MEDITERRANEAN Meal; Passover foods are rooted in Judaic history

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Not every Passover Seder table is set alike.

Gefilte fish, chicken soup and matzo balls are highlights in many homes. But other Jews, who trace their heritage to the Mediterranean, celebrate the holiday meal with bold, colorful dishes enlivened with zesty spices, herbs, garlic, olive oil, lots of vegetables and marinated salads.

Every year, Toto and Miki Mechali of Pikesville look forward to sharing such family recipes as pastel -- with layers of saffron-tinged mashed potato, ground meat and sliced eggs -- and tagine -- a bright melange of chicken and vegetables -- with guests. When the weeklong holiday of Passover -- Pesach in Hebrew -- begins this year at sundown March 31, they once again will serve the bounty of their past.

"It's really peasant food. There's nothing fancy about it," said Toto Mechali, 46, who grew up in Morocco in the 1950s and '60s. "The way we were raised, a lot of our cuisine was Spanish, Moroccan and French."

The multinational food also is growing in popularity in other American households.

"There's an increased interest in ethnic cooking of all kinds," said Baltimore cooking teacher Faith Wolf. "I think it has to do with the palates of our generation being amenable to different tastes. The world's become a lot smaller through business and the computer. We're being bombarded with different cultures all the time."

Toto Mechali's large Jewish family -- there were eight children -- traced its roots to Spain to a time before Ferdinand and Isabella's 1492 edict of expulsion that sent the country's Jews fleeing to North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe.

The exiles took with them their Judaism, their memories of Spain -- Sepharad in Hebrew -- and a language known as Ladino, 15th-century Spanish that they wrote with Hebrew letters. Over the centuries, they added to that the languages, cultures and cuisines of the lands in which they settled.

"The regular bread we had was French baguettes," Mechali said. "My mother would prepare a lot of Moroccan tagines and stews, which always have gravy that you want to sop up with bread."

During Passover, when leavened and wheat-based products are banned, there was a big problem, he said: "You try to sop up gravy with matzo. We would tell my mother all the time, 'Don't frustrate us. Make [food] as dry as possible, so we're not tempted.' "

As Jews the world over sit down to Seder next week, they will revisit their ancestors' exodus from Egyptian bondage more than 3,000 years ago and rejoice in freedom. They'll read the Passover story and commentaries in the Haggada and eat the holiday's required foods: matzo, the flat, unleavened bread baked before it has time to rise, as was the case millenniums ago; bitter herbs -- horseradish, in some traditions -- as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery; celery dipped in salt water that suggests the tears shed by slaves; and haroset, a sweet fruit, nut and wine mixture that is, in appearance, a reminder of the mortar between the bricks of slave-built structures.

And then the multicourse dinner begins.

In the homes of most American Jews, "Ashkenazim," whose forebears brought with them from Eastern Europe the culinary habits that mostly define "Jewish food" in the Western world, the haroset is made with apple, nuts and wine, and the meal often includes gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls, a main course in which meat or poultry is the star, with various vegetables, cooked separately, filling the plate.

Sephardim -- people whose ancestry goes back to Spain and Portugal -- are likely to have a variety of dishes.

"Depending on where the Sephardim lived, they would have different cuisines," said Rita Meshulam of Timonium, also Sephardic, although she grew up in Vienna, Austria, and Turkey. Her ancestry, she said, goes through Bulgaria and Romania and back to Spain.

In fact, Sephardic cuisine defies precise definition since it reflects the food and hospitality customs of areas that stretch from the western Mediterranean to the Balkans, and may embrace Jewish communities throughout the region, including those that did not come from Iberia. One foodstuff can have several variations.

Haroset, for example. While dates, rather than apples, are the common denominator in the Sephardic section of "The Book of Jewish Food" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), author Claudia Roden lists Egyptian, Turkish and Moroccan haroset, with a Libyan variation for the latter, plus a couple of versions from Italy.

At a Passover food demonstration that included both Ashkenazic and Sephardic treats at Williams-Sonoma in Cross Keys earlier this month, Wolf, whose early culinary inspiration was her Sephardic grandmother (from Moldavia, by way of Turkey), gave out samples of a date-and-apricot-based Italian haroset and handouts with a recipe for one from Greece.

Wolf pointed out that many of the ethnic dishes also suit health-seekers. "They are foods with high spices. They are also low in fat and low in salt, which you can do when you increase the spices," she said.

Passover's ban on leavening can, however, make it hard to avoid cholesterol, because eggs play a major part in many recipes, used both at the Seder and through a holiday week that is free of bread, pasta and cereal.

But even in so straightforward a matter as boiling eggs, Sephardim do it differently. Sephardic eggs, called huevos haminados, are brown after hours of cooking in water tinted with brown onion skins and/or coffee grounds.

"You cannot hurt them by boiling them too much," said Meshulam, 72, a mother of three and grandmother of seven. "The eggshells turn brown and the inside is a little bit tan, too, and the yolk is as golden as golden can be. And these are the creamiest eggs that you ever can eat. ... You can eat them any time of the year, but it was a special thing to do at Pesach."

Among the most delicious eggs that you ever can eat, she adds, are bimuelos, a crisp egg-and-matzo pancake that, in her family, is mostly matzo, dipped in a froth of beaten egg and sugar, and eaten hot. "Cholesterol city," said Meshulam. "It's very fattening, but once a year we go completely bananas."

Cookbook versions bear out her comments about place-by-place differences, within as well as across cuisines: Instead of egg-and-sugar for the finishing, many use raisin, sugar or honey syrup.

Meshulam's family, living in Europe, did have matzo balls, she said. But in Morocco, Toto Mechali said, there was no chicken soup, no matzo balls, no gefilte fish. Instead, there was on the Passover table an array of salads made from the luscious produce of the Mediterranean region; fish, bought fresh and cooked whole or sliced; pastel; and tagine with truffles.

"In Morocco, [the truffles] were plentiful and affordable. Truffles here are outrageously expensive. What I do here, I get little potatoes and cut them up ... and you use your imagination," said Mechali, who, with his wife, owns Mama Vida Inc. in Randallstown with its line of Toto's Gourmet Products.

Between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, there is another difference, perhaps more significant: Ashkenazim avoid all grains and legumes during Passover. Sephardim sometimes use rice and have no objection to peas and beans.

Miki Mechali, 46, is Ashkenazic. But she's made peace with the peas that brighten the tagine her husband still makes for Passover, along with the other Moroccan specialties from his mother's recipes.

And he has learned to love the gefilte fish, made the way her mother did it, that will also be part of their Passover meal.

Pastel

Serves 6 as a main course, more as a side dish

12 medium potatoes

1 1/2 pounds ground beef or turkey

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste, divided

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1/2 teaspoon saffron, or turmeric

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

6 eggs, hard-boiled, then peeled and sliced

Boil potatoes with skins until cooked; set aside. Saute meat in pan and add 1 teaspoon salt and garlic. Peel potatoes and mash in bowl, adding saffron, salt, pepper and oil. In greased 9-inch-by-11-inch pan with sides, create layers approximately 1/4 inch thick: First, pat down a layer of mashed potato, cover with ground meat, add slices of eggs, create another layer of mashed potato on top and repeat from the beginning, creating 2 to 3 layers of each. The top layer should be potato. Put pan into oven and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Then broil for 5 minutes to make the top potato layer crisp.

-- From Toto Mechali

Moroccan-Style Shad in Red Sauce

Serves 6 as entree, 8 as first course

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

1 tomato, sliced

1 green bell pepper, cut in strips

4 dried Mexican chilies

6 pounds shad, head removed, gutted and sliced in 1-inch steaks

1 lemon

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease pan with olive oil and spread onion, tomato, bell pepper and chilies. Place shad slices on top. Slice lemon and place slices on top of shad. In a bowl, combine tomato sauce, garlic, chili powder, salt and parsley. Pour over shad. Bake for 1 hour uncovered.

-- From Toto Mechali

Chicken Tagine

Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 chicken, 3 to 3 1/2 pounds, skin removed

1 1/2 cups of chicken stock

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

2 dozen baby carrots

2 potatoes, cubed

1 pound green peas

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

Heat oil in saucepan. Add chicken and cook until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add chicken stock, parsley and garlic and cook for 20 minutes, covered. Add carrots, potatoes and peas, and cook for another 20 minutes, covered. Salt to taste.

-- From Toto Mechali

Moroccan Carrot Salad

12 whole carrots, peeled

1 lemon

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon cumin

Cook carrots in 4 cups of water until soft. Slice carrots 1/2 inch thick. In a mixing bowl, squeeze lemon over carrots and sprinkle the remaining ingredients. Mix gently, chill and serve.

-- From Toto Mechali

Moroccan Cooked Salad (Shakshukah)

2 green bell peppers

6 fresh tomatoes

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil

2 teasppoons salt

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne (optional)

Core bell peppers and dice into half-inch cubes. Dice tomatoes into 1-inch cubes. Combine all ingredients in a pot and bring to boil. Simmer for 2 hours uncovered. Serve at room temperature.

-- From Toto Mechali

Aunt Vicki's Greek Haroset

1/4 cup golden raisins

1/2 pound dried apricots

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

1/2 pound moist dried figs

1/2 pound dates

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

dash ground cinnamon

Soak raisins and apricots together in water to cover overnight or cook them in water to cover until the apricots are tender but not mushy. Drain fruit, reserving liquid. Toast pine nuts on a cookie sheet in a 250-degree oven for 10 minutes. Cool. Grind pine nuts in food processor until fine but not pureed. Add remaining ingredients, including raisins and apricots, in small batches, processing after each addition, until desired consistency is reached. If too stiff, add apricot cooking water or plain water.

-- From Faith Wolf

Babanatza (Sephardic Wine Pudding)

1 cup dried apricots

1 cup dark raisins

1 1/2 cup sweet wine

6 eggs

3/44 cup honey, divided

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups matzo meal

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

Soak the apricots and the raisins overnight in the wine. Drain, reserving the wine, and set aside. Grind the apricots and the raisins with the grating disc of a food processor or hand grater. Beat the eggs and mix with 1/2 cup honey and rest of ingredients, except the reserved wine. Grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan. Spread the mixture evenly in the pan and bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. While the pudding is warm, poke holes in the top with a toothpick. Mix reserved wine with 1/4 cup honey and pour over pudding. Allow to cool and cut into diamonds or squares.

-- From Faith Wolf

Huevos Haminados

Serves 12

skins from 12 large onions

12 large eggs

about 4 quarts water

about 3 tablespoons oil

Arrange the onion skins in the bottom of a large pot. Place the unbroken eggs on top and pour in the water to cover. Bring to a boil. Drizzle with the oil to cover the surface, cover the pot and simmer over very low heat or bake in a 225-degree oven for 8 to 12 hours. Serve warm or at room temperature.

-- From "The World of Jewish Cooking" by Gil Marks (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

TO LEARN MORE

Other sources for Sephardic recipes

* "The Sephardic Table: The Vibrant Cooking of the Mediterranean Jews" (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) by Pamela Grau Twena

* "The Sephardic Kitchen: The Healthy Food and Rich Culture of the Mediterranean Jews" (Harper Collins, 1996) by Robert Sternberg

* "The Book of Jewish Food" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) by Claudia Roden

* "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" (Schocken Books, 1979, 1988) by Joan Nathan

* "Jewish Cooking in America" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) by Joan Nathan

* "The World of Jewish Cooking" (Simon & Schuster, 1996) by Gil Marks

* "The Jewish Holiday Cookbook" (Times Books, 1985) by Gloria Kaufer Greene

Pub Date: 03/24/99

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