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Hamantaschen—the three-cornered cookies with luscious fillings of jam, fruit, and nuts—may be the taste of Purim for most American Jews. But it’s the earthier holiday fare I’ll crave when Purim begins this year at sunset on Saturday, March 19th.
I was seduced long ago by a line I read in the Purim narrative about Queen Esther, the Jewish wife of Ahasuerus, ancient king of Persia: because she would not eat the unkosher meat served at the palace, Esther lived on grains and legumes, nuts and seeds, which were said to keep her beautiful.
Yes, like all storied heroines, Esther was gorgeous, and like all little girls, I wanted to look as I imagined she did when I dressed up for Purim carnivals and parties. So along with piling on my mother’s makeup and layers of sherbet-colored chiffon scarves, there was that magic diet to make me lovely too: some chickpeas, lentils, perhaps kasha, nuts, and seeds.
Later I learned that the historical foundations of Purim as recounted in the Book of Esther have never been fully substantiated; the story itself is rife with inconsistencies. The king ruled an empire stretching from India to Ethiopia. His proud chief vizier, Haman, grew incensed one day when Mordecai, a Jewish courtier, refused to bow down to him. In revenge, he determined to have all the Jews in the empire annihilated. Convincing the rather wimpish king was an easy matter--Haman told him the Jews were subversive and backed up his argument with a bribe of silver talents--and the date of the genocide was set. But two startling events made the king change his mind. He found out that Esther, his beautiful queen, was actually a Jew (and none other than Mordecai’s adoptive daughter) when she pleaded with him to save the lives of her people. And he suddenly discovered, in the middle of an insomniac night, that he had never rewarded Mordecai for saving his life by foiling an assassination plot some time ago. So Ahasuerus ordered Haman to be hanged instead and the Jews were saved. Mordecai and Esther declared that the next day should be celebrated evermore with feasting and merrymaking.
Quite a tale indeed. But to paraphrase Voltaire, if Purim did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Parallels to its central theme of genocide have been replayed throughout the Diaspora, culminating in the unspeakable: twentieth century Germany replacing ancient Persia, a thwarted Haman recast as the demonically successful Hitler. Two thousand years later, the need for Purim became even more important.
Besides, after all these years, one truth emerges from the Purim story that is supported by modern science: a diet based on legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds will keep you looking your best. While Esther’s high-fiber foods won’t make you thin by speeding up your metabolism, they do make you feel sated and therefore less likely to overeat. The diet is packed with nutrients that promote beautiful, youthful-looking skin and hair.
And the hamantaschen? I add some of Esther’s poppy seeds to the cookie dough: not only extra-healthy, but extra-buttery and nutty-tasting as well.
All recipes are from Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations by Jayne Cohen (Wiley 2008).
Deconstructed Kasha Varnishkes (Kasha and Orzo with Grilled Portobello Mushrooms)
This deconstructed kasha varnishkes features sliced portobellos, marinated and grilled to enhance their resemblance to meat. Instead of noodles, the pasta is orzo, cooked in broth so it is flavorful and very moist when combined with the dry, fluffy kasha. The meat will never be missed if you serve this at a vegetarian or dairy meal, substituting vegetable stock for the chicken broth.
Yield: 6 servings
6 large portobello mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves (to make the mushrooms even more meat-like; optional)
1 cup orzo
4 cups rich chicken broth or vegetable stock
1 large egg
1 cup kasha, preferably coarse-grind
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups chopped onion (3/4 pound)
Olive Oil Schmaltz (I make a vegetarian version using olive oil and onions), Poultry Schmaltz (rendered chicken or duck fat), butter, or margarine, if needed
Optional garnish: 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Clean the mushroom caps and stems with a damp paper towel. Carefully cut the stems off flush with the caps. Trim off the woody bottom section of the stems and discard. Chop the stems coarsely and set aside. In a large resealable plastic bag, combine 2 teaspoons of the garlic, 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce, the lemon juice, 2 teaspoons of the oil, and the rosemary, if using. Add the mushroom caps, press out the air, and seal the bag. Let the caps marinate at room temperature, turning the bag over occasionally, until you are ready to broil them.
Soak the orzo in a bowl of fresh cold water for about 5 minutes to remove some of the starch. Empty into a strainer, rinse, and drain. Bring 2 cups of the broth to a boil, stir in the orzo, and cook, covered, over low heat for 15 minutes until the orzo is tender and all the liquid is absorbed. Keep warm and covered until ready to combine ingredients.
Preheat the broiler.
In a medium bowl, beat the egg with a fork. Stir in the kasha and mix until each grain is thoroughly coated. Heat the remaining 2 cups broth to simmering. In a heavy lidded skillet with high sides or a wide heavy saucepan, toast the kasha over medium heat, turning and breaking up the kasha constantly until the egg begins to dry and the grains separate, about 3 minutes. Add the hot broth and salt and pepper to taste, cover, and simmer over very low heat until tender and all the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Keep covered and warm.
In a 10-inch heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions, stirring, until they are deep golden brown. Season well with salt and pepper. Transfer the onions to a large bowl. In the same skillet, sauté the reserved chopped mushroom stems and remaining 1 teaspoon garlic in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over high heat. Cook until the mushroom edges are tinged with bronze. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes to marry the ingredients. Transfer to the bowl, keeping it covered and warm.
Arrange the mushroom caps on a foil-lined broiler rack, and broil them, gill side down, about 4 inches from the heat, for about 5 minutes. Turn, baste with any juices (or spilled bits of garlic), and broil for 5 to 6 minutes, or until tender and cooked through. Transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board.
Add the cooked orzo and kasha to the onions and mushroom stems. Combine the ingredients well and season with salt and pepper, if needed. If dry, add a little schmaltz, butter, or margarine.
To serve, spoon some of the kasha-orzo mixture onto each plate. Slice the mushrooms on an angle and season to taste. Arrange the mushroom slices decoratively over the kasha mixture and nap with any accumulated mushroom juices. If desired, sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Moroccan Fish with Chickpeas and Saffron-Lime Aioli
When I first tried this dish, I loved the classic Moroccan flavors, but somehow it seemed as if I were tasting each one separately: chickpeas, fish, and heady spices, disparate notes that didn’t quite harmonize for me. Then I whipped up a batch of Cheater’s Aioli--jarred mayonnaise flavored with saffron and lime--folded it into the pan juices, and a lovely melody was born.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
3 cups freshly cooked chickpeas (reserve about 1/2 cup of cooking liquid) or two 15- ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
8 large garlic cloves, sliced
1 to 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes or 4 to 6 dried red chile peppers, or to taste
4 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds fish fillets, 1 inch thick (bass, snapper, cod, haddock, or other firm-fleshed white fish)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and freshly ground
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon grated lime or lemon zest
Optional garnish: cilantro sprigs
for the Saffron-Lime Aioli
Saffron threads, pinch
1/2 cup mayonnaise, good-quality jarred such as Hellmann’s, or even better, homemade
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon best-quality extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely minced
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and freshly ground
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Liquid from baking the fish (optional)
You can prepare the whole dish in one pan: a deep wide 12-inch ovenproof saute pan or cast-iron skillet. Combine the chickpeas, reserved cooking liquid if using freshly cooked or 1/2 cup water if using canned, garlic, pepper flakes or hot peppers, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the coriander, and salt and pepper to taste. (Alternatively, if you don’t have a similar pan, combine the ingredients in a regular skillet or saucepan--you may need a little more liquid). Simmer the chickpeas over low heat, covered, for 30 minutes, to marry the flavors.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
While the chickpeas are cooking, prepare the Saffron-Lime Aioli: Crush a pinch of saffron threads into a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon hot water, stir, then let the saffron soak for about 10 minutes. Press the threads with the back of a spoon to release more color and flavor. Stir in the mayonnaise, lime juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin, and salt and pepper to taste. Let the flavors unfold while you make the fish.
Pick out and discard the hot peppers, if used, from the chickpeas. Scoop out about half the chickpeas from the skillet and set them aside in a bowl. Arrange the remaining chickpeas evenly in the pan (or if you used a small pan, arrange half of the chickpeas in a baking pan just large enough to accommodate the fish), and place the fish over the chickpeas in the pan. Sprinkle the fish with lemon or lime juice, cumin, and salt and pepper to taste. Top with 2 tablespoons of the chopped cilantro. Spoon the remaining chickpeas over the fish. Drizzle everything with 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Cover the pan (or use heavy-duty foil), and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through; the exact time will depend on the variety and thickness of the fish. To test the fish for doneness, insert a thin-bladed knife in the thickest part. The fish should be opaque or show a slight bit of translucence, according to your preference.
Check the aioli for seasoning. If desired, thin it out with a tablespoon or so of the cooking liquid from the fish.
Scatter the remaining 2 tablespoons of cilantro, the lime or lemon zest, and, if you’d like, some more hot pepper flakes over the fish. I like to stir some of the aioli into the chickpeas and pan liquid, dollop a little atop the fish, and pass the rest separately in a sauce boat. But if you prefer, serve all the aioli on the side. Garnish the platter with cilantro sprigs.
Poppy Seed Hamantaschen with Raisin-Walnut Filling
I’ve taken the poppy seeds from the traditional hamantaschen filling and added them instead to the tender crust. The result, which reminds me of my grandmother’s delicate mohn kichel (poppy seed butter cookies), makes a melt-in-the-mouth cushion for the rich, moist, raisin-walnut filling, my daughter’s favorite.
Yield: about 48 Hamantaschen
for the Pastry
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut in pieces, plus additional for greasing the pan
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
3 tablespoons apple or fresh orange juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons poppy seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Raisin-Walnut Filling (see below)
Prepare the pastry: in a food processor, blend the butter with the sugar. Add the egg, juice, and vanilla and pulse until smooth. Stir together the flour, poppy seeds, baking powder, and salt, then add to the food processor. Pulse until the ingredients are combined and form a ball around the blades.
Or make the dough using an electric mixer: in a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until it is light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, then the juice and vanilla. Combine the remaining ingredients and mix in. Transfer to a lightly floured board and knead the mixture until all the flour is well incorporated and the dough is smooth.
Divide the dough into 4 balls and wrap each well with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days. (The dough may also be frozen, wrapped airtight, for up to 1 month.)
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Work with one ball of dough at a time, leaving the rest wrapped and refrigerated. (If you have frozen the dough, let it thaw until it is workable.) Divide the ball into 12 pieces of equal size; when rolled between your palms into balls, they should be slightly larger than walnuts. Flatten the balls between sheets of plastic wrap with the palm of your hand, and pat them into even rounds about 3 inches in diameter. I find this way there is less waste, the dough won’t become tough from overhandling, and it is easy for those who lack experience or skill in handling dough. Pastry mavens may prefer to roll out the dough between sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper to about 1/8-inch thickness, then cut out rounds approximately 3 inches in diameter, using a cookie cutter or the rim of a glass. Reroll the scraps and cut them out.
I’ve found that hamantaschen edges sometimes open slightly during baking if not very firmly sealed. But warm fingertips pinching the buttery dough can make it too soft to work with or result in overhandling the dough. Keeping the dough well chilled until you are ready to use it does help, but working with such small pastry rounds also means the dough will warm up rather quickly. Here’s the solution: Place a pastry round on a piece of plastic wrap. Spoon a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center. Working with your fingers under the plastic wrap so they don’t touch the dough directly, fold up one side of the pastry, making a little rim along the filling. Then fold the two adjacent sides up and together, forming a triangle. Pinch and smooth the edges through the plastic wrap until the seams are just about invisible. The plastic wrap keeps the dough moist and pliable. You should have a little triangle of pastry, the filling exposed in the center, like a tiny, open tart. Pinch the edges together tightly at all three corners so there are no gaps for the filling to seep out.
Place the finished hamantaschen about 1 inch apart on lightly greased cookie sheets. (For easy clean up, you may want to line the sheets with parchment or greased foil to catch spills.) Continue making hamantaschen until you have used up all the dough and filling. Keep the unbaked hamantaschen in the refrigerator until you are ready to put them into the oven.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until pale golden. Cool on the baking sheets for about 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely (wait until they have cooled before removing them or they might crumble). Or if you don’t need the baking sheets for another batch, cool them on the sheets set on racks.
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
2 cups dark raisins (about 12 ounces)
2/3 cup apple or fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
Combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a food processor and pulse briefly to blend. Add the raisins. Pour in the juice through the feed tube, while pulsing just long enough to chop the raisins coarsely, 10 to 15 seconds.
Scrape the mixture into a heavy, nonreactive, 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring to prevent burning, then lower the heat, and simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 8 minutes, until the mixture has thickened and almost no liquid is visible. Stir in the lemon juice and cook for 2 to 3 more minutes to blend the flavors. Remove from the heat, transfer to a medium bowl, and let cool to room temperature. Stir in the walnuts and refrigerate, covered, until cold.
Fill, shape, and bake the hamantaschen, following the directions in the Hamantaschen pastry recipe.