Talk of the Table | Timeless Jewish FoodsEighteen mouthwatering dishes representing 5,000 years of Jewish cuisine
During the coronavirus quarantine, I spent several months cooking for, and helping, my daughter Merissa in New Orleans, where she was recovering from surgery. Like so many others, I was in a different place and had moments that our normal, modern, hectic lives do not provide—moments to think about time and our Jewish traditions. One day I decided to make hummus, one of the oldest dishes known and mentioned in the Bible. I soaked the dry chickpeas overnight, changed the water, boiled them with a pinch of baking soda, and then instead of puréeing them in a food processor, I used an old-fashioned mortar and pestle to combine the cooked beans with garlic, salt, tahina, lemon juice and a little of the water the chickpeas were cooked in. It took at least a half hour of pounding to create a delicious, creamy paste, the repetitive motion giving way to thoughts on time in Jewish cooking.
Time in the Jewish cooking world has many meanings. If you follow the laws of kashrut, you must take time to follow the dietary laws every day, making sure that all of your ingredients are kosher, that you use the right plates and cutlery. Even with simple meals during the week, this takes time, energy and attention to detail. There is also life-cycle time for brit milahs, bar or bat mitzvahs, marriages and mourning periods, when friends often organize and cook. This frees up time for the family to be in the moment, celebrating or mourning, going into a different kind of time, one occupied with the happiness or sadness of each event.
Think about our history and how, through different pogroms and pandemics, these enduring and repetitive traditions have sustained the Jewish people.
For Shabbat and holidays, we take more time to explore our Judaism, cooking more complicated dishes that have been passed down for centuries. Take baking challah, one of the three mitzvot special to women, along with lighting the candles and going to the mikvah. Today it is often men who bake the challah. Baking bread requires time for mixing, waiting for the dough to rise, braiding the strands and then baking. During a period of isolation, like the coronavirus quarantine, the time making challah can be more drawn out. Instead of dry yeast, running low nowadays on grocery store shelves, many bakers are returning to the slower way of leavening with a levain, also called sourdough starter. While you are baking the challah and have a moment when you’re not rushing, with the aroma emanating from the oven, think about our history and how, through different pogroms and pandemics, these enduring and repetitive traditions have sustained the Jewish people. The anticipation of challah grows as the time approaches for your family to eat and usher in a special day, no matter how you spend it.
Whether you mix together Polish gefilte fish or make a Libyan aharaimi, simmer a pot of Yemenite or traditional chicken soup with matzah balls, slowly cook cholent or hamim overnight in the oven, or bake babka, burekas, kugels, mandelbrot or baklava, your traditions for Shabbat and the holidays reflect the particular recipes and traditions of your family.
No matter if you prepare the food yourself or drive to a store to buy it, food preparation takes time. Once given that time, take a deep breath before lighting the candles, a practice our family does, and go into Jewish holy time, where you can enjoy an evening or a day meditating on all that history has given you. These timeless preparations and selections of food create memories that perhaps change slightly through the generations and the meanderings of the Jews. But they are, miraculously, what bind us.
Hummus—What was once a simple breakfast or lunch food is now a specialty protein-rich bite, dressed up with pine nuts, harissa or various seasonings as an hors d’oeuvre, main course or snack.
Esau’s Pottage—or mujeddara, a simple yet delicious blend of rice or large pieces of bulgur, lentils and caramelized onions,
is a traditional Iraqi Jewish mourning dish.
Bagels—Today, these boiled and baked rolls with a hole in the middle are so universal that few people of my children’s generation know they are Jewish in origin.
Pletzel rolls with caramelized onions and poppyseeds—I still remember the first time I ate a pletzel, a Polish roll: It was in a bread basket with salt sticks served at Ratner’s dairy restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side.
Challah—Of all the Shabbat breads I have tasted, from crusty challah loaves in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim to store-bought rolls in Washington, DC, my favorite is a Moroccan challah flavored with anise that I learned to make many years ago from a Moroccan woman living in a seventh floor walk-up with a tiny kitchen in Bordeaux. I have spiked my weekly challah ever since with anise seeds, but any bread for Shabbat will do.
Libyan Sabbath fish—Among the North African baked Shabbat fish dishes, the Libyan aharaimi is so delicious that it has become part of the lexicon of Israeli cooking.
Gefilte fish—Until I tasted my mother-in-law’s homemade gefilte fish from Zamosc, Poland, I didn’t like the dish. Now, each Passover except this last one, I invite friends to a “gefilte-in,” and we all assemble our family’s classic fish patties for Passover.
Chicken soup—I honestly believe that chicken soup is in the Jewish DNA as the ultimate symbol of comfort. I make mine with lots of vegetables, matzah balls flavored with dill, nutmeg, fresh ginger and chicken fat. For holidays or for health, it works every time. But be it Yemenite Chicken Soup with Hilbe and Zhug or Persian Abgoosht with lots of peppers, each brings comfort and cures almost everything.
Jewish dumplings—Whether it be German kneidlach floating in soup, Iraqi kubbeh made from bulgur or semolina and stuffed with meat, or Persian chickpea dumplings, all are Jewish dishes that have helped usher in Shabbat for thousands of years.
Cooked tomato salad—Each Jewish North African family has its own rendition of what the French call salade juive. It is cooked-down tomatoes, with a splash of peppers and maybe onions, and is served cold with at least 11 other salads for the beginning of the Shabbat meal.
Brisket—“Long and slow” is my mantra for brisket. If there is one Jewish dish that transcends many cultures, it is brisket, braised for a long time in a savory wine sauce with herbs.
Tsimmes—A stew made either with only sweet potatoes and carrots, or also with prunes and meat, for Shabbat. Jews from Lithuania like beets in theirs, and others like it covered with a crust.
Dampfknudel—For me, the crowning Jewish dish is probably not Jewish at all but rather this brioche-like cake with a caramel sauce drizzled on top. The Bavarian dessert was popularized by Catholics and, through the centuries, variations crossed over to the German Jews, who served it with dairy meals.
Kugel—Savory or sweet, with matzah, noodles or potatoes, this is one of the Shabbat dishes that was brought over to the United States and changed over time. My favorite is still my mother’s savory noodle kugel with onions and sour cream.
Pickled lox and sour cream—Whenever I used to walk into Russ & Daughters in New York, they would immediately scoop out some of their absolutely delicious pickled lox with sour cream, which is even better than their herring.
Apricot rugelach—This is what put Jewish sweets on the map, although no one knew that they were Jewish when the late Maida Heatter put them in her iconic Book of Great Desserts.
Chocolate babka—I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like this babka dish. I like it with good, bittersweet chocolate—not cocoa powder or Nutella.
Chopped chicken livers—Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco load their chicken liver with lots of caramelized onions and good schmaltz. It’s a real treat.
RECIPE BY JOAN NATHAN FROM KING SOLOMON’S TABLE
LIBYAN AHARAIMI, SEA BASS IN A PUNGENT TOMATO SAUCE
Yields 8 servings
3 pounds of farm-fresh tomatoes (about 6 medium), or 1 large 32 ounce can of peeled tomatoes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, diced
6 to 7 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon diced small hot red pepper like cayenne, habanero or Scotch bonnet
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground caraway
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 pounds sea bass, tuna, halibut or bonito fillets, cut into 8 portions
1 roasted red pepper, peeled, seeded and sliced into lengths
4 tablespoons diced cilantro
4 tablespoons diced parsley
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Fill a casserole with water, cover and bring to a boil. Add the tomatoes and boil for a minute or two. You might have to do this in two shifts. Then remove with a spoon and cool. The peel will come right off. Remove any stems or bad spots from the tomatoes. Purée the tomatoes in a food processor equipped with a steel blade.
2. Wash the casserole and heat the olive oil in it. Add the onion and sauce and cook until golden, then add the garlic and hot pepper and stir, sautéing for a minute or two. Return the tomatoes to the pan, add the cumin, caraway, cinnamon, sugar, if desired, and salt, and simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes or until the sauce is reduced by half.
3. Slip the fish into the sauce and simmer covered for about 10 minutes or less, until the fish is cooked. Using two spatulas, transfer each piece of fish with the sauce to a serving platter. Adjust the seasoning to taste, lay the sliced red pepper over each piece of fish, sprinkle with the cilantro and parsley and add a squeeze of lemon over all. Serve either hot or at room temperature.