Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Feast for Worldly Religions!

My family and I have never really subscribed to a set religion. I tend to say that I am a spitritual person, rather than one who subscribes to a dogmatic faith, while my mom prefers the term agnostic to describe herself. The SF and SB proclaim themselves far and wide as Catholics, but I don't think they have attended mass since the SB's christening, and as far as I know my Dad, sister, Martha, and Andrew don't really care one way or another. One thing my Dad, Martha (who teaches at an elementary Catholic school but has a degree in religion) and I have in common is the love of learning all things we can about all religions. When I was young my elementary school celebrated almost every festival and feast day for every religion and nationality we could, and I took World Religions in high school, along with independent exploration in university. I love all things that make the world what it is, everything that is both similar and unique about our community as a city, a country and a planet. I believe that everyone has the right to believe and worship in their own way, or not to if they choose, and that the religious wars that have been fought in the past were wrong. Hopefully I haven't upset anyone in the reader community so far, I do know that religion is a rather touchy subject (and one not usually to be discussed around the dinner table)!

However, since I was a little out of it yesterday, I missed out on two very important milestones in two very important religious calendars! The 12th of September marked the celebration of the holy day of the Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashanah. For those following the Islamic calendar, we welcome the first night of the fasting (and ninth) month of Ramadan.

For Rosh Hashanah, a popular observance is eating apples dipped in honey, a symbol of the wish for a sweet new year. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews eat a new fruit (or vegetable) not yet eaten in the season so a special blessing can be recited. Various symbolic foods - such as dates, pomegranates, pumpkin, leeks and beets - are traditionally eaten on the holiday. No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah, and many a festive meal is shared. One of the most traditional (at least to un-initiated) me is Chicken and Matzoh Ball Soup.

This recipe is taken almost verbatum from my fellow Canadian and personally my favourite chef Michael Smith. I have watched him prepare this recipe a few times on his TV Show Chef at Home, and I have a special fondness for how he talks about his family memories as he cooks. My mother and grandmother would do the same thing as they prepared family meals for us, and whenever possible they would involve us in the stirring, pouring, and decorating of whatever we were presenting. One day I will be sharing these memories with my own child, and will probably still be on the blog circuit as I do it! Boy, my link lists will be long then!
Chicken and Matzoh Ball Soup
Serves 4
1 roasted chicken carcass, meat removed and reserved for another use
4 carrots, cut into chunks
3 stalks of celery, cut into chunks
3 onions, cut into quarters
1 tbsp dried parsley
3 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp garlic powder
4 eggs
4 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp oregano
1 cup matzoh meal
1 inch piece of ginger, grated
2 cups of baby spinach leaves
3 shallots, sliced
1 cup of bean sprouts

For the Browned Chicken Broth:
  1. Roast chicken carcass in a 400-degree oven until golden brown.
  2. Place into a stockpot along with the carrots, celery, onions, parsley, thyme and garlic.
  3. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil and then let simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Strain.
For the Matzo Balls:
  1. Whisk together eggs, oil, nutmeg, onion powder, oregano and salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Stir in matzo meal and let rest for 20 minutes. Form into balls with two spoons.
For the Soup Base:

  1. Bring chicken broth to a simmer and add matzo balls.
  2. Cook for 10 minutes.
  3. Add ginger, spinach, shallots and bean sprouts and stir to wilt, just prior to serving
During the Fast of Ramadan, strict restraints are placed on the daily lives of Muslims. They are not allowed to eat or drink during the daylight hours. At the end of the day the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the iftar. In the evening following the iftar it is customary for Muslims to go out visiting family and friends. The fast is resumed the next morning.

Usually, a date is the first thing people eat after they fast from dawn until dusk during Ramadan. This recipe is taken from an un-named Middle Eastern fruit dessert I found in one of my international collections. This is a simple dessert, with evaporated milk for a topping. Made almost entirely from dried fruit, studded with ginger and nuts, it is also fairly healthy, though calorie- and carbohydrate-dense for those watching their intakes (such as non-fasting dieters and diabetics).

A Dessert for Ramadan
Makes enough for 10 persons
1 cup dried prunes
1 cup raisins
1 cup whole dried apricots
1/4 cup candied orange peel
1/4 cup currants
10 dried figs, chopped
5 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp candied ginger
1 cup (combined) chopped walnuts and almonds
Evaporated (not condensed) milk
Fresh grated nutmeg
  1. Place the prunes, raisins, apricots, peel, currants, and figs in a large bowl.
  2. Add cold water until the level rises 1” above the fruit. Soak overnight and drain.
  3. Place the 5 cups of water and sugar in a heavy saucepan, cover, and gently boil for 15 - 20 minutes.
  4. Add all the fruits and ginger to the syrup and simmer, covered, for 2 hours over low heat.
  5. Halfway through the cooking, add the nuts and mix well.
  6. Remove the mixture from the heat and allow to cool.
  7. Transfer into a bowl and refrigerate until cold.
  8. To serve, top with evaporated milk and garnish with grated nutmeg.