And The Beet Goes On ...

By: Eli Birnbaum

OK here it is again all around the table, our stomach protests just at the sight of it all. Our cholesterol level erupts just with the smells, and we get constipation at the thought. WELCOME TO PESACH!

Welcome to the matzo balls that hit the bottom of your stomach and stay there until Chanukah. In our house there were two ideological streams, not reform and orthodox, but the great matza ball controversy. Every year my aunt and grandmother would fight over what a matza ball should feel like. My grandmother thought it should bounce. My aunt thought it should be declared a lethal weapon. My Aunt Sophie was no mean pilpulist and claimed she had proof that her method is based on Yiddish tradition. "The word keneidel" she would intone to anyone within her grasp "comes from the process of testing the item. If you throw it at someone's head and it "can addle" his brains it is ready. Hey, she was a pilpulist not a linguist.

Needless to say the judgement came when you dropped them into the soup - if the plate cracked it was my aunt's, if it jumped into your neighbor's lap it was my grandmother's. My grandmother's was more fun.

Which of course brings us to the who-will-spill-first contest. The table is whiter than a Tide commercial: Crisply ironed linen napkins at each setting which no one knows how to use, gleaming silverware which are like mirrors and make you look upside down (I never could figure that one out), and glassware so clear you couldn't be sure if it really existed. The tension grows - who will be the first to spill their wine. And the race is on...

Usually it was my uncle and we used to place bets on how long it would take him. When he was in really good form he could spill his cup and his neighbor's with a flick of his Hagadah all before we completed the first blessing. I only found out years later that he used to do it on purpose. He would see who had how much money riding on which minute and act accordingly. I should have offered him a cut.
Now here we are again, readying ourselves for the dietary onslaught. I think this is probably the Egyptians' sweet revenge. We may have left there 3500 years ago but they sit back hysterically laughing each year as we do this to ourselves. There is no denying most Jewish holidays revolve around food but none more than Pessach. It marries the two greatest motifs in Judaism: Food and guilt. So here are a few of my favorite recipes and the "reasons" for them. Try them out on your friends, or thinking about that again....

Beets - this comes from the tradition that we let nothing get BEETween us and God. Another tradition says it comes from the Hebrew word SELEK meaning "to get rid of" which is what Pharaoh did to us after we drove him crazy. Anyway it's also good for staining tablecloths and white shirts. It also looks great on fingers like blood which is good for scaring parents.

Beets are the heavy ingredient in horseradish or as it's known traditionally, "Chrain." Where does the word come from? Sorry you asked. I have no idea but it gives you a chance to clear your throat, and to show off your Hebrew pronunciation. Why combine the two? Probably from the old rabbinical dictum "You can't beet a dead horse."

The idea behind eating horseradish or general bitter herbs is to remind us of the bitter trials of slavery. If you taste it - for the first seconds it taste sweet - then it hits, so too our slavery. We thought we were getting a good deal until slowly we lost our freedom of action.

The idea of chrain is that it should be strong. How strong? I thought you'd never ask. Strong enough to melt plastic! Strong enough to bring an elephant out of a faint at 30 meters. In order to retain its potency you should theoretically make it on a space station or better yet in a vacuum. Either way try not to expose it to air for long periods. Always use a glass jar (preferably with a narrow opening) with a good lid.

Chrain is to be eaten with gefilte fish. It is one of the anomalies of Jewish culinary art - spend 3 hours making sweet gefilte fish then drown it in chrain which destroys your taste buds totally for the rest of the meal. If the fish come back to life then you know it's strong enough.

Chrain

combine:
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
add salt
add beets (raw) peeled and in pieces.
You should use twice the amount (weight) of Horseradish to beets grind it in short blasts in your food processor etc or grate by hand add horseradish root, peeled and in pieces.
grind as well
quickly pour into a jar etc..
Make sure the beets and the root are not soft. The root also should be the size of a 3/4 inch pipe.
You may want to wear a mask for this. I do it outside but check the wind direction first.

Before we leave this allow me to indulge in a story told by my friend Mike Lowy -
Last year there was a horseradish blight in Spain and Spanish Jews were in a turmoil; what will they do for Pesach? They decided to import a planeload from Israel. The only problem was they forgot to obtain an agricultural permit. The plane landed and for days they went from office to office trying to get permission to unload the plane.
Unfortunately nothing they did was any good, leaving the local Rabbi to comment "The chrain in Spain stays mainly on the plane".

Hey don't blame me; e-mail Mike.

The problem with all this is that you will always have leftover beets - what do you do with them?

Beet Salad Recipe

Wash them well.
Cook the beets until you can pass a fork easily through them.
Peel them while they're warm - once they're cold it's the pits.
Use the beet water, adding more-or-less equal amounts of sugar and vinegar. Some people prefer to substitute lemon juice for at least part of the vinegar. My grandmother used to use sour salt.
Dip your finger into the mixture until either you like the taste or you are sick of it. If you find you added already two liters of vinegar and 3 kilos of sugar you've got a problem. Some people like to add a pinch of cloves or even ginger.
Slice the beets thinly.
Slice up a few onions.
Place the beets in a jar alternating layers with a thin layer of onions. Then pour the liquid over the whole thing until covered. Close TIGHTLY. It should sit for at least a day or two before using.
Enough.

Next stop: Charoset - sounds like a stop on Amtrack.

For those of you that aren't familiar with the term, it is a great mixture with an impossible name. Some people claim it comes from the word Cheres which means clay. The idea being that it represents the mortar we used in Egypt when we were slaves.

Traditionally in most communities it is made sweet, which doesn't make sense when you consider we are talking about forced labor. However, consider another point: In Hebrew the difference between Cheres - clay for building and Heres - destruction, is only a small dot of ink. All "building" can be used for both sweet and bitter.

Charoset Recipe
The great thing about this is that you can't really screw it up. As long as you like it, hey!! So keep tasting.
Grind nuts (preferably hazelnuts) and apples.
Add sweet red wine and cinnamon to taste.
Alternatives:
dates / raisins
almonds/ walnuts
cloves/ginger/cardamon
cayenne pepper for cajun Jews

Tzimmes

In medieval times it was eaten on Thanksgiving watching the Superbowl. I've got absolutely no idea what it means.
My grandmother (yeah, the same one) would use it when basically telling me to stop making a big deal out of the black eye my brother gave me. She would say "Stop making a big tzimmes out of it". To this day my right eye begins to twitch whenever I eat it.

Tzimmes recipe SIMPLE!!!!
1 kilo carrots
salt/pepper
brown sugar
pitted prunes
A little red wine ( it can't hurt, have a sip or two while your cooking it and you wont be able to taste the difference anyway) cook carrots with S/P until slightly soft.
Drain most of liquid.
Add remaining ingredients and cook over small flame 10 minutes.
Better tzimmes recipe !!!
8 carrots cut
salt /pepper
water to cover
2T margarine or chicken fat
1T honey
cinnamon (optional)
mix it all and boil till almost soft.

Some people make dumplings to go with it . Usually they cook them in the water with the carrots. All you do is grate 2 potatoes and an onion. Drain the water, add an egg and enough matzo meal to make a vaguely thick consistency - remember it has to drop in.

OK I've stalled long enough now for Matza Balls.

First decide are you going to use whole matzos or ground matza. Whole matza may be a bit easier but it can be quite lumpy and have the consistency of hardened contact glue. So whatever you decide good luck, you'll need it.

The "even I can make it" Matza Ball recipe
1t chicken fat or marg
1 egg
pinch baking powder
salt/pepper and/or soup base
Mix with a fork or your fingers if no one is looking.
Slowly add matza meal until thick but not like cement.
Chill it for an hour or two.
Wet your hands and then drop into boiling water or chicken soup until "behold it has risen". If it doesn't or falls apart start again. Enjoy (who am I kidding?)


 

 

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13 Apr 2008 / 8 Nisan 5768 0