How a Humble Tunisian Family Recipe Landed in One of New York’s Finest Restaurants
Shared by Lior Lev Sercarz
Recipe Roots: Sfax, Tunisia > Kibbutz Dan, Israel > New York City
“We’re living in the grandmother era,” says Lior Lev Sercarz, a spice blender based in Manhattan. “Until 15 years ago or so, none of the chefs wanted to serve what we ate at home. It wasn’t cool, it wasn’t sexy.” But, that has shifted, says Lior. For him, that first happened early in his career when he was working at Daniel, one of New York’s most revered restaurants.
Chef Daniel Boulud “ran through the hallways and said: ‘We have a big problem,’” Lior recalls. The chef had agreed to cater a Tunisian bat mitzvah, but didn’t know how to prepare Tunisian dishes. In an effort to impress the chef, Lior said he would take care of it. It was only after, that Lior realized: “Oh shoot. What do I do?” Lior had grown up on Kibbutz Dan in the Galilee, eating Tunisian food like pkaila a stew of burnt spinach, beans and sausage, but had little experience cooking it.
“I remember my aunt getting married and my grandmother insisting she would make [pkaila] for the whole kibbutz,” he says. “That’s a vivid memory for me — in the kitchen with all of these Polish and Hungarian women who had no idea what she was doing.”
His grandmother Pnina was a skilled and passionate Tunisian cook despite being raised in Transylvania. In her teens, she left her orthodox family to make aliyah with the secular Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair. She faced a roadblock in Italy where boats departed from. “She needed papers,” Lior explains. Married immigrants were given preferential treatment, he says. Eager to board a boat, she married a stranger who was also making aliyah. “They got to Israel and they both said goodbye. I don’t know if they saw each other again, [but] they stayed in touch” he adds.
When she arrived, Pnina lived in Kfar Saba, outside of Tel Aviv, where she met Izak, Lior’s grandfather, in a camp where young Zionists were trained to form kibbutzs. He was Tunisian, from Sfax, a small city along Tunisia’s coast. With little of her family surviving the war, “My grandfather’s family became her new family,” Lior says. She adopted their traditions and recipes and together the couple helped found Kibbutz Dan near Israel’s most northern border. “I think sometimes, she was more Tunisian than him,” Lior jokes.
Despite living in a communal children’s home of the kibbutz, Lior spent many afternoons with his grandparents during a “visiting hour” of sorts. When Lior was little, his grandfather would gather capers from around the kibbutz to pickle for the family and would rub toast with garlic and slick it with butter and harissa for an afternoon snack for the two of them. But it was Pnina, who was the family chef.
Some of the Tunisian culinary traditions she adopted, including the festive pkaila, were passed from her to Lior. “My mother maybe made pkaila once,” he explains.
Still, when Lior was in the kitchen at Daniel, it was his mother who he called frantically with the hope that she could help him master the recipe. She put him in touch with a cousin who spent three hours on the phone with him, teaching Lior to make the family recipe. The dish impressed Daniel and Lior’s fellow cooks so much that it appeared as a special at the restaurant for a time.
Today, Lior says he doesn’t need a special occasion to make the recipe. “Every time I tell [my mom] I made it, she’s like ‘It’s so complicated.’” But it’s not, he promises. The signature flavor comes from burning the spinach. And, Lior adds: “It’s every cook’s dream to be able to burn something and get a good result.”
Lior shared a version of this story during our live storytelling event, Schmaltzy, on October 3rd. Listen here:
Lior Lev Sercarz's Pkaila
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes + 2-3 hours for cooking + overnight for soaking beans
1 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 pound baby spinach, trimmed and washed
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, coarsely chopped
2 cups cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 cup mint, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon of cinnamon
2 tablespoons of ground cumin (or 1 tablespoon of La Boîte Tangier N.23)
2 tablespoons of ground coriander (or 1 ½ tablespoons of La Boîte Izak N.37)
1-2 tablespoons of harissa (depending on how spicy you like it)
2 cups of white beans (cannellini, great northern, navy, etc.), soaked overnight
3 1 ½ “ thick pieces of bone marrow (optional)
1 ½ pounds lamb or beef stew meat, cut into 1” cubes
½ pound merguez sausage, whole
1. Preheat the oven to 300°.
2. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat a ½ cup of the olive oil over medium-high heat until smoking (something with a light enamel bottom is good here so that you can see the color of the spinach and oil change). Add the spinach and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook, scraping the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon frequently, until all of the water evaporates and the spinach is blackened. The entire process will take around 35 minutes. As the spinach cooks, add two more rounds of a ¼ cup of olive oil (at about 10 and 25 minutes into the process) when the spinach starts to get overly dry and sticky. The spinach is done when it’s dark and crispy, almost black and the residual oil is a deep green. At this point you can freeze the spinach and use it to make the pkaila later.
3. Remove the spinach from the pot with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil from the spinach in the pot. Add the onions and a ½ teaspoon of salt and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes.
4. Turn the heat to low. Add the blackened spinach, garlic, thyme, cilantro, mint, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, harissa, and beans and stir to combine evenly.
5. Create little pockets in the mixture and plug the bone marrow in (if using). Add the lamb or beef and the sausage to the pot and cover with water or stock (about 6 cups).
6. Bring to a simmer, cover and place in the oven. Cook for 2-3 hours, checking occasionally and adding more water or stock if needed, until the beans and lamb or beef is tender. Season to taste and serve immediately.