When I got married my mother bought me a dining room table.
It was a beautiful dark wood table with extension leaves for when guests came to dinner. My husband and I had just moved from my tiny 450 square foot single girl apartment into a shiny new apartment with floor to ceiling windows and a roof garden. A place to live in the years between engagement and motherhood, with room for adult entertaining.
I don’t need a dining room table, I protested. Certainly not one this fancy. I have a perfectly serviceable Ikea table that also functions as a desk and can be folded away for dance parties!
You’re a wife now. My mother told me. You’re a wife and a member of a synagogue. It’s time to start hosting Shabbat dinners.
Shabbat dinners. An intimidating concept. I could cook, a plate of pasta or a hearty pot of soup, but a proper Shabbat dinner anchors a Jewish home emotionally and spiritually. The food is important. Remembered. Treasured. Friends, even ones that aren’t Jewish, still recall my mother’s lemon squares or chicken with figs, and fond memories of hours of talking and laughing over white table cloths and silver kiddush cups.
I knew how to set the table. Now I needed to figure out what to put on it every week.
That’s where this column begins. The struggle and joy of getting Shabbat on the table every week. This is a place for real dinners, that are cooked between conference calls while a toddler plants themselves firmly around your legs. These are stories and recipes for people who love being Jewish, but sometimes feel crushed by the demands of a Jewish household, a Christian normative workplace, and the impossible, contradictory demands our society makes of women and of mothers and of parents. These are real Shabbat dinners, cooked by me, for my real family, while I balance a fulltime job, family life, writing commitments, social activism, and more. There will be no mandolins or tweezers or any pretense of fine dining. There will be as many one-pot meals as possible. The food will span the world, but always seek to be elevated and worthy of the most important meal of the week.
Together we’ll explore what it all means. What it means to be a member of the Jewish community, even when our lives - and our Shabbat dinners - may look dramatically different from each other. What does it mean to double down on ritual and on Jewish life at a time of rising anti-Semitism? How do we hold on to the beautiful parts of our past that we want to pass down, those beautiful dinners and family memories and songs and prayers, without forcing those who most often do the work to sacrifice parts of themselves to get it on the table? What do we want our children to inherit and what can fall by the wayside, like a beloved kugel recipe updated with fresh leeks and spring onions as opposed to packaged Lipton’s soup? We inherited Shabbat, what do we want our children to inherit? What kind of world does our tradition demand that we fight for, and how do we do that while making committed and ultimately sweet Jewish life?
We live in a world where there is little peace and little rest. We are living through a global pandemic that has upended our lives and brought new challenges - while deepening and exacerbating existing inequities. As Jews, we yearn for a better world. Shabbat is a time to come together, to have a bite of the world to come to rest and replenish for the big fights to come, personally, communally, professionally, and politically.
The table now sits in my house. It is covered with potted plants - a school-at-home science project, cookbooks, bills, and discarded playdough. But tonight it will transform into something sacred and beautiful. Adorned and beloved. My daughter is playing with her baby doll and her toy challah, play-acting that she is me. We have so little time to build her a better world - and so little time to get dinner on the table.
Below is my first Shabbat recipe I’ll share with you, my first recipe I’ll publish anywhere actually. It’s been a favorite since childhood. A rich, savory, oniony, spinach kugel. It pairs perfectly with a simple roasted chicken and can easily be made ahead of time. You can roast some simple seasonal vegetables at the same time it is in the oven and you are well on your way to another Shabbat dinner completed.
Mom’s Spinach Kugel
This recipe came from my Grandmother, Jeanette Weinstein. Apologies, Grandma, I’ve discarded the onion soup mix for fresh leeks. It was my sister in law Megan who turned me onto the idea of fresh leeks in kugel and I never looked back.
2 12 oz. packages of extra wide egg noodles, or 1 extra large package
1 pound of washed baby spinach
1 stick of Earth Balance margarine
2 leeks (I prefer to buy them cut and cleaned. It’s worth the money. Otherwise wash thoroughly and put dark green parts in the freezer for stock).
1 bunch spring onions
2 regular onions
3 cloves of garlic
Put on some music and pour a glass of wine or tea or something nice for yourself. Shabbat cooking should be as joyful as possible. I like to watch a little bit of trashy TV while I do all the chopping. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Chop scallions, leeks, and onions and garlic into bite-sized pieces. This doesn’t need to be precise. Pour a few dashes of olive oil into your largest and deepest frying pan. Heat until the oil is warm but not hot, you don’t want to fry the onions crispy. Add your chopped scallions, leeks, onions, and garlic into the pan and season to taste with garlic salt. I like it aggressively seasoned. Add about 4 tablespoons of Earth Balance or your preferred butter substitute.
Mix together and turn the temperature to low. Add a little water and more salt if it gets too hot and starts to char. We want the alliums to be melty, rich and very savoury, not crunchy. This may take a little while, probably about twenty minutes. but it’s worth it.
Boil water and cook the egg noodles. Once cooked season them with garlic salt and a touch of olive oil. If you are fancy and happen to have garlic or onion infused olive oil that could be nice here. Once the savory component is complete add the spinach and a little more salt and butter, and cook completely, stirring regularly and fully integrating onions and spinach.
In a large mixing bowl ( you can do this in your casserole pan if you’re feeling stressed about the dishes, but I always make a big mess. Maybe you’re neater than me) mix 3 eggs, noodles, and the spinach and onion mix. Mix it very well.
Lightly coat a large casserole pan in butter or oil and pour the contents in. If you do a deeper casserole pan you get a larger amount of richer oniony pasta, a more shallow one provides more crispy topping. Use whatever ratio you prefer. I tend to go deeper and more pasta but I know some are fiends for crispness. Bake for about an hour, until the kugel is cooked through in the middle and the top is brown and crunchy.
You have an hour while it cooks, so you might marinate some chicken in lemon and honey or throw some carrots drizzled with maple syrup and olive oil to cook alongside it. A nice thing about this recipe is it cooks at 350, so you could bake a cake or a plate of brownies alongside it if your oven has room. This recipe makes the whole house smell good and is a perfect, homey, old school Shabbat favorite.
How was your week? How are you spending shabbat? Let us know at #tweetyourshabbat! Everyone is welcome at this table!