October 20, 2018

A Purim feast, Persian-style

Purim is the holiday that celebrates the liberation of the Persian Jewish community long, long ago. It is a happy time when families rejoice with eating, drinking, costume parties and singing in a carnival-type atmosphere.

The Purim story transpired in the ancient Persian Empire, with King Ahasuerus at the helm. It was a time when Queen Esther intervened to protect the Jewish people from the wicked prime minister, Haman, who encouraged the king to do away with them.

To remember the holiday, we traditionally invite our family to a dinner inspired by the elaborate banquets that were historically served in biblical days. A long table in our dining room is set, and our antique collection of Purim noisemakers (groggers) is arranged at each place setting for everyone to use during the retelling of the Purim story.

The menu follows the theme that many Persian homes observe: savory pastries filled with meat, whole chickens stuffed with dried fruit and nuts, and a variety of stew dishes. My favorite is a Lamb Stew, baked on a bed of onions and flavored with several exotic spices that include cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.

The dessert at the end of our meal was inspired by an Iranian-American friend. She recently explained that during the holiday, the children in her family always look forward to halvah, their favorite sweet. I have included a variety of halvah desserts that are delicious, and can be made several days in advance. Before you start making noise with your grogger, how about making your own chocolate-covered halvah and surprising the kids with soft and chewy halvah cookies?

PERSIAN CHICKEN WITH DRIED FRUIT AND ALMOND STUFFING

This chicken is different from any I have ever tasted. The special flavor comes from the sweet, tart taste of the dried fruit, combined with the crunchy almonds. Stuff the chicken, and don’t worry about leftovers — it tastes just as good cold.

  • 1 whole chicken, about 4 to 5 pounds
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted margarine
  • 2 onions, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped dried apricots
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped prunes
  • 1/2 cup whole toasted almonds
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Wash and dry the chicken. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the margarine over medium heat and sauté the onions until transparent, about 5 minutes.

Sprinkle half of the onions onto a foil-lined, large, shallow roasting pan and set it aside. To the onions in the skillet, add the apricots, prunes, almonds, raisins, cinnamon, tarragon, thyme and salt and pepper. Sauté for 5 to 10 minutes, mixing well to blend all ingredients. Let cool.

Stuff the chicken with the onion mixture and then truss. Place the chicken breast-side down on the onions in the broiler pan. If any additional stuffing is left over, sprinkle it around the chicken. Rub the chicken with the remaining margarine. Roast for 30 minutes, until the skin is a light golden brown. Turn over the chicken and continue roasting for 30 minutes more or until well-browned and crisp. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

LAMB STEW

  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 pounds onions, thinly sliced
  • 3 pounds lamb shoulder, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup pitted prunes
  • 1/2 cup toasted almonds
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

 

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Heat oil in a skillet, add onions and sauté. Place half of the onions in a roasting pan (roaster). Place meat on top. In a bowl, combine sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg turmeric and salt. Sprinkle over the meat. Add raisins and prunes. Top with remaining onions.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake 2 to 2 1/2 hours longer. Add toasted almonds during the last 15 minutes of cooking. Transfer to serving platter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

CHOCOLATE-COVERED HALVAH

Like many other exotic foods, halvah is easy to prepare, once you know the secret, and it has lots of wholesome and nutritious ingredients.

  • 1/2 cup tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened grated coconut
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ
  • 1/2 cup unsalted sunflower seeds
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 pound semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces

 

In the bowl of an electric mixer, stir together the tahini and honey.

In a food processor, combine the coconut, wheat germ and sunflower seeds, then process until finely chopped.

Add coconut mixture along with the cocoa and cinnamon into the tahini mixture and blend well until firm. With wet hands, shape the mixture into 1-inch balls.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler over gently simmering water or in a microwave. With your hands, dip each halvah ball into the chocolate and place it on waxed paper. Refrigerate until the chocolate is set.

Makes 20 to 25 1-inch balls.

PERSIAN HALVAH

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate

 

In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt both sugars, honey and water until the liquid reaches a bubbling simmer, about 2 minutes (reaching the consistency of maple syrup). Stir occasionally to avoid burning.

Place tahini and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer and carefully pour in honey-sugar syrup. Beat until the mixture is well-blended and comes away from the bowl.

Transfer dough to an 8-inch loaf pan that has been well-coated with oil. Press down on the dough to fill the shape of the pan. Refrigerate uncovered to cool and harden, about 1 hour. Turn over loaf pan and flip halvah onto a plate.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler over gently simmering water or in a microwave, and while still warm, pour over the top of the halvah, spreading with a knife or spatula to cover the top and all four sides. Place in the freezer and let harden, about 1 hour.

To serve, slice into 1/8- to 1/4-inch pieces and arrange on a serving plate. To store, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Makes about 2 dozen pieces.

HALVAH COOKIES

  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup unsalted margarine, softened
  • 1/4 pound store-bought halvah
  • 3 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup chocolate chips (optional)

 

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a large bowl, blend the eggs and softened margarine. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, blend the halvah and tahini. Add the sugars, baking soda, baking powder and flour and mix until it becomes a workable dough. Add additional flour if needed. Mix in chocolate chips (optional).

Drop spoon-sized balls of dough onto a greased baking sheet or Silpat baking mat, 2 inches apart. Bake in preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes.

Makes about 5 to 6 dozen cookies.

Judy Zeidler is a food consultant, cooking teacher and author of “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her website is judyzeidler.com.