Friday, March 17, 2006

It's All About the Umami

Perhaps you've had this experience:

You have a recipe that relies heavily on chicken or beef broth for flavor. In order to "parvise" the recipe (or make it vegetarian), you replace the meat broth with immitation chicken or beef broth from a mix. The recipe works beautifully, but you're not happy about your reliance on phony meat, so one day you nobly prepare a homemade vegetable stock and use that instead. To your surprise, the flavor is one-dimensional and unappealing. You were better off with the mix.

A Boston Globe article that I read recently got me thinking about this phenomenon in a new light. The article is about the fifth and least familiar taste, umami. The word umami, which roughly translates as "delicious" in Japanese, was first used to describe a specific taste by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that MSG is unhealthy unless you're allergic to it; unfortunately, however, many people are.

Scientists attribute umami to certain amino acids and nucleotides including, but not restricted to, glutamate. It seems that the flavor develops in meat as it cooks and the proteins are broken down into amino acids. (Braising meat is the best way to bring out the umami.) Vegetables develop umami as they ripen. Fermentation brings out the umami in wine, beer, and Asian foods like miso and fish sauce.

Clear vegetable broth isn't nearly as umami-rich as chicken broth or soup mix with MSG, presumably because you need a higher concentration of specific vegetables in order to get deep umami flavor. A rich mushroom, squash, or tomato broth is fine, but only if you're making mushroom, squash, or tomato soup.

The authors of The Fifth Taste: Cooking With Umami claim that you don't need MSG to make umami-rich food, and they seem to have plenty of vegetarian recipes to offer. Still, it seems to me that takes a bit more to pack umami into a vegetarian dish than a fleischig one. Here are a few tricks that I've found bring out the flavor I now know as umami in parve soups:

1. Make soups hearty, not thin and clear.
2. Use crushed tomatoes or tomato puree if the flavor is compatible with the type of soup you're making.
3. Add chunks of sweet potato or winter squash to vegetable, split pea, and lentil soups.
4. Add a splash of dry wine (preferably red, if you're using tomatoes).
5. Let soup simmer for a good 3-5 hours, if not longer.

As for parve hot and sour soup, vegetarian grape leaves, and matsa farfel kugel, I'm sticking with the MSG.

(Cross-posted to Kosherblog.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Post-Purim Fun

I hate to have too many posts that merely provide links to other blogs, but Jabbet's K-blog Purim post really tickled me. The headlines:

(The "T" is for "treyfe," of course.)




Monday, March 13, 2006

More Charedi Book Banning

The following letter is apparently being circulated in charedi communities:

It has come to our attention that a book has been published which goes
against Torah values.

In the first volume of this book, it claims that Avrohom Ovinu engaged
in military action. Chas Ve'Sholom!

Furthermore, it claims that Yaakov Ovinu kissed his wife before marrying
her. Woe to the eye that reads this!

In addition, it claims, r"l, that many of our holy ancestors worked
for a living! This is absolute apikorsus as everyone knows that it is a
chiyuv to be in kollel forever, and it is impossible that our ancestors,
compared to whom we are but donkeys, to have done any differently.

A later volume even has the audacity to suggest that the greatest
Odom Godol in history, Moshe Rabbeinu, once acted inappropriately!
Choliloh to say such things!

Furthermore, the second and fourth volumes include lengthy quotations
from goyishe ovdei avodah zarah, whose words we have no need to hear.

To make matter even worse, this book goes into lengthy descriptions about
the maalos of Eretz Yisroel and various mitzvos bein odom lechavero,
while barely mentioning the importance of limud Torah liShmoh.

This set of five volumes is also very popular amongst the goyim, which
itself is proof that this book is treife.

Needless to say, this book contains no haskamos whatsoever.

Anyone who is a yiras Shomayim will purge this kefirah from their botei
midrashim immediately.

Signed for the honor of Torah,

By those who write in the names of the Gedolim.

Chag Purim Sameach!
To steal a line from my husband: If you can read this, it's not sameach enough!

International Agunah Day

Today is the 13th of the month of Adar, the Fast of Esther. As I mentioned last year, the Fast of Esther has been designated International Agunah Day by Yad L'Isha. An agunah is a woman who is unable to obtain a get (Jewish divorce). In modern times, such situations are typically the result of a husband's refusal to grant his wife a get, either out of spite or in order to extort money or gain custody of children. Although certain aspects of the halakhot pertaining to marriage and divorce developed in order to protect women, they are set within a patriarchal framework in which the decision to marry or divorce ultimately resides with men. Women who cannot obtain a ghet are left in an untenable situation, unable to remarry lest their children become mamzerim.

Such situations do not arise in the Reform movement, which often relies on civil divorce, or in the Reconstructionist movement, which grants unilateral divorces in cases of recalcitrance. Rachel Adler, a Reform activist and theologian, has advocated replacing the traditional marriage ceremony, kiddushin, with an egalitarian shutafut ("partnership") ceremony, in part to avoid the creation of mamzerim and thus promote harmony with other movements.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in the diaspora have devised various methods for preventing women from becoming agunot, including the use of conditional marriage formulas, special clauses within the ketubah (marriage contract), and prenuptial agreements that make civil divorce contingent on the granting of a get. You can read about Conservative approaches to the problem here; the prenuptial agreement sanctioned by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America can be found here. Responsible rabbis do not officiate at weddings unless the agunah issue has been addressed. Those of us who marry in a halakhic context also have a duty to avail ourselves of one of these methods of agunah prevention, even if we expect to be married forever (as most of us do). It is only once these precautions become de rigueur that the problem will have been resolved.

When precautions have not been taken and a woman finds herself unable to obtain a get, rabbinical courts will often attempt to annul the marriage by means of various legal loopholes. Some courts (notably the Conservative and Masorti courts and the Morgenstern/Rackman bet din) grant annulments more readily than others. In Israel, where rabbinical courts are an arm of the state, legal sanctions are often imposed on recalcitrant husbands. However, such sanctions are not always effective, and the courts are not always willing to impose them. Rabbi David Malka, an Israeli rabbinical judge, recently admitted to the Jerusalem Post that he often encourages women to submit to the financial demands of recalcitrant husbands:
"Listen, this is money that she never earned," explained Malka. "Only in theory does it belong to her.

"For instance, according to the law the wife is entitled to half of a man's pension rights even though she never worked a day in her life. I do not think she should remain an aguna because she is stubborn about receiving her half."

The ugliness of such a statement coming from a leader of a community that encourages women to be stay-at-home mothers boggles the mind.

The organization Yad L'Isha (mentioned above) has made important strides toward helping Israeli agunot, including the creation of the institution of to`anot bet din, women who advocate for other women in divorce cases. Although they have no halakhic standing in rabbinical courts because of their gender, the to`anot, who are experts in the laws of marriage and divorce, have managed to work with rabbinical judges to free many potential agunot.

Right now, however, Israeli women are in a precarious situation. Annoyed by the public pressure imposed on them by institutions such as Yad L'Isha, the Israeli Council of Rabbinical Judges has decided to sever all ties with organizations that advocate for agunot. We can only hope that there is enough negative publicity to change their minds.

Please help spread the word about this problem, and take a moment today to recite the prayer for agunot.

You can read more about the connection between agunot and the Fast of Esther here.

(Hat tip to Miriam Shaviv and OOSJ, may his blog rest in peace, for linking to the JPost article.)

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Some Pre-Purim Fun

If you are a J-blog reader and haven't visited the Muqata recently, be sure to stop by. Jameel and a slew of guest bloggers have been parodying popular J-blogs and even producing elaborate mirror sites. The posts are funniest if you read the blogs being parodied, but I was amused by several parodies of blogs that I don't read as well. This Lipman post takes the hamentaschen, but this parody of Ask Shifra made me laugh, too. And of course, if you are a mean-spirited liberal like myself, you will enjoy this Cross-Currents spoof, especially the parody of Toby Katz ("Brokeback Balabusta"), which is disturbing similar to the original. (Since I know there are some Mar Gavriel readers here, a special link to his spoof, too. Very funny, if you read the real thing.)

More giggles here for the JTS/ Boston-area crowd.

New Purim Kiddush!

At DH's blog. Chag sameach!

Kosher Cooking Carnival

I only follow J-Blogs semi-regularly, so I didn't find out about the Kosher Cooking Carnival until tonight. It's a monthly event showcasing Jewish recipes, started by me-ander and hosted by a different blog each month. The latest (third) edition is at SarandEz. Previous carnivals are at me-ander, here and here. Apparently, you can submit your own recipes if you show up early enough.

(Cross-posted to Kosherblog.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Heart Problems

I received Nancy Baggett's The All-American Cookie Book as a bridal shower gift, and it quickly became a favorite. The book is full of tempting recipes, entertaining cookie lore, and mouth-watering color photos. The first chapter, "How to Make Great Cookies Every Single Time," has proven invaluable, and the first recipe I tried (called "Best-Ever Snickerdoodles") made what are quite possibly the most delicious cookies I've ever tasted.

Sadly, I've come to realize that even big-money cookbooks like Baggett's are not without flaws, some of them major. DH has never stopped ridiculing me for trying what was supposedly the first brownie recipe in America. The resulting brownies (called "Lowney's Brownies" in the book) were so bad that after tasting them we actually threw the entire batch away. (Call me crazy, but I think that if you're going to publish a lousy recipe for purely historical reasons, you should include some kind of warning.)

I came across another blooper last Thursday, when I tried to prepare "Chocolate Hearts" for an oneg shabbat at a friend's house. The recipe is unusual: it makes use of confectioner's sugar in place of granulated sugar and flour and uses egg whites instead of whole eggs for something of a cross between meringues and rolled cookies. An interesting idea in principle, but when I combined the ingredients, the resulting "dough" was roughly the consistency of slightly running frosting. After several stubborn attempts to roll it (resulting in a pile of chocolatey wax paper and a minor tantrum), I dumped in the rest of the bag of confectioner's sugar and managed to turn what remained of my batter into a small batch of brittle, overly sweet brown hearts covered with white powder. I read the recipe over and over, trying to figure out what I'd done wrong, to no avail. I'd followed the directions to the letter.

The next morning, I awoke with a new sense of clarity. Yet again, I had been led astray by my persistant belief in the infallibility of cookbooks. Once I acknowledged that the recipe was wrong, the solution to my troubles became instantly clear: corn starch! I didn't have any corn starch, though, so I used potato starch left over from last Pesach. To avoid the messy appearance of white on brown, I rolled the dough in cocoa powder and dipped the cookie cutter in cocoa between uses. For the product of so many compromises, my little cookies were astonishingly good, if I do say so myself. When you first bite into them, they're soft, rich and chocolatey, like a brownie (not Lowney's), but then they melt in your mouth like cotton candy. I've decided to call my cookies "sweet nothings" because of this etherial quality, and because I made them with a one-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter, so they came out very small:
chocolate heart
(They're not so blurry in real life -- I'm still learning how to use our new digital camera.)

Another great thing about these cookies is that they can be kosher for Passover if they are made with Passover confectioner's sugar or potato starch. They would also make nice additions to mishloach manot packages.

Here is the recipe. Feel free to modify it -- I'm not infallible.

Sweet Nothings

Yield: About 50 1-inch cookies

3 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken up or coarsely chopped
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened American-style cocoa powder, plus more for rolling.
1/3 cup corn or potato starch (plus more, if needed)
1/3 cup egg whites (about 3 large eggs) at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease several baking sheets.*

In a small, microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chocolate for 1 minute. Stir well. Microwave for an additional 30 seconds, stir, and repeat until the chocolate is mostly melted, then let the residual heat finish the job. (Alternatively, in a small, heavy saucepan, melt the chocolate over low heat, stirring frequently; be very careful not to burn. Immediately remove from heat.) Let cool to warm.

In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on low speed, beat together the chocolate, about one-third of the powdered sugar, the cocoa powder, and the starch until well blended. Gradually add about one-third of the egg whites and beat until evenly incorporated. Add another one-third of the powdered sugar, then another one-third of the egg whites, and beat until smooth. Repeat the process, adding the remaining one-third of the powdered sugar, then the remaining one-third of the egg whites, and the vanilla. Increase the speed to high and beat for 2 minutes more, or until very smooth and well blended. Let the dough stand for 5 minutes to allow the egg whites to become more fully absorbed. At this point, if the dough seems too sticky, beat in a bit more corn or potato starch. If it seems too crumbly, beat in a little bit of water.

Set aside several tablespoons of cocoa powder on a plate or paper towel. Dust hands lightly with the cocoa. Roll about one third of the dough in the cocoa powder, then roll it between hands so that it forms a ball. Place between two sheets of wax paper and roll to about 1/4 inch thick. Peel off the top sheet of wax paper. Using a one inch heart-shaped cookie cutter,** cut out the cookies, dipping the cutter into cocoa powder between uses. Using a metal spatula or paring knife, carefully transfer the cookies to the baking sheets. Reroll any dough scraps. Continue cutting out the cookies until all the dough is used.

Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, in the middle of the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until dry on the surface but soft in the centers when lightly pressed. Slide the cookies onto a wire rack. Let stand until completely cooled.

Store in an airtight container for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 1 month.

*I used parchment paper in accordance with Baggett's instructions, but some of the cookies stuck. Greasing the sheets might work better.
** Baggett calls for a 2 or 2 1/4 inch heart-shaped cutter. You can use any shape, of course, but I don't recommend using anything larger than two or three inches, since the dough is very delicate and large cookies have a greater chance of breaking while being removed from cookie sheet.

(Cross-posted to Kosherblog.)