August 31, 2006
Sinai Dinner Prompts Revamp of Biblical Proportions
In February 2004, chef Ido Shapira of Tel Aviv received an impassioned phone call from the United States.
"I want you to cook for a banquet in Beverly Hills in 2006." The insistent voice belonged to Irwin S. Field, of Los Angeles' Sinai Temple, who was planning a lavish dinner-dance to culminate a year of celebrations for the congregation's centennial celebration.
Although Field, who is also chairman of the board of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, couldn't reserve the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton more than a year in advance, he wanted to make sure that his favorite Israeli chef would be available.
Field's hiring of this master caterer with a reputation for exquisite innovative cuisine set the bar for the elegance of the evening. The goal was to treat the 765 Temple Sinai members who ultimately R.S.V.P.'d to the most spectacular social event in the temple's long history.
"I wanted the menu to be as meaningful as the event, so I sought out the best kosher chefs I knew," said Field, who co-chaired last spring's event with Julie Platt.
Joining Shapira would be chef Katsuo Sugiura, in charge of the kosher kitchen at the Beverly Hilton, and Jeffrey Nathan, New York chef/co-owner of Abigael's restaurant, all of whom were adept at orchestrating banquet-sized meals.
Nathan was also well-known, both in the United States and Israel, through his PBS television cooking show where he introduced a whole generation of viewers to what he calls New Jewish Cuisine.
Almost simultaneously, Shapira and Nathan have been reinventing kosher cuisine. Challenged by the strict dietary laws but not satisfied with serving, as Nathan puts it, "chicken on a plate," they have made a point of creating dishes that use not only a variety of herbs, spices and unexpected ingredients, but modern cooking styles from all over the world.
Before they were even introduced to one another, they were, as they say, on the same page of the cookbook.
Nathan traveled to Israel to meet Shapira, and the two got on immediately. Sitting with Shapira's family in Hertzliyah, the pair of culinary iconoclasts began conceptualizing an exotic array of flavors from Israel, Iran and Morocco, combined with sophisticated dishes served in classic, five-star kitchens in the United States and Europe.
"We realized the menu should reflect the population of Sinai Temple, so we set about developing a mélange of Ashkenazi, Persian and other Sephardic dishes," Shapira said. "We wanted to make this symphony of cuisines come together with flavors as diverse as the people who would be eating it."
Shapira foresaw some challenges: He would have to cook in a country where some of his favorite herbs, such as zatar and sumac, are not readily available and some cuts of meat are not available as kosher. He practiced the adage "necessity begets creativity" and relied on Nathan's experience.
"When Jeff returned to the U.S., we continued working on the menu in real time, Shapira said, referring to the half-day's time difference between Israel and the United States "I would e-mail him in the morning. I'd get my answer back at night," he said with a laugh.
Most importantly, they wanted the meal to embody the bittersweet spirituality of the complicated Sephardic cuisine, forged by Jews who wandered all over the world after Spain's order of expulsion in 1492. Making homes outside of their homeland, these ancestors incorporated the exotic flavors and unexpected combinations from their new countries with Jewish, Moorish and Spanish cuisine.
Shapira's tabbouleh would not simply call for a cup of lemon juice sprayed over curly parsley and bulghur wheat. Instead, bits of cubed lemon would add unexpected piquancy at first bite. For the parsley, delete "curly" and insert "flat-leafed."
His beef would not be baked at the traditional 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes per pound; instead it would be roasted three times longer at a temperature below 200, so the juices would stay inside the meat instead of escaping to the bottom of the pan. Forget the expected mashed potatoes; the dish would be accessorized with a puree sweetened by parsnips and made pungent with Jerusalem artichokes.
The sauce for Nathan's Sea Bass Nicoise wouldn't settle for any old olives; only juicy kalamatas, swimming in a sauce of brandy, orange zest and saffron threads would do.
They decided the menu would feature biblical food quotations, which would be printed underneath the name of each dish on the menu. Instead of traditional passed appetizers, they imagined a palatial table of fruits and nuts in the Persian tradition, which translated into a long winding table of beautiful seasonal offerings accentuated with orchids and champagne.
On the menu was a quote from the Bible: "The Lord is bringing you into a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey."
Although this menu was assembled for a beautiful party, these recipes are perfect for a lovely erev Rosh Hashanah feast.
The recipes have been adapted to family-sized servings with the help of chefs Jeffrey Nathan and Ido Shapira.
Sea Bass Nicoise with Saffron Tomato Jus
1 bulb fennel, halved directly through the core
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
48 ounces of sea bass fillets
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.Lightly coat fennel in olive oil and place on a greased baking sheet, with the cut side down. Toss garlic cloves, fingerling potatoes and red peppers in olive oil and place on different sections of baking sheet.
Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until potato is fork tender and fennel, garlic and pepper are fork tender and lightly caramelized. Remove from oven; allow to cool.
To make sauce: In a medium sauce pan combine broth, brandy, orange zest, saffron, tomatoes and fennel seed. Bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper.
Cut baked fennel and red pepper into medium dice, garlic cloves in half, potatoes into 1/2 inch rounds. In a large bowl, combine with olives and capers. Toss with a small amount of olive oil.
To make fish: Place sea bass in a large roasting pan. Dredge one side of fish in fresh herbs. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour prepared vegetables and sauce over fish. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes until fish is cooked through.
Makes four servings.
Moroccan Carrot Salad
2 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
Heat a large soup pot of salted water. Bring to a boil and blanch carrots for one minute. Drain and shock the carrots under cold water.
For dressing: In a small bowl, combine olive oil, cilantro, paprika, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper.
Toss dressing with carrots. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Makes eight to 10 servings.
1 cup flat leaf parsley, stemmed
Prior to preparation chill first five ingredients in refrigerator, along with bowl of a food processor. Place mixture in processor; pulse just long enough so ingredients are thoroughly combined but not mushy. Strain through a chinois into a bowl so pesto remains and escaping liquid can be saved for another use. This pesto may be made ahead of time and kept cold in the refrigerator.
Makes eight servings.
2 cups coarse bulgur
Soak bulgur in plenty of cold water for 10 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed.
Rinse in colander and toss with parsley, mint, chives, red onion, lemons, olive oil and salt and pepper.
Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Makes eight to 10 servings.