Rhubarb: The Savory Vegetable of the Jews of the East

Photo by RhubarbFarmer

Most Philadelphians associate rhubarb with pie. Rhubarb is a vegetable, yet it is treated as a fruit in our cuisine. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews cook rhubarb as a vegetable, adding a sour note to fish and lamb dishes. The first local crops of rhubarb are ripening now, so it is a good time to experiment with someone else’s grandmother’s recipe. [Read more…]

Lag BaOmer Poike

Photo by אסף.צ https://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%9E%D7%A9%D7%AA%D7%9E%D7%A9:%D7%90%D7%A1%D7%A3.%D7%A6

Photo: אסף .צ

Israel owes one of its most popular Lag BaOmer traditions to the Jewish community of South Africa. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, the proudly Zionist South African Jews provided it with the most financial support per capita of any other community in the diaspora. Just as importantly, the South African olim introduced the potjie (pronounced “poike”) to Israel. This special pot, and the stew named for it, is an indispensable part of the Israeli Lag BaOmer celebration.

A potjie is a type of Dutch oven that was brought to South Africa by the Boer colonists from the Netherlands in the 1800s. This cast iron cauldron means “little pot.” It has three small legs and a wire handle. It can be nestled among the coals of a campfire or suspended over a flame.

To prepare the potjie stew, a little oil is heated in the Dutch oven. Then, lamb cubes are browned. Some alcohol is added for flavor, usually beer, sherry, or dessert wine. The potjie chef seasons the stew, usually very conservatively. Amazingly, garlic is not a popular ingredient. The pot is covered tightly with the lid, and the stew is left to steam slowly. It is not customary to stir the contents of the pot, so that when the potjie is ready, there are layers of flavors in the stew.

Photo By Chrstphr.jones (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Chrstpher Jones

Lamb Potjie
Adapted from Joburg South
4 pounds cubed lamb
4 tbsp. olive oil
4 onions, chopped
5 celery stalks, chopped
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 potatoes, chopped
1/2 lb. green beans, with the ends cut off
2 fresh bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup red wine
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cumin

Heat the pot over medium hot coals.
Combine the flour, salt, cumin, and coriander.
Coat the lamb cubes with the flour mixture.
Heat the olive oil in the pot.
Brown the lamb cubes.
Take the lamb cubes out of the pot and set aside.
Place the onions and celery in the pot, and fry them a little bit.
Add the lamb cubes to the vegetables.
Pour in the stock, red wine, fresh thyme, and bay leaves.
Close the lid tightly and allow to cook for one hour.
Add the potatoes.
After 30 minutes, add the carrots.
Cook for 15 minutes, and add the green beans.
Wait 10 minutes.
Serve with rice, noodles, or fresh pita bread.

The Maccabees’ Victory Feast

Photo by Triggerhippie4

Judah Maccabee coin.

Two thousand years ago, a group of Judean rebels called the Maccabees waged a guerrilla war against the Seleucid Empire. This war was sparked by a decree issued by King Antiochus that forbade Jewish religious practice. Hanukkah is the celebration of the Maccabees’ military victory. “Hanukkah” means “dedication,” in honor of the purification and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees celebrated the rededication with a victory feast.

The Maccabean Revolt lasted seven years. During that time, the men neglected their crops and herds. In Ancient Israel, meat was only served on special occasions. The rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem was the type of ceremony that merited a savory meat stew. Since their flocks were lean, the Maccabees probably caught wild deer for this gathering.

Photo by Fae https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:F%C3%A6

Cuneiform tablet with oldest recorded recipe for venison stew

Here is the oldest recorded recipe for venison stew, imprinted on a clay tablet from the time of King Hammurabi (1700 BCE). It is a recipe from Babylonia, written in Akkadian. This recipe predates the Maccabees by 1,500 years, yet meat was still prepared in this manner during their time. The stew was served with flat-bread, wine, and pressed, dried fig cake for dessert.

Babylonian Venison Stew

Adapted from The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia by Jean Bottero

For the marinade:

  • 3 1/2 lbs. venison stew meat
  • 3 cups red wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 bay leaves

For the stew:
Photo by Diego y tal https://www.flickr.com/people/68902784@N00

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 leeks, chopped
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup marinade (recipe above)
  • Sea salt
  1. Place the venison and all the ingredients for the marinade in a large glass bowl.
  2. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 265°F.
  4. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven.
  5. Mix in the cumin, coriander, onions, garlic, and leeks.
  6. Remove the venison from the marinade and add it to the pot.
  7. Once the meat is browned, add the stock and marinating liquid.
  8. Bring to a boil.
  9. Cover the pot and place in the oven.
  10. Bake the stew for 90 minutes.

Jacob’s Biblical Lentil Stew For Memorial Day

— by Ronit Treatman

Memorial Day is observed so differently in the United States from how it is done in Israel. Having lived in Israel for two years while volunteering for the IDF, I find the all-American celebratory long weekend and barbecue incongruous.

When I visit my grandparents’ graves in Rishon LeZion, I always stop at the military section. I pay my respects at the grave of my neighbor who fell in 1973. I check the other tombstones for familiar last names of friends and acquaintances. I only know one person who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the American Army. While I always go “down the shore” and prepare a grilled dinner, I also add a symbolic Jewish dish of condolence.

Full recipe after the jump.
When a Jewish mourner begins to sit shiva, red lentils are traditionally prepared for the first meal. This custom originated with Jacob, who prepared his famous stew for his father Isaac when he was mourning the death of Abraham (Genesis 25:30). According to the Talmud, (Tractate Baba Batra 16b), this meal was meant to be a meal of condolence. The round shape of the lentils symbolizes the circle of life. We are born, we have children, and eventually we die, but the chain remains unbroken.  

I found a recreation of Jacob’s lentil stew from The History Kitchen. Here is my adaptation.

Jacob’s Lentil Stew

  • 2 cups dry red lentils
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground sumac
  • 1 teaspoon ground hyssop
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt to taste
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 cups vegetable stock
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pot.
  2. Add the onion, garlic, carrots, and celery.
  3. Saute until the onion becomes translucent.
  4. Stir in the sumac, hyssop, cumin, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.
  5. Add the lentils and vegetable broth.
  6. Bring to boil.
  7. Simmer the stew for 2 hours.
  8. Turn off the heat, and add the chopped cilantro.  
  9. Serve with fresh, crusty bread.