Breaking the fast in style

Ever since I learned from my Middle Eastern relatives about the Sephardi custom of breaking the Yom Kippur fast with a soup, I have found it more and more appealing.

Chicken 311 (photo credit: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Chicken 311
(photo credit: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Ever since I learned from my Middle Eastern relatives about the Sephardi custom of breaking the Yom Kippur fast with a soup, I have found it more and more appealing. First, soup is comfort food. It hydrates the body with its beneficial broth, creating a feeling of fullness, and is not heavy on your system after fasting. Obviously, main-course soups are also convenient when you come home to eat at the end of Yom Kippur, as most can be prepared in advance and reheated.
My neighbor Valerie Alon makes her tasty Moroccan break-the-fast soup, harira, from beef, chickpeas, lentils and aromatic vegetables and seasons it with cinnamon and saffron. According to Rivka Levy-Mellul, author of Moroccan Cooking (in Hebrew), harira originated with the Arabs of Morocco, who served it after their own fast, Ramadan, and it became a customary Yom Kippur break-the-fast entree.
Levy-Mellul’s harira includes noodles and is flavored with sauteed onions, celery and tomatoes, seasoned with cilantro, lemon juice and turmeric and thickened with flour. Some make this soup with lamb or chicken instead of beef, and rice instead of noodles. The legume-rich soup is also perfect for vegetarian cooking and indeed, my husband’s Moroccan cousin Dvora Cohen has come up with a parve version.
North Africans are not the only ones who serve a legume- or noodle-based soup for ending a fast. Across the Mediterranean, in Turkey, for break-the-fast meals, I enjoyed red, yellow and green lentil soups, usually flavored gently with onion, dried mint and pepper flakes and served with lemon wedges. In fact, lentil soup is so popular in that country that it is also a fixture on another kind of break-the-fast menu – for breakfast in the morning.
Some Sephardim opt for chicken soup to end their fast. When Gracia Grego, author of Lebanese Cooking (in Hebrew), was growing up in Lebanon, chicken soup with noodles was on her family’s break-the-fast menu. In Greece the chicken used for the atonement ritual called kapparot was the basis of the meals before and after the Yom Kippur fast, wrote Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of Cookbook of the Jews of Greece. A fairly generous amount of rice added substance to the Greek break-the-fast chicken soup, which was thickened just before being served with a delicate lemon juice and egg mixture.
Syrian Jews also opt for lemony chicken soup, according to Jennifer Abadie, author of A Fistful of Lentils, and serve it with pita and salad, which round out many of these simple but satisfying soup meals, along with a selection of cookies, cakes and fruit preserves.
Moroccan-born Dvora Cohen, a relative of ours who lives in Paris, has adapted the traditional Moroccan harira for healthy, meatless cooking. Most recipes for this soup call for meat but it is so flavorful that the meat is not necessary. Serve this restoring soup after the Yom Kippur fast, or make a big batch whenever you want to have a healthy entree available. It reheats beautifully. A generous handful of fresh coriander added at the last moment is the key to its good flavor.
Cohen notes that you can use any legumes in this soup but she uses lentils and chickpeas, the most popular pulses in North Africa. Both are packed with nutrients and fiber and are good sources of protein, folic acid and iron. She cooks dried chickpeas but to save time, I sometimes use canned ones. Cohen sometimes serves the soup with a few tablespoons of cooked rice in each bowl.
1 cup brown or green lentils 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil 1 large onion, chopped 1 carrot, diced 3 celery stalks, chopped 3 small zucchini, diced 5 cups vegetable or chicken broth mixed with water, or 5 cups water 1⁄2 cup tomato sauce 1⁄2 tsp. turmeric 1 1⁄2 to 2 cups cooked chickpeas, liquid reserved, or a 425 gr. can, drained 1⁄2 to 1 tsp. ground cumin 1⁄3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) salt and freshly ground black pepper
Spread lentils on a plate in small batches. Pick through them carefully, discarding any stones; rinse and drain lentils.
Heat oil in a large saucepan and add onion, carrot and celery. Saute over medium heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes or until onions brown lightly, adding 1 to 2 tablespoons water from time to time if necessary to prevent burning. Add zucchini and saute for 3 minutes.
Add broth and lentils and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 40 minutes or until lentils are tender. Add tomato sauce, turmeric and chickpeas and simmer for 5 minutes. If soup is too thick, add 1⁄2 to 1 cup liquid from cooking chickpeas or boiling water and simmer for 5 minutes more.
Stir in cumin and all but 2 tablespoons cilantro. Simmer for 1 minute. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot, sprinkled with remaining cilantro.
Makes 4 servings.
This recipe is much simpler than the classic egg-and-lemon chicken soup because there is no need to worry about thickening the soup at the last minute and possibly overcooking the eggs. It gains its fresh lemony flavor when each person adds lemon juice to his or her bowl of soup. The recipe is adapted from Esther Benbassa’s book, Cuisine Judeo-Espagnole.
If you don’t have chicken necks, wings and gizzards, add another piece of chicken. Serve as much of the cooked chicken in the soup as you like, depending on the rest of the menu.
If you are preparing the soup in advance, undercook the pasta slightly, remove it from the soup with a slotted spoon and keep it in a separate container; before serving, add it to the hot soup to reheat briefly.
2 or 3 portion-size pieces of chicken, dark or white meat, with skin and bones 4 chicken necks 4 chicken wings 4 chicken gizzards 1 small onion, whole 6 cups water 2 cups chicken broth or additional water 1 handful of thin, long pasta such as vermicelli, linguine or thin spaghetti 1 lemon salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley (optional) Lemon halves or wedges, for serving
Combine chicken pieces, necks, wings and gizzards in a pot. Add onion, water and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, skimming foam and fat occasionally, for 1 to 11⁄2 hours or until chicken is tender. Remove chicken pieces and discard skin and bones; remove as much meat as you like and reserve it to return to soup. (Reserve remaining chicken for other uses.) Discard onion.
Break the pasta into smaller pieces if you like. Add water if necessary so soup has 6 cups of liquid. Return soup to a boil, add vermicelli and cook uncovered over medium heat, occasionally stirring gently with a fork, for about 8 minutes or until pasta is cooked through. Add reserved cooked chicken and heat through. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper, and add parsley. Serve with lemon halves so that each person can squeeze fresh juice to taste into his or her bowl of soup.
Makes 4 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.