We are so accustomed to seeing gefilte fish appear on our tables as an oval-shaped ground fish appetizer, we overlook the origins of the dish and the meaning of the name. "Gefilte" means, literally, stuffed. In its European medieval version, gefilte fish was the chopped flesh of freshwater fish such as pike or carp stuffed back into the skin of the fish itself. The preparation was painstaking and the fish, re-formed to look like its swimming self, was normally laid out for the Sabbath, first in order to avoid the forbidden pulling of bones on Sabbath and also to make the fish go further, with the tasty additions of vegetables, seasonings and crumbs.
It is unlikely that fish was the only food that was "gefilte" in medieval and ancient Jewish cooking, given the number of delicious traditional stuffed dishes we find in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic cultures today. I think that only the Jewish penchant for stuffing could have brought forth the ultimate stuffed dish, a traditional Moroccan Sabbath preparation called dafina (or skhena), which is sort of like the Moroccan elaboration on cholent.
On Friday afternoons, the ingredients for a spiced chickpea, potato and beef stew would be mixed, along with onions and hard-boiled eggs, into a large clay pot. Then a meatloaf was made and stuffed into a lamb or veal casing and laid into the stew, or a chicken was stuffed with rice and put into the pot. In addition, a cloth bag filled with seasoned raw rice was added to cook in the stew. The whole thing was sealed tight with a salt dough and placed -- with every other family's dafina -- in the embers of the village baker's oven to slowly cook all night.
Imagine the delight of "unstuffing" the pot and digging into not only a succulent stew, but also a meatloaf (or a stuffed bird) and a pilaf of rice! I won't give you the whole recipe for dafina, but I do encourage you to try a traditional festive stuffed chicken dish that is popular in different versions all over the Middle East. The chicken is always stuffed with a meat and rice stuffing and seasoned with a variety of spices, fruits and nuts, depending on the recipe's origin. This is a Persian version from around Baghdad.
1 large chicken
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
Juice of 1 small lemon
3 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
Salt and pepper
For the stuffing:
3/4 lb. ground beef
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
3/4 cup long grain or Patna rice, washed
1-1/4 cup chicken or beef stock
or broth from bouillon
1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/8 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
3 Tbs. raisins or golden raisins
1/2 cup nuts (almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts) toasted for 5ñ7 minutes in a 350∞ oven
First, make the stuffing:
Bring the stock or bouillon to a boil, add the rice and 1 tsp. salt and stir to break up the rice. Turn the heat to very low, cover and cook for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender. Drain off and reserve any liquid.
Cook the beef in a medium-sized skillet till no pink remains, stirring to prevent lumps from forming. Pour off any fat, then season with salt and add all the spices, raisins and nuts. Gently stir in the rice. Let cool for a few minutes, then stuff as much as will fit into the cavity of the chicken. Secure with toothpicks, or tie the legs together with string to hold the stuffing in. Put the remaining stuffing in a greased baking dish and cover.
Rub the chicken with a mixture of the oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Put it in a baking dish breast side down (to maintain moisture in the breast) and roast at 350∫ for the first 35 minutes. Then turn breast side up and continue to cook for about 20 minutes or until the skin is golden brown and the juices that run from a thigh when pierced with a knife are no longer pink. Bake the extra stuffing along with the chicken, moistening with reserved stock if it seems dry. Serve the carved chicken surrounded by the stuffing.
ï ï ï
The Italians contribute burriche, one of the dozens of turnovers so beloved to Jews everywhere. These are filled with whatever is at hand, from chicken livers to sweet pumpkin to savory cheese to chicken with chickpeas. The dough can be soft and made with oil or might be crisp and buttery. This recipe uses store-bought puff pastry and has a simple, savory filling of tuna, olives and capers flavored with lemon.
Burriche di Tonno
2 sheets puff pastry
14 oz. drained good quality tuna packed in water (preferably Italian, if available)
2 Tbs. capers, chopped if large
About 16 Kalamata olives (or other brine-cured black olives), pitted and chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tbs. good olive oil
1 egg, beaten with 2 Tbs. water to glaze the burriche
For the filling:
In a medium bowl, mash the tuna gently then mix in the remaining ingredients. Cover, refrigerate and let the flavors blend for approximately 20 minutes. Spread out one pastry sheet and cut into 12 equal-sized 3" squares. Repeat with the other pastry sheet. Brush a square with egg wash and place 2-3 tsp. of filling in the middle of one half of the square. Fold the other half over the filling to form a triangle. Press the edges together so the filling won't leak out. Repeat with the remaining squares. Brush the tops of the burriche with egg wash and chill for 20 minutes. Bake at 400∞ for 15 to 20 minutes or until the pastries are risen and golden brown. Makes 24.
ï ï ï
I have to admit a weakness for one very Jewish stuffed dish -- blintzes! Since they don't appear on as many restaurant menus as they once did, I'll give you a simple recipe with my favorite filling: sweet cherries with creamy cheeses.
Cheese and Cherry Blintzes
For the wrappers:
1 cup milk or water
2 Tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbs. vegetable oil or melted butter
1 cup sifted flour
Butter or oil for frying
For the filling:
1 cup frozen sour cherries, drained very well
1/2 cup sugar
1-1/4 cup ricotta cheese
2 egg yolks
2 Tbs. sour cream or yogurt
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 tsp. cinnamon (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla
To make the wrappers:
Beat the eggs very well. Beat in the milk or water, the salt, sugar, vanilla and the butter, then slowly beat in the flour, being sure no lumps form.
Or, combine these ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. If you have the time, put the batter into the refrigerator and let rest two hours to overnight.
Heat 1 tsp. butter in an 8" nonstick pan. Pour in 1/4 cup batter (or a little less) and tip and swirl the pan to spread the batter over the bottom. Let cook over medium heat till the top of the pancake looks dry and the bottom is golden brown.
Invert the pan over a towel-lined plate and let the pancake fall out. Repeat with the rest of the batter, piling the pancakes on top of each other (they won't stick). If you want, you can freeze the pile of pancakes to fill later and they'll thaw perfectly.
To make the filling:
Mix the cherries with 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 tsp. vanilla. Set aside.
Beat together the remaining filling ingredients and reserve.
To fill and cook the blintzes:
Place a pancake on the counter in front of you, golden brown side up. Place a good tablespoonful of the cheese mixture in the middle of the bottom half of the pancake. Put a tablespoon of cherries on top of the cheese.
Fold the bottom "flap" of the pancake up over the filling, then fold each side flap in over the filling. Roll this little "package" up onto the top flap of the pancake and set aside. Repeat with all the other pancakes and filling. Work quickly so the filling doesn't ooze out.
Heat 1 Tbs. of butter in a medium sized pan till foaming. Place several blintzes into the butter seam side down and cook over medium heat until golden on the bottom. Carefully turn over and cook till golden on the tops, then turn over, top sides up, onto a warm platter and serve with sour cream on the side, sprinkled with powdered sugar if you like.
A lower-fat cooking method is to brush the tops of the blintzes with a little vegetable oil, place in a paper-lined, lightly greased baking dish and bake at 350∞ till lightly golden and bubbling -- about 20 minutes.