Queen for a Day



I've always admired Queen Esther, the brave young beauty who confronted King Achashverosh of ancient Persia, a despot who happened to be her husband. She had some touchy news to relate: The king's trusted vizier, Haman, was plotting to annihilate the Jewish people. While this was of urgent concern to Esther because of her religion, the news was doubly shocking to Achashverosh, since he had no idea his wife was Jewish.

I now realize that there are lessons to learn from the Queen, whose story is read aloud every year in the Megillah of Esther. Determined to survive in an environment hostile to Jews, she managed to keep kosher at court while concealing her religion. Because it was too dangerous to ask for kosher meat, our heroine bypassed the problem by becoming a vegetarian.

The Talmud records that to avoid eating treif, Queen Esther ate only seeds and nuts while living in the king's palace. Other sources report that she also subsisted on chickpeas. For that reason, many Sephardic Jews celebrate Purim with vegetarian menus, especially eating foods prepared with these ingredients.

Among Ashkenazi Jews, the use of poppy seeds in hamantashen is a nod to the Queen's resourcefulness.

Esther was not only nimble, but the conflict she faced so many centuries ago illuminates a problem many Jews face today. How to maintain your Jewish identity in a sea of assimilation? It's a question that remains forever provoking since each Jew must decide how observant to be.

However, since Queen Esther has been such a good role model, I feel that Purim is the perfect time to pay homage to her strength of character by celebrating with foods prepared with nuts and seeds, chickpeas — and vegetables galore.

Roasted Carrots With Pignoli Nuts

3 (1 lb.) bags of mini-peeled carrots, preferably organic 
nonstick vegetable spray 
1/4 cup olive oil, or more, if needed 
kosher salt to taste 
3/8 tsp. garlic powder, or more for stronger flavor 
1/3 cup pignoli nuts

Preheat oven to 275°.

Coat a 10-x-15-inch baking pan with nonstick spray.

In a colander, rinse the carrots under cold water. Pat dry on paper towels.

Place the carrots in the prepared pan. Drizzle oil over top and turn them with a spoon utensil. Sprinkle on kosher salt and garlic powder; stir again.

Place in oven. Turn carrots with spoon every 15 to 20 minutes. Add more oil, if carrots seem dry. Roast for 21/2 hours, or until carrots turn golden-brown. They shrink significantly during roasting.

Meanwhile, cover the baking tray of a toaster oven with foil. Place pignoli nuts on the foil and bake at 350° until nuts turn light brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Watch nuts carefully, as they burn easily from one minute to the next. When ready, remove nuts immediately.

Place carrots on a platter and sprinkle with pignoli nuts. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8.

Walnut-Stuffed Mushrooms
(Dairy or Pareve)

18 white mushrooms (11/2 to 2 inches in diameter) 
2 Tbsps. butter or olive oil 
3-4 garlic cloves, minced 
3/4 cup walnuts, ground very fine 
kosher salt to taste 
nonstick vegetable spray

Under cold water, scrub mushrooms with a soft brush until clean. Dry on paper towels. Remove the stems from mushroom caps by gently rocking the stems with your thumb until they pop free. Chop stems fine and reserve.

In a medium-sized saucepan, melt butter or heat oil on a medium flame.

Sauté garlic until soft, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add chopped mushroom caps and stir until wilted. Sprinkle in walnuts and salt, stirring to combine. Mixture will have a pasty consistency, like apple-walnut charoset.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Spray a 9-x-13-inch ovenproof baking pan with nonstick spray.

Sprinkle salt inside mushroom caps. With a teaspoon, stuff mushroom caps with chopped filling. Gently push down filling with the back of the teaspoon to pack it in firmly. Place mushroom caps in prepared pan.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until mushroom caps are cooked through. (They'll give off natural liquids.) With a slotted spoon, move to a platter and serve as an hors d'oeuvres, appetizer or side dish.

Serves 6.

Jasmine Rice Pilaf

1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds 
2 Tbsps. olive oil 
1 shallot, chopped 
1/8 tsp. kosher salt, plus more, if needed 
1 cup jasmine rice 
1 can (14 oz.) vegetable broth 
1/4 cup white wine 
1/4 cup water

Cover the tray of a toaster oven with aluminum foil.

Place almonds on the foil. Bake inside toaster oven at 350° for 5 minutes, or until light brown. Watch almonds carefully, as they can burn from one minute to the next. Reserve.

On a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add the shallot and salt, sautéing until soft, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the rice, stirring until grains appear translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Pour in the broth, wine and water. Add more salt, if desired. Stir to combine. Reduce flame to low. Cover pot and gently simmer for 25 minutes. Stir occasionally. If liquids are evaporating too quickly, add more water, 1/4 cup at a time.

Remove the pot from the flame, keeping covered for 5 minutes. Stir rice.

If some liquid has not evaporated, return pot to a low flame for a couple of minutes. Taste rice. If it's still too hard, add 1/4 cup water and heat on low until it is absorbed. Add more water, if rice is not cooked.

When rice is ready, fluff with a fork. Stir in half the almonds.

Move to a bowl and sprinkle the remaining almonds on top of rice. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Curried Chickpeas and Tomatoes

1 can (19 oz.) chickpeas 
1 medium-sized onion, coarsely chopped 
3 garlic cloves, minced 
3 Tbsps. olive oil 
6 Italian plum tomatoes, diced 
kosher salt to taste 
2 tsps. curry powder 
1/2 tsp. ground cumin 
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper 
rice for an optional accompaniment

In a colander, rinse the chickpeas under cold water and drain. Reserve.

In a large pot, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil on medium-low flame, until softened, about 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and sauté, stirring a bit until wilted, about 2 minutes.

Add the chickpeas, salt, curry, cumin, and crushed red pepper, stirring to combine. Cover the pot and simmer until tomatoes turn saucy, about 5 to 10 minutes. Serve immediately with rice, if you choose.

Recipe can be prepared 2 days ahead, refrigerated, and reheated on a low flame.

Serves 4 to 6.

Linda Morel is a writer based in New York City. E-mail her at: [email protected].


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