THE JEWISH KITCHEN
It's been more than two years since I visited the Jewish community of Tunis, but I can still taste the pungent, aromatic seasonings of dishes rooted in Sephardi tradition: succulent dates and pomegranates, couscous sweetened with honey and spices, the delicate fragrance of jasmine everywhere.
So I was thrilled to meet up with Joel Perez, a handsome, witty Tunisian Jew who, after more than 30 years in the United States, still speaks with a beguiling French accent.
Joel, a partner in the newly opened The Art of Bread on Philadelphia's Main Line, has had a long and varied career in the food business.
But his love of food began in childhood. His father was a wheat farmer in the village of Sousse. "And not just any wheat," notes Joel. "This was a fine wheat, which was only used to make pasta and couscous."
His family were observant Jews, and Joel still prepares the Rosh Hashanah dishes he watched his grandmother cook. He remembers her rules: "No preservatives — everything was fresh. She always had a fight with the kosher butcher so that she would get the best cuts of meat … and it took her three days to shop and prepare the food for Rosh Hashanah."
Before 1942, there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Tunis. After Tunisia gained independence in 1956, the government abolished Tunisia's Jewish Community Council and a series of anti-Jewish decrees were declared. By 2010, only about 1,000 Jews remained, many having gone to Israel.
To get a good education, Tunisian Jewish children were sent to France. Joel was no exception. He was sent away to boarding school when he was 11 years old but always returned to the family for the holidays.
"At Rosh Hashanah, we cooked mostly sweet dishes, as Ashkenazi Jews do, to ensure a good year. But instead of dipping apples in honey, we blanch spinach leaves, dip them in a tempura batter and fry them in olive oil. Then we dip them in honey."
Harissa is a mixture of cooked rice, or wheat, and meat, usually chicken, pounded to a paste. If you come from the north, the dish is spicy; from the south, it is sweet. (This harissa has nothing to do with the North African hot, spicy paste of the same name.)
The traditional Rosh Hashanah dessert in the Perez home was Harissa Tlout, a sweet almond dish.
The recipes below are inspired and adapted from Joel's memories of a Tunisian Rosh Hashanah. The "T'Fina Pkaila," or beef stew, and "La Minima" (or chicken "cake") are adapted from Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food.
1 bag (10 to 12 oz.) spinach leaves
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
pinch white pepper
1 and 1/4 cups seltzer water
vegetable oil for frying
Rinse spinach leaves in cold water and spin dry. Place on a microwave dish. Cook on high for 25 seconds or until leaves are just beginning to wilt. Drain well. Divide spinach leaves into bunches of 3 to 4 leaves. Roll each bunch in 1/2 cup flour, shaking off excess. Set aside.
To Prepare Batter: In a bowl, combine 1 cup flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt and pepper. Make a well in center and add about 1 cup seltzer water.
Whisk together until smooth, adding enough seltzer if needed so that the batter is the consistency of thick cream.
In a deep, heavy pot, pour in oil 11/2 to 2 inches deep. Heat over medium heat to 375° or until a 1-inch cube of bread browns in 60 seconds.
Dip the spinach bunches into the batter. Carefully slide into the hot oil. Remove from oil when golden brown and puffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain well on paper towels. Serve hot.
Beef stew with beans and spinach
2 and 1/2 lbs. fresh spinach
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 and 1/2 to 3 lbs. brisket
2 and 1/2 cups dried white haricot beans, soaked overnight and drained
8 cloves garlic, peeled
2 large sprigs fresh mint
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
Wash spinach and trim tough ends of stems. Drain well. Place in a large pot along with the olive oil.
Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes or until spinach can be mixed into a soft paste. Set aside.
Place the brisket in a large pot. Cover with about 6 cups water. Bring to boil over medium high heat. Remove scum with a large spoon as it floats to the surface.
Add the beans, garlic, spinach, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
Simmer on lowest heat for 31/2 hours or until brisket is tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Check during the last hour adding more water if needed.
This may be left to cook overnight in a tightly lidded pot at 250°.
Chicken "cake" is a famous Tunisian dish eaten on Rosh Hashanah. Traditionally, it included calf's or lamb's brains, which gives it a creamy texture, but I've omitted brains, which are unobtainable in our markets.
3/4 lb. chicken breasts, skin and bones removed
salt and pepper
6 eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tbsps. finely chopped parsley
1/2 tsp. (scant) cumin
4 hard cooked eggs, coarsely chopped
2 lemons, cut in wedges
Preheat the oven to 400°. Spray a 9-inch square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
Cut the chicken into 2-inch chunks. Cover with boiling water and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to simmer over medium high heat. Cook 15 minutes or until opaque all the way through.
Drain, transfer to a bowl and chop finely, preferably in the food processor.
Cool slightly before mixing in the beaten eggs. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper or to taste. Stir in the cumin and nutmeg. Fold in the hard cooked eggs.
Transfer to the prepared baking dish. Cover tightly with foil. Bake in preheated oven 30 minutes or until firm in center. Remove foil after 20 minutes. Cool. Cut into wedges and serve with lemon wedges.
Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer.
1 container (10-12 oz.) pitted dates
1/2 cup almonds
1 cup walnuts
1/4 cup pistachios
2 tsps. orange zest
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1-2 Tbsps. honey
2-3 drops green food coloring (optional)
confectioners sugar to sift over
With a sharp knife, split dates lengthwise, leaving about 1/4-inch uncut. Place the almonds, walnuts and pistachios in the food processor. Pulse to chop finely.
Transfer to a small bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well using just enough honey to make a stiff mixture.
Stuff each split date with the nut mixture. Place on wax paper-lined sheet.
To serve, arrange on a platter and sift sugar over just before serving.
Ethel G. Hofman is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Email her at: [email protected].