Thursday, December 24, 2009

Chicken Feet Or the Sole

Part I. In Theory

Chicken feet. Many people will probably feel a little sick just reading those words, and yet for most of our bubbies, chicken feet were an essential ingredient for a rich, nutritious soup stock. And according to nutrition writer Sally Fallon, it was with good reason. "Science validates what our grandmothers knew. Rich homemade chicken broths help cure colds. Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons--stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain." Maimonides prescribed chicken soup for a range of maladies (Rosner, Fred. The Medical Legacy of Moses Maimonides. KTAV Publishing House, 1998, p. 243). The American cooking classic The Joy of Cooking also has high praise for the humble foot and calls it "perfect for stock." (Rombauer, Irma, et al. The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking. Scribner, 1997, p. 579) (For studies on positive health effects of chicken soup, see, e.g., here).

Besides the general health-fortifying qualities of chicken soup, chicken feet are full of gelatin. "Gelatin acts first and foremost as an aid to digestion and has been used successfully in the treatment of many intenstinal disorders, including hyperacidity, colitis and Crohn's disease. Although gelatin is by no means a complete protein, containing only the amino acids arginine and glycine in large amounts, it acts as a protein sparer, allowing the body to more fully utilize the complete proteins that are taken in." (Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing, 2001, pp. 116-117). So if chicken feet are so good, how did they disappear from our soup?

Well, one answer is that convenience became the catchword of the latter part of the 20th century. People took less time to prepare their own food and depended more and more on the burgeoning industrial food complex. Traditional soup stocks at home and even in most restaurants were replaced by less expensive synthetic flavorings and vegetable oils, and for soup this meant soup mixes and instant soups, which did make life more convenient, but at what cost? Food producers totally embraced those changes, and heimish food producers were no different.

For instance, someone recently gave me a pack of Manischewitz Vegetable Soup Mix. The company's tag-line is "Quality Since 1888"... sounds wholesome and traditional, right? Just like Bubbe made. But among the ingredients are: partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil, and corn starch. Back in Bubbe's day, soy oil was used in the US in the manufacture of paint and glue products, not as food. (Lierre, Keith. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. PM Press, 2009, p. 224). And soybean oil and cottonseed oil are both extracted from two of the four main genetically modified crops grown in the world. Cotton is not even classified as a food crop and therefore more potent pesticides are applied liberally to it. It sounds like the definition of "quality" has changed a little around Manishewitz since 1888. But, life is more convenient. All I have to do is drop that soup mix in a pot of boiling water and let it simmer for two hours, and it tastes pretty good.

Real chicken soup is, however, still a Shabbos-table staple, although without the feet. And why is that? Well, when our society embraced synthetics, chicken feet became kind of gross and the market was lost. Today, you can't get ahold of chicken feet even if you try. When you buy a whole kosher chicken at Trader Joe's, the word "whole" is qualified; it comes with a chicken body and maybe a neck if you're lucky, but no gizzard, no heart, no liver, and certainly no feet. In fact, you can even buy your kosher chicken with no skin or bones, in a nice little plastic package, if you want, without all the stuff that's great for making stock, and they charge more for it.

So what do they do with the feet that belonged to all these chicken bodies? They export them to people who still value chicken feet. According to documentation on the USDA website, $64 million worth of chicken feet were exported to Hong Kong in 2005 alone. I have read one estimate that the chicken foot export business to China is today worth over $380 million per year. Meanwhile, they're taking all those good chicken feet in exchange for lead-laden toys for our children.

That being said, those chicken feet are from factory farms and maybe there is some wisdom in avoiding factory-farmed chicken feet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the effects of factory farming "include groundwater contamination, air contamination, respiratory disease, and the creation and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria." Yum. Taking into consideration that those effects are just on the community around the farm, I don't really want to take the risk of eating the feet of the chickens who lived on the farm. Fine, so send them to China.

Part II. In Reality

I want to contrast factory farm conditions to a polyculture farm, where, rather than approaching farming from a factory model, it is instead approached as an ecosystem, similar in the way it functions to a forest or plain (and similar, I imagine, to the farming practices that the Alte Rebbe encouraged his brethren to take up). Yesterday I spent the day on such a farm in the Santa Cruz mountains. It's called Green Oaks Creek Farm and about thirty of us were gathered for the shechting, plucking, eviscerating, and salting of a number of poulet rouge chickens. The chickens were raised entirely on pasture, specifically, on a fallow field which was at rest between growth cycles. The chickens ate bugs, rodents, seeds, and whatever else they found in the field, in addition to certified organic feed, and in exchange they left their droppings as manure and their thighs became plump. They were not treated with antibiotics or growth stimulants, which are de rigueur in factory farming.

We were there working with Caleb Barron, the actual farmer who had raised the chickens, Naf Hanau, a compassionate shochet who is a personal acquaintance of mine, and Rabbi Seth Mandel as the mashgiach, overseeing the process for the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California. I was particularly impressed by Rabbi Mandel's knowledge and experience in the industry, and his down-to-earth and approachable manner. I also was thankful to Anna Hanau, under whose tutelage I worked as an organic farmer during the summer of 2008. She was slated as the event "mentor," and indeed she gave me a couple tips on evisceration. The event was organized by Hazon in conjunction with the Hazon Jewish Food Conference taking place over this weekend in Northern California, and I am very thankful to have been a participant.

Was it beautiful? In a certain way, yes. Although the most accurate descriptor for me at the time was "natural." However cheesy it sounds, it felt like I was back in place, back in the "Circle of Life." I was back with Adam haRishon who named all the creatures, when he slaughtered his first animal and was thankful to G-d; back with Avraham Avinu, raising flocks in the pastures of Bethel. For one morning, I was back in that circle, and it felt natural, and because of that it was beautiful. Please don't misunderstand--there is nothing innately beautiful in taking another creature's life; nor about watching a chicken's body flail as its blood drains and its dying nerves fire hotly; nor is it innately beautiful reaching inside a chicken's carcass and pulling out a handful of guts. But to know that it can be done with respect, that we can raise G-d's creatures with respect, and respectfully kill them as G-d allowed, that is beautiful. The process was flanked by explicit praise of G-d as halacha prescribes, al pi r'tzono yishtabach shemo.

Needless to say, I took a bag of feet home and I will be making some gelatinous soup stock.

Basic Sauerkraut Recipe

This post is a follow-up to my Fermentation and Jewish Culture post.

Recommended tools:
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Grater/shredder
  • Bowl
  • A jar made out of either glass or earthenware (like a ceramic crock) (you can also use food-grade plastic if you must)
  • A rock, or small jar that fits in the bigger jar, or plastic bag
  • Square of cloth to cover mouth of bigger jar (optional)
  • Rubber-band to hold cloth over mouth of jar (optional, but highly recommended)

  • Cabbage (preferably organic and locally grown) (about 2.5 lbs. of cabbage should render about 1/2 gallon/2 liters of sauerkraut, so plan your jar size accordingly)
  • Sea salt (or any type of salt except chemically iodized salt)

A word on lacto-fermentation and ingredients: Sauerkraut depends on the action of bacteria present on the leaves of cabbage to provide the pickling magic, and you want to encourage them as much as possible. Pesticides may kill or restrict these naturally-occurring bacteria, which means the sauerkraut may not pickle if using non-organic cabbage. Similarly, iodine definitely kills bacteria and that's why I suggest not using iodized salt.

A word on checking cabbage for bugs: One of the methods the OU recommends for checking cabbage is to peel off the first few layers of leaves (approximately six leaves) and check each leaf on both sides under a bright light for bugs. If only one or two bugs are found among all those leaves, the rest of the head may be used without checking "provided the remaining leaves of the head are very tightly packed together." If three or more bugs were found, it's necessary to check an additional layer. If that one is clean, you're good to go without further checking. But if more bugs were found there (which is highly uncommon), it's necessary to check the whole head. (The OU Guide to Checking Fruits, Vegetables, & Berries, 2nd Edition, Orthodox Union 2007, pp. 21-22)

  1. Chop the cabbage in half from top to bottom and cut out the core. You can eat the core right now if you want... it's crunchy and tastes fresh and usually a little spicy, kind of like kohlrabi, or you can shred it and throw it in with the sauerkraut. Or you can throw it in the compost bin, as you prefer.
  2. Shred the cabbage. You can achieve this a number of ways. I often just use a knife and chop the cabbage into the smallest pieces I am able. You can also use a hand grater, and grate the cabbage to the grade you like. Or, the fastest and easiest method is to shred with a food processor. Use what is available to you or what you prefer, and gather the shredded cabbage into a bowl.
  3. Add salt to the shredded cabbage at about a 1:1 ratio, one tablespoon of salt per head of cabbage. It doesn't really matter whether you're using large or small cabbages because about one tablespoon of salt will be fine for either. Mix the salt and shredded cabbage well.
  4. You will notice that the mixture is starting to get wet. This is very good. The salt is beginning to extract juice from the cabbage leaves, and that juice is essential to the sauerkraut-making process. You need to rough up the cabbage a bit at this point. Punch it and knead it for a couple minutes like you would to bread dough. This aides the juice-extraction process.
  5. Start transferring the shredded cabbage mixture to your jar. As you fill in every couple inches, give it a good few punches. Some people use a wooden tool instead of a fist to do this packing down, which is easier and more convenient, unless you don't have such a tool.
  6. Once all your cabbage is packed in, or the jar is getting full (remember that you will need to leave enough headroom for the liquid to rise, and for a weight, and a little airspace under the optional cloth cover), you need to use something heavy to weigh down the cabbage and make sure it remains under the liquid which will be extracted. This can be achieved a number of ways. You can use a rock (make sure you wash and boil it first), or a smaller jar filled with water, or a plastic bag filled with water (or create your own method). Either way, the point is that when the salt extracts enough liquid from the cabbage, you want the cabbage to remain submerged under the liquid, and the weight will do this. The worst thing that will happen if the cabbage floats to the top and is exposed to air is that the top layer will get moldy, and even then, you can just remove that top layer and eat what's underneath it.
  7. Let it sit with the weight on about twelve to twenty four hours, and check to make sure enough liquid has been extracted. There should be about an inch or two of liquid above the cabbage. If there is not enough liquid to cover the cabbage, add a well-dissolved mixture of water and salt at about a 1:1 ratio, one tablespoon salt to one cup water.
  8. If you want, attach the cloth cover with rubber-band and let it sit in a cool, dark place for between two weeks to three months. You can taste it as it ages, and when it tastes best to you is when it's ready. At least visually check it every few weeks to make sure too much water hasn't evaporated, otherwise the cabbage will become exposed. The cloth cover is optional, but I think it's a good idea just to keep out dust and bugs.
  9. When it's done, you can move the whole jar into the refrigerator, or pack the finished product into smaller jars and refrigerate those, and then start a new batch in the big jar. The refrigeration essentially freezes the fermentation process where it is, although it is actually still occurring at a much slower pace. This sauerkraut should be fine for at least six months to a year, if not longer.

Other tips:
  • You can mix in liquid from old batches of sauerkraut into new batches, which is not necessary but it acts as an inoculation of the new batch.
  • When you get comfortable with sauerkraut making, you can get creative with ingredients. Some traditional and modern sauerkraut flavorings include: apples, fennel, juniper berries, seaweed, and hot peppers. You would add these flavorings at the beginning of the fermentation process.
  • Like the ecosystem in a forest or meadow, different communities of bacteria "rise and fall" the longer the sauerkraut ages. Like Sandor Katz says, "Bacteria called Coliform start the fermentation. As the Coliform produces acid, the environment becomes more favorable for Leuconostoc bacteria. The Coliform population declines as the population of Leuconostoc builds. As acids continue to be produced and the pH continues to drop, Lactobacillus succeeds the Leuconostoc. The fermentation involves a succession of three different types of bacteria, determined by the increasing acidity." (Katz, Sandor. Wild Fermentation, p. 40)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kasis L'ma'or

"The most excellent way to fulfill the mitzvah is to use olive oil for Chanuka candles... and similarly... to take wicks of cotton or linen... We have the custom that the "shamash" should be a wax candle." (Shevach HaMoadim, Kitzur Hilchos Chanuka, 3:1-5) (translation my own).

In order to be mehader the mitzvah of neiros Chanuka this year, I sought out the nicest locally produced organic olive oil I could find, which happens to be Tehama Gold's Mission extra virgin olive oil, based in Northern California. It is a family owned operation and is certified kosher by the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California, based in Berkeley, which is supervised by Rabbi Welton, with whom I am acquainted. I also bought a bag of Maxim organic cotton to use for wicks (they also claim their cotton is free of pesticides, herbicides, chlorine, and viscose), and pure beeswax candles made by Honey Candles of Canada for the shamash. Needless to say, I did feel like a yuppy at the check-out counter, what with buying all these luxury items.

Objectively speaking, these pure and high-quality ingredients are mehudar materials to use for the mitzvah of neiros Chanuka, as they are the most mehudar of the general category of materials that suffice for "mitzvah min hamuvchar" (namely, olive oil, cotton wicks, and beeswax). But subjectively speaking, I wondered if "organic" or some of the other standards I was seeking "count" as a hiddur as well.

The concept of hiddur mitzvah comes from the Gemara in Shabbos 133b, which discusses the passuk "zeh keli v'anvehu" (lit. "this is my G-d and I will glorify Him") (Exod. 15:2). R' Yishmael asks "Is it possible for a person to add glory to his Creator? What it really means is: I shall glorify Him in the way I perform mitzvos. I shall prepare before G-d a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitzis, beautiful tefillin, a beautiful shofar, etc." But is the standard for beautification objective? In an essay on hiddur mitzvah, Rabbi Josh Flug notes, "The requirement to have 'nice' items used for the mitzvah clearly has no objective standards. There can be two sukkot that look nothing alike and the construction of both can be a fulfillment of hiddur mitzvah." For instance, in some communities to beautify the sukkah includes decorations and hangings, while in other communities, the hiddur is mainly the guests who sit inside the sukkah, their singing, and the words of Torah spoken there, with no hangings.

Rabbi Flug also cites there the idea to spend one-third more for the sake of hiddur than you would spend for the baseline product. Granted, organic and local definitely doesn't necessarily equal higher quality for hiddur mitzvah, and paying more for an inferior item is not a hiddur by any means. But let's say there are two olive oils of, as far as you can tell, equal quality, but one is organically grown four hours away from you and it costs one-third more than the non-organic which is from Turkey (and thus required a large amount of oil to be burnt in transporting it, and pesticides may have been applied, and the workers may have been treated worse). Is it considered a hiddur at that point? It seems like it depends on your personal and community standards. So for me, yes.

But, if you'll indulge me, I think there is a deeper reason for the choices I made, and that is that they make it more possible that my great-grandchildren will also be able to fulfill the mitzvah the same way that I am. There is a beautiful story in the Gemara in Taanis, 23b about Choni Hamaagal. If I remember correctly, Choni didn't understand what the first line of Shir Hama'alos (which we say before benching when no tachanun is said) meant. "A song of ascents. When Hashem will return the captives of Zion, we will have been like dreamers." This line is referring to the 70-year exile between the First and Second Temples, and Choni didn't understand what it meant to dream for 70 years. He later encountered a man planting a certain fruit tree, and Choni asked when the tree would bear fruit, to which the man replied "in 70 years." "But you're already a grown man, you won't be around to see it bear fruit," Choni wisely responded. [The man paused from his shoveling, wiped the sweat from his brow and took a good long look at Choni. Then he said,] “Just as my fathers planted for me, so will I plant for my children.” (I added the part in brackets for dramatic effect.) That was a partial answer to Choni's question.

To me, this story illustrates the idea in Yiddishkeit that we are meant to support sustainable farming practices for the sake of future generations, that we are meant not only to dream for ourselves, but to imagine those who will come after us and what world we want to hand down to them. I personally would like to pass on a world filled with trees and fruit, a world with clean air and clean water. Cotton, for instance, is responsible for "25% of global insecticide releases—more than any other single crop." (also see GM Cotton Fiascos). That includes not only common cotton used for Chanuka wicks, but also in mostly all cotton clothing. Honeybee populations are also threatened by the use of pesticides and spreading colony collapse disorder (CCD), which if continued unchecked will majorly limit the way we produce food in this country and the amount and variety of food we have access to.

The Honey Candles company claims to have a "commitment to sourcing from ethical beekeepers... [and] organically managed hives in the Peace River Region of Northern Alberta."
Also, unlike soy and parafin candles, "beeswax is used essentially in its native state. There is no bleaching or hydrogenating and does not require large amounts of agricultural land. Beeswax is the purest of all waxes (including vegetable waxes such as soy) with the least processing and no additives." And they burn slower with a beautiful flame, which makes up somewhat for the extra cost.

So, has it come to that, that my hiddur mitzvah is the baseline for ensuring that my great-grandchildren will have a beautiful world to beautify their mitzvahs in? Let's hope not. It is a Chassidic idea that a little light dispels much darkness. Happy Chanuka to all, and may we spread abundant light this year in every way possible.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fermentation and Jewish Culture

I was reviewing some of birchos hanehenin last week and came across a particularly interesting piece of information. In his Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 205:3, the Alte Rebbe notes the following:
There are types of vegetables that it is not customary to eat them raw (even with bread) but rather cooked (or cured, or pickled which have the same status as a cooked food). For example, cabbage, gourd, and beets and other similar things, you bless "she'hakol ne'hiya bidvaro" on them when they are raw, and if they are cooked or pickled, "borei pri ha'adamah." (emphasis mine) (translation mine).
It's obvious from this that, at the Alte Rebbe's time at least, it was so foreign to eat raw cabbage that if you did eat it, you would make a she'hakol! No one that I know today would dream of making a she'hakol on cabbage. But the point that I want to emphasize is how cabbage often was consumed, namely, fermented (pickled) as sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut was not only common in the Alte Rebbe's time. Historically, one of the most common ways of consuming cabbage (indeed, perhaps for all of history until recently) was as lacto-fermented (pickled) sauerkraut ("zauerkraut" in Yiddish--literally, "sour cabbage"). The method of producing sauerkraut is actually one of the oldest methods of food preservation, having enjoyed documented popularity as far back as early Roman society, up until 18th century Europe, and even playing a vital role in preventing scurvy among sailors (see, e.g. Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. Penguin Books, 2002, pp. 148-151). For obvious reasons, it was reputed to have health-fortifying effects.

Today, we have more than intuition to guide our understanding of the health benefits of sauerkraut.
"Cabbage and other Brassicaceae family vegetables ... have long been recognized as rich in anti-carcinogenic nutrients. According to a new Finnish study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, fermentation breaks down glucosinolates in cabbage into compounds called isothiocyanates, which are already known to fight cancer. 'We are finding that fermented cabbage could be healthier than raw or cooked cabbage, especially for fighting cancer,' says Eeva-Liisa Ryhanen, one of the paper's authors." (Katz, Sandor. Wild Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003, p. 40) (See also Sauerkraut Packed with Cancer-Fighting Compounds)
Additionally, fermentation enhances the digestability of cabbage and increases vitamin levels and, upon consumption, encourages the growth of "healthy bacteria throughout the intestine." (Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing, 2001, p. 89).

And yet, in large part, this aspect of our culture has been lost. A fixture of shabbos tables today is the cabbage salad or coleslaw, no doubt sprayed with pesticides and shipped some great distance and purchased at Costco... not exactly the local, organic, lacto-fermented health-fortifying food that the Alte Rebbe would have been familiar with. Even what most of us know as 'sauerkraut' today is not real sauerkraut. If it's not in the refrigerated section at the grocery store, that means it was either pasteurized or bathed in vinegar, effectively killing the live-cultures that sauerkraut is praised for.

But there is unquestionably an appreciation at the shabbos table for fermentation, the magic transformation of the mundane and perishable into the magnificent. How is that? The two cornerstones of the shabbos meal are fermented foods, wine and bread (specifically, the kiddush wine and the challah). In fact, I've heard it told that these two foods (among others) were built into creation as special shabbos foods, as a little exploration of their gematrias implies: wine=yayin=10+10+50=70, 7+0=7 (the 7th day); challah=8+30+5=43, 4+3=7.

Some chassidic groups actually still observe a specific minhag to eat pickled products on shabbos. They call it in Yiddish "zoyerlach" (lit. "sours" or "ferments") and say it sounds like "azoi erlech" (lit. "so honest"). (Meisels, Dovid. Shabbos Secrets: The Mysteries Revealed. Israel Book Shop, 2003.) Indeed, shabbos "is based on a profound truth, the word of G-d." (Sperling, Abraham. Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions. Bloch Publishing Co., 1968, p. 147). Coincidentally, the gematria of sauerkraut in Hebrew also adds up to seven (kruv kavush=20+200+6+2+20+2+6+300=556, 5+5+6=16, 1+6=7).

The deeper lesson to take from the process of fermentation, indeed, a lesson applicable to every single parsha in the Torah, is internalization. The way fermentation works is that these microorganisms in the air and on the skin of, for instance, cabbage leaves and grapes, are waiting to get inside, to get at the starches or sugars inside, and to transform them. When we crush the cabbage leaves and the grapes, we allow those microorganisms access and they, in turn, create a whole new product, much more valuable and special than cabbage or grapes on their own, and yet at the same time, the cabbage and grapes had the spark of potential waiting to be expressed the whole time.

In chassidus, there is an emphasis on taking the external and superficial in our learning and making it real, to internalize it so that it transforms us, affecting us deeply in actuality. Last week, when we read that Yaakov "laid down in that place," the Midrash emphasizes, "Bamakom hahu!" In that place he laid down to sleep, but for the 14 previous years and the 20 following years, he didn't lay down to sleep. Why? Before he went to Charan, he was learning and internalizing the Torah that he would take with him to the house of Lavan. He was so focused that he didn't have time to sleep. Once there, he had to remain steadfast in his dedication, take care of his family, and raise his children with a strong Jewish education, and this also did not allow him to sleep. He was so successful, that when he left, he could honestly say, "Im lavan garti" ("I sojourned with Lavan") which Rashi notes, "The numerical value of garti is six hundred and thirteen, as if to say, 'I sojourned with Lavan, the evil one, yet I kept the six hundred and thirteen commandments and did not learn from his evil actions.' " (Artscroll Sapirstein Edition Rashi, p. 360, on Gen. 32:5). May we also internalize all that we learn, as the Rebbe Rayatz taught (in yesterday's apropos Hayom Yom), "A fundamental principle of Chabad philosophy is that the mind, which by its innate nature rules over the heart, must subordinate the heart to G-d's service by utilizing the intellectualization, comprehension and profound contemplation of the greatness of the Creator of the universe." The spark is there inside each one of us, we just need to draw it out through our own fermentation.

On a last note, I've been producing my own lacto-fermented foods for over a year now. I eat homemade sauerkraut usually every day. If anyone has any questions regarding how to make sauerkraut or how to find a lacto-fermented variety in the local market, don't hesitate to contact me.