When I was growing up, when it came to ethnic fare, you had your Chinese and you had your Italian. Today you can travel to foreign lands without ever leaving your kitchen, thanks to the easy availability of global ingredients and the proliferation of cookbooks, websites and cooking shows, all of which bring exotic cuisines to you.
Case in point: “Stella’s Sephardic Table,” (Hoberman, $45) by Stella Cohen, so leap-off-the-page sumptuously photographed you can practically taste the food. But lest you think this cookbook is just another pretty face, Cohen, an artist and textile designer as well as a food writer and authority on Sephardic cuisine, takes us on a fascinating journey, in loving detail, into the culture, history and traditions of the island of Rhodes. Located close to the coast of Turkey and along the sea route to Israel, it was once home to a rich and vibrant Jewish community – it was even nicknamed La Chica Yerushalayim (Little Jerusalem). The economic depression of the thirties and the coming onslaught of the Nazis drove the Jews out—those who didn’t meet their fate in Auschwitz, that is, as many of Cohen’s family members did – and today fewer than 20 Jews remain.
Cohen’s family wound up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where she was born. “My mother’s ancestors include my great-grandfather, Yaacov Capouya, the rabbi of Rhodes,” she told me by phone from New York where she was visiting family. “It was my children who urged me to document not only our Sephardic family recipes, but also our vanishing customs.“
What her children requested was the comfort food they had grown up on, the same dishes that had been passed down for generations, “the simple stews, savory pastries like borekas, sweet confections that were an integral part of our celebrations dating back to medieval Spain, baklava, grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, exotic rice pilaf and rice pudding. They remembered we used to sprinkle their initials on the rice pudding with cinnamon, just as my parents did for us.”
Cohen’s mother was her inspiration in the kitchen. “I never understood why my mom, who had some help in the house available, insisted she nurse a stew herself. I would come back from school and be mesmerized by her fingers molding some savory pastries. When I was a very small child, she used to make her own filo by rolling it very thin and stretching it over pillows so it would dry out. Cooking was my mother’s ultimate joy. I began to understand what the Ladino word “necutchera” meant, an accomplished woman with a refined sense of taste and intuitive wisdom. She took great pride in creating something beautiful made with love. I wanted to preserve our Rhodesli food as a tribute to the extraordinary skills of our foremothers. It was only when I began my own culinary journey that I realized that my mother’s instinct and passion for cooking involved not just feeding the body, but also nurturing the soul.”
This is a generous, flavorful cuisine that brings family together. “There is a Ladino saying—if there is food left over after a meal, then not enough has been prepared,” she said. “The dishes are aromatic and nutritious with an emphasis on simple ingredients, fresh vegetables, food cooked with love. I remember multiple generations of family and friends would come together to bake or cook and to enjoy stories and recollections while making these little feasts.”
“Stella’s Sephardic Table” celebrates not only Cohen’s best-loved traditional Sephardic everyday food and festive dishes from Rhodes, but also includes recipes that evolved within her southern African community as well as from her travels to Morocco.
“Keftes—patty-shaped meatballs—were always a favorite with my children, who insisted they should be served with French fries and ketchup,” she writes. “The addition of tomatoes is likely an influence of the Italians during their occupation of Rhodes between 1911 in 1947.
“Apart from the classic baklava, the Sephardim in Rhodes made a triangular version with walnuts called ‘trigonas.’ I like to make individual flower-shaped baklava with lavish pistachio and almond filling, often seen in Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East.”
Meatballs Poached in Fresh Tomato Sauce
1 small onion
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 slices white bread, crusts removed, dampened in ½ cup water, squeezed and torn into small pieces
1 pound 2 ounces lean ground beef or veal
1 ripe plum tomato, cut in half and coarsely grated (about 1 tablespoon)
½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt and finely ground white pepper
2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped ripe tomatoes or canned chopped tomatoes
2 tender celery stalks with leaves, cut into chunks, or
4 fresh whole sage leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Sea salt and finely ground white pepper
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon each finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and fresh dill
- Meatballs: Grate onion finely into strainer set over small bowl. Sprinkle with salt; let stand 10 minutes. Press with back of spoon to squeeze juice into a bowl. Discard onion. Add onion juice to remaining meatball ingredients in large bowl. Knead well. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate about 15 minutes.
- Tomato sauce: In large, shallow, heavy-based pan bring sauce ingredients to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium; cook 5 minutes.
- Shape meatballs with dampened hands into about 30 small meatballs. Dredge in flour to coat lightly, patting off excess. Drop meatballs gently into sauce. Add a little simmering water so that sauce comes about halfway up the meatballs. Cover and cook on very low simmer 20 minutes, until meatballs are tender and sauce has thickened. Shake pan from time to time to ensure sauce evenly coats meatballs and prevent sticking. Add a little more hot water if necessary.
3/4 cup unsalted melted butter
mixed with 3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 pound 2 oz. ready-made filo pastry (about 16 sheets), at room temperature
3 egg whites
½ cup caster (superfine) sugar
9 ounces blanched almonds, coarsely ground
9 ounces unblanched pistachios, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
1 cup caster sugar
1 cup clear honey
1½ cups water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
Topping: ½ cup coarsely ground blanched pistachios
- Filling: Beat egg whites in clean bowl of freestanding electric mixer, with whisk attachment, until foamy. Then beat in sugar. With spatula, gently fold in ground nuts and orange blossom water.
- Syrup: Dissolve sugar, honey and water in small, heavy-based pan over low heat, stirring constantly, about two minutes. Stop stirring and bring to a boil. Add lemon juice and cinnamon stick. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, about 15 minutes or until syrup is thick enough to coat back of spoon. Stir in orange blossom water. Discard cinnamon stick. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly brush 16 x 10-inch ovenproof baking dish with straight sides with some of the butter and oil mixture.
- Assembly: Lay sheet of filo on work surface and cover the rest with slightly damp tea towel. Brush lightly and evenly with melted butter and oil mixture. Cover with another sheet of filo and brush with melted butter and oil. Repeat until you have a stack of 7 sheets. Cut buttered stack into 2 3/4-inch squares with kitchen scissors or sharp knife. Place 1 tablespoon filling in center of each square. Gently squeeze pastry around filling, 2/3 of the way up so that points of filo open out like petals of a flower. Continue with remaining pastry sheets and filling. Arrange pastries close together in rows in baking dish so petals do not open.
- To bake: Place dish on middle rack of oven; bake 30 minutes or until pastries are crisp and lightly golden. Ladle half the cooled syrup evenly over hot baklava. Sprinkle ground pistachios over center of pastries. Drizzle over remaining syrup.
JLIFE FOOD EDITOR JUDY BART KANCIGOR is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at