Scattered throughout Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are what as known as “worker’s restaurants” — the Israeli equivalent of a diner, offering cheap, plentiful home-cooked dishes, usually of specific ethnic origin. Often these restaurants can be found in the center of market areas, such as the Levinsky and Carmel shuks in Tel Aviv, and the Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.
Azura is a second-generation Kurdish-Iraqi-Turkish-Sephardic restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem’s famous open-air Mahane Yehuda market. (Yeah, talk about fusion cuisine.) Azura was founded in 1952 by Ezra Shrefler, an immigrant from Turkish Kurdistan. “Azura” was his nickname. “Azura” is also the name of the restaurant’s signature dish of slow-cooked eggplant topped with spiced beef and pine-nuts. The restaurant is now run by his Ezra’s son, Shabtai, and his eight siblings. The family prepares food in a line of huge pots simmering over kerosene burners. Aside from the eggplant, the restaurant is known for its kebbah soups and sofritos.
Sofrito, by definition, is a Spanish sauce commonly made from tomatoes, onion and garlic, and used as a base for other recipes. FWIW this is not what sofrito meant at Azura. The menu used “sofrito” to describe a variety of aromatic slow-cooked stews. Indeed the secret to Azura’s dishes, as Shabtai explained, is that “Everything here is cooked overnight, over a flame. Very simple food, like you’d have at home.”
Well maybe not everyone’s home. We should all be so lucky. But you’d think slow-cooking overnight might dry out, say, the beef, but the opposite occurred: all the spices and ingredients melted together to form a new dish entirely. And I mean melted. Ordinarily, stew is cooked until it the meat and vegetables are fork tender. Shabtai’s method, however, produced culinary alchemy: meat and vegetables were bound and fused until they became one tender, flavorful mash.
It occurred to me that a North American cook could possibly replicate some of these dishes in a slow cooker, so I asked Shabtai for the recipe for his beef sofrito. He happily conveyed it to me — in that way someone who cooks from instinct and tradition will do. “You just take beef … and some pepper and salt … and cook it overnight.”
Since coming home, I’ve done some more research into Iraqi sofritos. The recipe below (adapted from here) produces a fragrant version that is almost like Azura’s (although I couldn’t replicate the experience of eating it in the lively, noisy market). I cooked it overnight — and then into the next day. Shabtai was right: 12-18 hours on low heat only makes for a better stew. Enjoy it during one of these final wintery evenings, before spring is upon us and the slow cooker is put away.
* Serving note: Traditionally wedges of potato are fried and then added to the sofrito for the last hour or two. It’s an interesting combination and way to add potatoes to a stew. You can skip this and simply serve the stew over Persian rice. Either way is delicious. Not much else is needed but a green salad.
My plate of sofrito at Azura.
3-4 pounds beef brisket or chuck roast cut into large chunks
4 tablespoons canola oil
4 medium onions, peeled and sliced
10 whole cloves garlic, peeled
3⁄4 cup water
1 teaspoon paprika (use hot paprika if you’d like a bit of heat)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon curry powder
1⁄2 teaspoon ground pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon ground allspice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 baking potatoes cut into sixths (optional)
Canola oil for deep-frying (optional)
Heat oil in a frying pan and brown the beef on all sides (If your slow cooker has a saute option, do it right in the cooker). Do in batches and remove.
When the meat is browned, sprinkle the spices in the hot pan or cooker, pour in the water, and stir, scraping up any brown bits. Add the meat, onions and garlic to the slow cooker. (Pour over the spice and water mix from the frying pan if separate.)
Add salt and ground pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cover and set the cooker to the lowest setting. Stew for 12-18 hours, stirring occasionally. (I slept through the first 12 hours of cooking, without stirring, to no damage!)
About two hours before serving, in a deep frying pan, heat oil for deep-frying and fry the potato wedges until golden. Transfer to paper towel to drain the excess oil.
Arrange the deep-fried potato wedges over the cooked beef, cover and cook until ready to eat.
* This stew might seem a bit greasier from an Italian or French version that calls for any accumulated fat to be drained. Don’t drain the fat. That’s what makes it extra-delicious. Sop it up with some warm pita.