A few Septembers ago I was dining on the tree-lined patio of Madrid’s Naomi Grill, savoring a sweet yet piquant stew that seemed to embody the spirit of Rosh Hashanah. When I asked restaurateur Patricio Felsenstein where he found the recipe for this honeyed, saffron-scented dish simmered with prunes and the prized local Marcona almonds, he shrugged, “It could have been anywhere. Chicken tagine has been around for 1,000 years.”
Like his most requested dish, Felsenstein’s kosher Sephardic restaurant seems a culmination of the occasionally sweet but mostly sorrowful journey his ancestors took as a result of Spain’s infamous Edict of Expulsion in 1492.
During that time Jews were arrested for kashering their food, celebrating Jewish holidays, even practicing their religion at all, so they dispersed to lands as diverse as North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and, where Felsenstein spent his formative years, South America.
Perhaps the only sweet part of these Jews’ journey was picking up the culinary habits of their new homes, combining sweet with sour, adding nuts and fruits to meats and salads, and encouraging experimentation with exotic, regional fresh fruits and vegetables. Carefully adhering to kosher dietary laws, they amalgamated them with the best of the Spanish, Moorish and Jewish traditions, forging the exotic, complicated Sephardic cuisine.
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, where there are few, if any, kosher restaurants, Felsenstein dreamed of moving back to the land of his ancestors and opening a restaurant that served the bittersweet Sephardic cuisine. He wanted to provide a beautiful setting for Jews to celebrate their heritage, and he wanted to introduce the cooking style he was so proud of to Spaniards and visitors looking for kosher food.
“There’s a law that makes it easy for a family with a Sephardic tradition to return to Spain,” Felsenstein said, while sipping a glass of sweet mint tea on the tree-lined patio of his restaurant. “And lots of Jews are ‘coming home.’”
Fifteen years ago Felsenstein and his wife, Vera, moved to Madrid.
There was no money to open a restaurant, so he worked with Rabbi Moshe Bendahan supervising the production of kosher products such as wine, olive oil, tuna, cheese and candies.
The Felsensteins were invited to weekly barbecues at Masada, a Jewish weekend retreat and children’s camp in the mountains north of Madrid. It was there they were served the formerly forbidden food. Soon Felsenstein was barbecuing and serving the others. He was never happier.
The Felsensteins and a few other families founded a synagogue at their children’s school in the suburb of La Moraleja, Sinagoga del Centro de Estudios Ibn Gabirol.
When Vera’s parents moved to Madrid, Felsenstein and his father-in-law, Giuseppe Gavison, decided to open Naomi Grill.
“The name Naomi means ‘My pleasure,’” Felsenstein said, smiling as he showed visitors around the dining room which embraces both modernity and antiquity. The tables and chairs are hand carved by the revered artisans of Toledo, and the menus and art on the walls depict ancient, empty Spanish synagogues, including the tiny, jewel-like structure in Cordoba, where the iconic Jewish philosopher Maimonides used to pray. To accessorize the emotion-filled setting is haunting Sephardic and Israeli music.
But all pales next to the impeccable, formerly forbidden cuisine that Felsenstein has succeeded in bringing back to Madrid after half a millennium of absence.
When guests sit down they’re served sweet fresh mint tea, popular in Morocco and Tunisia. The decorative brass pitcher is from Tangiers, Morocco.
“Before the restaurant opened, my parents went to the shouk [open-air market] in Tangiers and bought all the serving accessories for the restaurant — tagine and kebab dishes, platters and bowls — so that everything looks authentic,” Vera Felsenstein said.
But it isn’t Patricio Felsenstein doing the cooking. With all of the dedicated restaurateur’s passion for food, he had no formal culinary training.
“I learned to cook in my family,” he said. “We looked high and low for a Sephardic chef. In our small Jewish community there is a place where immigrants go to find jobs. It was fate I found Ariel Kars, who is an amazing chef.”
Try these Sephardic recipes for a beautiful erev Rosh Hashanah dinner or as a feast before the fast of Yom Kippur.
Moroccan Fresh Mint Tea
7 fresh mint sprigs, plus 7 for garnish
3 Tbs. sugar
4 cups boiling water
Pour a small amount of boiling water in a teapot and swish around to warm the pot. Place mint sprigs and sugar in teapot. Add boiling water. Steep for 3 minutes. Remove mint springs. Pour hot water infused with the mint and sugar into glass teacups. Garnish with remaining mint sprigs.
Adapted from Chef Ariel Kars and owner Patricio Felsenstein, Naomi Grill.
Marcona almonds are available in natural food markets such as Whole Foods, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern Markets, or in the ethnic sections of supermarkets. Whole, blanched almonds may be substituted.
1 Tbs. olive oil
3 cups sliced Spanish onions
2 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
1-1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp. saffron threads
1 tsp. brown sugar
1-1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 3-pound chicken, cut in quarters
1 tsp. honey
1 Tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 cup pitted prunes
3/4 cup Marcona almonds, roasted with oil and salt
Preheat oven to 350º.
In a large skillet with a heat-proof handle, heat oil. Add onions, garlic, coriander, cumin, ginger, cinnamon stick, saffron, sugar, salt and pepper.
Cook over a medium flame until onions are light golden brown. Add chicken; turn to coat with onion mixture. Continue cooking until chicken is golden. Add honey, lemon juice, prunes and 1 cup hot water.
Cover and place in oven. Bake for 45 minutes until chicken is cooked all the way through and sauce has a honey-like consistency.
Sauté almonds in oil. Drain, reserving the oil, and sprinkle almonds over the chicken. Add remaining oil to the sauce. Place chicken in a serving tagine, pour sauce on top of it and top with almond.
Pastella (Spanish) or B’stilla (Moroccan)
Adapted from Chef Ariel Kars and owner Patricio Felsenstein, Naomi Grill.
2 lbs. chicken meat (breast and thighs)
1 cup onions, chopped coarsely
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. fresh ginger, grated
2 tsp. cumin seeds, toasted, then ground
1 tsp. saffron threads
2-1/2 cups mixed dried fruit (raisins, currants, cherries)
1-1/2 cups sliced almonds, toasted and chopped
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbs. cinnamon
2 Tbs. lemon juice
6 eggs, beaten until frothy
10 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed according to package directions
1/2 cup (1 stick) parve margarine, melted
Powdered sugar and cinnamon for garnish
To poach chicken:
In a large stockpot, place chicken with enough water to barely cover. Remove chicken. Add onions, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and saffron. Bring liquid to a simmer. Place chicken back in pot; continue to simmer gently for about 45 minutes until it is tender.
While chicken is poaching, place sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl; set aside.
Remove chicken with slotted spoon and cool, reserving poaching liquid.
Remove meat from the bone. Combine with dried fruits and almonds.
Over medium-high heat, reduce poaching liquid to 1/4 of the volume. Add lemon juice and beaten eggs to the reduction. Cook until liquid evaporates and eggs look scrambled and are no longer wet. Remove from heat.
To assemble and serve:
Set oven to 425º. Brush a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with melted margarine. Cover stack of phyllo dough with plastic wrap and dampened paper towel. Working very quickly, place 1 sheet of phyllo in pan; brush with margarine. Repeat with 5 sheets, brushing each with margarine, placing each sheet on top of the previous one in a star pattern to form a round.
Spread egg mixture evenly over the sheets. Spread chicken mixture on top. Place 5 more sheets of greased phyllo over almond mixture. Bring edges of bottom sheets over the top and fold into circular, hexagon, or free-form shape.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until phyllo is brown and crispy. Let Pastella sit for about 10 minutes; make holes in the top to release steam and cool. Remove from baking dish and sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon.