CHICAGO’S FOOD MAVEN: Nobody knows more about Jewish cooking than Emily Paster

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Oh, my kingdom for a kreplach…or three.

Just try to find the classic Ashkenazi  Jewish dumpling, typically dunked in chicken soup. You’d end up in a near-treasure hunt to a couple of city locations and a few more establishments receding further into the northern suburbs. Matzoh ball soup can be obtained at many Greek diners. Kreplach? Good luck.

“You can get matzoh ball soup at a million places,” said Emily Paster. “You can’t find kreplach except for a really few places.”

Now, if you know Paster or know somebody who knows her, you might get lucky to wrangle a holiday invite to her home in west suburban River Forest, certainly an unusual locale for kreplach.  One reason the dumpling is missing in action in too many palates, Jewish and otherwise, is it’s a labor-intensive process compared to simply prepping a matzoh ball mix, shaping the orbs and dumping them in boiling water.

Paster is not scared away by any arduous kitchen task.  An attorney-turned-foodie, she has found her calling in WestoftheLoop.com, a food blog that celebrates both classical Jewish cooking and food preservation, and an ongoing series of Food Swaps. Yep, if you have a specialty like, say, grandma’s marble cake, you might end up with Paster’s homemade dill pickles or substantial blintzes topped by apricot preserves at the swaps where homemade specialties and farm-to-table dishes make their public debuts.

But acquire a plate of kreplach in a swap? Better go back to Clout 101 for that holiday invitation. Paster is channeling much of the recipe of Hortense Paster, her paternal grandmother, after decades of interruption. As an avid experimenter for WestoftheLoop.com, Emily Paster was thrilled to master the kreplach to turn the clock back in family annals.

She recalled the melt-in-your-mouth kreplach at Rosh Hashanah gatherings of parents Howard and Gail Paster.

“It was always the first course for dinner,” Paster said. “It was our favorite thing. We looked forward to it all year.  It was the only time you got it because it was so labor intensive. As a kid, you just ate it, you didn’t think what went into preparing it. But it was a very powerful memory.

“I wanted to give my children (15-year-old Zoe and 11-year-old Jamie Regenstein) that same experience. We host High Holiday dinners a lot. This is how we start Rosh Hashanah dinner. I spoke to my father’s older sister, Ann. She knew how to do it, too.”

Like any kreplach preparer, Hortense Paster had to clear the kitchen for a huge bloc of time. She’d make two briskets. One was the main course, while the other was shredded to provide for the kreplach filling. Then there was the baking of the pasta-like dough. No modern working mother could possibly stage such a production unless she took personal or vacation time.

“The first instruction is making a brisket. That’s enough work. I was very intimidated (at first). It’s the only way you’re going to get it.”

The dough is cooked quickly, then has to rest.  Then it is rolled out in thin sheets and cut.  Each kreplach is constructed with the filling, and is finished with the cook folding it by hand.

“It’s a couple of days,” Paster said. “Any culture that has dumplings (as a centerpiece) has the same time-intensive process. If you talk to a Chinese grandma about how to make dumplings, you’ll hear the same things. It has to be done by hand.

Kreplach

“I’ve tried to modernize it a little and lighten it up by using a chicken filling instead. I think anyone can do it. If it’s important to you, you can take the time. You can always make a big batch and freeze them. And I’m sure there are short-cuts, like using frozen won-ton wrappers.”

Paster has turned an avocation into a vocation. A native of the Washington, D.C. area, she first was interested in working courtrooms or conference rooms, attending the University of Michigan law school.

“I grew up in a great cooking family,” she said. “Food wasn’t as big a deal as it is now. If you had a good cook then, you had dinner parties.  That was it. If I told my parents I wanted to go into this as a job, they’d have looked at me strangely.”

But Paster always dabbled in cooking even while cracking law books in Ann Arbor, which featured the kreplach-carrying Zingerman’s Deli.  She hosted a Passover seder in her third year of law school for all her fellow students who were not going home.

“I loved to entertain when friends started getting engaged,” she said. “I was always researching what were the hot restaurants. I was a good cook. I was able to read a recipe. I had instincts about it. At law school, I lived with two other girls and we’d rotate cooking dinner. But one of the girls had no instincts. She couldn’t read a recipe. If something was going wrong, she didn’t know how to fix it. I was always watching others cook. Now she’s got one daughter, but her husband’s a great cook.”

Dutifully, Paster went the route of her law school classmates, expecting to cook up wins in negotiations or lawsuits. But motherhood steered her back to a lifelong calling.

“I stopped being a lawyer because I wanted to be with my kids when they were little,” she said.  Big law firms frequently looked askance at women trying to balance the drive for billable hours with family. Husband Elliott Regenstein continues as an attorney specializing in education issues.

Challah

Compared to the law, Paster took a vow of poverty to start as a blogger a decade ago.

“I was just looking for a creative outlet to express myself, so I wrote about parenting and some food,” she said.  “As my kids were getting older and it was getting more catchy to write about parenting, I switched to food.

“I realized other people weren’t as confident in the kitchen as I was, and struggled to even make a family dinner. This isn’t coming easily to other people as it is to me. I could really help people by putting recipes in the blog. When you’re good at something, you often don’t understand it’s not coming as easily to other people. That was a revelation to me. It’s easy to cook dinner.”

Thus the birth and development of WestoftheLoop.com.

Paster has ranged all food groups and even snacks.  Harried parents and teen-agers don’t have time for multi-course meals. In her latest blog, she offered a play-by-play of cooking beef calzones, which her daughters can eat hand-held like a sandwich while multi-tasking. Paster thus busted any stereotypes about her kitchen being a fancy-linen operation.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she wrote. “So many nights, dinner at my house is catch-as-catch-can. Between homework, music lessons, sports practices and Hebrew school, my kids are on the go from 3 p.m. until 7 or sometimes even 8 p.m. Sit down to dinner? Forget it! You grab what you can, when you can or you don’t eat.

“As a result, I have learned to modify some of my kids’ favorite meals to be eaten while standing at the kitchen counter or – even better – while doing something else. For example, my kids love classic spaghetti bolognese. A delicious dinner, to be sure, but not exactly something you can eat with one hand while also doing math homework.

Apple blintzes

“Enter the calzone. Imagine all the flavors of spaghetti bolognese wrapped inside a handy, easy-to-hold dough pocket. It’s a complete one-dish meal that each kid can eat on his or her own schedule. Although I sometimes make my own dough from scratch, using store-bought pizza dough makes calzones an especially quick and easy weeknight dinner.”

Another stereotype Paster tosses aside is the latke as all-encompassing Chanukah comfort food. But she presented her version of sufganiyot, the Israeli powdery jelly-filled donut.

“Israelis go mad for sufganiyot during Chanukah with hundreds of thousands of the pastries sold throughout the country and newspapers holding competitions to see which bakery makes the best ones,” Paster wrote.

“In my area, one of the local doughnut shops offers sufganiyot during Chanukah by special order and their version is pretty tasty. I definitely go the store-bought route some times. But sufganiyot are a fun project to tackle at home, especially if, like me, you have a stockpile of homemade jam left from the summer. But you can fill your sufganiyot with custard, lemon curd or even chocolate spreads like Nutella if that is more to your taste.

“Sure, frying food at home is messy. And makes your house smell like oil. But sometimes in this life, you just have to go for it. Investing in a deep-fat fryer – like the ones they use on “The Great British Baking Show” – will help. But you can also use a deep saucepan or Dutch oven. I do recommend using a thermometer though, to check the temperature of the oil. Maintaining your oil at the right temperature is the secret to fried foods that do not taste heavy or oily.

“Sufganiyot is made from a yeast-risen dough, so start the project several hours before you plan to fry your doughnuts. Begin by mixing the dough and kneading it until smooth. Allow the dough to rise for at least an hour in a warm place. Then roll out the dough on a well-floured board. Next, cut out circles of dough using a 3-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter. Allow the circles to proof for an additional 30 minutes prior to frying.”

Sufganiyot

The sufganiyot recipe certainly made the cut in book form. Paster authored a cookbook called “The Joys of Jewish Preserving.” To show she is far from just a blog or book cook, during our interview, she produced samples of her preservation and cooking – home-made pickles, two varieties of preserves and Paster-only blintzes.

The pickles were very much unlike the “new pickles” or kosher dills served in delis, the latter often having a harsh taste. Her pickles displayed her personal touch with a more natural  taste-buds sheen. The preserves, applied to the blintzes, also were 180 degrees from store-bought. They expertly complemented the blintzes, whose crust was substantial unlike their commercial counterparts. No sour cream wanted here.  If Paster ran a breakfast joint, the blintzes would be a best seller.

Her output is on the market via the network of Food Swaps, which she co-founded in Chicago. .

“I was the first person to do it in Chicago,” Paster said. “In 2010 and 2011, there was a big movement to make things from scratch that people previously bought, like preserves, jams, jellies and pickles. People were making their own mustard or baking their own bread. I was doing my own canning and preserving, inspired by the wonderful farmers’ markets.

“Whenever you do anything like that, you always end up with too much. My husband asked, ‘Who’s going to eat all this jam?’ Other people were having the same experience and having more than they can eat. That’s when the idea of trading it with other people came about.”

Food swaps have been done informally throughout history. Swapping food-for-services was common in the cash-short Great Depression. Patients might trade fresh eggs or milk to their doctors for medical services. Now the swaps are done for both utility and fun.

Paster started the swaps in 2011, promoting them via social media. One regular swap was held at the Broadway Armory near Broadway and Thorndale avenues in Edgewater. Now, Paster partners once a month with a food coop in Oak Park.

“It started with the idea about the barter, but then ended up really about the people,” she said. “If you came to an event like it was because you loved cooking or you grew your own food, and meeting other people who shared that passion.”

By necessity, the swaps are not kosher. However, Paster said kosher-only swaps would work with the right organization and food preparers.

She has not hit the big time financially as the west suburban foodie. However, as Paster cooked and then wrote, several food products or accessories companies noticed her blog. They jumped aboard with sponsorship. Vanity Fair Napkins sponsored her calzones post. Thus Paster is in the minority of personal bloggers who have gotten legitimate corporate sponsorship.

Now, if she could only get the kosher food manufacturers to sponsor a kreplach-cooking contest centered at her home. An ever-growing unfilled need would be met in the kreplach desert of Chicago.

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