May It Be The Divine Will: Auspicious Foods for Rosh HaShanah

Anyada buena, dulse, i alegre! A gut gebentsht yahr! Rosh HaShanah is fast upon us, and despite the sugary delight of nostalgia, I am more than happy to see the ridiculous year of 5777 end. And, of course, I hope that 5778 is at least … less basic. As the year passes, I will also continue a long Jewish tradition of eating special foods in honor of Rosh HaShanah.

Quinces on a tree
Quinces on a tree. (Photo Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay/Creative Commons)

Some of these foods, all Ashkenazi, are ingrained into the common American Jewish narrative: apples and honey, sweet cakes, and tzimmes among them. These signify the desire for a sweet and happy year. But there are traditions beyond this particular interpretation of the Ashkenazi tradition. The Sephardic tradition of the yehi ratzones – blessings to which the response is ken yehi ratzon, or “may it be the Divine Will” – includes up to fourteen different foods. Many Ashkenazim follow a similar practice, as do the various Jewish communities of North Africa. It might seem strange to pair these very metaphysical prayers with the deeply physical world of eating: and yet, as we walk through each hope, the foods make sense.

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of which were made into a cake for Rosh HaShanah 5777. (Photo mine, September 2016)

That the year is sweet: and so we eat apples and quinces. As I have noted in prior posts, the quince occupies an honored place in Jewish cuisine. Not only is it a frequent guest in many festival dishes across North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, but candied quinces have long been a traditional treat of welcome and festivity in Sephardic and Iranian tradition. The sweet smell of quinces also recalls the idea of G-d as lover found in the Song of Songs. Meanwhile, the apple became, in medieval Europe, a symbol of the fertile yet complex relationship between G-d and Israel. They were also the available sweet substance across much of Europe – and befitting the greeting that became common in the 7th century, “a good and sweet year.” Hence apples and quinces became symbolic of the sweet year we want, and the sweet side of G-d we want to see.

Cooking beets
Cooking beets. (Photo mine, November 2016)

That enmity to us and G-d should end: and so we eat spinach and beets. The word in Hebrew for beets – seleq – and the word in Aramaic for spinach – silka both sound like the word to “remove” in Hebrewlesaleq. One hopes that in the New Year, enmity and adversity towards us and G-d are removed from the earth, as called for by several of the Biblical prophets, who themselves are quoted in many of the Rosh HaShanah prayers. Some scholars hold that spinach was the original food for this tradition, and beets followed in Iran, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe as a more readily available vegetable in those colder climates. For similar reasons, some Jews often eat dates on Rosh HaShanah – the word for “date,” tamar, sounds like the word for “end,” tam.

Zucchini with za'atar, black and white
Zucchini with za’atar (Photo mine, January 2017)

That a decree of death is torn: and thus we eat pumpkins and zucchini. This is a pun, for the word for “to tear” (qar’a) in Hebrew sounds like the words for “squash” in Aramaic (qarah) and Ladino (kalavasa). Hence many Sephardic communities began to cook pumpkins and zucchini during the High Holidays after their introduction from the New World. Recipes include fried zucchini, pumpkin salad, and roasted pumpkin seeds.

Pomegranates on a tree in an orchard
Pomegranates on a tree. (Photo Bharji/Wikimedia Commons via CC)

That our offspring be plentiful and that our families be prosperous: and thus we eat pomegranates and black-eyed peas. Pomegranates are a symbol of fertility throughout the Tanakh – be it human virility as in the Song of Songs or agrarian fertility as in the description of the land in the Book of Numbers. Meanwhile, the Aramaic word for the black-eyed pea is “lubya” – which sounds like “rubya,” or plenty. African-Americans, Jews and non-Jews among them, meanwhile point out that the peas’ swelling when cooked should be mirrored by our own swelling of prosperity. The pomegranate, too, is also a symbol of prosperity for the numerous seeds it holds.

A school of herring.
A school of herring, as many as our merits. (Photo Arild Finne Nyboe via Creative Commons)

That we may be at the front of our destiny: and thus we eat fish heads. Rosh HaShanah literally means “head of the year” – and since ancient times, the consumption of a fish or lamb head has been traditional to the holiday. Nowadays, many Americans are a bit squeamish about the head, but other communities eat fish heads far more often than just Rosh HaShanah! My own South African grandmother baked them, Iraqi Jews grill them, and Dutch Jews stew them. They are a good sign of staying ahead of the game. And there is a second fish blessing: That we may be found meritorious: and so we eat the rest of the fish too. The idea is that just as schools of fish seem to multiply quickly and expand and become visible, so too may our good deeds and merits become visible before G-d as She completes the Book of Life. And so fish reminds us to be good.

And a final prayer: may it be the will of the Divine that all the readers of this blog have a year filled with blessing, nourishment, and sweetness. Ken yehi ratzon.

Shana tova!

Eggplant Salad

Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic
Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic. Photo mine, April 2017.

Recently, I have found myself craving eggplant all the time – and I have perhaps become addicted to the tannic and earthy taste of a vegetable that is actually a giant berry. And so, given my passions and my interests, I have also been researching the Jewish history of this most extraordinary plant. Today, the eggplant is so associated with Israel that it is difficult to believe that eggplants were not, in fact, present during the First and Second Temple period. Rather, the plant is from India – and the word “aubergine” in English and French comes via Arabic and Persian from the Sanskrit vatiga-gamah, which might be related to the word for flatulence. I cannot speak to that effect, but I can say that eggplants reached the Jewish Mediterranean in about the 7th century CE.

White, five-petaled flower of a wild eggplant, with little green fruit behind.
Flower of a wild eggplant. (Photo Michael Khor/CC-Flickr)

Eggplants have long been a beloved mainstay of Sephardic cooking – and show up in all sorts of pastries, stews, and salads. Folk songs wage a fight between the eggplant and tomato (another newcomer), which were long considered the two favorite vegetables of the Sephardi community. In Morocco, Jews and non-Jews make a pungent and delicious salad called za’alouk with eggplant, as well as a lovely eggplant jam. Moroccan Jews even candy eggplant! Ashkenazi Jews historically only ate eggplant in Hungary and Romania, but developed an attachment to the plant there as well. Eggplants were one of the first foods adopted by settlers in Israel and Palestine in the early 20th century, and today eggplant might as well be a food group in Israel.

Eggplant pieces
Delicious eggplant, before cooking. (Photo mine, March 2016.)

This salad is a riff on a recipe more typical in Israel today – one often called a “Moroccan” eggplant salad, though it is somewhat different from typical salades cuites. As in North Africa and Turkey, “salad” in Hebrew, or salat, can also refer to small plates of vegetable dishes served at the beginning or as part of a meal. Even in English, the term salatim is now frequently used among Hebrew-speaking Jews. The eggplant used in Israel is smaller and fried more deeply in oil, whereas I have used the larger Mediterranean eggplant. I also have added more garlic, because garlic is delicious. In any case, this eggplant salad – though given that it is cooked I hesitate to say “salad” – is easy, delicious, and goes well with many other dishes.

Fried Eggplant Salad (Salat Khatzilim Metuganim)

2 small-to-medium eggplants, chopped into 1cm/ 1/3 inch slices (optionally salted)

1 bell pepper, finely chopped

1 chili pepper, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tbsp lemon juice

Salt, to taste

Olive or vegetable oil

  1. Heat a wide skillet or pan, then add about 2cm/1 inch of oil. Fry the eggplant in the oil until soft and darkened on both sides, flipping as necessary.
  2. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pan. Set the eggplant aside to cool.
  3. In the same oil, sauté the peppers and garlic until the pepper begins to soften and the garlic is thoroughly browned. Remove, with the oil, from the heat. Set aside to cool.
  4. Mix the leftover oil-garlic-pepper mixture with the lemon juice. Then, pour this “dressing” over the eggplant, and mix well.
  5. Add salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Simple Chickpeas for Purim

Purim is soon upon us; in true Leibowitzian fashion, Purim is quite possibly my least favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar. The noise! The gaudiness! The drunken shenanigans! I am perhaps too serious to truly appreciate Purim as anything other than a day for calmly reading the story of Esther and eating some delicious traditional foods. The famous food here in the United States is hamantaschen, for which I gave a recipe last year – delicious cookies that really should be consumed whenever it is not Passover or a fast day. (Including Hanukkah.)

A chickpea field in Israel with a hill in the background
A chickpea field in Israel – notice the luscious green of the leaves! (Photo Eitan F via Wikimedia commons)

But other food traditions exist too – among them, eating beans. It is said in Talmud and Midrash that Esther ate legumes whilst in the palace of King Ahasuerus so as not to ingest food that was not kosher. Hence many Jewish communities choose to eat beans and nuts on Purim in commemoration of the Purim heroine. Among those beans are chickpeas – a legume that has been part of the Jewish diet for thousands of years – as I wrote five months ago for another recipe. From the agriculture of the Second Temple Period to medieval Spain, from 19th-century Eastern Europe to today’s stylish Jewish restaurants in Buenos Aires, chickpeas have a long and storied history on the Jewish table. In the context of Purim, chickpeas have long been specifically associated with Esther herself as the food that she ate while in the palace – and have thus been considered traditional to Purim in Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities for centuries.

Chickpeas in a tomato sauce in a Pyrex bowl
The chickpeas – completed. I prefer to chop the onions very roughly; you can dice them if you would like. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Anyway, here is a simple and delicious recipes for chickpeas that you can make for Purim – or whenever. The hearty beans are paired with a piquant tomato sauce not unlike that served with chickpeas or other beans in parts of Turkey. It is very easy to make and is a good weekday dish that will also keep well for leftovers for lunches. On the other hand, it is also a very good and reliable dish for a dinner party that can please folks with many habits of diet – it is vegan and gluten-free. Even Esther, I hope, would approve in all her glory!

Spicy Garlicky Chickpeas

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

8 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more, to taste – I like a bit more)

1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup water

6 cups cooked chickpeas (1 pound dried*)

Olive oil

  1. Heat a saucepan and add the olive oil. Then, add the onion and garlic and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion begins to wilt.
  2. Add the salt and red pepper flakes and stir in thoroughly. Sauté for another 30 seconds, then add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions are softer.
  3. Add the tomato paste and mix in thoroughly, then add the cup of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
  4. Remove from the heat and add the chickpeas. I recommend that the chickpeas be hot when you add them. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. When hot, the chickpeas go well with rice or noodles; when at room temperature they are particularly good with a dense bread.

*If you are using dried beans, soak the chickpeas overnight or for eight hours in water with 2 inches/5 centimeters to cover. Then, drain the beans and boil in four quarts/four liters of salted water for one hour or until soft.

“Arab and Sephardi Pastries Are Too Sweet”: Sugar, Power, Taste, and the Politics of Sweets

Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.

This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
A more open qatayef with sweet cheese and ground pistachios – they look so yummy! (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.

While looking up recipes for qatayef ­– which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”

“Too sweet,” you say?

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?

To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.

semolina halva
Turkish sweets are also often called “too sweet” by Westerners – but they are often so delicious, like this nutty, toasty semolina halva (ırmık helvası) I enjoyed in İzmir. (Photo mine, May 2015)

But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.

Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafeh and baklava are dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.

Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macarons from a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?

The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.

Qatayef asafiri
A souped-up version of qatayef asafiri qatayef with cream – in Lebanon. (Photo Deed89 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.


I recommend the qatayef recipe by Hala’s Kitchen, which is simple and easy to follow. For a more involved recipe, take a look at the recipe by Anissa Helou, one of my food heroes, whose post from before the Syrian Civil War is a painful look back at the now-bittersweet delicious memories of Damascus many Syrians hold.

Enjoy! (And to this blog’s Muslim readers, Ramadan mubarak wa-karim!)

Stewed Meatballs with Eggplant and Fruit

Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul.
Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul. The maftoul is covering the biggest piece of eggplant from the pot! Photo mine, May 2016.

Here is a recipe I made for my mother on Mother’s Day. It is similar to the Beef with Eggplant, Dates, and Apricots I made last month for the Pesach of Colors series, but recalls two other dishes from separate Sephardic traditions: the Balkan albondigas, or meatballs with eggplant, and lamb tagine with prunes, a traditional Moroccan-Sephardic meal for Jewish holidays. I kind of made up this recipe on the spot, but will almost certainly make it again. This dish is somewhat complex in terms of ingredients and preparation, so save it for special occasions – like Mother’s Day.

I served the stew with maftoul or moghrabiyyeh, commonly called Pearled Couscous, or ptitim in Israel. Though the preparation method common in Israel differs slightly from maftoul (it is a paste that is molded in Israel, and a coated couscous elsewhere), the product is essentially identical, despite some Israeli efforts to say otherwise. Maftoul/ptitim are delicious and will be the topic of an upcoming blog post.

Stewed Meatballs with Eggplants and Dried Fruit
Serves 6-8
 
Stew
2 medium eggplants, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
salt, for preparing eggplant
Two medium onions, diced
Two cloves garlic, finely diced
1 1/2 tbsp table salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsps white pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp ground oregano
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 1/4 cups chopped dried dates
1 1/4 cups dried prunes, pitted and chopped
2 cups sweet red wine (yes, I used Manischewitz), split into 1/2 cup and 1 1/2 cup amounts
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup honey
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
4 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
water
2-3 tbsp olive oil
Meatballs
2 lbs ground beef
3 eggs
3/4 cup matzah meal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1. Place the eggplant pieces into a colander and salt heavily. Set aside for 30 minutes, during which time the eggplant will “sweat.” (This is oxalic acid escaping the eggplant, which means the pieces will be less bitter in the final product.) Afterwards, rinse the eggplant pieces and set aside.
2. Heat a wide, deep pan or Dutch oven. Add olive oil when the pan is hot – the amount should be enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
3. Add the onions and garlic and saute.
4. When the onions begin to soften, add the salt, sugar, paprika, pepper, turmeric, thyme, oregano, and nutmeg, and mix in thoroughly. Saute for another minute.
5. Add the dried dates and prunes and mix in thoroughly. Then, add 1/2 cup wine.
6. Saute until the dates have slightly softened, about three minutes.
7. Add the eggplant pieces, bay leaves, and honey, and mix in thoroughly. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups of wine. Then, add enough water to cover the entire mixture by about 1.5cm/1/2 an inch – this should be between four and six cups of water.
8. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-45 minutes.
9. Now is the time to make the meatballs. Mix all the ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl, until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
10. With your hands, use the mixture to make walnut sized balls (about 4-5cm/1 1/2 inches). You should be able to make 20-25 meatballs.
11. When the eggplant has softened somewhat, add the meatballs and submerge in the mixture. Bring back to a boil, then simmer for another 30-45 minutes.
12. The eggplant will be very soft and the fruit completely mushy when the stew is done. Serve with your favorite carbohydrate.

Pesach of Colors: Two Charosets (Purple)

I’m going to be running a series of posts for Pesach/Passover called “Pesach of Colors.” Underneath the beloved briskets and matzah ball soups of a lovingly prepared (Ashkenazi) seder, Passover has the reputation of being a colorless holiday with only a few short highlights: brisket, matzah balls, the end of the holiday. Otherwise, it’s the dull brown of matzah and Passover substitutes. Yet Passover can be so much more – and in Jewish tradition Passover has long been beyond the brisket and macaroons (which are good) to embrace a wide variety of colors that mark both the beginning of spring and our freedom as a people. So let’s embrace that. I’m going to mark each food by six colors across six posts – which are purple, orange, green, pink, gold, and black.

The ingredients for Ashkenazi charoset
The ingredients for Ashkenazi charoset. Photo mine, March 2016.

I want to start off with purple – which is in the wine that is part of charoset. This is the ritual food of the Passover seder that reminds us of the mortar the Israelite slaves placed between bricks in Egypt. Charoset in some form probably originated in Mishnaic times (2nd century CE), when it became part of seder rituals, and particularly that of eating it with matzah and bitter herbs (maror) to commemorate suffering in Egypt. It then evolved across the Jewish world to local ingredients and tastes – and became known as hallegh in much of the Middle East.

The ingredients for Moroccan charoset
The ingredients for Moroccan charoset. There’s more wine! Photo mine, March 2016.

Passover is, of course, one of the primary holidays of the Jewish calendar – it is, in many ways, the foremost – and one that inspires nostalgia in a wide swathe of Jews: secular and religious, “engaged” and “unengaged,” “traditional” and not. As it happens, charoset is often one of those memories – and I’ve had self-identified “no-longer-Jews” go into rapture over the sweet, wine-filled mixtures of their youth.

I have made two charosets: a traditional Ashkenazi recipe and a traditional Moroccan recipe. Like many Jewish foods, charoset was often determined by locally available ingredients – for Ashkenazim, apples that were stored in cellars through the winter, for Moroccans, dates, and for other communities, various local fruits. Nuts are common across many types of charoset – reminiscent as they are of the pieces of brick that end up inevitably in mortar. These can be left out in case of allergy. And, though traditionally made with wine (making the Ashkenazi version slightly alcoholic), grape juice can be substituted in as well. A quick note: the Moroccan one is lower-tech with only a pot and no processor, the Ashkenazi one is quicker to make with no cooking time. Khag kasher ve-sameakh – a kosher and happy Passover.

Moroccan Charoset

based on Claudia Roden’s recipe

makes one and a half cups charoset

1/2 pound dates, pitted and chopped

1 1/2 cups dark grape juice or sweet wine

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

dash of ground nutmeg

3 dried cloves

2/3 cup ground walnuts

  1. Put the dates in a small saucepan with the juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Add water to cover.
  2. Bring to a boil and then simmer on low, stirring now and again, until the dates are very soft and mushy and the fluid has cooked down.
  3. Take off the heat and stir to make the dates a paste. Mix in the ground walnuts and let cool before decanting.

 

Ashkenazi Charoset

Makes four cups charoset

2 medium-sized tart apples, peeled and cored (I recommend Jonathan apples)

2 tbsp dark raisins

2/3 cup ground walnuts

1 cup dark grape juice or sweet wine

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp honey

Each making method has a different consistency. I strongly urge you to use Plan A.

Plan A: Blend all the ingredients together in a food processor until the apples are mostly pulverized and the mixture is consistent. (Side note: food processors are a technological godsend to Jewish cuisine. Screw authenticity, your hands matter!)

Plan B: If you do not have a food processor, grate the apples and then use a mortar and pestle to grind the ingredients together.

Plan C: Barring that, chop the apple gratings and raisins, and then mix with the other ingredients.

The author would like to thank Berakha Guggenheim for her assistance in this year’s User Acceptance Testing for charoset.

Bamia con Limón / Okra With Lemon

Bamia con limon on the stove (B+W)
Fresh okra
Fresh okra pods. Photo mine, January 2016.

I dream of okra. This pod-like vegetable – slippery at times, ethereally soft when cooked – is my favorite, and I cook it regularly. Very regularly. I make it with lentils, in curries, stewed, fried, and even as a spread. I am always on the lookout for okra recipes – especially Jewish ones. And in a country where Jewish food is often defined as “Ashkenazic carbohydrates,” a vegetable more commonly associated with African-American and Southern cuisines is assumed to be not Jewish. But okra is, in fact, very Jewish.

Okra only made it to Ashkenazi tables in the 20th century, yet it has a long tradition in the Jewish world. The vegetable, native to Ethiopia, was present in Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant by the 13th century, where it was well documented by travelers of the period. Okra was also found by this point in South Asia and West Africa; from the latter, the plant was brought to the Americas as part of the slave trade, where it later became a bedrock of African-American and Afro-Brazilian cuisines. In the medieval era, Iraqi and Egyptian Jews likely to have already been eating okra. Ethiopian Jews also frequently ate – and still eat – stewed okra. Then, in the 16th century, Sephardi arrivals fleeing Spain for the Ottoman Empire encountered okra upon their arrival in modern-day Turkey. Various dishes with okra, including the common bamia con domates and the bamia con limón described here, entered the Sephardi culinary tradition later on. Meanwhile, okra with tomatoes became a common mourning dish among Jews in Libya…while it was an everyday food among Iraqi Jews by the 19th century. These traditions were brought to new homelands as well: meat and okra became common among Baghdadi Jews in India, while migrants to Israel added okra to shakshouka. Okra dishes remain popular in many Jewish communities – and increasingly so among Ashkenazim, though it was only after Jewish population growth in the Southern United States and culinary encounters in 1950s Israel that okra became more common among many Ashkenazim.

Pieces of okra in bowl
Prepping okra – the chopped pieces are piling up in the bowl, where they will be briefly soaked in hot water. Photo mine, January 2016.

As popular as it is, okra can be an acquired taste. It is often slithery and slimy when cooked – and though some love its viscous texture, others are rather perturbed by it. The vegetable is not always cooked to be this way – in fact, most often it is not – but some dishes and some cooks both produce “slimy” okra that can be off-putting. That said, it is not difficult to prepare okra that is palatable to a wide range of tastes. Many cooks recommend a short vinegar bath or “drying out” the okra; I prefer to soak the pods, caps off, in hot water for a few minutes. That said, not all dishes require this technique to avoid the “goo” – though the following recipe for bamia con limón does.

This recipe is a tangy, lighter variation of a more common dish – bamia con domates, okra in a tomato sauce. Lemony okra dishes are common across the Eastern Mediterranean, West Africa, and the Caribbean (link in French); this is a Jewish rendition from the Balkans. The original recipes called for onion with the okra, but I swapped it for the lighter, yet sharper scallion. As a result, the beguiling savory taste of the okra and acidity of the lemon come into sharper focus – sweetened, in fact, by the garlic. This dish makes an excellent side for a flaky fish, and goes very well with rice. If you can, use fresh okra for this recipe.

Bamia con limon on the stove (B+W)
Bamia con limon, in progress. Photo mine, January 2016.

A note for our readers: bamia is the Arabic-derived term for okra in Ladino, the language of Mediterranean Sephardim that emerged from medieval Spanish after 1492. In standard Spanish, okra is most commonly referred to as quingombó, gombo, and molondrón. Domates is the Ladino word for tomato, which in Spanish is tomate. 

Bamia con limon in a bowl
A serving of bamia con limon, with an extra helping of garlic for me! Photo mine, January 2016.

Bamia con Limón / Okra with Lemon

Based on the recipe of Gil Marks, published in Olive Trees and Honey.

1 pound fresh okra

4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

1 cup chopped scallions (about four or five scallions)

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp ground black pepper

1/3 cup lemon juice (about two medium-sized lemons)

1½ cups water

Olive oil, for frying

  1. Remove the caps from the okra, and if you desire, cut the rest of the okra into small pieces. If you want less gooey okra, you can soak the pieces of okra for a few minutes in hot water.
  2. Heat a pan and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the scallions and the garlic and sauté until soft. While sautéing, add the salt and pepper.
  3. Add the okra, lemon juice, and water, and mix thoroughly. Let simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and the okra is soft.
  4. Remove from the heat and serve.

 

Two notes:

  1. The author would like to thank Amram Altzman and James Weisbach for eating – with gusto! – one of the test runs of this recipe.
  2. You should all check out – now in the links section – a new blog written by your humble author’s lovely friend Harry Gao. Immortal Dumplings. The blog covers Chinese and Chinese-American home cooking from a narrative perspective, and is delightfully witty. Check it out!

Quince Jam (Ma’ajun Sfarjel / Moraba-ye Beh)

About to put a spoonful of quince jam into tea

 

Quince jam in a container
Quince jam, being its sticky delightful self as I set it out for dessert on the table. November 2015, photo mine.

Blame my friend Maryam. A couple of weeks ago, she made us all – well, all of us who are friends with her on Facebook – very hungry. Very hungry indeed. Why? Well, she had made quince jam! Her preserves – called moraba-ye beh in Persian – were lusciously red, inviting the viewer to indulge in fruity, sticky bliss. On viewing the photo, I was immediately inspired to make my own – and, in addition, reminded of something else. I was reminded of how quinces kept on popping up throughout Jewish spaces I was in: in the quince paste at a Sephardi restaurant in Israel, mentioned in the Talmud, or how quince jam was the traditional gift for departing guests in Jewish Salonica (now Thessaloniki, in Greece.) Looking at Maryam’s creation, I was reminded that, in fact, quince jam is a very Jewish recipe.

By the way, for those of you that have not had them: quinces are a type of fruit related to apples and pears. These oddly-shaped orbs are in season in the autumn and early winter and are famous for their fragrance. Cooked, they taste like wild, gamey apples – but are in the United States more commonly seen in Latin American quince pastes and jellies. The fresh fruit is certainly not nearly as common as its cousin, the apple, in North America. And, like the apple that we eat at Rosh HaShanah, the quince is a very Jewish fruit.

Selfie of me with a quince
Yours truly, contemplating a quince before it meets its fate. (In jam.) November 2015, photo mine.

Quinces have a Jewish history stretching back to the Bible. Some scholars believe that the “apple” mentioned in the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim) was actually a quince, which was prized across the ancient Mediterranean for its fragrance. So celebrated, in fact, was the quince’s aroma that the Babylonian Talmud prescribed that a blessing be recited upon smelling the fruit (Berachot 43b). The fruit was prized by non-Jews across the Mediterranean and Persian worlds too: Greek and Roman writings both made mention of the fruit.

In the medieval era, quinces remained popular in the Middle East – where Syrian quinces were famed – and in Europe, where the fruit graced Charlemagne’s imperial estates. Jews, too, ate quince for both culinary and medicinal reasons. In the latter case, quince was used against coughs and stomachaches, and Maimonides mentioned that eating quince was a remedy for headaches. Yet it was for cuisine that the quince’s complex and fragrant flavor was most renowned: and quince was widely consumed. It was found in the bembriyo paste that Sephardim brought from Spain (where it is called membrillo) across the Mediterranean after the expulsion of 1492, the quince preserves North African and Italian Jews served at Rosh HaShanah, or in the jam eaten year-round. Though traditionally thought of as a “Sephardi” food, Ashkenazim in the southern parts of the Yiddish world – Hungary and Romania today – were often exposed to the fall fruit as well. By the turn of the twentieth century, quinces were being preserved and cooked across a wide swath of the Jewish world – from tarts in France to tagines in Morocco, from quince cheese in Hungary to the jam here in Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, and Iran. One old English Jewish cookbook I found from 1907 had several recipes for quince compotes and jams.

Quinces on a scale.
Weighing quinces before I chop them to make the jam. You can obviously weigh them at the store or estimate; my sister gave me this tiny kitchen scale for my birthday! The scale was too small for all three quinces, so I ended up weighing them individually. November 2015, photo mine.

Today, quinces remain popular in some parts of the Jewish world. In Israel – where quinces have grown for thousands of years – preserves and sweets made from the fruit are widely eaten, though perhaps not every day. Quince trees are also found in cooler regions of Israel and Palestine; my mother, who lived for many years in Israel, remembers seeing quince trees at her friends’ houses. Quinces are also common in the Sephardi and Moroccan Jewish communities of France, another quince-loving country, where treats from the fruit are eaten at Rosh HaShanah and throughout the autumn. In Argentina, quinces have been used as a substitute for apples in traditional Ashkenazi pastries.

Yet in the United States this enigmatic fruit – once common in the Northeast – remains rare and rather unknown. Not to mention that quinces are pricy and hard to get – I made a detour on my commute home to Washington Heights for the sole purpose of buying quinces from Fairway Market on the Upper West Side. In order to save money, I only bought enough for one batch of jam – but that said, you do not need too many to make a large quantity of jam. In fact, if you choose to can the jam – which I am planning to do with a larger batch in the near future – a few quinces can provide you with fragrant flavors throughout the year. Think of it as a substitute for buying jams in the store! (The price differential is pretty close, depending on the jam you buy and the amount you eat. I am a total jam pig.) Besides, food preservation has a long and venerated Jewish history: preserved foods are “essential” to many Sephardi cuisines, while jam-making, pickling, and canning were both autumn customs among Jews in Eastern Europe to prepare for a long, harsh, produce-less winter.  Why not, then, celebrate this history by joining in and canning this jam?

Chopping quinces
Chopping quinces and the lemons. The core is very hard! November 2015, photo mine.
Quinces cooking in syrup
Making the jam – the quinces are cooking, and I had just added the cinnamon and sugar. November 2015, photo mine.

Even before canning, though, this jam requires a labor commitment. Firstly, quinces are finicky. They have an unusual skin and shape that make peeling difficult; unlike apples or pears, quinces are not recommended for raw consumption. But like apples and pears, quinces discolor quickly. Cooking, however, reveals the multilayered lace of flavor hidden within the pockets of the quince – and though I definitely don’t recommend doing this as a regular thing, quinces cooked for a long time are worth the wait. Of course, there is also all the usual faff of jam in this: the boiling, the sugar, the time, and for some of you, the canning. But guys, really, it’s worth it.

Quince jam almost complete in the pot - the jam is a ruby red color, contrasting with the quince's originally off-white flesh
The quince jam is almost done! Notice the ruby red color. November 2015, photo mine.

Quince jam has also provided a window for me to learn about other traditions involving jam as well. If you, like me, have made a lot of jam that you didn’t can, these traditions are really helpful. Maryam (who is not Jewish) likes to eat her moraba-ye beh with soft cheese and nuts on bread – similar to the warm bread the jam is served with in Iran. In Spain and much of Latin America, quince jam is often used with cheese in empanadas (which I didn’t make, link in Spanish), or in almond shortbreads (which I did). In many Mediterranean countries, quince jellies are served with ice cream – which I can testify also work with your typical supermarket vanilla ice cream! And perhaps my new favorite thing, in Azerbaijan it is traditional to stir jam into your tea or sip tea through jam, including quince jam. I went through a lot of jam this way – and truly, it was fantastic.

About to put a spoonful of quince jam into tea
Putting some quince jam into hot tea – the jam dissolves but leaves behind pieces of quince and its fragrant flavor and a delightful sweetness too. November 2015, photo mine.

Quince Jam (Moraba-ye Beh / Ma’ajun Sfarjel)

Based on the recipes by Soly Anidjar (French), Maryam Sabbaghi, Azita Houshiar, and Pascale Perez-Rubin (Hebrew).

Makes 4-6 cups quince jam

 

2 pounds quinces

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon*

1 tbsp vanilla extract*

3 cloves

Juice of two small lemons or one large one

Water

  1. Peel and core your quinces. I do this with a knife since quinces can have a rather complicated and tough skin. Chop the quince flesh up into small pieces and place into a bowl. While you are chopping, cover the already-chopped pieces of quince flesh with juice from one of the small lemons or half a large lemon. (You will need the other lemon or lemon half later on.) This will prevent discoloration and allow the fabulous tones of the quince flavor to come out more in the jam.
  1. In a separate bowl blend the sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Set aside.
  1. Place the quince pieces, covered in lemon juice, at the bottom of a big pot. Add water to cover to 4/5 of an inch (about 2cm). Place on the flame and bring to a boil covered.
  1. Once the quinces are boiling, reduce to a simmer and let simmer for 15 minutes.
  1. After 15 minutes, or when the quinces are just beginning to soften, add the sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla extract. Stir in thoroughly and bring to a boil uncovered.
  1. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 1 1/2-2 1/2 hours. Leave the mixture uncovered since you need a lot of the water to cook off. Stir regularly so that the sugar blends in and that the jam does not burn.
  1. When the syrup is thick and the quinces and syrup have turned a ruby red color, you are close to the end. How do you know that it is thick enough? My friend’s trick to test if the syrup is ready is to dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. I recommend this method. If the jam is still too liquid, keep on simmering. If the jam is thick enough, turn up the heat, and add the juice from the second lemon or large lemon half, and mix in. Cook for another 3-5 minutes.
  1. At this point your jam is done. Remove from the heat and ideally from your pot as quickly as possible. If you can, follow your favorite safe canning method. The jam should keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Serve on bread with butter or a soft cheese, bake into cookies, cook with meat, serve with ice cream, or – my new favorite – stir into a cup of hot tea.

*You can also use cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, but I’m too lazy to fish them out of bubbling jam.

Shakshouka – Tunisian-Jewish Comfort Food (by Reader Request)

Shakshouka with bread

We have our first reader contribution! JD Hammond, a friend and urban planner extraordinaire, had some questions about shakshouka, a North African dish imported to Israel by Tunisian Jews in the 1950s. It comprises a vegetable ragout in which eggs are poached. Specifically, JD wants to know (paraphrased):

  1. How do we make it? He has made it before, but wants to know another recipe.
  2. How do we make it so pretty – specifically, regarding the eggs?
  3. How did this dish with this “remarkable intensity” of flavors evolve?
Tunisian shakshouka in a pan
Tunisian chakchouka, served in a pan with cilantro as garnish. (Gideon Tsang, Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

Shakshouka, celebrated in Israel as a “breakfast of champions,” has its origins in North Africa. The word comes from a Tamazight word for “vegetable sauce,” and eggs were added later by the Arab populations of North Africa. The dish later spread across the Arab world – from Iraq to Morocco – and became popular among the Jews of the region as well. In fact, shakshouka is still considered quintessential home cooking in Tunisia today. As this article states (in French), “try to tell a Tunisian at your risk and peril that shakshouka is an Israeli or American dish!” Yet it has come in many minds to be associated with Israel.

Shakshouka with bread
Shakshouka with bread, September 2014. Photo mine.

In the 1950s, Tunisian Jews brought the dish to the Israel which they immigrated to – and were, by and large, unwelcome in. (As it happens, a variant of the dish is also popular among Palestinians.) Shakshouka spread from the peripheral towns into Israeli cities, where – like other Arab Jewish and Arab dishes – it was appropriated and adopted into an Israeli national icon. Rather than admit the origins of the dish, a new etymology for the dish’s name, as originating from the Hebrew leshaqsheq (to shake), emerged. North Africans – Jews and Muslims alike – continue to make this dish in their own way, separate from the Israeli adaptation. Meanwhile, as more Israelis moved abroad in the 1980s, the dish became popular in the United States and Canada, and became the hipster breakfast du jour in recent years.

Chopped green bell peppers and habanero chilis
Peppers – bell and chili – chopped and awaiting their shakshouka fate. November 2015. Photo mine.

Of course, the way the dish has become popular is less than appealing – Ashkenazi Israelis “borrowing” the dishes of North African Jews and Palestinians whose cultures they sought to erase, then calling it their own. In addition, many argue that those such as myself who are post-Zionist should eschew the “Israeli” for the “diasporan.” Yet shakshouka is also a very clear example of how diaspora works, and how diaspora affects what we eat. Firstly, I would like to note that this dish was consumed in the Jewish diaspora for centuries before the state of Israel was even imagined – how is shakshouka not a food of “diaspora”? Secondly, I do not think that we can run away from Israel or misdeeds there if we are to explore Jewish food and its history – given that Israel, like it or not, looms large over Jewish life around the world. Finally, I think we can still enjoy the remarkable mix of flavors shakshouka provides while acknowledging its North African origins.

Tomatoes, peppers and chilis, onions, and spices laid out for cooking.
Tomatoes, peppers and chilis, onions, and spices laid out for cooking. November 2015, photo mine.

Indeed, shakshouka is versatile, intense, and remarkable. The vegetables’ softness and peppers’ spice meld against the egg yolk and firm whites to create an experience that seems simple but is so very complex: no two bites are the same. It is also versatile: the variations are legion, from the simple varieties encouraged on Tunisian expatriate forums to the complex, cheese-laden ones that have become popular on certain upscale food blogs. My friend David, who was familiar with the latter, found the recipe I used “lazy” – but in a good way, in that it is simple. Indeed, shakshouka can be and often is simple. That is key to its beauty – and it is what drew JD into wanting to make it.

Onions and spices frying in the pan
Onions and spices – key in the flavor base of the shakshouka. November 2015, photo mine.

JD’s biggest question was “how can you poach the eggs and keep them intact, without babysitting them?” I have bad news: you do really need to “babysit them.” Eggs are fragile and finicky creatures, and if you are attached to having a delightfully runny yolk and/or an aesthetic shakshouka, you will need to keep an eye on them. I advise that you make a well in the sauce, crack the egg in, and then carefully fold the whites into the sauce. You need to watch to make sure the eggs don’t overcook, and that they get in in the first place. Practice makes perfect! See the recipe for more information.

Cracking eggs into shakshouka
Right after dropping the eggs in – the ones dropped first are beginning to cook but this is where folding and “babysitting” are key! There is no lazy way with eggs in shakshouka. November 2015, photo mine. [Apologies for the rather ugly quality of this photo.]
Spicing and vegetable chopping are also frequent questions with shakshouka. Different regions have different textures for chopping vegetables and length of time the ragout is cooked, which affects the “softness” of the sauce. Some add peppers, some do not. Some use very piquant and hot spices, whereas others prefer a milder dish. In Tunisian recipes, the ragout tends to rely on more roughly chopped fresh vegetables and sinus-destroying spice, whereas Israeli and Palestinian adaptations tend to be finer. I stick with a fiery, rough shakshouka, but JD himself has globalized the recipe with a variant involving Sriracha chili sauce and cayenne pepper.

Eating the shakshouka with pita. Photo in black and white.
Eating the shakshouka – I had already dug in before Amram reminded me to take a picture for you guys! The bread is a typical pita. November 2015, photo mine.

The shakshouka here is closer to the variant common in Tunisia than that common in Israel.  One common ingredient in an Israeli shakshouka is tomato paste (the canned stuff), an ingredient I abhor in most circumstances, which often tends to become quite globby in the frying process. Tunisian shakshouka relies largely on fresh tomatoes (or canned, but not paste), and often uses a wonderfully larger amount of cilantro – my favorite spice. My recipe is based on two Tunisian recipes and one by Einat Admony, the Israeli genius-chef behind Balaboosta, one of New York’s most fantastic restaurants.

 

Shakshouka

Based on an amalgam of the recipes of Orly Olivier, Marmiton (French), and Einat Admony. I make several variations of this recipe.

Serves 2-6, depending on your hunger level and stomach size

1 large onion, diced

3 bell peppers, seeded and chopped into one-two inch rectangles or squares

1-3 small hot chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped – the amount you use depends on the spice level of the pepper and your own tolerance; I tend to stick with three smaller habaneros

4 plum tomatoes, diced or chopped

1-2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil (olive is better)

1 tbsp vinegar (many vinegars work)

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp dried cilantro

1.5 tsp ground cumin

1.5 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp ground oregano

1 tsp thyme

1 tsp dried rosemary

1 tbsp garlic powder or 1 clove crushed fresh garlic

2/3 cup water

6 large eggs

 

Bread for serving (optional)

 

  1. Chop up your vegetables. I am including this as a separate step for this recipe because this is very important factor to budget into your time.
  2. Heat a large frying pan, shallow wide saucepan, or similar pan, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and sauté until soft.
  3. Add the peppers (bell and chili) and continue sautéing. If you are using fresh garlic, add it here.
  4. When the peppers begin to soften, add the salt, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, oregano, thyme, and rosemary and mix in thoroughly. Keep sautéing.
  5. After a minute or so, add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute.
  6. Add the tomatoes and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for a few minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to soften. Add the water and simmer until the tomatoes are soft, and the skin has separated from the tomatoes’ fleshy part. The water should have mostly cooked down by this point.
  7. When the tomatoes and peppers are cooked until soft, it is time to add the eggs. Make six wells in the tomato-pepper mixture and crack an egg into each one. Then carefully tuck the whites of the eggs into the surrounding tomato-pepper mixture, being careful to leave the yolk alone. If you want your eggs to be super pretty, I would suggest cracking them first into a cup or several cups individually, then putting them in the shakshouka. You will need to “babysit” your eggs – the whites can be finicky. If you want your yolks solid, crack the yolk *after* folding in the whites. If your wells are deep enough, folding should be fairly simple – just push the tomato-pepper mix over the whites!
Raw eggs in cups pre-cooking
Cracking the eggs into cups to put into the shakshouka – thus they retain their integrity and the yolks can stay unbroken! November 2015, photo mine.

You should still have a little white visible on top, because…

  1. When the whites are cooked through and solid, your shakshouka is ready. Remove from the heat and serve as soon as possible. Serving in the pan and having folks dig in and help themselves is the easiest, but a wide spoon does the trick and keeps the eggs intact. I prefer to serve shakshouka with warm bread.

 

Author’s note: if you have leftover chili peppers, I heartily recommend trying the A Fiery Law cocktail, a brilliant creation by my friend, the “Kiddush Club President” of Tippling Through The Torah.