I needed a quick, but tasty vegetable dish for Simchat Torah, so I turned to an old favorite, guvetch. (Technically, it was a yahni, but most Romanians subsume all of the various vegetable stews under guvetch.) Although many versions call for eggplant, we had none in the house and actually didn’t miss it. I threw together some red peppers, carrots, green squash, kohlrabi, tomatoes, and onions, sprinkled in a little salt and dash of olive oil, simmered it atop the stove until the carrots were tender (about 30 minutes), then stuck the pot on the platta (large heating plate) until dinner. Little fuss or muss. The results were sweet and delicious. My mother kept asking me what spices I added, but besides the salt none. The cooking caramelized the sugar in the vegetables, while the juice from the vegetables melds, producing a succulent dish.
Types of earthenware pots typified Near Eastern cooking throughout much of the Biblical and Talmudic periods when these vessels were arranged over horseshoe-shaped clay stands with the kindling underneath lit through the opening. The Turks adopted various clay utensils, slow cooking pieces of meat and vegetables, either over a fire or in a pit oven, becoming a preferred approach of Ottoman cuisine. As new produce arrived in the Near East, such as eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, Turkish cooks readily included them into these stews. During centuries of occupation of the Balkans, the Turks introduced their slow-cooked vegetable stews as well as many of the ingredients common to them to that region, including the rustic baked djuvec, named after the thick-based, thin straight-sided earthenware vessel, appearing similar to a flower pot, in which it was cooked and frequently served. In Romania and Bulgaria, the dish was pronounced guvetch, also variously spelled ghiveci, ghivetch, guvec, and yuvetch, and quickly became a staple, ranking among the most popular of foods. Similar ragouts are common throughout the former Ottoman Empire and adjacent areas, including the Sephardic khandrajo (“rags” in Ladino), the Greek briami, and the Provencal ratatouille (derived from touiller, from the Latin tudiculare, meaning “to stir” or “crush”). Nonetheless, ratatouille arrived in that region relatively late in history, first recorded in the early twentieth century, while eggplant stews were already mentioned in Turkey in the fourteenth century.
When baked uncovered in the oven, the stew is a guvetch, while a covered baked stew is technically a kapama, from the Turkish kapamak (to cover). A yahni or yachni, similarly named after a Persian earthenware vessel in which it was originally cooked, entails covering the pot and stewing over a fire. A little water is added to uncovered stews, while no water is used when cooked covered. In eastern Turkey, Armenia, and parts of Greece, a synonym for guvetch is known as a turlu, from the Turkish for “mixture,” although some cooks contend that turlu should never contain eggplant, while others insist it should have pieces of mutton. Sephardim in Turkey typically cooked turlu in an oya, the Ladino for olla, a Spanish squat, rounded, wide-mouth earthenware pot.
As with most plebeian dishes, there is no definitive recipe. However, to be authentic, guvetch must contain a selection of vegetables and be slow cooked, the contents varying based upon personal preference, habit, and availability. A guvetch can be made with a few or more than twenty vegetables. Frequently, leftover vegetables and soup went into a guvetch. Most vegetable stews are actually better when made in large quantities and frequently when reheated the next day, the flavors having an opportunity to meld and mellow. Middle Eastern vegetable stews tend to be cooked until all the ingredients are very soft; any sign of crispness is a sign of a bad cook. Stews containing summer vegetables — eggplants, green beans, okra, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini — are a guvetch yaz (summer stew). Guvetch de riz is cooked with rice. Those predominantly made with winter squash and various root vegetables — carrots, celeriac, potatoes, and turnips — are called guvetch kis. Other commonly added items include cabbage, leeks, lima beans, mushrooms, potatoes, and even sour grapes. Jewish versions tend to be vegetarian. Although an earthenware pot enhances and contributes to the flavor of the stew, it can be cooked in any oven-proof vessel or simmered in a pot. The flavors develop and meld during the long baking period. Seasonings in these stews are generally rather mild, the essential flavor derived from the combination of vegetables and the cooking process, not any specific content. Characteristic of Romanian cookery, there must be garlic and plenty of it, sometimes both minced and whole. Turks generally add a little lemon juice. Romanians brought guvetch to Israel where it is now commonly sold in containers in most supermarkets. But it is so easy to make at home, and tasty, and a great way to use those vegetables in the refrigerator, that I don’t know why more non-Romanians don’t do it.
Romanian Vegetable Stew (Guvetch) P
(6 to 8 servings as a side dish)
2 cups (14 ounces) peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped plum tomatoes
4 medium onions, sliced
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound green beans, trimmed, or 1 pound okra, trimmed
4 small green or yellow squash or any combination, cut into chunks
2 medium green bell peppers, seeded and sliced
2 medium red bell peppers, seeded and sliced
4 to 8 whole cloves garlic
1 to 2 large carrots, sliced (optional)
1 small head cauliflower, cut into florets (optional)
About 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
Ground black pepper to taste
½ cup vegetable stock or water
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
In a large pot, combine all of the ingredients. Cover and simmer over a low heat until the vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes. Or bake at 350 degrees, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender and most of the liquid evaporates, about 1½ hours. Serve warm, at room temperature, or slightly chilled.
Romanian Baked Vegetable Stew (Kapama): Omit the water. Cover the casserole with aluminum foil and bake in a 350-degree oven until tender, about 1½ hours. Or use the water, and sprinkle the bottom layer of tomatoes with ¾ cup long-grain rice.
Greek Vegetable Stew (Yachni de Verduras): Reduce the garlic to 1 to 2 minced cloves and the water to ¼ cup. Add 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or 2 teaspoons dried oregano. In Step 5, stir together all the ingredients, cover, and simmer over very low heat until tender, about 40 minutes.
I like to plan out each holiday and Sabbath meal well in advance. Of course, nothing runs that smoothly. Many of the dishes I prepared this Sukkot at my parents’ home in Israel were standards, such as brisket, stuffed cabbage, scalloped potatoes, and yellow rice, which have staying power, but I can also make extra portions to freeze for meals further down the line on Sukkot and for when holiday guests stop by. Other dishes, however, were a matter of what produce was available in the house and what struck my fancy.
My mother had some interesting vegetables in her refrigerator, including some young Russian red kale, and I decided to fix them as a stir-fry. In the mixture I also sliced some carrots, bell peppers, a kohlrabi, a few green squash, onions, and scallions. I had a sweet-and-sour sauce with a touch of chilies, so I stirred in a little. The result was quite refreshing and tasty. And it held up well on the platta until Friday night dinner.
When my mother’s chicken soup ended up locked in a neighbor’s freezer and they forgot to share the key before leaving for the weekend, I found four leeks and 2 small fennel bulbs, which I simmered with a diced potato for extra texture, then threw in a splash of olive oil and fresh lemon juice. I served it hot with soft matza balls intended for the chicken soup. The result was delicious, if I do say so myself, sort of like a vegetarian chicken soup.
To be sure, I crumbled up tofu into my noodle kugel (one batch made three kugels covering three meals). But I frequently substitute tofu for cheese in a noodle kugel, then throw in some chopped apples and apricots. So this was no spur of the moment impulse.
Some of the world’s best foods were created by accident. Chocolate chip cookies are now big business in the United States, but its origins is rather humble, the result of a fortuitous accident. Ruth Graves Wakefield (1903-1977) spent several years as a dietitian after graduating the Framingham State Normal School in the Department of Household Arts. Then in 1930, Ruth and her husband Kenneth purchased a toll house (built in 1709) in Whitman, Massachusetts, halfway between Boston and New Bedford. The couple opened a lodge, naming it the Toll House Inn. Soon thereafter (I don’t think it’s too early to start considering a centennial memorial for this major culinary birth), Ruth was whipping up a batch of “Butter Drop Do” cookies.
Amelia Simmons in American Cookery (Hartford: 1796), the first cookbook written by an American, included the original colonial recipe for making this dish. “Butter drop do. Rub one quarter of a pound butter, one pound sugar, sprinkled with mace, into one pound and a quarter flour, add four eggs, one glass rose water, bake as No. 1 [i.e. ‘shape it to your fancy, bake 15 minutes’].”
At the last minute, after already preparing the dough, Wakefield decided to make the cookies chocolate. However, she did not have any baking chocolate on hand. In desperation, she added chopped pieces of semisweet chocolate expecting that they would melt and mix with the dough. Much to her amazement and the delight of subsequent generations, the chocolate pieces remained intact. The result was what she initially called “chocolate crispies” and what is now the most popular of all cookies. Wakefield did not even like her discovery that much, but her employees did and continued to make them. Of such lucky mishaps are great ideas often born — as was a new form of chocolate, scored bars meant to be broken for this increasingly popular cookie.
After Nestle’s began marketing her chocolate chip recipe to the public, Wakefield published her original recipe in a book Toll House Tried and True Recipes (New York: M, Barrows & Company, 1936).
Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies
Cream 1 cup butter, add ¾ cup brown sugar, ¾ cup granulated sugar and 2 eggs beaten whole. Dissolve 1 tsp. soda in 1 tsp. hot water, and mix alternately with 2¼ cups flour sifted with 1 tsp. salt. Lastly add 1 cup chopped nuts and 2 bars (7-oz.) Nestles yellow label chocolate, semi-sweet, which has been cut in pieces the size of a pea. Flavor with 1 tsp vanilla and drip half teaspoons on a greased cookie sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes in 375 degrees F. Oven. Makes 100 cookies.”
Note that the recipe is not yet called “chocolate chip” and it calls for cutting up chocolate bars, as the book was printed before the advent of chocolate chips. In 1939 Nestle purchased the Toll House name and began producing small chocolate morsels that we now call chips as well as creating its standard name. In 1985 a fire laid waste to the Toll House Inn, but its most famous product lives on.
To be sure, none of my serendipitous holiday dishes in any way approach a chocolate chip cookie in impact or durability. Still, I generally take a little more satisfaction with my accidental holiday dishes than the standard fare, as they are a matter of artistic license and most will never be seen again. Oh, and this year I did make a double batch of chocolate chip mandelbrot, for which I can thank Ruth Wakefield.
I occasionally discover new food bloggers when I get quoted and the Google alert appears. Some bloggers (obviously my favorites and I’m always appreciative) quote me on a regular basis, while others much less so. In any case, we all share a passion for food, which comes through in our work. Rarely, do I get a chance to actually meet people from the blogosphere in person and never before have I met with a large assemblage of them. But this past week, a group of twelve Israeli food bloggers and I had dinner and discussions at the Eucalyptus Restaurant in Jerusalem, all arranged by Shira Kallus Zwebner (i.e. kosherfoodie on Twitter).
More on the dinner and participants in a moment, but first let me regale you with tales of my harrowing adventures going and coming. I took a bus into the city, then hailed a cab on the street, who would not admit that he did not know where the restaurant’s new location was, but instead dropped me near the Montifiore Restaurant adjacent to the windmill. I wandered for a while and to make matters worse, I stopped to ask three different police officers for directions, and each pointed me in the wrong direction, until I ended up back at the windmill. Fortunately, I had a cell phone (thank you Israel for another great invention) and Shira’s cell number. I finally returned to the Montifiore Restaurant, where a waiter kindly called a cab, who actually did know where he was going and dropped me off in the right place. So I arrived nearly half an hour late, which was not a conspicuous way to begin an evening, as I am not the type that likes to be fashionably late.
Leaving also proved to be an adventure. I received a ride to my bus stop from Yael from Modiin, who was as unfamiliar with driving in the narrow streets of Jerusalem as I. As we tried to leave the parking lot, we discovered that the narrow dead-end street was illegally parked on both sides by drivers heading to the nearby Kotel. Yet cars were still attempting to move in both directions. Several small cars managed to squeak by in the other direction, but then facing us was a large Chrysler van and there was no way either of us could pass. Yael tried backing up a little, but behind us was a line of cars also trying to get out. Finally, the three or more cars heading in the opposite direction in front of us realized that it was they who had to move and retreated, including the massive van. We inched ahead passing the cars illegally parked on both sides and finally made it out, without giving or receiving a scratch. I got to the Tunnel Junction around midnight, well after the last bus to Alon Shvut had passed. Fortunately, the second car that drove by was a young guy heading to Alon Shvut, so I made it home by 12:30. Whew!
Anyway, back to the main event. It was a very diverse group of people from as far away as Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv: religious and non-religious, former Americans and native Israelis, those who are great cooks and others who remain less than adept in the kitchen. What we all shared was a love for food and, in particular, for Jewish food.
Here are my new friends, in no particular order other than their position around the table:
Shira Kallus Zwebner
Katherine Martinelli www.katherinemartinelli.com
Liz Steinberg cafeliz Israeli food blog food.lizsteinberg.com
Ariella Darsa Amshalem www.aricooks.wordpress.com
Michelle Kemp-Nordell and her husband David www.baronesstapuzina.com
Miriam Kresh www.israelikitchen.com
Sarah Melamed foodbridge www.sarahmelamed.com
Yael Ruder @ Hope It Will Rain www.yaelruder.blogspot.com
Hannah Katsman www.cookingmanager.com
Mirjam Weiss www.miriyummy.wordpress.com
(If I omitted anyone, please forgive me and let me know.)
For those of you unfamiliar with Eucalyptus Restaurant and its dynamic owner Moshe Basson, he is from an Iraqi family, and his parents opened a bakery in the village of Beit Safafa. Local Arab women (older housewives are always the best source to learn the foods and culinary traditions of any community) would come to use the bakery oven, as in Iraq, and he was exposed to both their dishes as well as the wild edible plants they used in them. Moshe is particularly passionate about indigenous plants and foods of the Levant. He even won the International Couscous Competition in Italy in 1999.
I have dined at Basson’s restaurants before, so I knew what to expect. He loves wild native plants and herbs, especially za’atar, sumac, Israeli sage, and hubeza, which star and sparkle in his dishes. Among his signature dishes are stuffed figs in tamarind sauce (recipe follows); a tasting of three soups, red lentil, Jerusalem artichoke, and his mother’s tomato soup (it was my favorite of the trio); charred eggplant in tahina and pomegranate sauce; kofta (veal meatballs); stuffed hubeza or grape leaves; and, of course, couscous with vegetable and chickpeas (the latter, when made with 7 symbolic elements is actually a traditional Moroccan Rosh Hashanah dish). The highlight of Basson’s meals is the makluba (a local upside down rice and chicken casserole originally derived from the Persian polo, also the source of the Western pilaf). Moshe prodded me to dress in apron and funny hat to unveil the evening’s makluba, and there are now pictures out there to prove it.
Besides those disturbing photos now out there on the internet, the evening’s only problem was that it was far too short. I do hope to be able to spend more time in the future with the group. All too frequently when I get started talking about food, people’s eyes start to glaze over, so it’s always refreshing to be around others who share my interest. And it’s always nice to hear how appreciated and used the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food and Olive Trees and Honey have become. I don’t become tired of hearing people admit how they use my books as a resource.
If I could encourage others to do anything, it would be to preserve copies of recipes of traditional family foods. All too frequently and tragically, these dishes don’t pass from one generation to the next. So get your grandmothers, aunts, and mother and wrangle these details from them while you can, even if it means catching their “pinch of this” or “handful of that” in a cup and measuring it. Then after securing these treasures, pass them around to your family and post them on the internet. These recipes are a part of Jewish history and should rightfully be preserved for all to enjoy and learn. They are a taste, literally and figuratively, of our past and hopefully future as well.
Moshe Basson’s Stuffed Figs
12 fresh or dried figs
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 chicken breast (about 1 pound), coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seed
salt to taste
½ cup strained tamarind paste or ¼ cup pomegranate molasses
½ cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
salt to taste
1. To make the filling: In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil, add the onion, and sauté until soft and light golden, about 10 minutes. Add the chicken and half the quantity of each spice. Stir until the chicken loses its raw color, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool. Do not wash the pan.
2. To make the sauce: Into the same skillet, put the tamarind paste, water, sugar, remaining spices, and salt. Stir well and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and stir until it is smooth, velvety. Set aside.
3. To prepare the figs: If using fresh figs, make an incision into the upper third of the fig, making sure you do not cut through so that the fig can be reassembled after stuffing. With a small spoon or melon baller, scoop out the fig flesh. Add half of it to the sauce and half to the chicken mixture. If using dried figs, use your fingers to create a cavity in the center of the fig.
4. To assemble: Stuff the cavity of the figs with the chicken mixture. Put the stuffed figs into the prepared sauce in the skillet, cover and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 15 minutes. Garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds.
For a vegetarian version, substitute a combination of button and oyster mushrooms for the chicken.
A more elaborate version is made with stuffed onions and stuffed small eggplants.
I cooked for the family for Rosh Hashanah, including my parents, a brother and one of his daughters, Tehillah, and, for one meal, a sister and one of her sons and family came. Various friends and friends of friends came to various meals as well. All the dishes were praised and heartily consumed, but one of my improvised salads was a particularly popular hit, quinoa salad with pomegranate seeds and fresh mint. These two foods, quinoa from South America and pomegranates, possibly a native of central Asia, came together in a refreshing and healthy salad.
More than 5,000 years ago, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah and meaning “mother grain” in Incan) was cultivated in the Andean highlands. This pseudo-grain (technically, quinoa is the fruit of a leafy plant, not a seed of cereal grasses, but it is treated like a grain) became of such importance to the Incas that they considered it sacred. At the beginning of the growing season, the emperor himself would dig the first shovelful of earth with a golden spade and plant the first quinoa. The Spanish leader Francisco Pizarro, however, viewed this unfamiliar grain as a component of paganism and was determined to exterminate it (and quite a few human beings as well). Even the mere possession of this pre-Columbian grain was declared a crime. In place of quinoa, the Spanish planted the more familiar barley, in order to produce beer, and wheat. Only in the remote highlands far from the reach of the conquistadors did quinoa survive. In the late 20th century, as botanists searched for specially nutritious grains to help feed the masses, quinoa was rediscovered by the world.
This pre-Columbian pseudo grain, there are actually more than 1,800 varieties, is prized as a source of nutrition. Quinoa is the only “grain” that contains complete protein as well as a highest protein content (about 17 percent) than any grain. It is also high in thiamine, iron, phosphorus, lysine, and vitamin B-6. Among quinoa’s other attributes is that it flourishes in harsh environments and requires no insecticides since the grains are coated by saponins which naturally repel birds and insects. The quinoa, however, should be well rinsed before cooking since the saponin is bitter.
The primary way to prepare quinoa is to simmer it in water. The germ, located on the outside of the grain, splits when cooked, but the grain retains a crunch. In South America, it is also ground and used to make tortillas.
I first discovered quinoa back in the late 1980s during my days at Kosher Gourmet magazine, when some friends at Eden Foods sent me some packages of this then new item in America with which to experiment. I have been a big fan ever since. But I have never paired it with pomegranate before. As I was preparing the holiday dishes and thinking of some healthy sides (to compensate for some of the carbohydrates) and I was seeding a pomegranate (it really isn’t hard if you know how) and I thought why not. Both of these ancient foods, quinoa and pomegranates, have only recently become fashionable items in America and now East meets West. My mother had just gotten some fresh mint from her CSA and it went in too and added an extra note of flavor to the dish without overpowering it.
Quinoa salad is extremely adaptable, so adjust the ingredients to your preferences and what’s in your pantry. You can substitute any fruit, including apples and pears, for the pomegranate.
1 cup (240 ml) raw quinoa = 6 ounces/170 grams
= 2.75 cups (675 ml) cooked
1 cup (240 ml) cooked quinoa = 7.1 ounces/210 grams
= 171 calories
(6 to 8 servings as a side dish)
1 cup (240 ml) quinoa
2 cups (480 ml) water or chicken broth
Pinch of salt
3 to 4 tablespoons (45 to 60 ml) fresh lemon or lime juice or balsamic vinegar
About ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) salt
Ground black pepper to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons (30 to 45 ml) olive, nut, or vegetable oil
¼ cup (60 ml) pomegranate seeds
¼ cup (60 ml) golden raisins, chopped dried apricots, or dried cranberries
¼ cup (60 ml) chopped fresh mint or parsley
¼ cup (60 ml) sliced scallions
1. Cover the quinoa with cold water, swirl, and drain through a fine strainer. Repeat.
2. In a medium saucepan, bring the water and a pinch of salt to a boil. Add the quinoa, return to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed (about 18 minutes). Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Transfer the quinoa to a medium bowl.
3. To make the dressing: Combine the lemon juice, zest, salt, and pepper. Whisk in the oil. Drizzle over the warm quinoa and toss to coat. Stir in the pomegranate seeds, raisins, mint, and scallions. The salad may be prepared up to 2 days ahead and stored in the refrigerator. Serve at room temperature.
On Monday evening September 19, I participated in a special program for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). Held in the Baka section of Jerusalem in the home kitchen of one of the IAEJ board members and in front of 60 paying guests and five Ethiopian staff members, I prepared a vegetarian wot (stew) and discussed Ethiopian history, culture, and cookery. In addition, there was injera (Ethiopian pancake breads made from teff grains and with an interesting sour flavor), a lentil stew, and various Ethiopian snacks, such as roasted chickpeas and popcorn. And there was a pot of iab (pronounced ive), an Ethiopian curd cheese that helps moot the chilies common to many Ethiopian dishes (more on this later). A fun time was had by all. I was especially appreciative that the Ethiopians all agreed that my wot was authentic and among the best-tasting they had had. Some commented on how I helped explain the logic of their cookery. I was one small part of a wider effort to bring Ethiopians into the Israeli mainstream and for Israel to finally accept and appreciate as equals their Ethiopian citizens. (Considering that the Euro-centric Israeli Ashkenazic power structure — including the media, academia, courts, and much of the defense establishment – still looks down upon Sephardim and Mizrachim, uplifting the status of Ethiopians is no small task.) I view Klal Yisrael as a mosaic of Jewish cultures from around the world, each as valid and integral as the others.
My friend Chava, who was my first assistant editor when I started Kosher Gourmet magazine, is currently Resource Development Director of IAEJ. (Here’s their English site: http://iaej-english.org/ ) Together with executive director Ziva Mekonen-Degu, we developed my program. After all, what touches a community, both everyday life and periods of celebrations, more than food. Food carries history; food carries culture. By getting a taste of a community’s food, you get a literal and figurative taste of that culture. So food is one way, certainly a most enjoyable way, to learn about and experience the Ethiopian community.
For more than two millennia, the land lying to the west of the Red Sea served as home to a group of black Jews known to the Ethiopians by the derogatory term of Falasha (“wanderers” in Ge’ez), but calling themselves Beta Israel (“House of Israel”). Although several medieval Jewish travelers mentioned black Jews living in eastern Africa, the Western world only confirmed their existence in a 1790 report by the Scottish explorer James Bruce. Most scholars believe that the Beta Israel are descendants of native Agau tribes converted to Judaism by contact with Jews living in Arabia or by Jewish refugees who arrived in the area by way of either Egypt or Arabia following the destruction of the First Temple. The Beta Israel maintained their independence and their own kings and queens until being defeated in the 1620s by Emperor Susenyos. It was the intersession of the Portuguese at that time that finally led to a shift in the balance of power. (Pointedly, this transformation occurred just two decades before the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648 decimated Polish Jewry and transformed it from one of wealth and education to poverty and persecution.) The Beta Israel were then banished to the Gondar region adjacent to the Sudanese border and Lake Tana, the source of the Nile River, and subjected to centuries of persecution and aggressive proselytizing efforts.
Before 1977, Ethiopian culture and cookery was obscure to those outside that country. Then during the following thirteen years, more than 40,000 Beta Israel were relocated to Israel, making their ancient traditions accessible to outsiders. Today, the Beta Israel community in the Holy Land comprises more than 250,000 members and Ethiopian restaurants are found in some cities.
There are numerous misconceptions about Ethiopian cookery in particular and Ethiopian culture in general. During the course of the evening, IAEJ and myself helped to dissuade some of those misconceptions through exposure to the culture and foods.
One of the men present mentioned that he thought of Ethiopian food as bland, like that of nearby Kenya. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be sure, Ethiopian cookery is simple and based on poverty food, but it is anything but bland. Of even like that of any neighboring African countries. And simple is not bad. Indeed any good chef will tell you that overcomplicated food is bad. The key to any good cooking is to let the fresh natural ingredients shine.
Ethiopia, unlike the rest of Africa, was never fully colonized by Europeans (the brief Italian period did not impact the local culture) and, therefore, the area’s cookery evidences none of the European influences. (Try to think of Moroccan or Tunisian cooking without French or Libyan without Italian.) Ethiopians, no matter their social status or class, ate the same foods, although the richer might enjoy more and better quality meat. Ethiopians traditionally ate two major meals each day — breakfast and dinner. In between, they snacked on roasted corn kernels, roasted peas and chickpeas, and seeds. Legumes serve as the base of many dishes. The principal vegetables are the traditional cabbage, carrots, collard, lettuce, and onions and those introduced from America corn, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes. Chilies, garlic and mushrooms help to enhance dishes. Onions are essential, uniquely first cooked without any fat, which helps them to better break down during cooking to thicken and flavor the sauce.
There is not a lot of variety in Ethiopian ingredients, but each item taste quite different even when using the same spices. Ethiopian cooking is both spicy and fiery, the latter produced by chilies and particularly berbere, an essential homemade chili powder used as a condiment. Mixing the powder with a little oil and tej (honey wine) and allowing the mixture to ferment produces a hot sauce called awaze, used as a condiment. Every Ethiopian household maintains a jar of berbere and/or awaze, often homemade from a time-honored recipe. Ethiopian spice mixtures –- typically cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger and turmeric — reflect Arabic and Indian influences, the result of millennia of trade. When most Westerners first taste an Ethiopian dish, it reminds them of the cooking of southern India. Since most Ethiopian meals were vegetarian, clarified butter, and typically plenty of it, was common to many dishes, while iab accompanied and ended most meals. Butter is made from ergo (fermented whole milk).
In Ethiopia, they lived in tukuls (mud-and-straw huts). Typically, diners sat on stools around six to eight inches high or on the floor around a low round wicker table. The two principal Ethiopian dishes, around which all meals revolve, are injera (a thin batter bread made from teff grains) and a thick vegetable or legume-based stew, prepared in spicy/fiery versions made with berbere called wot and milder ones known as alicha. The injera batter, prepared by frying on round terra cotta trays and skillets, was typically made in large batches to be stored for up to a week in woven grass sacks. Several thin, large gray injera are stacked on a communal tray and the wot, cooked salads, and legumes then spooned in sections on top. Each person, using their right hand, pulls off a small piece of injera while scooping up some of the food, then folds it between their fingers to eat. The tart, spongy injera complements with spicy-fiery stew. Coffee, native to Ethiopia, is typically served at the end of the meal. There is no dessert.
In the impoverished Ethiopian communities, meat was generally reserved for special occasions; cooked meat dishes subsumed under the category of tib. Chicken, the predominant meat, was occasionally prepared by roasting over an open flame, a dish usually reserved for the Sabbath. Goats and sheep were raised for meat and wool, while most dairy products were produced from cow’s milk. Livestock was ritually slaughtered by the local kes (priest), then salted and rinsed to make kosher. Fresh-water fish from local streams and lakes were enjoyed when available.
The Sanbat (Sabbath) is a very special part of the Ethiopian Jew’s week. The meals were prepared in advance with everything ready before sundown on Friday and all dishes served at room temperature. At Sabbath meals, the Beta Israel serve honey-wheat bread cut into slices called dabos. Aspecila treat was a salad made from pieces of dabos and iab. Even those who cannot afford it during the week, make a special effort to have a little chicken or meat in their Sabbath wots. Ethiopian Jews lacked wine and, therefore, for Kiddush used tallah, a grain alcohol-based drink similar to beer and fermented by gesho leaves. An amber-colored spirit similar to mead is made from tedj (honey). A unique festival of the Beta Israel is the Sigd, which, thanks to the efforts of IAEJ, is now recognized as an official holiday in Israel.
IAEJ, founded in 1993, is dedicated to advocacy among national and regional decision-makers. IAEJ gives voice to the needs of the Ethiopian-Israeli community to advance wiser, more effective and more efficient policies in the spheres of education, employment, housing and community empowerment.
In February 2011, IAEJ advocacy led to a unanimous Israeli Knesset decision to extend the affirmative action policy in national civil service posts (achieved in 2007) to regional government offices and state-owned companies.
In February 2011, IAEJ advocacy led to the repeal of a discriminatory housing policy which limited Ethiopian-Israelis to utilizing mortgage grants only at designated addresses, often in unsuitable high-risk neighborhoods. IAEJ was subsequently invited to participate in revising more constructive guidelines for mortgage grants.
In May 2011, a study commissioned by IAEJ revealed steep gaps in educational achievements between Ethiopian-Israelis and the general Jewish population. The data commissioned by IAEJ led the Ministry of Education to decide to evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs under its auspices. The Ministry will also increase the number of educational hours allocated to Ethiopian immigrants (during the first six years they are residing in Israel).
In June 2011, IAEJ-together with young Ethiopian-Israeli activists (“Mateh Hamaavak LeShivion Hevrati LeYotzei Ethiopia”)—won a precedent setting decision made by Israel’s High Court. The Court found that that key provisions of the Israeli government’s 2008 “Five Year Plan” to advance Ethiopian-Israelis were not implemented-including allocations in the amount of NIS 100 million. IAEJ took on a two year legal struggle (supported by volunteer attorneys) and made the case to Israel’s High Court that the funding be restored. In its June 2011 decision, the High Court ruled that the NIS 100 million allocation be disbursed in keeping with the original plan. The High Court ruling also requires the government to extend the Five Year Plan through 2014 and to reserve 1,000 mortgage grants to young Ethiopian-Israelis to be utilized through 2015. IAEJ will monitor the implementation of this ruling-as part of its broader aim to assure that programs and funding intended to advance Ethiopian-Israelis are properly implemented.
Oh, here is the stew I prepared that evening. To turn it into a wot, add 2 to 4 tablespoons (30 to 60 ml) ground dried red chilies:
Ethiopian Vegetable Stew (Tikil Gomen Alicha)
(5 to 6 servings)
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons (45 ml) vegetable oil
1 pound carrots, cut into ¼ inch slices (3 large/455 grams)
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
About 1 cup (240 ml) water
1 pound small potatoes, cut into ¼ inch slices or quartered (about 6/454 grams)
1 to 2 small green chilies, seeded and sliced (optional)
About 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
About ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) ground black pepper
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground cinnamon or coriander
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon (.625 ml) ground cloves
1 tablespoon (15 ml) tomato paste (optional)
1 pound (455 grams) green cabbage, sliced, 1 bunch chard, sliced, or 1 pound green beans
1. In a dry large skillet, cook the onions, stirring constantly, over medium heat until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes.
2. Add the oil. When the oil begins to sputter, add the carrots and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add ½ cup water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and, for a more fiery stew, chilies, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes.
3. Stir in the salt, pepper, spices, and, if using, tomato paste. Add the cabbage and remaining ½ cup water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender-crisp, about 20 minutes. If the cooking liquid reduces too much, add a little more water and continue cooking. Serve warm or at room temperature with injera or various flat breads and, if desired, yogurt or lab (Ethiopian cheese spread).
Ethiopian Gingered Vegetable Stew (Yataklete Alicha): Omit the turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, ground ginger, and cloves and add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) minced fresh ginger with the garlic.
On my recent flight from NYC to Israel, the breakfast was nearly inedible. The omelet felt like leather and tasted worse and the bagel was so soft and sweet it was simply a roll with a hole in the middle. But what particularly irked me was the small container of yogurt. (Or maybe it was that dreadful excuse for a bagel.) I fondly remember when Dannon first appeared in the American mainstream back in the 1970s. To be sure, some whey would separate from the yogurt and it would sometimes be a bit lumpy when stirred, but it was essentially pure milk with, for flavored, types, some sugar. No longer.
Americans tend to take things to extremes. We miniaturize foods and gianticize (ok, I just coined this term) them. Look at bagels. The typical nineteenth century European bagel weighed one and a half ounces. When Lender’s entered the frozen bagel business, the size had grown to 2 ounces, and today 3 ounces is the norm for frozen, while fresh bagels tend to weigh 4 to 4.5 ounces. On the other hand, Lender’s also produces a line of miniature bagels for quick bites or hors d’oeuvres. Today, the original bagel cutters of the 1970s, developed to prevent neophytes from cutting their hand and geared to a 3-inch bagel, no long fit the massive 5- to 6-inch versions. I don’t mind the size difference, but the flavor and texture of contemporary bagels is another thing. I was recently in Montreal, a city appropriately proud of its bagel heritage, and it was gratifying to taste some real boiled bagels for a change. Steaming instead of boiling bagels results in a softer, less chewy inside and less crusty exterior. Some manufactures don’t even bother to even steam them. Many add prodigious amounts of sugar and fat, resulting in nauseatingly cloying and fluffy bread. Ok, they don’t have to be hockey pucks, but fluffy crosses the line.
And don’t get me started about the lack of flavor and texture in the produce sold in American stores, all of it selected for shipping and storage. Last week, my parents’ Israeli CSA (community supported agriculture) – Chubeza. (http://www.chubeza.com/english.html), an organic farm consisting of two acres on Moshav Kfar Ben-Nun situated between Latrun and Ramla – included corn on the cob in the weekly delivery. Let me tell, you that was the most flavorful, succulent corn I ever tasted. I ate three cobs for Shabbat dinner. You can also taste the difference in the other CSA items, none of them grown for shipping and storage. If you are fortunate enough to live near a CSA, and by now most of you are, then I strongly suggest you give it a try. Yes, you will be delivered some items that will appear foreign to many. But chard and fresh beets and tomatoes that don’t taste like the packaging they come in will enrich your palate and health. (And chard and beet greens, the Talmudic silka, are also traditional Rosh Hashanah foods.)
American business has a way of taking healthy or relatively healthy items and transforming them into standardized dreck. Look at most breakfast cereals, which are so filled of sugar and sprayed with various vitamins that basically pass through the human body. We might as well be feeding our kids cookies for breakfast. (Some of these monstrosities are actually cookies.) And look what they’ve done to yogurt.
Yogurt has been a part of the Middle Eastern diet for 6,000 years. Originally created when milk was accidentally fermented, thereby resulting in curdling, yogurt has a pleasantly tart flavor. The direct ancestor of today’s yogurt was probably created by accident when two equal amounts of benign bacteria, now the characterizing bacterial culture, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, came in contact with and coagulated a batch of milk in a particular animal skin bag. In the Middle East yogurt is also made from sheep’s milk, which produces a thicker yogurt than cow’s milk.
Fresh yogurt contains billions of live cells per milliliter, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, thereby keeping the milk safe for several days. Cultured milk products are based on the microbial conversion of the milk-sugar lactose into lactic acid in a warm environment, which produces the characteristic ‘sourness’ or ‘tanginess’ of these products as well as inhibits the growth of food-poisoning bacteria. Besides lactic acid, other by-products of bacterial fermentation are acetic acid, acetaldehyde, and dacetyl, each contributing to yogurt’s taste and texture. The growth of lactic acid reduces the pH of the milk, destabilizing the micellar casein, resulting in the coagulation of the milk. When the desired pH (4.1 to 4.6) has been reached, the product is cooled to slow the fermentation.
From a few simple ingredients, the label on the airline yogurt container read: “Cultured pasteurized Grade A nonfat milk, modified cornstarch, whey, potassium sorbate (for freshness), gellan gum, tricalcacium phosphate, Vitamin D3.” But a thicker, whey- and lump-free yogurt was not worth the artificial flavor that left a harshness on the back of my palate. And there are actually worse violators of yogurt out there. Some contain gelatin and numerous preservatives. Too many brands lack any active yogurt cultures.
Yet, on the other hand, there is another major trend in yogurt today – Greek yogurt. It is made by straining the whey from regular yogurt, which results in a thicker, creamier product. (Without adding starches, gums, and other thickeners and stabilizers.) Avoid “Greek-style” yogurts, which contain the nefarious thickening agents. Greek yogurt has twice the protein (about 20 grams per ¾ cup/175 grams) of regular yogurt and only 10 to 20 more calories. So far, Greek yogurts all contain active cultures and, since it is more concentrated, more probiotics than regular yogurt. The price, alas, is double or more that of regular yogurt, although that has started to fall as the competition heats up.
This type, not native or exclusive to Greece (strained yogurt would be more accurate, if less prosaic), emerged from Chobani (an American company founded by a Turk who launched his Greek yogurt in 2007) and Fage (a Greek company, which established a facility in Johnstown, NY in 2005) and has exploded of late. The major yogurt manufacturers were so intent on producing creamier products by adding junk, they missed this healthier and tastier trend, and only very recently began to jump on the bandwagon.
Another antithetical trend has also emerged in yogurt, purer and organic brands, including Stonyfield Farm, Brown Cow Farm, and Horizon. Since they contain no artificial thickeners, the fruit must be stirred up from the bottom. The lack of added ingredients translates into better.
Back in the 70s, when yogurt spread through America, many homes, including my parents, had a yogurt maker. These devices may not be as popular today, but homemade yogurt is less expensive than commercial brands, and you control what goes into it. And refuse to eat the culture-less yogurts.
(1 quart/950 ml)
Once you have made your own yogurt, save several tablespoons for making the next batch. If the effectiveness of the yogurt starter begins to wane, purchase fresh yogurt and start again.
1 quart (950 ml) milk
2 tablespoons (30 ml) plain yogurt with active cultures
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk to a low boil over medium heat. (Scalding destroys any bacteria in the milk that can inhibit the yogurt culture.) Let cool to lukewarm (115 degrees).
2. Remove ½ cup (120 ml) warm milk and stir into the yogurt. Stir the yogurt into the saucepan. Pour into warm jars or a Thermos.
3. Cover with wax paper and wrap with a towel. Place in a warm place, such as an oven with a pilot light, and let stand undisturbed until thickened (3 to 8 hours). (The thickening time will depend on the yogurt culture used, the temperature of the milk and the temperature of the environment during the incubating period. The longer the yogurt takes to incubate, the more tart the taste.) (Yogurt thickens further when refrigerated.)
4. For Greek yogurt, line a colander or strainer with a coffee filter or a double layer of fine cheesecloth. Place over a bowl to catch the whey. (Use the whey in baking and soups.) Pour the yogurt into the prepared colander/strainer, cover with plastic wrap, place in the refrigerator, and let drain until thick, but not too firm (8 to 12); at more than 12 hours, it becomes labni, yogurt cheese.
4. Chill. Store in the refrigerator up to 1 week.
I’ve traveled to many parts of Long Island over the years to give talks and presentations, but I’ve never been to Stony Brook University. It’s about a two hour trip by train from the Upper West Side to the next to the last stop on the Port Jefferson line of the Long Island Railroad. But on Labor Day Sunday, I was the featured guest for Stony Brook Hillel’s “Festival of Bites.” The program was aimed for the entire Jewish community of Suffolk and not just college students.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was actually pleasantly surprised by both the extent of the exhibitors and the size of the crowd. I was suspect of attracting people on a holiday weekend, but I guess for food Jews will turn out (which is fortunate in my line of work), and the large campus ballroom was filled with noshers (my type of crowd) who paid $15 for a ticket. A number of local kosher businesses manned tables offering free samples of everything from deli sandwiches to knishes to rugelach to chocolate-dipped fruit. People also contributed non-perishable items for a food drive. And raffles raised a lot of money.
I gave an hour and a half cooking class on Rosh Hashanah foods from around the world, including samples at the end. I was busy with a book signing for Encyclopedia of Jewish Food and missed the samples, which all vanished by the time I finished the signing. It was standing room only and most of the attendees remained for the entire cooking session, although a few did occasionally return to the tables for additional noshing. Many of the adults were fascinated by the chard, with which most were unfamiliar. (Chard is so closely related and linked to the beet, both subspecies of the same plant, that they share the same name in ancient Aramaic, silka. Unlike the beet, chard never developed a large edible root, thus its culinary usage remains its leaves. The Talmud recommends chard and beet greens as a Rosh Hashanah food, as their name silka is similar to the Aramaic word “to remove/disappear,” as in sheyistalek oyvenu (may our enemies be removed) or yistaklu oyvekha (may your enemies be removed).) The students particularly liked the Sephardic pumpkin pancakes, and some took extra to enjoy back in the dorms. (Pumpkin, a large, orange fruit, has been widely cultivated throughout the Americas for about 6,000 years and was among the first New World foods introduced to Europeans by native Americans. In the beginning of the 16th century, Sephardim and Italian Jews began selling pumpkins and adopted them into their pantry earlier, and more vigorously than their neighbors. Therefore, the presence of pumpkin in many early Mediterranean dishes is a sign of Sephardic influence. Sephardim and Italians use it to make soups, stews, puddings, jams, cakes, pancakes, and fill pastries. This autumn vegetable is used for various traditional Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Hanukkah dishes.)
Kudos to Rabbi Joseph Topek (who had been at Stony Brook for nearly 30 years, but was previously at VCU in Richmond, although I did not meet him back then) and the staff (including Jill Zucker and Joy Gluzman) and board of directors of Stony Brook Hillel for taking a chance on this new program and putting in a lot of time and effort. I think the old cliché “a good time was had by all” amply applies.
Here are recipes for braised chard and pumpkin pancakes. You can find more traditional dishes and information on them in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Olive Trees and Honey, and The World of Jewish Cooking (and they make great holiday gifts too):
Sephardic Braised Chard (Silka) P
(6 to 8 servings)
2 pounds (about 3 bunches) chard or beet greens, soaked in a large bowl of cold water several times and drained
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
About 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
About ¼ teaspoon table salt or ½ teaspoon kosher salt
1. Separate the chard leaves from the stems. Cut the stems into ½-inch-wide pieces and the leaves into 1-inch pieces. There will be about 2 quarts, but the greens cook down.
2. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the chard stems, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 3 minutes.
3. Add the leaves and sauté until well coated and the greens begin to wilt. Cover and simmer until tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and salt. Serve warm or at room temperature as a side dish or salad.
Moroccan Chard Salad (Shlata Silka): With the stems, add 2 teaspoons paprika, 1 to 1½ teaspoons ground cumin, and, for a little heat, a pinch of cayenne.
Syrian Swiss Chard with Black-Eyed Beans (Silka bi Lubiya): This combines two Rosh Hashanah symbols in one dish. With the chard leaves, add 1½ to 2 cups cooked black-eyed peas and ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric.
Syrian Chard with Chickpeas (Silka bi Hummus): This also combines two Rosh Hashanah symbols in one dish. With the chard leaves, add 1½ to 2 cups cooked chickpeas.
Greek Pumpkin Patties (Bimuelos de Calabaza/Fritadas de Calabaza)
(About 12 patties)
1 cup all-purpose flour or whole-wheat
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg or ¼ teaspoon ground coriander or allspice
Pinch of ground ginger
About ½ teaspoon table salt, or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1¾ cups mashed cooked pumpkin (about 2½ pounds raw), or 15 ounces pure-pack canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
½ cup light brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil for frying
1. Combine the flour, spices, and salt. Lightly beat the eggs. Blend in the pumpkin, sugar, and vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture just to combine. It should be pourable and a little thicker than standard pancake batter; if too thin, add a little more flour.
2. Heat a thin layer of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. In batches, drop the batter by tablespoonfuls and fry, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Serve warm or at room temperature.
In the past, I fortunately avoided most of the disasters befalling NYC. I was always out of town for the various blackouts and riots. This summer, however, I was around for both last week’s earthquake and on Saturday and Sunday for Hurricane Irene. Yet I actually didn’t notice either of them. I learned of the earthquake when relatives began calling. It was rather embarrassing to admit “What earthquake?” There was no shaking going on in my first floor Upper West Side apartment. I feel more of a tremor when the front door of the apartment building slams shut. Of course, I was preoccupied in hooking up and trying to figure out the new printer for my computer that had just arrived. But I think I would still be aware when the ground started shaking.
I knew, of course, that Irene was coming. The media was hyping it for days beforehand. Reporters seem downright gleeful as they enthusiastically predict all forms of potential disaster. There were some uprooted trees and broken branches in Central Park. My cousins in Teaneck could hear the wind and lost their electricity for several days as the result of downed power lines. A brave rabbi near Monsey was electrocuted from a broken power line attempting to rescue a boy he spotted trapped under a tree. Yet from my vantage point, I could only spot an occasional heavy downpour. Since this cleans the sidewalks in Manhattan, the water was welcomed. Too much water or too much wind or too much anything can be dangerous. I didn’t feel any abnormal wind in my well sheltered apartment nor see any flooding. (There’s more water when my upstairs neighbor lets her tub overflow, which she did again when I was away in Montreal back in June. I’m still waiting for my landlord to paint.) I am thankful for having lived through two disasters within a week without any ill effects. Yet can you say you experienced an earthquake or hurricane, if they went by without notice? Hopefully, I’ll never have to find out. After all, it was more than a century since the last hurricane landed in NYC and I can wait another century for the next go round.
Meanwhile, I’m in Brooklyn for this week to help babysit my sister’s youngest while she and the brother-in-law are in Israel for a wedding. I was scheduled to arrive on Sunday, but mass transportation in NYC was shut down. The subways reopened this morning and by the time I rode them, they were actually quicker and less crowded than usual. Visiting Brooklyn is like visiting a foreign country. (I know we’re not in Manhattan anymore, Toto!) The older girls can fend for themselves, so it’s primarily for the three younger nephews. My great-nephews, Dovid and Daniel (and sometimes parents), are here too at the moment while their parents finish getting their new apartment ready. Dovid, at 20 months, is a big boy who walks and talks like he’s much older. And such blond hair. He certainly doesn’t get that from the Marks side of the family. My nephews made ketchup omelets and ketchup tortilla-pizza-wraps for dinner, which I consider a disaster. That’s also not from the Marks side of the family.
I need some time at the end of the week for cleaning my apartment before I head off to Israel next Wednesday and another opportunity of spending the holidays in the Holy Land. In between, I’m appearing at Stony Book Hillel Sunday Sept 4 at 3:30 for Festival of Bites: http://alumniandfriends.stonybrook.edu/page.aspx?pid=299&cid=1&ceid=131&cerid=0&cdt=9%2F4%2F2011
Talk about good timing. If Irene had arrived a mere week later, my Hillel presentation would have been wiped out and my travel plans to Israel could have been waylaid. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to miss various other hurricanes during trips to Israel. Two years ago, one hurricane halted flights from Tel Aviv to NYC for several days before my departure, but flights resumed the day I left. I have been occasionally waylaid by Israeli strikes. One such strike shut down El Al in 1974 and there were thousands of stranded passengers at the airport. I would have missed several weddings during the next couple of days. I managed to get a seat on a TWA flight (who would have dreamed at the time that TWA would have vanished) to Athens, Greece (that plane’s next stop was Rome) to change planes for another flight heading to NYC. After landing in Greece to change planes, the young customs agent wanted to open my tefillin with a knife, but when I insisted that he call his supervisor, calmer heads prevailed and my tefillin and dignity remained intact. After landing in JFK, we heard the news that the plane I had been on from Israel to Athens, while heading to Rome, crashed in the Adriatic Sea killing everyone on board. That kind of puts some of life’s minor disasters (including maybe even ketchup omelets) into perspective.
And thanks to everyone who wrote to me about how much they enjoy Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. And those who noted how they recently gave EJF as a gift. That made my day.
By the way, here’s my recipe for a real omelet:
(For each serving)
2 large eggs
Salt and pepper
½ tablespoon (7 ml) unsalted butter or margarine
About 3 tablespoons (45 ml) filling (optional)
1. Beat the eggs, salt, and pepper with a fork until blended, but not frothy.
2. Heat a 5-inch skillet over medium heat. When a drop of water bounces and sizzles, add the butter or margarine and swirl the pan. When the butter finishes sizzling, but has not turned black, pour in the eggs.
3. Stir the eggs with the back of a fork in a circular motion while simultaneously shaking the pan until the eggs begin to set (about 10 seconds). Stop stirring and use the fork to lift the edges to allow the additional liquid eggs to run underneath, repeating until the eggs are almost set, but are still a little moist in the center (20 to 25 seconds).
4. Spread the filling down the center of the omelet perpendicular to the skillet’s handle. Remove the pan from the heat, fold the lower third of the omelet over the filling, then flip the omelet from the upper edge of the skillet, in the process folding the upper third of the omelet, into the center of a warm plate. Or spread the filling over half of the omelet, fold in half, and slide onto a warm plate. The outside of this omelet will be yellow.
Asparagus Omelet: Top with 6 to 8 asparagus tips cooked, halved lengthwise, and, if desired, sautéed in a little butter.
Caviar Omelet: Spread 2 tablespoons (30 ml) sour cream over half the omelet and top with 2 tablespoons (30 ml) salmon caviar.
Cheese Omelet: Sprinkle with about 3 tablespoons (45 ml) Cheddar or other shredded hard cheese before folding.
Fines Herbes Omelet: Add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) mixed fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil).
(Omelet for 5 to 6 servings:)
6 large eggs
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon (15 ml) butter or margarine
Proceed as above, but cook in a 10-inch skillet.
I stopped by my local branch of the NYC public library this week. I wasn’t hunting for books, but actually was looking for a copy machine that takes coins. I needed a single copy of a sales receipt from Toshiba to send in with the mail-in rebate form. I’ve been disappointed with the quality of my last two Dell laptops, on one the hard drive died after three years and with the most recent one the hinges and frame cracked after two years. (No, I didn’t drop it. And the casing isn’t covered by the warranty.) So I decided to try a Toshiba. (I am a little worried, because the brand new computer starts clicking every so often.) And I can get about $100 rebate back from Toshiba once I get this copy. Unfortunately, the copy machine in the library was “Out of Service.” The old-style copy machine with coin slots seem to be a thing to the past, as today most require credit cards.
Anyway while I was at the library, I thought I would take a look at its small cookbook collection. And much to my delight, there on the shelf was a copy of my Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. (Oops, my laptop just clicked again. I do hope it’s not a sign of a problem.) Anyway, I’m quite pleased by the acceptance of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food as a resource tool. I visited the offices of Saveur magazine a few weeks ago and everyone there was already familiar with EJF. Karen, the research editor, keeps a copy of EJF on her desk as one of her primary research tools, but admits it is borrowed frequently by other staff members. In addition, I noticed from my Google Alerts that quite a few writers are citing EJF. (I also noticed that some writers lately have been using information directly from EJF without an acknowledgement, which is irritating.) Encyclopedia of Jewish Food is even the source to use in Mumbai, India: http://www.mid-day.com/specials/2011/jul/240711-Falooda-Badshah-dessert-drink.htm
Anyway, it is gratifying that EJF is being recognized and used. I would hate to think that it would be one of those volumes that sits on the shelf and gathers dust.
Yet it seems that a lot of people still aren’t aware of its existence. This week I ran into a high school classmate, Moshe, who I had not seen in a number of years. As we quickly attempted to catch up and I discussed EJF, he had not heard about it. I was in Baltimore for the weekend (that’s why this blog is a little late) and ran into several old acquaintances who were also unaware of EJF. Without massive advertising (or actually any advertising), I have to rely on word of mouth to spread the news about EJF. (Don’t forget to tell your friends and relatives about the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. And it makes a great gift.) Part of the nature of the book publishing world is that an author has to sell enough copies of their current book in order to publish the next one.
I’ll be appearing at Stony Brook Hillel Sunday Sept 4 at 3:30 for Festival of Bites: http://alumniandfriends.stonybrook.edu/page.aspx?pid=299&cid=1&ceid=131&cerid=0&cdt=9%2F4%2F2011
I even have a few appearances in Israel in September and October, including for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. Later I’ll be at the Denver JCC Book Fair 350 S. Dahila Street on Monday October 31 at noon. And at the Great Neck Library 159 Bayview Avenue, Great Neck on Sunday December 11 at 11:00 am. And I have a few scholar-in-residence gigs in the winter and spring. (For information on my demos/lectures, see http://www.gilmarks.com/1257.html on my website.)
Writing a book is not only about getting it published, but promoting it. Any I have to rely on word of mouth to help spread the word. My previous book, Olive Trees and Honey, is doing as well today as ever (it was published in 2005), precisely because of world of mouth. And Encyclopedia of Jewish Food showing up on library shelves is a good sign. But years ago I once had a lady approach me after a lecture, telling me how much she loved my book and how she Xeroxed recipes from it from a copy in her library. Not exactly what an author wants to hear.
My mother receives a weekly shipment of fresh organic vegetables from a CSA (community supported agriculture). While some of these items are familiar to her, some are unknown and intimidating. Last week in her shipment was some okra and I received a call seeking information on how to prepare it.
Okra (Hibiscus esculentus), a member of the mallow family and a relative of cotton, is a native of Ethiopia. The 3- to 9-foot high okra plants produce tapered capsules ranging from 2½ to 8 inches in length. Larger, mature pods require a slightly longer cooking time. For best flavor, the pods should be less than 4-inches long. Residents of the Mediterranean prefer even smaller pods, about 1-inch. Okra is high in fiber, rich in vitamins A, B, and C and iron and calcium, and purportedly enhances blood flow.
Okra arrived in America in the early 1600s with the black slaves, but never received much attention outside the South where it is fried, stewed, steamed, and pickled. The word okra came from okuru in Igbo, a language of Nigeria. In England and India it is known as lady fingers. Its Bantu name (in central Africa) kingombo or ochinggomboo gave rise to the name of the famous dish, gumbo. The Ladino name for okra, bamia, and, the Arabic name, bamiya, also derived from the Bantu kingombo, indicating its African origins.
There is no specific mention of this plant in the ancient world, though some scholars claim that a few ambiguous Egyptian pyramid drawings are of okra. Its first verified appearance was in twelfth century CE Egypt. Shortly thereafter, the Moors introduced okra to Spain, where, as with other vegetables, it gained wide acceptance amongst Sephardim. The few other areas where okra accrued some degree of popularity was in the Levant, Balkans, India, and the American South. After tomatoes arrived from South America, they became the favorite Sephardic partner for okra, alone or as one of many vegetables in a stew. For a more substantial dish, meatballs are cooked with the sauce. In the Middle East, okra pods are sometimes pickled along with other vegetables in turshi. Dried okra is enjoyed through the winter.
Okra’s mucilaginous nature — very noticeable when overcooked — makes it unappetizing to many. However, soaking it in vinegar water or blanching in hot water lessens this attribute. Okra is often paired with tomatoes and lemon juice, as their acid tends to counteract the gooeyness. On the other hand, okra’s primary characteristic can be desirable in stews as a thickener. Some cooks insist on frying okra in a little oil until browned, about five minutes, before cooking to enhance the flavor. Middle Easterners historically tended to overcook their vegetables, resulting in rather wilted okra; many contemporary diners prefer their okra with some of the crispness intact.
Okra and chicken stews are popular summer Sabbath fare from India to Tunisia. Among Sephardim from Turkey and the Balkans, okra in tomato sauce was both everyday fare as well as a Sabbath dish from late spring through Sukkot. In some households, it is also common at the meal following the fast of Yom Kippur. Syrians feature okra flavored with tamarind on Rosh Hashanah and festive occasions. Persians cook okra in a lamb stew called yakhnat.
Although okra can be found year-round, the best supplies are from May to October. For best flavor, pods should be less than 4-inches long. If your fingernail does not easily go into the pod, it is too old. Store in a plastic bag at room temperature for no more than a day or two. Rinse just before cooking.
TO PREPARE: Gently scrub the okra to remove any fuzz. Trim the caps of the okra being careful not to cut into the flesh.
Soak every 1 pound (455 grams) whole okra in a mixture of 1 quart (1 liter) water and ¼ cup (60 ml) vinegar for 1 hour. Drain.
In the Greek method, spread 1 pound (455 grams) okra in a single layer on a baking sheet, sprinkle with ¼ cup (60 ml) vinegar, and dip the caps into kosher salt. Return the okra to the baking sheet and let stand in the sun or a warm place for 1 hour. Rinse under cold water and pat dry.
1 pound (455 grams) okra = 64 medium
= 13.5 ounces trimmed
= 3.8 cups
1 cup (240 ml) trimmed okra = 3.5 ounces/100 grams
Okra is one of those items that people either love or hate. Or more likely, unfamiliar with. Something about the slime and unique earthy-vegetal flavor turns some people off. Heirloom okra has a more intense flavor than most modern commercial types. Also large pods tend to be tough and woody. I happen to love it, although I don’t very often get the opportunity in New York City to find if fresh.
Here are a few okra dishes from okra-loving regions:
6 to 8 servings
2 pounds (7 cups) whole small okra, caps removed and sliced ½-inch thick
4 to 6 cups vegetable oil for deep-frying
1½ cups cornmeal (or 1 cup all-purpose flour and ½ cup cornmeal)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
3 to 4 lightly beaten eggs or ¾ cup buttermilk (or 2 eggs beaten with ¾ cup whole milk)
1. In a large pot or skillet, heat the oil to 370 degrees.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, pepper, cayenne, and garlic powder. Dip the okra in the eggs to coat, then dredge in the cornmeal mixture to coat well.
3. In about 3 batches, add the okra to the oil and fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown on all sides, 3 to 5 minutes per batch. Remove and drain. Serve hot.
Sephardic Okra with Tomatoes (Bamia kon Domates) P
6 to 8 servings
2 quarts water mixed with ½ cup white or cider vinegar
2 pounds (7 cups) whole small okra, caps removed, or 20 ounces frozen
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups (24 ounces) peeled, seeded, and chopped plum tomatoes, or 6 ounces tomato paste dissolved in 2 cups water
About 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 to 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons granulated or brown sugar
Ground black pepper to taste
1. Soak the okra in the vinegar water for 1 hour. Drain and pat dry.
2. In a large skillet or saucepan, heat 3 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add the okra and sauté until golden, about 15 minutes. Remove the okra.
3. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, then the onions and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 15 minutes.
4. Add the lemon juice, sugar, and pepper. Return the okra, cover, and simmer over low heat until tender, about 30 minutes, or bake in a 375-degree oven, about 1 hour. Serve warm accompanied with rice or flat bread or at room temperature.
Sephardic Okra with Lemon (Bamia kon Limon): Substitute 1 cup water for the tomatoes and increase the lemon juice to ½ cup.
Sephardic Okra with Meatballs: Form 1 pound ground beef or lamb into ½-inch balls, brown in hot oil, remove the meatballs, add and fry the onions, then return the meatballs when returning the okra.
Balkan Okra with Dill: Omit the onions. In Step 4 when the okra is tender, add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill.
Ethiopian Okra with Tomatoes (Bamya Alicha): Omit the lemon juice and sugar. With the tomatoes, add 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger and ¾ teaspoon ground cardamom. After cooking the okra for 25 minutes, add 1 to 3 seeded and minced jalapeños and cook for 5 additional minutes.
Indian Okra with Tomatoes (Bindi Bhaji): With the lemon juice, add ½ teaspoon ground turmeric and, if desired, ¾ teaspoon dried chili flakes. If desired, reduce the tomatoes to 2 cups and substitute ¼ cup tamarind paste dissolved in 2 cups water for the lemon juice.
Iraqi Okra with Stuffed Dumplings (Kubba Bamiya): Increase the lemon juice to ¾ cup and water to 8 cups. Add 16 to 18 kubbah (stuffed dumplings made with a semolina shell; see page 000) when returning the okra and simmer until they rise to the surface, about 25 minutes.
Syrian Okra with Tomatoes (Bamia bil Benadora): With the tomatoes, add ¼ teaspoon ground allspice and 2 tablespoons tamarhindi (tamarind sauce) or 1 tablespoon apricot butter and 1 tablespoon prune butter. If desired, also add ¾ cup pitted prunes.
Syrian Okra with Tamarind (Bamia bil Tamarhindi): Omit the tomatoes and lemon juice and add ¼ cup tamarind paste dissolved in 2 cups water. If desired, after cooking the okra for 30 minutes, add 1 cup (4 ounces) dried apricots and 1 cup (6 ounces) pitted prunes and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
Sephardic Chicken with Okra (Pollo kon Bamia) M
(4 to 6 servings)
1 pound (3½ cups) stemmed fresh okra or 10 ounces frozen
2 quarts water mixed with 2 tablespoons white or cider vinegar
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, or 8 (3½ pounds total) chicken thighs, bone-in and with the skin on
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups chicken broth or water
4 medium (1 pound) tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
About 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
Ground black pepper to taste
1. Soak the okra in the vinegar water for 30 minutes. Drain.
2. Rinse the chicken well and pat dry. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken — do not crowd the pan — and brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken.
3. Drain off all but 2 tablespoons fat from the pot. Add the onion, then garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the broth, tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Return the chicken. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes.
4. Add the okra. Simmer until the chicken and okra are tender, about 30 minutes. Serve with rice or crusty bread.
Balkan Chicken with Okra (Pojo con Bambia): Reduce the broth or water to 1 cup and add 1 cup dry red wine with the okra.
Calcutta Chicken with Okra (Bamia Huta): With the tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons tamarhindi (tamarind paste), 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger, and ½ teaspoon ground turmeric. Just before serving, stir in 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint.
Greek Chicken with Okra (Poyo Frikasse con Bamyes): With the tomato, add 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Just before serving, stir in about 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice.
Tunisian Chicken with Okra (Dajaaj bi Bamia/Ganaouia au Poulet): With the tomatoes, add ½ teaspoon ground turmeric and 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon ground coriander.
Calcutta Pickled Okra (Bamia Pickle) P
(About 2 cups)
This is a synthesis of Middle Eastern and Indian styles.
1½ cups cider or malt vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons table salt or 1/3 cup kosher salt
2 to 4 small green chilies (optional)
8 ounces (about 40 pods) small okra
4 teaspoons chopped cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
4 teaspoons minced garlic
4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1. In a large non-reactive pot, bring the vinegar, sugar, and salt to a simmer, stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar and salt dissolve. If using, add the chilies and simmer for 2 minutes. Let cool.
2. Remove the tops of the okra. Cut a 1-inch slit lengthwise along each okra pod. In a small bowl, combine the cilantro, garlic, and ginger. Stuff about ¼ teaspoon into each pod.
3. Into a large jar, pack the okra and, if using, chilies. Pour the vinegar mixture over top to cover. Close the jar and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours, then place in the refrigerator for 1 week.
(6 to 8 servings)
2 pounds (910 grams/7 cups/1.7 liters) whole small okra, soaked in vinegar water and drained
1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped (2 cups/500 ml/8 ounces/225 grams)
1 small (about ½ cup/120 ml) green bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups (2 pounds/910 grams) tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 cup (240 ml) water
1 to 3 teaspoons (5 t 15 ml) granulated or brown sugar
About ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) salt
Ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
Pinch ground cloves
1 bay leaf
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and bell pepper and sauté until softened (5 to 10 minutes). Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and 1 cup (240 ml) water and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft (about 15 minutes).
2. Add the okra, sugar, salt, pepper, chili powder, cloves, and bay leaf. Cover and simmer over low heat until tender (about 30 minutes) or bake in a 375-degree (190 C) oven (about 1 hour).
3. Uncover and cook until most of the liquid evaporates. Serve warm or at room temperature.