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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 Posted by at 11:28 PM
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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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.

image iraqi cheese

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
May 132013

Shavuot whipped cheese mousse

Rich, yet light, with just the right touch of fruit to make a festive Shavuot dessert.

Even after a rich dairy meal, the gang wants a dairy dessert. And who am I to say nay? I’m a sucker for anything white and creamy, myself. Like the apricot swirl cheesecake I concocted a couple of years ago.

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Apr 132013


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.

image green garlic ramleh market

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.

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Mar 242013

image spicy moroccan fish balls

I kind of want to call this Sephardic gefilte fish.

Looking for a Passover  fish recipe and a little bored with my usual ones, I was glad to find this  in last December’s Al HaShulchan magazine. I modified it to include somewhat less chili.  The tender, juicy morsels are cooked in a soupy sauce, sort of like gefilte fish, but Eastern Europe never knew the olive oil, garlic and chili that give this dish its huge flavor kick. Not to mention plenty of cilantro – you’ll need a bunch and a half.

And it’s entirely kosher for Passover. The Little One liked it so much, she asked me to cook it for the Seder. Happy to oblige, darlin’ daughter.

In the meantime, let me wish you a happy and a kosher Passover, reader. This year in Jerusalem!

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Mar 092013

image eggplant stuffed with lamb

Succulent lamb on a bed of tender eggplant, generously spiced and sprinkled with pine nuts.

I served this aromatic, meaty dish with white rice on the side, just something rather plain, so as not to clash with the big, Middle Eastern flavors. With a leafy salad of mixed greens, we had a feast. And I’m thinking it would work really well on Passover week, when guests come from out of town and I’ll want to make something special.

It is a dish apart. I felt lucky to have discovered it in a new cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s  Jerusalem, A Cookbook. I hadn’t tried any of the recipes yet, just flipped through the pages, admiring the gorgeous photographs.

Then I remembered. In the fridge was lurking this enormous eggplant.

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Mar 012013

plain beans with shmaltz

Got a bagga beans?

In my mixed-heritage kitchen (Sephardic/Ashkenazic/Latin/Israeli/American – did I leave anyone out?) – well, in my kitchen, beans are cooked with plenty of herbs and spices. Black beans, white beans, red beans, all kinds of beans. But a recipe that my friend Varda Eptstein recently gave me captured my imagination: beans, plain and simple.

Well, it’s a bit more subtle than it sounds. The recipe involves shmaltz. The staple fat in Ashkenazi homes for centuries, shmaltz fell out of favor when vegetable oils became more easily available. Vegetable oils, you buy and pour out of a bottle. No worries about cholesterol if it’s good olive oil. Shmaltz, you have to render, flavor with onions, strain…more work.

But how sweet it is. There’s no flavor to beat that of shmaltz. The days are gone when busy mothers would hand their little ones slices of bread spread with a glistening layer of it, but we moderns still enjoy a light flavoring of shmaltz in many dishes. Just use it in moderation.

All the natural meatiness of beans comes out in this dish, making them savory in a heimisch – homely – way. I had a bag of frozen kidney beans that needed using up before Passover, so that’s what I cooked, and they turned out very well. The whole thing took about 10 minutes from start to finish. I’m going to serve these beans on Shabbat, resisting the temptation to add them to a  cholent or anything else.

Just beans, pure and simple. Really good.

Thank you, Varda!

(My notes follow after)


Plain Beans from Varda Epstein

Yes, I’m a foodie. But I’m not interested in trying new and unusual recipes. I like plain food that is true to its earliest ancestor.

But since I’m of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and enjoy family research, I have melded these two interests in the form of recreating authentic Ashkenazi recipes. This is the kind of food that weighs you down and makes you groan. But hey! We only live once. I definitely don’t want to have lived without enjoying my favorite foods.

Here’s an example of a simple recipe my mother once described to me. Lithuanian Jews don’t generally use much sugar in their cuisine, so this recipe is kind of an anomaly. Still, you can see why this recipe was popular for the plainness of its ingredients, for its simplicity and for its cost effectiveness. It’s also a stick-to-the ribs kind of dish and probably kept a lot of Litvaks warm in those dreadful Eastern European winters.

 When I finally reveal the ingredients, you are going to have a bit of a shock and may doubt that this is a dish worth trying, but I have to say it’s absolutely scrumptious.


 The ingredients are:

  Dried lima beans–cooked until slightly mushy

 Chicken fat (schmaltz

 Salt, pepper, and a bit of sugar.

 That’s all. It’s unctuous. It’s sublime. You will have to try it to find out. Believe me, this is authentic, plain food at its absolute best. I dare you to try it. You’ll swoon with pleasure.

My measurement notes:

  • 3 cups of frozen kidney beans, cooked 8 minutes in plenty of boiling water, then drained.
  • 1 tablespoon shmaltz
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • salt and pepper to taste.
  • Mix gently and serve hot.

Varda Epstein is mother to 12 children,  food blogger for The Times of Israel, and communications writer at Kars4Kids.

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