What’s with chicken and prophets? Several Jewish Italian recipes for poultry have Biblical names. Here is one of the most popular examples, which appears in different variations in most cooking books on the topic, from Vitali Norsa, to Servi-Machlin to Joyce Goldstein. It’s not a surprise, because chicken cooked with this technique stays moist and juicy and keeps well for Shabbat! It’s a variation on the basic “pollo in umido”, which Americans call “chicken cacciatore”. The classic recipe is made with a cut-up whole chicken, but if you are in a rush or if you prefer boneless meat, boneless thighs also work well. When I cook boneless meat, I always add the bones to the pot (wrapped in a cloth) and discard them at the end. The bones add tremendous depth to the flavor. You can also add a couple of (koshered) chicken livers.
We all overeat every once in a while, and end up feeling bloated or with a stomach ache: what a Jewish Italian mother would prescribe in such cases (backed up by Maimonides’ medical treatises) is a nice bowl of fennel soup. Fennel (Anise) is one of those ingredients that until the late 1800s were shunned by non-Jews in Italy and considered lowly and vulgar. By the time this delicious vegetable was accepted into general Italian cuisine, Jews had already discovered countless ways to prepare it, raw or cooked, as an appetizer or side.
Fennel soup is to indigestion what chicken soup is to a cold, and it’s also said to help with bloating, detoxify the liver and even increase lactation. Just as your Bubbe did with the chicken, we use all parts of the fennel: we eat the bulbs, we make tea with the leaves, and we use the seeds as a spice. Curious fact: fennel seeds have such a powerful digestive effect that in (non-kosher) Italian cooking they are often used to enhance the least digestible of meats (pork)!
In the Jewish Italian tradition we also add them to many different kinds of dishes, and of course cookies and biscottis – which acquire that special exotic flavor. I have mixed feelings about making biscottis more digestible, because my husband and kids already polish them off as they are and do not need any encouragement, but you should try at least once!
Back to the soup: it’s light, parve, gluten-free if you skip the toast, and literally takes only minutes to make. Here you go.
I just gave a demo on healthful and elegant Italian cuisine at the JCC Manhattan during their Fitness for EveryBODY Fair. One of the ingredients I presented was barley, a grain with many beneficial properties. Unlike wheat, it contains a high amount of soluble fibers (betaglucans), which have a positive effect on cholesterol and provide an immediate sense of satiety, which will be appreciated by those of you who are trying to keep their weight in check. It also contains many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and has been shown to help liver and kidney function. What’s not to like? This way of cooking barley, with the same technique that Italians apply to rice in risottos, is typical of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in the North-East, and I learned it during my year in Trieste.
Have you ever tried KAMUT? It’s a long grain with a brown cover – it looks similar to brown rice, but it’s related to wheat and has a velvety, nutty flavor. It’s richer in protein than wheat, and contains several vitamins and minerals. Perfect for a winter soup!
The other main ingredient of this “minestra” is saffron, the star ingredient in Italy’s favorite risotto Milanese, and in many festive Sephardic dishes. Saffron, one of the most highly prized spices since antiquity, and a native of the Southern Mediterranean, is now cultivated in many countries. However, some the best in the world is said to be produced in the Abruzzi region of Italy, a couple of hours east of Rome – a legend says that it was first smuggled here by a dominican monk in the 13th century, and the production has been thriving ever since. In order to maintain the intense aroma of their saffron, the locals uproot the bulbs yearly, and select them for size. The perfect soil and climate conditions do the rest, and every fall the flowers are harvested.
About 80,000 crocus flowers are needed to produce a meager pound of saffron – in case you wondered what makes it the most expensive spice in the world! To justify the extravagant expense, remember that saffron has been used as a medicinal botanical on many continents throughout history, and some recent research has demonstrated that one of its components shows promise as an anti-cancer agent.
Welcome the cold season with a warming, decadent dish that elevates a simple food like potatoes to new culinary heights! Potatoes were introduced to Italy only at the end of the 16th century by the Spanish, who encountered them in the Americas: the Italian climate was perfect for their cultivation, and they quickly became a star ingredient (who doesn’t love Gnocchi?). Potatoes and mushrooms are a classic pairing, and one of the reasons why I love fall
After last Saturday’s early snowfall, it’s time to put our summer clothes in storage and welcome the cold season (at least in New York)! Don’t be sad – there are plenty of fun things about fall and winter. One example: hearty soups like this one, which incorporates two ingredients with a distinguished history, staple foods for thousands of years in some areas of Europe.
Before the advent of industrial baking products, many of the treats that our grandmothers served during the week included fruit. Compotes and baked fruit are a delicious way to indulge our sweet tooth without overdoing the sugar and the calories, and actually adding nutrients to our diet. Baked fruit, in particular, is easy to make and very comforting in the frosty fall and winter days.
Today, October 24, is Food Day! Americans from all walks of life push for healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way. One of the huge problems we are dealing with is that Americans waste more than 40 percent of the food we produce for consumption, while the number of people without enough to eat continues to rise. A very important Jewish concept, especially relevant today, is Bal Tashchit (do not destroy or waste). Originally, Bal Tashchit refers to the biblical prohibition against the destruction of fruit trees during wartime (Deuteronomy 12:19), but the rabbis of the Talmud extended the concept to the prohibition of destroying and wasting anything needlessly.
Really! Nowadays we should apply this idea to all kinds of waste (do we really need to drive, when we can walk or take the bus?). And of course, let’s start with food. Don’t leave your bread in plastic bags: chances are, it will be covered in green mold before you are done with it. If you keep it in a paper bag or a bread box, on the other hand, it will just dry out and you’ll still be able to use it, soaked in broth, to make delicious meatballs (with leftover cooked chicken), or for this delicious cake!