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Cooking: What Our Ancestors Knew about the Earth
by Tina D. Wasserman

Asparagus Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

Did you know that the holiday of Pesach predated the Jewish exodus from Egypt? This ancient harvest festival was held on the first full moon of the first month of spring. The Israelites would slaughter a young lamb, dip the herb hyssop in its blood, and brush the blood on the doorposts of their homes. The baby lamb (which perhaps represented “renewal”) was eaten with unleavened bread (perhaps symbolizing the beginning of the barley harvest) and bitter herbs (perhaps signifying the harsh winter months). Since there is no recorded history as it relates to the symbolism, the meaning is conjecture.

We know for a fact, however, that agriculture and harvest celebrations are central to the teachings of Torah. The Mishnah (the early 3rd-century compendium of rabbinic teachings), too, devotes approximately one-sixth of its deliberations to agriculture in Jewish practice. A section called “Seeds” gives a firsthand view of agrarian life, ranging from species differentiation to irrigation techniques to the rules of crop harvesting.

It is also known that the agricultural practices of ancient Israel produced high-yield crops while preserving the sustainability of the earth. On the website “Ancient Desert Agricultural Systems Revived” (a source for scholars and students wanting to reclaim desert land using ancient methods and modern technology), the findings validate the wisdom of such agricultural regulatory practices in the Bible as letting the field lie fallow in the seventh year (Exodus 23:22) and refraining from harvesting fruit trees for the first three years (Leviticus 19:23) in order to protect the land and sustain the community. Imagine, ancient Israelite farmers practiced methods that we are only now rediscovering! Consider, too, that the recommendations in tractate Tosephta Kelayim 3.6 (a secondary compilation of Jewish oral law from the period of the Mishnah) about the spacing of grapevines are tantamount to the current Cornell University recommendations for vine placement based on height and sun angles during the day.

As Jewish consumers committed to “protecting the environment,” we can do our share to support sustainable agricultural practices by buying seasonal, locally grown produce. Not only will we enjoy the best-tasting foods, we will be supporting local farmers, helping to preserve the fertility of the earth, and reducing the carbon footprint (a measure of the impact of human activities on greenhouse gas production, measured in units of carbon dioxide) by eliminating the need to ship and truck out-of-season produce from distances as far as 4,000 miles.

This Passover, as we celebrate our release from the shackles of slavery to newfound freedom, may we release ourselves from our old culinary habits. May all our harvests be in the tradition of tikkun olam—repairing of the world—for generations to come.

Eat in good health!

Asparagus Soufflé

Sweet spring asparagus make a wonderful addition to a cheese soufflé—and contrary to what you might think, a soufflé is quite easy to make. Make sure everyone is home for dinner before popping it in the oven; it will be ready in just 35 minutes.

2 cups asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1⁄2 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup milk (whole is best)
1 Tablespoon potato starch
4 egg yolks
2⁄3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Nutmeg to taste
5 egg whites

  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
  2. Cook the asparagus pieces in boiling salted water for 3 minutes, or until they’re bright green and tender. Drain and immerse in ice water. When they are cool, drain and puree in a processor or blender.
  3. Melt the butter in a 3-quart saucepan. Sauté the onion until it’s tender and lightly golden.
  4. Microwave the milk in a glass measuring cup for 3 minutes on high.
  5. Sprinkle the potato starch over the onion mixture. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
  6. Add the hot milk all at once. Stir vigorously with a wire whisk until the sauce is thick and smooth. Cook for about 3 minutes.
  7. Remove from the heat. Stir in the egg yolks one at a time; then stir in the asparagus puree, 1⁄3 cup of the Parmesan cheese, and seasonings to taste.
  8. Butter a 1-quart soufflé dish and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese. Shake out the excess cheese. Reserve it.
  9. Beat the egg whites until they’re foamy. Add a pinch of salt and continue to beat until the whites form stiff peaks.
  10. Scoop out about 1⁄3 of the whites and stir them into the asparagus mixture.
  11. Fold the remaining beaten egg whites into the mixture until they’re just incorporated. Don’t over-mix.
  12. Pour the soufflé mixture into the prepared pan. Tap the dish on the counter to eliminate bubbles. Sprinkle the top with the reserved Parmesan.
  13. Set the mixture in the center of the preheated oven. Reduce the heat to 375°F.
  14. Bake for 20 minutes. Without opening the oven door, check to see if/when the soufflé has risen about 2 inches above the rim of the dish and is beginning to brown nicely.
  15. Then let the soufflé bake for another 15 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4–6 as a main course.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • When a recipe calls for flour to thicken a sauce, you can substitute 1 teaspoon of potato starch for every Tablespoon of flour.
  • When adding egg whites to a thick mixture, it is always useful to “sacrifice” or lose the air in some of the beaten whites. By stirring a small portion of the whites into the thick mixture, you lighten the density of the ingredients and lessen the chance that the heavy weight will prevent the soufflé from rising properly. All recipes calling for beaten egg whites will benefit from this “lightening technique.”


Oven-Roasted Asparagus and Mushrooms

Ever since I discovered the joys of oven-roasting vegetables, I almost never boil or microwave them. The flavors are more intense, and there is no water to leach out the vitamins.

1 pound asparagus
8 ounces Baby Bella or Crimini mushrooms, halved (if large)
2–3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves finely minced fresh spring garlic
1 Tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Rinse the asparagus. Trim 2 inches off the bottom of each stalk. Rinse the mushrooms and pat dry.
  3. Mix the oil and all the seasonings in a 3-quart bowl. Immerse the garlic for 5 minutes to flavor the oil.
  4. Add the mushrooms and the asparagus. Toss well to coat.
  5. Spread the vegetables on a low-sided baking pan and place in the oven, uncovered. Roast for 6–10 minutes, until they’re crisp-tender and slightly browned. Serve immediately or at room temperature. Serves 4–6.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Let garlic and herbs rest in oil for a few minutes. Their flavor will permeate the oil, and your foods will be flavored evenly.
  • Look for asparagus spears the size of your ring finger in diameter (about 1⁄2 inch). Too thin or too thick, in my opinion, are too woody and tough.
  • When roasting asparagus, watch it carefully. Very thin spring varieties will cook faster in a hot oven; thicker varieties may take twice as much time.


The Best Potato Salad Ever!

For the best homemade potato salad you will ever eat, use the sweet new spring potatoes.

2 pounds of new potatoes, redskins or small Yukon Gold
2 Tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
White vinegar to taste (and smell)
2 Tablespoons grated fresh onion or 1⁄4 cup freshly chopped chives
1 cup or less mayonnaise
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Wash the potatoes. Cook them in their skins in boiling salted water. When they’re tender, drain and cut into 1⁄4-inch slices (or chunks if you prefer).
  2. Pressing your fingers over the opening of the oil bottle, sprinkle the potatoes with the oil. Lightly toss to coat.
  3. Sprinkle the vinegar over the potatoes in the same way. Use only enough vinegar so you can slightly smell it. This way you have the flavor but not the bite.
  4. Grate the onion directly onto the potatoes—or, alternatively, pour on the chives.
  5. Add the remaining ingredients. Mix well.
  6. Let the potato salad sit for at least half an hour to allow the flavors to meld.

Serves 6–8.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • To save time, buy new potatoes. Their skins are so thin, they don’t need to be peeled.
  • When making potato salad, always toss your potatoes in oil first. You’ll seal in the starch, use less mayonnaise (the potatoes won’t readily absorb the mayonnaise), and have a moist salad that won’t clump after refrigeration (a trick passed down to me from my grandfather, the deli man).

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking news­letter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.



Union for Reform Judaism.