Tu BiShvat Tagine

standard Sunday February 5th, 2017 Leave a response
Tagine Clay Pot. Photo by Serena Epstein.
Tagine Clay Pot. Photo by Serena Epstein.

In Morocco, the Jewish community would celebrate Tu BiShvat by gathering for a collective feast. Tu BiShvat is the New Year of the trees as described in the Mishna. The wealthiest family would serve a delectable slow cooked meat and dried fruit dish called a tagine. It was named after the special clay pot used to prepare the stew. Traditionally it was prepared with chicken or lamb, dried fruits, and nuts. When the feast ended, every person went home with their hat filled with a gift of various fruits.

You may celebrate with your friends and family with a taste of North African hospitality this Tu Bishvat. On February 10th, when winter is in full force in Philadelphia, serve an exotic fruity chicken tagine. Send your guests home with a care package of fresh or dried fruits, just like the parnassim of Casablanca, Tangiers, and Tetouan.

Chicken Tagine. Photo by Scottish Association of Geography Teachers.

Chicken Tagine. Photo by Scottish Association of Geography Teachers.

Chicken Tagine with Honey and Dried Fruits
Adapted from Cuisine Marocaine

Ingredients:

  • 6 chicken drumsticks
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 cup dried dates
  • 1 cup raw almonds
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 4 tbsp. honey
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. chopped cilantro
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of saffron threads
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot.
  2. Add the chicken and onions.
  3. Season with the ginger, cinnamon, saffron, salt, and pepper.
  4. Mix in the honey.
  5. Toast the almonds in a hot non-stick frying pan.
  6. Place the almonds in the pot.
  7. Add the dates, garlic, cilantro, and broth.
  8. Bring to a boil, cover the pot tightly with a lid, and lower the flame to a simmer.
  9. Cook for 30 minutes.
  10. Serve with fluffy steamed couscous.

Enjoy!

Published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

A Diet of Biblical Portions

standard Saturday January 21st, 2017 Leave a response
Photo by By BerndtF https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1022691
Photo by By BerndtF https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1022691

 

Spoiled goat milk, overcooked fruit and fried locusts were just some of the food choices in “the land of milk and honey.”

One of the first things Jewish children learn about ancient Israel is that it is referred to as “the land of milk and honey.” Beyond that evocative phrase, though, how much do we really know about what the Israelites ate, and what, if any, of their food traditions live on today?

Ancient Israel was a fertile land — a land of dates, pomegranates, figs, olives, grapes, barley and wheat. This was a land that could sustain flocks of sheep and goats. While not a cookbook, the Torah was a guide to what the Israelites were and were not permitted to eat. These ancient rules persist to this day, shaping our present diet.

While they found abundance in The Land of Israel, the Israelites were respectful of their resources — and there was no waste. All food that was not consumed fresh was preserved somehow. The yearly cycle was centered on providing for the future, so that there would be food during all the seasons of the year. While the land was blessed, they always needed to anticipate the rhythm of the seasons, and the potential for natural disaster to create shortages.

They entered a Mediterranean territory with hills, shrubs and sparse amounts of fresh water. Goats and sheep could thrive in this environment — they were nimble enough to navigate the terrain and were willing to eat plants that larger livestock would reject, such as woody shrubs, vines and weeds. Goats and sheep also require less water than other livestock. The Torah describes the flocks that were kept in Genesis 29:9, when Rachel and Jacob meet as she brings her sheep to the well, and in Exodus 2:19, when Joseph rescues Zipporah and her sisters as they give water to their father’s sheep.

Goat and sheep’s milk was a staple for Ancient Israelites. The first yogurt-like cheeses were accidentally made by shepherds around 8000 BCE, when sheep and goats were first domesticated. They kept the milk in sacks made out of goat stomachs in the warm climate. The rennet naturally found in the stomachs curdled the milk, transforming it into a yogurt-like cheese. The shepherds were not in a position to waste any food, and decided to eat the “spoiled” milk anyway. They discovered that they liked its tart flavor. This was the first labaneh.

This became an important way of preserving milk. The milk was poured into a sack made of goat leather and then hung from a wooden peg, where it was rocked back and forth so that, after about 90 minutes, the fat had separated from the other liquids. Salt was added, and the cheese was drained. Some of this cheese was eaten fresh; the rest was left in the sun until it became dry and hard. This type of cheese was called afiq, and has a strong, salty flavor. It could be stored indefinitely in this state, and was reconstituted with boiling water and then eaten. What about the water left behind in the process of cheese-making? In a culture where nothing could afford to be squandered, it became a refreshing sour drink called qom. Afiq and qom are still prepared in some traditional Bedouin households to this day.

Goats and sheep are ritually clean, since they have cloven hooves and chew their cud (Leviticus 11:3-8 and Deuteronomy 14:4-8). Their milk is therefore permitted — but the Israelites needed to find a different method to preserve milk. The laws of kashrut forbade them from mixing milk with meat (Exodus 23:19), so in order to comply with the laws of kashrut, shepherds did not keep their milk in goat skin bags, but in clay jars instead. Cheese was made by heating the milk over a fire and stirring it with a fig tree branch. The sap of the fig tree curdled the milk. This produced a cheese very similar to ricotta, made even more delicious with a drizzle of honey.

Ironically, the first inhabitants of the land of milk and honey may not have had much of the latter available in biblical times. The “honey” referred to in God’s description of the Land to Moses has traditionally been interpreted to be not honey from bees, but rather fruit honey. Fruit honey was made by slowly cooking dates, carobs, figs or grapes with water until a syrup was obtained. Date honey was the most commonly available fruit syrup in those times. It was one of the methods used for preserving fruit for year-round use.

However, the Torah specifically mentions honey from a honeycomb when describing how Samson ate honey from the carcass of a lion (Judges 14:8-9). This inspired his riddle, “Out of the eater came forth food, and out of the strong came forth sweetness” (Judges 14:14).

An archaeological excavation at Tel Rehov in Israel is challenging the notion that “honey” was not honey from bees. One hundred beehives from the First Temple period were discovered during a 2007 dig. The cylindrical hives, made from unbaked clay and stacked one on top of the other, form the only apiary in the Near East that has been unearthed from this period.

Why was bee’s honey permitted? After all, bees are unkosher insects. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers, which is processed by the bees. But the end result is not part of the bee’s body, and since it does not originate from the bees, it is kosher. Bees were valuable not just for the honey they produced, but also for pollinating many edible plants.

Not all insects in biblical Israel had such a benevolent effect on the environment, as even the land of abundance was not immune to natural disasters. One of the worst catastrophes to befall people of the ancient world was the arrival of locusts. Desert locusts would travel from Africa to the Near East, arriving in Israel by way of Egypt. There were millions of locusts in one swarm, eating every plant in their path.

Locusts are the only insects that are kosher, according to Leviticus (11:20-23): “Every flying insect that uses four legs for walking shall be avoided by you. The only flying insects with four walking legs you may eat are those with knees extending above their feet, [using these longer legs] to hop on the ground. Among these you may only eat members of the red locust family, the yellow locust family, the spotted gray locust family and the white locust family. All other flying insects with four feet [for walking] must be avoided by you.” This was probably an act of compassion for pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life.

At the first sign of locusts, a shofar was sounded to alert the community. People dropped everything in order to deal with this threat to their survival, capturing as many locusts as they could with nets. The locusts were blanched in boiling water, after which their heads, wings and legs were detached before being peeled “like the scales off a fish.” Then they were preserved with sea salt or vinegar in wooden barrels. These preserved locusts carried the people through the famine that inevitably followed the destruction inflicted by the swarm.

Yemenite Jews have retained the knowledge of identifying, preparing, and eating kosher locusts. During Israel’s last locust infestation in 2013, Israeli Yemenite men traveled to the southern border with Egypt. They captured the desert locusts with nets and brought them home alive. There, they were prepared in the traditional Yemenite way: blanched, then slow-roasted in the oven overnight. The next day, they were consumed like potato chips as a crunchy snack.

God gave the ancient Israelites a good land, which nourished them. Goats and sheep supplied milk, and dates yielded fruit honey. By being respectful of the laws of kashrut, not wasting, and providing for the future, the people of Israel persevered and survived disasters such as plagues of locusts. We celebrate God’s gifts of abundance and give thanks to this day.

Ronit Treatman, the creator of Hands-On Jewish Holidays, lives in Philadelphia. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

Published in The Jewish Exponent.

Romaniote Jewish Pastitsada

standard Monday January 16th, 2017 Leave a response
Photo of pastitsada from Lazy Pasta YouTube video.
Photo of pastitsada from Lazy Pasta YouTube video.

A shorthand way to differentiate between Jewish communities is to denote them as “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardi.” There are several Jewish groups that do not fit into these categories. One such community is the Romaniote Jewish community of Greece.

Romaniote Jews have lived in Greece for over 2,000 years, initially arriving after the fall of the Second Temple. Some of them were brought as slaves. The name “Romaniote” is derived from the Greek name for the Byzantine Empire, “Romaioi.” They speak Yevanic, or Judeo-Greek. Many of them settled in Corfu, one of the Ionian Islands in northwestern Greece. The majority of this community was deported to concentration camps and killed during the Holocaust. Fewer than fifty Romaniote Jews remain in Ioannina today.

First settled by the Phoenicians, Corfu was conquered by the Venetians in 1386. The Venetians ruled over Corfu for 400 years. Corfu withstood two sieges by the Ottomans, never succumbing to Ottoman rule.

The original cuisine of Corfu was Mediterranean. It mainly consisted of wine, olive oil, wheat, fish, and foraged edible weeds. During the Middle Ages, when the Venetians captured Corfu, Venice controlled the spice and sugar trade. The Venetians brought new foods to Corfu from America and the Far East. These included coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, corn, peppers, and beans.

The Jewish community adopted these foods. Pastitsada is one of the most famous recipes from Corfu. Every cook has his or her own signature mix of spices that seasons the sauce. Traditionally, pastitsada was cooked with rooster meat. Cubed beef may be substituted by the modern urban chef.

Pastitsada

Adapted from Authentic Greek Recipes

  • 2 Lbs. cubed beef
  • 1 Lb. pasta
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup tomato, cubed
  • 4 onions, chopped
  • 1 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 cup red wine
  • ¼ tsp. ground chili pepper
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot.
  2. Brown the meat, and place in a separate pot.
  3. Brown the onions, and add them to the meat.
  4. Place the pot with the meat over the fire.
  5. Stir in the wine, chili pepper, cinnamon sticks, cloves, salt, and black pepper.
  6. When the wine boils down, add the tomato paste. Stir the contents of the pot until all the meat is coated with tomato paste.
  7. Add the cup of cubed tomato.
  8. Pour in enough water to cover the meat.
  9. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 1 ¼ hours.
  10. In a separate pot, boil water.
  11. Add salt and a few drops of olive oil.
  12. Stir in the pasta.
  13. Cook until it is al dente (about 10 minutes).
  14. Drain the pasta.
  15. Serve the pasta with some meat sauce ladled onto it.

Akara: Black-Eyed Pea Fritters

standard Saturday December 31st, 2016 Leave a response
Acaraje Baiana: A Hanukkah Food
Photo by Baiana Claudia

What should you serve when the last night of Hanukkah abuts the secular New Year’s Eve? The Yoruba tribe of West Africa offers the perfect recipe for a mash-up of traditions. It makes it possible for you to combine the American southern custom of serving black-eyed peas for good luck with the Hanukkah tradition of serving latkes. The result is akara, one of the most popular snacks in West Africa.

Akara means bread in the Yoruba language, yet it is gluten-free. It is prepared by cooking and pureeing black-eyed peas, then seasoning them with salt and onions and frying them in palm oil — but, in honor of Hanukkah, this recipe calls for olive oil. After it is cooked, akara is eaten with a spicy sauce.

Akara

  • 1 can black-eyed peas
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic
  • Minced chili pepper to taste
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Olive oil
  1. Process the black-eyed peas in a blender.
  2. Mix with the onion, garlic, salt, black pepper and chili pepper.
  3. Shape the batter into walnut-sized balls.
  4. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  5. Fry in the olive oil until golden-brown.
  6. Serve with hot sauce.

Adapted from African Food Recipes.

Published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Being Jewish During Christmas: 10 Easy Steps

standard Wednesday December 21st, 2016 Leave a response
Celebrating Hanukkah
Photo by Shoshanah https://www.flickr.com/photos/shoshanah/

Being Jewish in the diaspora is especially difficult during Christmas. Christmas is such a shiny and beautiful celebration that it is hard for Hanukkah not to be eclipsed by it. I decided to rise to the challenge. Here is how I did it.

1) Acknowledge the beauty of Christmas

Honesty is key. The Christmas decorations and lights are lovely. There is no harm in saying so. My family enjoyed admiring them all around us. At no time were Christmas decorations allowed in our home, and my kids were never permitted to help their friends decorate a Christmas tree.

2) Control the radio and television

As soon as Thanksgiving is over, the broadcast media inundates everyone with Christmas music and movies. We made a point of listening to Hanukkah and Israeli music, and to watch movies about Hanukkah. We created our own Hanukkah bubble, which was surrounded by Christmas.

3) Instill pride with the retelling of the story of the Maccabees

Tell your kids the story of the bravery of the Maccabees. Use whatever resources you have at your disposal to bring it to life. Most kids are fascinated to discover that the weapon of mass destruction during their time was the war elephant.

Photo by Joe Goldberg https://www.flickr.com/photos/goldberg/

Photo by Joe Goldberg

4) Make Hanukkah crafts

We made our own beeswax candles and hanukiot. It was so much more meaningful for the children to light a menorah they had made themselves.

5) Participate in community celebrations

Your family may join an ice menorah sculpting and lighting happening, or go to the Latkepalooza to taste non-traditional latkes. Communal menorah lightings and celebrations are a wonderful way to feel part of your People during Hanukkah.

6) Create your own Hanukkah traditions

We celebrated Hanukkah by making our own gelt, preparing latkes and sufganiot, and hosting at least one Hanukkah party. It is fun to serve Israeli foods during a Hanukkah party, as well as Sephardic treats and specialties from other Jewish communities. Of course, no Hanukkah party is complete without the dreidel game.

7) Light an olive oil menorah

Lighting an olive oil menorah transports you back in time to the Temple in Jerusalem. Your family can relive the rededication of the Temple after the victory of the Maccabees, and the lighting of the pure oil.

8) Give great presents!

If you examine the reasons young children are envious of Christmas, one of the main ones is that gifts are involved. This one is easy to solve. I told my kids that while children who celebrate Christmas get gifts during only one day, kids who celebrate Hanukkah get gifts during eight nights. Then, I went out and bought eight great gifts for each of them. They had something to look forward to every day. When Christmas and Hanukkah were over, all the kids at school compared what they had received. My children were satisfied with their gifts.

Photo by MathKnight https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:MathKnight

Photo by MathKnight

9) Bond with other Jews

There is a special bond that forms in December between Jews. There are enough of us in the Philadelphia area that together we share a special Christmas tradition: have dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown, and then go to a movie. Check the Jewish community listings for special activities and events scheduled on December 24 and 25. Single people in our community should go to the matzah ball where they can mingle with other eligible single Jews. Even when Christmas and Hanukkah don’t overlap, non-Christmas feels like our own special holiday.

10) Be genuinely happy for your Christian friends.

I always wish my Christian friends a happy Christmas, and I mean it. I love hearing about their different traditions and recipes. I have modeled this behavior for my family.

My kids are now young adults. I asked them what they thought of their Hanukkah experience growing up in the United States. They told me that Christmas is a beautiful holiday, and that they feel so lucky to be Jews celebrating Hanukkah.

Published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Hanukkah Cookies: Recipe for Rosettes

standard Sunday December 18th, 2016 Leave a response

Would you like to serve a fried treat that is delicious and beautiful this Hanukkah? Surprise your family and friends with a delicate rose, created from batter, shaped by a metal cookie cutter, and cooked in olive oil. This ethereal treat harks back to ancient Persia, medieval German woodcutters, and the Ottoman Empire.

The technique of deep-frying foods originated in the Mediterranean in the 5th Century BCE. The most commonly used oil was olive oil. As traders took this art to Persia, cooks poured batter into the hot oil, and then immersed the fritter in a syrup of rosewater and sugar.

In the 15th Century CE elaborate wooden molds were carved in Europe for shaping gingerbread cookies. Both the mold carving and gingerbread baking were controlled by guilds. In the 18th Century CE the wood was replaced by tin, and shaped cookies were democratized. Everyone could bake their own fancy cookies!

The cooks of the Ottoman Empire brought all these traditions together to create a beautiful fritter called demir tatlisi. They dipped iron molds in the shape of flowers in batter and deep-fried them. A warm syrup of sugar, water, and lemon was allowed to simmer on the side. After all the cookies were fried, they were dipped in the syrup and served. Visiting European diplomats brought these recipes to Europe, where they were adopted. Scandinavia fell in love with the flower cookies, calling them Struva. The syrup was replaced with powdered sugar. When the British discovered them, they named them rosettes. You may surprise your Hanukkah guests with beautiful flower shaped fritters.

Hanukkah Rosettes

Adapted from Kari Diehl

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • Powdered sugar
  • Olive oil or vegetable oil

 

Special equipment: You will need a rosette mold.

  1. Mix the flour, milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, and salt.
  2. Refrigerate the batter for 2 hours.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy pot to 360 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. Pour the batter into a shallow casserole dish.
  5. Heat the rosette mold in the oil.
  6. Dip the hot mold in the batter so that the bottom and sides are coated, but not the top.
  7. Submerge the mold and batter in the hot oil.
  8. Fry until golden brown.
  9. Place the rosettes on a paper towel to blot the excess oil.
  10. Arrange the rosettes on a plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Hanukkah Chili

standard Tuesday December 6th, 2016 Leave a response

As winter descends over Philadelphia, we get to drive away the darkness with our Hanukkah lights. One way to make our Hanukkah parties more festive is to cook a large pot of chili. Served with corn chips or some fresh crusty bread and assorted garnishes, it is the perfect main course to enjoy before the latkes, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), and chocolate gelt make their appearance. Read More

The Bounty of the Sea

standard Tuesday November 15th, 2016 Leave a response
Photo by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Photo by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

It is common to visualize the Thanksgiving feast as a beautifully set table with a large, golden-brown roasted turkey at the center, surrounded by fall vegetables and cornbread. Perhaps it would be more accurate, though, to feature a platter of fish. The Wampanoag tribe, who celebrated the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims in Plymouth in 1621, depended on the Atlantic Ocean for much of their sustenance. The Native Americans foraged for mushrooms, berries, wild herbs and nuts to supplement their diet, and they shared this bounty with the Pilgrims.

One of the most plentiful species of fish found in the Atlantic Ocean was cod. The recipe below is inspired by ingredients that would have been easily available to the Native Americans and Pilgrims. Read More

The Savory Pumpkin Pie

standard Thursday October 27th, 2016 1 response

How can you make something for Thanksgiving dinner in a hurry? Many people dread having to cook all the traditional dishes. They lack the time and expertise to roast the perfect whole turkey. One dish that combines many of the traditional fall flavors associated with Thanksgiving is the savory chicken pumpkin pot pie.

This delicious pie can be prepared using convenience and canned goods from the supermarket. It is a very versatile recipe, and you may use any fresh or frozen vegetables at hand to enhance it. If you prefer, you may use a store-bought roasted turkey in the recipe instead of the chicken.

Photo by Alvin Smith https://www.flickr.com/photos/heather_joy/

Photo: Alvin Smith.

Chicken Pumpkin Pie

  • 1 roasted chicken, cut up
  • 1 can of plain pumpkin puree
  • 1 onion, cubed
  • 1 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • 1/2 cups fresh sage leaves, minced
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 3 tbsp. chicken broth
  • 2 frozen pie crusts or individual tart shells
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Heat the oil in a heavy pot.
  3. Brown the onion over medium heat.
  4. Add the minced garlic.
  5. Mix in the flour, and then add the broth.
  6. Stir until you have a smooth sauce.
  7. Place the chicken, pumpkin, parsley, and sage in a large bowl.
  8. Season with salt and pepper.
  9. Stir the contents of the bowl into the sauce.
  10. Pour the pumpkin-chicken mixture into the pie crust or tart shells.
  11. Top the pie crust or tart with the second pie crust or flattened tart shell, pinching the edges shut.
  12. Cut a few slits in the top crust to allow the steam to escape.
  13. Bake for 45 minutes for a large pie, around 15 minutes for individual tarts.

Ful Nabed: Sukkot Fava Bean Soup

standard Thursday October 20th, 2016 Leave a response
Jewish Soup for Sukkot: Fava Bean Soup
Photo by Neven Mrgan https://www.flickr.com/photos/neven/

When the Ancient Israelites left Egypt, they carried the memories of the foods they enjoyed with them. Of all the vegetables, they missed fava beans the most. Fava beans, which have been in Egypt for over 8,000 years, have been found in the tombs of the pharaohs as part of the indispensable items that must be brought to the afterlife. Egyptian Jews have retained the tradition of eating fava beans when celebrating happy occasions. On the sixth night of Sukkot, a delicious soup made with fava beans, called Ful Nabed, is served.

Ful Nabed: Fava Bean Soup

  • 2 cans of fava beans
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 5 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 4 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp. minced parsley
  1. Pour the contents of the canned fava beans into a blender and puree.
  2. Heat the puree in a pot.
  3. Stir in the garlic, cumin, oil and lemon juice.
  4. If the soup is too thick, add some water.
  5. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Adapted from Saad Fayed.

Published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.