Bamia con Limón / Okra With Lemon

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!

Great Books: We Are What We Eat, by Donna R. Gabaccia

“The history of the bagel suggests that Americans’ shifting, blended, multi-ethnic eating habits are signs neither of postmodern decadence, ethnic fragmentation, nor corporate hegemony. If we do not understand how a bagel could sometimes be Jewish, sometimes be “New York,” and sometimes be American, or why it is that Pakistanis now sell bagels to both Anglos and Tejanos in Houston, it is in part because we have too hastily assumed that our tendency to cross cultural boundaries in order to eat ethnic foods is a recent development – and a culinary symptom of all that has gone wrong with contemporary culture.” (Gabaccia 1998: 5)

Everything bagel with chopped herring
Eating an everything bagel with chopped herring – so good. Photo mine, October 2015.

I love, love, love this book. Donna Gabaccia – a badass professor at the University of Toronto (formerly of UNC-Charlotte) – wrote a food history in the 1990’s that deconstructed both the idea of “ethnic food” and how mixing and matching food traditions both created American cuisine(s) and also ideas of what culinary boundaries are. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine plays a big role in this story, and Gabaccia opens up with a tale about a Pakistani immigrant who opens up a “New York bagel” shop in Texas. In many ways, this exploration is both a celebration of how significantly various cuisines from differently-marginalized groups (Jews included) changed American cuisine, and how ultimately useless “authenticity” is as a culinary term. Is authenticity really just a performance of eating whatever everyone else thinks we eat?

On another level, this book is a must-have for another reason: if you ever needed more proof of how thoroughly important indigenous American foods are, the first chapter of this book offers a lot. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, turkeys, tomatoes, chili peppers, baking powder…potatoes. Potatoes. Where would “authentic Jewish” cuisine be without these New World foods?

Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Harvard: 1998. Available on Amazon.com.

Baked Apple Pudding – Trying Out a Recipe from 1874

So I have a thing for old cookbooks. Take me to a used bookshop and the first things I look for are old cookbooks. And maps, but that’s another story for another time. The biggest Jewish cultural event for me this fall was neither Matisyahu’s frumspringa nor Netanyahu’s Hitler gaffe, but rather the release of Eve Jochnowitz’s brilliant translation of a 1938 vegetarian, Yiddish cookbook by Fania Lewando. One of my most treasured family heirlooms is my maternal grandmother’s neatly-typed cookbook of her pantheon of recipes, and I’ve lovingly leafed through my other grandmother’s stack of aging, 1950’s “Jewish” cookbooks.

Apples and lemon peel in a pot
Stew the apples and lemon peel…OK! Photo mine, December 2015.

So, understandably, I was excited to find one day during my lunch break at work a fully digitized kosher cookbook from 1874! An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles, by Estrella Atrutel, is not only free for your perusal online, but also a stunning time capsule into what might have been laid on the table for a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family in Victorian England. It is not only filled with detailed recipes that would have required lengthy, mostly female, and probably employed labor to make, but also has lines such as “send to the table” and requirements for all manner of fancy cooking implements. (That said, so do today’s cookbooks. Who among ye has a strawberry huller?)

Browsing through the cookbook, one who is familiar with the mostly Ashkenazi, heavily kitschified notion of “Jewish food” would be surprised. One sees nary a recipe for lokshen kugel and the German kleis rather than kneidlach. P’tcha appears, but as an aspic, and carp meets its fate soused rather than as gefilte fish. Instead, one sees renditions of French and British cuisine, much like the rest of wealthy Europe at this time: you have “Butter Cressy Soup” and sole à la Normande and charlottes, and of course the more unusual Brains Omelets (exactly what it sounds like) and Mock Turtle Soup. While there are the “Jewish” things here and there –fried fish and my beloved quince jam, both brought to England by Sephardic immigrants, have cameo appearances – it seems to a casual reader that Anglo-Jewry was trying to cook in a most “European” fashion. Which was totally true.

Dough on a dough-board
“Roll it out on a paste board” – OK? Am I doing this right? Photo mine, December 2015.

Let us not forget that upper-crust Anglo-Jewry wanted to be, well, English upper-class. In a day and age where knowing what is “authentic” acts as a marker of upper-class status, and the performance of “true” ethnic identity is celebrated and guarded, it is difficult to recall that for much of Jewish history – and even, especially in the State of Israel – “authenticity” was definitely neither sought nor celebrated. Today, people send their children to prohibitively expensive day schools and serve “long lost” Jewish dishes at their Shabbat tables. But in the 1870’s, a well-off Jewish family sought instead to reflect the English upper-class culture they sought to enter: schooling in the Western tradition, dishes more or less close to haute cuisine française, and certainly not speaking such “dialects” as Ladino or Yiddish. Men wore top hats, women the fashion of the day. And, as I have amply noted, this extended to the dinner table: because part of being like the upper crust was eating like (and sometimes, just eating) the upper crust.

So dishes like a baked apple pudding meant more than simply something delicious: it was part and parcel of a nexus of class and ethnicity that was performed. Of course, baked apple dishes have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. Apple cake has been a traditional Rosh Hashanah dish for centuries, as have been baked apples in some communities. (Both became even more popular in the United States.) So an apple pudding was not “out of tradition.” But it also was part of cooking and eating as similarly to the then – and still – very anti-Semitic English upper class as possible. You could be rich and white and British, but kosher and Jewish and “traditional” all at the same time. Many tried this: not just in England, but in America, in South Africa, in France, and elsewhere. This sort of recipe is as reflective of Jewish history as are the “authentic” apple cakes and taiglach – which, as I continue to note on this blog, were also once considered to be newfangled and foreign.

Text: No. 278. - A Baked Apple Pudding. Peel 4 good sized apples, cut them up rather small, put them in a stewpan, with 1/4 lb of moist sugar, 1 oz. of dried currants, 1 oz. of raisins, 1 oz. of almonds chopped, 2 oz. of lemon and orange peel chopped, a little cinnamon, and a little ground cloves; let it stew till the apples are quite soft,
The recipe!
chop a 1/4 lb of suet* very fine, put it in a dish with 6 oz. of flour, a little salt, mix with a little cold water, make it into a paste, roll it out onto your paste-board 3 times, divide it into 4 pieces, grease a pudding basin well, and put in a little brown sugar with a little cinnamon; roll out one of the pieces of dough, put it at the bottom of the basin, then put in a layer of the stewed fruit, so on alternately, leaving the last layer of paste to form the top; bake it, and turn it out of the basin to send it to the table, it will look all glazed.
Recipe part 2! Estella Atrutel via Google Books

Two friends and I decided to try the recipe out ourselves one day. We converted the weight measurements to cups and teaspoons, acquired the ingredients, guessed the oven temperature, and set about our task. We did elect to swap out the suet – beef fat – for butter, especially since kosher suet is rather pricy. By and large, the recipe worked in terms of taste – we got an apple pudding that was certainly nice to eat. But the recipe was also…well, weird. We realized we had too much apple filling for not enough dough – we got one and two-thirds layers of dough, rather than the promised four. Not to mention that the apple filling, though good, was…lemony. Very, very lemony. Very, very, very lemony. Some of it, perhaps, may have been taste. Yet I think there was another fact at work.

Text: An Easy And Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Upon Strictly Orthodox Principles
The Book! From Estella Atrutel via Google Books.

This is the hazard of converting the cryptic and sometimes jarring guesswork of the past. What counts as a “good size” apple in 1874 is different from one today, and the instruments of cooking change. What, for example, is a “pudding basin?” But more importantly, it also demonstrates how cooking by “eye” can be so temporally and geographically inflected. I pride myself on cooking by “eye” and “knowing” when things are done. So did Estella Atrutel – all of her recipes assume a basic knowledge of cooking and food. Yet it is when we communicate these ideas to others that something can get lost across time, across space, across assumptions. I mean, the English upper-class might have actively prized rather than enjoyed lemony, lemony, lemony apples. On the other hand, I wonder if Mrs. Atrutel could cook a shakshouka or  Jerusalem kugel from my directions.

IMG_6083
Eating the apple pudding – notice the caramel glaze! Photo mine, December 2015.

I made the recipe again, with a few adjustments. In order to counteract the overwhelming flavor of lemon, I reduced the lemon peel to a fraction of the original recipe. Meanwhile, I expanded the dough to reflect the fact that our apples today are far larger than those in Atrutel’s, and to have the same alternation that she did. I also added a touch of salt to the dough – it adds a tang that pairs nicely with the sweet, lemony apples. Finally, this recipe is dairy, whereas Atrutel’s original was made with suet and was thus “meat.” Bake and enjoy!

 

Baked Apple Pudding

Based on a recipe by Estella Atrutel printed in 1874 in An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles

Adjusted to an American kitchen in the 2010s.

Dough (“Paste”)

2 cups white, sifted flour

8 oz (one stick) butter, softened

1 ½ tsp salt

1 ½ tsp granulated sugar

Water

Filling

3 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, cored and diced (you can also peel them)

¼ cup raisins

Zest of one lemon

1 cup brown sugar

1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon

4 cloves

Water

 

Butter, to grease the pan

Brown sugar and ground cinnamon, for the bottom of the pan

 

Optional: ¼ cup slivered almonds

 

  1. Put the apples, raisins, spices, and lemon zest in a pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook until the apples are soft and the water has significantly reduced, stirring occasionally.
  2. While the apples cook, make the dough. Chop the butter into small pieces. Then, in a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, salt, and sugar with a pastry blender or fingertips until you have clumps of dough. Add about ¼-½ cup of water to the dough, and mix to form a clump of smooth, slightly sticky dough. Roll out the dough on a cutting board until about ½ an inch thick. Cut in half.
  3. Preheat your oven to 400 F. Grease a small baking pan – 8×8 works fine. Cover the bottom with a light coat of brown sugar and cinnamon.
  4. Let the apple mixture cool a bit after cooking. Meanwhile, take half the dough and cover the bottom of the pan with it.
  5. Now, spoon the apple mixture – draining out remaining water – over the dough. Cover the apple mixture with the other half of the dough.
  6. Bake for twenty minutes, or until the dough has browned nicely. Serve with ice cream or custard. The bottom should be caramelized!
Brown sugar and cinnamon in a buttered pan.
Brown sugar and cinnamon at the bottom of the pan – yes, you should use a pile of sugar. Photo mine, December 2015.

Sweet Plantains (Maduros) for Hanukkah

As a resident of Washington Heights, I see plantains everywhere. The Dominican community that calls this neighborhood home – and, in fact, predominates in much of it – has ensured that the beloved and delicious starch of the Dominican Republic is available in any food store in the Heights. Cheaply, too.  Like many Jews in the Heights (where we are another major constituency), I have also converted to having plantains as a regular part of my diet – be they boiled, steamed, fried, chopped up and put into soup, baked….

One dear reader, Mia Rachel Warshofsky, pointed out to me that fried plantains – the most traditional and delicious but by far the unhealthiest method of preparation – are traditional for Hanukkah in some Latin American Jewish communities. Given that I now live in another land of plantains, and, well, why not, I decided to make some for Hanukkah. Plantains are certainly less work than latkes – I was already frying them as an occasional treat – and also have a wonderful taste. I am very glad to have been informed of and introduced to this tradition. Thanks Mia!

And let’s not forget: plantains are a very important potential carbohydrate for another holiday as well. The Dominican-American Jewish blogger Aliza Hausman wrote this wonderful guide to plantains for Passover, which I strongly recommend reading, along with the rest of her blog.

How to Fry Your Hanukkah Plantains

  1. Make sure you have sweet plantains – yellow and/or black on the outside. Green plantains, though also delicious, require a bit more work. Maybe I will cook them some other time for you guys.
  2. Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
  3. An optional step: some people claim that if you dip the pieces of plantain into salt water ever so briefly, they will be more tender. I don’t notice a difference, but will note it here.
  4. Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
  5. Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
  6. Remove from pan when both sides are golden or caramelized-brown. Serve with spices, sugar, or a combination thereof! (The ones in the picture have salt, cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper on them. They may or may not have been dinner.)

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

 

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)

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.