It is now time to switch gears from summer relaxation to the holidays, which are mostly on weekends this year, with Shabbat adding to the cooking challenges.
My beloved grandmother cooked so much before the holidays that I wondered how all that food — from gefilte fish and chopped liver to brisket and chicken and pot roast and kugels and compote — ever fit in her small icebox and then her “modern” small refrigerator.
Somehow, like Mary Poppins’ magical bag, the food kept coming and fed the dozens who surrounded her table at every holiday — many brothers and sisters, children and their spouses, grandchildren, neighbors and more.
Sometimes, amid all the preparation for Rosh Hashana, I find it too easy to forget about the meaning and wonder of the holidays as I focus on the menu, guest list, shopping, and cooking. I do try to stop and think about all that has transpired over the last year as I try to find spirituality in a pot of chicken soup for 25!
There is, in fact, lots of spirituality in cooking.
First, we put our hearts and souls into choosing the right menu items. We wonder if this chicken dish will be OK for Great Aunt Fanny’s tummy or palatable for the youngest members of the family. We make a gluten-free or vegetarian or salt-free dish because we want our guests to feel loved and respected and cared for, to know that their needs are important to us. We do this with care and intentionality.
Later, once the menu is set, we begin the process of turning ingredients into dishes that we hope everyone will like. Cooking can become a meditation as we chop and cut combine, sauté and simmer.
Psychologists believe that cooking can induce a “flow state,” the state of being so totally engrossed in an activity that our heart rates slow and we do not think of anything else — kind of like what happens when we meditate. This state may even help lower inflammation in our bodies, which is a very healthy thing. We stay close to our cooking, so that we can check and taste and adjust and create perfection, creating our own little cocoon of mindfulness and focus. We do it with patience and love.
Cooking provides a generational connection. As I cook and prepare, I think of my grandmother and other relatives who cooked before me. I have some of their recipes and some I have tried to recreate through memory.
While I make my challot, I think of my grandmother. She came from outside Kyiv near Belarus and said that as a child, she went to the wheat fields and gathered wheat.
Did someone grind it for her? Could she buy flour? Was it fine and white or rough and wheat-like? All I have to do is click a button and my favorite organic flour arrives at my front door! My bread machine kneads my dough, and it rises right there. I shape it, let it rise again, and bake it. Very little effort.
My grandmother made at least a dozen challot a week, by hand, in an oven that could barely fit two loaves. My mother bought challah from a bakery long gone. I meditate on the wheat fields of my grandmother’s life, the line out the bakery door every Friday morning waiting for the freshly baked challah that my mother brought home, and the wonderful aroma of bread rising that fills my kitchen every Friday and before holidays.
I have come from them. The thread from generation to generation binds us together in the recipes of our ancestors that we recreate. In the act of cooking, we honor them and keep them in our hearts with love and respect.
And finally, there is the spirituality of gathering with family and friends during the holidays. We gather to “break bread” together, as we tear apart the challot and chant prayers in hope for a sweet year, a healthy year, a fulfilling year. We laugh and share stories as we eat together in the joy of community.
We have cooked and prepared and baked for this sharing. We did not do it for accolades; we did it for tradition and for love, and to give our children part of the roadmap for their lives when we are no longer sharing this joy with them.
That is the spirituality, the meditation, and the thread that ties generations, that I find in cooking — especially for the holidays. It is one of the ways I honor my family, past and present, my friends, and those who come to my table as strangers and leave as friends.
I wish you all a Shanah Tovah U’metukah.
Light Spinach, Avocado and Strawberry Salad with Orange Dressing (Pareve)
Strawberries are still in season. This salad makes the most of that summer treasure and is light and healthy before a holiday meal as a change from gefilte fish or chopped liver. Amounts of veggies are up to you, and you can add all kinds of veggies and berries to this.
1 to 2 quarts strawberries, hulled and cut in half
1 pound baby spinach leaves
Several ripe avocados, cut into chunks
2 red onions, peeled, cut in half, thinly sliced
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 small shallot, finely minced
6 Tbsp. freshly squeezed orange juice, more to taste (1 to 2 oranges)
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (1/2 small lemon)
1/4 tsp. grated orange zest
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Pinch sugar, more to taste
1 Tbsp. finely minced fresh parsley
3/4 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly grated black pepper, to taste
Mince the shallot and place in a medium container with a tight-fitting lid. Add the orange juice, lemon juice, zest, vinegar, sugar, and parsley, and mix well. Add the oil, cover, and shake. Season with salt and pepper. Taste, adjust ingredients to taste, cover and refrigerate.
Place the spinach leaves in a large bowl. Toss with the strawberries. Peel and cube the avocado, add to the bowl and toss lightly. Add the sliced onion and almonds, add dressing, toss and serve. Serves 8 to 12.3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Garlicky Summer Zucchini Soup with Roasted Garlic Gremolata (Pareve)
A lighter, summery alternative to chicken soup. Gremolata is a spice and herb mix used to top soups to add a flavor burst.
8 cloves roasted garlic
2-1/2 pounds leeks, about 3 pounds before trimming
Peeled zest from 2 lemons
5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2-1/2 pounds zucchini
3 Tbsp. freshly minced garlic
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 carrot, grated
3 quarts chicken broth or stock
2 potatoes (russet) peeled and cubed
4 to 5 Tbsp. flat leaf parsley, finely minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the garlic cloves on a piece of foil. Drizzle with olive oil and close the packet. Place on a cookie sheet and place in the oven for about 20 to 35 minutes until light golden and softened. Let cool.
Trim and discard the dark green part of the leeks and the bottom third-inch. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, cut into thin slices and place in a colander. Rinse thoroughly with cold water and drain.
Use a vegetable peeler and cut the zest from two lemons. Set aside. Cut the zucchini into a half-inch dice. Discard ends.
Heat a large soup pot over high heat and add 4 tablespoons olive oil. Add half to two-thirds of the zucchini in a (crowded) single layer. Leave undisturbed for 2 to 3 minutes until the pieces begin to brown. Stir and add 2 tablespoons of the garlic and a pinch of salt. Stir for about 30 seconds until fragrant. Remove to a large bowl.
Add the remaining oil and reduce the heat to medium-high. Add the leeks, carrot and celery plus a pinch of salt. Cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes. Add the stock, lemon zest, and potato. Raise the heat to high, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add the roasted zucchini and any liquid from the bowl, cover partially and cook for about 25 minutes, adding more stock, if needed. Remove the lemon zest strips. Use an immersion blender to emulsify just a bit, about 2 to 4 seconds.
For the Gremolata: Mash the roasted garlic and add minced parsley, salt, freshly ground black pepper and olive oil. Mix well. Add a dollop to each bowl of soup. For a more garlicky flavor add some freshly minced garlic to the gremolata. Serves 8 to 12.
Summer Squash Ribbon Salad (Pareve)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 to 1 tsp. honey, more to taste or for a sweet/sour dressing
1 pound zucchini and yellow summer squashes, ends trimmed, and sliced thinly lengthwise with a vegetable peeler or a mandolin
2 cups rainbow or regular carrot ribbons, peeled and thinly sliced with a peeler or mandolin
4 cups baby spinach
4 cups baby arugula or mixed field greens
2 cups thinly sliced red cabbage
1 cup thinly sliced sweet onion (Vidalia)
1/2 to 1 cup roasted, slivered almonds or roasted, chopped hazelnuts or walnuts
NOTE: You can add any veggies you like to this salad.
OPTIONAL: Goat cheese or feta cheese for a dairy meal
Whisk oil, juices, garlic, salt, pepper and honey in a small bowl. Whisk to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Process squashes using a vegetable peeler or mandolin to slice long strips. Place in large bowl.
Pour some of the dressing over the squash and toss gently with your hands. Let marinate for 5 to 10 minutes.
In another bowl, toss the arugula, spinach, red cabbage and onions together. Divide among 8 to 10 plates. Top with the dressed squash. Drizzle greens with remaining dressing. Garnish with toasted nuts. Serves 8 to 10.
Whole Wheat, Honey, Maple Raisin Challah (Pareve)
This is a delicious sweet challah that is lightly flavored with honey,maple and raisins.
1/2 cup warm (110 degrees) water
2 packages or 2 Tbsp. yeast
2 Tbsp. brown or raw sugar
3 to 4 cups whole wheat flour PLUS
1 to 2 cups white flour (flour should equal 5 cups total)
4 eggs PLUS
1 egg yolk
1-1/4 cups water
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/8 to 1/4 cup raw or brown sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup Canola oil
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 cup raisins
1 Tbsp. cold water
1 tsp, honey
Set the oven to 200 degrees. Lower the rack so that you have enough room for a large oven-proof bowl. Allow the oven to heat for 10 minutes, then turn it off, leaving the door closed.
Add 2 tablespoons sugar to the warm water. Mix well. Add yeast and stir. Set aside to proof.
Place the flours in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the liquid and mix on low, using a dough hook. Increase speed and knead for 3 to 6 minutes or until smooth. Halfway through, add the raisins while the mixer is turning. You may need to add more flour if the dough is too sticky.
Oil the inside of a large bowl and place the dough in the bowl. Turn the dough oiled side up, cover with a cloth and set in the oven to rise for 2 hours.
Punch down the dough, knead for at least a minute, divide the dough in half and roll each half into a long, thick rope. Coil the rope around and up a bit so it grows taller, like a crown. Repeat with the other half. Set on a cookie sheet and let rise in the oven for another two hours.
Beat the egg, water and honey together. Brush the tops of the loaves and bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes or until deep golden. Makes 2 loaves.