layer in a sandwich.

In addition, I have shaped the kefta as balls, rolled them in oil and baked them until there are brown spots. Completed this way, I have used them as vegan balls for my Spaghetti and NoMeat Balls Sauce. I think this might work better with a little flaxseed and water added to the mix (as an egg substitute).

Kefta is a wonderful, versatile food item.

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RED LENTIL KEFTA

Ingredients

  • Lentils, dried, 4 cups
  • Water, 8 cups
  • Fine bulgur (#1), 2 cups

Cook lentils until just done. Stir in bulgur. Set aside to cool, but crumble from time to time to avoid clumping.

  • Spanish onions, 2
  • Tomato paste, 5 heaping TB (up to 6 oz.)
  • Salt, 4 tsp.
  • Cumin, 2 TB
  • Harif, 2 TB or to taste
  • Lemons, 2

Saute the onion, and make a paste by adding remaining ingredients. Add to cooled lentils, and mix.

  • Parsley, 1 bunch
  • Green onions, 6

Chop parsley and green onions finely.  Add most of the chopped greens to the mix keeping some out for garnish.

Form kefta as required.

We sometimes put the kefta into small individual paper muffin cups to make them easier to pick up when there is a crowd.

There’s a tray of those delicious, addictive red lentil kefta waiting to get set up into paper cups for a catering order or served up to customers in the cafe as part of a plate. I also crumble and use leftovers on sandwiches. omg. But then I could eat these in any form at any time and say the same thing.

Some Like It Hot: Harif / Harissa

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Harif (Hebrew – means “sharp”) or Harissa (Arabic) is our Red Hot Sauce. Chili Arbol gives it its red color. It is fiery but flavorful.

I make my sauce in a VitaMix, which blends it a little more than the traditional methods, giving it a beautiful burnt orange color. I usually soak the peppers overnight before blending, but on a recent occasion I forgot to pre-soak them and found that I could accomplish almost the same thing by covering them with water in a pot, bringing it to a boil and letting them sit for 20-30 minutes.

HARIF
(Makes 1 pint)

Ingredients

  • Chili Arbol, Dried, 1 Qt., soaked and drained
  • Garlic, 2 TB
  • Sea salt, 1 tsp
  • Coriander, 2 tsp
  • Caraway, 2 tsp
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup

Directions

  1. Soak chilis overnight in a quart container filled to the top with chilis & water. Drain and squeeze. Alternatively, place dried chilis in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil, turn off heat and let sit for 20-30 minutes, drain and squeeze.
  2. Add extra virgin olive oil to VitaMix.
  3. Put garlic into VitaMix (2 TB chopped or a small handful).
  4. Add soaked and squeezed chilis.
  5. Add all seasonings.
  6. Run VitaMix until tangerine colored paste is achieved. May have to push material into blades until all is pulled into the vortex.
  7. Scrape bowl as thoroughly as possible into a 1 pint – 1 quart container.
  8. Wash VitaMix bowl by filling 2/3 with hot water and adding a small drop of dish soap and blending. This will remove all hot sauce from the blades.

Some Like It Hot: Z’hug

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I have made and offered two hot sauces since I started in the food business: Z’hug and Harif. For those who like it hot, either of these sauces is a wonderful accompaniment to a meal.

Gutturals are difficult for Americans. Staff and customers came up with so many delightful variations on the pronunciation of z’hug, including “zee-hug”. Finally we settled on referring to the sauces as Green Sauce or Red Sauce if they preferred Harif / Harissa.

Z’hug is a Yemenite Jalapeno-based hot sauce, hence “green.” I make mine in a food processor. The following will make about one quart, so you may want to halve or quarter the recipe, depending on the amount your machine will process evenly.

Z’HUG
(Makes 1 quart)

Ingredients

  • Garlic, 1/4+ cup (a big handful)
  • Cilantro, 1 large bunch, chopped
  • Jalapeño pepper, 12 lg, chunked
  • Sea salt, 1 tsp
  • Cumin, 1 tsp
  • Szeged hot paprika, 1 tsp
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 4 TB

Directions

  1. Put garlic into food processor first, then chopped cilantro, then chunked jalapeño.
  2. Pulse 20-25 times until all is evenly chopped.
  3. Add all seasonings.
  4. Pulse 2 or 3 times more and push down side of processor container until all contents are evenly chopped.
  5. Add 3-4 TB olive oil and pulse once or twice more.
  6. Move into a one quart storage container.

 

Keeping kosher

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As I have begun to explore a vegan pathway, I am once again thinking about the laws of kashrut. How does this practice relate to my life as a vegetarian and my journey toward a vegan lifestyle?

The Torah tells us the purpose of the dietary and other regulations put forward in it: to shape a “holy people.” What does that mean? I believe it means that following the laws given in the Torah, including the dietary laws, will teach those who follow them to stand in a particular relationship to G-d and creation.

What is that relationship? One view is that of Martin Buber, who describes two ways of relating to our fellow creatures and even G-d: “I-It” and “I-Thou”. In an “I-It” relationship, we view the “other” in a utilitarian mode. How can we use this creature to our benefit? Other creatures and even G-d are minimized to suit our utilitarian purposes.

Conversely, in an “I-Thou” relationship, we recognize and respect the uniqueness of the other and approach them in all their (and with all our) fullness. It is not a utilitarian relationship. It is not necessarily a safe relationship. It is a relationship based on freedom.

We may move in and out of these modes of relating and may relate to a particular person, for example, in an “I-Thou” mode at one point in time and in an “I-It” mode at another point in time.

One might be tempted to make a quick value judgment, viewing an “I-It” relationship as negative and an “I-Thou” relationship as positive. On that basis, we would assume the Torah requires us to maintain an “I-Thou” relationship to the world. I think this assumption would not be correct. The Jewish dietary laws provide us an opportunity to see how the Torah and Jewish ritual offer a more nuanced approach, an approach that maintains a tension between these two modes of being in the world.

Much has been written and spoken about the details of kashrut, the dietary regulations, in an attempt to understand their meaning. One thing stands out to me above all the details: these regulations center around the possibility of killing and eating other living creatures. Were that not a possibility, there would be no need for these laws since all plant foods are kosher. It is the burden of taking life that calls these laws into effect.

Like a blessing or prayer said with full intentionality before or after a meal, the dietary regulations serve to focus our attention on the gravity of what we are doing in eating a creature that once lived. These laws provide us with an opportunity to eat and be satisfied but to do it in a state of full awareness. Observing kashrut places us in a certain relationship to creation and to G-d.

There is some ambivalence in the Torah as I believe there is in most cultures about killing and eating living creatures. The first human beings, living in “the Garden,” were herbivores. Meat eating was a concession and only allowed after the flood. Killing and eating another creature once it was permitted was surrounded by ritual activity. This ritual activity served to heighten awareness of the fact that we are taking life to sustain life.

Similarly, in hunter-gatherer societies the hunt is surrounded with rituals that heighten awareness of the action in which one is engaging. These rituals guide the hunter to approach the hunt with a fullness of presence and encounter the fullness of the Other, the hunted. The outcome is never certain.

There are and have been other ways of dealing with what Michael Pollan calls the dilemma of being omnivores. Certainly one way, perhaps the most direct, is total abstention. This is the vegetarian and even more so, vegan path. At the opposite extreme is complete indifference to or alienation from the processes of life and death, a kind of thoughtless or thought-free consumption. This state of indifference or alienation is too easy to slip into today, as separated as we are from the sources of our food. We can eat and drink without much thought about the ethical dilemmas that would confront us if we were more directly engaged in our own survival.

Between these two extremes are the many symbolic structures of religions and philosophies that can guide us through the “omnivore’s dilemma”.

When I originally became vegetarian more than forty years ago, a primary motivation was that it simply felt wrong to buy the flesh of a creature neatly packaged in styrofoam and plastic at my local grocery store.  There was no direct connection to the fact that I was involved in taking the life of a creature. There was no connection to the process of life and death and survival and my place or role in that cycle. I could understand there might be an argument for eating the flesh of animals if one were prepared to hunt and kill the animal oneself. I couldn’t justify purchasing it in a styrofoam tray and having no personal connection to the life that had been.

There were other thoughts behind my vegetarianism at the time. I was inspired by the social consciousness of Frances Moore Lappe, presented in Diet for a Small Planet. I was inspired by the words of Adelle Davis, that she would “eat only the products that animals give us painlessly.”

Whether it was true at the time, that there were products animals give us painlessly, I’m not certain. I know it is not true now. The way our modern factory farms and industrial food processing operate currently means the products of it will cause ethical problems for many aware people — even when ethical consciousness allows eating meat and other animal products.

Which brings me to veganism. Personally I love eggs and cheese. Although I never gave up eggs when the doctors said we should, I was delighted they are once again on the “ok” list healthwise. I subscribe to the Sally Fallon school of thought on food, put forward so well in Nourishing Traditions and at westonaprice.org. I have often wished I lived in an environment where I could have my own milk cow and chickens, make my own cream and butter and more. I don’t live in that environment, though, and as I learn more, using these products of agri-business is becoming increasingly problematic for me.  It is even more problematic because I know this kind of food is not required for my good health.

What I have been forced to become aware of is that anything I use that is part of this system involves me in a world with a morality that is not what I consciously choose for myself. How so? There is a rabbinic statement: “It’s not the mouse that’s the thief; it’s the hole.” To the extent that I purchase and eat products that are produced through means that are unacceptable in my moral universe, I am more responsible for the existence of that system than the producers of those products.

I have learned that much of what I eat, I can enjoy only because its production is hidden from my view. Our current system is a vast mechanized empire operating under the surface and out of sight. The system engages in practices that if they were happening before my eyes would make me cry out in shock and horror.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the practices that are too often at the foundation of bringing animal products to us is the anonymity of the system. We are completely separated from this world and can remain unaware of what is happening if we wish. By the time any animal product arrives to us, kosher or not, it has been completely separated from its source in life and completely sanitized of the death involved in its production. Our beef and our cheese and our eggs have no relationship to their source.

This is a moral scenario that has particularly painful echoes for Jews, as I was reminded recently when I watched a powerful video presentation by a Holocaust survivor: http://www.jewishveg.org/ (scroll down to the video presentation of Alex Hershaft).

Sadly the kosher industry is also built on the back of agri-business which includes practices contrary to Jewish law. These practices affect the animal long before arrival at the moment of kosher slaughter. Even in the absence of deliberate physical abuse, I cannot imagine that the Torah and later Jewish values envisioned or would accept the massive destruction of life and indifference to the process that is endemic to the production of animal products today.

Others have detailed the ways in which eating meat and chicken, even kosher products, from today’s factory farm system transgress many commandments and are completely at odds with the worldview of the Torah: http://www.jewishveg.com/course.html (see in particular the sections on “Judaism and Animal Rights” and “Judaism, Vegetarianism and Ecology”).  Kosher meat, too, is sold in styrofoam and plastic packages. Cows — and chickens — “produced” in huge numbers for a utilitarian purpose live out their short lives in unnatural situations even when they are destined for kosher slaughtering.

The fundamental problem with the modern meat and animal product industry from my perspective is that the tension between an “I-It” mode and an “I-Thou” mode has been dissolved. We are not moving consciously back and forth between the two modes, guided by principles of Torah. By participating in this system, whether we consume kosher products or not, we are perpetually in an “I-It” mode in relation to the world. The world and the creatures that inhabit it are here for for one purpose, and that is for us to use in order to gain benefit from them for ourselves. Worse, we can do that without carrying any ethical burden in relation to that activity, even if it involves practices that are not in accord with the principles of the Torah. Those practices are conveniently hidden from us.

Nowadays more and more people are becoming interested in sourcing and localism — personally knowing the sources of food, knowing how that food was managed through its life. If we are so concerned that our fruits and vegetables are handled properly, that they are “sustainable” and free of substances we think are bad for our health, shouldn’t we be even more concerned with looking into the handling of creatures that produce meat, eggs and cheese? Shouldn’t we want to be certain they are not part of a system that is so devastating to our moral health?

For someone who does eat animal products in a kosher framework, tho, backward vision can stop at the meat counter of the kosher market. The product has a heksher so is ok — but where did it come from? We are always shocked when we discover that a kosher facility is engaging in practices contrary to Jewish principles — but what about before the animal arrives at the facility? What were the practices associated with life and death that brought it to this place? Was there any reverence exhibited for the life of this creature? Respect for its creaturehood?

Certainly we live in a world where we cannot do everything ourselves. Most of us cannot have our own cows and chickens, and none of us can have cows and chickens that are not the result of a massive utilitarian system. It is hard to imagine sourcing human productions without finding utilitarianism, suffering and even abuse at some point along the way. It is even harder when we consider the veil of modern marketing and labeling practices that put yet another unreliable layer between us and the sources of our food. In order to eat anything, we probably have to draw a line for our backward vision, for how deeply into sourcing we want to go. For each of us, the place where that line is drawn will be different.

As I have often said when I teach, one’s food choices depend on how much of an ethical burden one is prepared to carry. For me, keeping kosher on the back of a food production industry that operates in ways completely contrary to what I understand as the intention of the Jewish dietary laws does not solve the ethical problems involved in taking life to sustain life. Increasingly I am aware that being vegetarian is also not a resolution or even a pathway through the dilemma. I continue to experiment more with vegan foods.

I don’t yet know exactly where my line is. What I do know is that the one required task for each of us is to become aware and to make thoughtful, informed, aware choices for how we will live, specifically what and how we will eat.

Keeping kosher continues to be an important part of that process for me. With pausing as I shop to be certain that everything I purchase fulfills certain requirements, with thinking about what is in my kitchen and how it is used, with considering the counters I work on, the utensils I use and the pots and pans and dishes that are part of my environment, with a blessing before food and an extended blessing after food, I am provided with ample opportunities to think about what and how I eat and to consider my place in creation.

On Making “Water Challah” for Shabbat

Two challot, plated and tucked under their cover and ready for Shabbat dinner.
Two challot, plated and tucked under their cover and ready for Shabbat dinner.

Thirty-five years ago, I made challah weekly. In recent years, my schedule has not allowed me to continue this practice. When we began to host Shabbat dinners in my Cafe, some of our regulars always brought in whole wheat challot from a bakery forty minutes from us. On a recent week when that particular group was unable to attend, I decided to try my hand again at making challah.

These days I have considerations I didn’t have thirty-five years ago. One is that I like more of a whole grain loaf than I did in years past, and grains require time and patience, as Sally Fallon points out in Nourishing Traditions.

Another consideration is that I wanted the challot to be vegan, that is, they should use only plant food ingredients, no animal products. With the traditional egg challah, that changes the program considerably. Since my favorite challah, though, is water challah, which I remember fondly from my days in West Rogers Park, that didn’t strike me as a problem. Wrong.

Try searching the internet for a water challah recipe! Many of the recipes with that name included eggs, at the very least an egg wash on the crust to hold the seeds on top. More often the eggs were in the challah itself. Puzzling.

In other search results, it was clear that the search engines simply brought up a result for water challah because the recipe was for challah, which contained water. In addition, all the recipes had quite a bit of sugar.

After much searching, I decided to try using my spelt and 7-grain cereal roll recipe. That worked – sort of. The loaves weren’t as pretty as I hoped and ended up going into my freezer for future home consumption. Back to the internet.

Finally I found an article about something called berches. With that new search term, I was able to find a host of appropriate recipes, recipes with no eggs and very little sugar. I actually did try one of those recipes, and it worked beautifully with one exception – the crust dilemma.

How could I get that beautiful, shiny crust so characteristic of challah and hold an abundance of seeds to the loaf?  Flaxseed and water can work as an egg substitute in many cases, so I tried a flaxseed/water wash. It turned the crust white, and all the seeds dropped off. I tried several other techniques, but nothing worked. Finally I gave up on the seeds, but I gave a little shine to the crust by brushing it lightly with extra virgin olive oil when it came out of the oven.

In the search for a water challah recipe, here are some things I learned about challah making that will enrich my own experience:

  • What I was calling water challah was an egg-free type of challah made in Germany and called berches. The word berches is from the word berach or “bless”. It refers to the challah or bread that one blesses at the Sabbath meal. Many Jews, German and other, no longer know or use that word for the challah, but there are a few bakers in Germany who continue to make it. I was enjoying a commercial variety in West Rogers Park under the name water challah.
  • Traditionally challah has seven ingredients, corresponding to the seven days of the week or to the fact that Shabbat occurs on the seventh day: 1) flour, 2) water, 3) yeast, 4) salt, 5) sugar, 6) eggs, and 7) oil.
  • When the Temple was destroyed in 70 c.e., the rabbis created a system of substitutions for Temple worship and a priestly sacrificial system. The family table substituted for the altar, and the ordinary Israelite took on the role of priest. The two loaves of challah on the table represent that transition with the challah substituting for the two loaves of showbread on the ancient altar.
  • Women were included in that transition as well, and challah-making is a place where we can see that clearly. Part of the ritual of challah-making includes separating the challah, removing a small piece of the dough, saying a blessing and burning the piece in the oven.  Since women, once upon a time, were likely to be the ones making the bread, this “sacrifice” would have been an example of their taking on the role of the priest in the absence of a Temple and priestly system.

Most importantly, what I learned from challah-making is how rituals can create a thoughtful, meditative experience and, by the way, good (and nourishing) food. At the intersection of the rituals of bread making, rituals I have developed over the years for creating healthy foods, my newly developing ritual of vegan bread making, and the rituals of challah-making, I had an opportunity to experience with full awareness my place in the cosmos, in history and in the environment. As I ate the challah I made, I experienced it as the Staff of Life it once was and can still be.

Here is my recipe for spelt berches or water challah, which I now make every week again. Be sure to WEIGH the flour. Your challah will come out perfectly every time! If you’ve never used spelt, try it. It’s a form of wheat flour, and it is absolutely beautiful to work with. I use spelt in all my breads now.

BERCHES
(Makes 2 loaf pan-sized loaves or two double-braid loaves. 3 lb. 8.2 oz. of flour are required to separate and bless the challah, so if you’d like to perform this ritual, double the recipe).

Ingredients
(Still seven ingredients even tho no eggs!)

  • 1 lb. spelt flour, WEIGHED
  • 1 lb. unbleached wheat flour, WEIGHED
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1/4 cup + 2 cups warm water
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 white potato, peeled, cooked, mashed and cooled
  • 1 TB salt

Directions

    1. Peel and cut up the potato and place it in a small pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft.
    2. Drain the potato cooking water into a measuring cup. Add cold water or ice cubes until the water level reaches 2 cups.
    3. Pour the 2 cups of water back into the potatoes and mash thoroughly with 1 TB salt.
    4. Weigh the spelt flour into your mixing bowl until you reach 1 lb. Add unbleached wheat flour until you reach 2 lb.
    5. Stir the flours together and make a well in the center.
    6. Pour 1/4 cup warm water in the well. Add yeast and sugar and stir gently to dissolve. Let sit for 5-10 minutes until bubbling.
    7. Add the mashed potato, salt and water mixture to the flours. Add the extra virgin olive oil to the mix.
    8. Stir all together briefly.
    9. Knead the dough for 10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. I do this on my Kitchenaid Mixer with the dough hook. The spelt dough works so beautifully that I never have to clean out the bowl before the next step.
    10. Add a little oil to the mixing bowl, and roll the dough in it it until it is completely coated.
    11. Cover the dough in the bowl with a plastic bag (I reserve a garage bag for this purpose). Let rise until doubled in bulk, about two hours.
    12. Punch down, knead slightly and set aside.
    13. Get out your scale and mixing bowl again! Divide the dough into two halves, one for each loaf. Make certain the two halves weigh the same so your loaves will be the same size.
    14. Shape the challot. Divide each half into six approximately equal pieces. Roll into strips as in the picture, with the middle of each strip larger than the ends. Roll in very light flour so strips will remain separate from each other as they rise.
    15. Three strips will make a braid. Place one strip on your work surface, and place two strips over it in an “x” shape. Braid from the middle toward each end and tuck the ends under. Repeat with three more strips. Place one braid on top of the other, and secure the ends.
    16. Repeat this process with the other half of the dough.
    17. Place each loaf on a baking sheet sprinkled with semolina to prevent sticking.
    18. Cover the loaves again with plastic, and allow to rise until doubled, 40 minutes. DO NOT overraise. The top braid will fall to one side, and/or the loaves will flatten.
    19. During this second rise, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
    20. When the loaves are ready, remove the plastic and put the baking tray with the loaves into the pre-heated oven.
    21. After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for an additional 30-35 minutes.
    22. Remove from the oven and brush the crust lightly with extra virgin olive oil. Cool.

challah04

challah05

At this point, I brushed my loaves with a mixture of flaxseed and water, an egg substitute which I hoped would hold seeds in place. It didn’t, and it turned the tops of the loaves white.  It did not affect the flavor. I’m going to do a little research for other solutions for a seed-sprinkled shiny vegan challah crust.

challah11
Challot rising…
Two double-braid loaves of Water Challah or "Berches," just in time for Shabbat.
Two double-braid loaves of Water Challah or “Berches,” just in time for Shabbat.