The Spices of Life

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Walking into an Israeli shuk is an experience like no other. The colors and the smells of the spices are heady and exotic. Bags and bins of finely raked, highly colored powders line the stalls. There are all kinds of herbs, roots, pods, and grinds. Spices specifically designed for meat, fish, chicken, rice, salads and soups. Many of which I had never heard of – with strange sounding names like baharat, and dukkah and ras-al-hanout and za’atar. Over the past four years, I’ve invited these beautiful new friends into my home and have learned to use them. By talking to the shop vendors and to chefs and housewives, I’ve begun to incorporate them into my own recipes.

The Israeli palate is very different than the typical Anglo palate. Spice blends I would only use for pies and baked goods in the past, I now use in meats and on vegetables. The Jewish people have returned to the Land from all over the world bringing their tastes, recipes, and spices with them. The heavy turmeric-laden foods of Yemen; the hot chilis and warming spices of Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and other parts of Northern Africa; intensely fragrant flavor combinations of Iranian and Iraqi Jews; the many-colored and different kinds of curries and garam and biryani of the Bnei Menashe of India have all added to the culinary melting pot of this country. Add to that the neighboring Lebanese and Syrian influence as well as the Ethiopian, Egyptian, the Bedouin and Druze foods and the  Israelis’ intense love of the flavors of Asia – you create a flavor fusion unlike anyplace else in the world.

For those of you reading this in khool (Hebrew slang for outside the country), some of these spice blends can be found in the larger grocery stores or in MidEast specialty markets. Start looking around for them. As diversity and intersectionality sweeps the world, more local supermarkets are carrying world flavors. Try World Market or WholeFoods for some of these blends.

I have interviewed many people, and each person has their own take on what goes into each blend. There are as many different combinations and levels of intensity as there are people here. Some are “old family recipes.” Because our family’s taste tends to shy away from intense heat, I’ve tried to stick with the more moderate levels of measurement. From experience, I’ve learned there are some flavors we enjoy more than others. You will have to experiment to find your own range of taste, but that’s just part of the fun. So, don’t be afraid to buy the individual spices and start combining to fit your own palate. Always start with a lesser prescribed amount and add more of one thing or another. And always use fresh spices. Some tend to fade or go rancid after a few months. store in tightly sealed canisters or jars, preferably our of the light.

My first spice blend to share is baharat, with the addition of a little sugar or salt, it’s also known as Rambam spice. This is the one I used in baking at first, but I also put a teaspoon or two into my plum preserves with a splash of port wine as it cooks down. Here in Israel, it’s a key ingredient in kebabim (not skewered meat and veggies on a stick, but fingerlike sticks of spiced ground meat) and other meat dishes. Imagine the surprise – and depth of flavor – of tasting meats and stews with heady cinnamon, cloves, and peppers. It’s also used in rice, with the addition of dried cranberries and currants and chopped pistachios. The word baharat comes from the Arabic for spice, and this is distinctly Mediterranean -Israeli. Most people say it is a blend of seven key spices, but depending upon the region one is from, it changes…so I will give you five different blends.

Shoshanna’s Yemenite Blend of Baharat

  • 1 Tablespoon of cumin
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon English pepper (allspice)
  • 1 Tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons tumeric
  • 1 Tablespoon ground, dried rose petals

 

  Etti’s Iranian Baharat Spice

  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon dried rose petals

 

  Geh’u’lah’s ‘Israeli’ Baharat Blend (my favorite)

  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon English pepper (allspice)
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin
  • 2 Tablespoons dried rose petals

 

   Tzippy’s ‘Israeli’ Baharat

  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 Tablespoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin

Marwan, my spice guy – we all have a favorite spice guy – swears by his absolute best homemade blend. “It must be done this way!!!” There is just no other way to do it, he insists ….. I’ve learned from experience that each person will tell you there is just no other way. Actually, I will buy my baharat from Marwan, because his spices are really the best. Whenever I have guest, we make a special trip to Marwan’s spice shop in old Akko. It’s that wonderful.

  Marwan’s Baharat

  • 2 Tablespoons black peppercorns
  • 2 Tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 4 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom pods

In a small pan, over medium-high heat, dry roast the above ingredients, about 3-5 minutes. Toss regularly to prevent their burning, but they should begin to become very fragrant. remove to a bowl and allow to cool completely. Grind to a fine powder (he does this all by hand on a much larger scale) by hand or using a spice mill/food processor. To this blend add:

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Baharat can be used as a dry-rub for meat or chicken. To make kebabim, take a pound of  ground meat, add a small diced yellow onion, a tablespoon of baharat and some minced fresh parsley. Form into finger-shaped cigars wrapping each around a cinnamon stick. (It will look like a chicken drumstick when done). these are typically grilled, but can also be baked.

 

Middle Eastern “Sloppy Joes”

This dish was gobbled up before I could take pictures, it was that delicious. Instead of putting the ground meat mixture on a bun, as in the States, this dish is served over couscous.

  • 1 1/4 pound (1/2 kg) ground beef
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cloves crushed fresh garlic
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 Tablespoons baharat
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric (curcum)
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground caraway seeds (optional)
  • 1 can crushed tomatoes with juice
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh cuzbara (cilantro), chopped

In a large pan over medium-high heat, brown the onion, garlic and grated ginger in the oil until the onion becomes soft and translucent. Add the baharat, turmeric, and ground caraway and cook about 2-3 minutes until you have a soft, fragrant paste. Remove from pan – but do not clean out the pan. Place the ground meat in the pan and brown the meat. Add the spice paste in and mix thoroughly. Pour in the can of undrained tomatoes. Cook for an additional 2 minutes. Pour this meat blend over hot couscous and top with the chopped mint and cilantro. I guarantee you won’t have leftovers.

 

The next recipe has become a family favorite. I serve it all the time, and even eat it as a healthy snack or for breakfast. When Americans serve sweet potatoes, it’s usually topped with loads of butter and even brown sugar or marshmallows. This is a much lighter, tastier, healthier alternative. Very easy and very quick! I’ve been finding these cute little fingerling battattas in the local shuk and am loving them!! So adorable – just a little bigger than my finger.

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                   Tehine Battattas

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  • 1 pound sweet potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1 teaspoon baharat
  • sea salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 400* F/200*C. Peel the sweet potatoes. I leave my fingerling potatoes whole, but if you are using the conventional large sized sweet potato, cut into 1/2 inch thick round slices. Place on large sheet of aluminum foil and sprinkle with oil. Add the baharat and toss to coat the potatoes thoroughly. Seal foil packet tightly and place on baking sheet. Roast the potatoes about 15 minutes or until soft. Remove from oven and onto platter. Drizzle with tehine (sesame paste liquid). Several hot.

The next recipe makes for a great Friday night Shabbat meal. It’s a good dish to make for company, because of its color and fragrance. This recipe hails from Iran  and is my friend’s traditional home-cooking Shabbat recipe. She serves it in a beautiful copper pan. The textures are creamy and crunchy and the pops of flavor from the rice, the spiced chicken and veggies topped with pomegranate arils and drizzled with tehine: it’s a flavor explosion. In Israel, the boneless, skinless chicken thighs, called par-gee-yot’ are the choice cut of chicken. They are often heavily spiced and grilled.

 PERSIAN SHABBAT PARGIYOT  serves 4-6

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  • 6 whole, boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4-6 teaspoons baharat (adjust to your taste – I use 5 tsp)
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric (curcum)
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate arils
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup tehine
  • 1/4 cup chopped, fresh mint leaves
  • 2 cups rice
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries

Rub chicken thighs with salt and 3 teaspoons of baharat, massaging into the chicken. Let sit 1/2 hour. In a large skillet over high heat, brown the thighs, turning once – don’t cook through. Remove to separate plate. Add cut up onions, garlic, carrots and drained chick peas to pan. Cook about 4-6 minutes until the veggies become tender. Add 2 cups of chicken broth and the bay leaf and frozen peas. Put the browned chicken thighs back in the pan. Add 1-2 more teaspoons of baharat and cover pan. Cook on low heat about 20 minutes. The mixture should cook down and become less liquidy.                                                                                                    While the chicken and veggies are cooking, pour remaining broth (2 cups), cranberries, currants, rice and 1 teaspoon baharat into a pot and bring to a boil. Cover pot and simmer as rice cooks up – I use a long grained white Persian rice that fluffs up nicely and doesn’t become sticky.  After rice cooks, fluff it with a fork and plate it on a lovely platter. Spoon the chicken veggie mix over the top. Drizzle the tehine over top and sprinkle the mint and pomegranate arils over the whole plate. My friend, Ainat, also sprinkles dried rose petals over the top, which makes for a beautiful and delicious Shabbat meal fit for royalty.

My next spice blend is za’atar, which is both the name of the plant and the spice blend. The za’atar plant grows wild in the Mediterranean area, and in Israel is a protected species – although many people pick the wild za’atar growing in the rocky ledges. Mostly, though, it can be found in nurseries or grown from seeds or clippings from friends. I got mine from a Druze woman in Hurfeish. It is similar to thyme, but much woodier and stronger, almost like a flavor between thyme and oregano.

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I sprinkle it liberally on humus and labane (a very creamy, sour cream-like dairy product). You can make a thick paste of extra virgin olive oil and za’atar and spread it on bread, pop it in the oven for a few minutes, and instant deliciousness! Others make a roast chicken rubbed inside and out with the blend. If you can’t find it in your local market, this is the closest I can come to imitating it. Similar, but not quite…. it will do.

       Mock Za’atar Spice Blend

  • 2 Tbsp minced, fresh oregano leaves
  • 2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbsp minced, fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 Tbsp ground sumac
  • 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt

I’ve been eating “weird” things for breakfast every morning. Not your typical American breakfast foods, but healthy and yummy, nonetheless. I’ll cut up one cucumber, one hard boiled egg, 1/4 cup humus, and sprinkle with salt and za’atar. It’s one of my go-tos. The next recipe also makes for a yummy breakfast. We eat lots of fresh veggies and salads for breakfast in Israel.

 COTTAGE BREAKFAST SALAD 

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So here, cottage cheese is just known as “cottage.” That’s it. “Cottage.” And this is another salad I eat for breakfast. I make it on Friday afternoon and serve it on Shabbat so I don’t have to cook. Add to this some fluffy Israeli pita bread, some dips and humus, a cup of freshly squeezed juice and a cup of coffee and it’s a feast.

  • 6 small Persian cucumbers or 2 English cukes
  • 1 cup fresh tomato diced (I halve cherry tomatoes)
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
  • 1/2 cup sliced kalamata olives
  • 1 cup low fat cottage
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (here’s where I break out “the good stuff”)
  • 1 Tbsp za’atar
  • salt, pepper to taste

Mix together in a large bowl and enjoy. I sometimes add half regular low-fat cottage and half garlic and herb cottage, which I find in the local market. It gives a fresh, herby taste along with the za’atar.

 

In a ‘typical, ethnic’ Arab or Israeli restaurant, it’s common to have a whole host of little dishes of slides, pickles and dips served before the meal. these can be so filling, you don’t want to order an entree. Often these little dishes are heavy on the eggplant – grilled eggplant with garlic and mayo (amazing!), eggplant pieces in a barbecue sauce, eggplant pickled, eggplant and onions and raisins in a sweet tomato sauce. I just love them all – but have found that it doesn’t love me. So, for a substitute, I’ve found zucchini works just as well, with a similar texture and taste. My family hates this dip, because it looks like – well – you know – throw-up. But if you can get beyond the look, it’s a super delicious, healthy, low-fat dip for pita or cut-up veggies. I love raw onion slices or cucumber spears for this one!

IMG_7892.jpeg                                          Zucchini Baba Ganoush

  • 3 large zucchini, halved lengthways
  • 1/2 cup goat-milk yogurt
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons za’atar
  • 1/2 fresh lemon
  • extra virgin olive oil (the good stuff)

The secret to this is to grill the zucchini to get that incredible smoky taste. You can’t skip this step. I oil and salt and pepper my zucchini halves and place them directly on the very-high heat grill. Stay with the grill, and after a couple minutes turn the zucchini over. You want them to get nice and soft. I use a tongs for this one.

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Remove squashes to a platter and pet cool just a little bit until they are just cool enough to handle. Scoop out the flesh into a small bowl. Add the garlic and mash well with a fork. Mix in the yogurt, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with the za’atar, and squeeze the lemon over. Drizzle with a bit of the oil. Can be served warm or cold. Another interesting Israeli breakfast twist: put the mashed zucchini mixture in a pot and heat up, stirring constantly. When the mixture begins to bubble, crack an egg on top and let the egg poach. Spoon the poached egg and dip into a bread bowl or serve in a bowl with a piece of pita bread. It’s really good!!!

My son, Max, eats pita and humus like it’s going out of style. But you can really only appreciate fresh, made-that-day pita. I buy a pack of 8 at a time, and after a day or two, use any that’s “left over” to make pita chips, which I also use in soups or in a Lebanese salad called fattoush.

Homemade Pita Chips

Cut up day-old pita bread into bite sized pieces. Toss with olive oil, salt, garlic powder and za’atar. Spread out on a silat lined baking sheet and baking a 250*F/110*C oven for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Don’t over bake! They should be crispy, but not burnt. Good for dipping too.

 Fattoush

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This is a lovely salad from Lebanon. It’s very much akin to the Italian panzanella bread salad. There are also Syrian and Israeli variations. Some use romaine lettuce or wild baby leaves. Others add olives. I like mine plain and simple. This recipe is from Rola, my Lebanese friend.

 

 

  • 1 cup pita chips (see above recipe)
  • 2 English cucumbers, washed and cut up, peel on
  • 4 radishes, sliced thinly
  • 1 small purple (Bermuda) onion, cut into small chunks
  • handful of cherry tomatoes , cut in half
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • !/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon sumac
  • 1 teaspoon za’atar
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt, pepper to taste

There are so many colorful, interesting and unexpected spice flavors here. One specialty is Harissa, a very hot Moroccan chili powder or paste that’s often used as a rub on meats and fish. It’s made from roasted red sweet peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, red hot chili peppers, garlic, cayenne and smoked paprika. Fire in your mouth. People here love it. It’s often incorporated into the tomato and egg dish, Shakshouka, but today I will give you my version of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Israeli-style English Breakfast.

(As I’m writing this blog, my dear husband just brought up a bowl of cut up cucumbers with humus and olive oil and a sprinkling of za’atar! With a small dish of green olives with garlic and herbs on the side. I think we’re going native….)

 Spicy Israeli Breakfast Meal (serves 1)

  • 2 thick sliced tasted, whole grain bread
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 Tbsp Harissa
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes or 1 very large fresh tomato, cut up
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained

In a large skillet, fry up the chickpeas with the tomato paste, harissa and olive oil. Add the water and the tomatoes (canned or fresh) and let cook down about a half an hour. You can make it in a crockpot on low setting to cook overnight (about 6-8 hours, but add more water). When the tomato-pea mixture is thick and hot (bubbly), crack the two eggs over top and let set until the whites are cooked through and the yolks still runny – although the Israelis seem to like their yolks hard as golfballs. Spoon mixture over bread toast slices. Top with sesame seeds and a sprinkling of za’atar.

The last spice blend is from North Africa. It’s called Ras-al-hanout, which basically translates to ‘head of the shop” in Arabic. It’s the best the spice guy has to offer. A wild mix of various spices, each shopkeeper’s blend varying slightly in flavors and intensity. It’s something that can be used as a dry-rub fr meats, in soups and stews, and sprinkled over veggies to be roasted. Many are closely-guarded, secret family recipes, but this is the closest I could get – from Marwan –

Ras-al-Hanout Spice Blend

  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp English pepper (allspice)
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 3/4 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/4 tsp ground anise
  • 1/2 tsp hilba (fenugreek seeds)
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 Tbsp ground lavender buds
  • 1 1/4 tsp ground, dried rose petals

WHEW!!!!!! That’s some blend! There was a recipe developed in a Tel Aviv restaurant a few years ago that’s swept the country by storm and has become synonymous with Israeli cuisine. It’s vegan and is a meal unto itself. It comes out piping hot on a wooden board and everyone digs in – much like the bloomin onion in the US, only not-fattening and tons healthier. You might be able to find a ras-al-hanout blend at a store in the US or in a Mid East specialty market.

         Tel Aviv Roasted Cauliflower

Take a large, very very large head of cauliflower. Remove the leaves and thick core, leaving the rest of the head intact. Place on a large sheet of aluminum foil. Rub the cauliflower all over with Olive oil. Then rub generously with the spice blend. Cover and seal up the foil and place on a baking sheet. Roast at 200*C/400*F for about a half an hour. Serve piping hot.  As an appetizer, the florets can be pulled apart and dipped in a sauce (Baba-Ganoush, anyone?).