When I was a junior in college, I spread the year studying abroad in Paris. I had many wonderful, unique experiences that year, from traveling all over Europe, to eating marvelous food to getting to know the ins and outs of one of the world’s greatest cities. But one of the most special aspects of my study abroad experience was living with a French family, the Zémors. The Zémors were absolutely lovely people, if rather blunt and somewhat dramatic. They truly welcomed me into their home and their lives and were far more generous toward me than I would have expected.
Monsieur and Madame Zémor — whom I have sadly lost touch with — were what is known as pieds-noirs: French citizens who were born in French colonial North Africa but were forced to return to France when those colonies became independent in the 1960′s. Some of the pieds-noirs had lived in North Africa for generations and as a result had a particular accent, their own slang – which incorporated Arabic words – and their own customs.
In addition to being pieds-noirs, the Zémors were Sephardic Jews – people who were descended from the Jews of the Iberian peninsula. Sephardic Jews, after their expulsion from Spain in the late 15th century, spread out over the Mediterranean, including into North Africa. Most American Jews are descended from Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jews, as am I. Sephardic Jews and Ashkenzai Jews differ in many ways, from their traditional languages (Yiddish for Ashkenazi Jews and Ladino for Sephardic Jews) to their religious observances. And while American Jews tend to think of Jewish cuisine as gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls and brisket, Sephardic cuisine is entirely different. Of course, this only makes sense: Jews in Germany, Russia and Poland were working with rather different ingredients than Jews in southern France, Italy, and North Africa. If you want to learn more about Sephardic culture, I highly recommend the memoir Out of Egyptby André Aciman, a former professor of mine. The cookbook author Claudia Roden has written a lot on Sephardic cooking. I especially like The Book of Jewish Food, which is a fairly comprehensive resource on both kinds of Jewish cuisine.
For me, living with the Zémors was not only an education in a particular French subculture, it was an education in a whole aspect of Judaism that I knew nothing about. I observed the Jewish holidays the Sephardic way — an experience very few American Jews get to have. It was sort of like an extra bonus study abroad experience — one that I would never have anticipated. Having grown up in a large East Coast city, I never thought about Jews as a minority, but the population of Jews in France is still quite tiny and for all of the French rhetoric about secularism, the country is overwhelmingly Catholic. I was struck by how their minority status effected the Zémors. For one thing, they always pointed out Jewish journalists or actors on television with a sense of pride. And maintaining their holidays and traditions took on an outsized importance.
Madame Zémor was an excellent cook and went all out on big occasions. I adored her North African/Sephardic cuisine, which was almost all new to me. One Sephardic custom that I particularly enjoyed was the party to celebrate the end of Passover. To reintroduce flour to the home, Madame Zemor prepared a traditional North African couscous and decorated her table with little hills of flour punctuated by tall stalks of wheat. One of these days, I am going to have a party like that at the end of Passover, instead of ordering deep-dish pizza, which is our current end-of-Passover tradition.
With the end of Passover still a few days away, however, I am still looking for meals that are kosher for Passover, meaning that they don’t contain any wheat or leavened products. This North African-influenced meatball stew fits the bill nicely. It works well on its own without any accompaniment, but during the rest of the year, you can serve it over couscous or with a crusty bread. Although I adapted this recipe from a spice company’s promotional literature, it is very reminiscent of a dish Madame Zémor made this time of year. She had a heavy hand with the cumin, Madame Zémor. She put the North African spice in almost everything, including hamburger. The scent of cumin will forever makes me think of that petite, intense woman who favored Sonia Rykiel suits and told it like it was.
Moroccan Meatball Stew
3 TB olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes, with their juice
1 lb. ground beef
2 tsp. cumin
2 tsp. coriander
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven. Add the onions and cook over medium heat until softened and transluscent but not browned. Add the garlic, the cinnamon and the cayenne pepper and cook for another minute until fragrant. Add the can of tomatoes, breaking the tomatoes up with your hands. Bring mixture to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer the sauce until thickened, about 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
While the sauce is simmering, combine the ground beef with the cumin and coriander and salt and pepper until fully incorporated. Then roll the meat into small meatballs about one-inch around. (Rinsing hands in cold water beforehand will prevent the meat from sticking to your hands.) Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer for another 10 minutes or so, until the meat balls are cooked through. Crack the eggs and gently side them onto the top of the stew. Transfer the stew to the preheated oven and bake for 5-8 minutes, until the eggs are set. Top with chopped parsley and serve.