Shabbat Dinner in Paradise
As soon as the sun rose on Friday mornings over Harare, Zimbabwe, my husband, kids and I would pile into a small plane and fly to the crystal-clear waters and pristine sandy beaches of the idyllic island of Magaruque, off the coast of Mozambique.
There wasn’t much on this island, other than a charming lodge. Still, it was our Shabbat home when we lived in Harare in the mid-90’s. We’d set out having stocked the plane with the necessary ingredients and some pre-prepared foods, including roska (our sweet Sabbath bread), bourekitas (our beloved savory pies) and wine. We would also take our Sephardic Shabbat candles — a cork topped with a cotton wick floating in a glass filled with a thick layer of oil — which is the customary on Rhodes where my family is from.
As soon as we landed on the short airstrip, my husband would immediately take off in his fishing boat. I can vividly recall the one Friday when he returned at noon with an extraordinary catch of grouper and red snapper. I wasted no time. With my shallow Le Creuset large casserole I got to work preparing the Sephardic fish stew, peshkado abafado, that harks back to the cuisine of the Jews of medieval Spain. After their expulsion in 1492 and subsequent migration of some to Rhodes and Turkey, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, the dish evolved to yuvetch — a flavorful fish stewed in a fresh tomato sauce with thickly sliced potatoes. For this Shabbat I sprinkled toasted pine nuts and black olives and a dash of cumin — the favorite spice of Rhodes — for a festive touch.
As I cooked, a family of Italian guests staying at the lodge were lured by the evocative aromas from the kitchen and requested that they too have the same meal that evening. That was the start of my first resort Shabbat. I worked with the manager and staff of the lodge in the early afternoon to create a memorable meal.
To accompany the fish I prepared a vegetable dish called bamia, using fresh young okra, which grows prolifically in Zimbabwe, known locally as derere. True to the Rhodesli tradition, I slow-cooked the green pods in a fresh tomato, onion and garlic sauce, which is also absolutely delicious served at room temperature. To go with this dish I made a wholesome typical Sephardic rice pilaf laden with golden chickpeas called arroz de garvansos. All these were served with a black-eyed bean salad, salata de fijones, doused in vinaigrette, topped with hard-boiled eggs, then sprinkled with lots of fresh parsley and dill.
For dessert we baked a moist almond cake made with puréed naartjie (the South African word for clementine) that grows in abundance in the Mazoe Citrus estates on the outskirts of Harare. This cake has its roots in Moorish Spain where our ancestors made the iconic pan d’Espanya, an orange sponge cake made from the bitter Seville oranges.
Just before setting the Shabbat table I also made a light and fragrant rice-flour and rose water-scented milk pudding, dusted with cinnamon called sutlach which I served with diced paw-paw (papaya) from the island.
We rounded off the meal with sweet treats that I brought with me; handcrafted marzipan (masapan) made from freshly ground almonds and cooked with a sugar syrup and candied quince paste (bembriyo), another treasure from Moorish Spain. These were served with a freshly-brewed Turkish coffee.
Our special guests experienced a Rhodesli Shabbat, dining on food made from centuries old Judeo-Spanish recipes in a tropical paradise in the Indian Ocean. Certainly a Shabbat “halfway around the world” to remember.
Fish Stewed in a Fresh Tomato Sauce
Peshkado abafado (ahilado) kon salsa de tomat
Reprinted with permission from the forthcoming “Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes”.
2 1/4 pound firm fish fillets or steaks (snapper, sea bass, cod or grouper), cut into 1 inch steaks
salt and finely ground white pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced lengthways
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cups peeled, seeded and roughly chopped ripe tomatoes or canned chopped tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon sugar
5 black peppercorns
1 stalk flat-leaf parsley with leaves
2 dried bay leaves
2 medium potatoes, peeled, boiled and thickly sliced
1/4 cup boiling water
1/2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup plain (all-purpose) flour
For the garnish:
1 tablespoon roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley (use leaves and tender stems)
Chef’s Notes: Fish gently cooked in a flavoursome tomato sauce with sliced potatoes, makes a simple, healthful, homely one-pan dish. I like to cook this dish in a colourful, shallow, cast-iron pan and take this pan directly to the table. This subtle-tasting dish makes a light meal, which is often served at the meal preceding the Fast of Tisha b’Av.
1) Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a shallow, heavy-based pan over a medium-high heat.
2) Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until softened. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, sugar, peppercorns, parsley stalk, bay leaves and salt. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until the sauce thickens slightly. Reserve 1/2 cup of the sauce and set aside.
3) Lay the potato slices over the tomato sauce.
4) Dredge the fish lightly in flour and shake off the excess. Slip the fish in between the potatoes, add the boiling water and lemon juice and spoon the reserved tomato sauce over the fish.
5) Cover and simmer for 10–12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. The fish should be opaque in the centre but still juicy and flake easily when tested with a fork. Shake the pan occasionally to prevent sticking. Discard the peppercorns, parsley stalk and bay leaves.
6) Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve at once in the pan, accompanied with white rice pilaf or toasted noodles and a green spring salad.
Twists on Tradition:
Scatter 1 cup lightly toasted pine nuts and a handful of halved black pitted olives, such as Kalamata, on top with the chopped parsley. For a mildly spicy version, add 1/2 reaspoon ground cumin (typical of Rhodian cuisine) and a pinch of Turkish red pepper flakes with the tomatoes.