Feb 162014

carrot cake cream cheese frosting

I’m ready to admit it. Carrot cake is really homely-looking.

But looks aren’t everything.

Flavor counts. So does nostalgia. When I asked Husband which cake he’d like for his birthday,  his eyes went soft and he sighed, “Carrot cake.”There seemed to be a heavy element of childhood memories in that sigh.

I said, “With cream cheese frosting?” And Husband gave me a brilliant smile. Yes.

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Mar 242013

image spicy moroccan fish balls

I kind of want to call this Sephardic gefilte fish.

Looking for a Passover  fish recipe and a little bored with my usual ones, I was glad to find this  in last December’s Al HaShulchan magazine. I modified it to include somewhat less chili.  The tender, juicy morsels are cooked in a soupy sauce, sort of like gefilte fish, but Eastern Europe never knew the olive oil, garlic and chili that give this dish its huge flavor kick. Not to mention plenty of cilantro – you’ll need a bunch and a half.

And it’s entirely kosher for Passover. The Little One liked it so much, she asked me to cook it for the Seder. Happy to oblige, darlin’ daughter.

In the meantime, let me wish you a happy and a kosher Passover, reader. This year in Jerusalem!

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Mar 092013

image eggplant stuffed with lamb

Succulent lamb on a bed of tender eggplant, generously spiced and sprinkled with pine nuts.

I served this aromatic, meaty dish with white rice on the side, just something rather plain, so as not to clash with the big, Middle Eastern flavors. With a leafy salad of mixed greens, we had a feast. And I’m thinking it would work really well on Passover week, when guests come from out of town and I’ll want to make something special.

It is a dish apart. I felt lucky to have discovered it in a new cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s  Jerusalem, A Cookbook. I hadn’t tried any of the recipes yet, just flipped through the pages, admiring the gorgeous photographs.

Then I remembered. In the fridge was lurking this enormous eggplant.

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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.

Dec 022012

pureed spinach soup with croutons

Ah, it’s good to be back.

It’s time for a confession. This past month, I’ve hardly been cooking or thinking of food. Surgery does that to you – mixes your systems. My ever-reliable appetite failed, and my kitchen didn’t look friendly anymore. I’d go to bed thinking, When am I going to love food again? And why did I ever love it so much?

Then, sometime last week, I opened the cabinet where I store my baking pans and clay pots. Hm, there was my bean pot. It looked round-bellied and cheerful and somehow inviting. It’s been a while since I’ve made black beans, I thought.

So I made some.  And then I made rice, the way my Mom taught me, with olive oil and plenty of garlic. Fried myself an egg. And tucked in. Food tasted good again, flavors amazingly sharp and satisfying.

Then I ran off to the shuk, because I couldn’t wait to fill the kitchen up with vegetables.  With recovered mobility and pain gone, my zest for food and cooking has returned. Proof of that is the spinach soup below.

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Nov 102012

israeli chicken shnitzel

Israeli TLC is like no other. It’s a glimpse into the warm Israeli heart – the same bossy Israeli heart that overrides all opinions, doesn’t know what “polite” is, and drives Western immigrants nuts with culture shock.

Where else would you find Breslaver chassidim playing encouraging songs for a patient outside a major hospital? But there they were, guitars, harmonica and voices uplifted, when I went for a checkup last week at Tel HaShomer.

breslev hassidim playing music

Back home, I took my first short walk after surgery, leaning on a stick. As I hobbled around the front of the building, one of my  neighbors emerged from the lobby and came up to me, looking shocked.

“Whatever happened to you?”

I tried to wave her concern away. “Knee surgery, not considered a big deal these days. The worst is over already.”

“But how are you managing with the shopping, the cooking? Who’s making Shabbat?”

My husband and teenager have been managing the house, with The Little One cooking. She got lots of hands-on practice while I sat in the kitchen directing, sometimes taking the bowl or chopping block on my lap to show her how. She would show me the dish in progress and ask, “Is it supposed to look like this now?”

And that’s how we’ve been eating. Although I admit, we did send out for pizza once.

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Oct 112012


Bialys were a specialty of Jewish bakeries in Bialystock, Poland, before WWII. I imagine that they came about the same way that pizza did in Italy. Excess bread dough was pressed into a convenient shape for eating out of hand and topped with the Ashkenazi favorite fruit, onions.

Jews immigrating to the States and settling in New York brought the flat rolls to America. Their bakeries sold bialys, pletzels, and goods that immigrants nostalgic for the pungent tastes of the old country craved. For while bialys are often eaten at breakfast, they are pungent indeed, with onions, sometimes garlic, and plenty of pepper.

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Oct 092012


Summer is loosening its grip here in central Israel, although we’re still walking around in short sleeves and sandals. But it’s a kindlier sun than the scorching tyrant that dried everyone out earlier in the year, and it gives way early to cool nights. My thoughts turn to new baking projects, as they always do at this time of year.

Now that I’m counting up all the ways that early October feels different, I remember my latest walk through the shuk. Vegetables that earlier shrank and got buggy seem relieved by the slightly cooler weather. Celery stalks are getting fat and juicy again. Broccoli and cauliflower heads, which weren’t worth a glance a little while ago, are clean, full and firm. And the mellow colors of squashes on display speak to me of dinners based on baked and roasted vegetables, glasses of red wine traded for summer’s Chardonnays, and full-flavored hard cheeses.


While I love the butternut squash stuffed with quinoa, I had a longing for butternut squash paired with a tangy hard cheese. This recipe satisfied that longing perfectly. The sweetness of the butternut combines deliciously with herbs, and while its baking, a thin, savory, cheese crust forms over all of it. Just right.

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Sep 112012


The autumn holiday are fast approaching, and the Wise Housewife has her Rosh HaShanah menus all planned out.

But I’m not always very wise. I’m still leafing through cookbooks, jotting down notes and making shopping lists. As usual, I think, How can you put away 4 or 5 meat meals over two days? Especially when Rosh HaShanah closely follows Shabbat.

And as always, the solution is at least one dairy or fish meal over the holiday, usually at dinner of the second night. What we like is fish, like the luscious Moroocan Shabbat fish,  followed by a light dairy dessert, like malabi or traditional Spanish flan.

When I was lingering in front of the fishmonger’s shop in the shuk this week, some handsome grey mullets caught my eye. The next stand over had juicy-looking tomatoes, and the one after that, fresh green herbs temptingly displayed in tight bunches. It came together with saffron in my mind. So here’s what I cooked. It’ll make a great alternative Rosh HaShanah meal.

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