About twelve years ago Joyce Goldstein came out with three beautiful and wonderful cookbooks, now unfortunately and undeservedly out of print: Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (1998), Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean (2000), and Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean (2002). The recipes in these books are, for the most part, traditional, tweaked for maximum flavor and adapted for the modern kitchen. Although not vegetarian, there is plenty for the vegetarian in these pages. I found myself paging through these cookbooks, marking recipe after recipe as ones I must try. All the recipes are kosher, and Joyce provides in each volume a brief introduction to the Jewish dietary laws. One caveat, which Joyce mentions in passing but does not elaborate on: many of the recipes which Joyce labels kosher for Passover are kosher only by Sephardic and not by Ashkenazic standards.
Cucina Ebraica, as the subtitle indicates, deals with the cooking of the Italian Jews. As we learn in the introduction, the Jews of Italy fall into three main categories: the Italkim, on the Italian peninsula since the second century B.C.E., the Sephardim, arriving with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and the Ashkenazim, who began showing up in the fourteenth century. We find herein many familiar Italian dishes that are of Jewish origin: ingredients, such as rice, artichokes, pumpkin, or eggplant are a giveaway, as well as cooking techniques: frying is one such technique. Then there are the Italian dishes adapted to conform to Jewish dietary laws, with, for example, meat broth replaced by a vegetable broth, or a cheese sauce replaced by an egg sauce. Of course, there are the Italian dishes that are kosher without any changes, and that everyone eats. This book does not cater to the twenty-first century fondness for a color picture for every recipe, although there are colored photos interspersed throughout the text. The headnotes for the recipes do far more for me than a photo, and not only provide a description enticing me to try the recipe, but give some background on the recipe.
In Sephardic Flavors, Joyce gives the same treatment to the food of the Jews of Greece, the Balkans, and Turkey, parts of the Ottoman Empire that absorbed many of the Jews of Spain and Portugal. Her brief historical introductions, “The Jews in Spain and Portugal”, “The Sephardim of the East”, and “The Sephardim in the United States” are informative and a pleasure to read. The recipes in this book are a bit less familiar than those in its predecessor, as the cuisines highlighted are less familiar, at least to me. Still, on page after page are inviting recipes. One thing that I do not like in this book is the photo of the unhappy dead fish on page124.
To complete a circle around the Mediterranean, the third volume, Saffron Shores, covers the cooking of the Jews of the Maghreb (Northern Africa). If I had to pick a favorite of these three books, this would be it. I really like the flavors: olives and oranges, cumin, mint, and lots of olive oil. And of course, there is the hallmark of North African cooking, preserved lemons. I have yet to make my own, but I will have to do so someday, since I cannot help but suspect that the ones I buy are not quite as good as they could be. Joyce has instructions for preserved lemons that seem easy enough to follow (page 50): pack the lemons with salt and pour lemon juice over all.
Saffron Shores has a lot of good salad recipes: I tried three Moroccan salads. The “Moroccan Chopped Salad” (page 78) is just a standard chopped salad: tomatoes, onion, bell peppers, etc., but what makes this chopped salad special is the addition of preserved lemon. When I served this salad at lunch, there were no leftovers. There were leftovers of “Moroccan Orange Salad with Olives” (page 76), which was good since this one was my favorite. Oranges and olives are one of those improbable
pairings that are absolutely perfect together. The third salad, “Moroccan Carrot Salad with Cumin” (page 74), I first made many years ago. A Moroccan Jewish woman had brought a similar dish, half cooked carrots submerged in spicy olive oil, to a communal meal, and they were incredibly tasty. I went home, and immediately opened up Saffron Shores to this recipe. The Tunisian version, given as a variation, is more exciting, with harissa and extra garlic.
The “Arabic Filled Pastries”, or “Sambusaks”, also from Saffron Shores (page 62) are the sort of food that I could happily nibble all day. The recipe here is for bite sized turnovers consisting of a filling of feta cheese, eggs, and mint in a butter and olive oil crust. My first attempt to make these did not quite work out because I had made the dough the day before and refrigerated it. Even after letting the dough warm up back to room temperature, it was nearly impossible to work with. The pastries were so good, however, and I had leftover filling, so I made another half batch. This time I did not refrigerate the dough, and it behaved much better. I also used white whole wheat flour for half the flour and I had to add significantly more water than specified in the recipe in order to get the “very soft” dough that the recipe describes.
A long time favorite in our house from Cucina Ebraica is “Pizza Ebraica di Herbe” (page 34). This is a double crusted tart with a filling of parsley, spinach, peas, and artichokes. “Ebraica”in the title of this recipe refers to the artichokes. I only started cooking with artichokes when I started making this tart, and I am still amazed and somewhat troubled by the amount of artichoke that has to be discarded to get to the edible part. Plus, it is something of a pain to pull off all those leaves in order to get to the
edible part. Despite this, I have learned not to use canned or frozen artichoke hearts for this tart, as they lead to a distinctly inferior filling.
There are two vegetable recipes from Cucina Ebraica that I have made in the past, but did not make during this most recent cooking frenzy: “Suffocated Cabbage” (page 83) and “Sweet and Sour Squash” (page 92). The squash is as described: butternut squash with vinegar and sugar, and is probably as good as butternut squash gets. The cabbage merits a bit more comment. There are raw vegetables, under-cooked vegetables (not very good), vegetables that are cooked just right, and over-cooked vegetables (ugh). Then there are vegetables that are cooked to death, cooked way beyond the over-cooked phase. Many vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli, morph to an entirely different state, with the noxious compounds that give these vegetables the taste that some people do not like completely nullified. In fact, after making Mollie Katzen’s Brussels sprouts as directed by her recipe (see the post Freshmen, Virgins, and Mollie Katzen), I was unimpressed, but after I left these same Brussels sprouts on my hot plate for several hours, the nasty Brussels sprouts taste was gone, and they were actually quite good! Joyce Goldstein gives cabbage the cooked to death treatment, buts cuts the traditional cooking time from three or more hours to 30 minutes. The longer time is better.
Another excellent recipe from Cucina Ebraica is “Spaghetti al Tonno” (page 60). At first glance, this just looks like spaghetti with a boring tuna tomato sauce, and it can be just that if you use boring ingredients. But if you get the best tuna, anchovies, and capers that you can find, this dish suddenly becomes really good.
A simpler pasta dish is “Fried Noodles” (page 115) from Sephardic Flavors. Here, you fry up some very thin pasta (e.g., vermicelli or angel hair) in a generous amount of olive oil. When it turns brown, add broth and tomatoes and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Simple, but tasty: this is one of those more than the sum of its parts dishes.
“Spinach Gratin”, also from Sephardic Flavors (page 95) uses a lot of spinach, flavored with anchovies (which I omitted since I couldn’t find my anchovies hidden on the shelf), capers, garlic, raisins, and pine nuts, cooked up in an egg custard. When spinach is the main ingredient, I like to get loose spinach instead of the bagged baby spinach (and do not even think about frozen spinach), but spinach is not that cheap, and it is a total pain to clean. Thus, although this recipe was tasty enough, the taste to trouble ratio was a bit low. So I doubt that I will make this one again., unless it fits precisely into some future menu.
I often look longingly at kibbeh recipes, fried croquettes usually made of bulgur and lamb, so I was pleased to find the recipe “Lentil and Bulgur Croquettes” in Sephardic Flavors (page 53). I fried these up in two batches, but the first batch was not very successful: the patties fell apart. I was hoping that on cooking, the egg in the patties would firm them up, and so omitted the “¼ cup … matzoh meal, or as needed” requested in the recipe. When I added matzoh meal to the yet unfried mixture, the patties behaved themselves. Both the nice looking patties and the bad ones were quite good; the bad ones might even have been better because they absorbed a lot more olive oil.
All the recipes discussed above range from the very good to the sublime. The two desserts I tried were good enough, but did not come near the heights reached by the other dishes. “Torta di Carote del Veneto”, or Venetian carrot cake, from Cucina Ebraica (page 174) was cobbled together by Joyce Goldstein from three different carrot cakes, all of which she saw as having problems. The end result was very like an American carrot cake, but without as many add-in ingredients (raisins, coconut, chopped nuts, pineapple…) and the cream cheese frosting. I wonder if I would have liked one of her original recipes better.
The “Raisin and Walnut Jam Tart” from Saffron Shores (page 165) tempted me by its headnote, reading in its entirety “Rich, rich, rich.” The raisin and walnut jam consisted of raisins and walnuts cooked in a sugar syrup with cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. I kept waiting for this concoction to assume some transcendental state, but it remained merely raisins and walnuts. The crust was quite difficult to roll out; I ended up partially rolling and partially pressing in the crust. The finished tart certainly looked nice, and I am sure that fans of raisins and walnuts would have found the taste pleasing. I like walnuts, but am less thrilled with raisins, so this tart was not the sort of dessert on which I like to spend my dessert calories.
Spaghetti with Tuna Sauce
Adapted from Joyce Goldstein, Cucina Ebraica
1 pound spaghetti
1 onion, chopped
3.5 ounce jar anchovies, drained and chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
Handful fresh parsley, chopped
6.7 ounce can or jar best oil packed tuna, drained
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large
14.5 ounce can crushed tomatoes
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil; add the spaghetti and cook until done.
While the spaghetti cooks, prepare the sauce. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large skillet. Add the onion. When the onion begins to brown, add the anchovies and garlic; stir while the anchovies break up. Add the rest of the ingredients, and heat until hot throughout. Drain the spaghetti, and toss with the sauce.
Lentil and Bulgur Patties
Adapted from Joyce Goldstein, Sephardic Flavors
¼ cup French lentils
½ cup bulgur
1 onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 hard boiled eggs
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup fresh mint, chopped
¼ cup parsley, chopped
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup matzoh meal or dry bread crumbs
Bring about one cup of salted water to a boil, and add the lentils. Cook until done, adding more water if necessary. This should take about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, and add the bulgur, and enough additional water to just cover everything. Let the bulgur and lentils sits for an hour or so for the bulgur to absorb the water. If you have added too much water, you can just drain the bulgur and lentils.
Heat a little bit of oil in a skillet. Add the onion and cumin and cook until the onion begins to brown, turn off the heat and stir in the hard boiled eggs, salt and pepper, mint and parsley. Add the onion mixture to the lentils and bulgur and add also the beaten egg. Mix and mash it all together, then add the matzoh meal and mix and mash some more.
Cheese Filled Turnovers
Adapted from Joyce Goldstein, Saffron Shores
8 ounces feta cheese
Leaves from several sprigs of mint
Black pepper to taste
¼ cup butter
¼ cup olive oil
¼-½ cup water
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 egg, beaten
Whiz all the filling ingredients in the food processor. I suppose you could also do this by hand: mash up the feta and chop the mint finely.
To make the dough, melt the butter, and then add the olive oil and ¼ cup of water. Put the salt and flours in the food processor. Add the butter and oil and pulse until the dough comes together. You will have to add more water. You want a soft dough.
Preheat the oven to 400°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Roll out the dough, pie crust thick. Cut out 3 inch circles; I use a drinking glass to do this. Put a spoonful of filling on each circle. Wet the edges of the dough circles with water, then fold the top over the filling, and use a fork to seal the edges. Place on the parchment lined baking sheet, brush with the beaten egg, and sprinkle with sesame seeds (I forgot the sesame seeds when I made these). Cook in the oven until done and golden brown, about 20 minutes. You can also deep fry these, but that is something I dare not try.