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Cookbook features Jewish, Sicilian food


´The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook,´ by Pamela Hensley Vincent. (The Overlook Press)

´The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook,´ by Pamela Hensley Vincent. (The Overlook Press)

NEW YORK, Feb. 14 (JTA) — How did Pamela Hensley Vincent, a nice Ashkenazi girl from California, end up writing “The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook” (The Overlook Press, 2004)? It’s a long story. Almost as long as the megillah of Esther, the tale of a nice Jewish girl from ancient Persia whose Uncle Mordecai helped her save the Jews from disaster. With rumors running rampant, Mordecai heard that King Ahasuerus, who’d banished his first wife, was throwing a contest to replace her. And, he later learned, the king’s vizier, Haman, was planning to annihilate the Jews. Desperate times require desperate measures. Mordecai asked his niece to enter the contest. Fate was in her favor, because Esther won the king’s hand and later his trust. As the vizier laid his plans, Queen Esther revealed her religion and how she, like her uncle, would be the victim of Haman’s evil plot. The king became so enraged by this news that he hung his vizier on the noose he’d erected to murder the Jews. Then Mordecai and Esther rejoiced, throwing a feast, which evolved into the present-day Purim. “I remember the little triangular cookies my grandmother Yetta made at Purim,” says Vincent, a former television and movie actress turned cookbook author. The cookies, filled with apricot preserves, were a version of hamantaschen, the pastry fashioned after Haman’s hat. These are memories from Los Angeles in the 1950s, a time when Queen Esther, a dark-eyed Jewish beauty, seemed less appealing to Vincent than did such blondes as Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe, a time when her grandmother’s cooking wafted above hoola-hoops and Hollywood dreams. Although they lived centuries apart, there was a lot of Queen Esther’s courage in Grandma Yetta. The only daughter of a rabbi, Yetta left Austria to escape anti-Semitism. Like the Persian queen, she was sponsored by a powerful uncle, who opened his home to her. He hoped his charming niece would marry a king of sorts, perhaps a doctor or a lawyer. But Yetta fell in love with someone who was neither rich or distinguished, a man her uncle considered a playboy. The playboy’s name was Manny. “If you marry Manny, I’ll disown you,” her uncle threatened. Yetta defied her uncle and married Manny. She was then cut off from her family. Like Queen Esther at the Persian court, she found herself among strangers. She was a 17-year-old bride living across the hall from a kind Italian family. “The Italian lady taught my grandmother to cook,” says Vincent, recalling the fragrant aroma of garlic that would fill Yetta’s house whenever she made spaghetti sauce. Using the handle of an old wooden spoon, she mashed the garlic into paste. “I can still hear — clop, clop, clop — the soft thud of the garlic-mashing process. It was music to my youthful ears.” It also introduced her to a cuisine that she would come to love. A few decades after Grandma Yetta learned to cook, her granddaughter’s acting career took off. Vincent played Janet Kiley, actor James Brolin’s girlfriend and then his wife, on the television show “Marcus Welby.” She played the infamous Princess Ardala in “Buck Rogers” on both the large and small screens. Arriving at an audition for a new television series, “Matt Houston,” she met E. Duke Vincent, a television producer whose credits include 70 shows, among them “Melrose Place,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” and “Dynasty.” With her long brown hair and dreamy brown eyes, the striking actress could have passed for Queen Esther trying out for King Ahasuerus. “A dark helmet of hair swept forward as though windblown, like the profile on a Roman coin,” she says as she describes the Sicilian-American man for whom she auditioned.”He was wearing jeans and a well-cut shirt, the cuffs rolled back rakishly. Oddly enough, this small aspect drew my attention. It exuded a kind of glamour.” In the ultimate Hollywood plotline, Pamela Hensley not only landed the part of Matt Houston’s girl Friday, C.J. Parsons, but went on to marry Duke Vincent. Fairly soon, the Vincents found they enjoyed cooking at home more than attending Hollywood parties. They shared recipes passed down from both of their families. Pamela Vincent adopted Pasta Night, a tradition started by her mother-in-law. “Every Thursday and Sunday night, come hell or high water, you can find us in our kitchen surrounded by a bottle of Chianti, as a garlic-laced sauce simmers slowly on the stove,” she says. “A large wooden bowl filled with greens from Duke’s garden is surrounded by bottles of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and aged Pecorino cheese. A pot of salted water comes to a boil for linguini, penne or rigatoni. Whenever dinner is ready and the candles lit, we sit and toast a brief buon apetito and salut.” They’re still madly in love, the Vincents say. They love to entertain, and they do it frequently. They enjoy serving their friends a dessert they discovered at a Sicilian restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa. The owner brought them bowls of lemon and lime sorbet. Then he bellowed, “Wait, don’t eat it yet!” He returned with a bottle of Gordon’s Gin and poured generous capsful over their sorbet. A bit skeptical until they tastes it, they adored the cold, sweet, tart flavor of this dessert that tastes like a frozen daiquiri. One spring evening, as her husband savored a salad that was the signature dish of Pamela Vincent’s father, Jack, he said “This is delicious. You ought to write a cookbook.” At first Vincent resisted, believing there was nothing special about her cooking. “My dad never measured ingredients and neither did my grandmother,” she said, and she convinced herself that her recipes were too simple for anyone to be interested in them. Yet she recalled her father’s affinity for California produce. “Pure inspiration, Jack’s Dinner Salad is a taste-texture thing,” she says. “It’s crunchy and wonderful, salty and tart.” Jack Hensley never served dressings out of a bottle — God forbid, she says. Instead, he threw together a Caesar-type dressing. During her childhood, the only fish Vincent liked eating were the trout her father caught in the streams and lakes of the High Sierras. “I’m certain he created Jack’s Pescado Portugal for me,” she says. “It worked! I love it.” By contrast, her mother, Gail, was a fish out of water in the kitchen. “My mom was gorgeous, glamorous and very funny,” says Vincent. “However, this chic, green-eyed brainy blonde hated to cook.” Once an aspiring actress, years earlier Gail had brought her parents Yetta and Manny to live in California. But she drifted away from Judaism and raised her daughter in a secular home. Recently, Vincent came across a small faded photo of her grandparents on their wedding day. Two Ashkenzi immigrants, gentle and loving, they stare into the camera, waiting for the future to unfold. The picture rekindled her husband’s suggestion that she write a family cookbook. That morning she decided to try. The smell of coffee reminds her of her grandfather, who concocted a deeply flavored hot beverage by mixing Mexican and espresso coffee beans. Its aroma would scent her grandparents’ kitchen for hours. Another memory followed. One morning, Manny told six-year-old Pamela to “eat dah-link, eat nice,” as he poured coffee from his percolator into a mug and handed it to her. “Don’t tell Grandma,” he whispered. Then her granddaughter talked about Yetta’s unconditional love. “I am suddenly enveloped in my earliest memory of Yetta,” says Vincent. “The fragrance of fresh, clean cotton and her baking. Her rough, nail-bitten fingers kneading pie dough.” She claims her grandmother made the most fabulous apple pie. Not your typical American apple pie, she says. There was no light flaky crust and sweet apple filling, but a dense, buttery crust. It was more like strudel that begs to be picked up and dunked into coffee. “The tastes you remember from childhood are magic,” she says. “Unless you go to someone’s home who makes the same foods in the same way, you could forget those tastes and smells forever. It’s amazing how food rekindles the past.” She describes Manny breaking pieces of matza into warm eggs for her breakfast, and Yetta feeding her sweet hamantashen, warm from the oven. “There was such a sense of comfort at my grandparents’ house,” she says. “They are my closest link to being Jewish. Their influence was profound. They still haunt me. Yet I didn’t realize it until I sat down to write this cookbook.” She started by writing snippets about family. Before she knew it, she’d created a scrapbook of their lives and the dishes they lovingly prepared as a way to thank them for her beautiful childhood, filled as it was with luscious memories and delicious food. “I needed to write a cookbook. I knew it was locked inside my heart all these years,” she says. “The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook” turned out to be a story within a story, not unlike Yett’a hamantashen with their apricot filling. Not all the recipes in “The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook” are kosher, but it has many recipes that kosher cooks can use. Drawing on her grandmother’s spirit, Vincent honored her roots and left a lasting legacy behind.Recipes from “The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook,” by Pamela Hensley Vincent: Historians debate whether the Purim story really happened. Meanwhile, believers contend that in Queen Esther’s determination to observe the laws of kashrut while keeping her religion a secret, she became a vegetarian at the Persian court. For that reason, Jews from many Sephardi cultures do not eat meat during Purim. In deference to that tradition, Pamela Hensley Vincent presents a dairy menu from “The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook.”YETTA’S SPAGHETTI1 teaspoon salt, plus a pinch1 stick of butter2 tablespoons tomato paste1 10-ounce can tomato sauceDash of paprika1/4 teaspoon black pepper1 teaspoon sugar4-6 cloves of garlic (depending on how much you like), peeled and mashed1 pound spaghettiPut on a large pot of water, including 1 teaspoon salt. As you wait for it to boil, melt the butter in a saucepan. Then add tomato paste and tomato sauce. Stir until smooth, keeping the heat low. Add pinch salt, paprika and black pepper. Add sugar and stir. Add the garlic. Simmer sauce about 5 minutes. Put pasta into boiling water. Cook until al dente — check after several minutes by taking a fork, removing a strand and biting into it. If it’s too firm, try again in 20 seconds. The spaghetti should be slippery and supple, but just slightly firm. Drain pasta in a colander. Never rinse pasta in cold water. Place pasta in a big bowl and pour sauce over it. Toss together and serve immediately.Yield: 8 servingsJACK’S DINNER SALADDressing:1/4 cup olive oil1 lemon, squeezed1 teaspoon Dijon mustard3 chopped anchovy fillets, or 1 teaspoon of anchovy paste1/4 teaspoon black pepper1 garlic clove, crushed2 scallionsSalad: 1 head romaine lettuce. Optional: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to tasteMix all dressing ingredients together. Rinse romaine under cold running water and pat dry. Remove any bruised outer leaves. On salad plates, place several leaves and drizzle the dressing on top. For extra zip, grate on some Parmigiano-Reggiano.Yield: 4 servingsJACK’S PESCADO PORTUGAL3 tablespoons olive oil1 medium green pepper, seeded and finely chopped1 large onion, finely chopped1 celery stalk, chopped2 garlic cloves, crushed 1 14-ounce can of tomatoes, drained11/2 pounds halibut, snapper, or sea bass divided into 2 piecesSalt and pepper to tasteRice, prepared according to package directionsPreheat oven to 325 degrees. Place olive oil in a skillet. Heat slowly. Add chopped pepper, onion, celery and garlic. Saute a few minutes. Add tomatoes. If tomatoes are whole, break them up with a wooden fork. Simmer 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, place fish on a double layer of large sheets of heavy aluminum foil. Sprinkle fish lightly with salt and pepper. Then carefully spoon the sauce over the fish. Fold the foil over fish to form a closed pouch. Make sure edges are closed tightly enough to prevent steam from escaping. Place foil pouch in oven and cook for 40 minutes. Serve fish and its sauce over rice.Yield: 4 servingsMY FAVORITE COFFEE (by Manny)12 teaspoon Mexican coffee beans1 teaspoon espresso beans24 ounces fresh water4 dashes of cinnamon, optionalGrind both kinds of beans and brew with water. Pour into coffee cups. Sprinkle a dash of cinnamon on top of each cup.Yield: 4 servingsGIN AND SORBET Traditionally Purim is a joyous holiday celebrated with food and drink. The trick to this fun dessert is to use tart sorbet and rough, inexpensive gin.1 pint lemon or lime sorbet1 bottle gin (you’ll have a lot left over)In dessert bowls, place scoops of sorbet. Pass gin around the table and pour capfuls on top of sorbet to taste.Yield: 4 servings