Purim has been summed up in this way: They tried to kill us, we won, so let's eat!
Of course, the actual story is a bit more complex than that, but the simple fact is that for Jews who love to cook and eat, this holiday is a favorite.
In a little bigger nutshell, the tale behind Purim — which is celebrated March 8 — involves a Persian king, his prime minister, Haman (the bad guy) who had it out for the Jews, and a community leader named Mordecai. Basically, Mordecai and his stepdaughter Esther, who became the queen (of the good guys), save their people.
The fun that goes along with the celebration of Purim can't be overstated. Events and traditions include the reading of the Purim story along with audience participatory noisemaking to drown out the name of the bad guy each of the 54 times it is mentioned.
Then there's the food. The Book of Esther tells celebrants they should practice charity and goodwill (which in the story helped save the Jews from peril), by helping those who are less fortunate, and by the making and giving of food gifts called mishloach manot. Then, of course, there needs to be a feast to celebrate the victory.
There's even a proscription for adults to drink wine until they can't tell the difference between the names of the bad guys and good guy. So much for dull holidays.
Jewish food expert Joan Nathan, most recently author of "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France," says that the giving of food gifts makes Purim one of most enjoyable and satisfying holiday's for families to celebrate with their children.
Nathan says that gift baskets often include fruit and plenty of baked goods, which traditionally were made to use up a household's flour before the beginning of Passover (when baked goods are restricted). Many families, she says, have baking flurries that are akin to the way others whip up cookies ahead of Christmas.
Obviously, she points out, this can be an all-inclusive family activity, but because the baked goods are being made to give as gifts, it's an opportunity to teach children about thinking of others rather than just themselves.
Nathan really likes the whole process of hand making and giving gift baskets, but for those who can't there are always easier ways to go.
Moshe Morrison, director of Kosher Foods for New York grocery chain Fairway Markets, can appreciate this. Morrison, who comes from a family where both parents were in the food business, makes sure his customers can find plenty of foods for Purim gift giving. He says that Fairway even has future plans for offering pre-packed mishloach manot.
Morrison says that some of the more popular items for Purim gift baskets include the sesame candy, halvah, Elite brand chocolates (a favorite from Israel), and of course, hamantashen, a filled cookie that is triangular in shape to represent (depending on your interpretation) either Haman's (the bad guy) ears or his tri-cornered hat.
If you like, these cookies, such as our orange-poppy seed hamantashen, are fun and easy to make at home.
For the big meal, known as the Feast of Esther, many foods are included, but often vegetarian dishes made with nuts, grains, seeds and legumes are eaten to pay tribute to the fact that Queen Esther avoided eating meat; the animals were not slaughtered according to kosher tradition at the palace.
These vegetarian Turkish red lentil balls are a delicious, healthy and easy way to include a taste of Persian cuisine in your own Purim feast.
ORANGE-POPPY SEED HAMANTASHEN COOKIES
Start to finish: 2 hours 40 minutes (40 minutes active)
Makes about 30 cookies
1 cup powdered sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks
2 sticks butter, cut into small pieces, softened
Grated zest of 1 large orange
Half of a 12 1/2-ounce can poppy seed cake and pastry filling
1 large egg, beaten
In a food processor, combine the powdered sugar, flour, salt, egg yolks, butter and orange zest. Pulse until a dough forms. Remove the dough from the processor and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day.
Heat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a cookie cutter or clean drinking glass, cut the dough into 2 1/2-inch circles. With the tip of your finger, moisten the rim of each circle with water.
Place 1 teaspoon of poppy seed filling at the center of each circle. Form triangular cookies by folding the sides up over the filling, leaving the center uncovered. Pinch together the three corners. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets. Brush the outsides of the cookies with the beaten egg.
Bake until the edges are lightly golden, about 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.
Nutrition information per cookie (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 130 calories; 60 calories from fat (49 percent of total calories); 7 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 35 mg cholesterol; 15 g carbohydrate; 2 g protein; 0 g fiber; 10 mg sodium.
TURKISH RED LENTIL BALLS
If you can't find harissa (a North African chili paste), substitute any of the chili-garlic pastes you find in the grocer's international aisle.
Start to finish: 1 hour
Makes about 32 lentil balls
1 cup uncooked red lentils, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup fine bulgur, uncooked
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon harissa (red chili) paste
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3 scallions, finely sliced
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3/4 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
Boston or butter lettuce, torn into thirty 2-by-2-inch pieces
In a medium saucepan, bring 2 1/2 cups of water to a boil. Add the lentils and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 15 minutes. Mix in the bulgur, cover the pot and remove from the heat. Let the mixture rest until the residual liquid is absorbed by the bulgur, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium skillet over medium, heat the oil. Add the onions and saute until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in the harissa and cumin, then cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes more. Transfer to a mixing bowl and set aside.
Once the lentils and bulgur are cooked (the mixture should be moderately moist like dough), add to the reserved onion mixture along with most of the scallions and parsley (reserving just enough for garnish). Season with salt and pepper, then mix well. The lentil mixture should resemble thick dough. If it still seems too damp, add more bulgur and let the mixture rest until the bulgur is no longer hard, about another 15 minutes.
Keeping your hands wet, mold about 1 heaping tablespoon of the lentil mixture into football-shaped balls. Place each ball in one of the lettuce pieces and arrange on a serving platter. Garnish with the remaining scallions and parsley and drizzle with additional olive oil. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing.
Nutrition information per ball (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 45 calories; 15 calories from fat (29 percent of total calories); 2 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 6 g carbohydrate; 2 g protein; 2 g fiber; 65 mg sodium.