Jan 052014
 

jar of tahini

Before I moved to Israel, I didn’t know much about techinah. That is, tahini.

In Israel, if you say “tahini” people will look at you funny. It’s “techinah” or “tekhinah” – with that gutteral ch (or kh).

But I’d heard plenty about the fabulous Israeli street food, falafel. Almost as soon as my plane landed, I headed for a falafel stand and ordered a pita full of those hot, spicy chickpea balls and chopped salad. My more experienced friends encouraged me to drizzle the beige, bland-looking sauce all over the falafel. It didn’t look tempting, but I was willing to try it. I picked up a plastic bottle full of it and gave a good squeeze.

Open sesame! I discovered that  techina’s moist texture complemented the fried falafel and the flavor, between nutty and lemony, perked up the juicy vegetables.

Here’s a techinah bottle like the one I squeezed for that very first falafel. It’s standing next to one of amba, a pungent mango curry. Techinah’s far more popular than amba, as you see. And here’s my post about neighborhood falafel stands.

techina and amba squeeze bottles

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Dec 082013
 

barley risotto w spoon

Barley is such a winterish grain. It’s hearty and comfortingly chewy/soft, good in soup and cholent. But barley sometimes shows in a surprisingly versatile light. Who ever thought of making risotto from barley?

More than possible, it’s delicious, and right for eating when you come in from a cold, grey day, and you’ve been fighting gusts of wind that turn your umbrella inside out, and your darned boots let puddles seep in, and grouchy people on the bus make you dislike humanity, and you just want to be home and dry.

And full.

Whew! Will barley take care of all those woes? Actually, yes, if you will it so. Neither stock nor toasted nuts take much work, so it’s worth making them the day before to have at the ready.

Being bland, barley begs for some buttressing. Or did I mean, butter? Or sharper tastes, like wine, onion, lemon, cheese?

Yes, to all of the above. Welcome to barley risotto.

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Nov 052013
 

image olive harvest galilee

The Israel Olive Branch Festival occurs in October-November each year and extends from the Negev to the Galilee. I joined a tour to one of the Druze festival sites in the Upper Galilee, hoping to bring some olives home to pickle, and remembering how long I ago I picked olives on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu.

… I was very new in Israel then. In fact, I got off the plane and went straight to the kibbutz to join the Ulpan program, where I worked in the fields in the mornings, and studied Hebrew in the afternoons. I learned enough Hebrew to get by. Picked up all kinds of other information too, like on the first day we students went olive harvesting.

At the ghastly hour of 6:30 a.m., we climbed onto the back of a rusty old truck and bumped over dusty fields in the growing light, stopping at the olive orchards.  I stood and looked at the trees laden with green and purple fruit. How do you pick the fruit, I asked the dour kibbutznik in charge. I meant, one by one, with your fingers, or how?

He said impatiently, “It’s just like milking a cow.”He made a gesture of pulling his fist downwards.

Oh, er, right. I’d just come from urban Caracas and Rio de Janeiro, and had no idea how to milk a cow. Or a sheep. Or a nanny goat, for that matter.

But I learned. That is, I learned to pick olives. And the feeling of plump olives against the palm of my hand, and the scrape of the wood as the olives come away from the twig, stays with me. So partly from nostalgia, and partly because I love everything about olive trees, I jumped at the chance to travel north and stand in the soft blue light between olive trees again. Continue reading »

Oct 182013
 

image roasted vegetables polenta

The radio was burbling a nice mix of easy-going blues and jazz. The DJ introduced “Stormy Weather” and right before the song started,  I was startled to hear him murmur, “Just let the rain come, already.”

A secular prayer.

The radio forecast says it’ll rain soon – yes, please God. I know that in other countries, the rain has been no blessing these past months. But here, we pray that rain should come, each in his own way.

Still,  this cool, sunny weather has its pleasures. Before winter arrives and makes shopping a wet chore, the shuk is where I like to linger. The vendors are as strident as ever, but the shoppers, like me, seem more relaxed and in less of rush.

image shuk Israel

See that banner, high up in the back? It advertises a little eatery called “Mother’s Kitchen.” I dunno…my late Dad always joked, Never eat at a place called “Mom’s.”

There’s a new flower vendor, who set up his table smack in the middle of the road. Nobody complains that he makes foot traffic divide into two streams. Here he is, greeting a friend.

flower vendor Israel

The vegetables are as plump and succulent as though it had rained all week. Broccoli and cauliflower that looked desolate a few weeks ago,  hold up firm, full heads. Tables are piled with grapes of all grapey colors.

image grape bunches

Tomatoes are still reasonably priced and onions are tempting and round in their silky yellow peels.
image onion

Which they weren’t, when it was really hot and all we got were wizened little onion sprouts with damp black skins.

I always overbuy at the shuk, loading my wheeled cart (my little-old-lady-cart, my kids call it) – past capacity. Who can resist the seductive eggplants, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, zucchini? And when I’ve pushed open my door and hauled my cart inside, I unload inspiration for dinner.

This is dinner, then: roasted winter vegetables sitting snugly on a bed of savory, cheesefull, hot polenta. It’s a relaxed, easy recipe that accepts almost any firm vegetable and satisfies your hungers for food and deliciousness.

Roasted Vegetables On A Bed Of Polenta

4 servings

Ingredients:

4 cups mixed vegetables – see suggestions below

3 tablespoons chopped herbs: basil, oregano, rosemary or 1 tablespoon dried spices

1 teaspoon salt

Black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 recipe polenta (link below)

1/2 cup grated hard cheese

You start with four cups of your favorite vegetables. Use at least four, if not seven or eight kinds. Make sure to include tomatoes and onions, that’s the only thing I ask. Throw a couple of peeled garlic cloves into the mix, if you like. You see that here, it was eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, celery, onions, and zucchini. Not visible is the garlic. There was garlic in there. Because if deprived of garlic for a day, I go all over funny.

roasted vegetables

And you chop up herbs of choice to make up about 3 tablespoons when chopped up.

image container herbs

This time, I went to my balcony containers and snipped rosemary, sage, garlic chives, nettles and a little za’atar. It could have been only one of those, or different ones entirely.

 image chopped herbs

If there are no fresh herbs on hand, combine 1 teaspoon each of the dried spices you favor. I suggest cumin, oregano, a touch of allspice if you have it. Forget not the salt. Also forget not the black pepper and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Combine the herbs (or spices) with seasonings and olive oil in a large bowl, then toss the chopped vegetables in this herby, spicy, oily mix.

Roast at 375° F – 200° C for 20 minutes, stirring once during that time. Then check for doneness. If needed, roast another 10-15 minutes.
image roasted winter vegetables

While the vegetables are roasting, prepare the polenta – recipe here. It takes about 7 seven minutes. And grate about 1/2 cup of Parmesan or Pecorino or Thom cheese into a bowl, to top the finished dish. Use any cheese you like, really. (I told you this was a relaxed dish.) Serve with beer or white wine, and then you’ll certainly relax. Enjoy!

Sep 222013
 

spaghetti with walnuts

Light lunches are the way to go on Succot. At least, in my kitchen. One reason is, the family can’t sustain a rich festive meal followed by just such another in this year’s holiday-followed-by-Shabbat round. Another is that evenings are when the family’s together and hungriest. Vegetables soups, quiches, salads and pasta satisfy mid-day hunger just fine when a large dinner’s expected later.

A leafy salad is all you need to follow this rich pasta. Leftover herbed crumbs, you can throw into your next omelet or salad,  or on top of soup. Good crunchiness.

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Aug 212013
 

image sinyeh druze kebabs

The Middle-Eastern way in cooking is to use simple, natural ingredients grown (or raised) close to where the cook lives. And in the village communities of the Galilee, traditional recipes – the ones passed down intact from mother to daughter, from one neighbor to another, over centuries – are cooked the same way each time.

You won’t see fusion cooking or dishes jazzed up to suit modern trends in Arab, Druze, or Circassian village homes. The families would simply refuse to eat them. That’s not how they remember their mother’s food. Memories preserve culture, so we’re grateful for those stubborn husbands and kids that resist innovative cooking. Original recipes would get lost otherwise.

With Rosh HaShanah approaching, you might consider cooking Sinyeh for one of the festive meals. It’s rich but not cloying, and almost a complete meal by itself. Just make a simple rice, mix up a leafy salad, and there, you’re done. A traditional dish borrowed from the Druze might become a welcome innovation on your yom tov menu.

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Aug 122013
 

kosher Druze lamb kebabs

I travel to the north several times a year. As the bus rolls up the country, I’ve looked at the Arab and Druze villages covering the Galilee hills and wondered about the people; how they live, what they eat. It looks rural and Arabic, it has an atmosphere of a by-gone day, but I know that the larger towns have community centers, clinics and regional schools.

There is open and free travel to anywhere. All the same, I get the impression that village people tend to stay where they are, especially the women. It’s the men who move around for business purposes, or with the Druze, to serve in the army.

As my cooking has grown to reflect Middle-Eastern flavors,  I’ve come to appreciate regional Arabic foods. But most of my exposure to these foods has come from fabulous cookbooks like those of Claudia Rodin or Yotam Ottolenghi, or from meals featuring ethnic cuisine at kosher restaurants. I never expected to walk safely in a Druze or Arab village, much less to cook and eat in one. But a few weeks ago, I did.

image druze street

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Jul 302013
 

fresh corn fritters recipe

I’d overbought at the shuk, which I always do when some seasonal delicacy beckons me over to the stall and whispers, “Buy me, buy me, cook me!”

Oh, the stacks of ridged heirloom eggplants, the fat tomatoes at their scarlet peak, the excitingly fragrant, yellow mangoes. White peaches dripping with juice. But what drew me strongest were piled-up ears of yellow corn still modestly dressed in their pale green husks.

Israeli corn has become far more tender and sweet than it used to be. Twenty years ago, a visiting relative took a bite out of a boiled ear of corn and said, “Horse corn!” She put it down in disgust. To those who are used to corn that spurts milk when you put the knife to it, it was tough, dry, and flavorless.

But that’s changed, and local corn now tastes like that of my childhood summers and backyard barbeques in Michigan. I’d roll a hot ear of corn on a paper plate smeared with butter and salt, then bite into the steaming flesh and taste the salt and butter over corn sweetness.  And more good news about Israeli corn: organic farmers assure me that it isn’t genetically modified.

It simply remains for me to modify my appetite for sweet fresh corn.

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Jul 122013
 

salmon and potato casserole

It’s the middle of the Nine Days that culminate in the fast of Tisha B’Av. Discounting Shabbat meals and the fast itself, that’s six days of no meat or chicken. A week of meatless days on the Jewish calendar means lots of fish, like red mullet in chermoulah and grains. More vegetables than usual. More eggs in creative ways, and er, well, more fish.

Yesterday I was shopping in a hurry. The family was going to need dinner in about an hour, but I was in the middle of a project that needed all my attention. I didn’t want to spend lots of time chopping, stirring, and hovering obsessively over the stove as I usually do.

What, oh what would dinner be?

A package of salmon fillets caught my eye as I trundled past with my shopping cart – I snatched it up, thinking, salmon cooks quickly and everyone likes it.

Back home, a damp, chilly package of salmon fillets thawing out on the kitchen counter.  Me, suddenly empty of ideas, looking around the kitchen. My cookware said: put it in a clay pot and let the oven do the work.

My pots and pans often provide the answer to What’s For Dinner. There’s more on my theory of Pot/Food-Vision Syndrome on this post. Which happens to be a recipe for spicy brown beans, also appropriate for the Nine Days.

But back to dinner, and the salmon. I couldn’t cook the salmon just bare. There had to be potatoes and onions and herbs and tomatoes, at least. And plenty of lemon. So this is what I did.

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Jun 072013
 

image cherry tomato dip

Is it too early too talk about tomatoes?

They’re already so good and abundant in the markets. I still had quite a few left over from the kilo I bought in the shuk a few days before.  I was thinking of a dip or spread for basil bread that I was going to take to a little get-together later on. Like, a tomato pesto.

And there were all these sweet, plum cherry tomatoes on my counter. It was easy to imagine roasting, then blending them. Adding almonds to thicken the puree. Herbs, too, and naturally, olive oil. Yes.

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