A few weeks ago, I invited Alice Waters for Shabbat.
The legendary chef-owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, a longtime friend, was in town to work with me on a fundraiser for Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen, two organizations that feed the less fortunate in Washington, D.C., where I live. It seemed only natural to invite Alice and the other visiting chefs to my home for a Shabbat dinner—a meal I’ve prepared my whole adult life. It’s an invaluable opportunity to open my home for people to enjoy hearty food, good conversation, and a connection to Judaism. It’s also a chance to include non-Jewish friends in the experience, so filled with the universal themes of shared sustenance and faith, and it’s a moment to unplug from our otherwise wired existence and, for a few hours at least, to appreciate the occasions where time does not seem to matter.
The real question was what to serve Alice, the queen of American cooking. Keep it simple has always been my motto. I did that when I hosted a small dinner for Julia Child’s 90th birthday, and it was a big success. So, I decided to do the same this time.
You should realize that the charity event consisted of a series of 14 dinners for 20 people each, all to be held the following Sunday. My house was the event’s headquarters, and I had a garage bursting with produce, gifts, and wine, and a kitchen and family room dotted with volunteers glued to their laptops and cell phones, while an endless flow of people filed in and out of the house. Simple, amid all that, made a lot of sense.
But beyond keeping it simple, I also knew that Alice would want a seasonal and sustainable meal. I went to our local New Morning Farms truck early in the week and gathered greens and beets and hearty winter produce. On Thursday I assembled some of the young volunteers, and we made succulent roasted beets and squash for one salad and lathered kale with olive oil for another, prepping blood oranges and yellow grapefruit that would be added at the last minute. I asked a pastry-chef friend if he would bake some cookies, and he happily obliged.
But what would be the main course? I only had to think for an instant: Mousakhan, my favorite chicken recipe, of course. It’s a delectable Palestinian dish—chicken, topped with slowly cooked sautéed onions, golden-brown pine nuts, and a mixture of cloves, allspice, and sumac (the tart desert herb found throughout the Middle East), all of which is placed on a large pita and baked in the oven. I’d learned of it many years ago, in Israel, when I was a foreign press attaché for the late Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem. I confess that I was more interested, even then, in peering into pots than into politics.
When I lived in Israel in the early 1970s, I ate mousakhan whenever I could, although I only found a recipe for it a few years later when I was in a small seminar on ethnicity at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I was studying for a master’s degree in public administration. Adnan Abu-Odeh, then Jordan’s minister of information, was a fellow student in the class, and I approached him with trepidation to ask for the recipe—after all, he was a government official and I a young woman. “Invite me to your home and I’ll show you how to make it,” he instantly responded. I promptly did. Not only did we make this celebrated dish from Adnan’s native Nablus, but we began a lifelong friendship. I knew that Alice would love this recipe as well as the story behind it—a great example of the power of food.
While the aroma from the baking chicken filled my kitchen on Friday afternoon, some of the volunteers helped make a Moroccan challah, a new recipe from Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, my forthcoming book. Together we mixed the yeast, anise, water, eggs, vegetable oil, and flour. Letting the dough rise only a few minutes, we punched it down, molded it into two long cylinders that we twisted together and then formed into a circle and baked.
When the guests arrived, about 30 of them, everything was ready. We gathered while I recited the Sabbath prayer over lighting the candles. Then my husband, Allan, blessed the wine, which in this august setting of the food world really meant something. As I translated the prayers from Hebrew, I explained that in ancient times wine symbolized all drinks extracted from fruits that grow on vines and trees.
Then it was time for the blessing over the bread. At that moment, everyone in the room was connected, either placing their hand on one of the two challahs (signifying the double portion of manna in the desert) or placing their hand on someone who was touching a challah. As I explained the 10 transformations wheat undergoes to make a beautifully browned challah, Alice listened intently. I described the steps we often take for granted: planting seeds, growing wheat, threshing, removing the chaff, grinding the wheat into flour, mixing flour with water and yeast, letting it rise, forming it into a braided loaf, letting it rise again, and then baking it off.
I often recite these 10 steps that I learned many years ago as a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Etz Chaim in Chicago, and every time I find it is a powerful gesture. It was even more so on this particular night, surrounded by so many people dedicated to food and charity.
Gathered around the table, we sensed that bread is everything for civilization. In Egypt bread is called aish, which comes from aisha, meaning “life.” The Hebrew word for bread, lechem, at least to the English ear, is akin to chaim, meaning life.
“I am so touched by the challah ceremony,” Alice said to me, as we all shared the Israeli and Arab food, a dinner full of symbolism. “It is so beautiful to see this ancient tradition kept alive, with the simple, historic staple of bread as the focus.” After tasting the chicken, she added, “It is amazing. I could eat this kind of food every day.”
Adapted from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today (Knopf), 2001
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 large onions (about 10 cups), coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 chicken breast halves
4 chicken legs with thighs
1 cup pine nuts
4 tablespoons ground sumac
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
8 small pita breads, 4 large pita breads cut in half, or 1 oversized pita
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large skillet over a low flame. Add the onions and sauté for 20 minutes or until golden, stirring occasionally. After 5 minutes, sprinkle on salt to taste.
3. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, rubbing well into the skin.
4. Transfer the onions to a 9- by 12-inch baking dish and place the chicken on top.
5. Bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for 15 minutes more.
6. Drizzle a tablespoon or so of the remaining olive oil into a frying pan. Heat the oil, then add the pine nuts. Fry over a very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the pine nuts are browned.
7. Put the sumac, allspice, cloves, and pine nuts in a small bowl and mix.
8. Remove the chicken from the oven and sprinkle on the sumac-pine nut mixture. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top and return the dish to the oven. Continue baking for 20-25 more minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Remove the chicken from the oven.
9. Preheat the broiler. Transfer each chicken piece to a round of pita bread, or place all the chicken pieces over the oversized pita. Sprinkle the onions, with a small amount of the cooking liquid, on top and around the chicken. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and broil for 5 minutes, watching closely to prevent burning.
Yield: 8 servings
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.