Oct 042016
 

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The Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on 2 October this year, and continues for 2 days. So today is the second day, which ends at sundown. It is traditionally a 2-day festival, although usually it is celebrated on one day only now, because it is pegged to the rising of the new moon and at one time 2 days were needed in case one were cloudy. The day was set locally by what could be physically observed (and still is in some sects). Nowadays, for the most part, astronomical calculations take the place of physical observation, and so can be made years in advance. Unlike the Islamic calendar, which is strictly lunar (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/islamic-new-year/ ), the Jewish calendar is luni-solar. Intercalary days are added to make sure that the lunar months, hence the High Holy Days, keep correspondence with the seasons.

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎‎, lit.”head) of the year”) is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה‎‎), lit.”day of shouting/blasting,” sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (Hebrew: יָמִים נוֹרָאִים‎‎ Yomim Nora’im, lit. “Days of Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23–32, which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere.

Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of Tishrei. Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. According to classic Judaism, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year is explained by it being the traditional anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman according to the Hebrew Bible.

Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), as prescribed in the Torah, following the prescription of the Hebrew Bible to “raise a noise” on Yom Teruah. Among its rabbinical customs, is the eating of symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey (for a sweet year to come) to full Rosh Hashanah meals including foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (“custom”), such as the head of a fish (to symbolize the prayer “let us be the head and not the tail”).

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The Yamim Nora’im are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Nora’im beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. The shofar is traditionally blown each morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listeners from their “slumbers” and alert them to the coming judgment. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat. In the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im “days of awe”), penitential prayers, called selichot, are recited.

Rosh Hashanah is also the day of “Yom Hadin” (Judgment day). On Yom Hadin, 3 books are opened, the book of life, for the righteous among the nations, the book of death, for the most evil who receive the seal of death, and the third book for the ones living in doubts with “non-evil” sins. The final judgment is not made from Yom Hadin until the start of Yom Kippur, so it is sometimes possible to receive the seal of life by asking for forgiveness (if you are listed in the third book).

Unlike the denominations of Rabbinical Judaism, Karaite Judaism believes the Jewish New Year starts with the 1st month and celebrate this holiday only as it is mentioned in the Torah, that is, as a day of rejoicing and shouting. Additionally, Karaites believe the adoption of “Rosh Hashanah” in place of Yom Teruah is the result of pagan Babylonian influence on the Jews during the period known as the Captivity or Exile (after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and the deportations of Jews to Babylonia – 597 BCE for the first, with others dated at 587/586 BCE, and 582/581) . The first stage in the transformation was the adoption of the Babylonian month names. In the Torah the months are numbered as First Month, Second Month, Third Month, etc (Leviticus 23; Numbers 28). During the Exile Jews began to use Babylonian month names, a fact readily admitted in the Talmud.

Samaritans, in their strict interpretation of the Torah, preserve the biblical name of the festival celebrated on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), namely Yom Teruah, and in accordance with the Torah do not consider it to be a New Year’s day.

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Laws on the form and use of the shofar and laws related to the religious services during the festival of Rosh Hashanah are described in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah that formed the basis of the tractate “Rosh HaShanah” in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. This also contains the most important rules concerning the calendar year.

The shofar is blown in long, short, and staccato blasts that may follow a set sequence:

Teki’ah (long sound) Numbers 10:3;

Shevarim (3 broken sounds) Numbers 10:5;

Teru’ah (9 short sounds) Numbers 10:9;

Teki’ah Gedolah (very long sound) Exodus 19:16,19;

Shevarim Teru’ah (3 broken sounds followed by 9 short sounds).

The shofar is blown at various times during the Rosh Hashanah prayers, with the actual sounds varying considerably according to local custom.

Many communities hold a “Rosh Hashanah seder” during which blessings are recited over a variety of symbolic dishes. The blessings have the incipit “Yehi ratzon,” (“May it be Thy will”). In many cases, the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic represents a play on words, a very important aspect of scriptural language. The Yehi Ratzon platter may include apples (dipped in honey, baked or cooked as a compote called mansanada); dates; pomegranates; black-eyed peas; pumpkin-filled pastries (rodanchas); leek fritters (keftedes de prasa); beets; and a whole fish with the head intact. It is also common to eat stuffed vegetables (legumbres yaprakes).

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Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed peas, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud: “Let a man be accustomed to eat on New Year’s Day gourds (קרא), and fenugreek (רוביא), leeks (כרתי), beet [leaves] (סילקא), and dates ( תמרי).” Pomegranates are used in many traditions, to symbolize being fruitful like the pomegranate with its many seeds. The use of apples dipped in honey, symbolizing a sweet year, is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish and Lekach are commonly served by Ashkenazi Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing.

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I’m really fond of leeks prepared in all kinds of ways (I always have them in my refrigerator). Here’s leek fritters. This recipe is Syrian but you can vary the spices according to taste. Aleppo pepper is a variety of Capsicum annuum used as a spice, particularly in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, also known as the Halaby pepper. It starts as pods, which ripen to a burgundy color, and then are semi-dried, de-seeded, then crushed or coarsely ground. The pepper flakes are known in Turkey as pul biber. The pepper is grown in Syria and Turkey, and can be found in some Western markets or online. You can substitute red pepper. I use butter to sauté the leeks at first because I prefer the taste, but olive oil is fine also.

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Keftedes de Prasa

Ingredients

2 tbsp butter or olive oil
2 leeks, white parts only (about 12 oz), washed and sliced thinly
salt
4 large eggs, beaten
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
¾ tsp allspice
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp Aleppo pepper
vegetable oil for shallow frying

Instructions

Heat the butter (or olive oil) in a skillet over medium heat until it is melted and sizzling but not brown. Add the leeks and salt and sauté for about 5 minutes, until softened. Do not brown. Remove the leeks and put them in a bowl. Clean out the skillet.

Combine the leeks with salt to taste, eggs, breadcrumbs and the spices. Mix thoroughly. You should have a rather wet batter but with some body. You don’t want it so stiff that you can form a ball, nor so loose that it spreads when fried. Adjust the proportions of egg and breadcrumbs as needed and test fry a small fritter to be sure. You need the fritter to cohere.

Heat vegetable oil for shallow frying in a large skillet over medium-high heat and drop the batter by the ladleful in small batches into the oil. Brown on the bottom and flip to brown on the other side. Drain on a wire rack and serve hot.

Jul 262016
 

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Today is the birthday (1856) of George Bernard Shaw, who preferred simply Bernard Shaw but is often referred to now as Shaw or GBS. He was an Irish playwright, critic and polemicist whose influence on Western theatre, culture and politics has extended from the 1880s to the present day. He wrote more than sixty plays, including perennial favorites such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). Pygmalion was the basis for My Fair Lady, of course. Shaw was the leading dramatist of his generation, and is the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize in Literature, and an Oscar.

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Shaw was born in Dublin, and moved to London in 1876, where he struggled to establish himself as a writer and novelist. By the mid-1880s he had become a respected theatre and music critic. Following a political awakening, he joined the gradualist Fabian Society and became its most prominent pamphleteer. Shaw had been writing plays for years before his first public success, Arms and the Man in 1894. He sought to introduce a new realism into English-language drama, using his plays as vehicles to disseminate his political, social and religious ideas. By the early 20th century his reputation as a dramatist was secured with a series of critical and popular successes that included Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Caesar and Cleopatra.

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Shaw’s views were, let us say, controversial. On the more mundane side, he wanted a reform of the system of writing English, including an end to the use of the apostrophe. One certainly can’t quarrel with his demonstrations that English spelling lacks logic, and is an impediment to literacy. He promoted eugenics, and opposed vaccination and organized religion. He courted unpopularity by denouncing both sides in the First World War as equally culpable, and castigated British policy on Ireland in the postwar period. By the late 1920s he spoke favorably of dictatorships on the right and left, expressing admiration for both Mussolini and Stalin. In the final decade of his life he was largely a recluse, but continued to write prolifically.  He refused all state honors including the Order of Merit in 1946.

I don’t believe that there is any need to ramble on about Shaw’s life nor his beliefs. I’m not particularly keen on his plays, but I do like In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, because it’s his opportunity to explore key themes of the Enlightenment period. It’s a discussion play in which the issues of nature, power, and leadership are debated between King Charles II (‘Mr Rowley’), Isaac Newton, George Fox and the artist Godfrey Kneller, with interventions by three of the king’s mistresses (Barbara Villiers, 1st Duchess of Cleveland; Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth; and Nell Gwynn) as well as his queen, Catherine of Braganza.

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This little exchange at the beginning gives the flavor:

MRS BASHAM.  And you have been sitting out there forgetting everything else since breakfast.  However, since you have one of your calculating fits on I wonder would you mind doing a little sum for me to check the washing bill.  How much is three times seven?

NEWTON.  Three times seven?  Oh, that is quite easy.

MRS BASHAM.  I suppose it is to you, sir; but it beats me.  At school I got as far as addition and subtraction; but I never could do multiplication or division.

NEWTON.  Why, neither could I: I was too lazy.  But they are quite unnecessary: addition and subtraction are quite sufficient.  You add the logarithms of the numbers; and the antilogarithm of the sum of the two is the answer.  Let me see: three times seven?  The logarithm of three must be decimal four seven seven or thereabouts.The logarithm of seven is, say, decimal eight four five.  That makes one decimal three two two, doesnt it?  What’s the antilogarithm of one decimal three two two?  Well, it must be less than twentytwo and more than twenty.  You will be safe if you put it down as–

Sally returns.

SALLY.  Please, maam, Jack says it’s twentyone.

NEWTON.  Extraordinary!  Here was I blundering over this simple problem for a whole minute; and this uneducated fish hawker solves it in a flash!  He is a better mathematician than I.

Let me add a few more quotes from Shaw’s other works that I like:

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.

The man with a toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound. The poverty-stricken man makes the same mistake about the rich man.

A broken heart is a very pleasant complaint for a man in London if he has a comfortable income.

Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.

Human beings are the only animals of which I am thoroughly and cravenly afraid.

Atrocities are not less atrocities when they occur in laboratories and are called medical research.

There is no sincerer love than the love of food.

The last quote is often repeated. Shaw was well known for his vegetarianism, inspired by his desire to avoid harm to animals. In his day his avoidance of meat was heavily remarked upon because it was so unusual. I had no luck discovering what, if any, was Shaw’s favorite dish, but I figured an Irish vegetarian dish would be suitable.

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In digging I found this 8th century Irish poem, “The Hermit’s Song” or “Marbán to Guaire” all about wild foods in Ireland:

To what meals the woods invite me
All about!
There are water, herbs and cresses,
Salmon, trout.
A clutch of eggs, sweet mast and honey
Are my meat,
Heathberries and whortleberries for a sweet.
All that one could ask for comfort
Round me grows,
There are hips and haws and strawberries,
Nuts and sloes.
And when summer spreads its mantle
What a sight!
Marjoram and leeks and pignuts,
Juicy, bright.

Pignuts are mentioned at the tail end, so let’s begin there. The pignut, Conopodium majus is a small perennial herb, whose underground part resembles a chestnut and is sometimes eaten as a wild or cultivated root vegetable. The plant has many English names (many of them shared with Bunium bulbocastanum, a related plant with similar appearance and uses) including kippernut, cipernut, arnut, jarnut, hawknut, earth chestnut, groundnut, and earthnut. From its popularity with pigs come the names pignut, hognut, and more indirectly Saint Anthony’s nut, for Anthony the Great or Anthony of Padua, both patron saints of swineherds. The plant is common through much of Europe and parts of North Africa. It grows in woods and fields, and is an indicator of long-established grassland.

Pignuts are favorites of wild food foragers. You can find a good description here:

https://cumbriafoodie.com/2011/06/04/pignuts-a-little-hidden-gem-for-the-forager/

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Pignuts remind me a little of Jerusalem artichokes although they are smaller and the taste is rather different. Because I love leeks so much and because marjoram, leeks, and pignuts are mentioned in the same line in the poem, why not make a soup of all three. I’d normally use chicken stock as the base but because I want to be vegetarian here I’ll use vegetable stock. Quantities are not important as long as you have equal portions of pignuts and leeks. Jerusalem artichokes or salsify will work in place of pignuts, but will have to be cut into chunks.

© Pignut and Leek Soup

Ingredients

½ kg pignuts, washed and peeled
½ kg leeks, washed and sliced thickly
vegetable stock
fresh marjoram, finely shopped
salt and pepper

Instructions

Place the pignuts in a heavy pot and cover with stock. Season to taste with marjoram, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook gently, covered, for about 30 minutes. Add the leeks and cook for another 15 minutes or so. Add more stock if needed, but don’t make the soup too thin. Cooking times really depend on how you like your vegetables. I like mine al dente. Add more fresh marjoram at the very end, and serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.