Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You Don't Have to Challah!

Shabbat #23

Guests: Amy, Jeff and their two sons D. and L. Amy and I worked together in television ... she had a real job and I was just slave labor. Either way, it sounds much more exciting than it actually was.

Menu: Gluten Free! Grilled Flank Steak with Balsamic BBQ Sauce, Grilled Corn, Grilled Peach and Spinach Salad, Brownies with Icecream ... and challah

What I Learned:

On Friday a bit of challah chaos ensued. Toby -- of the one and only Toby's Challah House -- was on vacation. So I sent Steve speeding over to CRC. Stike two. The volunteer CRC bakers were, you guessed it, on vacation. Was there some kind of challah baking convention that no one bothered to tell me about? After conducting a very scientific survey ... on Facebook ... I resorted to picking up a loaf from Whole Foods along with a $4 Stevia-sweetened root beer.

And it was good. The challah that is ... not the root beer. It tasted like crap.

But not so good that I would even consider giving up Toby's.

I first discovered Toby's Challah in 2005 at a Nishmah event on Jewish cooking. Secretly, the real reason I love being Jewish is the food. It is a carb-loving comfort food paradise. Kugels, kashi, blintzes and, last but certainly not least, challah. Especially Toby's whole wheat challah. Yes. You heard me. Whole wheat. Practically a health food.

A few weeks later I ventured out to the source of this heavenly challah just north of Delmar in University City -- my old stomping ground.

Steve and I bought our first house together in University City back in 1995. It's a diverse neighborhood. Lots of DINKs (did that really used to be us???) are drawn there because the houses are cheap(er), but still within walking distance of Clayton. Lots of Jewish families -- particularly Orthodox -- live there because it is within walking distance of a number of synagogues. Back in 95, those tidy houses filled with Jewish families held a certain mystique for me. The way they dutifully walked to services each week. Built sukkahs each fall. Lit candles in their windows. Thing I had never seen growing up Methodist in a less than diverse west county suburb.

And things I expected to only observe from the comfort of my front porch.

Not Toby's.

But that's where I found myself in 2005. On her front porch. Buying a loaf of bread.

The first Friday I arrived I literally thought alarms and lights would start going off as knocked on the door. Alerting her (and everyone else in the neighborhood) that there was an impostor in their midst. Kind of like when Steve first brought me to his (former) Jewish country club. But that didn't happen. (At the country club or Toby's.) And as far as I could tell Toby didn't blink an eye.

Week after week, I showed up for my order and a few minutes of casual conversation. Mostly about motherhood. In 2007 we both had daughters. As I bemoaned childbirth and breastfeeding, I suspect she bellied up to her commercial-sized oven, child slung to her chest and hummed a happy (Jewish) tune as she continued to pump out challahs and other sweet treats without missing a beat. Because, at least from my view, that's the type of woman Toby seems to be. Diminutive in size, but not in strength.

Oh. And did I mention she has a lot of kids of all ages. Obedient ones. Seems like every time I visit they're either studying in the family room or helping their mother. HELPING THEIR MOTHER. Yes folks you heard me. Not watching Wonder Pets or wreaking havoc on one another.

Kind of like my house. Except EXACTLY OPPOSITE.

These days the challah gathering is Steve's responsibility. I'm the chef. He is my Sherpa.

A few weeks ago he called me after his visit.

I don't know whether to be proud or petrified?

(Words that I would prefer not to hear my husband utter after last year's debacle.)

What happened?

Toby invited us for shabbos.

Sure. I was proud. A shabbos invitation from Toby seemed to signify that we were indeed regulars. And certified Jews. Like some sort of stamp of approval.

But equally petrified. Like pee my pants petrified.

My first thought? What if Ben asked for spray butter for the challah? Surely not a kosher product ... and arguably not a food substance at all. What if she discovered that those challahs I'd been buying all those years were only getting a half-baked (though well-intentioned) blessing, me fumbling over the transliteration of the prayer for so long until I finally had it memorized? And forget about my kids doing something inappropriate at the table ... which I would reason excusable by the old adage "kids will be kids." What if I did or said something inappropriate ... because really this is all pretty new to me?

And then I paused.

If I, host of 25+ shabbos dinners in 2010, opener of my not so perfectly tidy home and thoroughly practiced in the art of getting my kids to sit through (at least a portion) of a meal that did not come in a box with a toy was petrified .... how had everyone that we had been inviting these last 6 months been feeling?

Were they nervous too? Apprehensive about bringing small kids to a new place where they would hopefully share? And use utensils? And the potty? All in one night. Apprehensive about doing something that could be categorized as, well, religious? And in some cases, apprehensive about spending an evening in the home of a family they barely knew?

Truth is that even if they were, they came anyway. And they keep coming.

So cheers to all of you who wikipedia-ed shabbat before you came. Who curiously asked if we kept Kosher. Who confirmed, dog-fearing children in tow, that there were no D-O-Gs on premises. Who were delighted to find that we also consider ketschup a food group. Who discovered some new foods with otherwise picky eaters -- kids and husbands included. Who did not fear the lit candles in front of every child. And to all who breathed an audible sign of relief when the children were excused and the bottle of wine was passed.

For you I will go forth to Toby's shabbos dinner proud ... and slightly less petrified.

I promise to write about it. Even the part (which is inevitable) when Ben asks for spray butter and I stick my foot in my mouth.

And maybe I'll make out with an extra loaf or two of challah.

P.S. Hilary (my favorite gardener). If you are reading, I must take you up on the challah baking lesson so that I will be better prepared next time Toby skips town. I'll bring the wine. You knead the bread. Seriously, thanks for your thoughtful, thoughtful offer. I can't wait.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Oh Schvitz

Shabbat #22: Shabbat Potluck in the Park

Guests: 50 friends and family

Menu: BBQ Burgers, Chicken and Hebrew Nationals and lots of sides compliments of our friends. Check out the Recipe section for new additions

What I Learned:

If friendship were measured in schvitz I'd be one lucky girl. Friday was hot. Africa hot. Actually, on that particular day it was hotter than Africa. I checked. As I prepped for the party, hair frizzing, sundress sticking, I was convinced that we were about to spend our first Shabbat of 2010 alone.

But you came despite the heat and schvitzed right along with us. For that I thank you from the very bottom of my (de-hydrated) heart.

Friday's Shabbat in the Park was the celebration of the half-way point of our one-year resolution. A six month birthday if you will ... with challah instead of cake. The wine flowed (along with lots of water and Capri Sun). The kids ran circles around the baseball diamond, adorned with glowstick necklaces and bracelets. And we shared the blessing of lots of good food and friends.

But for all of the joy that the night held, it was still bittersweet.

Deer Creek Park, the location of Shabbat in the Park, was also the locale of Steve's campaign picnic in the summer of 2008. This isn't why I chose it. In fact, this is why I almost didn't choose it; eventually deciding that any of the memories in might bring back were far outweighed by the convenient amenities for entertaining kids.

But there were memories.

When it came to politics, one of the things I liked least about the process was the campaign. But one of the things I loved most was the campaign staff. All of the college students whose enthusiasm and energy sometimes made me wonder whether they were clear that Steve was running form state rep and not governor. Or president. I think about how they trudged night after night knocking on doors alongside my sweaty husband. Something I never did. Made endless calls. Stood on street corners waving signs. And celebrated his victory at their favorite watering hole the night of the primary.

And I think about how they treated us - me. With a maturity beyond their years they each recognized the boundaries of our family. Intuitively knowing when I needed distance from the chaos of the campaign in order to keep a solid ground under my family and when I needed support. How they adored Ben, who affectionately referred to them as the "running for office guys" even though half of them were women. And how they tossed baseballs endlessly with him in the backyard and put up with the antics (and meltdowns) of a three-year old -- responsibilities that were certainly not part of the job description.

But most of all I think about what those "running for office guys" meant to Steve, each of whom I am certain he would have done anything for.

Oh what a difference a year (or two) makes.

So Friday was a bit bittersweet. Bitter in its reminder of what could have been.

But sweet in memories of the summer of 2008.

And the summer of 2010.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mascoutah: The Midwest's Magical Kingdom

Shabbat #21

Guests: Kati, Adam and their three sons.

Menu: Sliced Parmesan and Rosemary Bread with Date Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Olive Oil for Dipping, Penne with Sun Dried Tomato Pesto, Pomodoro Siciliano, Watermelon Salad with Mint and Feta ... never got around to the Strawberries with Limoncello

What I Learned:

Theoretically, cooking for a vegetarian should be easy. Boil some water for pasta, toss a salad and call it dinner. But for some reason it makes me anxious. A mix of wanting to satisfy the carnivores and feeling like boiling and tossing is just not enough "work" for me. That somehow it has to be complicated and time consuming to be good.

But on Friday I kept it simple.

I boiled and I tossed. I skipped the flower arranging, opting for a potted lavender that I planted out front the next day. I didn't even make my blue cheese crackers. Just a plate of bread and cheese with my new favorite date vinegar and oil.

But as the clock ticked towards six o'clock I started to get a little nervous. I'd barely dirtied a pot in the preparation. Flour didn't dust the floor. No grease on the stove top. My food processor was the only appliance that got any action and I didn't even wash it by hand.

Had I done enough? It was company after all.

Looking back on the recipes of the past six months, I can assure you that there were several that required a fair amount of time. Like shopping for the meal made with all Missouri products. The crack pie with it's two-plus pages of directions requiring each pie to be baked individually. (A directive that I ignored.) The baklavas made with phyllo -- a dough that didn't take well to my meditative cooking approach. And all of the potato peeling.

And, yes, all of those complicated meals and the conversations that ensued around the table were fantastic.

But so was Friday. And all I did was boil and toss.

Turns out there is absolutely no correlation between time in preparation to enjoyment around the table. We all talked until our kids begged to be put to bed. Ben found (another) new best friend. All of the indoor toys migrated out. And the candles had nearly burned completely down by the time the last dish dropped into the dishwasher.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this -- the notion that more is not always, well, more. That sometimes the best things in life are really actually pretty simple.

My children teach me this all the time.

Last year smack dab in the middle of the storm that was our life we decided to take the kids to Disneyland. (Proof that I had indeed lost my mind.) Having heard of friends talk about planning trips to Disney parks -- character breakfasts, fast passes, tram rides, meal plans, crowds, heat -- I knew it was not for the faint of heart. Or wallet. But I bought into it ... the idea of Sarah's eyes turning into saucers at the sight of the Princesses. Ben grinning ear to ear next to Mickey. We loaded up the suitcases, flew across the country and bought four very expensive keys to the magical kingdom ... plus one large stuffed Mouse, two sets of ears, a spinning Buzz Light Year and a princess costume. And at the end of the day there were some "magical" moments.

Was it worth it? I suppose.

Would I do it again? Doubtful.

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure my kids even ever asked to go to Disneyland. Or recognized half the Disney characters when they got there. I think the whole thing had more to do with me believing that if I could plan the most perfect, over the top trip that somehow we would all magically be ... happy.

On Saturday we took the kids to the 18th Annual Optimist Rodeo in Mascoutah, Il. No high-priced tickets, fast passes or flashing lights. Just a makeshift ring constructed in an open field. And, still, Sarah was saucer-eyed and Ben grinned ear to ear. Riveted by the roping and bull-riding with their 10-gallon hats perched upon their 2-gallon heads. Chasing dogs and fireflies. Climbing fences. Eating roasted corn. Watching the kids have the time of their lives, sun setting behind them, I couldn't help thinking that it was nothing short of, well, magical. For all of us.

Proof to me that parenting is a little bit like cooking. Sometimes there's no correlation between preparation and enjoyment.

And that every once in a while simple is good and less is more.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Y'All Come Back Now, Ya Hear?

Were you worried that I gave up the resolution? Threw in the towel? Succumbed to take out?

Don't be.

It was just a temporary reprieve for birthday celebrations. With a modified Shabbat observance of course.

And two weeks of a cooking reprieve as well.

I guess I ought to be thankful for that. After all, the weekly cooking responsibility, not to mention the shopping, cleaning, chopping, prepping, broiling, basting, baking, wining, dining, candle lighting that has been my life for nearly half a year can be a wee bit arduous.

But truth be told ... I missed it.

And now, I'm a tad bit petrified of having to jump back in again this week. Particularly after reading Julie and Julia on a (way) too long flight back from the south. For months people have been telling me to read this book. (Apparently I'm the only one who hadn't.) And it's a good thing that was the case because I'm pretty sure I would've thought a little longer about the prospect of cooking and writing about each meal. But now that I'm on the hook, I can all but assure you that I will NOT be cooking anything French for the next six months.

Especially not aspic.

I missed the structure of planning and preparing our weekly meal. The way the shopping, table setting and cooking neatly tied down each day of my life all but eliminating the feeling that things could spin out of control.

I missed seeing the table set for company Thursday night. The chairs filled with friends on Friday. The empty candlesticks, weepy flowers and wayward serving pieces that still needed to be put away on Saturday. And Sunday.

I missed picking up all of the inside toys that migrated outside and the outside toys that got in. Returning the dress-up clothes to the trunk. And the sidewalk chalk to the tattered box. Tucking in two tired little people who now assume that every Friday includes candle lighting, challah and lots of playmates.

I missed running with no other purpose than to contemplate the Friday gathering. What we had learned. What I would write. Miles where the worries that still weigh heavy did not slow me down.

And I missed writing. Putting to paper a feeling. And then moving on to deal with the next. Reminding myself and the people I love that this too shall pass. That good far outweighs bad.

And I really missed sharing it on this blog.

Julie and Julia was originally a blog. It was called The Julie/Julia Project. A true story. But as I read it I wasn't thinking about Julie Powell -- the person who was actually living through a year of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was swept into the story she told. In my mind's eye I imagined her in vintage blouses and comfortable shoes. A tired looking kitchen in her small New York apartment. And her husband who had to eat aspic, maim lobsters and otherwise support his wife as she plodded through 500+ French recipes with emotion ranging from vigor to defeat.

Is my perception of Julie Powell remotely accurate? Who knows. It is primarily a function of my own imagination and experience. My interpretation of her words.

I won't be so presumptive to believe that anyone who reads this blog spends much time conjuring up images of me plodding through a Year of Shabbats. And, frankly, after last year I don't spend much time worrying about my image either.

But I think about you. Of course I have no idea who you are. Sometimes I can see what time you visit. Or where you (or maybe your server) is located. (Who are you in Uruguay?)

But you are more than just numbers to me. You are people from all over the country. And the world. Places that I have never been. And may never go. And I wonder how you found me. And whether something that I wrote sounded familiar. Or made you laugh.

But mostly I just like that you visited. Even if only for the Chocolate Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce recipe. Because somehow it makes me feel like you are rooting for us.

And that feels good.