Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mechitza and The Shoe Crew - Choucroute Garnie

Saturday - Back walking with a cane today.  Damn!  Oops, sorry about the cussing.  I shouldn't be cussing - I went to services this morning, and it was good.  They were good. It's all good.

All good, all the time

If you know me, and I realize you might not, you know that everything you really need to know about me can be summed up in the name of the hospital in which I was born: Brooklyn Jewish.  Never mind that I haven't lived in Brooklyn since I was nine years old.  Never mind that I've never been bat mitzvah'ed, that my knowledge of Hebrew is disgraceful, that I don't fast on Yom Kippur, and I eat all things "pig" enthusiastically, except on Jewish holidays.  The container of bacon fat and the container of chicken schmaltz share shelf space in my screamingly non-kosher fridge.  Makes no difference.  "My father was Jewish, my mother was Jewish, I am Jewish."  And I do not say that flippantly, first of all appreciating these words were among the very last spoken by Daniel Pearl, and that the late Mayor Ed Koch, one of my heroes, had those words inscribed on his headstone. 

Our friends Vicki and Dan have been living in the same house since 1977, and have belonged to the same Conservative synagogue almost as long.  During the same period of time, Rob and I have lived in seven different homes in two different states and four different counties, and have belonged to four different congregations, and three different denominations - Reform, Reconstructionist, Not-So-Egaliterean Conservative.  We are the quintessential Wandering Jews.  Formally, we identify as Reform, and for me, that was after a lot of reading, research, and soul-searching.  Reform is the most liberal denomination - the first women cantors and rabbis, counting women as part of a minyan, calling women up to the bimah to read the Torah blessings, the acceptance of Jewish members of the LGBT community into the Reform mainstream, outreach to mixed-religion families, redefining "Jewish" to include children whose father is Jewish and who have been raised as Jewish - all of that comes out of the Reform movement.  We have a very different approach to observance of the commandments, which is why I don't keep kosher but do have mezuzot hung on the doorposts of our home, as well as my office over at City Centre.

So what was I doing attending services at the South Orlando Chabad this morning?  Sitting with other women on the distaff side of the mechitza?  Me, the social liberal, the seventies feminist?  Railing against the glass ceiling, declaring that women were the last disenfranchised group in American society?  I've been ready for Hillary since 2008!  Hell, I was ready for Geraldine Ferraro in 1984! And the last time I sat separate from the men, I was at my friend Mark's brother's bar mitzvah.  It was 1972 or -73.  I was confused, but not offended.  When in Rome, or the Avenue O Jewish Center.  Besides, I had experienced separate seating, sans mechitza, at the Sephardic Temple, during the months I had attended services there at the invitation of a high school friend.  Didn't bother me then at all, but that was in my prefeminist days. 

I have to admit to having some weird Jewish throwback hangups, like my Aunt Ceil's unwillingness to eat shellfish even though she did not keep a kosher home.  First one: I could not bring myself to put on a tallit (tallis, prayer shawl) even though I wanted to in the worst way.  I have admired women's talliot wherever I saw them - in the Judaica store, in Jewish catalogs, and being worn by women at services - but it just did not feel right to actually put one on.  Second: holding a Torah during Simchat Torah festivities, although that may have to do something with my fear of dropping it, which act of desecration would require that I fast for 40 days.  However, I even found it difficult to "touch" the Torah scroll with the corner of Robert's tallit when we were called up together for an aliyah, an honor, during services or a bar mitzvah. We were the most famous husband-and-wife team since Burns and Allen; we even took it on the road a couple of times. I would chant the blessing in Hebrew, and Rob would wear the tallit, since Rob can't read Hebrew and I won't wear a tallit.

What happened is that I really wanted to go to services at the Chabad, and I knew that meant dealing with the realities of separation of the sexes. It may have helped that neither Rob nor Cory accompanied me, so none of us would feel like our family was going to be torn apart and sent to different foster homes, albeit for just three hours.  When I walked into the shul, I saw that the mechitza was made up of a long row of carefully positioned silk trees.  I liked it, very much.  Very graceful, restful on the eyes, and it did what a good mechitza should do - allowed me to hear and see the Rabbi while helping me focus away from distractions.  Everything distracts me - children's voices, chickens crossing the road, a minyan of men who cannot stand still.  I went to pray, to contemplate, to focus on the words and the rituals, and the mechitza made it possible.  Very good Shabbos, indeed.

"Shoe Crew"

The day before that, I indulged in a cooking frenzy of trief (non-kosher foods) - choucroute (pronounced "shoe crew") garnie, an Alsatian dish of specially prepared sauerkraut served with a vast variety of pork products.  If you are planning on feeding an army, this is one of those dishes that does it best.

Choucroute GarnieReprinted from "It's All About the Food"- Recipes from Inspiration Nation - 6/12/11

I first tried the recipe for choucroute garnie from a big paperback cookbook called Great Dinners from Life, by Eleanor Graves.  I remember the first time I tried it, in my kitchen in Ronkonkoma, to serve at dinner where Kathy and Alan were our expected guests.  It was fussy but delicious.  One thing I remembered was wondering why the choucroute was cooked as long as it was, and why the bacon had to be blanched first, and over the years, I made some changes which I think better represent today's tastes in food, both in terms of technique and choice of ingredients.

I have to speak about brands here as well.  You know I am obsessed on the topic of Hellman's mayonnaise and to a lesser extent, Heinz ketchup.  At the same time, I have no problem using store brands for certain items when I feel quality has not been compromised.  When it comes to the individual sausages for this dish, I have previously chosen the Usual Suspects - brands like Hillshire Farms, Johnsonville, or Hebrew National.   I think, though, that this is one of those dishes where the meats should shine, and after many years of using those familiar brands that are, for this dish, "just okay", I would like to recommend you try the brands I am recommending today, and see if you don't enjoy this dish even more.  Some of them are pricier, I admit.  But worth it.

The choucroute:
4-14.4 oz cans Bavarian style sauerkraut, drained (Silver Floss brand)
4 tablespoons butter
1-12 oz package of bacon, cut into one inch pieces
4 carrots, thinly sliced
2 large onions, halved and thinly sliced
Bouquet garnie: thyme sprigs, bay leaf, 6 peppercorns, 2 large cloves peeled garlic, lightly cracked; place in a small piece of cheesecloth and tie closed with kitchen string
1/2 cup gin
1 cup chicken or beef stock
1 cup white wine or 1/2 cup each white and red wine
1/2 cup water

The garnie:
1- 2 to 3 pound smoked pork shoulder butt (Freirich brand)
1- 1 pound ring Polska kielbasa (Hillshire Farms)
4 beef knockwurst (Boar's Head)
4 cooked bratwurst (Boar's Head)

Additional seasonings and cooking fats are indicated by underlining within the body of the recipe

Allez cuisine, y'all:

Over medium heat melt the butter in a large heavy deep pan. Add the bacon and raise the heat to medium high. As the bacon cooks, use a wooden spoon to separate the pieces. When the bacon has rendered a good deal of fat and is about half cooked, add the onion and carrots. Season the vegetables with kosher salt (not too much, as the ingredients are all salty), coarse black pepper, a touch of sugarsmoked paprika, and a small amount of cayenne pepper. Cook over medium heat for about ten minutes until the onions have softened, bit are neither browned nor mushy.

Squeeze out most of the remaining liquid in the sauerkraut, and then stir it into the bacon-vegetable mixture in the pan so that each strand of sauerkraut is coated with some of the fat. Sprinkle some caraway seeds over the sauerkraut and stir them in.

Pour in the gin, stock, and wine, and water and bring to a boil. Transfer the sauerkraut to a very large casserole dish, bury the bouquet garnie in the sauerkraut, cover tightly and bake in a 325 degree oven for 2 hours.

In a large deep pot, place the smoked pork shoulder butt (leave the netting on) and cover with water up to one inch above the pork. You can just cook the pork in water, but I like to add bay leaves, some garlic clovespeppercornssmoked or regular Tabasco to taste, and a heaping tablespoon of beef bouillon granules. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove from the water and let cool slightly so that you can handle to remove the netting. Also, about 1/2 hour before the pork will be done, add the kielbasa to the pot and simmer with the pork. At the same time, in a large pan, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter, with a drop of olive oil added, and slowly brown the knockwurst and bratwurst on all sides, and when done take off the heat and set aside. This will bring everything to completion at about the same time.

To assemble the dish:
Remove the casserole from the oven, remove the bouquet garnie and discard. Stir the choucroute. Arrange slices of the pork shoulder, the kielbasa ring, and the knockwurst and bratwurst on top of the choucroute. If you like you can cut the kielbasa and sausages into large chunks or let your guests do so as they serve themselves.

This dish screams out for some sort of rustic potato side dish.  Baked, boiled, oven-roasted - you can't go wrong with any of them.  Mashed - utterly sublime as an accompaniment.  I really want to be able to make potato dumplings, but in their absence, I plan on serving potato gnocchi that I did NOT make from scratch, boiled, drained, and served with shallots sauteed in butter.

I love bread with dishes like this, and I sort of imagine thick slices of chewy, crusty rye bread with caraway seeds, or a Jewish corn bread, or pumpernickel.  Lots of sweet butter.  For drinking, offer iced tea (this is the south, after all), beer, and some more of the wines used in the cooking.  My white wine was a pinot grigio and my red was a cabernet sauvignon.  Just happened to be what I had open in the house, but you can always plan ahead.

Now then - preparing this on Friday, May 8, 2015, I made some additional changes, mostly due to my  wanting to prepare a larger amount.  I used three 2 pound bags of Boar's Head sauerkraut, and increased the other ingredients proportionately.  I used 12 ounces of salt pork instead of the bacon. Instead of making a bouquet garnie, I cut up a lot of garlic and added it to the cooking onions and carrots.  I threw the thyme and bay leaves directing into the sauerkraut, and removed them when the cooking is done (the thyme leaves will have fallen off the stem).  I made up for the peppercorns by adding a lot of black pepper. I also cooked the sauerkraut for six hours on low in the large crockpot, letting it continue on warm for a couple of hours after that.  Finally, I added a couple of thick smoked pork chops in with the simmering kraut, for the last hour or two of cooking.

This time, I made the fried potato cakes to accompany the choucroute, making for a very happy combo platter.  I could also see myself making spaetzle to go with this, and one day, I'm going to figure out how to make a potato dumpling like the ones they used to serve at the German pavilion in EPCOT.

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