Like many academics, Ligia Ravé turned to writing fiction after a career as a professor (teaching architecture at Penn and Tulane). Unlike many, however, she developed a new expertise along the way: Sephardic Jewish food.
Ravé developed her culinary expertise while researching her debut novel, Hanah's Paradise, a family saga recently published by Philadelphia's New Door Books.
The book centers on the Ravayah family and its mystical Galilean homestead, known as Hanah's Paradise. This far-flung Jewish clan has an ironclad family tradition: Before marriage, each firstborn child must travel to Hanah's Paradise at Passover time and record the family's story in the archives.
These chronicles, kept since medieval times, hold volumes of writings, drawings, music, and recipes from every corner of the world. Part detective, part coming-of-age story, the novel follows Salomeia, a young woman exiled from Communist Romania, who arrives at Hanah's Paradise to become the new keeper of the family archives.
Salomeia discovers long-hidden stories of her relatives through 500 years of Jewish Diaspora: living, loving, and being exiled from countries all over Europe and the Middle East. Sifting through the archival recipes, Salomeia also discovered that a family carries on its culture to future generations through its food.
The author researched 400 years of Sephardic culinary history for the book, and includes recipes that are both historically accurate and irreverent: one for baccalao dao reina reads in part, "Keep a slab of dry cod in water for one day and one night. Keep the pot covered and change the water many times. At nighttime, Angels use uncovered pots to relieve themselves."
Ravé recently prepared a Passover feast from some of these recipes in her kitchen in the expansive modernist home at 12th and Latimer Streets that she designed with her husband, architect David Slovic.
The house is built around a half-octagon courtyard filled with towering golden bamboo. The savvy reader will note the same bamboo in the book, growing lavishly in the octagonal courtyard at Hanah's Paradise.
The 15th century was not an impressive time in Jewish culinary history, Ravé said as she cooked in her compact kitchen flooded with morning sun from the floor-to-ceiling glass wall. People ate wild leeks, wild asparagus, oranges, and that was about it for flavor.
"There wasn't much diversity then," she said. "They ate a lot of roots." To put together a colorful and flavorful Sephardic-inspired Passover meal, it's best to look to a time after the spice trade became well established. Jewish merchants were instrumental in establishing trade in important spices like pepper, nutmeg, and cloves throughout Europe and the Middle East.
In her novel, the physical space occupied by Hanah's Paradise begins as a trading post, a place where the roads to Africa, India, and Spain converge. Caravans came to such outposts to trade spices, silk, rugs, sacks of grain, amber, and salt.
Ravé selected four unleavened, delicately spiced recipes from the book. She began with Torta alla Giudia, a classic dish modified for Passover. Also known as Pizza Hebraica, Torta alla Giudia is a kind of not-very-eggy quiche traditionally prepared with spinach and green vegetables layered over a bread crust.
The dish works well for Passover, Ravé explained, because its vivid green color represents renewal. It is modified with a crust made of matzoh dipped in chicken broth. Ravé prefers to mix in flavored matzoh meal with the spinach, edamame, and artichokes. Prepped for the oven, the dish looked a bit like a lush spring garden.
The next dish, saffron-rich Red Fish Soup, came from a branch of Ravé's fictional family that lived in Portugal but was forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. "Food was a way of maintaining identity in the face of persecution," said Ravé. "Trying to survive in a world where you're not allowed to be who you are."
Ravé's characters were remarkably inventive in finding ways to appear Christian but remain Jewish. Converts were forced to quit keeping kosher or Sabbath, so they hid the religious food rituals.
One character took to her bed every Friday with a mysterious ailment that required a glass of red wine and a piece of bread. She celebrated the Sabbath in her room, away from spying neighbors and servants who might rat her out to the authorities.
Another character went out of her way to serve pork, shellfish and other non-kosher dishes to visitors; however, she filled the plates with salad greens, hiding the food underneath, so that the visitors couldn't see that her own plate was bare of "forbidden" trayfe.
Lemon chicken was Ravé's main dish, inspired by a scene in the book in which more than 100 cousins from all over the world gather for Sabbath dinner at Hanah's Paradise - each family cooking a dish from its home country.
While the logistics are hard to imagine, the scene is a lovely culinary fantasy of far-flung relatives and their cuisines united through a Friday night chicken dinner: "When chicken was on the menu, the Moroccans made Daphna de poulet, a chicken stew with pickled lemons and green olives; the Spanish family cooked chicken with almonds, lemons, and apricots; the Egyptians cooked it with walnuts and mint leaves. The Russian cousins roasted it with onion, garlic, and peppers. The Polish stuffed it with mushrooms. The cousin from Budapest made a goulash with sweet paprika. The Greek answer was chicken with olives and marjoram. The Indian cousins used curry and tomato chutney. The Iranians used pomegranate syrup, the French produced Poulet Basquais, the Americans barbequed the breast, and the Germans made schnitzel. I made my own."
The dish Ravé (and her narrator) selected was a remarkably flavorful and practically fat-free chicken salad, with an exquisite mix of textures and flavor from preserved lemons, red peppers, capers, and slivered almonds.
The secret to a good lemon chicken: "Boil the chicken to death," Ravé said. Then refrigerate, separate the meat from the bones, mix with spices and capers and preserved lemons, and refrigerate again. The dish should be served at room temperature, meaning very little time has to be spent on last-minute prep in the kitchen.
Garnished with almonds, the chicken looked tantalizing served next to the green torta. Ravé finished the menu with an easy dish of stuffed apricots. She boiled an orange rind to remove its bitterness, and added it to a bit of almond paste and a dash of rosewater.
A quick spin in the food processor, and the mixture was ready to be stuffed inside peeled apricot halves. The stuffed apricots looked like eggs: another symbol of renewal and rebirth. Each tasted like springtime.
Lemon Artichoke Chicken
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds or an equivalent number of bone-in parts
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
1 tablespoon paprika
1 12-ounce bag of frozen artichoke hearts
2 tablespoons capers
2 tablespoons raw sliced almonds
1 medium-sized yellow onion, diced
1 cup diced or crushed tomatoes
10 scallions, diced
2 large pickled or preserved lemons (available at DiBruno's)
Zest of 1 orange, finely chopped
Parsley, raw peeled almonds, or snow peas for garnish
1. The day before serving, boil the chicken to death, about one hour. When the meat is falling off the bones, drain and put it in the refrigerator at least one hour or overnight.
2. Remove skin and bones; discard. Shred chicken into a bowl.
3. In a nonstick skillet or a seasoned cast-iron pan, saute spices over medium heat until fragrant and slightly darkened. Add spices to chicken.
4. In the same skillet, warm the artichoke hearts until thawed. Chop roughly and add to chicken. Add remaining ingredients; mix well.
5. Pour chicken mixture into a large pot and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cool, and refrigerate overnight.
6. The day of serving, remove from refrigerator and garnish with almonds, snow peas, or parsley. Serve at room temperature.
Per serving (based on 6): 438 calories, 31 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 30 grams fat, 112 milligrams cholesterol, 417 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Torta alla Giudia, or Pizza Hebraica: Passover Variation
Makes 8 servings
1 16-ounce bag frozen leaf pinach, thawed
1 12-ounce bag frozen artichoke hearts, thawed
1/2 cup julienned scallions, green parts only
3/4 cup edamame or fresh green peas
1 cup roughly chopped snow peas
1 package matzo-ball mix or 3 oz. matzo meal
Salt to taste
Smart Balance or other fake butter spread; or 2 ounces cream cheese or crème fraiche
For garnish: raw peeled almonds, julienned red peppers, or crushed matzo.
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Squeeze spinach dry and place in large, deep casserole dish. Quarter artichokes and add to spinach. Add remaining vegetables and toss to combine. Sprinkle in half the package of matzo-ball mix and toss the vegetables until they look like they've been lightly dusted with springtime snow (if using plain matzo meal, add salt to taste).
3. In a small bowl, scramble the eggs well with a fork. Pour eggs over spinach and mix well. Dot with butter substitute (use cream cheese or crème fraiche if it's not Passover or if you won't be serving meat).
4. Bake, covered, 15 minutes or until heated through; peas should remain bright green. Garnish with raw peeled almonds, julienned red peppers, or crushed matzo.
Per serving: 158 calories, 7 grams protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 53 milligrams cholesterol, 194 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Red Fish Soup
Makes 8 servings
2 red peppers, diced
1/2 cup chopped scallions, white parts only
1 cup finely chopped carrots
1 tablespoon orange zest, chopped
2 pounds red snapper, salmon, or other firm, flaky fish
8 cups red fish stock (see note)
2 tablespoons ouzo, anisette, such as Pernod (optional)
1. In a large pot, combine peppers, scallions, carrots, and orange zest. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.
2. Chop fish into bite-sized chunks. Add stock to vegetable pot; bring to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. At the very last minute, add fish and liqueur to soup. Simmer for 3 minutes. Serve immediately.
Note: To make the red fish stock, add heads, tails, bones, and miscellaneous fish parts, one pinch of saffron, the zest of 1 orange, and one red pepper to a large stockpot and fill with water. Bring to a boil and reduce by half. Strain and cool. Stock may be prepared ahead of time and frozen or stored in refrigerator.
Per serving: 177 calories, 29 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, 44 milligrams cholesterol, 472 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 8 servings
1 pound almond paste
1 tablespoon Cointreau or other liqueur
8 whole apricots, peeled and seeded, or 1 can peeled whole apricots, sliced in half
Almonds for garnish
1. Peel the orange, reserving the rind and snacking on the juicy bits. Boil the orange peel until its bitterness is gone. Cool.
2. In a food processor, mix the almond paste, Cointreau, and softened orange rind. Through the feed tube with the motor running, add 2-3 drops of rosewater. Taste and add more rosewater as desired. Mixture may be prepared to this point and frozen.
3. Shape about one tablespoon almond mixture into a ball and mound in each apricot half. Bake briefly to warm, or place under broiler for a few moments, or use a blowtorch to caramelize the top of each stuffed apricot.
4. Top with a raw peeled almond and serve.
Per serving: 307 calories, 6 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 26 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, no cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText