Dairy Days: With Recipes!!!

It amazes me how schizophrenic this place can be. Just last week, people were living in bomb shelters, glued to the news, and praying that the shelling would cease. The next week, everyone is back to business, schools are open, the stores and cafes are full, and it seems life is mostly back to normal, whatever that is anymore. Israelis are a resilient bunch. I can attest to this by the video clip a friend sent me of young Israelis on a Tel Aviv Beach last Sunday morning. The beach was packed. When the sirens went off, they grabbed their towels and ran for the shelters. Ten minutes later, they’re back on the beach until the next siren. Un-be-leeeeeve-able!

I had planned to write this article a few weeks ago before war got in the way. We were just about to celebrate the extremely joyous holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks for the Jews and Pentecost for the Christians. Along with Pesach(Passover/the Feast of Unleavened Bread) and Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) it is one of three pilgrimage festivals. This holiday has its roots in the Bible and can be found in the first five books, the Torah. Starting after Pesach, a counting of the days is made… fifty days (hence the Greek word Pentecost) of the wheat and barley harvest. It marks the time when the Jewish people were obligated to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer thanks for their harvest. In Christian tradition, it commemorates the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples of Jesus (who were also in Jerusalem for Shavuot) and marked the birth of the Church.

Today in Israel the fields are harvested much as they were millennia ago, except with modern farm equipment. Everywhere we travel, we see the fields being reaped and the bundles laying in the fields ready to go to the granaries and mills.

Shavuot goes by several names. Besides being the official beginning of the summer season, it is the Biblical Feast of Firstfruits. At the time of the Temple, besides the grain offerings being brought, the firstborn of the animals were brought, and the firstborn children of that year were brought for a special blessing by the priests. Today, in Israel, the Temple Mount has been replaced by the Al Aqsa Mosque, but the mostly agricultural holiday is still celebrated in grand fashion. People stay up all night reading and studying the Torah, as it also marks the giving of the Law to Moses by G-d on Mount Sinai. It is also a tradition to read the book of Ruth, as that story takes place during the barley harvest.

On the farms and kibbutzim, people dress in white and wear floral wreaths on their heads, men and women alike. There is much singing and dancing, and dads dance around holding their little babies high above their heads. There are parades throughout the towns with tractors and floats piled high with fruits and veggies and fresh flowers and with children holding the baby farm animals they helped raise. It has the feeling of a rural American county fair.

This year, however, things were a bit different. I’d like to share with you a wonderful video clip from Hananya Naftali:

Because the mother sheep, cows and goats have an abundance of milk at this time, Shavuot is also a huge celebration of the dairy industry here. Also, from a Biblical viewpoint, the Torah is compared to mother’s milk, and Israel is the Land of Milk and Honey, so it is a custom to visit local dairies and to eat plenty of dairy products. Cheesecake is ubiquitous here during the Shavuot holiday. Everyone seems to have an opinion on how it should taste, mostly based on where you are from. The heavier, creamier, cold American style topped with fruit; a light and sweet French version; a savory crustless cheesecake served by the Mizrachi Jews of the Middle East; some people even serve it warm! Usually. cheesecake is eaten with breakfast here, as that’s the main dairy meal of the day in Israel. Most Jewish people (those who keep the Kosher dietary laws) do not consume dairy products at the same meal with meat.

This year we ventured up to Kibbutz Rosh haNikra, an idyllic village/kibbutz tucked into the foot of the mountain that literally butts up against the Lebanese border. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. In the picture below, you’ll see the kibbutz. At the top of the mountain, you can see the border fence. To live here knowing that just a few yards away is the Hizbullah army with estimates of upwards of 150,000 missiles pointed towards you… it’s just about as interesting as us living a mere 12 miles from the border. Still, life goes on – you can also see the banana plants they grow here (foreground):

We visited the kibbutz on a lazy, early Friday morning. The kibbutz has beautiful vistas of the Mediterranean Sea to the West, and as is typical of kibbutz living, has a central community area with shops, post office, clinic, schools, cafe and community center in the middle with homes radiating outward from the main hub. People were having picnics on the main lawn, there was music streaming out of the coffee house, and Galili Dairy had a cheese tasting, which is why we were here. Standing as a stark reminder were the bomb shelters every few hundred yards. It’s only a 14 second warning to drop everything you are doing and run for cover in the event of an emergency here.

We were here to visit Galili Dairy, owned and operated by the Regev Family. They live in the neighboring farming village of Abirim, raising about 200 goats there. The goats are not allowed to graze in Rosh HaNikra Kibbutz because they are too messy, so the fresh goat milk is trucked into the kibbutz daily. The Regev’s have turned the old community kitchen that was no longer in use into their dairy. Even though, the place is still called a kibbutz, the residents no longer share meals as a community together. Today, there are individual family housing and living units. So the facilities are rented out, a win-win situation for both parties.

TAbout seven years ago, the matriarch, Sarit Regev, took a course in artisanal cheese-making in Provence, France. She came back to Israel, applying what she learned and adding her own regional twists to make some of the best Israeli cheeses on the market.

Galili Dairy offers a wide range of products from yogurt; flavored kefir (liquid yogurt) drinks – think passionfruit, date, blueberry and strawberry; labaneh,the creamy white cheese staple here that’s served at every breakfast; feta, and specialty cheeses. Their bouche with its creamy center is a best seller. My favorites were the Tomme rubbed with the dregs from cabernet barrels and their Tomme with truffles. They offer several Camamberts and Bries, including one with nuts that was just heavenly. The Camembert rubbed with Herbes de Provence was another favorite. There were also two types of Morbier, a hard cheese covered in volcanic ash, which was quite delicious and a cream cheese with mushroom bits – great for spreading on crackers. All cheeses are certified Kosher with a completely organic line as well. They can be found in health food stores as well as TivTams throughout Israel. There is also home delivery available. Again, this is one of the best independent smalls dairies I’ve visited here. Needless to say, we left laden with several varieties of cheese and kefir. Their website (only in Hebrew) is galilee-cheese.com, so for those of you in Israel, you can place your order for delivery directly from the website. They also offer gift baskets and picnic baskets to-go. Take it with you on your mountain hike or to the beach, both of which are a ten minute drive from the kibbutz.

So now for the moments some of you dear readers have been waiting so patiently for: the recipes!!! I’ve been on a quinoa kick here for the past month. This powerhouse of a seed/grain is just loaded with vitamins, minerals, protein, and antioxidants, and is so versatile. The following dairy recipes use quinoa. The first is a cheese puff, that is great as a breakfast or a snack. Take it on a picnic or store it in a freezer bag in your freezer. I made several huge batches, and packed up a box for my son to take back to school. Everyone absolutely loves them – and they are so easy to throw together. The quinoa cooks up in ten minutes, so it’s a quick recipe as well as nutritious.

QUINOA CHEESE PUFFS (makes 6 large muffin-sized or 18 small bite-sized)

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup quinoa cooked in 1 1/2 cup water according to package directions
  • 1 large zucchini, shredded (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 cup Gouda or Tomme cheese, shredded
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves OR 1 TBSP julienned fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 350* F/170* C. Grease your muffin tin. Cook the quinoa according to directions on package. In a large mixing bowl, add the zucchini, eggs, baking powder, shredded cheese, spices and quinoa and stir until well combined. Drop by spoonfuls into the wells of the muffin tin. You can top with a bit of shredded cheese. Bake in oven about 18 minutes or until the bites are puffy and golden brown. Remove from oven. Let cool – and try not to eat them all in one sitting!

The next recipe is for quinoa patties, Israeli style. You can either fry them in a few tablespoons of oil or bake them as a healthier alternative. These make a nice side dish or a vegetarian entree paired with a salad and some fresh fruit. They are very tasty, make great leftovers and freeze well, too. I serve them with a dollop of tsatsiki – recipes below:

QUINOA PATTIES AND TSATSIKI ISRAELI-STYLE (makes 6 large patties)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups quinoa, cooked according to package directions
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 lemon, grated rind, juice squeezed, pips removed
  • 1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, chopped
  • 1 cup cooked greens (spinach, chard, mangold, beet greens or orach)
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground (it does make a difference)
  • 1/2 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, rough chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, julienned
  • IF NEEDED to firm up a bit, 1/4 cup bread crumbs (Italian seasoned are good)

Combine the above items in a large bowl. the mixture should be think and gloppy and hold together well. If it seems too loose, add some bread crumbs until it comes together. Form patties. Place on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet sprayed with oil. Refrigerate for about an hour before cooking. You can place directly into a preheated to 350* F/170*C oven for about 30 minutes or until nicely browned and releasing a mouth-watering smell. Or you can fry the individual patties in 2-4 TBSP olive oil for a crispier outside. Serve plain, hot or cold or with a dollop of tsatsiki

ISRAELI TSATSIKI DIP

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup goat yogurt or goat labaneh
  • 1 cucumber, chopped, peel and all
  • 2 TBSP fresh dill, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 TBSP fresh chives, chopped
  • Extra virgin olive oil, good quality

In a medium bowl, add the yogurt or labaneh, and the chopped cucumber – no need to peel. Mix together. Add the chopped herbs, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix well. Drizzle over the top with the olive oil. Serve chilled.

The next recipe served my husband and myself as an entire meal. We were so stuffed, there was no need for anything else, and we still had half a squash leftover. We ate the leftovers as a side dish with the next couple dairy meals. I had bought what I thought was a spaghetti squash at the market, but it didn’t act like one when I roasted it. It was some sort of very rich, flavorful and nutty squash – there are just so many different heirloom varieties of gourds here! The end result was still amazing, but I’m calling for a spaghetti squash in this recipe. Butternut would probably work well, too. Also, the word KHOO-moos (spelled humus, is the whole garbanzo bean, not just the spread).

STUFFED SQUASH, MIDDLE EASTERN STYLE

Ingredients:

  • 1 large spaghetti (or butternut squash)
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 4 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 cup greens (spinach, chard, beet greens, mangold or orach)
  • 1 medium lemon, rind grated and set aside; squeezed, pips removed
  • 1 can (1 cup) humus (chickpeas), drained
  • 1 tsp dried chili flakes
  • 1 cup crumbled feta or bulgarit cheese

Preheat oven to 400*F/200*C. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Drizzle some olive oil and sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the top. Place on a foil lined baking sheet, and cover lightly with foil. roast in oven for about a half an hour or until the squash is fork tender. Remove from oven.

Take out the seeds and discard. Remove the pulp, placing it in a large bowl. Keep the squash shells to the side. Fluff up the pulp or break into small pieces using a fork. Meanwhile peel and slice the shallots. Heat a TBSP olive oil in a pan and when oil is shimmery, add the shallot and garlic. When they become translucent, add in the greens and cook over medium heat until just wilted. Stir in the chili flakes. Pour mixture into the bowl with the squash. Add the drained chickpeas and the crumbled cheese bits, Salt and pepper. Mix gently. Spoon the mixture back into the shells of the squash. Reheat in a 350* F/170* C oven for 15 minutes to melt the cheese slightly. You can add a bit of chopped Italian parsley or celery leaf as a garnish-

The last recipe is for a breakfast or dessert cake. We all love coffee cake, but this is a bit different. I wanted something healthier, something that paid homage to the diversity of the people of Israel. The Ashkenaz coffee cake with a streusel topping takes on a new life with some surprising additions. I decided to use the sweet Middle Eastern sesame candy, Halva, and some surprising spice combinations. Because Turkish coffee is a staple here, I added in some of that too. Give it a try and let me know how it turns out. Seriously. I’m really interested in how you like it!

Tamar’s Israeli Coffee Cake (dairy, serves 12)

Ingredients: (Cake)

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 gluten free mix and loved it!!!!)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 heaping tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 230 grams (1 cup) room temperature butter (it should be very, very soft)
  • 1 cup coconut sugar (you can use white cane sugar, but the coconut sugar is low-glycemic and adds a more “Israeli” taste)
  • 1 cup silan (date syrup) or 1 cup light brown sugar if you can’t find silan
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups (goat) yogurt
  • 1 cup milk (I used fresh goat milk, but you can use regular cow milk)

Ingredients: Streusel for swirl and topping

  • 1 cup chopped walnut pieces
  • 1 cup chopped pecan pieces
  • 2 cups crumbled halva candy
  • 2/3 cup coconut sugar (or light brown sugar)
  • 2 TBSP espresso powder (or Turkish coffee powder with cardamom)
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Baharat Spice Blend…. I use this a lot in many dishes. Here it’s used to flavor ground meat (kabobim) and in veggies and soups; but I use it in baking and also mixed in with my coffee grounds to make a flavorful brew. You’ll need 2 heaping TBSP for this recipe, but save some for other dishes. Baharat is a very common spice here found in Syrian, Lebanese and Turkish dishes. It’s versatile and adds a depth of flavor that is unparalleled.

  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika

First make the streusel by chopping the nuts in a food processor until you have small bits (it should NOT be powdery). In a medium bowl, mix together the nuts, the crumbled halva, coffee powder, sugar, salt and 2 TBSP of the Baharat spice blend. Mix together well. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350*F/170*C. Grease a large pyrex baking pan. Place baking parchment to cover so that the edges overhang the sides of the pan. Grease the parchment with a cooking oil spray. Set aside. Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add eggs, one at a time, beating the mixture. Add in the yogurt and the silan, mixing well and scraping down sides of bowl as you go. (I use a hand mixer). Alternately add about a third of the flour mixture, continually beating the batter, and the milk. Then more flour, and more milk. Keep beating until the batter is smooth and thick. Drop the batter by spoonfuls into the parchment lined baking dish. spoon about half the streusel mixture onto the top. Then with a fork or a butter knife, swirl the streusel into the batter. Spoon the rest of the streusel over the batter and spread out to cover. Bake the cake about 40 minutes or until your cake tester comes out clean. Remove and let cool 15 minutes before slicing into squares. My husband puts a small slab of butter on the top, and microwaves his cake for 12 seconds so the butter melts into the streusel. He then sprinkles a little cinnamon sugar on the top. I dollop a spoonful of yogurt over the top of mine for a creamy contrast. It’s so so yummy!

Refreshing Israeli Salads!!

Now that spring is here with warmer weather and the wonderful Israeli holidays – tomorrow we will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day, and our Muslim neighbors just started Ramadan, so fireworks and festivities and lots and lots of terrific food will abound. Just last week, we went on a field trip to the south with a great friend. On the way home, we stopped at a lovely Israeli restaurant in Beit Shean, and were treated to a glorious feast, which is completely typical of these little home-style eateries. Before we even received our menu, 18 small bowls of salads were brought out with the fluffiest, cloud-like pita. The dishes included smoked eggplant dip like a babaganoush; humus with olive oil and zata’ar; a spicy sliced carrot salad with hot peppers; corn salad with chives and dill and bell peppers in a simple vinegar; a cabbage salad with corn, dill, chopped pickle and a spiced mayo; bulgur salad; tuna salad; chopped tomatoes and cucumbers lightly dressed with lemon juice and olive oil; and tons of other savory salads. It’s absolutely amazing!

When we received our menus, the staff brought out four large green salads: a fattoush that was out of this world with fresh picked field greens (and I do mean seasonal wild greens from the field like arugula and dandelion and cress and mustards!); a parsley salad that I could eat all day long; a spinach salad; and a slightly grilled Arabic lettuce (Romaine) salad that was sprinkled with lemon and oil. Oh my goodness…. what else could one possibly eat after all that? We ordered a big plate of veggies on the grill drizzled with Ethiopian tehineh and a huge bowl of mejaddara, which is rice with lentils and fried onions and Middle Eastern spices. Plus they brought out fresh olives, a dish of hot mushrooms in a sweet sauce, and about five other things I couldn’t even taste. We were all so stuffed!!! Just roll us out. Please!!!!

So I’ve been busy in the past few weeks fixing a perfecting some “typical” Middle Eastern/Israeli salads to share with you. I do hope you’ll enjoy! we picked up the first fresh figs of the season, so my first is a fig salad with bulgur. I do hope you can find bulgur where you live, if you are reading this outside Israel. It should be available in the rice or grain section in larger groceries and specialty stores. Basically, it’s a parboiled cracked wheat that can be used straight from the bag or soaked in hot water to soften.

BULGUR SALAD WITH FRESH FIGS

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup uncooked bulgur
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
  • 2 TBSP apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 8-10 fresh figs, washed, halved
  • 1/4 – 1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese or feta

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add 1 1/2 tsp oil to coat bottom and add bulgur. Cook about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally until slightly nutty and golden. Add 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer until liquid is absorbed. Place shallots in a small bowl and cover with water. Let stand 10 minutes. Drain. Combine remaining 1 1/2 TBSP oil, chopped shallots, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. In a large salad bowl place bulgur, half of oil mixture, parsley, and walnuts. stir to combine. Top with figs, cheese and a few parsley sprigs. Drizzle with remaining oil mixture. Serve warm or cold.

FRESH PARSLEY SALAD WITH A CRUNCH

So easy to prepare!!!! Just chop fine 2 large washed bunches of fresh parsley. Add 1/4 cup green onions, chopped fine. In a medium bowl, combine

  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/3 cup sultanas or golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup peanuts, crushed or chopped very fine

Scatter this on the top of the salad and drizzle the smallest amount of canola or extra version olive oil on top. That’s it. Simple. Delish! Healthy! Vegan.

VERY ISRAELI FRUITED CAULIFLOWER BULGAR SALAD

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 medium large head of cauliflower
  • 1 cup bulgur
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 fresh lemon, squeezed, pits removed
  • drizzle extra virgin olive oil
  • tehineh (if a paste, mix with a little warm water to form thick sauce)

Pulse the cauliflower in a food processor until it resembles rice. Soak the bulgur in very hot water for about 15 -25 minutes to soften. Drain. Chop the parsley into a very fine dice, stems and all. In a large bowl, mix cauliflower, parsley, bulgur, dried fruit and nuts. Pour the lemon juice and drizzle the olive oil over the top. Season with a little sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste. Place a large serving spoon full of the salad onto a plate. Adjacent to the salad, you a little tehineh. Mix together to eat. This is absolutely fresh and fabulous. High in fiber. Vegan.

FATTOUSH SALAD

This salad is light and easy, healthy and satisfying. a great spring or summer lunch or side salad. I add shredded feta (I buy a block of feta and hand grate it over the salad) to serve as a dairy lunch. You can keep it vegan or serve it as an appetizer or side salad and omit the cheese.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 large cucumbers
  • 4 medium tomatoes
  • 1 small red/purple onion
  • 1 small yellow or orange bell pepper
  • 1 cup toasted pita chips
  • sea salt, pepper
  • juice of 1 lemon, squeezed
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 TBSP zata’ar
  • 2 TBSP toasted sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup shredded feta (or mozzarella)

In a large bowl, cut the veggies into bite-sized chunks. toss with lemon juice, oil and seasonings. The zata’ar is a spice that can be found in larger groceries, specialty or MidEast markets. It’s tasted wild thyme/oregano that is ground with sumac, salt and toasted sesame seeds. Toss the pita chips on top along with the grated cheese. sprinkle a little more zata’ar on the top.

Also, this is fresh garlic season here in Israel. I love this time of year. This year, I bought 100 bulbs of garlic. I braided 60 and have them hanging up and drying downstairs in the laundry/utility room. and I’ve experimented with the others. Peeling the fresh bulbs, I submerged a bunch in fresh olive oil. Those are in my fridge, soaking up the flavors for a month to be used in salads. With 5 peeled bulbs, I submerged them in a jar of olive oil with fresh cilantro and lemon slices. I took 8 bulbs, cut off the tops and roasted them in a low-oven for a couple hours. Those I will spread on breads. And then I pickled a bunch of the freshly-peeled cloves, by placing them in a Mason jar of red wine vinegar with pickling spices and sea salt. After these cure, I will use them as a side to cheese platters and to chop into salads (tuna, salmon salad) and stuff into olives.

Honey and Wine

Israel is a country that never ceases to surprise us. Last week was khol ha mo’ed, the intermediate days of the Passover holiday. It’s a time for hikes, picnics, barbecues, visits to friends, and tiyuulim, which is basically day-tripping. On the recommendation of a couple friends, John and I decided to visit a fairly local winery. Our friends had been raving about their rosé and white wines, so we set out for Jezreel Winery on the small moshav at Hannaton. Oh my goodness, it was packed!! Every picnic table was taken and all outdoor cafe and bistro seating was occupied. The sommelier told us there would be table service for the tasting of all their wines which included a cheese platter, but the wait could be up to three hours. We decided to return another less crowded week, and instead go somewhere else.

It was a beautiful day, the winter storms over, and every hill and roadside field was awash in a rainbow of floral colors. A great day for a ride. We were minutes away from another favorite haunt: the tiny moshav of Alonei haGalil (Galilee Oaks). On the road to my favorite antiques shop, I remember seeing a small, hand-painted sign for another local winery. And this is where the story gets good. We pulled off the single lane ‘main road’ onto a little dirt path and there it was! It had a very familiar fell to it: homey and reminiscent of my childhood in the southern United States. Under a large spreading oak tree was a log cabin! More like an old tobacco curing shack, the the of which used to dot the fields of rural Virginia/North Carolina. Not something one would expect to find in the lower Galilee of Israel. It was the tasting room of Meshek Ofir Wines.

As soon as we entered, I knew right then and there I’d found my new Happy Place. The tasting room was warm, cozy and inviting, and the young sommeliers spoke both English and Hebrew fluently. Besides a nice selection of wine, it was also the tasting room for all their local honey. Tamar, our hostess for the morning, ushered to a porch table under the oak canopy and brought us a flight of six wines to try – all generous amounts – and a gorgeous cheese platter featuring a selection of local goat cheeses, labaneh, pestos, tapenade, fresh veggies, nuts, dates, and because it was Passover, matzah.

There were only two other couples there. Meshek Ofir is a tiny, family-run business that is not well known yet. Their wines are not sold in stores, and they do not market widely. Anyway, as we were enjoying this delightful picnic, a beautiful young woman joined us ( I had mentioned I wanted to find out more about the history of this place for a possible article). Adva is the daughter of the owners. And she began the only-in-Israel story of her family, their history, and the log cabin.

Tzvika Ofir came from a family of beekeepers at Hogla, a small farming kibbutz between Hadera and Netanya. After his IDF service, he met Hadas, a lovely woman from another agricultural moshav. They fell in love and got married. After traveling the world for a year, they returned to Israel and made a home at a newly-started moshav, Alonei haGalil. The newlyweds started beekeeping in 1984 with a few hives from his father, Yishai, getting their own license to be honey farmers (which is now a closed profession here0. It’s one of Tzvika’s passions, and is a win-win endeavor for the farmer as well as the beekeeper. He gets up at 4 a.m. to care for the hives: he now has over 800, collecting the honey and moving the bee boxes to different locations throughout Israel. He smokes out the bees to keep them drowsy and transports the hives in his truck to different fields and orchards. His bees are the pollinators for the different plants, and depending on the flower, the honeybees produce different flavors of the liquid gold.

It’s now the end of citrus season, and soon the mango and avocado trees will be in full bloom. Tzvika’s honeybees produce the most amazing honeys I’ve ever heard of – besides clover and meadow flower, there is sunflower, pumpkin, watermelon, forest fruits, carob, squash blossom, and cotton blossom honey. All are organic and unique to the area, different in color, viscosity and taste – and all are absolutely delicious! And that jujube (Christ’s Thorns Bush) honey is hands down the most different and the best honey I’ve tasted. So I bought a couple jars. They are all so reasonably priced. But I’m skipping ahead….

Having apiaries was Tzvika Ofir’s main love and means of financial stability, but he wanted something new. In 1986 he began to deepen his roots, planting his first vineyard the day Adva was born. Shortly thereafter, two sons and another daughter arrived on the scene. As the family grew, so did the vineyards. Tzvika’s grapes were sold to larger wineries like Recanati, Kassel and other more famous Israeli wineries. The vintners absolutely loved the high quality of his grapes. after ten years, what started as a hobby, took on a new life as he decided to try his hand at making his own wines.

In 1999, Yiftachel Winery was established, bring the story full circle. You see, in this exact area in Israel, archaeologists have uncovered ancient Jewish settlements and villages, each with winepresses, dating from the first century, BCE. Taking on a professional vintner, Kobi Toch, and studying viticulture himself, Tzvika now produces 10,000 bottles a year under his own label (at first Yiftachel Wines, now Meshek Ofir). It is truly a boutique family winery. All four children, now grown, work in the fields with the vines and the bees, and also in the production and marketing end.

All of the wines we tasted were surprisingly good. Adva explained to us that the Sangiovese grape was native to the Jezreel Valley here in Israel. The Romans loved it so much (going back 2000 years), that they took vines back to the Chianti region of Italy, but it was originally an ancient Israeli plant, that grows well here. It’s a big, jammy wine, with a full body and fruity nose. Redolent of chocolate, cherry, and oak, we bought several bottles. Their unique “Marselan” wine is a red blend of Cabernet and Grenache. Aged in American oak barrels, it has a nose of berries, plum, and hints of sage. This is a lighter wine with a nice finish. It pairs perfectly with cheeses and lighter fare like pasta, and makes an excellent sitting-on-the-porch sipping wine. We bought several more of these. John and I sampled the Rosanne ’20, a grassy, citrusy, medium dry white. Also as part of the flight were their Shiraz ’16 and Merlot ’14. But for us, the star of the show was “Deep.” a dark, deep, full-bodied red. the nose has hints of violets!!!! With a rich mouth of berry and cherry and no unpleasant tannic aftertaste. This smooth wine pairs with meats and heartier foods, and it was, by far, our favorite. An amazing wine at a great price. So we bought a case-

Now, about that cabin: Adva was happy to tell us the wild story. It was, in fact, a transplant here. It’s named “Biktat Alan” or Alan’s Cabin. Alan Radley, a nice Jewish boy from the Shenandoah mountains of Virginia, came over to Israel as a Lone Soldier in 1973. He fought during the Yom Kippur War, and afterwards lived on a kibbutz where he made friends with Tzvika Ofir. Besides his love of Israel, he loved building log cabins. Upon his return to the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, he bought an old circa 1840 tobacco shack from a Scottish woman. It was in terrible disrepair, but had potential. Radley had it disassembled and the wood shipped to Israel in 1992. The logs were stored at Tzvika’s meshek (farm). After sitting there idle for a decade, Tzvika offered to buy it from Alan and build the visitor center. He contacted Radley, and for the price of a plane ticket and room and board at the moshav, Alan flew out. With the help of Tzvika and two other friends, had the main frame put together in one day. The logs are all locked together without nails just like Lincoln Logs. By 2004, the panels had been mudded in, windows added, roof put up and an oak plank floor installed. And almost as if it was planned – in Hebrew, alon translates to oak tree. So this oak cabin now sits in Galilee Oaks – thanks to Alan.

Tzvika Ofir, left, sitting with two friends & Alan Radley, right

Everything about this place is a labor of love. Aside from the great atmosphere, excellent service, and top-quality products, their prices are more than reasonable. It’s truly a small family business without pretension. Unlike many of the chi-chi boutique wineries here, Meshek Ofir is a gem and a real bargain. Plus, they offer club membership with a 10% discount on each case. Every Thursday evening Alonei haGalil hosts a local farmer’s market/shuk. The farmers bring their produce fresh-picked from the fields, all organic. There are also artisan cheeses from dairies in the North and artisanal breads as well. Before all the pandemic craziness, Ofir Family Farms hosted regular festivals throughout the year celebrating both the honey and the wine with live music on their sprawling grounds under the oak trees. Hopefully, these fun events will resume later in the summer. Until then, we just can’t wait to return.

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!!!

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!!!! 

 

 

 

Art Over Hate

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We had heard about the graffiti wall on the Northern border of Israel with Lebanon, but had been unable to located it in day trips past. So it was with great anticipation when we drove up there with Israeli friends a few weeks ago. The world seems to have exploded in bouts of rage and rioting and baseless hatred and division over the past few weeks. This wall is most definitely a ray of hope.

Despite the fact that the Hezbollah terror group is strongly entrenched directly on the other side, with hundred of thousands of missiles (thank you, Iran!!!) pointed at us, we actually felt quite safe traveling up to Moshav Shetula. The moshav (small community – this one of about 250 people) was founded shortly after the 1967 War by a group of brave individuals forming the front lines of defense. As one man told us, “Someone has to do it. And we are here to live fruitful, quiet lives.” In fact the Hebrew word ‘shetula’ means planted firmly with roots going deep. It is a beautiful place, perched atop the mountains with spectacular views. The families earn their living mostly through farming and raising chickens, both for the eggs and the meat. Many of the residents are Kurdish Jews, who managed to escape before things got really bad. For them, just the ability to live in freedom in the land of Israel is an honor and a blessing.

In 2017, after several breaches in the security fence, and the finding of Hezbollah terror tunnels that were dug underground into Israel for the purposes of kidnapping and killing Israeli citizens, a reinforced cement wall was built along the border. Soon after, artists – Israeli graffiti artists; school children; non-profit organizations and artists from around the world were invited to decorate it. The theme: Art Over Hate/Love Conquers All. It is an amazingly beautiful sight!!! Full of bright colors, love and hope.

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The above paintings are entitled  “Planting the Tree of Life: Shetula” and “Come Together Right Now Over Love.” The vibrant colors express a vision of hope and peace for Jews and Arabs, looking towards a brighter future when all people can live in harmony. We are not there yet, but perhaps one day soon….

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The next grouping is an homage to the people of the moshav who raise chickens. Whimsicality reigns with these three pieces of art. Honest work to feed the country’s people – noble indeed. May they enjoy many peaceful years up there raising the chickens!

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I absolutely love this one. It’s a painting of Montfort Castle, just a few miles to the south. For a story on the mystery of this Crusader ruin, read my last blog post. The olives grow all over the Upper Galilee, and are one of the crops the people of Moshav Shetula grow. The olive branches are symbols of holiness (the holy oil used to light the menorah and to anoint priests and kings in Biblical times) and of peace. The blue in the background is a special color used here on roofs, gates, doors, and the tombs of holy saints. It has its roots in thousands of years of superstition and is thought to ward off demons from entering.

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In the next grouping, the top painting was done by the children of the moshav. Grapes (grown in the little village), olives, and a heart shaped swimming pool to cool off on those sweltering summer days. A child’s vision of a good world. The bird in the next photo is a Bee-eater, indigenous to the area and quite necessary for pollinating the fruit trees and flowers. He’s bitten his apple into the shape of a heart (Love and Beauty Conquer All). In the next illustration, a dove of peace flies an olive branch to a young girl. And the last in this set is a whimsical depiction of colorful elephants. Check out the baby, holding a lit candle to be a light in the darkness. These illustrations are all about happiness. There is no negativity, no hate here. It’s simply wonderful!!!

Of course, there are the typical graffiti tags and pictures. What would a graffiti wall be without those??? The portraits of the two men were done by Solomon Souza, who is most widely known for his painted murals at the Mechane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem  – as well as several album cover designs.

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Something every soldiers looks forward to – there is actually a phone app counting down the days – is that momentous day they get to cut their choger, (pronounced khō-GAIR) which is their active military duty ID card. And here is a piece of art celebrating that:

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Of course, being in the Holy Land, there is the Bible Verse from Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This is an English translation from a youth group, B’nei Akiva. I think their English skills need a little help, but the sentiment is there.

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My favorite remains the explosive colors and message of hope and love below:

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O.K. I lied. It’s the blue owl. He’s called the Mona Lisa Owl, because his eyes follow you as you walk along the road. But if you look carefully at his pupils, you can see the reflection of the local mountains, opposite him.

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So, there are a few other things I’d like to point out before we leave the art wall. Every few meters there was an indentation of sorts in the wall which looked out over the real electrified border fence. Several military bases are stationed within a mile of each other guarding the border. Our friend, Gabi, was able to explain just what we were looking at. There are cameras all over the place. Every square inch is under IDF observation 24/7. An extra security fence was in the process of being built around the moshav, a necessity and fact of life as to increased threat. IDF patrol vehicles and UNFIL jeeps (United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon) also passed us frequently. Exactly what good they do is hotly debated. And a gentleman who had just picked the most delicious nectarines from the local orchard stopped to give us handfuls on his way to market. That’s typical Israel.

What type of people would build homes, places to raise young children in a place like this? What does the community look like? The homes were all very nice and well-manicured with flowers and an abundance of green everywhere. There was a synagogue, community sports facilities, little general store and post office, swimming pool, amphitheater, basketball courts – typical of every single moshav I’ve visited throughout Israel. Every block had the instant emergency warning system and underground bomb shelter, may they never have to be used. Adjacent to some houses were farms, groves and gardens, with lots and lots of chicken coops on the Southern outskirts of the village. There is also a restaurant on the moshav serving authentic (Kosher) Kurdish dishes….

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As we were leaving, we were stopped at the front gate by the police, border patrol, and civilian guard from the area. There had been a “security breach.” The main exit road was blocked to deal with it. We still felt safe as there were other cars stopped and no-one was panicked in the least. We were told to turn our cars around and leave through the back gates. No biggie. Later we were to find out that three Sudanese men attempted to sneak into Israel and had been apprehended.

We pray for the peace and safety of this land and for art to rule over hate.

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Tree People

 

The Yair Forest in the Judea Hills, Israel's largest forest

The Yair Forest in the Judea Hills is Israel’s largest forest

Before the settling of the Land of Israel by the Jewish pioneers of the late 1800s-early 1900s, Israel was a vast, uninhabited wasteland of bare mountains and deserts. In 1866, the beloved American author, Mark Twain set out on a trip through Europe and the Holy Land, writing his memoirs of the journey in his famous book, The Innocents Abroad. 

Twain was fed up with the primitiveness of the settlements and roads he encountered: “The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became…There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country”. The statement reflects his general attitude to the ancient land throughout his journey.

I come from a line of Tree People. Before Earth Day, before it was even popular, we planted trees and forests. My mother was sometimes known as ‘The Tree Lady.”  From the 1950s to the 1990s, she took on the job each month of calling up every member of the Jewish community in our small Southern US town. On behalf of the Jewish National Fund, she would read out the list of birthdays, anniversaries, new births, deaths, weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of our community for the month. These were all opportunities to make a small donation and have a tree planted in Israel in that person’s honor or memory. In turn, the recipient would get a lovely certificate of planting with the location of the tree. When I lived in California, I became The Tree Lady for my congregation. For years I did the same, inviting people to plant a tree each month. My sister in Raleigh is also a Tree Lady. And so it goes….

When I moved here, it was no surprise to see much of the country covered in forest – mostly various species of pine, but also deciduous oak and maple and elm and hickory and redbud in the North. It is gorgeous and life-giving. Almost every mountain has been planted, blanketing huge swaths in vibrant hues of green.

From the mirpesset, balcony of our house, we look over acres and acres of JNF planted trees. Favorite pastimes of Israelis are hiking, bicycling and picnicking in the forests. Through many donations, and much hard work, the Land has come alive again. We, too, go hiking and have picnics in these government protected areas. Many a last minute decision to pack up a backpack of food, grab the dog, and jump in the car to get out of the city has resulted in an idyllic adventure. Often we pass random people stopped by the side of the road and setting up folding chairs, tables, food – and hookah and coffee set-ups to have a little relaxation time. Jews, Arab Muslim and Christians, Druze – we’ve passed them all enjoying nature in the forest. The Israeli forests are open and available to all.

Very sadly, there are certain (not all, but enough) Arabs who call themselves the Palestinian Peoples who do not want to see the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. They try to thwart our being here any way possible – and one of the ways they terrorize the people is by setting fire to the forests. Each year, there are massive forest fires in this country set by these Palestinian arsonists (It’s a bit like being back in Southern California during brushfire season).

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However, there are several things that are done here that are not done in the States. Namely, we have excellent forest control. If there are any dead or diseased trees, they are removed immediately to keep the forests healthy and to keep any blight form spreading. This is a necessary preventative measure. It is good stewardship of the Earth and its resources. Healthy forests free of dead and decaying matter are less likely to burn as quickly. Still, the damage is done each year by the arsonists.  When a forest burns, after they are put out, the land is immediately cleared and new trees are replanted. In abundance. (There is also video of Arabs pulling out the trees within a day or two of the Jews’ planting. This happens repeatedly.) But these modern day pioneers and nature lovers prevail, as they are constantly putting in new trees and forests across the entire land.

In the Galilee, we have acres upon acres of olive trees. Fruit orchards line the Hula Valley and Northern Golan. Palm Trees stand proudly in rows that go on for miles in the Jordan Valley and in the desert. Most of these groves and forests are still made possible by the donations to the Jewish National Fund. The Israelis in Judea and Samaria have turned the desert mountains green by bringing in irrigation and planting – trees, bushes, grasses, and crops.

We love our land. We are proud of our country. As a whole, Israelis are very green, taking care of the Earth and encouraging her bounty. We know how important it is to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and go Forest Bathing, a now-popular term that was coined here. There are usually (not this year due to COVID) myriad nature camps for kids during the summer months. After high-school, gap year programs include forestry service – before army service the kids spend the year clearing trails, setting up picnic areas, cleaning the parks, planting trees, and caring for green space.

Today, I invite YOU, dear Reader, to go to the JNF website, use.jnf.org

or at Treesfortheholyland.com because trees are a living memorial. Thank you!

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Driving home from a picnic in the Misgav Forest

Golani Cherries!

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Picking Bing Cherries in the Golan  Heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  CHERRY LIQUEUR

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

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

        CHAMPAGNE JUBILEE!

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

   CHERRY-BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE                  (makes 4 slender bottles)

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

Ingredients:

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

  Directions:

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

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

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

THE BEST CHERRY CHICKEN SALAD!!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Ingredients:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Merrily We Float Along

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Morning on the Sea of Galilee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Udderly Delicious

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

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

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Galilean goatherd in the wadi below our house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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