Just Donut Tempt Me!!!

I’ve been a really, really good girl this entire Chanukah season. I’ve looked, I’ve ogled, I’ve photographed, but I haven’t touched a single donut!!! Until just now. You see, it’s the last bit of Chanukah here in Israel. And the main holiday food is sufganyot (soof-gahn-YOTE), or the filled donut. And my wonderful husband just came back from his errands around town with a Chanukah present: the purple box! Roladin sufganyot!

But first, before I reveal the surprise, let me backtrack. The sufganyot make their appearance right after the Sukkot holiday, typically in October. The ones in the supermarkets are typically more like a dense bread than their light, fluffy and sweet American cousins. Instead of exploding with jelly, they have maybe a scant teaspoon of filling… and frankly, we never shared the excitement over this humble pastry…. until last year, that is.

You see, over the past couple years, Israel has taken the art of the donut to an entirely new level. It’s become a high art form here, culinarily speaking. No longer content with the meager teaspoon of overly sweet, fake raspberry jam, pastry chefs have become more and more creative with flavors like coffee cream, strawberry shortcake, bananas foster, German chocolate, pistachio cream, birthday cake and lemon meringue.

The photos at top left and right are from the Roladin bakery chain. They have their game down. The donuts are light and airy, just the right foundation for the fillings…and toppings…and add-ons. I like that many have squirt tubes filled with chocolate, caramel, coffee, jellies, butters, and creams so you can squeeze in the amount of deliciousness you want inside your pastry. Some donuts are a mere platform for the bananas and caramel custard (bananas foster); chocolate ganache and marshmallows, topped with a layer of donut and finished off with caramel sauce (S’mores); whipped cream, fresh raspberries topped with a French macaron.

Feeling a bit more adventurous? Head to Tel Aviv, where sufganyah artistry reaches its crazy peak. In the picture below are three interesting examples: a tad more exotic, from Lehamim Bakery. The first uses etrog, the fragrant citron used on Sukkot. The inside is filled with a citrus custard and bits of citron. Then comes pomegranate, with pomegranate cream, topped with pomegranate arils – more sour than the expected sugar explosion. And a tropical passionfruit-mango version. Simple, and high quality, with a nod to the local produce. I understand their marzipan filled version is to-die-for. They are open 24 hours a day, literally to satisfy your donut dreams.

Boutique Central, with locations throughout the Tel Aviv area offers baked donuts, which are a bit more healthy??? than the normally fried version. Shemo Bakery also has baked sufganyot. Cafe Soho sells vegan varieties – egg and dairy free. With all natural fillings like almond butter and jelly, and tehine and silan (date syrup). They color their dough with beet, carrot and spinach juice (I understand it just imparts color, not taste). I’m really intrigued by the halvah variety, since this sesame paste/ honey candy is my absolute favorite. To have it as the filling for a donut sounds like heaven.

You see, it’s customary to feast on fried foods during the eight days of Chanukah. Mainly because we celebrate the miracle of the oil to light the ancient golden menorah/lampstand in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was only supposed to last one day, but miraculously burned for eight days until new, pure olive oil could be brought in from the Galilee. So the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent make latkes, fried potato pancakes topped with applesauce or sour cream – which are out of this world. The Moroccan Jews eat svenj, a light puffy donut ball which uses goat yogurt as its rising agent (must say, these have become my favorite). Mizrachi Jews from the Middle East eat falafel, fried meats, and jachnoon, a dense rolled-up bread like pastry that is deep fried and covered in a sticky, sugary rose-water syrup.

Shall we go up to Jerusalem, where the Temple was rededicated over 2000 years ago and the Chanukah party is still raging? This year, I’ve heard that the latest fad is the “Abu Dhabi Donut.” The normalization of relations with UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Bhutan and other Muslim countries is our modern-day miracle. Who would have thought peace in the MidEast could ever be a possibility? To honor this new friendship, one bakery, Cafe Kadosh, has been inspired to create a date-filled confection, lightly dusted with sugar and topped with date cream and currants, sultanas, coconut and gold leaf. The dates were shipped to Israel by the local UAE Jewish community. Donuts in Israel usually sell for anywhere from $2.50-5.00 a piece depending upon where in the country you buy them (Tel Aviv – Jerusalem is always much more expensive than the periphery). The Abu Dhabi version goes for 22 shekel, which is about $6.75. And Cafe Kadosh is hard-pressed to keep up with the demand!

More creative varieties I’ve seen this year include plum-cinnamon; apple-vanilla-brandy; and brioche, which I understand is akin to the American “cronut.” The larger cities offer gluten free confections; children’s varieties topped with miniature toy “prizes” and gold foil-wrapped Chanukah gelt (chocolate coins); and one hipster Tel Aviv cafe is selling dognuts …. yup. You read that correctly. Donuts specifically made for your fur-baby in flavors like carrot cream cheese and peanut butter pretzel. There’s something for everyone.

So, what was in my special Chanukah box? Six melt-in-your-mouth balls of deliciousness. We had cookies and cream (Oreo topped); French kiss (raspberry cream with a raspberry syrup syringe, topped with Chambord glaze and a macaron; dark chocolate caramel (can’t wait to try!!); blueberries and whipped cream with a shot of vanilla syrup (I split this one with John. It was as if an angel from heaven floated down and dropped it into my mouth. Another Chanukah miracle??); mocha – also delicious – filled with a coffee cream, topped with dark chocolate ganache and crunchy amaretti; and one other which is white and mysterious that I shall save for breakfast tomorrow. Who can diet during Chanukah? I did my best! I was so good, but then temptation overtook. The diet will have to wait until New Year’s.

To all my readers celebrating Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza and the New Year, keep safe, keep the faith, be healthy, be happy, be holy. Spread love and light. And may 2021 shape up to be far better than the past year. Oy to the world!!!!

It’s Olive Season!!!

It’s olive season here in Israel!! This year, I had the great fortune of following native Israeli, Boaz Engel, as he harvested the fruit from his Yodfat Olive orchard. Plus I had the added bonus of going to the beit baad, the press, to see how the liquid gold is processed. It was completely different than anything I expected, but totally wonderful, nonetheless.

The Galilee region of Northern Israel is Olive Central. There are more orchards here, with more varieties grown, than in any other place in the world. Everywhere you look for miles and miles, olive trees cover every hillside and valley. From late October to early November, usually right after the first big rainstorm, you can see the olive pickers. Most of the groves here are Druze and Arab owned. Entire family groups drive into the orchards, spread out their big blankets under the trees, and start whacking away. The men whack at the limbs with long sticks, causing the olives to fall from their branches onto the blankets below. Young boys climb into the canopy and hit the branches to dislodge the fruits while the women prepare the noon meal from grills and tables they set up between the rows of trees. Depending on the size of the grove, picking usually lasts a week, sometimes two weeks. Then, they take their full crates to the community presses to make the oil. Besides being hard work, it seems like it’s also a huge social event as well as yearly family ritual.

Until I moved here, I had no idea there were so many different varieties of olives, or so many ways to prepare them. All varieties start out green. They can be harvested while they are still green. As they hang on the tree, at the proper time, they quickly turn from green to purple, red or gray, and eventually get darker and darker until they take on a deep brown, dark gray, or black color. Each type of olive has a different use – for eating or for pressing. They vary in flavor, oil content, and intensity. Some are rich, meaty and mild; others are up-front and strong with a certain “bite” at the end. The curing and brining process accentuates these differences. Getting out “in the field” to see the process up close was such an educational experience!

I was familiar with wine tasting, whiskey flights, coffee tasting and even testing different types of teas, so it should have come as no surprise that there are olive oil aficionados offering special oil tastings. I’ve enjoyed several since I’ve been here, and have refined my own tastes, so there are those I use for cooking, and those I use for making salad dressings. There are the “extra-specials” that I reserve for dipping and drizzling on cut up veggies or humus. By far, the best olive oil I have ever tasted comes from Yodfat, a neighboring village. So, to meet and shadow the owner of Yodfat Olive Oil, Boaz Engel, made for a wonderful day.

Boaz Engel lives with his wife and four children, ages 6-15, in the beautiful mountain village of Yodfat, about 15 minutes from Karmi’el. He has been growing olives since 2012. Boaz’s mentor, fellow Israeli and senior agronomist, Reuven Birger, has guided and accompanied Boaz throughout the years, but mostly, it’s been trial and error. He grows olives in two orchards spreading out over 450 dunams or 112 acres of land. His trees were purchased as seedlings from a special nursery specializing in olive trees. They come from France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Israel. He now has about 15,000 of the healthiest, most beautiful trees I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I asked Boaz if they need any special care, as most of the trees in the groves I’ve seen in the Galilee have paler leaves and a scraggly appearance. His are vibrant and lush with dark green foliage. One thinks that pruning after harvest is enough, but Boaz makes sure they are well irrigated all year long and fertilized during the summer months. He watches carefully during the winter months for any sign of leaf disease and during the spring and summer for insect infestation or dryness. Any of these can cause the leaves to fall prematurely, or the developing fruit to be deformed or stunted.

Despite the height of the olive harvest, Boaz was gracious enough to meet me on the side of the highway and drive me to the grove – I never would have found the tiny and obscure gravel road that narrowed into dirt paths otherwise. He escorted me through the rows of trees, pointing out the differences between the green Barnea the workers were harvesting (this would make that wonderful buttery oil I love the most); the French fichuline, an excellent eating olive; his award-winning picual from Italy; and the Coratina with its incredibly strong taste, so strong that the oil must be blended with the gentler Barnea to be palatable. Boaz would grab a handful of each kind of olive and crush the berries in his hand until the oil ran out. Each type produced a different quantity (some have a naturally higher oil content) with a different smell. WARNING!!!! Never attempt to eat olives straight from the tree! They contain a high amount of tannins which could make you very ill if not cured first (I will explain the curing process shortly).

Altogether, Boaz harvests between 10 and 13 tons of olives each year. While some go for curing and eating, most go into the production of olive oil. From 12 tons of olives, about 1.5 to 2 tons of oil is made. When I asked Boaz how long the whole process took from grove to bottle, he answered “two.” To clarify, I responded. “two months?” and he looks at me like I was absolutely looney. “Whaaaaat? No! Two hours!!” And this is where the story really gets good.

First, I had assumed that we would be taking long sticks and whacking at trees. Or that I’d be picking by hand. With little kids shaking climbing up high to shake branches… ABSOLUTELY WRONG!!!!! The entire process has been mechanized. Hello – we’re in the 21st century now. A big truck casts rows and rows of netting from giant spools onto the floor of the orchard in neat rows. Workers from the moshav (community) spread out the nets neatly under the trees. Then a tractor with a pneumatic arm comes along. The arm wraps around the base of the olive tree; a button is pushed; the arm vigorously vibrates the trunk – and voilà! All the olives tumble out of the tree onto the nets below. It takes all of ten seconds! Then the nets are reeled in and the fruit dumped into large plastic crates and the process continues down each row. It was quite amazing…and deafening. That was the first surprise.

The next surprise came when Boaz asked if I wanted to go to see the beit baad. For some reason I had envisioned a large room in an ancient stone building. There would be a huge grinding stone perhaps operated by horses pulling a crushing device. Also, from the Chanukah story and the book of Maccabees, I had always known that the olive oil takes a full eight days to make. When the Maccabees cleaned out the holy Temple after it had been thoroughly desecrated by the Greco-Syrians in 150 BC, they found only a small cruze of pure olive oil which with which to light the menorah lamp. It was enough to last for only one day, but miraculously burned for eight days until the new oil was ready. According to my friend, Gabi, the oil for the Temple was produced in the Galilee, and had to be brought to Jerusalem. It would have taken a full eight days to travel by donkey, hence the delay. today, the process is almost instantaneous.

The beit baad, the community press, was a large room with a stainless steel machine imported from Italy, state of the art. The crates of olives are dumped into a hopper where most of the attached twigs and leaves are sorted out and the olives washed off in a water bath. The machine then sucks up the olives which are fed into a grinder and crushed. The noise is so intense that we were given headphones to wear to block out the sound. From one chute, the crushed pits and detritus plops out the dregs into a waste bin. From another chute, the golden liquid pours into a large, stainless steel container. The silver barrels are marked with the owner’s name, date, and type of oil. After the oil remains in the drum for about a week, so the oil cures a bit and the sediment settles out, the liquid is decanted into half-liter, liter, and five liter tins, labeled, boxed, and shipped to markets throughout Israel.

I was given a small sample of the freshly pressed oil to taste. It was rich and buttery – the most amazingly fruity taste. The sharp bite at the end (it actually took away my breath!) I was assured would disappear within the next couple weeks. I found out why this was my favorite oil: this particular variety from Yodfat Olive Oil has won first place in the Israeli olive oil competition!

I was able to take home a small bag of the freshly picked Barnea olives to cure at home. So if any of you have access to fresh, unsprayed olives right off the tree (we had lots of these in our California neighborhood, but I never knew how to prepare them), here are some simple instructions:

After washing the olives, make a slit down the center of each one (or at the ends) with a sharp knife. Soak the olives in a jar of sweet water for three days, changing out the water each day as it turns murky. these are the tannins leeching out. After the olives have soaked, transfer them to another jar of water with 12% volume of coarse or Kosher salt added. For a quart Mason jar, this is about a Tablespoon and a half of salt.

Here’s where it gets good, because everyone who cures olives here (it seems like that is everybody in Israel) has their own sworn special recipe. To the jar of olives in salt brine you can add: peppercorns; chiles; garlic; bay leaves; lemon; orange; fennel seeds; cumin seeds, dill weed; olive leaves; onion; oregano; zata’ar; caper berries; or any combination of any assorted herb imaginable. Some people swear by a vinegar solution instead of brining in a salt solution. Others add a few drops of vinegar to the end result. Some say to gradually add more salt during the last week of ‘curing.’ There doesn’t seem to be any set way. People home-cure their olives and then store them in recycled plastic soda bottles. Almost every grocery store here has an impressive olive bar. Here, you can see all the different varieties including those that have been salt dried and those olives that have been pitted and stuffed with almonds, garlic, little cornichon pickles, pimentos, or pieces of citrus. All have a unique taste. I can’t wait to try mine next week!

I have been rather hard -pressed to find jars of tapenade here, and when I have, it’s been exorbitantly expensive – go figure. Most people make their own and it is so easy to do:

I buy an assortment of pitted olives – kalamata, black and green. With an immersion blender, I blend them up with a small amount of olive oil. this past year, I also added a few roasted figs with some sea salt and a bit of fresh rosemary and a splash of high quality balsamic vinegar. It was heavenly!!!!

I can’t wait to go to Yodfat next week (the general store in the village) to sample all of Boaz’s new oils and stock up on this years’ blends. I usually get a large five liter of Barnea and one liter each of the special blend and the Picual. If I figure correctly, it will be enough to last until next years’ harvest. Thank you, Boaz for an amazing experience!!!

New Recipes for the New Year

Endive & Apple Salad with Goat Brie Toasts

How many times have we heard “…in these uncertain times” or “…due to the events of this year” or “…because of the unprecedented events” in the past few months? I think the most useless purchase of 2020 will go down as the event planner/calendar. It’s impossible to make plans these days – whether for international travel or even a dinner party. Here in Israel, the places that are open for business one day are closed the next. For the most part, our airport still remains closed to international flights. We face uncertain, yet imminent, complete lockdowns once again over the fall holy days due to containment of COVID.

In past years, we have enjoyed hosting IDF Lone Soldiers for the holidays: kids who leave their home countries, their families, friends and lives, to volunteer their service in the Israeli army. We’ve had wonderful young adults from the States, the UK, Columbia, South Africa, Mexico, France, and
Australia. This year will be different. This year, we will only have one or two guests at a time spaced over several meals. No soldiers.

As is typical for this time of year, we have been having our end-of-summer one last doozy of a heat wave. For two weeks, we endured temperatures in the triple digits Fahrenheit (40-43*C) with a shift of winds blowing in the desert dust from the East. It’s finally down in the 90s, but, still – with temperatures like these, who wants to cook in a hot kitchen all day? And who can sit down to eat a heavy meal?

This year, I’m focusing on large, cooling salads that can be easily assembled with some accompanying sides. No heavy soups or roasted meats. There are a few recipes borrowed from friends of different ethnicities. Some salads, like the basil recipe, look and sound very unusual (to put it mildly). But I’m including them because they work!! The flavors all come together to create a delicious symphony in the end. So…. let’s get chopping!

LEBANESE BASIL SALAD


Lebanese Basil Salad
Serves 4 as a side salad. (Pareve)

O.K. When my friend brought this salad to the table I was…ummm…reticent to try it. This Lebanese Basil Salad just screamed WRONG!!! But, surprisingly, this works!! Gloriously! The flavors all meld together beautifully to create a total sweet, savory, crunchy, salty umami explosion. Promise me you’ll try it just once, and then write to tell me what you think.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups roughly chopped fresh basil leaves (2 large bunches)
  • 1 small can pineapple chunks, drained
  • 1/4 cup each, chopped red and yellow bell pepper
  • 1/4 tsp (or more if you like heat) chili flakes
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • juice of 1/2 large lemon
  • drizzle extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt

In a large mixing bowl, put the washed and chopped basil leaves and peppers. Gently mix in the nuts and pineapple chunks. Pour the lemon juice over the top using a fine strainer to take out the pulp and pips. Drizzle on the olive oil …. about 1/4 cup and sprinkle on the chili flakes and sea salt. Toss gently and plate. And please… I’m really curious to know how you love this refreshing dish.

ENDIVE & APPLE SALAD

Endive & Apple Salad
serves 4 as a side salad. (Pareve)

This one! Amazing! Easy! Refreshing! Restaurant-worthy! Israeli! It can be a starter, a side or an entire meal. I serve this with whole grain toasts topped with a delicious goat Brie. For us, it makes a whole meal. This recipe was given. To me by Dafna, a vegetarian, native Israeli amateur chef. Because it is traditional to serve apples and honey to Mark a sweet new year, I’ll be serving this for a late lunch the first day of Rosh HaShannah – which also happens to be a Shabbat (so no cooking).

Ingredients:

  • 8 heads of endive lettuce, roughly chopped
  • 2 large green apples, thinly sliced
  • 2 large Fuji or Gala apples
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup candied pecans or walnuts
  • Orange Honey Mustard Vinaigrette, recipe below

Wash and roughly chop the endive into a large, shallow bowl. Thinly slice the green apple around the core, leaving the peel on. Dip the slices in a little saucer of lemon juice to prevent discoloring and add to salad. Toss in nuts and mix gently. Dress lightly with the vinaigrette…recipe below. Then garnish with sliced red apple and fresh basil on top.

Orange Honey Mustard Vinaigrette

  • Zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 TBSP honey
  • 2 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tsp minced red onion or shallot
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

I make this in a Mason jar because it’s easy to add ingredients, shake, pour and refrigerate any leftover dressing all in one jar. Using a microplaner or small grater, grate the orange zest into the jar. Place a fine wire mesh strainer over the jar and squeeze in all the orange juice. Add the honey, oil, vinegar,mustard, chopped onion, salt and pepper. Cover and shake vigorously to create an emulsion. Pour lightly over salad, just to wet, not to overwhelm. Gently mix into salad before serving.

I’m still enjoying our bumper crop of tomatoes this summer! Heirloom varieties from the US plus cherry tomatoes (did you know that the cherry tomato was first developed in Israel over 4 decades ago?) and tomatoes grown from seeds I traded with a local Bedouin woman. Yes, I know I just wrote I’ve been trying to keep the house as cool as possible by not slaving over a hot stove all day. Usually I spend hours parboiling and peeling hot tomatoes to then cook all day for pasta sauce. I spend my late summers canning away foods to be enjoyed throughout the year. This year I tried something different. I cut up my tomatoes, whole, no peeling, and laid them out flat on a foil-lined baking sheet. A drizzle of EVOO and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar over the top. A generous sprinkling of sea salt, pepper and dried oregano and a tiny pinch of chili flakes and pop it all into a 200*C/400*F oven for 15 minutes.

While the tomatoes are roasting, I sterilize my quart sized jars and lids in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. After the trays of tomatoes are out of the oven and cool down about 5 minutes, I transfer them to a larger bowl and use an immersion blender to crush it all into a tasty pasta sauce. The still-hot tomato sauce is poured into the sterilized jars and zehu, that’s all!

I saved the seeds to plant next spring…

The next way we’ve been enjoying all those yummy tomatoes is a very simple tomato toast, a recipe brought to Israel from the Spanish Sephardic Jews. It’s become a family favorite, especially when paired with a salad. I even eat it in the morning for breakfast with a medium cooked/slightly runny yolked egg on the top. It tastes absolutely decadent!!!

Tomato Toasts with tons of garlic!!!!

I buy 3 long, crusty baguettes to last a day in our household. Slice each baguette in half lengthways, then cut into halves or thirds. Place in a 200*C/400*F oven for about 5 minutes or until the bread starts to brown around the edges. Remove from oven, and while still hot, rub generously with peeled, raw garlic – we like it very garlicky, so I use a clove for each slice. Halve a large, fresh tomato. Rub it all over the garlic toast, skin side down, so the bread turns pink with tomato. Drizzle with EVOO and sprinkle with sea salt.

The next salad takes me back to my Southern California days. It’s my version of a fiesta salad. If I wasn’t trying to keep the house bearable cool (we just have one tiny AC in the master bedroom and one overworked, too-small AC in the salon, so…. if I didn’t mind using the oven so much I’d roast a sheet pan full of zucchini, onion, tomato and bell pepper to put on top. Here’s the stripped-down version. Feel free to improvise!

FIESTA SALAD

On a large platter I arrange the following (can you tell I’ve really been getting into serve-yourself platter salads? It makes for great presentation):

  • Tortilla/corn chips
  • 1 medium sized can corn,drained
  • 1 medium sized can black beans, drained
  • roasted veggies, optional
  • chopped tomato
  • chopped cilantro (cuzbara)
  • 2 chopped avocados
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or pumpkin seeds
  • 1/3 cup grated sharp cheddar

This is large and hearty enough to serve as a whole meal. I squeeze lime over the whole salad and serve little side bowls of sour cream, salsa, chopped onion and black olives. A cilantro-lime vinaigrette is also a welcome topping.
Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette

  • 1 cup cilantro/cuzbara leaves
  • 1 lime
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 avocado
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt

Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor, or use an immersion blender to make a creamy emulsion. Drizzle over salad. Keep refrigerated in a small Mason jar for about 3 weeks.


This light and creamy (dairy) salad is very Israeli, the flavors mild and very cooling. It’s a perfect accompaniment with fish or a dairy meal (I’m thinking a quiche or a cold Lukshen kugel/noodle pudding). Serve in a shallow bowl with a sprinkling of fresh rose petals (edible if organic), nasturtiums or marigold petals from the garden. I think it’s really funny that they call it Grapes Salad with a plural – because you shouldn’t be confused and think it only uses one grape, hahaha!

ISRAELI GRAPES SALAD

Israeli Grapes Salad
serves 4. (Dairy/Chalavi)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups green grapes, halved lengthwise
  • 1 cup celery chopped thin
  • 1/4 cup chives or green onions, chopped thin
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1 cup plain yogurt, if you have goat milk yogurt, it’s amazing
  • 1 TBSP honey
  • 2 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tsp lime zest
  • 2 TBSP finely chopped fresh mint
  • sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
    Combine first four ingredients in a large bowl. In Mason jar, combine the yogurt, honey, lime juice and zest, chopped mint, salt and pepper. Cover and bake well. Pour the entire jar of ‘sauce’ over the grape mixture. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving.

I hope you are all managing to stay cool- whether it be the heat of the Middle East or the humidity of the East Coast of the US. I understand the fires and smoke combined with the heat all up and down the West Coast of the United States has made life really unpleasant. Here’s hoping the New Year brings better things than the past.

I’ll be doing another recipe blog during the holidays. I’m already working up a few delicious surprises! Please let me know what interests YOU!!! Would you like more food-related posts? They are my most popular. Or would you like to read more about the places, people, or culture? Perhaps the politics here in the Mid East is what excites you- that’s ALWAYS an interesting topic. Or the many religions here…. and the myriad religious sub-sects within each larger religious community. Thank you for taking the time to read Israel Dreams, and let me hear from YOU!

Until next time, happy holidays and looking forward to fall!

The Spice Life: Recipes!!!!!

After our months of lockdown, opening my home/cage and setting me free has been an incredible experience. To take a friend, get in the car and start driving to a brand new location – WOW!!! There are just so many places to discover here in the Galilee region of Israel’s North!!! A few weeks ago, I decided to take a trip to Bethlehem. No, not THAT Bethlehem! The other one. Bet Lechem haGlilit – the Galilean Bethlehem. Are you totally confused yet? Just wait…

In the Jezreel Valley of the Lower Galilee, about 15 miles east of Haifa and 6 miles northwest of Nazareth is a sleepy little blip on the map, Bethlehem of the Galil. Because it is within an easy morning’s walk to Nazareth, one Israeli archaeologist is convinced that THIS is actually the birthplace of Jesus. After all, why would Mary and Joseph walk almost 75 miles over mountains and through deserts when she was in her ninth month? It kind of destroys the whole narrative found in the Gospels, but this is Israel, and there are a myriad of opinions on everything.

It did exist in antiquity and there was a Byzantine community that was established here in the 3rd century. After that, there came the Crusaders, as seen from the architectural ruins and structures built atop them. It was later re-settled by the Mamaluks and then Muslims from the Ottoman Empire, but was deserted by the late 1700s. In the 1800’s German Templars settled in Bethlehem haGlilit as well as several other places in Israel. Their distinctive architectural style – the stone houses with wooden shutters – can be seen in the photos below. In the 1930’s the Israeli/German Templars aligned wholeheartedly with the Nazi party. YES!!! We had Nazis living in Israel. How ironic is THAT??? In 1941, the British, who controlled Palestine, deported them as enemy aliens to Australia. Weirdness abounds here.

“The Other Bethlehem” is now an agricultural community of mostly Jewish families, but there are lots of Muslim and Druze residing in the area. Famous for its herb and spice farms, it’s home to Lavido Cosmetics Factory and store (we never made it as far as Lavido) and Derech HaTavlinim, The Spice Way – the largest spice store I’ve ever seen. This is unlike any other shuk or spice place I’ve ever been, and the next time we have guests from abroad, I’ll include this on our “go to” list. The intensity of colors!!! And smells!!!! So let’s go visit!!!

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Let’s start with rice spice, which is incredibly popular here. Variations of rice spice are sold from burlap bags and cardboard boxes at every supermarket here. I’ve always been intrigued, but never knew how to use them. So I bought several blends and took them apart for you to be able to make at home. Recipes to follow. But who knew there were so many different ways of making rice? That each ethnicity here has a favorite blend and particular recipe?

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The simple white blend in the above photo has a mixture of dried white onions, currants, golden raisins, sliced roasted almonds and sea salt. I love that they have instructions (in Hebrew) for many of the blends. This one, you add a handful to jasmine or white Persian rice as it cooks and then sprinkle some on top for crunch. The blend to the above left is a Mexican seasoning with crushed bell pepper, chile, cumin, salt, died onions, dried garlic, pepitas and crushed dried tomato powder.

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As you can see, this is unbelievable, and I was in culinary heaven!! Thank goodness, most of the blends are inexpensive, and I bought small amounts of several just to try. There are Asian blends, blends with dried lentils, assorted nuts, all kinds of interesting ingredients. There is a special blend for cooking in red rice. Once mixed in your own kitchen lab, it can be stored in a tightly sealed glass jar for about six months. Sprinkle it over freshly cooked red rice and mix well. Add some to the top for extra crunch. It uses:                              1/2 cup dried onions                                                                                    1/4 cup dried minced garlic                                                                       1/4 cup toasted pine nuts                                                                           1/3 cup roasted, salted pecan bits                                                                1 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt                                                                           1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

Here is one blend I took apart and has now become a favorite. It’s sweet and mild enough to add a nice flavor. Great served with chicken or salmon.

Orange-Cranberry Rice 

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The spice blend for this is as follows. It can be stored for up to six months in an airtight jar.

  • 1 cup dried onions
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup cranberries
  • 2 Tbsp minced, dried, red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup orange peel, diced
  • 1 tsp sea salt, coarse, or Kosher salt (Maldon is great)

Use this with a long grain, white rice. For every cup of rice I use 2 1/4 cups water and a handful of the above seasoning blend as it cooks. You can add a squeeze of fresh orange juice. This is so absolutely delicious, and adds just the right amount of fancy.

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There were dozens of za’taar blends: Druze, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and more. Each ethnicity having their own version. It’s made of hyssop, a thyme/oregano type woody herb that is indigenous to the MidEast, salt, and sesames with many variations. Usually, it is spread over humus, or fresh dairy products, sprinkled on Israeli salads (think tiny cucumbers and tomatoes chopped very small), and served in Druze flatbread sandwiches filled with Labaneh, a wildly popular sour cream cheese.

Easy HomeMade Goat Cheese Loaf Galilee Style

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Ingredients:

  • 1 liter fresh goat milk (Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, Whole Foods)
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp nigella seeds (ketzach) or (back) sesame seeds
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • za’taar

Pour the goat milk into a glass or ceramic mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice. Let sit for an hour until curds begin to form. Strain the curdled milk (you can save the leftover whey water for pickling vegetables – that’s how it’s done here) in a finely meshed colander. Add the seeds and salt. You can also add 2-3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh herbs and garlic at this point OR 1 tsp za’taar. It’s optional, but wonderful. Mix together with a wooden spoon. Place the cheese curds into a large cheesecloth folded/doubled over. Tie the ends of the cloth onto a wooden spoon and hang on the faucet over the kitchen sink. This allows all the liquid to drain out, taking 3-4 hours. Unfold the cheesecloth and dump the cheese ball, which can be formed into a ball or loaf with well-oiled hands, onto a plate or shallow bowl. Refrigerate for an hour to firm and chill. Serve with olive oil and za’taar sprinkled on top. This is typically a breakfast food here, served with pita, olives, and chopped veggies. Very Galilean.

At The Spice Way, there was an entire row of different fish spices. With Lake Kinneret (sea of Galilee) only a twenty minute drive, fresh fish is quite popular here. Denis, Amnon, St Peter’s Fish, Trout are all found in abundance in the Kinneret. Ordering the fish at a restaurant, it comes to the table completely whole (skin, bones, head and tail) smothered in spices, piping hot off the grill. It’s an experience. Anyway there were so many different spices just for fish:

And of course, there were bulk dried herbs, dried fruits, and combinations of herbs and fruits to make tea infusions. A huge grinding machine for crushing sesame seeds to make techineh. Dried lemons and limes, crushed dried flowers (for Middle Eastern culinary delights), preserved citrus in huge jars; preserved fruits and veggies; grains and pulses; olives of all kinds; freshly pressed oils – the list seems endless.

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I’ve never seen so many pepper blends: powders and crushes – so many shades of orange and red. Hungarian paprika; tomato, chile and bell pepper blends; smoked and sweet paprikas; hot peppers; sweet peppers; Italian, Spanish, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Middle Eastern. Craaziness! (no filter used to enhance- these are the absolute gorgeous colors!!)

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There were several bowls of spice and herb blends just for different potato dishes. I bought a few and went home to experiment. This is the best recipe I came up with after “dissecting” the ingredients of one particular sack.

Potato & Onion Strata

I made this dish three times. I wanted to snap a photo, but every time my husband or son had carved more than half for themselves. Finally….

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First let’s start with this mixture of deliciousness – stores in glass jar for up to six months nicely – if it lasts more than a week or two. The blend cam be sprinkled on mashed potatoes or loaded baked potatoes. Put a little dish out at your next do-it-yourself potato bar.

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Spice Blend for Potatoes: 

  • 1/2 cup coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup dried/roasted garlic pieces
  • 1/4 cup dried/roasted whole garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup dried onion flakes
  •  1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 2 Tbsp dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp oregano, optional
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp dehydrated, minced tomato (sun dried), optional

For the strata, I used a quiche dish, but you can use any style baking dish.

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced paper thin (I use my mandolin)
  • 3-4 large yellow or brown-skinned potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
  • 1/4 cup potato spice blend
  • 3 large eggs, beaten

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Preheat oven to 200*C/400*F. Grease your baking dish with the olive oil. Arrange the thinly sliced potatoes concentrically or in overlapping rows on the bottom. Add a layer of the onions. Sprinkle with the olive oil and the spice blend. Add another later alternating potatoes and onions, oil and spice. Do this as many times as you can until the layers are almost at the top of the dish. Pour the beaten egg over the top, very slowly, to allow it all to seep into the cracks. sprinkle more spice blend on top. Place on foil lined baking sheet and bake in oven about 15 minutes until the top browns. Cover with foil to prevent burning and bake an additional 20 minutes. Uncover dish and let brown about 3 more minutes. Don’t let it burn. Remove from oven and let set, about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

This next recipe is very Middle Eastern. I hate to claim it as Israeli, because, once again, there are so many variations based on ethnicity. It starts with a spiced chickpea which can be roasted and eaten as a low-cal, healthy snack.  It can be served uncooked, mixed into a salad(think veggies, quinoa or cooked bulgar wheat). The Egyptians use it as a stuffing for hollowed out baked onions, peppers, and squashed. Yemenites use it to stuff a chicken before baking. Some people blend it up to make a humus. Quite versatile.

This uses sumac, a red berry from the sumac bush which grows in this area. The berries are died and ground into a powder. It’s a bit coarse and has a tart, almost lemony taste that cannot be duplicated. It can be found in many grocery and specialty stores outside the Middle East. It is ubiquitous here – a staple ingredient in fattoush salads.

Basic Spiced Chickpeas

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Ingredients:

  • 2 14 oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp ground sumac
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin

Preheat oven to 170*C/3608F. Heat the oil one medium high heat in a medium sized pot for about a minute. When hot, add the spices and reduce heat too low. Cook, stirring until fragrance is released, about 2 minutes. Add the chickpeas and stir to coat.Turn out onto Silpat covered or greased parchment covered baking sheet. Spread out so chickpeas cover the pan in a single layer. Bake for about 10 minutes.

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These are great eaten as a snack, cold, as is. The peas turn out slightly crunchy, but have a soft center. You can add the chickpeas to a Galilean salad.

  Galilean Chickpea Salad

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup spiced chickpeas (see recipe above)
  • 1 cucumber, diced finely
  • 1 large tomato, diced finely
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small red onion, diced
  • 1/3 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup mint, chopped
  • 1/3 cup celery leaves, chopped, optional
  • 1 lemon
  • Drizzle olive oil
  • sea salt, to taste

Combine the chopped veggies in a large bowl. Add the chickpeas and mix. Squeeze lemon using a strainer to catch pips. Add juice to chickpea mixture. Drizzle with olive oil. Add the chopped parsley and mint (and celery leaves). Stir to combine. May add sea salt to taste. Serve cold.

Another option to the above salad is to add a cup of cooked quinoa, and here in Israel, cooked freekeh(a grain) or burgil(a cracked wheat)  is also a popular variation. If you are serving a dairy dish, crumbled feta cheese can also be added.

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The above picture is one of the more ‘interesting’ blends. Ras-el-Hanut translates from the Arabic loosely to mean specialty of the store. Each spice shop has their own unique blend, and, once again, it varied widely depending upon ethnicity. This one contains cardamom, ground roses (really!!!), ground lavender, cinnamon, cloves, and dried ground raisins.  The little sign at the bottom instructs us to add it to a kilo (2.2 pounds) of ground beef along with chopped onion and chopped cuzbara (cilantro) and salt. Mix gently until combined and form into small logs (kabobim) and grill. Or form into balls and simmer in a tomato sauce.

Now for a healthy dessert. A couple days after we visited the spice superstore, my travel buddy, Hadassah Rose, surprised me with a lovely gift –

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She made a wonderful sweet, but not too sweet, healthy date roll chock full of goodies like nuts and dried fruit and mini dark chocolate chips. We finished it off in no time. Using many of the ingredients she bought that day, Hadassah gladly shared her recipe. A couple days later she brought over another adorably wrapped log, this time filled with dried pineapple, mango, papaya and coconut. Oh my L-rd!!!!

Hadassah Rose’s Date Logs

  • 100 grams coconut oil (1/2 cup)
  • 400 grams pitted dates (medjool) (1 1/2 cup, well packed)
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut or 1 cup almond flour
  • 3 Tbsp almond butter or techineh (tahini)
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1 cup dried fruit (apricots, cherries, cranberries or tropical), chopped
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts)
  • 1/2 cup seeds (sunflower, pecan or toasted sesames)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
  • extra coconut, fruit or nuts to decorate

Process first five ingredients in a to a smooth, thick paste. Transfer to bowl. Mix in fruits and nuts, with oiled/gloved hands (this is sticky!!!) Smash down in parchment lined (coconut oiled) pan. Refrigerate until hard, 2-3 hours. Cut into squares; or with oiled/gloved hands, roll into log or balls. Can decorate by rolling in coconut or nuts. Wrap in parchment. Keep in fridge until ready to eat.

Perhaps this will inspire you to experiment with creating your own unique combination of herbs and spices. If you are ever out here, I’m certainly game for a return trip to ‘the other Bethlehem’ to visit Derech haTavlinim!!!! 

 

 

 

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 –

 

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 –

Cooling Summer Salads

Our lockdown due to the global pandemic officially entered a new phase last week. Restrictions were eased allowing Israeli citizens to travel the country a bit more freely – provided face masks were worn. Stores with streetfront access were open (forehead temperatures were taken before entering).  Restaurants, malls, cinemas, sporting events, all remain closed. Religious services were allowed with masks and proper social distancing. Schools began to open up.

But then, as quickly as the easements were occurring, the next plague swept in with a vengeance! Schools were closed again. Few dared leave their homes. Heat! Searing heat with over a week of extreme temperatures soaring well into the triple digits Fahrenheit – the 40’s Centigrade!. The winds were hot. The skies blistering. So we “sheltered in place” as best we could. You know it’s a scorcher when you go to take a cold shower, put the water on full cold, and tepid/lukewarm water at best comes out. We have one tiny air conditioning unit (mahz-GAHN) in our living room (for the whole house) and an even smaller mazgan in our master bedroom. The best we could manage was to bring the internal temps to a “balmy” 94 degrees Fahrenheit!!! Even the dog was lethargic. This was one time I was glad our scheduled houseguests from the States had to cancel their travel plans. Venture outside? I think NOT!!!!

Heat up the house even further by running the oven? NO WAY!!!! Inspired by the weeks of cooking shows by my favorite chefs (and I found a slew of new favorites) during the stay-at-home period, I decided to get creative with whatever I had left in the freezer, fridge and pantry. And I harvested most of my lettuces and the rest of my citrus fruits before they could burn up in the sun. Along with my new found organic produce delivery, we were good to go. So, I thought I’d share with you some of those recipes for when the weather heats  up in your area (Most I posted on Instagram and Facebook without recipes).

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                    COOLING CITRUS PAVLOVA

I started with dessert first, because, hey! Why not? This was by far the easiest, throw together; the most beautiful, colorful, juicy, sweet, creamy dessert ever. I harvested and wanted to use up all my grapefruit, lemon, oranges, and clementines. Luckily, I had bought package of miniature meringue puffs ages ago, thinking they were marshmallows. So now, to use them! Check your local supermarket to see if they carry pre-made meringues. Here in Israel, they come in all different shapes and sizes (and colors). If not, meringues are fairly easy to make – just requiring stiffly beaten egg whites (or aquafava, the juice left over from your canned garbanzos or kidney beans) and sugar with a little cream of tartar.

Ingredients:

  • peeled, de-seeded, and sliced (crosswise) segments of your favorite citrus fruits –
  • meringues (I used pre-packaged)
  • high quality vanilla ice cream
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 3 TBSP white sugar
  • 2 TBSP vanilla extract, Chambord or St Germain liqueur (optional)

Line a serving platter with the meringues – this could be one large pouf, mini meringues, or meringue cups. On top of that, lay the sliced citrus fruits – the more varied the colors, the prettier. Whip the cream (I used 38% milk fat) with the sugar until it holds its shape. Add in the flavoring, optional, but yummy. This time I used St. Germain, which imparts a lovely elderflower taste – virgin Elderflower Syrup (non-alcoholic) is available at IKEA. Spread on top of the citrus. Add as many scoops of vanilla ice cream to the top as you have people.

               PEACH and CARPACCIO SALAD

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Sometimes, you just never know what you’ll find in your freezer!!!! Going through for odds and ends and recipe ideas, I found two tiny packages of beef Bresaola I got from my Italian friends last summer. Usually made from horse (uuggghhhh), Daniel and Claudia bring me Kosher beef bresaola from Milan. It’s an air-dried, salted beef that has been aged two or three months until it takes on a dark reddish purple hue. It’s lean and tender and sweet. Altogether delicious. Claudia served it wrapped around melon, so I’m guessing if you can’t find Bresaola, a prosciutto would work well here. It can be eaten as an appetizer or main course (for a luncheon or light dinner).

This is another easily assembled recipe that looks amazing and is super delicious. Especially on a hot, no-cook day. Here, I was able to harvest the last of my arugula/rocket leaves, and also use the basil from my garden. I even used the crumbs from the fresh garlic croutons I make each week. Amazing!!!!

Ingredients:

  • Arugula/rocket
  • Sliced peaches
  • Thinly julienned Italian basil
  • Beef Bresaola, Procsciutto, or Carpaccio
  • High quality Balsamic vinegar (I use the one with three coins on the front of the bottle for extra richness/sweetness)
  • Bread crumbs

All you do for this one is to arrange the arugula/rocket leaves on a plate. Alternate the peach and bresaola slices. Scatter the basil on top. Drizzle with balsamic and sprinkle with those crunchy, salty, garlicky crumbs. If this is not an umami explosion, I don’t know what is!

                          AVOCADO SALAD

This was another winner as a side salad requiring no heat and little time to put together. If you keep Kosher, this is a good one because it is neither dairy nor meat, and can be eaten with either food group. As you can see, I’m really not giving quantities here as I was using up all my produce and odds and ends – and it depends on the number of people you are feeding. These are easy enough to eyeball, guesstimate, and assemble.

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                                BEET SALAD

Because of the influx of Russian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European immigrants to Israel, beets are a most popular food here. They are ubiquitous on the Israeli table – in borscht, in salads, as side dishes, even pickled beets. Very cheap, and easy to grow (I’m growing both red and golden as well as the candy-cane striped chioggias which I shave raw into salads). I always have at least 4-6 roasted beets in my fridge for put-together recipes…

This recipe can be made with the addition of feta cheese (or bulgarit cheese) crumbles, if you are serving a dairy meal. I left it out as we were having a salad with smoked duck (recipe to follow) that evening.  Also, it used pickled onions, a really easy thing to make that is a staple in our home. I use the pickled onions on sandwiches, and in salads as a random garnish. Quite deliciously tangy and sweet.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 large red beets
  • 1 golden/yellow beet (if available)
  • 1 orange zested, peeled, seeded & segmented
  • squeeze of orange juice
  • pickled onions (recipe follows below)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt, fresh cracked black pepper
  • rosemary of thyme

Wrap the beets in foil and roast in a 200*C/400*F oven for about 30 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool fully. Remove the skin and any “burned bits.” Slice into a bowl. Squeeze about 1/4 cup orange juice over the beets. Add about 1 teaspoon of the orange zest, and the segmented orange bits (you can also use canned mandarins, which are impossible to find here). Drizzle with about a tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle with the slat and pepper. You can add about a teaspoon of fresh rosemary or thyme or just use it as a garnish Both work well in this salad. Top with a scattering of pickled red onions. Serve cold.

Pickled onions:

  • 2 large red/purple/Bermuda onions
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup white wine/champagne vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp white sugar
  • 1 Tbsp pickling spice
  • 1 tsp coarse salt

Peel the onions and slice thinly. In a medium saucepan, heat the vinegar sugar, salt mixture to boiling, then let simmer five minutes. Remove from heat and add in the sliced onions. Add the pickling spices. Store in a glass jar. Keep refrigerated. This will stay good for weeks and I add extra sliced onion as the quantity diminishes with use. The pickled onions will be ready to use in as little as half an hour after they are made – but keep getting better as they sit in the fridge.

                     SMOKED DUCK SALAD

This was our favorite salad ever. I found a smoked duck breast in my chicken just hiding out under the frozen peas. So glad!!!!! Don’t even remember when I bought this pre-packaged little gut, but it was a life-saver. The inspiration for this one takes me back to one of our favorite San Francisco restaurants, Cinema Cafe. Served with a crusty slice of sourdough, and its a winner of a meal – great for company!!!

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I’m just giving ingredient list here as you can determine how much you want to make to feed a hungry crowd. I was using everything I had left in my pantry (literally) and fridge, so….

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1-2 smoked duck or chicken breasts, sliced into thin strips
  • arugula/rocked/ baby lettuce leaves
  • sliced cherry tomatoes
  • pitted kalamata olives
  • 1 can drained garbanzo beans
  • pickled onions (see recipe above)
  • garlic croutons
  • lemon juice
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • pepitas/pumkin seed (sunflower seeds, nuts, whatever you can find)
  • poached eggs
  • salt and papper

Arrange the first five ingredients on a platter fairly artfully. Drizzle with freshly squeezed lemon juice and olive oil. Sprinkle on croutons and pepitas. On the top add one or two perfectly poached eggs per person, keeping the yolk fairly runny.

It’s fun to break the egg yolk into the served salad and mix it up with the other ingredients as kind of a warm sauce. Quite fancy. Very easy to make and super tasty!

 

 

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!!!!