I come from a long line of legendary cooks…and eaters! My mother’s family (the Rabinowitz’s) is huge, and our holiday feasts, or even impromptu get-togethers, were hardly what you might call intimate gatherings.
Memories of happy times spent together are inseparable from the tastes and flavors of the dishes we all enjoyed. As we cook and celebrate, we add our own twists to the traditional recipes handed down through the generations. Every recipe tells a story.
In this column I’ll be presenting recipes from far and near, the traditional and modern, in short, that happy amalgam – a melting pot, if you will – of those delightful, tantalizing and celebratory foods we have absorbed into our own Jewish cuisine and the stories behind them.
As Sukkot approaches, I recall with fondness a most memorable holiday spent in Israel in the fall of 1992. We could not have picked a better season to be there. Leaving Los Angeles the day after Yom Kippur, we found Jerusalem bustling with preparations for Sukkot. The terrace of every apartment sported a sukkah, and we ate breakfast each day under fruit-laden branches, our lavish Israeli buffet feast mirrored in the sukkah above. Truly we had reached the Promised Land at its most lush and bountiful season.
Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, is the harvest festival mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 23:34-39). Immediately following the fast of Yom Kippur, Jews the world over begin constructing sukkot in preparation for the joyous feast that begins four days later.
The sages of the Talmud prescribed the measurements and method of erecting the sukkah within which people would eat and sleep during the holiday. How our forefathers must have rejoiced to enjoy the fruits of their labors, closer to the heavens, as the growing season culminated in bushels of plenty.
While you’d hardly know it from the diet of most Ashkenazim (beets and cabbage being notable exceptions), Jewish cuisine, at least in the Mediterranean, from biblical times has had a long love affair with vegetables, and what better time to show them off than Sukkot.
Because the “dining room” of the sukkah is farther away from the area of food preparation, traditional dishes for this holiday are easily transportable one-dish stews and casseroles. Stuffed vegetables are a popular choice, particularly in Israel, where every Sephardic and Asian culture has a favorite recipe.
Just in time for Sukkot, fall’s firmer-skinned vegetables make wonderful edible containers. My cousin Samra prefers acorn squash, which Nature has provided with a handy bowl just begging to be stuffed. Her favorite recipe comes from her Aunt Joan, who would fill the squash with a creamy spinach stuffing, crowned with Parmesan and breadcrumbs.
“Aunt Joanie was more like a sister to me than an aunt,” Samra told me. “From the time I was little, she lived in our home. She had the sofa in the porch room of our two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. Nannie lived right behind us. I thought it was paradise!”
“Turkish cooks are masters of the stuffed vegetable, but you find stuffed vegetables very popular with Arabs, too,” said Clifford Wright, author of “Mediterranean Vegetables” (Harvard Common Press, $29.95), which cries out to be purchased for Sukkot. Here you’ll find delicious recipes for stuffed artichokes, eggplant, grape leaves, mushrooms, onions, chard and yellow peppers.
A more recent family tradition for Sukkot is serving Wright’s eggplant stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts, a typical Turkish dish. In Sicily, ingesting eggplant was once thought to lead to insanity, Wright tells us, and it was called “mad apple.”
For dessert I am borrowing a traditional Polish Apple Cake from my friend Marlena Spieler, author of the “Jewish Traditions Cookbook” (Lorenz Books, $39.99), a cookbook so leap-off-the-page lusciously photographed you can practically taste the food.
“Whenever I make it, I think of the woman who showed me how,” she told me. As a young adult, Spieler would attend services each week. Her favorite at the oneg table was an old-fashioned apple cake. “I’d like to tell you every week I ate a piece, but truthfully it was more like two or three.”
One day before the High Holidays a little old lady approached her and offered to teach her to make it. Spieler noticed immediately that the woman had numbers tattooed on her arm. “She had undoubtedly been through hell,” she said, “but yet was able to smile and enjoy baking and sharing her recipe with me.”
The “Jewish Traditions Cookbook ” is a truly international culmination of Spieler’s curiosity about our people and our food. “I love meeting Jews from different cultures and hear their stories,” she said. “I find it exciting that people with such different backgrounds share the same heritage and holidays.”
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family (Workman, $19.95) and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
Joan Kalish’s Spinach-Stuffed Squash
- 3 small (1 to 1¼ lbs. each) acorn squash
- 2 boxes (10 oz. each) frozen chopped spinach
- Vegetable cooking spray, for greasing the baking pan
- 4 Tablespoons (½ stick) butter or margarine
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 small package (3 oz.) cream cheese, cut into cubes
- 1 teaspoon garlic salt, or to taste
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 to 4 Tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 Tablespoons plain dry bread crumbs
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Cut each acorn squash in half. Remove the seeds and fiber. (I like to use a serrated grapefruit spoon or a melon baller for this.) Place the squash halves, cut side down, in a 13×9-inch baking pan, and add water to a depth of about ½ inch. Bake until the squash is tender and can be pierced with a fork, 30 to 35 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cook the spinach according to the package directions, drain it well, and then squeeze it dry between paper towels.
- Remove the squash from the baking dish, but leave the oven on. Wash the pan and lightly grease it with vegetable cooking spray. Place the squash halves, cut side up, in the prepared pan. Melt 1 Tablespoon of the butter and brush it over the squash halves.
- Melt the remaining 3 Tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the onion and cook until soft, about 4 minutes. Then add the drained spinach, cream cheese, garlic salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Reduce the heat to low and stir until the cheese melts.
- Divide the spinach mixture evenly among the squash shells. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs.
- Bake until heated through and golden brown on top, about 20 minutes
Note: After baking the squash halves, if any of them wobble, cut a thin slice from the bottom so they can stand up straight
Source: “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman, $19.95) by Judy Bart Kancigor
Stuffed Eggplant in Olive Oil
- 3 large eggplants (about 3½ lbs.)
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt, divided
- ½cup uncooked medium-grain rice, soaked in tepid water for 30 minutes and drained or rinsed well
- 1 Tablespoon pine nuts
- 1¾ cups water, divided
- ½ cup ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped fine or canned crushed tomatoes
- 1 Tablespoon dried currants
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground allspice berries
- 1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint leaves
- ¼ cup chopped fresh dill
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- Cut off the stem end of the eggplant and save this as a “lid.” Hollow out the eggplant by removing the seeds and flesh, being careful not to puncture the skin. Reserve the eggplant pulp to make another dish such as eggplant fritters. Place the hollowed-out eggplants in a bowl or stew pot filled with salted water and let them leach their bitter juices for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry inside and out with paper towels
- Heat ¼ cup of the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook the onions with ½ teaspoon of the salt, stirring, until the onions are translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the drained rice and pine nuts and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice is well coated with oil, about 2 minutes. Add ¾ cup of the water, the chopped tomato, currants, pepper, allspice, mint, and dill. Stir, reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet, and cook until the rice has absorbed the liquid but is still a little hard, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the sugar
- Stuff the eggplants with the rice, not too lightly, not too loosely. Replace the “lid” of the eggplant, and arrange the stuffed eggplants in a deep casserole, side by side. Divide the remaining 1 cup water, ½ cup olive oil, and ½ teaspoon salt among the 3 stuffed eggplants.
- Cover, and cook until the eggplants are soft but still maintain their shape, about 1¼ hours.
- Let the eggplants cool in the casserole.
Serve sliced at room temperature.
Source: “A Mediterranean Feast: A Cook’s ABC of Vegetables and Their Preparation” by Clifford A. Wright
Polish Apple Cake
- 3¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2½ cups sugar
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- ½ cup orange juice
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- About 6 sweet-tart apples, or a combination of several different types
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting the finished cake
- Grease a large baking pan or two 9-inch square pans with oil or margarine. Dust generously with flour and tap out the excess.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
- Beat eggs with 2 cups of the sugar; then add oil, orange juice and vanilla extract and combine well. Stir this mixture into the flour and mix only until it forms a batter; do not overmix. Set aside while you prepare the apples.
- Core but do not peel the apples; then thinly slice and toss with lemon juice, remaining ½ cup sugar and cinnamon.
- Pour half the batter into the cake pans, then layer with half the apples; top with the remaining batter (do not scrape the bowl) and finally the remaining apples. Scrape the batter clinging to the sides of bowl and drizzle over the apples.
- Bake for 40 minutes, or slightly longer, up to an hour, depending on the size of the pans you are using. The cake is done when a cake tester comes out clean.
- Cool the cake in the pan. The apple juices will soak into the cake as it cools, making it moist. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.
Source: Marlena Spieler
Judy Bart Kancigor is a food writer and a popular teacher of Jewish cooking and family life. She self-published her first cookbook, Melting Pot Memories, just for her family. Eight printings later she had sold 11,000 copies, and Workman Publishing offered to publish her new book, Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family. Daughter of the late singer Jan Bart, Judy has delighted audiences across the country, appearing for many organizations, synagogues and cooking schools. She lives with her husband, Barry, in Fullerton, California.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.