Sephardic Salad Days: Lite Summer Fare From the Mediterranean

I went to an engagement party at my cousins where every room was full of maazeh, writes Jennifer Felicia Abadi in her new book A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzies Kitchen (The Harvard Common Press, $24.95). The dining room table was laden with pastries and puddings; living room tables were decorated with small crystal bowls filled with pistachios, almonds, roasted pumpkin seeds, glazed fruit rinds, and dried apricot candies; and kitchen countertops, sinks, and burners were hidden under green tablecloths covered by cheeses and fruit, with displays of vegetables cascading down them.

I was glad to have gotten there on the early side to see the sight, Abadi continues, explaining that maazeh are the best and most important part of the Middle Eastern dining experience. Related to the Italian word mezze, meaning half, maazeh refers to half dishes that are served as appetizers or with the main course. Similar to Italian antipasto or Spanish tapas, maazeh (an Arabic word pronounced mezzeh and sometimes spelled maza) consist of small tastings of salads, dips, and savory pastries.

American salads often are served one per meal in huge bowls; in many Sephardic countries, several salads at a time are presented in small portions. Sephardim consider it aesthetically pleasing to clutter dining tables with lots of little serving plates and bowls- four at a minimum, but more often 10. While Americans consider salad a separate course to be eaten on its own plate, in Sephardic culture several salads commingle on one plate.

I like all the flavors to run into each other, says Abadi, noting that when foods combine, they create unexpected tastes. Shes amused by friends who are squeamish about foods touching each other and implores them to stop the segregation of food.

A cornucopia of dishes in delicate quantities demonstrates the idea that less is more. With hospitality the hallmark of the Sephardic table, abundant food is pressed on guests. The Sephardic hostess, like her Ashkenazi counterpart, would die of embarrassment if she ran out of a single dish. And no one ever leaves the table hungry.

Although most American Jews hail from Eastern and Central Europe and are therefore Ashkenazi, the question of who is Sephardic is not as clear cut. (Rabbi Marc Angel of the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in Manhattan once claimed that almost any Jew who is not Ashkenazi is Sephardic.) During the Spanish Inquisition, Sephardic Jews spread across the Mediterranean region and beyond. Contrary to popular opinion, however, not all Sephardic Jews have ancestors who dwelled in Spain. Many Sephardim never reached the Iberian Peninsula, but arrived in Middle Eastern countries over 2,000 years ago and remained there until the 20th century.

In Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean (Chronicle Books, $35), Joyce Goldstein focuses on cuisine from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Ironically, Goldstein, who comes from an Ashkenazi background, grew up on brisket, chopped liver, and latkes but as an adult began craving lighter fare and acquired Mediterranean taste buds. Through extensive research, shes become an expert on Sephardic food.

Leafy salads are unusual in this cuisine, she says. With several notable exceptions, salads are made from cooked vegetables that are marinated and served at room temperature. Among Jews, the custom may have originated in deference to the Sabbath, when cooking is forbidden; but it is prevalent in the Middle East, where for centuries refrigeration was nonexistent.

Since lettuce wasnt an indigenous crop, the whole concept of a salad is different in Middle Eastern countries, Abadi says. Marinating and pickling were common methods of preserving foods, and pickles are integral to maazeh spreads.

From 1988 until 1996, Goldstein owned Square One, a pioneering San Francisco restaurant known for its fresh ingredients and Mediterranean menu. She was in the vanguard of a new approach to eating, which grew out of peoples interest in olive oil and health. At the time, many Americans were beginning to try tabbouleh (chopped parsley and bulgur wheat), hummos (pureed chickpeas with sesame paste), and baba ghanoush (eggplant dip with sesame paste), which are grouped with salads and included in maazeh selections.

Today, Mediterranean food is no longer a fad but an enduring part of our flavor profile, says Goldstein. In that part of the world, people dont need to take vitamin pills, because vegetables and grains form the mainstay of their diet. There is always bread on the table, either whole grain or pita.

Olive trees grow abundantly throughout the Mediterranean, and their golden oil is infused in almost every recipe. Salad dressings are no exception, yet vinaigrettes vary from country to country. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France, the ratio of oil to vinegar is generally three to one, says Goldstein. In many of the Sephardic Turkish and Greek recipes, however, the ratio is the reverse. In other words, the Sephardic palate is a tart one.

Although salad dressings have few ingredients, lemon- a major flavor component in many recipes- is the star. And hardly a dish hits the table without a plate of lemon wedges by its side.

Syrian cooks also are not shy when squeezing lemons and sprinkling salt, Abadi says. The most basic salad in their cuisine is an excellent palate cleanser of sliced, raw vegetables seasoned with salt and drenched with lemon juice.

Most Syrian dishes are easy to prepare; they dont call for a lot of ingredients, Abadi says. Its basically peasant cooking, but that doesnt mean the flavor is inferior to fancier cuisine such as French. Preferring Mediterranean lite to French rich, Abadi learned the art of chopping vegetables and selecting seasonings from her grandmother Fritzie, who was born in Aleppo and brought her love of Syrian-Jewish specialties to this country.

Although Goldstein traces her family on both sides to Russia, she believes theres a Sephardic strain in her heritage- if not in her blood, then in her soul. For years, she has savored fresh ingredients, piquant flavors, and small portions of several different foods. Try Sephardic salad- theyre delicious, she says. You cant go wrong, especially on a hot summer day.

Piyaz

Bean Salad with Eggs and Onions From Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean by Joyce Goldstein

# 2 cups dried white beans
# 1 teaspoon salt
# 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
# 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
# freshly ground black pepper
# 2 onions, cut in half and sliced paper-thin
# 5 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
# 2 hard cooked eggs
# ground sumac (optional)

1. Clear stones and other debris from beans, then rinse well and soak overnight; water should cover beans generously. Drain and place in saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until tender, 45 to 60 minutes, adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt midway through the cooking.

2. Drain beans and transfer to a bowl or deep platter. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Pour most of the dressing over the beans while they are still hot and toss well. Place the onions and parsley in a bowl and pour the remaining dressing over them. Let stand for 15 to 20 minutes until the onions soften and lose their bite.

3. Surround bean salad with the onions and the peeled, thinly sliced eggs. Sprinkle with a little dusting of sumac, if desired. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6

Variation: Chopped tomatoes and green peppers are added to the cooked beans; salad is garnished with chopped fresh mint.

Cheeyar Bandoorah Salata

Cucumber-Tomato Salad

From A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzies Kitchen by Jennifer Felicia Abadi

# 4- 5 Kirby cucumbers, cut into 1/4-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
# 2 1/3 cups diced ripe tomatoes
# 1/3 cup pitted and sliced Kalamata olives, optional
# 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
# 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
# Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
# 1 tablespoon dried mint leaves

1. Put cucumbers and tomatoes in a medium-size serving bowl and mix well. Add olives, if using, and mix again.

2. In a small bowl, combine lemon juice, olive oil, and salt (if not serving immediately, wait to add the salt until just before eating so that vegetables dont become soggy) and pepper, beating together with a fork. Between the palms of your hands, crush the mint into the dressing. Beat again with a fork.

3. Pour dressing over the vegetables and toss to coat evenly. Serve immediately or within 1 to 2 hours, storing covered at room temperature. Serve with pita bread. Serves 4 to 6

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