Posted by Rob Eshman
Katsuji Tanabe is the onion of kosher chefs-- every time you think you've figured him out, you find there;'s a whole other layer.
Tonight Katsuji held a party at the Mexican Consulate near downtown Los Angeles to screen the episode of the Food Network show, "Chopped!" on which he appears as a contestant.
I first met Katsuji when he was the chef at the kosher steakhouse Shilo on Pico. He stood out. Katsuji grew up in Mexico to Japanese and Mexican parents. He came to America at age 19 with no money, and worked his way into some of the finest restaurants. He isn't Jewish, but he was intrigued by the challenge of cooking kosher. It was clear he was cooking at a level that went unappreciated by many patrons. Katsuji was working up hand-chopped aged burgers with cashew milk blue cheese and authentic Baja style tacos with homemade habenero salsa. The clientele just wanted well-done steak.
Katsuji moved on to open his own place, Mexikosher, also on Pico, where those homemade salsas are center stage. It's inexpensive, delicious, and maybe the most inadvertantly healthy Mexican food in LA-- no cheese, sour cream, lard. "99 percent of Mexican restaurants aren't kosher," is the place's motto. "We are the 1 percent. Occupy Mexikosher."
Katsuji's first on screen appearance on a food show was in a web series on jewishjournal.com, The Chosen Dish. He made Thai Tuna Tempura Matzoh Balls. The Food Ntework heard of him and made him a contestant on "Chopped."
About 60 friends, family and colleagues gathered in a function room at the Consulate to watch the show with him. Katsuji was his ebullient self-- dressed in fancier street clothes, his hair slicked back, he rushed to hug people and introduce friends to one another. The crowd was as eclectric as the chef. I met an attorney named Ottavio Olivas who moonlighted as the creator/chef of a pop-up called Ceviche Project. I met a producer from the Travel Channel who worked with Katsuji on his next top secret TV project. I met a guy who plays hockey with Katsuji.
"Oh, he's crazy competitive," the guy said. "He plays in a league, like four times a week."
Before the show started we ate hors d'oeuvres, including one based on something Katsuji invented for the show-- schwarma mole. A mixologist poured a drink of tequila, pear liquor, ginger liquor, lime, soda and mint, with-- as a nod to Mexikosher-- a Manischewitz floater. There was also lots of beer-- Katsuji likes to party.
Once we sat to watch the show, the Mexican Japanese Christian kosher cooking hockey playing chef's competitive streak really became apparent.
He trash-talked his opponents ("His plate looks like dog food."). He got in their heads. ("I'm crazy enough to open a Mexican kosher restaurant, what can't I do?") He talked smack. ("You look tired," he said to one chef. "You should just quit.")
But what he really did was cook like a demon. The gimmick of "Chopped!" is you have to make three different courses from three different sets of bizarre ingredients. You have 10 seconds once the ingredients are revelaed to start cooking, and 20 minutes to cook. The completed food sits for 45 minutes before the three-judge panel tastes it. The day goes from 5:30 am - 11 pm.
"They have you meet at a Starbucks in the morning. They want to get you hyped," said Katsuji. Beforehand a friend had tipped him off that he should just drink water all day, no coffee. He said that helped him stay calm as the other chefs got more and more wired.
The results were three inventive dishes that drew less on his kosher knowledge and more on his mad Mexican cooking skills. If the hockey game in handy it was in being able to survive and long slog of competitition.
And when the onscreen announcer declared Katsuji the winner, the crowd in the Consulate erupted in applause. Katsuji stood in front of the screen, cradling his toddler daughter, beaming.
"Do you think you'll get first place?" the TV announcer had asked the chef.
"Is there anything else?" he asked right back.
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July 25, 2013 | 11:26 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
I walked into Barnyard with a chip on my shoulder.
Barnyard is the new Venice restaurant from Chef Jesse Barber. It's very New Venice: farm-to-table food, hot chef with even hotter resume (Tasting Kitchen, French Laundry), local beers, wines that appear on no wine Apps, and of course a dedicated spouse carrying some part of the load (in this case, Celia Barber is the GM).
It's decorated in an Urban Farmer aesthetic-- a lot of wood and metal, but very clean, with plenty of air and space. If you're nostalgic for the old Smith and Hawken store on Beverly Drive, you'll feel right at home. We have come a long way as a culture, from when "barnyard" implied flies, manure and horsesweat, to "Barnyard" evoking an upscale, conscientious eating experience. Can Calvin Klein's "Barnyard Pour Homme" be far behind?
I liked Barnyard. The look, the food, that local beer, the tattooed waiter who seems to read more food blogs than I do. My only problem with the place was this: Memory.
I was 20 when I met Helen. I was sub-renting a studio apartment in Jim Morrison's old building on Horizon (every building nearby claimed to be Jim Morrison's old building) when I walked into a storefront just across Pacific Ave, The sign above the window said "House of Teriyaki Donuts." Inside a young Korean woman was working furiously, trying to communicate with her Latino cooks and her rock star wannabe waiter. The menu had a section for teriyaki, a section for breakfast, and, as a side order, donuts. It turns out Helen did not invent the teriyaki donut, she just ran out of room on her sign.
H.O.T. as it was called offered a breakfast special: 2 eggs, hash browns, veggie bacon, toast and coffee for $2.99. At those prices, I saw a lot of Helen.
But the money wasn't even the most amazing thing about H.O.T. The food was. The cook was an older Latino named Francisco who had worked loyally, for years, at a previous Venice institution, the Layfayette Coffee Shop at 1219 Ocean Front Walk. Lafayette thrived in the '50's and 60's, serving old Jews and Beatniks sardine sandwiches for 75 cents and its exotic "Hawaiian Club House"-- ham, pineapple ring, cheese-- for three bits as well. I would put Francisco's poached eggs right up against a French Laundry sous vide egg any day. And his hash browns were crisp-dry on the outside, moist on the inside, with edges so crunchy you could use the loose shards as toothpicks.
I liked that the same guy who cooked for Ginsberg and Morrison was cooking for me. I liked the groggy, post-high, post-sex, post poetry-jam, post-parent's money crowd that sleepwalked into the place, dining long and groggily as Helen bustled about, refilling coffee cups, whsipering good morning, taking orders. H.O.T. sustained a lot of souls.
Eventually Helen expanded to a new location, just a bit south, and H.O.T. became H.O.T II, then Benice. The name fit: it seemed to be Helen's entire philosophy. She was always just...nice.
The new place was like the old place, just bigger. Helen added avocado to the menu, and more soy meats, and I think at one point she dropped the donuts. I had married by then, and then had kids, and our family became regulars. My wife and I could chart our age by our orders there: first it was eggs and hashbrowns and coffee and donuts. Later it was one egg, a side of tomato, avocado and dry toast and decaf. Our kids started with chocolate milk and syrupy French toast, and eventually were ordering coffee and veggie burgers. While we waiting for our food, we played table football, with the jelly packets.
One day my son went out and bought one of his first meals with his own money. When he told me he ate at H.O.T. II, I thought I could hear the angels' chorus singing "Sunrise, Sunset." I almost cried.
Then, about a year ago, I heard Benice was closing. That weekend we ate a final breakfast there. Helen wasn't tearful-- she told me she was just tired. All those refills. All those orders. Enough.
She said she couldn't believe how tall our kids were-- she always said that-- and then we just said goodbye. Instantly, I missed the place.
A while later, Barnyard appeared.
What can I say? Barnyard is everything we want our restaurants to be-- thoughtful about food, careful with ingredients, casual but serious.
We ate Yellowtail Crudo, spiced with mustard seed, sparkling fresh and local. The grilled bread is also local, a tall stack served with a strawberry compote and fresh butter. The fish of the day was sea bass, perfectly poached and served with avocado and a light cilantro and chili-inflected sauce. Barber also serves what he calls Pilota. The only pilota I've seen is a kind of risotto with pork and butter and cheese, but Barber makes his with fresh tomato, peas, and pecorino, with a balsamic-rich stock. It's high-end vegetarian comfort food.
All this food, for four, with a couple glasses of wine, cost $189. It's not expensive for what it is-- you'll pay the same for that quality anywhere in L.A.-- but, newsflash, in the New Venice, a meal for $2.99 is as easy to find as a home for $299,000.
Now here's where I mourn the memory of things past: the way Helen greeted every guest as they walk in (Barber? He's that quiet dude in the kitchen). I miss a place I can pop into without thinking twice, knowing it will just hit the spot, nothing fancy but good and cheap. I miss seeing the parade of locals, because everyone, from the homeless panhandler to the surfer chicks to the walk-street producer, could afford Benice. I miss Francisco's poached eggs. I miss being able to think back all the way to Lafayette Cafe. I miss the endless refills.
Mostly, I guess, I miss watching my kids grow up.
1715 Pacific Ave, Venice, CA 90291
NOTE: Barnyard is not kosher. But it is Foodaism-recommended.
July 12, 2013 | 11:35 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last night after seeing a movie at what seems to be the cultural center of West Los Angeles Jewish life — the Landmark Theatres at the Westside Pavilion — we walked over to the new Lenny's Deli.
Lenny's filled the void left by Juniors — and I'm talking about a literal void. Juniors was 11,000 square feet of real estate at the corner of Westwood and Pico Blvd. For 53 years it served as bakery, deli counter, restaurant, meeting place and all-around noshery for LA Jews. As Michael Aushenker reported in the Jewish Journal, when Juniors abruptly announced it would shut it doors on Dec. 31, 2012, one regular summed up the feeling of generations of custimers by calling the news, "horrific."
Then Lenny Rosenberg rode into town.
Actually, Lenny is a pretty familiar face: he owned the Bagel Nosh in Beverly Hills, and tried, unsuccessfully, to take over the cursed Morts space in the Pacific Palisades. The latter effort foundered for reasons that have more to do with that stretch of property, and the internecine battles over retail in the Palisades. As restauraneurs from Danny Myers to Joe Bastianich will tell you, a successful restaurant's fate depends as much on the location and the lease as it does on the chef. Maybe more.
Lenny took over the Juniors space. He hired back almost all of the deli's 100 laid-off workers. He updated the menu with more organic foods, vegetarian and healthy options and even put in the now standard line about using local ingredients whenever possible. That means, I think, the kishke comes from Sherman Oaks.
We ate at the late Juniors about a month before it closed, and frankly, you could tell it was a deli in the fourth stage of a terminal illness. The deli counter looked like it had been lifted from Communist Poland, the wait staff moped, the food tasted of salt and apathy.
Lenny Rosenberg has revived the place. It's not called Juniors any more. It's called Lenny's.
At 10 pm, many tables in the cavernous space were full. The place itself was remodeled — new upholstery, new floors — not retro Lower East Side like the delicious, hipster Wise and Sons in San Francisco, just functional, pre-modern San Fernando Valley circa-1990.
The menu is vast and traditional. My wife's lox and bagels was very good, my kids ate their meaty meat things — pastrami, corned beef, etc — and liked it. The sandwiches are of the piled high variety, and come with cole slaw. I ordered my usual late night deli treat: grilled swiss on rye with Dijon mustard, sauerkraut and tomato. I told Lenny it's a vegetarian Reuben. My son wondered why, with five pages of food on offer, I had to order off the menu.
I had wine from a good selection. The kids had egg creams, which were delicious. We almost ordered the kishke, but this is 2013, and there's only so much Lipitor I can take.
The food was absolutely good. Much better than good in the case of the lox, my sandwich and the egg creams and the homemade rugalach. While Juniors had become a regular let down, Lenny's, I think, will now be a pleasant surprise.
Lenny came over to say hi — he knows me from the Journal. The man is working hard, hard to make Lenny's succeed. He's back to running a bakery, a deli counter, a restaurant and a catering outfit. He instituted actual Shabbat services in a meeting room at the rear of the place. He looks exhausted, but driven. He's also thin as a rail, which ordinarily I would think disqualifies you as a deli owner, but in his case is probably just the delightful side effects of stress and overwork.
But Lenny's does work. The booths are back to being filled with the mishmash tureen of film-goers, hipsters, Persian Jews, seniors and soccer families that used to fill Juniors. Not every foot of the 11,000 suare feet is teaming, but if Lenny can hold out, maybe he'll get there. I hope so.
Because it's good to have a deli on the corner of Westwood and Pico.
June 30, 2013 | 12:15 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last night I made dinner for my mother's 83rd birthday. I know my mother likes cooking for us at her home-- because mothers like being mothers. But I like cooking for the woman who cooked for me for so many years.
It wasn't nearly as hot in Venice, CA as it was in the rest of LA, or the rest of the States. The temperature hit 75 degrees, maybe. But that made it hot enough to come up with a menu that was fast, light and didn't heat up the kitchen. I also wanted to use up the rainbow chard, lemons and tomatoes from the garden. I made Greek Salad, Rainbow Chard with Onion and Lemon, Eggplant with Mint Yogurt and Harissa Oil and Grilled Wild Salmon.
The eggplant was my mom's favorite, so I'm passing on the recipe. A birthday present to her, back to you.
[RECIPE] Eggplant with Mint Yogurt and Harissa Oil
3 medium eggplants (I used a slender variety)
2 cups Greek yogurt
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
2 T. chopped chives or scallions
3 T. chopped fresh mint
3 T. olive oil
salt and pepper
Harissa or Chili Oil*
Heat a gas or charcoal grill. While it's heating, blend together yogurt, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper.
Place whole eggplants on grill. Cook, covered, about 7 minutes, until soft. Turn and finish cooking until eggplants are very soft and the skin is just beginning to char.
Remove to serving platter and slice eggplants lengthwise. Using a fork, mash the soft, hot bellies. Drizzle with olive oil, then spoon yogurt mix into each eggplant.
Drizzle with harissa oil, and serve hot, warm or room temperature.
*Harissa is a North African chili sauce. The oil in it separates and is very flavorful. You can also mix some store-bought harissa or other Middle Eastern chili paste (schug, harif) or sauce with a little oil and use that. If this all sounds like a big hassle, just dust the eggplants with paprika and call it a day. The brand I like is made by Pereg. Here's a picture. It is schug, a Yemenite hot sauce, but it tastes more like harissa than the schug I used to eat in Jerusalem.
June 20, 2013 | 4:39 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Cooking with my kids makes me ridiculously happy. It’s unfair, really, the power they have over my moods simply by saying, Yeah, sure when I ask them if they want to make dinner with me.
A couple of nights ago my daughter Noa walked into the kitchen as I was throwing together a last minute, late-work night dinner and said, “I want to help.”
I played it cool— Yeah, sure—but it made my day.
We kept it simple. As the kids get older I feel the clock ticking on the time I have left to teach them how to fend for themselves in a kitchen. Oh my God, can Adi even sauté a chicken breast?! – I actually woke myself up one morning thinking that.
As if after they turn 18 and leave home, I’m no longer allowed to show them anything. As if they can only watch Bobby Flay, but not me.
Of course that’s ridiculous, but still—I want them to leave with the basics. Grill a fish. Cook an omelet. Make pasta. Poach an egg. Whatever they like to eat, they should learn to make. The Talmud says it’s incumbent upon a father to teach his children to swim. But if the mother doesn’t cook, who will teach them to cut an onion?
We decided on turkey burgers with grilled peppers and French fries. Noa mixed the ground turkey with salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and Dijon mustard. I showed her how to shape them into almost tennis ball-sized rounds, then slightly flatten them. No one likes a thin, dry turkey burger.
Then we sliced peppers and onions and fried them until they were soft and caramelized. She cut the tomatoes and avocado and lettuce to pile on the bun-- truly some of the best turkey burgers we've ever had.
For the French fries, I showed her all the tricks: use a gizmo to cut them evenly. Soak them in three changes of water, fry them twice, once to blanch, again to brown. Serve them in a newspaper cone— because newspaper absorbs the oil, it looks cool, and, hopefully, it will remind her of her dad.
[RECIPE]Newspaper French Fries
4 small baking potatoes
Peel potatoes. Use a Veggiematic or Frnech fry cutter to cut all at once in thin fry shapes. In heavy Dutch oven or cast iron pan, heat oil to 400 degrees. Drain potatoes and dry well in cloth kitchen towels.
Add 1/3 of the fries to the oil and cook about 2 minutes, until just soft but still white. The oil temperature will drop. Remove with slotted spoon and let cool. Do the same with the rest of the potatoes. Allow the fries to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Return the oil to 400 degrees, add 1/3 of the fries and cook 3 minutes until golden brown. Remove to a sheet pan and place in the oven while you cook the remaining fries.
Form a sheet of newspaper into a paper cone. Fill with hot fries, sprinkle with salt and serve.
Reheat oil to 400 degrees.
June 13, 2013 | 12:11 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I think the love of seltzer is passed down from father to son.
Seltzer, just the word "seltzer" puts a smile on my dad's face. He will never refuse a spritz. And neither will I. I have a bottle on my desk as I write this. I don't care how fancy-shmancy the dinner party, I always have bottles on the table. And not Pelligrino, not Perrier, not Crystal Geyser, not even Soda Club-- I mean, seltzer.
Seltzer is carbonated water under pressure, delivered through a siphon. It tastes fresher and keeps longer than the bottled stuff. Open a bottle of Pelligrino, and if you don't finish it all at once, after a day or two it starts to fade and flatten. But a seltzer bottle holds in the spritz for weeks if not months. It's always ready to go, a gun that's always cocked and loaded. Manly, yes.
When Naomi and I married, one of our first gifts to ourselves was seltzer home delivery. I found a man named Julian Diamond who ran a family business, A-1 Seltzer and Beverage, out of a a warehouse in North Holywood. He was 74 years-old, and delivered the stuff in the original glass bottles.
"If you drop them," Julian told me, "They'll go off like a bomb."
When we had kids, we switched to the plastic version. It was one of the hardest things about having kids.
Julian was brusque-- he still humped these heavy wood crates all over LA. I thought I was doing him a favor when I assigned a reporter at the Jewish Journal, Leilah Bernstein, to do a story on him.
"In the first half of the 20th century, Diamond remembers, there were at least 500 bottling companies in the area," Leilah wrote. "The 1920s and 1930s were the industry's heyday. By mid-century, however, just a handful of seltzer bottling companies remained here, including Arrowhead, Sparkletts and Shasta."
Julian was the last of the seltzer men. After it ran I called him expecting to collect some gratitude.
"It's awful," Julian told me. "I'm getting all these calls. Too much work. I'm tired."
When Julian died, an employee took over the business. His name is Joe.
Joe brings cases of fresh seltzer to our door whenever we need it. It’s old school. I’ll be in a meeting, my cell phone will ring, and I’ll look down and see the ID: Joe Seltzer. I call back, and Joe greets me like a grand prize winner.
“Mr Robert! How many cases you need?!”
I always feel like Joe is disappointed with my rate of consumption, as if real men drink more seltzer.
“Two," I say.
When I was growing up, we had a milk man deliver milk bottles, a fruit man who came by and honked his truck horn, and my favorite, the Helms Bakery man, who stopped, opened the panels of his truck, and reveal rows of fresh bear claws and donuts and warm bread—and always gave the kids a sparkle cookie.
These were holdovers from a different era, and their presence in the sterile surburban streets of Encino, with Gelsons and Ralphs just a few blocks away, always felt out of place, like they drove in not just from a different neighborhood, but from a different dimension. Sometimes the way food comes to us is as important as the food itself. Those old-fashioned delievery men didn't just bring food, they connected communities.
Today all we have is Joe the Seltzer Man.
Of course, a few months after Joe started delivering to us, my father called. He had been to the house the night before for dinner.
"I need the name of your Seltzer Man," my father said.
As much as I love the seltzer, which is still a hit at every dinner party, I also like the connection it represents, through my father, back to my grandfathers, and their fathers-- generation after generation of Jewish men who sought comfort in the bottle.
This Sunday I'll spritz a bit in a glass and raise a toast: "Happy Father's Day."
Limonana is the Israeli mint-lemon slush. I use lemon verbena instead of mint (you can use either), and finish it with a spritz of selzter.
Lemon Verbena Limonana
This is more delicate than the usual limonana made with mint.
½ c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ c. packed fresh lemon verbena leaves
½ c. superfine baking sugar or regular sugar
1 c. water
Place all ingerdients except seltzer in a blender and whir until smooth. Pour into a glass and top with a seltzer blast. Stir and serve.
May 31, 2013 | 5:58 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
How do you spell knaidel? M-a-t-z-o-h B-a-l-l.
The word that 13 year-old Arvind Mahankali from Queens, NY spelled to clinch the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee championship last night is German for a small mass of dough. But its most common meaning in America is matzo ball.
Normally the word, which is German and Yiddish, is used in its plural form, knaidlach—because who can eat just one matzo ball?
From Los Angeles to Queens, the only place you’ll see the word is on deli menus. And not just in America: the menu at the venerable Harry Morgans deli – branches in London and Latvia—features Chicken Knaidlach Soup for £5.95.
I feel for the kids who lost out to Mahankali. They’re home Googling knaidel, finding that it’s spelled in English many different ways: knaidel, kneidel, kneydl.
There’s just as many ways to make knaidlach as there are spellings. You use matzo meal, of course, and eggs, liquid, along with a fat and salt. The liquid can be water or chicken broth or even seltzer. The fat can be schmaltz—solidified chicken fat—or oil. If you use lard you’re in the wrong cookbook.
You can eat turkey outside of Thanksgiving, and you can eat matzo balls when it’s not Passover. But the spring holiday that marks the deliverance of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt is the time when most matzo balls get made and eaten. Jews had to flee Egypt before their bread had time to rise, so they are commanded to observe Passover by eating matzo, which is made only with flour and water. Those matzos, ground fine, become a meal that can be used to make dumplings—which is all knaidlach are.
You might wonder why we eat matzo to remind us how we had to hurry out of Egypt, then make matzo balls, which take a almost two hours to mix, rest and simmer. You could knock off a few loaves of quick bread, or even some pita, in that time. The deep theological answer is this: matzo balls taste really good.
You mix the ingredients, simmer them in soup or water, and the dry, unforgiving shirt cardboard that is matzo transforms into a small, warm bosom, tender and soft. A knaidel is our small miracle of transubstantiation—maybe that’s why we eat them in Spring.
Great matzo balls should be as soft to eat as knaidel is hard to spell. There are certain Jews who claim to prefer the kind their mothers made, the ones with a dense core of unfluffed dough. These sinkers can require a steak knife to cut and a load of seltzer to digest. I suppose you can get used to them, even come to think they’re delicious, in the same way the Romneys convinced themselves Karl Rove was telling the truth about the Ohio results. People we trust can feed us crap and we’ll think it tastes like truffles.
As with most simple foods, the important variations are in technique, not ingredients. If you’ve been blessed to learn how to make matzo balls by watching your grandmother, mother or mother-in-law, and she knew what she was doing, you’re fortunate: it’s all in the details: Mix the batter lightly, don’t beat it. Let the dough sit in the refrigerator until it is well-chilled. Give those matzo particles time to absorb liquid and fat deep into their stiff-necked cells. Form the dough again with a very light, but confident touch. Roll pieces the size of a large walnut between your palms, quickly, but don’t rush it. The rounder the ball, the more attractive—a misshapen ball floating in soup looks disturbingly like brain. But don’t obsess: you don’t want to press the air out. You’ll get the hang of it.
Finally, once your balls are simmering, DO NOT lift the lid to peak. There are many commandments in the Jewish religion. This is the one I’m most scrupulous about following.
The knaidel maker at the Passover seder is the central object of scorn or praise. At our seders, where my wife, the rabbi, leads the service, beautifully, I notice that few people will judge her either way. But that moment when the chicken soup with matzo balls finally arrives, and people pick up their spoons and cleave a knaidel in two, and lift a portion to their mouths, and swallow— that moment is an eternity. If the soup is hot and the balls are light, and well-salted, the entire table erupts in a semi-orgasmic chorus of ahhs, like the Children of Israel have been delivered all over again. It is a moment of sheer joy, and relief, and for the cook, a feeling of utter victory and vindication.
Arvind Mahankali would understand.
[RECIPE] Rob Eshman's Matzo Balls
1/4 cup schmaltz (chicken fat) or vegetable oil
1/4 cup chicken stock or water or seltzer
1 cup matzo meal
1 teaspoon salt
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients. Do not overbeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled-- two hours or more.
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Wet your hands. Take a lump the size of a large walnut and using your palms, form into a round shape. Drop into the water, reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 40 minutes.
Remove the balls with a slotted spoon. Taste one to make sure they're cooked through-- they probably will be. Serve in hot soup, sprinkled with fresh parsley and dill.
May 30, 2013 | 1:12 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
For two years, from 1984-1986, I lived in Jerusalem. I went to learn Hebrew, to work as a writer, to break up a relationship without facing the breakup.
I had been living in San Francisco after college, typing out plays and freelance articles. I was trying my best to be a starving artist, except for the fact that I landed a job as a baker at a new place near Union Square called Il Fornaio. It was the first American branch of the Milan-based bakery, and everything they taught me to make was novel, and delicious.
My day began by creaming 20 pounds of sweet butter in a stand up Hobart mixer the size of a Datsun. When it was fluffy and white I poured in quart pitchers full of white sugar, then egg yolks, cornmeal, flour, lemon zest and vanilla. I extruded the thick batter onto sheet pans from conical pastry bags to form crumiri, a polenta butter cookie. You can’t be a real starving artist when breakfast is a quarter pound of raw cookie dough, followed by warm, fresh crumiri.
I liked the job, and I was good at it. This was in the days before every dishwasher had a culinary degree, so the crew was as aimless and hungry as me. The dark, handsome main chef, also an Italian import, had a reputation, and when he wasn’t showing us how to stir risotto for 100, he was kneading the narrow, muscled shoulders of the head baker, the most attractive woman on the staff, who also happened to be his American protégé. Every once in a while his very pretty, dark-haired Italian wife would stage snap visits, and they’d lock themselves in the small office and scream Italian at each other.
I strongly believed that the entire staff was going out after work without me to drink and get high and sleep together—boys, girls, Italians. They showed up for work tired and smiling and ravenous. Their breakfast of choice was espresso along with handfuls of nuts from the bulk bins. To this day it’s a miracle to me Il Fornaio survived long enough to expand across America, when the company must have lost thousands of dollars in pine nuts alone.
After work, I rode my bike over the hills back to my apartment on Duboce Triangle, where I read classics that for some reason I chose not to read in college, and wrote those plays, and nursed my sourdough starter. I also got involved with a woman, a food-lover, and fell in love, and it all happened like most things did to me in my twenties, as if in a dream, and when I awoke I thought: Jesus, get a grip, she’s married….
My first roommate in Jerusalem was a South African woman, also in her twenties. She rented me a room in her flat, and was pleasant when she had to be, but otherwise greeted me with a constant look of disapproval. She was more observant than me, which is to say, she was observant. And she was in graduate school, and busy, and I seemed to her to be wasting my time.
I started freelancing, and it paid just enough. And just as in San Francisco, I spent a lot of time finding new food to try, and eat, and cook. I fell in with a group of young Israelis who were in love with the actual land of Israel. On weekends and holidays we traveled and hiked the tiny country, so long before the first feta and watermelon salad or za’atar flatbread immigrated to America as “Small Plates,” I tried them at the farms of their relatives, or in homes of friends in neighboring Arab villages, or at ramshackle cafes overlooking the sea in Jaffo.
I shopped for the ingredients to these things in the open market in Jerusalem, Mahane Yehuda, and brought them back to the small, shared kitchen. My roommate ate toast, marmite and, on Shabbat, sweet kugel from a local takeout.
Meanwhile I bought a cutting board and made Israeli salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and chopped fresh mint. A friend in the village of Ibelin showed me that proper tabouli is-- mostly parsley, mint and romaine, with just a handful of bulghar wheat-- so I went through bushels of those greens. I made tea from lemon verbena which, like manna, grew in Jerusalem parkways, while in winter I steeped long, blue-silver sage. I ground cilantro—kusbara— with chilis and fenugreek leaves into a green hot sauce, schug, which I ate with everything. And I dumped handfuls of fresh bay leaves, basil and oregano into chopped tomatoes for sauce.
“Robert!” my roommate said one day. I was in the kitchen, at the cutting board, and she had burst out of her room, not able to hold her disgust, or her tongue any longer. “What is it with you and…and……and LEAVES?”
She pointed to the counter, which was covered in bunches of cilantro, parsley, sprigs of verbena and spears of bay.
“They’re herbs,” I said. “I cook with them.”
“They’re just… leaves,” she said. "This kitchen is always full of leaves."
With a South African accent, it sounded particularly disgusting, as if I had spread garden refuse all over our home.
I moved out a few weeks later, and fell in love again not long after that with an Israeli who, for one thing, shared my love of leaves.
Two years later, I came back to America . I had learned Hebrew. I was writing about the kinds of things I cared about. But I hadn’t learned enough about breaking up to be able to stay on the same continent when I did it.
In my garden, in Venice, I grow every leaf I ever ate in Jerusalem. Verbena, parsley, basil, oregano, cilantro, sage. My favorite is the bay laurel I planted outside our family room window 15 years ago. The foot-long shoot is now a 40-foot tree, thick with fragrant California bay laurel. I use them in sauces, I tuck a dozen in a pan of roasting potatoes, I braise them with my artichokes, I grill them under fish filets, I crush them into my gin and tonics.
California bay is a coastal native. The ones in Israel are the smaller Turkish variety, which cookbooks will tell you are less pungent and more refined. Don’t believe it. These beauties carry the essence of the Santa Monica Mountains right into your food. Before I start cooking a big dinner, I go outside and cut a branch, stripping them off as I need them, happy to see my countertop adorned in a crown of leaves, leaves, leaves.
[RECIPE] Cucumber and Bay Leaf Gin and Tonic
Muddle 6 fresh California bay leaves and a 3-inch section of cucmber in a cocktail shaker with a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar or agave syrup. Add two jiggers of of gin and ice. Shake vigorously. Pour into highball glasses filled with more ice, and top with tonic. Garnish with a fresh bay leaf and a slice of cucucmber.