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By Irene Sharon Hodes

Originally published in the IsraTimes, December 2008.

Having lived through two, I feel can safely proclaim Israeli winters to be a North American’s dream. For one, we have the privilege of locally grown thick, leafy greens, crisp, colorful fruit, bulbous roots, aromatic herbs, and hearty legumes almost year round. The shuks are cornucopian playgrounds, and the organic scene is alive and kicking. Hardly the fad it once was, not a day goes by when I’m not sent an email about an organic orchard, farm, flock, or other such agricultural community enterprise. But as I considered which mouthwatering vegetable-box service to subscribe to this week, I became aware of another pressing food-related issue.

As we become more and more health and environment conscious, it boggles the mind to think that hunger is still one of the planet’s major long-term concerns. It’s estimated that over one-billion worldwide are chronically undernourished, and that 20 million people die of starvation every year, 75% of which are children. In 2007 there was a 50% rise in child hunger in the USA. And here in Israel, the 2006 statistics show that one in three children are hungry— over 600,000.

Global economic crisis or no, we live in a world we’ve practically conquered; we’ve cured deadly illnesses, sent people to the moon, and communicate face-to-face on tiny pocket-sized machines. And still, people go hungry. It is our responsibility as Jews to leave a portion of what is ours to the poor and to the stranger, as we are commanded to do several times in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I give tzedakah as much as I think I can, but in the face of these staggering statistics, I find myself asking if I’ve done enough, and if we Jews, collectively, are doing enough.

While I know of many Jewish soup kitchens and charities both here and abroad, I wanted to know if a more progressive approach to address the issue of world hunger existed. That’s when I discovered Hazon (http://www.hazon.org/), an organization whose “vision is to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community as a step towards a healthier and more sustainable world for all.” Their work includes the first CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture programs) in the American Jewish community and educational work in schools. Delving deeper, I discovered a CSA farm right here in Israel. Or-Gani (http://www.or-gani.org.il/), describe themselves as a socially conscious business that “believes that it has a responsibility to the community it serves.” They use their revenues to support important community programming, and they provide organic produce to Fat Meir (http://www.fatmeir.com/), a kitchen and community center that provides warm meals and lunches to hungry schoolchildren in Bat Yam.

As the joyous Chanukah season descends, sufganiyot flooding out of every bakery, I’ll be thinking of more concrete ways that I can be a part of the solution to this staggering problem. It’s winter. Hard times for some. As it says in Isaiah (32:17), “And the work of tzedakah shall bring peace.” Something in the core of my being knows how true and essential this statement is. As Jews, as human beings, we have a duty to act responsibly towards each other. We have been blessed with so many miracles. I’m hoping we can use Chanukah as inspiration, and bring some comfort to those among us whose very existence is yet very difficult. My organic veg box will taste all the better for it.

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By Irene Sharon Hodes

Published in the Shiur Times Magazine, October 2008

The rain has been pouring down hard tonight. I feel relief. It’s back to this. Always this. A hot mug of Earl Grey, a cookie to dunk, a good book, a purring cat, this bright warm corner of the world and a window from which to look out upon the rest of it – shelter from the storm. The chagim are over. As cathartic, joyful, and fulfilling as they were, this first month of the year – my first Tishrei in Israel – was a marathon of a whirlwind of a rollercoaster. A clearly confused, chaotically ordered, tear-peppered laughter, ever-moving, ever-so-long of a month. It’s high time for some comfort.

Cheshvan, the month without holidays, is anomalous indeed in the Jewish calendar. I, on the other hand, am thankful for it. There is nothing wrong with a month of normal. In fact, it makes sense. The dull task of getting back to the business of life is actually rather important. After every beginning, we need to build the rest. Because it’s coming on winter – a darker and colder time, by nature – and it’s a time to be sensible, to work, to prepare. For me, the absence of holidays does not mean the absence of joyful moments. In fact, getting back to basic routines highlights those simplest of pleasures. It’s the perfectly spicy-tangy-dripping shakshuka during my lunch break; the midnight PB&J I shovel into my happy American mouth; and the blessing of hot chicken soup and challah on Shabbat.

In America, the tail end of November brings Thanksgiving, which beside Pesach, is my favorite holiday. A celebration after the harvest, before the worst of winter comes to call. Like with many Jewish holidays, I relish the opportunity to reflect collectively on the blessings of our lives. And of course, there is the never-ending parade of comfort foods. As I grew up, I absorbed the meaning of “labor of love” through my fingers, flesh, and aching bones while creating these feasts – my vast array of spiced pies, chestnut stuffing, orange-zesty cranberry sauce, and of course the succulent herb-crusted bird. I grew to understand that the pleasure was as much in the work as it was in devouring the delectable meal.

We equate food with comfort, and rightly so. Food activates the release of chemicals which physically calm us. Food is one of the most powerful triggers of memories. And food brings people together. Altogether, when we eat, we become physically content, remember happy memories, and are usually joined by friends and family. We don’t need festivals and holidays to eat. We must eat every day, and best more than once. Every time we do, we comfort ourselves and each other. Whether a crust of bread or a lavish banquet, every meal is a celebration – a celebration of our hard work and survival.

Last year, as a very new olah, I went to a massive catered Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel. Nice as it was to not be alone, this year will be different. I’m looking forward to these cold nights ahead, listening to the deafening drumming of the raindrops outside. After all, I’ve got a gigantic menu to plan.

Maria’s Brownies

You, dear readers, in the simple act of your reading, are participating in an unprecedented event: I am sharing my most prized recipe. It came down from my father through his first secretary, and I am not exaggerating when I say that these are the best brownies in the world. I dislike the word “best,” in all its impossible, immeasurable, innate exclusivity. But in this case, it just happens to be true. They are at once decadent and the epitome of comfort food. A dish that would be as much in its element at the Ritz as it would be at the corner deli. This recipe has been one of my life’s greatest comforts. In my younger years, I protected this recipe with my life. I know better now. Thank you, Daddy, for making these for us, and thank you Maria for sharing the recipe with him.

4 oz. (115 grams) Bittersweet chocolate
½ C. Butter
2 C. Sugar
1 C. Flour
1 tsp. Vanilla
4 eggs
1 C. Chocolate Chips
2 C. Mini-marshmallows
1 C. chopped walnuts

1) Preheat oven to 350˚ F (180˚ C). Grease a 13” X 9” (33 cm x 23 cm) pan.
2) Melt chocolate and butter together. Let cool slightly. Beat in sugar well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla. Mix in flour.
3) In a separate bowl, combine chocolate chips, marshmallows, and walnuts. Add to batter and mix well.
4) Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth even. Bake 40-45 minutes. Let cool until set. Cut and serve.


Red Lentil, Pumpkin and Apricot Soup

A very easy, very interesting, very comforting winter soup. With thanks to Jeremy Collins, who may have the right to claim this recipe; to Diana Pyatov for watching him make it and attempting to replicate it with me; and to the internet and my culinary school education, for helping me refine the technique and amounts. Amazing how recipes are created, compressed, stretched, torn to pieces and put back together again!

1kg of pumpkin (or any hard squash, i.e. butternut), peeled and de-seeded, cut into small chunks
150g red lentils, rinsed and drained
50g dried apricots, roughly chopped
2 tbs. olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
4 cups boiling water
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1) Pour the olive oil into a soup pot, and over a medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic until softened. Sprinkle in the ground turmeric, ground coriander, and ground cumin. Cook, stirring constantly for another minute.

2) Add the pumpkin, red lentils, apricots, and boiling water. Bring to a boil, then cover the pot and reduce heat. Simmer for 30-45 minutes or until the pumpkin and lentils are soft. Take the pot off the stove to cool slightly.

3) Strain the solids from the broth, and proceed to blend the vegetables, adding the broth back little by little in the process, until the soup is smooth and the desired thickness has been achieved. If no food processor or blender is available, a potato masher and some elbow grease can do the trick.

4) Taste and season with salt and pepper before returning the soup to the pot and reheating.

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By Irene Sharon Hodes
Published in the Shiur Times Magazine, September 2008

On a recent trip to Tuscany, I visited a small family-owned vineyard. Surrounded by crusty breads and rustic cheeses, the smiling couple and their children shared their hard-earned creations: tart Chiantis, musky Grappas, and an inspired Vin Santo made from the most mature grapes of the season. But it was the dessert – a rare creamy white-blonde acacia honey – that I took home to Israel. Wandering the world, often desperately alone, all I thought at that moment was how perfect this particular honey would be months later on Rosh Hashana.

As a new olah finishing her first year here, and as a single woman rounding off the end of her 20s, I only now came to realize how important is the nature of structure. In our daily schedules, weekly traditions, foods, relationships, prayers, in the very execution of our lives, a solid structure is the plan, the roadmap. With it we are better able to achieve our milestones, experience our joys, and endure in times of hardship and sorrow. Without it, we are lost.

Having lived in seven countries, made and left dozens of friends, and changed careers, all too frequently, I have come to realize that living without structure is much like not having an identity. This continued absence has profoundly affected my quality of life since making aliyah, what I thought was fulfilling a lifelong dream.

Now that Rosh Hashana has arrived, my first here, the structure that is manifest in Jewish life has opened my eyes in a remarkable way. This is the time of year we take stock. When I did, I realized I overlooked another dream I had accomplished – graduating from culinary school. It’s been three months since graduation, and in the chaos of my unsettled life, I had forgotten how thrilling it was being in a professional kitchen every day.

Masquerading as vital sustenance, food is a physical manifestation of history, a deliciously important inheritance. Like a hidden code, the symbolism inherent in our recipes is a direct link to our ancestors. Bitter herbs at Pesach create a visceral connection to the hardships of our forefathers. Apples and honey at Rosh Hashana evoke the sincere prayers of our foremothers for a good and prosperous future, something we simultaneously pray for in tasting the sweetness.

As I ease myself into new concrete plans, I am strengthened by my Jewish heritage. For what else is tradition but a time tested standing structure? It is my hope that these recipes will inspire, sustain, revitalize, and sweeten your palate in envisioning the new year ahead. Me? I’ll be holding firm for the first time in a long time, savoring my “miele di acacia,” and with every drop, the memory of that perfect day, and the hope I had, even then, for a sweet new year.

Applesauce Cake

This first recipe came from Jamie Geller’s newest cookbook, Quick & Kosher, and it was a pleasant surprise. The book’s lackluster title (as well as the subtitle “Recipes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing”) made me more than a little skeptical, but after reading the introduction, I couldn’t put the book down. Don’t get me wrong – after years of delving into complex gourmet cuisine, it’s doubtful Quick & Kosher will become the foundation of my kitchen. But with its fun no-nonsense approach, it’s certainly a book I would give to my friends, and definitely to my own mother (for whom I have to thank for honing my culinary skills, growing up in the absence of hers). The clever Mrs. Geller devised a strict and ingenious guideline: preparations for every recipe must be able to be done in under 15 minutes. She cuts some corners (occasional soup powders, canned goods, and frozen items), but the recipes are quite innovative, simple to execute, and pleasing to modern palates. The selection ranges from the traditional (classic chicken soup, stuffed peppers, challah kugel), to the fresh and multicultural (hot salmon salad, beef sukiyaki with noodles, curried coconut couscous). Her desserts are particularly mouth-watering, and this applesauce cake would be a welcome centerpiece on any Rosh Hashana table.

3 cups flour

1½ cups sugar

2/3 cup canola oil

1 (12 ounce / 340 gram) jar applesauce

2 eggs

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons cinnamon sugar

½ cup non-dairy whipped topping

  • Preheat oven to 350° F (180° C). Lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch (23 x 33 cm) cake pan with non-stick baking spray.
  • In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine flour, sugar, oil, applesauce, eggs, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, and vanilla. Mix on medium speed until well combined, about 2 minutes.
  • Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
  • Bake at 350° F (180° C) for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature with a dollop of non-dairy whipped topping.

Fusion Taboule

An old Middle Eastern mainstay with a thoroughly modern twist, my take on taboule looks back in time as it looks forward. Perfect for the holidays at hand: the sweetness of apples, pomegranates, and honey mingles with the invigorating cilantro and ginger, all resting upon the foundation of the hearty, humble quinoa. Replacing the traditional bulgur wheat, this ancient and nutritious South American grain has become so popular, almost every café in Israel is experimenting with it. The ingredients come from every corner of the globe, and the resulting combination is a sincerely satisfying culinary experience.

1 onion, finely chopped

1 cup pre-rinsed quinoa

2 cups water

Large handfuls (4-6 stalks) each, roughly chopped, of fresh:

Mint

Cilantro

Parsley

¼ cup raisins

3 stalks green onion, chopped finely

1 tablespoon fresh minced ginger

1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic

1 apple, cored and diced

Seeds of 1 pomegranate

½ cup olive oil

¼ cup lemon juice

¼ cup honey

salt and pepper to taste

  • Heat a small amount of olive oil in a saucepan and add the chopped onion. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add quinoa and continue to stir 1-2 minutes or until onions sweat and quinoa browns slightly. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce temperature, maintaining a simmer for 14-18 minutes. The quinoa is ready when the germ has unfurled to a tiny curl and has a slight bite to it (like al dente pasta). Set aside and cool.
  • While quinoa is cooling, prepare the dressing by whisking together the olive oil, lemon juice, honey, ginger, garlic, salt, and pepper.
  • Transfer cold quinoa to a large bowl and mix all other fruit and vegetable ingredients into it well. Add dressing and stir to coat the quinoa.
  • Adjust seasonings to taste by adding salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, a spoon of honey. Serve and enjoy!

Note : This recipe is very versatile. Apples and pomegranates can be replaced by halved grapes, plums, melons, or grapefruits, depending on the season.

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