The winter rainy season has left the usually parched, brown Israeli landscape lush and verdant. From the desert in the South to the mountains in the North, the land is full of bright flowers: wild white and purple Irises, bright red poppies, thick yellow mustards and thousands of other species of flora. It’s the perfect time for hiking. The weather is not too cold and not overpoweringly hot. And the fresh country and mountain air is thick with the scent of flowers and herbs. Last year this time I used to see this, but had no idea what it was all about: both early in the morning and late afternoon I would see groups of mostly Bedouin and Druze ladies carrying large baskets and blankets. They are stooped over in the fields doing something, but what??? Gathering food!!!! Freshly picked wild edibles.
I have since found out that it is not just the local Arabs in the Galilee that go harvesting. It is a popular “sport” country wide. An Israeli woman in the Judea foothills on the outskirts of Jerusalem teaches classes on foraging and cooking from the fields and forests. There are places one can go in the Arava. And classes throughout the country that are given on this subject. There is even a local restaurant I’ve heard of in the town of Rame where the owners take you foraging before you go back to enjoy the meal! I was fortunate enough to have an Israeli friend invite me to a class one Friday morning in the Upper Hula Valley near the Lebanese border. Surprisingly, there was a group of 25 people who had traveled from various parts of Israel to take one of Lilach’s classes, because she is that well-recognized in the area.
We met at 8am, on a bright, sunny day. The class was entirely in Hebrew, so it was a bit of a challenge for me, not only because it was a new subject, but because many of the plant names that I knew in America were called by entirely different names in Hebrew (I have taken several of these types of classes with “Tracker” Rob Remedi in the Santa Monica Mountains). Our Israeli group learned to identify so many plants – wild asparagus, wild celery, mallows, nettles (completely different from the California varieties), lettuces, lily pads, edible grasses, mustard, arugula, dandelion. There were several varieties of mushroom – I’m so glad Lilach is an expert, as this is something I shy away from. We had a lovely selection of tree nuts and a large number of fresh herbs- dill, parsley, sage, thyme, mint, and many other delicacies. We were allowed to pick quite a nice amount from a wide area within a couple mile (4 km) radius.
Whole families came out. Several of the adults brought along their young children as an addition to our group. Their eyes were sharp and their energy was high, so it was great just to watch them playing and foraging in the fields and forests. By mid to late morning we were ready to head to our designated ‘campsite’ to learn how to prepare and cook what we had gathered. A nice campfire of surrounding Eucalyptus wood was made. My it was fragrant, but not overly pungent like the California species. We set to work sorting with Lilach explaining how we were to use each plant in our new recipes. Leaves were washed, some were cut, others used whole. The dandelions, and lily pads were cooked down with lemon juice (we had picked many varieties of citrus) and salt. Other greens made salads. Some of the mushrooms and nuts were chopped, herbs added, and then they were rolled into what appeared to be grape leaves, and cooked over the fire. We made our own pita using flour, salt, water, a a bit of olive oil – some things were brought by our instructor. The dough was patted out into cakes and cooked on a convex steel pan over the fire. My friend, Ora, took handfuls of pecans, wrapped them in a cloth napkin and crushed them using rocks. We added snipped fennel fronds, and some chopped dates (brought, not found), and rolled the concoction into truffle balls for dessert.
Everyone had a fabulous time, and most of the food really was quite tasty. I’m not sure if it was the exercise, being out in the open, the smells, or the novelty of much of our creations, but I was pleasantly surprised at the abundance of wild food and the assortment of ways in which it could be prepared satisfyingly. We finished up before two, which left ample time to travel back home and prepare for Sabbath. I took home a nice amount of wild celery, asparagus, green onions and a few mushrooms to use in our dinner at home. Hopefully, I will be able to go out with Lilach again later in the season to see what grows closer to summer.
When available at the grocery store or markets here in Israel, asparagus is a luxury I cannot afford. It runs the equivalent of about $6.00-$8.00 for a small bunch. Needless to say, I have not eaten asparagus in over two years – and its one of our favorites. So, when I returned home, I was able to make a nice pan of roasted asparagus – wash, lay flat on a roasting pan, drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) over, and add some sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast in a 200*C/425*F oven for about 10 minutes, watching so it doesn’t burn. You can also add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice once they come out.
For our Shabbat dinner, we also enjoyed a lovely asparagus soup, along with a wild salad, and some rice with fresh picked mushrooms, leeks, and herbs. I added two whole grain Challah breads I’d picked up on the way home, and a bottle of wine and we had a feast.
ASPARAGUS SOUP (parve) serves 4
- 1/2 kg (1 lb) asparagus
- 1 large leek, white part only or a small bunch green onions
- 1 cup white mushrooms (I used foraged, but do not recommend unless you are an expert)
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 3 cups veggie stock (broth)
- 2 tbsp EVOO (olive oil)
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper)
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- (optional) 1 cup milk or 1/2 cup cream (if you want dairy/halavi)
Preheat oven to 200*C/425*F. Thoroughly wash asparagus and onions and cut into small pieces. Place on foil-lined jelly roll pan and sprinkle liberally with the EVOO, salt & pepper. Roast 10 minutes, watching that it doesn’t burn. In the meantime, slice up cleaned mushrooms. Pour broth into large pot and add the shrooms and chopped parsley. Heat on medium high heat, but do not allow to boil. When the asparagus comes out of the oven, let cool a few moments, then add the asparagus and onion pieces to the broth. Let cook for about 20 minutes, then blend all together with an immersion blender until silky smooth and glistening. Add thyme, salt and pepper to taste. If desired, you can add 1 cup of milk or 1/2 cup cream at the end, stirring thoroughly to incorporate. Serve with croutons on top.