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….

Adventures in the Desert

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A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend that I had always wanted to see (but never had) the film, Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole and Omar SharifObviously, things in the universe aligned, and I jumped at the opportunity to accompany friends on a spectacular field trip. 36 hours in the Negev Desert and the Arava region of southern Israel, which included a one-time screening of the movie about 20 miles from where it was filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

The verdant fields of central Israel soon gave way to blowing sands, Bedouin villages, and the desert. Now I could experience, at least for a little while, the footsteps of the Patriarchs. In front of me was the eastern Negev: the Arava. To the North, the Dead Sea Valley. To the extreme south, the Red Sea. This region is part of the Syrian-African Rift, stretching from Turkey to Africa about 3000 miles. The Trans-Jordan cliffs to the East (Biblical Edom) and the mountains of the Negev that run parallel to the West make up the 110 mile Arava Valley floor. The sandy expense of the Negev makes up more than half of Israel’s land mass. It was the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Of Moses. And later in history, under the British Mandate of Palestine, the land of T.E. Lawrence.

Except for stopping the car every 15 minutes to get out and take pictures, I made record time to the kibbutz where we would drop off our things before heading to the Arava International Film Festival in the new little village of Zukim (Tsookim/Zuqim/Tzukim). Tzukim in Hebrew, means cliffs. This community, first established by a group of Israelis and Anglos from the Southwestern United States in 2003, reminds me of communities one would find in Arizona and New Mexico. From the landscape to the architecture, it all seems strangely familiar. This little yishuv has big plans to double its size of 300 residents within the next ten years. Its main economy comes from travel tourism. Many of the homes have adjoining tsimmerim or guest lodges offering magnificent views and spa services as well as a small selection of gourmet (chef) restaurants. A community and sport center is currently under construction. Large buildable lots for sale offer expansive views of the red rocks and sandstone cliffs of the Negev. And what a magnificent view!!! There is also a funky desert artist colony there featuring sculpture, pottery, weaving and paintings.

 

For the past eight years, Zukim has hosted the Arava International Film Festival each November. Featuring the top tier of global cinema, the movies include old classics, international award winners, animation, shorts, documentaries, and films for children and adolescents. This film festival is garnering worldwide critical acclaim. The specially constructed “theater” is situated outdoors between the desert bluffs, yet consideration has been made for maximum comfort. Moviegoers recline on super-comfortable pillows lining the stands and are provided with individual luxurious fleece blankets for snuggling under during the chilly desert evenings. Pop-up restaurants line the path to the entrance, featuring fast food, gourmet, vegan, and Kosher options. Dine in a desert tent or take the food with you into the stands.

The filmmakers (or in our case, the immediate family members) are invited to share their experiences in the making of the movie featured that evening. What a treat! Both David Lean’s and Sam Spiegel’s families were there to speak on their travels in Jordan, Morocco and Egypt to film Lawrence of Arabia. Sam Spiegel was an ardent Zionist. Who knew?  As Jordan’s Hashemite Tribe controls the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, and they were so pleased with the movie, Spiegel was the only Jew to be allowed to pray at the Western Wall between 1948-1967. For us, the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to watch this masterpiece under the stars near its actual location was, as Sam Spiegel, Jr. said, “almost as good as watching Star Wars from outer space.”

The following morning. we woke up early to explore Kibbutz Lotan, where we spent the night. It is located about twenty minutes north of the city of Eilat on the Red Sea. Founded in 1983 by the Reform Judaism Movement, Kibbutz Lotan is “a place where spirit and earth meet.” IMG_5245.jpeg

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The community thrives on eco-tourism and its date farm. At one end is the kibbutz housing for the residents and the guesthouses for visitors. Each structure is made from straw and desert earth and is powered by solar and wind energy. As with all kibbutzim, there is a central dining hall, a kindergarten, and an elementary school as well as a library, synagogue and community center. A swimming pool and tea house/cafe are available for kibbutzniks and visitors. Bicycles, the preferred method of transportation on the kibbutz, are also available for the guests. Birdwatching and frisbee golf are favorite pass-times for both residents and visitors to Lotan. Eco-tours are given daily.

Of special interest is the Center for Creative Ecology, a sustainable community consisting of a dozen cottages where participants live, farm, and cook their meals. Recycled vegetable oil is used for fueling many of the kitchen appliances. Everything is recycled and composted for use in the desert vegetable garden and fruit tree orchard. Except for potable drinking water, all of the water used for irrigation, cleaning, laundry is recycled gray water or desalinated water from the Mediterranean. Vegetarian  cooking classes are offered where participants can bake breads and pizzas in the hand-crafted clay ovens.

Before our return trip to the North, a visit to Kibbutz Yotvata, the oldest kibbutz in the Arava, was in order. The Yotvata Dairy is famous throughout Israel for sakit shoko (sa-keet’ show-koh), chocolate milk that comes in a hand-held plastic sac. Every kid here loves it! Tear off a corner of the bag with your teeth and enjoy sucking out the velvety, rich chocolate milk inside. It’s an Israeli institution. And at the tour, you get to taste that shoko. In my opinion, Yotvata is some of the best milk in the country. And their homemade ice cream (glee-dah’ which is only available at the Yotvata Factory store) is the best in all the land! Even though they live in the desert, Yotvata cows are happy cows and their milk is a testament to that fact.

It’s amazing to see how these adventurous, hard-working Israelis are cultivating the barren desert. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, had a dream of making the desert bloom. A blooming it is. All along Highway 90 are date farms, pomegranate orchards, and rows and rows of covered agricultural tents. Using desalinated water, recycled water, and water from the Red Sea, there are tropical fish farms – yes!!! You read that correctly! We found Nemo in the desert! And herb farms – we found fresh Basil in the desert! And tropical flower farms! You can even visit the most eccentric place called Crocoloco, a crocodile farm in the desert. It is definitely a land of ingenuity!!! G-d promised He would make the desert bloom again –

Israel is a land of history, archaeology, culture, and breathtaking beauty. For a country smaller than the state of New Jersey, it never ceases to amaze me! It takes a certain kind of person to settle in the desert – and the people we met were part visionary, part stout-hearted – quirky and eclectic people. People devoted to a dream. Fiercely independent, a bit alternative, totally Israeli. I leave you with a bit of that quirkiness found in the most extreme regions….