While you’d hardly know it from the diet of most Ashkenazi cultures (beets and cabbage being notable exceptions), Jewish cuisine, at least in the Mediterranean, from biblical times has had a long love affair with vegetables. And what better time to show them off than Sukkot.
Because the Sukkot table is farther away from the kitchen, traditional dishes for this holiday are easily transportable one-dish stews and casseroles. Stuffed vegetables are a popular choice, particularly in Israel, where every Sephardi and Oriental culture has a favourite recipe. Stuffed Butternut Squash from Jewish Traditional Cooking by Ruth Joseph and Simon Round makes a festive addition to the Sukkot celebration.
“Turkish cooks are masters of the stuffed vegetable,” noted Clifford A. Wright, author of Mediterranean Vegetables (Harvard Common Press), “but you find stuffed vegetables very popular with Arabs too.” Wright includes delicious recipes for stuffed artichokes, eggplant, grape leaves, mushrooms, onions, chard and yellow peppers. Walnut-Stuffed Eggplant in Olive Oil is a popular Lebanese dish.
Subtitled A Cook’s ABC of Vegetables and Their Preparation in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa, with More than 200 Authentic Recipes for the Home Cook, my food-splattered edition of Mediterranean Vegetables has become an invaluable resource. From the esoteric acanthus-leaved thistle to the more common zucchini, Wright lists each plant’s characteristics and varieties, its botanical and etymological origin and instructions for growing, buying, storing and preparing them.
Most fascinating is the history of each vegetable through the ages. In Sicily, ingesting eggplant was once thought to lead to insanity, and it was called “mad apple.” The ancient Romans used cabbage to prevent a hangover, and the Egyptian Copts placed cucumber leaves mixed with salt on women’s breasts to promote milk production.
My favourite one-dish vegetable casserole is ratatouille, perfect for Sukkot’s harvest celebration, but I make it all year long as well. My recipe yields a large batch, which I often bring to potlucks, or I freeze smaller portions to slather on fish for baking or to stuff an omelet. Intimations of that lovable Disney rat aside, ratatouille is not the quintessential Provençal dish many believe it to be. “Ratatouille is actually a relatively modern invention,” said Wright, “one that could not occur until the tomato came from the New World.”
Interestingly, Mediterranean Vegetables does not mention Israeli cuisine. “I don’t believe there is such a thing,” Wright told me. “Its origins in the Mediterranean are mostly in the Arab world. Jews who came from Arab countries – Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and, of course, Spain too – brought with them their cuisine. There really is little difference between Jewish cuisine and the local cuisine in which it finds itself. What makes it different is it is almost exclusively connected with holidays and the self-realization on the part of the Jewish community that these dishes are special to those holidays.
“And to those who think the Arab-Israeli conflict is hopeless, remember, Arabs and Jews lived together for thousands of years, and this conflict actually began historically only recently,” added Wright, who began his career in the field of international affairs and is a former executive director of the American Middle East Peace Research Institute.
“Look at the Spanish Jews who were expelled during the Inquisition. Although some went to Germany, the majority went to Muslim lands. Why in the world would they escape to Muslim lands if there were not welcoming hands to greet them?”
These ingredients are not written in stone. Feel free to add or subtract any you choose in whatever quantities you like. Just remember to add each vegetable according to its required cooking time.
o about 1/4 cup olive oil
o 1 1/2 large onions, diced
o 2 stalks celery, sliced
o 1 tsp. Hungarian paprika
o 1 1/2 lb. fresh green beans, stems removed, sliced into thirds
o 4 carrots, sliced
o 1 eggplant, cubed, skin on
o 2 peppers (one red, one yellow) diced
o 3 parsnips, sliced
o 2 zucchini, sliced
o 2 cans (15 oz. each) stewed tomatoes, whizzed in food processor
o 1 tsp. kosher salt, or more to taste
o freshly ground black pepper
o 1 1/2 tsp. cumin powder
o 1 1/2 tsp. herbes de Provence
o 1 tsp. za’atar (find at Middle Eastern market) or thyme
o 1 tsp. sugar, or to taste (optional)
o a few strands saffron, steeped in a little hot water
o 8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
o shaved Parmesan cheese (optional)
Heat oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onions and celery and cook until softened. Add paprika; cook and stir a minute or so. Stir in vegetables, green beans through zucchini, one variety at a time, cooking each about 5 minutes before adding the next. Add stewed tomatoes and spices, stir, cover and cook until the carrots are almost done. Add mushrooms; continue cooking. If too watery, cook uncovered until carrots are done. Add salt and sugar, if using, to taste. Turn into casserole; sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired. Serves an army!
Walnut-stuffed preserved baby eggplants
o 1 lb. baby eggplants (about 8), about 2 1/2 in. long
o 4 cups water
o about 3/4 cup walnut meats, crushed
o 4 large garlic cloves, crushed with 1-1/2 tsp. sea salt in a mortar until mushy
o 3 fresh red finger-type or jalapeño chilis, 2 seeded and finely crushed in a mortar, 1 left whole
several cups extra-virgin olive oil
In medium saucepan, place eggplants and water, bring to a boil over high heat, and boil until half-cooked, about 6 minutes. Drain. Make slit lengthwise in eggplant, place in 1-quart jar, turn jar upside down on plate, and let eggplants drain 36 hours.
In small bowl, combine walnuts, garlic paste and crushed chilis. Push about 1 teaspoon of this stuffing into slit of each eggplant. Return stuffed eggplants to sterilized jar. Lay remaining whole chilis in middle of container. Pour in enough olive oil to completely cover eggplants. Seal, refrigerate. Wait 48 hours before using. Will keep up to 2 weeks.
Stuffed butternut squash
o 1 large butternut squash (at least 2 pounds)
o kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
o 2 tbsp. olive oil, plus extra for brushing
o 1 large onion, roughly chopped
o 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
o 1 cup cooked green lentils (made according to package directions)
o 1 cup cooked brown rice (made according to package directions)
o 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
o 1/2 cup currants
o 1/4 cup dill, finely chopped
o 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
o 1 1/2 tsp. paprika
o 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
o 2 tbsp. tomato paste
o 2 tbsp. kiddush wine (optional)
Preheat oven to 375. Cut squash in half, scoop out seeds, and discard. Make crisscross cuts into flesh; brush edges with a little oil. Season well with salt and pepper and place in roasting pan. Bake 30 minutes.
In large saucepan, gently cook onions in oil until soft but not coloured. Add garlic last 2 minutes of cooking. Add remaining ingredients. Correct seasonings.
Fill squash cavities with lentil-rice mixture; bake another 30 minutes or until squash is very soft. Serves: 4-6.
Adapted from Jewish Traditional Cooking by Ruth Joseph and Simon Round