Jewish Parallels, Mexican Food

Happy Secular New Year! May 2018 bring you many blessings.

Tacos with salsa onions vegetables and cilantro
Of course I had tacos. And many things besides.

I recently returned from a week-long trip to Mexico City and its surrounding areas, which was lovely in all regards. One particularly attractive aspect for me was the delicious food in Mexico – from the antojitos like tacos and huaraches, to the staples like atole, to the incredible variety of chilies, vegetables, and fish there. It is a food nerd’s dream. And there are a lot of Jewish parallels, a few of which I will point out here.

I am going to skip over the beautiful and complex Mexican Jewish food tradition, which blends old Ashkenazi and Sephardi flavors with common Mexican ingredients. Rachel Laudan and Joan Nathan have already written excellent articles on Mexican Jewish food, and the Ashkenazi-Mexican blog Challapeño is a real pleasure to read. In addition, one of the most famous interpreters of Mexican food in the United States, Pati Jinich, is a Mexican Jew herself – and has written extensively on Mexican Jewish cuisine. There are many delicious things in Mexican Jewish cooking, including gefilte fish veracruzana, where the fish is poached in a spicy tomato sauce, and guacamole topped with boiled eggs and gribenes!

Beyond this cuisine, however, one can see links between “traditional Mexican” and “traditional Jewish foods.” Modern food really began in Mexico, where the first cuisine blending Old World ingredients like dairy and wheat combined with New World ingredients like corn and tomatoes. Several of the world’s most consumed foods – corn, pumpkins, zucchini, peanuts, chili peppers, guavas, tomatoes, black beans, vanilla, and chocolate among them – were introduced from what is now Mexico to the Old World after contact in the early 16th century. Some of these, like corn, arose in Mesoamerica, while others – like the tomato and the peanut – reached the form closest to the most common ones today in Mesoamerica. As a result, there are many culinary parallels between the Mexico from where these plants originated, and the Jewish cuisines of the Old World that took a shine to them. Beyond that, many of the foods introduced from Europe by the Spaniards were those that the Jews took with them on their exile after 1492.

Enough blathering. Let’s go eat!

Atole and tamal - black and white

In the cup, you see atole, a traditional corn-based porridge or drink. It is made from corn hominy flour (masa), which is ground from kernels that have been nixtamalized. While nixtamalization did not cross over to Europe, corn did, and corn-based gruels became common in many Jewish communities. In Romania and Georgia, mamaliga and gomi are common parts of meals.

The tamale, which is also made from corn flour, was delicious too.

Huarache

This is a huarache – an oblong disk of masa filled with beans, cooked, and then topped akin to tacos or other antojitos. This example here is topped with nopal (cactus), mushrooms, and cheese. Similar topped breads or doughs exist in many Old World Jewish cuisines, such as lahmajun in the Mediterranean or lobiani in Georgia. All are portable and easily consumed with one’s hands – though I, being a klutz, do use a fork and knife with huaraches. Spanish speakers may note that this is also the word for “sandal” – and indeed, huaraches are called that for their sandal-like shape. The word  itself for  sandal derives from the Purépecha language, native to the Mexican state of Michoácan. I spoke with the cook while he prepared the huarache at a small neighborhood eatery, and he told me that huaraches initially started out as a variant on the extremely delicious tlacoyo prepared by a street vendor in Mexico City, but flatter and crispier than its bulky father. (I also ate delicious tlacoyos.) Surprised by his assertion, I did some research when I got home … to find that he was right! (The link is in Spanish.) Food, as we must remember, is ever-changing.

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Here is some fish for sale at the Mercado del San Juan, which is one of the most famous – if by no means the biggest – food markets in Mexico City. Many tourists come for the “exotic” foods like grasshoppers, but what captivated me more were the workaday fishmongers selling sea and freshwater fish to locals. Particularly beloved here are guachinango (red snapper), corvina (croaker), and lenguado (flounder). In Mexico, local Jews do what Jews have done everywhere, and adopted the kosher local fish as their own. Hence the aforementioned gefilte fish veracruzana, and countless fish dishes besides. The way the fishmongers described the fish reminded me of fishmongers in my father’s hometown of Cape Town: brutally honest, but still trying to get you to buy the fish. I am wondering if a guachinango-tamatiebredie might be in order.

Near the fish, I found some squash, or pumpkin (calabaza) for sale. I talked in a recent post about the long Jewish history of and love for pumpkin and squash in all forms, and Mexico is the country where it all started! The native region of the squash is Mesoamerica, and the variety of squash here is nearly unparalleled. As in Jewish communities, squash products find themselves in all parts of the meal in Mexican cuisine, from toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas), to squash flowers (flor de Calabaza) on tacos and quesadillas, to squash-based sweets.

Cactus with fruit!

This beauty is a nopal, or the Opuntia cactus, whose delicious paddles and sweet fruit are a common food in Mexico. The fruit, called prickly pear in English, is also common across the Mexican Southwest. However, many Jews associate prickly pears with Israel – after all, the “sabra” is seen as the essence of the Israeli himself: prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside. Yet all Opuntia are native to the Americas, including those grown commercially in Israel today. Prickly pear was introduced to the Mediterranean by the Spanish in the 16th century, and once there, this cactus quickly established roots in what was an ideal climate. Like many fruits, it was considered “green gold” by Spanish crews – likely to be valuable, and taken back with other plants to Europe and the Old World. Besides, other desert plants’ fruit had been common since time immemorial. Now, five hundred years later, Opuntia is so established in the Middle East and North Africa that it is considered by some a pest. Today, Tunisian and Moroccan Jews make jams from the pears, and Sicilians even make a liqueur! And the fruit itself is enjoyed by Jews in Israel, the United States, and of course Mexico.

This gorgeous nopal is in Tula de Allende, 70km north of Mexico City, which was the site of the capital of the Toltec people in the early post-Classic period (roughly 900-1100 CE). It is well worth a visit.

Quince ice cream

Ice cream is popular in Mexico as anywhere else – and perhaps even more so. I’m flabbergasted at the number of neverías and heladerías I saw, both in Mexico City and in the provincial town of Tula de Allende. This ice cream, however, is special – it’s made with dulce de membrillo, or candied quince paste! This recipe came straight from Spain, where it probably developed during Moorish rule. It is popular in sweets in Mexico – but also among Sephardic Jews, who serve pastries and cookies with bembriyo. Candied quince is also a traditional Rosh HaShanah and Tu Bishvat food among Tunisian and Iranian Jews, and quince jams and candies remain popular in Israel today. Quince jam was one of the first recipes I made for the blog, and is incredibly delicious.

Concha roll

These little rolls are called conchas, and are a roll topped with a biscuit-like dough. These are vegetarian, though fellow kosher-keepers beware: ask, because sometimes they are made with lard. Beyond that, however, they are oddly similar to the classic bulke challah role of Ashkenazi cooking: sweet, small, and delicious!

Mezcal and oranges with tajin

This is not so much a culinary influence as a fun little parallel. I went to a mezcalería to try some delicious mezcal. When my drink arrived, it came with some orange slices. I asked the bartender why the oranges had come, and he responded that it is somewhat improper, he was taught, to have alcohol without a bit of food. As it happens, I was sort of taught the same growing up in an Ashkenazi Jewish household, and the same tradition exists with serving zakuski with vodka among Russian Jews. From Die Alter-Heim to Mexico, some traditions persist!

Many thanks – mil gracias – to all those who gave great food advice for Mexico City: Dexter O’Connell, Rachel Laudan, Connie Prater, Atenea Rosado, Mordecai Martin, Tamara Velasquez, Nahime Aguirre, Hunter Owens, Hunter Kennedy, and Yael Wiesenfeld.

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Fun at Cheburechnaya, a Bukharan Jewish Restaurant

Shurpa soup in a bowl - there are vegetables, herbs, meat, and broth

Hanukkah is not my favorite holiday, but to mark the holiday, I thought I would talk about one of my better fried food experiences recently. It was at one of my favorite restaurants in New York, Cheburechnaya, which serves Bukharan Jewish cuisine from Uzbekistan.

“There are Jews in Uzbekistan?” one may ask. Indeed, there is a Jewish community, based largely in the city of Bukhara – hence the name Bukharan Jews. Jews migrated to Central Asia from Persia in antiquity with their religion and the Persian language, which Bukharan Jews call Bukhori. Jews lived in various conditions under Muslim rule for six hundred years, and then Russian rule from 1876 to 1991. Jews were in Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva, and in Dushanbe in neighboring Tajikistan.  The cuisine and culture of Bukharan Jews is particularly distinct among Jewish communities, both for its Persian-based language and for its frequent use of meat. Most Bukharan Jews left during the Soviet years, and settled in Tel Aviv and New York, where the Forest Hills and Rego Park neighborhoods have large Bukharan communities. Several Bukharan restaurants are found in these neighborhoods, which serve a mix of Central Asian food and Russian dishes picked up during the century of Russian rule. Though strictly kosher and owned by Jews, many Muslim Uzbeks work at these restaurants.

Exterior of Cheburechnaya
(Photo Kate S. on Yelp)

These Bukharan restaurants have a cult following among many non-Bukharan Jews in New York, for the delicious food and their general affordability and good service. (The latter two are unfortunately rare among kosher restaurants in New York.) In addition, many Russian Jewish immigrants come for a taste of home. Central Asian food, including shashlik (kebabs), chebureki (triangular fried pastries), and samsa/samcy (triangular filled buns), became popular throughout the Soviet Union after World War II, and for many Russian Jews “going out for Central Asian” is the equivalent of the American “going out for Chinese.” The menus at Bukharan restaurants are uniformly bilingual in English and Russian.

Traditional Bukharan Jewish food, like all Central Asian food, is meat heavy. There is meat in the soup, meat in the pastries, meat in the rice, and meat generally everywhere. (Vegetarianism is, to say the least, uncommon.) Historically the Jews of Bukhara and Samarkand were one of the few Jewish communities that regularly consumed meat – not just because it was plentiful and cheap, but also because the Jewish community had a regularly available supply of cattle, sheep, and poultry. This matches the generally meat-based diet of the surrounding region, which is desert and not particularly given to vegetable agriculture. It should be noted that this was both unusual for Jewish communities, which reserved meat for more special occasions, and also usual in that this was eating what the neighbors did.

Cheburechnaya is located near the center of Rego Park, on an unassuming side street in Queens. It is close to other Jewish businesses, including two other Bukharan restaurants, a kosher butcher, a kosher supermarket, and a number of other kosher restaurants. Russian, Bukhori, and Hebrew can be heard along the street – alongside Chinese, Spanish, Uzbek, and Arabic. The crowd is a hearty mix: there are Bukharans and Russians, the traditional clientele, along with observant Jews from all over the New York area and foodies from all traditions. At one table, you might have a Bukharan family going out; at another table, some Ashkenazi “bros” reminiscing about their exploits in their college AEPi; at a third, a nerdy civil servant and his friends. Few restaurants in New York, in my experience, are as fun for people-watching.

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This is a cheburek, which is a deep-fried pastry filled with minced meat. It’s incredibly luscious, and the dill often placed in the meat filling provides a lovely balance both to the meat and the heavy fried dough surrounding it. Chebureks are common across the Former Soviet Union, and are especially popular among Tatars. The pastry has a Turkish origin.

 

Here are three soups: shurpa, lagman, and pelmeni. Shurpa is the traditional vegetable-and-meat soup – it has hearty root vegetables and a big chunk of meat inside! Shurpa comes from the common Turkic word for soups – in Turkish, soup is çorba. Shurpa is delicious. Lagman comes from the other direction, and is a derivative of the Chinese lamian. The Bukharan Jewish version involves noodles in a savory, tomato- and cilantro-laden broth with chunks of beef giving the soup body and a wonderful heartiness. The Forward once rated lagman the best Jewish soup. The last one is the Russian pelmeni, soup with dumplings. Thanks to two centuries of colonization, many parts of Bukharan cuisine and Central Asian food generally are Russian-influenced. The dumplings, however, are derived from those made in Central Asia, where they are called manti.

 

Here is plov, a rice-and-meat pilaf that makes up for the bulk of Bukharan Jewish festive cuisine. This one is a green plov cooked with many types of herbs. A wide range of plov varieties and recipes exist – I particularly like this sweetish recipe. We also had some meat kebabs, or shashlik, which are also traditional. They were delicious.

Noni - stacked circular breads on platters

Here is noni, the pan-cooked bread of Uzbekistan, eaten by Jews and Muslims alike. The rounds are huge, and torn and shared. The stacks are very attractive and the bread itself is surprisingly soft and pleasant. Not all Jewish breads are like challah!

Samsa - a baked triangular bun topped with seeds
Samsa. (Photo from Uzbekistan Travel)

On past visits, I gobbled them down too quickly to take a picture, so here is another picture of samsa, a beautiful baked and sometimes fried triangular pastry filled with meat or vegetables. The samsa comes from the same origin as the samosa and the sambusak, and filled breads span from empanadas in Spain and Latin America to baozi in China. The pumpkin and meat rendition often served in Bukharan establishments is particularly delicious and irresistible, and if you have any room in your stomach I urge you to try it.

If you want to visit Cheburechnaya, it is located at 9209 63 Drive in Rego Park, Queens. They are certified kosher by an Orthodox rabbi, and closed on Shabbat.

Thank you to Amy Estersohn and Laura Macaddino for accompanying me to have fun at Cheburechnaya most recently! Thanks to Aaron Kaiser-Chen for catching a typo/mistake!

Pumpkin Spice, But Jewish

Pumpkins on wooden shelves arranged in rows
(Photo Petr Kratochvil – Public Domain)

Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.

“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.

The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Pumpkin, next to some older Jewish foods – challah and etrog (Photo mine, October 2016.)

When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.

Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style
Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style. (Photo mine, November 2017)

The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.

Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.

And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.


I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.

Candied Pumpkin (Dulce de Calabasa/Kabak Tatlısı)

Based on the recipes by Claudia Roden, Elia Tabuenca (in Spanish) and Hamarat Abla (in Turkish)

Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.

Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash

White sugar

Water

Ground cinnamon

Ground nutmeg

Cloves

Star anise

  1. Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
  2. Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
  3. Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
  4. Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
  5. Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
  6. After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
  7. Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
  8. Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
  9. Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
  10. Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.

13 Guidelines for Hosting Shabbat Without Losing It

A number of readers have asked me for advice on how to host a Shabbat dinner and not become upset, lose one’s metaphorical spoons, or have a fairly unpleasant time. Hosting a Shabbat dinner is a great mitzvah, a lot of fun, and a nice way to combine Jewish food, ritual, friends, and a good time. It also does not have to be upsetting to host. I am no domestic goddess, but I do have some sage advice that I think can serve us all. Here are thirteen basic guidelines to follow when hosting a Shabbat dinner – or any dinner party or event that you cater yourself, really.

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Do: plan ahead. You should know, before you begin to cook:
  • what you are cooking,
  • what your ingredients are,
  • how many people are eating,
  • how much time you need, and
  • what equipment you have in your kitchen.

From there, you can adequately prepare for your meal. When you buy ingredients, you know what to buy. You know roughly how much time to set aside to cook, and you have an idea of how much to cook. I generally have an idea of who is coming for a Shabbat dinner and what I am cooking by Tuesday. If you are less experienced, you will need more time.

  1. Do: know your limits. You should know how long it takes you to cook and to prep for cooking – from chopping an onion to making a full meal. Know how much time you have, and how much energy you have, and how much you can afford to spend on ingredients. Plan from there. It’s hard to do an elaborate meal you do not have the energy to make, or the time, or the money. There are plenty of affordable and time-efficient dishes to make, and if you can do more money-wise or time-wise, feel free to go ahead. This also requires you to know how experienced you are in the kitchen. If you do not have a lot of experience, you may want to make simpler things, because your limits are not as wide as, say, someone who’s cooked for fifteen years.

    An apple Bundt cake with glaze on parchment paper.
    Apple cake. (Photo mine, September 2017)
  1. Do: know how to troubleshoot. Things go wrong in the kitchen – dishes boil over, an ingredient is not very fresh, you drop an egg. You should know what might go wrong with your dishes, and at the very least how to do without an ingredient or to make something up on the fly. Some of this is from experience, but you can also get an idea by reading various cooking books. If you are not sure what could go wrong with a dish, make it for yourself or your family first before you try it on guests.
  2. Do: cook with your guests in mind. Cook things based on what your guests can eat. This means that you should take into account dietary restrictions, allergies, and aversions whenever possible before planning what you will cook. I will nowadays shoot a Facebook message to my invitees asking this question before I even plan a single dish. For friends who I have cooked for before, I also take into account their allergies, practices, and aversions – for example, one friend has an aversion to raw fruit, and another has an allergy to certain types of chili. Then, once you have this information, plan your menu. This makes preparing the meal far less stressful – you will not end up cooking things that only you can eat.
  3. Do: cook things you would make normally. This sounds counter-intuitive: don’t you want to make guests something special? But other than one “ta-da!” dish, it is actually fine to have things that you are used to making. Not only does it let your labor shine, but “normal” food can be good food too! Besides, it is far easier to make.
  4. Do: have only one or two labor-intensive dishes. A labor-intensive dish might be good, but it definitely takes a lot of time and energy to prepare! And so it is best to only have one dish that requires heavy preparation time – be it in mincing many ingredients, a complicated assembly, or a long cooking process. Keep the other dishes fairly simple. This means that your efforts will be appreciated and you can have the focus you need to make the dish.

    Finished and plated tamatiebredie with mieliepap.
    Finished and plated tamatiebredie with mieliepap. (Photo mine, June 2017)
  5. Do: allow your guests to contribute. There is nothing wrong with asking for a bit of help – and it is okay to ask your guests to bring some smaller things! (In fact, this is the custom in many Jewish communities.) I routinely ask my guests to bring some challah, a bottle of wine, or lemonade. If a guest offers to bring something, do not automatically say no! That said, be sure to offer things when you go over to others’ houses too.
  6. Do: balance out the dishes. Generally speaking, try not to have everything be the same flavor or the same type of dish. So, for example, don’t have three carbohydrates and a green salad, or have everything taste like maple syrup. Even a taste-themed meal should have variety so the guests are not bored, overwhelmed, or do not eat enough. I usually aim for one protein, one carbohydrate, and two vegetables.

    Stacked fennel bulbs
    Fennel for sale at a market in Holon, Israel (photo Ariel Palmon via Wikimedia Commons)
  7. Don’t: be afraid of simple dishes. Simple food is often good food. So though we rightly celebrate complex dishes, do not be afraid of the simple things! Potatoes, simple vegetables, and bread still have their places in great meals. In addition, allowing the flavor of something to be alone or almost unadorned is a hallmark of many great cuisines, from China to France to Mexico. Simple foods also go well with complex dishes. Besides, they are much easier to make.
  8. Don’t: be afraid of canned ingredients. Soaking beans for 24 hours sucks. Mincing tomatoes is a task that is easily forgotten. Canned corn lasts longer and keeps more nutrients than fresh corn. There is no shame in using a canned ingredient or a few. I use canned beans and canned corn all the time.
  9. Don’t: make it too complicated. This is the death of so many good parties. If you make your dinner too complicated, there are many more places where things can go wrong: a sauce burns; an allergy appears; the cat eats a key ingredient. (Yes, the last one happened.) Besides, a complicated dinner is really exhausting to put on. Best to only have one complicated thing at most, and keep the other things pretty simple. It makes for a better dinner and a better time.
  10. Don’t: make too many new recipes or use too many new ingredients. One thing about cooking with ingredients is knowing how they behave: how they cook, how long they cook for, what they do to your food, and what can go wrong. It is great to try new things: a different vegetable or fish, a new spice, or a new starchy food. But in order to learn how this item cooks, and to feel less overwhelmed, stick to only that new item, or maybe two new items. Otherwise, cook with ingredients you are familiar with. It is much easier to lay out a meal if you know what you are cooking, and you feel comfortable cooking it. As for new recipes, even if they are with ingredients you are familiar with, you may want to only stick to one or two totally new recipes at a time for a meal. Otherwise, cook things that you have cooked before to reduce the stress. For example, for a recent Shabbat dinner, I made an Iranian herb omelet called  kuku sabzi – which was delicious! Though with familiar ingredients, I had never made it before – and the preparation method is somewhere between an omelet and a frittata, but far more reliant on fresh herbs. I also made the Eggplant with Lentils and Pomegranates. For everything else, I used recipes that I was not only familiar with, but I had made many times before. I was barely stressed, and the dinner was a success.Eggplant salad with parsley leeks and pomegranate with bread
  11. Don’t: be scared of mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes in the kitchen, even when cooking for guests. Don’t feel embarrassed: it is part of the learning process. Merely make a note of where you went wrong, and try again next time! Even the most experienced cooks mess up from time to time – I myself messed up while trying to thicken a soup the other day. After all, our sages said it best: “no one is perfect but G-d.”

Thank you to Alex Cooke and Jeremy Swack for talking through points in this piece with me.

Bread Pudding

Here is a dessert that seems to be common in some Jewish communities and not others: bread pudding. In the Jewish communities of England, South Africa, Argentina, and the Midwest, bread pudding is quite common as a dessert. This is not surprising, given that the dish as we know it originated in medieval England as a frugal food and later became popular in areas in the British Empire, or – like Argentina – influenced by it. It was also originally eaten as a meal itself, a trend reflected in many German puddings and our own kugels. The dish crept up from the lower classes and became sweeter, richer, and tastier among the wealthy who could afford white bread. The Ottomans, too, had their own bread-based desserts – and so you have the ekmek kadayıfı (link in Turkish) of Turkey, the umm ali of Egypt, and the budín de pan (link in Spanish) of Argentina. A bread-baked dessert makes sense: it is made from a common ingredient, is filling, and can be both very luxurious and very simple. It is also easily made without milk; thus it can be served with a meat meal in kosher households. Yet bread pudding does not seem to be quite as common in the Northeast United States or in Israel as elsewhere in the world – though I have never served it to an unwelcome audience.

I give here my “typical” bread pudding recipe, which I have made for many years – since I was in middle school! For this bread pudding, I used some Berches that I had frozen. Berches is the traditional Shabbat and holiday bread of German Jewry, and in the place of egg in challah, potato is used. The result is a delightfully fluffy and luscious bread. I will post a recipe in the future, but I strongly urge you to check out the incredible recipe in The German-Jewish Cookbook by Gabrielle and Sonya Gropman. If you do not have Berches, use another fluffy bread, such as challah or brioche.

Bread pudding with cherries in the pan

Simple Bread Pudding

Serves 9-12

1 medium to large loaf light, white bread, shredded into small pieces (it is fine if the bread is stale) – I recommend using challah, Berches, or brioche

6 tablespoons melted butter (salted or unsalted)

1 cup whole milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

1 cup white sugar

4 large eggs, beaten

 

Add-ins (all optional and flexible with quantity)

1 handful dried cherries or raisins, soaked for ten minutes

1 handful chocolate chips

1 handful slivered almonds

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190 C.
  2. Place the bread in a deep 9”x9”/23cm x 23cm pan (or a similarly sized pan).
  3. Mix in any add-ins into the bread with your hands, until evenly distributed.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the butter, milk, vanilla, cinnamon (if using), sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined.
  5. Pour the egg mixture over the bread. Evenly distribute such that all the bread is soaked by the mixture – you may need to press some of the bread down into the mixture with a fork.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the liquid has set and the top is browned and crispy. A toothpick should come out clean. Remove from the oven, and serve warm or at room temperature. You can optionally serve this with a wine sauce, a custard, or ice cream.

*A note: the question of how much bread was actually consumed by the poorest is a matter of historical debate, especially given that grain shortages were common. What is certain is that medieval bread was very different – largely made from unhulled grain, and stretched with other seeds in poorer communities. Medieval peasants did not eat “well” in any sense of the word. Medieval “frugal” bread pudding would be unrecognizable to us today. I suggest reading Cuisine and Empire by Rachel Laudan or Food in Medieval Times by Melitta Weiss Adamson for more.

Simplifying is Good: Eggplant with Leeks and Pomegranate

Sometimes it pays off to simplify a recipe.

My elegant aunt Dalia was visiting from Israel over the holidays, and she gave me a special Rosh HaShanah copy of the Israeli cooking magazine Al HaShulkhan (“At the Table”). I opened it to a beautiful picture of an eggplant covered in leeks and pomegranate seeds, and immediately said, “I am making this.” I showed the recipe to my roommate Alex – who said “that looks beautiful but … complicated.”

Indeed, Alex was right. The original recipe was not actually complicated in technique, but in serving. A whole roasted eggplant carefully stuffed with leeks and pomegranate is lovely to look at, but a lot of work to serve and eat. So I decided to simplify matters by chopping the eggplant like a salad – thus putting the work on the cook, and not the end line consumer. The end result was as beautiful as it was delicious.

Eggplant, leeks, and pomegranates all have long Jewish histories stretching back to the Ancient Near East. I’ve discussed each in prior posts. The combination may seem a tad unorthodox, but trust me: this salad is delicious.

Eggplant salad with parsley leeks and pomegranate with bread

Eggplant with Leeks and Pomegranate

Based on a recipe by Erez Golko and Shlomi Navon in “Al HaShulkhan,” September 2017 (in Hebrew)

 

4 medium-sized eggplants, cut in half lengthwise

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 medium-sized leeks, washed, diced, and washed again

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Seeds of one pomegranate

1 fistful fresh parsley, chopped

Salt, ground black pepper, and lemon juice to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.
  2. Spread the eggplants apart on a cookie sheet, with the cut side facing up. Drizzle the vegetable oil over the eggplant.
  3. Roast the eggplant for 40-50 minutes, or until the outside is browned and the eggplants are soft to the fork. Remove the eggplants from the oven and let them cool.
  4. While the eggplant is cooling, heat a pan. Add the oil, and then add the leeks. Saute the leeks for 5-7 minutes, or until the leeks have softened and are beginning to brown.
  5. Once the leeks are cooked, add the vinegar and stir rapidly through the leeks. Then, remove the leeks from the heat. Reserve the oil and the vinegar in the pan.
  6. Once the eggplant is cool, remove the peels from the eggplant flesh. Chop the eggplant flesh roughly, then place the flesh in a large bowl.
  7. Pour the leeks, oil, and vinegar over the eggplant.
  8. Add the pomegranate seeds and parsley. Mix everything together.
  9. Season with salt, ground black pepper, and a bit of lemon juice to taste. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold. The eggplant goes particularly well with bread or rice.

Thank you to Avi Garelick, Madeline Richer, Akiva Lichtenberg, Amram Altzman, and Jamie Weisbach for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Pashtidat Qishuim (Zucchini Pashtida)

A shorter post this time, which features one of my favorite recipes. I wrote about pashtidot – eggy casseroles – two years ago when I made a corn version, pashtidat tiras, for the blogs. These casseroles have a long history in Jewish cooking, from medieval meat pies through 1950s Israeli cuisine. One of the most popular versions today is pashtidat qishuim – zucchini casserole; this particular dish is found throughout Israel. I grew up with this pashtida, and it is a childhood favorite.

My pashtidat qishuim is a little unorthodox – I add a small turnip to the mix, which gives the pashtida a nice body and a slightly meatier note in the flavor. Others add cauliflower or a grated potato, reminiscent of a kugel. Like many people, I add some cheese to the pashtida as well – but you can always replace the cheese with more zucchini and another egg if you are making a pareve version for a meat meal. Enjoy!

Zucchini Pashtida (Pashtidat Qishuim)

Based on the recipes by Kobi Bar (Hebrew) and Natalie Aviv (video in Hebrew)

4 medium zucchini, grated

1 small white onion, diced finely

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small turnip, grated

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

1 cup cottage cheese or farmer’s cheese (I far prefer cottage cheese)

1 teaspoon table salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

3 eggs, beaten

⅓ cup/80 mL vegetable oil

⅔ cup/85g white flour

  1. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Grease a baking dish with vegetable oil – you can use different dishes, depending on the desired thickness. I use a 7”x10” (18cm x 25cm) deep casserole pan, but generally any medium-sized baking pan should do.
  2. Squeeze any remaining water out of the zucchini with your hands. Then, place the zucchini in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add the onion, garlic, turnip, parsley, cheese, salt, and pepper. Mix to combine.
  4. Add the eggs and oil. Mix to combine.
  5. Add the flour. Mix to combine. You should have a thick batter mixed in with the zucchini, onion, and turnip.
  6. Pour your mixture into the greased pan.
  7. Bake for 40-60 minutes, depending on the depth of the pan. The pashtida should be brown on top and set when it is done. If you stick in a knife or a chopstick, only a residual zucchini piece should come out, otherwise it should be clean.
  8. Remove from oven. Serve hot or at room temperature.