garlic, a jewish love stor y
ike most defining moments of my life, my passion for garlic can be traced to my brother. When the younger of my two older brothers, Naftali, discovered Orthodox Judaism, his change sparked a number of changes in me (what younger sister doesn’t idolize her big bro?). The first: I stopped wearing shorts and tank tops. The second: I added “yeshiva attendance” to my five-year plan. And the third: garlic became a staple of my Shabbos diet. In the old city of Jerusalem, where he was living, Friday night meals were often started with Mediterranean appetizers like pickles, olives, hummus, and of course, the bulb of garlic. The top of the entire bulb was sliced off and drizzled with olive oil. Stuck in the oven with the rest of the Shabbos food, it came out sticky, spreadable, and delicious. It turns out that the Friday night garlic connection was no coincidence. Many religious Jews make a point of eating the savory, yet pungent, dish on Shabbos eve due to an enactment of the Prophet Ezra during the time of the Babylonian Exile. Witnessing the devastation that intermarriage was causing in the Jewish community, Ezra, with all of the authority of the law, proclaimed that men should eat garlic on the eve of the Sabbath to “ensure Jewish continuity.” Reading between the lines, it is unmistakable—Garlic, a Biblical aphrodisiac. Regardless of its origins, the garlic appetizer has become one of my favorite parts of the meal. In many of my friends’ households, it has become common to stretch out the first course with lots of challah, Mediterranean spreads, maybe some gefilte fish or salad, and some form of garlic. For years, my family stayed true to the roasted whole garlic bulb. Slowly, my sister-in-law introduced a new element—dozens (if we had the patience to peel them) of cloves warmed in straight olive oil. Friends added variations of their own, chopping the cloves or even using minced garlic from a jar. My relationship to garlic changed again when I married a man who grew up on a farm. Garlic is one of the farm’s heartiest crops, used by my mother-in-law in stir-fry, soup and most often, salad dressing. As it is an organic farm which produces especially robust and flavorful garlic, I gained a whole new appreciation for the subtleties of taste: Garlic could be buttery, rich or spicy. By my second visit to the in-laws, I shyly suggested roasting a few bulbs for our Shabbos dinner. My mother-in-law appropriated the custom, and did so again months later, when I suggested warming the peeled cloves in oil.
This year, my brother instituted perhaps the greatest Friday night garlic innovation to date. Looking to streamline the first course of challah, garlic in oil, hummus, matbucha (a Mediterranean tomato salad), olives, and fish, he made the following modification: olives, tomatoes and garlic all roasted together as one dish. My sister-in-law, Raizy, who really knows her way around the kitchen, produced the masterpiece: shmooshkela
1dry pint grape tomatoes 6 - 8 ounce jar pitted green olives 7 - 9 garlic cloves or to taste ¼ C olive oil or as much as it takes to get a pool of oil on the bottom of the pan Heat at 350 degrees for at least 40 minutes; the garlic smell will permeate the kitchen and the cloves will be squishy. As a bonus, the hot tomatoes will burst in your mouth in a way that I really like. Serve as a side or use as a spread. This recipe is incredibly flexible. I’ve varied the proportions of tomatoes and olives to suit my family’s palette. Originally, I sprinkled the dish with salt, but after forgetting it one time, and not really missing it, have since left it out. Considering the dish a work in progress, I have been encouraging others to tweak it to meet their tastes. One memorable suggestion was adding grapes (yeah, I panned that one); another, courtesy of my mother-in-law, was to leave the cloves unpeeled and let them pop open themselves. This recreates the experience of eating garlic from a roasted bulb and extracting the “yum” from inside the paper-like membrane. Much like the Jewish people, garlic enhances the flavor of what’s around it while retaining its own very specific taste. Without intending to sound risqué, my family is doing its part to ensure Jewish continuity by continuing the garlic tradition around our Shabbos table. We share our beliefs with our friends; we teach our son about the commandments; and we let the lesson of the garlic speak for itself. Rus Pearlman is a Jewish communal, chocolate and shabbos junkie. She blogs about chocolate at Haute Chocolate (www.millionblogs.org/Chocolate/).
Photo provided by Rus Pearlman
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issue four 2008
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