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Thai Basil-Jalapeño Pesto

Tina Wasserman

I created the following pesto recipe out of necessity: I had a bumper crop of Thai basil in my garden and didn't want any of it to go to waste. The pesto contains no butter or cheese, is sharp and tangy, and has a subtle Asian flavor. Toss with pasta or a favorite vegetable. It's also a great spread on a turkey sandwich.

3/4 cup macadamia nuts or almonds (almonds if you're mixing by hand)
3 jalapeños, seeds and membrane removed
2 large cloves of garlic cut into quarters
2 cups firmly packed Thai basil leaves (Italian basil may be used)
3 Tablespoons unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Add the nuts to the processor workbowl and pulse the machine on and off until the nuts are fairly fine. Alternatively, if you do not own a processor, use a mortar and pestle to grind the nuts and basil into a paste and then add the liquid ingredients.
  2. Add the jalapeño and garlic and pulse 5 times. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.
  3. Add the basil and pulse the processor another 10 times, until a coarse paste is formed.
  4. Add the rice wine vinegar and pulse on and off a few times to combine.
  5. Turn the machine on and slowly drizzle the olive oil into the pesto until the mixture looks creamy and fairly smooth.
  6. Scrape into a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper.


Tina's Tidbits: 
  •  The "heat" in a jalapeño derives mostly from the seeds and the white interior membrane. The more seeds and membrane you leave, the hotter your dish will be.
  • Pesto means "to pound." Traditionally, the basil leaves and nuts were pounded into a paste. Using a processor is much easier.
  • Be careful not to over-process green herbs--you'll bring out the chlorophyll in the leaf and your mixture will taste more like grass than basil.



Middle Eastern Cucumber Pickles

Tina Wasserman

If you follow the recipe in one popular cookbook, making pickles can consume countless hours. Instead, take Alan Kaufman's advice and try this recipe--the pickles take about twenty minutes to make and only two days of waiting time. And the addition of ginger, cardamon, and cinnamon gives the pickles a subtle Middle Eastern flavor.

12 to 16 small cucumbers, about 5 inches long
4 large cloves of garlic cut in half, green stem removed
1/8 teaspoon coriander seed
2 bay leaves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon mustard seed
8 whole allspice berries
1 1-inch piece of crystallized ginger
1/2 stick cinnamon
6 cardamon pods
4 cups of water
1/2 cup distilled organic white vinegar
3 Tablespoons coarse, kosher salt
2 1-quart jars (Mason jars)
  1. Slice the cucumbers into 1/4-inch pieces and discard the ends.
  2. Place the cucumbers in two wide-mouthed quart jars.
  3. Combine all of the spices and lightly crush with a mortar and pestle or the back of a spoon. (For a more Eastern European pickle, you can eliminate the allspice, ginger, cinnamon, and cardamon and replace with dried hot pepper, more garlic, and dill or dill seed.) Divide the spice mixture evenly between the two jars.
  4. Bring the water to a boil in a stainless steel, glass, or enamel saucepan.
  5. Add the vinegar and salt and stir with a rubber spatula until the salt dissolves.
  6. Pour the hot liquid evenly into the jars.
  7. Let the mixtures cool on your counter for about one hour and then seal them with the jar lids. Shake the jars upside down 2 times to combine the spices with the liquid.
  8. Place the jars in a closet or another cool dark place for 2 days. During this time the pickles will soften and be preserved by the saline solution, and the flavors will all meld beautifully.
  9. Serve and enjoy!
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Pickling in vinegar hastens the process of souring, but your vegetables will brown faster.
  • If fresh garlic turns blue/green in the pickling jar, the garlic is very fresh or there is not enough salt in the brine.
  • Placing the pickles in the refrigerator immediately without waiting the 2 days will yield bright green and crisper pickles.

Curried Lentils and Vegetables

Tina Wasserman

In the 17th through 19th centuries, British, Dutch, and Portuguese traders sailing the Spice Route made a mandatory stop in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) for nutmeg, mace, and cloves; and Sri Lanka and the Malabar Coast (on the southwestern tip of India) for their exclusively grown Malabar cinnamon and Malabar black pepper. These spices, plus the chilies and cardamom from inland routes, were the basis of many of the region’s curry spice blends. Contrary to popular belief, curry powder is not a single spice but in fact a blend of many spices (seven in this recipe). Here, the combination of spices with tomato is indicative of New Delhi origins.

1 cup red lentils
2 medium onions, chopped
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon chili powder
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 good pinches of ground cloves
1⁄4 teaspoon cinnamon
4 ounces sliced mushrooms
3 yellow crookneck squash, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 cup vegetable broth
1⁄2 6-ounce can of tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 8-oz. can chickpeas, drained
3 cups of cooked basmati or jasmine rice (1 cup raw rice + 2 cups water)
1⁄2 cup roasted peanuts
1⁄2 cup unflavored yogurt (thick Greek yogurt is best)
  1. Boil the lentils in water to cover for approximately 25 minutes, until they are soft but not mushy. Set aside.
  2. Heat the oil. Sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until the onions are soft and the garlic is light golden.
  3. Mix in the spices and vegetables and sauté for 3 minutes.
  4. Add the broth, tomato paste, chickpeas, and salt (if needed). Cover and simmer for about 8 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
  5. Drain the lentils and add to the vegetables. Stir in the nuts and serve over the rice with yogurt if desired.




Tina's Tidbits: 
  •  Try to avoid using curry powder—cooking with fresh individual spices produces an incomparable flavor.




Eggplant Salad with Pine Nuts (Kioupia)

Tina Wasserman

About four miles into the island of Rhodes, I found a converted farmhouse nestled in the mountains, where I was served this eggplant dish. It is similar to baba ghanoush, but because the yogurt replaces the sesame-seed paste, it’s lighter - and less caloric! While I don’t know the genesis of this dish, the island of Rhodes had a large Jewish population after the 15th century and the use of eggplant and yogurt is indicative of a Jewish connection.

2 large eggplants (about 2 pounds)
2 Tablespoons extra virgin Greek olive oil
Juice of 1 small lemon
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1⁄4 cup Greek yogurt or Lebni (American yogurts will be too watery)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons pine nuts
  1. Wash the whole eggplants and pierce with a small, sharp knife in one or two places.
  2. Place them on a cookie sheet and broil (alternatively, grill on an outdoor hot charcoal grill), turning the eggplants every 10 minutes until they are deflated and their skins are charred.
  3. Transfer the eggplants to a colander placed in the sink and slit the skins open. Allow the eggplants to drain for at least 10 minutes, until they are cool enough to handle.
  4. Remove some of the seeds (not all) and discard the stem and skin.
  5. Scoop the eggplant pulp into a processor workbowl (or a regular workbowl if a processor is not available).
  6. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.
  7. Pulse the processor on and off 7 times until the mixture is fairly smooth but still a little chunky. Pour the mixture into a bowl. Alternatively, stir briskly with a fork and/or wire whisk.
  8. Whisk in the Greek yogurt, salt, and pepper. If the mixture appears too dry, add more olive oil or lemon juice. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  9. Toast the pine nuts on a cookie sheet in a 350°F oven until lightly golden (approximately 5 minutes).
  10. Just before serving, fold the toasted nuts into the eggplant, reserving a few for garnish. Serve at room temperature or cold.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • If you can, roast your eggplant outdoors—it imparts a unique flavor to the eggplant. Otherwise, indoor broiling works fine.

Persian Advieh (Spice Mix)

Tina Wasserman

Israel’s multiethnic environment has introduced us to many examples of Baharat (spice blends used in cooking throughout the Middle East and North Africa). While the base ingredients in this Persian mix are ubiquitous in all Baharat, only Persian cuisine includes dried rose petals, which impart a light, sweet, floral accent to any grilled meat or fish.

2 Tablespoons cinnamon
2 Tablespoons ground cardamom
2 Tablespoons dried rose petals (from a Middle Eastern market or online)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
  1. Grind the ingredients in a coffee grinder or spice mill until almost all the roses are finely ground.
  2. Place the ground spices in an airtight jar in your refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze indefinitely in an airtight container until ready to use.
  3. Add 1 Tablespoon of this mixture to 1 pound of ground beef or ground bison to make grilled kabobs or burgers. Alternatively, mix 1 Tablespoon advieh to 1 Tablespoon olive oil and rub on the outside of fish fillets before grilling.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • When using dried spices as a rub on poultry, fish, or meat, always lightly salt your food first and then combine the spice with a little oil. The rub will then adhere to the food, flavoring it well.

Persian Mast o Khiar [Cucumber Yogurt Salad]

Tina Wasserman

While Greek tsatsiki offers up a blend of refreshing cucumber, yogurt, and dill, the Persian version features the elegant and elaborate use of fresh herbs and fruits. And thinning this mixture with about 1 cup of water will give you an incredibly delicious cold soup!

1 cup thick Greek yogurt—whole or 2%
1⁄4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1⁄4 cup golden or dark raisins, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 of 1 large cucumber, peeled and cut into 1⁄4-inch dice (approximately 3⁄4 cup)
2 Tablespoons fresh mint, finely minced
2 Tablespoons fresh dill, finely minced
2 Tablespoons fresh chives, finely minced
2 Tablespoons fresh basil, finely minced
2 Tablespoons dried rose petals, crushed or minced (available at Middle Eastern markets)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Additional whole dried rose petals for garnish (optional)
1 Tablespoon finely ground walnuts for garnish (optional)
  1. Place the yogurt in a 2-quart bowl and stir until it’s smooth.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Wipe the bowl edges as needed or pour the mixture into a serving bowl.
  3. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and preferably overnight, to allow the flavors to blend.
  4. Just before serving, sprinkle on additional rose petals and ground walnuts if desired.
  5. Serve with soft Middle Eastern bread.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Greek yogurt or Middle Eastern Labne is much thicker in consistency than American varieties of yogurt. When a recipe requires a thick yogurt base and Greek yogurt is not available, you can substitute sour cream.
  • Seeding a cucumber creates a less watery finished product. In this recipe, since you are working with thick Greek yogurt, removing the seeds is optional.

Persian Nan o Paneer (Bread with Cheese)

Tina Wasserman

A Persian cheese plate is a perfect starter for a hot summer meal. Persian Lighvan cheese made from sheep’s milk is traditionally used in this dish, but as it’s hard to find, feta cheese — especially Bulgarian feta — is a good substitute. The fresh herbs, eaten as a main component in this dish, beautifully complement the cheese.

8 ounces Bulgarian or other fine feta cheese
1⁄2 cup large walnut pieces or halves
1⁄4 cup fresh basil leaves
1⁄4 cup fresh mint
1⁄4 cup fresh tarragon
1⁄3 cup imported sour cherry preserves
Small watermelon wedges or cucumber slices
1–2 sheets sesame Barbari bread, pita bread, or soft flour tortillas
  1. Rinse and drain the feta cheese. Place on a 12-inch serving platter.
  2. Toast the walnuts in a 350°F oven for 5–6 minutes or until the nuts begin to smell fragrant. Place on the platter near the cheese.
  3. Rinse the herbs, pat dry, and remove the leaves from the stems. Place the leaves in little mounds on the platter.
  4. Add 1⁄3 cup of sour cherry preserves on the platter along with small watermelon wedges or cucumber slices.
  5. Set out another plate or basket for bread.
  6. To eat, place a small piece of cheese in the center of a portion of the bread, top the cheese with walnuts and a big pinch of one or more of the fresh herbs, and finish with a small teaspoonful of the cherry preserves. The fruit or cucumber may be added to the “sandwich” or eaten separately.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Never let nuts get too golden in the oven. They will continue to “fry” in their own oils even after being removed from the heat source.
  • When purchasing nuts, double their weight to estimate the volume. For example, 8 ounces of nuts will measure 2 cups or double the weight by volume.

Turkish Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmas)

Tina Wasserman

Stuffed grape leaves and cabbage are ubiquitous - and used with great variety - in the cuisines of the Jews throughout the Diaspora. In this dish, the combination of sweet spices along with pine nuts and raisins demonstrates a strong Arab influence.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup uncooked long grain rice
4 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
3 tablespoons toasted Pignoli nuts
3 tablespoons raisins
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup water, additional as needed
1 teaspoon sugar
Broken grape or lettuce leaves
1 8-ounce jar of grape leaves in brine (2 if the leaves are small)
  1. Heat a large skillet for 20 seconds. Add 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and heat for 10 seconds. Sauté the onion for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, sauté until the onions are lightly golden, and place in a 2-quart mixing bowl.
  2. Soak the separated grape leaves in a bowl of warm water for 5 minutes while you make the filling.
  3. Add the rice, scallions, dill, parsley, mint, cinnamon, allspice, pine nuts, and raisins to the onion mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Remove the leaves from the bowl of water and rinse under cold running water. Separate the leaves and place them shiny side down on a board. If the leaves are small, place two together, overlapping at the stem end.
  5. Place 2 teaspoons of the rice mixture near the stem end of the leaves and roll up the leaf once to cover the filling. Fold in both sides of the leaf and then tightly roll the leaf up toward the tip, making a neat roll.
  6. Place some broken vine leaves or lettuce leaves in the bottom of a 4-quart pot or Dutch oven (so the rolls won't stick to the bottom of the pan) and then arrange the rolls in the pot seam side down. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling, piling the rolls on top of each other as necessary.
  7. Combine the remaining 2/3 cup oil, lemon juice, 2/3 cup of water, and sugar and pour the mixture over the rolls.
  8. Place a weight (a heavy plate will do) on top of the rolls and simmer, covered, for 40 minutes. Check that the water mixture hasn't boiled off; if it has, add 1/2 cup water and cook another 10 minutes.
  9. Cook for a total of 50 minutes, or until the rice in the rolls is tender.
  10. Cool for about 1 hour, then remove the rolls from the pot.
  11. Serve your delicious rolls cool or at room temperature.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Dolmas can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator.
  • Never use lemon juice from a bottle; it bears no resemblance to the real thing.
  • When buying lemons, scrape the outside with your fingernail and sniff. The fragrance will indicate the flavor of the lemon juice.

Vegetarian Couscous

Tina Wasserman

This Moroccan-inspired dish is a perfect way to reap the bounty of wonderful vegetables available during the Sukkot season. It also makes a beautiful, edible centerpiece for your dinner table in the sukkah.

2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 medium onion, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
2 carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 8-ounce can of tomato sauce
3/4 cup dark raisins
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 1/2 cups of vegetable stock, divided use
1 small (1 pound) eggplant, sliced into 1-inch cubes
2 yellow crookneck squash, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
2 small zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds, or 1 cup asparagus cut into 1-inch lengths
4 ounces of mushrooms (any type), caps cut into quarters (portabellas cut into 1-inch cubes)
1 15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained
4 Tablespoons butter or margarine
1 cup fine couscous
1 or more Tablespoons of finely minced parsley for garnish
  1. Heat a large frying pan or 4-quart saucepan for 30 seconds, add the olive oil, and heat for 15 seconds. Sauté the garlic and onion until lightly golden. Do not allow the garlic to brown.
  2. Add the carrots, tomato sauce, raisins, salt, cumin, and 1 cup of the stock. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until the carrots are crisp tender--thoroughly cooked but firm and not mushy.
  3. Add the zucchini and the eggplant and cook for 10 minutes. Spoon in the crookneck squash or asparagus pieces, mushrooms, and chickpeas and stir to combine. Cook for an additional 10 minutes until all the vegetables are tender.
  4. In a large saucepan, heat the remaining 1 1/2 cups of stock along with the butter or margarine. Add the couscous. Cover, remove from the heat, and allow the pan to sit for 5 minutes.
  5. To serve, spoon the couscous into the center of a large rimmed dish, and surround with the cooked vegetables. Pour the sauce evenly over all, and sprinkle with a little parsley for garnish.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Always heat your sauté pan before adding oil. This prevents the oil from adhering to the pan and the food from sticking to the oil.
  • When cooking vegetables, always add in first those that require more cooking time.
  • The fins of portabella mushrooms will blacken foods. Before adding a portabella to any recipe, scrape the fins off its underside with a spoon and use only the remaining mushroom cap.

Mina de Maza [Matzah Pie]

Tina Wasserman

Recipes for matzah lasagna or matzah pies are common in American Jewish cookbooks, but these foods are not inventions of the American Jewish kitchen. Throughout the Mediterranean, Turkish Minas, Italian Scacchi, and Greek Pitas – all layered dishes similar to lasagna – have been prepared for at least a thousand years using matzah for dough during Passover. The following is a variation of the classic Turkish Mina and a meatless Scacchi. 

2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled
7 1/2 ounces Friendship farmer cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4-1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, to taste
1 Tablespoon minced fresh dill
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large clove of garlic, finely minced
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
8 ounces defrosted artichoke hearts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons roasted pine nuts
8 regular matzah squares
2 cups warm vegetable or mushroom broth
1 egg
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Additional butter for greasing the pan
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Lightly grease a 13" x 9" pan with the additional butter. Set aside.
  3. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 2-quart pan. Sauté the onion until golden.
  4. Squeeze out all of the excess moisture from the spinach with your hands and add to the onions, then cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Mix in the feta, farmer cheese, eggs, seasonings, and dill, and then set aside.
  5. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a small sauté pan and add the garlic. Cook for 20 seconds over medium high heat, and then mix in the mushrooms, sautéing them for about 5 minutes, until they have given up most of their moisture.
  6. If the artichoke pieces are large, cut them in half. Add to the mushroom mixture and stir to heat through. Mix in the toasted pine nuts and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  7. Heat the 2 cups of broth in the microwave for about 1 1/2 minutes. Pour into an 8-inch square casserole or a deep dish that will hold the liquid and soak 2 sheets of matzah at a time until they are soft and pliable. Once you have 4 soft matzot, fit them into the bottom and sides of the buttered dish.
  8. Spread the spinach mixture over the matzot, then top with the mushroom mixture.
  9. Soak the remaining 4 sheets of matzah in the broth and then cover the filling, trimming or tucking in the sides.
  10. Add the remaining egg to the leftover broth in the dish (note: if no broth is left, combine 1/2 cup broth with the egg) and pour it evenly over the entire casserole.
  11. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the top and bake for 35-45 minutes until golden brown and bubbling. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • To enhance the flavor of nuts, roast them in a 325°F oven for 5-7 minutes until fragrant.
  • Always sauté onions alone for part of their cooking time. This will caramelize the natural sugars that make fried onions sweet.
  • Consider using one 10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach instead of 1 pound of fresh spinach. You don't have to wash, de-stem, or chop the frozen variety; you just defrost and squeeze out the excess moisture.


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