Chef Nathan prepares savory hamentaschen. Video courtesy JewishTVNetwork.com.
So you know about Purim, right?
I don't have to mention the big names here, like Queen Esther, her uncle Mordecai, the Persian King Ahasuerus and (get your groggers ready) Haman, the king's adviser. I'm sure I don't have to offer any information on Ahasuerus holding a beauty contest where he chose the secretly Jewish Esther to become his queen, replacing Vashti. Nor do I have to write about Haman, the anti-Semite who plotted to obliterate the Jewish people in the month of Adar. If you're reading this article, you've also read others that get into the dressing up, the megillah reading, the frivolity of the holiday and the purpose and joy in giving.
If you're the type of person who likes gift giving, especially treats from your kitchen, then you probably look forward to the holiday as much as my family does. I especially enjoy the making of hamantashen. Holiday cookbooks are full of poppy seed, prune, chocolate, and even jelly-filled recipes.
They're all good, but I like my own unique creations the best.
Did you know that Queen Esther hid her dedication to kashrut by claiming to be a vegetarian? This look into Queen Esther's palace life is why it's traditional not to eat meat during Purim. Just wait until you read the calzone-style hamantasch recipe I've included below. It's a great dairy dinner to make for the holiday.
It's been years since my daughter dressed up during a Purim carnival as Queen Esther and my son as a human grogger. Although we've outgrown some holiday traditions, the mainstay for my family at Purim is the giving of shalach manot. What a terrific opportunity to share with your Jewish neighbors and friends a basket full of treats from your heart and home. The megillah instructs us to celebrate the holiday by sending these gifts as an expression of brotherly love and unity.
When we first started setting up Purim baskets, we filled them with the clichéd ensemble of grape juice, candies, fruit and, of course, fresh-from-our-oven hamantashen. The baskets were spruced up with sprinklings of chocolates, homemade jams and preserves.
Over the years, we've developed a more interesting and personality-filled basket of mishloach manot. We've expanded our baskets' bounties based on ones that we've received. (It's not illegal to borrow other people's ideas, ya know!) One year, some good friends gave us mammoth-sized flower-shaped cookies in a brightly painted flowerpot. By the following summer the pot was filled with freshly grown strawberries on my back porch. The next year our friends outdid themselves when they sent oversized coffee mugs filled with holiday treats.
What we've used for baskets has evolved from the recycled ones we received in previous years into fancier hand-painted glass bowls. We try to use the opportunity of gift giving as an expression of who we are and what we like, what we enjoy in our home and what we'd like to share with our friends. And not everything has to be homemade. We often fill the baskets with spiced nuts, fruit chutneys, chocolate truffles and wine, along with the one or two items that we've baked. The idea behind shalach manot is giving, not necessarily being a slave in the kitchen. So be proud of what's in your baskets.
Savory Hamantashen From Jeff Nathan's "New Jewish Cuisine." Stuffing 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 cup onions, chopped 1/2 cup red bell peppers, diced medium 1/2 cup green bell peppers, diced medium 2 small zucchini, diced medium 2 tablespoons chopped garlic kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 1/2 cup pitted olives, roughly chopped 3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped 1/2 cup farmer's cheese 1/2 cup pot cheese 1 cup grated havarti cheese 2 eggs, mixed
In a large sauté pan add the olive oil, onions, peppers, zucchini and garlic. Sauté until onions are translucent. Add salt, pepper, olives and fresh herbs. Stir well. Remove from heat. Place in a large bowl and fold in the cheeses. Stir in the eggs. Adjust seasonings. Set aside and allow to cool.
Dough 2 packages dry yeast 1/2 cup warm water 2 tablespoons honey, divided 1 1/2 cups cool water 2 teaspoons salt 4 tablespoons olive oil 6 cups flour
Preheat oven to 450 F. In a small bowl combine the yeast, warm water and 1 tablespoon of the honey. Set aside and allow to proof (approximately three to four minutes). In another small bowl mix the remaining honey with the cool water, salt and oil. Put all the flour in a food processor. While the machine is on, add the cool water mix, then the warm water mix. Process until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Remove to a large, well-oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let rise in a warm area until doubled in volume. Punch down dough. Roll out to approximately two 10-inch circles. Fill each with stuffing and pinch into triangles. Brush with olive oil. Bake on cookie sheets sprinkled with corn meal to prevent sticking.
Makes two large savory hamantashen, enough for four to six servings.
Jeff Nathan is executive chef of Abigael's on Broadway in New York, host of television's "New Jewish Cuisine" and author of "Adventures in Jewish Cooking" and "Jeff Nathan's Family Suppers." His food columns will appear monthly in The Journal.