Schmaltzy Spotlight / Nir Mesika: When a grandmother’s memory inspired a hit restaurant
Shared by Nir Mesika
Recipe Roots: Egypt > Kiryat Ha'im, Israel > Manhattan, New York
Growing up in Kiryat Motzkin, a town in the north of Israel nestled near Haifa, Nir Mesika’s Saturdays were defined by his family’s matriarchs. He would often start the day with lunch at his Egyptian grandmother’s home, set out in time for his grandfather Chalifa, a fisherman, to be home from his morning catch. His grandmother Rubi, who he called Nona, would serve leftovers from Friday night’s dinner like an herbed Egyptian soup called melokhia with white rice and chicken sofrito, a whole bird browned in a pan and then cooked over a bed of potatoes, and kalamata olives, laced with cardamom, fresh turmeric, lemon and garlic. By Israeli and Sephardic standards, Nir says: “It’s kind of a breakfast dish.”
That was just the start of the day. After the meal, Nir and his family would pile into the car and drive the short distance to his Moroccan grandmother Mazal’s house, the later time slot reserved so that his religious grandfather Isaac would be home from synagogue. Mazal cooked for 40 to 50 people a week until she passed away. “The kitchen was always open and welcoming, whoever wanted to eat could eat, there was always something in the fridge or on the stove,” Nir says. Through these visits, he grew close with her.
“The year after my grandmother died, the atmosphere around me was very heavy,” he explains. “I wanted to create something by myself.” He left for New York where he opened a casual Israeli restaurant called Zizi Limona. But, “I always wanted to open in Manhattan and wanted to express myself more,” he says, so he started to plan his now hit restaurant Timna in the East Village, with an opening menu inspired by Mazal’s recipes and those shabbats spent at her home.
A week before opening, he stumbled upon SOS Chefs, a spice shop a few blocks away run and owned by Atef Boulaabi. She had the same tagine Mazal had in her home and spices that would become the base of his dishes at the restaurant. But amid the many shelves lined with spices, Nir found a small sign of his Rubi as well — the first fresh turmeric he had spotted since arriving in New York. “That took me back immediately to my grandmother house,” he says.
This fall, he’ll serve a riff on sofrito made with foie gras. For that, we will head to Timna. But, for a version made with chicken, we will take a lesson from Rubi and prepare it at home for friends and family.
Nir shared a story about his grandmother and a sofrito dish at our live storytelling event Village Schmaltzy on November 6. Listen here:
Egyptian Chicken Sofrito
Time: 2 hours
1 organic whole chicken (about 3 lbs), quartered (have the butcher do this for you!)
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. fingerling potatoes, peeled and halved
1/2 cup of Canola oil
5 garlic cloves, peeled and very coarsely chopped
¼ teaspoon sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. Season chicken pieces on all sides with salt and pepper. Combine turmeric, cardamom, and olive oil in a small bowl. Using hands, thoroughly rub each chicken piece with the mixture (this step can be done up to a day in advance).
3. Heat canola oil in a large dutch oven on high heat (the oil needs to be very hot in order to brown the chicken). Brown chicken skin side down, about 3-5 minutes per piece.
4. Transfer chicken to plate and add potatoes to pot. Cook until golden brown, 3-4 minutes.
5. Remove all but single layer of potatoes from pot. Turn heat down to medium. Add garlic and cook until it just starts to brown, about 1 minute. As soon as you see the first signs of browning add the juice of one lemon (this will slow the cooking of the garlic).
6. Add the chicken pieces in one layer on top of the single potato layer. Layer the rest of the potatoes on top of the chicken.
7. Add 1.5 cups (2.5 for larger chicken) of warm water (about halfway up the pot), sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of sugar, cover and place in the oven for 1.5 hours making sure that the liquid doesn’t reduce too much.
8. Uncover and broil for 12-15 minutes until chicken skin is golden brown and crispy.
9. Baste with sauce from pot.
10. Serve with rice.
Listen to the recording here: