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.

Time for a Bit of Fun!!

Oh my goodness! Between elections, lockdowns, Green Passports, ankle bracelets for quarantines, and the news cycle in general – it’s time for a bit of fun. Actually, as a semi-new immigrant in a foreign land, there’s lots that can make you completely crazy – or absolutely uproarious. We choose to take the “let’s just laugh at it all and make fun of everything” route. So – let’s go!!

Let’s start with driving. Israeli style. Hold on to your seatbelts, because the lines on the roads (Israeli’s say “lane” for line and “line” for lane, so THAT’s always confusing!) – those lanes/lines painted in the middle and on the sides – well, they are put there as a subtle suggestion. We live way up North, in the perifery, where many of the highways are still one-lane in each direction. So imagine driving on this two-lane road, winding your way up a mountain. And you get behind a very large truck hauling a tank. Yes. A ginormous army tank. No biggie. Common occurrence. It’s very slow, but it gives you a chance to take in the scenery.

The cars behind you start honking like mad. This too, is a very common occurrence. Israelis talk with their horns: whether it’s to tell you that the light is about to turn green; to speed up because ‘I’m in my line/lane getting ktsat impatient’; or just to say shalom – the horn is there for communication. All the time. So the car behind that’s honking decides he’s had enough and creates a third line/lane right down the middle. The tank pulls waaaaay over to the side. You’re plotzing as you watch the oncoming car get waaaaaaay over without slowing down, and the new middle line/lane takes shape. Yikes!!!

So last week, for some weird reason (I think John did a California Roll instead of coming to a full stop), a cop pulled us over. Of course, at this point we are very nice and speak only English. Despite the policeman’s attempt at communicating in Hebrew, we understand NOTHING (wink, wink). So he switches to very broken English. And it happened again: “You need for me lessons,” he says. “Why do we need lessons? What’s wrong?” John asks. “You give for me lessons.” I’m trying really hard not to crack up. John responds, “I took lessons already.” “No. Your lessons. I not took your lessons.Take from me your lessons.” At this point, I interject -“OH!!! You must mean license!!!! Honey, the policeman wants your LICENSE.” He says, “Yes. Yes. Your lie-sense.” After minutes of back and forth, it’s pretty obvious he’s getting nowhere and lets us off the hook. Still – you had to be there. The whole thing was a complete comedy routine.

Parking: if you thought the rest of the Western world was bad in their parking abilities, then you’ve never been to the MidEast. Welcome. There are never enough parking spaces. This country was designed for only a few cars. Small cars. Miniature cars. So parking over the lanes/lines is just a thing. You’ll see cars half-on/half-off the sidewalks. You’ll see cars parked in places one would never dream of parking anywhere else. A few weeks ago, I went to the supermarket. And when I came out, this was my predicament. I had no idea who the wiseguy was (notice he pulled his side mirror in, a sign he does this shtick regularly). All I could do was shout “Un-be LEEEVE-able!!” five times – and take a picture. (I just notice: I am on the lane/line. Oops)

So I climbed around the other side. Speaking of climbing on/out, I’ve never before been to a country where the following happens: I’m driving on the highway…..the big one, Kveesh Shesh…. the one with three lines/lanes in each direction. And there’s a bus right in front of me that decides it’s time to slow down and then stop right in the middle of line/lane one. And a bunch of Ultra-Orthodox Jews hop off the bus. A whole bunch. Why? Because it’s time for afternoon prayers. And when it’s time, it’s time. So they hop off the bus and line/leyn (sorry, if you’re Jewish – pun intended) up on the side of the road, and in back of the bus, and whip out their prayerbooks and start to sway back and forth in prayer. With cars speeding by in lines/lanes two and three. Then they get back on the bus, as the cars behind me create a fourth line/lane, and drive around the bus blocking up traffic. It’s actually kinda fun to watch. Then there’s the Muslim contingents who stop, whip out their prayer rugs and pray on the side of the road. And it’s not at all uncommon to see the Arab contingent parked on the side of the road, taking a break under a tree. Because when it’s time for coffee and hookah…. they whip out their plastic lawn chairs, bring out the porto-hookah and mini camp stove to make Turkish coffee and take a break. Would I lie to you???

There’s one picture I just refuse to take. Something that totally drives me mishuggah. The men. Yup. The Middle Eastern men. They have this thing about stopping the car to jump out and walk over to the side of the road. They then proceed to whip out… well, you can only guess. ALL THE TIME!!!!! Watch the Seinfeld ‘Uromysetisis’ episode. It’s absolutely ubiquitous here. Un-be-leeeeeeve-able! And while we’re on driving, the road signs can be quite amusing. For one thing: Hebrew uses completely different letters than English, so all the English words are merely transliterations which can be spelled many different ways – like Tsfat/Zefat/Tzfat/Safed or Akko/Aco/Acre. Can be a bit confusing for the uninformed. And the Hebrew signs! This one, for the city of Bnei Brak, an extremely ultra-Orthodox place, announces that the entire freeway ramp leading into the city is blocked off from Friday afternoon- Saturday night because you ain’t gonna drive in this town on Shabbat – or holidays. So we’re just gonna shut it all down. So there!

This is a cool one: the place on the road sign reads “Ma’aynei HaYeshua” which means Springs of Salvation.

Religion here is a pretty thing. Taken quite seriously. So to see semis on the freeway with “Ayn ode milvado” in Hebrew, which means “There’s no other but Him” on the mudflaps is actually nicer than the naked girl on the flaps of American trucks. Yes, I’ve seen Scripture verses on the windows, verses that remind me to refrain from gossip “Lo lishon harah” which is a good thing for me to keep in mind. The city buses will even have Scripture and Shabbat or holiday greetings. Speaking of Shabbat, check out this guy. He reminds us “Keeping the Sabbath is a source of blessings.” Also nice.

This one is seriously funny. We see it in the Golan and it cracks us up every single time. It tells us not to enter the military training ground. Live fire. Feathers???? Obviously, someone needs spellcheck! Oh, and the deer – it’s not a hunting area. It’s the symbol of the Northern Command. No animals harmed here.

We don’t live too far away from the Jordan River. For the Christian tourists, it’s a holy place reserved for baptisms. For the Jewish contingent, it’s a great place to go river rafting and canoeing. There’s this great place for canoeing called Rob Roy. But their logo is a bit of a mixed metaphor. It’s the Jordan. Right? The JORDAN!!! And their logo features a Native American, because we all know Native Americans travel exclusively by canoe. And Rob Roy??? A Scottish highwayman who lived in the 1600s? I just don’t know about that one…

Back to driving with another example of terrible Israeli drivers. We had to follow this guy and snap a photo. What makes it so uproarious is that it’s the test car for someone who is trying to get their driver’s lessons. He was backing into a parking spot and totally hit a pole and tore off the back bumper, crumpling up the trunk. We think he needs more license!

O.K.This next one’s pretty funny. They built a new home here in Karmi’el. A beautiful, expensive, multi-million shekel home. But the builder made a very big mistake. He didn’t measure the owner’s car before he built the garage, which is just a few centimeters too short for the intended vehicle. Gotta get a photo of this one!

The next one is cute: in the neighborhood near ours, the women obviously take pride in their bus stop. For Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, they decorate it with a bamboo stalk roof, and palm branches and decorations. They have a light-up menorah and hanging decorations at Chanukah. Here it is in the summertime with framed prints of artwork. Community beautification. I love it!

I think the same group of ladies who decorate the bus stop are the ones who take care of the cats. Let me back up. In Israel, we don’t have squirrels roaming all over the place. We have cats. Feral cats. Lots of them. They are absolutely everywhere. Maybe that’s why we don’t have huge rodent problems…or squirrels? So these ladies (I’ve never actually caught them in the act, and I think all the old ladies in Israel do this…) leave out food for the cats. On paper plates. In foil pans. In empty plastic ice cream containers. Cans of cat food. Handfulls of kibble. Huge pieces of schnitzel, potatoes, green beans, couscous. Fish tails. Fish heads. Meatballs. Seriously. Go for a walk after dinner on a Friday night, and see what the kitties are feasting on. Not only that, but in the more upscale neighborhood, there are special kitty feeding stations for cats of privilege.

Heaven forbid, anyone should ever go hungry here! With all the Jewish mothers around…. and the cathouses. Yup you read that one correctly. Cat Houses. They are set up in the winter. Everywhere. In the parks. Under bushes. Behind rocks. With blankets. And pillows. And. of course, food. So they stay dry and warm. Everywhere. Because heaven forbid, a kitty should not be cold and wet. I kid you not. This is the WEIRDEST place!!!! We love it!!!!

Grocery shopping is always an adventure here, too. For one thing, to get the agahLAH, grocery cart, you have to put a coin in the slot to unchain it. It took a very long time, and a continually upset husband, for me to realize that the “nickel,” the five shekel coin that’s the same size as a US nickel…. (well it’s actually worth about $1.50) needs to be retrieved from the slot at the end of the shopping trip. And you never know what you’ll find at the store here. We’re always on the lookout for hard-to-come-by American imports, and like the typical freiers that we are, have been known to pay $12 for a box of Poptarts (I never ate them in the States, but hey…. nostalgia kicks in) or $9 for a teeny can of albacore tuna. And when you see that product (Brillo, mandarin oranges in a can, Brianna’s salad dressing, molasses, Crisco), you buy it all, because you’ve learned it’s a fluke and you’ll never see it again. Then there’s the fake news of American products which are usually made in Lithuania or Botswana or Upper Korindia. Beware!!

Some things are really fun. Like the Bazooka flavored milk. Israelis love Bazooka. Gum. Milk. Ice cream. Bazooka cakes. We have hot dog buns imprinted with fun slogans like “Summer’s here” and “Time for some Fun.” And the ever-interesting Russian cans of ???? The CIF jug is always my favorite. I have absolutely no idea what it is: laundry or dishwasher detergent? Floor cleaner? Windows? Toilets? Radiator fluid? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s the yellow jug below. But what makes this ultra hysterical (and I mean HYSTERICAL) for us is that Hebrew name. Hebrew is a language with no vowels. Your guess is as good as mine. Plus the letter “P” is also an “F” except when it’s at the beginning of the word, in which case it’s a “P” except for weird exceptions. So when we see that bright yellow jug, we ALWAYS shake our heads and say “Pants steak?????” But if you look closely, it actually reads “Fantastic!” as is fahn-TAH-steeeek. Every. Single. Time. Pants steak. Gotta love it!

Another fun thing you won’t see too often outside of Israel is this: An every day sight here:

It actually makes us feel really safe knowing there are always soldiers around (he’s probably an American lone soldier. He has a jar of Skippy. Maybe I should invite him over for Shabbat dinner?) I also took a picture of the t-shirt another gentleman in the next line/lane was wearing. He wasn’t American. I have this sneaking suspicion…

OR this one: 2021- the year spelling turned deadly –

We really haven’t gone to restaurants for over a year now, but here are a couple mis-spells to make you scratch your head:

If anyone knows what pettrejane is, please let us know. In the meantime, al snarkiness intent ended. The small salad is exactly as it sounds. Just that. A small salad. And don’t you dare ask for dressing!

Just Donut Tempt Me!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

IMG_0086

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 –