We’ve spent hours praying in the synagogue, we’ve eaten all the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah, we’ve fasted and now it’s time for some serious al fresco feasting.
Sukkot is a time of joy in the Jewish calendar, an autumn festival of Thanksgiving. The Bible refers to this holiday as Chag Ha’asif (Feast of Gathering), when the last grains and fruits were harvested in Israel and as Chag Ha’sukkot(Feast of Tabernacles) commemorating the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, sheltered in temporary huts and the miraculous clouds of glory that sheltered the Israelites from the hot desert sun.
There are no rules dictating what we must eat in our Sukkahs, but there is definitely a tradition of eating stuffed foods from vegetables to pastries, to represent the abundance of the season.
We’ve spent hours praying in the synagogue, we’ve eaten all the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah, we’ve fasted and now it’s time for some serious al fresco feasting. There are no rules dictating what we must eat in our Sukkahs, but there is definitely a tradition of eating stuffed foods from vegetables to pastries, to represent the abundance of the season. Ashkenazi Jews eat kreplach, a triangular noodle filled with potato or ground beef, mostly served in chicken soup but also fried like a wonton. Stuffed cabbage also makes an appearance on the Ashkenazi table.
For Sephardim, it’s all about the stuffed veggies. The Syrians and Egyptians call it Mehshi (pronounced mekh’shi) from the Arabic word for stuffed. Like the Ottoman Turks, the Iraqi Jews call stuffed grape leaves dolma. But for the holidays and other festive occasions, the Iraqi Jews prepare a large assortment of stuffed vegetables giving it the name ma’hasha.
My grandmother Nana Aziza stuffed onions and cabbage, potatoes and zucchini, carrots and beet leaves. In Iraq, the stuffing was made with ground lamb, rice and tomatoes. For our American palate, the recipe calls for ground beef. I remember the pleasure she took in assembling all the vegetables. I remember the beautiful red stain of the beets on the stuffed white onion skin. I remember the delightful complexity of the tender vegetables encasing the soft rice and meat, smothered in the sweet and sour flavor of the sauce, a perfect marriage of tart lemon and the deep flavor of tomato paste.
I share with you my mother’s version of her mother’s recipe. My mother uses the fresh silver beet leaves of beet root (find it in the organic section at Ralph’s and Whole Foods). They have a beautiful green color and a wonderful texture when cooked.
And I share with you the fervent wish that your home and your Sukkah always be filled with happy faces and wonderful food.
Many years ago, my mother strongly encouraged me to go to a party hosted by the Sephardic Education Center and that’s where I met my husband Neil. Maman knows best.
In those years there was a weekly SEC class with lots of interesting speakers hosted by Rabbi Moshe Benzaquen at Kahal Joseph Congregation. We formed a close-knit group of young friends, resulting in many marriages. Rabbi Benzaquen officiated at many of them, including ours.
In those early years, Neil and I lived in Westwood, where Rabbi and his beautiful wife Yafa created a lovely community.
They were the best hosts and would always have a huge crowd of young people for lunch. They were a wonderful example for all of us. He was always so sweet to her and we all knew how much he loved her. She was not much older than us, and already raising young kids, but she was never flustered and always had a smile on her face.
An incredible cook, she made huge amounts of food and it all tasted so good. There were big pots of hamin (chicken and rice), chicken dishes and flavorful briskets. A table full of salads. Born in Israel to a Persian family she was a master of rice. But my very favorite were her eggplant and ground beef rolls. To this day I recall the savory and sweet deliciousness!
She learned the recipe from her very good friend Hadassah Insilburg, who is the sister of the famous Moroccan Israeli actor Ze’ev Revach. Every Sukkot, I looked forward to this stuffed eggplant dish.
We have been through so many life experiences with Rabbi and Yafa, from our wedding to the bril milahs of our sons (he’s a mohel) to the shiva and Shloshim of my mother. They still hold a very dear place in our hearts and we are so grateful to Yafa for sharing her recipe with you, our reader.
The original recipe called for frying the eggplant, but to make it easier and a little healthier, I roasted it in the oven.
Wishing you a Chag Sameach and memorable meals in your Sukkah!
Nana Sue’s Ma’hasha
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
6 garlic cloves, crushed
2 lemons, juiced
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups water
- In a pot, warm oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add tomatoes and continue to sauté for two minutes.
- Add tomato paste, garlic, lemon juice, sugar and water.
- Stir well, lower heat and allow to simmer for a half hour.
2 large white onions
7 medium zucchini or Mexican squash,
4 medium tomatoes
12 silver beet leaves, soaked and drained
2 beets, peeled and cut into thin slices
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Slit the onions from top to bottom, halfway to the middle.
- Boil the onions for 10 to 15 minutes until the layers can be detached. Drain and leave to cool.
- In a large bowl, mix all the stuffing ingredients together.
- Coat the bottom of a large skillet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
- Fill the zucchini with stuffing and arrange on the outer edges of the skillet.
- Stuff the onions and tomatoes and arrange in the center of the skillet.
- Place stuffing in the middle of the beet leaves and wrap to form a small cigar. Arrange stuffed beet leaves between the zucchini. Arrange slices of beetroot around the vegetables.
- Cook vegetables on low heat for about two minutes, then pour sauce over the stuffed vegetables. Simmer over medium-high heat for five minutes.
- Cook covered over low heat for about an hour or until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Add a little water if necessary to prevent the vegetables from burning. Photo by Alexandra GompertsYafa’s Beef and Eggplant RollsSauce
1/4 cup olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, grated or finely chopped
1 14 ounce can of tomato sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup water
1 large lemon, juiced• Warm olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until tender.• Add the tomato sauce, salt and pepper. Lower heat and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.• Add water and lemon juice and stir well for 2 more minutes. Set aside3 medium eggplants, thinly sliced in long strips
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 cup avocado oil
2 tablespoons avocado oil
1 onion chopped
1 lb ground beef
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons potato starch
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup pitted prunes• Preheat oven to 450°F• Sprinkle salt over eggplant strips, place in a colander and let drain, about 20 minutes.• Squeeze water from eggplant and pat dry with a paper towel• Brush both sides of eggplant with oil and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet• Bake for 10 minutes or until tender and slightly golden.• Remove eggplants from oven and reduce oven heat to 350°F• In a medium skillet, warm oil over medium heat and add onion. Sauté until translucent and soft. Set aside to cool.• Place ground beef in a medium bowl, then add the onions.• Add the spices, potato starch, egg, parsley and oil and mix to combine.• Roll the beef mixture into long meatballs and place on the wider side of the eggplant. Roll the eggplant over the meat filling and place in a large ovenproof dish.• Arrange prunes in between the eggplant rolls.• Pour the sauce over the eggplant rolls.• Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes, then uncover and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff have been friends since high school. The Sephardic Spice Girls project has grown from their collaboration on events for the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.