◊ Yeah

Dear mom,

Yeah. It’s all too much. I came to Israel for the summer to work on one story. Now I have four. I have hours and hours and hours – maybe days – of tape that I will have to trim down to max 15 minutes. And in my last week here, I’m running around like a madwoman collecting more. What am I thinking?

As usual, my eyes are too big for my stomach (and for my brain and hard drive). Too much is overwhelming, but usually I don’t regret going for it. Sure it was stressful for you to shuck all that corn the night before a big trip, but look at all those kernels you have in the freezer! The possibilities are endless. What a privilege!

Pre-Shababat, Mea Shearim

Privilege. I move across walls and worlds; I ask questions that many wouldn’t dare ask; I’m learning how to trust myself. My government and my family do not control what I choose to do or say. I was not born a refugee and I was not born into a climate in which my life was threatened daily. I am allowed and encouraged (!) to think critically. Feeling safe and free are the keys with which I access this world of too-muchness. I am grateful for these privileges. I try not to take them lightly and wow, the heaviness gets to me.

Laylat Al Qadr, Damascus Gate

I went to Gaza last week for interviews and came away with a positive impression of the people I spoke with. Afterwards, I spent the weekend with cousins in Israel. One of them, my age, said that she will always love me, but that she does not appreciate the way I see the circumstances. I told her that my empathy for people on the “other side” does not mean that I am critical of her or anything that she has done in the past. Still to her, my actions are a slap to her face. We talked it out and our relationship is closer than ever, but I still feel sad that despite my intentions, my actions can hurt the people I love.

Near the Erez border crossing, Gaza Strip

In Gaza City, graffiti messages cover almost every public surface. The graffitis include love notes, taxi numbers, reminders of 27 (years of Hamas), wedding announcements, religious verses, memories of catastrophe and war.

My privileges allow me to believe that basic human understanding can make the world a safer place. I think I can empathize with the reasons that people are critical of this, with how people can label it as childish, with attitudes of defense and anger towards it. For many, an attempt to understand “the other” can be scary and even life-threatening. My world is cushioned with clouds of security and safety… I know I am naive. But, in this climate of meaningless bloodshed and loss, I do not see a better option than to try to promote understanding.

My goal is definitely too much. So it’s only natural that I’m going for it.

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xo,

Shaina

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The recipe below is for the Palestinian version of dolmas. Najla, the star of the piece I wrote last winter, makes hundreds at a time, and (similar to the embroidery) she sells them to Israelis via Yael. Usually, it takes her 3 hours at a time to prepare 350-400 pieces.  I’m used to eating dolmas that are stuffed thick with one inch or more of rice. Najla’s leaves are much tastier – she rolls them thin like pencils so that they’re mostly leaf with only a hint of gooey rice in the middle.

I asked Najla to line up the spices so I could take a picture for memory. She laughed and said that it doesn’t really matter what spices I use. Whatever she has in the house, she said, is what she throws into the bowl (she also threw in a tsp of parve Osem soup powder, a staple in our kitchen). I told her that I cook the exact same way, but that I had to at least pretend to have exact recipes so I could post them to the blog.

Saturday lunch at Najla's daughter's house in Beit Sahour, Bethlehem

Saturday lunch at Najla’s daughter’s house in Beit Sahour, Bethlehem

The crucial spices and herbs include mint, parsley, nutmeg and garlic. GARLIC. When Najla sent me back to Jerusalem with a small pot of rolled leaves, I smelled so strongly of garlic that the officer at the checkpoint did not wait for me to dig around in my backpack for my passport. He let me go without even seeing it… That was a first!

*If you can’t pick em fresh like Najla does, you can buy canned or frozen grape leaves from a Middle Eastern specialty store.

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DSCF7737Najla’s Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves

Prep time: 1 ½ hours

Makes 40 – 50 stuffed grape leaves

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white rice, short grain
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed or shredded
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 Large tomato, diced
  • 1 tbs dried mint, crushed
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 handful (1/2 cup) fresh mint, chopped finely
  • 1 handful (1/2 cup) fresh parsely, chopped finely
  • pinch of nutmeg (fresh grated is best)
  • pinch of all-spice and/or 7-spice mix (optional)
  • 1 tsp veg boullion (optional)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • black pepper to taste
  • 40 -50 grape leaves, destemmed

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Rinse one cup of rice and place in large mixing bowl. Add oil, tomato, onion, garlic, herbs and spices. Mix together.

Lay grape leaves smooth side down. Sprinkle a pinch (really, a teeny amount! See picture) of rice in the bottom of each leaf. Roll the leaves from bottom up keeping the edges inside. Imagine you’re rolling a burrito for a Barbie doll. As you roll the leaves, try to keep the edges right. This may take practice.

Line the bottom of a small pot with 4 -5 unrolled, flat grape leaves. Stack the rolled grape leaves on top of one another in the pot. Add one tsp olive oil. When full, cover the rolled leaves with an additional 4 – 5 flat leaves. Add water until leaves are submerged at least one inch.

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Cover with lid, bring to boil and reduce to simmer for 45 minutes – 1 hour. Serve with tahini, labne or greek yogurt!

**next time I make these on my own, I will add some lentils into the rice mixture for extra protein

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Above: Najla’s husband gave me a sunflower with fresh seeds! She said to wash them with salt and put them in the sun to dry, but I ate most of them raw.

Below: Najla and the newest embroidered cushion covers from the Beit Sahour collective. The pieces are called “Magazine” because the women found the design in a magazine.

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♦ Too Much

Dear Shaina,

I planned on writing this letter last Sunday night, but your dad came home from the farm with 120 ears of fresh-picked corn that he insisted had to be shucked, blanched and frozen ASAP. We were leaving for Atlanta the next day to pick up our Israeli cousins to take them to the beach for the first few days of their weeklong Birmingham visit and there was no other time to do it.

I hadn’t packed. I had cleaned the house all day so it would be ready for guests when we returned. And I had set aside the evening to leisurely write and get ready for the beach. Dad shucked all the corn and said he would take care of it…until his hands cramped up and he couldn’t do it. So there I was stuck with 120 ears of shucked corn complete with corn silks stuck to every surface of my just cleaned kitchen and no room in my freezer for all those ears. I spent the rest of the night cutting the corn off the cobs, blanching it, bagging it and stuffing it in the freezer. So, I yelled, “Would 50 ears not have been enough? You HAD to pick 120?! What are we going to do with all this corn?!!! It is too much!”

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I had just put about 8 hours into shelling, cleaning and bagging a black garbage bag full of purple hull peas…an apparent delicacy here in the South. Then there’s the kale and okra and tomatoes and cucumbers. All my freezers are full! It is too much!

IMG_6287We got up early the next day and drove to Atlanta, picked up the cousins and packed the van to the roof with their overstuffed suitcases and carry-ons and proceeded to the beach. The sand and water were perfect and we logged some marathon hours at the shopping malls. I am not even sure how we all fit into the van for the ride back home… more bags were jammed into every nook and cranny of that car! It was almost too much! And everyone was happy.

The rest of the week was filled with food, family and celebration. I experimented with cooking peas and corn together and they were a great addition to Shabbat dinner at Gail and Abe’s. Then I made Shirly’s Corn pudding for brunch. I used a bunch of cucumbers in a cold cucumber and yogurt soup, but no one will eat it but me. I made fresh basil pesto and put it on tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and pasta with roasted veggies. I served tomatoes with everything; eggs, sandwiches and just plain with salt and pepper. I even made a tomato and peach salad with feta cheese. I am determined to use every single vegetable one way or another. I am hoping this will convince your father that a much smaller garden will produce more than enough food for all the friends and family we have, but I am afraid he is just enjoying all this fresh stuff way too much.

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Too much seems to be the desired norm for this family. I remember when you were a small child and would put a large glob of butter on a piece of bread and we would tell you it was too much. The next time you asked for some butter for your bread you said, “I want too much.” You come by it honestly. Too many options, too many opportunities, too many places to stay and stories to hear.

I know it can be stressful and even maddening at times, but I can’t help but feel grateful for all the too muchness in our lives.

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Love, Mom
xoxoxoxooxoxxo

Esther’s Purple Hull Peas and Sweet Corn

When you have too much of everything in your freezer, just put it all in a big pot and cook it together. That’s how this recipe came to be. If you love peas and you love sweet corn, this dish is sure to make you happy…and put a dent in your freezer. This recipe will serve a lot of people for a lot of days, but they won’t mind if it’s too much.

  • IMG_62981 large onion, cut in thin wedges
  • 3-5 fresh garlic cloves, halved or quartered
  • 1-2 Tablespoons of oil (olive oil, vegetable oil or butter will do)
  • 2 tablespoons of Osem pareve chicken flavored soup powder (any chicken, onion or vegetable soup powder or seasoning mix will do)
  • 1 quart bag of frozen or fresh purple hull peas (about 4 cups)
  • Water
  • 1 quart bag of fresh or frozen corn kernels (about 4 cups)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Place cut up onions and garlic in an eight-quart soup pot over a medium flame and cook about a minute until a little of the moisture is released. Add the oil or butter and sauté until the onions and garlic are lightly browned.

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Stir the powdered soup mix into the onions and garlic.

Add the frozen or fresh peas and just cover with water. Cook over a low flame until the peas are tender. This may take 30 to 40 minutes.

When peas are just tender, add the corn and more water if needed. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Continue simmering over a low heat until flavors are blended and liquids are slightly reduced. Add more water and seasonings if you like a lot of broth.
Serve hot as a side dish or with rice and roasted veggies for a healthy vegetarian meal.

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Tomato and Peach Salad
Tomatoes and peaches are two of my favorite summer fruits. I first had a version of this salad at a friend’s house and I loved the flavors of these two fruits together. Here is a modified version with some lettuce added for a little touch of green. This recipe will serve 4-6 people.

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  • 2 generous handfuls of arugula (lettuce is optional if you prefer the tomatoes and peaches only)
  • 3-4 medium to large fresh home grown tomatoes
  • salt and pepper
  • 2-3 fresh summer peaches
  • olive oil and balsamic vinegar for drizzling (or your favorite bottled oil and vinegar salad dressing)
  • Feta cheese for topping (optional)
  • Fresh basil leaves or green onions for garnish (optional)

Place arugula on a platter.IMG_6355

Slice tomatoes and arrange a layer on the platter over the lettuce.

Lightly salt and pepper the tomatoes to taste.

Slice the peaches in slices or wedges and arrange a layer over the tomatoes.

Drizzle lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar all over the salad.

Top with feta cheese crumbles if desired and garnish with sliced green onions or basil leaves.

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◊ Hyper-nomadism

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Dear mom,

Soon after I wrote to you explaining why I spend much of my energy preparing healthy foods, my attention was diverted from health habits. I feel ok about it.

Right now, my life is about chasing stories and summer breeze. I find people and listen to their stories. If I have time, I jog to the ocean and go for a swim (or sneak into Naomi’s spin class or sit on the rocks by the sea and/or eat ice cream).

The chase has led me into a life of what I call hyper-nomadism. I’m used to normal nomadism: long-term living out of backpack and changing houses every few months or weeks. Hyper-nomadism is more intense and for a shorter time. Until a few nights ago, I hadn’t slept in the same city for over a week. Each city was like a different world with its own climate and culture. I’m chopping vegetables whenever I get a chance, but it’s hard to plan for salads when I have no base, no routine, no expectations of when or where I’ll find my next kitchen. It’s a good thing that Israeli restaurants are known for beautiful heaps of chopped vegetables.

Getting my daily kale juice at a Tel Aviv juice stand

It feels good to spend to spend energy on things that don’t fit into a routine. I’m making an effort to do fun things like go to music festivals and the beach. But, because I’m accountable only to myself regarding how I choose to spend my time, I always feel that I’m not doing enough work AND that I need to do more fun things AND that I need more me-time. It’s as stressful as it sounds. I worry that my whole life will be a constant feeling of needing to do more and less and something different, so I’m training myself to say SHUT UP to this feeling when it creeps up… And to do what I feel in the moment! (I don’t know when or how doing what I feel like doing became foreign to me.)

I have to admit that the kindness and hospitality of family here makes me I feel like a cheater among hardcore hyper-nomads. It’s much easier to go for days with only a couple pairs of underwear and innumerable unknowns when weekend retreats to family comfort, good food and fresh laundry are certain. I’m so grateful for my cousins and hope that I’ll be able to provide the same kind of stability for the future hyper-nomads of the world one day.

Xo,

Shaina

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Last week for Shabbat lunch, Nurit made tofu schnitzel. It was a perfect Shabbat with lots of rest and family time capped off with a sunset run with (behind) Naomi in Caesarea.

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Tofu Schnitzel

Prep time: 15 minutes

Serves: 4-5 people as main course

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  • 8 ounces (two blocks) of extra firm tofu
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • pinch of salt and pepper
  • pinch of hot paprika (and/or chili flakes) to taste
  • Handful of finely chopped parsley
  • 2 eggs
  • vegetable oil for frying

Mix breadcrumbs, flour, spices, salt and pepper in one bowl. Whisk egg in separate bowl and add breadcrumb mixture until combined.

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Wash dry and cut tofu into 1inch thick slices. Submurge tofu slices, one by one, into egg. Then, dip into breadcrumb mixture to coat. Repear until all tofu slices are coated with breadcrumb mixture.

Heat oil in a medium sized saucepan on high (enough so that tofu can be submerged – about 2 inches). Place tofu into oil and fry for 2 – 4 minutes on each side until golden.

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Remove from oil and place on paper towel to remove excess oil.

Serve with plenty of salads, tahini, hummus and, of course, ketchup and mustard! Leftovers are great on a sandwich with onions, avocado and mustard… Or treat it like fried chicken and eat with slaw and greens.

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