Shavuos, the feast of weeks, has beautiful customs associated with it. Houses and synagogues are filled with flowers and greenery, people stay up all night and learn Torah and say the morning prayers at dawn, and dairy is on the menu.
Among Ashkenazic Jews, cheesecake, blintzes and dairy noodle puddings are popular. Among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, sweet or savory dairy pastries are de rigueur.
Last year’s post featured a sugar free, dairy free, vegan chocolate cream pie in the spirit of Shavuos. But, there is such a glut of sugary-sweet recipes (especially cheesecakes, cream puffs, blintzes), on the web and in Jewish publications, that I have no doubt you’ll find any number of recipes you can splurge on. That’s why this year I’m going to focus on savory dishes plus a some interviews with kosher cheese makers, coming soon.
The following Shavuos menu can be served as a Kiddush or meal before the festive meat meal, or the first course a dairy or fish buffet.
Mediterranean Shavuot Recipes
Hortopita-Greens and Cheese Pie (Greece)
Classic Vegetarian Antipasto (Sicily, Southern Italy)
Tarator-Cool Cucumber and Yogurt Soup (Turkey, Bulgaria)
Homemade Cultured Yogurt Cheese and Date Spread on Pita Toasts (Israel)
Leafy Salad (Mediterranean)
Hortopita, a Greek wild greens and cheese pie can be made entirely with chopped, frozen spinach if the thought of cleaning all those greens and checking for insects seems overwhelming. Just call it spanikopita.For those who are lactose-intolerant or vegans, there’s a classic vegetarian antipasto with an intense Italian pickled eggplant from my mother-in-law (who’s Sephardic and has some amazing recipes from Italy and Sicily that overlap with Greek, Bulgarian, Moroccan and Spanish dishes).
There’s a cool cucumber soup from Bulgaria and Turkey (not strictly Mediterranean, Bulgaria is a Mediterranean-Balkan amalgam), though similar recipes appear on Persian, Indian, Lebanese, and other tables. Tarator can also be served as a salad or a sauce, depending how thick it is.
Then there’s labneh or Greek yogurt, topped with dates and spread on pita toasts or gluten free crackers, Israeli style.
A classic leafy green salad with bitter greens, popular all over Mediterranean Europe with lemon juice (lighter and more tart than a classic vinaigrette) and a cheese platter of the best artisan cheeses you can find round out the buffet.
Hortopita-Greens and Cheese Pie
A few years ago my husband and visited the Kehila Kedosha Janina Greek synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Built in 1927 by Romaniote Jews from Greece, whose customs differ significantly from the Greek Sephardic Jews (and the Ashkenazic Jews, the majority of whom ended up following the Sephardic liturgy and customs). In the book store we bought the Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nicholas Stavroulakis, which contains recipes from many Greek-Jewish communities. My favorite kind of cookbook—a lot of scholarship, ethnic details and beautiful drawings by the author.
The best Greek regional food relies on impeccable, fresh ingredients,especially vegetables and incredibly fresh fish. Traditional Greek food isn’t as sophisticated (this can be a good thing) as most regional Italian and Spanish cuisine, in large part because the terrain of Greece isn’t as varied, and the simple, Balkan influences show through in many dishes. It is one of those foods that is “of a place” and can only be imitated elsewhere.
Jewish Greek cooking is no exception, but it does have a slightly more international feel. It also obviously has some unique dishes created because of the need to adhere to the kosher dietary laws and the requirements of holy days.
Perhaps the most likable Greek foods are the pitas, or pies. Stuffed with beef, vegetables, nuts, fish, or cheese, sweet or savory there are numerous versions from every Greek community on the mainland and islands.
I’ve long wanted to make a hortopita, cousin to spanikopita. Hortopita is a wild greens pie which tastes different depending on the greens and herbs you use. In Greece, an enormous variety of flavorful wild greens and herbs are used, but in NYC we have to make do with what’s available at the farmers’ markets or the grocers.
Some recipes for hortopita call for cheese, many don’t. (I prefer the cheese-free ones, but in the spirit of Shavuos am including a dairy recipe.) Some are made with a rustic homemade wheat and/or cornmeal crust, most with homemade or bought filo. Some contain raisins or nuts, most don’t. The Romaniote Jewish version, according to Stavroulakis, is more like a fritada and includes stringbeans and naturally, plenty of eggs.
My version is a blend of recipes (authentic in vibe, though not in particulars) from several pitas in Stavroulaki’s book and others. I wanted something substantial that hungry guests can eat while waiting for the meat meal, which means I couldn’t use aged Greek cheeses* which are used in many cheese types of cheese pies. That’s all right, I think the flavor of very sharp cheeses competes with the herbs and greens. (I’m adding the mozzerella at a guest’s request—it’s the only way he’ll try it!)
I’m serving two pies, one pie with greens, cheese, and eggs, and a vegan one with just greens. I plan on making them with homemade filo dough, so please bear with me! I want to get you the recipe now, and I won’t have time to make the dough until right before Shavuos, so the photo, below, isn’t mine. It’s by Vangelis Thomaidis of Athens.
Fruity, extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch leafy kale (about 4 large stems), cleaned, the thickest part of the stem should be removed, and leaves sliced in strips or roughly chopped-save stems for another use, like soup
1 bunch dandelion (about 10-12 stems), see above
1 bunch Swiss chard (about 6 large stems), see above
1 bunch arugula or watercress or belgian endive (gives an almost-wild bitter flavor), cleaned and roughly chopped if using arugula or watercress and sliced thinly if using endive
1 8-10 oz. bag cleaned, insect-free spinach (alternately, you could use loose fresh or frozen spinach)
1 bunch each: parsley, dill, and small bunch mint, cleaned and finely chopped (to save time, buy packages of insect-free herbs available at most kosher grocers)
Optional: 2 teaspoons fennel or anise seeds seeds or finely sliced and sauteed fennel bulb (The frilly tops of wild fennel are usually used, but fennel tops are very difficult to check for insects)
3-6 scallions or 2 small young onions, cleaned and very finely sliced
11/2 pounds farmer’s cheese or feta cheese or mixture
12 oz. mozzerella (not traditional)
Please note: Bugs are not on the menu. According to the laws of eating kosher, all leafy greens and herbs must be checked for insects, or purchased in insect-free packages.
In a large skillet or wok, pour about two tablespoons of olive oil and heat over medium-low heat. Gently and briefly saute the greens until wilted, and pour them in a bowl lined with a colander so the liquid can drain out. Kale takes longer to wilt than Swiss chard; both take longer than the arugula and spinach. If using fennel, saute until limp. You may saute the scallions and onions, or leave them raw if you want a less complex, wilder flavor.
When most of the liquid is out of the greens (don’t press!), transfer to a large bowl and gently stir in scallions or onions if raw, fennel seeds if using, and the minced herbs.
In another bowl mix together the eggs and cheeses, and fold this into the greens mixture, with a light hand, but thoroughly.
Preheat oven to 350. Brush a 12 by 9 or 10 inch lasagna pan (about 3 inches deep) with oil and line the bottom with four sheets of defrosted filo, each layer brushed lightly with olive oil, making sure there is at least two inches hanging over the edge of the pan (brush those edges or sprinkle lightly with water so they don’t dry out).
Pour in the greens mixture and smooth out. Cover the top with three sheets of filo, also brushing each layer with olive oil, and roll the bottom overhanging layer around the edge to form a rim. Gently score the top into 12-16 squares, being sure to cut through only the top layer of filo.
Sprinkle or spray VERY lightly with water and place in oven for 20 minutes. Check and see that top isn’t getting to dark (it depends on your oven) and adjust temperature as needed. Bake for another 30-40 minutes, or until top is a rich golden brown and filling is done (test by tasting).
Serve hot or cold.
Variation: Use the filling and make little triangular pies to be eaten out of hand.
For a dairy Shavuos antipasto that tastes like Southern Italy, choose three or more of the following:
sliced pickled eggplant (see left bottom corner of photo)
roasted red and yellow peppers (or pickled peppers, which is what I made for a change)
best-quality black and green olives and green olives stuffed with garlic
raw zucchini slices or baby artichoke hearts that have been marinated in a light vinaigrette
and fresh mozzerella slices or balls
cooked cannellini beans mixed with oregano, minced garlic or sliced onions, extra virgin olive oil, and good red wine vinegar, salt and pepper
You might want to drizzle mozzerella balls with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with with red pepper flakes. If you have them, fresh basil, mint and parsley leaves and capers go well with the tomatoes and mozzerella. Alternately, serve purchased antipasto items.
Eggplant is an amazing food. It has the unique ability to satisfy a variety of food cravings, anything from meat or cheese to dessert. Make these pickles t least three days in advance, but beware, a half-gallon jar has just about disappeared in a week.
This recipe serves 8-10 as part of an antipasto but you can easily double or triple the recipe if you’ve got time to stand over a hot, vinegary stove! Serve leftovers in a fat sandwich on toasted spelt sourdough rolls or mash with extra garlic for a delicious dip.
1 quart jar
1 heavy medium-large purple eggplant
apple cider vinegar
extra virgin olive oil
2-3 teaspoons each dried basil, oregano, and if desired, mint
3-4 Turkish bay leaves
1-2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
peeled garlic cloves, to taste
Open the kitchen windows. (The vinegar fumes are quite pungent). Peel and slice eggplant about 1/3 to 1/2 an inch thick (my mother in law makes them 1/2 an inch thick.) Pat dry, if damp.
Pour some olive oil in the bottom of the jar and add a garlic clove or two. It should be about 1/2 inch deep. In a heavy skillet or frying pan, bring a “glass” of water and a “glass” of vinegar to a low boil. (I love those old “glass” and “tea cup” recipes, don’t you?) The idea is to submerge the eggplant slices part way since you’ll be turning them once, so make the liquid about 1/4 inch or less.
Without crowding, place the eggplant slices in the simmering vinegar-water mixture. They should begin to soften after about 5 minutes. Turn them, adding more vinegar and water if necessary, and simmer on the other side for another 3-5 minutes until the eggplant is soft all the way through.
Place the eggplant in the jar, enough for one layer, sprinkle with the 1/3 the spices and a garlic clove or two, and pour any remaining vinegar-water mixture over. Top with another layer of cooked eggplant, spices, and vinegar-water mixture. You may have to do a few batches, depending on the size of your pan and how many eggplant slices you have. There should be some room at the top of the jar. Pour enough olive oil over the top to submerge any eggplant and cover jar.
Place in refrigerator right away. The eggplant pickles keep for at least two weeks if submerged in oil. My mother-in-law canned these, but she says the refrigerator pickles are just as good.
You can make this on the thin side, and serve it as a refreshing soup (topped with fresh herbs, walnuts, and/or croutons), salad dressing, or use half the yogurt, and serve as a salad or dip with raw veggies.
2 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded and finely diced or grated, whichever you prefer
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with the back of a knife
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts
1 package fresh, bug-free dill, rinsed, dried and finely chopped, reserve some for serving
3 tablespoons walnut or extra virgin olive oil
4 cups yogurt (preferably homemade)
unrefined sea salt, to taste
Juice of one lemon (optional)
In a mixing bowl, combine cucumbers, garlic, 1/2 cup walnuts, dill, and walnut or olive oil. In another bowl, beat yogurt with a fork until it becomes liquidy, about 1 minute (if necessary, add a few drops of cold water). Stir in salt, to taste, and lemon juice if using. Pour the yogurt over the cucumber-garlic mixture, mix well, cover and refrigerate for one hour (keeps up to 8 hours) or to serve immediately, crush three ice cubes, add and stir.
To serve: Adjust seasoning. Pour into serving bowl and top with reserved walnuts and dill. Ladle into small soup or salad bowls.
Something sweet. Make HJC’s Greek yogurt recipe, omit salt, and drain in cheesecloth for 24 hours. Alternately, use 32 oz. store-bought yogurt or leben, omit salt, and drain in cheesecloth 24 hours. Even easier: Buy labneh which is available in most Sephardic groceries or use fresh full-fat cream cheese.
10-16 oz. yogurt cheese
4-5 large medjool dates, pitted and diced, reserving some diced dates for topping.
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1 tablespoon orange juice (optional)
Lightly blend all ingredients with fork. Serve in bowl alongside toasted pita triangles or spread onto rusks. (Orgran makes gluten-free rice crispbreads with quinoa, buckwheat or corn.)
This is the perfect foil to all the rich, cheesy dishes.
2 heads of romaine lettuce, washed, checked for insects, and dried (or 3 bags prepared romaine, as a last choice), torn by hand or shredded with a knife
12 oz. (2 heads) of raddichio or a blend of raddichio, arugula, chicory; washed, checked for insects, dried and torn by hand or shredded with a knife. Alternately, use 2 bags of insect-free mesclun mix.
Juice of 2 lemons
Unrefined sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Wash and check romaine and raddichio ahead of time and store the leaves, not sliced, in crisper, wrapped in clean dish towels in zip-lock bags. Lettuce will keep for 3 days like this. Mix in large bowl and toss with lemon juice. Toss with sea salt and pepper, to taste. Serve immediately.
*After fresh or lightly-aged cheese, like farmers, labneh, cottage, feta, cream, brie, mozzerella, camembert, most muensters, etc., most observant Jews wait one hour until eating meat. After aged cheeses like parmesan, sharp cheddar, aged swiss, the wait is generally required to be six hours.