A Purim Feast

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

The festival of Purim, the most joyous of all Jewish holidays, celebrates the victory of the Jews of Persia over their enemies. Esther, queen to King Ahasuerus, learned from her Uncle Mordecai that Haman, the king’s Prime Minister, had secured an irrevocable royal decree to arrange for the killing of the Jews. Esther hosted a banquet where she pleaded with her king to spare her fellow Jews, courageously revealing that she, too, was a Jew. While unable to withdraw his decree, the king granted the Jewish people permission to arm and defend themselves.

 We can assume that Esther, as an observant Jew, would have obeyed the laws of kashrut. However, because she kept her religion secret through her first month as queen, avoiding trayf would have been a challenge where meat and poultry were staples on the royal menus. I’d like to think that Queen Esther would have honored her religion and satisfied her appetite with a balanced vegetarian diet.

 Fortunately for Queen Esther, (and for us) Persian culinary traditions reflect a rich tapestry of fresh ingredients. Though grown under desert conditions, fruit- and vegetable-bearing trees and shrubs were able to thrive because of ancient underground aquifers that provided vital irrigation for those crops.

 Pomegranates, saffron, turmeric, lemons, limes and oranges, olives, almonds, pistachios, and myriad other edible fruits and vegetables are the essence of Persian soups, stews, and casseroles that form the basis for much of this vegetable-centric cuisine. The addition of dried beans, such as chickpeas and lentils, provided good sources of protein,

 So to honor Queen Esther, I am suggesting a Persian-inspired vegetarian menu for the Purim seudah, or Purim feast, which is traditionally served mid-day. And because we are all expected to spend Purim in joyous celebration, a menu that can be prepared in advance will leave plenty of time for revelry and fun for everyone.

 My menu features dishes made with many of the fruits, nuts, and fresh herbs and spices used in traditional Persian cuisine. And whether you prepare this entire menu or just a single dish, learning about some of these ingredients may inspire you to find other ways to incorporate them into future meals.

 To begin the seudah, plan on serving Kuku Sabzi, a Persian frittata or omelet that can be plated hot or cold. The eggs are whisked with dill, parsley, and ribbons of fresh baby spinach leaves. You can prepare the frittata a day in advance, cut into wedges, and serve it with a lightly lemon-flavored dressed salad of cucumbers, radishes, scallions, parsley and fresh mint.  If you’d like, you could garnish the dish with some pomegranate arils (seeds).

 Next on the menu is a rice dish that is a great example of Persian cuisine. It features cinnamon, cardamom, saffron and turmeric. Along with pistachios, oranges and honey, this dish is as beautiful as it is delicious. The rice portion can be prepared a day in advance and reheated by simply adding a tablespoon or two of water to the mixture and heating it in a pot on the stove or in a bowl in a microwave oven.  To complete the dish, follow directions beginning at step 4.

 A Persian stew is the perfect main course for your seudah. Made with lentils and flavored with pomegranate molasses and pomegranate arils (seeds), fresh cilantro, cinnamon, cardamom, and turmeric, it is easy to make but tastes complex. Pomegranate molasses is one of my favorite pantry items. Uniquely sweet and tart, it can be used for both cooking and baking. You can find it at Whole Foods stores, Global Foods in Kirkwood, Jay’s International on Grand Avenue, and United Provisions in the University City Loop.

 And for dessert, Almond Rose Cake.  This lovely is a showcase for almonds and that classic Persian flavoring, rose water. Think of rose water as you would vanilla or almond extract: just a little bit goes a long way. You can find bottles of rose water at most of the same places that carry pomegranate molasses. You could also substitute almond extract.

 Enjoy your Purim seudah!

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].