When it comes to Jewish holidays, we either feast or fast. With Yom Kippur behind us, Jews the world over prepare for the joyous feast of Sukkot, which begins at sundown on October 8, by constructing booths (sukkot) within which we are commanded to eat and sleep during the weeklong festival. Also called “Z’man Simchateinu” (Season of Our Rejoicing), Sukkot is the harvest festival mentioned in Leviticus 23:34-39. The temporary shelter of the sukkot recalls our 40-year wanderings in the desert after receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Lying closer to the heavens, generations of our ancestors have rejoiced to enjoy the fruits of their labors as the growing season culminated in bushels of plenty.
While you’d hardly know it from the diet of most Ashkenazic cultures (beets and cabbage being notable exceptions), Jewish cuisine, at least in the Mediterranean, from Biblical times has had a long love affair with vegetables, and what better time to show them off than Sukkot.
Because the Sukkot table is farther away from the kitchen, traditional dishes for this holiday are easily transportable one-dish stews and casseroles. Stuffed vegetables are a popular choice, particularly in Israel, where every Sephardic and Oriental culture has a favorite recipe. Stuffed Butternut Squash from “Jewish Traditional Cooking” by Ruth Joseph and Simon Round makes a festive addition to the Sukkot celebration.
“Turkish cooks are masters of the stuffed vegetable,” noted Clifford A. Wright, author of “Mediterranean Vegetables” (Harvard Common Press $29.95), “but you find stuffed vegetables very popular with Arabs too.” Wright includes delicious recipes for stuffed artichokes, eggplant, grape leaves, mushrooms, onions, chard and yellow peppers. (For his “Stuffed Eggplant in Olive Oil” go to www.cliffordawright.com.)
Subtitled “A Cook’s ABC of Vegetables and Their Preparation in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa, with More than 200 Authentic Recipes for the Home Cook,” my food-splattered edition of “Mediterranean Vegetables” has become an invaluable resource. From the esoteric acanthus-leaved thistle to the more common zucchini, Wright lists each plant’s characteristics and varieties, its botanical and etymological origin and instructions for growing, buying, storing and preparing them.
Most fascinating is the history of each vegetable through the ages. In Sicily ingesting eggplant was once thought to lead to insanity, and it was called “mad apple.” The ancient Romans used cabbage to prevent a hangover, and the Egyptian Copts placed cucumber leaves mixed with salt on women’s breasts to promote milk production.
My favorite one-dish vegetable casserole is ratatouille, perfect for Sukkot’s harvest celebration, but I make it all year long as well. My recipe yields a large batch, which I often bring to potlucks, or I freeze it in smaller portions to slather on fish for baking or to stuff an omelet. Intimations of that lovable Disney rat aside, ratatouille is not the quintessential Provençal dish many believe it to be. “Ratatouille is actually a relatively modern invention,” said Wright, “one that could not occur until the tomato came from the New World.”
Interestingly, “Mediterranean Vegetables” does not mention Israeli cuisine. “I don’t believe there is such a thing,” Wright told me. “Its origins in the Mediterranean are mostly in the Arab world. Jews who came from Arab countries – Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and of course Spain too – brought with them their cuisine. There really is little difference between Jewish cuisine and the local cuisine in which it finds itself. What makes it different is it is almost exclusively connected with holidays and the self-realization on the part of the Jewish community that these dishes are special to those holidays.
“And to those who think the Arab-Israeli conflict is hopeless, remember, Arabs and Jews lived together for thousands of years, and this conflict actually began historically only recently,” added Wright, who began his career in the field of international affairs and is a former executive director of the American Middle East Peace Research Institute. “Look at the Spanish Jews who were expelled during the Inquisition. Although some went to Germany, the majority went to Muslim lands. Why in the world would they escape to Muslim lands if there were not welcoming hands to greet them?”
Stuffed Butternut Squash
“My husband’s favorite Sephardic-style recipe incorporates a whole butternut squash,” says Ruth Joseph in “Jewish Traditional Cooking,”
“grown with love in his garden for Sukkot.”
1 large butternut squash (at least 2 pounds)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup cooked green lentils (made according to package directions)
1 cup cooked brown rice (made according to package directions)
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup currants
1/4 cup dill, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons wine
1 Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut squash in half, scoop out seeds, and discard. Make crisscross cuts into flesh; brush tops with a little oil. Season well with salt and pepper and place in roasting pan. Bake until almost done, about 40 minutes.
2 In large saucepan, gently cook onions in oil until soft but not colored. Add garlic last 2 minutes of cooking. Add remaining ingredients. Correct seasonings.
3 Fill squash cavities with lentil-rice mixture; cover and bake until squash is very soft, about 20 minutes.
Adapted from “Jewish Traditional Cooking” by Ruth Joseph and Simon Round
These ingredients are not written in stone. Feel free to add or subtract any you choose in whatever quantities you like. Just remember to add each vegetable according to its required cooking time.
Serves: an army!
About 1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 large onions, diced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1 1/2 pounds fresh green beans, stems removed, sliced into thirds
4 carrots, sliced
1 eggplant, cubed, skin on
2 peppers (one red, one yellow,) diced
3 parsnips, sliced
2 zucchini, sliced
2 cans (15 ounces each) stewed tomatoes, whizzed in food processor
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin powder
1 1/2 teaspoons herbs de Provence
1 teaspoon za’atar (find at Middle Eastern market) or thyme
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste (optional)
A few strands saffron, steeped in a little hot water
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
Shaved Parmesan cheese (optional)
1 Heat oil in large pot over medium heat.
2 Add onions and celery and cook until softened. Add paprika; cook and stir a minute or so.
3 Stir in vegetables, green beans through zucchini, one variety at a time, cooking each about 5 minutes before adding the next.
4 Add stewed tomatoes and spices, stir, cover and cook until the carrots are almost done.
5 Add mushrooms; continue cooking. If too watery, cook uncovered until carrots are done. Add salt and sugar, if using, to taste.
6 Turn into casserole; sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired.