Jewish Journal


January 27, 2000

The Sephardic Diet

What's Important and What's Not


Let's review. In the '70s there was the eat-only-grapefruit diet. In the '80s, I knew a woman who followed the eat-all-the-blueberries-you want diet. "They have no calories!" she enthused. "You can eat as many as you want!" Then the cavities and fainting spells kicked in. In the early '90s, a few dear friends sacrificed their heart valves to Phenfen. That brings us to the current fads, those protein- or carbo-heavy diets, which duke it out for best-sellerdom and celebrity endorsements. It makes me nostalgic for blueberries.

My own take on dieting is supremely simple-minded:

1. Eat more sensibly than you want to.

2. Exercise more than you want to.

Don't we all know what sensible eating means by now? Not too much fat, and good fats at that (olive oil, nut and seed oils, etc.); more grains and vegetables and fruits; less meat (lean), dairy products and fish. Am I missing something? Is another 30 years of diet scams and food fads going to change this?

That's where my new fad diet idea kicks in: Sephardic cooking can be a different matter. Think of the ingredients: a lot of vegetables, couscous, rice, beans; meat in a cameo, not starring role, very little dairy products aside from yogurt, and olive oil instead of schmaltz or butter or margarine. It's as if God favored His children from the Levant, then turned to the Ashkenazim and said, "I hope you know a good cardiologist."

If you know your USDA food pyramid, if you follow the folks at the Framingham Heart Study, then adding more Sephardic dishes to your recipe file seems to make good health sense.

Fortunately, there's no lack of cookbook resources to get you started. Joan Nathan, Claudia Roden, Faye Levy, Judy Zeidler and Gil Marks are all authors to look for. Or just wait until the big Sephardic Diet fad sweeps the nation. You heard it here first.

Sephardic Fresh Fava Beans

(from Gil Marks, "The World of Jewish Cooking")

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, chopped

2 pounds (about 2 2/3 cups) fresh shelled or frozen fava beans

1 1/2 cups low-fat chicken broth or water

1/4 cup fresh chopped dill, parsley or cilantro

1-3 teaspoons sugar

salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1 cup plain non-fat yogurt

2 cloves crushed garlic

1. Heat oil in saucepan. Add onions and sauté until soft and translucent. Stir in beans and broth.

2. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce to low, and simmer until tender, 10-20 minutes for younger beans, 20-30 for older. For older beans, rub skins to loosen, then remove and discard. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with rice and yogurt sauce, if desired.

3. For yogurt sauce, mix yogurt with garlic.

Chicken Kebabs


3 Tablespoons olive oil

1 onion finely grated, with juices

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano

1/4 teaspoon sumac or ground dried limes (available at Persian stores)

2 pounds chicken breasts, cut in 1-inch cubes

1 large eggplants

1 large onion, quartered

10 cherry tomatoes

1 large green pepper, seeded and quartered

bay leaves

salt and pepper

1. To make the marinade, mix all the ingredients together. Place meat in large bowl, cover with marinade, mix well, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-3 hours.

2. Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch thick slices, then quarter each slice. Preheat grill or broiler, with rack five inches from the heat. Make skewers of chicken cubes, alternating cubes with tomatoes and bay leaves. Make other skewers of eggplant, onion and pepper. Drizzle with additional olive oil.

3. Grill chicken until cooked through, about four minutes each side. Grill vegetables until cooked through, about 15 minutes. Serve together with rice.

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