Searching for a Jewish past through recipes with Jewish roots.

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Photo by Mohamed Jawhara

This past October, I received an email from Hélène Jawhara-Piñer, a young French woman with Spanish roots (on her father’s side) who was preparing her doctorate in Bordeaux, a city with the largest Sephardic community in France. Helene explained to me that she was focusing on the Arab culinary heritage of 13th and 14th century Andalusian Spain, and by translating original Arabic and Spanish recipes and manuscripts from this same era she was hoping to trace the ways in which Arab Muslims, Catholics, and Jews once shared recipes and cooking techniques, finding where they diverged, and how they transformed dishes into ones still prepared today. I was very curious about Hélène’s area of study, as it overlapped with my own personal and professional interests in Judeo-Arabic and Sephardic cooking, and as a result the two of us became instant pen pals, writing back and forth about recipes, ingredients, and cooking techniques. After corresponding for about six months, Hélène decided to come to New York City to cook with me in the days leading up to Passover to learn some hands-on techniques of the Sephardic foods I was preparing for clients as well as for my own two Seders (which she also attended, along with her husband).

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Photo by Mohamed Jawhara

While in New York City, Hélène further related to me how a few years ago she learned from an uncle on her father’s side that they once had Jewish family living in 14th century Spain, changed their name to Piñer (likely based upon their agricultural business in pine trees), a common practice forced upon Jews at this time. This knowledge of her own Jewish past sparked a personal interest in recipes that like she, had Jewish roots. Now the detective, Hélène began sifting through hundreds of recipes from this time period kept in the university’s library in search of those that either mentioned explicitly that they were Jewish (which was rare), inferred a Jewish origin according to ingredients used or more interestingly left out due to the laws of kashrut (such as using beef in a dish normally using pork, or vegetables like eggplant to replace meat all together, or olive oil in place of butter in a dish that also contained  meat), or used a particular technique (such as cooking a covered, single-pot dish for a long time in a low heat) indicating Shabbat.

During her visit, Hélène and I decided to recreate one particular recipe that she had translated from Arabic into French. The recipe was very general, written more like a long paragraph, using vague words like “spices” and “aromatics” in the ingredients list. Hélène explained that in her research she noticed that recipes from southern Spain and North Africa frequently used cinnamon, ground ginger, black pepper, and cumin, while aromatics likely referred to fresh coriander leaves (parsley was a later addition used mostly by Christians in places like Italy), bay leaves, onion juice, fresh mint, pine nuts, rosewater, and the leaves, skin, and pulp of an etrog — a Biblical fruit in the citrus family resembling a large bumpy lemon (something still used symbolically during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, an agricultural festival marking the end of the wheat harvest in the Land of Israel).

What fascinated me most was when Hélène explained that while Jews who remained in Southern Spain were forced to alter their dishes and ways of cooking so as to hide from the authorities of the Inquisition, those who fled to nearby Morocco were able to continue their original cooking techniques because they were protected (which ultimately preserved these recipes in exile). By examining traditional Moroccan recipes that continue to be prepared today by Sephardic Jews in the diaspora (outside of Spain), we can better learn about how these dishes were originally prepared then (before Jews, and ultimately Muslims, were forced to convert or leave).

The following is the recipe from which Hélène and I based our own creation. For those of you who know Arabic, you will see the word Yehudiy’yeh in its title (the second word reading from right to left), which describes this style of dish as “Jewish”:

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Plato Judío Relleno Oculto
(Jewish Style Layered & Stuffed Omelet Cake with “Hidden” Meatballs)

Yield: Serves 10 / Makes one 10-inch pie

INGREDIENTS:

For Ground Meat Layer:
1¼ pounds ground beef
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh coriander leaves
½ cup coarsely grated (not chopped) yellow or white onions
2 teaspoons rosewater
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons cold water
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1¼ teaspoons kosher salt (if using kosher meat use only ¼ to ½ teaspoon)
¼ teaspoon coarsely ground fresh black pepper

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (for frying)
2 bay leaves

For Meatball Layer:
1¼ pounds ground beef
¼ cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
½ cup coarsely grated (not chopped) yellow or white onions
2 teaspoons rosewater
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons cold water
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt (if using kosher meat use only ¼ to ½ teaspoon)
¼ teaspoon coarsely ground fresh black pepper

¼ cup matzah cake meal (for rolling meatballs before frying)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (for frying)

For Omelet Layer #1:
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons reserved oil from fried meatballs (or use extra virgin olive oil), for frying

For Omelet Layer #2:
5 large eggs, lightly beaten

For Topmost Egg Layer:
1 dozen large eggs, lightly beaten
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon rosewater

For Serving:
Coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves
Toasted pine nuts and pistachios, coarsely chopped
Ground cinnamon

STEPS:

Prepare the Ground Meat Layer:
1. Combine all ground meat ingredients (except the bay leaves and oil) in a medium mixing bowl, squeezing together with your hands until smooth and soft.

2. Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet (preferably nonstick) over high heat for 1 minute. Add the bay leaves and fry for 30 seconds.

3. Add the ground meat in small amounts, breaking it up with the edge of the spoon so that meat cooks evenly and without large clumps. Cook until brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Pour into a bowl and set aside to cool. Clean and dry the same skillet to use for the meatballs.

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Prepare the Meatballs Layer:
4. Combine all meatball ingredients (except the matzah cake flour and oil) in a mixing bowl, squeezing together with your hands until smooth and soft.

5. Scoop out 1 level tablespoon of the meat mixture and roll it into a smooth, even ball (you can lightly wet your palms with cold water to prevent balls from sticking to your hands). Place the ball onto a large tray or platter, and continue in this manner until all of the meat mixture has been used up.

6. Place the tray of meatballs and a small bowl of the matzah cake flour before you, just to the side of the stove where you will be frying. Warm 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet (preferably non-stick) over high heat for 1 minute, then roll a meatball in the matzah cake flour and gently place it into the hot oil. Fill the skillet with several meatballs and fry each one until dark brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. As each meatball is browned, place it onto a separate tray or platter until all the meatballs have been fried. Being careful not to splatter and burn yourself, pour the hot oil into a ceramic or heatproof glass bowl and set aside to reuse for the omelets.

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Prepare Omelet Layer #1:
7. Combine all the ingredients (except the oil) for the first omelet in a medium bowl.

8. Warm 2 tablespoons of the reserved oil from the meatballs (or fresh extra virgin olive oil if you prefer) in a nonstick 10-inch skillet over high heat. Pour the egg mixture into the hot skillet and fry until firm on top and slightly curled along the edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn off heat and using a spatula, gently slide the omelet out onto a dinner plate or platter and set aside until needed. (Keep the oil remaining in the skillet to be used for the second omelet.)

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Prepare Omelet Layer #2:
9. Reheat the pan with whatever oil remaining in it over a high heat for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Pour the 5 beaten eggs for this second omelet into the hot skillet and cook until firm on top and slightly curled along the edges, 3 to 5 minutes (like the first one). Turn off the heat, and leave this omelet in the skillet to serve as the bottom layer.

Prepare Topmost Egg Layer:
10. Combine all the ingredients for the topmost egg layer in a medium bowl and set aside.

Assemble the Pie Layers:
11. Pour cooked ground meat evenly over the omelet remaining in the bottom
of the skillet.

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12. Gently slide Omelet Layer #1 (that you have sitting on a plate on the side)
on top of this ground meat layer.

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13. Arrange each meatball on top of this second omelet layer so that the omelet
is evenly covered (it is okay if there are spaces between the meatballs).

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14. Pour the Topmost Egg Layer mixture evenly over the top of the meatballs
to serve as the final layer of the pie (meatballs will be poking out and visible).
Cover skillet tightly and steam over low heat until eggs on top have solidified
and fused with meatballs and rest of cake, about 30 minutes.

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Serve Cake:
15. Cool cake 20 to 30 minutes, then run a thin plastic spatula around the edges to dislodge it from the skillet. Place a round platter or plate (larger than the skillet itself) on top of the skillet and quickly flip skillet over so that the meatballs become the base of the layer cake and the omelet becomes the top.

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Photo by Mohamed Jawhara

16. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the chopped mint leaves and toasted nuts and serve warm or room temperature cut into wedges.

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(God Willing, He Will Come.)

 

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4 thoughts on “Searching for a Jewish past through recipes with Jewish roots.

  1. Robert Levine June 1, 2016 at 3:25 pm Reply

    A lovely post. My wife does not eat beef or eggs, so I won’t be making it, but I look forward to other collaborative recipes with Hélène.

    • Jennifer Abadi June 1, 2016 at 3:28 pm Reply

      Thank you Robert. Helene and I hope to do further translations and recipe reconstructions again in the future!

    • Helene June 17, 2016 at 2:44 am Reply

      Thank you Robert!

  2. Jamie June 1, 2016 at 8:20 pm Reply

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading.

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