Tu b’Shvat Tiyyuul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               SWEET POTATOES WITH SILAN (parve/vegan)  serves 6

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INGREDIENTS:

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

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

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

 

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

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INGREDIENTS:

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

DIRECTIONS:

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

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

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

                 GLAZED BUTTERNUT SQUASH (parve/vegan)  serves  6

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

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INGREDIENTS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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INGREDIENTS:

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Spices of Life

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Walking into an Israeli shuk is an experience like no other. The colors and the smells of the spices are heady and exotic. Bags and bins of finely raked, highly colored powders line the stalls. There are all kinds of herbs, roots, pods, and grinds. Spices specifically designed for meat, fish, chicken, rice, salads and soups. Many of which I had never heard of – with strange sounding names like baharat, and dukkah and ras-al-hanout and za’atar. Over the past four years, I’ve invited these beautiful new friends into my home and have learned to use them. By talking to the shop vendors and to chefs and housewives, I’ve begun to incorporate them into my own recipes.

The Israeli palate is very different than the typical Anglo palate. Spice blends I would only use for pies and baked goods in the past, I now use in meats and on vegetables. The Jewish people have returned to the Land from all over the world bringing their tastes, recipes, and spices with them. The heavy turmeric-laden foods of Yemen; the hot chilis and warming spices of Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and other parts of Northern Africa; intensely fragrant flavor combinations of Iranian and Iraqi Jews; the many-colored and different kinds of curries and garam and biryani of the Bnei Menashe of India have all added to the culinary melting pot of this country. Add to that the neighboring Lebanese and Syrian influence as well as the Ethiopian, Egyptian, the Bedouin and Druze foods and the  Israelis’ intense love of the flavors of Asia – you create a flavor fusion unlike anyplace else in the world.

For those of you reading this in khool (Hebrew slang for outside the country), some of these spice blends can be found in the larger grocery stores or in MidEast specialty markets. Start looking around for them. As diversity and intersectionality sweeps the world, more local supermarkets are carrying world flavors. Try World Market or WholeFoods for some of these blends.

I have interviewed many people, and each person has their own take on what goes into each blend. There are as many different combinations and levels of intensity as there are people here. Some are “old family recipes.” Because our family’s taste tends to shy away from intense heat, I’ve tried to stick with the more moderate levels of measurement. From experience, I’ve learned there are some flavors we enjoy more than others. You will have to experiment to find your own range of taste, but that’s just part of the fun. So, don’t be afraid to buy the individual spices and start combining to fit your own palate. Always start with a lesser prescribed amount and add more of one thing or another. And always use fresh spices. Some tend to fade or go rancid after a few months. store in tightly sealed canisters or jars, preferably our of the light.

My first spice blend to share is baharat, with the addition of a little sugar or salt, it’s also known as Rambam spice. This is the one I used in baking at first, but I also put a teaspoon or two into my plum preserves with a splash of port wine as it cooks down. Here in Israel, it’s a key ingredient in kebabim (not skewered meat and veggies on a stick, but fingerlike sticks of spiced ground meat) and other meat dishes. Imagine the surprise – and depth of flavor – of tasting meats and stews with heady cinnamon, cloves, and peppers. It’s also used in rice, with the addition of dried cranberries and currants and chopped pistachios. The word baharat comes from the Arabic for spice, and this is distinctly Mediterranean -Israeli. Most people say it is a blend of seven key spices, but depending upon the region one is from, it changes…so I will give you five different blends.

Shoshanna’s Yemenite Blend of Baharat

  • 1 Tablespoon of cumin
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon English pepper (allspice)
  • 1 Tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons tumeric
  • 1 Tablespoon ground, dried rose petals

 

  Etti’s Iranian Baharat Spice

  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon dried rose petals

 

  Geh’u’lah’s ‘Israeli’ Baharat Blend (my favorite)

  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon English pepper (allspice)
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin
  • 2 Tablespoons dried rose petals

 

   Tzippy’s ‘Israeli’ Baharat

  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 Tablespoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin

Marwan, my spice guy – we all have a favorite spice guy – swears by his absolute best homemade blend. “It must be done this way!!!” There is just no other way to do it, he insists ….. I’ve learned from experience that each person will tell you there is just no other way. Actually, I will buy my baharat from Marwan, because his spices are really the best. Whenever I have guest, we make a special trip to Marwan’s spice shop in old Akko. It’s that wonderful.

  Marwan’s Baharat

  • 2 Tablespoons black peppercorns
  • 2 Tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 4 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom pods

In a small pan, over medium-high heat, dry roast the above ingredients, about 3-5 minutes. Toss regularly to prevent their burning, but they should begin to become very fragrant. remove to a bowl and allow to cool completely. Grind to a fine powder (he does this all by hand on a much larger scale) by hand or using a spice mill/food processor. To this blend add:

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Baharat can be used as a dry-rub for meat or chicken. To make kebabim, take a pound of  ground meat, add a small diced yellow onion, a tablespoon of baharat and some minced fresh parsley. Form into finger-shaped cigars wrapping each around a cinnamon stick. (It will look like a chicken drumstick when done). these are typically grilled, but can also be baked.

 

Middle Eastern “Sloppy Joes”

This dish was gobbled up before I could take pictures, it was that delicious. Instead of putting the ground meat mixture on a bun, as in the States, this dish is served over couscous.

  • 1 1/4 pound (1/2 kg) ground beef
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cloves crushed fresh garlic
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 Tablespoons baharat
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric (curcum)
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground caraway seeds (optional)
  • 1 can crushed tomatoes with juice
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh cuzbara (cilantro), chopped

In a large pan over medium-high heat, brown the onion, garlic and grated ginger in the oil until the onion becomes soft and translucent. Add the baharat, turmeric, and ground caraway and cook about 2-3 minutes until you have a soft, fragrant paste. Remove from pan – but do not clean out the pan. Place the ground meat in the pan and brown the meat. Add the spice paste in and mix thoroughly. Pour in the can of undrained tomatoes. Cook for an additional 2 minutes. Pour this meat blend over hot couscous and top with the chopped mint and cilantro. I guarantee you won’t have leftovers.

 

The next recipe has become a family favorite. I serve it all the time, and even eat it as a healthy snack or for breakfast. When Americans serve sweet potatoes, it’s usually topped with loads of butter and even brown sugar or marshmallows. This is a much lighter, tastier, healthier alternative. Very easy and very quick! I’ve been finding these cute little fingerling battattas in the local shuk and am loving them!! So adorable – just a little bigger than my finger.

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                   Tehine Battattas

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  • 1 pound sweet potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1 teaspoon baharat
  • sea salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 400* F/200*C. Peel the sweet potatoes. I leave my fingerling potatoes whole, but if you are using the conventional large sized sweet potato, cut into 1/2 inch thick round slices. Place on large sheet of aluminum foil and sprinkle with oil. Add the baharat and toss to coat the potatoes thoroughly. Seal foil packet tightly and place on baking sheet. Roast the potatoes about 15 minutes or until soft. Remove from oven and onto platter. Drizzle with tehine (sesame paste liquid). Several hot.

The next recipe makes for a great Friday night Shabbat meal. It’s a good dish to make for company, because of its color and fragrance. This recipe hails from Iran  and is my friend’s traditional home-cooking Shabbat recipe. She serves it in a beautiful copper pan. The textures are creamy and crunchy and the pops of flavor from the rice, the spiced chicken and veggies topped with pomegranate arils and drizzled with tehine: it’s a flavor explosion. In Israel, the boneless, skinless chicken thighs, called par-gee-yot’ are the choice cut of chicken. They are often heavily spiced and grilled.

 PERSIAN SHABBAT PARGIYOT  serves 4-6

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  • 6 whole, boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4-6 teaspoons baharat (adjust to your taste – I use 5 tsp)
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric (curcum)
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate arils
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup tehine
  • 1/4 cup chopped, fresh mint leaves
  • 2 cups rice
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries

Rub chicken thighs with salt and 3 teaspoons of baharat, massaging into the chicken. Let sit 1/2 hour. In a large skillet over high heat, brown the thighs, turning once – don’t cook through. Remove to separate plate. Add cut up onions, garlic, carrots and drained chick peas to pan. Cook about 4-6 minutes until the veggies become tender. Add 2 cups of chicken broth and the bay leaf and frozen peas. Put the browned chicken thighs back in the pan. Add 1-2 more teaspoons of baharat and cover pan. Cook on low heat about 20 minutes. The mixture should cook down and become less liquidy.                                                                                                    While the chicken and veggies are cooking, pour remaining broth (2 cups), cranberries, currants, rice and 1 teaspoon baharat into a pot and bring to a boil. Cover pot and simmer as rice cooks up – I use a long grained white Persian rice that fluffs up nicely and doesn’t become sticky.  After rice cooks, fluff it with a fork and plate it on a lovely platter. Spoon the chicken veggie mix over the top. Drizzle the tehine over top and sprinkle the mint and pomegranate arils over the whole plate. My friend, Ainat, also sprinkles dried rose petals over the top, which makes for a beautiful and delicious Shabbat meal fit for royalty.

My next spice blend is za’atar, which is both the name of the plant and the spice blend. The za’atar plant grows wild in the Mediterranean area, and in Israel is a protected species – although many people pick the wild za’atar growing in the rocky ledges. Mostly, though, it can be found in nurseries or grown from seeds or clippings from friends. I got mine from a Druze woman in Hurfeish. It is similar to thyme, but much woodier and stronger, almost like a flavor between thyme and oregano.

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I sprinkle it liberally on humus and labane (a very creamy, sour cream-like dairy product). You can make a thick paste of extra virgin olive oil and za’atar and spread it on bread, pop it in the oven for a few minutes, and instant deliciousness! Others make a roast chicken rubbed inside and out with the blend. If you can’t find it in your local market, this is the closest I can come to imitating it. Similar, but not quite…. it will do.

       Mock Za’atar Spice Blend

  • 2 Tbsp minced, fresh oregano leaves
  • 2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbsp minced, fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 Tbsp ground sumac
  • 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt

I’ve been eating “weird” things for breakfast every morning. Not your typical American breakfast foods, but healthy and yummy, nonetheless. I’ll cut up one cucumber, one hard boiled egg, 1/4 cup humus, and sprinkle with salt and za’atar. It’s one of my go-tos. The next recipe also makes for a yummy breakfast. We eat lots of fresh veggies and salads for breakfast in Israel.

 COTTAGE BREAKFAST SALAD 

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So here, cottage cheese is just known as “cottage.” That’s it. “Cottage.” And this is another salad I eat for breakfast. I make it on Friday afternoon and serve it on Shabbat so I don’t have to cook. Add to this some fluffy Israeli pita bread, some dips and humus, a cup of freshly squeezed juice and a cup of coffee and it’s a feast.

  • 6 small Persian cucumbers or 2 English cukes
  • 1 cup fresh tomato diced (I halve cherry tomatoes)
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
  • 1/2 cup sliced kalamata olives
  • 1 cup low fat cottage
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (here’s where I break out “the good stuff”)
  • 1 Tbsp za’atar
  • salt, pepper to taste

Mix together in a large bowl and enjoy. I sometimes add half regular low-fat cottage and half garlic and herb cottage, which I find in the local market. It gives a fresh, herby taste along with the za’atar.

 

In a ‘typical, ethnic’ Arab or Israeli restaurant, it’s common to have a whole host of little dishes of slides, pickles and dips served before the meal. these can be so filling, you don’t want to order an entree. Often these little dishes are heavy on the eggplant – grilled eggplant with garlic and mayo (amazing!), eggplant pieces in a barbecue sauce, eggplant pickled, eggplant and onions and raisins in a sweet tomato sauce. I just love them all – but have found that it doesn’t love me. So, for a substitute, I’ve found zucchini works just as well, with a similar texture and taste. My family hates this dip, because it looks like – well – you know – throw-up. But if you can get beyond the look, it’s a super delicious, healthy, low-fat dip for pita or cut-up veggies. I love raw onion slices or cucumber spears for this one!

IMG_7892.jpeg                                          Zucchini Baba Ganoush

  • 3 large zucchini, halved lengthways
  • 1/2 cup goat-milk yogurt
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons za’atar
  • 1/2 fresh lemon
  • extra virgin olive oil (the good stuff)

The secret to this is to grill the zucchini to get that incredible smoky taste. You can’t skip this step. I oil and salt and pepper my zucchini halves and place them directly on the very-high heat grill. Stay with the grill, and after a couple minutes turn the zucchini over. You want them to get nice and soft. I use a tongs for this one.

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Remove squashes to a platter and pet cool just a little bit until they are just cool enough to handle. Scoop out the flesh into a small bowl. Add the garlic and mash well with a fork. Mix in the yogurt, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with the za’atar, and squeeze the lemon over. Drizzle with a bit of the oil. Can be served warm or cold. Another interesting Israeli breakfast twist: put the mashed zucchini mixture in a pot and heat up, stirring constantly. When the mixture begins to bubble, crack an egg on top and let the egg poach. Spoon the poached egg and dip into a bread bowl or serve in a bowl with a piece of pita bread. It’s really good!!!

My son, Max, eats pita and humus like it’s going out of style. But you can really only appreciate fresh, made-that-day pita. I buy a pack of 8 at a time, and after a day or two, use any that’s “left over” to make pita chips, which I also use in soups or in a Lebanese salad called fattoush.

Homemade Pita Chips

Cut up day-old pita bread into bite sized pieces. Toss with olive oil, salt, garlic powder and za’atar. Spread out on a silat lined baking sheet and baking a 250*F/110*C oven for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Don’t over bake! They should be crispy, but not burnt. Good for dipping too.

 Fattoush

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This is a lovely salad from Lebanon. It’s very much akin to the Italian panzanella bread salad. There are also Syrian and Israeli variations. Some use romaine lettuce or wild baby leaves. Others add olives. I like mine plain and simple. This recipe is from Rola, my Lebanese friend.

 

 

  • 1 cup pita chips (see above recipe)
  • 2 English cucumbers, washed and cut up, peel on
  • 4 radishes, sliced thinly
  • 1 small purple (Bermuda) onion, cut into small chunks
  • handful of cherry tomatoes , cut in half
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • !/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon sumac
  • 1 teaspoon za’atar
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt, pepper to taste

There are so many colorful, interesting and unexpected spice flavors here. One specialty is Harissa, a very hot Moroccan chili powder or paste that’s often used as a rub on meats and fish. It’s made from roasted red sweet peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, red hot chili peppers, garlic, cayenne and smoked paprika. Fire in your mouth. People here love it. It’s often incorporated into the tomato and egg dish, Shakshouka, but today I will give you my version of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Israeli-style English Breakfast.

(As I’m writing this blog, my dear husband just brought up a bowl of cut up cucumbers with humus and olive oil and a sprinkling of za’atar! With a small dish of green olives with garlic and herbs on the side. I think we’re going native….)

 Spicy Israeli Breakfast Meal (serves 1)

  • 2 thick sliced tasted, whole grain bread
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 Tbsp Harissa
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes or 1 very large fresh tomato, cut up
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained

In a large skillet, fry up the chickpeas with the tomato paste, harissa and olive oil. Add the water and the tomatoes (canned or fresh) and let cook down about a half an hour. You can make it in a crockpot on low setting to cook overnight (about 6-8 hours, but add more water). When the tomato-pea mixture is thick and hot (bubbly), crack the two eggs over top and let set until the whites are cooked through and the yolks still runny – although the Israelis seem to like their yolks hard as golfballs. Spoon mixture over bread toast slices. Top with sesame seeds and a sprinkling of za’atar.

The last spice blend is from North Africa. It’s called Ras-al-hanout, which basically translates to ‘head of the shop” in Arabic. It’s the best the spice guy has to offer. A wild mix of various spices, each shopkeeper’s blend varying slightly in flavors and intensity. It’s something that can be used as a dry-rub fr meats, in soups and stews, and sprinkled over veggies to be roasted. Many are closely-guarded, secret family recipes, but this is the closest I could get – from Marwan –

Ras-al-Hanout Spice Blend

  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp English pepper (allspice)
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 3/4 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/4 tsp ground anise
  • 1/2 tsp hilba (fenugreek seeds)
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 Tbsp ground lavender buds
  • 1 1/4 tsp ground, dried rose petals

WHEW!!!!!! That’s some blend! There was a recipe developed in a Tel Aviv restaurant a few years ago that’s swept the country by storm and has become synonymous with Israeli cuisine. It’s vegan and is a meal unto itself. It comes out piping hot on a wooden board and everyone digs in – much like the bloomin onion in the US, only not-fattening and tons healthier. You might be able to find a ras-al-hanout blend at a store in the US or in a Mid East specialty market.

         Tel Aviv Roasted Cauliflower

Take a large, very very large head of cauliflower. Remove the leaves and thick core, leaving the rest of the head intact. Place on a large sheet of aluminum foil. Rub the cauliflower all over with Olive oil. Then rub generously with the spice blend. Cover and seal up the foil and place on a baking sheet. Roast at 200*C/400*F for about a half an hour. Serve piping hot.  As an appetizer, the florets can be pulled apart and dipped in a sauce (Baba-Ganoush, anyone?).

 

 

 

 

The Miracle of the Oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in the Desert

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheba: The Queen in Israel

The central part of Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is known for its hospitals and excellence of medical care. I grew up knowing of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem – my parents were big donors. But there is also Shaare Tzedek, Beilenson, Ichilov, and Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. When my husband was diagnosed with Stage 3+ cancer, we made the immediate decision to transfer from our hospital in the North to Sheba. It required some pull (proteczia) from friends who knew people there, but we were able to get an immediate appointment, thank the Lord.

Sheba Medical Center, the largest hospital complex in the Middle East (and the largest I’ve ever seen), was first established as a triage and military hospital in 1948 in military barracks and quonset huts for casualties from the Israeli War for Independence. In 1953, it also began to take on civilian patients. Today, it sits on a 163 acre campus east of Tel Aviv. With over 125 departments, Sheba has been rated in the top ten medical centers of the world by Newsweek. It is number four in cancer care worldwide. It is a city unto itself, complete with its own infrastructure.

John and I were more than a bit overwhelmed by our first visit – just trying to find our way around this huge campus was daunting. However, we were immediately put at ease, as an entire personalized team had been pre-assembled for John which included his own oncologist (world famous, Dr. Anat Shmueli who specializes in colorectal cancer), radiologist (Dr. Jacob Lawrence also only sees colorectal cancer patients…he’s the best!), surgeons, dietician, nursing staff, social worker, acupuncturist, alternative medicine specialist, spiritual advisors (there is a panel of rabbis, priests, pastors, imams and other spiritual leaders), and our personal patient coordinator. We understood from the beginning that theirs would be a holistic approach to healing, leaving nothing out. Unlike many of the hospitals here in the North, everyone is completely fluent in English. All the signs and paperwork are in English and Hebrew, which was a huge improvement for us. Cleanliness and efficiency are all top notch. All of our paperwork was handled the first day, so there was not the typical delay in getting referrals, approvals for each doctor and procedure, and delays in appointment and treatment protocols. It was all handled for us.

All of the departments are world class and cutting edge in research and technology. The medical center is home to the National Center for Health Policy and Epidemiology Research; the National Blood Bank; two heart centers; several medical research centers; the world’s largest rehabilitation center; geriatrics; pediatrics; a huge Alzheimer’s center; an eating disorders hospital; and numerous other clinics, both outpatient and inpatient.

Some of the departments, I’ve never even heard of, like the translational medicine center. I guess that’s for people like us who need remedial help with their Hebrew????? No clue…. but I’m pretty sure that if it’s a disease, a treatment for it can be found here.

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Sheba has its own hotel for guests who wish to stay close to their patients. Because it is known for medical tourism (people from all over the world come to be treated here), there is an off-campus “hotel” just for patients who need to be seen on a regular/daily basis for treatment. This full-service hotel is for patients of Sheba only, with full-time nursing staff in house and shuttle to and from the hotel to each building of the hospital. We were advised to have John spend the last two weeks of treatment there, but did not need it (it was all covered under our state medical insurance).

In addition, there are two full shopping malls for all your needs from clothing to books to pharmacies to grocery stores, banks, and a post office. There are full service hair and nail salons, offering free services to cancer patients. Four restaurant courts have a wide variety of Kosher restaurants. Sheba is a little city unto itself.

Because art and music are known to be beneficial to the soul, and have been proven to aid in the recuperation process, there are magnificent pieces of original art in sculpture gardens scattered throughout the campus and galleries along each corridor. It is not infrequently that we heard a classical or jazz quartet in one of the lobbies or courtyards. Pianists, local klezmer groups, and choirs serenade the patients regularly on a volunteer basis. This is a medical center like no other that we’ve visited. Tucked away in nooks and crannies are indoor lily ponds and waterfalls, multi-language libraries, family rooms with interactive games for the children, zen gardens, and all sorts of things to feed the soul and make the hospital stay as pleasant as possible.

Our favorite buildings included the pediatrics wings. the cheerful, brightly-colored sculptures outside (pink alligators climb the wall of the main building), indoor play areas, rainbow colors, and interactive and educational displays are everywhere. There is a full size theater, a puppet/marionette theater, and roaming clowns, mimes and musicians who roam throughout. A small rainbow train takes children and parents from building to building.

For me, the crown jewel (literally) was walking into the newly dedicated Beit Yehuda and Tamar Synagogue. Spectacular, dazzling colors caught me by surprise. The stained glass is everywhere. Modern and reminiscent of the Chagall stained-glass windows at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, it is an artistic masterpiece designed by the German artist, Yvelle Gabriel. The focal point is the cobalt blue, stained glass Aron Kodesh (holy ark that houses the sacred Torah and Haftorah) suspended in mid air. I was up in the balcony (women’s section), but the rabbi told me that when viewed straight on, it appears to be in the shape of a Star of David. The Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) is a kaleidoscopic star of reds, oranges, golds and yellows. Other pieces of stained-glass are found throughout the large synagogue symbolizing the journey of the Jewish peoples from the Beginning to modern binary pixels. There is a supernatural, almost cosmic feel to the place. There are study halls adjoining the main worship hall. Services are conducted several times daily as well as Shabbat and holidays. I was able to be present for the morning davening and Torah reading. It was a spiritually uplifting experience in every way.

 

Medical care is open to all. Patients from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza are also treated. And Sheba is not just in Tel Hashomer. There are outposts in Uzbekistan, Mauritania, Equatorial New Guinea, Cambodia, Armenia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka – and a multidisciplinary clinic was recently established in the Ukraine. Docotrs, many specialists in their field worldwide, fly into Sheba Medical Center for further training.

John’s radiation and chemo treatments have been easy going, thank G-d and the staff of Sheba. He has had absolutely no symptoms: no nausea; no hair loss; no low energy; no weakness; no appetite loss; no further weight loss; no ulcerations. This part of the journey has been an answer to prayer. We pray his MRI and PET scan results come back clean and that he will not have to undergo that horrific surgery. It would be a huge miracle, but we wholeheartedly acknowledge G-d’s hand in all of this. We could not have asked for better care anywhere. The oncology center has an on-call hotline for questions that is open 24 hours. We were given many different numbers for who to call/contact directly in case of emergency or just for information or questions. There were always doctors and pharmacists available and a host of nurses on call. I only wish I could say this about the hospitals in the north of the country. Truly, Sheba deserves its rating as one of the top ten in medical care.

 

An Early Summer Feast

 

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The last of the Spring holidays is rapidly approaching here in Israel. It has been two months of non-stop festivities beginning with Passover for the Jews, Easter for the the Christians and Ramadan for the Muslims. The Jewish people have been counting the days of the Omer (for the late spring harvest) and working on improving their inner spirituality.

We had an interesting holiday of Lag B’Omer a couple weeks ago, celebrating the Light of the World, and also the life of beloved first century sage, Rabbi Akiva. This festival is usually celebrated with joyous bonfires, singing and dancing. Tragically, for Israel, it was marked by arsonist terrorists setting fire to several communities. The moshav of Mevo Modi’in was utterly destroyed. We know four families who lived there, including the Solomons and Swirskys. Their sons form one of our favorite LA bands, Moshav. Hamas and other terrorist factions in Gaza have been sending over incendiary devices attached to balloons, burning up thousands of acres of forest and farmland.

This week, we are looking forward to the last holiday of the season, Shavuot, where we celebrate the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai; the wheat harvest that has just come in…. as we travel on Route 6 every day, we have seen the gathering and bundling of the golden fields of wheat. It is spectacular!!!!…. the fruits and vegetables coming into season; the summer flowers; the Land of Milk and Honey; the sincere milk of the Word; and the love story of Ruth and Boaz.  And the Christian communities here will be celebrating the Feast of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit fell upon the talmidim of Jesus and upon the congregation of people gathered in Yerushalayim for the Shavuot holiday. Wow! That’s a mouthful!!!

Some religious Jews stay up all night studying Scripture. The seculars (khiloneem) celebrate the agricultural aspects of the holiday with parades and floats and lots of flowers. And EVERYONE enjoys eating dairy products!!! Lots of dairy!!! Cheese platters; cheesecake; noodle puddings; cheese blintzes; and interesting regional specialties. So, without further ado, here are some amazingly delicious and culturally different recipes I’d like to share with you:

LAYALI LAVAN

This recipe comes from Lebanon. the Jewish refugees that escaped persecution from the Arabs in the 1940s-1950s brought this exotic and romantically delicious recipe with them.  On a warm summer evening, eating it is like flying on a magic carpet with your lover into the sunset. It’s just that awesome!!!     8-12 servings depending on how big you slice it-

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Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange zest
  • 3/4 cup cream of coconut/coconut cream – 2 cans
  • 3 teaspoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 3/4 cup solet (semolina)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup ground pistachios
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons rose water (available in MiddleEastern/Indian stores or Trader Joe’s in the U.S.)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons orange blossom water (available in Middle Eastern/Indian stores or Trader Joe’s)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 1/2 cups milk (can go vegan by using unsweetened almond, rice or coconut milk)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Chill the cans of coconut cream in the fridge for several hours or overnight. You need the cream to be cold enough to completely separate from the liquid below. DONOT SHAKE can!!! Open and remove the solidified cream to a large mixing bowl. Discard the liquid or reserve for other use. Using a hand mixer, whip up the coconut cream just as you would make dairy whipping cream. When thick and fluffy, set in fridge to keep chilled.
  2. On a medium-high heat stove, whisk together the milk, semolina and salt in a large pot. Bring mixture to a rapid boil, stirring constantly. Make sure it does not burn!! As soon as the mixture reaches a boil, remove from heat and stir in the dried cranberries, rose water, orange blossom water, and orange zest.  With a rubber spatula, turn the mixture into a 9X13 inch baking dish. Smooth the surface so all is even. Allow it to cool to room temperature 25-45 minutes. Once it has cooled enough, take the whipped coconut cream from the fridge and spread an even layer overtop the semolina milk surface. Cover and chill in the fridge for 2 hours or overnight.
  3. For the super delicious syrup: Make this right before serving. It will be poured, warm and fragrant over the dessert just prior to serving. In a small saucepan, put the sugar and gently pour the water overtop, adding the freshly squeezed orange juice. Cook on medium high heat without stirring. As soon as the syrup reaches a rolling boil, reduce the heat to simmer as you swirl the pan to just mix the ingredients. Add 1/2 teaspoon each of orange blossom and rose waters. Let come to room temperature…but still slightly warm, and put into a lovely small pitcher.
  4. To serve: Slice up squares of this rich custardy dessert and carefully transfer to individual plates. Decorate with chopped pistachios. I like to add a small amount of dried rose petals (unsprayed!!!) from the garden for that pop of color and romance. Drizzle with (pour it on, baby!) the fragrant syrup and enjoy!

 

The next recipe comes from the Persian Jews. It is very different to the Western palate, but I just adore this one!! Besides being a tasty coffee latte drink you’ll probably never see at Starbucks, it’s beautiful to present with slices of poundcake or a few plain cookies or macarons. A delicious summer drink! Serves 2.

             PERSIAN PINK SPICED ROSE & CARDAMOM LATTE

Rose-Latte-Recipe-Tall-4.jpg

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 shots espresso coffee or turkish coffee powder
  • 8 cardamom pods or 3/4 teaspoons dried cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon rose water
  • 1/2 teaspoon beet juice or red food coloring
  • 1-2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons dried unsprayed pink or red rose petals, crushed
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme

DIRECTIONS:

  1. In a medium saucepan, pour the milk, rosewaterand cardamom along with the beet juice (which I use) or food coloring and honey. Stir until well combined and warmed. Do not allow it to boil! Remove from heat, and if you are using cardamom pods, remove the pods with a spoon. Whisk with a hand-held frother or immersion blender for a few seconds to froth up.
  2. Pour an espresso shot into each cup or glass. Spoon the warm pink froth over the top and sprinkle with rose petals. Place a small sprig of thyme on top.

 

On Shavuot, the Russians eat cheese blintzes with cherry sauce on top. These are thin crepe-like pancakes filled with sweetened ricotta cheese or fruits. Both varieties are available in the frozen foods section. I love to make pre-packaged sweet potato ravioli with a sage-infused cream sauce or a cheese tortellini with a basil-pesto infused cream sauce. Both are equally delicious.

My Christian friends living on the shores of Lake Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee celebrate the Pentecost by eating freshly caught lake fish (Dennis, Amnon or St. Peter’s Fish) covered with a red tomato sauce to remember the tongues of fire that alit atop the disciples’ heads. I believe a sole, halibut, flounder or tilapia (any white fish) will be a tasty substitute.

 SPICED WHITE FISH IN TOMATO SAUCE  serves 2

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 fillets of firm, white fish
  • 7 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon caraway or fennel seeds, roasted in a pan for 1-2 minutes
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • small green chile pepper, seeded and chopped(remove the seeds & don’t touch your face! Wash hands well!!)
  • 3 tablespoons of flour or semolina, which is traditionally used
  • 150 ml/ 5 oz. water
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons silan (date syrup) or honey
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • lemon wedges
  • handful/bunch chopped fresh coriander/cilantro/cuzbara leaves
  • salt 7 pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with chopped garlic, spices, and chili and blend to a paste by spoon or in a food processor. In medium-large pan, heat two tablespoons of the olive oil. In small bowl combine the flour or semolina (preferred) with salt and pepper and dredge the fish in this mixture. Sear the fillets on both sides in a hot pan until golden brown in color. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate to absorb excess oil.

Heat the rest of the oil in the pan. Add spice paste mixture and stir for about 30 seconds. Stir in the water and tomato paste. Add the silvan or honey and lemon juice and let simmer. Salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.

Add the fish fillets to pan. Bring the sauce to a simmer, cover and let cook through about 15 additional minutes.Remove fish to plates, pouring the red sauce over top. Garnish with lemon wedges and chopped herbs. A traditional accompaniment to this is ptitptitim, or a very fine grain couscous. Of course, no Middle Eastern feast is complete without a bazillion different varieties of fresh olives; eggplant salads a million ways to Sunday; pickled carrots, turnips and cabbages; humus and pita and steaming hot Turkish coffee spiced with cardamom!

As the Jews say, “Khag sameakh!” and as the Christians say, “Happy Feast!”