Category Archives: Food

Boy, you gotta carry that weight, carry that weight a long time…

Standard

rosh-hashanah-card-5778

I have to be honest, Rosh Hashana never really feels like a new year.  I don’t know if it is because I am a convert, or if it’s because I live life on the Gregorian calendar, I don’t even know if other people feel this way.  But generally it’s just a nice day to spend with family, go to services and eat.   The feeling I get on December 31st is not the feeling I get on Erev Rosh Hashana; the anticipation, the traditions, the leave-it-all-behind attitude to start anew, none of it is there.

However, this year it feels a little bit more like December 31st is fast approaching.  I feel rundown and long to take a deep breath.  But I also feel hopeful.  That’s generally how I feel as the year ends.  The last two weeks have been complete madness.  For days I worried about the safety of my loved ones (and, admittedly, about the safety of some of my worldly possessions).  I packed up my apartment, prioritized my belongings and went on a journey northwest (Tampa).  The northeast (Orlando).  Then braced for the inevitable (Irma).  My parents decided not to join us on that journey at the last minute.  It, inevitably, caused a huge blowup before we parted ways.  I left in tears and filled with regret.  I wondered if I would see them again.  I cried for some of the drive and apologized as best I could from afar.  Another blowup followed a day later.  We were all on edge and not handling it well, at all.

Yet, what followed was a week of witnessing humanity at its best.  Family and friends from afar checked in filled with love and concern.  They all helped as best they could.  My sister sent me weather updates when we lost power and had no radio, my mother-in-law helped us find dog-friendly accommodations, a cousin I reconnected with online offered here home, another offered her calming voice.

The monster storm passed and we were all safe.  I felt great relief when I was able to communicate with my parents again, despite the spotty cellular signal.  We got on the road early Monday, eager to reunite.  We returned to find our city rattled, but not broken.  Our homes were fine, albeit dark and hot.  I made friends with neighbors and we helped each other as best we could; we shared information, food and comforting words as necessary, even some laughs.

Sleeping in our apartment without electricity to power our air conditioning was not easy (especially for Finch and my mid-western husband, in that order), but we were quickly taken in by my aunt and uncle who had electricity, with love and a spare room to share.  The news from loved ones trickled in: my friends were safe my grandparents were safe, extended family members were safe.  Facebook became a lifeline for information and everyone was willing to share what they knew and offer what they could.  My grandmother was able to send a few e-mails from Cuba to let us know she was okay and how things were progressing there.  My grandfather’s home in Key Largo weathered the storm for the most part.  Some weren’t so lucky, like my aunt, but they knew their material losses would be restored with their loved ones by their side.  I felt infinitely grateful.

This week I have seen the worst of Miami make a comeback -the rude drivers, the short tempers, the self-centeredness- but it will not phase me (too much).  I am grateful for the safety of my loved ones, I am grateful to have weathered the storm both literally and figuratively, and I am grateful for an unexpected lesson on letting go of the stuff.

Before we left on our evacuation journey I secured what I felt was most important (family pictures and what I consider heirlooms) and felt at peace with coming back to an empty wardrobe and no electronic distractions. I had never felt so detached from the stuff that clutters my apartment.  It was freeing.  Now, I won’t lie and tell you I am not psyched to have come back to a closet full of nothing to wear and hours of mindless television to watch, because I am, totally; I have invested a lot of hard-earned money into both.

Still, I will carry that feeling into the new year with me, this new year that is feeling so new.  I will carry that gratitude and freedom, I will carry that love and that view of humanity into 5778 (and through what’s left of 2017).  I am taking my leave-it-all-behind attitude to start anew, carrying with me only what is necessary and truly important, and trying to peacefully leave all of that other stuff behind.

Shanah Tovah Umetukah

Advertisements

All You Need is Chesed

Standard

“Mankind’s true moral test . . . consists in its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” ― Milan Kundera

I have never doubted my Jewish soul.  Yet more and more I feel it revealing itself to me.  For my year of change I embarked on a journey to humane and cruelty free living.  It has not been easy; it has been challenging and at times it feels impossible, but I will not give up.  More and more I have excised things from my life that come as direct result of the suffering of a helpless living creature.  I have researched the food I eat and try my best to purchase strictly humanely raised and certified humane.  I have found that the most difficult item has been milk, I have yet to locate milk that is certified anything but “organic” and that means nothing in terms of how the cow is treated.  Organic Valley has grass-fed and “pastured” dairy products, but that doesn’t seem to be regulated.  I have found great eggs (conveniently sold in the Fresh Market and Winn-Dixie), meat (sold at Whole Foods, just ask the butcher), and chicken (sold at Publix by the Greenwise) that are now staples in my home (FYI, there’s an app for that!).

So I decided to shift to the next cruelty free aspect of my home, an area I have indulged in for decades: cosmetics.  I was horrified to find out most of the products I was using come from companies that test on animals.  I was horrified.  I simply could not continue to be this consumer, so I started researching.  First, I learned that a lot of companies basically lie about their animal testing, which is shameful.  Second, I learned that most companies are forced into animal testing because their products are sold internationally and other countries have rules about that sort of thing, like China.  Thankfully I was able to find great guidelines online from several sources like Peta and Paula’s Choice.

What I also learned along my journey is that my newfound passion is super Jewish.  On my quest to learn about cruelty free living I came across the phrase tza’ar ba’alei chayim.  According to Wikipedia it “literally means the suffering of living creatures.”  It turns out that I have been concerned with tza’ar ba’alei chayim, a little known mitzvah, my entire life.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis explained that while medical research on animals is acceptable if it will save human lives, animals should not be subjected to pain during these experiments or be used in frivolous experimentation, like for cosmetic testing.  In terms of consumption, Professor Richard Schwartz notes that although “Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, today most farm animals – including those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on ‘”factory farms”’ where they live in cramped, confined spaces and are often drugged, mutilated . . . and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise and any enjoyment of life before they are slaughtered and eaten.” I am, therefore, inclined to believe that consuming an animal that has been made to suffer is not keeping kosher.  Rabbi David N. Young is quoted in The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic as explaining:

 God commanded Adam and Eve to be vegetarians. That was what God wanted for our dietary practices. God commanded Noah to eat whatever he wanted, as long as it was dead. That is what humans want for our own dietary practices —unrestrained omnivorism. In ultimate wisdom, God offered a compromise: God commanded Moses concerning prohibited and permitted meats and forbade boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. These were developed and evolved by the Rabbis of the Talmud into the dietary laws called kashrut. If we are able to live by this compromise, that is wonderful. If we are able to live closer to what God wants and go vegetarian, even better.

There is another phrase that I feel goes hand-in-hand with tza’ar ba’alei chayim and that is shomrei adamah.  According to an article on My Jewish Learning humanity is charged with the task of protection and renewal of the earth, “[w]e are told very early on in our Jewish history of the importance of ruling over our lands responsibly, of tilling and tending to them as shomrei adamah, guardians of the land.”  It is a natural extension to think that includes all of the living things on earth and this extension is clear from several passages in the Torah.  In 2007 the Union for Reform Judaism adapted from Edith Samuel’s Your Jewish Lexicon an installment of 10 Minutes of Torah that directly addresses these mandates:

The Torah shows exquisite sensitivity to the feelings of animals —sensitivity rare in the ancient world. On the Sabbath, domestic animals as well as human beings must rest (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14). Deuteronomy 25:4 prohibits the muzzling of an ox while it is threshing (it may want to eat). An animal may not be slaughtered on the same day as its young (Leviticus 22:28). Before the days of tractor, farmers were forbidden to plow with an ox and an ass yoked together (the ox, being larger, might cause pain to its smaller partner). Deuteronomy 22 spells out additional injunctions for Jews living an agrarian life: If you see an ox or an ass collapsed on the road under its burden, you must help it get on its feet; if you find a stray sheep or ox, you must return it to its owner or, if the owner is unknown, you must care for it until the owner claims it.

The Rabbis of the Talmud and of later generations went even further: Jews were enjoined never to sit down to eat before their animals had been fed; they were prohibited from buying an animal unless they could afford to feed it; and hunting for sheer sport is brutally cruel and hence forbidden to Jews. Slaughtering animals for food must be done as quickly and as painlessly as possible to avoid unnecessary or prolonged torment for the animal. In Modern Hebrew, tsa’ar ba-alei chayim is refers to the mitzvah of the “prevention of cruelty to animals.”

Further, Judaism101 notes:

In the Bible, those who care for animals are heroes, while those who hunt animals are villains. Jacob, Moses and King David were all shepherds, people who cared for animals (Gen. 30, Ex. 31, I Sam. 17). A traditional story tells that Moses was chosen for his mission because of his skill in caring for animals. “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said ‘Since you are merciful to the flock of a human being, you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.'” Likewise Rebecca was chosen as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham’s servant asked for water for himself, she volunteered to water his camels as well, and thereby proved herself a worthy wife (Gen. 24).

Tza’ar ba’alei chayim really seems rooted in one of my favorite (and sometimes most difficult) things about Judaism: thoughtfulness.  You are encouraged to think beyond yourself even about things that may make you uncomfortable or may create difficulties.  Sure, it is easier to live in ignorance and to lead your busy life day to day as best you can, but it is much more meaningful to make time to think about your life and how your actions affect others.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim also goes hand-in-hand with tikkun olam, the call to repair the world through social action, and with another of my favorites, chesed, loving-kindness.

So in furtherance of this mitzvah I have decided to share my favorite cruelty free products and I welcome any and all comments and suggestions you may have on this topic.

photo 2

While fully recognizing the Jews don’t have a patent on humane living, but simply because the lessons here stem from Jewish teachings and values, I encourage everyone to be a little more Jewish on this issue.

Shabbat Shalom

My Best Friend’s Wedding (finding challah in Montreal)

Standard

It has been kind of a hectic month.   The second weekend of June I found myself in Detroit for a Bat Mitzvah with my boyfriend’s family and the following weekend one of my oldest friends got married in Montreal after about two years of wedding planning. Both experiences were thought provoking and surprisingly helped my boyfriend and I come to a healthy middle ground.  Kind of.  At least it got us talking.  A lot.

I arrived to Montreal on Thursday morning (although my friend was suffering from bride-brain and totally forgot) and quickly realized I’d be observing Shabbat in foreign surroundings.  I may have previously mentioned that Shabbat is my absolute favorite.  Generally we have a bottle of wine (or grape juice) at home and pick up a delicious challah from Publix just down the street, light candles, say the blessings over bread and wine, and enjoy the moment after what usually feels like an exceedingly long week.  However, I knew there was no Publix in Canada, let alone in downtown Montreal.  After brunch, my accommodating Catholic friends happily offered to walk with me to the nearest supermarket.  We walked to the bakery aisle, everything was in French, nothing looked like delicious, braided, eggy goodness.  I walked over to an employee, smiled, and asked in English if they had challah.  He looked at me for a second, processing my request, then walked away.  I was slightly puzzled, but followed.  He repeated the word challah under his breath as he looked through the mountains of bread. Challah, challah, challah. Then he turned to me and whispered “no” before he departed.  The three of us stood in slight confusion.  The bride asked the status of the search.  I wasn’t sure, but told her it didn’t look good.  Still, I was in Montreal, they have more bread than I know what to do with.  So I went on my own search and very quickly I found what looked like mini sesame seed challah in bags of eight.  I read the label, my French is nonexistent but it essentially read “egg bread,” much like in Publix.  I felt triumphant, and taught the groom the blessing over bread.  We shared the mini challahs throughout the wedding weekend and it gave a delicious sense of comfort.  It’s also great to get to share something that’s become so significant to me.

BRIDE

Now, to the emotionally  heavy part of the weekend(s).  The pinnacle was my friend’s wedding.  And the weekend in Detroit.  It is hard to explain.  The weekend in Detroit led to a lot of discussion about our future.  It was probably because we were amidst family and the daughter of a good friend of the family had just gotten engaged.  I, being somewhat of a gamophobiac (I kid), was pleasantly surprised at how my boyfriend so calmly and reasonably approached the topic.

Sometimes I am taken aback by the maturity of the relationship I have with my boyfriend.  Although we are both relatively young and have only been dating for about two years we are serious about ourselves, our lives, and each other.  Although it took some time we talk about absolutely everything.  Although it once was scary, and sometimes hurtful, we are honest and vulnerable with one another.  Although life is not always easy we are learning and growing together.  For some of this I can take credit, but for a lot of it I must give credit where it is due. My boyfriend is amazing.

Sure, he may leave socks on the floor, forget to do dishes, or never notice when things need cleaning (and I may sometimes remind him in not the nicest of ways), but I am thankful for having him in my life.  I never thought I’d have what we have. I don’t think I ever wanted it or thought it possible, but our relationship feels like a daily blessing.  Even on the hard days, days that he is inexplicably cranky or days I am hung up on something relatively irrelevant,  I feel blessed.  As we grow together there are kinks to work out, but he is exceptionally good at understanding, communicating and compromising.  I have a relatively volatile Cuban temper, I am often set in my ways, but the combination of the love we have for each other and his exceedingly rational nature helps us to always find a solution we are both happy with.

Take for example the topic of the last two weekends: Marriage.  For a while now I have seen my life tied to his, but for me that didn’t mean marriage.  He, on the other hand, has on numerous occasions asserted the importance of that vow before “God, the State, and our families.”  I know, I am a very lucky woman.  He has the values and morals of a man you only read about.  So when I playfully vowed to go with him to City Hall, he was not amused.    I retorted that City Hall was a fair compromise, we could even have our families there.  However, despite his nature, he was not compromising on two of three.  I offered a beach option and he snickered.  To him we have to get married in “shul,” there is no other option.  Marriage is the one subject, so far, my boyfriend is surprisingly unwilling to compromise on.

Attending my friend’s wedding was surprisingly significant for my relationship.  I expected to be moved by the fact that I was attending the wedding of the tiny girl in glasses who saved my life in the first grade.  And I was moved.  I was moved to share the experience with her family and loved ones,  I was moved to tears when her husband to be saw her walking down the aisle and cried,  I was moved to see them before me as I read from Song of Songs awaiting the start of their new lives together.  I had no idea my boyfriend was also moved to tears.  When we met back up at the reception we were on the same page, we wanted what they had just experienced.  He told perfect strangers that he couldn’t wait to marry me and the truth is neither can I.

So we are not even engaged, but almost daily we plan some aspect of our inevitable wedding.   His lack of flexibility on this matter has forced me to understand his (and his mother’s) stance on the matter and has pushed me to compromise.  My friend’s wedding showed me the beauty in sharing that moment with loved ones.  How can I not relent when all he wants is to spend his life with me?  When he wants to make this very serious vow before our loved ones?

LOVE

photo credit to a fellow bridesmaid

Brisket: the catalyst for this blog (and a few other recipes)

Standard

Part of my cultural discovery has delightedly come via food.  I love food, it always has been an important part of my life and it is definitely a part of my culture; Cubans love to cook, to eat, and to feed.  Everything in our lives, whether it is a cold or a breakup, can be resolved with the right meal.

CubanFood - Copy

My cures-it-all food is café con leche (Wiki explains Café con Leche) and unsurprisingly my mom makes it better than I do and offers to do so every time I feel sick, tired, or sad.

My personal recipe for a quick and always delicious café con leche is one cup of milk, one tablespoon of  Nescafé Taster’s Choice Original (I buy the travel packets and bring them with me whenever I travel outside of Miami, they definitely came in particularly handy when I went home with my boyfriend and I was able to make café con leche in the midwest) and two packets of Equal.

cafe con leche

So it was quite the pleasant surprise when I learned that Judaism came with a very similar passion for food.  Every holiday is filled with delicious foods, most of which fell outside my familiar palate.  I fell in love with paprika and matzah (matzo? I can never get the plural/singular right) balls, I even developed a taste for gefilte.  Most importantly, at this point I cannot live without challah, I look foward to Shabbat every week and it is one of the reasons.  Particularly Saturday mornings, when I enjoy the perfect breakfast:  challah (local tip, Publix has the best challah), schmeard with yogurt butter and dipped in café con leche.

Challah

Two (three if we count the cookbook writer) very important women in my life have only strengthened my passion.  For graduation my fabulous future mother in law got me Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, quickly I perfected my matzah balls and discovered chicken paprikash (whoever you are, go make it right now, it’ll change your life Chicken Paprikash, I subbed rice for chickpeas and it was incredible).

chicken-paprikash

Now, to the point of this post: Brisket.  The second woman in my life who only furthered my food fanaticism is my mother.  She is an amazing cook, she can create and recreate like nobody’s business.  I have been cooking along this amazing woman for at least a decade and I must credit her for my cooking talents.  For as long as I can remember I have wanted a slow cooker and for my last birthday my mother got me just that.  I have to embarrassingly admit it is one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten, it is red, perfectly sized and has allowed me to make some exquisite dishes (the first was an Asian inspired chicken with peanuts and orange that was a major hit in my household).  However,  my slow cooker has been pivotal in developing my own signature Jewish staple: Brisket! I have been making brisket for Shabbat for at least three weeks now.  The first week I went traditional, inspired by Joan and the Shiksa (Shiksa’s Slow Cooker Brisket, check out her blog, it is awesome) and it was really good.  I have to admit, however, that my brisket is consistently more Jewban than Jewish) with a texture similar to ropa vieja.

ropa vieja

Thankfully, my boyfriend (the only real connoisseur of Jewish cuisine) loves our bicultural brisket.

My second brisket adventure was inspired by the Southwest, simply because I love those flavors.

We usually get a brisket in the $9 to $11 range, I am not really sure what the weight is (maybe 5 pounds?), for the Southwestern we marinaded the brisket overnight in Cuban mojo and honey barbecue sauce, freshly chopped onions, garlic and peppers along with a couple of bay leaves, paprika and cumin.  The next morning I set the slow cooker to slow and added the onion and peppers in, then placed the brisket on top adding a little pineapple and black bean salsa and slices of corn on the cob.  About eight hours later I removed the brisket, sliced it, and placed it back in the slow cooker for about an hour.  It was pretty delicious and just the right amount of spicy (the salsas were mild and the barbecue sauce was just a little warm).

However, my latest brisket creation has been my best, by far.  Inspired by my Italian ancestors (they’re way, way, way back there in the bloodline) I wanted to make Italian brisket.

It started with our usual bed of garlic and onions, then I rubbed the brisket with extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, and a rosemary garlic blend by Spice Islands, and I let it marinade overnight.  The next morning I followed the same routine I had the last two Friday mornings, I placed the onion and garlic underneath the brisket then threw several plump sun-dried tomatoes in along with half a jar of piquillo peppers (if you can’t find these locally I am sure fire roasted red peppers will do the trick). About eight hours later I removed the brisket, sliced it, and placed it back in the slow cooker for about an hour.  By far, this has been my favorite brisket.  It was moist and flavorful and went very well with my favorite $5 bottle.

Verdi

Please feel free to ask questions shall you have any and hope we meet again!

images via flickr.com,  tumblr.com, sergios.com, askgeorgie.com and versaillescuban.com