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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Feb 142010

Chef Moshe Basson, a quiet-spoken middle-aged man with skinny braid falling over his shoulder, took up a bunch of silver-grey leaves leaves and put them in a food processor. I was watching, along with about thirty others, at a Biblical cooking class in Eucalyptus, Basson’s Jerusalem restaurant.

Za’atar pesto. Why not?

Dried za’atar as the main ingredient in an oily dip, yes. Crumbled and sprinkled over pizza or roast chicken  – all the time. But now I know I can make pesto from the fresh leaves with the juice still in them.

This is really a seasonal pesto, because fresh za’atar is available only for a few weeks. That’s now, towards the end of winter in the Middle East.

The next time I was in the shuk, I went from stand to stand looking for za’atar. No vendor had the familiar small round, light-green herb, but one picked a bunch of dark, spiky leaves out of a heap and  bruised a few to release the odor. It smelled strongly of za’atar.

Consulting with chef Basson by phone, I learned that it’s winter savory – in Hebrew, tsatrah. He says that it’s part of the thyme family, as is za’atar. I decided to make the pesto as I’d seen him make it. I didn’t know what else to do with the leaves except hang them up to dry.

My notes from the cooking event weren’t exact, so I improvised the recipe out of the basic procedure I’d scribbled down. It took about 5 minutes to make, including toasting almonds, washing and drying the za’atar leaves, and peeling  garlic. This pesto has the unmistakable taste of the Middle East in it.

Za’atar Pesto


1 cup blanched almonds

2 cups fresh za’atar or winter savory leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sumac powder

3 garlic cloves

1 cup olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice


1. Quickly toast the almonds in a dry frying pan. This should take only two minutes. Shake the pan a few times to distribute the almonds. Take it off the flame when they release a nutty, toasted aroma.

2. Rinse the za’atar leaves. Path them dry.

3. Into the food processor, put the almonds. Whizz them for half a minute.

4. Add the za’atar leaves. Process again for a minute.

5. Add the remaining ingredients and process till you have a rough sauce.

Recommended: spread some of this chunky, pungent pesto on slices of toasted baguette; top with feta cheese and put the slices into the oven so that the cheese melts.

Jul 232009

Israelis love eggplant. We”ve been eating it fried, pickled, grilled, flame-roasted, creamed, combined with all kinds of vegetables and flavorings and eggs – since the austerity years of the 1950s. Meat was expensive and scarce, but eggplant grew easily here and there was always lots of it. Cooks in those hard times found or invented many recipes featuring the meaty, versatile eggplant.  We borrowed from the Arab cuisine, re-invented Eastern European eggplant specialties, developed recipes of our own. It’s still a star vegetable in Israel.

I’ve eaten eggplant every which way, but had never tasted eggplant soup. A recipe in the Jerusalem Post (May 1, 2009) intrigued me, and I cooked it for my birthday dinner. It’s aromatic with basil, oregano, and garlic – creamy yet a little chunky with pine nuts from pesto. Folks loved it. Since then, I’ve discovered a number of eggplant soup recipes, all involving garlic, plenty of herbs, and cream or cheese. It’s a fine vegetarian dish.

Here’s my adaptation of the one I found in the Post. The original calls for vegetable soup powder, but I don’t keep that around. The first time I made the soup, I simmered up a quick vegetable stock, using the vegetables on hand.  2 carrots, an orange bell pepper, 2 celery stalks, , 1 sliced onion, a zuke, a tomato, a bay leaf, 1/4 tsp. dried thyme, and a couple of cloves of  garlic.

The second time, I happened to have a basket of mushrooms that needed cooking, so I substituted their taste for that of the stock and used water. Both versions are delicious, but the mushroom one is faster.

Eggplant Soup

serves 6


2 medium-sized eggplants
Olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
8 cups – 2 liters vegetable stock
1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms and 8 cups water
2 Tblsp. chopped fresh basil
1 Tblsp. chopped fresh thyme, or 1/2 Tbslp. dried. Oregano may be substituted for the thyme.
Salt and pepper to taste
Light cream, sour cream, or yoghurt
6 Tblsp. prepared pesto


1. Stand each eggplant on its side and cut it in half.
2. Cut a cross-hatch pattern into the flesh, deeply.
3. Drizzle a little olive oil over the cut eggplant halves.
4. Grill for 20 minutes or until the eggplant is brown, soft, and separating into cubes.
5. With a spoon, scrape the flesh off the skin. Chop the flesh coarsely and put it aside.
6. Heat 3 Tblsp. olive oil in a large pot, over medium heat . Saute the onions and garlic in it for 8 minutes. If using fresh mushrooms, add them now too. If you wish, keep 1/4 cup of mushroom slivers to add to the soup about 5 minutes before serving.
7. When the onions are golden and the mushrooms are starting to release juice, add the stock (or water) and eggplant. Bring everything up to a boil.
8. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer the soup for 10 minutes.
9. Add basil,thyme, salt and pepper. Cook another 2 minutes.

10. With a slotted spoon or mesh spatula, lift the solids out of the pot. Keep the hot soup aside.
11. Blend the solids in a food processor or blender till smooth.
12. Return the puree to the hot liquid and reheat to a simmer. Now the soup is ready.
13. Put 1 Tblsp. sour cream or yoghurt into each bowl, or drizzle a little whipping cream in.

Top with 1/2 Tblsp. pesto each.

Serve the soup with cornbread or queijadinhas or bruschetta and follow it with a salad.

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