Thursday, April 8, 2010

Count your blessings

Why do we say blessings before eating? Most people would say that Jews say blessings over food to thank God. But the basic blessing formula, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates…” does not actually contain any expression of gratitude. The basic food blessing merely states a fact – God is powerful and God created our food. So what is the purpose of food blessings and how can we connect to them on a real level?

The tosefta (a selection of rabbinic commentaries contemporary with the mishna) teaches that, “One who derives any benefit from the world without first reciting a blessing has stolen sacred property…” (Tos. 4:1). The act of blessing is actually our way of asking God for permission to eat the food that God created. When we bless our food we are taking something sacred and making it profane and fit for our consumption.

I’d like to find a way to connect the colloquial understanding of blessings (expressing thanks) with the rabbinic understanding in order to make the act of blessing our food less rote, more frequent, and relatable in new ways. Saying a blessing over food gives us a chance to consider what we are about to eat. If we think about our food critically before eating we will transform the character of our food from imperceptible to apparent, from sacred to profane. When we say a blessing over a tomato we are given a unique chance to think about that tomato. Where and how was it grown? Do the workers who harvested it have families they are supporting? What nutrition does it hold? We are often so rushed that we don’t even think about what we are eating, let alone how it got to us. When we engage in this thought process before eating, a natural gratitude will emerge. From this we can forge the colloquial and rabbinic understandings to create a new and meaningful way of blessing our food. I encourage you to take a moment before you eat your next meal. Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale appreciate what you are about to eat and think about it for a moment. Say the formal blessing or make up your own - trust me, your first bite will taste better.

I’ve included a recipe below that I think is SO good that it provokes blessings and praise easily. Make this with fresh, beautiful ingredients and take a moment before eating to bless it in whatever way you choose. Look below for my new feature – important nutrients in the recipe and why they are good for you!

Cornmeal Crusted Tofu with Ratatouille

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup large diced yellow onion (about 1 onion)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups large diced eggplant (about ½ a small eggplant)
1 cup large diced red pepper (about 1 large pepper)
1 cup large diced zucchini (about ½ a zucchini)
1 cup large diced yellow squash (about ½ a squash)
3 large cloves of garlic, sliced thin
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
3 cups large diced tomatoes (about 4 tomatoes)
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves
1 tablespoon roughly torn basil leaves
1 large thyme sprig
Black pepper
2 14 oz packages of tofu
1 ½ cups yellow ground cornmeal
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
2 eggs
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Serves 6

For the ratatouille
In a large sauté pan heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Add the onion and salt and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the eggplant and sauté until the onion and eggplant begin to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add the red pepper, zucchini, yellow squash, garlic, and chili flakes and sauté just until the vegetables begin to soften and brown, another 5 minutes.

Add the diced tomatoes, water, and herbs and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook covered for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve over tofu.

For the tofu
Open the tofu, drain it, and place it on a large plate or dish. Cover each piece of tofu with a few paper towels and place a heavy book on top of each piece to press all of the moisture out. Let the tofu sit like this for 20 minutes.

Pat the tofu dry and cut the blocks horizontally so that you have 2 pieces for each block, each one half the thickness of the original block. Cut each of these 2 pieces into 4 rectangles.

Combine the cornmeal, salt, and pepper on a plate and set aside. Beat the egg with the balsamic vinegar and set aside.

Dip each piece of tofu first in the egg wash and then in the cornmeal. Make sure that you cover every surface of the tofu and that you dust off any extra cornmeal.

Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a sauté pan. Carefully add the tofu (in batches if needed) and sear about 2 minutes per side, until a crust forms.

Top the tofu with the ratatouille or keep warm in a 200 degree oven before serving.

Tomatoes and red peppers are high in vitamins A and C. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that prevents cell damage and plays a role in immunity. Vitamin A plays a role in immunity, skin, bone and eye health and is also an antioxidant.

All the vegetables are high in fiber, which helps you feel fuller faster, lowers cholesterol, regulates blood sugar and keeps your gastrointestinal track healthy.

Tofu is a lean source of protein and is high in calcium. Calcium is not only good for your bones, but also helps regulate blood pressure and may be involved in cancer prevention.


  1. I assume you suggest firm or extra firm tofu? This sounds delicious.I can't wait to try it!

  2. Kemach and Torah — One address.
    Citing the Tosefta and bringing the world gustatory delight — baller.