This column comes to you three days after the start of Passover and four days before Easter Sunday.
For anyone still planning a seder, Irma Cohen offers from the Ahavat Achim Temple cookbook Persian Chicken Stew, a recipe filled with the winter's last dried fruits and handfuls of spring's fresh herbs, as winsome a Passover offering as it is a non-denominational tribute to April.
For those planning Easter dinner, Joanne Avallon offers a savory ricotta pie, an Italian holiday dish rich in fresh cheeses and Italian meats traditionally prepared for breaking Lent. Joanne's family calls it "Pizza Gaina" which I read is a dialect form of pizza ripiene, meaning "filled" or "stuffed" in Italian. It was commonly made on Good Friday, and therefore ready to be eaten in slices on Easter Sunday. Joanne tells two stories about this ricotta pie: this was what her family offered early guests on Easter day and, also, this was what her grandfather, years ago, solicited a North End bakery to prepare for 150 friends taking a trip out to Revere Beach. The pie was so big they had to transport it in the back of a fire truck, all proof that Italians have the sense not to sentence something delicious to eating just once a year. Indeed, perfectly good non-religious destinations for it would be a picnic, a blanket at Tanglewood, even (forgive me) a tailgate.
Irma Cohen came to my house to make the Persian chicken stew, and to talk about her temple's cookbook, a cookbook that represents the community's herculean efforts to rebuild after a fire tragically destroyed its synagogue in 2007. Irma was worried about being shorter than I, and I was worried about being less natural and well-spoken as she. I'm not sure how I stood up to her, but she was lovely. She had on pearly pink eye make, a lipstick two shades deeper and a beautiful oatmeal sweater. She talked easily about other recipes in the book, like her mother's apricot bars, and delicately described the difficulty of pressing the temple community for recipe contributions as she browned chicken and eyed the right amount of turmeric.
Joanne and I have known each other since high school; we've been teenagers together and now we are raising teenagers together, and we still laugh very hard about it all. With a law degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree, she is a very capable woman, but I think Joanne lights up, her shoulders relax and her humor rises to high tide when she's cooking and talking about her family, which is what she did on a shivering cold day in March when she came to my kitchen to make this torte. This was always one of those foods the men in her family made, she told me, first her father and now her brother, John. (I should do a column on "mens' food:" Barbecue sauce. Chili. Rustic tortes. What is it about these things?)
And she talked about pastry: Her family always used white wine in this crust, and Joanne didn't know until she read recently in Cook's Magazine that alcohol makes a crust more tender; Italian culinary wisdom validated by Christopher Kimball himself. Instead of water, Joanne now uses vodka in sweet pie crusts.
Although spring is replete with hope and rebirth, it is actually the leanest of seasons, a time when only the youngest, fastest growing herbs are green, and the only fruits around are what was preserved from last autumn. The chicken stew shows off exactly that with its mix of dried apples, cranberries and fresh herbs. The rustic torte is all about a dish rich enough to reward a Lenten fast of meats, but they are preserved meats combined with soft cheeses, again the combination of what was still in the larder over winter and what can be made fresh. Both dishes mark the season as well as their biblical story.
Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Living section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pizza Gaina/Pizza Ripiena/Torta Rustica from Joanne Avallon
1 lb ricotta cheese
1 lb basket or farmers cheese (you can also use feta, but rinse it)
8 oz mozzarella ball, diced.
4 oz provolone, diced
1âÑ2 cup grated Parmesan
1âÑ2 cup grated Romano
3 large eggs
1âÑ4 lb each of three or four of your favorite cold cuts, diced small. I like prosciutto, hot capicola and mortadella
1 recipe savory dough.
1 10-inch spring form pan
Mix cheeses together. Add eggs and mix until combined. Mixture should be stiff but not dry. Add diced cold cuts.
Cut dough into roughly two-thirds and one-third pieces. Take larger piece and roll it into a round on a floured surface. The round should be about 14 inches in diameter because the dough is very delicate and needs to fall over the edge of the pan so it doesn't collapse inside the pan.
Lay dough into spring form pan with the edges falling over the edge of the pan. Spread cheese mixture evenly into pan.
Roll out smaller round just to cover cheese. Roll extra dough down to make an edge to the pie.
Make slits in the top of the pie. Brush with egg wash (one egg, 1âÑ4 cup water mixed together). Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.
21âÑ2 cups flour
1 stick butter, diced into small pieces
1âÑ4 tsp Salt
4 or 5 tbs white wine
Put flour, butter and salt into bowl of a food processor and pulse several times until coarsely combined. Add wine and process until sough starts forming a ball. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill until ready to use. Dough will be quite soft, so it's best to use it cold.
Persian Chicken Stew from the "Temple Ahavat Achim Cookbook"
1 cup coarsely chopped dried apple rings
1âÑ2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup hot water
11âÑ2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup matzoh meal or flour
1âÑ4 cup plus 1 tbsp. canola oil, separate
1 onion, chopped
1 cup fresh chives, chopped
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1âÑ4 cup fresh mint, chopped
1âÑ2 tsp. ground turmeric
11âÑ2 cups chicken broth
Combine dried apples, cranberries and hot water. Let stand 20 minutes. Do not discard water. Cut chicken into 1-inch pieces. Place matzoh meal or flour into a large Baggie. Add chicken and shake to coat. Discard meal or flour.
In a soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium high heat. Add half of chicken and cook, gently turning until golden. Remove from pot. Repeat with remaining chicken. Afterward, in same pot, add 1 tablespoon oil and cook onion until translucent. Add chives, parsley, mint, and turmeric. Cook stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add broth, apples, cranberries, and soaking water. Boil, then simmer 5 minutes. Return chicken to pan; simmer 10 minutes more.
Serve with basmati rice.
NEXT WEEK: LAMB LOLLIPOPS
Sheree DeLorenzo of Seaport Grille prepares one of the most popular Hors de Oeuvres she has ever served. They are not at all difficult for you to make at home once you see the video.