It is always terrible and disturbing to hear news about war torn countries. Learning about the horrific invasion of Ukraine brought up intense feelings of outrage and disbelief. I realized that this was especially difficult because these are my roots. This morning I received an email with an urgent update from the the World Union for Progressive Judaism from a rabbi that is presently in Kyiv.
My father’s family is from Russia; I have heard stories my whole life and this is what I know: the family was very poor, my grandfather had 9 siblings; they all made it to America except one child who died at the age of 3. They were devout orthodox Jews and were constantly under the threat of attack by Russian Cossacks, they were able to leave in 1914.
This week, I reread a memoir that a cousin helped my grandfather Sam put together in the 1980’s and this is what I have discovered: I knew that both of grandparents were born in Russia, but I never knew from what part of the country. Grandpa Sam was born in a small town in Ukraine called Bazalya, not far from Kyiv. I learned that in the 1900’s, Volhynia Province in Ukraine was part of the former Russian Empire that included Lithuanina and Poland. I learned that my great grandfather played the fiddle and that in addition to Russian, they spoke Yiddish. Between 1910 and 1914 all Jews were expelled from their villages; my grandfather was 13 at the time. They were lucky to have family in St Louis and passage was bought for their harrowing trip to America.
Cleaning out my vegetable bin, I was trying to decide what to toss out and place in our compost bin. In the back of the vegetable drawer was a sad bag of red beets with the greens rotted and an old ignored head of cabbage with the core starting to mold. I thought about our family before they left Russia and how food insecure they were; I didn’t want to waste any food. It was easy to wash away the old leaves and I decided a hearty Ukrainian Borscht would be the thing to cook!
It was interesting to me that this week the NYT Cooking Column said they were getting a lot of requests for Borsht recipes. Sam Sifton said in his article: “The letters are a reminder that cooking is a cultural act: a way to feel connected, to support, to acknowledge the world and perhaps to understand it better.” NYT Cooking
I listened to Bach Cantatas as I chopped up the vegetables; making the soup was deeply soothing and seemed to be best way to channel my thoughts and prayers for the Ukrainian people.
1 stalk celery chopped
1 medium onion chopped
3 or 4 red beets- peeled and cut into small cubes. The beets are easier to peel if you cook them in a pot of water for about 20 minutes. Save the liquid they were cooked in and use in the soup pot. Make sure to wear an apron, this is a messy job!!
3 garlic cloves peeled and finely chopped
2 red potatoes cut into small pieces
1/2 head cabbage cut into thin slices
2 carrots peeled and cut into small pieces
2 bay leaves
Serve with chopped fresh dill and sour cream
1/2 small can diced tomato
honey to taste
1-2 tablespoons white vinegar to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Serve with chopped fresh dill and sour cream– I used plain yogurt.
To Make Borscht:
Heat a large soup pot and add olive oil. Saute onions until soft, add garlic and cook briefly.
Add all other vegetables and other ingredients.
Cover ingredients with water, chicken or beef stock (use enough water or stock to come up almost to the top of the pot.)
Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cover pot and cook for about 2 hours.
Adjust seasonings.- add more vinegar or honey to taste. The soup is best if it sits for a day before eating to let the flavors meld together.
Serve with plenty of chopped fresh dill and a big dollop of yogurt or sour cream.
The soup is wonderful with fresh buttered rye bread!
My grandma Bella made a strudel that I have never seen elsewhere in Europe; Austria, Germany, Hungary or the Czech Republic. The pastry was not flaky, but more like a pliable soft dough that would be used for Rugelach. The dough was rolled out thin and I remember that it was filled with chopped dried fruit, raisins, walnuts and it was dusted with cinnamon sugar. I regret that I never made strudel with her. I went on a google search and found a Russian style mixed/dried fruit strudel. It sounds very similar and this will be my next baking experiment. Stay tuned!!
AND, as always, here is the “Tree of the Week”! I imagine that the caption is being read by a strong Ukrainian woman!
This past fall came and went quickly, with a whirlwind of events and now we will soon finally be seeing the last of T….! In the midst of all of the commotion and noise, we discovered yet another place of great beauty and tranquility where we can decompress and catch our breath; the Drury Preserve in nearby Sheffield, Massachusetts.
The Nature Conservancy opened the preserve in 1997 and it consists of a gentle three mile loop that traverses through marshland, woods and a bucolic pond with views of Mount Race.
Returning several times in October and November, I was drawn into the gradual transition from the beginning to the end of fall. Each time I visited, I felt my breath slowing down as I observed the subtle changes occurring around me. The combination of the light reflecting on the water and the delicate leaves made me think of Japanese prints.
One chilly November morning, I pre-soaked a few cups of white beans and we set out on a walk to the Drury Preserve. When we returned home, I drained and rinsed the beans and in large heavy pot, sauteed an onion, added the beans, a sprig of rosemary, diced carrot and celery, a small can of diced tomatoes, bay leaf and dried thyme. In the back of my cheese drawer, I found an old parmesan cheese rind from DiPalo’s in NYC. This adds another layer of flavor and depth to the soup! I covered everything with cold water, brought the liquid to a boil and then reduced the heat to a slow simmer for a few hours until the beans started to soften. I added a head of ecscarole torn into small pieces, mashed a few beans with a wooden spoon, added salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and cooked the beans about an hour more until the mixture was creamy and a bit thickened. If you have orzo or pasta on hand, you can cook this up and add it to the soup before you plan to eat it. I served the soup with freshly ground pepper and grated pecorino romano cheese on top. The two sharp flavors reminded me of the simple but delicious Italian dish, Cacio-e-pepe; basically pecorino cheese and black pepper on pasta! I will plan on making this dish soon!
Wistfully, I thought about how much I miss going to DiPalo’s in Little Italy; people watching and listening to conversations about what the other customers were planning to buy and cook and best of all, getting free tastes of delicious cheese from the generous owners Lou and Sal DiPalo. Once when I handed over my credit card, Lou DiPalo looked down at the name and proudly announced, “We’ve got a DePaolo here”! When the pandemic is over, I made a pledge to myself to never complain about waiting in a long line to be served!
White Bean and Escarole Soup with Orzo
2 cups dried white beans
1 medium sized onion finely chopped
1 carrot diced
1 stalk celery diced
1/2 small can diced tomatoes
1 head escarole torn into small pieces
piece of parmesan rind
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
freshly ground pepper
salt* see note
grated pecorino romano cheese
To Make Soup:
Soak beans- either overnight or using the quick soak method.
Overnight- cover beans with cold water.
Quick Soak- cover beans with cold water, bring to a boil and then turn off heat. Cover and let sit for a few hours.
Drain and rinse beans.
Add beans and other ingredients, except escarole, salt and orzo to a large pot and cover with cold water.
Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to a gentle simmer Cook for a few hours until beans start to soften. Mash a bit of the beans with a wooden spoon to thicken the soup.
Add Escarole and cook at a simmer covered until beans are completely broken down and the soup has a thick velvety texture.
Cook a cup or so of orzo according to the directions on the package. Drain and add to the soup.
Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Pass around grated grated pecorino romano cheese
Add freshly ground pepper
Note: It is best to add salt after the soup is almost finished. The beans will toughen if salt is added to early in the cooking process.
What a week this has been; awaiting election news, hoping for the best and dreading possible outcomes!
My best coping strategy was to take long solo walks on Kelsey Road in Sheffield, Massachusetts. It is surrounded by mountains on one side and a protected nature preserve with wetlands on the other. On Election day, I tried to create a “news blackout” policy and after teaching my online students, headed out to Kelsey Road in the late afternoon. I found myself drawn into closely into the idyllic beauty encompassing me. It was deeply calming.
After a mostly sleepless night, the day after the election was a challenge. I was thankful to have the distraction of my online students and in the late afternoon headed out to Kelsey Road again. I noticed that the tamarack trees were just changing color and in the late afternoon light, they seemed to take on a golden glow.
I walked briskly for about three miles; forgetting the shorter amount of daylight, and on my return, was treated to a beautiful sunset.
After this, it was time for some serious comfort food! Earlier in the day, between students, I started a big pot of Lentil Soup; with carrots, onions, celery, diced tomatoes, kale, bay leaf, coriander, cayenne, cumin and chicken chorizo sausage. When I arrived back home, I heated up the soup, removed the bay leaf and with an immersion blender pureed a bit of the soup to make a creamy texture. Served with toasts made from an old loaf of multi-grain bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil, it was the perfect antidote! I hope you enjoy this recipe!
“Election Day Lentil Soup”
2 cups dried lentils-rinsed and picked over
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 large carrot finely chopped
1 stalk celery finely chopped
6 large pieces kale, stems removed and torn into small pieces
1 small can diced tomatoes
2 chicken chorizo sausages, cut into small pieces
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper- more if desired
salt and pepper to taste
To Make Soup:
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot.
Saute onions until they soften slightly.
Add spices and cook a few minutes more.
Add vegetables and lentils
Cover with water, about 2 inches over the vegetables and lentils.
Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer.
Cover pot and cook about 1 1/2 hours until vegetables and lentils are very soft.
If you would like soup to be thicker uncover pot and cook a bit more until soup thickens.
At this point you can let the soup sit on the stove for a few hours to let the flavors meld- this is where the walk comes in!
To serve: bring soup back to a simmer, remove bay leaf and using an immersion blender, puree a part of the soup. This will give the soup a nice creamy texture.
Adjust seasoning, adding more salt and pepper.
Take a big breath and ENJOY!!
BUT, it was Saturday November 7th, that was historic and remarkable. Paul and I were about to enter the Mass Pike, heading out for a hike, when an announcer from NPR interrupted Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and said there was a special message. I was driving and looked over at Paul with hope and as the announcer said that Biden had just flipped Pennsylvania, I started to sob with joy, squeezed Paul’s hand way too hard and made the wise decision to pull the car off to the side of the road!! I took a few deep breaths of relief and I think the whole world has also done so!
My Hevreh Ensemble colleague and dear friend Laurie Friedman says it all in this video! The joyful sounds of the Shofar rang loud and clear from Laurie’s Brooklyn rooftop!!
We almost missed this little known gem. We were on our way back home from a hike in Western Massachusetts. I had a jingle formulating in my head that I wanted to try out- for those new to my blog, I have been playing short improvisations on my recorder, Native American flute and oboe on woodland trails, mountain tops and other inspiring locations. We did a quick search for interesting sites in the area and found Windsor Jambs; a beautiful waterfall with a strange name and unusual rock formations.
The rocks were stacked sideways and as the local folklore goes, the original settlers in Windsor, Massachusetts named the spot Windsor Jambs because the rock formation in the falls reminded them of the jambs of a fireplace or a doorway. We followed a path along the falls and I was able to find a lovely spot to play the tune that was percolating in my head! As I started to play, I heard a group of people chattering through the woods-my first thought was one of trepidation -“I hope they don’t get too close to me” and “should I stop playing”? As the group rounded the bend in the path, I saw that this was an extended African American family that included grandparents, parents and a few children; one young girl was carrying a guitar case. They were all wearing masks and as they saw me, they stopped at a respectful distance and as they heard me play, a look of surprise and happiness came over their faces. It was almost as if they had come across a magical wood sprite, albeit a very mature one! I heard the group make a collective sigh of delight. It felt wonderful to play for my small but appreciative audience, and in these times of the pandemic, this was all I needed- I was performing! As I watched the family continue on their walk, I imagined that the young girl carrying the guitar case was also going to find a beautiful spot to take out her guitar and play a piece of celebration for a family member’s birthday or milestone achievement!
The last few days have been quite chilly and the leaves are starting to turn. I love this time of year when I can once again make soups and stews that simmer on the stove for hours in my trusty and well worn cast iron pot!
Our talented gardener friend Jerry, brought us the surplus from his garden: onion, leeks, carrots, cabbage, parsnip and kale; so I was inspired to make “End of Summer Friend’s Vegetable Garden Soup“! From my fridge, I added celery, chicken chorizo sausage, a can each of white cannellini beans, diced fire roasted tomatoes, and some Italian farro- a delicious grain that is a nice substitute for barley.
“End of Summer Friend’s Vegetable Garden Soup”
1 onion finely chopped
1 large leek rinsed well and finely chopped
1/2 small cabbage sliced
1 parsnip chopped
1 carrot chopped
a few pieces of kale- tough stems removed and chopped
1 stalk celery chopped
2 or 3 chicken chorizo sausages diced
1- 8 ounce can cannellini beans
1/2 cup Italian farro
1- 8 ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in heavy large pot
Saute onion and leeks until softened
Add vegetables and rest of other ingredients
Cover with water and bring to a boil
Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook about 1 1/2 hours.
I served this with sour dough bread slices that I rubbed with garlic, poured on a bit of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled the bread with grated parmesan cheese.
I broiled them until the bread was crisp and toasty!
Enjoy! And we will get through this time- VOTE!!!!!
AND, we made our first fire in our woodstove the other night!
These past few months have given me the wonderful gift of time. I also have the good fortune to live in a place of great natural beauty. Since the middle of March my husband Paul and I have taken many beautiful walks and hikes in the Berkshires and Northwest Connecticut. One of my biggest challenges during the pandemic has been not being able to perform with my colleagues and with my group Hevreh Ensemble. I did play two socially distant outside concerts this summer and it felt wonderful to play music with others! The situation we find ourselves in gives one the choice to create virtual projects or to play solos. A creative outlet slowly took shape as I started to bring along my recorder and Native American Flutes on our walks. This past summer I have been playing short improvisations on mountain tops, woodland trails, marshes and ponds. Here is a short improvisation from the Skiff Mountain Preserve in Kent, Connecticut.
One of the most beautiful walks we have taken this past summer has been at the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, Massachusetts about forty minutes from Northampton. We discovered the site by accident. A copy of the New Yorker Magazine was almost about to join an anonymous pile of books and other old magazines. Luckily Paul picked up the May 25th issue and read about a writer named Alan Weisman who has taken refuge at his rural Massachusetts home during the pandemic. He is the author of the 2007 best seller, “The World Without Us”; in the book, all life on Earth has vanished, a bit too apropos for our time!
William Cullen Bryant was born in 1794 and grew up in Cummington, Massachusetts, where his first poem was published at the age of 13. His most famous poem “Thanatopsis” was published in 1817 when he was practicing law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He went on to become the editor of The New York Evening Post. He was a passionate abolitionist and was instrumental in helping Abraham Lincoln win the presidential election. He was also a dedicated conservationist and horticulturist and used his editorials from the New York Evening Post to support Frederick Law Olmsted’s plans for Central Park.
When we approached the Bryant Homestead for the first time, we were struck by the serenity and peacefulness of the area. It felt as if we had stepped back in time- it was a hot summer day and in the late afternoon sun, as we listened carefully, we heard only birds and the gentle whirring of insects, but no sounds from cars or other engines. The air had a delightful stillness to it. From Byrant’s boyhood home, which is now a museum (closed during the pandemic), we walked down the gentle slope of a meadow and came to the Rivulet Trail. As we entered the cool dark woods from the bright hot sun of the meadow, the sweet, musky, spicy and calming scent of the pine trees enveloped us. The tall pines, some over 150 feet, stood reaching toward the sky like stalwart soldiers. They swayed gracefully, as the sunlight wove intricate patterns through the tops of the trees. Bryant loved this trail and it is the inspiration for many of his poems.
I played this improvisation on the Pine Tree Loop part of the Rivulet Trail.
Interspersed throughout the walk are several placards with Bryant’s poetry.
Since our initial visit we have returned many times to walk through these serene woods. It has been a dry summer and the Rivulet that runs along the path had no water, but this past weekend we arrived just as a rain storm had passed. As we stepped into the woods, the air was misty and cool. The pine floor of the woods was soft and each step felt like there was a cushion underfoot. As we walked down the gentle slope, the peaceful gurgling sounds of the Rivulet accompanied us.
The trees and moss were dark with moisture and different varieties of mushrooms and fungi poked their tiny heads out of covering of leaves, pine needles and tree trunks. The woods were quieter than usual and a lone owl hooted into the distance.
During his lifetime, William Cullen Bryant returned many times to the Rivulet Trail. We will look forward to visiting in the fall as the leaves turn and then again in the spring where we hope to see the delicate spring Yellow Violet that Bryant describes lovingly in this poem:
On our way home after our most recent excursion to the trail, we stopped at Taft Farms in Great Barrington to stock up on their excellent summer bounty. That day we purchased tomatoes, berries, zucchini, peaches and CORN!
It was a stormy day and when we arrived at the store, there was a tremendous downpour along with the ominous news of a possible tornado in the area. The other intrepid patrons were all wearing their masks and keeping a reasonable social distance from each other, but I was touched by an elderly man standing alone in front of me in line. He had come out in the storm to buy a single pumpernickel bagel from the store’s bakery- he held it up to me apologetically and said,”I only wanted a bagel”. I believe that he also came for a bit of social interaction, as brief as it was!
I am not much of a gardener, however, I am the happy recipient of surplus from our friends gardens. My refrigerator filled up with red beets from our talented gardener friend Jerry, so it was time to make Summer Borscht! Red beets are one of my favorite foods and I love Borscht-a sturdy winter version with meat, potatoes, carrots, dill, onions, garlic and tomato is wonderful, but I mostly crave Summer Borscht. I was wondering recently why I like beets so much. Is it in my Eastern European DNA? I read that there is a chemical in red beets that causes a feeling of well being! Summer Borscht– I ate way too many bowls of it in Poland when my group Hevreh Ensemble was on tour.
Lublin, Poland 2018
I tried to recreate it and lately I have been happy with the result. Red beets simmered until tender, peeled and diced with plenty of chopped cucumber,radish,dill, scallions or chives; seasoned with brown rice vinegar, salt, pepper, honey and plain yogurt. Left alone for a few days in the fridge to meld all of the flavors together, it is wonderful with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream and maybe a hard boiled egg sliced on top. This also freezes well and if you defrost a bowl of it with some ice crystals left in it, the taste is a bit like red beet granita! A perfect summer dish!
4 or 5 large red beets
1/2 cup diced cucumber
1/2 cup diced radish
1/2 cup minced dill
1/4 cup diced scallion or chives
salt and pepper to taste
brown rice vinegar to taste* see note
1 or 2 tablespoons honey to taste
1/2 or more plain yogurt
Scrub Beets well and if large cut in half
Cover with water in a medium sized pot
Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer
Cover and cook until tender
Save water that beets were cooked and strain into a large bowel
Let beets cool completely
Peel Beets and cut into small dice
Add diced beets along with cucumber, radish, dill and scallions or chives into reserved beet liquid
Add brown rice vinegar to taste- start with a small amount and add more as desired.
Stir in yogurt and honey
Add salt and pepper to taste
Refrigerate for at least a day to let flavors meld
Serve with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream
Add a sliced hard boiled egg on top if desired
Note: I do not specify exact amounts of brown rice vinegar, honey or yogurt. After the borscht sits for a day or two, you can add more seasonings to your taste.
I will leave you with one more summer treat. We try to cook without processed sugar. The peaches this summer have been so sweet that they do not need any other sweetener. We came up with a sugar free peach/strawberry pie. I hope you enjoy making this recipe!
Sugar Free Peach/Strawberry Pie
3 cups strawberries
3/4 very ripe peaches
2 tablespoons cornstarch
pinch of cinnamon
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup whole grain spelt four
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons non- hydrogenated shortening ( I like the organic Spectrum brand)
3 or more tablespoons ice water
Make the pastry crust:
In the bowl of a food processor combine flours, salt, butter and shortening until just combined.
Add the ice water and process until a ball shape forms. You may need to add more water a tablespoon at a time.
Take the ball of dough and cut into 2 pieces and refrigerate at least one hour. When you want to make the pie, bring the dough back to room temperature.
Bring a pot of water to boil
Place peaches in boiling water for a minute or two and the skins will slip right off!
Slice strawberries and peaches and place in a medium sized pot
If you want a sweeter pie, add 1/2 sugar to fruit
Make a slurry with the cornstarch and a small amount of water
Simmer fruit over medium heat until the fruit releases it’s juices and the fruit softens a bit.
Mix in cornstarch and cook briefly until mixture thickens and the color of the fruit mixture turns clear.
Add pinch of cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Lightly flour counter top
Roll out one piece of dough and fit into a pie plate
Pour fruit mixture into pie plate
Roll out second piece of dough and cut into strips
Lay strips in a crisscross pattern over filling
Sprinkle with cinnamon
Bake until crust is light brown and filling bubbles aprox. 40 minutes