Green Eats: Eastern flavors

The Sephardi kitchen is a panoply of colors and exotic flavors, especially when it comes to Pessah.

Pessah Food 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Pessah Food 311
(photo credit: MCT)
I  barely ever sampled Sephardi cooking before I moved to Israel, but when I did, I was a captive audience. Unlike the not-very-colorful traditional Ashkenazi foods I grew up with, like chicken soup and kneidlach, chopped liver, gefilte fish, kugel and the like, the Sephardi kitchen is a panoply of colors and exotic flavors.
It's not that Ashkenazi chefs were any less talented, but rather that the climatic realities of their lives meant that there were far fewer raw materials to work with during much of the year.
Not so for the Sephardim. Living in the footsteps of the ancient spice trade and blessed with a far milder climate, Sephardi cooks could experiment with a rich selection of raw materials throughout most of the year, including Pessah.
And although Ashkenazis proscribe the use of beans on Pessah (despite the initiatives by some Ashkenazi rabbis to change the custom), all Sephardi communities include them. Some communities even permit rice.
But lest we be divided, the following two traditional Pessah recipes should fit everyone’s bill. The Moroccan patties, part of a large family of dishes known as pastelim, are wonderful to nosh on warm or cold throughout Pessah week.
Found in every Moroccan home, they are made with matza meal during Pessah and with bread crumbs the rest of the year. While they are traditionally made with parsley, you may want to experiment with cilantro, dill or a combination of fresh herbs.
Iraqi Jews also enjoy potato pastelim on Pessah, using a potato mixture similar to the Moroccan one for the outside of the patty but stuffed with chicken. This version was given to me by Moshe Basson, the talented Jerusalem chef of Eucalyptus restaurant.
Note: The best way to prepare the potatoes for these recipes, is to cut them in half and steam them skins-on so they don't absorb water. Place in the top of a steamer basket over boiling water (or put in glass dish in the microwave with a small amount of boiling water), cover and cook till tender when pierced with a fork. The best way to mash them is by putting them through a ricer (looks like a giant garlic press), or with a fork. Do not process in the food processor.
MOROCCAN EGG-STUFFED POTATO PASTELIM For about 20-25 (serves 10-12)
✔ 4-5 medium boiling potatoes, cooked, peeled, mashed and chilled
✔ 1⁄2 cup chopped Italian parsley ✔ 1⁄4 cup matza meal ✔ 4 eggs, beaten ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. turmeric ✔ Salt ✔ Black pepper ✔ 3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced thinly with an egg slicer ✔ 1 beaten egg for dipping ✔ Vegetable oil for frying
Combine the chilled mashed potatoes, matza meal, 3 eggs and turmeric in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and let stand 10 minutes. Put the remaining beaten egg in a dish for dipping.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Grease hands with a little oil. Take about 2 Tbsp. of the mixture and flatten it out in the palm of your hand. Make an indentation in the center with your fingers, and place a hard-boiled egg slice inside. Take a heaping Tbsp. more of the potato mixture and place it on top of the egg. Gently flatten with the fingers into a closed patty.
Dip the patty lightly on both sides in the beaten egg and fry in hot oil till golden. Carefully turn and fry the other side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. Serve hot or at room temperature.
✔ 4-5 medium boiling potatoes, cooked, peeled, mashed and chilled ✔ 1⁄4 cup matza meal ✔ 3 eggs, beaten ✔ Salt ✔ Black pepper ✔ Extra matza meal for dipping For the filling: ✔ 1 cup finely chopped red onions ✔ 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil ✔ 2 butterflied chicken breasts, de-boned, chopped into 1⁄2-cm. pieces ✔ 1⁄3 tsp. each of black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom ✔ 1⁄2 cup raisins ✔ 1⁄2 cup toasted pine nuts (optional) ✔ Olive or vegetable oil for frying Combine the mashed potatoes, matza meal and eggs in a bowl.
Season with salt and pepper.
Cover and let stand 10 minutes.
For the stuffing: Heat 3 Tbsp. oil and cook the onion till golden.
Add the chicken, raisins and pine nuts and stir in the spices. When the chicken turns opaque, remove from the flame. Let cool slightly, then cover and chill.
Oil hands and make a ball the size of a large egg. Flatten it out between your palms and make an indentation for the filling. Put a heaping Tbsp. of filling in the center, and fold the edges over it.
Close and flatten out to make sure that there are no holes with filling peeking through.
Dip on both sides in matza meal and deep-fry as the Iraqis do, or fry in a generous amount of hot oil till golden. Turn carefully, and fry the other side. Place on a paper towel to absorb excess oil.
Serve hot.
Q & A
Our family has just moved to Israel, and I have been told that unlike in the States, certain fruits and vegetables are not available all year round, and sometimes even if they are they are not worth buying in some seasons because they are either very expensive or from storage. I am wondering when does strawberry season end? I would like to know because I wish to make a batch of strawberry preserves.
Shulamit Wexler
If you want to make strawberry preserves, this is the time to do it, because the season ends in May. Many things that used to have short seasons (like pomegranates) are now available, mostly from storage, even until now, but strawberries and most other fresh berries, apricots and green garlic are among the things only available in season.
About a couple of months ago I saw a white moth fluttering in my pantry/closet. Upon further investigation I found a jar of quinoa infested with little mothlike creatures.

I threw it out and took everything out and examined everything, I sprayed with some ant spray, and hoped for the best. Since then I got infestations in jars of rice and oatmeal as well, and am at a loss what to do next. Whenever I start a package of rice, quinoa, etc. I transfer from the cellophane package into a clean screw top glass jar the remaining contents.

These jars are meticulously clean. How do they get into closed jars? What can I do?
First of all, always check the last day of sale on the food package, and try to buy items that have a far-away last date of sale. The problem may also be the place you buy your grains. I once purchased a Sugat product that was infested, despite the fact that the last date of sale was far down the line. I complained to the company, and they sent someone to check the grocery store. As it often turns out, the problem may lie with the way your local grocery is storing (like insufficient air conditioning), which shortens the shelf life of your products. So: (1) Try buying your grains at a different store. (2) Transfer the contents to a glass jar as you have been doing, but put a few bay leaves inside – they discourage the development of bugs. (3) Store the filled glass jars in the refrigerator or the freezer. (4) Do not use any kind of bug sprays in kitchen cabinets.
Clean the shelves and walls of the cabinets with a diluted solution of vinegar and water (a solution made with soap nuts boiled in water also deters bugs) and if you should find ants, purchase the little cans of natural ant killers sold in health food stores. Hope this helps! – P.G.
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