Food for Thought

Denial. Pleasure. Certainly neither is a foreign concept to Jews on Yom Kippur, when a seemingly interminable day of fasting segues into an orgy of kugel and smoked salmon. But would a simple piece of challah dipped in honey really taste so transcendental if we hadn’t spent all day mentally salivating for so much as a saltine and a glass of tap water?

Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of New York’s two nonkosher Blue Hill restaurants — one located in Manhattan’s West Village and the other situated on the Stone Barns farm in the Hudson Valley, just north of the city — asked that exact question as he tore an impossibly plump, reddish-purple cherry tomato from the vine one recent afternoon.

“I deny myself tomatoes most of the year,” he said, languidly tossing the small fruit into his mouth like a golf ball-sized Tic Tac. “And now that they’re here, I want to do them — and the season — justice.”

To Barber, a pioneer in the growing movement to embrace local, seasonal and sustainable eating, the joys of the break-fast challah and heirloom tomato are one and the same. Discipline and contemplation are both as intrinsic to the laws of kashrut as they are to eating in harmony with the vagaries of the farm.

Yet Barber remains troubled by the “whole gestalt around food,” as he refers to the impassioned, and, at times, downright schizophrenic relationship that Jews have with what they eat. “For all the time spent denying certain foods,” Barber asked, “why is there not more of an emphasis on where that food comes from?”

This is a question of obsessive concern at Stone Barns, an 18-acre farm situated on a former Rockefeller family estate that, in addition to the restaurant, houses an educational center. Walking down the sloping home to the farm’s vegetable plots — each boasting its own variegated explosion of tomatoes, corn, summer squash and artichokes — Barber spoke of the importance of being aware of what “what you are eating eats.”

At Stone Barns, that often means better than most. The compost pile is fed from kitchen scraps left over from the restaurant’s New York Times three-star, $95 tasting menu, and the farm’s chickens spend their days lazily poking at the manure of the nearby lamb flock. “What gets wasted doesn’t really get wasted,” he said. “It just gets turned into fuel for the future.”

And this fuel has much less of a cost, on both the wallet and the environment, than the fossil variety normally used to dispatch our food across the globe. “Cheap food is actually very expensive,” Barber said. You aren’t so much paying for the tomato itself at the corner grocery, but rather for the fuel, transportation and storage — and all the ecological costs contained therein — required to shepherd the fruit from the fields of Oaxaca, Mexico, to Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

A few strides and a good tug are all it takes for a tomato to make the neighborly stroll from dirt to dinner at Stone Barns. It’s tikkun olam with taste — easy on the earth, delightful on the palate.

But there remains a disconnect — something that just “doesn’t add up,” according to Barber — in how Jewish dietary laws regard the animals we eat. The lambs on the farm roam freely, chewing on whatever tufts of grass they find dotted around the landscape. Their decidedly more unlucky brethren at the commercial feed-lots that supply the bulk of the country’s meat, including that destined for kosher consumption, are instead kept nearly immobile in cramped pens, fed a designer tonic of grain, steroids and antibiotics. The idea is to get very fat, very fast.

“Jewish law doesn’t prohibit that,” Barber noted with frustration, lamenting on how the principles of kashrut seem to pay more attention to how an animal dies than to how it lives. “The respect and dignity given to an animal at the time of slaughter, why not give that throughout its life?”

Raphael Franklin, an ordained rabbi cum organic veal farmer in New York’s rural Sullivan County, agrees. “There is a right way,” he said of a Jew’s obligation to animals destined for consumption, “and there is a better way, a way that brings you closer to God’s creation.”

Franklin, who has been raising pastured lamb and milk-fed veal for nearly 25 years, is one of the few purveyors of free-range, organic kosher meat in the country. “Within the next generation, this is going to be huge,” he said of the growing interest among observant Jews for his steaks, chops and filets. His retail client list already tops 1,300 names.

The treyf veal leftovers from Franklin’s farm end up on the menu at the Blue Hill restaurants. Barber prefers the tender hindquarters, forbidden under kosher law because of a preponderance of certain prohibited fats and tendons. “Only the Jews would make it so complicated,” he joked half-seriously. What ends up on Barber’s plate is rather simple. “Cooking is the ultimate dance, and the farm always leads,” he said, surveying the verdant hillside before turning toward the kitchen. Dinner service was approaching, and those tomatoes were waiting to be chopped and plated. “Eat the landscape,” he said as the dusk air grew cool, slowly replacing the dewy heat of the afternoon. l Here are two recipes created by Dan Barber that work as well for the kosher epicure as for any other, and are both appropriate for the break-fast meal after Yom Kippur:

Beet Soup

Serves eight

2 pounds beets

4 tbsps olive oil

2 sprigs thyme

2 large red onions, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic

1 cup red wine

1 cup port

1 cup cranberry juice

1 tbsp honey

2 1⁄2 qts vegetable stock

salt and pepper

1 tsp raspberry vinegar

1 tsp sherry vinegar

Chicken Liver Mousse

1 lb. chicken liver

1 large onion, finely sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1⁄4 cup Madeira

1⁄4 cup white wine

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

olive oil

salt and pepper

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Food for Thought

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