When it’s cold, gray and pouring rain outdoors, it’s a treat to be indoors pouring over a cookbook full of warm inspiration from sunnier places. Lately I’ve been doing just that in a tiny rural town in Galicia, where I’ve been on an extended visit since last summer, wrestling my ancestors and reacclimating, after fifteen years in the Mediterranean, to an Atlantic climate. Sunny Portugal may be a stone’s throw from my doorstep, but winter here has felt more like the Orkneys (right now it feels like Siberia) – minus a crackling fire, or good scotch, to keep me warm.
For that, I’ve got Jennifer Abadi’s new cookbook, Too Good to Passover: Sephardic & Judeo-Arabic Seder Menus and Memories from Africa, Asia, and Europe, and so far, it’s doing a fine job.
A good idea is only as good as your ability to get it done, so I was pleased to see this book finished at last after nine years in the making. At more than 670 pages, it was a huge undertaking, and worth the long wait. Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen, was relentless in her pursuit of Passover memoirs, family traditions, and recipes from communities of the non-Ashkenazic world – many of them not often heard from, or even about, or now only extant in exile. What began as a simple inquiry into different Passover traditions (Abadi’s original idea was to build a framework for recipes she teaches in her cooking classes), became a commitment to honor the communities and families that shaped them.
And it’s yet another Jewish New Year, this time in celebration of nature. Nice, huh. Today Tu B’Shvat is referred to as the New Year of the Trees, but its celebratory roots are in 16th century mysticism and the arrival of springtime. That’s got to seem pretty crazy in late January, especially if you’re anywhere on the East Coast right now and buried in the weekend’s massive snowfall. Over here in the Barcelona hills, the ground may still say winter but the almond and mimosa trees have already been in full bloom for two weeks. Granted they’re way ahead of schedule this year, but it is normal for daffodils to push through the earth in February, and to see and feel springtime well on its way to returning.
Almond blossoms in January
To read so many recipe columns, you’d think Sephardic Jews eat nothing but lavish, exotic party food. Well, there is life between holidays and social visits, and it is no less enjoyable.
Everyday meals, as much as holiday food, define our cuisine and our philosophy about eating. In examining them what comes through is the value we place not only on food that tastes good but on healthful eating, and sharing a pleasant experience at the table. Though not every day is a festival, every meal should be special, no matter how uncomplicated the recipes.
Some everyday ingredients from a Sephardic kitchen – mine!
Balanced composition, good fresh ingredients, and a few simple techniques are all you need to make a delicious Sephardic meal every day – that and a properly set table. Jewish dietary laws aside, we are rigorous about the content, composition and presentation of our meals. Eating is also a time to take pause and enjoy one another’s company. You’d think these concepts are universal, but I have eaten among people who slap slop on the table, let the forks and knives fall where they may, clutch them like shovels, have no use for napkins, and clear the table while people are still eating. (I have dined among savages). Continue reading
Filed under Customs, History
When a person shows up on the doorstep of a Sephardic home, they can be sure of one thing: if they cross the threshold, they will be made to eat. In our concept of hospitality is the notion that you feed everyone who comes to your home – even the unexpected visitor – and you get right to it. Dragging your heels to put out a snack is very bad form, as is a visitor’s refusing food when it’s offered. This means chances are you can’t pop over to a Sephardic home for just five minutes, but that’s soon forgiven. In my parents’ home, pretty much everyone who showed up at our door was greeted warmly and welcomed this way, which frankly was really nice. Continue reading