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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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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

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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?

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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

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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.

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).

HeleneJawharaPiner_3_blog_MohamedJawhara
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”:

PlatoJudio_Recipe_Helene_1A_blog

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.

PlatoJudio_1_blog

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.

PlatoJudio_2_blogPlatoJudio_3_blog

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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Recipe_PlatoJudeoRellenoOculto_Helene_1_GodWilling

(God Willing, He Will Come.)

 

Nargesi: A pie in love with itself.

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The name Nargesi comes from the Farsi word (Narges) for the Narcissus plant or daffodil, a sunny springtime flower (with either bright yellow petals and a deep orange center, or bright white petals with a deep yellow center) that has come to symbolize rebirth and renewal. This river bank flower is named after the Greek God Narcissus known for his extraordinary beauty, who subsequently drowned while admiring his reflection in a pool of water. Over time the term “narcissist” has come to define someone consumed with his or her own physical appearance or ego.

In my research on this dish I came across photos where instead of the eggs being scrambled with greens and herbs (as done in this recipe), the eggs were cracked open and poached directly on top of a bed of sauteed greens and onions, which visually resembles the Narges flower over leaves. I learned this unusual recipe from my friend Simona Shokrian, whose family would serve this for Passover. The resulting dish is more like a hearty frittata, mixed with herbs, spinach, and tiny meatballs, that you cut into wedges like a pie. Naima Abrishami suggests to sprinkle with lemou Omani (crushed Persian dried limes) to add a slight tangy flavor before serving.

Nargassi_6A_blog

Nargesi (Persian Egg “Pie” with Leeks, Spinach, Turmeric, and Tiny Meatballs)

YIELD: SERVES 6 TO 8

INGREDIENTS

For Meatballs:
1 large (1/2 pound) white onion, pureed in food processor (should have about 1 cup)
1 pound ground turkey (dark meat better since it has some fat) or beef

For Nargesi:
2 tablespoons grape seed, safflower, or vegetable oil
1½ cups coarsely chopped yellow or white onions (about 1 large)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white or freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin (optional)
1 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley leaves
1 cup finely chopped coriander leaves or 1/3 cup tarragon leaves
½ cup finely chopped dill leaves
4 ounces coarsely baby spinach leaves (about 7 loose cups)
2 cups coarsely chopped leeks (use dark green and white parts only) rinsed in cold water and drained, or 1 cup coarsely chopped chives
¾ cup hot water
6 large eggs, lightly beaten

For Serving (optional):
2 tablespoons ground or crushed lemou Omani (dried Persian limes)
or 1 to 2 whole lemou Omani, ground in food processor

STEPS:
1. Drain the excess liquid from the puréed onions and mix with the ground meat in a medium bowl.

2. Heat a large 5- or 6- quart pot with oil over high heat for 1 minute. (Note: Your pot should be about 9 or 10 inches wide, but no more or the final pie will be too thin!) Add the chopped onions and cook until soft and transparent, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the salt, pepper, turmeric, and cumin (if desired) and mix well. Cook 1 minute.

4. Reduce to a medium-low heat. Wet your hands lightly with cold water (to prevent sticking) and taking only 11/2 teaspoons of the meat mixture, form it into a small, smooth meatball the size of a large cherry. (Meat will be very soft and wet, so be gentle.) Drop the meatball into the pot and continue until all of the meat mixture has been used up. Cover pot and steam until solid and cooked through, about 20 minutes.

5. Drop in the parsley, coriander (or tarragon), dill, spinach, and leeks (or chives) and cover.
Steam until the herbs and spinach have wilted and softened, 10 minutes.

6. Pour the hot water over the top and mix gently so as not to break meatballs. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover, reduce to a medium heat, and cook for 15 minutes. Uncover and cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. (Eggs will cook too quickly if added to mixture when very hot.)

7. Once nargasi has cooled, re-warm over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Gradually pour in the beaten eggs while gently mixing with a spoon to distribute evenly. Partially cover and steam over lowest setting until eggs have solidified but are still soft and slightly wet in the center, 35 to 40 minutes.

8. Score and scoop out large pieces of the nargasi and arrange in layers onto a serving platter or plate. Serve warm with lemou Omani on the side for individuals to sprinkle on top of each serving, as desired.

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