Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Summer of Sumac

In July of 1996, we were fortunate to celebrate a family anniversary in Aspen, Colorado. We had previously been to Aspen many times to ski, but never in summer. The locals were right. It is glorious that time of year. Aspen is known for great skiing, but it is almost as well known for its huge number of excellent restaurants. Many of these are very interesting, even delicious, but some are a bit too precious for my taste. Personally, after a long day in the mountains of hiking or skiing, I’m more in the mood for a perfect piece of roast chicken and pommes frites rather than a complicated dish with a long list of ingredients.

One evening during that magical week in July, we scored a local teacher to baby sit our young kids and took the opportunity to try one of Aspen’s wonderful restaurants. We selected one with a Mediterranean menu. I don’t recall the name, but that doesn’t matter. We sat down and a charming accented waiter came by to take our order. I was intrigued, where was he from? “Yugoslavia,” he replied. How does someone from Yugoslavia find their way to one of the most beautiful, remote locations in the U.S to be a waiter in a Mediterranean restaurant? I’m sure there was a good story there, but I thought it would be rude to grill him.

We ordered salads and our main course. I don’t remember much about the latter, except that it was probably fish (which I order often when I am out) and it was delicious. But the simple salad was a revelation. Greens, tomatoes, maybe some sweet onions dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and sprinkled with a spice I could not identify. What was that flavor? A little bit astringent, a little bit fruity, a little earthy, but clean. I finally asked our Yugoslav server. “Sumac,” he replied.

I had heard of sumac—usually associated with “poison.” Poison sumac, like poison oak has a resin in it that it an irritant to human skin. Obviously, this wasn’t the same thing. The sumac I was enjoying is a decorative shrub found wild in the Middle East and parts of Italy. The berries are dark red or purple and are ground up to add to all sorts of dishes—chicken, fish, salads, meats, rice, on top of hummus to add a bit of color and flavor. Sumac adds a pleasant tartness to foods, almost like lemons, but less acidic.

Greek salad with sumac

Greek salad with sumac

At home, my favorite way to use sumac is on my “everything-in-my-fridge” Greek salad. This is a very satisfying meal of fresh spinach leaves, Persian cucumbers (smaller and sweeter than the regular or English varieties), sweet onion, bell pepper, avocado, feta cheese and diced chicken. For the dressing I squeeze fresh lemon, a little extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle liberally with the sumac.

Tuna or chicken salad also get an unusual new flavor profile when you add sumac as do egg dishes or anything you’d barbeque. Something about sumac gives me a feeling of well-being. It’s just a little exotic and it really adds to the flavor of fresh, healthy Mediterranean dishes I love. Or maybe it’s that whenever I sprinkle sumac on food, I’m reminded of that simple, perfect salad during that perfect evening in Aspen all those years ago. And I still wonder about the young waiter who found his way from war-torn Yugoslavia to a posh ski town in the Rockies.


Like a new song or album you discover and play over and over, certain seasonal produce items become my obsession. Sumo Citrus is a lumpy, bumpy tangerine with a distinctive “topknot” where it attaches to the tree. It was developed in Japan over 40 years ago, the result of crossing Satsuma tangerines with big, juicy California oranges. Sumos are incredibly sweet, seedless and have a loose, easy to peel skin. The membranes that enclose the segments are very thin, so you are left with basically delicious sacks of sweet, mild juice. Because it is a relatively new variety grown in this country, the season is short—February through April. Whole Foods carries them nationally as do higher-end specialty super markets. I saw Sumos in a Japanese market in West Los Angeles selling for $3.00 apiece!. While they are in season, I probably go through 2 lb. per week. Did you blink? Then you may have missed this year’s Sumo season. But there’s good news—the 2014 crop is starting to blossom. Watch for them next year!

It pays to sample. My local Gelson’s Market was serving slices of Ojai Pixie Tangerines. What a revelation! These are smallish, round, smooth, seedless, not that easy to peel but wonderfully sweet and juicy. They are mainly grown in the Ojai Valley, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles and backed up against the southern end of the Santa Ynez mountains. They are available March through June, which is unusual, as domestic tangerines are mostly available in the winter months. These little beauties are so addictive, that just writing about them makes me have to stop and eat a couple.

Who in the world was brave (or hungry) enough to try eating an artichoke? A member of the less than appetizing thistle family, it’s an imposing food, protected by sharp spines, with a hairy, spiky “choke” guarding the buttery-tasting heart. When you look at the size of the vegetable and how little of it is actually edible, a lot of people think, “Why bother?” A good question. I was introduced to artichokes as a young child by my mother whole dislikes most vegetables. I think she was won over by the effectiveness of artichokes as a vehicle for eating melted butter. To this day I love them, though in a nod to healthier eating,  I have swapped the melted butter for balsamic vinegar with a touch of extra virgin olive oil as a dip. I saw globe artichokes on sale at a local store– two for $5.00, which is a pretty good price. That’s because though artichokes are available all year round, the domestic supply are most plentiful and at their peak March through May. The ‘chokes have been so good, my husband and I have shared one every night for a week. I always feel a little virtuous when I eat them– they take so much work, I’m bound to be burning more calories than I consume, right?

It’s a happy irony of the produce business that when items are at their peak of quality, that’s when they’re price is the lowest. In the case of asparagus, one pound bunches which a few weeks ago cost $4.00 or more are now $.99 for the exquisite, pencil thin specimens. That’s because the domestic crop is now in full swing through June. So indulge we will! I particularly love asparagus in pasta primavera or thrown onto a hot griddle with a little olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper. Like my new favorite songs, I enjoy them over and over, but the best of the season when they’re irresistible, is over before I can get tired of them.





Mexico by way of Eastern Europe

Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom from slavery under Pharaoh Ramses, occurred last month. My family is casually Jewish at best– not very observant of ritual but we identify culturally. So it should come as no surprise that when the calendar showed that Passover began on March 26, 2013, my mother invited everyone over for the Passover seder or ritual dinner for that night. Remember I said our family wasn’t very observant? My mother forgot that Jewish holidays commence at sundown the night before.  For some reason that has something to do with the ancient practice of celebrating important holidays for two days in a row (I supposed because in Mesopotamia back in the 2000s BC it was difficult to let everyone know when the actual holiday actually took place, so they hedged their bets), many Jews celebrate with a seder on two consecutive nights. Most of us more non-observant Jews have our Passover dinner the eve of the first day and are done with it. Some, who are more “Jewish” actually plan and attend two seders. So, my mother had inadvertently invited everyone for the second night. The problem became for my husband and me, What to do on the first night of Passover when most Jews celebrate?

A colleague of my husband’s recommended Rosa Mexicano, the Sunset Blvd. unit of the national chain of upscale Mexican restaurants. For Passover dinner? ¡Sí!

There is good-sized Jewish population in Mexico City, mostly descendants of Jews who fled the pogroms in Russia and the collapsing Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century. Another wave was made up of those who escaped from Europe and the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Passover menu at Rosa Mexicano is influenced by the Eastern European or Ashkenazim Jews, but prepared through the filter of modern Mexican cuisine. One of the beauties of the Passover seder dinner is the symbolic foods that are consumed– bitter herbs dipped in salt water (tears) to remind of the harsh existence under Pharoah building those pyramids and unleavened bread or matzo, the hastily prepared provision to sustain them in the desert. Rosa Mexicano’s Passover dinner began with haroset tropical, a delicious version of the chopped blend of fruit, wine and usually almonds that represents the mortar that held the huge bricks together that my ancestors lugged around construction sites in Egypt. This version was a flavorful blend of dates, coconut, tangerine, pomegranate, cinnamon and rose apples. With the haroset came higado picado, aka chopped liver served in chunks with tempura scallions, a clean-tasting salsa verde and matzo.

The appetizer course consisted of a matzo ball posole soup, Jalisco style with chipotlé-marrow matzo balls. There were also tacos de gribenes y juevo de pato, tacos with crispy chicken cracklings (perhaps a nod to schmaltz), caramelized onions, sliced duck egg (eggs, the symbol of rebirth and renewal in spring) and a bright mustard salsa verde. I had the salad of bibb lettuce, spicy beets leeks and walnuts.

You’re beginning to get the idea. We both had the banana leaf wrapped barbecued beef brisket, incredibly moist and tender, cooked with dried fruit tsimmes and baby glazed carrots. Other entree options were a roast saddle of lamb stuffed with quince, jalapeño, pomegrante and cilantro and Passover cholent of brisket, chicken sausage, barley and jalapeño slow cooked and served in a banana leaf. The last entree choice was grilled salmon with tropical fruit mole, black beans, zuchini and roasted corn.There is something about the traditionally heavy, protein-laden dishes lightened with the sweet, spicy flavors of the New World that makes you glad those intrepid Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and Russians found their way to the land of the Aztecs and the Maya.

The sides  were unique and delicious– pomegranate applesauce, kugel, green beans with shallots, jalapeños, and almonds. For dessert there was Grandma Shapiro’s Strudel a la Mexicana– tropical fruit and chocolate chipotlé with whipped cream. I opted for the mango cup with diced mango, homemade vanilla bean ice cream and raspberry sauce. Do not miss the kosher sangría haroset– Herradura silver tequila, cinnamon, fresh lemon, cold-pressed apple and Manischewitz reduction.

The servers at Rosa Mexicano were cheerful and appeared to enjoy being in on an exotic ritual meal. The young man who bussed our table mentioned he hadn’t tasted matzo before and that it reminded him of communion wafers. Yes, they would, wouldn’t they? Wasn’t the Last Supper a Passover seder, after all?

The only thing missing from this lovely meal was company. Stan and I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out which of our friends– Jewish and non-Jewish– we could bring next year. The Passover holiday and a dinner as rich in tradition and imagination as this one needs to be shared by many people.

Just like Passover dinner at Grandma’s house, at the Rosa Mexicano seder you really felt that all this meal with all its flavor and originality was a labor of love. Chef Jai Kendall spent the month leading up to Passover experimenting with recipes to achieve just the right mix of traditional holiday comfort foods and new taste experiences. And it’s wonderful to experience a holiday we Jews of all persuasions grew up with through the blend of such unlikely influences as the shtetl and the barrio.