Passover Cooking in December: Finding time to write and test the recipes.

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As I complete the interview portion of my cookbook (with a total of nearly 85 interviews of individuals from 18 different countries!), I look forward to the next phase of finalizing the menu for each chapter/community, and then completing the recipes. Recently I had a small dinner party, and I took advantage of testing several recipes on my guests. Here was the menu with my comments for each:

Gibraltarian Fried Chickpeas with Salt and Pepper
(Notes: Sounded easy to do, but it was a total disaster! Chickpeas were popping and oil was flying all over the kitchen. A total mess to clean and I burned my fingers and even shoulder in the process.
Will have to redo this and hopefully obtain the crispiness in the chickpeas without doing too much damage!)

Algerian Broiled Pepper Salad with Garlic, Tomatoes, Paprika, and Coriander Leaves
(Comments: This one came out quite well, and the trick was in cooking the stew for a long time over a low heat so that it got thick and obtained a rich tomato flavor. Final result was a cooked salad with a bright red color and thick texture.)

Moldovan Eggplant “Caviar” with Onions, Garlic, Tomato Paste, and Lemon
(Comments: Also very successful. I baked the eggplants in a 350 degree F. oven for 45 minutes, but I think I prefer to broil them since it’s much quicker and the eggplants obtain a more charred, smokey flavor. Trick is to cook the onions and tomatoes before mixing in the eggplant and cooking off any extra liquid. Make sure that the eggplants are mashed well with fork.

Portuguese Veal, Beef, and Chicken Sausages with Garlic and Smoked Paprika
(Comments: These are more like long kufta kebabs as they use all ground meat and are not stuffed into a proper casing like sausages usually are. They are pan fried, and have a very nice smokey/spicy flavor to them. The trick is to make the meat mixture one day in advance so that the flavors have time to meld.)

Moroccan Prune Tagine with Onions, Cinnamon, Sugar, and Toasted Whole Almonds
(Comments: Delicious savory flavor balanced with the sweetness of the prunes. Looks nice too when served with the toasted blanched almonds, and reminds me of the Ashkenazi Tsimmes recipes (also good for Rosh Hashanna?). Goes well served over rice, or served alongside a lamb dish.)

Sautéed Algerian Carrots with Garlic, Vinegar, Cumin, and Paprika
(Comments: These carrots have to be cooked until very soft and there has to be a balance of garlic, salt, and vinegar to work with the natural sweetness of the carrots. Good with the rice.)

Syrian Long Grain White Rice with Fried Onions, and Toasted Almonds
(Comments: The toasted almonds added a nice crunchiness to the texture of the rice, and the onions gave it a nice but mild flavor. Best served with any type of stew or saucy dish.)

Are we ready for a Thanksgiving Seder plate?

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As I continue to work on my Passover cookbook, I am struck by certain parallels between Passover and Thanksgiving. Just as Thanksgiving is the most popular holiday enjoyed in the United States by Americans of all backgrounds (a billion-dollar industry with thousands of cookbooks around one food holiday alone!), Passover is the most loved of all holidays in the Jewish calendar celebrated by Jews from all streams of Judaism. Like Thanksgiving, Passover takes place with family and friends of all generations sitting around a big table (or two) at home, outside of any house of worship. For Thanksgiving, turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and sweet potatoes have become the symbols of the holiday, while matzah, charoset, gefilte fish, chicken soup (with matzah balls), eggs, and either brisket or lamb have become synonymous with Passover here in the United States.

The message behind each occasion also has some striking resemblances. While there may be a bit of a debate these days about the true story behind how Thanksgiving came to be, the overall mood or feeling around this festivity has become one of inclusiveness, sharing, giving, and last but not least: gratefulness. As immigrants from all backgrounds we reflect (if only for a tiny moment between bites of sweet potato pie and savory stuffing) about being lucky to live in “America,” and for having those who are special to us around to share the meal and essentially “break bread.” It also has become a time to pause and think more locally about those of us who are poor, sick, or struggling in other ways, and as a result many volunteer their time to soup kitchens providing free Thanksgiving meals to those in need. While retelling the story of the Exodus from the Bible, we express gratefulness for our ancestors being released from slavery in Egypt, making their journey through the desert to Jerusalem, and for us surviving as a people time and time again. In my interviews of individuals from all over the world for my Passover cookbook, many have shared with me their stories of making a concerted effort to invite any Jews into their home for the Passover Seders so that they would not be alone and would have a place to eat and “break matzah” with others. (And we can’t forget about the custom of setting out a glass of wine and opening up the door for Elijah, the prophet and eternal guest.)

Some individuals and Jewish organizations have even taken up this opportunity to take aspects of the Passover Seder and weave them into their Thanksgiving meals. During these meals, mini Haggadot or prayer booklets are distributed at the table to discuss the topics of “Struggle, Freedom, and Gratitude” as a universal concept.

Maybe this is the time to create a new Seder plate for Thanksgiving,
one that would include various foods to represent the following principles:

STRUGGLE: leeks, scallions (slavery, abuse, poverty, sadness)
LUCK: head of garlic (protection against evil)
FREEDOM & SHARING: pumpkin bread (sweetness/”breaking bread” with others)
GRATEFULNESS: cranberries/cranberry sauce (sweet & sour taste representing balance)
INDIVIDUALITY & STRENGTH: multi-colored carrots (various cultures/building roots)
HOPE: pumpkin (growth)

QUESTION: What would you put on your Thanksgiving Seder plate?

A Seder Plate for Rosh HaShannah? (It’s not just for Passover!)

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Did you know that in some Sephardic homes there is the custom of presenting a special Seder plate before the Rosh HaShanna meal, just like one does for the Passover Seder? Eight symbolic foods (Simanim) are selected and arranged on a platter to ensure a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year, and while certain ones may physically represent an idea (such as using pomegranates to symbolize fertility and abundance because of the many seeds within), another less obvious food choice may be made simply because its name in Hebrew sounds like another Hebrew word with a different meaning (for example: using a leek because its Hebrew word karati sounds like karat meaning “to cut off,” implying the hope of breaking away from one’s enemies). Below is a quick guideline or listing of the types of things often used on a Rosh Hashanna Seder plate:

For the New Year, we eat foods that symbolize the following:
Luck

Abundance (foods that are plentiful)
Mitzvot (good deeds)
Fertility, Life (foods that are round, continuous, plentiful)
Leadership
The act of breaking away from evil, enemies and bad things

 

VARIOUS FOODS USED TO REPRESENT THE FOLLOWING IDEAS:

happiness, prosperity, good luck and success:
Aniseed, round challah with raisins added, sweet wine, stuffed foods like gefilte fish,
tzimmes (sweet stew: carrot, sweet potatoes, prunes, raisins, sometimes meat)

fertility:
Apples, pears (first fruits of season from the tree,
dipped in honey, sugar, or sesame seeds for abundance and extra sweetness)

good deeds (mitzvot) and abundance:
Pomegranate seeds (belief that there are as many seeds — 613, as there are mitzvot)

peace:
Dates (Hebrew word for date is tamar and is related to word tam meaning, “to end” in hopes
that our enemies will end)

happiness: Gourd, pumpkin, butternut or acorn squash (Hebrew word for gourd is kara, which also means “to announce,” and rhymes with a similar sounding word meaning “to rip apart”)

freedom: Spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard, kale, beet leaves
(Hebrew word for beets is seleka and related to root selek meaning, “to depart” or “remove” implying that enemies and bad luck be taken out; Aramaic word for leafy green, like spinach, is silka)

friendship, freedom from enemies: Leeks, chives, scallions, spring onions
(Hebrew word for leek is karati and sounds like karat meaning “to cut off,”
implying from one’s enemies)

leadership: Whole Fish (with head left intact), ram’s head, head of cabbage, garlic
(“Head” of year, leaders to all nations, poor and powerless, move forward/ahead/progress)

commemorating tribulations, difficulties, struggles, and hardships of past year:
Savory and bitter foods

prosperity: String beans, peas, beans (plentiful, abundant, round/circle of life)
(Hebrew word for beans is lubia, sounds related to Hebrew word lev meaning “heart,”
and rav meaning “many”)

NOTE: Some refrain from eating lemon or salt fearing that it will bring bad luck in coming year.

SHANA TOVA METUKA!

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).

(For more NutriBullet recipes, please click here!)

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

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