Little Georgia at the Crossroads of Rego Park and Forest Hills, Queens

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“Before the Guests Arrive”: Table Setting at Milena’s Grandmother’s Apartment in Queens

This past April it dawned on me that I hadn’t even thought of creating a chapter on Georgian Jews for my Passover cookbook. Why? For some reason I thought that both historically and culturally Georgia would be more like Eastern Europe, and that the Jewish community, therefore, would be predominantly Ashkenazi. But in doing a little bit of reading about the country in general and the Jewish community in particular, I learned that they were among the oldest communities in the Jewish diaspora that many believe goes back to the days of the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. While in fact Russia does border Georgia to the north, upon closer look I observed that to the south were Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, three countries that one could categorize into the Near East, Eurasia, or Central Asia, depending upon your perspective.

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Milena Kozhin Below a Georgian Mirror at her Grandmother’s Apartment in Queens

I decided to email a Milena Kozhin, a young Georgian-American woman I had met back in 2009 to ask her what she considered herself to be, and she confirmed that not only did they (the Georgian Jews) not consider themselves to be Ashkenazi, neither were they truly Sephardic. “We are our own thing,” expressed Milena’s aunt Irina, “and my husband will get upset if you call us one or the other.”

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Matzah Blinchikis with Meat

On two separate occasions, once in May and again in June of 2014, I went to visit Milena so that we could cook together, and I could see how the dishes reflected this crossroads of East meeting West. When we first entered the apartment of her Grandmother’s I observed a beautiful table of all kinds of fruits, cakes, and pastries, that was interestingly reminiscent of my visit to a Bukharian couple who had also set their table with beautiful fruits and breads. We made Pkhali Charkhali (Beet Salad with Garlic, Walnuts, and Coriander Leaves), Meat Blinchiki (Fried Meat-Filled Matzah Blintzes), and Pelamushi (Grape Juice Pudding). And like the language, the unusual combination of flavors and ingredients felt unfamiliar to me. Here is what I observed: Georgians like to serve many dishes at once, and the flavors are strong but not hot. They use a lot of walnuts, coriander leaves, garlic, and fenugreek, and are known for their many dairy products and variety of delicious breads. And if you think that you still might have figured them out, for Passover they eat corn meal, but not rice.

Pepitada: Melon Seed Milk — a comforting break-fast drink?

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I had heard and read about a drink made from melon seeds, and it had always intrigued me. My first thought was: “Is it really possible?” Followed by my next thought: “Would it be worth it?” The word Pepitada comes from the Ladino word pepitas meaning, “melon seeds,” and I believe the suffix “ada” signifies some kind of drink (like you have in the word “lemonade” or limonada). This drink is truly Sephardic in nature, and something that I learned about from Bulgarian, Moroccan, Greek, and some Turkish Jews. Traditionally it is served as a break-fast food after Yom Kippur as something that is both nourishing and gentle on an empty stomach. But recently a young Bulgarian woman emailed me that in her family this drink is given to those who as firstborns have to fast on Erev Pesach (the day leading up to the first Seder) as a way to break their “pre-Passover fast”. (Note: This particular fast, otherwise known as the “Fast of the Firstborn,” is a way of expressing gratitude for those who had been spared the Plague of the Firstborn the night before the Israelites fled from Egypt.)

Because it is summer (and melons are in season) I decided in early June that this would be the perfect time to start collecting seeds, placing them in a container in the freezer until I had at least two cups-worth (it took me about 7 melons of all kinds). Then yesterday, I felt it was time. I removed and thawed the seeds, rinsed them well, and spread them out on a large kitchen towel to air-dry. Then I toasted them, cooled them, and ground them up in my new NutriBullet blender into a powder that resembled sawdust. I wrapped it in a double layer of cheesecloth, tied it up into a ball, and dropped it into a large bowl of water. Yes I was skeptical. However, after a few hours I already began to see progress. The pulverized seeds were dissolving and a milky substance was seeping out into the water. I squeezed, and more came out. I let this process continue for almost eight hours at which point (since it was late at night) I decided it was time to remove the bag and flavor with some sugar and a little bit of vanilla extract. I poured it all into a glass container and placed it into the refrigerator overnight for the flavors to meld.

This morning I tasted it and here are my thoughts:
If you are one of those people that loves to drink almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, tiger nut milk, or protein drinks, then you should try it. It has a slightly bitter flavor (adding some sugar or honey helps), but I have to admit that the taste has grown on me. It’s soothing, nourishing, and I can imagine that if you had grown up with this drink the taste and consistency would be very comforting to you. Overall I think that it actually is the perfect sustenance following a fast (or even when you are in need of a little comfort). And now is the time to start saving those seeds!

 

Pepitada (Sweet Melon Seed “Milk” with Vanilla and Rose Water)

For Milk:
2 cups melon seeds (saved from 7 to 8 large melons; can be from canteloupe, honeydew, canary, casaba, Galia, or mixture of any above, rinsed and stored in container in freezer until ready to use)

8 cups cold water
¾ to 1 cup sugar
¾ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon rose water (optional)

For Serving:
Ground cinnamon (optional)

 

1. Rinse all seeds thoroughly in a fine mesh strainer, making sure to remove and discard any pieces of the melon or its membrane. Spread out on a large kitchen towel and air-dry completely, 2 to 3 hours.

2. Pour dried seeds into a baking pan and toast for 20 minutes in a 375 F. degree oven, shaking pan after 10 minutes to loosen and expose all seeds. Remove from heat and allow to fully cool, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

3. Pour toasted seeds into a food processor, spice grinder, or NutriBullet blender (you need something that can easily and thoroughly pulverize) and pulse until very finely ground (should resemble saw dust).

4. Cut two pieces of cheesecloth into pieces about 10 inches in length. If cheesecloth is created like a tube, then place one tube layer into the other, and tie up one end to create a small sack. Pour the ground seeds inside and tie second end closed. If cheesecloth is flat, then layer two pieces together, pour the ground seeds in the center, gather up all four corners and tie tightly. Place the sack of seeds into a large bowl filled with the water and cover with a lid. Let sit at room temperature for a minimum of 8 hours (or overnight), squeezing and twisting the sack every couple of hours to extract the milky part of the seeds.

5. Add the sugar, vanilla extract, and rose water (if desired) and mix well until dissolved. Place in the refrigerator an additonal 6 hours or overnight for sugar to dissolve and flavors to meld. Remove from refrigerator and pour through a fine mesh strainer if there appears to be a lot of sediment from ground seeds at bottom. Before serving, shake well and adjust sugar, vanilla, and rose water (if used) to taste. Serve cold, with or without ice, with a little ground cinnamon sprinkled on top, if desired.

Bukharian Rhubarb Salad with Beets, Mint, and Coriander Leaves

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Inspired by a simple rhubarb and scallion recipe in Amnun’s Bukharian cookbook, I decided to try working with rhubarb to create a salad that would be in the Bukharian/Afghani chapter of my Passover cookbook. I found the use of rhubarb as an ingredient in a savory salad intriguing, as my only association with rhubarb was in sweets, cooked with a lot of sugar and combined with strawberries for a preserve or pie. However, when I tasted the rhubarb raw, I found it to be too tart for the American palate. I decided to toss it with a few tablespoons of sugar, let it marinate, then roast it for a mere 5 minutes to not only tenderize the rhubarb, but cut some of the tart/bitterness and bring out its natural fruitiness, which it did. The result was a relish-salad that was both festive as well as summery, something that would go well with any meat barbecue or vegetarian picnic. Try it for this July Fourth and let me know what you think!

Salota az Ryevozgu Lablabu: Rhubarb and Beet Salad with Scallions, Mint, and Coriander Leaves
(Yield: Serves 6 / Makes 3 cups)

For Salad:
1 pound rhubarb stalks, ends removed and discarded, chopped into ¼-inch cubes (2 full cups)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 large boiled beet, cut into ¼-inch cubes (you will need only 1 cup total)
¼ cup finely chopped scallions
½ cup coarsely chopped coriander leaves
¼ cup finely chopped mint leaves

For Dressing:
2 tablespoons canola, sunflower, or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 to 4 grindings of fresh black pepper

STEPS:
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. While oven is heating up, toss rhubarb and sugar in a small baking pan and let sit for 10 minutes (about the time it takes to heat up your oven). Place pan on the top rack of the oven and roast rhubarb until just tender, but not mushy, only about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

2. Combine cooled rhubarb with rest of salad ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Add the dressing ingredients and toss again. Let salad sit (at room temperature) for 30 minutes to 1 hour to marinate then serve, or store in refrigerator until ready to serve.

©Jennifer Felicia Abadi:  www.TooGoodToPassover.com / jabadi@FistfulofLentils.com

In “Jewish Week,” this week!

Please check out yesterday’s article about me and
Sephardic cooking by Caroline Lagnado!

JEWISH WEEK: The Memory is in their Taste Buds

http://www.thejewishweek.com/special-sections/sephardim-new-york/memory-their-taste-buds

Shrab (Libyan Golden Raisin “Wine” with Cinnamon Sticks)

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From Libya to Georgia, several individuals described to me the process of making their own special wine or unfermented grape juice for the Passover holiday. Some said that as children they couldn’t wait to stomp on the fresh grapes that were used to make actual wine, while others remembered helping their mothers or grandmothers combine dried grapes (raisins) with sugar and water to create a syrupy treat. Either way, it was a great activity for kids who looked forward to it year after year, and a new tradition that I started with my two girls this Passover.

Yield: Serves 12 / Makes 12 eight-ounce cups

1 1/2 pounds golden raisins (black raisins may be substituted)
20 cups cold water
3 cups sugar
3 to 4 cinnamon sticks, about 4 inches long each

1. Soak the raisins with the cold water in a large pot for 12 hours or overnight, covered.

2. Bring pot of soaked raisins  with the sugar and cinnamon sticks to a boil over high heat.

3. Reduce to a medium heat and slow boil until the liquid reduces by about a third,
approximately 2 1/2 hours.

4. Remove from heat and cool completely before pouring into two large pitchers.
Chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or preferably 12 hours or overnight.
Drink will keep in refrigerator for up to 1 week.

©Jennifer Felicia Abadi:  www.TooGoodToPassover.com / jabadi@FistfulofLentils.com

Sephardic Culture: Walking and Tasting Tour in Bercelona!

Are you interested in learning about Sephardic food and history, right where it happened?
Check out my friend Janet Amateau’s cultural walking tour, and get a taste of Judeo-Spanish history,
one bite at a time!

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Photo: Courtesy of Janet Amateau

The Second Night: A Tunisian Seder

For the second night of Passover we went to a Tunisian Seder at Jennifer and Philippe’s on the Upper West Side. The photo below is of their beautiful Tunisian Seder plate, which includes a Tunisian style charoset (upper left portion of plate) that I made myself of apples, dates, almonds, toasted sesame seeds, and rosewater. The final paste I formed into small balls, then rolled in finely ground rose petals:

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The photo below shows Jennifer carrying the Seder plate around the table while circling each person’s head — a common Sephardic and Middle Eastern Seder custom. This ritual signifies good luck for the year to come, but more importantly connects each guest present to the story of the Exodus from Egypt:

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