At the edge of the moshav in Israel's Elah Valley, nestled in the Judean foothills, lives Tzipi the witch. A casual observer wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But gaze into her eyes just once and your soul will be forever captured.
Tzipi, in her 50s, was born in Israel to a Jewish family that immigrated from Iraqi Kurdistan. Her husband is Moroccan. Her cooking style is a mishmash of cultures - a bit Kurdish, a bit Moroccan. She even makes that Ashkenazi Jewish staple, gefilte fish.
Every morning, like mice trailing after the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the little ones of our valley toddle their way over to the preschool she runs in her home, eager to hug her and be held by her. Tzipi is not a scary witch. Even when she places her large tin pot over the bonfire in the yard, the children aren’t afraid to approach her. What's in that pot that she stirs with a big stick? Arum (loof) that she’s spent hours collecting on the hillsides - the leaves of a poisonous plant prepared by Middle Eastern cooks who know how to cook it just right, to neutralize its venom. The children know Tzipi won’t add them to the pot too. You see, Tzipi eats only sweets – everyone knows that, and no one has ever seen her eat real food.
Real food is what she makes for other people, and she knows how to cook better than anyone else. Maybe due to the wisdom she carries in her hardworking hands, or maybe it’s the magic she sprinkles over her stuffed vegetables and kubbeh and bread - all Middle Eastern staples. And even though her house, with its red roof and the fire in the yard, is all the way at the end of the road, many people just “happen” to pass by there, hoping Tzipi will glimpse them from the window and with a smile invite them in to taste whatever she has cooking. If you ever chanced into our moshav on a Friday afternoon, you probably saw bunches of folks, old and young, all strolling in one direction, down the road to the edge of the moshav, where Tzipi stands over her pots, stirring her way into our hearts.
And even if you’re still too timid to approach the house yourself, don’t be surprised if one day, Moshe, her husband, shows up with a shy smile, holding a plate covered with a towel, trailing a bit of magic dust too. You see, Tzipi is a very clever witch – there’s no escaping her. Beneath the towel await innocent-looking stuffed pitas that Tzipi toasted that very afternoon. Tzipi's pitas aren't based on any one specific ethnic tradition - they're a product of the Middle East at large. One bite and you’re magically filled with comfort and joy.
Many small towns in Israel have a special "witch," a home cook who enchants with her food. How fortunate we are to have such a witch living at the edge of our moshav who can magically gladden hearts with her warming smile, twinkly eyes and delicious foods.
Tzipi’s stuffed pita
Tzipi’s pitas are made from a simple dough and simple filling, and have a simple shape. But that’s just what makes them so wonderful. They are perfectly seared and perfectly soft.
Don’t omit the step of covering them with a towel prior to serving. It adds to their tenderness and lets the steam from the sweet potato moisten the dough a little. You don’t cut these pitas with a knife. You break them apart by hand and hand out pieces to your friends who are sitting with you. They taste better this way. I confess that even when I try very hard, mine don’t come out quite as amazing as Tzipi’s, but the memory is just as delicious.
1 tbsp salt
1 kilo flour
1 ½ tbsp dry yeast
4 tbsp sugar
2 ½ cups tepid water
½ cup vegetable oil
You can prepare the dough by hand or with a food processor. Place the salt in the bottom of the mixing bowl. Sift the flour over it and sprinkle on the yeast and sugar. Pour two cups of water over this and wait two minutes. Knead until all the water is absorbed in the flour. Add the rest of the water (a little more if needed) until a soft and pliant dough is obtained.
Remove the dough from the bowl and continue kneading on a lightly floured work surface until the dough is pleasant to work with and free of lumps. Shape the dough into a smooth ball and return to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let rise for an hour in a warm place, until doubled in volume.
When the dough has risen, punch it down with your fingertips and knead a little more to get the air out. Grease the work surface, or a large tray, with a little bit of the oil, and with oiled hands, shape bits of dough into golf-ball size pieces. Place them next to each other, but not too close, since they need room to rise. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let rise for another half hour.
Then take one of the balls and flatten it with your hands on a greased work surface. Prepare another circle of dough in the same way. Spread 2 tablespoons of the filling (see below) in the center of one dough circle, leaving the edges free. Place the second circle of dough atop the other and pinch the edges together.
Place a tin sheet or an upside-down skillet over a high flame and let the metal get very hot. Place the pita on the hot surface. If the dough burns too quickly, lower the flame. Wait for the dough on the bottom to fill with golden-brown burn spots then flip over with a kitchen spoon or fork and cook until the other side is also seared and ready. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough and the filling. Keep the ready pitas on a dish covered with a towel to preserve their softness.
Tzipi’s sweet potato filling
Photo by Dan Peretz
Tzipi usually makes her stuffed pitas with an orange sweet potato filling seasoned with garlic and cumin. But when the mood strikes her, she replaces the sweet potatoes with zucchini or eggplant, or with her Kurdish karadi – arum leaves that have been boiled for hours over a bonfire until their bitterness disappears and they turn into a delicious green paste. To make the filling with other vegetables, just replace the sweet potatoes with diced zucchini or eggplant seasoned with lemon juice, dried mint and chopped parsley.
¼ cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves
3-4 medium sweet potatoes
½ tsp cumin
fine sea salt
coarsely ground black pepper
Dice the onion. Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over a medium flame and fry the onion until golden. Cut the garlic into thin slices and add to the skillet. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into 1-cm cubes. Add to the skillet and stir. Season with a little salt and pepper and continue sauteing over a low flame for 25 minutes without adding any liquid. The sweet potatoes will exude their own juices and soften. If they still seem too dry and are getting burned, add a little water, just enough to keep them from burning. When the sweet potatoes are soft, remove the pan from the flame. Mash the sweet potatoes a little, season with the cumin, stir, taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.
Let the filling cool a little before filling the pitas.
Chicken liver filling
This is a variation on the theme that doesn’t come from Tzipi’s kitchen. Organ meats, especially liver, have a soft and creamy texture that works very well as a filling for these pitas. Maybe since they remind me of the stuffed kreplach of my childhood, I’ve borrowed that filling for this recipe. The result is just as good. And essentially, you’ve got a whole meal in a pita.
¼ cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves
½ kilo chicken livers, trimmed of fat and tendons
¼ cup dry white wine (optional)
coarsely ground black pepper
Dice the onion. Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over a medium flame and fry the onion until golden. Slice the garlic, add it to the skillet and stir for a minute. Turn the flame up to the highest level and add the livers to the skillet, one after the other, so they won’t lower the temperature in the skillet. Sear the livers briefly, just until they get brown marks on the outside but are still pink in the center. Season with salt and pepper.
Turn off the fire. Mash the livers, onion and garlic with a fork while they are still in the skillet. Fill the pitas according to the recipe.