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A unifying flavor of a diverse people

01/09/2012

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Each year I eagerly anticipate the proclamation of the New Year’s eating trends. This is a big deal for me as I always like to be up on what is going on in the culinary world. And just like anyone looking to purchase new clothing waits to see what the new “black” is this year, I, as a chef, am looking for direction.

I am proud to say that for many years I was already au courrant and perfectly in step. There were also a lot of years where I was “been there, done that” and that is never a good place to be because most people cannot remember what they ate yesterday much less a year ago.

This year’s trends are not very surprising given the economy. It seems as though we will be eating at home more often and craving old fashioned dishes. Dust off your Jello molds folks.

The trend that stuck out the most was the emphasis on ethnic food replacing gourmet food. At first I was thrilled. I love ethnic food and am quite accomplished at many different ethnic cuisines. I can make several different killer moles, tacos and flans. Mexican food— check. I am classically trained in French food and can whip up old school and modern French dishes with flair. French food— check. I am skilled at Asian sauces and can stir-fry and make noodles and dumplings dishes with the best. Asian food— check. The list can go on and on until I get to Jewish food. Then I am stumped. I cannot even name a dish that is quintessentially Jewish.

Ethnic food speaks of local flavor, produce and terrain (European dishes tend to be longer cooking due to heavy amounts of trees and firewood than dishes from less heavily wooded countries where the food is cooked quickly). But, since Jews are spread out all over the world, our food is as diverse as the flavors of hummus at Whole Foods. What is Black Bean Hummus anyway?

While diversity is a good thing in most situations, I would like us to have a cuisine, something we can point to and claim as our own. Often, when discussing what is for dinner, the question goes like this: well, do you want Italian or Mexican? With each option, a flavor and dish comes to mind. No one asks: do you want sushi or Jewish? We have one language that we pray in, but why don’t we have a dish that is ours?

I know we have Kashrut and trust me; it governs my days, home, work and thoughts. I get Kashrut and it makes sense to me, but it is not a dish. It is the rules of the road to make a dish, but it is not a flavor. I also know that we have our share of long cooking Sabbath dishes. From cholent to hamim, we have our specialty meal eaten on one day of the week. But I do not really see this as an ethnic food. Not like a taco or ravioli is.

If you are worried that this would get boring, having only one dish, I think that the variations and other dishes that came from that one would eventually amount to an entire menu of Jewdishes. All we need is one dish to get the ball rolling.

I am going to take a first shot at it. I have ideas:

1. Let’s be honest. Jews like meat. Any dish would have to include meat. I know many vegetarians and love them all dearly, but they are in a vast minority of meat eaters. Sorry!

2. I am voting for meatballs in the dish. Everyone likes meatballs. Meatballs also have a retro feel and old fashioned dishes are in this year as well. Not only are we getting a dish— we are even trendy!

3. I am also voting for turkey as the protein. Beef is not green and the modern, health and planet conscientious Jew would vote for turkey over red meat.

4. To be inclusive of the Sephardic community (Ashkenazim got meatballs) I am adding saffron and some spices in deference to the Jews from sunnier climes.

5. I am adding chick peas as a nod to the Middle East.

6. After careful consideration, I wrote the recipe below. I wrote some ingredients as a “pinch” figuring that everyone could decide how much that is for themselves. I know there are a lot of ingredients, but there are a lot of Jews from a lot of places and this has to reflect all of us. I hope you enjoy this Jewdish.

For the meatballs

1 pound ground turkey
½ cup fresh soft bread crumbs, I use leftover challah and whirr it up in my food processor
3 tablespoons cold water
1 whole egg, whisked
¼ cup chopped fresh mint + additional for garnish
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley + additional for garnish
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro + additional for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons chopped fresh savory or fresh oregano
¼ cup chopped scallions
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly cracked Pepper

1. Mix all of the ingredients for the meatballs together in a mixing bowl. Form into meatballs.

2. Heat a large sauté pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium heat. Brown the meatballs in batches. Transfer the meatballs to a Dutch oven or casserole.

For the braising liquid

1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, sliced
3 medium carrots, sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup cooked chick peas
1 32-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes and their juices
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup chicken stock
3 teaspoons freshly ground coriander
1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
2 teaspoons freshly ground cinnamon
Pinch freshly ground cardamom
Pinch crushed red chilies
Pinch saffron threads
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

Preheat oven to 325

1. Add all of the ingredients for the braising liquid to the Dutch oven or casserole with the meatballs. Bake, uncovered for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the meatballs are cooked through and the vegetables are tender.

Serve with Israeli couscous— of course.

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