July 9, 2012
The Road to New Jewish Cuisine
Discovering Encyclopedia of Jewish Food has changed my life as a cook. I have always wanted to explore classic Jewish cuisine and find ways to contribute to its modernization. I am a firm believer that any craftsman, whether carpenter or chef, must understand the classics before trying to create something different. Gil Marks codified historic Jewish recipes. With the help of this text, I am able to study classic Jewish cuisine and begin creating new recipes.
This week’s entry in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food is Agraz. Gil Marks states, “Agraz refers to sour unripe grapes, the juice expressed from them (verjuice), and a sauce made from the grapes themselves” (EJF page 4). Verjuice is incredibly popular with chef geeks today. Mario Batali uses verjuice almost as much as he uses lard. It is an incredibly simple condiment that adds bright acidity to a dish. I was so excited to learn that we Jews have always loved verjuice as much as modern cooking nerds. I was even more excited when I realized that sour grapes are currently in season, and I was able to run to my local Sephardic market and pick-up a few bunches! Sour grapes are small unripe grapes. They are mother nature’s version of sour candy. Each berry is firm with tight skin and when chewed, they explode with a pleasant squirt of sour juice.
The recipe for Agraz that I created is inspired by the lively flavor of sour grapes, but I have to admit that it is a large departure from the recipe in the book. In the book there is a recipe for Sour Grape Sauce or Salsa Agraz. It combines sour grapes, tomato sauce, honey, water and sugar to make a classic Sephardic sauce typically served with lamb, fish or poultry (EJF page 5). Clearly, in this case salsa is not something that comes out of a jar and is served with tortilla chips. Regardless, my immediate thought after reading the classic recipe was literally Mexican style salsa made with sour grapes. I live in Los Angeles, I am surrounded by amazing Mexican food, and it is peak season for wonderfully sweet tomatoes. These factors gave me the idea to create a pico de gallo style salsa using sour grapes.
Traditional Mexican pico de gallo contains onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime juice. Rather than using standard tomatoes, I choose grape tomatoes. They are low acid tomatoes that are very sweet. Sour grapes are very sour and highly acidic. The sweet grape tomatoes keep the acidic level of the salsa balanced. Also, grape tomatoes have a similar texture and shape as the sour grapes. The finished salsa literally pops with each bite.
I am a firm believer that in order to truly create new recipes that represent a particular cuisine, a chef must first have a mastery of the classic recipes of that cuisine. With the information provided by Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, I was able to learn the classic recipe for Salsa Agraz and then create a modern one. Agraz Pico de Gallo is my new Jewish recipe, inspired by the ancient Jewish communities of southern Europe and influenced by the Mexican culture and summer produce in Los Angeles.
Agraz Pico de Gallo