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Meme’s in the kitchen, making memories

Sephardic Rosh Hashana table blessings

by David Suissa

September 8, 2007 | 8:00 pm

I remember the moment well. I had just picked up my 74-year-old mother at LAX, and as we entered my new house in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, I proudly showed her the new kitchen.

Compared to her kitchen in Montreal, this one was the size of the Roman Coliseum. It took her about an hour to fully inspect it. I think she opened every drawer and cabinet. She was so impressed, she muttered a few words in Arabic I had never heard before. She got a kick out of those little transparent decal stickers on the cabinets -- which I got at Shmulie's Books & Gifts on Pico Boulevard -- that delineate milk and meat dishes.

But what I think really moved her -- what got those 20/20 eyes of hers to open just a little wider -- was the potential. The potential for some very serious cooking.

I've never seen Bob Dylan in a recording studio. But I can just imagine. He probably knows just what he wants. He can speak the engineer's language, tell the bass player how to improve a rhythm, make changes on the fly, fix a lyric, add some harmonica when he feels like it. He's in creative heaven. Within a few hours, a "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Dirt Road Blues" is born.

That's sort of my mother in the kitchen. The difference is she weighs more, she doesn't sing, she doesn't wear sunglasses, she has no angst, she doesn't smoke or drink, she has no help and, once she's done creating her art, it immediately gets consumed.

What remains from her creations is not a lifetime of playing and listening, but a lifetime of memories.

But oh, what memories.

It didn't take long for my mother (her grandchildren call her by the French "Meme," which sounds like "meh meh") to create memories on her first trip to the hood.

Within a week, her anisette-flavored galettes -- flat, crunchy cakes, which she served my father every morning for 49 years along with his Turkish coffee -- were politely interfering with Rabbi Abner Weiss's Torah salon. I distinctly recall Rabbi Weiss taking a break from his class as he saw a tray of Meme's galettes approaching -- the man wanted one. No one seemed to mind.

She used a special pastry roller for those galettes. I'm sure you could find one like it at Pottery Barn. Hers came from her grandmother, who used it to make the same galettes in a Jewish neighborhood of Casablanca. The roller has that worn-out look, but you can see the kind of sturdy construction that suggests it could probably crank out galettes for two more generations.

As the weeks of her visit here went by, and her rule over my kitchen became complete, the household began to revolve not just around her food, but around her.

Grouchy kids getting ready for school in the morning? Nothing like the aroma of a few hot moufletas (Moroccan crepes), with Meme in her bathrobe spreading some melted butter and honey, to lighten the stress of an upcoming algebra test.

Playdates coming over after school? How about an elaborate fruit platter and marzipan cookies to tide you over until Meme's juicy Keftas (spiced up burgers) for dinner?

For several months, in addition to the weekday surprises she would prepare every night for the kids, a parade of Shabbat guests feasted on Meme's delights like spicy Moroccan fish, truffle and meatball tagine, an array of delicate Mediterranean salads and, for Shabbat lunch, her signature, unmistakable Dafina, the Moroccan cholent.

Put it this way: By her second month here, she was on a first name basis with at least one meat-cutter at Pico Glatt, and she was beginning to pick up Spanish.

All this, however, seemed to be a build-up to the meal that will go down in family lore. If you should ever come across any of the 20 or so guests who came to Meme's second Passover seder -- created during an intense 10-hour burst of activity in her new kitchen -- ask them about that meal.

For about four hours, a group of sophisticated and happy grown-ups were engaged in lively conversation -- and kept getting interrupted. As soon as Bob Ore, a French playwright, would go off on one of his wild, comedic riffs, something would come to interrupt. When the editor of Moment magazine tried to explain a new piece she was planning on Norman Mailer to a movie producer sitting next to her, something would interrupt. When the creator of Harissa.com tried to tell us about the different kinds of Sephardics around the world who had taken to his site, or when Louie Kemp tried to enlighten us with a story on the Lubavitcher rebbe, something again would interrupt.

All night long, something would come to interrupt.

These glorious interruptions were Meme's creations, one sensuous platter at a time. If a Hollywood cinematographer could have filmed the evening, it would have rivaled the food scenes in "Like Water for Chocolate." To this day, when I meet someone who was there, the conversation invariably comes back to that night of a thousand delights. By the time the meal was over, we had all surrendered. The conversation had clearly shifted to the food. Meme had won, hands down.

After four months creating this culinary heaven, Meme had to return home. The relatives there were clearly getting impatient with our monopolizing of the family treasure. We had no choice. We gave Meme back her passport. But not before she made moufletas, with a big smile on her face, for about 200 guests at the traditional mimouna party celebrating the end of Passover.

Which brings me to a few weeks ago, when I got an e-mail from The Jewish Journal, asking me if I would write about my mother's cooking for the Rosh Hashanah food issue, accompanied by color photos, recipes, the works. Now I'm thinking: the editors there probably don't know that Meme's been back in Montreal for awhile. That big kitchen she took over during those memorable months, well, it hasn't been the same without her. How can I do a Meme food story without Meme?

As luck would have it, my kids and I were about to go to Montreal for a big family wedding. Would Meme be up to preparing a full Rosh Hashanah feast in the middle of all the festivities, in her tiny kitchen? And where would I find a professional photographer on such short notice?

It's great when God smiles on your projects. My sister, Sandra, ran around town getting the special ingredients -- including pomegranates and dates on leaves -- for the traditional blessings Sephardim do at the Rosh Hashanah table (see side bar). My other sister, Kathy, got the rest: meat, fish, couscous, vegetables, etc. And my third sister, Judy, did the real heavy lifting: she took a group of hyperactive kids on an outing -- any outing, we told her -- very far away from Meme's tiny kitchen.

This was serious business. The photographer was coming over in a few hours, and a complete Rosh Hashanah table had to be laid out, in all its glory.

That same morning, the photographer called to cancel -- she said her flash blew out. But get this: Our original No. 1 choice, a star photographer who is a friend of the family, Raphael Ohayon, had just become available because the wedding he was supposed to shoot that night ... got cancelled! I can't tell you how guilty I felt that I was grateful for the cancellation.

I was also grateful for my brother-in-law, Paul Starr, who has this talent for fixing broken circuits on kitchen stoves very early on Sunday mornings. Rosh Hashana feast
So now we had all the ingredients, and in the middle of the tiny kitchen was Meme, with Kathy assisting, doing her usual dance frying bastillas, caramelizing onions, roasting lamb, steaming couscous, chopping up vegetables and mixing them with dried fruit and nuts, simmering pumpkin soup -- and all this while taking mazal tov calls from overseas.

As I absorbed the scene from a distance, my own childhood memories returned. It must have been the tiny kitchen, which is all I saw growing up.

When Meme cooked in the big kitchen back in Los Angeles, she created a whole new set of childhood memories -- for my kids. But here in her tiny kitchen in Montreal, these were my childhood memories. Memories of a small apartment kitchen where Meme cooked for 100 people who came for my brother Samy's bar mitzvah, in 1967. Memories of seders, Shabbat meals, hot soups on winter nights, summer picnics, afternoon snacks -- big meals, small meals or spectacular meals, always coming out of tiny kitchens.

I wondered: Can our children's memories have the same meaning today, when so many of them see only spaciousness, abundance and luxury? Can you feel love as deeply when it emanates from a large modern kitchen, as when it comes from a tiny kitchen?

If I asked my mother those questions, I'm sure she'd tell me to stop getting so schmaltzy and to send her a plane ticket pronto, so she can get back to that big, spacious, luxurious, sun-drenched kitchen right here in the hood -- where more than a few people with sharp memories are awaiting her return engagement.


Meme's in the Kitchen Recipes Prepared by Kathy Shapiro
Bastilla Pastelles

1 whole small chicken (see note)
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon mixed poultry herbs
2 large onions, chopped
3 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar
6 eggs, beaten with 1 teaspoon salt added
2/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup chopped toasted almonds
10-14 sheets filo dough*
1 cup melted margarine or shortening or oil
Powdered sugar and cinnamon for serving and presentation

Note: Alternatively, you can use 5 cups of coarsely chopped moist leftover chicken.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Dilute saffron in 1/2 cup boiling water. Rub cleaned and dried chicken with olive oil and season, inside and out, with salt, pepper, herbs and 1/4 cup of the saffron water. Roast, breast side down, for 45 minutes to an hour.
Cool slightly, strain pan juices and set aside. Remove skin and bones and cut up chicken meat into small morsels. Toss with reserved juices in a large bowl.
In a large skillet, sauté onions in oil until golden, add cinnamon and sugar and continue until browned. Add to chicken. Combine cilantro, eggs and remaining 1/4 cup saffron water and, in the same skillet, scramble over medium heat until fluffy. Add to chicken mixture along with toasted almonds and gently toss to combine all ingredients.

Cut rectangle filo sheets in half, widthwise. Place one on clean board and keep remaining sheets covered to prevent from drying. Brush the sheet with margarine or oil. Place an additional sheet on top and brush with margarine. Place about 2-3 tablespoons filling toward the bottom, 3 inches from bottom edge. Fold left and right edges of filo over filling, all the way from bottom to top. Start rolling from bottom, burrito-style, until sealed. Brush with margarine and place on baking sheet, seam side down. Continue with remaining sheets. Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. To serve, dust with powdered sugar and sprinkle ribbons of cinnamon.

*In Morocco, we use special handmade dough, called "waarkah" or "feuille de bricke." These sheets are similar to spring roll dough, except for the uneven edges characteristic of the handmade technique of slapping a handful of soft dough, in several motions, onto the underside of a heavy skillet inverted over high heat. Each circular "leaf" is immediately peeled off and stacked as the process continues. When using this authentic dough, Bastilla Pastelles are not baked, but instead deep-fried until golden brown, offering an exquisite exterior crunch to a delicate filling.

Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Almonds

3 pounds lamb stew meat, some pieces with bones6 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron, diluted in 1/2 cup hot water
3 large onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup pitted prunes
1 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup broth or water
1/2 cup or more toasted slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in heavy pot and brown lamb in batches over medium-high heat. Avoid crowding the pot. Season batches with salt and pepper as you go. Return lamb pieces to the pot. Add cumin, 1/4 cup of the saffron water and an additional 1/4 cup water. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce heat. Cover and simmer for approximately 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours, until tender. Add water, 1/4 cup at a time, only if needed to maintain liquid levels at bottom of pot. Lamb will release its own juices as it cooks, so be sparse with the additional water. Do not let the lamb become too watery.

In a large deep skillet, heat remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Sauté onions until golden brown. Add cinnamon, sugar, prunes, apricots and raisins. Continue to sauté and blend. Add 1/4 cup of remaining saffron water and 1/4 cup of broth or water. Stir, cover and simmer over low heat. Add an additional 1/4 cup water, as needed, until dried fruits are plump and moist and have absorbed the liquids.

Season with salt and pepper.

Place lamb stew and its juices in a deep and heavy earthen ovenware dish. Add fruit mixture on top. Cover and bake in a 350 F oven for 30 minutes. Uncover, baste well and continue baking for an additional 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste -- salt, pepper, cinnamon and sugar. To serve, place lamb tagine on a large platter, drizzle most of its juices all over and top with roasted slivered almonds.

Moroccan Fish

1 whole fish, scaled and trimmed, but with head intact, 2 1/2-3 pounds (see note)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons paprika
1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (preferred spiciness level)*
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron, diluted in 1/4 cup boiling water
salt and pepper

3 tbsp olive oil
5 carrots, peeled, cut into sticks
2 red bell peppers, cut into 8 pieces
3 garlic cloves, halved
2 teaspoons paprika
salt and pepper to taste
chopped cilantro
thinly sliced lemon
Note: Fillets of any fish may be substituted at other times of the year.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Wash fish and pat dry with paper towels. Mix next 9 ingredients to make a paste. Coat fish thoroughly with savory paste, inside and out. Cover and refrigerate up to one hour.

In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium/high heat. Add carrots, peppers and garlic and sauté for 3-4 minutes. Reduce heat, cover and cook an additional 8-10 minutes, until vegetables are tender but firm. Add paprika, salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons water and stir well. Place vegetables and scrape all paprika oil and liquid into an oblong baking dish (length of fish). Place fish and marinade on top of vegetables. Arrange lemon slices and sprinkle with chopped cilantro. Cover and bake in a 375 F oven for 20-25 minutes until fish is flaky and moist, basting occasionally.

Moroccan Fish is always spicy hot to some degree, except when served on Rosh Hashanah, where we refrain from serving spicy foods and enjoy only the sweetness of the holiday meals.

Pumpkin Squash Soup

3 large onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons oil
1/2 pound soup meat with bones
10-12 cups water
8 cups cut up, very orange squash (butternut, banana, pumpkin or combination)
15 ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons cinnamon (or more)
2 teaspoons sugar
Salt and pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron, diluted in 1/4 cup boiling water

In a large pot, heat oil and add sliced onions. Sauté on medium/high heat until golden. Add meat, season with salt and pepper, and continue to sauté until meat and onion browns well. Add 10 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer meat for 20 minutes. Add cut-up squash. Cook until squash is thoroughly cooked and soft, approximately 30-45 minutes. Remove meat onto a plate. Discard bones and cut meat into small morsels. Set aside. Mash soup with a potato masher or large fork until smooth, adding more water if soup is too thick. Add meat morsels, garbanzo beans, cinnamon, sugar and saffron water. Combine well and simmer for an additional 20-30 minutes, stirring frequently. Adjust salt and pepper seasonings before serving.




Sephardic Rosh Hashana table blessings


Sephardic Rosh Hashana table blessings
On the first and second nights of Rosh Hashanah, the Sephardic custom is to recite a number of special blessings over various symbolic foods. In addition to the almost universal Jewish tradition of dipping a slice of apple in honey in the hope of a "sweet year," Sephardim follow a Talmudic teaching and make blessings over fenugreek (or carrots), leek (or cabbage), beets, dates, gourd, pomegranate, fish, and the head of a sheep (or fish).

As explained in the ArtScroll prayer book for Rosh Hashanah, "some of these foods taste sweet and symbolize a sweet year, while others grow abundantly and indicate an abundance of merits. The names of some of these foods symbolize an increase of Israel's mitzvah performance; others allude to destruction and eradication and are applied to Israel's sins and enemies."

Fenugreek or carrots
May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that our merits increase.Leek or cabbage
May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that our enemies be decimated.

Beets
May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that our adversaries be removed.

Dates
May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that our enemies be consumed.

Gourd
May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that the decree of our sentence be torn asunder; and may our merits be proclaimed before You.

Pomegranate
May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that our merits increase as (the seeds of) a pomegranate.

Fish
May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that we be fruitful and multiply like fish.

Head of a sheep (or fish)
May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that we be as the head and not as the tail. (For the head of a sheep some add -- "And may it be Your will that the merit of our Patriarch Isaac be remembered for us.")

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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