Friday, February 26, 2010

Moroccan Sephardic Passover

Tis the season for Easter and for some Passover. Passover celebrates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and is a holiday every Jewish household looks forward to all year. The focus of the entire evening is the recitation of the Haggadah which weaves symbolic foods and the consumption of wine throughout the ceremony. My husband likes to affectionately call Passover the Jewish Thanksgiving and always has fond memories of the celebration with his family as a child.

Most Jews celebrating Passover in the United States follow a culinary tradition that is largely Ashkenazic, or eastern European. The foods are derivative of the cuisines of the area and tend to focus on lots of root vegetables, meat and in general heavier foods. The Jews who come from the mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East fall into a category of cuisine called Sephardic. Again, this particular tradition stems from the cuisines of these countries, which tend to focus much more highly on seasonal vegetables, lots of spices, seafood and are generally lighter.

While I was working on my Master's Degree in Anthropology, one of the classes I took was Magic, Witchcraft and Religion. My final project for the class was to create a secular Haggadah, invite a bunch of friends and family to our home and host a Passover for them serving only Sephardic Moroccan cuisine. While Morocco is approximately 95% Muslim, the country has had a long legacy of Jewish presence dating back to the Spanish Inquisition, during which Jews fled en masse from Spain and ended up in Morocco. These Jews settled all over and were welcomed by the Moroccans who to this day will tell you that the finest cuisine of their country is that of the Jewish Moroccan population. In fact, while in Fez we actually visited the Jewish Mellah or quarter where many Jews still reside peacefully with their Muslim neighbors.

Another interesting fact about Moroccan Jewish cuisine is that it is the most requested cuisine by soldiers of the Israeli army. What makes it so unique?? Well a couple of factors. First of all, Moroccan cuisine in general is extremely unique in that it represents a fusion of flavors from all over the world. Everyone and their uncle has tried to occupy this country because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, only 60 nautical miles from Spain. As is to be expected whoever came to Morocco brought with them their own foods and traditions some of which ended up becoming a part of the cuisine of Morocco. The French brought pastries, the Spanish rice and most importantly, the British brought with them tea, which is now the national beverage of the country. When Jews arrived from Spain, they brought with them their own culinary traditions which were then adapted not only to the foods that were available in Morocco, but to incorporate Moroccan flavors and cooking techniques such as Tagines.

Perhaps my favorite tale of the fusion of cultures in Morocco with regards to the Sephardic Passover is that of Haroseth. Haroseth is a food symbol that during the Passover Seder or meal is used to symbolize the mortar used by the Jews to construct the pyramids. It is generally a mixture of dried fruit and nuts that can be spread on Matzo or unleavened bread. In Morocco there was a historical traditional confection called Majoun. Majoun are little balls that are made of dried fruit and nuts and was historically used as a vehicle for cannabis. When Jews arrived in Morocco they noted the similarities of the two dishes and adapted the Majoun accordingly by eliminating the cannabis and adding wine, which of course is prohibited in Muslim culture, but perfectly acceptable in Jewish culture. Here is a recipe for these delicious little confections.

1 cup pitted dates
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 teaspoon Freshly Grated Nutmeg
1/2 Tsp Ground Cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2-3 Tbl orange flower water
1/2-1 cup Manischewitz Kosher Grape or Blackberry Flavored Wine
Sesame seeds for garnish

Place all the ingredients in a food processor. Process to combine, adding wine as needed until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Remove from processor and place into the refrigerator for approx. 30 mins to harden. Roll into approx. 1/2 inch confections and garnish with sesame seeds. Keep in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Eating for Love

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, love and romance are in the air and what better way to "get in the mood" than with a wonderful meal. They always say a way to a mans heart is through his stomach. While there may not be any scientific evidence to this effect, I can say with some certainty that it is absolutely true. At least in the case of my husband. Nothing makes us feel more romantic than sharing a marvelous meal together. And as to whether specific ingredients can actually increase sexual drive?? That also is debatable. What I do know is that many of the foods that are considered to be "aphrodisiacs" are also those foods that are known to increase energy (an important element in sexuality) as well as mood. Foods like chocolate and coffee stimulate the production of endorphins, which coincindentally are also released during intercourse. So it isn't necessarily a stretch to say that these foods make us feel frisky.

What always interested me with regards to the topic of aphrodisiacs was how no matter what culture across the globe you visit, every single one of them has various foods, herbs, spices, etc. that they recommend to increase libido, particularly in males. Often they involve the consumption of the male organ of one animal or another, which is an obvious analogy. But perhaps less conspicuous is the use of various spices and herbs, like coriander in Moroccan culture and ginseng in Asian cultures. Chilis are commonly considered to have stimulating powers as are various fruits and vegetables, like the avocado, which in Aztec culture was called the testicle tree, mostly referring to the way in which it grows in pairs on the tree. While no one particular food is universally considered to be an aphrodisiac, what intrigues me is that there is a universal instinct to find foods that may potentially benefit this aspect of life.

Another thing that I find noteworthy, particularly with regards to our "western" ideas of what a romantic meal is, has to do with ambiance and context as much as with the meal itself. We usually associate romance with French or Italian food, or the foods of the "romance languages." Perhaps because they are exotic or perhaps because they are rich and indulgent or simply because they represent cultures that appear to be highly erotic to us in terms of all of our senses. We also tend to do things like light candles, turn on soft music, light a fire, all things that are supposed to relax us and make us forget about the daily grind for a while.

We have a general idea that at least once a year, we should establish a mood, create a romantic ambiance and eat foods that somehow represent "love." My feeling is, why do it just once a year?? Why not try to incorporate these concepts of dining into our daily lives. Perhaps if we spent more time focusing on "eating for love" we'd find ourselves more "in love." A novel concept to be sure. But follow the logic here. The reason Valentine's Day is special is that we "choose" to focus on one another if for a few hours on a specific night. The key here is that we are giving one another our undivided attention, which is something we may not take the time to do on a regular basis.

So then, my challenge to all of you is to pretend it's Valentine's Day more regularly. Make a conscious effort to incorporate these concepts of "eating for love" on a regular basis. Not only will you notice it affect your communication positively, but who knows, you may just better your sex life and that can't be a bad thing.

Aphrodisiac Recipes:

Spicy Tomato & Chocolate Soup

Yields: Approx. 6-8 Servings

2 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbl Unsalted Butter
1 Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Carrots, Peeled and Diced
2 Celery Stalks, Diced
1 Cup Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Sliced
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to Taste
3 Tbl Harissa (North African Chili Paste)
2 tsps Hungarian Paprika
2 tsps ground Cumin
1 tsp ground Coriander
½-3/4 cup Dry Sherry or White Wine
1-28 oz Can Diced Tomatoes
4 Cups Chicken Broth
¼ Cup Cilantro, Chopped
¼ Cup Italian Parsley, Chopped
3-4 oz Bittersweet Chocolate
2 Tbl Honey or to Taste
Queso Fresco, Goat Cheese or Crème Fraiche to Garnish

Heat oil and butter in a stock pot over medium high heat until butter melts. Add onion and sauté until translucent, approx. 5 mins. Add garlic, carrots, celery and sun dried tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper, harissa, paprika, cumin and coriander. Saute for a couple of minute to toast spices and soften vegetables. Add wine and continue cooking on high until all of the liquid has evaporated. Add tomatoes and chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 45 mins or until the vegetables are tender. Pass soup through a food mill to puree and remove any large particles. Return soup to pot and place over low heat. Add parsley and cilantro. Add chocolate and enough honey to balance acidity. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve hot, garnished with queso fresco, fresh goat cheese or crème fraiche.

Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup

3 English Cucumbers, Peeled, Seeded and Chopped
1 Spanish or Vidalia Onion, Diced
4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
1 Avocado, Chopped
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to Taste
¼ Cup Mint, Chopped
¼ Cup Chives, Snipped
2 tsps dried Dillweed
½ Cup Feta, Crumbled
1 Tbl Harissa
16 oz Plain Yogurt
½-3/4 cup Sour Cream
¾ Cup Lemon Juice
½ Cup Heavy Cream
¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Blend using an immersion blender until creamy and well combined. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with crumbled Feta and Cilantro Oil.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Disrespecting Food-A Great American Tragedy

This weekend we hosted a four course wine dinner that lasted approximately 2 1/2 hours from beginning to end. And over the course of the last couple of months I have been reading anything and everything about Julia Child I could get my hands on. What do those have in common? Well, what I realized is that the very thing that Julia Child loved so much about french cuisine and the one thing we strive to accomplish here at the inn is the one thing that is grossly lacking in general in our American food culture and that is respect for food.

Let me clarify. At the risk of sounding anti-patriotic, I feel that most of us in the U.S. eat because we have to. We gorge ourselves in massive quantities of processed and homogenized foods that are convenient so quickly that we rarely pay any attention not only to what is going in, but what it tastes like and where we ate it. Long gone is the concept of eating socially. We don't go to a restaurant or cook a family meal with the intent of spending a few hours enjoying food, wine and the company of good friends. And heck, most restaurants don't exactly lend themselves to this end. They are noisy and half the time you feel as though they are trying to rush you out the door so that they can turn their table and make a profit.

I understand that, but I also have lived in France and grew up in a Hungarian family where eating was an event. We always had family and friends over on the weekends and prepared huge meals that we enjoyed together, talking, laughing and getting reacquainted with one another. They are some of the most cherished times of my life. So often now, though, we are so wrapped up in our ipods and iphones, texting and searching the web and emailing, we hardly even notice one another, much less sit down to dinner together and spend some time actually enjoying one another and the food we are eating. And this to me is disrespectful to food and disrespectful to the fundamental nature of being social creatures.

So it was refreshing to see 50 people, over the course of the weekend, spend a few hours actually setting their electronic devices aside and choosing to enjoy a meal. One of the first things we decided when we got into the country inn business was that we would only offer one seating per night. We never wanted to rush people out the door. We wanted them to savor their meal and the company they were with, the way we do when we go out or have friends over and the way people in other countries tend to do. And it is always rewarding to see that come to fruition. I just wish more people actually took part in this.

Perhaps if we reevaluated our eating habits and regained our respect for food and the institution of dining we would actually reduce the obesity problem in this country. I guarantee that those who spend time eating and paying attention to the food going into their mouths eat better and generally eat less. It is a known fact that the mind doesn't register fullness for 15 minutes. However, by the time 15 minutes have passed, most of us have already consumed the big mac, the large fries and the milkshake, twice. By slowly consuming your food, chatting and savoring, one actually had a better chance of realizing that in fact they have eaten enough and are satiated.

But most of all, for me it is simply a matter of relationships and tradition. I think we could all benefit from a little interaction and communication and what better way to do so than over a wonderful meal, carefully prepared with love. I say the resolution we should all make for this decade is to be more respectful of food, dining and our sociality. Lets stop eating for the sake of consumption and start dining for the sake of becoming more interconnected, not just with one another, but with what we put into our bodies.