All of the seven species play a popular part in the cuisine of Sephardic Jews. But this week, Sharon and I wanted to highlight two particular ingredients — olives and nuts.
When I met Alan 24 years ago, I told him that when my father takes him to his garden and shows him his plants and trees, Alan will know that he is “in.”
A year later, Alan stood up and made a speech at our wedding and repeated this story. He waited a beat and said “David, you still haven’t shown me your garden!” Everyone laughed. Over the years, I never once doubted how much my father loved and respected Alan.
Our family friend, Rabbi Moses Benzaken once likened my father to a date tree. It was a wonderful and fitting comparison, because unlike other large, majestic trees, palm trees are easy to transplant. But also because my father absolutely loved palm trees.
My father came from a wealthy family in Baghdad, Iraq. His father had a wholesale food business selling grains, spices, medicinal herbs, nuts and dried fruits. Iraq is the birthplace of dates and my father especially loved dates.
In 1950, with the assistance of the T’nuah, the underground Zionist movement, my 15-year-old father ran away to Israel, where he became a successful builder.
When my mother’s family emigrated to Sydney, Australia, he and my mother followed them there. At 32, he learned a new language and built a new life from scratch. Then again, when he was 49, my mother wanted to move to Los Angeles. He adapted and thrived everywhere he went. Like the date palm, he stood tall and strong.
Many years ago, he bought a huge piece of land in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. It had a climate that reminded him of Iraq, hot in the summers and cold in the winter. Thirty years ago, he resolved that he would grow dates in Australia. His favorite date was the soft, sweet, fruity yellow barhi date, which are believed to be native to Iraq. He bought 5,000 dates from a farmer in the Coachella Valley and shipped them to Australia. One of his proudest accomplishments was cultivating 1,000 date palms from seeds. Those trees are still alive and thriving.
This Tu b’shevat, we will indulge in dates and walnuts and almonds and pomegranates and remember how much he loved these simple, delicious fruits.
In 16th century Tzfat, the spiritual center of the Kabbalah, the mystic Isaac ben Solomon Luria (Ha’Ari) created the Tu b’Shevat Seder. Celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the Tu b’Shevat holiday is considered one of the four “New Years” in the Jewish calendar. It is traditionally viewed as the birthday of the trees (Mishna RH 1:1).
The Ari’s Seder has become a popular tradition for “Chag Ha’Ilanot” (Festival of the Trees). It entails eating a meal centered on the seven species special to the Land of Israel—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. The Ari intended the Seder as a mystical Tikkun (correction) of Adam’s sin in eating from the Tree of Knowledge. By eating of the seven species, a person essentially becomes a partner-in-creation with G-d.
All of the seven species play a popular part in the cuisine of Sephardic Jews. But this week, Sharon and I wanted to highlight two particular ingredients — olives and nuts. Olives are a big part of Moroccan cuisine, so I always have lots of varieties in my pantry. My Moroccan olive chicken calls for briny green olives. My orange salad demands dried, salted black olives. My Israeli salad sings with the addition of creamy kalamata olives. And at Shabbat lunch, you will always cheese burekas accompanied by Greek olives. Honestly, I have a bit of an olive problem. I can devour a bowl of olives in a matter of minutes.
As you can imagine, I just love this recipe for marinated olives. The salty, meaty textures play perfectly with the fresh lemon juice and orange zest, the hot spice of red chili flakes and citrusy tang of the sumac. The fresh thyme adds an interesting woodsy note.
This recipe takes olives to a whole new level, but it’s also wonderfully forgiving.
This recipe takes olives to a whole new level, but it’s also wonderfully forgiving. Use your favorite citrus fruit and pick your favorite herb—rosemary, oregano, thyme. And use whichever olives you love. Just make it and enjoy!
2 cups green olives
2 cups Greek or Kalamata olives
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 lemon, juiced
1/2 orange, juiced
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme, or a few sprigs
2 tsp fennel seed, optional
1 Tbsp sumac
1 tsp red chili flakes
1 cup olive oil
Rinse olives thoroughly and drain thoroughly.
Place olives in a pan and add all the ingredients. Toss well to coat.
Place the pan over low heat for 10 minutes.
Place leftover olives in a glass jar with a tight lid and store in refrigerator. Serve cold.
Olives will keep for one month.
Many moons ago, Neil and I lived in Westwood and our daughter Rebekah attended Warner Elementary. The parents were very involved, taking turns helping on field trips and hosting class parties.
At these class parties, the moms would make special treats for the parents. Along the way, I made new friends and picked up some wonderful recipes. This recipe for spicy nuts has become a favorite. The nuts are infused with sweet, salty and spicy flavors and the aroma of the rosemary makes them enticing. Neil loves to indulge in a whiskey with these flavorful nuts on a Friday night before dinner. I make them with vegan cashew butter. They are really decadent and addictive.
Sephardic Spice Nuts
2 ½ cups unsalted mixed nuts
2 Tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp sumac
2 tsp dark brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp unsalted butter or vegan butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Place the nuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Place the sheet in the oven and toast until the nuts are golden and fragrant, about 6 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the rosemary, cayenne, sumac, brown sugar and butter.
Add the warm toasted nuts and toss well. Add the salt and toss again to make sure all the nuts are coated.
Keep a close eye on the nuts, as they can burn quickly.
Store nuts in an airtight container, up to 5 days.
We double and triple this recipe.
Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.