Be Our Guest
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Jewish holidays are filled with opportunities to welcome guests. Just look at the recent fall holidays: Beginning with Rosh Hashanah lunches and dinners, continuing with break-the-fast and going on through Sukkot and Simchat Torah, there are innumerable opportunities to receive guests in your home and make them feel welcome and cosseted.
And Jewish tradition embraces so many kinds of guests. There are even mystical, imaginary ones on Sukkot, the ushpitzin first described by medieval Kabbalists and brought to life a few years back in a lovely Israeli film of the same name.
But with the holidays over and the whiff of cooler weather to come, I am thinking of how we welcome company into our homes for simpler visits.
When I was working on the article I wrote for our fall issue, “Tapestry of Taste: Savoring the Flavors of the Silk Road,” I made many visits to the homes of the Bukharian Jews that I interviewed. In every instance, I was completely bowled over by the generous table and genuine hospitality with which they welcomed me. At the very least, there were plates of gorgeous fresh fruit, artfully presented, along with platters brimming with nuts and all kinds of dried fruit: fat, carmelly dates, gleaming inky-black prunes, tart apricots, and a variety of raisins in a palette that went from yellow to midnight blue. There were pastries too, and more often than not, other Bukharian treats as well, everything accompanied by pots of tea, always served in beautiful teacups.
It wasn’t just the food, though, or even all the effort it took to put such a spread together: their wholehearted joy at sharing it all with me was palpable, the pleasure they took with my every bite, every nibble. I felt deeply nourished, in every sense of the word. And though there was neither alcohol nor an actual loaf, I thought of M.F.K. Fisher’s quote, “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”
But, beyond the holidays, what should one keep on hand to serve, if unexpected guests stop by? I’ve never been one for cakes and cookies, but I’ve always loved the combination of nuts and dried fruit, whether raisins and almonds (immortalized in the old Yiddish lullaby, “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen,” that my grandmother used to sing) or the more contemporary mix of tart cherries and lightly salted pistachios.
Dried fruit keeps well. Wrapped in airtight packages, it will stay fresh for 3 to 6 months. I always store nuts in the freezer to prevent their rich oils from turning rancid. And when I’ve really overbought and have too much left over, I often prepare this easy but delicious Sephardi compote that makes use of both. Instead of the traditional simple syrup or plain water, I pour white grape juice over the dried fruit and let it macerate until tender. The juice--lightly sweetening without added sugar--provides a nice complement to the raisins and currants. This dish both looks beautiful and tastes divine, and is easy to put together.
Sephardi Dried Fruit and Nut Compote (Koshaf)
Adapted from Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations (print and e-book) by Jayne Cohen
Bathing the dried fruit in cold grape juice allows the flavors to slowly unfold so the fruit softens and plumps up dramatically more than if it were stewed. Nuts, a welcome contrast to the sweet fruit, are softened first with boiling water to provide mellowed texture without jarring crunch.
1 cup tart dried apricots (if only sweet ones are available, add 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice to the grape juice or substitute an equal amount of prunes, dried peaches, nectarines, or a mixture of these fruits)
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries
1/4 cup dried currants
2 cups unsweetened white grape juice
1/4 cup blanched almonds, halved
1/4 cup shelled unsalted pistachios
1/3 cup pine nuts
Optional garnish: pomegranate seeds
Put the dried fruit in a large bowl. Pour the grape juice over the fruit, cover with foil, and set aside to macerate, unrefrigerated, for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Put the nuts in a heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water, and let them soak for about 45 minutes. Drain. Using your fingers, rub off the pistachio skins: you’ll find they come off quite easily. Add the pistachios, almonds, and pine nuts to the macerating fruit at least 30 minutes before you are ready to serve the koshaf.
I prefer the compote well chilled, but many people enjoy it at room temperature. Offer the compote in a pretty glass serving bowl or in individual dessert bowls or martini glasses. For a striking presentation, garnish with ruby pomegranate seeds. Yield: About 6 servings
Cook’s Note: This is often flavored with a little orange flower or rose water, but be sure you know your audience before you add a few drops of either. You can gild the lily, serving the koshaf with clouds of whipped cream, crème fraîche, or vanilla ice cream. Leftover koshaf mixed with plain yogurt makes a delicious breakfast.
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