It’s a Monday night in Brooklyn, and Ritaly Rapaport is waxing nostalgic about his childhood experiences in Ukraine climbing cherry trees and eating the fruit straight from the branches.
“I have a longstanding affection for eating fruit and vegetables right off the plant,” says Rapaport, an IT specialist who lives in Ditmas Park with his business consultant wife, Veronica, who is also a Ukrainian émigré.
The two, both of whom came to Brooklyn as teens, are among the three couples to just complete the first cycle of “Setting the Table,” a four-session class that addresses cooking, healthy and sustainable eating and Judaism.
Run by Hazon, a group at the forefront of what it calls the “new Jewish food movement,” the class is specifically for parents expecting their first child.
“This was the class I wanted when I was pregnant,” says Judith Belasco, Hazon’s director of food programs (the group also runs “Outdoor Jewish Adventure” programs and other environmentalism-related work) and the mother of a toddler.
“This is such a big moment in people’s lives,” she adds, noting that pregnancy is often a time when new parents are thinking about rituals they’d like to incorporate into their households and how they will nourish their children.
One of six new projects to receive an “ignition grant” from UJA-Federation of New York’s Beginning Families Task Force, the class — more (and somewhat larger) cohorts will be run this fall — is one piece in a larger federation effort to reach out to and engage young, unaffiliated Jewish families.
“Setting the Table” takes place at the spacious and well-appointed kitchen of the Ger-Nis Culinary and Herb Center, a cooking school and food distributor located in a converted industrial space on the edge of Park Slope.
Ger-Nis, whose website notes that it “proudly” imports “both Palestinian and Israeli fresh herbs with cooperation from both sides” from Israel, shares Hazon’s enthusiasm for natural, organic, fair-trade and local foods.
But since the Ger-Nis kitchen is not kosher, Hazon staff members kasher it before each “Setting the Table” session and bring in some of their own utensils and supplies.
On the May night when Rapaport is reminiscing about the Ukrainian cherries, the group — led by its teacher, Linda Lantos — is preparing challah, sweet potato soup, hummus, baba ganouj and roasted brussels sprouts.
Gathered around the large island at the center of the kitchen — the pregnant women seated on stools, the other folks standing —they start out by mincing onions for the soup. Then Lantos, who has prepared the dough ahead of time, shows the group how to braid circular challah loaves.
Noting that round loaves are traditionally made for Rosh HaShanah, with the shape symbolizing life, Lantos muses that “Maybe this could become a new tradition for births.”
Once the challot are braided, Lantos takes out a pan of baked sweet potatoes and has most of the class peel them for the soup, while others begin to sauté the spices.
“It’s always best to add the spices to the hot oil before you add the other ingredients,” she advises, noting that it heightens the flavor.
As several students start prepping brussels sprouts — slicing them in half and cleaning them — the kitchen becomes ever more fragrant, the aroma of nutmeg wafting through the room.
Perched on a stool as she works, Emily Maged, of Prospect Heights, is the most pregnant of the class; her baby is due in early July.
When Maged heard about the class from a friend, it was perfect timing because “my husband and I had been talking about taking a cooking class,” she explains, adding, “We’re slightly challenged in the kitchen.”
In addition to the learning and camaraderie, Maged says she appreciates that “we have a freezer full of food now.”
Students leave each class with a dish to freeze, so that they will be able to enjoy a nutritious meal in the hectic, sleepless post-birth weeks.
Pureeing soup with an immersion blender, Rachel Gross, of Fort Greene, says she and her husband of one year were drawn to the class in part for the chance to meet other expectant parents.
Only 25, Gross, who is due in October, says, “None of my friends are having kids yet.”
Across from her, Veronica Rapaport is setting up the Cuisinart to mash chickpeas into hummus, while Ritaly makes another batch of challah dough at the nearby island. (The second batch is for couples to bake at home.)
“We often talk about cooking together, and this seemed like a great opportunity,” Veronica says, adding, “We want to make sure we have a healthy kitchen for our children, and we wanted to meet other Jewish couples in the same period of their lives.”
When the meal is finally complete, the group sits down at the table to enjoy the product of their labor, every pun intended.
Lantos leads the Hamotzi blessing over the challah and sighs of contentment follow as people tear into the warm loaf.
The discussion turns to Shabbat dinner, and how — if at all — families might want to observe this custom. Ritaly notes that his first experiences with Shabbat, as a new immigrant hosted by American-born Orthodox Jews who didn’t understand his secular background, were not so positive.
However, he and Veronica are exploring what customs and traditions they will want to introduce to their child.
“I look forward to figuring out what kind of life our baby is going to have,” he says.
Roasted Sweet Potato Soup
Serves 6-8 ❖ Recipe by LINDa Lantos
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes (about 3-4
medium sweet potatoes)
2 tbs. oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin, or more to taste
1 tsp. cinnamon, or more to taste
1 tsp. salt, or more to taste
A pinch of nutmeg
5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup coconut milk
or 1 cup whole dairy milk or cream
(or a combination of milk and
cream yielding one cup)
1/2 cup water (or more as needed
to thin soup)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Prick sweet potatoes with a fork and place them in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet. Bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the potatoes are very soft. Baking time will depend on the size of each potato, to check doneness, pierce each potato with a dinner knife. The knife should pierce through the potato with no resistance.
While the potatoes are roasting, heat the oil in a pot over a medium flame and sauté the onions until they become lightly golden, about 3-5 minutes. Add spices and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Peel the sweet potatoes and discard the skins. Mash the sweet potato flesh with a fork or a potato masher and add to the pot. Stir well and then add the stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium and cover. Simmer soup for 20-30 minutes.
Add coconut milk or milk and cream and blend the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. Add water as needed to reach a silky consistency. Bring to a simmer and adjust seasoning by adding salt and/or spices to taste.
The flavor of this soup will vary greatly depending on the sweetness of the particular sweet potatoes you are using, the flavor and saltiness of the broth, and the potency of your spices.