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Bold Sephardic Flavors

Years ago when I interviewed Wolfgang Puck about his Seders at Spago, he told me, “If I were to become Jewish, I would become Sephardic because of the cooking.”  As an Ashkenazi Jew, I can totally relate.  What is it about those Mediterranean flavors that are so enticing?  The exotic spices.  The luscious fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sure, my Russian grandmother used spices – garlic powder, paprika and pepper…lots of pepper (she was a Litvak!).  And when I think of her cuisine, nothing green comes to mind.  Beets, carrots, onions, radishes — those familiar vegetables of Eastern Europe graced her table in America as well.  When I asked my mother if she could remember eating any vegetables when she was growing up, she said, “Sure.  We had potatoes.”

I still salivate over the hearty, rich Eastern European delicacies I grew up on – the brisket, borsht, kneidlach and blintzes – but the amazing variety and intense flavor of Middle Eastern cuisine beckons, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s healthful too.

At the heart of this cooking are the spice blends and condiments that give these dishes their zing.  How often did I pass up a recipe, because some of the ingredients were unfamiliar?  Baharat?  Harissa?  Hawaij?  Never heard of them.  S’chug?  What is that?  Preserved lemons?  Sounds complicated.  I was a culinary xenophobe.

Then someone gave me some za’atar from Israel.  I sprinkled it on an omelet and was hooked.  Learn to prepare a few of these mixtures, and the whole world of Sephardic cooking opens up to you.  (These days you may even find already prepared versions in specialty shops.)

“Think of harissa as a modern-day gourmet hot sauce – or, if you prefer, as an update to Tabasco,” says Einat Admony, chef-owner of three New York restaurants and author of a new cookbook, Balaboosta: Bold Mediterranean Flavors to Feed the People You Love, (Artisan, $29.95).  Harissa gives her Really-Not-So-Short Ribs a dramatic flavor boost.

She refers to S’chug as “Dad’s hot, hot, hot sauce.”  “My father actually takes this homemade sauce with him to restaurants,” she reveals.  “Even today he cleans the cilantro, picks his own chile in the spice market, peels the garlic and grinds it all by himself – a true labor of love.”

Preserved lemons are intensely lemony, yet mellow, packing a lot of flavor for a prep time of only 20 minutes.  “Sure, they take ninety days to make,” notes Admony, “but they’re such an amazing addition to so many different kinds of dishes that it’s totally worth the wait.”  You’ll get hooked on the difference in the Seared Snapper.  “I ate a lot of spicy fish growing up,” she recalls.  “The fish my mom used to buy had typically been frozen or farmed fresh, so the focus of the recipe was never on the quality of the catch but on the sauce and spices.”

To call this cuisine “Mediterranean” or “Middle Eastern” is an umbrella whose ribs are enveloped in endless folds of fabric.  Admony’s mixed Israeli heritage reflects her Yemenite and Persian upbringing, but like Israeli cuisine itself (if there is any such thing), her style reflects borrowings from many cultures in the region.  Ironically, she chose the Yiddish word balaboosta for one of her restaurants as well as her first cookbook.

“I chose the name, because it’s warm and reflects who I am,” she said.  And she’s not talking about the stereotypical perfect housewife of yesteryear.  “Today it’s trickier.  Most women work outside their homes, managing careers and kids, so it’s hard to live up to the traditional definition.  A modern balaboosta figures out how to build a successful career without neglecting her husband and family.”

Really-Not-So-Short Ribs

Serves 4 to 6

This is a perfect dish for wintertime — it’s heavy and stewy and will leave you feeling stuffed until April.

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 large carrot, coarsely chopped

1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped

3 celery ribs, cut into ¼-inch pieces

1 large leek, white and light green parts only, cut into ¼-inch pieces

5 garlic cloves

4 fresh thyme sprigs

1 fresh rosemary sprig

1 bay leaf

4 cups red wine

4 cups chicken stock

½ cup honey

3 tablespoons kosher salt

1½ teaspoons Baharat (recipe below)

1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

5 pounds beef short ribs, rinsed

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Heat oil in large Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot until it starts smoking.  Add carrot, onion, celery, leek and garlic.  Sauté until vegetables start to caramelize, about 15 minutes.  Add thyme, rosemary and bay leaf and sauté another 5 minutes.

3. Add wine and bring to a boil; then reduce mixture by half.  Add chicken stock, honey, salt, baharat, paprika, cumin and pepper.  Bring to a boil; then lower heat to simmer.

4. Using tongs, sandwich short ribs between a layer of vegetables on bottom and another layer of vegetables on top.  Ladle some sauce over the short ribs; then cover with a lid.  Bake until meat is fork-tender, 2½ to 3 hours.  Serve with sauce.

Baharat

Makes about 1 1/3 cups

2 tablespoons ground black pepper

3 tablespoons allspice

3 tablespoons ground coriander

5 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground cloves

3 tablespoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

4 teaspoons ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika

1 tablespoon dried lemon zest (optional)

4 teaspoons dried ginger (optional)

Combine all the ingredients together until well mixed.  Store in airtight jar away from direct sunlight.

Seared Snapper with Red Pepper Lemon Sauce and Rice Cakes

Serves 4

You can replace snapper with halibut, black bass or grouper.  The sauce is also a lovely complement for chicken or lamb.

Red Pepper Lemon Sauce

1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped

2 wedges Perfect Preserved Lemons, coarsely chopped (see Note)

2 cloves Roasted Garlic (see Note)

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

¼ teaspoon sugar

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon chile flakes

1¼ cups canola oil

4 snapper fillets

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

Rice Cakes (see Note)

Microgreens

1. Combine bell pepper, preserved lemons, roasted garlic, lemon juice, sugar, salt and chile flakes in food processor.  Puree until smooth; then slowly drizzle in 1¼ cups oil while machine is running.  Transfer sauce to an airtight container and refrigerate, bringing it to room temperature before serving.  The sauce is best that day, but can be made 1 day in advance.

2. Place large skillet over high heat for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, pat fish fillets dry; then season both sides with salt and pepper.  Add 2 tablespoons canola oil to hot skillet and carefully place fillets skin side down in pan.  Cook 3 minutes, flip them over and fry for another 2 minutes.

3. To serve, place a spoonful of red pepper lemon sauce onto one end of the plate and drag spoon to opposite side, smearing sauce across plate.  Place one rice cake over the center, slice each fillet in half and place both halves on rice cake.  Garnish with some microgreens.  Repeat with the other three plates.

Perfect Preserved Lemons

3 cups kosher salt

1 cup sugar

½ tablespoon coriander seeds

1½ teaspoons black peppercorns

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

¼ teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

12 to 16 lemons, or more

2 bay leaves

1. Mix together salt, sugar, coriander seeds, peppercorns, turmeric and paprika in large bowl.  Place half at bottom of 1-gallon glass jar with tight-fitting lid.

2. Cut lemons into wedges and place inside jar, squeezing juices into jar as well, packing lemons in tightly, so there is no air to oxidize them.  Don’t worry about squishing lemons; they like it this way.  Add bay leaves and remaining salt mixture and top it off with just enough water to fill it to the rim.  Seal the jar and forget about it for the next 3 months or so.  Well, remember it once in a while and gently flip the jar upside down a few times to make sure all the flavors are mixing together.  The lemons are ready when the skin is soft.

3. Before you open the jar, the preserved lemons can be stored at room temperature, but once they are ready, it’s best to store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for at least 6 months.  Be sure to rinse away the excess salt from the lemons prior to each use and discard the pulp.

Roasted Garlic

Garlic cloves

Canola oil

1. Peel each garlic clove and place it in a saucepan.  Pour in just enough canola oil to cover the cloves completely.

2. Place the pan over a very low — and I mean low — flame.  Simmer until the garlic cloves are tender and brown spots start to appear, 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove from the heat and cool completely before transferring the garlic to an airtight container with just enough oil to cover the cloves.

3. I store the roasted garlic in a jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.  And I never throw away the rest of the oil, because it’s great for brushing on slices of ciabatta right before grilling them.  Just make sure to store the oil in the refrigerator as well, and this will keep much longer than a few weeks.

Rice Cakes

Makes 4 cakes

¾ cup sushi rice

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of saffron threads

¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 tablespoon dried currants or chopped raisins

¼ cup store-bought fried onions or shallots

All-purpose flour for dusting

Canola oil for deep frying

1. Wash the rice thoroughly in cold water and drain.  Place in a medium saucepan with 1¼ cups water and the salt.  Bring to a boil; then lower the heat to simmer.  Cover and cook until tender, 15 to 18 minutes.

2. While the rice is cooking, soak the saffron threads in 1 tablespoon of water and set aside.  Combine the parsley, thyme, mustard seeds, currants and fried onions in a large bowl.  Add the cooked rice and mix everything together.  Add the saffron threads with the soaking liquid and mix thoroughly.  Form eight rice patties about 3 inches in diameter and 1½ inches thick.  Lightly coat in flour and dust off the excess.

3. Add 2 inches of oil to a deep skillet over medium-high heat.  Fry the rice cakes until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.

Source: Balaboosta by Einat Admony

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