Catering to a cook’s talents

Rimon Ajami checks a batch of her home-baked pastries in her Jerusalem kitchen. (Brian Hendler)

Rimon Ajami checks a batch of her home-baked pastries in her Jerusalem kitchen. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – In a kitchen stocked with round glass jars of pickled lemons, baby eggplant, and baskets of garlic and red peppers, Rimon Ajami is beginning to prepare a Passover seder for 40 people. The client is one of Ajami’s regulars now that she has started a business with the assistance of a program that trains low-income women to start catering companies, offering professional courses and microfinancing loans. “When you cook out of love it changes the taste. It’s not cooking for cooking’s sake, it’s an art form,” Ajami said of her traditional Kurdish dishes like kubbeh – a bulgar wheat dumpling – stuffed vegetables and cauliflower salad. More than two years since joining the “Women Cook Up a Business” program, which receives funding from the Jerusalem Foundation and the New Israel Fund, Ajami is running a thriving catering business. She caters dinner parties and receptions, makes hot lunches for organizations and hosts meals at her home.Ajami and her husband, Shmuel, can begin to pay back the debts they accrued when they sank into economic despair when his business as a building contractor crumbled after he started losing his vision. Now Shmuel is in the kitchen with Ajami, cutting up artichokes for salads, shelling peas and making numerous runs to nearby Machane Yehuda, the capital’s open-air fruit and vegetable market. “My business saved not only myself but my husband,” Ajami said. She remembers the day she begged to be let into a cooking course the program was sponsoring. The family was struggling mightily – collection agents would come to the Ajami home almost daily to repossess belongings. She would pass by beggars in the street and wonder if she would soon be among them. In the two-year course, Ajami and about 25 other women have taken classes with a professional chef, who taught them how to cook in mass quantities. They learned about economic independence and running a business from business consultants. And they were given personal counseling and coaching to help them stay focused on their goals. The idea to turn women’s cooking talents into income was the brainchild of Yosefa Tabib-Calif. At the time she ran the program in conjunction with two women’s empowerment groups. She currently is a coordinator for economic and community projects for Shatil, the New Israel Fund center that consults with and trains non-profit organizations in Israel’s civil society sector. “People asked why would we put women back in the kitchen,” Tabib-Calif said. “The idea here is to take women already in their 40s and 50s and not to fundamentally change their lifestyle and promise them they’ll have new careers as doctors and lawyers, but to say, ‘Here, we’ll give you the tools to take your talents and translate them into making a living.’ “She hopes the program will be replicated elsewhere in Israel. Sitting at her kitchen table shelling peas, Ajami said she shudders to think where she would be without the program. “I don’t even dare think about it,” she said, recalling the days she worried about putting food on the table. The first daughter born to a Kurdish immigrant family from Turkey after four boys, she has been cooking since she was a young girl. She learned most of her recipes from her mother, but likes to experiment. For example, she makes vegetarian kubbeh stuffed with mushroom, pine nuts and onion; sweet potato pancakes; and grape leaves stuffed with brown rice. She and her husband also make their own dessert liqueurs. Ajami shows off a vat of fermenting pomegranates that soon will be ready for making into a sweet wine. Among her most popular liqueurs are cherry with almond, as well as strawberry. She serves them when guests come for meals to her home off a narrow street in the Nachlaot neighborhood. Ajami would like to have more tourists from abroad come for such gatherings when they visit Jerusalem. Along with planning the seder, Ajami has a lengthy list of orders to fill. She sits back at the kitchen table and scribbles down recipes. Here’s one: Kosher for Passover Kubbeh For the dough: 1 pound matzah flour4 eggs2 cups water 1 teaspoon salt For the filling: 1 pound minced meat 4 celery leaves 1 onionSalt and pepper to taste 1 3/4 ounces pine nuts Preparation: 1. Cook meat over medium heat in a deep pan for about 20 minutes.2. Add diced onion.3. After onion becomes translucent, add chopped celery leaves.4. Let cook for approximately another 40 minutes and season with salt and pepper.5. After mixture cools, add pine nuts and set aside.6. Mix matzah flour with eggs, cracking in one egg at a time until the consistency is like bread dough.7. Take a small amount of dough, about the size of a tennis ball, and mold it with fingers into an oval shape (about 4 inches long).8. Make a round hollow hole in the dough with fingers and fill with the meat mixture. Make sure to pat the dough over to close the hole. 9. Fry in olive oil until color is toasty brown. Note: The uncooked kubbeh can be made in advance and frozen. The recipe should make about 20 kubbeh.

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