Cook This: Hanukkah recipes from Rome’s Jewish kitchen

Make Leah Koenig’s fritter recipes from the Roman Jewish kitchen for Hanukkah

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Our cookbook of the week is Portico by Leah Koenig.

Jump to the recipes: mixed fried vegetables (pezzetti fritti), fried salt cod with a fried mozzarella variation (filetto di baccalà and mozzarella fritta) and savoury fried potato pastries (burik con patate).

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The culinary symbol of Hanukkah, fried foods are central to Rome’s Jewish community — and not just for the festival of lights. Carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style fried artichokes), seasoned simply with salt and a squeeze of lemon, are undoubtedly the most famous. This dish of deep-fried, golden thistles was born out of necessity. Now it’s the “Roman Jewish gift to the world,” writes Leah Koenig in her seventh book, Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen (2023). And artichokes are just the beginning.

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By papal decree, being a street vendor was one of the few professions Roman Jews could hold during the Ghetto period between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many became friggitori (fryers), selling pezzetti fritti (mixed fried vegetables). Homes in the Ghetto had stove tops but rarely ovens, Koenig explains. Frying was an economical way to cook because, being in Italy, olive oil was abundant.

“That was their livelihood. And they fried everything, from what I’ve heard — whatever vegetables they had on hand. Even apples sometimes. They literally fried everything except for (non-kosher) seafood, which is part of fritto misto that Jews wouldn’t do,” says Koenig. “Out of persecution and strife, they created something beautiful. So, the fried tradition, and its many different expressions of taking ingredients that were available, and frying them and making them delicious, sums up Roman Jewish cuisine more broadly.”

Roman Jewish cooks created a unique version of cucina povera, which still plays out in kitchens today. Unable to buy large, fresh, white fish, for example, the community relied on small fish such as anchovies and dried salt cod.

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The ruins of Portico d’Ottavia (Octavia’s Porch) — the inspiration for the book’s title — sit at the edge of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto neighbourhood. From the 12th century until Italy’s unification in the 19th century, it was the site of a fish market. There was a marble slab, and if a fish extended past its edges, Jews couldn’t buy it, says Koenig. Salt cod became a way for Roman Jews to access a white fish that lasted almost indefinitely. As with the many other humble ingredients at the heart of Roman Jewish cuisine, cooks found ways to make it tasty.

Koenig sometimes makes fried salt cod (filetto di baccalà) with fresh cod, acknowledging that it’s not exactly the same dish. “If you don’t love the saltiness of salt cod, you can definitely use fresh and just do the same thing minus the soaking. But it’s one of those dishes that feels so Roman Jewish in all the ways.”

Rome’s Jewish community is ancient, dating back more than 2,000 years. Roman and Roman Jewish cuisines are the result of centuries of cultural exchange. Distinctions between the two have blurred over time, says Koenig. The roots of certain dishes, such as carciofi alla giudia, are apparent because the word Jewish is in the name. But others, such as fritto misto, are more obscure.

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“Everyone in Rome eats those. They’re at every restaurant, and they’re delicious. But it’s almost certain that they come from the Jewish community first because of the long tradition of deep-frying within Rome’s Jews. And that’s OK — dishes travel; dishes evolve over time. But I think it’s really cool that the Jewish community is so old that it’s so intermingled and intertwined with Roman culture as a whole.”

Portico book cover
Portico, exploring the food culture of Rome’s centuries-old Jewish community, is Leah Koenig’s seventh cookbook. Photo by W. W. Norton & Company

After her sixth book, The Jewish Cookbook (2019) — a comprehensive work featuring more than 400 recipes from around the world — Koenig knew she wanted to write something more personal that would allow her to focus on one community. She found her subject in the city that had inspired her to embark on a career in Jewish food in the first place.

Koenig and her husband, musician and composer Yoshie Fruchter, honeymooned in Rome in 2009. At the time, she was new to food writing and was considering whether to focus on Jewish cuisine or take a broader view. Her direction crystallized during a Shabbat dinner composed entirely of Roman Jewish dishes at kosher caterer Giovanni Terracina’s house.

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She didn’t recognize any of the plates Terracina served, says Koenig. But they immediately felt familiar because of the context — sitting at a Shabbat table saying the blessing over wine and bread. She felt connected.

“I had this lightbulb moment where I was like, ‘Oh, wow, Jewish food is even broader and deeper and more diverse than I even knew already.’ And that dinner, it’s not really a hyperbole to say that it was the moment where I said, ‘I can do this. I will never tire of tracking down and sharing stories from the global Jewish world.’ So Portico is my way of thanking the Roman Jewish community for the way it has inspired my career and me as a person.”

As fascinated as Koenig was by the history and as enamoured as she was of the people she met and the dishes she ate, it took time for her to arrive at the idea of writing a book about Rome’s Jewish community. Koenig had included Roman Jewish recipes in several of her previous books, including Modern Jewish Cooking and The Jewish Cookbook, and she found herself revisiting them with renewed focus. But it was at the peak of pandemic lockdowns, missing travelling and dreaming of Rome, that the idea came to her.

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Unable to travel, she did a lot of her research over the phone, interviewing dozens of people and Zooming into their kitchens for instruction on making their family’s almond cake or beef stew or trimming an artichoke the Italian way. Then, in September 2021 — post-vaccine and pre-Omicron — travel restrictions lifted. Koenig and photographer Kristin Teig jumped at the chance to spend a week in Rome.

“I cooked in people’s kitchens and had meals at restaurants and in people’s homes and just put my feet back on the cobblestones in the Ghetto neighbourhood and remembered that the walls were this gorgeous coral colour — that is what the book’s cover alludes to — and just was able to make connections with my own memories, and fill in and enliven and bring to life a lot of the work I had done remotely.”

As Koenig explains in Portico, three groups make up Rome’s Jewish community: the Italkim, who arrived in the second century BCE; the Sephardim, who moved there after the Spanish Inquisition, introducing vegetables such as artichokes and eggplants, savoury and sweet applications of pine nuts and raisins, and ground-almond desserts; and the Libyan Jews, who immigrated in the late 20th century. She questioned whether she should include Libyan recipes in Portico, but a conversation with Rome-based chef and television personality Laura Ravaioli helped her decide.

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“There are two spirits to Jewish Roman food, Roman and Libyan,” Ravaioli told Koenig. “Both sides have learned to create something beautiful out of nothing.”

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Zuppa per couscous (vegetable stew for couscous) and shakshuka may not be traditional Roman recipes. Still, full-flavoured, spiced dishes like these epitomize the home cooking of Rome’s Libyan Jews, says Koenig. Whether cershi bel hal (garlicky pumpkin spread) or burik con patate (savoury fried potato pastries), Libyan Jewish dishes are part of the Roman Jewish story. “Their families, and the meals they share, are just a newer thread in an ancient tapestry.”

Though it is less common today, Koenig also explores the importance of offal, the offcuts of cows and lambs referred to as the quinto quarto (“fifth quarter”). Many dishes in the cucina povera tradition, such as braised oxtail, fried brains and sweetbreads, likely originated in the Roman Jewish Ghetto, “a four-block wide gated slum in one of the city’s most undesirable, and virtually uninhabitable, locations,” where Pope Paul IV ordered the Jews of Rome to live for more than 300 years.

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Romans, in general, care a great deal about tradition, says Koenig. One cook could tell you exactly how to make a dish, emphasizing if you have one extra garlic clove, it’s no longer correct. Then, you could meet someone equally passionate about a different recipe for the same dish.

“The beauty of that is that tradition is paramount. And I think for Roman Jews, that also just makes sense because the community went through so much persecution for so much of its history that the food and the culture and the connection to those things is anchoring for a community that’s had a lot of trauma,” says Koenig, noting that, as an American, she doesn’t share these boundaries around tradition. “I was surprised to see how tightly people hold (onto them) and how much these recipes seem intertwined with identity.”

One of her favourite examples is concia (silky marinated zucchini), the first recipe in the book. Many people she interviewed for Portico mentioned it as one of their central Shabbat or summertime dishes. Half told her, “You must cut the zucchini into coins.” The other half insisted, “Slice it into planks.” She respects this commitment to tradition while acknowledging that she has a different perspective. “I like both ways,” says Koenig, laughing. “They’re both delicious.”

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MIXED FRIED VEGETABLES

Mixed fried vegetables, pezzetti fritti
Mixed fried vegetables (and sometimes fish), commonly known as fritto misto, are beloved by all Romans, but the deep-​frying method hails originally from the Roman Jewish kitchen,” writes Leah Koenig of pezzetti fritti. Photo by Kristin Teig

Pezzetti Fritti

Serves: 4 to 6

Light olive oil or vegetable oil (such as sunflower or grapeseed) for deep-​frying

For the batter:
1 3/4 cups (245 g) all-​purpose flour
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 cups (475 mL) chilled sparkling water

For the mixed vegetables:
1/2 lb (227 g) green beans, ends trimmed
1/2 lb (227 g) cremini mushrooms, halved lengthwise (stems left intact)
1 medium fennel bulb (about 1/2 lb/227 g), trimmed and very thinly sliced lengthwise
2 small zucchini (about 1/2 lb/227 g), ends trimmed and cut lengthwise into 8 wedges each
Kosher salt and lemon wedges for serving

Step 1

Heat 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) of oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat until it reaches 350F (180C) on a deep-​fry thermometer. Line a large baking sheet with paper towels and set nearby.

WHILE THE OIL HEATS, MAKE THE BATTER

Step 2

Whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda and sparkling water in a large bowl until smooth and the consistency of a loose pancake batter. (Do not overmix.)

Step 3

Working in batches, drop the vegetables into the batter to coat, then remove with tongs, allowing the excess batter to drip off, and slip into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pan (which can lead to soggy fritters). If you are adding a couple of pieces at once, jostle them slightly with the tongs so they won’t stick together in clumps. Fry the vegetables, flipping them once, until crisp and golden, 4 to 6 minutes per batch. Transfer the fried vegetables to the paper towels to drain as they are done. Add more oil to the pan if needed, letting it come up to heat before proceeding.

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Step 4

Transfer the vegetables to a serving platter and sprinkle with salt. Serve hot, with lemon wedges on the side for squeezing.

FRIED SALT COD

Mozzarella fritta, fried mozzarella
The same batter used to make fried salt cod (filetto di baccalà) can be used to fry mozzarella balls (mozzarella fritta; see the variation). Photo by Kristin Teig

Filetto di Baccalà

Serves: 4 to 6

1 1/2 lb (680 g) baccalà (boneless salt cod)
Light olive oil or vegetable oil (such as sunflower or grapeseed) for deep-​frying
1 1/2 cups (210 g) all-​purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups (355 ml) cold water
Lemon wedges for serving

Step 1

Place the baccalà in a large bowl and cover with water. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours (ideally, closer to 48 hours), changing the water several times, until the fish is softened and pliable and most of the salt has washed away.

Step 2

Drain the fish, pat dry with paper towels and cut into approximately 4 x 1 1/2-​inch (10 x 4 cm) pieces (think a deck of playing cards cut lengthwise in half). Set aside.

Step 3

Heat 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) of oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat until it reaches 350F (180C) on a deep-​fry thermometer. Line a large baking sheet with paper towels and set nearby.

WHILE THE OIL HEATS, MAKE THE BATTER

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Step 4

Whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda and water in a large bowl, until smooth and the consistency of pancake batter. (Do not overmix.)

Step 5

Working in batches, dip the baccalà pieces into the batter to coat, then remove with tongs, allowing the excess batter to drip off, and slip into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pan. Gently stir and jostle the coated fish pieces as needed to prevent them from sticking together. Fry, flipping once, until crisp and lightly golden, 4 to 6 minutes per batch. Transfer the fried fish to the paper towels to drain and sprinkle with a little salt. Add more oil to the pan as needed, letting it come up to heat before proceeding.

Step 6

Transfer the baccalà to a serving plate and serve hot, with lemon wedges alongside for squeezing.

Mozzarella Fritta

Instead of baccalà, use 1 pound (454 g) cherry size mozzarella balls (ciliegine), drained and patted dry with paper towels. Proceed as above, frying them for 2 to 3 minutes per batch.

SAVOURY FRIED POTATO PASTRIES

Burik con patate, savoury fried potato pastries
For “a tasty shortcut,” use store-bought square egg roll wrappers for these Libyan fried potato pastries (burik con patate), suggests Leah Koenig. Photo by Kristin Teig

Burik con Patate

Makes: about 20 burik

For the filling:
3 medium russet potatoes (about 1 1/2 lb/680 g), peeled and cut into chunks
2 tbsp extra-​virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp kosher salt, plus more if needed
3 tbsp finely chopped fresh flat-​leaf parsley

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For the burik wrappers:
1 1/2 cups (210 g) all-​purpose flour, plus more if needed
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp vegetable oil (such as sunflower or grapeseed)
3/4 cup water (180 mL), plus more if needed
Vegetable oil (such as sunflower or grapeseed) for cooking the wrappers and frying the burik

MAKE THE FILLING

Step 1

Add the potatoes to a medium pot, cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat, then cook until potatoes are very tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

Step 2

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium-​low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the cinnamon and salt, and remove from the heat.

Step 3

When the potatoes are done, drain, transfer to a large bowl and mash with a potato masher until creamy.

Step 4

Add the softened onions to the mashed potatoes, along with the parsley, and stir to combine. Taste and add more salt if needed. Set aside. (The potato mixture can be made up to 2 days in advance and stored, covered, in the fridge.)

MAKE THE BATTER

Step 5

Add the flour, salt, vinegar and oil to the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the water and process until you have a very smooth batter the consistency of a loose (but not thin or runny) pancake batter. If needed, add more water or flour 1 tablespoon at a time until the desired consistency is reached. Transfer the batter to a bowl and let rest for 1 hour.

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MAKE THE WRAPPERS

Step 6

Place an 8-​inch (20-cm) nonstick frying pan over the lowest possible heat. When it is hot, add about 1/2 teaspoon of oil to the pan and use a paper towel to spread it around. (You are going for the bare minimum of oil.)

Step 7

Pour about 1 tablespoon of the batter into the pan and, using a large pastry brush, quickly brush it into a thin layer all over the bottom. (If the batter is too thick to spread effectively, whisk in a little more water.) Cook until the top of the wrapper is fully dry and the edges are beginning to curl, then carefully transfer to a plate. (It is okay if there are a few small holes in the wrapper.) Continue making wrappers, stacking them with squares of parchment paper between them, until you’ve used all the batter.

FILL AND FRY THE BURIK

Step 8

Spoon a heaping tablespoon of the potato filling into the centre of one wrapper, fold it in half to make a half-​moon shape and press the edges together to seal. Continue until either all of the filling or all of the wrappers are used up.

Step 9

Line a large baking sheet with a layer of paper towels and set aside. Heat 1/4 inch (6 mm) of oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Working in batches of 4 or 5, gently slip the burik into the oil and cook, turning once, until crispy and golden on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer the fried burik to the prepared baking sheet to drain. Serve warm.

Note: If you are short on time, store-​bought square egg roll wrappers make a tasty shortcut.

Recipes and images excerpted from Portico by Leah Koenig. Text copyright ©2023 by Leah Koenig. Photographs copyright ©2023 by Kristin Teig. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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