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Friday Night Wonderland

Making Palestinian chicken and Moroccan challah for a Shabbat dinner with Alice Waters

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Alice Waters, at lower left, and Joan Nathan, at upper right, gather with other guests to say the prayer over the challah. (Filippo Bartolotta)

A few weeks ago, I invited Alice Waters for Shabbat.

The legendary chef-owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, a longtime friend, was in town to work with me on a fundraiser for Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen, two organizations that feed the less fortunate in Washington, D.C., where I live. It seemed only natural to invite Alice and the other visiting chefs to my home for a Shabbat dinner—a meal I’ve prepared my whole adult life. It’s an invaluable opportunity to open my home for people to enjoy hearty food, good conversation, and a connection to Judaism. It’s also a chance to include non-Jewish friends in the experience, so filled with the universal themes of shared sustenance and faith, and it’s a moment to unplug from our otherwise wired existence and, for a few hours at least, to appreciate the occasions where time does not seem to matter.

The real question was what to serve Alice, the queen of American cooking. Keep it simple has always been my motto. I did that when I hosted a small dinner for Julia Child’s 90th birthday, and it was a big success. So, I decided to do the same this time.

You should realize that the charity event consisted of a series of 14 dinners for 20 people each, all to be held the following Sunday. My house was the event’s headquarters, and I had a garage bursting with produce, gifts, and wine, and a kitchen and family room dotted with volunteers glued to their laptops and cell phones, while an endless flow of people filed in and out of the house. Simple, amid all that, made a lot of sense.

But beyond keeping it simple, I also knew that Alice would want a seasonal and sustainable meal. I went to our local New Morning Farms truck early in the week and gathered greens and beets and hearty winter produce. On Thursday I assembled some of the young volunteers, and we made succulent roasted beets and squash for one salad and lathered kale with olive oil for another, prepping blood oranges and yellow grapefruit that would be added at the last minute. I asked a pastry-chef friend if he would bake some cookies, and he happily obliged.

But what would be the main course? I only had to think for an instant: Mousakhan, my favorite chicken recipe, of course. It’s a delectable Palestinian dish—chicken, topped with slowly cooked sautéed onions, golden-brown pine nuts, and a mixture of cloves, allspice, and sumac (the tart desert herb found throughout the Middle East), all of which is placed on a large pita and baked in the oven. I’d learned of it many years ago, in Israel, when I was a foreign press attaché for the late Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem. I confess that I was more interested, even then, in peering into pots than into politics.

When I lived in Israel in the early 1970s, I ate mousakhan whenever I could, although I only found a recipe for it a few years later when I was in a small seminar on ethnicity at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I was studying for a master’s degree in public administration. Adnan Abu-Odeh, then Jordan’s minister of information, was a fellow student in the class, and I approached him with trepidation to ask for the recipe—after all, he was a government official and I a young woman. “Invite me to your home and I’ll show you how to make it,” he instantly responded. I promptly did. Not only did we make this celebrated dish from Adnan’s native Nablus, but we began a lifelong friendship. I knew that Alice would love this recipe as well as the story behind it—a great example of the power of food.

While the aroma from the baking chicken filled my kitchen on Friday afternoon, some of the volunteers helped make a Moroccan challah, a new recipe from Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, my forthcoming book. Together we mixed the yeast, anise, water, eggs, vegetable oil, and flour. Letting the dough rise only a few minutes, we punched it down, molded it into two long cylinders that we twisted together and then formed into a circle and baked.

When the guests arrived, about 30 of them, everything was ready. We gathered while I recited the Sabbath prayer over lighting the candles. Then my husband, Allan, blessed the wine, which in this august setting of the food world really meant something. As I translated the prayers from Hebrew, I explained that in ancient times wine symbolized all drinks extracted from fruits that grow on vines and trees.

Then it was time for the blessing over the bread. At that moment, everyone in the room was connected, either placing their hand on one of the two challahs (signifying the double portion of manna in the desert) or placing their hand on someone who was touching a challah. As I explained the 10 transformations wheat undergoes to make a beautifully browned challah, Alice listened intently. I described the steps we often take for granted: planting seeds, growing wheat, threshing, removing the chaff, grinding the wheat into flour, mixing flour with water and yeast, letting it rise, forming it into a braided loaf, letting it rise again, and then baking it off.

I often recite these 10 steps that I learned many years ago as a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Etz Chaim in Chicago, and every time I find it is a powerful gesture. It was even more so on this particular night, surrounded by so many people dedicated to food and charity.

Gathered around the table, we sensed that bread is everything for civilization. In Egypt bread is called aish, which comes from aisha, meaning “life.” The Hebrew word for bread, lechem, at least to the English ear, is akin to chaim, meaning life.

“I am so touched by the challah ceremony,” Alice said to me, as we all shared the Israeli and Arab food, a dinner full of symbolism. “It is so beautiful to see this ancient tradition kept alive, with the simple, historic staple of bread as the focus.” After tasting the chicken, she added, “It is amazing. I could eat this kind of food every day.”


Adapted from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today (Knopf), 2001

½ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 large onions (about 10 cups), coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 chicken breast halves
4 chicken legs with thighs
1 cup pine nuts
4 tablespoons ground sumac
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
8 small pita breads, 4 large pita breads cut in half, or 1 oversized pita

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large skillet over a low flame. Add the onions and sauté for 20 minutes or until golden, stirring occasionally. After 5 minutes, sprinkle on salt to taste.

3. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, rubbing well into the skin.

4. Transfer the onions to a 9- by 12-inch baking dish and place the chicken on top.

5. Bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for 15 minutes more.

6. Drizzle a tablespoon or so of the remaining olive oil into a frying pan. Heat the oil, then add the pine nuts. Fry over a very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the pine nuts are browned.

7. Put the sumac, allspice, cloves, and pine nuts in a small bowl and mix.

8. Remove the chicken from the oven and sprinkle on the sumac-pine nut mixture. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top and return the dish to the oven. Continue baking for 20-25 more minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Remove the chicken from the oven.

9. Preheat the broiler. Transfer each chicken piece to a round of pita bread, or place all the chicken pieces over the oversized pita. Sprinkle the onions, with a small amount of the cooking liquid, on top and around the chicken. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and broil for 5 minutes, watching closely to prevent burning.

Yield: 8 servings

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Yum this looks amazing. What a lovely story about bringing people together through Shabbat. I can’t wait to try this recipe and post it on my blog, Thanks Joan!

This sounds so good. I may try the dish and substitute potatos and squash for the the chicken.

I have enjoyed eating mousakhan for years. The first time was in Jericho, long before there was a “Palestinian Authority” when Jews could still go there (we aren’t allowed there now). It’s an Arab dish, so I question why you call it “Palestinian Chicken”, since there is no real so-called “Palestinian” culture or food separate and distinct from Arab culture.

Joan, I love the connection between food and tradition, history and culture as you string all of your life experiences with the menu you presented to Alice. Bread, as a symbol of life and togetherness, seems an appropriate start at a meal like one you describe–that something seemingly so simple and plain can have such meaning and sustenance.

When my grandmother, who owned Nepenthe restaurant, died, her long time baker friend baked a large ring loaf (enough to feed hundreds of people) as a symbol of family and togetherness. We are not Jewish, but my grandmother none-the-less, respected the religions, cultures, and traditions of the world and spent her life bringing people of diverse backgrounds together around food.

I’m going to make this chicken dish, too-sounds delicious!!

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

A lovely story, but I wish you had included the recipe for the challah.

My mouth was watering as I read this. I’m so glad you included the recipe. A few of our favorite family dishes are courtesy of Joan Nathan (including our weekly Shabbat challah). I can’t wait to try the mousakhan!

Palestiniansareamyth says:

Thanks Suzanne for your historically correct comments. There has never been a “Palestinian” people, culture, language, or society. Ancient Israel was re-named Palestine by the Romans and the name has nothing to do with the Arabs. The first people called “Palestinians” were Jews because they have always lived in Israel/Palestine. The “Palestinian people” are the biggest myth in the history of the world.

Alice Walker has written many anti-Israel pro-terrorist essays. She’s an anti-semite who wants Israel to be destroyed. Joan should have also invited David Duke. David and Alice have the same hatred for Israel and Judaism. Joan is just another idiot radical Commie phony Jew who loves to wine and dine the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people.

Palestiniansareamyth: It was Alice WATERS invited to dinner. NOT Alice WALKER. Alice WATERS is a famous chef, Alice WALKER is the author of the Color Purple. Get your head out of your yoou know what and see the world for what it is. Many different people with many different opinions about many different things. They are not ALL anti Israel. THey are not ALL pro Israel. Heck, in fact some of us are in between on the issue!

Hank Bayer says:

Oh, this is such a beautiful story but it is what is known in Yiddish as ekldik….too much shmaltz!!!And one more thing, Jews do not bless inanimate objects,ie, bread, wine, houses,etc. Jews bless the one who created the stuff for us….read the blessings over any food and see if the food itself is blessed or if we just say thanks to the boss for giving it to us. I am deemed to be a shkotz because my mom was Irish Catholic but I still am aware of what is and what ain’t and using the term,”We bless the bread”, ain’t Jewish. The only bread that is blessed is the wafer that the Catholics get on Sunday.
Der Shkotz

It’s Alice Walker who’s pro-Palestinian. She’s a writer (the Color Purple – not very good in my opinion). Alice Waters is a very big foodie.

I absolutely accept everything you have mentioned. Actually, I browsed through your other content articles and I do believe you are completely right. Congrats with this particular website.

Joe Davis says:

Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm episode last night made me want to taste Palestinian Chicken

I’ve said that least 857849 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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You actually make it seem so easy along with your presentation however I in finding this matter to be actually something that I feel I might never understand. It seems too complicated and very large for me. I’m looking ahead in your subsequent post, I’ll try to get the grasp of it!


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Friday Night Wonderland

Making Palestinian chicken and Moroccan challah for a Shabbat dinner with Alice Waters

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