Cross-posted from the Union for Reform Judaism Blog.
I gravitate toward cookbooks – of any kind, really. I think though, that there is something very Jewish about the way I use cookbooks, and the way I use Jewish cookbooks, in particular.
First, I love exploring the history and geography of food through cookbooks. I contemplate insights they offer into the origins and uses of foods, and what can be gleaned about the individuals behind the recipes.
Second, I use recipes to spark creativity and invention. If imitation is a sincere form of flattery, taking a recipe and arguing with it, bringing new sources into the mix, and coming up with a bold new creation is true Talmudic love.
These tendencies are exacerbated while talking about the cookbooks of the Jewish people. I love dreaming about the lives and foods of Jews around the world and debating about why those exact seven vegetables must go over the couscous, or whether the chicken in a pomegranate walnut sauce could instead be replaced by a butternut squash. These debates are fierce and never-ending.
I recently visited a dear friend’s summer house in the Berkshires, and I happened upon a cookbook he had (which quickly changed hands) called Jewish Cookery from Boston to Baghdad. As my husband Brian and I perused it, we gravitated toward a recipe for Libyan eggplant fritters stuffed with mushrooms and cheese.
The recipe is called “manna sandwiches,” and the explanation given is that “this and similar ‘sandwich’ dishes are said, in Libya, to represent manna between two layers of dew.”
I find this quite poetic. Manna, the substance God provided for the Israelites while they wandered the desert, supposedly tastes differently to different people, according to the Talmud. It also signifies finding something miraculous. For instance, the phrase “like manna from Heaven” might be deployed when a person unexpectedly spies a fantastic Jewish cookbook in a summer house.
Neither descriptor is exactly true of the eggplant, though to me, it is queen of the vegetables for its versatility, fascinating texture, and how much fun it is to prepare it. It can be salted to remove the bitterness. It can be battered and fried to produce a crispy shell around a meltingly soft interior. Funnily enough, my husband can fry eggplant better than me, the queen of this queen of vegetables. This, needless to say, translates directly into my endless devotion to him, and my new favorite humblebrag. (“Oh, my eggplant? It’s terrible – compared to my husband’s…”)
It is said that King Solomon composed the Shabbat eve song “Aishes Chayil” (“Woman of Valor” from Proverbs 31), with our Jewish matriarch Sarah in mind. As Rabbi Pinchas Winston said, “This is what makes a true Aishes Chayil, of whom King Solomon wrote. She possesses the ability, above all else, to transform her non-spiritual reality into one of tremendous spirituality, even when all the surrounding elements are working against her.”
I think the idea of manna sandwiches made of eggplant accomplishes something similar: transcending the ordinary into the sublime through food. Food is about more than sustenance; it is about expressing oneself, one’s values and identities, and is best when eaten in community.
My husband and I are the cooks for FED, a community where you are fed delicious food, inspirational ideas, and the company and creative energy of others. We prepared the manna sandwich recipe for this year’s Yom Kippur break-fast, with wonderful results. The eggplant is crunchy, and the cheese and mushrooms inside are pure umami. Try it for yourself!
Manna Sandwiches (adapted by Brian Shelby from Jewish Cooking from Boston to Baghdad)
1 large eggplant
1/2 lb. fresh mushrooms, chopped
1 medium onion, finely minced
1 tsp. dried sage
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 lb. cream cheese, softened
1/4 lb. parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg yolk, beaten
salt and pepper
(cornstarch can be substituted for flour and bread crumbs to make it gluten free)
Peel and cut eggplant into slices less than 1/2 inch thick. Cut each slice into rectangles about 1-1/2 by 2 inches. Place in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let stand for about 30 minutes.
Sautee onion in olive oil until transparent. Add mushrooms and sage and sautee lightly. Cool.
Add cream cheese, parmesan and a pinch of salt. Blend well. Add egg yolk. Mix.
Rinse eggplant pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Dredge in flour. Fry lightly in oil until soft and just golden but retaining their shape.
Spread half the eggplant pieces with the cheese mixture. Cover with another piece to make a sandwich.
Beat remaining eggs and dip each sandwich into egg and then into seasoned breadcrumbs, completely covering. Fry in deep, hot oil for about 3 minutes or until crisp but not too brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.
If you find yourself in New York City, come celebrate joyous occasions at FED!