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Cooking: The Bulgarian Jewish Kitchen
by Tina D. Wasserman

Bulgarian dishWhen our Jewish historical society announced that Edith Baker, a local Dallas artist and former art gallery owner, was going to speak about her experiences during World War II, I decided to attend. I’d purchased art from this elegant woman some years earlier, but knew nothing of her origins. I had surmised that she was from somewhere in Eastern Europe—you know how we tend to lump every accent other than German or Russian as “Eastern European.”

It turned out that Edith was from Bulgaria, bordered by Romania on the north, Greece and Turkey on the south, the Black Sea on the east, Serbia and Macedonia on the west. The fate of Bulgaria’s more than 50,000 Jews, Edith told us, differed dramatically from that of the Jews in most other Jewish communities. Although King Boris had aligned himself with the Germans during World War II and Jews were required to wear yellow stars on their clothes, the Jewish population was saved. The nation’s two archbishops, Bishop Stefan and Bishop Kiril, brought pressure on the king to evacuate the Jews from the Bulgarian capital Sofia into the countryside, where the courageous Bulgarian people would, and did, shelter them.

After the war, when the Communists seized power, they returned properties to the Jews—only to confiscate and nationalize them after the Jews had rebuilt and restored their businesses. Realizing they were once again prisoners in their own country, the Jews knew they had to leave. In 1946 the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee opened an office in Sofia, officially addressing the welfare of the needy but covertly providing the means to transport Jewish Bulgarians to Israel. About 45,000 Bulgarian Jews immigrated, to Israel, America, or other European countries; those who remained behind were denied religious expression. But after the fall of Communism in 1989, the Jewish community was reborn. And today, helped by “Shalom”—the organization of Jews in Bulgaria—the approximately 3,000 Jews in Bulgaria have revived their Sephardic Jewish traditions (most of the Jews who settled in this part of the Ottoman Empire had arrived after their expulsion from Spain in 1492).

This is why, when it comes to Bulgarian Jewish cuisine, you’ll find it bears a resemblance to the cooking of Sephardic Jews in Greece and Turkey. The Bulgarian borekitas, small pockets of dough filled with savory cheese and spinach or sweet pumpkin and spice, is similar to the Greek spanakopita (spinach pie made of phyllo dough). And as is the case in Greek and Turkish Jewish cooking, spinach, peppers, eggplant, and squash are widely used in Bulgaria; so are honey and sugar syrups scented with rosewater over delicious light pastries. Similarly, Bulgaria’s agristada—a tart egg and lemon sauce—strongly resembles Greek avgolemeno sauce. The meat dishes of Bulgarian Jewry, however, are not flavored with the sweet spices indigenous to Turkish or Greek cuisine; they contain the onion, garlic, and pepper or pimentos reflective of their Spanish roots.

Edith says she still remembers the smells of her mother’s kitchen and other Jewish homes of her native country, especially dishes made of homegrown potatoes, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes that always graced her mother’s table. Listening to her speak about her family traditions that have been so lovingly handed down from generation to generation for more than five centuries opened the door for me to learn more about Bulgarian Jewish cuisine, some of which I am pleased to share with you. Eat in good health!

Baked Chicken with Barley

This classic Bulgarian Shabbat dish is delicious, comforting, and very easy to make.

1 chicken, cut into 8ths (or 4 large breasts or thighs with skin and bone)
1 cup barley
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled but left whole
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon slices for garnish

  1. Rinse the chicken pieces under cold running water. Place them in a 4-quart saucepan.
  2. Pierce the onion 6 times with a sharp knife and add it to the chicken. Cover with water and add the oil.
  3. Bring the chicken to a boil, then partially cover and reduce the heat so that the water just simmers. Cook about 1 hour, until the chicken is tender.
  4. Remove the chicken but retain the liquid to use as broth. Keep the chicken covered and warm while you make the barley.
  5. Measure and pour 31⁄2 cups of the chicken broth into a 2-quart saucepan (adding some water if necessary).
  6. Add the barley and cook, partially covered, over a low heat for about 25 minutes, until the barley starts to swell but is still tough.
  7. Lightly oil a baking dish large enough to hold the chicken in one layer (but not larger than you need, or the barley will dry out).
  8. Place the barley in a baking dish. Top with the chicken, skin side up.
  9. Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for about 20 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed.
  10. Garnish with the lemon slices or chopped parsley and serve as is or with agristada sauce. Serves 4.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Never remove chicken skin before stewing; the skin imparts a rich flavor to your broth. The fat can always be discarded after chilling, and/or the skin removed from the meat later on.
  • When roasting skinless chicken, protect the meat from drying out by either lightly coating it with a sauce containing some oil or by placing a tent of foil over the top of the meat.



Agristada-Egg Lemon Sauce

Sephardic Jews often served egg yolk-enriched sauces with meat dishes in place of milk-based sauces to adhere to the laws of kashrut. An offshoot of the well-known avgolemeno sauce from Greece, agristada makes for an ethereal, light accompaniment to chicken or vegetables.

2 eggs
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups chicken broth
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Zest of 1 lemon in long strips
1 Tablespoon minced fresh parsley

  1. Beat the eggs with the oil until they’re well combined.
  2. In a small dish, mix the flour with enough chicken broth (about 3 Tablespoons) to make a smooth paste. Slowly add the mixture to the eggs as you whisk.
  3. Gradually add the chicken broth and lemon juice, stirring constantly to combine.
  4. Pour the mixture into a 2-quart saucepan and stir constantly over medium heat until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Strain directly into a serving dish and serve warm (not hot) over chicken or vegetables, garnished with the lemon zest and parsley.
  6. Yield: approximately 21⁄4 cups, enough to sauce 2 cooked chickens.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • To yield the most juice from your lemons, store them at room temperature. If they’re refrigerated, microwave them for 25 seconds before juicing.
  • There is no substitute for fresh lemon juice, so throw away the bottled stuff!

 

Kiopoolu—Bulgarian Roasted Eggplant Spread

It is fascinating to see the bountiful variety of eggplant dishes throughout the Jewish Diaspora, each community using the flavors and produce indigenous to the area to create its own version of roasted eggplant. Here’s a Bulgarian variation:

1 eggplant (about 1-11⁄2 pounds)
2 whole jarred roasted and peeled red bell peppers, rinsed and patted dry
2 roma tomatoes
1-2 large cloves of garlic
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon red wine
vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1⁄4 cup Italian parsley
1 teaspoon sugar, optional

  1. Roast the eggplant in a 425°F oven or over a hot grill, turning every 10 minutes until the skin is charred on all sides. Place the eggplant in a 1-quart bowl. Slit the skin open from just below the stem to the very bottom of the eggplant. Let it sit for 15 or more minutes so the bitter juices will drain into the bowl.
  2. Carefully peel the eggplant. Place the pulp in the workbowl of a processor (alternatively, cut all of the ingredients into small dice with a knife and fork).
  3. If using the processor, cut the peppers into 1-inch pieces and add to the work bowl.
  4. Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise and, holding the tomato half cut-side down over the sink, gently squeeze the tomato to release the seeds. Cut the halves into chunks and then add to the eggplant and peppers.
  5. Pulse the processor on and off about 5 times. Add the garlic and pulse again until the mixture is coarse but well combined.
  6. Add the oil and vinegar and pulse on and off to combine.
  7. Season with salt and pepper and sugar (if mixture is slightly bitter).
  8. Add the parsley. Pulse the processor on and off just enough to break it up and evenly distribute it.
  9. Pour into a serving dish. Chill for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to meld together. The mixture will thicken slightly. Serve with crackers. Yield: about 2 cups or 8 servings.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • To keep tomatoes from adding bitterness to a dish, seed the tomato or add a touch of sugar, barley-malt sweetener, or honey.
  • Be careful not to over-mix green herbs like parsley in a processor; otherwise they will release their chlorophyll, leaving you with a grassy-tasting sauce.

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking news­letter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.

 

TO LEARN MORE

For additional Bulgarian Jewish recipes, including Bulgarian squash cookies, and answers to your cooking questions, email AskTina@urj.org.

 




 


Union for Reform Judaism.