KABBALISTIC COOKING PART TWO: HARMONY

Creating a successful dish depends on achieving a balance-point, or harmony between one or more dualities.

There are many dualities (i.e. contrasting properties) within the realm of cooking.

These include:

  • Hot/Cold
  • Spicy/Bland
  • Oily/Astringent
  • Solid/Liquid
  • Crisp/Soft
  • Salty/Un-salty
  • Moist/Dry
  • Cooked/Raw
  • Sweet/Sour
  • Rich/Lite
  • Chewy/Mushy
  • Concentrated/Diluted
  • Fresh/Aged (settled)

Harmonizing the dualities doesn’t necessarily mean finding the midpoint between the two, rather it means reaching the right spot on the continuum that suits the particular need.

Take as a simple example, lemonade made from water, lemon juice, and sugar (or some other sweetener). Harmony here means adjusting the lemon juice to sugar ratio (i.e. ‘Sweet/Sour’) to reach the right taste. It also means harmonizing the ‘Concentrated/Diluted’ continuum by adjusting the ratio of water to the two flavor ingredients, so it tastes neither too intense nor weak.

To illustrate further, let’s look at several common dishes and in parentheses enumerate (referring to the list above) the dualities needed to be harmonized.

  • Chicken Soup (1,2,6,8,10 (chicken content), 11 (the veggies within it), 13)
  • Salad Dressing (2,3,4 (thickness),6,9,10,12,13,14)
  • Or even plain, boiled pasta (1,6,7,11, and maybe more)

I realize that this may seem overwhelming – quite technical on the one hand, and esoteric on the other. But really, we’re simply trying to translate a ‘right-brain’, or intuitive process into ‘left-brain’, or verbal/quantifiable terms in order to give those of you who don’t yet ‘intuit’, but are ‘into it’ J a chance to jump in and join the fun. My hope and belief is that once you do, at some point these ideas will ‘click’ (i.e. shift over to your right brain) and you will have gained a valuable skill for life!

 

KABBALISTIC COOKING (Part One)

People have told me that they like my blog, but that it’s false advertising. After all, it’s called Soul Foodie, and while there’s plenty of ‘soul’ in it, they say, how about letting its ‘foodie’ side come out more?

What could I say? I agreed.

So with no further ado, here comes NYS’s (in)famous ‘kabbalistic’* theory of cooking.

The way I see it, cooking is all about the interplay of four elements that parallel the four primal mystic elements of creation.

These are: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water.

Creating a successful dish depends on nothing more than achieving a balance-point, or harmony among these four elements. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all four elements will be equally expressed within a given dish or cooking process, but rather that they’re combined in a way that produces a gastronomically appealing result.

Virtually every recipe incorporates these principles, although perhaps subconsciously on the part of a recipe creator, and almost certainly unconsciously on the part of a recipe follower.

While I realize this all may sound a little stratospheric, it’s really quite down to earth, and not only is viewing cooking through this ‘4-Element’ lens and adopting its technique is a learnable skill, but it’s very practical and satisfying (and fun!) as well.

One of the biggest benefits of mastering this method of cooking is the ability and freedom to organically custom-create your own recipes based on your own priorities, preferences, budget, and available ingredients time and tools.

So to begin at the beginning, let’s get to know our elements:

FIRE – Obviously refers to heat. This includes the intensity of heat at which a food is cooked, as well as the type of heat which is used (oven, stovetop, grill, crockpot, sous vide, etc.)

‘Fire’ also refers to the degree of doneness at which the cooking process stops (or is halted).

Subcategories of ‘fire’ include reheating (which is an art unto itself), warming or maintaining heat, and serving temperature.

A food’s spiciness is also related to fire.

WATER – Besides water itself, the element of water refers to a food’s moisture (both regarding its cooking process and its finished state).

It also encompasses the concepts of liquidity vs. solidity, as well as a food’s (or liquid’s) degree of concentration and/or dilution.

Oil is related to the element of water, as is blandness or subtlety of taste.

AIR – How dry something is depends largely on air. Also how dense something is. Air facilitates evaporation and condensation as well.

It also tends to enable crispness and crunchiness; it can also make things stale.

EARTH – Earth generally refers to solid ingredients, alone or in proportion to liquids. It also includes ingredients that cause things to solidify (starches, rennet, etc.), as well as the process of freezing (and/or congealing), which turns liquids into solids.

‘Earth’ can also refer to utensils used to maintain or alter the shape of food, and also those which hold it while it cooks, thus separating it from its fire source and at times controlling its exposure to air.

For now let’s end on that ‘earthy’ note, and next time we’ll begin to bring things further ‘down to earth’ as we discuss how the four elements interrelate.

(*Disclaimer: I am not a kabbalist in any sense of the word and merely borrow certain terms and concepts as a convenient frame of reference.)  

 

AFTER WORK BLUES

I’m so tired.
When I was young, I used to want to fly.
Now I just want to lie
(or is it ‘lay’?) my head upon a bed.
I’m the age my mother left this world (scary).
Only 56.
Far too young to go, I know.
But still, I think I better understand her now; when she’d say she was tired and sort of ready, too.
Does this mean I’m depressed? (Or maybe just in need of a little ‘deep rest’.)

SLOW TRAIN – FAST TRACK

It is told that they once asked the Kotzker Rebbe, who was known for his passionate, almost impatient commitment to unadorned truth in himself and in others, why he was so fond of Reb Yitzele, the Rebbe of Vorka, who seemed to embrace the exact opposite approach, of near-infinite patience and unconditional love for others – be they truth-seekers or not.

He was said to have answered: “I don’t understand your question. The Vorka Rebbe and I are on exactly the same track.”

Seeing his students’ confused looks, he went on to explain: “As you know, there’s a train station outside of our town, from where one can take a train to Warsaw (the capital of Poland, where they lived).

“There are two types of trains that come by. One is the ‘express train’ that takes you nonstop to the capital. The other is the ‘local’ that has stops at all the various towns and villages along the way.

“Here in Kotzk, we’re the ‘express train’. If you jump on, be ready to immediately give up all illusions and live for the ultimate truth; and if you can’t handle it, you’ll be thrown off the train.

“Reb Yitzele also guides only to genuine truth. But, if a passenger feels the need from time to time to tour around ‘this’ village or rest up a bit in ‘that’ – he’ll pull the train into the station and let him. But eventually, anyone who ‘rides’ with him will also get to ‘Warsaw’.”

A veteran 12-Step Recovery sponsor, upon hearing this story, made a similar observation.

He said that some ‘sponsees’ (those who have turned to him to guide them through the ‘recovery’ process) just jump in with both feet and don’t look back. They’ve had enough of living with the pain of their addiction (actually, the pain behind their addiction) and are willing to diligently work the 12 steps (which are essentially a well-organized path to midos improvement and emuna-building) in order to get out and stay out.

But sponsees like that are rare, he said. Most take the ‘local train’. It takes them a good while just to ‘get off the platform’, and even once they do they’re constantly ‘checking their ticket’ to make sure they’re on the right train (and can even seem to wish they weren’t!).

Then just when you think they’re finally starting to move and make some progress – they disappear into thin air. For weeks, months, maybe years.

And then one day they’re back and ready to move on – at least to the next stop.

He used to be impatient, he said with a chuckle. Almost dragging sponsees ‘up the steps’. But it never worked. If they’re dragged and not really climbing – then they’re just not there.

Nowadays he just lets people take whatever time they feel they need. “I don’t change my pitch,” he said. “They know if they call me they’re going to get the same shpiel to move forward to the next ‘station’. But it has to be at their pace, not mine – no pressure, but no slack.”

IN PRAISE OF THE UNATTRACTIVE

Language is a funny thing.

Sometimes words are taken – and meant – literally. For instance saying “It’s raining outside,” means just that.

Other times words are not meant to be taken literally, rather they’re used to paint a picture or convey a feeling, such as, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

Then there are the grey areas. Words that aren’t metaphors, yet through usage or cultural context have come to mean in people’s minds not quite what they’re really saying.

It’s this third category that I find most fascinating and have found at times to reveal hidden truths.

Take the word ‘attractive’. A nice, pareve word that the frummest of ladies would feel comfortable being described as.

Yet looking at the word plainly and literally, ‘attractive’ means to attract. That being so, the natural next question would be what (or who) is being attracted?

Another interesting question is what’s the opposite of ‘attractive’? I’ll give you a moment to think.

I’ll bet that most of you didn’t even need that moment. The opposite of ‘attractive’ is ‘unattractive’, of course.

Or is it?

Actually the opposite of to attract is to repel. Therefore the opposite of attractive would be repelling, or repulsive.

So where does that leave ‘unattractive’?

Unattractive means just that. Un-attractive; non-attracting, or neutral.

(Which I think might just be the definition of tznius.)

Now I know I’m wading into hot water here (and I have no intention to judge) but for instance, if someone says they refuse to go out with head-covering ‘X’ instead of head-covering ‘Y’ because it’s so unattractive, what are they really saying?

Will people actually feel repulsed by this (assuming the covering is clean and neat)?

Or will they not be … attracted?

Like I said, words are funny things. Sometimes what we say is not what we really mean.

And sometimes it is (even if we’re not consciously aware of it).

Just saying.

TREES AND FORESTS

Are you a tree person or a forest person? Now I know you live in neither, but dwell in an apartment or (if you’re lucky) a house. But what I mean is, that some of us are naturally inclined to focus on the details (or, ‘trees’) of life, while others focus on the big picture (forest).

I heard a Rav once say that BT’s are, generally speaking, ‘forest people’, they’re drawn by and can grasp the ‘big picture’—the ‘why’ of being Jewish. Often it was a thirst for an encompassing ‘big picture’ world-view that made sense, which fueled the search that brought them here. Yet, due to their inexperience and less rule-oriented upbringing, they also tend struggle with the practical details of Jewish life, its ‘hows.’

FFB’s, on the other hand, have the opposite challenge. They’ve been learning and absorbing Yiddishkeit’s ‘ways and means’ since early childhood. The ‘trees’ aren’t a problem for them, but all too often, that’s what it remains—a group of isolated trees. The bigger questions of why they are doing all this, and where it’s supposed to be leading, are often ignored, or even tacitly devalued. As the Rav put it: “FFB’s know how to be Jewish, but not why to be Jewish, while the BT’s know why to be Jewish, but not how.”

(Maybe that’s why we’ve all been thrown all together in this generation—to teach each other, since both ‘tree’ and ‘forest’ vision are vital for a vibrant and genuine Torah life.)

This ‘how’ and ‘why’ dichotomy doesn’t only exist in the Torah world. I believe it’s the linchpin in the fallacious ‘religion/science’ debate. The scientists keep mistaking ‘how’ for ‘why’, whereas the (non-Jewish) religious mislabel ‘why’ as ‘how’.

Let me illustrate:

The question is posed: “How does a huge tree ever grow from a tiny seed?”

“How? Because G-d willed it so.” Confidently chimes the clergyman, (explaining the ‘why’ under the misnomer of ‘how’).

“Oh, yeah?” the scientist scoffs. “That’s not why it grows. It grows because the DNA tells the XYZ cells to…, etc., etc.”

The scientist has given a good exposition of the ‘how’s’ (i.e. how Hashem chose to deploy the wisdom of creation to make a tree grow), but his vain mistake is to think that ‘how’ equals ‘why’, and that discovering a process somehow nullifies its creator, (which is about as logical as saying “Aha, I found brushstrokes! That mean the Mona Lisa must have painted itself.”)!

‘How’s’ and ‘why’s’, the ‘trees’ and ‘forests’ also play themselves out in cooking. We can look at a recipe—its ingredients, utensils needed, and procedures—as a group of unrelated ‘trees’. Or, we can step back and try to see the ‘forest’ of why’s behind it. We can ask ourselves: Why does it say add all the wet ingredients before the dry? Why does this chicken recipe get baked uncovered and that one, covered? Why does it say this dish is okay to make in advance and reheat, while that one has to be made fresh? Why do they call this ingredient ‘optional’ and that one, not?

Questions like these can lead us to grasp the bigger picture and processes behind cooking, which in turn opens the doors of our own personal creativity—to confidently adapt recipes and even to ‘fly solo’ and even dare to leave the cookbook closed.

Tu B’Shvat is when fruit takes center stage and one of my favorite ‘fruit’ stories (I think I heard it in the name of the Chofetz Chaim) is of a Rav who’s walking through an outdoor fruit market, when he comes across an old woman sitting and wailing.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, concerned.

“I sell apples here,” she moans, “and some hooligans just came by and knocked over my whole stand! Apples are rolling everywhere and people are grabbing them up for themselves just as fast. I’m a poor woman and now my whole livelihood is ruined!”

The Rav feels the woman’s pain, but knows that now isn’t the time for commiseration, but for action. “So what are you waiting for?” he asks her. “Let’s get down on the ground and grab some up, too. At least that way you’ll have at least something left to sell!”

This fruitful parable hit home for me, as lately I’ve been feeling flickers of despair in my usually burning quest to bring the ‘forest/why’s’ of Torah truths to acheinu beis Yisroel and the world. What’s another book? What’s another blog post or outreach email? The world is so flooded with (mis)information these days, the truth is so trampled and scattered, why even bother?

I once read an article by an esteemed Torah educator who said that virtually everyone she knows past the age of 50 has given up their idealism and world-changing dreams. Well, without giving away my age, I started to fear I was about to become one of those statistics.  Then the story hit me. Yes, nowadays the truth is rolling around in the dust; people’s hearts and minds are being grabbed up by myriads of distractions and lies built upon lies. But does that mean that we Yidden should just sit weeping in front of our overturned applecart of truth? That we who strive to be m’kadesh Shem shomayim shouldn’t ‘grab too’?

So, whether you’re a ‘tree’ person or a ‘forest’ person, now’s the time to ‘branch’ out and bring people back to their ‘roots’. Just plant a few ‘seeds’ and you may be amazed to see what grows!

 

SENSITIVITY TRAINING

“Is it true,” asked Sid the gas station manager to Yankel, who was chauffeuring his clan up to the Catskills on a hot summer’s day, “that in your bungalow camp, men and women have totally separate swimming pool hours?”

“Of course,” Yankel said.

“Well, don’t take it personally, but aren’t you guys are a little, uh, oversensitive, between that and your dress code and everything?”

“Nope” Yankel smiled. “It’s you guys that are under-sensitive.”

“Come again?”

“You’re so overexposed to immodesty that you don’t even notice it until it’s so extreme that it knocks you over the head. Whereas we’re tuned in to more subtle, yet very real, feelings and energy that you’ve become too desensitized to even perceive.”

“Nice try,” smirked Sid. “But I don’t buy it.”

“It’s a free country,” Yankel shrugged. “Anyway, thanks for your service.” He sniffed and frowned. “I know it can’t be easy working around these strong gasoline fumes all day.”

Sid shook his head. “Nah, I don’t smell a thing. I’m so used to the fumes; you’d have to practically stick a cup of gasoline under my nose for me to even notice it.”

“And that, Sid,” Yankel said with a grin as he drove off, “is just what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

HONEST, TO GOODNESS

BOOK REVIEW

Searching for God in the Garbage – by Bracha Goetz

Everysearching-for-god-in-the-garbage BT (or ‘spiritual holocaust survivor’, as I like to put it, to the consternation of many) has a story to tell – and it’s usually not very pretty. Unfortunately, often the most meaningful, poignant, and inspirational parts of that story are edited out either by the BT him/herself or by whatever venue that agrees to publish it.

So I was sort of expecting more of the same when I began reading noted frum children’s author, Bracha Goetz’s new memoir, Searching for God in the Garbage. Instead, I was immediately pulled into a refreshingly honest, hard-hitting (yet totally tznius – although not for frum kids) account of a searching soul’s journey, through adolescence (as a ‘60’s flower child), the heights of academia (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton fought over accepting her!), young adulthood as a radical feminist plagued with an identity crisis and a debilitating eating disorder, and finally “breaking free” from med school to go to Israel and eventually discover her true self as a Bas Yisroel.

The book is compiled from a series of (actual) journal entries, punctuated with poems, and correspondences sent and received along the way, such as the following (responding to her parents’ reaction to her post-college decision the study Judaism in Jerusalem):

Dear Mom and Dad,

I am really angry. I’ve been trying very hard to explain to you how I feel, but you continue to hold that I’m being “brainwashed by a peer-pressure group, very structured, and most influential.” Really! This is not a group of sickeningly friendly Moonies inviting a bunch of people that look like losers in for a little food and a lot of mindless smiles. This is our own heritage you’re talking about!

And I’ve got to ask you this question. How would you characterize the socialization process in which I “grew up?” There was no very influential pressure to be irreligious ever since childhood? Come on! I was bombarded with the strongest peer-pressure for years. Peer-pressure to go to bars, get drunk, get stoned, get boyfriends, and all of that was behind the law we all had to follow to: Have a good time! Do whatever you feel like doing, every man for himself, hedonism is beautiful! And you call what I am experiencing now peer-pressure?

The banner of the “New Religion” was waved constantly in my face. Do you think I couldn’t read the words? There are no absolutes! And conformity was exacted in subtle ways. I accepted so many rigid dogmas unconsciously that I would never have accepted had the influences not been presented so incessantly. I didn’t use my reasoning powers to check out the credibility of “the facts.” I wasn’t even aware that I was being influenced. Were you saying something about “brainwashing?”…

Perhaps it’s Mrs. Goetz’s long years as a children’s author, but I felt a certain innocence permeating the text, even as the topics covered were very real and at times raw and gritty. More likely it was the author having tapped into the ‘Pintele Yid’ – that untouched and untouchable inner essence of the soul that remains pure regardless of whatever spiritual travails (or, let’s face it, atrocities) the BT experienced before finding his or her way home, which can and should serve as a tremendous source of solace and self-esteem for every returnee.

I was inspired by this book, as a well-written work of literature and also as a harbinger of a new maturity entering this genre. I salute the author’s courage and wish the work much success.

Buy the book here.

SPRING FORWARD – (DON’T) FALL BACK

The month of Shevat has just arrived, and I’m excited.

This stretch of the year, from Shevat to Sivan (what you can roughly call spring) is my favorite time of year.

It’s not just about the weather – although I do like that too. It’s about the spiritual ‘climate’, which living in Israel soon viscerally convinces you, is the one that’s real.

Summer, despite its all-American hype, is a real downer, Jewishly speaking. The fast of Tammuz, the Three Weeks, steadily intensifying into the Nine Days, the ‘week of’, and Tisha b’Av itself, is about as far from the non-Jewish concept of ‘summer fun’ as could be. (Maybe it is fun for them, being b’nei Esav, many of our ‘downs’ during this season were the results of their ‘ups’.) Add the scorching Middle East weather and you get the picture.

Fall, to me, is just terrifying. Elul hits me like a searchlight, suddenly making my teeny tiny faults, which I can so easily sweep under the rug the rest of the year, reveal themselves to be maybe not so teeny after all. Selichos and Yamim Noraim, for all their holiness, are just way too much in-shul time for an introverted, private pray-er like yours truly.  Succos is a respite – in theory – but its definition of simcha activities and mine have yet to align themselves (and I know I’m the one who has to change).

Winters here are snowless, dark, protracted marches through weeks of chol after chol.

And then there’s spring… Ahhh!

The world wake ups. Almond blossoms like wedding veils burst forth first from yesterday’s bare branches (inevitably catching me by surprise and without a siddur from which to make Bircas HaIlanos upon first sighting, as per the psak I received (“Looks like I’ll be yotzi someone else’s brocha this year too”). The electric-red rakefets, our opium-less poppies, freckle the parks and roadsides. The stores – and especially the shuk – become cornucopias of every type of fruit, fresh and dried, as Tu b’Shevat (and, for us, its amazing seder) approaches.

Then Adar. Who can not love Adar? The spiritual tailwinds of our upside mazel charges the air, and Purim is the one day of the year when we’re not only allowed, but encouraged to drink ourselves into a blissful stupor. (I know, there are those of you against this. I can’t say you’re wrong, and I’ll happily bend to your opinion and remain sober – the other 364 days of the year.)

Next comes Nisan. People (especially my wife) think I’m crazy, but I love cleaning for Pesach. I can almost now smell the fragrant bleach-Fantastic cocktail I brew especially for the occasion. I feel like an army general as I zero in, capturing more and more territory and planting the ‘chometz-free’ flag, eventually confining the enemy to its ‘capital’ – the kitchen. Normally cozy and friendly to a cook like me, I take off the gloves (or, actually put them on) and scour, scald, and cover until it’s spiritually surgically clean.

Then there’s Pesach itself. I love shemura matzos. Just flour and water, but they’re like the mahn to me – offering every taste in the world.  Each year my parsimonious nature looks on in shock as I excitedly dish out fifty bucks per box of water-crackers.  The Seder – ours, simple and loving, as I cart out the cardboard and cellophane dioramas of the makkos I’d secretly make each year when our kids were young.

Iyar is Lag b’Omer in Meron. That one sentence says it all.

By Sivan I’m starting to come down. Shavuos is great – but staying up all night is an endurance test, and the scent of Tammuz already wafts warningly on the horizon.

But that’s still months away. Spring’s about to sprout – and I’m ready to relish the ride.