On the Jewish food scene: Winter foods

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I sat down to write this column just after the first real snow of the winter and all I could think about was having something warm to drink. During the winter, the number of cups of tea I drink a day greatly increases. (That’s a mixture of caffeinated and herbal teas over the course of the day.) I also drink plenty of warm or boiling water with no flavoring: I know some people think that’s odd, but it’s better than being cold. Not only does it warm my insides, but also my hands, if I hold the mug correctly. (Cold hands and cold feet make me really uncomfortable.)

This season also makes me think of soup and that makes me think of my mom and our friend, Sandy Shapiro, who moved Oregon to live near her daughter a few years ago. The three of us used to gather for dinner on Saturday nights and Sandy always made soup during the winter months because my mother loved soup. That’s partly because as she got older, my mom had more difficulty staying warm and soup was a great help.

Our meals together started, though, when my father and little brother Larry were still alive. As my dad began to decline, we invited Sandy to join us when Larry was home for his weekly visit. As some of you may know, Larry had Down Syndrome and lived in a group home not far from our house. Toward the end of his life, his weekly visits usually consisted of his watching (and rewatching and rewatching....) the Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange version of “King Kong” (which, except for the special effects, qualifies as one of the worst films of all time) and eating lunch and dinner with us. One of those meals always included soup, even during the summer.

After my father and Larry passed away, we rotated weeks for making a meal. When my mom went in the nursing home, Sandy would come with me to visit every Saturday. About once a month, we would take my mom out to dinner. The rest of the time we returned to Sandy’s house for dinner because she loved to cook. I still miss seeing and having dinner with her since she moved away. If I had to come up with one favorite thing she cooked, it would be her squash and bean soup. It was vegetarian, so my mom would eat it. I ate it, though, because it was so good. While I’m not sure it qualifies as a Jewish soup, it was a perfect winter soup.

That does raise a question: if someone Jewish makes a dish and all the ingredients are kosher, does that mean it qualifies as Jewish food? However, there really is no one Jewish cuisine, even though Ashkenazic-centric folks think of their foods as real Jewish food. But Jewish cuisine varies depending on the locale, so there is no one Jewish food style. That means that almost any soup or dish can be Jewish as long as the ingredients are kosher, and meat and dairy aren’t used together in the recipe. 

I keep think of making my own soup and have plenty of recipe books (some of which Sandy gave to my mom and me, not that we ever used them). I’m supposed to watch my sodium so that makes buying vegetable soup stock or soup mixes problematic. I know there are ways to make sodium-free soups, but I just haven’t had the energy to try them. To be honest, I’ve had this same discussion with myself just about every winter since Sandy moved. Only once – for Passover – did I make soup (from a mix), but that was before the doctor suggested I watch my sodium. That doesn’t mean I don’t eat soup, though. A perfect meal for me is soup and salad. (I adore salad and eat all different kinds. I’m also a big fan of salad dressing.) 

In case this column has made you long for a great bowl of soup, the links below offer several from Jewish websites for you to try. And if you want someone to sample your initial efforts, I’d be more than happy to volunteer.