By Rabbi Healy Slakman
During the High Holy Days, in synagogues and sanctuaries, we yearn for a better future, confront mortality, and confess communal and personal sin. On Yom Kippur, we fast to make room for prayer. And although we pray, we end up hungrier by the end of the day.
But over the course of the High Holiday season, praying and eating are not always relegated to separate, contradictory realms. Sometimes, they exist harmoniously, intermingling in the sanctuary of the kitchen and on the bima of the table. While most Ashkenazi communities associate the practice of conducting a seder with Passover, Rosh Hashanah marks the most fragrant seder of the year for Sephardic communities across the world.
Just like at Passover, the word seder means order in Hebrew, and refers to the specific order blessings and readings follow. During the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder, blessings are recited over simanim, or symbolic foods. The seder often includes a variety of piyyutim, or liturgical poems set to music. Like most Jewish rituals, the melodies, foods and traditions can vary among different communities and families. At the Rosh Hashanah seder, our profound prayers have flavor. Singing around the table and blessing symbolic foods can help us consider what makes us feel full and what makes us feel home.
For me, one of these things is a Tunisian Jewish slow-cooked stew called t’fina pkaila. In North African Jewish cuisine, t’fina style stews are prepared on Friday night before sunset leading into Shabbat. Because fires cannot be lit on the Sabbath, these hearty stews slow cook and simmer in a preheated oven or on a hot plate until consumed. In other words, t’finas are “set-and-forget” type dishes.
T’fina pkaila is a blackened spinach stew traditionally prepared for the New Year. Not only does the Talmud encourage eating greens on holidays (spinach, beet greens, or chard), spinach is one of the foods consumed during the Rosh Hashanah seder. Selek, which means beet in Hebrew, resembles the word for retreat, yistalku. Before we eat beet greens (or, in their place, spinach) at the seder, we pray that God may cause our enemies to retreat so that we can continue down a path of freedom.
T’fina pkaila is no simple spinach salad. The leaves are carefully and deliberately tended, fried, and blackened slowly. The spinach takes on a complex and rich flavor profile while releasing color and juice into the oil used to slow cook the rest of the stew. Different North African Jewish and Muslim communities cook dishes that resemble t’fina pkaila, but Tunisian Jews use certain processes and ingredients that make this stew unique. Moreover, every Tunisian family has a “right” or “best” preparation method. This recipe is inspired by the way my grandmother makes t’fina pkaila. Documented and experimented with by my uncle in Jerusalem, and made vegetarian by me in America, this version reflects the Jewish journey and present identity of my own family.
Recipes passed down from generation to generation evolve to reflect the dynamism of identity over time. Family dishes have the unique capacity to expose the collective pain and perseverance of a constantly changing people: spices and textures from around the world meeting, celebrating, and longing together in a single dish. Around the table, enveloped by the tangible smells of a new year, we can taste our complicated and profound Jewish journey. And yet, we leave the sanctuary of the kitchen full.
1 ½ cup cannellini beans
½ -1 cup dried porcini mushrooms*
1 cup olive oil, divided
1 pound spinach
2 onions, diced
2 tbsp cumin
2 tbsp coriander
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp turmeric
½ heaping tsp cinnamon
4 garlic cloves
2 tbsp thyme
1 cup fresh mint
1 ½ cup fresh cilantro
2-4 heaping tbsp harissa (or other ingredient to bring spice)
4-5 Potatoes halved or cut into large cubes
5 cups water and 3-4 tbsp consomme or other stock seasonings (or 5 cups vegetable stock)
1. Place 1 ½ cup cannellini beans in a large bowl. Completely submerge in water and leave to soak overnight or at least 5 hours.
2. Cover dried porcini mushrooms with boiling water and let soak for at least 20 minutes. Once rehydrated, remove porcini mushrooms from water, dry, chop, and set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
4. In an oven safe pot**, heat ½ cup of olive oil on a medium heat for several minutes until oil starts releasing smoke.
5. Add 1 pound of spinach and stir to coat with oil. Spinach will be overflowing from the pot but within minutes it will shrink down.
6. Let spinach simmer and fry in the oil for about 35 min. Add ¼ cup olive oil after 10 min and another ¼ cup olive oil after 20 min. Stir often, scraping any spinach from the bottom of the pan. As the spinach slowly blackens, the oil should become a dark green color. If after 35 min the spinach still has moisture and color, continue cooking until it is completely blackened, and the oil is dark green.
7. Continue heating the oil and remove blackened spinach from the pot. Set aside.
8. Add two diced onions to the green oil and sauté for several minutes until onions start becoming translucent.
9. Add back the blackened spinach. Also add, cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric cinnamon, garlic, thyme, mint, cilantro, harissa, soaked beans, potatoes, and re-hydrated porcini mushrooms. Mixed until combined.
10. Add 5 cups of water and 3 tbsp consomme or other stock seasoning. Can also substitute with 5 cups of vegetable stock, or water flavored with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer.
11. Place in the preheated oven and cook for 1 ½ hours to 2 hours. Pkaila is a forgiving stew once it’s simmering. You can cook it at a lower temperature for longer or leave it in at a low temperature to keep warm after it is cooked through.
12. Remove from the oven when ready. Serve with bread and more harissa or as a part of a greater Rosh Hashanah feast.
*Pkaila is traditionally a lamb or beef stew. I added porcini mushrooms for a meaty depth of flavor but you could add whatever you want to try and achieve the same effect. For example, homemade seitan or other store-bought plant based meats (that probably don’t exist in Ramla or Tunisia).
** If you don’t have an oven safe pot like a Dutch oven, you can also simmer the stew on the stove for a few hours, checking periodically to see if potatoes and beans are ready. Results may vary.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of the Vine.