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Every Tu B’shvat, the 15th of Shevat, my religious school teachers would hand out those blue metal boxes adorned with the map of Israel and a Star of David. I would fill the box with loose change scavenged from my parents’ night table drawers. I would dream that one day I would visit our family’s forest, planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), in Israel.

I lived in the Midwest so Tu B’shvat occurred during winter months. While my teachers praised the JNF and its efforts to turn the Israeli desert into a green oasis, I was shoveling snow off of my driveway. As a child, I was confused, why were we celebrating trees when our trees were barren? I couldn’t think beyond my reality and picture this magical place of Israel and supposed lushness. My teachers, perhaps to connect Tu B’shvat to my secular world, explained the holiday as the Israeli “Arbor Day.” Perhaps more on-point, they could have related Tu B’shvat to the “birthday” of trees.

Tu B’shvat is the holiday that divides the old and new year for all trees, no matter when the tree was actually planted. According to Jewish law, fruit may be eaten off of trees after the end of the third year, and the land also needs to rest, or have shmita, during the seventh year. How do you count the age of all of the trees throughout the entire world? Everyone starts and ends the year on this one day, on Tu B’shvat.

In addition to filing the JNF boxes, we made and painted seed pots that sprouted, hopefully, in the Spring. The Safed kabbalists, the originators of the first Tu B’shvat seder, celebrated with much more fervor as they dined on thirty fruits symbolizing the ten Sephirot. These divine attributes, for example understanding, beauty and kindness, spiritually connect our world to G-d. Modern tradition is to highlight twelve (wheat, olives, dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, citron or citrus, apples, walnuts, almonds, pears and carob), corresponding to the twelve possible permutations of G-d’s four letter name.

I am partial to serving carob during Tu B’shavat as a healthy way to introduce sweets to my guests. Carob, a fruit grown in pods, is low fat, high fiber and a perfect alternative for chocolate lovers who want to avoid caffeine. This tiny fruit packs a powerful health punch with its high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols, the micronutrients that prevent diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. The carob tree is the main character in the Talmud story of Honi and the Carob Tree that illustrates the importance of planting for this and future generations. This is a perfect story to relate to the more tangible theme of Tu’ B’shvat as a way to inspire positive action and mindfulness about the environment.

This focus on environmentalism is heightened today with our government naysayers about global warming. As the diversity of tree species shrinks due to extinction, it is a loss for nature and the ecosystem that the trees support. The same rings true for population, which thrives on diversity. I was reminded of the importance of diversity in nature and our human population while reading the book Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. The tale, told in the voice of a wise old oak tree Red and his furry and winged friends, depicts the events that happen after a Muslim family moves into an unwelcoming neighborhood. Applegate’s story seamlessly threads the interdependent themes of tolerance and diversity with nature. In this story, nature, through the tree Red, finds its voice loud and clear. Perhaps we the people could use Tu B’shvat as a time to listen.

 

Carob Spread

Ingredients
1/4 cup of coconut oil
1/2 cup of tahini (Soom is my preferred tahini)
1/4 cup of carob powder
2 tbsp agave syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup of carob chips
1 to 3 tablespoons of water, as needed

Using a blender, combine coconut oil and tahini. Add carob powder, agave syrup and vanilla extract. Continue blending, adding water as needed. Add carob chips. Serve on toast or fruit for a healthy snack.

I’m still in a muddle about this election.

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“Temperance. Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation,” cautioned Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of our great country, with the first line of his thirteen virtues as written in his autobiography. I admire Franklin whom I had the pleasure to study while working as the event planner of the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Descendants Reunion weekend. Franklin dedicated thirty-plus years of public service in a variety of positions such as an ambassador to France, as the President of the Pennsylvania Assembly and as a delegate of the Constitutional Convention. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which even he did not believe was perfect, as evident in his final speech. I respect Franklin although I will act against his advice this Friday — the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States — as I will be drinking.

I’m trying to stay optimistic and focus on some of the positive outcomes of this nightmare of an election. I will be toasting the increased political awareness of all ages. I hear it while driving my eleven-year old son’s carpool with the boys’ non-linear conversations which hit on Pokemon Go to Ben Carson’s surgical breakthroughs to futsal to Trump’s wall. I will be toasting the increased social action by the everyday citizen who has historically believed that their voice doesn’t make a difference or were afraid to get involved. I count myself in this latter category. I have supported Planned Parenthood for years but I was too afraid out of safety concerns to step inside the centers and volunteer. In honor of Trump’s inauguration, I will submit the Planned Parenthood volunteer form and make a donation in Trump’s Vice President-elect’s name.

My drink of choice: The Orange Muddle, is a take-off of a Franklin favorite — the orange shrub — which he wrote about in his original papers:

“To a gallon of Rum two Quarts of Orange Juice and two pounds of Sugar — dissolve the Sugar in the Juice before your mix it with the Rum — put it all together in a Cask & shake it well — let it stand 3 to 4 weeks & it will be very fine & fit for Bottling. When you have Bottled off the fine, pass the thick thro’ a Philtring paper, put into a Funnell that not a drop may be lost. To obtain the flavor of the Orange Peel, paire a few Oranges & and put it in Rum for twelve hours & put that Rum into the Cask with the other. For Punch thought better without the Peel.”

A shrub is a syrup created from fruit, sugar and vinegar that is used to create either a fizzy soda water drink or an alcoholic cocktail. (It’s also quite good mixed into salad dressings and drizzled on cheese, meats and fish.) There are various ways to create a shrub but basically you mix the ingredients together (sometimes heated), steep the concoction for twenty-four hours up to a month, and strain it into a simple syrup. If you are interested in making shrubs from scratch, check out the beautiful book Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times by Michael Dietsch. If you don’t have the effort or time (perhaps because you are too busy writing your senator), you can purchase shrub syrup from suppliers such as Tait Farms or Shrub & Co

When I sip my drink — The Orange Muddle — which will be the perfect elixir of healing and freshness with its ginger and orange ingredients, I will make a wish for the return of civility, compromise and hopefully the healing that needs to start now — not after Trump’s four-year term. I will take a moment to think about Benjamin Franklin and his thirty-nine fellow signers of the Constitution, including the future number one President George Washington, the future number four President James Madison and those seven delegates who were born on foreign soil. I wonder what they would think of number 45.

The Orange Muddle
2 ounces of vodka
1/2 ounce of orange shrub syrup
1/2 inch slice of fresh ginger, peeled
Fresh juice from 1/2 an orange
A splash of soda water
1 twist of an orange rind

Muddle the ginger slice in a cocktail shaker. Fill the shaker with ice. Add vodka, shrub syrup and the orange juice. Shake, strain and pour into a martini glass. Top off with a splash of soda water. Garnish with the orange twist.

 

 

Thai High

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“You want Thai hot, add five chilis. That’s Thai high. You want American hot, add one,” advised our teacher at The Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School. Set on a beautiful farm ten minutes outside of Chiang Mai, my teenage daughter and I were cooking kaeng kiao waan gai (green curry with chicken). This was just one of the ten dishes that we made during the all-day cooking class.

After the private bus picked us up at our hotel, we stopped at the local food market where our teacher explained the key ingredients and principles of Thai cuisine. Our group comprised of ten tourists — two Chinese mid-twenty year old girls, a young couple and a family of four from Germany, and the two of us from the United States. She pointed out more than five types of rice, bowls of scary-spicy red, green and yellow curry paste, and native fruits such as the pungent durian. (This fruit, considered the king of fruits by the Thai people, is either loved or hated. The nineteenth-century French naturalist Henri Mouhot said, “On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction.”) We even bought coconut milk, fresh from a coconut milk extractor. Who knew that coconut milk didn’t come only in a can?

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After the market tour, we arrived at the lush farm with its open-air Lanna-style pavilions of classrooms with spotless cooking stations and dining areas. Our teacher gave us a tour of part of the farm with its strategically planted organic vegetables and fruits. She dug up the galangal, a doppelganger of ginger that grows as a creeping stem underground. We would put it in the tom yam kung soup. We smelled the lemongrass that she would boil into tea as it improves digestion. She pulled the pea-size bitter eggplants off of a tall bush and compared it to the smaller sweet eggplants, more similar to the ones that grow in the United States. There were even mango trees above, providing sun relief for the shady vegetables. We would use many of these ingredients during our cooking class.

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Many of the dishes — the curries, the pad thai (stir-friend noodles), somtam (papaya salad), and phad kaprao gai (stir-fried chicken with basil leaves) — that we cooked had one important ingredient — fish sauce. This essential ingredient: nam pla or “fish water,” is fish and sea salt combined and fermented for up to a year. To some, it’s too pungent but to others it brings sawan, or heaven to your mouth. It’s the fifth, recently identified taste to the more well-known four: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. With the right amount of fish sauce, the flavors of most dishes (even non-Thai dishes such as pasta sauce) are elevated.

We ended the day at the farm with a ten-course feast that included a choice of two desserts: kluay bod chii (bananas in coconut milk) and khao now ma muang (mango sticky rice). You haven’t been to “the land of smiles,” if you leave Thailand without eating the ubiquitous mango with sticky rice. It’s everywhere — served at the more expensive restaurants, at the food court of the uber-modern malls and from street cart vendors at the outdoor open markets. Our version was received with exclamations of “wow,” “cool,” and “how did you do that?!” Our teacher had added the butterfly pea flower, plucked off the vine, and steeped it in the boiling water used to cook the sticky rice; thus, the rice turned a psychedelic shade of blue. The butterfly pea flower is used to add color to culinary dishes and tea, such as doc anchan, which is served at hotels in Thailand as a welcome beverage. The flower interacts with the liquid and the color changes. Add lemon and it morphs to a softer violet. Mixologists add butterfly pea flower to create funky and festive drinks. The Charleston, South Carolina restaurant 492 serves a drink aptly called the Disco Sour with ice cubes infused with butterfly pea flower extract. The ice cubes slowly melt and change the drink’s from yellow to violet. Butterfly pea is available in powder, dried flowers, and a liquid extract at Asian grocery stores or online. Buy some to create your own edible lava lamp.

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My daughter and I returned to the hotel from our day at the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School with our bellies (too) full and vowed to cook the exquisite Thai dishes upon our return home. First, we needed to reset our taste buds to the American level of spiciness or what our new Thai friends would call blandness. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll cook gaeng phed gai (red curry with chicken) but tonight we will order dinner from our local Thai restaurant.

 

The Vegetarian Queen

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Purim is a week away but I have already rolled, stuffed and pinched too many circles of dough into cookies that sort of resemble Haman’s three-cornered hat. I will bake many more batches to fulfill one of the four Purim mitzvot —distributing mishloach manor (gifts of food) to friends and family. I might even get to the point of “cheating” and fill my goody bags with store-bought (gasp!) Hamantaschens. This year, perhaps in support of my family’s effort to decrease our sugar intake, I’d rather sidestep the dessert and celebrate Purim with a healthy savory dish.

The story of Purim, as written in the Megillah, focuses on the Jewish woman Esther and her fight to save her people from the annihilation planned by Haman, the Persian King Ahasuerus’ first-hand-man. It begins with an 180-day party, of which the Jews were invited, celebrating King Ahasuerus and his hold on the region. Unfortunately for him, he miscalculated the number of years that the Jews were given by the previous ruler King Cyrus to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. He and his guests drank from the holy vessels of the Temple. To recover from this shocking display of arrogance, the Jews were given a separate room in which to continue their feast. Interestingly, even though they were allowed to return to Israel, many Jews remained in Persia and assimilated. So much for that.

In a drunken fit, King Ahasuerus ordered the beheading of his Queen Vashti who refused to parade naked in front of him and his entourage; thus, he needed a new wife. Esther, because of her beauty, was chosen as the lucky bride-to-be. Rumor had it that to keep her religious identity hidden, During her time residing in the royal court, Esther avoided treif, or non-kosher, foods by eating a vegetarian diet consisting of fruits, grains, nuts and breads. Some say that she even followed a raw and vegan diet in order to avoid eating anything that was cooked in a non-kosher kitchen.

I admire her religious conviction but what a pity not to be able to enjoy Persian delicacies such as Chelow kabab (meat kababs on rice) and kuku (an egg soufflé). In our contemporary world we have easy access to Persian, albeit not kosher, restaurants. In Philadelphia, check out The Persian Grill in Lafayette Hill and Mediterranean Grill in Bryn Mawr. For those who follow kosher rules, home cooking, like this Persian-style eggplant dish stuffed with chickpeas and pomegranates and spiced with advieh, a Persian spice blend, might be the best bet.

To celebrate Esther at my Purim dinner (which for counts for the second mitzvah of having a Seaudah, or a feast) I’ll serve this savory dish with a side of basmati rice. (Interestingly,  basmati rice is a staple in today’s Persian dishes but this type of rice was not available in Persia during Esther’s time.) The dish is stuffed following the tradition of eating “hidden foods,” symbolic of Esther’s secret Jewish identity and the masquerades of Purim celebrations. The chickpea, included in Purim recipes by many Ashkenazi Jews, pays homage to Esther’s vegetarian diet. Gil Marks in his comprehensive Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, details the linguistic and geographic path of the humble, but protein-packed legume by explaining that the Yiddish word for chickpeas nahit is related to the Turkish word not and the Farsi word niched. Pomegranates are mentioned in the Bible as one of the seven holy agricultural products produced in Israel. The berry might have originated in Persia and was probably included as fresh or dried berries or as a syrup in the dishes of both feasts of King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther.

Flash forward to present day Persia, or Iran, where approximately 9,000 Jews live in Tehran. (Some Jewish leaders in Iran claim that this number might be between 18,000 to 20,000. Previously, some 80,000 to 100,000 Jews lived in Iran prior to 1979 and upon the Shah’s overthrow many immigrated to the United States or Israel.) Many members of this tiny population will gather in Tehran’s synagogue to fulfill the third mitzvah of reading the Megillah when they will hiss at Haman and cheer for Esther and Mordecai. They might collect some rial, or Iranian money, to fulfill the fourth mitzvah of giving tzedakah, or charity. Then they will have their own modern-day feast perhaps with these same ingredients — the eggplant, the chickpea and the pomegranate — and celebrate the survival of the Jews and Purim, or what their fellow Muslims call the Sugar Holiday or Id-al-Sukkar.
Persian-style Eggplant stuffed with chickpeas

Ingredients
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 eggplants
1 large onion, diced
2 cups of diced butternut squash
2 cups of pomegranate seeds
1 can of chickpeas
2 tablespoons of advieh spice blend*
1 lemon, juiced
1/2 cup of water
kosher salt
pepper, to taste

6 cups of cooked Basmati rice

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Steps 

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Wash two eggplants, Cut the stem off and cut it in half lengthwise. Place face up on baking tray and brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

Bake the eggplants about 25 minutes or the flesh is soft. Let the eggplants cool for about ten minutes and then cut the flesh away from the skin. Be careful not to cut the skin. Scoop out the flesh, mash it in a bowl and set aside. Place the skin in a baking casserole.

Lower the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees.

While the eggplants are cooking, make the stuffing. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in pan on medium heat. Add diced onion and sauté until golden. Add diced butternut squash, stir multiple times and place the top of pan over it. Cook for seven minutes, stirring every so often, until butternut squash is semi-soft. If the butternut squash it sticking to the pan, add one tablespoon of olive oil. Stir in mashed eggplant and cook for three minutes. Add chickpeas, advieh, salt and pepper to taste, stirring for three minutes. Take pan off heat and stir in the pomegranate seeds.

Spoon the stuffing mixture onto the eggplant skins.

In a separate bowl, mix the juice of one lemon with the water. Pour into the baking pan so that it is under the eggplant skin. Do not pour it onto the stuffing. Cover the baking casserole with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes.

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Serve the stuffed eggplant with chickpeas and pomegranates with a side of basmati rice. Have a nice meal — or befarma’id as they say in Iran or be’te-avon as they say in Israel.

* You can make your own advieh, which is a blend of four spices and rose petals, by following this recipe on My Persian Kitchen website or purchase it online on the Persian cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij’s website.

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My CSA box was bursting with squash. This was a good thing. I love squash. Its arrival harkens me to unearth my fall clothes and cozy fleece blankets and plant my bulbs. During the Fall – my favorite season — we hike trails of yellow and burnt orange trees, sit round the outdoor crackling fire pits and drink lots of pumpkin beer. My go-to squash recipe, always served at my Sukkot gatherings, is the winter squash soup from the classic cookbook The New Basics (by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins) with its food-stained pages and cracked spine. But, after two batches of this heartwarming, savory soup, I needed to break out into new territory.

Nowadays, with the internet and its glut of food websites, finding new recipes is easy but finding good recipes is another thing altogether. This time, I ditched the web and looked at my (gasp!) cookbooks. Since I tend to read cookbooks like some people read novels, I had a stack of them next to my nightstand. (This makes for some interesting dreams.)

Among the stack was the newly published Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen written by Leah Koenig, whom I felt a one-sided connection to as she was the former Editor in Chief of the blog The Jew & The Carrot. That blog was created by Hazon, the Jewish environmental organization of which I am actively involved and support. (It’s now published as a partnership between Hazon and the Forward.) I have read Koenig’s writings in The New York Times, Epicurious and other publications for years. Earlier this month, I finally got to meet her at a book signing sponsored by Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. The night was ghastly — buckets of rain pelted the Philadelphia streets in advance of a Hurricane scare — but almost thirty people showed up to hear the celebrated food author. Just like her writing, Koenig had a warm and witty dialogue with the audience as she demonstrated two recipes — a carrot salad with mint and dates and the creamy noodles with lemon, mint, and chive — from her new book.

The following week, when I was flipping through Koenig’s cookbook, one recipe — the Couscous With Winter Squash and Chickpeas — jumped out at me. The weather was still damp, and I was in a lazy, homebody mood. I didn’t want to venture out to the store. Surprisingly, I had all of the ingredients, or at least a variation of the ingredients. I swapped out the butternut squash with the winter squash of my CSA and the couscous with the brown rice already in my pantry.

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What’s so great about Koenig’s book is that each recipe comes with a short, but informative blurb in which she gives either the historical Jewish context or her own personal connection to the recipes. For this one, Koenig writes, “In Morocco, Jews customarily serve couscous topped with a stew of seven vegetables on Rosh Hashanah — the number seven representing that the holiday is on the seventh month of the Jewish calendar.” Who knew? Coincidentally, I was cooking it for the seventh day of the week — for Shabbat.

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Her book also emphasizes that new Jewish cooking is an amalgamation of influences and references of the countries and towns where the Jews have wandered in the diaspora and in modern times. Yes, Koenig includes some of the typical backbones recipes — chopped chicken liver, brisket, and babka — of Jewish cooking but many of them have a tasty twist, such as the jalapeno-shallot matzo balls. She infuses her recipe with references with seasonal ingredients and encourages her readers to be conscious of cooking according to the produce available during the months of the year, not necessarily what’s available at the grocery.

Her point that “Jews have been a wandering people, which means Jewish kitchen spans not just centuries but continents,” is front and center to the shifting Jewish food movement of today. “Jewish” food is being redefined with celebrated innovative Israeli chefs like Michael Solomonov in Philadelphia and Yotam Ottolenghi in London, but also with less obvious, indirect synergies of what would in the past be termed as too different to combine. Check out Ivan Orkin’s Ivan Ramen NYC restaurants with its L.E.S. Buns — a sublime combination of pastrami, karashi mayo, and daikon salad on a Chinese steamed bun. Trust me — I’ve eaten it — I’d take that over a pastrami on rye any day.

This fusion, or whatever you’d like to call it, is evident not only in Jewish recipes but in the changing face of the Jewish people, especially with intermarriages, international adoptions and the shrinking global world. This theme of diversity of the Jewish people is a main topic of a two-day conference “Wrestling with the Jewish People, scheduled for April 10-11, 2016 at the National Museum of American Jewish History sponsored by four major institutions including the Feinstein Center. However you choose to interpret “Jewish,” to some it’s a shifting definition that ripples beyond a religion to affect customs, holiday traditions, and food. Me, I’ll be happy to define my “Jewishness” as I make my way through the stellar recipes of Koenig’s book. I can’t really deny my Jewish identify, nor would I want to, when I’m surrounded with the smells of a freshly-baked pumpkin-apple challah.

 

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Growing up in a reform Jewish household in the Midwest I had never heard of “counting of the Omer,” until my husband asked me to marry him, on a mountaintop at Shenandoah National Park. All month I felt his nervous energy. He was always in a rush — to meet my parents (during a family trip to Mexico that he crashed), to go hiking that Sunday morning (which was really inconvenient since I was moving apartments the next morning) — and to propose. I didn’t realize that he had a deadline of the second night of Passover. See, on many days of the count certain acts are forbidden —like, shaving, weddings, and dancing — as if the community is in mourning. It was either that day or he would have to wait to propose until Lag B’Omer or even — G-d forbid — Shavuot.

Flash forward eighteen years of marriage: There haven’t been a lot of counting of the Omer discussions. He’s a lawyer so he makes sure his Jewish milestones are “kosher” according to Jewish law but he’s not so strict with his everyday Judaism. We now live in the Philadelphia suburbs, with its large Jewish population so it’s more common than not to hear friends talk about the Omer. Each night from the second night of Passover until Shavuot you count the 49 days that it took the Jews to leave Egypt and walk across the desert to Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Torah. These seven weeks are a time of spiritual growth and improvement, sort of a metaphysical journey parallel to the physical journey that the ancient Jews undertook in order to be ready to receive the Torah. If you haven’t made any progress, don’t give up. You still have time.

Most of the talk during these seven weeks is less about the counting and more about Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day when Jews get a reprieve from the forbidden acts and celebrate with bon fires, food, and dancing. I’m sure that while they are cavorting round the fire, eating Israeli food of hummus & shish kebabs, and drinking beers, that they are not thinking about whose death they are commemorating: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the second century author of the Zohar (which contains mystical interpretations of the Torah), and chief source of the Kabbalah.

Let’s put his life in context: the Romans, the infamous persecutors of Jews, ruled Israel. After witnessing the torture and death of his great teacher Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon bad-mouthed the Romans. One of Rabbi Shimon’s students narked on him to the Romans. He and his son fled and eventually settled down in a cave in Northern Israel where they lived for thirteen years buried naked (so that their clothes lasted longer) to their necks in the sand and studying Torah (of course). Miraculously, a carob tree grew at the foot of the cave and provided nourishment for the father and son. They survived — I guess it was that mighty combination of prayer and the nutritional power of carob — until the Emperor died and it was safe to leave the cave.

This tale is the reason that many modern day party goers eat carob at their Lag B’Omer celebrations. These carob treats of today are a long way from those carob-covered pretzels that my health-nut aunt served us in the 70s. They are much more sophisticated — carob fudge, candy brittle, fancy cakes — probably because of the growth of the health conscious food movement, specifically the vegan community. Carob can satisfy your sweet tooth and it is low in fat, high in fiber and — compared to chocolate — has no caffeine. Because I detest those supposedly good-for-you cereal bars that my kids are always crave, I made a maple and carob chip granola bar, recipe courtesy of Whole Foods, for our celebration on Thursday. Hopefully by eating this treat my kids will miraculously be nutritionally and spiritually fortified.

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Maple and Carob Chip Granola Bars courtesy of Whole Food Market

Ingredients
• 4 cups quick cook oats
• 1/3 cup canola oil
• 3/4 cup pure maple syrup
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 cup vegan carob chips
• 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (I substituted freshly shredded coconut from a whole coconut.)

(Note: I added a teaspoon of cinnamon and 1/3 cup of carob chips. The latter was added after the mixture cooled a bit. When you initially blend the warm oats and the syrup/oil mixture, the carob chips melt. I wanted to have some whole carob chips to increase the crunch of the bars.)

Method
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread oats onto a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, mix together oil, syrup, vanilla, carob chips and walnuts in a large bowl. Add warm oats and stir well. 

Spread oat mixture into a greased 9- x 13-inch baking dish, pressing down hard to compact it. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool completely, then cut into bars.

Nutritional Info 
Per Serving: Serving size: 1 bar, 250 calories (100 from fat), 11g total fat, 3g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 5mg sodium, 35g carbohydrate (3g dietary fiber, 14g sugar), 4g protein

NO longer forbidden

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It’s the end of April and after a longer winter than expected, the weather is finally changing for the better. The sun is peaking out from behind the clouds and people are waking up from winter hibernation bursting out of their houses. The neighborhood kids are cruising down the street on their skateboards, the dog owners are smiling as they walk that extra loop around the ‘hood, and the gardeners our deheading last year’s blooms. Everyone feels a bit lighter.

I yearn for this “lightness” after weeks of spring breaks, Passover seders, and — just to be fair to my Christian friends — an indulgence of Peeps. Many of my friends are deleting carbs from their diet. I can’t do that. Well, I can but I don’t believe in it nor is it realistic for my lifestyle. My family and I are adventurous eaters, I like to cook, and I don’t like to limit my culinary options.

Just by chance, I was at the library and spotted the new book Amazing Grains by Ghillie James, which includes amazing recipes and explanation of grains (and pseudo grains) such as amaranth, teff, bulgar, rice, and more. (According to the book, “A grain is a seed or a fruit of a plant hailing from the Poacea family of grasses – and any of these grasses that produces an edible grain, such as barley, oats, and wheat, is called a cereal.” And, “. . .pseudograins (with the exception of couscous, which is a grain product), do not belong to the Poacea family of cereal grasses: quinoa, chia, buckwheat, and amaranth are the seeds of different species of broad-leaved plants.) The recipes are delicious, the text is informative and the photographs are stunning. My kids especially liked the “Apricot, chia, and coconut granola bars,” which my daughter said “tasted like summer camp.” Maybe not my camp, where I went thirty years ago in the Ozarks, but her organic farm camp — Eden Village Camp.

I went a bit crazy at the health food store buying these super nutritious grains, but then I realized that I already had one – black rice – in my pantry. I had bought this rice on a whim at a supermarket in Chinatown not knowing what is was or what to do with it. Although the recipe in the book: “black rice pudding with coconut and pandan leaves,” sounded amazing, I wanted to experiment with a dish for the everyday.

Black rice is known as forbidden rice because it used to be banned from everybody except for the Emperor, royalty and the uber wealthy. Now, anyone can eat it but because it is more expensive than the staple white rice, it is mostly used for decoration, special desserts, and certain sushi dishes. I was most interested in its nutritional value, which is immense. For every 1/4 cup of uncooked rice (about 1/2 cup of cooked rice), black rice beats white rice in nutritional value with less calories (160 vs. 180 calories), with less carbohydrates (34 vs. 53 grams), and more protein (5 vs. 3 grams). A bit more snooping around the internet revealed that black rice is also a great source of iron, fiber, and Vitamin E, plus with more antioxidants than another superfood blueberries. Antioxidants help block free radicals, which damage the cells and may lead to cancer. Your body makes some antioxidants but relies on nutrients from the food that you eat to make up the balance of the amount that you need. More specifically, the bran hull of black rice contains a high level of the anthocyanin antioxidants, which is being studied for its benefits of preventing cancer, heart disease, while enhancing memory. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Right now, as a way of getting back in shape and enjoying the soon-to-be spring weather, my daughter and I are training for the Hazon Ride the Pines cycling event scheduled for May 31st. It’s a ride, not a race, thru southern New Jersey in support of Hazon, the Jewish environmental organization, that teaches many of us in the Philadelphia area about local culinary matters, sustainable practice and food justice at its bike rides and food festivals. Usually, on the days that I exercise, I eat the comforting sunny side up eggs on a bed of greens as carbs tend to slow me down. But, now, with this black rice salad, I get almost the same amount of protein with the crunch of carbs that I crave.

Power-packed Black Rice Salad

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Ingredients

1 cup of black rice, soaked in cold water for an hour. Drain and rinse.
1/2 small red onion, chopped
1/4 cup of cilantro, chopped (Feel free to substitute mint, especially if it comes from your garden.)
1 cucumber, peeled and diced
1 cup of frozen corn kernels, defrosted
1/4 cup of dry roasted pumpkin seeds

Dressing
1 cube of frozen crushed garlic (I use the Dorot brand)
fresh juice of two limes
1/3 cup of olive oil
1 teaspoon of Agave syrup
sea salt, pepper to taste

Combine rice with 2 cups of water in a pot. Bring the water to a boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes. Let cool. Combine rice with the five other ingredients.

Pop out the frozen garlic cube into a small bowl salad. Let defrost. Add the three remaining ingredients and whisk together.

Toss with the rice salad. Season with sea salt and pepper.