Event revives 18th-century Sephardi recipes

Event revives 18th-century Sephardi recipes

Chef Sarah L. chops onions to make albondigas, a Sephardi meatball recipe, as Leila Sulkes of Freehold looks on.
Chef Sarah L. chops onions to make albondigas, a Sephardi meatball recipe, as Leila Sulkes of Freehold looks on.

You didn’t have to be Jewish to have a good time at the Open Hearth Cooking event held Sunday, April 12, at the historic Covenhoven House in Freehold. And many visitors weren’t. 

The program, which attracted more than 75 attendees of varied backgrounds from all over central New Jersey, featured demonstrations of preparation of Sephardi dishes dating back more than 200 years.

Cosponsored by the Monmouth County Historical Association and the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, the event was the first collaborative effort for the two organizations. 

Using Joan Nathan’s 1995 cookbook Jewish Cooking in America as a reference, the association put together a Passover-themed menu that included albondigas (meatballs sweetened with honey and spiced with parsley, pepper, and cumin); haroset (the fruit and nuts mixture that symbolizes mortar used by Israelite slaves in Egypt); fasoulia (braised string beans flavored with onion, allspice, and garlic); garvanzos (chickpea soup that gets its bite from hot paprika); and bumuelos (fried dough using matza meal). 

Association director Evelyn C. Murphy said that its past cooking programs were always scheduled on Saturdays, and the primary fat used in the cooking was lard, an ingredient typical of 18th-century fare. 

When the program was being developed with the museum, however, the day was switched to Sunday, and chicken fat was swapped for lard. “Future programs will be divided between the two weekend days to accommodate the Jewish community,” Murphy told NJJN

“Of course, the food wasn’t kosher because of the cooking utensils we have, but we did use many kosher-certified ingredients,” said Pati Githens of Neptune, the association’s educational programs administrator. “We also tried to be as authentic as possible in recreating the old Sephardi ‘receipts,’ which was the 18th-century term for recipes.” 

All the cooking was done from scratch, said Githens. The wood for the open fire was also from a local source. As they worked, two cooks — Pati’s husband Will and Sarah L. of Morganville (who asked that her full last name not be used) — tossed all remnants of vegetables, fruits, and other edibles into the fire, leaving virtually no garbage buildup and lending a flavorful aroma to the room. 

Not all the attendees came for the food. Maria Haber of Hamilton Township, who was born in Sicily, was interested in the history of the Georgian-style building, which was erected in 1752 and was occupied for many decades by a prosperous family of Dutch origin. 

“I heard about the event from my coworker Jeri Bethune, a member of the Historical Association, who helped host the event,” said Haber.

One set of non-Jewish grandparents brought their Jewish granddaughter for an afternoon outing. 

Leila Sulkes and her husband Marty, Freehold residents and members of Congregation Kol Am, came to learn about Sephardi cooking. After tasting a haroset ball made with neither wine nor honey, she asked what held it together. The answer: ground-up raisins.

Miriam Brooker and her daughter Marlene, also of Freehold, came to satisfy their interest in local history.

Jean Klerman, chair of the museum’s history committee, offered information on the early Jewish presence in Monmouth County, tracing it back through court records to a family named Gomez in 1716. 

“They were traders and didn’t live in New Jersey permanently. The first established residents we know of came here in 1720,” she said. 

“At one time, British military maps listed a community known as Jewstown in what is now the Colts Neck vicinity,” Klerman said, adding that many of those early settlers were of Sephardi origin.

Commenting on the Open Hearth event, Githens praised Klerman for the expert help she provided and said, “We could not have been more pleased. The public’s reaction was great, and we saw a different group of local residents respond, not just our ‘regulars.’”

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