♦ Keeping Your Parents Entertained

Dear Shaina,

I loved all the pictures of the menorahs in glass boxes…so different from here where we are constantly trying to explain that Chanukah is a minor holiday…as if that isn’t obvious enough in this world of Santa Clauses and reindeers.

I so missed having you here for the holidays. You always bring something fresh and fun…like the time you mandated that we could only bring a used or new gift from our house (no shopping at the store) to exchange at our family/friends Chanukah party…and that people could steal someone else’s if they liked it better than the one they chose. It was hysterical! We vowed to do it every year, but you haven’t been home on Chanukah since and the rest of us just can’t seem to get it together. We did, however, eat enough latkes to last the whole year and…yes, I finally hung Chanukah lights…and you weren’t even here!

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Two couch surfers stayed with us last week, thanks to your offer of our house.  Apparently, you are on some listserve of socially conscious young people and saw a request for couches along their route across the country. Once you checked her out and learned that she worked with one of your friends in DC, you told her she could get a reference on us from him.  Your DC friend, and a group of thirteen college kids he had led on a spring break work trip to New Orleans several years back, had stayed with us on their way home, again, per your coordination.  Dad and I decided that we would have led pretty boring lives if you hadn’t been born.

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I am serious. You have led us to countries we would never have visited, you exposed us to foreign flavors and cultures and you introduced people into our lives who, like you, have stimulated us and provided us with a measure of hope for the future. We thank you for letting us horn in on your adventures and giving us a glimpse of a world we most likely would’ve missed had it not been for you.

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I know it can feel like a burden to be an only child and I don’t want to add to that burden in any way by suggesting that you are responsible for filling our lives. Your engagement in your own life and your commitment to your own pursuit of happiness is gift enough to us.

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Plus, we get all the collateral benefits without the risks, challenges or hardships.  So, thanks! Keep up the good work of keeping your old parents entertained.

Thanks for sending Tan’s herbed rice recipe. I had some fennel I had to use so I tried it.  It was so delicious! Dad wants to know when I am making it again. I made it with preserved lemons (Nahum’s recipe) instead of lemon juice. Preserved lemons are my new favorite food discovery…you get all the lemon freshness, without the sharpness. I use it in everything that calls for lemon. It seems like we get a little taste of Israel every day.

After a brief heat wave, we got really cold weather. Dad dragged all the plants inside, started splitting wood and stoked up the wood stove…and I started cooking a huge pot of veggie chili…same as always.

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I hope you’re staying warm. Miss you and love you.

Love,

Mom

xoxoxooxooxoxoxoxo

Nahum’s Preserved Lemons

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This is a great way to use up a lot of lemons and have them on hand for a variety of uses. I use them in anything savory that calls for lemon juice and zest. Although they are layered in salt, they don’t seem to add a salty flavor, only the true essence of lemon..

  • 3-4 smooth medium skinned lemons, washed thoroughly (if the skin is too thin, they will be mushy, if too thick, they will be bitter)
  • Coarse Kosher salt
  • 1 glass pint jar

Slice off ends of lemon and discard.  Cut lemon into very thin slices and remove seeds. Layer in a glass pint jar, sprinkling Kosher salt between each layer. Pack the lemons tightly in the jar until it is full and put the lid on tightly.

Leave it in room temperature. Once brine starts to accumulate in the jar, turn it upside down.

After three to five days it will be ready.  It can be refrigerated at this point and used for a couple of weeks.  The longer it stays, the more picklish (and less “fruity”) it will be.

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If you want to spice it up, add sweet or hot paprika to the Kosher salt and you will have Moroccan Preserved Lemons

Tan’s Tomato Salad

I served this at Thanksgiving dinner and people went back for seconds. I used Kumato (Brown tomatoes) and Campari tomatoes. It is a ridiculously easy recipe and is light, flavorful and satisfying…and I even forgot to add the olive oil!

  • 1 pound of your favorite tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
  • 1/4 cup chopped green or purple onions (optional- I added these)
  • Preserved lemons or Moroccan Preserved Lemons
  • salt and pepper to taste

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Just combine coarsely chopped tomatoes (any kind) with finely cut up preserved lemon, black olives and some salt and pepper to taste. Set aside for a while and add some olive oil before serving.

One Pot Vegetarian Chili (a big pot)

No matter how I start out, this chili always ends up making enough for a huge crowd with leftovers to be frozen for later use.  This combination of vegetables reflects what I had in my refrigerator plus a few things I picked up at the grocery store.  The recipe and quantities are very flexible and accommodating to individual tastes and desires, so don’t feel like you have to follow this recipe precisely.  Just get out your biggest soup pot (6-8 quarts) and start creating!

  • Image2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 package tofu ground “beef”, regular or taco flavored
  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, cut up
  • 1-2 large onions, chopped
  • 2 fresh peppers, green, red, yellow or orange, cut up
  • 1/2 pound baby portabello mushrooms, cut up
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
  • 5-6 cans (14.5 ounce) diced tomatoes
  • 4 zucchinis, cut up
  • 4 yellow crookneck squash, cut up
  • 2 cups frozen corn kernels
  • 2 cans black beans, drained (or you can cook your own dried beans, any kind you like)
  • 2 cans red kidney beans, drained
  • Cumin, Chili powder, garlic and salt to taste ( a good taco or chili seasoning mix can be used)
  • Aged Cheddar Cheese for topping (optional)

Cut up all vegetables in small or bite sized chunks.

Heat oil in a large 6-8 quart soup pot. Sauté tofu, onions, carrots, celery, peppers, mushrooms and garlic in olive oil.

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Add canned diced tomatoes and remaining vegetables and beans and cook at medium heat until thoroughly heated.  Add spices to taste. Lower the heat and cook until liquids are reduced and mixture is thickened. This could take a couple hours.  Taste and adjust seasoning frequently.

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This chili can be eaten as a thick soup or placed in a casserole and topped with cheese and rebaked in the oven at 350° for about 45 minutes or until hot and bubbly.  Serve with a salad, French rolls or fresh cornbread and you have a hearty winter meal.

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◊ Unloading

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Dear mom,

Home after 6 months of wandering… It’s finally time to unload! My closet shelves seem wider and your kitchen appliances shinier and I am SO done with my freakin humongous backpack.

I still need to process it all as I recover from the exhaustion that comes with the bag-lady package, and I can’t stop thinking about Israel. My role as birthright staff was a success and I enjoyed the days with our distant but familiar family in Israel after the trip.

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My group watching the sunrise from Masada

During my first few days in Israel, I laughed a lot in my head. A simple “Shalom” slammed me back to the pit of my childhood… Hebrew words were throwbacks that roped chants from the Jewish Day School back into my brain. Every Israeli situation was a novelty.

I know that a visit to the Western Wall is supposed to be emotional and that I’m supposed to cry when I touch it and blablabla. But during our visit to the Old City, all I could think of was my 4th grade art project, when my classmates and I each reported on one of the city’s landmarks. I was in charge of Sha’ar Ha’ashpot, the Dung Gate, where Jersulamites chucked their trash. I presented it with an intricate drawing of an old relic surrounded by diapers, banana peels and flies.

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prayers shoved into cracks of the wall

And when I opened my mouth to speak Hebrew, I only thought of Carl’s made-up song to the tune of Kool and the Gang’s Celebration, which helped me remember Hebrew grammar rules… “Conjugate the verbs, come on!”  followed by a quick rap of  the actual conjugations, ani ahavti, ata ahavta, hoo ahav, etc…

Most embarrassing was my response to Sivan (our group’s medic and my roomate) when she introduced herself to me. Instead of introducing myself back like a normal person, I sang to her. The chant that Mrs. Posner sang to help us remember the months of the Jewish calendar just slipped off my tongue…  Sivan, Iyar, Tamuz, Av…

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Sharing a camel with our bus driver, David

From that moment on, Sivan made a rule that I couldn’t call her name unless I sang it.

My American Jewish education prepared me for a visit to my homeland with Israeli songs, folk dances and silly games that seemed irrelevant to any real situation. And as I toured ancient sites and tested memories in my head, the nostalgia for Israel that I was trained to feel possessed me… it was creepy.

But after ten days of touring ancient sites with other American Jews (Jewish Americans?), I relocated to the homes of  our Israeli family members. I met Chana for the first time, your Israeli replica. After showing off each room in her home (including a whole room just for kitchen appliances), she force fed me for hours… Israeli salads and hummus and a spongy orange cake that tasted exactly like one Bubbe used to make I couldn’t believe it. I observed personalities so clearly unique to our family’s gene pool… the force feeding, the loud talking all at once… that at times I thought I was back in Birmingham.

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Chana with her cake and cool glasses

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I heard stories of how Zayde’s brothers and sisters landed in Israel, and how we have cousins in Russia who are rediscovering their Jewish heritage right now preparing to make Aliyah. Sitting around a table of aunts and uncles, baby cousins and plates and plates of food, I saw, firsthand, the joyous outcome of a country that prioritizes the provision of a safe haven for Jews seeking refuge. The songs and dances that I learned at summer camp and school provided the initial backdrop of familiarity… but with the family, the sense of belonging that I learned about at summer camp and youth group and Jewish Day School finally unfurled.

I know it’s all a cliche and I’m surprised by my reaction to Israel… it wasn’t my first time there but it was the first time I’ve felt this way.

I think my emotional experience was shaped by the juxtaposition of my itinerary: I headed to Israel from India. In India, my outsider perspective was extreme and the “welcome” limited. The religious and societal structures create a barrier that makes integration into Indian culture impossible for a white American like me. The newness, surprise and unfamiliarity of everything around me in India was acutely opposite of the nostalgic comforts in Israel. So of course the “welcome home” from the Israeli customs officer in the airport elicited a heightened reaction.

I don’t really know… I have a lot to unload.

love,
Shaina

In Israel, the breakfast spread is glorious: dozens of fresh salads, salty cheeses, creamy tahini and thick yogurt. The participants on my trip stared at my plates piled high with crunchy veggies at 7 AM each day, How can you eat vegetables so early in the morning?

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Post breakfast bliss with Naomi!

The Zucchini and Tomato Salad recipe below is adapted from my favorite cookbook right now, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem,  and the carrot salad is one that I made up to commemorate my moment of glory as a Birthright staff, which happened in the morning of our last day of the trip. I complimented the quantity of veggies on a participant’s breakfast plate and his response to my comment was, “ You know I started eating vegetables in the morning because you told me to.”

Wow. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a positive influence on a young person’s life. Salads in the morning are where it’s at.

I also included a recipe for hummus because it’s just so basic… I’m shocked that we don’t have it in our recipe index yet!

Chunky Zucchini and Tomato Salad

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Serves 8-12 people as a side dish
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  • 8 green zucchini
  • 5 large tomatoes
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • 2 cups greek yogurt
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 red chiles, crushed or 1 tsp red chili flakes
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 handful of fresh mint, chopped
  • 1/2 C chopped parsley
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • 1 tbs date syrup, agave or honey

*Note that I modified the original recipe for this dish for American convenience and ease. So if you want the real thing, pick up a copy of Jerusalem. You won’t be disappointed!

Preheat the oven to 425 F and cover two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Trim the zucchini and cut lengthwise into thin 3/4 inch pieces. Halve the tomatoes. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place zucchini and tomatoes cut side down on separate pans. Cook for 15 – 20 minutes until browned on the tops and edges. The veggies should be tender in the middle and crisp on the edges.

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Remove from oven and allow to cool. Meanwhile, mix all remaining ingredients (except for honey/date syrup) together and hold some parsley for garnish. Once cool, chop zucchini and tomatoes coarsely. Gently fold into mixture and spread over large, shallow bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and date syrup/honey, and garnish with parsley. Serve with warm pita, couscous or your favorite bread.

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Chopped Carrot, Beet and Tahini salad

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Serves 10 – 12 people as side dish
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15 – 20 minutes

  • 1 lb of carrots
  • 2 medium beets
  • 2/3 c walnuts
  • 6 medium dates
  • 4 tbs tahini paste
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • 1 tbs water
  • 2 tbs lemon zest
  • juice of one lemon
  • 1 tbs sesame seeds
  • 4 tbs zatar
  • salt

To roast beets and walnuts, preheat the oven to 350. Wrap the beets in foil, place them on a pan, and keep them in the oven for 15-25 minutes until soft. Place walnuts on a pan and keep them in the oven for 7-10 minutes until brown and fragrant. Allow to cool. *This can be done the night/day before.

*You can also opt to leave the beets and walnuts raw for a crunchier, earthier dish.

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Chop raw carrots, roasted beets, walnuts and dates into small 1/4 inch chunks (you can do this in a food processor for ease, but make sure that you don’t pulverize too much) and mix. In a separate bowl, mix tahini paste, olive oil, water, lemon zest, lemon juice and sesame seeds into a fluid paste. Combine all ingredients and add zatar and salt to taste. Eat as a crunchy, healthy breakfast salad on its own, top with plain yogurt, or use as an accompaniment in sandwiches and pitas.  The possibilities are endless.

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Hummus

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  • 4 C chickpeas (canned will work, but it’s much better if you cook them yourself)
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1/3 c tahini
  • juice from 2 lemons
  • 1/3 c water
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • salt to taste

Optional additions

  • turmeric
  • roasted red pepper
  • more garlic
  • spinach
  • chili powder/hot sauce
  • black pepper
  • olive oil, zatar, parsley, cilantro, tahini for garnish

Puree all ingredients in food processor until smooth and creamy. Play around with optional additions and garishes. Serve with warm pita, french fries :), roasted veggies, salads, chips… anything!

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See what I did:

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Sivan and I always held up the caboose… I the sheep herder and she the body guard. Here, we rest at Masada while waiting for kids in the bathroom. Always in the freakin bathroom.

Even the foods were familar

Rugelach yum… even the foods were familiar and comforting

IMG_2095Shabbat din!

IMG_2188Herzliya with Ron, Nurit and the kids

IMG_2182In the mornings Hanoch showed me the agriculture fields near his house. He rode his bike and I jogged after him.

IMG_2171Reunited with a long lost friend in Tel Aviv with shakshuka yum!

IMG_1959So much grafitti in Tel Aviv… the most colorful Bubbe I’ve seen

◊ What Doing?

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Dear mom,

You’re probably the busiest jobless person I know.  Mah Jong, volunteering, attending dinners, blogging (!), entertaining…

Thank you too for the glimpse into your life. It’s comforting to know that the intensity with which you approached your career is consistent in your daily tasks, and I loved the pics! Cups of coffee in the living room with you and dad… so tempting!

But… like…  what are you doing?

It’s not a nice question, sorry. It’s just that right now I too am running, running and at the end of a breathless day, I wonder what it was about.

Last time I was in Bhuj, living in a local fishbowl, I’d wake up to early morning pounding and find Heeran, my 12 year old neighbor, standing at my window. He’d sing, “Hi Simmy… What doing?”

“Heeran, get lost,” I’d sing back.

Now that I’m back in the Bhuj, the song is on repeat, heightening my anxiety with each play:  Simmy… what doing?

And then I read your letter. Oy vey. While you’re taking pride in my “accomplishments” (ha!), I’m trying to make sense of it all. Don’t be fooled: I’m just as scared as you are.

Simmy… What doing?  

I’m scared, scared, scared that I don’t have an answer.

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I tell myself:

I’m curious about craft production as a catalyst of social and economic empowerment of women worldwide. India is the world’s hub for handcraft, and I’m here to explore the craft sector.

Sometimes I admit that I’m here just because I missed it when I was in DC. But when people ask me what I missed, I panic. I rattle lame answers: the people… you’re so kind; the food… pani puri!; the colors are brighter in your country…?

Those aren’t answers either.

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The past few days, I’ve been visiting Ismail Khatri – India’s Ajrak guru and Kutch’s natural dye expert – and playing with his family’s carved wooden blocks in Ajrakpur, a blockprinting village about 40 km away.

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Sometimes it takes me 45 minutes to get there – sometimes it takes over 2 sweaty, bumpy, angry hours.

Yesterday, I went to Ajrakpur and cooked Gajar (Carrot) Halwa with Ismail’s daughter in law, Hameeda. We shaved carrots until my triceps shook, and I thought about my food processor at home. Ismail brought wheat stalks from his family’s farm to his wife who shucked their grains to be pulverized in a stone grinder. One of the sisters skimmed cream from fresh curd to make ghee.

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IMG_4771When we were finished, Sufiyan, Ismail’s son, asked if I wanted chai.

Yes.

Goat milk or buffalo milk?

Goat..?

Do you want to milk the goat?

Yes.

It was a whole day.

What doing?

Um…

I’m playing.

Playing frisbee in the white desert

Playing frisbee in the white desert

Why India?

I’m here because I like me here.

At home, I try hard to connect to processes, but catch myself hoarding joy only in final outcomes. Here, processes consume my life, so I’m forced to pay attention to how they make me feel. If I were to count on final products to fulfill me, I’d rip my hair out.

Indigo obsession

Indigo obsession

In India, I can’t shove veggies into a Vitamix or get into a taxi with confidence about where I’ll end up or know that my stomach will absorb my lunch or recognize whether my words/hand motions will translate into their intended purposes.

So… paying attention to my feelings… while I’m playing…  is what I’m doing?

I scream at rickshaw walas. I bounce strangers’ babies on my lap. I get too excited about vegetable colors in markets and in vats  ready to swallow printed fabric. I get really, really bored.  I sweat. I smell, I touch, I taste. I feel.

The good news for you is that I can do these things anywhere. I just have to learn. And I’m here to learn.

Love you and I miss you too.
xo,
Shaina

Gajar (Carrot) Halwa

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It’s so so easy… I’m imagining only 5 minutes with a food processor.

In India, it’s tradition to serve Halwa to guests. Each region has its own ingredients and variations, but Gajar (Carrot) Halwa is my fav. It’s auspicious to serve this indulgent, nutritious and special gift to guests upon their arrival. It could also be perfect on your Passover dessert table or as a dressing for Matzoh Brei with cottage cheese. I have a feeling dad will love it over ice cream.

Ingredients:

  • halwa6 cups peeled and finely grated carrot
  • 3 cups full fat milk
  • 1/4 cup cream or half and half
  • 3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup chopped cashews or pistachios
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 2 tbs grated unsweetened coconut
  • 5 fresh cardamom pods, peeled and crushed

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Serves 12 – 20 guests, depending on how many other sweets are on the table.

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Wash and finely grate the carrots.

Heat ghee or butter in a heavy pan over a low flame. Add the carrots to the ghee and stir continuously for 5 minutes. Add milk and cream and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the carrots and milk thicken – stir occasionally for about 15 minutes. After mixture has thickened, add sugar, nuts and raisins, and stir until sugar has dissolved. Add cardamom and stir. Serve warm over ice cream or on its own. It’s also tasty cold!

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For the sake of our readers, I’ve adjusted this recipe to be a bit more healthy than what is typically served here. In India, many people use Mawa in place of milk (Mawa is milk and sugar cooked down to a crumbly solid) and add much more ghee than I’ve suggested. Many Indians living in the US substitute ricotta cheese for Mawa for a Halwa that’s more familiar. You can also substitute a 1/3 c condensed milk for 1/3 regular milk for a sweeter, creamier version. Semolina, sweet potato, chick pea flour or mung bean flour can easily replace carrots for a heartier version of this recipe. The semolina version is a great breakfast, but you’ll have to wait til after Passover!

gallons of gajar and roasted semolina Halwa being cooked on the street

gallons of gajar and roasted semolina Halwa cooked, served and eaten on the street

Last week, I stayed at a friend’s family’s house in Udaipur. They served me Halwa upon arrival and stuffed me with Rajasthani dishes. Here in Bhuj, I’ve eaten Halwa made from mung beans, chick pea flour, “white carrot” (white sweet potato) and semolina. My stomach is expanding with each home visit, but to deny gooey, sweet Halwa would be like rejecting potato knishes from Bubbe – an offense that I can’t even imagine!

PS. See more of what I’ve been doing:

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Frisbee in the Rann. It’s salt, not snow.

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The Khatris have generously allowed me to print some of my own items… dangerous. I did socks, a tank and a long sleeve shirt. You know how I struggle when you take me to get my nails done, selecting at least 10 colors, narrowing it down to five and ending with each nail a different color? By the time I sit down for my manicure, everyone else is already under the dryer. It’s how block printing went too. I selected over 25 blocks, laid them out, changed my mind again and again at the last minute ended up combining a bunch of miss-matched “border” pieces. The process of elimination doesn’t work when I select a new block each time I put one back.  And then came the agony of deciding which dyes I wanted to use. All of them!

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Milking a goat for afternoon chai.

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Making Chai.

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I know.

photo jaipur

Got my portrait taken on the street with a camera from the 1860s. The whole thing was done right there on the street – magic. I found the photographer, Tikam, in Jaipur after reading Heidi’s Pumpkin and Rice Soup Recipe. When can I get my own mini dark room?

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Never knew sugar could come in so many shapes!

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Rajasthani sweet shop – LADOOOOO!

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Pickle wala. Omg. Need to find a good recipe for Gujarati mango pickle. My dinner for the past week has been mango pickle + curd + veggies + sprouted dals. Perfect.