Our mistress of the spices

An upcoming festival in memory of the amazing Dona Gracia is reason enough to try a couple of Sephardi recipes.

Lemony green beans recipe 311 (photo credit: mediterrasian.com)
Lemony green beans recipe 311
(photo credit: mediterrasian.com)
It’s quite amazing to discover that there was once a woman so classy, well-educated, refined and business savvy that she amassed fabulous wealth (mostly from the sale of black peppercorns and other spices) and power in the financial sector and had 16th-century Europe clamoring at her doorstep. It’s even more amazing to discover that she was Jewish, saved untold numbers of Jews from certain death, and yet her memory has, for the most part, been forgotten.
But there’s a happy end to this story. In just a few weeks, history will be rectified: There will be a festival in Tiberias in her honor.
Details follow.
Born in 1510 in Lisbon, Portugal, into a venerable family of Conversos (a.k.a. Marranos, Jews forcibly converted to Christianity), Dona Gracia Mendes married her paternal uncle Francisco Mendes (originally Benveniste), a wealthy trader who, together with his brother, owned both a bank and a trading company.
When Francisco died in 1538, leaving his young wife with an infant daughter, Dona Gracia moved to Antwerp to join her brotherin- law and developed an “underground railroad,” helping hundreds of fellow Marranos flee Spain and Portugal on spice ships from Lisbon to Venice, and from there to the Ottoman Empire, where they would be safe..
When her brother-in-law died, Dona Gracia became the head of the Mendes commercial empire, making her one of the wealthiest women in the ancient world, dealing with monarchs, popes and even the Turkish sultan. But by 1544 she fled from the Republic of Venice to the nearby city-state of Ferrara and finally to Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) to escape confiscation of her wealth. Two years later, when the pope sentenced a group of Conversos to death by fire, she organized a trade embargo of the Papal States.
But Dona Gracia looked for a long-term solution for the Conversos, and in 1558 she asked for and was given a long-term lease on Tiberias from Sultan Suleiman.
Together they attempted to develop the virtually abandoned city with a remarkable number of projects, but the project failed when the Conversos themselves were reluctant to return to the Holy Land. Dona Gracia died in Constantinople in 1569.
Her memory is now enjoying a revival. New York City and Philadelphia have proclaimed Dona Gracia days, and Our Lady of Spices now has her own Facebook page with news of Dona Gracia lectures, articles and festivals in Israel and all over Europe. In Tiberias, there’s a hotel with a built-in museum in her honor, and an annual festival, November 14- 17 in the city, the theme of which this year is women’s empowerment. And if you ask me, she’s a woman who really deserves it. For information: www.festival-donagracia.info or 1-800-88-88-58.
Serves 4-6
This simple classic centuries-old dish is popular throughout the Sephardi world, particularly during the High Holy Days. I learned it from a Turkish neighbor. Fresh green beans come in all shapes and sizes in Israel around the High Holy Days. Some strains called lubia look like long snake beans, others are yellow beans and speckled and plain green flat beans. All of them taste wonderful made in this fashion.
The secret of this dish is no stirring. Instead, gently shake the pot with the cover on so as not to damage the cooked beans. The other secret is cooking over low heat.
1 kilo fresh green beans (frozen whole green beans may also be used)
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
4 drained canned plum tomatoes, chopped, plus 1⁄2 to 1 cup juice in can
1 tsp. each: salt, black pepper, paprika, sugar
Top and tail the fresh green beans; and if they have a “string,” remove it. Cut them in half. Heat the oil and add the beans, chopped onions, chopped tomatoes and fry till golden. Add the beans, tomatoes, 1⁄2 cup tomato liquid and spices. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour (30 minutes if using frozen beans), adding the remaining half cup of can liquid if necessary during the cooking process. Do not stir, just shake the pot to mix.
Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins Publishers).
Serves 6
The Sephardi take on gefilte fish.
This version comes from Leah Gueta who, together with two of her many sons, is the owner and proprietor of Gueta in Jaffa.
6 pieces firm white fish, cut into chunks (about 1 kilo)
1 head garlic, cloves peeled and crushed
1 tsp. salt
1 to 2 Tbsp. hot paprika
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
2 heaping Tbsp. tomato paste
11⁄4 cups water
3 to 5 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1⁄4 tsp. sugar
1 level tsp. ground cumin
1 level tsp. ground caraway
Wash the fish and season with a little salt. (If using frozen fish, sprinkle with a little lemon juice as well.) Let stand 5 minutes. Pat dry and place on a plate. Using a mortar and pestle, pound together crushed garlic and salt.
Add the hot and sweet paprika and mix well.
Heat 1⁄4 cup oil in a large skillet and cook the garlic-hot pepper mixture over low heat. Lightly sauté for two or three minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning, till it turns a burgundy color.
Stir in a quarter cup water and the tomato paste (The “secret,” according to Gueta, is to add the same amount of tomato paste as the garlic-hot pepper-water mixture).
Cook 5 minutes over high heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce is fragrant and bubbly.
Add the remaining 1 cup water and the sugar. Lower heat and cover, scraping the bottom of the pan occasionally (the paprika has a tendency to stick to the bottom), for 10 minutes. The oil will separate from the paprika.
The consistency of the sauce should be “thinner than ketchup,” Gueta adds.
Place the fish in the pan in one layer and add warm water to almost cover. Sprinkle over the cumin and caraway and a little more salt if necessary. Bring to a boil, cover and cook on high heat for 5 minutes. Lower heat and squeeze the lemon juice to taste on top. Cover and simmer 7-10 minutes till done.