Kosher couldn’t be farther from the pulled pork sandwiches and steaks smothered in creamy sauces I grew up eating in Arkansas. So when I was asked to develop a Thanksgiving menu abiding by the laws of kashrut, I felt overwhelmed and intimidated. Growing up I didn’t know anyone who was Jewish, let alone kosher. Clueless as I was about this way of living, I knew it was more than a special diet. Setting out to create a kosher Thanksgiving, I had a lot of respect for Jewish culture and the importance of preparing food in their rituals. During my research I carefully studied the rules to keeping kosher: no mixing meat and dairy, only eat fish with fins and scales, pork and rabbit are prohibited, etc. I knew it was more than a bunch of rules, and to create kosher recipes that embraced Jewish cuisine I would have to really get to the root of the rituals. Why do Jews go to such lengths to keep keep kosher? It’s not just about what to eat, but how the food is prepared every step of the way, from slaughterhouse practice to kashering the home kitchen. Kashrut (following kosher laws) is a serious commitment for a household.
A day at the public library reading through every kosher cookbook I could get my hands on lead to better understanding of what exactly kosher laws are, where they come from, and how they are observed in the Jewish community. The Torah is a part of the Tenach (bible) and contains the commandments of Moses, which dictate basic kashrut. Over the years, Rabbis have expanded upon these laws. Also, not every affiliation of Judaism practice kashrut the same way, the Orthodox Jews being more strict than the Reform or Reconstructionist Jews. It seems that keeping kosher is a very personal decision, influenced by how an individual’s surrounding community interprets the writings of the Torah.
Reading How To Keep Kosher, by Lisë Stern, I experienced a lightbulb moment when I came across this excerpt:
My father also sees kashrut as part of the bigger picture of how to live life as a better person. “Keeping kosher is one of the many things we do that gives meaning to most of what we do,” he says… “I don’t think kashrut all by itself would do it, but since eating is such an important and integral part of life, you’re frequently brought back to thinking about what you’re doing from a religious point of view. It gives you a structure within which you can focus your attempts to be a better human being.”
When you are mindful of a routine and the meaning behind it, a change occurs, and routine becomes ritual. Ms. Stern writes that devoting yourself to kosher practice forces you to stop and consider what you eat, bringing the spiritual into a mundane physical activity. To Reform Jews, kashrut has expanded to take into account environmental impact of processing and packaging food , humane treatment of animals raised for food, and labor conditions of workers. Jewish or not, these are principles we can all agree on. The sentiment behind kashrut is similar to pillars of the slow food community:
- Know where your food comes from and how it’s processed.
- Wholesome food is not cheap. Pay a little more to fairly compensate workers, ensure produce is grown organically without the use of pesticides, and give animals a life with room to roam.
- A meal is a sacred ritual to be prepared with love and shared with others.
Learning about what it means to be kosher has been a fascinating journey, reminding me of the ties that bind humanity in our aim to do what is right and just. What better time to renew our commitment to eating mindfully with respect for life and a heart of gratitude than Thanksgiving?
Challah Stuffing with Shiitake Mushrooms and Hazelnuts
An unstuffed turkey roasts faster than a stuffed one, and this quick-cooking “stuffing” baked in a shallow 9-by-13-inch dish is perfect to slide in the oven just as the turkey comes out. While the bird rests the stuffing turns golden and crisp after less than thirty minutes under the heat. Enriched with eggs and sugar, challah bread makes for a tender, delicious stuffing base. Sautéed shiitake mushrooms and toasted hazelnuts are the spirit of autumn and combine beautifully with a generous amount of sage and rosemary. Dotted throughout the stuffing, sweet dried apricots are a nice surprise to the palate. With its balance of earthy, herbal, sweet, and nutty flavors, this stuffing is unique and yet steeped in tradition.
- ½ cup hazelnuts
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or schmaltz
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 leeks, white and pale-green parts only, cut in half lengthwise then cut in ¼ inch slices
- 3 celery stalks, thinly sliced
- 10 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems and caps sliced
- 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh sage
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 cups homemade chicken stock
- 1 egg
- kosher salt
- freshly ground pepper
- 14 ounces challah bread (enough to fill a 9-by-13-inch baking dish), cut into 1-inch cubes and left unwrapped on the counter overnight to go stale
Toast the hazelnuts. Heat the oven to 375°F. Spread the hazelnuts on a small baking sheet and toast until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Pour the nuts onto a plate to cool, and then rub off most of the skins with a paper towel. Coarsely chop the hazelnuts and store them in an airtight container until ready to use.
Make the stuffing. Heat the oven to 375°F. Place the challah bread cubes into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Set aside.
Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil or schmaltz into a large straight-sided skillet and turn the heat on medium. Add onion, garlic, leeks, and celery. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally and monitoring the heat so the vegetables do not brown, until the onions are translucent and tender, about 6 minutes. Place the mixture in a bowl and set aside.
Add 1 tablespoon olive oil or schmaltz to the skillet and turn the heat to medium-high. Toss in the sliced shiitake mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and sauté for a few minutes till tender. (Both the mushrooms and the mixture of onion, garlic, leeks, and celery may be refrigerated overnight.)
Pour the mushrooms over the challah cubes, along with the mixture of sautéed onion, garlic, leeks, and celery. Add the chopped hazelnuts, apricots, sage, and rosemary. Toss the ingredients together to combine evenly, and season with salt and pepper. Whisk together the egg and 1-½ cups chicken stock. Pour over the challah stuffing evenly to moisten the bread throughout. The goal is to use just enough liquid to moisten the stuffing without making it too soggy. Use the last ½ cup of chicken stock if needed. Allow the stuffing to stand 10 minutes, absorbing the liquid.
Bake the challah stuffing for 20-30 minutes, until heated through and golden crisp on top.