Since I grew up in a half-Sephardic household, traditional Jewish foods meant to me something different from what they meant to my mainly Ashkenazi Hebrew school classmates.
Sephardim are Jews that settled in Southern Europe and Northern Africa after the Diaspora. Ashkenazi Jews are from Eastern Europe and Russia, and they make up the vast majority of the American Jewish population.
As opposed to heavily Russian-influenced Ashkenazi fare, Sephardic food takes on a Mediterranean flavor, borrowing traditions from North African Muslim communities and Southern Europe. It uses lots of lemon, olives, olive oil, lentils, lamb, chickpeas, nuts, and fresh and dried fruits. Sephardic cuisine, to me, does more with spices, heat and flavors than Ashkenazi cuisine.
So while my mostly Ashkenazi schoolmates were eating gefilte fish, kugel, and matzoh ball soup, my French Moroccan mother was serving up boulettes (stewed Moroccan meatballs), salade cuite (cooked red pepper and tomato salad served cold) and triangles (deep-fried, salty, triangle-shaped French pastries stuffed with beef). The star of the show was always a fresh Moroccan-style couscous with all of the trimmings: baked squash, turnips and carrots all sprinkled with cinnamon, slow-cooked chickpeas and a lamb-stewed gravy.
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I’ve only really mastered one of my mother’s classic Sephardic recipes, but it happens to be the easiest to make, and I’ve also found it to be the easiest to make for vegetarians.
If you’re looking for a new, hearty fall recipe, I recommend attempting to make a tagine. A traditional Moroccan stew, tagine is usually a slow-cooked meat dish made in a traditional clay pot. There are lots of different varieties of tagine including lamb with prunes and nuts, and chicken with olives and lemon.
Tagine can be labor- and time-intensive when done in the traditional manner — my great-grandmother apparently used to pickle her lemons for her lemon chicken recipe for weeks at a time. The slow-cooking clay tagine pot can be somewhat expensive; I recently bought one for $60, and I find that I make the dish enough for it to be worth it to me.
For years, though, I made tagine without a tagine pot, without hours of slow-cooking, and without meat, and it has become one of my vegetarian wife’s favorite dishes. I’m a massive carnivore, and I find the vegetarian version of Moroccan olive chicken as satisfying as the chicken version.
You’re Doing it Wrong is a technique column that instructs cooks how to work with certain ingredients.
Vegetarian Olive Tagine
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
2 onions, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
10 medium yellow potatoes, peeled and chopped
5 carrots, peeled and chopped
Salt and black pepper
5 small Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 medium fresh jalapeño or other chile pepper, seeded if desired and minced
2 large lemons, halved
One 12-ounce jar pitted green olives or jalapeño-stuffed green olives
Cooked couscous for serving
Put the olive oil in a large stew pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and carrots, season with salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring regularly to try to keep the potatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pot, for 15 minutes. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil or water if the mixture starts to appear dry and stick to the bottom of the pot.
Add the tomatoes and chile pepper, and cook until the tomatoes start to break down, about 15 minutes. Add the olives along with all their liquid. Squeeze the lemons’ juice into the pot and then stir in the rinds. Make sure all the ingredients are covered with liquid; if not, add a little more water. Cover the dish and cook, lifting the lid to stir every few minutes, until the olives are soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the lemon rinds, and taste and adjust the seasoning. Serves 4 to 6.