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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kosher Soul Food: Uncommonly Delicious!

Posted By on Tue, Jan 18, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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Even something as seemingly straightforward as meat requires some translation. "The cuts of meat are different," Simckes explains. "Kosher has no prime rib. Instead you get rib eye. The first time I asked for beef ribs, the butcher was confused, but the black guys working in the back knew what I was asking for." At one point an exasperated butcher suggested she just go to a non-kosher butcher down the road if she wanted to cook soul food. But that was a long time ago. "By now," Simckes says, "they've gotten used to me and my strange requests."

St. Louis, a town with just two kosher butcher shops, is perhaps not the greatest place to be a kosher cook. "It would be interesting to cook kosher in New York," Simckes says. "The supply is much different. I could really do some good things there. Here we're limited."

Simckes buys her chicken from Trader Joe's. Kosher chickens require special cleaning. Most commercial chickens get dunked in boiling water after slaughter, which cleans off the blood and removes the feathers. Chickens slaughtered the kosher way must be drained naturally, which means no hot water bath. Kosher chicken plants do their best to get rid of feathers with mechanical pluckers, but most of the time home cooks have to finish the job.

First Simckes burns off the stray feathers with a propane torch.

  • Aimee Levitt

That's the fun part. It also smells good because the flame melts the fat a little. The less fun part comes afterward, when she plucks the follicles out one by one with tweezers.

  • Aimee Levitt

It would be easier to pull off the skin altogether, but that would be removing an essential part of what makes fried chicken taste so good.

Frying the chicken is still Lard's job. Her secret to a crisp skin is to lift it up so the oil gets underneath and fries both sides.

  • Aimee Levitt

Simckes usually skips this extra step because it's too much work.

Non-kosher cooks use pork to flavor collard greens. Lard uses a smoked turkey leg. It has pretty much the same effect.

  • Aimee Levitt

Simckes didn't have to adapt her recipe for sweet potatoes, which come in a sauce made with brown sugar and Jack Daniel's; she got it from a kosher cookbook.

All well and good. But how does it taste?

The truth is, nothing can compare to meat from a real pig (though Lard tells her curious grandchildren that Morningstar veggie bacon strips come close). And, despite improvements over the years, margarine and soy milk will never be mistaken for butter or milk from a cow. Margarine is blander, and soy milk is sweeter. But good cooking is good cooking, even when the flavors are slightly muted. And, thanks to its requisite post-slaughter salting, kosher chicken fries up especially well.

Clockwise from left: sweet potatoes, collards, cornbread, fried chicken, black-eyed peas. - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Clockwise from left: sweet potatoes, collards, cornbread, fried chicken, black-eyed peas.

Like many adherents of the organic and slow-food movements, people who keep kosher say the practice makes them more mindful of what they eat. There's a spiritual element to it, too, especially if you come to it later, as Simckes did. It's not quite the same if someone else made the decision for you.

The Simckes family sometimes eats out, but only vegetables and dairy. "One of my children is a big meat-eater," Simckes says. "When we go to restaurants, he's in tears because he can't have a hamburger."

Keeping a kosher kitchen isn't cheap, unless you're willing to go vegetarian. The cost of two sets of everything adds up (plus extra dishes and utensils for Passover), as does paying extra for kosher meat. You could argue, as consumers of organic meat and poultry do, that the high cost ensures that you'll eat less of it, and that's healthier in the long run.

"Keeping kosher isn't hard," Lard says, "but it's expensive. It's fun to help [Andria], but if I had to do all the cooking, I wouldn't do it. Ten dollars for a chicken? Give me a break!"

Maybe that's the price you pay for weaving together two traditions that, on the surface, seem completely incompatible. The amazing part is that it's possible to make them work together at all.

Come back tomorrow to see recipes for this kosher soul-food feast...

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