Pesach of Colors 3: Stuffed Cabbage (Green)

Stuffed cabbage on a plate
Stuffed cabbage, with keftes de prasa (leek fritters, upcoming), the “bed” of apples and onions, and rice. Photo mine, April 2016.

I like to mix up some parts of the traditional Ashkenazi culinary calendar. The reason for this is simple: for fifty-one weeks of the year, a.k.a. not Pesach, I see no reason not to eat poppy-seed hamantaschen, and am of the opinion that these herald the new year far better than the pastry-who-shall-not-be-named. That said, I’ve been known to serve latkes on Shavuot and cheesecake on Hanukkah – the latter of which happens to be actually somewhat traditional. And this green recipe is simply a colorful Passover rendition of another holiday’s treat.
Stuffed cabbage, also known as holishkes, is traditional to Simchat Torah. (Continue) Holishkes are one of Ashkenazi Jewry’s oldest borrowings from neighbors in Eastern Europe – it appeared in Jewish cooking from the 14th century, when a similar dish emerged in Eastern Europe. Since then, it has been a frequent feature of the Jewish Sabbath table – not just in the Ashkenazi-dominated regions of Carpathia and Galicia (now Eastern Poland and Western Ukraine), but also throughout the Sephardi communities of the Balkans, where the dish became popular later. (Nota bene: the dish is Ashkenazi in origin.) Cooking and serving methods vary. Whereas in Hungary and Romania the holishkes are slow-cooked in a fantastically flavored tomato sauce, and Bulgaria’s are stuffed to the brim, the Greek lahmanadolmathes are cooked on top of a bed of vegetables. I blended the two methods – I made the stuffed cabbage in the Greek style, but added the tomato sauce from further north.

Creating Passover-friendly stuffed cabbage proved to be an interesting challenge. The traditional carbohydrate of the filling is rice, which is eaten by some Jews, but not by most Ashkenazim. Meanwhile, flour cannot be used to thicken the filling if it is too thin, but matzah meal would make the filling too dry. I settled instead for walnuts, which add body to the filling and a characteristic nutty, but not too savory, undertone.

Stuffed Cabbage for Passover (Holishkes)
Serves 8-10

Stuffed Cabbage
1 medium head cabbage
1 lb ground beef
1/2 cup ground walnuts
2 eggs
1 tbsp white salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground smoked paprika
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1 large apple, cored and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
Water or stock

1. Cut the end off the cabbage. Then, place it in a pot of boiling water, and leave in until the outer leaves begin to fall off. Carefully remove about 20-30 leaves, without tearing them. Then, take the core of the cabbage out. Set the leaves and core aside, separately.

  1. In a large bowl, mix the beef, walnuts, eggs, and spices together until you have a consistent and solid mixture.
  2. Dice the core of the cabbage, and place the pieces at the bottom of a medium-sized stockpot with the apples and onions.
  3. Now it is time to make the holishkes.
  • Take a leaf and lay it out flat on a flat surface.
  • Cut off the nib of the leaf (the hard bit) at the bottom. (Throw the nib into the pot on top of the rest of the apple-onion-cabbage bed)
  • Place about a teaspoon of the beef mixture into the lower-center part of the cabbage leaf.
  • Fold the bottom bit of the leaf over the filling, and then the two bottom-side bits.
  • Now, roll the leaf up to completely conceal the filling. Congrats, you have made a holishke!
  • Place the roll on top of the bed, open side down. (This prevents the stuffed cabbage leaf from opening during the cooking process.
  • Repeat until you are out of cabbage leaves! Nota bene: if you have leftover filling, you can fry them into little keftes.
  1. Cover the contents of the pot with water and/or stock.
  2. Place on the heat, and bring to a boil. Then, simmer for one to one and a half hours, basting – pouring liquid over – the holishkes regularly.
  3. Serve with carbs and the vegetables from the “bed,” with the additional option of tomato sauce. 

    Tomato Sauce (optional)
    2 cups cooked, crushed tomatoes with their juices (or 1 can)
    1 medium onion, chopped
    Five cloves garlic, chopped
    1.5 tsp salt
    1.5 tsp black pepper
    1 tsp smoked paprika
    1 tbsp white wine vinegar
    Olive or sunflower seed oil

    1. In a medium saucepan, sauté the onions and garlic in oil until soft. Add the spices and vinegar and mix in thoroughly.
    2. Add the tomatoes and mix in thoroughly. Bring to a boil, then simmer for five minutes.

 

The author would like to thank Jeremy Swack for being an excellent sous-chef during the testing of this recipe.

Another Secretly Jewish Dish: Spinaci con Passerine / Spinach with Raisins

Spinach with raisins and pine nuts!
Spinach with raisins and pine nuts! Photo mine, February 2016.

One thing I think we who are interested in Jewish food forget is that Jews themselves have heavily influenced “non-Jewish cuisines.” From cocido in Spain to the existence of dishes like kugelis in Lithuania, Jews have left their mark on so much of European and North African cuisine. In a day and age in which a certain sort of nationalist particularism determines culinary tradition – and that of Jews too – this sort of history is often forgotten. Many a “traditional” Jewish dish, I have noted here thus far, is not so Jewish – but many a “gentile” dish is! This delicacy – spinach with raisins, or spinaci con passerine – is one such dish. Though often considered an Italian specialty, this delightful vegetable medley has deep Jewish roots.

The recipe seems classically “Mediterranean,” but it is so precisely because of Jews. The fact that this dish is eaten in Italy, in Greece, and in Spain is traceable directly to the migration of Catalan Jews following the Inquisition in 1492 – and with the memories of Spain (often longed for alongside or more than the Holy Land) and the Ladino language, Sephardim brought culinary traditions with them to their new countries. Spinach with raisins was not the only dish that travelled: Mark Mazower notes that in the 20th century, Spanish Christian travelers in Greece were stunned to find Sephardim in Greece exchanging membrillo, quince paste, four hundred years after expulsion from Spain. Yet in the discussions of “Mediterranean” cooking, the role of diaspora – especially Jewish, but also Greek and Lebanese and Roma – seems to be forgotten.

I have written out the recipe here with two options: pine nuts and sunflower seeds. I strongly suggest that you use the former; the latter is an option in the case of nut allergies. I have also adjusted the spicing a little – I find that the black pepper really brings out the sweetness of the raisins. Enjoy!

Spinaci con Passerine / Spinach With Raisins

Based on recipes by Janet Amateau and Joyce Goldstein

2 tbsp raisins

1 small-to-medium onion, chopped

2 tbsp pine nuts or shelled sunflower seeds – roasted or unroasted

1 tsp ground salt

½ tsp ground black pepper

½ tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar

1 pound fresh spinach, lightly chopped

2 tbsp water

 

2 tbsp olive oil for frying

  1. Soak the raisins in hot water for 15 minutes to plump them up and make them less dry. Drain and set aside.
  2. Heat a wide skillet, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and pine nuts/sunflower seeds and sauté until the onions are slightly soft. Use a sturdy spoon.
  3. Add the raisins and spices and mix in thoroughly. Add the vinegar and continue to sauté until the onions are very soft and just beginning to brown.
  4. Add the spinach a fistful at a time and mix thoroughly with the onions. Add the water once all spinach is added and mix in.
  5. Keep sautéing as you move the mixture around the pan quickly – the spinach cooks rapidly, so quick movement allows for even cooking.
  6. When the spinach is soft and has wilted, remove the skillet form the heat. Serve warm or at room temperature – though I should note that the former is far better.

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!