Culinary Corner: Shabbat dinner

I am barely a functional cook, as many reading this can doubtless attest. As such, I was understandably nervous to take part in the cooking of Shabbat dinner at the Jewish Religious Center (JRC) on Friday – particularly because I was also a total stranger to Shabbat and to the JRC itself.

I found my way into the JRC kitchen just after 1 p.m. on Friday, where a group of four students, led by JRC kitchen manager Cole Leiter ’14, was already hard at work. On the menu for the week: escarole soup with meatballs, spinach salad with candied nuts, roasted potatoes, brussel sprouts with avocadoes and baked pears with caramel for dessert. When I arrived, Thursday night and Friday morning’s work had already yielded the vegetarian meatballs (basically “balls of stuffing,” as described by Leiter and Alexis Rodriguez ’13, who had selected the menu for the week), oven-roasted brussel sprouts, a multitude of chopped vegetables and pears and the roasted potatoes. I was immediately put to work slicing avocadoes – and promptly dropped a solid chunk of avocado all over my jeans. My fellow slicers politely ignored my struggles and made suggestions as to how I could keep the food off the floor and in the bowl, and I soon found myself chopping avocadoes like a pro.

Shabbat dinner is put on by the JRC, and in particular its kitchen manager, each week. Leiter’s duties each week involve finding someone to select the week’s menu, ensuring that the menu itself is both kosher and also accounts for students’ dietary restraints, ordering all of the necessary ingredients, both from Dining Services and from vendors, estimating the number of students who will attend and organizing the kitchen staff of student volunteers who come and go according to their own schedules each week. A Dining Services staff member helps out with cleanup following each Shabbat dinner, but the meal itself is entirely student prepared. Meals must be classified as either “meat” or “dairy” meals, as the requirements of kosher eating state that the two categories cannot be mixed; as such, we also had to make sure that we prepared the meal entirely on the meat side of the kitchen, using only those utensils designated for meat cooking and eating.

The state of the kitchen throughout the day was one of organized chaos – Leiter was always ready with an answer or a solution, though he himself admitted to working on the fly in many cases. “There’s only so much you can plan, and the rest you just make work,” Leiter told me. Case in point: Just after I had finished with the avocadoes, Leiter got a call that the turkey we needed to make the meatballs was finally ready to be picked up from Dining Services. We piled in a car for a quick drive to Mission, where we picked up our three boxes of what were essentially frozen meat sticks.

There’s nothing quite like the experience of helping frozen meat sticks become meatballs. First, we had to figure out how to defrost the sausages, which involved a lot of microwaving and meat-cleaving into smaller pieces. Next, we tore the sausages into smaller pieces by hand, combining them into the mixture of parsley, bread crumbs and eggs that had been whisked in a large bowl. A few of us spent the bulk of our afternoon up to our elbows in pureed turkey, hand-mixing the meat, bread crumb-egg mixture and salt and pepper to taste before hand-shaping the meatballs, which were chilled for 20 minutes before being popped into the commercial-sized oven for half an hour.

While all this was going on, escarole soup was cooking – chicken stock (or water, for the vegetarian option) with an assortment of vegetables and orzo, kept over heat for most of the afternoon – quinoa was being prepared for the gluten-free version of the soup, vegetables were being chopped for the salad and a few students were preparing the dining hall. An influx of student helpers at about 5 p.m. gave this reporter a break, and so I returned at 7 p.m. ready to try the fruits of my day’s labor.

About 60 to 100 students attend Shabbat dinner each week. The JRC welcomes any member of the Williams community; estimates from Leiter and other students I surveyed at dinner put the percentage of practicing Jews at Shabbat at around 10 to 20 percent of the attendees. Despite these statistics, most of the others who turned out for dinner seemed not to need the laminated prayer sheet that was handed out as people filed through the doors. I stumbled my way through the Hebrew prayers blessing our meal and beginning the Sabbath, interrogating my Jewish tablemates throughout about what I was supposed to do and why.

Once the prayers were concluded, everyone dug into the family-style potatoes, brussel sprouts, salad and the challah, which must have been baked at some point when I wasn’t looking. There was a run on soup and meatballs, but it seemed there was enough for everyone – the marker of a meal’s success, according to Leiter and Rodriguez.

My tablemates and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal. The brussel sprouts and avocadoes, while not necessarily beautiful in the bowl, were delicious, the candied nuts that had been a last-minute addition really made the salad; the rosemary in the potatoes was extremely pronounced and fragrant; and the challah, of course, was delicious. My personal favorite was definitely the soup with the meatballs – while I’m not sure I’m sold on escarole as a vegetable, the orzo and the soup itself went perfectly with the meatballs. I may be a bit biased, but the meatballs were amazing, and bore absolutely no resemblance to the frozen meat sticks we’d picked up hours earlier.

Shabbat is one of those not-so-secret secrets on campus. Shabbat provides a wonderful dinner, a community atmosphere and a quick introduction to Jewish traditions. It’s definitely something to try – helping out in the kitchen and otherwise!