Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Preparing for Passover

Back in the Western Hemisphere, Liz and I are preparing for Passover. This means getting the house and cars cleaned, intensive shopping and cooking (by Liz) and the participation in a series of bizarre, irrational rituals (by me), all leading up to the two Seders of the Diaspora (one for her family and one for mine). This year, in addition to being a fasting first born, I am expected to get myself up on a local hilltop to join the Rabbi and a small, hardy band of co-congregants in blessing the rising sun. Jewish tradition has it that once every 28 years you have to get up before dawn on the same day you are expected to attend, if not lead, a Seder until close to midnight. Why? Well, every 28 years, on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan the sun rises in the same position it was in on the fourth day of creation. That's the day on which G-d created the sun, moon, stars and time as we experience it. After the sun blessing I will wrap myself in leather straps and study a sufficient amount of medieval text to be allowed to break my fast. We will then adjourn to the synagogue parking lot to make a bonfire out of uneaten bread, crackers and the like while contemplating the fact that some people are starving.

How the Rabbi knows the position of the sun on the fourth day of creation, a day that began before there was a sun, moon and stars by which we measure time, was not included in the synagogue bulletin. Nor can anyone really explain the bit about the leather straps. But, after all, its a religion (tradition if you're a secular MOT) and some things have to be taken on faith. Its like believing that a microscopic bit of leavened bread, left for months on the heating element of a stove, can eat its way through over a quarter inch of solid aluminum and contaminate a gallon of chicken soup with hometz (the evil stuff of leavened bread). Which brings me to the lovely picture above.

This year marked a real breakthrough in our lives in Israel. Liz finally dared to buy meat in the Hatikvah shuk. Not just any meat and not, to my disappointment, red meat. Nostalgic for her Grandmother's soup, Liz needed not only a chicken but also chicken feet and unborn eggs.

Liz' hesitation to buy unidentifiable slabs of dead animal with patches of fur still on them is not totally unreasonable. However, most of the butchers have identifiable chickens, chicken parts, and cuts of meat that just scream "Grill Me." OK, the cow heads complete with teeth in their mouths are a bit gross but the fillets looks wonderful. From my perspective, the Hativah Shuk's butchers all keep clean stalls, have adequate refrigeration, the meat generally looks appetizing (except the stuff with the fur and the cow heads), its all certified as kosher and a neighborhood of Yemenite, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants does not appear to be suffering from an e-coli epidemic. But to me, the winning argument is that this is the source of meat for Busi, our favorite grill restaurant. Shows you what I know.

Liz remains unimpressed by any of this seemingly flawless logic. Liz remarked that the meat in Busi is already cooked when placed in front of her. For those of you reading this who are not professional married men, pointing out to your wife that the meat she would buy from the same source as her favorite grill restaurant would also be cooked, under her strict supervision, before being placed in front of her for consumption is right up there with suggesting that she join you in a beer while watching the game. Such silliness only gets you the look that says you have permission not to be an idiot. So let's move on.

To me, chicken feet are what crazy old ladies in Brooklyn feed to stray cats. To my wife, its the magic ingredient that makes ordinary chicken soup into her Grandmother's chicken soup. For those of you who have never prepared chicken feet to go into soup, get someone else to do it for you if you can. You have to soak them in warm water, chop off the end of the toes (you really don't want toe nails in your soup no matter what that guy on Food Channel's Bizarre Foods tries to tell you) and then carefully remove the outer leathery surface with a sharp knife, without cutting into the thin flesh or delicate bones beneath. Liz seems to be able to do this with ease. I destroyed two feet and was assigned other kitchen duties.

Unborn eggs are just that. Unfertilized egg yolks, covered by a membrane instead of a shell. They're found inside a slaughtered chicken and are one of those peasant delicacies guaranteed to increase your cholesterol to dangerous levels. Unlike fertilized eggs, which for purposes of kashrut, are pareve (neutral foods that can be eaten with anything), unborn eggs are meat. This is probably because they were not become sufficiently separated from the chicken to suit certain medieval Rabbis. Of course, the chickens they are part of do not fit the Biblical definition of meat (no split hooves, no chewed cud) are nevertheless classified as meat. Chickens are meat because the same medieval Rabbis concluded, after a long debate and a vote, that they know meat when they see it and chickens are meat. Many years later, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart would apply this same reasoning to define pornography. Unfortunately for generations of Jewish housekeepers, Justice Stewart added "and this isn't it," whereas the Rabbis decided just the opposite. Clearly, no woman who shopped or cooked for these guys was in the room. They were all probably at home getting ready for Passover.

And so, as we approach the evening on which occurs the Seder, a tradition that attracts participation by more Jews than any other event on our calendar, I wish you and yours a Hag Sameach Pesach (a Happy Passover Holiday) or, if you, like me, were raised by members of the Arbeiter's Ring (Workmen's Circle), a zisn pesach (a sweet Passover - though what's sweet about nondairy desserts made from matzah meal escapes me at this moment). As my gift to you, here's a recipe for Liz' Grandmother's chicken soup as dictated to me while I cut. chopped and brought it all to a simmering boil:

1/2 large, fresh chicken, cut the long way
16 chicken feet (about 1/2 kilogram)
unborn eggs (enough)
1 medium sized onion with the outermost skin peeled off
Carrots - cut thick (about 3/4 inch) - enough
Parsnip = 2 or 3 (optional and apparently not grown in Israel during the winter)
Fresh Dill - about half a bunch (or dry, chopped to taste)
Salt - none if your husband is a chronic heart patient, otherwise, to taste.

Place chicken and chicken feet into the largest pot left by the owners of the apartment you are renting. Cover them with water (this is a bit tricky as the feet float but 2/3 to 3/4 of the pot will do). Cook on high heat until you get scum on the water. Skim off the scum and turn the heat down to a simmer. After one hour add the veggies. After another hour, add the dill and unborn eggs and let it all cook for another 20 minutes. During cooking, if the soup starts to boil, turn down the heat. If you get more scum or more fat than you care for, skim it off the surface.

Serve with sea or kosher salt for those who want to salt up something made with double salted kosher meat. And don't forget the Israeli soup nuts or, if its Passover, the matzah farfel.

Again, a zisn pesach to you all.

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