Dec 082013

barley risotto w spoon

Barley is such a winterish grain. It’s hearty and comfortingly chewy/soft, good in soup and cholent. But barley sometimes shows in a surprisingly versatile light. Who ever thought of making risotto from barley?

More than possible, it’s delicious, and right for eating when you come in from a cold, grey day, and you’ve been fighting gusts of wind that turn your umbrella inside out, and your darned boots let puddles seep in, and grouchy people on the bus make you dislike humanity, and you just want to be home and dry.

And full.

Whew! Will barley take care of all those woes? Actually, yes, if you will it so. Neither stock nor toasted nuts take much work, so it’s worth making them the day before to have at the ready.

Being bland, barley begs for some buttressing. Or did I mean, butter? Or sharper tastes, like wine, onion, lemon, cheese?

Yes, to all of the above. Welcome to barley risotto.

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Sep 222013

spaghetti with walnuts

Light lunches are the way to go on Succot. At least, in my kitchen. One reason is, the family can’t sustain a rich festive meal followed by just such another in this year’s holiday-followed-by-Shabbat round. Another is that evenings are when the family’s together and hungriest. Vegetables soups, quiches, salads and pasta satisfy mid-day hunger just fine when a large dinner’s expected later.

A leafy salad is all you need to follow this rich pasta. Leftover herbed crumbs, you can throw into your next omelet or salad,  or on top of soup. Good crunchiness.

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Mar 012013

plain beans with shmaltz

Got a bagga beans?

In my mixed-heritage kitchen (Sephardic/Ashkenazic/Latin/Israeli/American – did I leave anyone out?) – well, in my kitchen, beans are cooked with plenty of herbs and spices. Black beans, white beans, red beans, all kinds of beans. But a recipe that my friend Varda Eptstein recently gave me captured my imagination: beans, plain and simple.

Well, it’s a bit more subtle than it sounds. The recipe involves shmaltz. The staple fat in Ashkenazi homes for centuries, shmaltz fell out of favor when vegetable oils became more easily available. Vegetable oils, you buy and pour out of a bottle. No worries about cholesterol if it’s good olive oil. Shmaltz, you have to render, flavor with onions, strain…more work.

But how sweet it is. There’s no flavor to beat that of shmaltz. The days are gone when busy mothers would hand their little ones slices of bread spread with a glistening layer of it, but we moderns still enjoy a light flavoring of shmaltz in many dishes. Just use it in moderation.

All the natural meatiness of beans comes out in this dish, making them savory in a heimisch – homely – way. I had a bag of frozen kidney beans that needed using up before Passover, so that’s what I cooked, and they turned out very well. The whole thing took about 10 minutes from start to finish. I’m going to serve these beans on Shabbat, resisting the temptation to add them to a  cholent or anything else.

Just beans, pure and simple. Really good.

Thank you, Varda!

(My notes follow after)


Plain Beans from Varda Epstein

Yes, I’m a foodie. But I’m not interested in trying new and unusual recipes. I like plain food that is true to its earliest ancestor.

But since I’m of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and enjoy family research, I have melded these two interests in the form of recreating authentic Ashkenazi recipes. This is the kind of food that weighs you down and makes you groan. But hey! We only live once. I definitely don’t want to have lived without enjoying my favorite foods.

Here’s an example of a simple recipe my mother once described to me. Lithuanian Jews don’t generally use much sugar in their cuisine, so this recipe is kind of an anomaly. Still, you can see why this recipe was popular for the plainness of its ingredients, for its simplicity and for its cost effectiveness. It’s also a stick-to-the ribs kind of dish and probably kept a lot of Litvaks warm in those dreadful Eastern European winters.

 When I finally reveal the ingredients, you are going to have a bit of a shock and may doubt that this is a dish worth trying, but I have to say it’s absolutely scrumptious.


 The ingredients are:

  Dried lima beans–cooked until slightly mushy

 Chicken fat (schmaltz

 Salt, pepper, and a bit of sugar.

 That’s all. It’s unctuous. It’s sublime. You will have to try it to find out. Believe me, this is authentic, plain food at its absolute best. I dare you to try it. You’ll swoon with pleasure.

My measurement notes:

  • 3 cups of frozen kidney beans, cooked 8 minutes in plenty of boiling water, then drained.
  • 1 tablespoon shmaltz
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • salt and pepper to taste.
  • Mix gently and serve hot.

Varda Epstein is mother to 12 children,  food blogger for The Times of Israel, and communications writer at Kars4Kids.

Jan 172013

saffron rice with winter vegetables

Chunks of oven-roasted vegetables stirred into fragrant rice.

The storm of the decade passed over Israel, covering Jerusalem and the north with snow. But in the central region where I live, all we got was rain.  I’m not complaining. Although I lived in Michigan for years, I never re-adjusted to cold weather after living in tropical Rio de Janeiro.

The wind circles around outside and drives rain against my windows, but it’s cozy at home.  This is the time for pottering around the kitchen, keeping warm and trying out recipes. Right now I’m most interested in ones that call for doing new things to winter vegetables like butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

Winter food isn’t all hearty soups and stews. In this recipe, culled from Al HaShulchan magazine (Hebrew), the familiar deep yellows and oranges of the vegetables harmonize with saffron long-grain rice.  The vegetable are first slow-roasted to bring out their sweetness – a foil to the slightly bitter pungency of saffron and sharp herbs.

The rice finishes cooking covered with a kitchen towel. My kids call this “shmatta rice.” It’s an old Sephardic method of steaming it so that every grain cooks through, yet remains separate. Yes, it’s a recipe that calls for a number of steps. But they’re all easy steps, and I’ve made a plan that economizes your time, so go ahead and try this pungent, warming, spicy rice. It makes a satisfying side dish. If you add half more vegetables again, it’s an excellent vegan/vegetarian main dish.

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May 022012


Does just looking at pots and pans inspire you to cook?

It happens to me all the time.

Touring wineries with a couple of girlfriends on Passover, a sign on the road caught our attention: ceramicist’s studio. We stepped in. There were shelves full of glazed earthenware pots, casseroles, mugs, platters. How might an earnest cook react to that? Well, I’ll tell you: tempted.

I have a weakness for earthenware. But I restrained myself from buying the store out and brought home only one pot. I’d been searching something to cook beans in. This pot really made me see a delicious bean stew, savory with tomatoes and herbs and baked to perfection.

Does this phenomenon having a name? Pavlovian Pot-Food Vision Syndrome? It’s like looking at a sliced lemon and immediately thinking of…well, gin and tonic, in my case, although others might say lemonade.

Passover past, I inaugurated my new pot with kidney beans. They’re meaty (but vegan) and robust, and floury enough to absorb the flavors of olive oil and aromatics. And so good paired with cornbread, or spooned over rice. I may have PP-FVS, but I like having it.

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Aug 122011


It was once when I was asking all the vendors in the shuk what they were going to eat for Shabbat. The fish vendor, Moshe, gave me a full description.

“My wife caters to the taste of each kid and each grandchild. She makes white rice, red rice, rice with lentils, green rice…”

Red rice, Moshe said, is cooked with a little tomato paste. Kids love it. Green rice, now, I hadn’t heard of.

“What makes it green?”

Ofer turned away impatiently; a line of customers had formed while we were chatting. “Herbs…” he said, forgetting about me.

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Aug 072011


What do you consider staples? For me, grains and pulses are the most important. When I put my hand into the freezer I find rice, beans, barley, flours, wheat in different forms. One such is bulgur.  Its lightly nutty flavor goes with pretty much anything. And it’s a healthy carb.

I used this salad as stuffing for eggplant last Tu B’Shvat. Decorated with apple slices – or with some firm fig quarters – and served cold, the dish takes on a new incarnation as a summery salad. It makes a good vegetarian main dish, needing only some firm white cheese or eggs on the side.

Summer Bulgur Salad

Serves 6-8


1 cup bulgur wheat, medium grade

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups boiling water

1/3 cup chopped pecans

1/3 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup raisins

1 stalk celery, sliced fine

1/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds

2 tblsp. chives, chopped fine

1 apple, chopped into large dice

1 tblsp. runny honey

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp. cumin

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

In a large heatproof bowl, mix the bulgur and the salt well.

Pour the boiling water over the bulgur and cover the bowl. The bulgur will absorb the water and cook. Leave it alone for half an hour. While it’s cooking, measure and prepare the other ingredients.

With a fork, fluff the cooked bulgur.Put the diced apple into the bowl on top of the bulgur. Pour the lemon juice over the  apple to prevent it turning brown. Pour the honey over the apple.

Add the nuts, raisins, celery, sunflower seeds and chives and stir gently. Add the olive oil, cumin and cinnamon and mix again. Taste for seasoning.

Decorate with apple slices. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Dec 152008

majadra recipe

In every Middle Eastern country, people love the vegetarian combination of lentils and rice topped with fried onions.   Recipes vary from country to country and indeed from cook to cook, but all cooks know how tasty and satisfying majadra is. And all families ask for it. My married daughter once told me of a time when she was pregnant and fancied some majadra.

“I cooked up a big potful, then I sat down and ate the whole thing myself! I guess the baby wanted majadra.”

Some cooks keep it simple and some enjoy making it elaborate with spices and herbs. The name also varies from region to region: I’ve heard the dish called Majadra, Majadehra,  and Mujaderah. My Moroccan consuegra calls it Majadra, so I do too. To save fuel, people cook the rice and lentils together,  but I like to cook them separately and mix them later, because the final dish is more attractive.

If I want a side dish, I’ll serve it about 2/3 rice to 1/3 lentils, as in the photo above. Actually I just mix it by eye, till I judge that there are enough lentils. Leftover lentils? They freeze well.

For a substantial main dish, I use proportions of 50/50%. Traditionally majadra is served with yoghurt. To this, add a cooked vegetable or a salad, and you have a complete protein and an inexpensive, balanced meal.


serves 6


3/4 cup brown or black lentils

1  bay leaf

2  cups water

2 onions

More olive oil

Pick over and rinse the lentils. Simmer them in the water, with the bay leaf, till they are soft but not mushy. Depending on the quality of the lentils, this might take 30-40 minutes. Do not add salt. Add more water if it looks like they’re drying out, but if they finish cooking and there’s water left over, just drain them and return them to the pot.

Add salt to taste after the lentils are done. Remove the bay leaf.


1 1/2 cups rice

2 tablespoons. olive oil

3  cups water, boiling

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tsp. powdered cumin

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

More salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the rice and allow it to drain almost dry.
Heat the oil gently and add the rice, stirring to coat the grains with oil.
When the rice has become transparent, add the garlic. Stir half a minute, then add the salt and the water.
Bring to a boil, then cover the pot and lower the flame to the lowest setting. Cook the rice till all the water has evaporated and the grains are tender and separate.

While the rice is cooking, slice the onions thinly.

Pour 2 tablespoons  olive oil into a non-stick pan and caramelize the onions over the lowest possible flame, stirring once in a while. You want them very soft and golden, not brown and crisp.

When the onions are done – 10-15 minutes – add the cumin, cinnamon, and  a little  salt and pepper.

Final step: fluff the rice with a fork. Combine the cooked lentils and the rice, mixing gently with the fork so as not to mash them. Stir some of the caramelized onion in,  and top the dish with the rest of the onions.

Often-used options:

  • Occasionally I chop 1/2 cup of cilantro leaves and add them to the onions a minute before taking them off the flame.
  • I sometimes add a little powdered turmeric to the onions while they’re cooking.
  • You can also add small amounts 1/4- 1/2 tsp. –  of grated fresh ginger root and more cinnamon to the onions while they cook.
  • Majadra is even more delicious if you caramelize the onions in a butter, or drizzle a little melted butter over the dish before serving.
  • Mince a small garlic clove and mix it, with a little salt and olive oil, into 1/4 cup plain white yogurt. Spoon some of the seasoned yogurt over each serving.


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