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Can a shakshuka stain kill you?


The folks at Pico Café serve a mean shakshuka, that clumsy word made famous recently by Conan O’Brien in his television adventures from Israel. Shakshuka is a hot and spicy Israeli breakfast dish consisting of eggs submerged in cooked tomatoes. The one I ordered the other morning seemed to have an extra dose of the red stuff — the scourge of white shirts everywhere.

Maybe because my conversation with a friend got a little lively ( I think we were talking about Trump), I didn’t pay much attention to the pathway between the tomato sauce and my shirt. I’m sure you can see where this is going: At one point, I looked down and there it was, the dreaded little stain on my shirt.

I tried to clean it with a napkin and ice water, but that was like trying to make a peace agreement in the Middle East — beyond useless. My brain quickly processed the dilemma: Should I go back home and change my shirt, or should I go straight to the office and carry the stain with me all day, tolerating the psychic wear and tear that would involve?

Since my house wasn’t too far away, I voted for peace of mind and rushed home to change the shirt.

That decision almost ended my life.

You see, from my house, it was quicker to take the Santa Monica Freeway to the office. Had I driven from the restaurant, I would have taken Olympic Boulevard.

So, there I was in my clean shirt driving happily on the freeway under a glorious California sun and with the jazz music playing, cars to the left of me, cars to the right, cars all around.

There’s an odd feeling of safety these days when you drive these sturdy new cars with so many comfort and safety features. On a freeway, this illusion of safety is somewhat magnified, because everyone seems to be gliding along in their protective bubbles and in their own lanes.

Some drivers, as you know, love to explore new lanes, especially new lanes that go a little faster than the one they’re in. I’m one of those explorers.

A smart choice can lead to an accident. A wrong choice can save your life. We are all at the mercy of fate.

Since I was driving a new car, I wasn’t in tune with its blind spots, so, as I tried to shift into a faster lane to my left, I missed seeing a car that was already there. The mere glimpse of the car made me do a sudden and jerky move, and for one little second, I thought I had lost control of the car.

How can I describe the horror of that second?

I remember reading a French writer who described love at first sight as “when a second lasts a century.” Well, maybe that describes it — in a second that seemed to last forever, I saw death at first sight. I experienced the cliché of seeing my life flash in front of me. 

After the shock wore off, I started reflecting on the shakshuka.

One silly tomato stain made me change my shirt, which made me take the freeway, which put me in a position where I almost got into into a deadly accident. Could that little stain have triggered the end of my life?

These philosophical musings may be intriguing but, in reality, they have little practical value. We make choices all day long that take us into unknown territory. For all I know, the deadly accident would have occurred on Olympic Boulevard, in which case the shakshuka stain would have saved my life. We’ll never know.

I have a friend who met his future wife on an escalator in an airport. Had he gone to a restroom or stopped for coffee or done any number of trivial things at that time, he never would have met her. His life would have been entirely different — different family, different everything.

The smallest decision can lead to a life-changing, or even a life-ending, event. A smart choice can lead to an accident. A wrong choice can save your life. We are all at the mercy of fate.

Of course, none of that means we shouldn’t put the odds on our side.

In my case, my shakshuka adventure reminded me of the razor-thin fragility of life. It also reminded me of something else: Whether there’s a stain on my shirt or not, I really should learn how to stay in the slower lanes and just enjoy the music.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Shakshuka goals. Photo courtesy of Judy Zeidler.

Liberate your taste buds with these savory Independence Day dishes


Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, is one of the nation’s most important holidays. Many people celebrate with parties or singing and dancing in the streets. Others display the Israeli flag prominently on homes and cars. 

But everyone celebrates with food.

One of my favorite Israeli dishes is Shakshuka. The basic ingredients are poached eggs in a spicy tomato sauce, combined with harissa, cumin and paprika. Some refer to it as the Jewish “Breakfast of Champions.” 

It is a North African dish that now has become a staple in some of the most expensive and trendy restaurants in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York, anyplace where good Sephardic Jewish cuisine can be enjoyed. One of the restaurants that is best known today for its Shakshuka is Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa, although in West Los Angeles, we happily order the meal, served with tomato-cucumber salad and warm pita bread, at Habayit, a restaurant on West Pico Boulevard.

I still remember our first trip to Israel and some of my other favorite dishes served for breakfast. They include Moroccan Carrot Salad, a combination of carrots (boiled, but still a little crunchy) tossed with cilantro, cumin, paprika and ginger that puts your taste buds on alert.

Eggplant with Tahini makes good use of a versatile vegetable that is much neglected in this country. Beautiful, dark purple eggplants are used in many recipes throughout Israel. The delicate yet pungent flavor is great seasoned with garlic, olive oil and salt.  

And, of course, you can’t visit Israel without tasting an assortment of Hummus. This simple, wonderfully flavorful dip or spread is made from garbanzos (chickpeas) and tahini (sesame seed paste). Its texture is velvety, rich and firm enough to scoop up with wedges of pita bread or crisp vegetables. The taste is robust, nutlike, garlicky and so satisfying that you won’t be able to stop eating it.

Combined, all of this adds up to the perfect meal to serve on Israel Independence Day! 

SHAKSHUKA

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and diced

3 garlic cloves, crushed

5 to 6 large tomatoes, peeled and diced (or about 3 cups
canned crushed tomatoes)

3 tablespoons tomato paste

2 to 3 tablespoons harissa

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons paprika

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 to 8 eggs

 In a large, heavy skillet, heat olive oil and sauté onion and garlic until onion begins to soften.

Slowly add the tomatoes and tomato paste and simmer over low heat to blend.  Add the harissa, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper to taste. Simmer the mixture for 30 to 40 minutes.

Crack the eggs, one at a time, directly over the tomato mixture, making sure to space them evenly over the sauce. Cover the pan and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes. Do not let the egg yolks become hard.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.     

MOROCCAN CARROT SALAD

4 cups water with 1 teaspoon salt

2 bay leaves

1 pound carrots, sliced 1/8-inch thick

1 cup white wine vinegar

1 cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon minced onion

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 tablespoon minced cilantro

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups salted water and the bay leaves to a boil over high heat. Add carrots, return to a boil, then remove from heat. Drain carrots, rinse them with cold water and transfer to a serving dish.

In a food processor or blender, combine the vinegar, olive oil, garlic, onion, parsley, cilantro, cumin, paprika, ginger and tomato paste blend. Gently stir the mixture into the carrots. Season with salt and pepper and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour. 

Makes 8 servings.

EGGPLANT WITH TAHINI

1 large eggplant

1 medium onion, finely chopped, juice
     squeezed out and discarded

1 cup finely chopped parsley

1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)

2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 teaspoons water

Salt to taste

Dash of cayenne pepper

Parsley sprigs for garnish 

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place it cut side down on a baking sheet lined with foil. Bake it until its skin is charred and the inside is tender, about 20 minutes. Let the eggplant cool; peel it and chop finely. Place it in a mixing bowl, add the onion and parsley, and blend well.

In a separate bowl, stir together the 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, garlic and water until well blended. Stir the tahini mixture into the eggplant mixture. Add salt to taste and cayenne pepper. Stir in more lemon juice to taste. Garnish with parsley.  

Makes about 3 cups.

HUMMUS

From “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” by
Judy Zeidler

1  (15 ounce) can garbanzos, with liquid

1 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)

1/2 cups lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/3 cup olive oil

6 fresh parsley sprigs, stemmed

1 to 2 teaspoons salt

Place the garbanzos in a processor or blender and process until coarsely pureed. Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and cumin, and process until smoothly pureed. Add olive oil in a thin stream and continue blending. Blend in the parsley leaves and l teaspoon of salt. Add additional salt to taste. Serve with hot pita bread and sliced vegetables, such as carrots, zucchini or mushrooms. 

Makes about 4 cups.


Judy Zeidler is a food consultant, cooking teacher and author of 10 cookbooks, including “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her website is judyzeidler.com.

A Journey from Shiksa to Shakshuka


I was not raised in a religion; my parents gave me the gift of choice when it came to spirituality. I’ve always known on a deep level that God exists, but the context for understanding my Creator was unclear. For many years I felt adrift, doing my best to find peace in the midst of chaos. Then I took a college writing course called “The Holocaust,” in which I was asked to examine this most heinous event in human history. Signing up for this class proved to be a life-altering choice. I was consumed by memoirs like “Night,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “All but My Life.” I yearned to know the Jewish people better — to understand their faith, optimism and hope, even in the darkest of times. I left the class full of curiosity, my heart open and ready to learn more. It was the beginning of my spiritual awakening.

And then I discovered the food. Or, more accurately, I discovered my future husband, who introduced me to the food. When we first began dating, he told me about the incredible meals he grew up with in Israel. Born to a Sephardi mother and an Ashkenazi father, he was familiar with dishes and spices that were completely foreign to me. Before meeting him, I only knew the Jewish food that most Americans know: matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, kugel. I was wholly unfamiliar with Sephardic cuisine. One morning, my fiancé cooked us a sizzling skillet of shakshuka — and that was it. I was hooked on Jewish food.

I solicited help from our family and friends, asking for their Jewish recipes and cooking methods. I began to discover that the term “Jewish cuisine” is very broad, covering a spectrum of international foods that are united by the ancient kosher laws. What started out as a hobby for me, trying to re-create the flavors from my fiancé’s childhood, soon became a full-fledged obsession. I started writing a kosher cooking blog called The Shiksa in the Kitchen. I also began working on a cookbook of Jewish family recipes from all over the world. The deeper I explored, the more layers I discovered. I realized that Jewish food is a reflection of the Jewish people — their struggles, their triumphs, their traditions and their unwavering faith in the face of extreme adversity. As I immersed myself in traditional kosher cooking, learning to make dishes that are centuries old (and in some cases even older), I began to feel I had found the place that made my spirit happy.

Food and Judaism are inextricably entwined. Almost all Jews today, no matter which movement they belong to, have fond memories of their family’s food traditions. Shabbat is a weekly celebration of food, family and faith. Every Jewish holiday has a food component — whether it’s the restriction of food (Yom Kippur), food as a blessing (Passover, Rosh Hashanah), giving gifts of food and drink (Purim) or celebrating the bounty of the harvest (Sukkot). Throughout the Torah, there are references to food — laws for what to eat and when, blessings for different meals and instructions on how to prepare certain foods. Remove the food from Judaism and you have a different religion entirely.

I find this link extraordinary. It can’t be an accident that the Torah repeatedly references food. Hunger is something we are all familiar with, no matter who we are or where we come from, and a good meal has the power to bring people together. Just imagining the taste of a new recipe can create kinship between total strangers; I see this happen on my blog every day. The mere mention of a beloved Jewish dish will bring dozens of comments in the span of an hour. I have Jewish, Christian and Muslim readers … people from all walks of life united by an interest in Jewish cuisine. It’s a powerful positive force, one I don’t take lightly.

I became a Jew on Feb. 25, 2010. Surrounded by family and under the guidance of my rabbi, I embraced the Jewish faith. There are many different Jewish threads in America today — Orthodox, Chasidic, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, ethnic, kabbalistic. I suppose if I had to put a label on my Judaism, I’d say I belong to the Foodaism movement (thank you to The Jewish Journal’s Rob Eshman for coining this phrase). By taking a journey into the heart of Jewish cuisine, I uncovered something hidden deep inside of me. I now understand that I’ve always had a Jewish spirit. I am drawn to many of the traditional aspects of Judaism — the holidays, the observance of Shabbat, the empowerment of prayer. It’s extremely comforting to know that I’ve joined a larger family and community. By becoming Jewish, I’ve acknowledged my responsibility to others, and I’ve dedicated myself to learning and growing within the faith. This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of Judaism for me — being encouraged to ask questions, to discuss, to interpret, to constantly evolve. I see my conversion as the first step in a lifetime of spiritual exploration and growth. Entering the Jewish faith was a remarkable experience … it felt like coming home. A simple skillet of shakshuka helped me connect with my soul’s truth.

Many female converts to Judaism have described the feeling of not being able to shed a lingering gentile stigma, saying they are continually made to feel like outsiders. And yet, the ancient rabbis insisted that converts should be treated as if they had always been Jewish. We could argue that the convert who makes a deliberate choice to be Jewish is often more informed and devout than the Jew whose religion is the happenstance of birth. I believe that enlightened education and the open sharing of traditions will help keep the Jewish spirit strong. Shouldn’t we welcome men and women who are drawn to the faith, no matter what their initial motivation might be? While it’s true that some converts first embrace Judaism after being encouraged by their partner, in the end conversion is always a covenant between one person and God. Indeed, in this day and age, shouldn’t that be cause for celebration?

It is in good-humored defiance of the lingering doubts surrounding intermarriage and conversion that I still call myself “The Shiksa in the Kitchen.” The word shiksa has a primarily derogatory connotation — meant to convey that the “shiksa” is somehow “less than” somebody born into Judaism. Rather than shy away from the word, I choose to let my background empower me. I have no shame that I was born a shiksa; I am exploring Judaism through the eyes of somebody newly reborn and thrilled to be part of the Tribe. To those who would deny my Judaism because of my genetics, I can only offer my own humble perspective — and a sweet, creamy slice of my Shiksa Noodle Kugel. If that doesn’t open their hearts, I don’t know what will.

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