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When I moved to Israel, I discovered that there's lots more to Purim than hamantashen, costumes, groggers and Megila readings. I learned that the highlight of the Purim dinner is turkey.
Unlike the American Thanksgiving turkey, which invariably is a whole stuffed bird that takes the major part of a day to prepare, the Purim turkey menu is more flexible. Some prepare an entree from turkey breasts or legs, which, of course, cook faster than a whole bird and are much easier to handle.
In some communities there's another food on the Purim table - chickpeas or beans, in honor of Queen Esther's diet in King Ahasuerus's palace, where she was said to have eaten only nuts and seeds. Usually they appear as a bowl of plainly cooked chickpeas or, in North Africa, fresh fava beans.
It's a good idea to combine both customary foods turkey and chickpeas - in one dish, for a simple reason - they taste great together. The legumes gain flavor from the bird's savory cooking juices. There are lots of examples of this combination in Sephardi cuisines, in which cooks often pair chickpeas with poultry or meat to make stews and soups.
Since the Purim story took place in Shushan, which, the Megila related, was the capital of the Persian Empire, I like to incorporate flavors from that area in the Purim feast. I first heard about Shushan in my schooldays at the Hebrew Academy of Washington, D.C., but our teachers did not tell us that the city still exists. It is now a town called Shush or Susa about 1,100 km. south of Teheran, not far from the Persian Gulf, and, as a tourist attraction, boasts the impressive ruins of King Darius's palace.
The legendary burial site of the prophet Daniel is also found there and is visited by both Jews and Muslims. According to Shirin Simmons, author of Entertaining the Persian Way, Jews still live in this region. Herbs, wheat, barley, rice and dates are grown there and are important in the local cuisine, which is rich in grains and fresh herbs.
A specialty of this region is beef or lamb simmered with wheat berries, often with chickpeas added; sometimes this dish is made with turkey instead of meat. Some stew meat and chickpeas with brown beans, onions and tomatoes but no grains, and serve the entree with warm bread and fresh herbs. For a vegetable-rich version, cooks might add eggplant, green peppers and okra. Turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, onions and dried lemons or lemon juice are the favorite flavorings.
For Purim I like to use these savory seasonings, loved around the Middle East, to enhance a festive dish of turkey legs, chickpeas and egg noodles. Easy to prepare in advance and reheat, it's colorful and substantial, yet not too heavy, so everyone has room for the hamantashen.
TURKEY LEGS WITH CHICKPEAS, MUSHROOMS, CARROTS AND EGG NOODLES
These turkey legs are braised gently with fresh and dried mushrooms, gentle spices and lemon juice and served with noodles. The turkey comes out moist and tender, and the sauce is richly flavored. For a more colorful dish, add the optional tomatoes and peppers. Instead of noodles, you can serve the turkey with basmati or Persian rice.
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil
2 large onions, sliced
1 celery stalk, sliced
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1.5 kg. turkey drumsticks
1 cup dried chickpeas, sorted and rinsed
4 cups chicken broth and 2 to 3 cups water
30 gr. dried mushrooms
450 gr. carrots, peeled, cut in 1-cm. slices
1â„4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1â„4 to 1â„2 tsp. ground turmeric
salt and freshly ground pepper
225 gr. button mushrooms, quartered
a 400-gr. can tomatoes, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 or 2 green peppers, cut in strips (optional)
3 Tbsp. potato starch or cornstarch
1 to 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (optional)
5 Tbsp. chopped parsley or cilantro (fresh coriander), or a mixture of both
450 gr. medium egg noodles
Heat oil in a stewpan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 10 minutes or until light golden. Add celery and garlic and saute one minute. Add turkey, chickpeas, broth and one cup water. Bring to boil. Cover and simmer over low heat, turning turkey over from time to time, for 11â„2 hours.
Soak dried mushrooms in enough hot water to cover them for 30 minutes.
Remove mushrooms and rinse them. If mushrooms are large, cut in bite-size pieces.
Add more water if the sauce is becoming dry, so the chickpeas are still covered with liquid. Add carrots and soaked dried mushrooms (but not fresh mushrooms) to the pan. Add cinnamon and turmeric and cook for 30 minutes more or until chickpeas are tender. Turkey should also be very tender when pierced in thickest part with a knife.
Uncover and cool about 15 minutes.
Remove turkey from liquid. Remove skin with aid of a paring knife. Discard turkey bones, cartilage and visible fat. Pull or cut meat into wide strips. Skim fat from liquid. Season liquid to taste with salt and pepper.
Add fresh mushrooms, tomatoes and green peppers to pan. Cook for 10 minutes or until mushrooms and peppers are tender. Remove vegetables from casserole with slotted spoon.
Mix potato starch with five tablespoons water in small bowl until blended. Bring turkey cooking liquid to a simmer. Gradually whisk in potato starch solution and simmer for one minute or until thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning. Return turkey and vegetables to sauce and heat gently. Add lemon juice if you like. Stir in four tablespoons parsley.
Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling water for five minutes or until just tender.
Drain well. Serve noodles topped with turkey, chickpeas and sauce, and sprinkled with remaining parsley.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Feast from the Mideast.