Since retiring and making aliyah barely three years ago, there have been many changes and challenges which we have learned to manage. One thing which has not changed, however, is my husband, Baruch’s, love for shopping. He enjoys the entire process, from translating tiny-print ingredient labels to visiting with co-shoppers and store employees. It is as if he is leading a discovery expedition, possessing supernatural power for whatever obstacle may lie ahead. He even survived the miracle of clothes shopping with our then, fourteen year old daughter, after I had helplessly surrendered all motherly love and retreated to the closest coffee bar. The only time I have ever witnessed any shopping frustration was when he was in search of a piece of hardware for a ‘handyman’ job. But, this never stopped him! With the help of his friends, he has been steered to numerous hardware supply stores, most of them he swears he would have never found on his own, being hidden away in back alleys with no signage! He now possesses a wealth of mental mapping, as he has persevered this challenge and probably knows every hardware store in all of Jerusalem!
I, on the other hand, absolutely hate to shop — and would rather starve! I have spent many pleasant hours when Baruch was shopping, catching up on my reading and writing, within a savoring peace and quiet which only a writer may understand. If it were not for our delightful neighborhood merchants, I may not survive the ordeal of the occasional necessary trip to the store.
Our marriage is a perfect balance.
However, on this particular day, Baruch was working and time was running out. Shabbat was near and I desperately needed a few ingredients for our meals. Feeling a bit guilty for my spoiled behavior I knew what I had to do. So, with a grocery list in one hand and wheeled cart in the other, I bravely put on my survival gear and headed out the door for battle.
As I hit the streets, the hot sun reflected off the stone buildings, creating a blinding shock wave and I immediately regretted not wearing my big brimmed hat. My first stop was to purchase some meat from Shlomi, the butcher, just down the block. As I entered his shop, the coolness was a relief. Shlomi stood tall behind the refrigerated glass case, wearing a pristine white coat which seemed to make his tan appear even darker. He greeted me instantly with his award winning smile and I detected a surprised look on his face to see me shopping and not Baruch. Still deciding what to prepare for our Shabbat meal, I slowly meandered, peering into the cold cases, considering my options. Finally the idea of a slow-cooked stew came to mind, but I desired something with a new and unique flair, so I asked Shlomi, “Do you have a good recipe for a stew?” Without hesitation he came out from behind his work area and joined me in the small customer space. He proceeded to share his grandmother Aviva’s recipe for ‘Patatas Fritas’ which is Ladino for fried potatoes; proudly describing in detail each ingredient and procedure of this delectable dish, until my mouth was watering! He explained how to gently brown the potatoes until a light golden, and the importance of searing the meat to lock in all the succulent flavorful juices, and finally — the fingertip sprinkling of aromatic sweet paprika and cumin. The addition of roasted chestnuts, although uncommon to my pallet, became a hidden treasure of creamy sweetness when nestled within the stew. Sholmi spoke like an artist with sweeping yet delicate gestures, assessing his canvas in deep contemplation, as I listened intently amidst the crowded steady stream of customers. At one point, a co-worker began to loudly tenderize a cut of meat, and he shouted QUIET! — whereby silence was immediate. It became clear to me that this was not merely a random recipe, for as Shlomi continued, every ingredient and fragrant aroma was infused with memories of precious family gatherings.
As I followed Shlomi’s instructions later that day, a mysterious culinary blueprint had invited itself into my kitchen. It didn’t feel as if I was just throwing together a pot of stew, but rather, I was re-creating a family story. As I stood over the pot, the tiny bubbles seemed to sing as the heat hugged my cheeks, like only grandma’s do.
Over the years, I have discovered a magical essence of powerful culinary DNA which harkens an explosion of flavorful memories. Within each spoonful of lovingly prepared goodness, memories are unlocked, sometimes long thought forgotten. As our neighborhood all prepare their special dishes, the aroma fills every home, escaping out windows onto the streets below, intertwining into one immense fragrance. People rushing on foot, with flowers in hand, inhale and their appetites begin to sore in anticipation for the Shabbat meal ahead. Traffic ceases, the clanging of pots and pans from kitchen windows is no longer. Families come together around their tables, singing, praying and discovering the most important ingredient of all — Life is for sharing!
At our table that evening, while savoring our stew, Baruch and I found ourselves reflecting on our own family memories and appreciating our wonderfully eclectic neighborhood, which we have come to love so much. We were reminded of the many families that have returned to their homeland; once dispersed to other countries, only to bring back with them their unique dishes of cultural goodness.
Thanks to Sholmi, for so lovingly sharing his family recipe with me that day, in which I didn’t want to shop; showing me a divine link which drew me even closer, into the wonders of Israel.
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Aviva’s Patatas Fritas
(also called Israeli Sofrito)
Large pieces of kosher meat, beef or chicken
A few potatoes, cut into chunks
1 cup of peeled chestnuts
1 sweet potato, cut into chunks
A few carrots, cut into chunks
A good handful of mushrooms
1-2 large onions, sliced
4-ish garlic cloves (or more)
Black pepper and salt to taste
Pinches of sweet paprika & cumin
Olive oil for frying
2-ish cups of stock (but not too much, this is not a soup)
Sear chunks of meat in olive oil & remove from the pot to rest.
In the same pot fry potatoes and onions until all are a golden brown.
Add braised meat and remaining ingredients to a dutch oven pot.
Mix spices in some meat stock or water, then pour over the above ingredients.
Bring mixture to a slight boil, then lower flame to simmer for ½ hour.
Transfer to a preheated 110c/230f oven for 4-5 hours.
Serve arranged on a platter.