Many people dream of making their passion their livelihood. Some achieve it. One such fortunate soul is Gil Marks, who began our coffee meeting one recent Friday by quoting Confucius: "He who loves what he does never works a day in his life."
"I haven't worked in 20 years," commented the Virginia-born, New York-based author of four successful cookbooks, the latest of which is Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World.
What interests this writer - who is also a rabbi, lecturer, playwright and historian - is not just the dishes themselves, but the rich cultural mosaic behind them.
"When you eat a traditional Jewish food," he says, "you're buying a ride into Jewish history."
Where, for example, does the Hebrew word halla come from? he asks. For the answer, it emerges, one must go back to what bread and ovens were like 3,000 years ago - the former flat, like the Indian chapati; the latter, very primitive. Except for the ritual gift to the kohen, which was considerably thicker, and baked in a mold with little spokes. These spokes perforated the dough, ensuring that it baked right through.
Halla is thus related to halil, a flute, which also has little holes.
Marks doesn't let his learning overshadow his gastronomic pleasure, however. One of three things we will be asked in the heavenly court, he says, quoting the Talmud Yerushalmi, is: "Did you enjoy My world?"
"If you don't enjoy your food," he says, "you're slapping God in the face."
THE WORD "spinach," Marks explains, derives from the Farsi isfanakh ("thorn") - a reference to its prickly seeds. Spinach arrived in Europe via the Moors in the 11th century, where it quickly became a Sephardi favorite. These patties, "which even spinach-haters find tasty," are traditional at this time of year.
KEFTES DE ESPINACA
(Sephardi Spinach Patties)
3 Tbsp. oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
Under 1 kg. (about 16 cups raw) fresh spinach, cooked, chopped, and squeezed; or frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed (about 4 cups)
About 1 cup matza meal or fine bread crumbs
About 3â„4 tsp. table salt, or 11â„2 tsp. kosher (kashering) salt
Ground black pepper to taste
1â„4 tsp. grated nutmeg, or 1â„2 tsp. cayenne (optional)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
Vegetable oil for frying
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and, if using, the garlic, and saute until soft and translucent, 5-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the spinach, matza meal, salt, pepper and nutmeg, if using. Stir in the eggs. If the mixture is too loose, add a little more matza meal. Shape the spinach mixture into 16 patties, 8 cm. long and 2.5 cm. wide.
Heat about 3â„4 cm. oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry the patties in batches, turning them until they are golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Drain them on paper towels. Serve warm with the lemon wedges.
Variations: Keftes de Espinaca con Queso (Sephardi Spinach Patties with Cheese): Add 1 cup grated Muenster, Swiss, Gouda or cheddar cheese or 1â„4 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
Keftes de Espinaca con Muez (Sephardi Spinach Patties with Walnuts): Substitute 1â„2 to 1 cup finely chopped walnuts for the matza meal.
Note: To reheat the patties, place in a large skillet, add 11â„2 cups vegetable stock and simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes.
'ASHKENAZI brisket did not readily translate to the Middle East," Marks explains, and is rarely seen in Israeli restaurants. This is partly attributable to the nature of Israeli brisket, labeled cut No. 3 and much tougher than in America.
Similarly, among US non-Jews, brisket was for a long time a disregarded cut of meat, practically given away or utilized for ground beef; except in Texas. There, barbecue - meaning brisket - has been a longtime political device.
During the five years of his presidency, Lyndon Johnson hosted more than 100 huge and convivial barbecues at his ranch - not only during elections, but also to entertain VIPs - a unique style of statesmanship called "barbecue diplomacy." In a few short years, Texas-style barbecue became a national and desirable food.
BARBECUE BEEF BRISKET FOR 10
2-kg. first-cut beef brisket
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
12 Tbsp. tomato sauce or tomato puree
1â„2 cup water
1â„3 cup brown sugar
1â„4 cup cider or red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. honey or molasses
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
11â„2 tsp. chili powder
11â„2 tsp. dry mustard
1â„2 tsp. ground cumin
About 1 tsp. salt
About 1 tsp. ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 165Â°. Rub both sides of the meat with salt and pepper. Wrap it in several layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil and cook until the meat is fork-tender and the thickest part registers 80Â° on a meat thermometer, about 4 hours. Let cool.
Sauce: Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent, 5-10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes. (The sauce can be refrigerated or frozen until ready to use.)
Slice the brisket diagonally against the grain, about 1â„2-cm. thick. Arrange a layer of meat in a large baking dish and spread with some sauce. Repeat until all of the meat and sauce is used. Cover with foil. (The brisket can be prepared ahead to this point and refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen for up to 3 months. Return to room temperature.)
Preheat the oven to 180Â°. Bake the brisket, covered, until heated through, about 1 hour. Serve warm.