Saturday, January 31, 2009



Food and culture go together like love & marriage (well, not always these days), like a horse & buggy, like, um, okay, let’s start over :

Food and culture go together like bread & butter, like peanut butter & jelly, like tea & scones, like brownies & milk. (Oh, that’s better.) We express and share our culture through what we eat, we learn about other cultures through their cuisine. We strengthen our bonds to our own culture as well as to family and friends who surround us each time we cook and serve a traditional food or meal. What ingredients we use, what dishes we prepare, how it is served. All of this and more tie us to a culture whether or not we still feel an emotional link to a particular country, religion or community.

Great-great grandparents Sarah and Shapsa, photo taken in Lida, Russia before their immigration to the United States

I was raised in a conservative Jewish home in a very non-Jewish, All American community. I grew up caught between the Steak and Potatoes and the Potato Latkes, the Tuna Noodle Casserole and the Gefilte fish, the Apple Pie and the Apple Lokshen Kugel. Between the Thanksgiving meal and the Passover Seder. Between public school and Sunday school.

I am the granddaughter of immigrants, hearty Russian stock coming from a cold land where bodies were sustained with potatoes, cabbage, beets, onions and chicken. The dinner table was filled with hot cabbage soup, kasha varnitchkes and carrot tzimmis, the Holidays found us sitting in front of plates laden with smoked fish and chopped chicken livers, chicken soup with matzoh balls and golden, sweet loaves of Challah. Special Sundays meant cheese blintzes or bagels and lox. And though recipes were adapted to new world ingredients, the dishes my grandmother and then mother prepared were the same, the celebrations and the celebratory meals varying little. I thought little of it, accepting these delicacies with a smile and a hearty appetite, growing to love these simple dishes as the comfort foods of my childhood.

Grandma Bertha standing behind her mother-in-law Anna and her two daughters, Mildrid (on the left) and my mom, Ruth (on the right) in Albany, New York

Little did I expect to be laughed at, these near and dear family and cultural culinary traditions mocked! But years after I had been living in France, a friend of mine, Jewish but of North African descent described for me mealtimes prepared by her Russian mother-in-law. “Brown,” she exclaimed with distaste. “All of your food is brown. I look across the table at all of the dishes and all I see is brown!”

Ah, yes! One can understand. Her own parents came from a land not of cold and grey, but one of sunshine and fertile land. Her culinary heritage is filled to overflowing with violet eggplants, golden orange pumpkin and carrots, deep green zucchini and bright yellow lemons. Dishes are spiced with saffron and cinnamon, drizzled with honey and flavored with dried fruits and nuts. Though I defended my culinary inheritance with the pride of a scrappy but out-weighed boxer, I could definitely see her point.

But it got me thinking. When I heard her talk about the meals she was putting together for Friday night family dinner or the Passover celebration, I thought to myself, “well, it may not be a traditional holiday dish for Eastern European Jews, but hey, why not? It’s symbolic somewhere.” And this is how Lamb and Prunes, sweetened with honey and spiced with cinnamon, became my (new) traditional New Year’s (sweet) and Passover (sacrificial lamb) fare.

This recipe is based on the one I found in Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, which is one of my most used and best-loved cookbooks. I just adore meat cooked with fruit, and this dish has become a family favorite, and not just for holidays. Lamb is my favorite meat, both to cook and to eat and Moroccan food is a standard in our home. So this fits in perfectly between the couscous and the other tagines we regularly make.

Agneaux aux Pruneaux : Lamb with Prunes

1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
A few tablespoons vegetable oil for cooking
2 – 2 ½ lbs (1.2 kg) boneless lamb, excess fat removed and cut into large cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ tsp saffron powder or turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ lb (250 g) pitted prunes, or more as desired
Handful (about 2 oz/60 g or more) of blanched whole almonds
2 tsps ground cinnamon
3 Tbs honey

In a large, heavy-bottom pot with a lid, heat the oil and then fry the chopped onion until it starts to soften and become translucent. Add the chopped garlic and continue to fry until the onion and garlic are soft.

Add the cubes of lamb and fry, tossing to guarantee even browning, until the chunks are lightly browned all over.

Add the saffron, ginger and nutmeg, salt and pepper generously.

Add enough water to cover the meat, stir well, and bring up just to the boil. Turn down the heat, cover the pot almost completely and allow to simmer for 1 hour 20 minutes. The meat should be tender. Check every now and then, adding water as needed (remember, if too much water boils away, there will be no delicious sauce! You can always thicken it up a bit at the end of the cooking.).

At the end of the 1 hour 20 minutes, add the prunes, almonds, cinnamon and the honey, stir and continue simmering for another 15 – 20 minutes. Taste and add more freshly ground black pepper to balance the sweetness, if desired.

Serve hot over couscous grains. This may even make enough for two meals. Yum!

Ess, bench, sei a mensch! - Eat, pray, don't act like a jerk!


dragonmom said...

That looks just marvelous! Ess, indeed!

asiangrrl said...

Jamie, you truly are an artiste in the kitchen. This dish looks as good as I imagine it tastes.

P.S. I read the title as "Eat my child." I am glad that wasn't what was on the menu.

Maryann said...

I love your photos. Thanks for sharing them with us. This is what blogging is all about. Sharing our stories :) brava!

Hilda said...

Jamie, I too come from a land of sunshine originally, but I would argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder with food unless it really does look horrendous and by that I mean goopy and gross. One dish I posted a long time ago is a persian eggplant appetizer which is my favorite, and one comment I got was how Persian food is not pretty but tastes so good, which really means nothing to me because I see Persian food and think it looks delicious because I love it, so to each his own. And by the way, I love potato latkes and borscht and all that stuff too, so none of it looks brown and bad to me.

Dragon said...

This lamb dish looks so comforting. I can see why it's a favourite. Thank you for sharing your family story with us. :)

asiangrrl said...

One more thing on this post: I used to get teased for some of the weird foods I brought to school when I was a kid. I think it's all about familiarity and comfort. The funny part is that now, of course, Asian food is all the rage.

Jamie said...

Hilda! It is great to see you back! And I too think it's all a matter of taste. I love latkes, chopped liver and sweet noodle kugel, even if they aren't necessarily very pretty to look at.

Jessica@Foodmayhem said...

I love fruit with meat, especially in Moroccan influenced dishes.

BTW, lots of traditional Chinese foods look very brown or just not pretty.

we are never full said...

great post. this dish looks similar to a moroccan tagine. who knew the flavors also had jewish roots!


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