OyChicago articles

A Jewish Gemini Ponders St. Valentine

 Permanent link
02/10/2009

StaceyBallisHearts

Stacey shares her love-hate relationship with Valentine's Day

We don’t know anything about St. Valentine whose feast day is February 14 other than the fact that he was buried on February 14 at the Via Flaminia north of Rome. How this martyred saint (who might actually be the amalgamation of several martyred guys named Valentine) became the representation of romantic love for most of the Western world is a mystery to me. But because it is effectively a Gentile construct (and they celebrate the June birth of the most famous Member of the Tribe on December 25), we don’t need to ponder the logic overmuch, especially as it is now as secular a day as Thanksgiving.

And a day rife with pressures and pitfalls.

I am a perfect Gemini in many ways, and on no day (other than my birthday) is this more apparent than Valentine’s Day.

Half of me dreads it from the moment the clock strikes January 31, like the tickle in your throat that you know is the harbinger of a truly appalling and lingering head cold. That is the half that is currently single, will receive Valentines only from my parents and grandmother, invites only from other single girls, and will likely spend that most romantic evening with her favorite cadre of back-up boys…Ben, Jerry, and the men of Law and Order.

The other half loves it. That is the half that is a truly hopeful romantic, writes awesome love letters (when she has someone worthy to write them to), is a fan of big gestures and happy endings and extravagant floral arrangements and unexpected gifts and sappy movies and candlelit dinners and breakfast in bed. I even once did a Valentine’s Day segment on the  Rachael Ray Show .

I am therefore equally good and bad when it comes to Valentine’s Day. When I have an object of affection to spend the day with, I am clever and demonstrative and celebratory and fun and unique and very, VERY romantic. When I don’t, I’m the littlest bit snarky and petulant and not unlikely to be found pouting and baking, usually at the same time.

So I get it when I hear people complain that they hate the expectation of romance, being told by the card companies that they have to do something for their sweetie, or that they are lesser-than if they are between sweeties at the moment. But I also get it when I hear people say that there is nothing wrong with being encouraged to be romantic, or to let the pressure of the day push you to make a gesture towards that someone you’ve been maybe dancing around but haven’t gotten the courage to ask out yet.

After the overarching umbrella of romance, the thing most associated with Valentine’s Day is food. Champagne and shiny red boxes of chocolates. Dinners at fancy restaurants or lovingly prepared at home. All the cooking magazines feature cozy menus designed for two, and the inevitable heart-shaped desserts. And, of course, for us unattached  people, Valentines Day is a freebie day where diets go out the window and comfort food isn’t just allowed, it is a moral imperative. So I thought, for this pre-Valentine’s Nosh, I would be true to my Gemini nature and offer something for both ends of the spectrum…

FOR THE UNATTACHED:

First, spend whatever money you would have spent on a gift/card/dinner for a sweetie and spend it on yourself. Have a spa treatment. Buy a new outfit or a fab pair of shoes. Pick one of the things off your Amazon wish list and order that sucker up for yourself! (Or pick one of the things of MY Amazon wish list and send it to me…)

Then figure out the kind of evening you want to have. Take out? Order whatever you love and put it on your best dishes and light a candle. Want to cook for yourself? Try my favorite indulgent dinner for one…

CELERY APPLE SALAD
One celery heart with leaves, sliced on bias ¼ inch thick
One granny smith apple, cored, sliced into ¼ inch thick half moons
1 oz shaved parmagiano reggiano
Juice of half a lemon
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Toss all ingredients together and alter to taste…if you like more lemon, add more juice, too tart? Add more oil.

RISOTTO A LA STACEY
2 c Caranoli or Arborio rice
10 c chicken stock
2 shallots, chopped
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded (feel free to use a rotisserie chicken here)
4 artichoke bottoms (preferably fresh) cooked and diced
2 T butter
1 T olive oil
½ c dry white wine or champagne
1 pinch saffron threads
¼ c grated parmagiano reggiano
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley
Zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt 1 T butter in pan with olive oil. Add shallots and cook till translucent. Add rice and stir until each grain is coated. Add wine and saffron threads and stir till wine is totally absorbed. Add chicken stock one ladle at a time until absorbed, and then add next ladle. Stir continuously. When it begins to take longer for stock to be absorbed, taste rice. You are looking for al dente, not mushy or gummy. When you are getting close to al dente, add the chicken and artichokes to heat through, along with the lemon zest, salt and pepper. When the rice is perfectly cooked, stir in the remaining 1 T butter, the cheese, and the parsley and do a final taste for seasonings. (the leftovers make a killer breakfast, form into patties, lightly dust in flour, and fry till crisp in butter and serve with your eggs.)

For dessert…a pint of ice cream is never a bad idea (although on a day like this, I’d pick up a flavor or two from Caffe Gelato on Division), nor is a package of Mallomars. If you are really feeling indulgent, go online to my gang at www.ricetoriches.com and have them FedEx you your favorite flavor of rice pudding (I like the Category Five Caramel and the Chocolate Hazelnut Bear Hug).

Watch a funny movie or catch up on your Tivo, take a bath, read a book (preferably one of mine, thank you) and remember that tomorrow is February 15 and all the romanticpalooza will be relegated to the 50% off table.

FOR THE COUPLED:

Congrats. I mean that almost without bitterness. I hope you both devote some time on this day to remind each other why you are together, and to make some effort to be romantic, if for no other reason than you are able! And if you are staying home, you might want to try this simple dinner to cook and eat with your sweetie.

HEARTS SALAD
1 pkg. hearts of romaine lettuce
1 pkg. hearts of celery, or the center of two heads of celery, with the leaves
1 can chopped hearts of palm, drained
2 hearts of large steamed artichokes sliced (or 1can quartered artichoke hearts, drained)
3 T white balsamic vinegar
8 T lemon flavored extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Chop the celery and tear the lettuce into bite sized pieces, and mix with the drained hearts of palm and artichokes. Mix the rest of the ingredients into a quick and easy salad dressing, and toss all together. You can garnish with parmesan curls if you like.

DIJON CHICKEN
2 T butter, softened
1 T Dijon mustard
¼ T salt
¼ t pepper
2 chicken breasts, boneless, skin on
¼ c bread crumbs
¼ c grated pecorino Romano (can substitute grated parmesan)
Olive oil

Mix mustard and butter and coat chicken. Mix bread crumbs and cheese, and roll chicken in coating until completely covered. Put on a lightly greased baking sheet, and sprinkle with olive oil just before cooking. Cook 15 minutes at 375 if thin, 18 minutes if thick.

CREAMY LEMON PASTA
1 lb pasta, preferably linguine or fettucine
2 egg yolks
1 lemon, juice and zest
½ c grated parmesan
2/3 c heavy cream
4 T butter
2 T parsley, chopped (or chives)
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk egg yolks until creamy and slightly lightened in color. Stir in cheese, lemon juice, lemon zest and cream. Cook pasta al dente. Drain pasta and return to pot, off heat. Add butter to pasta and stir until melted and coating all the pasta. Add the sauce and mix well. Taste for salt and pepper. You may add some of the cooking water or more cream if it needs it. Add parsley just before serving, with extra grated cheese on the side. (Yes, this is much more than you will need as a side dish for two people, but you won’t be upset at midnight when you can reheat the leftovers and eat them in bed in one bowl with two forks. I’m not saying, I’m just saying…)

DECADENT DARK CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES WITH VANILLA FROSTING

CUPCAKES
8 T unsalted butter, cubed
2 oz. high quality bittersweet chocolate, (Valrhona, or Callebaut) chopped
½ C Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¾ C all-purpose flour
½ t baking soda
¾ t baking powder
2 large eggs
¾ C sugar
1 t vanilla extract
½ t salt
½ c sour cream

FROSTING
10 T unsalted butter, softened
½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 ¼ C confectioners sugar, sifted
Pinch salt
½ t vanilla extract
1 T heavy cream

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard-sized muffin pan with baking-cup liners. Combine butter, chocolate, and cocoa in medium heatproof bowl. Set bowl over saucepan containing barely simmering water; heat mixture until butter and chocolate are melted and whisk until smooth and combined. Set aside to cool until just warm to the touch. Whisk flour, baking soda, and baking powder in small bowl to combine. Whisk eggs in second medium bowl to combine; add sugar, vanilla, and salt and whisk until fully incorporated. Add cooled chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Sift about one-third of flour mixture over chocolate mixture and whisk until combined; whisk in sour cream until combined, then sift remaining flour mixture over and whisk until batter is homogenous and thick. Divide batter evenly among muffin pan cups. Bake until skewer inserted into center of cupcakes comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes.

Cool cupcakes in muffin pan on wire rack until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Carefully lift each cupcake from muffin pan and set on wire rack. Cool to room temperature before icing, about 30 minutes.

In standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Using paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean into butter and beat mixture at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds. Add confectioners' sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape down bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully combined, about 15 seconds; scrape bowl, add vanilla and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice. (To frost: Mound about 2 tablespoons icing on center of each cupcake. Using small icing spatula or butter knife, spread icing to edge of cupcake, leaving slight mound in center.)

If you need my recommendations of how else to spend your time, you have no imagination.

FOR EVERYONE:

You need a decent cocktail for Valentines Day, and bubbly is always in order. Here is a recipe I developed for a contest for the Mionetto Prosecco company, which everyone I’ve ever made it for seems to think is pretty delish. It’s a happy drink if you’re imbibing alone, and not overly drunk-making if you’re not. And which is even better, the contest is still ongoing and you can vote for me if you like the drink!

1 oz prosecco or champagne (I use Mionetto Brut, because that is the one from the contest)
1 oz premium vodka
1 oz Elderflower Liqueur (St. Germain is my fave, and is available at Sam’s)
½ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz pineapple juice

OPTIONAL
For rim of glass:
1 T lemon juice
1 T sugar in the raw
1 t grains of paradise, ground  (Whole Foods in the spice section)

For Float:
1 T Prosecco or Champagne (Mionetto Brut again…)

PREPARATION:
Fill shaker with ice, and shake all ingredients well.
Dip rim of martini glass in lemon juice and then in the combined sugar and ground grains of paradise.
Strain cocktail into glass and float 1 T Mionetto Brut on the top for extra fizz.

If you love it…do click here, scroll down to the 6th drink The MIONETINI and vote for me! Send the link to all your friends! The top three vote-getters get a trip for two to NYC and the chance to win $5000. Think of this as your little Valentine to me : )

However you choose to mark the day (or not), I hope it is a good one.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey
www.staceyballis.com

NOSH of the Week: Stay away from those heart-shaped boxes of waxy chocolates. Head over to www.franschocolates.com and order up some of the chocolate filled and dipped figs. Trust me. Luxurious enough to give to a lover, but non-frilly enough to give to a friend.

NOSH Food Reads of the week:

If you’re in love,  Like Water for Chocolate  by Laura Esquival.

If you’re not, try any of the Diane Mott Davidson Culinary Mystery Series.

From Skokie to Sam's Club: My Search for Serenity on the Seventh Day

 Permanent link
02/10/2009

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Dana’s happy feet, on a Hawaiian yoga retreat, blissful yet fleeting

Eight months pregnant with our first child, I traded in the keys of our cool Evanston loft for a Skokie bi-level. It’s practical, it’s convenient and it’s so unimaginative I sometimes turn into my neighbors’ driveway instead of my own. Her violin students knock on our door. His leaves fall on our neglected lawn. The old Jew across the street dies. A new one moves in.

Even though our cloned bi-levels are 2.5 blocks north of the Skokie Eruv, I’ve observed enough serene-looking, shul-going neighbors to develop an acute case of Shabbat envy.

Okay, so maybe they don’t always look serene. Sometimes they look cold. Or hot. Or wet. But the general attitude as observed (imagined, projected) from the comfort of my passing Honda Civic is: I don’t care if there are 352 unread messages in my in box. So what if the grass needs mowing, my to do list is growing, the playoffs are at noon and cat litter is on sale two for one at Costco. It’s Shabbat (for chrissakes). And I have no choice. But to rest.

As someone who Googled “sanitarium” as recently as 10 days ago, I see a certain beauty and wisdom to Shabbat. Abraham Joshua Heschel called it “a palace in time.” My friend Brian said, “It anchors your whole damn week and your whole damn life. You rest. You adjust your frame of mind, your entire being. And it just works.”

Let’s be honest – we could all use a day each week to slow down and reflect and breath.

In other words, God was on to something when He rested on the seventh day. But as an agnostic, Reform, multi-tasking resident of Skokie, I’m not sure I can convince myself not to sow, plough, reap, bind sheaves and/or thresh at 10:10 on Saturday morning. While I have no intention of trapping, flaying, or scraping a deer or any other large mammal this weekend, I’m not sure I have the discipline to turn off my BlackBerry. Or the time.

These days, I say I love you a lot. But I say, C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, COME ON even more. Starting at 7:26 a.m. Monday through Friday, plus dinner time, bath time, bedtime, get-in-the-car-we’re-late-for-Sunday-school time, and random transitions in between. That is, when I’m not tap-tap tapping on my BlackBerry at the stop light, on the toilet, at 3:52 a.m.

Can’t everyone just shut up and leave me the fuck alone. I realize that doesn’t sound very professional. Or motherly. Or nice.

So what are the alternatives? That’s not rhetorical, my friends.

I realize that whining is a fairly unbecoming quality on a 39-year old woman, even if she is sitting on the early train into the city, the day before her deadline, eating a frosted Blueberry pop tart and tap-tap tapping into her BlackBerry this Oy! essay that was never supposed to be written.

I am retiring, I declared after my last Oy! story to anyone who would listen. I need to sleep, I unabashedly whined, downing a large coffee with cream and sugar. (Editor’s note: We would not listen. We continue putting Dana’s name on the schedule because we like her stories—apologies to her family.)

But why retire when you can instead look to Judaism for stress relief? It can be a blog, a midnight project, a multi-part series. It can be a quest. Consider this a plea for suggestions. Get drunk on Manischewitz? Do Rav yoga? Take a walk through the woods on Tu B’Shevat? That’s my new plan.

NEXT: Jewish Meditation. Sit and shut up. It might not sound so Jewish, but meditation was popular among the mystics on the hilltops of Sfat back in the day. The Jewish Healing Network of Chicago hosts Dr. Yonah Klem, the Midwest’s only Jewish Meditation Teacher ordained at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley. I plan to check it out on March 8, 1–3 at JCFS, 5150 Golf Road in Skokie. Contact Tracey at 847.568.5216 or  JHNC@jcfs.org to register ($15).

Anyone care to join me?

“Matchmaker, matchmaker…”

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Chicago Jewish cupids help their friends find love 
02/17/2009

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Tracey and Todd tying the knot
Photo credit: Artisan Events, Inc.


Happily ever after

Once upon a time in a land called Chicago, a mutual friend fixed Brooke and Sean up on a blind date. While the two did not fall in love, they became dear friends. Years later, Brooke fixed Sean up with a woman named Cynthia. They fell in love and married. Meanwhile, Brooke met another man named Mike. They, too, fell in love and got married this past summer. And, everyone lived happily ever after.

A Needle in a Haystack

There’s an old Jewish saying that ever since creating the world, God has been making matches, a task more difficult than parting the Red Sea. Every so often special people – like Brooke Mandrea from the story above – assist in the tough task of matchmaking. Brooke is one of the special people who excel at helping singles find their happily-ever-after. She is not a professional matchmaker; she’s simply a champion of love who strives to help others find their shiduchs (matches) out of the goodness of her heart. “It’s considered a great act of chesed, or kindness,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Lakeview. “One of the ultimate acts of kindness is to try to find people someone who will love them and give them companionship.”

In her years of matchmaking, Brooke, who lives in Wicker Park, has set up a whopping seven marriages and even more unmarried couples. Finding one’s match, according to Brooke, is like “finding a needle in a haystack, and if I’m able to be that connection, it’s a mitzvah.” When matching couples, she searches for a meaningful connection between two people. “I never do it where it’s like, ‘Oh, she has a pulse and he has a pulse…” she said. “There has to be something more than they both like line dancing. There have to be shared values, morals or world outlooks.”

She sometimes brainstorms couples in the swimming pool. While she’s swimming laps she’ll envision two people that just seem meant to be, such as Cynthia and Sean Pierce, of West Lakeview, who have been married for three years. Brooke, herself, had been fixed up with Sean on a blind date many years ago. Then, Brooke and Cynthia met years later while volunteering at the Jewish United Fund’s Uptown Cafe.

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The happy couple, Cynthia and Sean

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is Sean’s other half,’” Brooke said. When she approached Sean about the fix-up, his initial response was, “Not interested.” He was wary because Brooke had set him up on a couple of failed blind dates in the past. Yet, the matchmaker persevered. “I called him repeatedly,” Brooke said, “and told him that the only way to get me to shut up is to go out with her once.”

Six months later, Brooke pointed them out to each other at a music program one Friday night at their synagogue, but there was one catch. Cynthia was on a date with someone else. ‘Sean, I want you to meet her,’ Brooke told him. ‘She’s on a date, but who cares about that?’ The following month – with Cynthia’s date no longer in the picture – Brooke introduced Sean to her at synagogue. On their first date, Cynthia and Sean had a lively political discussion over sushi. In November of 2005, they married, and Brooke signed the ketubah (marriage contract) at their wedding.

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Cynthia and Sean on their wedding day
Photo credit: Jason Lazarus


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Matchmaker and friend Brooke signing the ketubah at Cynthia and Sean’s wedding

Brooke comes from a family of matchmakers. Her sister, Allison Leviton, has tied Brooke, with seven marriages to her credit. Their mother, Joyce Leviton Asher, passed down to them the shiduch talent because she has set up, as she puts it, “too many couples to count.”

Brooke tries to fix up couples that otherwise would be unlikely to cross paths. She has paired a woman who teaches in the northern suburbs with a downtown trader as well as a couple in their 70s who both frequented the Lyric Opera, but on separate days, and who both audited classes at Northwestern University, but on different campuses. “When else would these couples have met?” Brooke asked.

Todd Fine wondered how he would have met his bride, Tracey Fine, if not for their friend Jennifer Elvey, because he didn’t frequent Jewish social events as Tracey did. Jennifer, of Wilmette, had been trying to introduce her friend Todd, from her gym, to her close friend Tracey for a while. Jennifer had thought the two might hit it off because – among other similarities – they shared a common interest in martial arts and had similar, low-key socializing styles. In 2005, Jennifer attended the Young Leadership Division’s Purim Party at a Chicago nightclub with Tracey, hoping that Todd might attend the party too. She didn’t tell Tracey or Todd that the other might be there, because she wasn’t sure that Todd would come and she didn’t want to make them nervous.

Sure enough, he was there that night and Jennifer introduced them. “I still remember the spark between them. It was amazing,” Jennifer said. Tracey and Todd talked throughout the evening and, at the end of the party, Todd offered Tracey a ride home. “I typically would never accept a ride home from a guy that I met at a bar,” said Tracey. “I literally was like, ‘Are you sure you’re not a murderer?’ Because he was Jen’s friend though, I considered it.”

On their first date, Todd picked Nacional 27 because he knew that Tracey loved Latin food and music. “We made our best attempts to salsa dance together, but we weren’t very good,” Tracey said. Their clumsy dancing didn’t hamper their relationship though. In fact, the couple married in June of 2007. They were so grateful to Jennifer that, at the wedding, Jennifer signed their ketubah. Tracey and Todd, who live in Wicker Park, are expecting twins in March.

Jennifer fixed up a second Chicago Jewish couple, who married in November. “I definitely think that two of the best things I’ve done in my whole life have been introducing these people to each other,” said Jennifer, who herself will stroll down the aisle in June. “It’s just a great feeling to sit at these people’s weddings and know that I played a small role in it.”

Although singles in the religious Jewish community often rely on professional matchmaking, Debbie Wengrow, a West Rogers Park religious Jew, strives to match people in her spare time – and isn’t paid for it. Debbie meets with a group of approximately 10 religious Jewish women on a monthly basis to brainstorm potential mates. Through word of mouth, they gather names of religious Jewish singles looking to be set up. They interview candidates and match people according to religiosity and personality. “[Matchmaking] is not up to us – God has a plan, but we still need people to try to help out,” she said. In four years, Debbie has set up four married couples; the entire group of women is responsible for some 10 marriages to date. They offer their service for free, and similar groups meet in cities throughout the country.

Making Room at the Shabbat Table

In the traditional way of matchmaking, a third party sets two single people up to meet a blind date to see if the sparks fly. Another way to match people is to arrange social gatherings for a bunch of friends and – with a little luck and beshert (destiny) – who knows which pairs might emerge? Michelle Lawner Whitesman has introduced more than five couples in her hometown of Kansas City and in her adopted home of Chicago. Dating back to her sweet sixteen in Kansas, couples have been meeting one another at her parties. Three years ago, she introduced a couple at her March Madness get-together.

In an age of impersonal internet dating, what’s the harm in a set-up by a friend? asks Michelle. “It makes it more personal when a friend who knows you well thinks of people for you,” she said. “The more people you have looking for someone for you, the greater the chance you have of meeting the right person.”

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Michelle Lawner Whitesman and Jennifer Elvey, close friends, act as matchmakers for their friends

Michelle found her own match – Louie – whom she married in November. Their union has energized them to help their friends find love. “When you’re happy, you want those around you to find love and be happy,” she said. “My husband also set up a couple who married last year. He has taken on looking for matches for our friends too. Now it’s like a tag team effort.”

Michelle and Louie frequently invite their friends for Shabbat dinner at their new home in downtown Chicago. While their motivation for Shabbat is about forging community and celebrating a Jewish ritual, if two of their friends should happen to meet, that would be the icing on the cake.

Another popular Shabbat dinner table in the city is at the Lakeview home of Rabbi Lopatin and his wife, Rachel Tessler Lopatin. They, too, invite people, often singles, to their home just about every Friday night as a way to share Shabbat and build community – and perhaps create some love stories along the way. “Sometimes, people meet at our table and then meet again at a Federation event or shul or running in the park and say, ‘Oh, I met you at the Lopatins,’” said Rachel, who also does matchmaking for the Jewish singles site “Saw You at Sinai.” “We try to widen the pool for people to meet each other. I don’t know that we have any great insight as to who would be good for whom, but it’s more that we hope [to increase the odds] that people can meet each other.”

As far as she knows, three marriages have resulted from introductions at their Shabbat table, plus Rachel introduced another couple at synagogue. Rachel sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about a potential pairing. Her thought process focuses on personality, observance level and future goals. “I’m motivated by this mitzvah,” she said. “It’s painful to hear that people want something and are having a hard time getting that. If I can be helpful in that, I want to be.”

Six Degrees

And in the game of Jewish six degrees – or fewer – of separation that makes this story come full circle, Rachel was the matchmaker who fixed up Brooke on that date with Sean, who later married Brooke’s friend Cynthia. “If it hadn’t been for Rachel introducing Sean to Brooke,” Cynthia said, “then the two of us wouldn’t be together.”

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