Breaking the fast, Sephardi style


NEW YORK (JTA) — The day before Yom Kippur, I always go to a local appetizing store and buy as much smoked fish as I can carry home. My selections are hardly ever tempered by my wallet, which is why I’m staggered when I get the bill. I do this from habit and because my family adores these foods.

But are bagels and lox mandatory to break the Yom Kippur fast?

Ideally this meal should be restorative, easy to digest and readily assembled at the last minute. Bagels and lox meet these criteria, so platters of smoked fish — along with kugels and sliced tomatoes — have become the menu of choice among many Ashkenazim in America.

But this year I became curious about Sephardic customs. Perusing cookbooks, I discovered a treasure trove of break-fast recipes whose variety astounded me.

Sephardim often partake in dairy foods on this special night; bagels and lox are not part of their culinary repertoire. Surprisingly, some Sephardim break the fast with soups and stews calling for meat, and with dishes that are typical main course fare, as opposed to the brunch foods enjoyed by Ashkenazim.

While the break-fast menu varies among Sephardim from country to country, their entrees and side dishes are nourishing, delicious, gentle on empty stomachs and economical. They are well worth considering in a year when the stock market remains down and the cost of smoked fish is up.

The Sephardic custom of eating meat to break the fast has roots in Spanish tradition. In “A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews,” authors David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson cited several instances of meat-based menus. Jews in Castile, who clandestinely conformed to their religion to avoid the terror of the Spanish Inquisition, often broke the fast with fowl or other meat. In Aragon, Spain, and in Portugal, fish and fowl were the preferred foods on this occasion.

The authors mentioned the late 15th century custom of Rabbi Simuel of Teruel: “After the fast, in the evening [his family] ate chicken. Amazingly the family of Aldonza Deli of Teruel broke their fast with doves.”

While I’ve never tried a dove — at Yom Kippur or ever — I’ve always felt a nice bowl of chicken soup would be appealing after forgoing food for  more than 24 hours.

In “Jewish Food: The World at Table,” Mathew Goodman discussed the Sephardic custom of breaking the Yom Kippur fast with chicken soup. In Italy, the broth is often heightened with turkey meatballs and pieces of pasta, which sounded very tempting.

Jews in Greece and Turkey end the fast with Avgolemono, an egg-and-lemon soup in a chicken broth base that is thickened with rice. Light and delicious, it’s a staple on Greek diner menus year round.

Several cookbooks featured Moroccan Lemon Chicken with Olives, a wildly popular break-fast stew, which richly deserves its reputation.

Morocco has spawned a spectrum of tempting break-fast recipes. In the “Jewish Holiday Kitchen,” Joan Nathan raved about both chicken couscous and harira, a thick soup brimming with stewing meat, fava beans and lentils. The original recipe dates back to biblical times.

Nathan’s cookbook featured an easy but delicious recipe for Algerian Chicken Tagine (stew) with Quinces, which the Jaffin family of Algiers served as a main course to break the fast.

Of course, no Jewish holiday meal is complete without fish on the menu. In “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews,” Edda Servi Machlin waxed poetic about a sweet-and-sour fish in the Jewish style.

After tinkering with the recipe, I realized this piquant dish would be an excellent way to introduce Sephardic food to the usual smoked fish menu, a way to bridge the gap for those who aren’t ready to jump to meat.

Likewise, Zucca Disfatta, or Pumpkin Puree, is a pareve recipe that pairs well with meat dishes or smoked fish. Claudia Roden in her landmark “The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York” explained that the dish was prepared to break the fast in charming Ferrara, Italy, the setting of the movie “The Garden of the Finzi-Contini.”

Sephardic recipe possibilities go on and on. Moroccan Jews also break the fast with a chickpea and chicken omelet. Or there’s Hamine, eggs cooked for hours until their yolks turn creamy and their whites become light brown. According to Roden says that hamine, which are sold by street vendors in Israel, have come to epitomize Sephardic food there. Like smoked fish, they are eaten at births and deaths, and to break the Yom Kippur fast.

Although Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews may come from different culinary traditions, we are tied together by a common heritage. Whether we eat dairy foods or meat, after the Day of Atonement we turn to each other, our families and foods we can count on.

The following recipes were developed by Linda Morel.

AVGOLEMONO (Egg and Lemon Soup)
This light soup hailing from Greece and Turkey is calming to empty stomachs. Original recipes call for homemade chicken broth, but the canned broth in this version eases preparation at a busy time of year.
Yield: 8 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
5 carrots, cut horizontally into thin circles
1/2 cup uncooked rice
1 (48-ounce) can chicken broth
1 chicken bouillon cube, dissolved in 1 1/2 cups hot water
3 eggs at room temperature
1 1/2 lemons at room temperature

1. In a medium-large pot, heat olive oil on a low flame. Add onion and stir for 1 to 2 minutes, until softened. Add carrots and rice and stir for another couple of minutes until well combined.
2. Pour chicken broth and bouillon water into pot. Stir ingredients and cover pot. When broth comes to a boil, lower flame so that broth gently simmers. Simmer 25 to 30 minutes, or until rice is soft enough to eat.
3. Meanwhile, whisk eggs in a medium-sized bowl until frothy. Slowly drizzle in lemon juice while whisking.
4. When soup is ready, uncover the pot and stir soup for a minute to release heat. Remove a half-ladle of soup and gradually drizzle into egg mixture, whisking briskly. (If you add soup too quickly, eggs will curdle.) Repeat this 3 more times, until you’ve added 2 ladles of soup to egg mixture.
5. Stir pot of soup again to continue releasing heat. Slowly drizzle egg mixture into pot of soup, whisking vigorously. Soup will appear creamy.
6. To serve immediately, heat soup on a low flame for about 2 minutes, until warmed through. Recipe can be made a day in advance, covered, refrigerated and reheated on a low flame.

BESCE ALL’EBRAICA (Fish, Jewish Style, from Italy)
In Italy, this recipe is made with small whole fish. To satisfy American preferences, this version calls for fillets, allowing the dish to be reheated right before the break-fast meal.
Yield: 8 servings

1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon honey
1/2 cup dark raisins
No-stick vegetable spray
2 red snappers (2 pounds each), filleted and cut into 4 pieces each, 8 pieces in all
Kosher salt to taste
White pepper to taste
1/2 cup pignoli nuts

1. Whisk together vinegar, wine, oil, and honey until honey dissolves. Stir in raisins and soak for 15 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with no-stick spray. Rinse fillets under cold water and dry with paper towels. Sprinkle fillets with salt and pepper. Place fillets skin side down in prepared pan, overlapping as little as possible.
3. Whisk vinegar mixture again and pour over fillets, evenly coating them. Place pan in oven and bake for 10 minutes. Baste every 5 minutes.
4. Sprinkle pignoli nuts over the fillets and continue to bake and baste for another 10 minutes, or until fish flakes when pierced with a fork.
5. To serve immediately, place fish on a platter and spoon raisins, nuts, and sauce over fish. To prepare a day in advance, cover pan with aluminum foil and refrigerate. Return fish to room temperature. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, or until warmed through.

DJADJA ZETOON (Moroccan-Style Lemon Chicken with Olives)
Yield: 6-8 servings

Preserved Lemon Express
Jews throughout North Africa and in many Middle Eastern countries cook with preserved lemons, which are quartered, heavily salted, and stored in jars of oil for 3 to 4 weeks. This process softens the peel’s bitterness while enhancing the lemon’s splendid pungency. Here is a 30-minute method that approximates the burst of citrus flavor achieved the old fashion way:

1 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups ice cubes

With the point of a sharp knife, pierce the lemon skin 4 times, barely breaking the surface. In a small saucepan, submerge the lemon in water. Add olive oil and salt. Simmer on a low flame for 30 minutes. Remove lemon with a slotted spoon and submerge in a bath of ice cubes and water for 5 minutes (lemon may pucker). Remove and dry with a paper towel. Can be made a day before Lemon Chicken, if covered in plastic wrap and refrigerated.

Lemon Chicken
1 chicken, cut into 10 pieces (2 legs, 2 hips, 2 wings, and the breast cut into quarters)
5 tablespoons olive oil, or more if needed
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon ground tumeric
3 tablespoons parsley, chopped
3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
Kosher salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
2/3 cup green olives (not filled with pimentos), pitted and sliced
2 packages couscous, optional, prepared according to package instructions

1. In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil briefly on a medium flame. Saute chicken pieces until golden brown. Remove to a platter. Carefully pour oily chicken fat from pot into a heatproof container. Wipe pan clean with a paper towel. Add remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil and saute onion, garlic, and ginger for 2 minutes.
2. Stir tomato paste and tumeric into 1 1/2 cups water, combining well. Return chicken to pot and stir. Add tomato mixture, parsley, cilantro, salt, and pepper. Cover pot. On a medium flame, simmer for 45 minutes, turning chicken and stirring sauce occasionally.
3. Meanwhile, slice Preserved Lemon (recipe above) in half and discard seeds. Cut lemon into 1/4-inch pieces, including the peel. Add lemon pieces and olives to chicken. Stir and simmer for 5 minutes. Prepare couscous.
4. To serve immediately, place couscous on a platter and cover with chicken and sauce. Garnish with sprigs of fresh cilantro and parsley, if desired. To prepare a day in advance, cover chicken and refrigerate. Reheat on a low flame until warmed through.

ZUCCA DISFATTA (Pumpkin Puree)
In Italy, pumpkins have a different taste and consistency than those found in the United States. In fact the word zucca means either pumpkin or gourd. Original recipes call for fresh pumpkin and entail the arduous task of peeling the flesh from the peel.
Yield: 6-8 servings

6-cup souffle dish or comparable deep ovenproof dish
Food processor or blender

1 large onion, chopped fine
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt to taste
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, plus more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more if desired
2 (15-ounce) cans pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon Balsamic vinegar
No-stick vegetable spray
1/4 cup sliced almonds

1. On a low flame, saute onion in vegetable oil. Sprinkle in salt, cinnamon, and pepper, mixing well. Saute, stirring occasionally until onion pieces wilt but do not burn, about 5 minutes. Cool slightly.
2. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, place pumpkin, sugar, vinegar and onion mixture. Process ingredients until well blended. Check salt and seasonings and add more, if needed.
3. Coat souffle dish with no stick spray. Spoon pumpkin mixture into prepared dish. Recipe can be made to this point one day in advance. Cover dish, refrigerate, and bring to room temperature before proceeding.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle almonds and cinnamon on top of pumpkin. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes, or until pumpkin bubbles at the edges. Serve immediately.

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