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Lite Summer Fare From the Mediterranean
I went to an engagement party at my cousin’s where every room was full of
maazeh,” writes Jennifer Felicia Abadi in her new book A Fistful of Lentils:
Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen (The Harvard Common
Press, $24.95). The dining room table was laden with pastries and puddings;
living room tables were decorated with small crystal bowls filled with
pistachios, almonds, roasted pumpkin seeds, glazed fruit rinds, and dried
apricot candies; and kitchen countertops, sinks, and burners were hidden
under green tablecloths covered by cheeses and fruit, with displays of
vegetables cascading down them.

“I was glad to have gotten there on the early side to see the sight,” Abadi
continues, explaining that maazeh are the best and most important part of
the Middle Eastern dining experience. Related to the Italian word mezze,
meaning half, maazeh refers to half dishes that are served as appetizers or
with the main course. Similar to Italian antipasto or Spanish tapas, maazeh
(an Arabic word pronounced mez’zeh and sometimes spelled maza) consist of
small tastings of salads, dips, and savory pastries.

American salads often are served one per meal in huge bowls; in many
Sephardic countries, several salads at a time are presented in small
portions. Sephardim consider it aesthetically pleasing to clutter dining
tables with lots of little serving plates and bowls-four at a minimum, but
more often 10. While Americans consider salad a separate course to be eaten
on its own plate, in Sephardic culture several salads commingle on one
plate.

“I like all the flavors to run into each other,” says Abadi, noting that
when foods combine, they create unexpected tastes. She’s amused by friends
who are squeamish about foods touching each other and implores them to “stop
the segregation of food.”

A cornucopia of dishes in delicate quantities demonstrates the idea that
less is more. With hospitality the hallmark of the Sephardic table, abundant
food is pressed on guests. The Sephardic hostess, like her Ashkenazi
counterpart, would die of embarrassment if she ran out of a single dish. And
no one ever leaves the table hungry.

Although most American Jews hail from Eastern and Central Europe and are
therefore Ashkenazi, the question of who is Sephardic is not as clear cut.
(Rabbi Marc Angel of the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in Manhattan once
claimed that almost any Jew who is not Ashkenazi is Sephardic.) During the
Spanish Inquisition, Sephardic Jews spread across the Mediterranean region
and beyond. Contrary to popular opinion, however, not all Sephardic Jews
have ancestors who dwelled in Spain. Many Sephardim never reached the
Iberian Peninsula, but arrived in Middle Eastern countries over 2,000 years
ago and remained there until the 20th century.

In Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean (Chronicle Books,
$35), Joyce Goldstein focuses on cuisine from Spain, Portugal, Italy,
Greece, and Turkey. Ironically, Goldstein, who comes from an Ashkenazi
background, grew up on brisket, chopped liver, and latkes but as an adult
began craving lighter fare and acquired Mediterranean taste buds. Through
extensive research, she’s become an expert on Sephardic food.

“Leafy salads are unusual in this cuisine,” she says. “With several notable
exceptions, salads are made from cooked vegetables that are marinated and
served at room temperature.” Among Jews, the custom may have originated in
deference to the Sabbath, when cooking is forbidden; but it is prevalent in
the Middle East, where for centuries refrigeration was nonexistent.

Since lettuce wasn’t an indigenous crop, “the whole concept of a salad is
different in Middle Eastern countries,” Abadi says. Marinating and pickling
were common methods of preserving foods, and pickles are integral to maazeh
spreads.

>From 1988 until 1996, Goldstein owned Square One, a pioneering San Francisco
restaurant known for its fresh ingredients and Mediterranean menu. She was
in the vanguard of a new approach to eating, which grew out of people’s
interest in olive oil and health. At the time, many Americans were beginning
to try tabbouleh (chopped parsley and bulgur wheat), hummos (pureed
chickpeas with sesame paste), and baba ghanoush (eggplant dip with sesame
paste), which are grouped with salads and included in maazeh selections.

“Today, Mediterranean food is no longer a fad but an enduring part of our
flavor profile,” says Goldstein. “In that part of the world, people don’t
need to take vitamin pills,” because vegetables and grains form the mainstay
of their diet. There is always bread on the table, either whole grain or
pita.

Olive trees grow abundantly throughout the Mediterranean, and their golden
oil is infused in almost every recipe. Salad dressings are no exception, yet
vinaigrettes vary from country to country. “In Spain, Portugal, Italy, and
France, the ratio of oil to vinegar is generally three to one,” says
Goldstein. “In many of the Sephardic Turkish and Greek recipes, however, the
ratio is the reverse. In other words, the Sephardic palate is a tart one.”

Although salad dressings have few ingredients, lemon-a major flavor
component in many recipes-is the star. And hardly a dish hits the table
without a plate of lemon wedges by its side.

Syrian cooks also are not shy when squeezing lemons and sprinkling salt,
Abadi says. The most basic salad in their cuisine is an excellent palate
cleanser of sliced, raw vegetables seasoned with salt and drenched with
lemon juice.

“Most Syrian dishes are easy to prepare; they don’t call for a lot of
ingredients,” Abadi says. “It’s basically peasant cooking, but that doesn’t
mean the flavor is inferior to fancier cuisine such as French.” Preferring
Mediterranean “lite” to French rich, Abadi learned the art of chopping
vegetables and selecting seasonings from her grandmother Fritzie, who was
born in Aleppo and brought her love of Syrian-Jewish specialties to this
country.

Although Goldstein traces her family on both sides to Russia, she believes
there’s a Sephardic strain in her heritage-if not in her blood, then in her
soul. For years, she has savored fresh ingredients, piquant flavors, and
small portions of several different foods. “Try Sephardic salads-they’re
delicious,” she says. “You can’t go wrong, especially on a hot summer day.”

Linda Morel is a writer who lives in New York City.


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