What is Shabbat? In a nutshell, Shabbat is a day of rest, reflection, and celebration. It begins on Friday at sunset and ends the following evening after nightfall. Six days of work, followed by a seventh day of rest, to remind us of the harsh demands of labor that were inflicted upon the Israelite slaves in Egypt once upon a time.
While Shabbat is a Jewish tradition, you certainly don’t need to be Jewish to adopt and appreciate the concept of slowing down and enjoying a meal with friends and family on a Friday evening. The idea of spending time and connecting with others has enjoyed a resurgence, especially among millennials. In fact, there’s an organization geared toward 20 and 30 somethings called One Table: A New Way to Friday, an app and website that help connect millennials to Shabbat dinners across the country. Shabbat can be a time to unplug, to turn off the cell phones, to disengage from digital devices and social media. Simply, a relaxing evening of sharing a meal and stimulating conversation with family, friends, acquaintances, and/or new friends to be had.
Customarily, there are some ‘rules’ (e.g., no driving, no working of any kind, including cooking—meals are prepared during the day on Friday, before sunset) and rituals (e.g., a candle lighting ceremony before the onset of Shabbat, a blessing (the Kiddush) over wine sanctifying Shabbat, and breaking bread—often challah, a sweet, braided egg-based loaf). Breaking bread has long been a symbolic gesture of sharing a meaningful connection and cooperation, to momentarily set aside differences, through the act of enjoying a meal together.
While you can undoubtedly adopt some or all of these traditions, if you choose, there is certainly the opportunity to create your own rules and rituals when it comes to hosting a dinner party. Let your lifestyle, the seasons, and your culinary preferences be your guide.
Throwing a dinner party doesn’t have to be stressful. You can take the pressure off by preparing dishes in advance and serving them family-style on large platters to foster a communal and festive evening. Of course, it’s always optimal to test out a recipe in advance. Or, if you are a newcomer to hosting a dinner party and the task of preparing a large meal seems daunting, encourage guests to bring their favorite dish or dessert, à la pot-luck style.
Traditionally, dishes such as cholent, a hearty, slow-cooked bean, potato, and beef stew that is often cooked all day long and kept warm on hot plates due to the prohibition of cooking on Shabbat, and kugel, a Yiddish term for baked pudding or noodle casserole, are served for Shabbat dinner. Notwithstanding, you can and should switch things up to suit you and your guests’ tastes.
Feasting: A New Take on Jewish Cooking by Amanda Ruben is the perfect inspiration for mixing and matching Jewish-inspired recipes to create your own feast. Ms. Ruben brings a healthier, fresh, modern take on classic Jewish recipes from her popular Melbourne-based, café and deli, aptly named Miss Ruben. She offers suggested menus, including one for a Friday night Shabbat dinner. Although, you can’t go wrong with mixing and matching just about any dish in her book to create your own feast. According to Ms. Ruben, “the sides and starters are interchangeable; many of the recipes can be adapted to serve four or fourteen,” and many of her signature salads often hold up on their own with nothing more than some great sourdough.
After flipping through her book full of mouth-watering recipes and accompanying photos, there were several recipes that immediately piqued my interest. One, in particular, the deconstructed baba ganoush, instantly jumped out at me. It’s easy enough to prepare. The key is to char the eggplant over a stove-top flame until nicely charred on the outside, but completely tender and creamy on the inside. Charring the eggplant gives it a pleasant, smoky flavor, which is the hallmark of a good baba ganoush. However, instead of mashing the tender eggplant flesh into a dip along with lemon juice, tahini, garlic, and olive oil (how baba ganoush is usually prepared), Ruben serves hers open-faced and rustic, layered with seasoned, mashed eggplant, crispy paprika-spiced chickpeas drizzled with tahini, and garnished with chopped parsley, which makes for not only a beautiful and inviting presentation, but is sure to be a stunning addition at your next Shabbat dinner party. And if you like, serve with spelt pita (pitta), a recipe also in her book, as a vehicle for scooping up the eggplant.
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Deconstructed Baba Ganoush
This glamorous starter is perfect for when a dip just won’t cut it on your table spread. The eggplants look amazing piled high with the spiced chickpeas and lashings of tahini.
7 eggplants (aubergines)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely grated
juice of 1 lemon
8 1/2 oz / 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
9 1/2 oz / 1 cup Tahini dip (see below)
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, to garnish (optional)
Place the eggplants directly over a stovetop flame and chargrill until completely black on the outside and soft in the middle. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
Use a small sharp knife to make slits lengthways down the middle of 3 eggplants and gently pry them open.
Remove the skin from the remaining eggplants and put the flesh in a mixing bowl.
Drizzle 2 tablespoons of oil over the eggplant flesh. Add the garlic and lemon juice and mix well.
Place the 3 open eggplants on a serving plate and top with the eggplant flesh.
Heat a frying pan over high heat and add the remaining oil. Fry the chickpeas and paprika in the oil until crispy, about 2 minutes.
Drizzle the tahini dip over the eggplants, pile the chickpeas on top and sprinkle with the parsley, if using.
Tahini—a paste made from ground, hulled sesame seeds—has been a staple in the cooking and diets of the Mediterranean and the Middle East for thousands of years. It’s best known as an ingredient in hummus but has come to light in recent years as a great dairy substitute in baking, dressings and savory dishes. Similar in texture to a nut butter, tahini transforms into a creamy dip when mixed with lemon juice, salt, and cold water.
When using tahini in hummus or to top a meat dish, keep it thick and creamy. As a condiment for pitta or falafel, thin the dip by diluting it with a tablespoon of cold water.
9 1/2 oz / 1 cup tahini
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 garlic clove, finely grated
4 fl oz / 1/2 cup iced water
juice of 1/2 lemon
Combine the tahini, salt, and garlic in a mixing bowl.
Whisk in the iced water and lemon juice until thick and smooth. You can do this by hand, with a balloon whisk, or using a hand-held blender.
Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
A Sidenote for Setting a Shabbat Dinner Table . . .
Mixing and matching plates can be a fun and whimsical way of setting your Shabbat table. Antique treasures such as silverware, plates and platters, and serving pieces, found at thrift/vintage shops, estate sales, or perhaps an old, hand-me-down, paired with classic white dinner plates, will lend your table an eclectic, easy-going aesthetic.
Recipe excerpted with permission from Feasting: A New Take On Jewish Cooking by Amanda Ruben, published by Hardie Grant Books March 2018.
Photo Credit: Elisa Watson