Holocaust Remembrance Day / Pesto

IMG_0118

This week’s recipe: Pesto

I spent the summer between 11th and 12th grade in Israel, on a teen tour that was half Americans and half Israelis. We did all of the country’s greatest hits, including an afternoon at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. Yad Vashem is an obligatory stop for tourists, IDF soldiers, schoolchildren, and politicians, and as we wound our way through the exhibits, I was struck by the large numbers of Hasidic families pushing strollers and holding the hands of young children. When we left the museum, I asked a friend when she remembered first learning about the Holocaust, and she recalled a story her mother had told her. When the friend was four years old, she went with her parents to visit her grandmother’s retirement community. She splashed around in the pool in her swimsuit and floaties while her mother watched from a pool chair nearby. One of the residents of the retirement community leaned in towards the mother and, gesturing towards my friend in the pool, asked, “Have you told her about the Shoah yet?”

The truth is, I don’t remember when I learned about the Shoah (the Hebrew term for Holocaust), because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Shoah. My grandmother grew up in Nazi Germany, though she and her family were able to escape in 1937. She didn’t talk about it much, and certainly didn’t talk about it with her young grandchildren. Nevertheless, the consciousness of it was all around me. As a bookish kid, I read Number the Stars and The Devil’s Arithmetic, the latter of which scared me off of opening the door for Elijah for many years afterwards. I still remember the watercolor that came near the end of a picture-book version of the Diary of Anne Frank, of Anne and her sister Margot clutching each other and crying in Auschwitz, their heads shaved and their skinny bodies clad in striped concentration camp uniforms. When I was bored at synagogue, I’d flip to the back of the prayer book and read stories in the Holocaust remembrance section about the corpses of children being thrown on a pile to be burned; about a German soldier smashing a baby’s head against a wall; about a little boy who was publicly hanged but who was so small that his neck failed to snap, and so he struggled against the noose until he finally suffocated. Even totally unrelated books could become little Holocaust lessons. I remember flipping through a book of baby names (when I say I was a bookish kid, I mean that I would read anything I could get my hands on) and informing my mother that the name “Adolph” means “wolf.” “Adolf Hitler was a wolf!” she replied.

Then there was the formal education. As early as third grade, we started commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day in Hebrew school. In sixth grade, literally the entire year’s curriculum was devoted to the Holocaust. I found this egregious, not because 12-year-olds are too young to learn about the Holocaust, but because it’s the year before they have their bar or bat mitzvahs. Right before you decide to become a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, do you want to get the message that being Jewish means suffering, oppression, and extermination? Of course, being Jewish often has meant suffering, oppression, and extermination—that’s what half of our holidays are about—but the Holocaust was less than a decade of a history that spans thousands of years. My Hebrew school wasn’t the only one to make this mistake. The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, which we visited on a field trip, is a three-story structure arranged thusly: first floor is pre-Holocaust, second floor is the Holocaust, third floor is post-Holocaust. Fine, so it’s a Holocaust museum, but again, I find it distressingly telling that they would single out a few years, no matter how horrific and consequential they were, to build all of “Jewish Heritage” around.

When I’ve discussed this topic with other Jewish friends, I find that their cultural and educational experiences were similarly saturated with the Holocaust. (My favorite such example is a friend who went to Jewish middle school, where her chorus sang a Yiddish song whose title translates to “A German Burned My Sister in Treblinka.” Oy vey.) It looms so large in the lives of Jewish people even now, as the last survivors are dying off. So I was shocked to learn that the rest of the world doesn’t feel the same way. I’m not talking about outright Holocaust denial or anything like that, but I thought that the Holocaust had reached such a cultural mass—in history, literature, movies, and so on—that no one in America could be ignorant of its enormity.

Two incidents stick with me. One was in tenth grade European history class. Our readings for that day’s class were recollections of concentration camp survivors. Like most such accounts, they were unspeakably horrible and left the reader with nothing to say, and so our teacher wisely didn’t ask us to analyze or discuss them. Instead, he had us go around and say what we knew about the Holocaust. I knew that non-Jews in the class wouldn’t have the same depth of knowledge that I did but I was still amazed at how little they knew, how little brain-space it seemed to occupy for them. If you are at all connected to your Judaism, I don’t think a single day goes by when the Holocaust doesn’t cross your mind. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like never to think about it unless someone or something external brought it up.

The second incident reinforced that, in a much more painful way. In my senior year of high school, my school chorus went to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest for a tour. One of the places we visited in Prague was the Pinkas Synagogue, which serves as a Jewish museum and Holocaust memorial. The synagogue’s walls are covered in names of the tens of thousands of Czech Jews who were killed in the holocaust, and there’s also an exhibition of children’s artwork from Theresienstadt. My sisters and I all have very common names for Ashkenazic Jews, and I easily found each of our names on the wall. But the part that I found most affecting was the artwork, and when I read that all of children who drew them were murdered in Auschwitz, I started to cry. Meanwhile, non-Jewish members of the chorus continued to laugh and chat and flirt with each other. I didn’t expect them to be as emotional as I was. I also didn’t expect them not to be emotional at all.

The Holocaust is the best-known instance of genocide in human history. Hitler’s name is a synonym for the worst kind of evil, even though Stalin and Mao caused more deaths. It’s a cliché that being involved with a movie about the Holocaust is the fastest way to get awards. But abstract knowledge doesn’t guarantee genuine emotional response. And if that’s true of the Holocaust, what about the many lesser-known, less documented genocides? (The death toll in the Congo during the early period of Belgian colonization has been estimated at 10 million, for instance, but almost no one I know has ever heard of it.) Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, but how do we get non-Jews to remember the Holocaust in its totality, while freeing Jews from the burden of having their entire identity and way of relating to the world defined by that remembrance?

So anyway, here’s some pesto. (Most inappropriate segue in this blog’s short history, no doubt.) Cut basil goes bad very quickly, so whenever I need to buy some for a recipe, I always use up the rest by making pesto. There are about a million pesto recipes out there, and I’ve made delicious ones involving spinach, kale, arugula, walnuts, pistachios, and so on, but this is my simple go-to. I usually serve it on linguine along with some pan-seared salmon, but go nuts! And the nuts don’t even have to be pine nuts.

Pesto

Adapted from How to Eataly

Ingredients

  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Fine sea salt to taste
  • About 2 loosely packed cups of basil
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano

Instructions

  1. Place the garlic and a generous pinch of salt in the food processor and grind into a paste.
  2. Add about a quarter of the basil leaves and grind until broken down. Continue to add basil a little at a time, breaking down all the leaves before adding more.
  3. Add the pine nuts and grind until crushed.
  4. While the food processor is running, slowly add the oil.
  5. Finally, add the cheese and run until thoroughly combined.
Advertisements

The Passover Diet / Risotto with Salmon, Leeks, and Peas

IMG_0109

This week’s recipe: Risotto with Salmon, Leeks, and Peas

There’s a hot new diet in town, have you heard of it? It’s called the Passover Diet, and it’s all the rage in such trendy enclaves as the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Palm Beach County, Florida, and the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles. Jewish celebrities like Natalie Portman and Ivanka Trump do the Passover Diet every spring to “reset” their cravings after months of heavy winter foods, get their bodies ready for swimsuit season, and fulfill the commandments as laid out by the Lord in Exodus Chapter 12 and Leviticus Chapters 22-23. But while its secrets were once only available to a secretive circle of Hebrew- and Aramaic-speakers, it’s becoming increasingly mainstream among health-conscious foodies who are looking for the next hot elimination diet.

The rules of the Passover Diet are simple. For eight days, you can eat anything you want, as long as it’s not wheat, oats, rye, barley, spelt, rice, corn, millet, soy, peanuts, sesame, peas, beans, lentils, alfalfa, or sunflower seeds. (Actually, you can have wheat flour, but only if it’s been specially watched by a rabbi so that it doesn’t become leavened and does taste like ass.) Oh, and you also have to follow all of these rules too. Simple, right?

But I have to say, as someone who is preparing to do the Passover Diet for the 28th time, it’s really the only way to truly make sure that you’re doing what’s right for your body, in accordance with God’s law. There are none of the little loopholes and leniencies that make other elimination diets ultimately ineffective.

You find yourself getting tempted by the cookies in the cabinet or the pizza in the freezer? If you follow the Passover Diet, you have to throw out all of your non-compliant food and clean every inch of your house, lest some rogue grains lurking under the dishwasher cause you to fall off the wagon. For good measure, just in case you missed any, you have to sell all of your non-Passover Diet food to a friend for the duration of the eight days. So if you find yourself sneaking a spoonful of peanut butter, not only are you cheating, you’re also stealing.

You’re looking for a cleansing experience that goes beyond juice fasting? I get that. Little do most people realize that they are drinking that oh-so-healthy juice from a glass that might have once held something other than juice. What if some of that ultra-toxic liquid, such as dairy milk, leached into the glass and ruined your whole cleanse? Luckily, the Passover Diet requires you to buy an entirely new set of plates, utensils, cookware, etc., so there is no chance that you will inadvertently consume the essence of some grains that once sat on your plate.

You accidentally ate some soy sauce on your Whole30 and had to start all over again? Well, on the Passover diet, if one of the forbidden foods passes your lips, you’re cut off from the Jewish people and condemned to hell for all eternity! How’s that for motivation?

You conveniently develop “allergies” to any foods that the experts say make you gain weight? On the Passover Diet, if you buy packaged food, you can only buy products that were not even processed anywhere NEAR any of that bad stuff, like gluten. And because of the incentives of American agriculture, corn and soy are in or near EVERYTHING. So basically, you won’t be able to eat anything! You’ll lose a ton of weight!

While actual experts in nutrition Torah scholars say there is no scientific halakhic basis for many of these prohibitions, true adherents to the Passover Diet know how truly toxic for your soul rice, corn, and legumes can be. At the end of eight days, your skin will be glowing, you’ll fit into your “skinny” jeans, and God will not withhold His life-giving rain from your fields and vineyards.

At the close of the Passover Diet, we recommend slowly easing yourself back into eating potentially toxic foods by stuffing your face with a disgusting deep dish pie from Pizzeria Uno.

So anyway, here is a yummy risotto recipe that I used to try to get rid of some of the non-Passover-compliant foods in my house. This recipe tastes like spring to me, and it’s as colorful as it is tasty. It’s from what is probably my all-time favorite cookbook, The Community Table, a fabulous kosher cookbook put together by the JCC of Manhattan. Every recipe I’ve made from it has been a winner, but this is one of my favorites. Enjoy it with a crisp glass of white wine – after you finish your Passover diet on the evening of April 18th, of course! Happy holidays to all those who are celebrating, and to the rest of you, you’re a bunch of lucky bastards.

Risotto with Salmon, Leeks, and Peas

From The Community Table

INGREDIENTS

  • 5 to 6 cups of fish or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup shelled fresh or defrosted frozen peas
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup thinly sliced leek, white and light green parts only
  • 2/3 cup white wine
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 6 ounces salmon filet, skin removed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan (optional)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Grated zest of 1 small lemon
    INSTRUCTIONS

    1. Bring the stock to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce the heat, cover the pan, and simmer gently.
    2. If using fresh shelled peas, blanch them in boiling water in a medium saucepan for 2 to 4 minutes, until bright green and partially cooked. Drain and run under cold water to stop cooking. Set aside.
    3. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, melt half the butter with the oil over low heat. Add the leek and saute until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the wine, turn up the heat to medium, and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Season with salt.
    4. Add the rice, stir well, and pour in just enough of the simmering stock to cover. Cook, stirring constantly, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Make sure to maintain an active simmer. Stirring constantly, continue to add more stock, about 1/2 cup at a time as each addition has been absorbed, until the rice is approaching tender-firm, about 12 minutes. As you cook, be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to prevent the rice from sticking.
    5. Add the salmon to the saucepan and stir until the rice is tender and the salmon is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Stir gingerly to avoid breaking up the salmon pieces. After 3 minutes, add the peas and stir through. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the remaining butter and the Parmesan, if using. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with the lemon zest and serve immediately.