Passover: The True Jewish New Year?

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,
‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months;
it shall be the first month of the year for you. 1
Exodus 12:1-2

I must admit I was surprised to learn that Rosh Hashanah — meaning, “Head of the Year” in Hebrew, does not actually take place at the beginning of the Jewish year. According to the lunar based Hebrew calendar, Rosh Hashanah is a festival that occurs on the first day of the “Seventh month” of Tishrei. While Passover, which begins on the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan (some time between mid-March and mid-April on the modern Gregorian calendar) is known as the “First Month” of the year according to the Torah.

While it is not entirely clear why Rosh Hashanah has become the accepted date for celebrating the new year culturally among Jews, it is possible that it has to do with ancient agricultural cycles, and the beginning of the fall harvest. As part of the Rosh Hashanah tradition, we choose to wear clothes that are white and new, and eat autumn foods that represent abundance, health, and happiness for the coming year. Similar to Passover, many Sephardim will arrange a special Seder plate including foods that symbolize overall good luck.

The Passover holiday takes place in the spring season — a period of change and renewal. The festival represents the redemption and rebirth of the Israelite people brought out of slavery to freedom, and their arduous journey to the “Promised Land” (then known as Canaan — an area that included modern day Israel) to ultimately become the Jewish nation. During Passover, we clean our home from top to bottom, buy new clothes, and prepare foods that include new green vegetables. A special Seder plate is arranged using foods that symbolize suffering, freedom, and thanks and devotion to God.

Whether spring or fall, both holidays represent new beginnings.
And the hope for a happier, healthier, and better time to come.

Shana Tova.

1 Exodus 12:1-2. Translation from the New Annotated Oxford Bible: With the Apocrypha.
Revised Standard Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1973, p. 80.

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Spanish-Portuguese Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel of Curaçao: Winner of the best haroset in 2011

The original Mikvé Israel congregation was created in the 1650s — a community formed by Iberian Jews from Holland, whose ancestors had once fled the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal. After merging with the Sephardic Reform Temple Emanu-El in 1964,  the synagogue became known as “Mikvé Israel-Emanuel,” and affiliated itself with the Reconstructionist stream of Judaism. The building that stands today was built in 1730 by Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil, and is the oldest remaining synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. The Jewish population of Curaçao today is about 300 people out of 160,000 residents.

In a recent trip to Curaçao, my friend Katie Sanders and her family visited this synagogue shortly before Passover 2017. Katie was nice enough to send me the following photos of the synagogue:

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Katie_Evie.jpg

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As explained in the synagogue’s brochure, the sand floor of the synagogue symbolizes the following three things:

  • The Sinai desert that the Israelites wandered in for forty years
    when fleeing Egypt for the Holy Land
  • The sand that the Spanish and Portuguese Jews once poured on the floors
    of their secret prayer rooms in order to muffle the sounds of their services.
    (During the Inquisitions, a Converso or “Secret Jew” could face
    life imprisonment, loss of property, and even death if discovered.)
  • God’s promise to Abraham:
    I will multiply your seed of the seashore and the stars in the heavens.
    — Genesis 13:16

CuracaoSynagogue_3

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For more information, please go directly to the Mikvé-Israel Emanuel Website.

©2017 Photo by Myrna Moreno, Curator at the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum in Curacao. On Seder plate: Garosa/Haroset Ball, Lamb Shank Bone, Hardboiled Egg, Matzah, Celery, Radish

The following recipe — courtesy of Myrna Moreno and the Mikvé-Israel Emanuel Sisterhood — won Berlin’s 2011 “Milk & Honey Tour” for best haroset. Combining Sephardic and Caribbean ingredients, this haroset is rolled into balls, and is the most exotic I have ever seen or tasted!

GAROSA
(Sephardic Style Haroset Balls from “The Jewish Kitchens of Curacao”)
Yield: About 5 dozen balls

½ pound pitted dates
½ pound pitted prunes
½ pound raisins
½  pound figs
¼ cup lemon or orange peel
2 pounds unsalted peanuts
½ pound unsalted cashew nuts (optional)
1 pound dark brown sugar
½ cup honey
2 to 3 tablespoons cinnamon plus extra for coating
2 jiggers kosher wine
¼ cup orange and lime juice or watermelon and tamarind juice, if available.

  1. Grind fruits and nuts.
  2. Add the sugar, honey, cinnamon, wine and juices to form a moist but firm mixture.
  3. Roll into balls (about 1” to 1-1/2” in diameter) and coat with cinnamon.NOTE: These can be made ahead, wrapped individually in wax paper and placed in an airtight container in the refrigerator or frozen.

 

 

What does your Seder Plate say about you and your politics?

Beet

The Passover story of the ancient Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt for freedom in their homeland of Jerusalem has become a metaphor for human suffering in the modern day. As a result, the Seder has turned into a stage for political discussion about civil and human rights. In addition to the traditional bitter herbs, charoset, spring vegetable, shank bone, salt water, and egg found on the Seder plate, new symbolic foods are being added to express our individual views about gender issues, animal rights, racism, bigotry, and war. In the early 1980s, Jewish feminist and scholar Susannah Heschel stirred things up by adding an orange to her Seder plate to represent the “inclusion for lesbians, gays, and others who are marginalized by the Jewish community.”1  In 2014, Rabbi Marcus added a big tomato to her Seder plate to bring attention to underpaid/overworked workers in the agriculture/tomato-picking industry.2  To acknowledge powerful female leaders, many households now include a second cup of wine alongside the Prophet Elijah’s to remember the Prophetess Miriam who helped her brother Moses lead the Israelites out of the desert. And for vegetarians, a red beet (similar in color to blood) takes the place of the shank bone to represent the Paschal Sacrifice made the eve of the first Passover, while olives or an olive branch is used to symbolize the hope for peace in the Middle East. 

For your Seder this year, will you add something new to your Seder plate and make a statement about one of the many issues our society is struggling with today?
Please send me your ideas!

Footnotes:
1 Cohen, Tamara. “An Orange on the Seder Plate,” MyJewishLearning.com.
[Source URL (retrieved on 3/13/2017):
http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/an-orange-on-the-seder-plate].

2 Lipman, Steve. “The Tomato Finds Its Place on the Seder Plate,” JewishWeek.TimesofIsrael.com, 3/27/12 [Source URL (retrieved on 3/13/17): http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/the-tomato-finds-its-place-on-the-seder-plate].

Is the American Passover Macaroon a Descendant of the Alsatian Macaron?

Last summer I visited Colmar, a town in the northeastern region of Alsace bordering Germany, that looked like it was right out of a Disney fairly tale. Since the 17th century, Alsace moved back and forth under German and French control, and walking through Colmar I could easily see the influence of both in its architecture as well as its food. The Jewish community of Alsace is one of the oldest in Europe, dating back to the 11th century, and at its peak in 1870 came to about 35,000.1 In doing a little research online, I came across a paper by the sociologist Anny Bloch-Raymond noting that the first major influx of Jews from the Alsace-Lorraine region and Germany to America was from 1820 to 1860 (with the majority settling in New York from 1830-1850  2) for economic reasons, while the later wave of immigration from 1872-1918 was because of cultural and political reasons.3

Macaroons_Alsace_4

While meandering along Colmar’s winding streets, I noticed a local bakery that sold unique Alsatian pastries. When I got close enough to take a better look, I discovered small parcel-shaped cakes called macarons that looked exactly like the Passover macaroons I had grown up with in New York!

Macaroons_Alsace_3

I eagerly purchased a variety of flavors ranging from orange, passion fruit, and rum raisin, to almond, pistachio, and chocolate. When I tasted them, the texture was similar to the American-Jewish coconut-based macaroon, but the flavor was richer (and well, better). I went back to ask the woman working in the store if these macarons had any flour in them, and she explained that while it was mostly made of dried ground coconut, or contained ground nuts (such as pistachios or almonds), there was indeed some kind of regular flour mixed in (which explained the difference in texture).

Macaroons_Alsace_1

It appears to me that the Alsatian-German macaron that I tasted in Colmar is directly related to the Jewish-American Passover macaroon, brought over by German and Alsatian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York and other northeastern cities in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The macaron (made with dried coconut and/or nuts, flour, egg whites, and sugar) likely evolved into the macaroon (made with the same ingredients, minus the flour), which made it perfect for serving during Passover when flour is avoided.

FOOTNOTES:

1 Dreyfus, Jean-Marc. “Histoire et mémoire des Juifs d’Alsace : recherches actuelles.” Seminar November -June, 2006-2007.

2 Bloch-Raymond, Anny. “Enemies abroad, Friends in the United States: Jewish Diaspora from Alsace-Lorraine vs. Jewish Diaspora From Germany, 19th century-20th century.” CNRS November 16, 17, 2002, Dickinson College, published by the Clarke Center, Contemporary Issue series, nov. 2004, p. 8.

3 Bloch-Raymond, Anny. 1995. “A la merci de courants violents, les émigrés juifs de l’Est de la France aux Etats-Unis. In Revue des sciences sociales de la France de l’Est,” (22) 110-121.

In Honor of Women’s History Month: The Ma’yan Passover Haggadah

Ma'ayanHaggadah_Outline_72dpi

©Cover Illustration by Jennifer Abadi

While doing my spring/Passover cleaning, I came across this women’s haggadah that I had once illustrated for Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Program at the JCC. In the mid ’90s, Ma’yan held their first annual feminist Passover Seder in New York City, which became a tradition that continued for many years. Since then feminist Seders have been held throughout the United States to call attention to the roles that Jewish women have played in our history, as well as to encourage female leadership in the future. In honor of Women’s History Month, commemorate Miriam — the sister of Moses — who helped the Israelite women while fleeing Egypt. Take a moment to reflect upon strong and positive female role models who strive to make a positive impact on women in modern society. As we approach the Passover holiday, think about what you can add to your Seder ceremony to make the Passover experience more meaningful and inclusive.

From Damascus to the Upper West Side: Syrian cooking with Nada Mahfouz

On January 31st, 2017 I received an email from a student who has attended several of my classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in lower Manhattan:

“This is an email introduction to those who love Syrian food. Dr. Zeizafoun tells me his mom is visiting from Syria and is a great cook — so of course I thought of you!”

— Daphne Semet 

P.S. I want leftovers. 

FattetMakdous_1_blog.jpg

I immediately responded and Daphne connected me to Nebras Zeizafoun, a doctor in New York City, whose mother had just arrived from Damascus (not long before the ban on individuals entering the U.S. from Syria was declared). After a few emails back and forth, Nebras and I were able to work out a short menu of dishes to prepare, as well as the ingredients list. A few weeks later, Nebras’ wife Lana (serving as my Arabic interpreter) came over with his mother Nada, who toted a bagful of baby eggplants, a jar of sweet red pepper paste, a container of dried mint (from Syria), and a corer with a long wooden handle. There was barely enough time to introduce ourselves when Nada walked into my apartment, took off her coat, and immediately found her way to my kitchen to start working (seriously). It reminded me of the no-nonsense Syrian women in my own family when it came to cooking in the kitchen, and I had to scramble for some paper and a pen to jot notes down. After an hour or two a few Arabic words came back to me, and we all relaxed a bit more into our roles as teacher, interpreter, and student/recorder.

Quick notes about what I learned was:

  • Syrian food requires a lot of oil and lemons
  • It’s not so easy to core a tiny eggplant (without breaking it)
  • Halabi food (from Aleppo) is sweet and tart combining fruit with meat, 
    while Shami food (from Damascus) is more garlicky-savory
  • American parsley leaves and stems are much tougher than Syrian parsley
  • Fruit and vegetables are much better in Syria than in the U.S.
  • Za’tar leaves are often used as well as the dried za’tar spice blend
  • You can’t use low fat yogurt (“like water,” Nada said)
  • My dried mint is not so great (after a few sniffs Nada pulled out her own jar
    of dried mint that she had brought from Syria)

The following is one of the dishes that we prepared that afternoon. Like many Middle Eastern recipes, there are several steps, and you serve it in multiple layers. 

Fattet Makdous
(Beef Stuffed Baby Eggplants with Tomatoes, Sweet Red Pepper Paste,
Pomegranate Syrup, and Tahini-Lemon Sauce)

Yield: Serves 6

*Combine the following for Tahini-Lemon Sauce and set aside:
1 cup whole milk yogurt
2 teaspoons crushed or very finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons pomegranate syrup or concentrate

*Note: For those of you keeping kosher, you can leave out the sauce entirely,
or make a non-dairy sauce combining the following: 
½ cup tahini (sesame) paste
¼ cup cold water

1 teaspoon crushed or very finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons pomegranate syrup or concentrate

FattetMakdous_4_blog.jpg

FattetMakdous_5_blog.jpgIngredients for Filling:
1 tablespoon sunflower or canola oil
¼ cup very finely chopped white or yellow onions
1 pound ground beef
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground paprika

Prepare the Filling:
1. Heat oil in a large skillet or frying pan over high heat for 1 minute.Add the chopped onions and cook until soft and transparent, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the ground beef. Mix and press down with the back of a large wooden spoon to break up the meat. Cook over medium-high heat until brown, about 10 minutes.

3. Add the salt, nutmeg, cloves, and paprika and mix well. Continue to cook with the meat an additional minute or two. Remove from heat and pour into a small bowl to cool.

FattetMakdous_2_blog.jpgFattetMakdous_3_blog.jpgIngredients For Frying Eggplants:
24 baby eggplants (each about 3 inches long, these small eggplants are usually found in a special Middle Eastern or Turkish grocery), rinsed in cold water

2 to 4 tablespoons sunflower or canola oil, for frying

Prepare the Eggplants:
1. Trim off the stem of each eggplant and reserve tops in a small bowl.

(Note: Try to cut the minimum amount off so that most of the eggplant remains intact.)

2. Working from the stem to the bottom of the eggplant, peel off a strip of the outer purple skin to create a white stripe. In this same fashion, peel 2 or 3 more strips to create a design of purple and white stripes all around.

3. Core each eggplant, being careful not to break the outside shell. Place any excess pulp from inside of eggplant into the same bowl as the reserved stem tops.

4. Stuff each cored eggplant with about 1 tablespoon of the meat filling, pressing it in with your finger to make it compact. Take a small piece of the leftover pulp and press it into the top to plug the opening and prevent the filling from falling out while cooking. Place each stuffed eggplant onto a large platter or plate. (Note: Set aside any extra beef filling for sprinkling on top of the dish before serving.)

5. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Gently place in as many stuffed eggplants as you can and fry over high heat until browned on all sides, about 2 minutes. Remove each frying eggplant and place onto a clean tray.

FattetMakdous_6_blog.jpg

Ingredients for Tomato and Red Pepper Sauce:
1 tablespoon sunflower or canola oil

1½ cups coarsely chopped onions
(may also be cut into 1-inch strands)


½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground paprika
Kosher salt, to taste

½ cup tomato paste


1 tablespoon sweet red pepper paste
(sold in Middle Eastern or Turkish grocery stores)


2 tablespoons pomegranate paste or concentrate
(sold in Middle Eastern or Turkish grocery stores)

2 cups cold water

Prepare the Sauce:
1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan (about 10 inches wide and 8 inches tall) over high heat for 1 minute. Add the chopped onions or onion strands and cook until soft and transparent, about 5 minutes.

2. Mix in the nutmeg, cloves, paprika, and salt.

3. Add the tomato paste, red pepper paste, pomegranate syrup, and water and mix well until tomato paste dissolves.

4. Gently place each eggplant into the sauce (you can layer them to to fit, if necessary). Cook over medium-low heat, covered, about 10 minutes. Remove lid and simmer an additional 10 to 15 minutes for sauce to cook down and thicken slightly. Dish is ready when eggplants are soft.

5. Taste and adjust for salt if necessary.

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Layer and Serve the Fattet Makdous in the following manner:
1. Line the bottom of a large serving platter or large wide bowl with about 2 cups of
pita chips (if preparing for Passover, use broken up pieces of matzah instead).

2. Pour the tomato-pepper sauce over the pita chips (or matzah pieces).
3. Place each cooked eggplant on top of the sauce.
4. Sprinkle the top of the eggplants with any extra cooked meat filling.
5. Sprinkle the top of the meat with a few tablespoons of flat-leaf parsley leaves.
6. Finish the dish with a few tablespoons of slivered almonds or pistachios (if desired).
7. Serve immediately.

Sah’tein! (“To Your Health,” in Arabic.)

Stuffed Grape Leaves: From Istanbul to the Upper West Side.

ElifOmer

Elif Omer, in my kitchen

Elif is from Istanbul, and her two daughters attend the same school as my girls on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A few days before the first day of kindergarten (nearly three years ago), parents met for the first time in Central Park for a picnic, and that was when I was invited by Elif and her husband to join them as they set out a spread of Turkish delicacies, that included savory stuffed pastries called Borek, various homemade salads, and hand-rolled stuffed grape leaves. (They even had a large thermos-like canteen to serve hot Turkish tea!) This was when I knew that they were my kind of people, and I noted to myself that one day I would have to invite Elif over to cook and teach me some of her Turkish recipes.

Three years later, in late May 2016, I finally was able to organize a cooking date, and after dropping off the girls at school, Elif came back with me to show me some of her favorite vegetarian specialties. Stuffed grape leaves were at the top of my list so that is what we prepared first. Elif pointed out that in Istanbul (and perhaps Turkey overall) a bit of sugar and some dried currants are added to the filling to give a slight sweetness to balance with the saltiness of the grape leaves soaked in brine. The addition of a lot of cinnamon also gave it a nice Eastern flavor, that I thought was a bit different from the Greek kind that tastes more lemony. All in all you should give yourself about 3 to 3 1/2 hours so that you are not rushed and can take your time in carefully rolling each leaf. When finished, the stuffed leaves will be longer and thinner than the store-bought kind, and the outer leaves themselves should be tender with a slight bite, and not mushy.

Zeytinyagli Yaprak Sarmasi
(Stuffed Grape Leaves with Olive Oil, Rice, Cinnamon, Currants, and Pine Nuts)

(Yield: Serves 15 / Makes about 5 Dozen Stuffed Leaves)
Preparation Time: 2 1/2  to 3 Hours

INGREDIENTS:
One 32-ounce jar grape leaves, packed in brine

For Stuffing:
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped white onions
1 tablespoon dried mint leaves
2 cups cold water
1/3 cup pine nuts
½ cup dried currants
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup Turkish style rice (such as Osmancik) or Calrose rice
(a medium grain California type of white rice — not sushi rice),
rinsed several times in cold water and drained

For Sauce:
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil mixed with 1 cup cold water

For Serving:
1 lemon

GrapeLeavesStuffed_Turkish_1

Grape Leaves, Olive Oil, White Onions, Dried Mint, Pine Nuts, Dried Currants, Salt, Cinnamon, Sugar, Turkish Rice or Calrose type

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1. Dislodge the grape leaves from the jar and separate them gently. Place in a large bowl in the sink and rinse under cold running water. Set aside in a colander over a bowl to drain.

Prepare the Filling:
2. Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Add the chopped onions and cook, mixing constantly, until soft and transparent, but not browned, about 7 minutes. Reduce to a medium heat.

3. Measure out the dried mint into the palms of your hands, then grind the leaves into a powder directly over the skillet with the onions.

4. Add the water, pine nuts, dried currants, salt, cinnamon, sugar, and rice and mix well. Simmer over a low heat, uncovered, until liquid is mostly absorbed and mixture becomes thick and porridge-like, 7 to 10 minutes. Turn off heat and pour into a large bowl to cool to room temperature.

GrapeLeavesStuffed_Turkish_3

Stuff and Roll the Leaves:
5. Separate the smaller leaves from the larger ones into two piles (setting aside the ripped ones just for backup if needed). Take a large skillet, about 12 inches wide and 2 to 3 inches deep, and line the bottom with some of the broken and smaller leaves that won’t be used.

6. On a clean work surface, spread one of the larger grape leaves out with the underside (veins) facing up and the base or stem closest to you (the shiny side should be the outside of the stuffed leaf once rolled). Place about 2 teaspoons of the filling on the bottom-most center of each leaf and using your fingertips, gently arrange the filling in a long horizontal line about 3 inches long. (Note: You might need to adjust amount according to leaf size).

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GrapeLeavesStuffed_Turkish_5

Fold the bottom parts of the leaf over the filling.

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Fold each side in right where the filling ends.

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Continue to tightly roll upward, making sure that the sides are always folded and tucked inward to create a long, cigar shape.

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Place on top of the leaves lining the skillet and continue stuffing and rolling as many leaves as you can until the filling is finished.

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(Note: Make sure to place the rolled leaves very close together in the skillet, and if necessary, you can layer the stuffed leaves in a criss-cross fashion.)

7. Pour the olive oil-water mixture evenly over the leaves. Place a small plate directly on top of the leaves to compress them and prevent unraveling while cooking, then cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer 1 to 1½ hours over low heat, or until leaves are tender but not mushy, and rice filling is very soft. (Note: Check the leaves every half hour and, if all of the liquid is absorbed, add another ½ cup water mixed with 2 tablespoons olive oil.)

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8. Remove from heat and cool, covered, to room temperature.

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Serve at room temperature arranged nicely on a platter, with fresh lemon squeezed on top.

Afiyet Olsun! (Bon Appetit!)

 

 

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