For his bar mitzvah, a grandson Is learning his ancestors’ recipes

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Shared by Stella Hanan Cohen

This story originally appeared on JewishFoodSociety.org

Recipe Roots: Recipe Roots: Spain > Rhodes, Greece > Marmarise, Turkey > Élisabethville, Belgian Congo (present-day Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo) > Salisbury, Rhodesia (present-day Harare, Zimbabwe) 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cookbook author Stella Hanan Cohen hasn’t been able to travel the nearly 8,000 miles between her home in Zimbabwe and her grandchildren in the U.S. But, recipes have offered a connection, particularly for her bar mitzvah-aged grandson Nico. One day, without giving many details, he asked his mother to purchase the ingredients for his grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves and made them entirely on his own. “He’s got this yearning,” says Stella, for his family’s recipes and history. 

The grape leaves, like all the recipes in Stella’s book “Stella’s Sephardic Table,” reveal a story about the Jewish cooks of Rhodes island, in present day Greece. During the Spanish Inquisition, Stella’s ancestors and their community fled across the Mediterranean and built a new home here where they kept traditions and customs from Spain alive. 

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Many of the community’s recipes like those for orange sponge cake called pan d’Espanya, marzipan, and meatballs simmered in tomato sauce were left nearly unchanged for centuries. But with their move, Rhodeslis cooks also adopted new culinary methods and recipes. Savory pastries called bourekas that were popular in the Ottoman kitchen became part of their repertoire and stuffed grape leaves, beloved in the eastern Mediterranean, became a signature dish of the community. 

On Rhodes island “we inherited the gamut of stuffed vegetables from the Ottoman Empire,” she adds. Among them were stuffed vine leaves, Swiss chard, and cabbage. In Rhodes, courtyards in the Jewish quarter were home to grapevines with tender leaves that cooks would pick, fill with meat and rice, and simmer with cannellini beans and lemon in a dish called yaprakes de oja de parra kon avas.

It’s a dish she was raised on in Zimbabwe, where her family and part of the Rhodes community moved in the 1930s. When the leaves were in season in springtime, her mother would pick fresh ones in their backyard to make the recipe. And, she would blanch and freeze extra leaves so the family could serve them during the rest of the year. It’s a dish Stella’s made for her children and grandchildren when they would visit. “We form an assembly line. So, one does the rolling, one does the filling, one puts it in the pot,” she says. It brings together the entire family in the kitchen and now, the recipe links them even though they are far apart. 

Nico has since made numerous dishes from his grandmother’s cookbook including meatballs, marzipan, and savory pastries called pastelikos. He told Stella: “For my bar mitzvah, I want to go through the recipes in your book… and try and get a feeling of what our ancestors did.’”

Explore more of Stella Hanan Cohen’s story and family recipes from Spain and Rhodes island here.

Yaprakes De Oja De Parra Kon Avas (Meat and Rice Stuffed Grape Leaves Stewed with White Beans)

Makes: 6 servings

Total Time: Overnight soaking + 4 hours

Ingredients

For the beans: 

2 cups dried cannellini or navy beans, soaked overnight in 4 cups of cold water and drained

1 small yellow onion, peeled

2 dried bay leaves

3 fresh sage leaves

1 teaspoon sea salt

For the broth:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound bone-in veal ossobuco cut into chunks or lamb chops

1 yellow onion, peeled

2-3 cups chicken stock

For the grape leaves:

1 pound fresh, young, tender grape leaves or brine-preserved leaves

For the filling:

1 pound ground beef or lamb

⅔ cup medium-grain rice, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, rinsed and drained

½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems

½ cup finely chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup canned chopped tomatoes

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon sea salt 

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper 

For cooking:

2 ripe tomatoes, cut into ½ inch slices crosswise 

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup hot water

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt 

¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper

1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water

For serving:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 lemons, cut in wedges

Preparation

1. Cook the beans: Put the beans in a large pan with enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Add the onion, bay leaves and sage leaves. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover with a lid, reduce the heat to medium/low and simmer for 1½ hours or until the beans are tender but not falling apart. The cooking time depends on the quality and age of the beans. Check frequently as they cook, adding more hot water as necessary. Add the salt in the last 10 minutes of cooking. When the beans are tender, drain in a colander and discard the onion and herbs.

2. Make the chicken and veal broth:Place 2 tablespoons ofoil in a large, deep, heavy-based pan over a medium-high heat. Add the veal or lamb and sear until lightly brown on all sides. Add the onion and pour enough chicken stock to cover. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 50 minutes or until the meat is very tender. Add hot water as necessary. Transfer the broth out of the pot and reserve it on the side. Leave the meat in the pot. 

3. Prepare the leaves: If using fresh grape leaves, blanch the grape leaves in boiling water for 3 minutes, in batches, then rinse in cold water and drain. If using preserved grape leaves, rinse and drain the grape leaves from the preserved juices. Drape the grape leaves over the edge of a colander to drain thoroughly. Lay the grape leaves on a work surface, vein side up with the stem towards you. Cut off the stems if using fresh grape leaves. 

4. Make the filling:Mix the beef or lamb, rice, parsley, dill, olive oil, chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, salt and pepper in a large bowl until combined. 

5. Stuff the leaves: Lay a grape leaf vein side up and place a tablespoon of the filling in the lower third of the leaf near the stem end. Fold both sides inward over the filling and starting at the stem end nearest to you, roll up the grape leaf into a cigar shape. Place the grape leaves seam side down on a tray. Repeat with the remaining leaves until all the filling is used.

6. To cook:Add half of the cooked beans in one layer to the heavy based pot with the meat in it. Arrange the stuffed leaves side-by-side, seam side down, over the beans packing them tightly in concentric circles. Place the sliced tomatoes over the stuffed grape leaves. Scatter over the remaining beans. Weigh the stuffed grape leaves down with an inverted heatproof plate large enough to fit the pan to keep the stuffed grape leaves from unravelling during cooking. Combine the hot reserved chicken and meat broth, lemon juice, oil, hot water and salt and pepper in a small bowl. Pour this mixture into the pan along the sides, just enough to cover the stuffed grape leaves. If necessary, add more hot water. Bring to a boil over medium/high heat. Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 40 minutes or until the filling has cooked. Shake the pan from time to time so that the cooking liquid circulates. Add a little hot water as necessary to keep the stuffed grape leaves covered. Add the cornstarch mixture to the sauce and cook for another 10 minutes, swirling the liquid around for the sauce to seep through evenly. Test one stuffed leafto ensure the leaves have softened and the filling is cooked. Taste and adjust the cooking liquid for salt and lemon juice.

7. To serve: Remove the plate from the pot and carefully transfer the grapeleaves, beans and meat into a deep serving bowl. Drizzle with olive oiland serve hot with  a few lemon wedges on the side.

Chef’s note: You can substitute 3 14oz cans of cannellini beans, rinsed and drained, for the dry beans.

Albondigas Di Karne Kon Tomato (Meatballs Poached in Tomato Sauce)

In Stella’s cookbook, she explains that this recipe, albondigas di karne kon tomato, takes its name from Ladino and is derived from the Moorish Spanish term al bundo, meaning round. While the recipe, Stella believes, is virtually unchanged from the time the community lived in Spain, she sometimes adds cumin to it, a flavor Rhodeslis cooks adopted in Rhodes. To try this rendition, add one teaspoon ground cumin to the meatball mixture.

Makes: 6 servings

Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Ingredients

For the meatballs: 

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

1 egg, lightly beaten

3 slices white bread, crusts removed, dampened in ½ cup water, squeezed and drained and torn into small pieces

1 pound ground beef

1 ripe tomato, halved and coarsely grated 

½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems

¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 ½ teaspoons sea salt 

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce: 

2 cups peeled, seeded and roughly chopped ripe fresh or canned tomatoes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 tender celery stalks with leaves, cut in chunks or 4 fresh whole sage leaves

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup beef broth (or hot water)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt 

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

For dredging: 

½ cup all-purpose flour or gluten-free flour

For serving: 

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill, use leaves and tender stems

Preparation

1. Prepare the meatballs: Mix the onion, egg, white bread, beef, tomato, parsley, dill, olive oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl until combined well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 15 minutes.

2. Make the tomato sauce: Place the tomatoes, tomato paste, celery or sage, olive oil, broth or water, sugar, salt and pepper into a large, shallow, heavy-based pan over medium-high heat. Mix well and bring the tomato sauce ingredients to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes on a simmer.

3. Transfer the meatball mixture from the refrigerator. Shape the meatballs with dampened hands into about 30 small meatballs, using about 1 teaspoon of the mixture for each meatball. Place the flour on a shallow plate. Dredge the meatballs in the flour, to coat lightly, patting off the excess. Drop the meatballs gently into the pan with the tomato sauce. When all the meatballs have been added, add enough hot water so that the sauce comes about halfway up the meatballs. Cover and continue to cook at a very low simmer over low heat, for 20 minutes, until the meatballs are tender and the sauce has thickened. Shake the pan from time to time to ensure the sauce evenly coats the meatballs and prevents them from sticking to the pan.

4. To serve: Sprinkle the meatballs with lemon juice and the fresh herbs. Serve hot