Why Do Tunisian Jews Celebrate This Holiday With a Meal on Doll’s Plates?

The Feast of Jethro is an ancient Tunisian Jewish tradition that celebrates the family’s sons. This stuffed cornish hen recipe is the centerpiece of a festive feast where everything is miniature.

AFP

The Feast of Jethro, or Seudat Yitro in Hebrew, is an ancient tradition celebrated on the Thursday before parashat Jethro (last week’s parasha) by Tunisian Jews.

Also known as the holiday of the sons, the feast celebrates the sons of the family (daughters can enjoy it too) and is almost like a doll’s party - the meal is served on small dishes, including miniature cups and flatware (think saucers, dessert forks and shot glasses.)

Mini challahs are baked, and cookies and candies in the shape of children and animals are part of the feast.

The meal starts with sweets, including candies, halva and Tunisian staples like makroud (farina and date cookies) and debla. Tunisian Jews who immigrated to France added Pièce Montée (croquembouche) as a regular component of the feast.

The sweet opening is followed by a meal of vegetable pies called maakouda, salads, green fava beans, and the main course is always stuffed pigeon.

The guests recite poems and read from the Torah, as with any Jewish holiday.

The explanations for this unique tradition vary. Some link it to the story told in Parashat Jethro about Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, breaking bread with Aharon and the Israelites.

Other explanations are related to the community itself. Some people believe the celebration has to do with a plague that killed many in the community, mainly men and boys.

The plague ended on the week of Parashat Jethro and the sick were healed after eating pigeon soup (hence the stuffed pigeon for the feast). Another explanation may be that this Torah portion is the first time young students get to read the 10 commandments on their own, and the celebration is for them.

Personally, I assume the reason pigeon is served for the main course due to the small-plates, small dishes theme, where a pigeon fits in much better than chicken. Pigeons are common in Arab cuisine, but are hard to find in Israel or in America.

I went for cornish hen instead, and stuffed it with Middle Eastern flavors or citrus, dried fruit and almonds. Serve it on a small salad plate with a dessert fork.

Recipe for stuffed cornish hen in orange glaze:

Farro is an Italian wheat berry. It is available at specialty markets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

Serves 4:

2 Cornish hens

Olive oil

Kosher salt

Ground black pepper

For the stuffing:

1/2 cup farro (can be substituted with wheat berries)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup diced smoked turkey or sausage

1/2 cup slivered almonds

5 dried apricots, diced

2 dates, diced

Zest of half an orange

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

For the glaze:

1 cup orange juice

1 cup white wine

2 tablespoons honey

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 degrees Celsius).
To prepare the stuffing, put farro in a medium bowl and cover with 3-4 cups boiling water. Cover bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. In the meantime heat oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add smoked turkey and fry for a couple of minutes; add almonds and fry for another minute until golden; and then add dried fruit, orange zest and salt. Fry while stirring for another 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Drain farro and add to the dried fruit mixture, and mix well.

2. Put glaze ingredients in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 2 minutes and remove from heat.

3. Pat hens dry using paper towels. Sprinkle cavity of hens with salt and pepper, and then stuff with stuffing mixture (you may end up with a little extra). You can use a toothpick to secure the cavity shut, but it is not necessary.

4. Tie legs together using kitchen twine. Use your hands to spread olive oil all over hens, and then sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

5. Place an oven-proof heavy bottomed pot or pan over medium-high heat and brown hens on all sides for about 10 minutes. Add glaze to pot, bring to a boil, and transfer pot to oven. Roast for 45-50 minutes until hens are fully cooked. Baste hens at least 3 times during baking.

6. Remove from oven, cover lightly with aluminum foil and let stand for 5 minutes. Brush with glaze again, cut hens in half and serve with pan juices.