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The Birthday Project: New Year, New Food

I was born halfway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so on any given year, I could be stuck eating honeycake or none at all on my birthday. I think I’ve had maybe two actual birthday parties in my life. It’s a concept my daughter, born in June, doesn’t get.

But occasionally I luck out–and this year was one of the best. My husband asked what I wanted and I had a real answer–a cookbook I’ve been lusting after at the library and that costs only slightly more than my probable library fines if I don’t return it.

So this is it–feast your eyes, I’ll turn the pages:

Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck

And this is the project that sold me on it:

Stuffed Eggplant with Quince

Stuffed Eggplant with Quince

Poopa Dweck, a cousin by marriage to Claudia Roden, has edited the New York Syrian Jewish community’s version of a sisterhood cookbook (every synagogue in America’s sisterhood seems to have put out at least one of those) for something like 20 years, only people in her community actually used it frequently. My birthday gift is the 2007 culmination of Dweck’s experience, and it’s just a very beautiful cookbook to leaf through–visually but also for the possibility that when you try the dishes, they’re actually going to work.

It doesn’t take much reading for me to realize that despite the unfamiliarity of some of the flavors–allspice in meat stuffings, tamarind-based sauces–this is the best kind of traditional Jewish home cooking, the kind that has your favorite great-aunts outdoing each other for Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, and other big celebrations. So, somewhat exotic in flavoring but utterly familiar in spirit. (And actually, as I discovered in another Syrian Jewish cookbook, A Fistful of Lentils, by Jennifer Felicia Abadi, a few dishes, like stuffed cabbage with a sweet-and-sour sauce, and manti, a kind of ravioli, are pretty similar to Ashkenazi holishkes and kreplach.)

Like all Jewish great-aunt dishes for the holidays, this dish of stuffed eggplants and quinces comes with two required homework items: the beef and rice stuffing, and tamarind concentrate. The beef I’m not worried about–my first try on this is going to be vegetarian, because I’m not planning on heading out to the kosher butchers in the Valley. I can use a green lentil and rice filling that I already know will taste fine with those flavorings of allspice and cinnamon and onion. Maybe a hit of garlic too, and maybe a bit less salt than for the beef–as I discovered a few weeks ago, with the green lentil sausages, lentils don’t hide the salt flavor as much as beef might.

The other item, tamarind concentrate, turns out to be inexpensive but somewhat unlovely to make–though still something of an adventure. Especially for a blog called Slow Food Fast.

Here’s what’s on page 42 of Aromas of Aleppo for how to work the tamarind pulp into something that will give up its flavor to a sauce:

Poopa Dweck's Aromas of Aleppo--instructions for making tamarind concentrate

Working the tamarind pulp

Now, I’m not all that squeamish, but bleaaghhh. First ya gotta soak the stuff overnight, then ya gotta get in there and mish around–I dunno. I decided to speed it up where I could…

I thought about the little 1-lb. brick of pressed seedless tamarind pulp I’d bought from my Armenian greengrocers for this dish. It just seemed like a tougher version of dried prunes or apricots, which I usually soak up successfully enough in a few minutes by heating them with water in the microwave. Would it work here or would it ruin the flavor? I cut off a chunk, submerged it in water in a microwaveable bowl, and tried it.

Tamarind pulp rehydrated in the microwave

Five minutes of microwaving, covered, plus about 20 minutes sitting time–it was definitely done. And really, really incredibly tart, a surprise given tamarind’s distinctly plummy aroma. Success! But no wonder they call it “ouc” (pronounced OO-rgh, according to Dweck)–that was my immediate reaction when I tasted a tiny sip. It’s THAT sour. My second reaction was that I should probably say Shehekheyanu–the blessing for any new venture, especially for holidays and the first taste of a new fruit in the year.

I realized only afterward that I should have done the whole brick while I was at it–I was about to discover why Dweck calls for preparing three pounds of pulp at a time, not a couple of ounces.

Next step–squishing the pulp in the water to extract as much flavor as possible before filtering through cheesecloth and reextracting the pulp left behind in fresh water…no. Just no. I am not a cheesecloth girl–it never, never cuts neatly, even with Fiskars shears.

So, I was thinking, I have a microwave for a reason. I also decided I have a food processor for a reason, and this is definitely it. I stirred once with a fork first to make sure there really weren’t any pits in there, as advertised on the package front. Then I poured it all into the food processor, and gave it a whirl. That worked too. I seemed to be on a roll with the speed-it-up-immensely daydream.

Filtering the tamarind liquid

Filtration–I’ve used overlapping coffee filters in a colander whenever I make paneer in the microwave, and it worked pretty well here too–maybe better than Dweck’s photos, which show a cloudy filtrate coming through the cheesecloth. Mine was clear and amber–maybe too clear? Was it going to taste authentic without the silty stuff? I could only hope. It sure was sour, even dilute as it was.

I dutifully did the reextraction–dumping the pulp into a bowl of fresh water, stirring, refiltering–but for the life of me I think I wouldn’t bother next time. The food processor seems to break down the pulp enough to get the main good out of it on round one. It’s not that it was difficult to refilter it, either–it’s that it adds to the liquid volume. Which then needs boiling down to a syrup.

Boiling down the tamarind extract

And that’s where the time thing fell apart at last. I saved hours of time soaking up and filtering, but really, those are the easy steps, especially done my way.  You could just soak it up on the countertop overnight while you dream of culinary glory or maybe something a little more exciting. No effort required. Filtering my way really didn’t take all that long either. A bigger batch would need more time to filter, and maybe the cheesecloth would come in handy there, but it wouldn’t be so much harder to deal with.

However.

Boiling down the liquid even for a couple of ounces of starting pulp took more than an hour. Maybe an hour and a half, and I might have gotten more good out of it if I’d started with more pulp for the amount of water. It also might have boiled down to a syrup faster and it certainly would have given a better yield for the time involved.

At the halfway point, I added the scaled-down amounts of sugar and citric acid I’d figured out based on Dweck’s 3-pounder recipe and kept boiling further. But finally, after lunch, the simmering syrup had gone thick enough to bubble up in the pan and I decided it was good enough. Because it was clearly done, and tasted like it too. And I think there’s enough for at least one batch of Stuffed Eggplants and Quinces.

Tamarind concentrate

Beautiful, syrupy, and still incredibly sour. I poured it into the gem of my used jar collection and let it cool. I was still worried, though, that it might not really be strong enough compared with Dweck’s recipe, since I’d started with so little tamarind pulp. But the next morning–it hadn’t just thickened up. It had gelled.

The final product--tamarind concentrate should last quite a while in the jar

Check one on the road to a new dish for the New Year (well, after Rosh Hashanah, probably, since both the tamarind and the quinces are pretty tart).

Meanwhile–the challah dough is rising, and my daughter comes home at midday to help me bake it. I told her I would NOT buy her rainbow food coloring for it. Because she got her challah-baking expertise at camp. Every summer during Maccabiah (color war) week, the kids make challahs with their team colors. Orange, red, green, Smurf blue, yeesh. Once in a while they make challahs with a different color in each strand–plaid challah?! To add insult to injury, the kids bring it home proudly and demand that their parents try some. It takes more bravery (and sunglasses) than I’ve got.

L’Shanah Tova Tikatevu!

3 Responses

  1. Interesting — tamarind is one of those things I just don’t like. Picture my mouth turning inside out while reading this. Pleh. But you should be well and enjoy.

    The ravioli in my local Afghan restaurant is called “mantoo”, which is too similar to “manti” to be a coincidence.

    I’ve had rainbow challah before. But the green and blue ones are very off-putting. Give me undyed.

    • Hi Lurkertype–I’m pretty sure you’re right about mantoo–Dweck says that Syrian Jewish food has a lot of Persian influences, and the food was there long before the modern borders. Actually in her book she uses the Ladino name “calsones” for the cheese ravioli (which look more like agnolotti or tortelloni). There are Spanish-exile and Italian-exile influences as well–but unlike in Italy, the calsones here are served not as the main pasta but in a mixture with wide noodles.

  2. […] The Birthday Project: New Year, New Food […]

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