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The Feast of Seeds

Purim, which begins March 20, celebrates a Jewish queen's bravery.

March 15, 2000|JUDY ZEIDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Our family dinners revolve around birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, and they are wonderful times to be together with our children and grandchildren.

This month we celebrate the holiday of Purim, and that is even better. It is fun when we all stamp our feet and use noisemakers called graggers to punctuate the retelling of the Purim story.

The Scroll of Esther, read in synagogues during Purim, tells how Queen Esther, with the help of her uncle Mordechai, prevented the wicked prime minister Haman from turning the king against the Jewish people.

Carnivals are held in synagogues and Jewish centers, and the children dress up in costumes to resemble the biblical characters in the story. After the festivities, family and friends gather at home to enjoy a special meal. Purim begins at sundown Monday.

The theme of my Purim menu this year is based on the legend that Queen Esther ate only fruit, vegetables, seeds and dairy products. In keeping with this concept, we begin the dinner with a salad of sprouts tossed with a honey-olive oil dressing. The variety of seeds and sprouts available in the local farmers markets, including bean, alfalfa, lentil and pea, is amazing. Include walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts for an interesting crunch.

The Bean and Vegetable Soup was inspired by a traditional Tuscan soup, ribollita. Its consistency varies depending on where you are in Italy. Recently I tasted this dish at Da Delfina, a restaurant in the village of Artimino, just outside Florence. Chef Carlo Cioni uses lots of beans and kale and serves it very thick, almost like a pasta.

Several years ago, chef Nadia Santini of Dal Pescatore, a Michelin three-star restaurant near Parma, served us Parmesan Crisps to go with our soup course. They are the perfect accompaniment for this ribollita-like dish. I have added sesame and poppy seeds, which are synonymous with the Purim holiday, to the original recipe.

Recently my cousin, Carol Dondick, invited us to a family brunch and served pastries that were layered with walnuts. I loved them and was inspired to adapt the recipe for Purim by replacing the walnuts with a poppy seed filling in two of the layers. Serve these alongside Poppy Seed Strudel and the more traditional hamantaschen cookies for dessert.

This menu is perfect for the busy family. I have found that the soup can be made days ahead; just store it in the refrigerator or freeze until ready to use. Let your children or grandchildren shape the Parmesan Crisps into rounds on a baking sheet (no one cares if the edges are a little rough). They will love pressing the cheese mixture into round shapes--or they can use the molds--and everyone will be amazed at how quickly they bake.

Make the Poppy Seed Pastries in advance and store them in the freezer. At serving time, just defrost them; they will stay crisp and everyone will think they were freshly baked. Make extra pastries to follow the Purim tradition of sharing (shalach manos) and give a basket of these delicious confections as gifts to family and friends.

Ziedler is the author of "Master Chefs Cook Kosher" (Chronicle Books, $24.95) and "The 30-Minute Kosher Cook" (William Morrow, $22).

Hearty Bean and Kale Soup

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 3 hours 30 minutes plus 8 hours soaking * Vegetarian

1/2 pound dried Great Northern beans

Water

Olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 small carrots, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 small bunch kale, shredded (about 4 cups)

1 boiling potato, diced

1 small bunch Swiss chard, chopped (about 2 cups)

1 large tomato, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary leaves

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

* Place beans in large saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Let stand at room temperature overnight. Drain beans well and return to saucepan. Add enough water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, 1 hour 30 minutes, reserving liquid. Transfer half beans to food processor or blender and puree. Reserve remaining whole beans.

* Heat 1/4 cup oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrots and celery and saute 5 minutes. Stir in kale, potato, pureed beans and enough reserved bean cooking liquid and water to make 6 cups. Heat over medium heat and simmer until vegetables are tender, 30 minutes.

* Add chard, tomato, garlic, rosemary, parsley, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until chard is tender and flavors are well blended, at least 1 hour, adding additional bean liquid if soup is too thick. (Soup should be quite thick.)

* Stir in reserved whole beans and simmer until heated through, 5 to 10 minutes. (Can be cooled and refrigerated overnight.)

* Ladle into heated soup bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Pass olive oil to top soup with, if desired.

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