May 242013
 

iraqi cheese and cherry tomatoes

“Take one of those cherry tomatoes,” urged my friend the vendor. “They’re sweeter than real cherries.” I popped one in my mouth. Wow! A burst of sweetness and tomato flavor. I bought a kilo.

Then I made my way to the Russian bakery, where they sell all kinds of sourdough breads. I bought a beautiful brown rye loaf sprinkled with caraway seeds. It was time to catch my bus and go home.

I like sitting at the shuk bus stop. Sometimes I think I’ll go there and just hang out on the bench, listening in on the conversations. Often, friends or relatives meet there accidentally, and then there are hugs and exclamations and all the news since they last met. And since this is Israel and nobody’s afraid to start up a conversation, total strangers talk to each other easily. The conversation can get fairly philosophical. Or heated, if politics come up.

This time, it was a couple of elderly ladies, one plump, with dyed blond hair and a floral print dress, and the other dark, thin and sort of sharp. Friends, apparently. They both spoke with strong Sephardic accents. They were talking about cheese.

“Taste some of this,” said the thin woman, unwrapping a block of white cheese and offering it to her friend.

The blond lady daintily broke a little corner off. “Mmm, delicious. What kind is it?”

“We just call it Iraqi cheese. A little of it on a slice of good bread, with a cup of tea – perfect snack.” She broke off a piece too, and the two sat there thoughtfully munching. “My mother used to give us that when we’d come home from school,” the thin lady added.

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The blond woman’s bus pulled up and they said hasty goodbyes. I turned to the thin lady and asked her about the cheese. I’d never heard of “Iraqi cheese.” She pulled out her block of cheese again and offered it to me.

“Here, take some,” she said. “It’s hand made.” She saw the doubt in my eyes and added, “Kosher, of course. I keep kosher too.” I hesitated and broke off a crumb, feeling Western scruples about politeness and not appearing greedy.

“Take a good piece,” she said irritably. “How can you taste a little bit like that?”

She was offering me hospitality, never mind that we were strangers at a bus stop. So I took off bigger piece and ate it. Darn, it was good cheese. Firm, fresh, and a little salty. She pulled another block of cheese out of her bag and unwrapped it. This one was whiter, flabby, pierced with holes and much saltier.

Both are called Iraqi Cheese, she told me, only the firmer one is more expensive. I could find it at the little booth just at the entrance to the shuk. When her bus came, she was still telling me how her mother used to buy these cheeses back in the old country, paying the cheese maker later, whenever she had the money. “People trusted each other more then,” she sighed.

What could I do – I went back to the shuk and bought both kinds of cheese. Then I had cheese and tomatoes and Russian rye bread for lunch.

Who am I to ignore tradition and culture and hand-made cheese?

iraqi cheese and cherry tomatoes

 Posted by at 4:00 PM
Apr 132013
 

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I took a springtime walk through the Ramleh open-air market early last week. The sign wishing visitors a happy Passover was still up at the entrance.  You can find seasonal vegetables there which don’t appear in my local market: green chickpeas, purple carrots, Jerusalem sage… I like to roam around there and see what I can find.

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I mentioned last year that I’ll probably be posting about fresh green garlic every year, as long as I’m writing this blog. Well, it’s time.

And tell me, isn’t there something evocative about a bunch of purple-skinned fresh garlic? I confess, I feel the same esthetic satisfaction from one that contemplating a still-life of fruit by Monet gives me.

Continue reading »

Dec 302012
 

jerusalem 2012

Why did I shlep my family away from warm Petach Tikvah to trawl grey, windy Jerusalem on a December day?

All the Jerusalemites were hurrying their errands along, anxious to get off the chilly streets and  back into warm apartments. Not at all like my previous visit to the town on a sunny day.  So what were we – Husband, The Little One, my son Eliezer, and I – doing there?

Well, revisiting scenes from Eliezer’s childhood.

As soon as Eliezer was old enough to roam around the city on his own, he made certain neighborhoods his territory, exploring every obscure alley, arched stone doorway, and hole in the ground. (He tells me that a small boy can travel underground through the Bucharim neighborhood through a network of old dry wells and tunnels that still exist there.) And Shuk Machaneh Yehudah was another playground for little roamers like him, who melted into the background and absorbed all there was of atmosphere, customs, tastes and smells without the busy vendors and shoppers taking notice.

And so we walked through the shuk, up Agrippas Street, and down the Ben Yehudah pedestrian mall to Zion Square, in search of those long-lost times.

Continue reading »

Jul 202011
 

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Hurry up and get there! Only one more Monday night left!

Every Monday in July, shuk Machaneh Yehudah throws a huge street party. It’s the rowdy Balabasta festival. The punning name celebrates  basta (produce stand), ba’al ha’basta (owner of the stand), balabusta (housewife), and the culture of the open market in Jerusalem.

I went to see it for myself this week, just me and my camera. The shops and vendors were doing great business.

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Here and there bands played and people gathered to listen. In one little space, youngsters sang old songs of aliyah and Eretz Israel. I loved this red-haired girl, who sang in a fresh alto and blew a mean trombone too.

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A rooftop concert rocked the crowd (pictured above).The band is called Acharit HaYamin, and sounds were rock, reggae, psalms set to heart-banging Yemenite/jazz fusion – all Israeli, punctuated at intervals by enthusiastic ululations from the crowd or the rooftop stage.

Yes, it was crowded. But it was a friendly crowd, everyone giving way to old folks or women pushing strollers, everyone intent on just having fun. It felt safe, it felt homey.

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This band was playing an amusing, cool-jazz version of the “Pink Panther” theme.

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Something for everyone: whimsical fairytale figures to entertain the kids
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I stood slightly to one side, taking photos and moving with the music and watching the people.

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One delicatessen intelligently set up a stand of cheeses and wine by the glass. It was fun to stand in the middle of the shuk and the noise and the surging crowd, savoring Cabernet Sauvignon.

DSC_1699 cheese & wine

I felt an multi-layered emotion I couldn’t describe.When the musicians sang of peace, of our longing for peace one day, and the people shouted “Amen!” I stood like a fool among all those people, with tears in my eyes.

Sweaty heat and the cooling Jerusalem breeze as the evening set in. Loud, cheerful music, Jerusalemites dancing in the ancient street, the stone buildings that have seen so much of struggle, war, and the everlasting everyday. Smells of fresh bread, sewage, something acrid and smoky, grilled meat.

I longed to suspend the moving, living moment like a scene in a movie. Soon it would dissolve into memory, and our transient wonder and enjoyment, placed fleetingly over the eternal, were already becoming the past.

It came to me so clearly then, how we are born, live, and die, and Jerusalem – Jerusalem is forever.

Get an excellent, printable, English map of the shuk here.

Jun 192011
 

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Ashdod had a small-town feel when I first used to visit there, back around 1977. My parents had just come to Israel and were living in the absorption center, studying Hebrew. There was a relaxed, seaside feeling when we’d saunter out in the late afternoon to enjoy the breeze, stopping to drink coffee at one of the many sidewalk cafés. Lots of Moroccan and Egyptian-accented French spoken in the street, in shops. Tiny eateries with three or four tables where my folks and I would order fish couscous. There was a small artists’ colony – a few cozy, rundown houses near the beach. We visited a painter my parents knew and found him waving his arms and explaining a large, colorful canvas to a group of admirers.

We’d sit and sip coffee and people-watch. Clusters of dark Bnei Israel women in saris would pass by, chatting in Malayalam with their handsome husbands and kids. Russian immigrants, newly arrived and still bewildered, cautiously getting the lay of the land.  Jews wearing crocheted kippot, wearing black hats, wearing colorful embroidered Georgian caps.  Sailors cocking eyebrows at every nice pair of legs. Ashdod is a port town, after all, and has been for thousands of years.

As today and as always, sunshine, heat, and the sea.

I went back to Ashdod last week to visit friends and hit the shuk. The town has grown very much since I knew it. Its small-town character has changed. Thousands of new immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia and a thriving ultra-Orthodox community have displaced the old, European-influenced Middle-Eastern culture.  New neighbohoods and tall, sleek buildings have risen. I no longer knew my way around.

It seemed a less friendly town than the one I remembered. But it was probably just me, awash with nostalgia as I walked through the old places. My parents were younger than I myself am now. We would stroll together, three abreast, through the shabby, colorful streets or on the peaceful beach… How strange to realize that ordinary moments become rich memories.

But the bustling sea-side shuk forced me back into the present, and gladly I went. Wednesday is shuk day in Ashdod, and it takes place next to the beach promenade. Rising above the crowds is the sundial clock tower.

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A multi-cultural crowd moved among the hundreds of stands. Besides Hebrew and French, I heard Amharic, Russian, Spanish and even some English.

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Most of the produce was beautiful, like this bright orange pumpkin and baladi eggplant. The tiny artichokes would have been perfect for stuffing and frying, except, sadly, they were infested with snails.

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Clothes in the shuk always intrigue me. Here’s a T-shirt for Maccabi basketball team fans…

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and a startling new summer fashion: chamsot to avert the evil eye, on your sandals.

image-chamsah-sandalsI always look for the one table displaying awful shoes in the shuk, and I found it.
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So awful as to be actually rather cool.

Although you wouldn’t catch me dead in them.

I meandered on under the awnings, enjoying the colors and scents and glancing at vendors like this couple selling room perfumes.

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A pair of hips swaying like  The Girl From Ipanema, apricots in the background…

image-dangling-mannekin-bottomA street musician provided the music, although he was more into El Condor Pasa than bossa nova. image-street-musician
Hungry for some foodie pictures?

Here’s a vendor of lupine and big, coarse ful beans.

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Lupines are tedious to prepare, being saturated with a bitter alkaloid. To make them edible, they must be soaked, rinsed, soaked again, cooked, drained, and then put to rest for 4-7 days in brine. Then they are rinsed and ready to eat. Sort of like olives, except for the cooking. But they’re nutritious and tasty – once someone else has done all that work.

A pot of ful beans, hot, floury, and savory with cumin.
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And those stuffed vine leaves looked good.
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I wouldn’t buy those candied pecans though, having watched a worker sifting them through his bare hands.
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What can I say, I’m a fussy Westerner.

Almonds kept plump in water…
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And in case all those goodies were making you feel a size larger, the herb man had fresh stevia plants for sale.

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Kosher keepers should know that none of the prepared foods sold in the shuk are OK. Actually while my friend and I were standing and watching two Beduin ladies make hand-made flatbreads, a woman with a sharp face came up to us and hissed,

“Is this kosher? Do they take challah?” Warning us away.

Ohferpetessake.

But here are the flatbreads, some baked in a skillet that goes into a portable oven and some slapped onto a saj (the pan that looks like an upside-down wok).
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That’s what our breads should have looked like, the day the bloggers got together to bake on a saj at Sarah Melamed’s house. (Our breads were still delicious, though.)

I venture to guess that the two bakers were the wives of the man who ran the stand.

He filled the breads with leben and chopped herbs and tomatoes, then rolled it all up into a neat package for eating out of hand. It looked mighty good. I’ve eaten saj bread (with a hechsher, at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem) – it has to be very fresh because it goes dry and tasteless quickly.

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The bread vendor also had leben cheese in olive oil, bottles of that same oil, and fresh okra. What the dark seeds in the containers to the right are, I couldn’t tell. He wasn’t too thrilled at my taking photos so I didn’t linger to ask him.

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On our way out of the shuk, the delicious smells of meat grilling over coals wafted around on a cloud of smoke.

“Tell them it’s the best!” ordered the vendor. It may well be, but I can’t testify to it.

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It was hot. Behind the shuk is the promenade, with cafés overlooking the beach. To let the delicious sea breeze cool me down, I stood there for a while.

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My friend suggested we just get on buses and ride around. So we did. I became a little more familiar with the new, sprawling Ashdod, so neatly planned with its independent neighborhoods.

At sunset, we walked over to the absorption center where my folks had lived for six months. The building stands near a garden that slopes down to the beach. I had often taken walks with my parents there.

Memories rose so strongly that tears rose too. It seemed I could almost hear my Dad’s voice, almost expect to see him walking and pausing to turn his head in his characteristic way to catch what Mom was saying. In one way, I was glad Mom wasn’t with me – I know she would have been overcome.

In another, I felt as if both of them should have been there with me. Remembering the Seder we made in the little bed/living room with its kitchenette . Dad became emotional, being in Israel after decades of hoping.

Hope and anticipation lay lightly on our hearts then. The  future was a thing unraveling, far ahead.

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 Posted by at 4:59 PM
Jun 092011
 

image-wadi-nisnas-street-signOn one side of the street, a street sign like a beckoning finger encourages the stranger to enter.

But turn around to the other side, and this spooky masked image glowers down at you.

image-street-art-haifaSo it was with a slightly uncomfortable sense of ambiguity that we entered Wadi Nisnas, a neighborhood in lower Haifa steeped in the atmosphere of a 19th-century Arab village.

My friend Chaya and I were looking for the open-air market. No sign of vendors or stalls, although colorful murals with a nostalgic feeling decorated the street walls.

Did these two boys live in this house?

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Look carefully and you’ll see, behind the shutters, the pale oval of a woman’s face as she gazes down at the street life below. image-mural-wadi-nisnasThe couple below are a little girl and a man. I wonder if they were the artist and her Dad.
DSC_1123 muralWe climbed up a little alley and knew we were getting close to the shuk when we smelled the mellow odor of roasting coffee drifting around.
At Cafe Haifa, a truly ancient roaster produces several blends of coffee. Cranky and decrepit the roaster may be, but the smell of freshly roasted and ground coffee was head-filling and delicious.
image-coffee-roasterThe owner hasn’t wearied of his own product.
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Cafe Haifa is one of the stops along “The Tastes Track,” a yearly culinary festival promoting intercultural exchange and peaceful co-existence in Haifa.

As expressed in this hopeful mural decorating the ceiling of a bakery. DSC_1145

Every Friday and Saturday in December, Wadi Nisnas bursts into festival. There’s the Tastes Track, a big arts festival (the street murals were originally created for the festival) , street performances and concerts. Apparently the streets fill with visitors and a good time is had by all.

But on that fresh June morning, we found a couple of quiet streets,

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and sleepy vendors.
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Fruit and vegetables of early summer.
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Prices were about the same as in my local shuk in Petach Tikvah, but there was some produce that my shuk doesn’t have – like fresh grape leaves.That excited me. Mushrooms baked in vine leaves (recipe here)! Fish baked in vine leaves! Vine leaves stuffed with cheese! Stuffed with rice! Oh boy… I filled up a bag and paid all of NIS12.

A shopping cart heaped high with some herb caught my eye.
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I couldn’t identify it. The vendor told me it was fresh green chickpeas on the stem and to go ahead and eat one. I peeled one and did. The taste is like raw sweet peas.
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I considered bringing some home, but the thought of carrying all that herbage in my arms, on buses, for 2 hours across the country, defeated me.

I wonder what these two ladies were chatting about. Something pleasant, it looks like.  They looked so content.
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Chaya and I kept sticking our heads into the shops. I sensed a certain forced tolerance in the shop owners, rather than the friendliness and humor I’ve found in other shuks. Still, this bakery allowed me to squeeze in and watch the pitot plopping out of the oven.
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One of the things I like about the Middle East is how people like to celebrate times and people gone by. A reproduction of an ancient photo showing an Arab woman winnowing grain. The photo of the baker’s father, maybe the founder of the business.

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I loved the look of these home-made pickles.
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This store also carries small zucchini, all hollowed out for filling with rice and ground lamb. You buy them by the bagful. Things to charm the eye and waken the appetite, although nothing for the kosher-keeper, of course. Yet…

Chaya and I spent several long minutes in the store, looking at things on the shelves and taking pictures. Nobody appeared to help us. It seemed that the owners were in the back of the store, doubtless watching us via surveillance camera.

A TV near the cash register was showing a program in Arabic with English subtitles. The narrator spoke of how Israel fills its citizens with anti-Arab propaganda. The hatred in his voice was palpable. Chilling for me, but for Chaya especially, sad.

Chaya meets with Muslim and Druze women every week in a moderated setting. They exchange life stories, seek to understand each other, hopefully encourage the germ of peace to take root. Over time, real friendships have formed among them. I hear Chaya’s stories and only shake my head…G-d knows how much we all want peace.

And how I would love to sit among the women of those cultures, talking family, talking food, talking life.

Women’s lives.

Well, maybe someday.

In the meantime, we walked on. In other stores, a display of beautiful multi-sized finjan pots caught my eye.
image-coffe-finjansAs did the exotic labels of Arak bottles.
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The Abdel Hadi bakery almost blew me away.
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Just imagine being a kid in this store – miles of the most delicious-smelling pastries! Every possible variety of baklawa and cookie, each with its own name and origin.

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If any of them had been kosher, I would have gladly bought. If I could have chosen from the bewildering variety.
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Oy. Just as well for my health, not to say my girth, that none of it was kosher.
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And so we slipped out of Wadi Nisnas, each pondering life, and calories, and should we all trust each other, and things like that.

The afternoon was waning into evening and there was a long bus trip ahead for each. We parted at the central bus station, Chaya to Tsfat and I to Petach Tikvah. I sat by the window on the bus and looked at the ocean as we rolled away from Haifa.

Wadi Nisnas.

Such a tiny neighborhood, containing so much living history. Will its history end in real peace?

I hope so.

May 032011
 

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It took a long time to get over Passover this year. Non-stop cooking and washing-up, it seemed, and once the kitchen was restored to its leavened state, food lost its appeal. Easy soups and sandwiches have been keeping body and soul together around here for the past two weeks.

Except that Husband and The Little One would have left the house, never to return, had I gone on feeding them sandwiches and soup. So to find inspiration, I took my first post-Passover trip to the shuk. Continue reading »

Dec 152010
 

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Long ago and far away, a friend and I would drive up to the Meron hills and pick olives from abandoned trees there. But since moving to the center of the country, I buy raw olives in the shuk. Any shuk. This past September, it was the Ramleh shuk.

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It’s a long process, curing olives, but not a lot of work. The first thing you have to do is find yourself a good rock.  A rock with a good heft, one that the hand closes around comfortably.

It’s for cracking the olives. I found a likely one in a field near my building and brought it home to wash. It looks like a loaf of sourdough bread, but it’s a rock, and it crushes my olives fine. (The white bloom on it appeared after I poured boiling water over it and then rinsed it with vinegar).

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My usual recipe calls for simply packing the olives in brine, but I was curious to try Sarah Melamed’s method with vinegar, so that’s what I did. The result was a little too vinegary for my taste, but after a second brining with fresh herbs, the olives, with only a hint of vinegar, the olives were a savory treat.

You’ll only need a big jar and water the first week. So get yourself a clean rock and a kilo or two of raw green olives to start. Look for signs of ripening among the olives you buy – some will have turned darker.

Rinse the olives and drain. Discard any spoiled ones. Crush them with your handy-dandy rock, a few at a time, and put them in the jar.  Some will escape and fly around the kitchen, of course, but just pick ‘em up, rinse again, and keep going. Take it easy, though – the weight of the rock should be enough to just crack the olives, not smash them to bits.

Actually, you don’t have to do the rock thing. If you have a meat-tenderizing mallet, that’ll work fine.

Cover the fruit with water. Make sure there are none floating – weigh them down with a small saucer or drape plastic wrap over the surface of the water to keep them under. Change the water every 24 hours. Do this for a week.

The olives will lose their bright color and take on a drabber, khaki shade. This is good – it means that their bitterness is leaching out. When the olives are uniformly darker, taste them to judge if they’re ready for brining. If they’re still bitter, soak them and change the water for another few days.

Once the olives are ready, drain them and put them in a large bowl while washing out their jar. Make a brine. This is:

10 grams of salt for every 100 ml. of water or  7 tablespoons of salt per half-cup of water.

For every 4 cups of brine, add 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar. Mix well.

Replace the olives in the clean jar. Pour the salt/vinegar brine over all. Add 1 sliced lemon or lime,  hot red peppers,  garlic cloves, sprigs of rosemary or thyme, black pepper, bay leaves, allspice, or grape leaves – to taste and depending on what you have in your kitchen at the time.

Cover the olives with plenty of olive oil to exclude air and prevent spoilage. Close the jar. Leave it alone for a month, then taste an olive every week or so till you’re satisfied. For me, it took 8 weeks. If you like them the way they are, serve them as is. If, like me, you prefer a salty taste to vinegar, drain them, make a new brine as above without the vinegar, and put them back in the jar with fresh herbs and a new layer of olive oil to cover them. After a week or two, they’ll be ready, and just keep improving over time.

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Keep your olives in a cool, dry place.  How to serve them?

  • Eat them alone, as a nosh or appetizer.  A little fresh, chopped parsley, cilantro, or basil, mixed into the bowl of olives you intend to eat right away, is a very nice thing. Or:
  • Chop some into dishes that use chopped meat, like picadillo, meat loaf, or hamburgers
  • Add whole olives to braised chicken 10 minutes before serving
  • Or to potatoes
  • Or  to rice
  • Or add some chopped to an omelet…the world is yours with these olives.

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Jul 272010
 

Many of my photos I’ve kept in my archives, thinking I’d post them here someday. Some involve stories I’m not at liberty to tell. Some evoke a mood that lives, I guess, in my mind alone. But many are of plain, human faces caught in moments of humor, irritation, thought. The unconscious dignity of labor – smiles layered over sorrow – a challenging gaze behind a coffee cup. I want to share some of these photographs – these people, with you.  Now I’ll tell you some of the stories behind them.

The Disgruntled One. I was taking pictures of my daughter and her friend in the Yaffo flea market. They were standing next to this guy, who possibly thought that I couldn’t resist taking one of him. Look at his hand. He was spoiling for a few sharp words. But he relaxed when he saw I was interested in my teenagers, not him. Only later did I see he still got in the photo.

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On the other hand, these two ladies didn’t mind at all. Aren’t they cute? Just two friends, one brunette and one blond, relaxing oh the sidewalk. On antique chairs meant to be sold, but never mind.

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Still in Yaffo, cooking shakshoukah at Dr. Shakshuka’s.

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The Lilac Lady. I wonder what event she was all dressed up for. A grandson’s bar-mitzvah? A wedding? Or does it take her fancy to dress like that every day, because she’s old enough to do what she dern well pleases?

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I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Do people still fall for this ancient scam? It’s a variation on the shell game, which has gulled the naive (and the greedy) into parting with their money for centuries.

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This elderly Russian lady must have intense stories to tell, but we couldn’t talk because she spoke only Russian and Yiddish. She was selling chocolate rum balls she’d rolled up at home – koosher, she assured me. I paid whatever she asked for them, my heart squeezing in my chest. I hope she has someone to go home to at night, and that they love each other.

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The lively Greek music coming from this Levontin Street bar caught my attention. Then I saw the guys sitting and having a little arak together there, and I really had to snap. They were amused at my interest and at my American accent – probably figured me for a tourist – and allowed me to.

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I like to see friends together.

The organic market at the renovated Tel Aviv train station. This guy gave me such a knowing smile from behind his lettuces that I got embarrassed. Well, his dreads are cute.

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I bought hot fresh chickpeas from this man on one of my trips through Shuk Mahaneh Yehudah in Jerusalem. Did I seem impatient to him? He’s giving me the classic Israeli signal for “wait a second” – tips of fingers bunched together and the wrist turned.

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Far from the shuk’s bustle and noise, chef Moshe Basson shows how to make fresh za’atar pesto. I admire Moshe for his dedication to native foods and traditional Israeli cuisine, and for his partnership in Chefs for Peace. I guess if I have a food hero, he’s it.

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What do you see in this man’s smile?

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He’s a butcher in Shuk Ha Carmel, Tel Aviv. He’d come to shoot the breeze with the lady below. They’re childhood friends, he said. He scolded her for smoking. She heard him out tolerantly.

Then she said, in a hoarse, cracked voice: “He worries because I just finished a round of chemotherapy.”

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A fast-food stand in the Shuk Ha Carmel: two brothers sell majadra, soup, and salads. I couldn’t find a good angle for the food photos, so I snapped one of the brothers.

image-shuk-ha-carmelThis drink of coffee covers his thoughts up, but doesn’t hide the challenge in his eyes, or his tough stance.

I know that many market vendors suspect photographers of working for the income tax authorities. I’ve given up trying to explain that I’m just a Jewish matron and a food blogger. Eventually they just trust (sometimes my American accent works in my favor).

This is a Tsfat photo. Yaacov sits outside an electrical appliance store, selling blue bead bracelets against the Evil Eye. When you buy, he gives you a sure-fire blessing that’s guaranteed to fix you up in life. But – you must be proactive. Yaacov will tell you which Psalms to say, and at what time of day, because you must do your part too.

image-elderly-man-Israel

No pictures of kids…I have many, but feel tender about exposing their little faces on the Internet. More men than women – that’s natural, since there are more men vendors in the shuk and on the street. And some of my favorite shots stayed in the archives. Well, it’s a long enough post for right now. Sometime I’ll show you the best of the rest.

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