Give Thanksgiving a Jewish Flavor


“My sister-in-law stuffs Thanksgiving turkeys with a matzah ball mixture,” says Faye Levy, food columnist and author of 14 cookbooks. “Instead of making patties and poaching them, she cooks this tasty mixture inside the turkey.”

This never struck Levy as odd, because her mother used to make noodle pudding on Thanksgiving.

“Her Thanksgiving dinners were almost like Shabbat meals,” she says.

One of Levy’s all-time favorite dishes is Thanksgiving potato kugel with asparagus. “I first tried it at the home of a friend from Colorado,” she says, explaining that it was his grandmother’s recipe.

“In his family, that dish was the essence of Thanksgiving.”

Just as Jewish cooking experienced a revolution in America when brisket discovered ketchup, and noodle kugel met Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Jews have reinvented their recipes, giving Thanksgiving fare a Jewish accent.

Levy, author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” (Wiley, 2000) has sprinkled Thanksgiving dishes throughout this enormous international compendium. Why did she feel the necessity to include American harvest fare in a Jewish cookbook?

“Because most Jews I know, whether they’re Orthodox or not, celebrate Thanksgiving,” Levy says. “If you think about it, Thanksgiving food is basically kosher. It’s turkey, plus a lot of vegetables and bread.”

Honoring the feast shared by Native Americans and English settlers in the Massachusetts colony so long ago, Jews are naturally drawn to a holiday that revolves around a meal.

While Levy grew up in home that was Ashkenazi and kosher, like other Americans her family always ate turkey and cranberries on Thanksgiving.

“We just skipped the creamed onions,” she says, referring to the Jewish dietary restriction that prohibits serving dairy with meat.

A child of the ’50s, Levy has memories of her mother’s candied sweet potatoes, dripping with brown sugar syrup and topped with melted marshmallows. Popular back then, this dish is still on the Thanksgiving menu in many American homes.

“I hated the marshmallows,” says Levy with a laugh. “They’re too cloyingly sweet, even as dessert.”

Recalling Thanksgivings past, Levy describes an aunt who used to mash sweet potatoes, form them into patties and fry them. Just before serving, she’d melt a marshmallow on top of each patty. Proud of this recipe, her aunt also bestowed it with a name: “Thanksgiving Latkes.”

Today, Levy — a graduate of the famed La Varenne Cooking School in Paris — prefers mixing sweet potatoes with savory spices.

“You can really taste the flavor of sweet potatoes through ginger and hot peppers, as opposed to mixing them with sugary foods.”

Her culinary training has taught Levy to avoid roasting really large turkeys — those over 18 pounds. She’s discovered that while you’re waiting for the inside to cook through, the outside often burns or dries out. You’re also more likely to have problems with bacteria. For large crowds, she recommends roasting two smaller turkeys weighing about 12 pounds each.

Levy says her spiced roasted turkey recipe was inspired by her husband’s Sephardi background.

“This aromatic turkey is seasoned with his Yemenite family’s favorite spice mixture — cumin, turmeric and black pepper,” she says.

This seasoning yields sensational aroma and flavor.

For extra kick, Levy serves this turkey with hot cumin sauce, which is tomato based and accented with spices. She feels that her exposure to her husband’s Sephardi palate has given her an appreciation of piquant flavor.

As a chef, Levy is drawn to the fruits of the season’s final harvest. She seeks Thanksgiving fare wherever she goes. In compiling her book “Feast from the Middle East: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes from the Lands of the Bible” (HarperCollins, 2003) she included recipes such as Iranian sweet and savory rice stuffing with cranberry toasted almonds.

When it comes to Thanksgiving food, there’s no end to the possibilities one can cull from the canons of Jewish cuisine. Surprisingly, many Jewish foods are easily adapted to complement the holiday’s traditional fare.

If you have leftover challah in the freezer, try making challah stuffing, a light but savory surprise. Levy follows her mother’s custom of creating contrast by introducing peppers, mushrooms and zucchini to slices of sweet challah.

Thanksgiving tzimmes augments the taste of turkey, no matter how it’s prepared. Instead of the usual prunes, dried cranberries lend a colorful note to this saucy combination of carrots and pineapple.

With a crunchy crumb topping, pecan streusel pears are an easy-to-make dessert that is both sensational and pareve.

These days, Levy and her husband usually celebrate Thanksgiving with friends. Even when she’s invited as a guest, she roasts a turkey to have at home. Turkeys are economical to buy in late November, and it’s fun to have one to nibble on and use as an ingredient in other recipes, such as a robust vegetable soup.

“We’re kind of casual about holidays,” Levy says. “Whenever we get together with family and friends — even on Thanksgiving — we do a lot of pot luck. This way, one person isn’t stuck cooking for a lot of people.”

Sometimes this group coordinates who will prepare which dishes; sometimes they don’t. Of course one person is always designated as the turkey roaster.

“After that, you can’t serve too many side dishes, salads, and desserts,” Levy says.

While abundance is a Thanksgiving theme, Jews were already entertaining lavishly centuries before the Pilgrims discovered Plymouth Rock.

Thanksgiving Tzimmes

4 cups canned pineapple chunks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 pounds carrots, sliced 1/2 inch thick

3-4 tablespoons honey

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

Pinch of ground cloves

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Drain pineapple and reserve 1/4 cup juice. Mix reserved juice with the

cornstarch in a cup.

Combine carrots with 2 cups water and a pinch of salt in a large saucepan.

Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat about 12 minutes, or until just tender. Remove carrots with slotted spoon.

Add honey to carrot cooking liquid and bring to a simmer, stirring.

Mix juice-cornstarch mixture to blend. Add to simmering liquid, stirring.

Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until sauce comes to a simmer and thickens.

Stir in carrots, cranberries, pineapple, ginger and cloves. Heat until bubbling.

Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Serves four.

Spiced Roasted Turkey

5 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Salt to taste, optional

One 10-12 pound fresh or thawed turkey

About 2-4 tablespoons olive oil

About 3/4 cup chicken or turkey stock or dry white wine

Preheat oven to 425 F. Remove top rack.

Mix cumin, turmeric, pepper and salt in a small bowl. Rub turkey with olive oil. Rub it inside and out with spice mixture. Truss turkey, if desired, or close it with skewers.

Put turkey on a rack in a large roasting pan. Pour 1/2 cup stock into pan.

Roast turkey 30 minutes.

Reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Roast turkey 1 1/2 hours, basting with additional olive oil or with pan juices every 30 minutes. If pan becomes dry, add 1/4 cup stock.

Cover turkey loosely with foil and continue roasting 20 to 30 minutes, or until meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 180 F, or until juices run clear when thickest part of thigh is pricked.

Transfer turkey carefully to a large board. Discard trussing strings or skewers.

Baste turkey once with pan juices and cover it. Reserve juices to add to Hot Cumin-Tomato Sauce (below).

Let turkey sit for approx. 20 minutes

Carve turkey and arrange on a platter. Serve hot, with hot cumin-tomato sauce.

Serves six-eight.

Hot Cumin-Tomato Sauce

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

l large onion, minced

4 large cloves garlic, chopped

2 or 3 jalapeno peppers, ribs and seeds removed and minced (See note at bottom)

Three 28-oz. cans tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2-1 cup pan juices from turkey (optional)

2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)

Salt to taste

Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat about 7 minutes, or until beginning to brown. Add garlic and jalapeno peppers and sauté 30 seconds.

Add tomatoes, tomato paste and turkey pan juices. Bring to a boil, stirring.

Add cumin, turmeric, black pepper, pepper flakes, and salt. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat 20 minutes, or until thickened to taste. Season with salt and pepper.

Note: Wear rubber gloves when handling hot peppers. If not using gloves, wash hands well after touching hot peppers.

Challah Stuffing

12 slices stale challah

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 red or green bell peppers, chopped

8 ounces mushrooms, chopped

4 medium carrots, coarsely grated

4 medium zucchini, coarsely grated

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 large eggs, beaten

Soak challah in water. Squeeze out water. Mash challah in a bowl.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add onion, pepper and mushrooms and sauté. Stir occasionally for about 7 minutes, or until onion begins to turn golden.

Add vegetable mixture to bowl of challah and mix well. Add carrots, zucchini, salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings. Add egg and mix well. Cool completely before spooning into turkey.

Note: For safety reasons, if cooking stuffing in turkey it’s important to make sure stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165 F by testing the center of the stuffing with thermometer.

To bake stuffing separately, preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Spoon stuffing into dish. Drizzle with remaining oil. Bake about 30 minutes, or until firm.

Serves about eight, 8-10 cups.

Pecan Struesel Pears

2 pounds pears

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 cup light brown sugar, divided

1 tablespoon strained fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons margarine, chilled and cut into bits

1/4 cup chopped pecans

1/2 cup rolled or quick-cooking oatmeal (not instant) — uncooked

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Peel and slice pears. Put them in a bowl. Mix cornstarch and 1/4 cup of the brown sugar in a small bowl. Add to pears. Add lemon juice and toss to combine.

Grease a shallow, square 9-inch baking dish. Spoon mixture inside.

Mix remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar with flour in a small bowl. With two knives, cut margarine into mixture until coarse crumbs form. Add pecans and oats. Stir lightly with a fork. Sprinkle mixture evenly over fruit.

Bake about 30 minutes, or until topping is golden and pears are tender. Serve warm or cool in bowls.

Serves six.

Recipes from “1,000 Jewish Recipes,” by Faye Levy.


Your Letters

Palestinian Statehood

It is hard to believe that thoughtful people in the Jewish community can still oppose a Palestinian state and think that moral, political and economic catastrophe can be avoided while Israel continues to occupy 1.5 million people (“The Dangers of a Palestinian State,” Nov. 23).

Avi Davis conjures up stale arguments that a Palestinian state would take over Jordan and then join with Iraq, Syria and Iran in attacking Israel. Jordan alone — and certainly neighbor states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia — would never allow this. Moreover, Palestinian terrorism against Israel would become acts of war subject to clear Israeli retaliation.

A future Palestinian state cannot begin without a new relationship between Israel and a Palestinian people responsible for their own society and government.

David Perel, Los Angeles

Avi Davis criticizes the Bush administration for recognizing a future Palestinian state, but completely ignores the fact that it has been anticipated by all concerned parties since the Oslo accords.

Whether we like it or not, a Palestinian state (just as the Palestinian Authority before it) will be as corrupt and undemocratic as any of the other nations in Middle East, and Israel will remain on the defensive until either the majority of Middle Eastern states become democratic or become convinced that trade with Israel furthers their interests.

Robert Hirschman,Encino

Rob Eshman puts the cart before the horse, just as many commentators do (“The P Word,” Nov. 16). The issue is not whether the Jewish community or Israel should support the creation of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state will follow when Palestinian Arabs and their Arab brethren accept the Jewish community as its equals.

Alan Wallace, Sherman Oaks

Harry Potter

Since Rabbi Toba August has equated “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” — a story and movie whose research and incantations are based on the Wiccan religion — to Jewish values taught in Pirkei Avot, I anxiously await the rabbi’s upcoming articles on the comparison of Jesus’ inspiring Sermon on the Mount to the sayings of our Talmudic literature. Such befitting topics for The Jewish Journal to discuss on the Kids page.

Joseph Schames,Los Angeles

Kosher Thanksgiving

Thank you, Rabbi Eli Hecht, for describing the Orthodox dilemma with non-Jewish holidays, like Thanksgiving (“A Kosher Holiday,” Nov. 23). I would bet that few Jews realize that many, if not most, Charedi Jews don’t celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and Independence Day. Most of the frum day schools are even open for Jewish studies on those days.

Saul Newman,Los Angeles

Salam al-Marayati

Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (Letters, Nov. 2) defends Salam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Sokatch says that al-Marayati has “apologized” for saying Israel should be the prime suspect in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, “and publicly reiterated that apology in no less a forum than The New York Times.”

Yet the Sept. 28 issue of The Jewish Journal reports that al-Marayati “told the Los Angeles Times that the quotation [al-Marayati’s accusation against Israel] was accurate but taken out of context, and he sent a ‘clarification’ to Jewish leaders.” That’s not what I call an apology.

I turned to The New York Times, which reported on the episode Oct. 22. The Times reported that “al-Marayati later said that the remark ‘gave regrettable and unintended offense to Jewish Americans.'” That’s not an apology, either.

Apology or no apology, Sokatch has failed to mention al-Marayati’s very long record of making extremist statements.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, President Zionist Organization of America, Greater Los Angeles District

Needful Things

In a country as diverse as ours, Thanksgiving is the secular Genesis. It is our common creation myth whose themes of sacrifice, freedom and gratitude resonate among us all.

Thanksgiving even manages to unite the disparate members of the Jewish tribe. Orthodox or secular, eating soy Tofurkey or kosher birds, we almost all mark the most spiritual of our American holidays. (By the way, Cooks Illustrated held a blind tasting for the best turkey and the winner was … Empire Kosher).

The historical Thanksgiving is — thankfully — far less controversial than the debate over the Bible’s historicity. We have some record of that festive first meal. We know they ate venison and cod — credit the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims with inventing the Surf ‘n Turf platter — and we have list after list of the items the English Separatists used in their daily lives on the shores of Eel Creek. They called these inventories "A Few Things Needful."

This is an especially tough Thanksgiving. Most of us are still in shock from Sept. 11, waiting for the other shoe, or plane, or spore, to drop.

It’s easy to forget that even in the best of times, there are 31,300 Jewish households in the Greater Los Angeles area that live in poverty. This year, as a recession looms, that means about 50,000 Jews are entering the economic bust never having enjoyed the boom.

Recession reaches up from below the poverty line to grab the middle class. Employees at hi-tech and Internet companies, in the travel industry, in retail and restaurant sales, are also facing job loss. As we report in this issue, so too are perhaps dozens of employees at Jewish organizations throughout the county. These are men and women who chose a career in service to their community, but whose community can no longer sustain their careers.

Fortunately, we are remark-ably well-equipped to help those in need. Generations of Los Angeles Jews have contributed their time and money to developing a web of social services that are the envy of other minority groups here. There are defense organizations like the ADL, AJC and the Wiesenthal Center, which serve as watchdogs against hate at a time when people are most likely to look for scapegoats. There are service organizations like Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service and Jewish Free Loan, which are on the front lines, serving the impoverished as well as the newly stricken. There are synagogues where people seek comfort; treatment centers like Bet Teshuva and Chabad, service centers like Vista Del Mar Children and Family Services and Aviva Center, legal services like Bet Tzedek, hospitals like Cedars Sinai and City of Hope, hunger relief groups like SOVA and MAZON. Many of these serve the larger, non-Jewish community, and many get funding from public sources as well, but all have deep roots, both through service and philanthropy, in this community. They and many like them will be greatly pressed.

But donations to these groups are often among the first casualties of hard times. One organization is seeking lines of credit to meet its payroll. Elsewhere, at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, whose 18 local and international beneficiary agencies include JVS, JFC, the struggling Jewish Community Centers, the annual campaign is down $5 million dollars from last year.

The easiest way for us to make sure the people who need help in this community and abroad get it is, of course, to write checks. Despite these hard times, there is untapped generosity in this town. Witness a Friday evening service last August at Sinai Temple. Rabbi David Wolpe rose and made an impassioned appeal on behalf of the Israeli victims of terror. Within minutes — minutes — congregants pledged more than $175,000 to buy two ambulances for Magen David Adom.

Wolpe explained the need; his congregants did the rest. (They’ve since raised an additional $75,000.) It is not always so simple, but it needn’t be that much more complicated. Jewish organizations need to very clearly make their case for donations by explaining how their dollars are going to help those in need. They need to explain their priorities clearly — even when those priorities involve painful layoffs — and make certain they keep operating costs as low as possible.

These are sound guidelines for organizations even in good times, even more so now. The threat of recession brings us face to face with those few needful things that many of us take for granted: jobs, shelter, food, medical care. Those of us a bit more fortunate should not just be giving more thanks, but more money too.