One might wonder what a kosher food writer, a Food Network star and a pig-centric Californian have in common? The answer: a lot more than you’d think.
Rewind to July, 2013
The Silver family made a brief stop at our house in Northern California, for a quick visit over the 4th of July. While Yosef and I had only met a few times, via our wives (college friends and roommates), the bromance was instant and easy. A love of all things food, conquered any potential social or cultural roadblocks that might seem obvious. Yosef being a kosher Jew. Yours truly being a far from kosher, bacon loving writer and cook. The differences were no match for the common bond of eating, cooking and drinking together. After our dinner together, Yosef began to tell me about some exciting opportunities he had coming up. First, a kosher BBQ, the mere thought of which was difficult to wrap the mind around. The second, was a relatively hush hush visit from Iron Chef and Cutthroat Kitchen judge Simon Majumdar. Despite having cancelled TV a few years back, I definitely knew more of Simon than I did of kosher BBQ (or really anything kosher for that matter). Imbibed by wine (kosher of course), tickets were purchased and we plotted how we could team up for one serious week of NorCal meets KC cooking in mid-August.
Five weeks blurred by, with some interspersed “strategy” phone calls to my new BBQ cooking partner. And then, before I knew what was happening, I heard the stewardess give the familiar landing shtick. I put my seat upright, closed my tray table, fastened my seat belt and loosened my pant belt. It was cooking time…
After skirting through the sorry excuse for KC “traffic” (we slowed to 55mph… I could only hope for such “traffic” in the Bay Area), my gracious host Yosef and I arrived at the epicenter of our upcoming culinary adventures- the Silver’s house. Greeted by their beautiful family, it didn’t take long for the conversation to migrate back to the food realm. Daniella (Yosefs wife), thought it would be fun to present us with a little riff / challenge from the TV show “Chopped.” When she laid the produce and ingredients out on the table before me, I immediately felt like someone threw a dunce cap on me and took away my “culinary man card.”
After a little thought, deliberation and tasting, I realized I knew at least two-thirds of what was in front of me. Daikon radishes, Japenese eggplant, green tomatoes, sour melons, long beans and a few peppers dotted the table. I went with simplicity and past experience: pickles and fried green tomatoes. For the recipe and more on that night, see Yosef’s site. In addition to the “chopped” action happening indoors, we decided to fire up his smoker and do a test batch of ribs and brisket for the weekend BBQ competition. As we sat out by the smokers, we chatted about Simon’s visit in a few days. What we would make, how the timeline for the day would flow and menu options.
Simon was touring the States for his Fed, White and Blue book. The premise being that he wanted to experience different food cultures here within the States as part of his journey to gaining U.S. citizenship. As someone who has traveled a bit, I can tell you, the fastest way to get to know people and a culture is to eat, cook and drink with them (in no particular order). Yosef and Simon connected with a few emails and the plan was for Simon to visit the Silvers house on a Friday and experience a full blown Shabbat dinner, laced with some Sephardic Jewish heritage and then judge the BBQ competition on Sunday. The idea was to keep the menu traditional, yet dynamic in terms of preparation and ingredients.
As Friday was quickly approaching, I received a brief boot camp in Shabbat dining and what it entails. Shabbat–the Jewish Sabbath– is a 25-hour period of rest, lasting from just before sunset on Friday evening until nightfall on Saturday. The idea is to take a break. To disconnect the electronic tether of ordinary life and focus on family, community, and spiritual growth. The rules:
- Cooking needs to be finished before sun down Friday. Appliances off.
- Lights or electronics, if you want them on, you better flip them on before 8pm.
- You must be prepared to eat copious amounts of food, laugh often and enjoy excessive amounts of good kosher wine.
Simon arrived at the house Friday afternoon and instantly appeared at home. For someone who has experienced his fair share of the limelight, he neither elicited attention, nor was weighed down by a large ego. He came with an appetite, a curiosity for culture and an open mind. While he definitely had stories of his own, some pretty honest and insightful, it was obvious his focus was on the cooking at hand and the story of the family preparing it.
The afternoon started with watching Daniella make lamb Aplakes (stuffed grape leaves). She had prepared the rice and lamb sausage stuffing ahead of time, which was amazing on it’s own; al dente with the perfect chew (the rice would soften more as she cooked it in the grape leaves). After having to restrain myself from eating all the rice mixutre, it was time to watch the master at work. We heard about the high expectations her family traditionally had and the proper way to roll and stuff the grape leaves. The bar was set and no one in the room quite had the balls to hop in, under her watchful eye and try. Simon and I both felt it best to play the role of the student and let the teacher work her craft.
A lull in the afternoon found Yosef, Simon and I warming ourselves outside on the patio, enjoying gin and tonics (in my attempt to bring a bit of California with me, I procured a bottled of Spirits Works aromatic gin, distilled locally in Sebastopol, CA). This break afforded us the opportunity to hear about Simon’s rather interesting, well traveled past. His passion for food is undeniable, but his perspective on the connective power of food and the bonds and stories it creates between people is equally impressive. Despite growing up in a rather wealthy Indian family (his father was a prominent doctor there), then living in London as a book publisher, prior to becoming a best selling author and staple on the Food Network, he was incredibly down to earth, inquisitive and relaxed.
And he was a wealth of food knowledge. One of the more interesting tips he gave that night, came about from a conversation regarding the importance of letting meat come to room temperature prior to cooking. This first tip he credited to Michael Symon, and that was to salt your steaks one day prior to cooking them, which still seems a little mysterious to me, but who am I to question an Iron Chef (salting draws out the moisture which inherently seems counter intuitive to creating a juicy steak). The mystery of tip one paled in comparison to the next culinary bombshell he was going to drop… SHAM WOW! I never thought those words would be uttered in the same sentence as “how to prepare a steak”, but they were. Simon said he uses them religiously to pull moisture out of the steak before cooking. I couldn’t pat down a steak though without hearing Sham Wow guys voice in my head. I’ll stick to my paper towels for now.
Much like the ice in our gin and tonics, the afternoon melted into evening and the food preparation hit full stride. Earlier in the day, Yosef and I attempted to put together our mise en place to make things easier on ourselves. While this might have helped a bit, things were definitely picking up in the kitchen. Needless to say, it was extensive: lamb aplakes, hummus, tapenade, fresh baked challah bread, salads, Dry Creek olive oils, asparagus and my responsibility for the night, the dinosaur sized, kosher rib roast. Shabbat was approaching quickly, which meant the window for cooking was closing. I kept it simple. A fresh rosemary, garlic, olive paste formed the crust of the roast. And then I added salt. Quite a bit of salt, despite Yosef’s cries for restraint. My reasoning for the extra salt: the rib roast has a limited surface area for the seasoning to cover. His cry for restraint: kosher meat is always covered in salt to absorb and draw out an excess blood. It’s like it’s been brined and cured already. Still, my unquenchable thirst for salt won out and the rib roast went into the oven with enough time to spare (recipe here).
With the last remaining items for dinner tucked away in the oven, it was time to break bread. Food aside, this was what I was looking forward to most: witnessing the ancient tradition of a Shabbat dinner. As we gathered around the table, the challah was covered, candles were lit, a Kiddush cup begged for wine and I heard a few Shabbot Shaloms said. Singing then begin. Thankfully I was gracefully pardoned from that activity, as I would have contributed nothing but embarrassment and distraction. Two songs were sung. The first, I believe was Shalom Aleichem, a song that welcomes the Sabbath angels. While the second song praises the women of the house and their contributions, grace and position. It was pretty special to see family and friends gathered around a table, signing and reciting ancient Hebrew literature. I guess, in a way, I felt a bit like Dorthy. This didn’t feel like Kansas anymore.
As the singing concluded, Yosef recited the Kiddush, a prayer over the wine, which was then passed around. Another blessing was then given over the two loaves of challah, a sweet, eggy bread, braided and in this case, topped with Zatar. The bread was broken and passed around. It was delicious, especially considering the hummus and tapenade sitting in front of me on the table had been calling my name all night. I now had a vessel to devour them with.
Wine glasses clinked and clanked with cheers. Exhausting amounts of food were passed around the table. Wine glasses were filled again. The eating, stories and laughter continued. And there I was, 1800 miles from home, sharing and observing a traditional meal that some people may go a lifetime without observing, sitting next to a Food Network star and all the while thinking, what’s the common denominator? It would be too simplistic to say food. But I will say, that I think good food, tends to draw great people together. And those people inherently seem to be of the good natured, giving variety. That meal though was about so much more than just sharing food. There were moments of vulnerability, trust and genuine interest in the story of others lives. I went to bed feeling overwhelmingly grateful for my place at that table. And utterly full.
So what does a kosher food writer, a Food Network star and a pig-centric Californian have in common?