Oxnard Kosher Dining Is a Sur Thing


“Kosher gourmet” sounds like an oxymoron. And “Oxnard kosher” sounds like the nocturnal ravings of some deluded diner.

Well, get used to it. Gourmet kosher dining has arrived in the Southern California farming community of Oxnard. Paris, London, New York maybe. But Oxnard? Home of big-box grocery chains, Mexican cantinas and strawberry fields forever.

Oxnard’s population is more than 70 percent Latino, which could explain why Tierra Sur, the finest new kosher restaurant on this coast (or almost any other), has decided to open with a decidedly Mediterranean-Spanish flavor, with a large dose of Tuscany thrown in for good measure.

So what’s a nice kosher restaurant doing in a place like this?

Tierra Sur is found deep in the heart of Oxnard’s industrial section, 60 miles north of Los Angeles and a mile and a half off Highway 101, nestled in the confines of the Herzog Winery.

Herzog itself has come a long way. It began making kosher wine back in 1848 in the small Slovakian village of Vrobove, where Philip Herzog crushed grapes for Austro-Hungarian royalty. The winery moved to upstate New York in the early 20th century, and then switched to California, where it is now headquartered and makes surprisingly good wines.

The front of its $13 million state-of-the-art winery houses an elegant tasting room and gift shop, which features high-end table wear, glasses and gifts appropriate to the sophistication of the entire operation.

But the pièce de résistance is Tierra Sur, with its high-ceilinged dining room, flanked by tall windows draped in heavy silks, soft leather dining room chairs pulled up to intimate-sized tables adorned with white table clothes and Reidel crystal stemware. The lighting is subdued, and the color scheme — earth tones of soft olive, gold and browns — highlights the elegant Mediterranean menu.

All this décor is very nice of course, but what about the food?

It more than measures up to the ambience.

Chef Todd Aarons, who grills some of his best creations in an outdoor wood-burning fireplace on the patio, grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from the California Culinary Academy and cut his kitchen teeth at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. Two years later he moved to Savoy in New York’s Soho district. However, his cooking chops and tastes were really formed during a sabbatical in Tuscany, working at four restaurants and imbibing the culture of the Mediterranean table through his pores.

Following his return to California, Aarons went to a post-graduate program at Beringer Vineyard’s School for American Chefs in Sonoma, developing his skills in matching wine with food.

But it was while working for an Italian coffee company in Israel, and developing menus for Italian-Mediterranean restaurants in Netanya and Tel Aviv, that Aarons rediscovered his Jewish roots, fell in love with an Orthodox young woman and eventually became a ba’al teshuvah. Now the dietary laws of kashrut have became the most important element of his cooking.

Aarons commutes to the new restaurant from his home in North Hollywood, where he lives with his wife and three young daughters within the eruv.

Before his Oxnard venture, Aarons ran Mosaica, an upscale glatt kosher French Mediterranean restaurant in New Jersey. But the opportunity to create a restaurant from scratch with the financial support of the Herzog brand was impossible to resist.

So with sous chef Chaim Davids, Tierra Sur opened in late 2005 with kosher supervision by the Orthodox Union. But if you expect pickles, corned beef on rye, or matzah ball soup — fuhgeddaboudit.

Dinner with five-star service — on a par with a dining room in a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton — changes not just with the seasons but every evening according to the chef’s whim and the availability of the finest and freshest ingredients.

The Mediterranean influence is most visible in the appetizers, many of which come directly from the Spanish tapas or Greek mezes so beloved of the countries bordering that sea.

Platillos were small plates of delicate salt cod beignets; mushrooms a la Greque, cooked in truffle oil (one of the many instances where the absence of butter in the kitchen does nothing but improve the flavors); and a baba ghanoush that is fire roasted in the patio oven. The boudin blanc was a house-made veal-and-chicken sausage with roasted pink lady apples and turnips, and a corn and salt cod chowder was a warm starter on a foggy Oxnard eve.

The dinner entrees, which range in price from $25 to $44, include a farm-raised venison imported from the Mashgichim farm in Goshen, N.Y.; a delicate pan-seared wild Pacific king salmon with braised leeks, root vegetable Spanish tortillas and tarragon salsa; a marjoram and honey roasted chicken leg stuffed with porcini mushroom and chick pea ragout; and a pomegranate-marinated roasted lamb with sautéed broccoli rabe and fresh fava beans. Hannibal Lector eat your heart out. (A more modestly priced menu of soups, salads and sandwiches is available for lunch.)

Desserts like orange almond flan, a warm Mexican chocolate cake with caramel frozen custard and churros y chocolate are simple, inexpensive and delicious.

And, of course, the food can be accompanied by a dazzling selection of kosher wines — by the glass or by the bottle — from winemaker Joe Hurliman.

Already Tierra Sur, which also offers a wine-tasting menu, has been discovered by the Ventura dining cognoscenti and its private dining room has become a popular spot for everything from award dinners held by the Ventura’s Jewish Federation and its various offshoots to dinner celebrations for local corporate heavyweights such as Camarillo’s Amgen.

And the Orthodox are coming from miles around. There is always a fair sprinkling of men in kippot and women in wigs lining up to wash their hands at the small stainless steel sink hidden discreetly in a corner of the dining room.

On the night we went, customers included a couple who had driven up from Hancock Park, a family from the San Fernando Valley headed by a lady who doubles as the Jewish chaplain for the Los Angeles womens prison and a grandmother from Leisure Village in Camarillo who was treating her grandson and his wife from Philadelphia to a wedding anniversary dinner.

And in all cases, their food reviews were a unanimous thumbs up.

Tierra Sur Restaurant is located at 3201 Camino Del Sol in Oxnard. The restaurant is open everyday but Saturday for lunch, and Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday for dinner. For more information, call (805) 983-1560 or visit http://www.jewishjournal.com/local/KosherEats.php for links.

Sally Ogle Davis is a Southern California-based freelance writer. Ivor Davis writes a column for The New York Times Syndicate.

 

Mizrachi Options to Liven the New Year


While apples and honey are de rigueur among Ashkenazim for celebrating the New Year, Middle Easterners turn to the more exotic, like dates, quinces or pomegranates during the High Holidays. So if you’re looking for some unique recipes this High Holiday season, you might want to turn to Faye Levy’s latest cookbook, "Feast from the Mideast: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes from the Lands of the Bible" (HarperCollins, $29.95).

Levy lived in Israel for nearly 12 years, where she met and married her husband, Yakir. A cooking novice until her mother-in-law took her in hand, she soon developed a love for the varied, bold flavors of her adopted home. She went on to train at the renowned La Varenne in Paris and to produce more than 20 cookbooks and writes with authority and passion on the cuisine of the Middle East.

"It is amazing how all these people who can’t get along eat the same things," observed Levy, whose cookbook highlights cuisines of over ten countries.

"Eating together and discussing food and recipes is a great way to bring people closer," Levy continues. "Arabs and Jews share a lot of the same food. The Islamic rules of halal are similar to our laws of kashrut. We both don’t eat pork. Arabs do eat shellfish, and they don’t have a problem mixing milk and meat, but they hardly ever do it.

While the book explores the foods of all faiths and nationalities of the region, so many of the dishes are perfect for Rosh Hashanah because of the Middle Eastern fondness for incorporating local fruits, a perfect way to wish guests a sweet New Year.

"Sephardic Jews begin the Rosh Hashanah meal with dates, just as we do with apples and honey," Levy noted. "And in Greece, Turkey and Morocco, all around the Mediterranean really, quinces are really important for Rosh Hashanah. Moroccan Jews do dip apples in honey, then dip them in sesame seeds, symbolizing our wish that our people be numerous. Pomegranate seeds are traditional for the same reason."

Chicken in Pomegranate Walnut Sauce, a classic dish of the Persian kitchen, is appropriate for the holiday, Levy said.

"Pomegranate juice and paste are available in Middle Eastern and gourmet markets, because a lot of American chefs, like Bobby Flay, have suddenly become very excited about them. It has become trendy," she said.

If you can’t find either, Levy advises using pomegranate juice, now readily available in supermarkets, and adding less water.

Traditional holiday foods vary from country to country and from family to family. Some people avoid sour tastes for the holiday, like lemons and vinegar.

Persians, however, favor tart over sweet and love a splash of lemon juice on many dishes, Levy noted.

"In fact, I have a friend from northern Iran who says that the pomegranate paste available in this country is too sweet, so he asks his relatives from Iran to bring some from home when they visit." Some people avoid black ingredients for the New Year, so they use golden raisins instead of dark and do not serve eggplant. Since the word for leeks in Hebrew means "destroyed," many serve leeks to convey the wish that our enemies be destroyed.

Some people will not eat walnuts, but will use almonds; others eliminate nuts altogether.

"In our family we always have rice with toasted almonds and dried fruit for Rosh Hashanah," Levy said. "Middle Eastern cooks have so many delicious ways to do rice, and some, like Almond Apricot Basmati Rice, are so good you could consider them a dessert, a side dish or a main course.

"Sweetness for Rosh Hashanah is more of an Ashkenazi thing," she said, "though certain Middle Eastern Jews do it, too. Moroccans often serve vegetables sprinkled with sugar, but sometimes instead of making food sweeter, they might just tone down the spiciness."

For example, fish is traditional for Rosh Hashanah, particularly served with the head.

Moroccans might make Foil Baked Trout with Red Pepper and Garlic, but omit the jalapeño and lemon for Rosh Hashanah.

"It really depends on your family’s tradition," Levy said.

For Ashkenazim, Rosh Hashanah would not be complete without honey cake, but Sephardim of the Mediterranean may choose Citrus and Spice Quinces with Cranberries or Date Pinwheel Cookies. Honey isn’t found necessarily in desserts in the Middle East, Levy said, though some might use it as syrup on cake. Fruit with Honey, Figs and Dates will appeal to both camps as a sweet ending to the Rosh Hashanah dinner.

"It’s perfect for the season and really easy. And it goes well as a topping for traditional honey cake, too."

Dja’jeh b’Ah’sal (Chicken With Prunes and Honey)

Sauce:

2 cups pitted prunes, soaked in 1 cup cold water for 15 minutes

1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Chicken:

5 to 5-1/2 pounds chicken pieces (white and dark meat), skinned

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup finely chopped yellow onions

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Three 3-inch-long cinnamon sticks

2 cups cold water

Prepare the sauce. Place the prunes and soaking water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the honey and cinnamon. Mix well and simmer until the prunes absorb some water and soften (they should be soft yet retain most of their shape), about five more minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Prepare the chicken. Rinse the chicken under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a plate.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook the onions, stirring, until golden and soft, three to four minutes. Add the chicken pieces and brown, cooking for two to three minutes on each side. Add the salt, pepper, cinnamon sticks and water, stir well, and bring to a slow boil over medium-high heat. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for one hour.

Uncover the skillet and cook until some of the excess liquid cooks off and the sauce has thickened to a gravy-like texture, an additional 20 to 30 minutes.

Serve on large platter, garnished with one cup blanched whole almonds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden.

Ka’ikeh b’Ah’sal (Honey Cake With Sesame Glaze Cake)

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)

2/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Glaze:

2/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon tahini

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Prepare the cake. Combine the beaten eggs, tahini, honey and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth.

In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add to the wet mixture and mix well.

Pour the batter into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan or 9-inch Springform pan and bake until a toothpick or knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 25-35 minutes.

When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 45 minutes. With a knife, loosen the edges of the cake. Place a large plate on top of the cake pan and flip the pan upside down.

Prepare the glaze. Combine the honey and tahini in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until blended to a smooth consistency, four to five minutes. Add the sesame seeds and mix well. Remove from the heat and immediately pour the hot glaze over the top of the cake, allowing the glaze to soak in. Let cool for 30 minutes.

Cut into diamond shapes about two inches long and one inch wide and serve at room temperature. Do not refrigerate.

Faye Levy will be signing "Feast from the Mideast" at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.

For more information or to R.S.V.P., call (323) 761-8648.

Judy Bart Kancigor, author of “Melting Pot Memories,”
can be found on the Web at

A Feast From Jewish Tunisia


Imagine a Rosh Hashana table adorned with fruits and vegetables galore. Ruby-red pomegranates beckon; their jellied seeds symbolize your good deeds in the coming year. A bowl of crunchy sesame seeds promises that your virtues will be as numerous as the seeds themselves. You partake of pumpkins and squash for protection; you nibble on olives and fava beans, too. To keep enemies away, you sample spinach and beet greens. You taste tantalizing dishes seasoned with garlic and leeks, believed to cancel your bad deeds. And to guarantee a sweet year, you delight in figs, quince, dates — and apples soaked in honey.

Pinch yourself. You are not dreaming. This fantasy could become a reality. With a little know-how and a lot of spices, you could dine this Rosh Hashana on traditional Tunisian cuisine.

"I am crazy about Southern Mediterranean Jewish food," says Joyce Goldstein, chef, author, teacher and Mediterranean cooking expert. "I love dishes that combine spices, fruits and nuts … with meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, and that play with heat and lemon, sweet and sour and sweet and hot. This is the food I cook quite often at home and served constantly when I owned Square One [in San Francisco]."

In "Saffron Shores"(Chronicle Books, 2002), her most recent cookbook, she celebrates the exquisite flavors and arresting aromas filling Jewish kitchens throughout North Africa and the Judeo-Arab world. More than a collection of recipes, "Saffron Shores" is a historical document that opens a window onto the customs of Jews from these exotic lands.

Tunisia is a small country wedged between Algeria and Libya. While Jews have come and gone in waves over the centuries, it is believed that Jewish life there dates back to the Roman Empire. Except for a few notable outbreaks of hostility in this Muslim country, Jews have lived under relatively tolerant conditions as merchants, interpreters, diplomats, and government officials. Today many are jewelers, butchers and carpenters; some run boutiques and restaurants.

However, since 1948, when 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia, the Jewish population has dropped to 2,000. Many Jews immigrated to Israel after the founding of the Jewish State — or to France when Tunisia won independence in 1956. More Jews left following anti-Jewish riots during the 1967 Six-Day War. Although few in number, Jews tenaciously thrive, retaining a lively but observant community, complete with Jewish schools, synagogues and kosher food. Countering a downward trend, in the past several years their population has edged up by 200.

Among the mix of Tunisian Jews, people from the island of Djerba (north of mainland Tunisia) form a unique community with mysterious origins, Goldstein says. Djerbans may have come from Ancient Israel, arriving after the fall of the first temple in 586 BCE. More than observant, they are pious. They live in Jewish villages known as haras. Local leaders emphasize that the word "hara" is not synonymous with ghetto, because Jews have never been walled in.

Hara Seghira is home to the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest in continuous existence in the world. This synagogue, with its Arabic-style entrance shaped like a keyhole, made headlines in April when a gas truck explosion damaged the building and killed at least 16 people, including 11 German tourists. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the bombing.

This was not the first time Tunisian Jews faced trouble. During the 16th century, pirates took Jewish hostages. To arrange their release, a small group of Marrano Jews — Jews who hid their religion to escape the Spanish Inquisition — traveled from Livorno, Italy. Many of them stayed, and others followed from Livorno. Their descendants are easy to recognize because they speak Italian, avoid intermarriage with native Jews and educate their children in Italy. They keep their own traditions and cuisine, a mixture of Italian, Tunisian and Portuguese.

Indeed, many Jews from Spain, and later Portugal, settled in Tunisia to escape the Spanish Inquisition. It didn’t take long for them both to adopt and influence local cooking.

"While not purely Sephardic, as much of this cuisine existed before the arrival of Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1492, the taste interplay between North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula is evident in many a bite," says Goldstein, explaining that established Portuguese and Spanish Jewish communities were already in Tunisia from earlier migrations before the expulsion from Spain.

She claims that local ingredients and the use of specific spices create signature flavor profiles in each part of the Mediterranean world. But North African Jews play with the fullest spice spectrum, infusing foods with garlic, ginger, cumin, cayenne, coriander, hot pepper and caraway. And tweaking tastebuds further, they also sprinkle mint, cinnamon, and dried rose petals into recipes, along with complex homemade spice mixtures.

Goldstein used cookbooks as source material for her research and experimented with recipes that excited her. The cookbooks she studied were written by women who probably possessed the talent of world-class chefs, except their world was centered in the home.

Women customarily worked in teams in the kitchen: grandmothers, aunts and cousins; mothers and daughters; mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law; and neighbors, too. Marketing and cooking filled their days, especially before holidays. Although food was prepared by hand, the old-fashioned way, there was joy in the team effort and satisfaction from nimble hands gathered around a table.

Women chatted and gossiped as the elder generation of experienced cooks passed on their skills to brides, who watched how to stuff vegetables, grind nuts and spices and trim fruit.

Today in America, the land of microwave ovens, low-fat frozen entrees and fast food, this lifestyle is hard to fathom. Although American women are busy, Goldstein highly recommends team cooking, because it’s more fun than you can imagine. She discovered this while teaching cooking classes in the San Francisco Bay area.

Teamwork or not, her recipes are easy for one person to master. "Students love the food and can’t get enough of it," she says, touting Tunisian Rosh Hashana dishes. She raves about the scent of cumin and cilantro wafting from a whole grilled fish. Its head represents rosh, the head of the year. While chicken soup with eggs is a must on erev Yom Kippur, it is also popular at New Year’s meals like Ashkenazi-style chicken soup. The bean and beef stew is often served with homemade semolina bread, the equivalent of challah. The sweet and sour nuance of the squash and apricot puree is enhanced by couscous.

When you cook this beautiful food and share its sensual and vibrant seasoning, you’ll know why this cuisine tastes better than practically anything else, Goldstein explains. "It’s infused with a wide range of flavors and the most spicy surprises." Surprises as layered as Jewish life in Tunisia, surviving over 2,500 years.

Recipes from "Saffron Shores” by Joyce Goldstein

Samak al Kamoun

Broiled Fish With Cumin

  • One 31¼2 to 4-pound whole fish, such as striped bass, snapper, or rock cod
  • 3 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1. Preheat oven to 450 F. Rub fish with 2 teaspoons of salt inside and out, then rinse. Cut diagonal slits in both sides of fish, so marinade can penetrate.

2. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, spices, garlic, pepper and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk in olive oil. Rub this paste into fish, and if baking, wrap in aluminum foil and bake until opaque throughout, 25-30 minutes. Unwrap and serve sprinkled with coriander. If broiling or grilling, there is no need for foil.

Yield: 6 servings.

Hlou

Squash and Apricot Puree

  • 1 1¼2 cups (1¼2 pound) dried apricots, cut
  • into small pieces
  • 1¼2 cup sugar
  • 1¼2 cup olive oil
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 1 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded,
  • and cut into 1¼2-inch cubes)
  • 2 cups water
  • 1¼4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Salt to taste
  • Couscous (optional)

1. Soak the apricots in hot water for one hour to soften. Drain.

2. In a medium, heavy saucepan, heat the sugar and oil over high heat until the sugar is melted and pale caramel in color. (Don’t worry if some sugar solidifies. It will melt as the onions cook.)

3. Add the onions, reduce heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes.

4. Add the squash and water, and cook until the squash is tender, about 20 minutes. Add apricots, lemon juice and cinnamon, and cook until you have a slightly chunky puree. Test for salt. Serve warm or at room temperature as an accompaniment to couscous.

Yield: 3 cups.

Tfala

Chicken Soup With Eggs

  • 1 large stewing chicken or 2 broilers, cut
  • into pieces (about 5 pounds chicken parts)
  • 1 lemon, halved, plus 6 tablespoons
  • fresh lemon juice
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 3 onions, chopped
  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 3 turnips, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 2 leeks (white parts only), cleaned and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
  • Bouquet garni (satchet of herbs):
  • 3 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, 2 bay
  • leaves and 3 cloves, tied in a
  • cheesecloth square
  • freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 3 pinches ground cinnamon
  • 6 eggs
  • Minced fresh mint, optional

1. Remove excess fat from chicken pieces, then rinse. Rub each piece with lemon halves and sprinkle with salt. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2. Put chicken in a large stockpot and add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and skim the scum from broth. Simmer gently for 30 minutes. Add the vegetables, saffron and bouquet garni. Cook for about two hours longer. Using a skimmer, remove the solids and discard.

3. Pour the broth through a sieve lined with wet cheesecloth into a large bowl. Chill the stock, uncovered, in an ice bath in the sink until cold. Spoon off fat. Pour the broth into a pot, bring to a boil, and cook at a low boil, skimming if needed, until reduced and flavorful. Add pepper and cinnamon.

4. Beat the eggs with the lemon juice and stir into the soup. Simmer for eight to 10 minutes. Garnish the soup with the mint.

Yield: 6 servings

T’fina aux Epinards

Tunisian Bean and Beef Stew With Spinach Essence

  • 2 1¼2 lbs. spinach, stemmed
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, stemmed
  • 1 cup dried white beans, soaked overnight
  • and drained
  • 2 veal bones
  • 1 pound beef brisket, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 4 to 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon harissa paste (purchase
  • commercially or see recipe below)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • 3 teaspoons chopped fresh mint, or
  • 1 tablespoon dried
  • 3 quarts water

1. Rinse spinach and cilantro well. In a large covered pot, cook spinach and coriander over medium heat until wilted, about three to five minutes. Drain well and return to pot. Cook over low heat, turning with a wooden spoon, until dry and browned, 20 to 30 minutes.

2. Add beans, veal bones, beef, garlic, onion, cinnamon, harissa, dill, mint and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the oil comes to the top of the dish, about three hours. Add more water if the dish becomes too dry while cooking.

Yield: 6 servings.

Harissa

Tunisian Hot Pepper Condiment

  • 4 large red bell peppers, seeded, deribbed,
  • and cut into pieces
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds, toasted
  • and ground
  • 1 1¼2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoons salt
  • Extra virgin olive oil, as needed

In a food processor or blender, grind or puree the peppers. Strain, pressing on the solids with the back of a large spoon. You should have about 3/4 cup puree. Stir in garlic, spices and salt. Add oil for spoonability.

Yield: about 1 cup.