Author Archives: Penny Schwartz

Penny Schwartz

About Penny Schwartz

Penny Schwartz is a Boston-based freelance journalist specializing in Jewish subjects and the arts. She's a contributing writer for JTA.org and her articles are also published in the Boston Globe, Times of Israel, JewishBoston, The Artery, Hadassah Magazine, and Jewish Journal of Boston. Follow her @PennySchwartz.

Cocido: A Spanish Dish with Jewish Roots

Chef Jim Solomon, owner of the Boston restaurant, The Fireplace, likes to stir the pot. The award-winning Jewish chef’s recipe for “Spanish Inquisition Remembered” is a boldly named new twist on a centuries-old Spanish chickpea-based stew known as cocido, that will spice up the Purim menu and the conversation around the Purim dinner table.

Rich in flavor, the cocido is perfect for Purim, a holiday that is filled with masked meaning, charade, and customs and cuisine that reveal more than they appear on the surface. Solomon developed this recipe for Beyond Bubbe’s Kitchen, a Jewish food event that was produced by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, a Boston-based Jewish arts and cultural organization.

The cocido, a common Spanish chickpea-based stew dates back to the 15th century, he found. It’s a simple stew and varied across regions and was also prepared with meat. Solomon was delighted to discover that the dish, often prepared in the winter, was commonly eaten by Jews for Purim. 

Non-Jewish Spaniards added pork to the stew. In the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews who were hiding their identity were known to have eaten pork to mask their faith, Solomon found.

Jewish cooking authority Joan Nathan elaborated on the origins of the Sephardic version of the cocido and its relation to Purim. The long-simmering stew, often cooked overnight in ovens, was a variation of the a cholent known as adafina. It may have included lamb or goat, sometimes barley or bulgur, said Nathan. Christian Spaniards added sausage. “Jews like to think it was Jewish, but everyone ate it,” said Nathan.

Chickpeas are known as a Purim dish,” Nathan observed. Many believe that in the story retold in The Book of Esther, read on Purim, that Queen Esther ate a vegetarian diet while living in the palace of King Ahasverus in order to follow the rules of kashrut. This led to the custom of eating beans and peas at Purim, she has found.

Solomon’s “Spanish Inquisition Remembered” dish is a garlicky cocido with garbanzo and spinach served over couscous with parsley. The flavorful stew is spiced with smoked and Hungarian paprika, cumin and cayenne. He improvised a paste of toasted Marcona almonds and sour dough bread cubes that adds a robust depth to the flavor-rich stew.

But Solomon had more in mind than creating a mouth-watering contemporary version of the Sephardic stew. The whole idea for drawing inspiration for a dish from the time of the Inquisition was to be provocative,” he acknowledged. One parallel with Purim was the evil plan of Haman to kill the Jews of ancient Persia, he said. But he also wanted to bring together Purim’s themes of religious persecution, the Inquisition, hidden identities, the Sephardic cocido and today’s political climate.

I wanted to highlight the similarities to [President] Trump’s intention to ban and expel vast numbers of Muslims and other immigrants,” he explained. While my dish is a simple, traditional Spanish cocido, it has the hidden meaning of being a political statement about is happening in America today.”

It’s an invitation to a thought-provoking, delicious meal.

The History of Mah Jongg Snacks

“Four Bam, One Crack, Six Dot.”  Generations of Mah Jongg players and their children and grandchildren recognize the names of the small decorated tiles used in the Chinese game that found a devoted American audience among Jewish women.

For thousands of Jewish women from the city, the suburbs and the Catskills alike, the weekly Mah Jongg games, with their friendly wagers, were as much a ritual as lighting Friday night Shabbat candles.

Nearly synonymous with the playing were the ring jells, Bridge mix, Entenmann’s coffee cake and other iconic snacks that were served.

Mah Jongg night was a big deal, recalls Audrey Kaplan, whose mother was a regular player when Kaplan was growing up in the 1960s. Now a regular player herself, Kaplan has vivid childhood memories of the snacks that her mother served. It’s a regular topic of conversation with one of the other players in her own game.

Women playing mah jongg outdoors.

Women playing mah jongg in the Catskills, c. 1960. Collection of Harvey Abras.

“We laugh about it because we both remember a cut-up pineapple with those very unhealthy maraschino cherries and the little plastic toothpicks. That was the standard nosh food, along with M&Ms in a bowl. We loved when our moms hosted the weekly game, because there were leftovers of good snacks in the house,” Kaplan said.

Nowadays, the preserved, sweetened red cherries are taboo. “We play heart-healthy,” she said, with cut up fresh fruit, veggies, hummus, salsa, cheese and crackers. “You never see candy,” she said with a laugh.

The Nosher met up with Kaplan and her Mah Jongg regulars at “Project Mah Jongg,” a delightful and fascinating exhibit at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (on view through at least the end of January, 2017). The friends were finishing up a round at a card table set up in the middle of the small gallery on the museum’s second floor. Kaplan’s group had a Mah Jongg date at the museum to celebrate the birthday of one of their players, and they planned on lunch at Lox, the museum’s new outstanding cafe.

READ: Is Mah Jongg A Jewish Game?

The exhibit traces the origins of the game in the U.S. and the cultural and social role it played in the lives of American Jewish women.

Many people associate Mah Jongg with Eastern European Jewish women. But it first bloomed in the 1920s and 30s among women of the leisure class, many of whom were of German descent, according to Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums and the exhibit’s curator. There was even an air of the forbidden, with women staying up at night gambling, Yaverbaum said. But it became acceptable as an American game and as an American Jewish game, she said.

In 1937, at the inaugural convention of the National Mah Jongg League, all 200 women were Jewish, Yaverbaum pointed out. The league’s focus on donating to philanthropic causes made it a natural for synagogue sisterhoods and other Jewish women’s groups.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the game was first introduced to Americans, the Chinese influence was more exaggerated, and marketing at times played on ethnic stereotypes, Yaverbaum told The Nosher. Advertisements promoted Chinese food, lanterns and Mah Jongg-inspired dishware.

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Photo of Mah Jongg exhibit at Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

One display on the foods associated with the game includes a box of Joya brand chocolate covered Ring Jells, a Jello-mold, and a Mah Jongg-themed apron. “It was more than a pastime – it was often a production,” one wall text proclaims. Hosting involved a ritual of shopping and baking. The jelly rings, marshmallow sticks and bridge mix were part of the postwar era, Yaverbaum explained.

The snacks had to be easy to eat. Toothpicks were often part of the setup; there were no forks and knives, according to Ivy Barsky, who was senior curator for the original exhibit. “You need both hands for the game, and the women didn’t want to take time off between hands.”

What stood out for Barsky was that people’s memories were particular and what was served didn’t vary. “It was routinized but very special.”

Over the last decade, there’s been a renewed interest in the game, and today there are more than 350,000 members of the National Mah Jongg League, which still sells the yearly rule cards that it uses to support philanthropic causes, including many Jewish groups.

Given the prominent role of food in Jewish culture, it’s no surprise that when Jewish women get together for Mah Jongg, food is a kind of fifth player,” Barsky observed. “It’s about nurturing, being social and being warm and welcoming to guests.”

Vintage Mah Jongg Tiles. Courtesy the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

Vintage Mah Jongg Tiles. Courtesy the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

Top photo: Visitors are invited to play a game of Mah Jongg at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Image from the Museum of Jewish Heritage/ Melanie Einzig.

 

New Jewish Deli Mamaleh’s is Bringing Nostalgic Eats to Boston

The wandering is over. With the much anticipated opening of Mamaleh’s, a new Jewish delicatessen in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, Bostonians no longer have to trek beyond their borders for home-cured pastrami, kreplach, and hand-rolled bagels with house-cured lox. The dine-in and takeout menus offer up traditional Jewish fare including noodle kugel and matzah ball soup, as well as new takes on some standards.

In addition to its gravlax-style house cured lox and pickled herring, Mamaleh’s offers perfectly smoked sturgeon and sable, sourced from Acme Smoked Fish in Brooklyn, according to Rachel Miller Munzer, part of the team that launched Mamaleh’s last month. 

Mamaleh’s is the newest in a growing number of Jewish and Israeli eateries and cafes attracting Boston diners in and out of the Jewish community. Tatte Bakery and Cafe, owned by a Tel Aviv native Tzurit Or, recently opened its fifth location, a short walk from Mamaleh’s. Tatte’s cases overflow with Israeli inspired baked goods like a delicately flavored halvah rose pastry and light meals. Inna’s Kitchen, serving made-from-scratch Jewish and Israeli food, is part of the new Boston Public Market, the city’s first year-round indoor local food market.

Gribenes, Pastrami and Potato Knish, Chopped Liver, and Rueben Sandwich. Photo by Aly Miller.

Gribenes, Pastrami and Potato Knish, Chopped Liver, and Reuben Sandwich. Image by Aly Miller.

Mamaleh’s has that nostalgic deli experience with a black and white tile floor and counter seating on bar stools, as well as roomy booths and table seating for 80 diners. Tempting home-baked loaves of moist babka (chocolate and cinnamon), slices of chewy, nut-filled mandel bread, delicately flavored tahini cookies, and gorgeous spirals of rugelach sit atop a glass case with a carrot-lentil salad and other take-out items. Mamaleh’s fountain and bar serves an array of inventive drinks, from homemade celery soda to egg creams, including a version with alcohol. Shelves are stocked with other items for sale, from Jewish snacks to cookbooks and Mamaleh’s memorabilia.

A few weeks before Mamaleh’s opened, the owners hosted a pop-up bagels-and-lox event at their State Park restaurant next door. “’What’s lox?’ somebody asked. It blew my mind,” that people didn’t know, Miller Munzer told The Nosher. “It didn’t occur to us to that we were opening an ethnic restaurant.” In less than a month, the deli is attracting a diverse range of diners. Some daring diners not raised on Jewish fare are experimenting, she said — others know Reuben sandwiches and house-roasted turkey and roast beef.

On a recent weekday, one group of diners steeped in this food couldn’t resist the urge to dig in, starting off with the Jewish Pu Pu Platter, loaded with chopped liver, schmaltz on toast, pickles and kreplach.

“The star was the kreplach, with shredded beef,” said Laura Mandel, executive director of Jewish Arts Collaborative that was holding its staff lunch meeting at a corner booth. “Almost as good as my mom’s, which is saying a lot,” she added. Mamaleh’s version is fried, an updated take on the dumpling traditionally served in soup. The pastrami and potato knish was another big hit. “It was nicely baked, golden and delicious,” Mandel added. She couldn’t resist a rye bread to go.

The emotional response from customers came as a pleasant surprise, Miller Munzer told The Nosher. In the short amount of time they’ve been open, many people are connecting with the food and culture. “This reminds me of my grandmother,” some people have said. Another customer recalled that her aunt used to call her Mamaleh. “It is very touching.”

Mamaleh’s is planning to expand to dinner service soon.