I’ve never visited my ancestral hometown. Mashad is located at the north-eastern part of Iran. It is a holy site for Shi’ite Muslims, a famous destination for pilgrims who visit the golden shrine of Emam Reza, resting place of the eight Imam of Shia. The history of the Jews of Mashad is unique and intense: In the spring of 1839, a few days before Passover, a pogrom occurred, in which dozens of Jews lost their lives. The surviving Jews were presented with a cruel choice: death or forcible conversion to Islam.
This started a long period of “hidden Jewishness.” We (the story was always told to me in the first-person-plural) took on Muslim names and appearance, prayed at the mosque, bought non-kosher meat (later throwing it to the dogs) and fresh bread during the seven days of Passover (secretly feeding it to the birds). Prayers were held in secret and Shabbat candles lit in basements. Some of the more affluent men were expected by their non-Jewish neighbors to perform the Islamic custom of Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) which they did, wearing miniature Tefillin under their robes and sometimes stopping in Jerusalem — to pray at the Western Wall and establish synagogues, orphanages and poor-houses — on their way back home, to their double life in Mashad.
Even in hiding, families preserved the recipe for the traditional Mashadi Shabbat dinner, Cholow Nokhodow, a hearty beef and bean stew, rich with chopped fresh herbs and wedges of kohlrabi. We treat our signature Friday night dish with affection, it is unique to our cooking culture and not served by other Persian Jewish communities. For me, it is the taste of Shabbat.
I was in New York last week so I know firsthand what sort of spring the east coast has had. I was more than happy to shed my winter wardrobe and return to the balmy warmth of Israel, where spring has fully sprung. Since the growing seasons here tend to be a bit ahead of the States, I have a preview of what will be hitting American farmer’s markets any day now: artichokes, fava beans, asparagus, and the like.
I wanted to make a Shabbat meal that would celebrate springtime, a promise of what’s to come for those still shivering and seeking comfort food. So I came up with a light, healthy, clean meal bursting with the flavors of the season that can be served warm, room temperature, or even made ahead and served cold. The entire menu is parve and gluten free, so it can accommodate a variety of diets.
There are few things healthier than simple poached fish, nor easier to make. It takes about 3 minutes of prep and 5 minutes of cooking and you have perfectly cooked fish. Firm-fleshed salmon is an excellent choice for this cooking method, but halibut or cod would also work well.
I was, quite literally, born to cook traditional Shabbat dinners for large groups of hungry guests. Named for two of my great-grandmothers, I grew up being regaled with tales of their culinary abilities. My maternal great-grandmother, Pesha, was known for her Shabbat challahs, pastries and cookies. Even as adults, all of her children visited her on Friday afternoons to pick up that week’s batch of Shabbat sundries.
According to family lore, my other namesake Malya was renowned throughout 1930s Brooklyn as a hostess and entertainer. Her son and daughter-in-law, my grandparents, repeatedly told me that several women met their husbands-to-be around Malya’s dining room table. When I got married, my friends compiled a cookbook for my bridal shower, and my grandmother contributed Malya’s famous homemade blintzes, often discussed, but only once, to my recollection, reverently produced by my father in an extravaganza of oil and butter that lasted into the wee morning hours.
On a balmy afternoon in January of 1969, my mother and her family left their sprawling farm in Cuba for the promise of a new life filled with opportunity in the United States.
Like many other immigrant families, they worked hard to assimilate into the culture of their new home country. My grandfather went to work at an automobile factory, while my mother and her siblings attended school in an unfamiliar language. With a picture-perfect house in a sunny southern California suburb, they soon morphed into a seemingly typical American family — but anyone invited over for dinner would quickly realize that their Cuban traditions remained.
While her neighbors busied themselves by hosting cookouts on their backyard barbecues, my grandmother spent the better part of her day sweating over that night’s offerings, which she made with the produce from her small makeshift replica of the family’s old farm that she built in the backyard. Dinners featured classic Cuban dishes like starchy yucca smothered in sauce, cumin-scented black beans to drape over white rice, a fresh and crisp salad jeweled with plump slices of avocado, and aromatic and savory meat dishes, which slow roasted in her tiny oven — the scent wafting through the neighborhood like an unspoken invitation to come by for dinner.
Last week, I impulsively decided to host my first Shabbat diner. Like buying a far too expensive pair of black patent leather pumps, I had hastily decided to embark on this meal on a gutsy whim with little foresight into the physical and emotional ramifications. One cab ride after being defeated by four bags of Trader Joes groceries, four (or more) glasses of wine, and several dishwasher loads later, I am here to tell my tale.
Shabbat dinners in my twenties have been the perfect way to catch up with friends while providing an excuse to go through multiple bottles of wines. More intimate than a house party and with far better food, these meals have produced the funniest and richest conversations about jobs, families, relationships — and, most importantly, which character on Girls we each most resemble (I’m a cross between Hannah’s lack of professional commitment and Shoshanna’s innocent neuroticism, in case you were wondering).
I relish these evenings, so when I moved into my first apartment, hosting a Shabbat dinner was one of my first goals. But the limited space and number of chairs (five) in my humble abode, as well as my fear of cooking stymied my Shabbat meal plans. I love reading food blogs, watching cooking shows, and playing sous-chefs to my friends in the kitchen. But, I have an intense, panic attack-inducing fear that if I cook on my own for others, my food will be so bad, they will starve to death before my very eyes.
With all the cooking that leads up to Thanksgiving — there turkey to prepare, cranberry sauce, all those pies and don’t forget the gravy — no one, not even the most dedicated cooks, wants to exert that energy all over again for Shabbat the following day. But plain leftovers, in the form of a turkey sandwich doesn’t quite seem fitting for Shabbat dinner either. Fortunately, Thanksgiving leftovers can be turned into a flavorful and special Shabbat meal.
Start preparing your Shabbat meal at the same time as your Thanksgiving. While preparing your Thanksgiving feast, for example, don’t throw away all your vegetable ends and peels. Instead, save those herb stems, garlic and onion skins, celery leaves and carrot tops in a sealable plastic bag in the refrigerator or freezer. When it comes time to clean up after dinner, put your turkey carcass along with those vegetable scraps in a big pot and make a soothing and flavorful stock that can become the base for a delicious turkey matzo ball soup (get the recipe below). Even if you don’t use it right away, homemade stock can be cooled and frozen for later use. I like to freeze it in ice cube trays so I can easily use as much as I want.
Being an African-American who is a Jew-By-Choice means having to do a lot of culinary negotiations. The table is where I integrate both sides of my hyphen. The plate is a means of “locating” myself squarely in the history of both Diasporas — African and Jewish, and all the places those Diaspora’s represent from Angola and Alabama to Ashkenaz, from South Carolina and Senegal to Sepharad. Cooking is how I pull all of my parts together and articulate who I am to those who might not understand how someone like me could be culturally “possible.” Shabbat gives me an opportunity to look within and use my cooking to tell stories that friends of all backgrounds have never heard — stories of history and migration, struggle and triumph, loss and recovery.
I often serve this West African Style Brisket on Shabbat, which is inspired by recipes from Nigeria, Senegal, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. The dry spice mixture is a take on suya, a very old spice mixture from West Africa, hearkening back to the days of the medieval salt and gold trade. Certain flavors like garlic, ginger, bay leaf, and onion are common in both culinary traditions; while others like the inclusion of peppers, olive oil, horseradish, and the use of stock, point to different stops on the map as each Diaspora wound its way to North America.
Fall has settled in with its colorful leaves and a bounty of autumn-hued produce at the market. The switch of the seasons is invigorating as a cook, inspiring us with a fresh palate of fruits and vegetables to play with. Winter squash, woody herbs, root vegetables and hearty greens take center stage, just asking to be roasted, braised and served as part of dinner during the week or on Shabbat.
Sweet and nutty butternut squash is a personal favorite. This year, I’ve started adding it to everything from salads to stews. My new favorite combination is fiery harissa (a spicy North African red pepper paste) with breadcrumbs, ground walnuts and mint (recipe below). The mellow sweetness contrasts with the pleasant spice of the harissa (the heat of which can vary greatly), while the walnuts complement the nutty undertones of the squash. Add in a great mix of textures and you’ve got yourself one killer side that’s as good with roasted chicken as it is with steak, fish, or even tofu. The dish is packed with vitamin A and is also a great source of fiber and potassium and when the squash is roasted, it’s pesky tough skin becomes tender and entirely edible.
It’s also around this time of year that I move away from delicate greens and towards grains as the base for my salads like vibrant red quinoa (yes, it’s technically a seed). I toss it with whatever vegetables I have on hand for a nutritious side or light but filling lunch.
People love to ask, “what did you grow up eating?” Having a professional food writer for a mother makes this a particularly complicated question to answer. Yes, I grew up eating amazing homemade food. I have fond memories of ox tail stews and fresh pasta with sauce made of vegetables from our garden. I was undoubtedly a spoiled child when it came to food. I had the palate of a mature adult, requesting escargot on my 6th birthday. But, after all the lavish multi-coursed dinners, and made-from-scratch snacks that I was so lucky to grow up with, my most profound childhood food memory is one of the simplest dishes: roast chicken.
Every Shabbat, for as long as I can remember, roast chicken had a place at my family’s dinner table. People might have expected my mother to be kneading challah dough all day, or basting a brisket, but instead she opted for chicken every time.
Maybe she chose it because Shabbat came at the end to a very long week of taking care of two young, constantly bickering little girls. Maybe she chose it because she knew she could make an entire dinner, adding whatever vegetables or potatoes were around, in the same pan. Or maybe she chose it because not even the pickiest of eaters can resist the comfort of perfectly roasted chicken.
Growing up in a small Jewish community in the Northwest, Shabbat in my family was celebrated with Kiddush, an occasional family dinner and a loaf of challah if we were not too late stopping by a local bakery that knew what this braided treat was. My experience bared little resemblance to the Shabbats of my counterparts in larger Jewish centers in the States.
So, it wasn’t until I moved to Israel earlier this year that I truly understood why so many describe as being “home” on Shabbat. There’s a certain ambiance and feeling when you’re in Israel that cannot be duplicated. Whether you are in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv on a Friday, the rush and excitement throughout the city as it prepares for the holiday is palpable. From the fragrant smelling shuk on Friday morning, to the overflowing tables of challot in the many bakeries, to the bus driver wishing you a “Shabbat shalom,” that makes Shabbat un-ignorable and meaningful.
On Fridays, you don’t have to go far before someone is inquiring about your Shabbat plans. “What are you doing for Shabbat?” I’m often asked. Before responding, I’m bombarded with an invitation: “You’re coming over to our house,” they say. Striking up a conversation on the bus or in a shop, it’s not unlikely that you will be invited to random stranger’s home for a Shabbat meal.
We didn’t observe Shabbat. Well, maybe once or twice. Or perhaps I should say, not formally. Yes, we sat down for dinner as a family. Delicious food was served and we talked about our days. But we didn’t light candles. We didn’t say prayers and we didn’t break bread.
Growing up in Long Island’s suburbia, we were the type of family where the kids went to Hebrew school three days a week but we rarely ever went to services. We went to Jewish sleepaway camps and spent weekends on youth group retreats, but religion was not part of home life. Pepper steak, however, was.
It’s rare that food is served with as much ceremony as my paternal Grandmother Millicent Bloomberg’s pepper steak. In old-school style we’d start our meal with a halved grapefruit (carefully pre-sectioned until the serrated edged grapefruit spoon was invented) or slices of cantaloupe before moving onto the flank steak-and-green pepper stew. A portion would be scooped over rice (usually white) and sided with a lettuce-based salad.
Family legend has it that, when my parents got married, my paternal grandmother hired the newlywed couple a maid. How sweet, thought my mother. That is, until she found out the maid also doubled as a spy so that my grandma could make sure her daughter-in-law — a shiksa! — wouldn’t buy bacon and other unholy treats for her son.
My mother was raised in a strict Catholic family in Brazil and married one of only 30,000 Jews living in Rio de Janeiro, a city with 12 million inhabitants. She knew very little about Judaism before meeting my father, but she came to love everything about it. Two years after a civil ceremony, my mother decided she wanted her children to be Jewish, not Catholic or “cashew.” She began the process of converting and at the end, my parents had a second wedding — this time, under a chuppah.
When time came for her to raise two Jewish kids, she put a great deal of effort into making sure they would grow up with the same affection towards Judaism that she had acquired. She would have meetings with our school’s principal to learn about why we had come home with a cardboard bow and arrow on Lag BaOmer or why we had asked her to let us sleep in a tent made of bed sheets in the balcony during Sukkot. She wanted to be a part of it, and she enjoyed being involved in every possible way.
In my experience, there’s often a token non-Jew at Friday night dinner or at the Seder — the Shabbos Goy or the Passover Goy, some call them (affectionately).
Last Friday, however, I experienced the unfamiliar sensation of being the Shabbos Jew at a Friday night dinner with several Catholic friends. And when I call them Catholic, understand what I mean: One is a seminarian in Rome and another is a playwright studying at Catholic University – and our host for the evening, Sarah, has a degree from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
I’ve gotten used to feeling the Shabbos spirit at Friday night dinners with eclectic companions. (And my roommates — a lesbian lapsed Catholic and a Puerto Rican lapsed Pentecostal — have gotten used to things like knishes and kasha varnishkes.) Even so, this meal was a mish-mash of cultures — in the company and in the food served.
It took me a while to feel acclimated and comfortable in Amsterdam, the city where I studied abroad. Riding my bicycle along those too-worn streets was terrifying at first—surrounded by spinning cars and fast-talking people who smiled with wide wide teeth. Everywhere I went, there was meat and French fries and eight different kinds of yogurt, but never any leafy greens or seitan skewers to roll around on my tongue. Everything about it was both strange and familiar — and the two twisted together constantly. An odd combination of competing realities, each one struggling to declare dominance over the other.
I had never imagined that the Shabbas dinners of my childhood would play a role in my 20-year-old life overseas. And yet, my Friday afternoons always took me to the city’s outdoor markets and ended in my cramped apartment’s communal kitchen — with sweat jewels adorning my upper lip and tomato seeds lining my inner arms. Within the whirl, of cobblestones and beer mugs, this became my oasis.
When I was nominated to be one of three student speakers at my graduation from the University of Chicago this past June, I felt honored, terrified, and stumped. I wasn’t class president or an academic superstar. I couldn’t summon stirring rhetoric about “Our Education” and “The Future.” I was just a girl with an esoteric major who loved to write and lived to cook, especially with her friends. So I went for broke and decided to tell a story about the best part of my college experience: Shabbat dinner.
For the second half of my undergrad life, when my friends and I had finally schlepped out of student housing into our own “grown-up” apartments, we gathered together almost every Friday night to eat together. But it wasn’t just a regularly scheduled dinner party. Even though only one of us was Jewish, the meal was still Shabbat to us. We’d say the Kiddush, clumsily but eagerly, and greet each other with a cheery “shabbat shalom!” on our way up the stairs. Even I, an acknowledged goy, took it upon myself to learn bread-baking so we could have homemade challah (or pita, or ciabatta, or naan, depending on the occasion).
On the day after Thanksgiving, 1979, Irma Rae Erdreich was driving home to Birmingham, AL, from her sister’s home in Albany, GA, when she fell asleep behind the wheel of her car and drifted into the path of an oncoming truck.
The news, when it reached my mother, became one of my earliest memories. I was three years old when my grandmother died, and remember hiding in the upstairs bathroom, staring at the tiles, while my mother wailed downstairs.
That day was also one of my very few memories of Irma Rae, whom I called Mimi. I have always regretted not getting the chance to know her, and have tried to compensate for her absence in my life by learning as much as I can about hers. From a food perspective, I think we would have gotten along famously: I inherited her taste for, among other things, pickles, ginger, and anything spicy.
When I was growing up, every Thursday night in my house was cooking night. Ovens running, music playing, pans spattering, my sister, mother and I would gather in the kitchen to prepare the Shabbat meals. The rest of the week my sister and I could do whatever we wanted as long as our homework was done, but Thursday nights we belonged to the kitchen. Singing, cooking, chopping, arguing, laughing. We’d stand over our dishes and unite — and fight — like the modern Jewish version of the sewing circles of yore, with knives in place of needles (both tools that could second as weapons if need arose).
I learned how to cook those Thursday nights, and I grew to love baking, especially cakes that I could frost in different ways. My mom is famous among my friends for her excellent cooking, and I inherited that acclaim as I learned to make my own dishes and shared them with friends and guests. Reading recipes off well-worn cards with hand-written edits or finding new recipes to try in papers and cookbooks, the experience was as much about spending those hours with the women in my family as it was about measuring ingredients, mixing, and ending with a personal edible creation. My sister specialized in cholent, while I would spend hours perfecting a cake recipe and decorating it just so.
As soon as the sun rose on Friday mornings over Harare, Zimbabwe, my husband, kids and I would pile into a small plane and fly to the crystal-clear waters and pristine sandy beaches of the idyllic island of Magaruque, off the coast of Mozambique.
There wasn’t much on this island, other than a charming lodge. Still, it was our Shabbat home when we lived in Harare in the mid-90’s. We’d set out having stocked the plane with the necessary ingredients and some pre-prepared foods, including roska (our sweet Sabbath bread), bourekitas (our beloved savory pies) and wine. We would also take our Sephardic Shabbat candles — a cork topped with a cotton wick floating in a glass filled with a thick layer of oil — which is the customary on Rhodes where my family is from.
It was not until I married my late husband, 54 years ago, that I began to be seriously interested in the preparation and presentation of food. Until then I knew very little about food — almost nothing
I was born in Poland and when the war broke out I was only 4 1/2 years old. I have no recollection of what we ate at home before the war started. During the war we lived in Russian labor camps, moving from place to place where we hardly saw any vegetables, fruits, meat or fish, eggs or cheese. It was mostly a ration diet of subsistence level.
Coming to the United States as a teenager I still was not particularly interested in food. Just getting acclimatized to a new country, a new culture and a new lifestyle was challenging enough.
My most lingering impression of New York City, after the excitement of my arrival (in 2003) had worn off, was that all the buzz and the people were there only to hide a deep and persistent potential for loneliness.
This feeling of being alone in a crowd reached its peak on Shabbat when, ironically, I was almost always invited out. But meeting so many people at the same time just seemed to make it more difficult to focus and build real friendships.
A few weeks after my move, I was fortunate enough to meet Lea and Gastone at a lecture. They were an older couple from Livorno, Italy, a large port city on the west coast of Tuscany, who had come to New York in the 1970’s when Gastone was hired to work as a foreign correspondent for Italian television. Lea’s soft Tuscan accent and her husband’s Old World elegance immediately put me at ease, and I was happy to let them “adopt me” for the occasional meal.
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