Friday, July 31, 2009

My last meal before Tisha B'Av

It seems fitting that my first food post is about a meal before a fast. Fasting requires a lot of cooking and feasting. Ramadan seems to alternate between somber food and drinkless days and evening eating orgies. The two full day fasts in Judaism, Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av, last about 25 hours, beginning before sundown and ending after sunset, and neither eating nor drinking is allowed. The Yom Kippur fast requires a sumptious but hurried feast beforehand (to earn merit from the fast, you are required to feast beforehand -- we usually have a Turkish chicken stew called Armico), and then another more leisurely feast afterwards, ideally accompanied by smoked fish, scotch, and psychic and spiritual release.
Tisha B'Av is another matter. This year, it began Wednesday evening July 29 and ended after sundown on Thursday the 30th. For those of you who are not familiar with it, if Yom Kippur, the "white fast" is a joyous holiday of cleansing and renewal, Tisha B'Av , the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is the "black fast" a truly somber day of mourning. It commemorates the destruction of the two temples and the city Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.and 70 C.E. The month of Av is associated with a number of calamities which befell the Jewish people. It was in Av that the spies sent out by Moses are said to have returned with dire reports of the impossibility of conquering the land of Canaan. Bar Kochba's rebellion against the Roman's was crushed, brutally, in the month of Av in 135 C.E. The Jews were expelled from Spain in Av in 1492. Oddly, the ultra orthodox German Jews (strictly observant, but of the sort who maintain that Shakespeare was more beautiful in the German translation) also point to another calamity that struck the Jewish people in the month of Av: England attacked the German Empire in 1914!
So, this is not a fast for a feast. Much of the holiday is spent sitting on the floor chanting dirges for the destruction of Jerusalem and the other calamities which have befallen the Jewish people. (A WASP friend of mine once asked, "Don't you guys think it is enough already?" Maybe he has a point.) In the days before Tisha B'Av, one is supposed to refrain from eating meat. The traditional pre-fast meal is a hard boiled egg (associated with meals during mourning), which is dipped in ashes. Since you can't make it through the 25 hours on that, you actually have a real meal beforehand, but nothing festive or elaborate. What did I eat?I made myself a lentil stew, which seemed appropriate -- vegetarian and sustaining, and lentils are also associated with mourning (not sure why). Here is how to make it:
  1. Boil water -- this is the first thing you should always do, whether you think you will need it or not. Heat a little olive oil in a pot, and add about a teaspoon of cumin seed. Let them sizzle until they darken. Add a bay leaf.
  2. Add chopped onion (about 1/2 cup -- I used a combo of scallion whites and shallots because I had some around) and a clove or two of chopped garlic. Cook until they soften but don't brown.
  3. Add 1 cup washed lentils -- I like the French green lentils. Saute a few minutes and add 3 or 4 cups of boiling water, and return to the simmer.
  4. Cook about a half hour stirring occasionally and begin adding root vegetables, cut into smallish chunks. This depends on what you have on hand, but I used little new potatoes with the skin on, quartered, and 2 carrots. Cook about fifteen minutes and add more tender vegetables (greens, squash, greenbeans, etc.) I used shredded tuscan kale and yellow summer squash, also cut into chunks.
  5. Cook until vegetables are tender and stew is thick, adding more boiling water if it looks like it is sticking. Salt more lightly than you otherwise would, since you don't want to be too thirsty while you are fasting.
  6. Turn off the heat, and stir in about 1 tablespoon of butter (either room temperature or cut into small pieces) and the juice of 1/2 lemon.
  7. Serve with brown rice. You could also use pita or other bread.
I had this with some nice fresh sweet corn on the cob (fresh from our CSA), and followed it with watermelon. The last thing I ate was a hard boiled egg (also from our CSA) dipped in "ashes" that I made from burnt toast. Perhaps not somber, but it got me through the fast nicely. It was so good, that I had the same thing when I broke the fast a little before 9 on Thursday evening.
This is good enough to eat when you are not fasting, and you could add more salt, serve it with feta cheese, or spice things up a bit with more cumin and some chili.

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