Kosher Cooking for What Ails You

"She was not fat exactly, but zaftig: a token of too many helpings of brisket and kugel..."

“She was not fat exactly, but zaftig: a token of too many helpings of brisket and kugel…”

“You need to get yourself out there and do something,” my therapist tells me.

He’s a ’60s kind of guy—you can almost smell the pot, see the love beads—even though he’s in his fifties now, a respectable family man, bald, with a sweet smile and a small paunch.

“What interests you?” he asks. “Sports? Hiking?”

I roll my eyes. I may have learned many things from my 33 years on this earth, but appreciating athletics is not one of them.

A few days later, leafing through the Jewish newspaper I see a listing that catches my eye: Kosher cooking class. Sponsored by The Jewish Cultural Institute. I call and find out that the class is held at a certain Mrs. Greenbaum’s house in Skokie. This is just what the doctor ordered, I think, giving them my credit card over the phone.

An icy wind whips against my face as I trudge up the Greenbaum’s shoveled sidewalk and ring the bell. They live on a cozy street in Skokie filled with ranch homes and bungalows. Mr. Greenbaum greets me at the door. He is a small man, this Mr. Greenbaum, all scrubbed clean and tucked in. Even his potbelly is polite and keeps to itself. He wears his few strands of black and gray hair combed across his bald head, and he sports a square, Reich-like moustache over his upper lip.

“Put your coat there,” he says, pointing toward a banister in the entryway draped with coats and winter gear, “and go on back to the kitchen.”

I can tell that he wants to get back to the television, which I hear murmuring in another room, but I also get the sense that Mr. Greenbaum reports directly to Mrs. Greenbaum, and that right now, her orders are to take coats and direct traffic, which means he can’t kick back onto his Lazyboy until every coat and every kosher cooking class attendee had been properly stowed. Oh, the burden of being a Jew! Wearily we plod forward, pick, pick, picking away—and for what just reward?

So it is with a heavy heart that I make my way into the kitchen and behold immediately Mrs. Greenbaum, resplendent in apron and sensible shoes, wielding a large knife. She is chopping carrots and gesticulating between chops with her manicured fingernails (lavender). She looks around 5’6″, tall for a Jewish woman (in our world anything over 5’4″ is practically a giantess) with a soft, feminine face, and dark hair that grazes her shoulders. Not fat exactly, but zaftig: her extra chin and rolls around her waist a token of too many helpings of brisket and kugel.

“Come in, take a seat,” she says warmly to me over her shoulder, gesturing toward some 25 women my mother’s age arranged in three rows of chairs.

Mrs. Greenbaum faces them from behind a countertop, her accoutrements set out before her: pots and pans, measuring spoons, cutting boards, a Cuisinart, and a Kitchen Aid mixer. I scan the ladies as I take an aisle seat next to a dark haired woman in glasses and a zip-up fleece sweatshirt, and behind a small, smiley lady wearing a jumper. I recognize some of the women from the fancy synagogue downtown where my parents’ friends, former suburbanites, all migrated after retiring to high-rise apartments along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile.

Someone hands me a stapled packet titled “From Joan Greenbaum’s Kitchen,” listing the recipes for the evening, which is a delightful twist on traditional Jewish cooking: Carrot-noodle pancakes, mulligatawny soup, baked crispy rosemary chips, and rugelach, pronounced with the throat-clearing “ch” at the end.

“What we’re doing is preparing the carrots for two of the recipes,” says Mrs. Greenbaum from her post at the countertop.

Watching her, I’m reminded of Mario Batali from his Food Network show—except that Mrs. Greenbaum would never cook with pancetta and pig jowls and whatever godforsaken treyf Mario thrives on. And unlike the brash, arrogant Mario, Mrs. Greenbaum is always aiming to please, trying to make everything easier so that the Sabbath meal will practically cook itself. As for the audience, well, forget the Yuppies who take delicate nibbles of the Tagliatelle with Fresh Tuna Ragu and think instead of the fair daughters of Israel, their kids grown and out of the house. Small but mighty, the whole lot of them, hungry for bargains and time saving tips.

“I’ve never thought about making latkes with carrots!” says a serious looking woman whose blonde hair is cut in a short, sensible ‘do. “Or noodles!” another adds. They’re talking about the carrot-noodle pancake, as it’s formally called, but we Jewish ladies know a latke when we see one: anything grated, thrown together with an egg, and fried.

I watch Mrs. Greenbaum squeeze the extra liquid from the grated carrots and eggs mixture before adding the cooked angel hair pasta.

“How long has this group been going on?” I whisper to the fleece lady on my right.

“Oh, about ten years now, I believe,” she says, unceremoniously, as if meeting once every few months for cooking tips in someone named Mrs. Greenbaum’s kitchen in Skokie, of all places, was just something that always happened. Like that’s normal.

Or am I the strange one? I mean, why is it so weird that these ladies have been collecting kosher cooking tips for so many years? For where is it written that a Balhabosteh—the bustling mistress of the house—is born, not made?

And what adept balhabostehs they’ve become, too, with such cosmopolitan tastes! As if on cue, Mrs. Greenbaum tells her audience, “That’s why I chose this, because it’s different. My Alvy always loves when I try something different.” And then she pulls out a colorful spice tin and mentions, casually, that she’s going to add a bit of ground ginger.

The room fills with murmurs. “Ginger? I never use ground ginger,” says the smiley woman in the denim jumper. (Who, over the age of three, wears jumpers, anyway?)

Everyone gets busy jotting down her tips.

“There, now some salt and pepper, a tablespoon or so of flour to give it a little heft and to hold it together, and we’re ready to fry them,” says Mrs. Greenbaum. She sprays the pan with Pam (I glace around to see if aerosol of hydrogenated oil offends anyone, but no one flinches), cranks up the range, and in one seamless motion, sticks her hand under the tap and then flings droplets of water onto the pan. All the ladies stand and inch closer to peer over the range to watch the water sizzle, so I join them.

“Nice and hot!” says Mrs. Greenbaum.

She pulls out a bottle of oil and this time the astonishment is palpable. Sesame oil! How exotic! This, it seems, is an Ashkenazic crowd, which means typical foods with the typical seasoning, like chicken cooked with onion soup mix or potatoes roasted with garlic and onions and maybe, if you’re daring, some rosemary (dried, of course). And soup (clear chicken broth, sometimes from the can) with matzo balls or kneidlach, the little meat-filled dumplings. But sesame oil? Just trading the big vat of generic vegetable oil for olive oil is progress enough.

“Alvy just gobbles these up, he loves them so much, and it’s great if you have any leftover pasta, but it’s better to use the very thin kind,” says Mrs. Greenbaum, having formed all of the patties and pressed them down, hard, with a slotted spatula onto the pan.

“What’s that spatula you’re using?” asks a woman, who looks to be in her late thirties. She’s got short brown hair and an almost manly, weathered face, which I immediately conclude comes from too much yoga in the sun.

For a few minutes the crowd analyzes the pros of using a slotted spatula—like this one, which has cut out circles instead of slits.

“It’s great for draining out the liquid,” someone says.

Nodding, Mrs. Greenbaum lets the young woman know that while she loves this spatula especially, and has bought five of them—one for dairy, one for meat, one for Pareve and another two for Passover—any spatula will really do the job, and no one should feel bad if she doesn’t have this particular one.

Jewish-style Mulligatawny Soup

  • 3-4 lb kosher chicken, cut up
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 tbs salt
  • 1 tsp mild curry powder
  • 1/8 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 1 small bunch of flat parsley

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium carrot, sliced

1 stalk celery, sliced

1 green pepper, diced

1 med. apple, peeled & sliced

1 tbs margarine or olive oil

1/3 cup flour
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice

1. In a large saucepan, combine chicken, water and seasonings; cover and simmer 45 minutes or until chicken is tender.

2. Remove chicken from broth. Pour broth into a measuring cut to make sure it yields at least a quart of liquid. If not, add some water to make a quart.

3. Remove bones and skin from chicken and cut meat into pieces. (Can use fingers to tear off the pieces.)

4. Heat a large saucepan and add margarine or oil until it sizzles; add the onion, carrot, celery, green pepper and apple and sautee until tender.

5. Remove vegetables from heat and stir in flour.

6. Pour vegetables into a large pot. Add the broth, chicken and tomatoes.

7. Heat until boiling, stir one minute, then turn down the heat to low and simmer in a covered pot for 30–45 minutes.

Serve for Shabbat dinner. Or Shabbat lunch. Or Shabbat morning instead of going to synagogue! Or for a midnight snack — with a large glass of wine and a hunk of chocolate cake.

Turning her attention back to the mulligatawny soup—an Indian dish whos name means “pepper water,” I later discover—Mrs. Greenbaum begins with the uncooked chicken, already cut into pieces.

“This recipe is unusual,” she says. “Because it calls for curry.” A few women wrinkle their noses. “Is it too spicy?” “No, this is mild curry,” she reassures them, reaching for another tin of spice. The chicken jiggles a bit, but at least when it’s cut up it doesn’t look like a plump little headless and naked penguin—the way it does when propped up and tied for roasting. Mrs. Greenbaum dumps the chicken pieces into a pot of boiling water and salts it, (generously, please, Alvy has to watch his sodium, but a little bit extra in the water won’t hurt) adds some mild curry powder, stressing the mild again, and everyone stands up and pushes forward to watch, as if the curry powder were an Indian diplomat traveling by boat to Israel for a friendly visit. Then she adds some nutmeg and cloves. Another gasp. Cloves! That’s what goes inside the besamim container—the spice container for the havdalah ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath and ushers in the grind of the regular work week. Who knew!

“Now we’re just going to let that simmer for 45 minutes and we’ll move on to the Rosemary crisps while we wait,” says Mrs. Greenbaum, pulling out a container of Wonton skins from the refrigerator. At that point even I take a closer look because I’ve never seen those things in the raw.

“These are delicious crackers that we’re going to make and so simple! You’ll love them.” She spreads the wanton skins in a single layer on two cookie sheets that she sprays with her trusty Pam. It reminds me of the filo dough from when I was a little girl and used to help my mother bake baklava, courtesy of my Armenian aunt and Armenian friends. But the wonton skins seem thicker and chewier than the fragile, flakey filo dough.

By now Mrs. Greenbaum is brushing the wontons with a beaten egg and crumbling dried herbs on top. Just as she’s putting them into a very hot oven, the phone rings. Mrs. Greenbaum rolls her eyes.

“I’m going to ignore it—Alvy’s supposed to answer the phone, anyway. Aaaaaalvy!” she calls. She starts to pull the boiled chicken pieces out of the water while the phone continues to ring. Aggressively. Angrily. “Alvy!” she says, again. And just where is Mr. Greenbaum and what is preventing him from doing his husbandly duties? Has he fallen asleep, dreaming of honey cake jazzed up with sugared ginger slices and mulled pears? Or perhaps he’s in the little boys’ room with the sports section?

Finally, after about the 8th ring, the answering machine picks up and Mrs. Greenbaum pauses, chicken breast in hand, and cocks an ear to listen. Soon a thick, Eastern European accent fills the room, and it is none too pleased.

“Allo? Allo?… Ach! She’s trying to murder me—you’ve got to get her out of here!”

Mrs. Greenbaum gives the class an embarrassed look. “Sorry, it’s my mother. She’s 92 and just broke her hip, and she’s home with a new caretaker, and she doesn’t like her.”

She picks up. “Mom? What’s the matter?”

We wait in our seats. Mrs. Greenbaum by now has the phone to her ear and has put the chicken breast back down on the cutting board, wiping her hands with a kitchen towel. (I can’t help but think about bacteria.) She’s nodding, emphatically, sympathetically, her head bobbing up and down.

“How are you feeling? Did you take your medicine? Mom, the medicine will make you feel better. Listen. I can’t talk right now, I’m teaching a class. You know—my cooking class. That’s right. Do you want me to send Alvy to pick you up?” Another pause. “Okay, Mom. I can’t talk right now. Try to get some rest. I’m sure she didn’t mean to upset you. She’s new. I’ll call you back later.”

She hangs up the phone. “Getting older. It’s no picnic!”

The ladies in the room all nod. They’ve got aging mothers of their own, no doubt. “My mother’s a survivor,” adds Mrs. Greenbaum. Another roomful of nods. We understand.

Then, back to work!

Mrs. Greenbaum lays the chicken out on the cutting board. Without any seasoning or fat it looks grayish and sick, like the cadaver I once made my friend show me from his medical school lab, hoping to cure, as I told him, my “fear of death.”

“Now we’re going to remove all the skin and pull the meat off the bones. You don’t keep the meat on the bone for this recipe although a few times when I was in a hurry I kept them in and Alvy didn’t mind! He likes to play with the bones,” says Mrs. Greenbaum.

We watch as she pulls chunks of meat into a pile—”big pieces!” she says—and I think of the givat ha’orlot we learned about in Jewish day school, the pile of foreskins that accumulated when Joshua circumcized the whole nation of wandering Israelites. How healthy can it be for a gal’s sex life that her earliest image of the male organ is a mountain of severed penis-tips inching its way heavenward?

Soon Mrs. Greenbaum is frying a chopped onion on the same pan, since rinsed clean, that she used for the carrot latkes (which have been flipped over and are draining on a plate, covered in paper towels). This time she’s using margarine—not Pam (no butter, remember, we’re cooking meat!), and she’s adding the carrots, celery, green pepper, and, the surprise ingredient: chopped Granny Smith apples! “I prefer the tartness, but you can use any kind of apples,” she says. “How unusual!” someone says. Mrs. Greenbaum adds a drop more water into the pot of chicken broth, throws in the chicken, the sauteed goodies, a can of diced tomatoes “with juice!” and a dash of flour, and lets it simmer a bit more, covered.

The crisps, removed from the oven, sit cooling on the countertop. The kosher salt she used is thick and granular, like hail. She passes the crisps around for people to take a nibble. “These are delicious!” says smiley-jumper lady. “And they keep well in a container,” adds Mrs. Greenbaum, “although Alvy gobbles them up so fast I have to hide them in the freezer if I want to keep any for company.”

The stew is boiling and Mrs. Greenbaum washes her hands and clears off some counter space for the rugelach. The ladies, perked up, proceed to bash the whole baking process.

“Once my kids were out of the house I stopped baking,” says jumper lady again.

“I agree. I always say, that’s what bakeries are for,” says one of the Magnificent Mile ladies.

“Do you not want to learn how to make rugelach?” asks Mrs. Greenbaum, noticeably wounded.

“Oh, please! Show us how you do them—I just don’t think I’ll make them at home.”

“I will,” says Ms. Yoga, who adds that she has two small kids at home and it’s something they can all do together—thereby proving the theory that only those with kids at home should bake. I bake, but I don’t have kids, so I don’t say anything—especially because I baked the most when my marriage was at its worst. I’ll never forget those late night baking disasters.

As if foreshadowing my doomed marriage, everything I whipped up never quite turned out. Like the maple sugar cookies I had such high hopes for, even hearing the applause as I kept impulsively adding ingredients. And later, when they came out of the oven raw, soggy and demoralized, I felt compelled to pull my ex away from his computer, where he would sit every evening, shutting me out. I remember watching as he poked the cookies and how he scowled when his fingers left a permanent indentation. “These are never going to bake!” he snapped. “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you follow a recipe?”

When I pull myself out of my reverie I hear Mrs. Greenbaum confessing to the group that the rugelach recipe is her mother’s, with just a little finagling. She pulls out the Kitchen Aid mixer and measures the dry ingredients: flour and sugar, baking powder, baking soda, a pinch of salt. She sets it aside and then adds the sugar, eggs, and the vegetable oil into the mixer and beats until nice and light.

The dough is really basic, explains Mrs. Greenbaum, as she alternates the dry ingredients with the orange juice (a typical milk substitute to keep pastries pareve) into the mixing bowl. (The honest truth is if you’re going to bother baking rugelach, make the dairy recipe with the cream cheese dough, because it’s much better.) The dough formed, she makes a ball, puffs it with her hands—a baby’s tuchus!—and then flours the counter and takes out a rolling pin from a drawer. You know how it’s done? You roll the dough into a large circle, spread it with jam (this time, raspberry) sprinkle with whatever tidbits give you joy, in this case chopped nuts, currants (raisins are fine, of course!), chocolate chips, and here’s the daring feat: You pull out a pizza slicer and cut through all the accessories on top to form thin triangles. Then you roll the little triangles, crust to point, until you get pretty little crescents with just a hint of the sweet treats peeking out. Brush with a beaten egg and put it in the oven to bake.

Now what? I think. As if I needed to ask: We eat, of course!

Mrs. Greenbaum places all of the evening’s wares on the countertop: the Mulligatawny soup, the carrot-noodle pancakes, the rosemary crisps, and to the sweet smell of baking rugelach we line up at the card table in the back of the room to partake of its splendor. I join the feasting ladies and then heap my plate with goodies, like the hungry refugee I am.

Abigail Pickus is a writer living in Chicago. She works for Nextbook, a national project to promote Jewish literature, culture & ideas.