November 14, 2018

Dangerous — But Safe — Jinja Chicken

Recently, I had a conversation about the difference between situations that are dangerous but safe, and those that are safe but dangerous. It may seem like a word game, a sort of incongruous anagram, but there is a startling difference between the two.

All of us do things on a regular basis that we perceive as dangerous but actually are safe. We get in aluminum cans with wings and let a perfect stranger transport us at 38,000 feet. That may sound dangerous but it’s relatively safe. On the other hand, we easily can convince ourselves we are safe when we aren’t. We might drive home from work, stressed and anxious, and then space out behind the wheel. Seems safe, but it’s dangerous. Or we stay in jobs or relationships when we are unhappy. We let people and opportunities slip through our fingers because we are afraid of disappointment or what others might think. Safe, but dangerous.

When you read that I’ve been living in Africa for over a decade, you might get the impression that I am doing something dangerous and that I am fearless. You may perceive me as different than you in some way — another “breed,” because you live in a “safe” environment and I seemingly do not.

The truth is that I am a city girl, a “Private Benjamin” of the first order, a klutz who is scared of everything and probably more afraid than most people. It is only through compulsive curiosity, willful inability to surrender to a challenge, and fear of boredom that I have managed to propel myself to do any of the terrifying things I’ve done. There is a groove in my brain that is stuck like the needle on a scratched record, playing the same track in a never-ending loop.  “You can’t do that,” it taunts. “Oh yeah, watch me,” I croak, usually while holding back tears.

The same little girl, whose terror of heights after a shameful fall had to have her daddy spend weekends teaching her how to climb a six-foot jungle gym in elementary school, hot air ballooned at dawn over herds of elephants and hippos in Kenya, crash landing in the middle of the African savannah. The girl who had nightmares for months after watching the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” went on a walkabout in the Mara Triangle with Masai warriors, a tribe whose equivalent of a bar mitzvah includes killing a real lion with a spear and eating its still beating heart.

So when the two partners that run Karuna Yoga Journeys invited me to a yoga and meditation retreat at Wildwaters Lodge over the weekend, the record started to play. I know this place well. I knew the original owners of the lodge and watched as they built it by hand in the middle of the Nile on a rocky promontory with Colorado River-style rapids roiling on all sides. My memory of the initial shock that set in when I saw that the only way to get onto the island was to traverse the calm edge of the turbulent waters on a rickety-looking dugout canoe still haunted me.

The fact that I’ve seen 15-foot African crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks of that river is just icing on a terror cupcake. Not only that, although I’d made the trip previously with friends, now I was going to be alone, in a canvas-walled, traditionally thatched hut, during a particularly harsh rainy season, with only the sound of the rushing water for company. Gulp. I remind myself that the last time I was in this place, it was to send off the ashes of a friend’s mother to Egypt, a place her mother had always wanted to visit but had been too afraid to travel to.

The fact that I’ve seen 15-foot African crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks of that river is just icing on a terror cupcake.

We make the two-hour drive from where I live in Kampala, Uganda, with fields of papyrus yielding to the verdant riverine forest. Miles of newly tarmacked roads along the Kisaasi “highway” become bumpy rivers that bleed red, sticky mud set against a primordial emerald treeline. Our destination is Jinja, a town known as the adventure capital of Uganda, and the spot where British explorer John Speke discovered the real “source of the Nile” in 1858.

We pass local villages, and as I’m a meat eater who is  about to embark on a vegan weekend, I want to stop to eat the Jinja chicken. The delicious pieces of grilled, bone-in chicken are marinated in vegetable oil, salt and a ubiquitous powder called michuzi mix, michuzi  is Swahili for “sauces”. In the ultimate reversal of the food-truck practice, this in-your-face street food is delivered by villagers who push woven baskets of chicken sticks in your face through the window of your car. The experience is not made less intimidating by the fact that for some inexplicable reason, all the vendors wear white lab coats.

I wonder if it’s safe to eat chicken from the side of a dusty road in the middle of Africa, where dubious hygiene practices and lack of running water and electricity are the norm. I reason that demand for the sticks is high, so they are always freshly pulled off charcoal, salty skin blistered, and tender within.  Still, to be safe, I resist the urge, and we drive on, making the crossing in the late afternoon just as the rains begin. It’s only a three-minute canoe ride, much briefer than I’d remembered.

Attendees arrive, and we are shown to our rooms as darkness falls, seemingly much quicker than usual. We are in a tropical forest, with roaring rapids, on all sides. After a security briefing about snakes and rushing river waters, I meet the women for yoga in a remarkable open-air pagoda. Then, after dinner, we settle in around the table to talk in between lightning flashes that threaten to cut the already dubious power supply.

We are here from all over the world a chef, an engineer, a telecom executive, a lawyer, an aid worker and two yoga instructors. No way off the island after 5 p.m., they inform us. Presuming there is no way on to the island is a lukewarm comfort.

Leyla, the leader of the retreat surprises me when she suddenly tells me she is afraid all the time. “You, afraid?” I ask her, puzzled, watching as candlelight catches prisms on the glitter she applied to her shoulders and arms the moment we arrived. “I was an acrobatic wing walker,” she tells me. “I performed stunts on the wings of flying planes for years, but I’m afraid of the dark,” she says, with an expression serious enough to tell me it wasn’t being said to make me feel better.
“Not that something will happen to me, but of the actual dark — of not being able to see.”

An Oxford-trained lawyer chimes in as if propelled into admission by a cannon: “I have terrible travel anxiety. I worry about getting there, I worry about everything., I burst into tears when I think about leaving work to travel.” She tells me that when she recently returned for a wedding in her hometown in Scotland, her friend, who was marrying her high school sweetheart, told her she is brave for moving to Africa alone. Her retort: “You are the one who is brave.”

The next day I’m late to an activity, and I’m told by a receptionist to go to the outskirts of the camp and make a right at the sign that says, “Danger, do not pass this point.” She says this in such a matter-of-fact way that I laugh out loud after realizing that she has no idea the alarm bells she has just set off.

I walk down the solitary path until I get to the sign  hanging from a “Game of Thrones” looking tree. Everything in my body tells me to follow Its advice and take a nap instead. As usual, my curiosity wins, and I head down a slippery, rocky path, walking fast before the needle has time to lodge too far into the groove.

Finally, I reach a wooden platform where my new friends are painting glitter onto a large canvas above a precipice that overlooks a vortex of waterfalls. It is so spectacular that it takes my already jagged breath away. They turn and beam at me, obviously surprised to see me there. “We didn’t think you’d come!”

I breathe a sigh of relief, heart pounding as I watch the Nile break and bend and tear itself apart on its way to Egypt. “I had to come when I read the sign — it felt like a dare,” I say to Leyla, winking.

I’m planning to stop on the way home for some Jinja chicken. I figure if all these seemingly “dangerous” activities have led to this much happiness and magic — they must be the very definition of safe.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Finding the Bliss Point of Triple-X Cracker Jack

Many people believe that popcorn’s origin can be traced to movie theaters. There will be plenty of people buying the air-popped treat at the upcoming Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. However, the story of popcorn is one of those “life is stranger than fiction” scenarios, one in which the popcorn might have saved theaters from extinction.

Although these days movies and popcorn are inextricably linked — the concession stand at your local cinema is responsible for more than 50 percent of a theater’s total profits — this wasn’t always the case.

Spanish conquistadors were introduced to popcorn by the Aztecs, but popcorn was not a popular snack until the early 1800s. Colonial wives served popped corn with sugar and cream for breakfast, and manually popped corn was a staple of fairs and exhibitions until 1885, when the first steam-powered popcorn machine was invented in Chicago.

Still, movie theaters were determined not to allow their ornate décor to be sullied by theatergoers inadvertently grinding popcorn into fancy carpeting. That was reasonable when silent films were the domain of the upper class, but in 1927, talkies opened the theater experience to the hoi polloi.

By 1930, movie attendance reached 90 million per week and stands were set up outside every venue to sell popcorn to the masses to sneak into the theaters under their hats. Still, it took the Great Depression to prompt theater owners to start selling the popular snack to keep patrons in their seats. Venues that didn’t sell popcorn shut down and business owners realized that if they wanted to stay afloat, they needed to decrease ticket prices and make up the difference selling snacks.

Enter a man named Samuel M. Rubin, who’d been hawking novelty items and pretzels in Brooklyn from the age of 6. By the 1950s, Rubin had become the first person to sell popcorn and candy on a large scale in the city. In his obituary, The New York Times stated that “Sam the Popcorn Man” Rubin was known for “making popcorn in New York City movie theatres almost as popular as jokes and kisses.” Initially, he popped the corn at another location outside of the city, but after he realized the olfactory benefit of increased sales when customers could smell the product cooking, he started to pop the corn in theaters. This bold move firmly solidified the link between movies and popcorn.

Rubin wasn’t the first to realize that selling the profitable snack was a home run. In 1896, German-Jewish immigrant Frederick William Rueckheim discovered how to separate sticky, molasses-drenched popcorn by using a specially designed spinning drum. Peanuts were added, the product was named after a term that in those days meant “excellent quality,” and the Cracker Jack brand of caramel corn became the first official American junk food.

Food manufacturers and chefs alike live and die by the bliss-point matrix — or the optimal amount of salt, sugar and fat that makes a food addictive.

Cracker Jack, with its cute American sailor in cheerful salute posed with his dog, would forever be associated with three things: baseball (the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” mentions the product by name), the treasure hunt marketing ploy of burying a small toy surprise inside each package, and perhaps most importantly, by its craved-for nature. The tagline for Cracker Jack at the time, “The more you eat, the more you want,” might have been the precursor for what modern-day snack manufacturers call “the bliss point.”

Food manufacturers and chefs alike live and die by the bliss-point matrix — or the optimal amount of salt, sugar and fat that makes a food addictive. We’ve all been there — we open a bag of potato chips to just “eat a few,” and before we know it, that evil special formula induces annoying neurotransmitters and receptors to spark pleasure centers of the brain into overdrive.

Much like the brain’s response to drugs, sugar, salt and fat in the perfect proportions can lead to us down a slippery path of calorie overload before our bodies rebel. Inevitably, we are left feeling sick to our stomachs while simultaneously looking for the next hit.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with a recipe for popcorn that manages to hit that spot between sweet and salty without being a body-damaging addiction. Without wanting to sound like an ad for a brand of condoms, I’ve called it the Triple-X adult version of Cracker Jack. I’ve utilized the same principle of bliss-point ratios, but I’ve tapered the quantities of the bad stuff to an almost negligible level.

I won’t tell you it’s not addictive because something this crunchy, sweet and savory is the very definition of the word. What I will say is if you do end up in the cool darkness of a movie theater and you’ve smuggled in this version of popcorn under your hat, like Victorian women used to, you won’t be the worse for wear if you do happen to finish the whole batch.

If you prefer watching films while curled up on the comfort of your sofa, this popcorn might help you reach your own perfect bliss point. Note that stolen kisses in the dark and a toy surprise not included. I’ll leave the most delicious part of this recipe to your imagination.

POPCORN
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin coconut oil,
melted (or another type of vegetable oil,
such as peanut, if desired, but don’t use
olive oil)
1/4 cup top-quality popcorn kernels
(preferably non-GMO)

CARAMEL COATING
4 tablespoons butter, melted and browned
4 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
(coconut cream if desired)
2 tablespoons sugar (or equal amount
of granulated sugar substitute)
1/4 cup roasted, salted Spanish peanuts,
with or without skins (optional)

Optional spices that make it Triple-X:
1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons nutritional yeast (or grated
Parmesan cheese)
1 teaspoon fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried
rosemary leaves, cleaned and chopped
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika or chipotle
powder
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Melt coconut oil (or heat vegetable oil) over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed pot that comfortably will hold 4 cups of popped corn. Add one corn kernel and cover pot with a tight-fitting lid. After you hear the kernel pop, uncover and pour in the remaining popcorn. Stir quickly to coat all the kernels with oil and replace the lid.

Occasionally shake the pot to ensure the popcorn won’t burn on the bottom of the pan, then shake it more vigorously as the popping sounds decrease.

After the popping has slowed to 3 seconds between pops, remove the pot from the heat and place popcorn on a foil- or parchment-lined baking tray or plate.

To make the caramel, using the same pot you used for the popcorn, brown the butter until the milk solids have fallen to the bottom and the butter is a medium golden caramel color — about 10 minutes. Remove pan from heat and add the heavy cream and sugar. Stir to combine.

Place pan on heat and cook caramel until it’s thick, and a wooden spoon run down the bottom of the pot leaves an empty trench in its wake for a few seconds. Add salt and turn off heat.

Add peanuts and popcorn to the caramel mixture and stir with a wooden spoon, carefully coating popcorn with caramel.

Pour the coated popcorn onto a foil-lined tray and embellish with Triple-X spices to your heart’s content. Feel free to omit spices if you wish, but don’t call it Triple-X. Place the tray of popcorn into the fridge to harden for 30 minutes.

Remove and enjoy with abandon.

Makes about 4 cups.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda.

Why I Will Eat an Israeli Salad on Yom HaAtzmaut

Being raised by two intensely patriotic Israelis while living outside of Israel was confusing. Although both my parents had been proud soldiers in the Israeli army, I had little connection to Israel because they immigrated to the United States when I was very young. We also moved around so much for my father’s job that, even though my parents had a few Israeli friends, we were, for the most part, on our own and perpetually on the move.

Air travel was prohibitive for my young parents, who were trying to save enough money to return to their country with the chance of buying a home. I was 11 when we finally did return, so much of that time was a blur of the emotional drama of adolescence and anxiety over being the new girl again.

But the year we returned, the Israeli economy took a downturn after the Yom Kippur War, which proved too much of a strain on my parents, who, by that time, had grown accustomed to the gentler ways of their lives in the far less chaotic United States.

By age 12, I was already back in the States. I’d experienced a taste of Israeli life, having learned the language and grown close to my uncles and aunts. The byproduct of this constant tumult was that while I’d felt like an American in Israel, now, after studying in an Israeli school, I felt like an Israeli in America.

As an adult, perhaps trying to bridge this gap and my feelings of rootlessness, I moved back to Israel. One morning, while driving in Tel Aviv, my cousin called to warn me that in a few minutes there would be an air siren to commemorate Yom HaShoah. I barely had time to digest what she’d said when traffic came to a sudden and complete halt while the 10 a.m. siren that sounds in every corner of Israel blared. I watched people get out of their cars and stand solemnly in the street, on balconies and the sidewalk with downturned eyes. To the American in me, this was the sound of war, a warning to take shelter and to find cover, but to the Israeli in me, I knew something much deeper was happening. It was the first time I realized that I and all of those surrounding me were the survivors of something unimaginable. We were there, able to stand in the streets of Israel in the knowledge that our people had somehow built this country out of a tremendous collective sorrow.

It was one of the proudest moments of my life — having the privilege to stand in the country of my birth, in a thriving Jewish homeland. Strangely, when I heard that frightening siren, for the first time I felt like a “chosen” person. By some miraculous combination of stamina and defiance, we were the ones chosen to carry on a legacy. Remembering our dead in this visceral way, in silent meditation before going about our day, was indeed a privilege afforded to very few. I knew I was there not by accident but because my grandparents managed to survive and, just barely, to get their children out alive.

By some miraculous combination of stamina and defiance, we were the ones chosen to carry on a legacy.

My grandparents were separated during the war when my Russian grandfather was drafted to serve in the army in Siberia. My grandmother somehow managed to keep my mother and her brother alive, walking thousands of miserable miles to Uzbekistan and back again. When they finally reached their native Romania, they found their house in shambles, nothing left inside but rubble.

Even though my mother was a young girl, she remembers the hunger, how my grandmother sold the few possessions she managed to carry and the gold jewelry she had to obtain food. She remembers the smell of the dung her mother used to cook what little she had bartered for and the heady aroma of the rice pilaf made by the local Uzbekistanis that her mother could not afford to buy her.

It is unfathomable that my grandparents were reunited at all, and then that they were courageous enough, after the trauma they endured, to make a new life in Israel. To think they considered themselves the “lucky ones” gives new meaning to the concepts of faith and optimism.

When they finally made it to Israel, my grandparents were middle-aged, and my mother was 11, the same age I was when we moved back. My mother was so thin and frail, so unhealthy from all the years of war, that my grandmother sent her away to a mountainous region of Israel to breathe clean air and eat fruits and vegetables. She describes the taste of the sour cream in Israel, full of sugar that they fed her to fatten her up — as all the riches promised to them in the land flowing with milk and honey.

Even before I cooked professionally, I found it impossible to waste food. My mother never wasted anything in our house. She used every part of an animal or vegetable, and perhaps I inherited that from her. But I’m not sure this sensibility came from watching her cook. I could almost convince myself that I am a reincarnation of an old Jewish soul, one who came out of the war only to find itself in a foreign land, one where the soul didn’t speak the language and was mocked for being the new kid.

Maybe I, like every Jew, carry around a little piece of that burden and legacy with me. In each one of us who are left, there is a bit of that old soul waiting and wondering: Can it happen again? Maybe it is this collective memory that makes an inordinately high percentage of our people strive and push for greatness. Maybe it’s to make up for the fact that we lost so many and so few of us are left to make great music, beautiful art and advances in every field. Maybe it’s why we are programmed to educate and why it’s the hallmark of a Jewish soul to remain vigilant and fight social injustice.

For all these reasons, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate both the remembrance of the Holocaust as well as Israel’s birthday than by eating an Israeli salad. To me, it’s the ultimate symbol of grounding and successful assimilation of a people.

What started as the Salat Aravi, or Arab salad — the most popular salad of the region — became Salat Katzutz, or chopped salad. When we eat it, our souls might remember that we came to a foreign land because they tried to kill us, but we prevailed. It is with this salad that we showed the world that we could feed ourselves despite unfamiliar and hostile surroundings.

When we hear the siren that symbolizes our very existence, it doesn’t matter what we’re going through now, individually or as a nation. It means we shouldn’t forget that we are the children and grandchildren of survivors — a precious, chosen few. No matter our origins, as Jews, we are an expression of the Israeli salad, chopped small but abundant in our defiance, full of soul and present at tables around the world.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

‘Mimounizing’ Your Life

Moufletas.

Although I consider myself a social person, I realized early on that in a party situation, I’ve always gravitated toward the kitchen. Everyone expresses themselves differently, but I think chefs tend to have this trait in common. Most of us would rather watch other people have a good time as we melt into the background while serving little slices of joy and nostalgia.

Perhaps it’s the romantic in me that remembers the atmosphere during holidays when our family cooks would gather in the kitchen. “Tombe la Neige” or Pavarotti would be playing in the background, my aunt’s favorite. She’d be singing along while working on repetitive tasks such as stuffing grapeleaves or frying leek patties.

My cousin who is also a chef told me stories of growing up in Migdal HaEmek in Israel, where roughly half the population is Romanian while the other half is Moroccan. When Passover ends, and Jews begin to eat chametz again, he and the rest of the Romanians look forward to their Moroccan friends’ Mimouna celebrations. He would find himself hiding in his neighbors’ kitchens watching the moufletas being made and wishing he was the cook standing over the stove. He described his awe at watching his friends’ grandmothers turning over the thin crepes, again and again, building up one crepe on top of the other until the stack reached over a foot tall and threatened to topple. Someone else would drench them with butter and honey while other hands would roll them up and bring them to the table.

Mimouna is a singularly Moroccan tradition, and although it’s not a religious holiday, it is a cultural phenomenon that has grown in popularity over the years. While Ashkenazi and even Sephardic Jews usually prepare a dairy feast with matzo brei taking center stage, the Moroccans break out their gold and finery and run a sweet fantasy tour through their neighborhoods, blessing and kissing, flirting and enchanting. During the Mimouna, there is an unwritten rule that even if you have been fighting with your neighbors or friends all year, that night is the time to forgive and be forgiven, to let bygones be bygones, and to hope for love and success. Mimouna is the night when “emouna” or belief meets “maimun,” the Arabic word for good fortune.

Everything about the Mimouna celebration, from the sweets-laden table with stuffed dried fruit to the buttery honey-kissed moufletas, spicy sweet tea and arak (a Levantine alcoholic spirit), tells a story of letting loose and of love. Traditionally, the ban on the time of the year when marriage is prohibited lifts and many couples receive the blessings of their families for an engagement. Matchmakers are out in full force, and romances are kindled and rekindled. It’s easy to feel footloose and fancy-free, lost in the giddiness of the Mimouna atmosphere. Why not take this feeling forward and use it as a motif for the rest of the year?

Everything about the Mimouna celebration tells a story of letting loose and of love.

It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the times in which we live that cynicism and fear often undermine romance and love. While it’s tempting to blame the media or our iPhone-driven lives for this trend, discontent is not the domain of our times. After all, we live in an age when almost anything is possible, and we have more opportunities than ever. So why are we so lonely and disconnected? Why does it take a Mimouna to help us to forgive the grievances we’ve collected?

I can tell you from watching from the background all of these years what I’ve gleaned from the safety of the kitchen while catering parties:

1) Rich or poor, it makes very little difference — all people have worries.

2) The idea of protecting yourself — forget about it; love can’t happen in the absence of disclosure.

3) Looking for someone to make you whole? You need to make yourself whole first.

4) Thinking that if only you meet the perfect person that your life would be complete. Nobody is perfect, and neither are you.

5) Holding on to the past? Past failures are an indication only that you tried, not an indictment of your character. Move on and forgive yourself.

So, before I give you a marvelous moufleta recipe, let me assure you if you start “mimounizing” your life by being generous with your love, your good words and sharing your sweetness, then the air around you will change. It won’t happen overnight, but unlike the magical Mimouna celebration that comes only once a year, your sweet vibes will attract others with good intentions — and that can lead you to relationships and connections that might last a lifetime.

MOUFLETAS — MOROCCAN CREPES WITH SWEET SYRUP
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 packet or 2 1/4 teaspoons active
dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups warm water (not so hot that it
kills the yeast)
1/2 cup vegetable oil (not olive)
1 stick butter
1/2 cup honey

Mix the flour, yeast, sugar and salt. Add warm water and mix well in a stand mixer until a soft shaggy dough forms. Knead in a machine or by hand until the dough is very silky and smooth — about 5 minutes.

Oil hands generously and form dough into a rough cylinder about 2 inches in diameter. Using a bench scraper or your hands, pinch off small balls of dough and place on a tray or plate. When all the dough is separated into balls, pour the rest of the oil on the tray and roll the dough balls over in it until they are fully covered. Cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for 30 minutes.

Put a nonstick pan on the stove on medium heat with a touch of oil on the surface.

Remove a ball and flatten out on a smooth, cold surface. Using well-oiled hands, press and push the soft dough into a very thin, almost transparent, circle — as thin as you can get it and about 10 inches in diameter. Don’t worry if the dough tears. Place the crepe in the warm pan and cook it for about 60 seconds while working on the next ball.

Flip over the crepe and then immediately place the next crepe on the surface of the hot crepe in the pan. Keep rolling and turning, rolling and turning until all the dough balls are used and you have a stack of crepes in the pan, each time lifting carefully and turning over the stack, taking care not to overcook.

Put butter and honey in small pot and heat until butter is melted. Separate the stack of moufletas one by one, spooning the melted butter and honey over each, and then roll into a cylinder or fold in half and then into quarters.

Makes about 30 moufletas.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Matzah Heaven and Family Love

Burmolikos.

My father recently had a scary episode on a sidewalk in which concrete was the clear victor, and my father’s head was the loser. It was not too damaging in the end, but the incident made us all shudder in the knowledge that had he fallen just a fraction of an inch differently, it easily could have led to his demise. And by his demise, I mean mine because I’m a daddy’s girl through and through. The fact that I’m not such a girl anymore is irrelevant because my world would have instantaneously shattered into a thousand little pieces if that head had fallen just a little bit harder.

I needed to see for myself that he was as hard-headed as he was cracked up to be, so I decided to go home for the Passover holiday. I jumped on a plane and made the long trip from Uganda to the United States. During the flight over, I planned how I would make my father one of his favorite Passover foods — Burmolikos, the Bulgarian version of matzo brei.

Sure enough, when I got to my parents’ house, my father was on the mend, in high spirits and hardly the worse for wear.

It’s an odd sensation sleeping in your childhood home. Let’s face it, in the real world, people are not likely to respond well if you let your real childish inner-self shine through. In sharp contrast, at home, with the people who love you wholly and unconditionally, know your weaknesses, your buttons and your failures — well, there’s no playing those people. There’s no nonsense that you can come up with or rationalization you can muster, however creative, that can mask your true self from those people.

Perhaps that’s why coming home for holidays is a universally tough experience for most people. There’s a clash from the get-go between the you that you think you are and the you that your parents know you are. The other odd thing about coming home as an adult is that it’s a severe reality check regarding your mortality. You can’t help it when your parents tell you stories, and you look at photos of yourself when you were much younger. It’s hard not to have your mind turn to thoughts of that inevitable day when you will be trying to patch together conversations that took place through a lens of hazy memories.

The only possible way to avoid self-inflicted melodrama that I know of is to cook, so between lessons in oxtail stew and chicken and onions from my mother, I busied myself with the Burmolikos, even though they are usually reserved for the day after the second seder in our family. I then splashed out on a new recipe for Chremslach, a pillowy cheese pancake made with matzo meal, a more Ashkenazi version for my Romanian mother. While I was cooking, I remembered an episode from my childhood that exemplifies my father’s style of parenting.

While you’re frying your Matzo Brei this Passover, remember that even if you were a thorn in your parents’ side, you’re still the best thing that ever happened to them.

When I was 16, I picked up my best friend, Michelle, in the morning and promptly skipped that pesky thing called high school and instead drove us straight to downtown Washington, D.C. I wasn’t even allowed to drive my car that far but I figured smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee would be a good enough lesson for that day. We walked around tony Georgetown for a bit, and after a few hours, when Michelle had loosened up a little and lunchtime approached, we headed on over to a French bistro called Café de Paris.

The place was full of Georgetown hipsters, and Michelle, who was usually far more adventurous than me, was so nervous that she couldn’t calm down. We ordered her a beer, which she speed drank, and after a while, she started to relax. Just as we were hitting our stride, giggling about boys, our waiter approached us with two Heinekens and a bit too gleefully remarked, “These are from that gentleman over there.” Fully expecting to see a hotter version of Jude Law staring back at me, I turned my head quickly, only to find my father toasting me with a beer from across the restaurant. While Michelle and I turned every shade of red known to man and tried to figure out an exit strategy, my father quietly paid our bill and his, and then he and my mother left the bistro. My parents never broached the subject with me again, but I can tell you that was the last time I ever skipped school.

Although none of us can escape the fact that our futures are uncertain, and that at any time our loved ones can be ripped away from us, it’s important to savor every occasion. While you’re frying your Matzo Brei this Passover, remember that even if you were a thorn in your parents’ side for a period during your younger years, you’re still the best thing that ever happened to them. From the first moment they saw you to the last — the world is in its correct orbit in your company.

BURMOLIKOS — MATZO BREI
8 sheets of matzo
Boiling water to cover
5 whole eggs
2 teaspoons of kosher salt (or to taste)
3/4 teaspoon of black pepper (optional)
1 cup neutral tasting oil for frying (or a
combination of butter and oil)
Sugar syrup, maple syrup or Bulgaria
feta for serving

Crumble matzo sheets into large pieces into a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 5 minutes, then drain in a colander. Beat eggs in a separate bowl and season with salt and pepper, if using.  Squeeze the matzo until it is dry and add to the beaten eggs. Let mixture sit for 5 minutes while you heat the oil.

When the oil is hot but not smoking, use a tablespoon or an ice cream scoop to drop dollops of the mixture into the hot oil. Fry for about 1 minute on the first side and then gently turn over patties and fry another minute on the second side. Burmolikos should be golden brown on both sides and cooked through. You may have to sacrifice one to the see if it’s cooked. You’ll be happy to do it.

Serve with syrup for a sweet version or even with Bulgarian feta for a salty version.

Makes about 20 Burmolikos.

CHEESE-FILLED CHREMSLACH — CHEESE-FILLED MATZO PANCAKES
4 ounces cream cheese
(room temperature)
4 ounces cottage cheese
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 cups matzo meal, divided
1/2 cup oil or butter or a combination
Sour cherry jam and sour cream
for serving (optional)
Powdered sugar for serving (optional)

Beat the cream cheese and cottage cheese together until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs, salt, sugar and 1/2 cup of the matzo meal and mix well. Put 1/4 cup of the matzo meal on a plate. Form pancakes out of 2 tablespoons of the mixture and dredge in the matzo meal to coat. Heat oil or butter in a frying pan until hot but not smoking. Fry pancakes in oil for about 45 seconds to a minute on each side until lightly browned. Serve hot with sugar, jam, sour cream or all of the above.

Makes about 15 small pancakes.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

CAN PASSOVER FOOD LIBERATE US? Vegetable Dishes That Steal the Seder

Photo by Yamit Behar Wood.

Passover means freedom to the Jews. Freedom from Egypt, freedom from slavery and freedom to teach the new generation about our history and traditions. Passover marks the beginning of the “Aviv” — and spring in Israel signals a time of renewal and redemption, a second chance to right any wrongs since Rosh Hashanah. We also are called upon to show mercy and compassion as was shown to us. Because charity begins at home, the seder is a perfect time to re-evaluate priorities and to detoxify our environment in the hopes of gaining a better way forward in all aspects of our lives.

And what better way to start anew spiritually than to begin to rethink not only what comes in and out of our lives but what physically goes into our bodies. Jewish scholars have been talking about nutrition since the Middle Ages. The philosopher Maimonides, who was a physician, wrote many texts on the subject of “food as medicine” — particularly plants. The teachings of the Rambam (an acronym for Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon) in the 12th century included a quote that is apt for modern times. He wrote: “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.”

As a chef, I humbly concur. I think most chefs would agree that vegetables, the perfect artform nature has given us, provide an unrivaled opportunity to show off our skills. With only a sharp knife in hand, a bit of ingenuity and sometimes a lick of fire, if handled simply and correctly, vegetables provide infinite flavor combinations, textures and variety. Vegetables make us look good — in more ways than one.

My parents, who turn 80 this year but look 60, enjoy robust health and rarely have breakfast without a requisite plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and avocado loaded up with olive oil. This very Mediterranean way of eating spilled over into my professional cooking life; I never tire of coming up with new salads and vegetable dishes that often steal the show and eclipse the protein on the plate. Even when catering a large event, some of my most popular one-bite wonders are pure vegetable eye candy.

It’s interesting to note that despite restrictions on chametz — which means different things to Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, fresh unprocessed fruits and vegetables are deemed acceptable by all Jews on Passover.

In Israel, a vegetable-obsessed country with more vegans per capita than anywhere in the world, fresh produce is a cultural mainstay. The Israeli diet is lauded as among the healthiest ways of eating in the modern world. You need look only as far as any restaurant menu in the country to see that the adage “health is wealth” is indeed a very Jewish view of the world.

I think most chefs would agree that vegetables, the perfect artform nature has given us, provide an unrivaled opportunity to show off our skills.   

There is no breakfast, lunch or dinner in Israel, at home or in a café, that doesn’t include an abundance of exciting vegetable dishes, prepared in a myriad of intriguing ways. If you’ve ever hosted Israelis or traveled with them outside of Israel, you likely will find them on the hunt for tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce to go along with their food. On a road trip, Israelis are more likely to bring along fruits and vegetables, much the way people from other cultures pack chips and candy.

Maybe it’s because Israelis wear little clothing for a long period of the year and vegetables are a big bang for the buck, calorie-wise. Maybe it’s because our vegetables taste so much better grown under the relentless Israeli sun. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the days when the young country was established, and the most accessible and prolific sustenance in the kibbutzim was vegetables. Meat was scarce and expensive in Israel in those days, so the always practical Jews found a reliable, healthy way of eating, and the “Israeli salad” was born.

The nation was founded on its agricultural proficiency, and it’s no coincidence that a native-born Israeli is called a Sabra, the fruit of a desert flower, prickly and rough on the outside only to reveal a sweet and juicy center.

When my husband and I left Israel and moved to Uganda for his new job, my first excursions were to the farmers markets to check out the local produce. I was overjoyed when I realized that cooking with Ugandan produce would be a farm-to-table experience that mimicked my beloved Shuk HaCarmel, an incredible open-air market in Tel Aviv.  When I opened a restaurant that included a plot of land, I made sure to plant an herb garden, kitchen garden and chile garden on the premises. Hands down, my favorite part of the day was taking my little basket and clippers to the garden and collecting herbs and garnishes right before the dinner rush.

With preparations underway for this celebration of freedom and redemption, it might be time for vegetables to have their day in the sun. Because the theme of Passover is meant to liberate us from our old ways of doing things and to renew our commitment to things that matter most, such as our health, it could be time for vegetables to take center stage. It’s in our blood to cultivate the land, wherever that land may be, and to prosper from it. The process of taking a simple, natural ingredient from the ground and turning it into something delicious is our birthright and a life-affirming exercise.

To that end, I want to share a few extraordinary vegetable dishes that will enchant your guests and enhance whatever traditional favorites you may be cooking this year. They are all make-ahead and straightforward so you can spend time with your guests and enjoy yourself. After all, sharing and connecting with others is always the most crucial purpose of any holiday gathering. For the best flavor, remember to pick vegetables that are in season, and preferably ones that have been grown in your area and didn’t have to travel far to get to your plate.

And if you still aren’t convinced that vegetables deserve a more prominent spot on the table this holiday, and in your life in general, I have a challenge for you this Passover. After the last of your company has gone home, quietly sneak into your kitchen and grab a matzo. Top it with some of my leftover eggplant chopped “liver,” thin slices of avocado, salt and pepper. Then, just try to stop eating it before the rest of the bowl has vanished. Chef’s tip: Everything tastes better when eaten standing up over the sink with only the refrigerator light on for company. Chag sameach.

HERB-STUFFED MUSHROOMS WITH ARUGULA

This simple and elegant dish is beloved by everyone — even mushroom haters. The oven transforms the fungi to golden orbs bursting with savory umami flavor.

20 cremini or white button mushrooms wiped clean, stems removed but not discarded
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large white onion, diced small
to medium
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
3 cloves garlic, pressed into a paste
2 tablespoons white wine or
cooking sherry
1/4 cup mixed fresh parsley, sage,
rosemary and thyme, any or all of
these, leaves only, finely chopped
1/3 cup matzo meal
4 cups fresh arugula, cleaned and dried
for serving as a bed for the
mushrooms

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Remove stems from mushrooms and set aside. Toss mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and place stem-side up on the baking tray. Bake for 10 minutes while you make the filling.

To make the filling, finely dice the mushroom stems and onions and saute in olive oil. Add salt, pepper, paprika and garlic and fry until onions are opaque and there is no liquid in the pan — about 10 minutes frequently stirring, so the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom.

Deglaze pan with wine or sherry and cook another minute until there is no more liquid in the bottom of the pan. Set aside to cool and remove mushrooms from oven.

Add fresh herbs and matzo meal and stir filling to combine. Stuff mushrooms with an equal amount of filling and sprinkle tops with a bit of paprika for color. Return tray to hot oven for additional 20-25 minutes or until mushrooms are golden brown on top.

Spread arugula on serving tray and top with warm mushrooms to wilt the greens a bit and make them extra delicious. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and serve.  Serve warm or room temperature.

Makes 20 mushrooms.

Herb-Stuffed Mushrooms with Arugula. Photo by Orly Levy.

GYUVETCH: BULGARIAN-STYLE RATATOUILLE

Gyuvetch is a stew similar to the French ratatouille common throughout the Balkans, sometimes cooked with lamb or beef in a clay pot. It’s a meal unto itself and an ode to fresh garden vegetables, so I usually skip the meat. I cook it on my biggest baking tray, so the vegetables have room to spread out and caramelize. It makes for a stunning centerpiece when served on a large platter and will please vegetarians and meat-eaters. It’s traditional to put quartered potatoes and a few cups of okra in Bulgarian gyuvetch. Use them if you wish. Even before cooking, a big tray of gyuvetch is a visual masterpiece.

2-3 zucchini, green, yellow or a mix,
chopped into 2-inch pieces
3 large red or yellow and green bell
peppers, or a mix, seeded and
chopped into 1-inch pieces
2-3 medium-size eggplants, unpeeled
chopped into 2-inch pieces
2-3 white onions, diced medium
3 ripe red tomatoes, chopped medium
1 pound green beans, ends trimmed but
left whole
4 cloves garlic, some chopped,
some minced
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes (optional)
1 tablespoon vegetable stock powder
or bouillon powder (optional)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
and their juice
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup olive oil or grapeseed oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

On a large baking sheet, combine chopped vegetables, spices, canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Pour oil over all and mix thoroughly with a large spoon or clean hands.

Bake for at least 2 hours, stirring gently so as not to break up the shapes of the vegetables, every 20 minutes or so. Cook until there is no liquid on the bottom of the baking tray and vegetables have caramelized. It’s OK, even preferable, that dark brown spots appear on some of the vegetables. Serve hot or room temperature.

Serves 4 as a main course, 12 as a side dish.

Gyuvetch. Photo by Yamit Behar Wood.

EGGPLANT CHOPPED “LIVER”

The meat was scarce and expensive in Israel when this recipe was developed. This mock chopped liver is the perfect stand-in. Spread it on matzo and be amazed by its complex texture and savory flavor profile.  It’s hard to believe it’s made of eggplant. Garnish with a splash of silan or balsamic reduction, avocado slices or roasted red peppers.

3 pounds eggplant, sliced into 1/2-inch
thick rounds
2 teaspoons salt, divided
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 cups white onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup water
3 hard-boiled eggs (optional; omit
for vegan option)
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Place eggplant slices in a colander and sprinkle with one teaspoon salt. Leave slices to drain in the sink for 30 minutes.

Line a large baking tray with parchment paper.

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan and saute the onions and garlic with one teaspoon of salt and one teaspoon of paprika. After the onions have become translucent, add 1/4 cup water to the pan, cover and lower the heat. Simmer covered, about 20 minutes, checking halfway through to make sure onions don’t burn.

Rinse the salt from eggplant slices and dry each slice between paper towels. Pour remaining three tablespoons olive oil onto the paper-lined tray and toss eggplant in oil to coat. Arrange coated slices on tray and bake for about 30 minutes, flipping once halfway through cooking with tongs or a spatula until both sides of eggplant are tender and golden. Take care not to overcook and dry out eggplant.

In the meantime, uncover onions — the water should have evaporated. Cook uncovered for about 10 minutes on low heat until the onion caramelizes and turns golden brown and there is no liquid in the pan. Set aside to cool.

After eggplant is cooked, mix it with the onions and chopped eggs (if using) and place in food processor. Pulse gently, stopping to stir the contents of the processor every 30 seconds. You want the chopped “liver” coarsely chopped, not a paste. If you don’t have a food processor, you can use a large chef’s knife and a wooden cutting board to chop the ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with a flutter of parsley if desired. This spread tastes even better the next day.

Makes 12 servings.

RAW ZUCCHINI ROLL-UPS WITH SMOKY EGGPLANT, TAHINI AND PINE NUTS

Zucchini makes a perfect vessel for fillings when sliced thinly with a vegetable peeler and marinated. You can use the ribbons as they are for salads, but I love to fill this smoky eggplant and tahini dip with toasted pine nuts, for texture. It’s perfect finger food for Passover with real “Wow” factor.

For the roll-ups:
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 yellow or green zucchini, washed
but unpeeled

On a clean tray, drizzle olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Wash the zucchini and lay it on a cutting board. Steady the zucchini by holding it by the stem end with one hand and running a wide vegetable peeler down its length horizontally with your other hand. This should produce thin ribbons the width of the vegetable.

Lay them on the prepared tray side by side and turn them over once to cover in the marinade. Sprinkle more salt and pepper on top and marinate in fridge uncovered, a few hours or overnight.

EGGPLANT, TAHINI AND PINE NUT FILLING

2 large eggplants
3 unpeeled garlic cloves
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon each salt and black pepper,
or to taste
2 tablespoons raw tahini (sesame seed
paste)
Olive oil and balsamic reduction for
drizzling (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking tray with foil.

Wash and prick eggplants’ skin in a few places with the tines of a fork and place in oven for approximately 30 minutes, turning every few minutes. Roast the whole garlic cloves in their skins alongside the eggplant.

When done, eggplants should be blackened and charred and collapse as if hollow, and garlic should be golden brown and soft to the touch. Remove from oven and let sit on the tray until cool enough to handle.

Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan and prepare clean bowl to mix the filling.

Using a sharp knife, cut a slit at the top of each eggplant. Using a wooden spoon — metal makes eggplant turn black — gently transfer the cooked, silky eggplant from its skin to the bowl and chop until it forms a paste. Squeeze the roasted garlic from its skin and mash into the eggplant. Add remaining ingredients, except a half tablespoon or so of the olive oil and stir with a wooden utensil until it’s a homogenous mixture. Adjust seasonings, cover with plastic wrap directly on top of the filling and let cool in the fridge until ready to assemble.

To assemble, lay a marinated zucchini ribbon flat on a cutting board. Take a heaping teaspoon of the eggplant mixture and place it near the end of the strip nearest you and roll until you’ve reached the end of the strip. Repeat until all the zucchini ribbons and filling have been used.  Leftover filling makes a great snack for later.

To serve, transfer the rolls to a clean platter, drizzle with the remaining olive oil and a stream of balsamic reduction (if using) and serve chilled.

Makes about 20 rolls.

Passover Meal Prep: Leek and Beef Patties

I certainly won the Parent lottery, and I don’t think it’s an accident that I was given the ones I got. I also was exceptionally fortunate that part of my winnings came with a few stand-in mothers in the form of aunts. Although I feel the heavens showed terrible judgment when they decided not to make me a mom, I was able to channel the nurturing aspect of my personality into professional cooking. I often think that most chefs are parents in sheep’s clothing because most of us simply want to make our customers happy by feeding them well.

This year, I missed my annual early morning birthday phone call from my Aunt Dora, who died six months ago. I found myself waiting to hear her voice all day, my heart sinking a bit every hour that passed without her good wishes and blessings.

Dora’s birthday falls this week, marking the time of year that, in the past, she would have started to prepare and freeze her most iconic dish for Passover. I can’t think of a better way to honor her memory than to pass along her recipe for the most emblematic of all my childhood foods: ktzitzot prasa. Meat and leek patties are a typical food of Rosh Hashanah and Passover throughout the Jewish Sephardic world, particularly in the Balkans. Omit the meat for a vegetarian version but double the amount of potato so they hold together better.

The Bulgarian Jews, from which my father’s side of the family hails, have a vibrant tradition of foods deriving from their Spanish roots. All of my aunts prepare this dish  because it’s a must on our table for Passover. Dora taught my mother to make these and by extension taught me. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it’s the favorite dish across all generations of our family.
These leek and beef patties aren’t difficult to make, but if each ingredient isn’t handled correctly, the whole dish will be inedible. Leeks tend to hold a lot of sand, so clean them thoroughly by slicing them lengthwise, then wash them in many changes of water. You don’t want gritty patties. Been there, done that.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it’s the favorite dish across all generations of our family.

You also must cook the leeks so that they are soft and don’t result in a patty that is fibrous, but not so soft that they are mushy. Done that, too. Next, grind the cooked leeks and squeeze as much water out of them as possible, so they will hold together when fried. Also, season them well. Otherwise, they’ll be bland. Dora taught me to do a test patty and adjust seasonings before cooking the rest of the batch. Then, if you’ve done all of that right, the patties must be fried in oil that is just hot enough, so they brown and don’t come out oily, but not so hot that their outsides burn before their insides cook.

Fortunately, Dora taught us all how to break up these steps so that these patties wouldn’t be too time-consuming for holidays when there were sometimes 30 or more people around her Passover table.

She would chop, clean and grind the leeks weeks in advance, straining them in the refrigerator overnight with a heavy plate on them to squeeze out liquid. The next day, she would mix them with the meat and seasonings and fry them, storing them in containers ready for the freezer.  The night before the holiday, she would transfer them to the fridge to thaw.

This Passover is the first in most of our lives without Dora, and it will be a difficult one for her family. Although I won’t be with my cousins in Israel, my parents and I will hold her in our thoughts as surely as we will squeeze lemon wedges on the
ktzitzot prasa before our first bite.

I still have some burning questions I would have liked to ask her about our culinary traditions, but it’s comforting to think that her great-grandchildren will be able to capture her essence through the soul food she so lovingly passed along.

BULGARIAN LEEK AND BEEF PATTIES
3 1/2 pounds leeks, only white and light- green parts, cut into 1-inch segments
1 medium-size potato, boiled and mashed
1/2 pound ground beef
2 eggs
2 tablespoons matzo meal (optional; if you are gluten-free, add more potato)
2 teaspoons salt or to taste
3/4 teaspoon black pepper or to taste
Vegetable oil for shallow frying (don’t use extra-virgin olive oil)
1 cup chicken stock for reheating
Lemon wedges for serving

Place clean, cut leeks in a large pot and cover with cold water, bringing to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to simmer, cover pot and cook until leeks are soft, about 15 minutes.

Put the leeks in a strainer and press with your hands until they are dry as possible.

Transfer the leeks to a food processor and gently pulse to grind, taking care to not over grind. Combine the leeks, mashed potato, ground beef, eggs, matzo meal, salt and pepper in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Let the mixture rest, covered in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

When ready to cook, heat 1/8 inch of neutral-tasting vegetable oil in a shallow frying pan on medium heat.  Take a golf ball-size scoop of mixture in damp hands, flattening it gently into a patty, about 3 inches in diameter. Fill the
entire pan with patties but leave space between them.

Fry until cooked through and brown on both sides. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Serve immediately, refrigerate or freeze for future use.

To reheat, we use a method called “papiado” in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish version of Yiddish. Papiado-style cooking calls for evaporating excess liquid in food in an uncovered dish in the oven. Modeling on this method, we place the patties in one layer in the pan on a burner and then pour over them a small amount of chicken stock, no more than a 1/2 cup. The patties are then cooked on medium-low heat until the liquid is absorbed, and they are a bit puffy and warmed through.

Serve hot or at room temperature with lemon wedges.

Makes about 40 small ktzitzot.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Stuffed Grape Leaves: A Luscious, Sephardic Labor of Love

Dolma, dolmeh, tolma, yaprak, sarma, sarmi: It doesn’t matter what they’re called, the humble grape leaf has tremendous power. Depending on whom you ask, stuffed grape leaves have a variety of names and fillings; many cultures claim their invention. The Greeks believe they were served to the Gods on Mount Olympus. The Turks think they were introduced to the Middle East by the Ottomans in the 16th century. But in my father’s family, sarmi — meat-and-rice filled grape leaves — are the provenance of our Bulgarian kitchen.

I’ve been eating stuffed grape leaves for my entire life. In fact, my love of cooking can be directly traced to watching my aunts picking, stuffing and rolling them before I was out of my high chair. My mother carried on this tradition when we came to the United States, and any time my father needed cheering up, or at any family celebration, they made an appearance on our table, cooked in tomato sauce and smothered in cooling yogurt. They are a piece of home, a symbol of family and our Balkan roots. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love them, hot or cold. It wasn’t until I moved to Africa, where they are not a common sight in grocery stores, that I didn’t cook them often.

Imagine my joy at receiving a box of freshly picked leaves delivered to my restaurant from an Armenian customer who remembered my lament about not being able to find them. I washed the leaves, blanched them in salted water for a few minutes, removed the long part of the stem that attached them to the vine and rested them in salty brine in a jar in the fridge.

As I was doing this, I remembered the entrance to my aunt’s apartment building in Tel Aviv that had a wild grape arbor near the garage. No one seemed to have planted those vines, but they supplied our family with stuffed grape leaves for what seemed like a thousand meals.

Stuffed grape leaves are not complicated to make, but they demand full attention and unwavering patience, two traits that I do not possess in abundance. Because I’m more the multi-tasking, high-energy type, rolling grape leaves is an exercise in my will to keep a quiet mind and steady hand. Preparing them is also an invitation to Memory Lane, my mother’s house, my father’s smile and almost all of our family gatherings in Israel.

Imagine the ingenuity of the person, no doubt a Sephardic Jew, who realized how delicious this humble, little leaf is.

Imagine the ingenuity of the person, no doubt a Sephardic Jew, who realized how delicious this humble, little leaf is. It’s hard enough to imagine how they decided that the fermented fruit of the plant could become wine but how they discovered the delicacy of its leaves stuffed with a filling and cooked boggles the mind.

It’s almost sacrilege in my family, but I’ve found that the grape leaves I love best are not cooked in tomato sauce or stuffed with meat. I prefer rice-and-pine nut stuffed vine leaves cooked in a garlicky elixir of lemon and olive oil. That’s the thing I love most about cooking — that even though our experiences and tastes may be shaped by our first glimpses of what our family and even our ancestors may have eaten, we are not limited by their tastes. We are still able, if we are willing, to take family traditions and spin them our way.

It may sound odd, but whenever I’ve been lucky enough to walk through a vineyard, even in some of the most beautiful places on earth, I don’t think about wine. I think about my mother and my aunts placing an inverted plate on top of stuffed grape leaves to hold them together during cooking. Maybe many years from now, when I’m gone and buried, someone I’ve made these for will walk around a corner and see a grapevine growing wild in the shadow of a tree and they will think of me, too. That’s how powerful a grape leaf is.

SARMI – STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES
1 16-ounce jar prepared and brined grape leaves
1 cup long grain rice
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup finely sliced scallions, green and white parts
1/4 cup pine nuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 1 /2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons sugar
3 cloves garlic, finely mashed to a paste

Thoroughly rinse the brine from grape leaves under running water.   Place leaves in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Drain and rinse again and separate the leaves to remove the remaining brine and set aside.

Put rice in a pot of boiling water and stir well. Bring to a boil again and let boil for five minutes uncovered. Drain the rice in a strainer and rinse immediately with cold water. Drain again thoroughly to remove water.

To the rice, add parsley, scallions, pine nuts (if using), 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper and stir to combine well.

Line the bottom of a 3- to 4-quart pot with some of the broken or large vine leaves ( there are always some larger or thicker leaves than the rest).

To roll them, place a leaf in front of you on a cutting board with the shiny side of the leaf facing down and the stem closest to you. Put a heaping spoonful of the rice mixture (more for the larger leaves) in a mound about a half-inch from the stem. Fold the stem end over the stuffing, and hold it down with your index finger. Then fold the left and the right sides of the leaf in like an envelope over the filling. Roll the leaf tightly away from you until you have reached the end of the leaf and made a small roll.

Continue to roll all the leaves until you run out of stuffing, laying them in concentric circles around the bottom of the pot. When the first layer is complete, continue to the next layer.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine olive oil, lemon juice, sugar, remaining salt and pepper, garlic and 1 cup of water, and whisk together until sugar dissolves. Pour mixture over stuffed grape leaves.

Lay an inverted dinner plate over the top of the rolls to hold them together during cooking and place the pot on medium heat. Bring to a boil, cover with a tight-fitting lid and reduce heat to low.

Simmer on low heat for one hour. Every 15 minutes or so, carefully lift the plate and baste the upper rolls with the cooking liquid. If all the liquid evaporates, add a bit more water. At the end of an hour, there should be a tiny bit of oil left at the bottom of the pot and no other liquid.

You can serve the leaves warm, but I like them cold out of the refrigerator the next day.

Makes about 50 rolls.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Salmon Cakes with Nothing Fake

I’m perpetually trying to cook with minimal ingredients on the weekends because I’m a chef who usually has an empty fridge by Sunday. Trying to figure out how to put together a delicious meal from the meager ingredients left in my pantry, fridge and garden without venturing out to the store has become a “ ‘Chopped’ challenge” every weekend. (“Chopped” is the Food Network reality show in which cooks must create dishes using often unlikely ingredients provided by the show.)

Recently, there were especially slim pickings, but I knew I could rely on an old standby.

I had canned salmon, leftover steamed broccoli, Parmesan cheese, some pickled jalapeno peppers and a jar of tahini. I always keep Israeli tahini in the fridge because, if push comes to shove, I know I can make a sauce, dip or salad dressing out of it with little more than some lemon and garlic.

Cooking in a professional kitchen is physically demanding, a labor of love and much akin to running a marathon every day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy rice and pasta, but when I eat these highly processed foods, it’s difficult to muster up the energy to do my job. I know that if I don’t eat nourishing food, I’m doomed and won’t have enough power to make it through Monday, much less the rest of the week. I was reminded of this recently when on a trip to the States, I was eating out a lot, not minding nutrition as well as I should have, and noticed a marked decrease in my energy levels and even a little bit of emotional distress.

I know it sounds hypocritical of me as a restaurateur to say, but restaurant food is always full of stuff you don’t necessarily want to consume on a regular basis. In my café in Uganda, I have no choice but to make real food. My options for faking it with processed food are practically nonexistent. There is no Costco or Sam’s Club in the middle of the African continent, no Amazon Prime delivery, for better and for worse.

I’m sure that my experience running restaurants in Africa has been a far cry from the experience of chefs in the West. Although I can’t rely on convenience foods or pre-made sauces, I can’t imagine that with my family background I would cook much differently in a Western kitchen because the most packaged thing we ever ate at my house while I was growing up was Rice-A-Roni.

There were always vegetables drenched in olive oil at our table, roasted peppers were a must, as was Bulgarian feta and plain yogurt. I remember after a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was a teenager, being shocked to see a breakfast table covered with doughnuts, pancakes, bacon, cereal and pitchers of milk and orange juice. I watched as my skinny friend picked up a glazed doughnut and spread butter on it. I remember being jealous that she was built like a thin boy and eating the unthinkable for breakfast.

Later in life, I realized that the Israeli-style eating at my house set me up for a lifetime of healthier habits and taste buds that didn’t crave sugar all the time. And what a blessing that is because I suspect it’s your habits overall that matter, not the once-in-a-while order of McDonald’s french fries or the occasional Chips Ahoy craving that undoes you.  Perhaps, it’s the day-to-day presence or lack of real, nutrient-dense food that you consume daily that creates a foundation for good — or not so good — health.

In my restaurant, although I do bake decadent desserts and sugary treats, they are not meant to be regularly consumed. My menus reflect my love of home-style cooking and tasty, fresh salads influenced by the Mediterranean style of eating and my love of the Israeli food of my childhood.

This salmon cake recipe is one I often make, changing it up according to what I have in the house with the priority being grocery store avoidance at all costs. Of course, you can make this with fresh salmon if you have it, but in Uganda, I’m hundreds of miles from the nearest coast and the best I can do is canned salmon. Note that I don’t use breadcrumbs, matzo meal or flour in this recipe. I prefer the salty kick of Parmesan cheese and the texture of leftover cooked vegetables to provide just enough “glue” to hold together these delicious cakes.

Start to finish, this recipe is a worthwhile investment of 30 minutes. If I know I have a hard week ahead, I’ll double it so I have extra to eat hot or cold throughout the week. Pair with a salad, roasted vegetables, a side of tahini or yogurt and cucumber dip, and you have a quick and nutritious meal that will leave you feeling satisfied and virtuous. Make them on the small side if you have last-minute guests and want to serve as canapes or portion them into larger cakes and serve as salmon burgers. My only caveat: Try to find wild-caught salmon because it tastes so much better than farmed and is probably better for you.

SPICY SALMON CAKES
1 15-ounce can of wild-caught pink
or red salmon, drained well
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 cup leftover steamed or roasted
broccoli, cauliflower or zucchini,
finely chopped
1/4 cup green onion, finely chopped
1/8 cup chopped pickled jalapeno
peppers or capers (optional)
1/4 cup mixed fresh herbs of your
choice (I use parsley, cilantro and
basil), minced
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon each of salt, pepper, hot
or sweet paprika, or to taste
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges for serving

Drain the salmon well and break up any large pieces with a fork. I leave in the bones because they are soft and are an excellent source of calcium.

Add remaining ingredients except for egg and oil, then taste the mixture. It should taste like a delicious salmon salad. Adjust your seasonings, then mix in beaten egg. Cover with cling film and let rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven to 350 F.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper or a silicone mat and brush on two tablespoons of olive oil. Remove salmon mixture from refrigerator and form patties of the desired size, compacting and flattening the patties with wet fingers. Place patties on a tray with oil and turn them over in the oil a few times to coat.

Bake for about 20 minutes, flipping once halfway through cooking or until they are golden brown on both sides.

Garnish with lemon wedges, if desired.

Makes 4 burger-size salmon patties or about 12 appetizer-size patties.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

The Sexiest, Healthiest Hamantashen You’ve Ever Had

I admit I had to refresh myself on the story of Purim before coming up with a recipe for this week’s column. Growing up primarily in the United States with two Israeli parents who didn’t celebrate much outside of Rosh Hashanah and Passover, left a gap in my understanding of some Jewish holidays. Also, I didn’t attend a Jewish or Hebrew school, so it’s sad to say the only time I remember wearing a costume was on Halloween.

What I do remember is my first taste of Osnai Haman (“Haman’s ears”) in New York City, generally called hamantashen (“Haman’s hats,” traditional Purim pastry). I was invited to attend a Shabbat meal at the home of a Jewish family, and the taste of the sweet filling with earthy poppy seeds and buttery pastry became firmly etched in my mind.

Apparently, the bar was set too high from that first taste of what I like to call the “Jewish Pastries.” The trouble was that the store-bought versions, in the U.S. and even in Israel, always fell short of the mark for me. They tended to be too soft, too sweet or too bland for my taste, so I filed them under the “not worth the calories” folder in my mind, with hamantashen and rugelach falling firmly into that category.

Because I’m a pastry chef who is more interested in eating savory food than sweets, a dessert needs to be pretty special for me to indulge. I’m far too lazy to spend my limited cooking currency at home on anything other than real food, so hamantashen was never on my radar.

I need extra motivation to bake something sweet at home after a work week filled with day-to-day desserts and special-occasion cake orders. By coincidence, one of my friends who is gluten intolerant told me she was coming over early the next morning for a quick coffee. This prompted me to run to the kitchen to make something special for her. The bonus: Her Israeli husband would be thrilled when I sent her home with a Purim care package.

Unfortunately, it’s rare to find poppy seeds here in Uganda, and I ran out of my stash in the freezer. This was now a challenge!

Because I grow raspberries in my garden, I always have homemade sugar-free raspberry jam in my fridge. I sweeten it with a form of powdered stevia and thicken it with chia seeds, as they gel nicely when added to liquid.  Feel free to use the sugar substitute of your choice or use real sugar in the same quantity.

Here is a sensuous hamantashen recipe that won’t leave you needing to spend half the afternoon in the gym.

This jam is heavenly on top of yogurt or as the crowning glory on timeless desserts such as Malabi, a brilliant custard served in Israel and all over the Middle East. As an aside, legend has it that Malabi originated in Persia from the name of a cook who created it for a sultan. If you don’t feel like making a filling, it’s perfectly acceptable to use any quality jam or preserves in this recipe.    

Because I had just read the story of the fiercely brave Persian Queen Esther, and how she saved the Jewish people from inevitable demise, I decided to infuse my pastry with an exotic Persian twist. I used a few drops of rosewater mixed into my jam along with some zest of an orange. Next, I needed to replace the traditional flour with something gluten-free. Almond flour fits the bill because not only is it easy to work with but almonds are a fantastically Middle Eastern ingredient.

So here it is, a sexy hamantashen recipe if I do say so myself, and one that won’t leave you needing to spend half the afternoon in the gym. My friend was blown away and didn’t believe that they were gluten-free until I pinky swore her half a dozen times. Best of all, I followed the Purim tradition of giving to those less fortunate — and by that, I mean all gluten-intolerant folks out there. How satisfying to think that the evil Haman’s silly hat would be replicated as a pastry all these centuries later and eaten by Jews all over the world. I’m sure Queen Esther would approve.

GLUTEN-FREE HAMANTASHEN
2 cups finely ground almond flour
¼ cup powdered stevia, sugar
substitute or granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 ½ tablespoons melted browned butter,
cooled
1 egg
1/8 teaspoon liquid stevia extract
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Raspberry and rose chia jam
(recipe below)
Powdered sugar or sugar substitute
for garnish

RASPBERRY AND ROSE CHIA JAM
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen raspberries
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon orange zest
¼ cup powdered stevia, sugar substitute
or granulated sugar
1 teaspoon rosewater (optional)
3 tablespoons chia seeds

Place berries, water, zest and stevia or
sugar in a small saucepan and simmer until berries soften. Mash berries until a jam-like consistency is achieved.

Place in a glass jar or bowl and stir in rosewater and chia seeds. Cover and refrigerate for a minimum of two hours to set.

Makes about 1 ¼ cups

For cookies:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line a baking tray with a Silpat or parchment paper. Sift almond flour into a bowl to remove lumps, and add sugar substitute and salt.

Brown butter by putting in a small saucepan and heating gently while stirring until the butter is golden brown.  Strain out milk particles by running through a sieve and let cool. Beat together egg, liquid stevia, orange zest, vanilla and cooled melted brown butter. Add to dry ingredients, stirring until a dough forms. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 30 minutes to make it easier to roll out.

Lightly flour parchment paper or a Silpat using a teaspoon of almond flour and use a rolling pin to flatten dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Using a drinking glass or a cookie cutter, punch out circles of your desired size and place on parchment-lined baking sheet.

Use a sharp knife or offset spatula to gently peel each circle off the surface without tearing. Continue to roll out and cut circles out of dough until it is used up. It should yield about 20 circles.

Place a circle of dough in front of you. Dollop a heaping teaspoon of jam or filling of your choice in the center. Pull together three sides of the circle to form a triangle shape and pinch together corners. Place on baking tray and put in the fridge to set for 30 minutes.

Bake in preheated oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until the edges of the pastry triangles begin to brown and turn golden. Do not overcook.

Let cool on a rack. Store in a closed container in the fridge. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.

Makes 20 hamantashen

Next week, look my recipe for Sephardic salmon cakes, roasted zucchini and tahini.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Eat Real, Be Real, Feel Real

Tarator. Photo from Wikipedia

January and February — I think I can speak for many of my fellow chefs when I say we don’t enjoy you very much. After the force-fed gluttony from September through December, I don’t think I’m the only cook who hears the words “detox” and “juice fast” a hundred times a day during these months. Like clockwork, each year I see dazed customers, men and women, confused by all the hype thrown at them from the multibillion-dollar diet industry that feeds on our insecurities about not being good enough if we aren’t a vegan marathon runner.

I watch our customers stare at our menu as if frozen, wondering what in the world they are going to eat for breakfast and lunch, trying to make sense of all the contradictory rules and regulations the USDA has thrown out in any given year: be a vegetarian, eat ­­­­­more grains, eat no grains, gluten free, meat free, egg free, nut free — it never ends.

After working in the food industry for more than 15 years, I can tell you that often these ridiculous starvation practices that include “all natural” powders and potions inevitably result in double helpings of doughnuts and chocolate cake.  As much as I love the profit margin on fruit smoothies, unless you enjoy being in the gym two-plus hours a day, spiking your blood sugar with pure fructose is probably counterproductive, to say the least, and is almost guaranteed to have you looking for another hit of sugar by 3 p.m.

I don’t want you to think I’m not a team player. I’ve chased some dogma down the street in my life, so far be it from me to be self-righteous about our ever-expanding diet culture and waistlines. But here’s the rub: Like clockwork, all the stress, anxiety and deprivation of this annual hysteria invariably make my sales of sweet indulgences increase markedly by Valentine’s Day. While my café in the American embassy may not be a controlled laboratory environment, my casual studies into human nature suggest that if you tell people they can’t eat something, often they start wanting it — more than anything.

My casual studies into human nature suggest that if you tell people they can’t eat something, often they start wanting it —  more than anything.

What should we do about this conundrum before mid-February strikes and all you dieters out there, nutrient deprived and sugar spiked from fruit and lack of protein, eat your weight in leftover Halloween candy from two years ago and those super chalky Valentine hearts? I’m no expert, but how about we take a word from our wise Jewish ancestors and just start eating real food again?

If I think back on my childhood, how my mother cooked, as well as my aunts and cousins, I see a definite pattern that almost without exception led to good health until old age. Until the advent of boxed convenience food, people cooked and ate unprocessed food with little to no additives. I’m still amazed by how energetic and youthful most of my family members in Israel are despite busy, frenetic lives and irregular exercise habits. Sure enough, sit-down meals are the norm in Mediterranean cultures. In Israel, most people still observe the Friday night meal with family as a fixed appointment on the calendar every Shabbat.

If you do have a New Year’s resolution to “get healthy” —  and by that, we all know you mean to lose weight — it is utterly imperative that you learn how to prepare a small rotation of quick dishes at home. People who eat real food enjoy many benefits beyond weight loss. Taking the time to nourish yourself, even if it’s 15 minutes, to sit down at a table and eat a healthy meal you prepared yourself, is not that much more taxing than going out to dinner. Consciously stopping to select what you want to eat, what your body is craving (and I don’t mean sugar), is a deliberate choice. Don’t tell me you are too busy — life today is more convenient than ever before. If I can prepare something after a 12-hour day cooking in Uganda, no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or even any other decent grocery store in sight, I know you can.

Maybe it’s time to stop getting food out of boxes and bags and take a break from the restaurants for a bit. Even if the only thing you can think of making for dinner is reservations, I promise that if you take a little time to rethink your food habits, you will discover new and exciting things to eat: food that will make you feel better and may give you greater mental clarity and more stable blood sugar — without having to struggle through an unsustainable diet or juice fast.

Here is my recipe for a revitalizing Bulgarian staple that most everyone in Israel makes on a regular basis. It’s usually thought of as a refreshing summer dish, but I eat it year-round as a starter or as a side dish with fish dishes such as tasty Sephardic salmon cakes, roasted zucchini and tahini (next week’s recipe) or even as a light supper with a side of scrambled eggs.

TARATOR (BULGARIAN YOGURT SOUP)
2 cups thick, plain yogurt, unflavored (Greek or Bulgarian)
2 cups Persian or English cucumber, or any firm cucumber, peeled and medium diced
2–3 cloves fresh minced garlic, or to taste
1/2 cup fresh herbs (dill, parsley, mint or a combination), finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
(optional or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Cold water
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts (optional)

Mix all ingredients (except walnuts) with a fork, and thin with cold water to desired consistency — for my preferred consistency, I add ¼ cup of cold water. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up till overnight. Serve in chilled bowls and garnish with chopped walnuts, if using.

If you would rather have a thicker, more dip-like consistency to eat on the side of a fish dish, leave out the water, or you can strain the mixture through a cheesecloth or coffee filter to make it thicker still. If you want to use this as a side dish for grilled chicken, beef or lamb kebabs, use unflavored coconut yogurt, which is a delicious alternative to dairy-based yogurt.

Makes 4 servings.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

The Day-After-Thanksgiving Feast

You know how you wake up the morning after Thanksgiving trying to figure out how you could have eaten so much but still have a refrigerator bursting with leftovers? Well, in my case, this is exacerbated by the fact that I’m a chef and never quite know how many people are going to come to the Thanksgiving lunch in my restaurant in the American Embassy in Uganda.

You can imagine how my Jewish-mother gene gets activated during a holiday, especially when I know that I am cooking for many of our young Marines who are missing their moms’ cooking while on tour overseas. Inevitably, I spend a few hours after the meal is over portioning out care packages to anyone and everyone I see, yet I’m still always left with so much food that it begs for me to get creative with the remnants of America’s favorite food holiday.

Maybe it’s a good thing, then, that I never actually get to eat the Thanksgiving meal — I’m always too busy cooking with my team — so I’ve come up with some simple and tasty recipes for leftovers that I now look forward to eating the next day. I’m sharing three of my all-time favorites here so that they may become traditions in your household, too.

ORNA & ELLA’S YAM PATTIES
(Levivot Batata in Hebrew)

Orna & Ella is a small, cute café on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv. After I opened my first business in the city, I often indulged in these tender little treats when I was pushing myself too hard and needed a break. They spell comfort, and are a fantastic use of leftover sweet potato casserole. You can even throw in some leftover mashed potatoes if you have it.

3 cups mashed sweet potatoes (or a mixture of
sweet and regular mashed potatoes)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter (or margarine)

In a large bowl, mix the mashed sweet potatoes with soy sauce, flour, sugar, salt and pepper, and stir without over mixing. Set aside to rest and come to room temperature for 30 minutes.

Put a few tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter into a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat.

Transfer the mashed sweet potato mixture to a Ziploc bag and make a small cut at the tip for piping. When the oil is hot, squirt tablespoon-sized balls onto the frying pan and flatten into a patty with the backside of a tablespoon. Fry for about 3 minutes on one side and then flip, frying the other side until both sides are golden brown. Be careful flipping because the patties are fragile. Each time you add a new batch of sweet potato patties to the pan, add more oil and butter — but not too much; a thin layer will do. Transfer cooked patties to a plate lined with paper towels and continue frying until batter is used up. Serve with sour cream, yogurt or tzatziki.

Makes about 15  patties.

THANKSGIVING FEAST EMPANADAS

An Argentine woman named Sheila, who was a retired head chef at a large kibbutz in the north of Israel, once taught me an incredible recipe for empanadas, a deep-fried, stuffed hand pie. Over the years, I have made empanadas filled with ingredients ranging from the traditional meat, raisins and olives to mushrooms, cheese and sautéed shallots.

However, the day after cooking for 200 people is not the day to start making empanada dough, much less deep-frying anything. So I came up with a quick version of an empanada made from Thanksgiving leftovers and store-bought puff pastry. The only thing you have to remember is to take the puff pastry out of the freezer before you go to bed on Thanksgiving and pop it in the fridge to thaw for the next day.

1 package store-bought puff pastry, thawed
overnight in the refrigerator
1/4 cup all-purpose flour for rolling out pastry
1 egg, beaten
9 tablespoons turkey, chopped into cubes
6 tablespoons stuffing
6 tablespoons roasted vegetables,
chopped small
6 teaspoons cold gravy
6 teaspoons cranberry sauce

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove Thanksgiving leftovers and puff pastry from refrigerator and cut the turkey and vegetables into 1/2-inch pieces.

Put a small amount of flour on a clean work surface and roll out the dough to half its original thickness. Keep moving the dough around the counter to ensure it doesn’t stick. Take a bowl that is 5 inches in diameter and use a sharp knife to cut around the bowl, creating as many pastry circles as you can.  Try to cut them close together so that you don’t waste too much pastry. This should yield about 6 pastry discs.

Place one pastry circle on your baking tray and use a pastry brush or your finger to paint a bit of egg wash on the bottom half of the disc. Place a few pieces of turkey, a tablespoon of stuffing, a tablespoon of vegetables, a teaspoon of cold gravy and a teaspoon of cranberry sauce on the bottom half of the circle. (Feel free to substitute other Thanksgiving leftovers, such as green bean casserole.) Bring the top half of the pastry circle down over the top and press gently to seal. Take a fork or the handle of a knife and press carefully to form a decorative edge on the seam. Continue filling the remaining empanadas and then brush with egg wash. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Makes about 6 empanadas.

DAY-AFTER TURKEY SALAD

Another thing I never miss making after Thanksgiving is turkey salad. It’s fantastic on bagels, crackers or leftover toasted challah, but I love it scooped onto a big bed of crunchy salad greens. Truth be told, this is one of my go-to chicken salad recipes, but I like it even better with leftover turkey.

1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds
2 cups of turkey (white or dark meat or
a mix), chopped into 1-inch cubes
3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
3 scallions (white and dark parts),
finely chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
(or 1 1/2 tablespoons dry)
2 tablespoons crystallized ginger,
finely chopped
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons cranberry sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Toast raw almonds in a dry pan for 5 minutes or until golden brown on all sides. Then, in a large bowl, mix together toasted almonds, turkey, celery, scallions, tarragon and ginger.

In a smaller bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard, cranberry sauce, salt and pepper, and then drizzle the dressing over the turkey. Mix to combine and chill covered in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or overnight.

Makes 4 servings.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.