Mysteries of Antiquity

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Montfort Castle (in mid-ground) perched on a mountaintop, overlooking the Mediterranean

There are few things Israelis (both native-born and immigrants) love more than a tiyuul (TEE-ool), a day-trip, tour or hike. We had hiked up to Montfort Castle, six miles south of the Lebanese border, twice before – from different angles and with different tour-guide friends. Each time we got a different view of the majestic ruins of this Crusader fortress – and each time we got a different story. Each story was fascinating and mysterious, full of romance and military moves. And each had elements of historical truth and fact; but all three stories varied wildly.

How does one piece together truth from ruined antiquities? Each person telling the stories of the past has his or her own bias and own historical interests and specialties. Add to that a host of unsolved murders, ghost stories and tales of hauntings that have crept into the retellings, and you have quite the mix to sort out. Such is the case with Montfort Castle. The first time we made the hike was four years ago, with Shabtai, an Israeli who loved history and loved a good yarn. It was a beautiful spring day, in the times before COVID, when the trails were jam-packed with hikers of all ages. Those intrepid Israelis: babies and musical instruments on their backs, navigating the steep mountain trails like the Israeli deer one can see on the cliffs.

Shabtai had told us about this Crusader Fortress, one of several built during the 12th century by the Christian conquerors of the Holy Land – Christians bent on establishing an enduring presence in Terra Sancta. These Europeans traveled to Israel – some for religious pilgrimage; some for adventure, fame and fortune; some for conquest – to rid the land of infidels, Muslim and Jew alike; some to set up missions and colonize the area for the Church. On a steep ridgeline in the center of a wadi overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, eight miles northeast of the ancient Akko port, these French Crusader knights decided to build a fortress. It was hidden from plain view, but afforded excellent views from all directions. It was the perfect and most strategic spot for a military installation. And because it was so hidden it was the perfect location to store hidden treasure – everything from Biblical antiquities from the Second Temple in Jerusalem (think of the movies, National Treasure or Indiana Jones) to plunders of gold and silver artifacts from the Muslim sheiks to religious relics of various saints. It was all stored and buried there or in caves in close proximity to the fortress. I remember the tale he told of a handsome Christian knight who fell in love with a local Galilean Jewish girl, both young and beautiful. It went against religious practices for either of them to marry each other. As the story goes, they had a secret rendezvous at the castle on a moonlit night and fling themselves over the parapet into the cavernous wadi below rather than to live apart. Their ghosts still linger as mists on the walls on nights with a full moon.

Our friend, Shabtai, is a grand story teller. We could listen to him all day, but have learned to take much of what he says with a few grains of salt. About 45% is actual historical fact, the rest….well, it makes us want to research the true histories of the land. I’ve learned to check my old history books (from the days of homeschooling) and look for first-hand documentation, if it can be found. The histories of Josephus Flavius, the Scriptures – a working knowledge of both Tanach and New Testament are important in this land; diaries and letters from ancient Romans, Jewish rabbis and European Crusaders; old maps; and speaking with archaeologists and historians are all part of putting together the puzzle pieces.

The next time, we hiked up the wadi following the Katziv Stream. It was an early autumn hike, and the stream bed had long dried up. Avigail, our guide for this one, gave us a history lesson that seemed much more factual than our first introduction. Archaelogical excavations had revealed this was once the site of an ancient Roman fortress, as coins and Roman spear tips had been found in situ. After the Romans, the Muslim invasions of Israel swept down from the North and the East in the 700s-800s. French Crusaders first conquered the Holy Land from the Islamists in 1099. As a reward, large swaths of Israel, were gifted by the Roman Catholic Church and the Crowns of Europe to royal families. This whole northern area was given to the DeMille family of France to settle and farm. They built a castle atop this mountain and planted vines for the cultivation of wine. In the late 1100s, SalahDin, the Kurdish Muslim general, took the land and the castle from the French settlers upon his brutal retaking of the land. Enter the English and French together, who vanquished SalahDin under Richard the Lionheart. These Crusaders resettled the coast of Israel from Jaffa to Caesaria and Akko, their new capital(also known as Acre). The land where the DeMille estate was located was sold to the Knights of the Teutonic Order (Germans).

There was a great rivalry between the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller over Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Akko. Who would have control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holy sites and the strategic sites? The Teutonic Knights were formed as a German military order of the Holy Roman Empire to secure territory and aid pilgrims from Europe traveling to the Holy Land. They gained control of Akko, but moved to the abandoned Montfort Estate in 1229, fortifying the property with outer and inner walls and guard towers. The Teutonic Knights added a second story as well as magnificent archives and a treasury, renaming it Castel Starkenberg. In 1266, the fortress was overtaken by the Mamaluks (Muslim mercenaries from Egypt who were first enslaved by the Sunnis, but proved to be an excellent asset for their military and engineering prowess). Sultan, Baybars conquered much of the territory of the Northern Galilee, including Montfort. A siege ensued. The Crusaders were forced out and the much of the remote mountain fortress was razed. Fortunately, the Teutonic Knights were able to take the contents of the great library and the most of the treasury with them as they fled back to the Germanic territories in Europe in 1271.

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Last week was another beautiful week in the Northwest Galilee. We planned a tiyuul with friends to some of the border villages and to Park Goren, a JNF sponsored park. Goren is gorgeous!!! It reminds me a tiny bit of Yosemite with spectacular views of cliffs and canyons. It’s a favorite place for hikes, picnics and campouts. Fortunately for us, the area was rather deserted and very peaceful. This time, John and I looked over the wadi to the mountain ridge opposite for the most spectacular view of Montfort Castle (see above). People are able to take the steep, almost vertical, steps to the bottom of the wadi (to the Katziv Stream/Nahal Kziv). From there it is an hour or two hike up to the ruins.

This trip found us in the company of an amateur military historian and fascinating story teller. He explained to us that Montfort is the site of one of the greatest military mysteries of all times. The way Avi tells it, during the Second Crusade, the French wanted to establish a hidden and strategic military outpost. As soon as they saw the ridge of the Beautiful Mountain, they knew they had found their spot. It was perfect for defense: an arrow shot right into the wadi below, a rolling stone down the cliff, the high ground easily kept. From Montfort, one could watch for invading armies sweeping down from the North in what is now Lebanon. It was the perfect site for an ambush! They would also have a fairly unobstructed view down the wadi to the coast. It was decided at once to start the massive building project at any and all expense. Slave labor was recruited from both the remaining Jewish population and the Bedouins that lived in the area. Three years spent hewing massive rock and constructing the fortress, many lives lost in the process. It was only during the third year of the great building campaign that the French decided to send their scouts further up the wadi. These Crusaders had been waiting in vain for an imminent attack from the North for all those years but none had come. It didn’t take the scouts long to return. Not four miles to the north, the twisting path of the wadi became a dead end, completely blocked by the mountains, cut off at the pass!

Now why would the French build without first thoroughly scouting out the land in all directions? Who would give the orders and who would procure funds from the Pope and the French monarch? Who would release the fortune required to undertake such an endeavor? Avi says it is one of the unsolved military mysteries of all time. After the tragic discovery, he informed us that it remained a type of resort for retired military generals – that they could finish up their tours of duty with mountain breezes and gorgeous vistas without fear of enemy invasion.

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As for us, it was a great tale, but will stick with Avigail’s more factual rendition.

We did learn that with advance permission, you can spend the night camping out at Montfort Castle. It is a popular spot for school trips and summer camps (although not this summer). The stream below is known for its natural beauty as well as a great shady walk for families on hot days. In the spring, the entire hillsides are covered in wildflowers. And there is a stable in the village of Hila which offers horseback rides both to the castle and  through the wadi. All in all, it makes for a beautiful day trip – take your pick on the stories.

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Golani Cherries!

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Picking Bing Cherries in the Golan  Heights

We had been waiting for this tiyuul (Hebrew for field trip) for weeks now. It seemed like ages since we were up in the Golan, one of my favorite places in Israel. First there was all the winter snow, sleet and rain, and then the COVID lockdown for months. But the day was perfect – nice and warm, sunny, with slightly cool breezes from the West off the Mediterranean. And it was the first week of cherry season!

Odem Mountain sits towards the foot of the Mount Hermon and butts up against the border with Syria. The Heights have been quiet since the Syrian Civil War moved from the area about a year ago. Odem is known for its wonderful wineries and for its pick-your-own fruit farms. Raspberries, blueberries and blackberries (called ‘black raspberries’ here) will be ripe in mid-July; grapes in August. But last week, life was a bowl of cherries for us!

We were given entrance to the orchard for 20 shekels per person, about $6 each. We could eat as much off the trees as we could stomach – and that was a ton! – plus pick as much as we could carry in our baskets. The first kilo was included in the price, the rest were about $5 a kg – 2.2 pounds. There were only a few families out, so we had the huge orchard mostly to ourselves. The sky was a gorgeous blue, the birds singing, and the butterflies were out in abundance. Who could ask for more?

I love that Israel is so family friendly. Because fruit picking is a family activity here, the orchards cater to the wee folk. Instead of pruning back the lower limbs and bushes as one normally does to increase fruit production, everything is left in its natural state. Low hanging limbs mean low hanging fruit, and any 2-3 year old can enjoy harvesting the luscious gems.

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John and I each picked four baskets of Bing Cherries before we discovered the sweetest, most delicious Rainiers. Within an hour, we had picked another four baskets. It was sheer bliss – I found my happy spot. As the morning wore on, we followed the sound of Russian voices chattering madly in the Eastern part of the orchard. We found out what was causing the commotion: fresh sour cherries! The Russians and Eastern Europeans are absolutely wild about forest fruits. They especially love sour cherries, preserving them for pastries, toppings and winter desserts.

After eating so many cherries, it’s a wonder we even had room for lunch, but I had packed a lovely picnic with an assortment of cheeses, olives, homemade crackers, pickles and salads and a bottle of rosé. All of the picking areas have adjacent picnic tables under the canopy of vines and trees. It’s just so romantic!

As soon as we got home the work began in earnest -which would last the rest of the week for me. It was enjoyable labor, and I can’t wait to share these recipes with you!!

  CHERRY LIQUEUR

IMG_0144 I can’t believe I forgot to take a picture of the finished product after it had been bottled, but this is the basic process: I steeped about 40 Bing cherries in a covered Mason Jar of vodka for a week. The vodka turns red and the cherries fade somewhat. Strain the infused spirit into sterilized bottles. Store the bottles in a dark cabinet for up to a year. When ready to use, place a bottle of the liqueur in the freezer – the liqueur gets nice and cold, but will not freeze. Sip straight up in a tiny liqueur glass, or mix into cocktails.

You can spoon the reserved cherries (I microwave them for 10 seconds) over vanilla ice cream. A lovely dessert!

        CHAMPAGNE JUBILEE!

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Take the cherry liqueur (you just made, recipe above) out of the freezer. Pour about 1 oz. into a champagne flute and top off with Prosecco, sparkling white wine or a sweet white wine. This is really refreshing on a hot summer day – and beautiful for bridal showers and with brunch!

   CHERRY-BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE                  (makes 4 slender bottles)

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Love this recipe I came up with. It’s really delicious on a pasta salad with grilled chicken strips, or on a sweet summer salad of fresh greens, red onion (or pickled onion), fruit and nuts. Add feta on top for a dairy salad – or leftover grilled chicken strips for a main course (meat/basari). Refrigerate after opening.

Ingredients:

  • 6 Tablespoons wildflower honey
  • 40 Bing cherries, stemmed and pitted
  • 2-3 shallots or 1 Bermuda/red onion
  • 1/4 cup good quality Balsamic vinegar
  • 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt (I use Dead Sea salt or Maldon)
  • 1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
  • Distilled or filtered spring water

  Directions:

Prepare/sterilize the bottles and the tops by keeping them submerged in boiling water for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, place the pitted cherries and the honey in a small saucepan and let them simmer (but not boil!) for about 5 minutes. Let cool. Chop 8-10 of the cooled cherries into little pieces. Reserve the rest of the cherries (for pouring over vanilla ice cream or serving with a dollop of whipped cream!!!), saving the honey liquid.

Pour the reserved honey liquid into the four dressing bottles that have been recently sterilized. Make sure each bottle gets an even amount. Distribute the chopped cherries evenly into the four bottles. I find using a funnel makes all of this a lot easier! Add 2 Tbsp Balsamic to each bottle. Add 1/8 cup champagne vinegar and 1/8 cup olive oil to each bottle. Add 1 sprig of rosemary, the salt and pepper. Using a garlic press, I halve and squeeze 2 peeled shallots to collect the shallot juice in a little cup or glass. Pour the shallot juice evenly into each bottle. Finely mince the remaining shallot and add to the bottles. Fill the rest of the dressing bottles to about 1/2 inch from the top with the spring water. Seal. Shake vigorously before serving.

THE BEST CHERRY CHICKEN SALAD!!

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This is fairly easy to make. I serve it for Shabbat lunch on a hot day. It’s quite flavorsome, not to mention beautiful with the jewel-like cherries poking out. We never have any leftovers it’s just that delicious – but if we did, I’d serve it on a crusty baguette with a bed of arugula or rocket lettuce.

 

  • 3 cups (about 1 pound/1/2 kg) cooked chicken breasts, chopped into bite sized bits
  • 1/3 cup chopped red/Bermuda onion
  • 1/3 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup pitted, halved cherries (I like a combo of Bing and Ranier cherries for this dish)
  • 2 Tbsp poppyseeds
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (light mayo, preferable)
  • 1/2 cup “Chinese” sweet pecans
  • Sea salt & freshly cracked black pepper to taste

In the States, I was able to buy pre-grilled or pre-cooked chicken strips (I was spoiled). Here I have to make everything from scratch, so I boil my chicken breasts in water with celery tops, an onion, bay leaves, salt, pepper, 2 Tbsp whole cloves and a thumb sized sliver of fresh ginger (I just gave away my bubbe’s chicken stock recipe!!! I swear the addition of the cloves and ginger take the soup to a whole new level of awesomeness!!!!). Let the chicken simmer on the stove for about a half hour until cooked through. I reserve the stock to freezer bags once it cools – future use. There’s no soup in aseptic boxes or cans here.

Chop the cooled breasts into bitesize morsels. Chop the onion and celery. Add all to a large bowl. Stir in mayo and poppy seeds, salt and pepper. Gently fold in cherries and pecans. Chill until ready to serve.Can garnish with rosemary sprigs or fold in about a Tbsp finely minced fresh rosemary before serving.

CHERRY CHOCOLATE CHIP SCONES      (makes 18, but doesn’t last more than 2 hours! They tend to disappear that quickly)

My family loves these scones. I’ve made them for years, but can never seem to find them when I want to serve them. So glad I took the picture shortly after I took them off the baking sheet, because they were all gone 2 hours later when I wanted a sweet snack!

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Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups regular flour
  • 1/3 cup coconut sugar (low glycemic option to white sugar)
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 20-25 Bing cherries, pitted and quartered (use gloves or your hands will get stained)
  • 8 Tbsp cold butter
  • 3/4 cups cream
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp dried ginger powder or 1 TBSP grated fresh ginger or stem ginger pieces, minced
  • 3/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

 

Preheat oven to 400*F/200*C.  Place baking paper or silpat on two baking sheets.

Mix together dry ingredients a large bowl. Using a party cutter, knife, or fork, cut in pieces of cold butter and blend until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Stir in the cherries and chocolate chips to coat with a dusting of flour (this prevents sticking together or clumping on the bottom).

Make a shallow well in the middle of the flour mixture. Whisk together the wet ingredients and pour into the middle of the well. Gently stir the wet ingredients into the dry mixture without overworking the dough. It should just be moistened.

Using an ice cream scoop, I place small scoops of the batter (6 on each sheet, evenly spaced) on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with a little sugar if you’d like a little sparkle. Bake for about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for a couple minutes. Repeat until all batter is used up. Guard these babies with your life if you want them to last! They can be stored in a wax-paper lined tin box or plastic container for a couple days (yeah, right – good luck on that one!)

I find them best served with a light spread of cream cheese. So delicious!

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And OF COURSE!!!!I made 12 jars of cherry vanilla preserves last week. Two are gone, so I hope to make some more in the next couple days…. until then, my friends –

 

Merrily We Float Along

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Morning on the Sea of Galilee

The weather here in the North of Israel has been nothing short of spectacular this week!!! Hot, but not too hot; nice breezes wafting in from the Mediterranean; quiet and peaceful days. Yesterday, we decided to take advantage of the early summer weather and the calm. We desperately miss our tourists and need them for the local economy, but are enjoying the non-crowded venues and leisurely pace as various sites open, but are still social distancing. What a better way to spend the day, than by rafting down the Jordan River!!

The source of the Jordan River lies in the very North of the country from the melting snows atop Mount Hermon and the underwater aquifers bubbling up into mountain springs and rivers. The two largest, the Dan River and the Hatzbani Stream come together in the lush Hula Valley and form the Jordan River, which pours into Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). From there, the Jordan flows (trickles more like it) through the Jordan Valley (Samaria and Judea) into the Dead Sea. All in all, it is 251 km or 156 miles long.

There are several companies that offer rafting and kayaking down the upper part of the Jordan, but we love Kfar Blum the best. The attraction center at Kibbutz Kfar Blum offers so many fun activities. For those that enjoy camping, there are several different options: there is the basic tent campground. Tents are supplied. Also provided are a small outdoor refrigerator, picnic table, clothes line, and rec area. Tents hold up to four people. Just bring food and sleeping bags. A step up in the luxury campground has large six-eight person canvas tents (air conditioned!!!) on wooden floors with platform beds, large fridge/freezer, hammocks on the porch and recreational area.  If that’s too rustic, there are cabin/bunk houses with all the comforts of home and a fenced-in private yard. Playgrounds for the kids available at all sites.

On site is the Top Rope Adventure Park, a high ropes course that is incredibly popular with the youth. Add to this a 40 foot rock climbing wall, archery range, and 300 feet long zip-line course which splashes down into the Jordan, and it’s almost a full day’s worth of activities. But we went for the rafting – Blum has “The Long Course” – a 2.5 mile course down the Hula Valley, which takes about an hour and a half – or longer if you get out and swim. It costs $30 per adult and is well worth it. There were absolutely no lines yesterday (no Birthright kids on tour) so we made it to the bus within a few minutes. The Blumbus takes you up river where a guide gives you the course outline and instructions. All people must wear a life preserver at all times.

Yesterday was the best, because unlike during the hottest part of the summer and all the tourists, the river was not clogged with rafts. There was plenty of room to float at a leisurely pace and to pull off to the side and swim. I just love how Israelis sing here. Passing rafts of families, so many were singing the old Hebrew folk songs I grew up hearing. One raft was full of beautiful IDF soldiers on leave posing in their swimsuits. We passed families on shore fishing and picnicking, another favorite Israeli pass-time. It was a glorious day with birds singing in the blackberry brambles lining each side of the river, and dragonflies darting between the rafts. We saw turtles sunning themselves on the rocks, and lots of trout in the crystal clear Hatzbani Stream. Further down the line were the invasive nutria, a recently introduced species that is a cross between a beaver and a river otter.

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Such a lovely day!! For those in Israel who want a staycation in the North or those planning to visit from abroad, Kfar Blum (founded in 1943 by a group of olim from the UK, the US, and Eastern Europe) also has a luxury resort, The Pastoral Hotel. Beautiful rooms, Kosher food, a pool and spa as well as tennis and fitness areas are part of the package. At various times throughout the year, Kfar Blum offers music weekends, featuring classical music, jazz and opera as well as full productions of Broadway shows (in English) in their auditorium. There are also film festivals held during the summer months. It’s a great place to host a family reunion, wedding or other life event. All information is available on their website.

Udderly Delicious

Time for the annual Shavuot-in-Israel dairy blog! The holiday where we celebrate eating cheesecake and dairy products (or so it seems) is bearing down hard upon us. Actually, Shavuot is the holiday 50 days after Pesach (Passover), commemorating the end of the barley harvest and beginning of summer, as well as the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses by G-d on Mount Sinai. Because milk is sometimes used as a symbol for the Scriptures (providing us babies spiritual nourishment), we eat lots of dairy and stay up all night studying the Scriptures, reading the book of Ruth, and discussing how bloated we feel after consuming so many milk products. Uuuurrppp -Pass that bowl of whipped cream, please-

It’s also the time when Israelis make their annual pilgrimages to local dairy farms. Goat farms and pasture-fresh goat milk dairies and restaurants are ubiquitous throughout the Galilee region of Northern Israel. All are independent, family-owned and run. Some are Bedouin Arab, some secular Jewish, some following the strictest of Kosher laws. Some offer tours of the cheesemaking process and some have petting zoos attached where little children run around petting the goats and helping with the milking. Each has its own flavor (pun intent ended).

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Galilean goatherd in the wadi below our house

This year I selected two different places, each with their own vibe and each within a fifteen minute drive of home. Due to the easing of the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, all the local roads (many one lane in each direction!) were p’kock and each place jam-packed with locals satisfying their ‘pent-up-for-way-too-long’ and ‘just-let-me-out-in-the-fresh-air’ desires.

Yesterday, my girlfriend, Hadassah, and I decided to take a short morning tiyuul to Kibbutz Shomrat, just across the highway from Akko. (O.K., so we wound up picnicking at nearby Achziv Beach, visiting a distillery, and making new friends at a small kibbutz cafe on the Lebanese border and didn’t get home til after sunset, but we had a blast!!!)

Alto Dairy on Kibbutz Shomrat had been highly recommended as a gourmet Kosher establishment. We found it was a lot more than that. Shomrat has a guesthouse (motel); individual family tzimmerim (lodges); a gourmet restaurant and cafe. It is also the home of the Mazan family’s Alto Dairy. Run by the lively matriarch, Ariel Mazan, she prides herself on the traditional techniques she learned in Europe and the highest standards.

Alto (Italian and Spanish for high, as in their quality) specializes in both hard and soft cheeses made from pasteurized goat milk, which is mild, healthy and easy to digest. They offer over 20 different products including yogurts; two types of bleu cheese; camembert with nuts; camembert in ash; chèvre with herbs or garlic or seeds; salty cheeses; pecorino – all up for tasting. I must admit, this was by far the best dairy I’ve tried here to date. Their Tom cheese is soft and mild, buttery and yet flavorsome. (Even better than the San Francisco, Cowgirl Creamery Tom…. did I just say that????)  I bought a ton. And the goat cheddar -WOW!!!!! Flavor explosion. I bought two tons. And yogurt, and chèvre, and bleu, and halloumi (for sautéing). Their prices were very reasonable, but I wound up spending a small fortune anyway.

Alto has a small cafe-style seating area indoors as well as an adjacent covered-porch sit down restaurant. All the food is beautifully presented and kosher dairy – no meat products are served and they are closed on Shabbat. They offer cheese and wine platters, of course, but their Israeli breakfast is something else. Traditional Israeli dishes with a gourmet twist: stuffed mushrooms with pureed fresh beets and melted cheese; salad with pear, pecan and bleu; roasted eggplant slices on fresh whole-grain sourdough – topped with melted cheeses; a croissant stuffed with wilted spinach and cheese and a perfectly poached egg; shakshuka with lots and lots of cheese; savory quiches; and yogurt parfaits to name just a few items.

The atmosphere is family-friendly, laid-back and very casual with nice views of the farm, fields and coastal plains between Akko and Haifa. You can take a pre-arranged guided tour of the establishment enabling you to learn the entire cheese-making process from udder to shelf. Not only will you learn the nutritional advantages of goat milk and the different types of cheeses, but how to serve and cook with them!

This morning John, Max and I visited a popular hangout for the locals. Located off Route 85 between Karmiel and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), there is a signpost for Ein Camonim, another family-owned goat dairy and restaurant. I first heard about this place from my California-Israeli acupuncturist who was good friends with the Ovrutsky family. Very small world.

Ein Camonim does not have Kosher certification because they are open on Shabbat. Still, it is all natural and dairy only, with a store and adjoining restaurant. They, too, sell a nice variety of hard and semi-soft cheeses as well as goat yogurt. I love their chèvre dipped in volcanic ash and their gouda. The fresh homemade ice cream is to die for creamy, sweet and well-balanced with absolutely no “goaty” taste at all – a hallmark of freshness. It comes in several different flavors and all products are available for take-away.

There is indoor seating in the restaurant as well as dining alfresco under the pine and oak canopy. This place, so typically Israeli, is about as relaxed and mellow and casual as it gets. Jeans, tee shirts, shorts, boots or bare feet – we’ve seen it all. But I’ll save the most interesting surprise for last….

It’s mostly frequented for lazy brunches and long lunches. Yes, there is the requisite cheese platter with local boutique wine pairings, but the Israeli breakfast (not cheap) is simple, fresh food from the local gardens served in huge amounts. Olives picked and cured on site; fresh hummus and simple chopped veggie salads drizzled with fresh olive oil; chavita (kha-vee-TAH) – the flat Galilean omelette, and shakshuka served with fresh warm bread made on the premises. And there’s cheese pizza for the kids. Totally filling. Very plain. Most Israeli.

The part that was so shocking to us the first time we visited, was not just the cats and dogs wandering the premises, visiting the tables. It wasn’t that patrons brought their dogs, who were welcome to loll under the tables, It was the peafowl!!! Peacocks and peahens seem to have the run of this establishment. They wander freely about the tables, inside and outside of both restaurants, occasionally jumping up on the uncleared tables to snatch morsels of food. It’s just part of the charm of the place: it’s a rural, local joint with absolutely no pretenses – and by now we’re used to such… It’s Most Israeli!!!

Have fun eating your cheese this weekend. I’m off to prepare my own cheesecakes and cheese blintz souflée toped with raspberry puree and fresh goat yogurt. Have to put the fridge full of dairy products to use!!!!

To my Jewish friends and family, Happy Shavuot! Chag Shavuot sameach (khag shah-voo-OAT sah-MAY-akh)!!!!! and to my Christian friends and family, Happy Pentacost!!!! And pass me another hunk of brie, please –

Day of Remembrance: Quarantine 2020

A few minutes ago the two minute Memorial Day siren resounded throughout all of Israel. This year there were few cars pulling over to the sides of the roads and highways. Even fewer people on the streets or in shops standing at attention in silent, heartfelt prayer and remembrance of a loved one who was a victim of terror or who gave his or her life in defense of this country. We are still in lockdown, unable to go more than 100 meters outside our homes except to get food or medicine or to go to the clinic. Last night, the Yom haZikaron siren blared out, signaling the start of this twenty four hour period. As the national anthem, HaTikvah, The Hope, played from televisions and loud speakers, all of Israel stood on balconies of apartments and homes singing the words. We were separate yet unified.

Our collective mourning both diminishes and intensifies the pain we hold. The pain of our loss – the loss of another’s beloved as well as our own – is shared. We are all one united family. Israel is so small that most of us know someone killed by an act of baseless hatred or during a war. We share in each other’s grief, and knowing that, somehow diminishes the sharp heartstab. We are not in this alone. Yet to see such a vast sea of humanity beside me, the grief is intensified. So many who gave up their lives to defend the ideals of this country so that we could all live here together as free citizens, shapers of our own destiny.

Six years ago, we sat in the Los Angeles offices of the Jewish Agency for our first pre-Aliyah (immigration) interview. It was the day after Lone Soldier, Max Steinberg from the neighboring city of Tarzana, was killed in Gaza. We attended our Nefesh B’Nefesh-sponsored introduction to Aliyah evening with Max’s mother and sister. He had just left California to serve in the IDF. They went to the synagogue I had attended when I first moved to the Valley, and Max Steinberg was the same age as one of my daughters. We decided to make Aliyah in his honor, despite the fact a war was raging in the South. Every Memorial Day, I say a prayer for Max Steinberg (z”l) and his family.

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This year, we decided to do something different, yet altogether meaningful. I went to the website Honorisraelsfallen.com to “adopt” a fallen soldier and his family. The minute I saw the photo of Ari Gavin, his big eyes and bright smile, I just knew he was the one I was to commemorate. Ari was born in 1972 to parents who had just emigrated from the United States. He was a humble genius, athletic, outgoing, deeply spiritual and concerned for his fellow man. Ari served in the IDF in the elite Paratroopers brigade. Immediately after service, he married Zehavit, his high school sweetheart. They served in the foreign relations division in both Latvia and Italy, where their first child was born. Upon returning home to Israel, Ari enrolled in Haifa University to study (and then teach classes in) Computer Science and Advanced Mathematics – while simultaneously working as a security guard for the Ministry of Defense at night to support his growing family. By the time Ari graduated (with highest honors), he was the father of three small children. Ari Gavin was a born leader, generous to a fault – one time he gave away half his paycheck to a man he saw scrounging for food in a trash can – devoted husband and father. While on reserve duty in the Golan Heights, he was killed on May 20, 2003.

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We will continue to remember his service by doing mitzvot, acts of charity and kindness, and prayers in his memory. I am trying to contact his family as well –

Also this past week, I felt the loss of a very good friend of mine. Noga was a beautiful Israeli/American woman. Born in Israel, she moved to California with her family when she was in middle-school, returning to her homeland for army service (voluntarily as a Lone Soldier). She returned to California – her dad was a university professor – and married an Israeli guy she happened to meet at Stanford. They decided to return to Israel to raise their son, and I met Noga when I first moved here. She overheard John and me speaking English in a cafe. At once, we began talking about California life, Aliyah, and family and we became fast friends. Two years later, we found out Noga was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Together we celebrated life, discussed deeply spiritual things, relished her young son’s innate ability to create amazing works of art, and believed for G-d’s healing power against all natural hope. Last year as John began his chemo, we went to her bedside at the Italian Hospital in Haifa to say our goodbyes. We laughed a lot. We cried some. We prayed.

A whole year passed and Noga bravely clung to life as she entered into bio-immunotherapy clinical trials to treat this type of cancer. Both John and I tried to see Noga whenever we could. We were supposed to visit her at her parents’ apartment (they had returned to live in Israel years ago) when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Israel entered into quarantine. Her mom, Aliza called us last week. Noga had passed away, and the funeral was held privately. Only her immediate family present. The seven day mourning period, shiva, would be observed without guests, without the prayer-support of ten men from the community, without anyone. We are bereaved – I am beside myself, yet life goes on.

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Tonight, the national period of mourning will end and we will enter into Israeli Independence Day. In a matter of minutes we are to go from saddness to joy. Usually there are fireworks and live concerts in every city. Tonight all will be on live-feed social media. The air force flyovers are still expected to take place tomorrow, so we will watch from the rooftop. Picnics at the beach and in the parks will be substituted by individual cook-outs on our balconies and patios. We look forward to the summer when we can have barbecues with friends and to next year when we can celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut in Jerusalem feeding Lone Soldiers and enjoying the festivities there. We live – hopeful – in anticipation of better, peaceful days ahead.

 

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Quarantine Cooking (Life Under Lockdown, Passover Edition)

 

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Things are exceptionally quiet here in Israel. This is usually the time when children are merrily paddling down the Jordan River in canoes; horseback riding in the Golan; hiking in the Judaean Hills; sailing on the Red Sea in Eilat. Today, Sunday, is usually joyous and loud in Jerusalem as thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world make the Palm Sunday Walk from Bethpage through the Lion’s Gate and into the Holy City following the path that Jesus took. It is a day where Mechane Yehudi market is bustling with shoppers buying all their provisions for the imminent Passover feast. Not so now. All is surreally still under the COVID-19 lockdown.

I spent my morning doing something I’ve promised myself for ages: trying out new and exciting Charoset recipes from around the world. Each very different and each delicious in its own way. I’ve collected these recipes over the past five years from people I’ve met here. Each woman has come to Israel carrying her own cultural traditions and special holiday foods.

Passover, or Pesach, is the springtime holiday celebrating the triumphal exodus of the Children of Israel, the Jewish people, out of slavery under Pharoah in Egypt and into eventual freedom back in their homeland of Israel. After 40 years of intense desert wanderings, that is! And to remember the entire story, Jews the world over (and now many Christian communities are following suit) are hosting a Seder meal. Seder is a Hebrew word meaning order, and the table is beautifully set. The centerpieces are the Seder plate, containing foods which will be integral to the telling of the story – and the plate of matzah, or unleavened bread. The Jews left Egypt in such a hurry there was no time to let their dough rise, hence the matzah.

Anyway, I’d like to share these charoset recipes with you. They are fun to put together, and since our Seder (I used to host upwards of 30 people!) will be minuscule this year (thanks COVID!), we will have a fun charoset tasting. The charoset symbolizes the mortar that the Jewish slaves had to make (a mixture of straw, water and mud) to cement the stones of the pyramids and monuments of ancient Egypt. In modern times, Jews have been scattered (since 70 AD, when they were kicked out of Israel by the Romans) all over the world. Depending on the resources available, different recipes have developed, each uniquely different, but representing the same idea.

The first type of charoset is our traditional Ashkenaz family recipe. The Ashkenazi Jews settled in Europe – mostly Poland, Germany, Russia and other parts of Northern Europe. There was an abundance of apples available in that region of the world, hence the apple base. We love it – it’s so delicious, that I have to make multiple batches throughout the holiday for myself and my family. We eat it on matzah with a ton of fresh horseradish flavored with beet juice. It’s called a Hillel Sandwich, after the famous first century rabbi who invented it.

           CHAROSET, ASHKENAZI STYLE

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Ingredients:

  • 4 large apples, cut into quarters
  • 1 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 cup sweet Kosher wine (Manischewitz anyone? In Israel, I use King David Concord)If you don’t use alcohol, substitute pure grape juice
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 freshly squeezed lemon (juice)
  • 2 tsp cinnamon

In food processor, or by hand, chop the unpeeled apples as finely as possible without creating a mush. Empty into large bowl. Chop up the walnuts, also very very finely. Add to bowl. Mix in the remaining ingredients, the lemon juice, wine, honey and cinnamon. Mix well and let sit for at least an hour for the flavors to absorb and blend together. Hide it from yourself and other people in the house or there won’t be any for the Seder – it’s that addictive.

 

The next charoset recipe is from my Israeli sabra (Israeli born, 4 generations!!!) friend, Liat. It’s very sweet, and uses much of the seven species of the Land of Israel (mentioned in the Bible, they are: figs, grapes, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives and (date)honey) plus a couple extra ingredients. When blended together, this really looks like the mortar the slaves could have used. It’s a really, really, thick and sticky paste. You can also add cocoa powder (1/4 cup) and roll it into balls and then roll the balls in dried coconut or nuts…

NATIVE ISRAELI CHAROSET

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup pitted medjool dates
  • 1/3 cup dried figs
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate juice
  • 1 cup chopped raw almonds
  • 1/4 cup honey or silan (date honey)
  • 1/4 cup red wine

In a food processor, chop up the figs, banana and dates until it is one thick, gooey paste. Spoon into large bowl. Chop up the almonds in the processor very, very finely. Add to paste along with the juice, wine and honey. Mix well. Let stand for about an hour for flavors to blend.

The following recipe is lovely, From Devorah, a new olah (immigrant) to Israel from Rome Italy. Devorah also has lots of family outside Venice and this is their take on charoset. It is very different, but I absolutely loved these flavors!!! Because they have lots of chestnuts in Italy, that’s what they use. It also looks a lot like mortar…

ITALIAN CHAROSET (VENETIAN STYLE)

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dried apricots (the bright orange kind)
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup pistachios
  • 1 small package of roasted, shelled chestnuts (about  1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water (found in gourmet or specialty food shops – Trader Joes? or a MidEast or Indian store?)
  • grated orange rind
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 1/4 cup honey

Process the dried apricots until they are about the size of small raisins. About 4 quick pulses in a food processor. Place in large bowl. Add the raisins. Process the pistachios and the the chestnuts until they are quite fine. Add to bowl. Add the freshly grated orange rind, the brandy, honey, and orange blossom water (this really sends the whole concoction over the top!!!). Mix well, and let stand at least an hour to let all the flavors absorb into a romantically exotic paste. So so fragrant and sweet!!!! This is decidedly different, but I love it!!!!

The last recipe hails from Morocco/Algeria/Tunisia – Northern Africa. The jewel tones look nothing like mortar, but like exotic gems from Egypt. It is also nothing like the other recipes, as it has lots of spice – lots of intense flavors, a lot like the beautiful people from North Africa now calling Israel home.

NORTH AFRICAN CHAROSET

IMG_9542.jpegIngredients:

  • 1/2 cup pitted medjool dates, diced
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup apricots, diced
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup brown raisins
  • 1/3 cup dried cherries
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
  • 1/2 cup chopped almonds
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp clove powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp allspice (English pepper)
  • 1/3 cup silan or honey
  • 1/3 cup Arak (I would substitute sweet wine, pomegranate juice or even a port or brandy for this Middle Eastern liquor)
  • grated lemon peel
  • grated orange peel
  • dash sea salt

That’s it! I chopped up my apricots and nuts and mixed in the rest, substituting Port wine for the spicy, licorice-tasting Arak. It turned our chunky, but really really pretty. It, too, is quite fragrant, and the spices really  intensify the flavors.

So there you, have it. Whether you are celebrating Passover or Easter, or just want to have some experimental fun in the kitchen during quarantine, these should keep your hands busy and your mouth happy for awhile. Have fun!!! And Khag Pesach Samayakh!!! Happy and healthy!!!!!

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A Bit of Judaism for the Uninformed

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Our first Shabbat table in Israel

I’ve had several of my readers ask me to explain and clarify the Jewish Sabbath and also to explain the rules of keeping Kosher. So – I will try to simply tell about both.

In the Bible, the Book of Genesis starts with G-d’s creating the world. Each of the six days of creation: of the earth, the sky, the stars, planets, flora and fauna, man and woman are beautifully described. But on Day Seven, G-d stopped all His work and rested, thus setting the pattern for Shabbat, or the Sabbath. Here, in Israel, the days of the week are translated into “Day One (Sunday)”, “Day Two (Monday),” etc. But Day Seven is the only one that is extra-ordinary and is given a name, Shabbat. Because the days technically start at sunset, Shabbat begins on Friday evening and lasts through Saturday night.

In our hectic days crammed full of busyness, running around doing errands, working, going to school, using technology, and doing, doing, doing until our heads are about to explode!! It’s delightful…. no, it’s MANDATORY… that we take one 25 hour period to unplug, to rest and to just be. The Shabbat creates a peaceful island in time. It’s a time to unwind, to enjoy family and friends, good food and conversation, reading, napping, and being in the present. More and more people, even those who are not Jewish, are catching on to this holy and healthy, time-proven ideal.

Shabbat is a gift given by G-d to us. The keeping of Shabbat is likened to a wedding between us and G-d. And a glorious feast it is! It is truly a special time. In Israel, most stores and businesses close around noon in the winter and around three in the afternoon during the summer months. That way people can go home early to prepare. The pace of life outside the home slows to a crawl and the streets grow more and more quiet. Inside the home is a different matter as the wild rush begins.

The house is cleaned. Fresh sheets are put on the beds. The laundry is all done. The floors swept and mopped. All the food for Friday and Saturday must be prepared beforehand as one does not cook at all on Shabbat. A beautiful tablecloth is laid and fresh flowers placed on the table, which has been set with the good china, silverware and wine glasses. It’s truly a festive meal that will be served Friday night, the grandest of the whole week usually consisting of several courses. We shower or bathe and dress in nice clothes. The men go to synagogue before sunset to say their prayers. The woman of the house lights the Shabbat candles and says a blessing. And just like that, the Sabbath is here. All is done. No more work is allowed.

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Even the most secular people here gather with family and friends, lighting candles and enjoying a relaxed meal together. We sing songs at the table – welcoming the Sabbath Bride and the Sabbath angels into our home. We sing songs of joy and pray for peace to descend over the Land and our world. John and I pray both the traditional prayers and extra (personal) prayers for each of our children, present or not. John (and Max) recite the Eshet Chayil, Woman of Valor, prayer over me. It’s found in Proverbs 31. Then I recite the “Blessed is the Man” prayer over John from the Psalms. It’s quite beautiful, and really cements the family with the mortar of love, forgiveness, and blessing. It’s actually my favorite part of the whole week. Next,  Max chants the Kiddush, the beautiful blessing over the wine. We wash our hands, reciting the prayers, and then John says the blessing over the two loaves of freshly-baked, sweet  challah bread. We have two loaves on the table to remind us of the time G-d provided a double portion of manna on the Sabbath during the 40 years that the Children of Israel wandered in the desert. That way they wouldn’t have to gather their food on the day of rest. Especially if guests are present, the festive meal can last for hours. Appetizers, salads, soup, sometimes multiple main courses, veggies, dessert, fruits, chocolates…

On Saturday morning, you see people walking to synagogue. Each neighborhood has several. There is no (or very little) driving in Israel on the Sabbath. There is no public transportation. It’s very quiet, except for the sound of birds – or rain these days. Unlike in the States, Shabbat morning services start quite early here: 7:30 am to about 8:30. They last about 2 1/2 hours. Then the people walk home, the men in their kappas/yarmulkes and prayer shawls, the women in their finest. We eat a fine lunch that’s been pre-prepared (crock pots are great inventions), then spend the rest of the day relaxing, visiting friends, taking a leisurely walk. No cell phones. No computers. No television or radio. Just being present in the moment and to other people. It’s glorious. Such a gift to be detached. For those that are not religious, Saturday here is the one free day to take a field trip, go to the beach, desert or mountains, to go to a movie.

After it gets dark on Saturday night, we have a beautiful home service called Havdala, or separation. It’s a special time/ceremony where we note the separation between light and dark, Sabbath and the rest of the week. We light a braided Havdala candle, smell fragrant spices, drink a sip of wine and sing lovely songs. Then, quick as all that, Shabbat is over. Sunday here is a regular workday and school day, and the hectic pace of life begins anew. But with Sunday comes the remembrance of Shabbat past and a looking forward to Shabbat to come.

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Now for the explanation of the laws of kashrut, or keeping a kosher home. In America, when most people hear the word kosher, they think of matzah ball soup, deli food, and bagels, cream cheese and lox. NOT!!!! Some others think ‘O.K. Jewish. Kosher. No pork, no shellfish. Got it.’ NOT QUITE!!! There’s much. much. much more to it than that. Actually I remembered the first day I arrived in Israel. We went grocery shopping and I asked a man where the Kosher food section was. He looked at me like I was absolutely nuts. “It’s all Kosher!”

So what exactly is Kosher? Based on the laws in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the Bible lists out the “clean” animals and the “unclean” animals. Any mammal that has a split food and chews it cud is Kosher – thus cows, sheep, goats, even llamas and giraffes are all Kosher. Horses (no split hoof), hogs, hippos, and hamsters are not Kosher. Any fish that has both fins and scales are clean. The rest are verboten. So – salmon, tuna, trout and tilapia are good. Eels, catfish (no scales), dolphins and squid – not Kosher. Neither are crustaceans. Most birds that have feathers and fly are good to eat. Except birds of prey. Nope to eagles, buzzards are hawks. No bugs. No cats or dogs or monkeys or bats – (no coronavirus).

The animal today that is to be the hamburger tomorrow must be slaughtered as humanely and gently as possible. Not to be frightened. A very quick slit of the jugular with a sharp knife – with compassion. All the blood must be completely drained from the meat before it is fit to be sold.

Add to this the injunction to separate meat from dairy products (from the law that a kid can not be cooked in its mother’s milk, an ancient pagan practice). So now, in a Kosher setting not only are the two not cooked together (No cheeseburgers. No beef stroganoff. No creamy chicken casserole.), but the items are never served at the same meal. On the same plates. We’ll get to that soon. Breakfast is usually dairy in Israel. Lunch and dinner can go either way. The best explanation I’ve heard for this is that it makes a clear distinction between life and death. Milk signifies life, and is not to be mixed with death. It’s profound…

I keep a Kosher home. I have separate sets of dishes and silverware for dairy and for meat. I have separate cookware. Separate sinks, Separate shelves in my cabinets and my fridge – all marked. Separate counters for preparing dairy and meat. It’s how I grew up, so it’s pretty natural for me. Vegetables, eggs, fruits, and fish can go either way. It’s called pareveh.  Dairy products are halavi and meat is basari. Kosher restaurants serve only dairy or only meat. Never are the two prepared, cooked or served together. Same with schools – and the army – and hospitals.

What else? All packaged foods that are Kosher are marked as such. In the States, there would be a little letter “U” enclosed in a circle. Look for it on the box or can the next time you go shopping. Cheeze-Its Kosher. Spam. Not Kosher. Bac-Uns. Kosher. Pop Tarts Kosher. Jif Peanut Butter Kosher. Cap’n Crunch. Not Kosher. Go figure. In Israel, most of the larger grocery stores sell only Kosher foods. The Russian and Arab grocery chains are not. All products are labeled as such – with differing levels of strict Kosherness as deemed by specific rabbis’ rulings. Very complicated here.

So, what else makes foods Kosher? If the product was produced in a factory or plant that is open on Shabbat, or the preparer works on Shabbat, the whole product line is rendered nonKosher. There are myriad other rules with varying levels of stringency that I won’t get into here. It can get very complicated.

Also, before one eats a meal, the hands must be washed ritually. There are special hand washing cups and special blessings for the washing of hands. In most Israeli restaurants, you will see specifically designated hand-washing stations from the little pizza joint down the street to the fanciest restaurant in Jerusalem.

Special blessings of thanksgiving to G-d are said both before and after eating a meal. That does nothing to change the food itself, but elevates your spirit to an attitude of gratitude and confers a special sanctity to the food.

In a nutshell, (nuts are kosher) those are the basic rules of Shabbat and Kashrut, although I’m sure I’ve left a ton out – and it will be pointed out by the most observant, this is just an Intro into Judaism 101 for the Unknowing. It’s a lot to digest (pun intended), but I’ve lived a Torah-observant life for much of my life, so for me, it’s just a lifestyle – one much more easy to keep here in the Land of Milk and Honey (both Kosher and can be eaten together!).

Tu b’Shvat Tiyyuul

Yesterday the sun broke through in all its shining glory after months and months of cold, rainy weather. We knew it was going to be short-lived as more was forecast for later this week. John and I dropped our son off at work, and decided to take full advantage of the respite from nasty weather. We drove to the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, to see the increase in water level after the past decade of drought conditions. It did not disappoint.

Just south of Tiberias, we pulled off at our favorite beach. What was once a sweeping expanse of brush, rocks and sand was now completely under water. It even came up to the stone embankment where the picnic tables and campsites were. The stone steps were partially under water. You just have to see!

We’ve been following the rising of the Kinneret water levels over the internet each day, but wanted to actually see the measuring stick at Yardenit (there is also one in Tiberias).This is where the Sea of Galilee flows out to form the Jordan River to the South. Right across the street, I was struck by groups of white-robed masses in the water. It looked like the scene from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I had to get closer. Christian pilgrims from all over the world come here to be baptized in the Jordan (this is NOT the place where Jesus was immersed. That’s 70 miles downstream in the Samarian desert near Jericho). Anyway, there they were, taking full advantage of the sunny weather doing full immersions. It reminded me of a sort of mass mikveh, the Jewish ritual immersion.

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Pulling into Kibbutz Kinneret to turn around and go home, I saw the sign: Kinneret Dates Factory Story. This was turning into a real tiyuul, which is the Hebrew word for day-trip or field-trip. And just in time for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, which will be celebrated from sunset February 9 – sunset February 10this year.

When I was growing up in America, this minor holiday was relegated to the ‘back 40.’ We didn’t celebrate it much at all. All I knew was that it was a type of Jewish Arbor Day. My mother, the designated “Tree Lady” of our synagogue would call up the congregants to ask them to order trees to be planted in the State of Israel. That was about it. Tu b’Shvat has grown in popularity in Jewish communities throughout the world, but here in Israel, it has been and still is celebrated as an agricultural and ecological holiday with much rejoicing.

In Hebrew, letters and numbers are interchangeable, so “tu” are the Hebrew letters ‘tet’ and ‘vav’ (adding up to 16), and Shvat is the name of the Hebrew month – so Tu b’Shvat means Shvat 16. The holiday is not found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), but in the Talmud – the oral explanations of the Law. It’s basically the New Year for trees, or the time which trees are planted. There are both physical and spiritual levels to this holiday. Planting trees in the middle of winter is a sign of hope and a way of re-greening the planet. It has connotations of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and there are ties to the spiritual Tree of Life.

Historically, in the 1500s, in the northern Israeli town of Tsfat, the great Rabbi Isaac Luria (the same guy who wrote the Shabbat hymn, Lecha Dodi) put together a Tu b’Shvat seder (ordered feast) in which different fruits or nuts are eaten along with 4 cups of wine. There is a beautifully arranged Seder plate with raisins, almonds, pistachios, dried figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and other fruits and nuts. There are special blessings: thanks and praise for G-d’s creation: over His sustenance through the year; for the winds and rain; for the fruits (or nuts) of the tree. After the prayers, nuts and fruit with a hard/inedible shell (klipa) and a soft interior is eaten – the almonds or pistachios; the oranges, pomegranates or bananas. Then one says the blessing over wine and drinks a small amount of red wine. Next, fruits with a soft exterior and hard center is eaten (olives, dates, apricots, persimmons, avocado) followed by a dark pink rosé wine. Next, fruits are consumed which can be eaten whole: figs, pears, berries, apples. And a light pink rosé wine is sipped. After that, the celebrants eat something made with wheat or barley: bread, crackers, or a pulse. Then comes the sips of white wine. All of this is interspersed with spiritual readings from the Scriptures and explanations on how one is to ascend from the purely physical to the emotional to the intellectual to the spiritual. Thank you Rabbi Luria. There are several interesting Tu b’Shvat seder guides on the internet, each with different highlights.

So – we found ourselves in the Land of Fruits and Nuts – literally. The factory store of Kibbutz Kinneret Dates. I visited the Garden of Eden and I can’t wait to go back! In typical Israeli fashion, the first thing we did upon entering was to see a movie on the history of this particular kibbutz and on the date palm. The date palm is one of the seven species of plants indigenous to Israel (dates, figs, wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, olives) and mentioned in the Bible. By the end of the Ottoman Empire and the desolation of the land by both neglect and destruction, every single date palm had disappeared in this land.

In 1908, Kibbutz Kinneret was founded and a pioneer named Ze’ev Ben Zion traveled to Iraq to bring back a truckload of palms – and Jewish refugees who were being persecuted by the Islamists. Both the palm shoots and the new immigrants thrived in their new land, so Ben Zion went out again to bring back 1000 new baby palms – and more refugees. Uri Stoner, from Kibbutz Kinneret, researched and developed different hybrids as well as novel uses for dates. In 1933, the kibbutz factory was founded and a multinational exporting of Israeli dates and date products had begun.

The factory store here has products unique to Israel…and all can be sampled generously. There are friendly (English-speaking)kibbutzniks available to explain all of the products. The date is nature’s candy. Naturally sweet and high in fiber, it gives a quick energy boost, yet is very low on the glycemic index. Minerals and compounds in the date are said to increase fertility and help pregnant women to have easier deliveries. They are very high in antioxidants and can help reduce blood pressure. Dates help maintain bone mass because they are high in calcium and magnesium as well as selenium. They are also rich in iron and fluorine – and essential fatty acids that actually help with hunger-control an weight loss. Yippeeee!!! So for a ‘normal’ person, eating 5-9 dates a day is healthy – more for late term pregnant women (dates are reputed to induce labor).

Who knew there were so many different varieties, flavors and textures among different species of dates? Most people are familiar with the Deglet-Noor and Medjool varieties, as those are the top exports, BUT:

Some are sweet and sticky: the Amari are moist and taste like caramel; the Deri are intense and flavorful- almost like a shot of espresso; the Amari, drier, but packing a sugar punch; our favorite, Hadrawi were soft and flavorful, not too sugary, but like butterscotch. We bought 3 boxes of dates.

And the products available!!!! My favorite date product is silan (see’ lahn), a date syrup/honey. I don’t know if it’s available in the US, but I use it in place of other sweeteners now – in cooking and baking, in teas and smoothies. There are different types of date spreads, date candies, date butters, and here, they are all available for sampling. And the prices here are some of the best I’ve seen in the country-

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In addition to date products, there were other products, all organic and made right here in the Galilee. There was carob syrup (which I also use in place of molasses), tehinehs (sesame butter) – so I bought 2 huge jars. I use tehnineh extensively now, including tehnineh and silan on rice crackers. Olive oil, locally produced, bee products, herbs and spices – all from this area.

Add to this the cosmetics line, Shivat, made from the seven species, and I was in absolute heaven!!! We really had a lot of fun, but armed with a couple bags full of goodies and a new cookbook (yay!!!), I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking. So – now for the recipes!

The easiest is the tehnineh spread with silan. Tehineh is much richer in calcium and fiber and lower in sugar than peanut butter, and it is non-allergenic.

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This sesame seed paste is also mixed with the juice of one lemon and a spoon of silan for a lovely salad dressing for chopped cucumbers and tomatoes or for a mixed cabbage and carrot slaw with chopped green onions and walnuts and chopped dates.

               SWEET POTATOES WITH SILAN (parve/vegan)  serves 6

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 large sweet potatoes
  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 3 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp silan date syrup
  • 4 tsp sweet asian chili sauce
  • juice of a freshly squeezed lemon
  • a dash of chili flakes
  • 2 green onions, chopped finely
  • a sprinkling of coarse sea salt

Wrap and roast the sweet potatoes in a 200*C/400*F oven for about an hour. Mix all the ingredients of the sauce (minus the sea salt) with an immersion blender. Score the hot potato and pour the sauce over top. Sprinkle generously with the coarse sea salt.

FREEKEH STUFFED ONIONS (pareve/vegan) serves 6-8

 

This can be eaten as a hearty lunch or served as a side dish for a Shabbat dinner. Its roots are typically Middle Eastern, most likely Egyptian. Freekeh is a type of durum wheat that is roasted to bring out its nutty flavor. The word is actually Arabic for “rubbed” as the grains are rubbed before roasting. As freekeh might be difficult to find outside this area, bulgur or spelt can be substituted. You can also use brown basmati rice for this one. Because it is pareve (neither milk nor meat) it makes a great accompaniment to any main course.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2-3 whole large white onions
  • 2-3 whole large red/purple onions
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup freaked, bulgur, spelt, farro, or brown rice
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 cups mixed green herbs cut finely (parsley, mint, cilantro, green onion, dill)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 cup silan date syrup
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped dates
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Prepare the stuffing: Heat olive oil and grain in a saucepan and fry until hot. Do not burn. Add boiling water and salt, Stir well and cover. Lower flame to simmer for 30 minutes. Then turn off heat and let sit for 15 more minutes. Gently fluff and fold in mixed herbs and cumin seeds, silan and fruit.

As the stuffing is cooking, peel the onions and slice the tops off. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Wrap in foil and roast about 20 minutes in a 200*C/400*F oven – until soft.  Let cool until able to handle comfortably. Remove the inner part of the onion with your fingers, pulling gently. There should be 2-3 layers of the outer shell left. Chop up the onion that was extracted and add to the stuffing mixture.

Fill each onion with the stuffing mixture. Place in a baking dish greased with olive oil. Sprinkle the onions with salt and pepper. If there is any juice from stuffing mix left behind, pour over onions. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake at !70*C/350*F for about 20 minutes. Remove foil so onions can brown and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Serve hot.

                 GLAZED BUTTERNUT SQUASH (parve/vegan)  serves  6

Another great recipe – especially for fall/winter. It calls for butternut squash, but you can use any gourd, or a combination thereof and it will be delicious. I especially like seeing smaller pieces of different varieties of gourds for a gorgeous and colorful platter. This is a tasty side dish, but also can be hearty enough as an entree served with a hearty bread and a side salad.  Also, this is an amazing Pesach recipe (one which I plan to use at my Passover seder this year)-

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 6 gourds (butternut squash), halved, seeds removed
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • salt and black pepper
  • ground cinnamon
  • 3 Tbsp silan
  • 2 sheets of matzah
  • 2 more tsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 190*C/375*F. Drizzle gourd halves with olive oil and silan , and sprinkle with salt, pepper and ground cinnamon. Roast for 40 minutes. Can cover with foil lightly, if it starts to brown too much.

For crumbly topping: heat a frying pan with the olive oil. Add the matzah pieces and cook over a medium flame, stirring constantly to glaze and brown. Add garlic , salt and pepper and a  small amount of cinnamon at the very end. Remove from flame, and add the chopped parsley.

Arrange the hot gourd pieces on a platter and spoon the crumble over top. Drizzle with more silan and serve hot.

AMAZING I CAN’T STOP EATING PUFFED RICE SNACKS!                                                  (                                                    (vegan/pareve)  

I made these yesterday and we just can’t stop sneaking them. Really rich, and decadent, yet I tell myself they’re healthy because of the tehnineh, silan. cocoa super-food combo. It makes me feel better about pigging out. But. seriously who can resist? I’m not paying $7 to $9 for a small box of Kelloggs Rice Crispies ….. when I CAN find them here! So we found a pretty lame puffy rice flakes for a substitute. I highly recommend the Rice Crispies if they are available in your area- just sayin.They can be formed into bite sized balls or put in a wax-paper lined baking dish and cut into squares. I did both. The best part is that they are super easy to make and require no baking or refrigeration.

*****OK, not as an affront to anybody but you hear the most amazing things living here. This is a true(?) story about John the Baptist. In the New Testament, John the Baptizer is a radical hermit preaching about the importance of being a B’aal Tshuva (repentant sinner who comes back to G-d) and performing ritual immersions/mikveh in the Jordan River. He announces the coming of the Moshiach, the Messiah. Anyway, in art he’s always pictured wearing a rough camel hair tunic tied with a thick rope. This ascetic is famed for his diet of eating locusts and honey. But it was a MISTRANSLATION from the Hebrew to Greek to Latin to the English of the King James Bible in the early 1700’s. The honey was most likely a date syrup like silan. And the carob tree (kheeroov) was also known as the locust bean in England. The ground carob beans are similar to cocoa powder, but much higher in protein and in antioxidants. Instead of eating yucky insects like a madman, John was actually consuming a fudgy, delicious superfood paste. Sorry to burst your bubbles, but I found it fascinating!

For those Christians who celebrate the feast days of favorite saints, this is a great recipe to make with young kids in honor of John the Baptizer. For my Jewish friends, it’s a lovely treat for Tu b’Shvat.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1/2 cup tehineh
  • 1/2 cup silan
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup carob powder or cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips, melted in the microwave
  • 4 tsp silan
  • 3 cups crisped rice cereal
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds (optional) or ground coconut

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Grease your hands with a little canola or coconut oil. Form about a tablespoon of the mixture into golfball sized balls. Or spread out in a wax-paper lined baking dish. Let set for a half hour, if you can resist the temptation to eat before then. Cut the chocolate rice mix into brownie-sized bars. Enjoy!!!!

 

 

 

 

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?).

 

 

 

 

The Miracle of the Oil

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The mountains and valleys of the Galilee region of Israel are dotted with groves and groves of olive trees. They are everywhere! These are some of the world’s oldest olive trees; some of the larger ones are over 2000 years old! Our olive harvesting and pressing season has just ended. The luscious, ripe fruits are gathered by hand after the second rain of the year, when the olives have absorbed the rains and have grown swollen and fat. Driving along the Galilee roads, one can see entire families gathering the olives using the “ancient method” of spreading tarps and blankets below the trees and knocking the olives down with sticks. Things have not changed much over the past 3000 years.

The olives are gathered in huge sacs and buckets and taken to be pressed within hours of harvest to capture their freshest flavors.  There is an Arabic saying here: “From the tree to the stone.”  Israel is a leading producer of olive oil- third only to Greece and Spain – producing about 19,500 tons each year of this liquid gold. There are over 120 olive presses in the Galilee and Golan Heights, most owned and operated by the local Druze communities. The techniques used in extracting the precious oil range from the ancient stone ground to Ottoman era press to higher-tech machinery.

Some olive are taken to press. Others are cured for future use. Eating-olives must be cured first. Never eat a “raw” olive off the tree. It contains tannins which are slightly poisonous and can make you quite sick. There are as many opinions here on curing olives as there are people. Most have their own secret and traditional recipes, but all use either a salt-brine method, citrus juice or a vinegar solution. To this solution, can be added any combination of olive leaves, bay leaves, various herbs, hot peppers, citrus and citrus peels, pepper berries, garlic, and various other herbs and spices. This is part of what makes olive tasting here so special. And there are so many different varieties! Who knew????

EVOO (Extra virgin olive oil) is big business in Israel, with boutique oil shops popping up everywhere in addition to the larger production houses. The first press yields the virgin oil. Cold press is best. “Extra” means lower acidity, which for me, is important. The Israeli olives tend to be a little more assertive and pungent, although there are some delicious fruity and buttery varieties. Everyone has a personal preference. It’s not a matter of one type of olive over another, but the process of how the oil is made. And Israel makes some of the best. I buy 4 2-liter cans of a local olive oil made in neighboring Yodfat. I find it to be the best for pouring over salads and for dipping. It lasts us about a year if I’m very frugal. Like several other Israeli olive oils, Yodfat Oil has won coveted awards at the TerraOlivo International Olive Oil Competition. And each beautiful tin costs me 80 shekels, which is about $23. For cooking, my favorite oil – it’s smooth and delicious and stronger than the boutique variety – is Zeta. I used to buy this in California as it is exported to the U.S. (This is a play on words as the Hebrew for olive is zayeet). I can find a liter bottle on sale at the local supermarket for about $6.

Olives are one of the Seven Species of Israel (shiva a’minim), which elevates them to an almost holy status here. Extra virgin oil had holy uses in ancient times. It was used to anoint priests and kings. The golden liquid was used as a healing unguent. It was also used to light the sacred menorah burning in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Part of the Chanukah story is the miracle of the oil. After the Maccabees won the battle for Israel’s independence from the Greeks in about 160 B.C., the Temple was found to be in shambles. Totally desecrated with pigs running loose and sacred objects looted and destroyed. At its Rededication, there was only enough pure olive oil to keep the menorah lit for a day, but it miraculously lasted eight days. Thus we commemorate this by burning pure oil in our chanukkiyah, our Chanukah menorah. We also eat lots of fried foods on this upcoming holiday.

Held in high esteem as a superfruit for its health benefits, these little gems are not only used in foods. Dr. Ziad Dabour, a Druze man from the Upper Galil village of Beit Jann, is a specialist in pharmacology. Since childhood he has studied traditional methods of using the local plants for medicinal purposes. After serving for years as the Chief Pharmacist for the IDF, Dr. Dabour has spent his “retirement” in the demo-cosmetics industry. Tours are available at the Dabour Cosmetics Factory, and you can purchase his organic facial, body and hair care products using local olive oil.

The Tivon-based cosmetic company, Lavido specialists in organic beauty products grown in their own gardens in nearby Nahalal. the plants and herbs are blended with the oil from the Galilee’s olive trees growing in the fields surrounding their small factory. Lavido is my favorite Israeli cosmetic company. Their products are redolent of lavender, roses, mint, rosemary, lemongrass and pomegranate. I love their hand and foot creams.

For a last minute holiday idea – why not put together an olive and olive oil tasting? So easy. Grab an assortment of hearty whole grain breads and fluffy pita. Lay out bowls of different varieties of olives: kalamatas, green olives, black olives, olives stuffed with nuts, garlic, chilies or citrus. On a wooden board, place varieties of cubed cheeses. Feta is especially good with EVOO. But also cubed manchego, grana-padano, some hard cheeses and a brie or cambozola to round out the taste. Add some fresh grapes, pomegranate arils, and cut up veggie sticks. Maybe an assortment of crackers. Don’t forget little bowls of olive oil with the bottles behind them so keep track/rate favorites. Just add a few bottles of red and white wines, put on some festive holiday music, and you have the makings of one great party!

For lovely, personal gifts or hostess presents, take some decorative clear bottles (in the States, available at craft stores as well as Pier One, and World Market, Homegoods, Marshalls, TJMaxx and Homesense). Fill about 3/4 of the way with EVOO. Add sprigs of fresh herbs – rosemary, garlic and peppercorns; thyme and oregano; lemon peel and sea salt; dried chilies. Attach a pour spout and tie the neck with brightly colored baker’s twine or raffia with a sprig of the herbs. A thoughtful present indeed – an easy, too.

Another delicious recipe is to take 4 whole garlic bulbs. Lice the top off each, exposing the garlic. Place in a baking dish and you EVOO over the top to almost submerge the garlic. Bake for 20 minutes at 300*F/140*C.  The garlic will come out soft and sweet, great for spreading on bread directly. Bottle the oil for cooking and drizzling over potatoes, sweet potatoes, and roasted veggies. Total yum!

Salad dressings are easy to make up fresh. Play around with the ingredients and amounts used. I take about 1/3 part EVOO, an acid like lemon juice or vinegar (white, balsamic, wine, or cider) and assorted spices and herbs, sea salt and fresh ground pepper. About !/3 part water. Shake and voila!

For homemade beauty – try making a scrub for a special home spa day. So simple! Just take a small jar and add either white or brown sugar or course sea salt. Pour olive oil over the top and add a few drops of essential oil to the batch. I love fresh lemon juice and a bit of rosemary in my scrub. images-5.jpegEnjoy! Happy holidays….