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Before You Eat, a Little Forshpayz

It was the Romans, those consummate gourmets, who introduced the idea of opening a meal with a selection of small dishes as a way of stimulating the appetite. The word appetizer is derived from the Latin appete, meaning “to desire, covet, or long for”; an appetizer, then, is something that encourages desire — in this case, for the meal that will follow.

It’s a splendid practice, and one that was later adopted by, among others, the Jews of Eastern Europe, who — economic circumstances permitting — liked to begin meals with a cold appetizer, known in Yiddish as the forshpayz. Favorite appetizers included chopped liver, eggplant salad, and a variety of smoked or pickled fish, most commonly herring. In New York, the popularity of forshpayzn among Eastern European Jewish immigrants led to the creation of the institution known as the appetizing store, which became a fixture of Jewish neighborhoods. By 1936, reports Joel Denker in his history of American ethnic cuisine, “The World on a Plate” (Westview Press, 2003), no fewer than three-dozen appetizing stores were operating in New York City. Denker quotes a researcher for the contemporaneous WPA program: “Although people of every nationality patronize the retail appetizing stores, the Jewish people are by far the greatest customers.” Surmises the researcher: “This may be attributed to their peculiar love for highly seasoned foods.”

Peculiar or not, the love of highly seasoned appetizers was not limited to Jews of Ashkenazic descent. Among Sephardic Jews, a broad complement of appetizers — called mezze, an Arabic word — begins the festive meal; they even might constitute the meal itself. Mezze include everything from olives and raw vegetables to cooked and uncooked vegetable salads, stuffed grape leaves, filled pastries and spreads.

Here, then, are four excellent examples of Jewish appetizers — two Sephardic in origin, and two Ashkenazic. They don’t require much in the way of time or effort, so it’s not difficult to prepare one or two as a prelude to dinner. Best of all, they can be prepared beforehand — no slaving away in a hot summer kitchen just before the meal — and then refrigerated, as all of them are meant to be served cold. From salty, spicy pickled beets to peppery vegetarian chopped liver, vegetally sweet beet salad to vinegary eggplant salad, these are richly flavored dishes meant to be eaten in smallish portions — all the better to tease the tongue and, in time-honored fashion, encourage the desire for what comes next.

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Pickled vegetables —especially pickled turnips — are a very common mezze among the Jews of Syria and Egypt. I love them: salty, sour, spicy, crunchy, and the sliced beet turns the turnips a lovely shade of pink.

Torshi Lift (Pickled Turnips)

1 small beet

2 pounds turnips

4 garlic cloves, sliced

red pepper flakes to taste (optional)

3 1/2 cups water

1/4 cup white vinegar

3 tablespoons kosher salt

  1. Peel the beet, and cut it into slices. Place the slices at the bottom of a 2-quart glass jar (or divide between two 1-quart jars). Trim and peel the turnips, and cut them in half, then slice them into 1/4-inch-thick semicircles. Place them in the jar, along with the garlic slices. If desired, sprinkle with red pepper flakes.

  2. Place the water, vinegar and salt in a medium bowl, and stir until the salt dissolves. Pour the mixture over the turnips. (If necessary, add a bit more water to make sure the turnips are covered fully.)

  3. Close the jar tightly, and store it in a cool, dark place (at room temperature) for three days, then refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes about five cups.

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Eggplant salad is typically one of the variety of cold salads that begin a Moroccan Friday-night dinner. This particular version is a fixture on the menu of the Village Crown Moroccan restaurant in New York’s East Village, long one of the most popular kosher restaurants in the city.

Deljhan (Moroccan Fried Eggplant Salad)

2 medium eggplants, each about 1 1/4 pounds

Salt for sprinkling

Olive oil for frying

1 red pepper, cut into small dice

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons white vinegar, or to taste

2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste

1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  1. Trim and peel the eggplants, and cut them into half-inch cubes. Place the cubes in a large colander. Sprinkle generously with salt, and let stand for one hour. Rinse and dry with paper towels.

  2. In a large skillet, add oil to a depth of about 1/4 inch, and warm over medium heat. Add the eggplant cubes and fry, stirring often, until deeply golden and very soft, about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels. Then set aside and let cool.

  3. When the eggplant is cool, place it in a large serving bowl. Add the red pepper, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serves six.

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One of the innumerable ways by which Ashkenazic Jews used beets was to make them into salads. This is one of my favorites: The sweetness of the beets and apples is nicely complemented by the bitterness of the horseradish and the sourness of the vinegar. I like orange-flavored vinegar because it seems to go especially well with beets, but if you can’t find orange-flavored vinegar, any red wine or sherry vinegar will work fine.

Roasted Beet Salad with Apples and Horseradish

1 1/4 pounds small to medium beets, with 1/2 inch of stem

2 Granny Smith apples

1 tablespoon peeled and finely grated fresh horseradish root

2 tablespoons orange-flavored vinegar

4 teaspoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil, and place in a roasting pan. Cook until the beets are fork tender, about 45 minutes to one hour. Unwrap and let cool slightly. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the beets and grate them on a box grater or in a food processor equipped with a shredding disk.

  2. Peel and core the apples, and grate them on a box grater or in a food processor.

  3. Place the beets, apples and horseradish in a salad bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper. Dress the salad, and toss well. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour so that the flavors can combine. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Serves six.

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Vegetarian chopped liver is obviously an oxymoron — still, it isn’t simply a nouveau rendering of a classic meat dish, like tofu hot dogs or some such thing; it has a significant lineage in its own right. As an appetizer for dairy meals, it was a staple in those two Jewish-American culinary institutions: the dairy restaurant and the Catskills hotel. (Vegetarian chopped liver provides the third and fourth recipes in Jennie Grossinger’s legendary cookbook, “The Art of Jewish Cooking,” one of which uses chopped sardines.) Although preparations vary somewhat, they generally involve chopped-up hard-boiled eggs, caramelized onions, string beans or peas, and walnuts. Does it taste like real chopped liver? Not exactly. Is it delicious? Absolutely.

Vegetarian Chopped Liver

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 large onions, sliced

3/4 pound green beans, trimmed

3 hard-boiled eggs

1/3 cup chopped walnuts

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until they are a deep brown, at least 35 minutes. Set aside and let cool.

  2. While the onions are cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the beans and cook until tender, about six minutes. Drain and set aside.

  3. Combine the onions and green beans with the remaining ingredients on a cutting board, and chop to the desired consistency. Transfer to a large bowl. Let stand at room temperature for at least one hour to let the flavors meld together. Serve at room temperature, with crackers or rye bread.

Serves six.

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