Quarantine Cooking (Life Under Lockdown, Passover Edition)

 

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Things are exceptionally quiet here in Israel. This is usually the time when children are merrily paddling down the Jordan River in canoes; horseback riding in the Golan; hiking in the Judaean Hills; sailing on the Red Sea in Eilat. Today, Sunday, is usually joyous and loud in Jerusalem as thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world make the Palm Sunday Walk from Bethpage through the Lion’s Gate and into the Holy City following the path that Jesus took. It is a day where Mechane Yehudi market is bustling with shoppers buying all their provisions for the imminent Passover feast. Not so now. All is surreally still under the COVID-19 lockdown.

I spent my morning doing something I’ve promised myself for ages: trying out new and exciting Charoset recipes from around the world. Each very different and each delicious in its own way. I’ve collected these recipes over the past five years from people I’ve met here. Each woman has come to Israel carrying her own cultural traditions and special holiday foods.

Passover, or Pesach, is the springtime holiday celebrating the triumphal exodus of the Children of Israel, the Jewish people, out of slavery under Pharoah in Egypt and into eventual freedom back in their homeland of Israel. After 40 years of intense desert wanderings, that is! And to remember the entire story, Jews the world over (and now many Christian communities are following suit) are hosting a Seder meal. Seder is a Hebrew word meaning order, and the table is beautifully set. The centerpieces are the Seder plate, containing foods which will be integral to the telling of the story – and the plate of matzah, or unleavened bread. The Jews left Egypt in such a hurry there was no time to let their dough rise, hence the matzah.

Anyway, I’d like to share these charoset recipes with you. They are fun to put together, and since our Seder (I used to host upwards of 30 people!) will be minuscule this year (thanks COVID!), we will have a fun charoset tasting. The charoset symbolizes the mortar that the Jewish slaves had to make (a mixture of straw, water and mud) to cement the stones of the pyramids and monuments of ancient Egypt. In modern times, Jews have been scattered (since 70 AD, when they were kicked out of Israel by the Romans) all over the world. Depending on the resources available, different recipes have developed, each uniquely different, but representing the same idea.

The first type of charoset is our traditional Ashkenaz family recipe. The Ashkenazi Jews settled in Europe – mostly Poland, Germany, Russia and other parts of Northern Europe. There was an abundance of apples available in that region of the world, hence the apple base. We love it – it’s so delicious, that I have to make multiple batches throughout the holiday for myself and my family. We eat it on matzah with a ton of fresh horseradish flavored with beet juice. It’s called a Hillel Sandwich, after the famous first century rabbi who invented it.

           CHAROSET, ASHKENAZI STYLE

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Ingredients:

  • 4 large apples, cut into quarters
  • 1 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 cup sweet Kosher wine (Manischewitz anyone? In Israel, I use King David Concord)If you don’t use alcohol, substitute pure grape juice
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 freshly squeezed lemon (juice)
  • 2 tsp cinnamon

In food processor, or by hand, chop the unpeeled apples as finely as possible without creating a mush. Empty into large bowl. Chop up the walnuts, also very very finely. Add to bowl. Mix in the remaining ingredients, the lemon juice, wine, honey and cinnamon. Mix well and let sit for at least an hour for the flavors to absorb and blend together. Hide it from yourself and other people in the house or there won’t be any for the Seder – it’s that addictive.

 

The next charoset recipe is from my Israeli sabra (Israeli born, 4 generations!!!) friend, Liat. It’s very sweet, and uses much of the seven species of the Land of Israel (mentioned in the Bible, they are: figs, grapes, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives and (date)honey) plus a couple extra ingredients. When blended together, this really looks like the mortar the slaves could have used. It’s a really, really, thick and sticky paste. You can also add cocoa powder (1/4 cup) and roll it into balls and then roll the balls in dried coconut or nuts…

NATIVE ISRAELI CHAROSET

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup pitted medjool dates
  • 1/3 cup dried figs
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate juice
  • 1 cup chopped raw almonds
  • 1/4 cup honey or silan (date honey)
  • 1/4 cup red wine

In a food processor, chop up the figs, banana and dates until it is one thick, gooey paste. Spoon into large bowl. Chop up the almonds in the processor very, very finely. Add to paste along with the juice, wine and honey. Mix well. Let stand for about an hour for flavors to blend.

The following recipe is lovely, From Devorah, a new olah (immigrant) to Israel from Rome Italy. Devorah also has lots of family outside Venice and this is their take on charoset. It is very different, but I absolutely loved these flavors!!! Because they have lots of chestnuts in Italy, that’s what they use. It also looks a lot like mortar…

ITALIAN CHAROSET (VENETIAN STYLE)

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dried apricots (the bright orange kind)
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup pistachios
  • 1 small package of roasted, shelled chestnuts (about  1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water (found in gourmet or specialty food shops – Trader Joes? or a MidEast or Indian store?)
  • grated orange rind
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 1/4 cup honey

Process the dried apricots until they are about the size of small raisins. About 4 quick pulses in a food processor. Place in large bowl. Add the raisins. Process the pistachios and the the chestnuts until they are quite fine. Add to bowl. Add the freshly grated orange rind, the brandy, honey, and orange blossom water (this really sends the whole concoction over the top!!!). Mix well, and let stand at least an hour to let all the flavors absorb into a romantically exotic paste. So so fragrant and sweet!!!! This is decidedly different, but I love it!!!!

The last recipe hails from Morocco/Algeria/Tunisia – Northern Africa. The jewel tones look nothing like mortar, but like exotic gems from Egypt. It is also nothing like the other recipes, as it has lots of spice – lots of intense flavors, a lot like the beautiful people from North Africa now calling Israel home.

NORTH AFRICAN CHAROSET

IMG_9542.jpegIngredients:

  • 1/2 cup pitted medjool dates, diced
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup apricots, diced
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup brown raisins
  • 1/3 cup dried cherries
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
  • 1/2 cup chopped almonds
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp clove powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp allspice (English pepper)
  • 1/3 cup silan or honey
  • 1/3 cup Arak (I would substitute sweet wine, pomegranate juice or even a port or brandy for this Middle Eastern liquor)
  • grated lemon peel
  • grated orange peel
  • dash sea salt

That’s it! I chopped up my apricots and nuts and mixed in the rest, substituting Port wine for the spicy, licorice-tasting Arak. It turned our chunky, but really really pretty. It, too, is quite fragrant, and the spices really  intensify the flavors.

So there you, have it. Whether you are celebrating Passover or Easter, or just want to have some experimental fun in the kitchen during quarantine, these should keep your hands busy and your mouth happy for awhile. Have fun!!! And Khag Pesach Samayakh!!! Happy and healthy!!!!!

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ALIYAVERSARY!!!! 5 YEARS!!!!!

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Who would believe? Five years already since we packed up our things and made the huge move from Southern California to Israel! Who would believe we’d be spending our Aliyahversary under quarantine?

This week was supposed to be incredibly special – celebratory. My old neighbors and girlfriends of 25 years were supposed to fly in for an incredible visit yesterday. We were supposed to tour this gorgeous, history-packed country for the next two weeks. We were supposed to see the best of Israel from the hiking trails and waterfalls of Mt Hermon in the North to the Arava Desert and the coral reefs of the Red Sea in the South.

Instead, life on most continents has come to a screeching standstill. Actually, this has been an opportunity to really see the best of this country firsthand. I’ve been following stories of food, toilet paper, sanitary supply shortages in the United States as panicked shoppers try to prep for the seeming apocalypse. Angry Americans placing blame on government leaders. Hoarding. Inflated black market prices for basic supplies. Israel is surprisingly not experiencing that at all.

Israelis are notorious here for not following rules, being unable to form a simple queue. But we are a people who know how to handle emergencies. Get me right: I’ve had my doubts over the years. Over the span of five years, we’ve had the imminent threat of war several times. Hezbolla’s 15,000 missiles aimed right at us from Lebanon. ISIS, rebel strongholds, Bashir’s forces and a raging civil war in Syria within striking distance of our city. Yet, these Israelis always seemed nonplussed.

The first days in our lovely rented villa were spent equipping the mamad, the safe room. I stocked it with water to last a few weeks, food, medical supplies, a portable toilet and sanitizers, camping lanterns and cookstoves, flashlights, cards and boardgames, radio, sleeping bags, big-out bags, copies of important documents, clothes…. we were set. I did practice rounds in the event of hearing the red alert siren. Ready to go.

But this coronavirus snuck up on us. For the past two weeks, we watched and listened as this country shut down bit by bit. Israel was the first country to proactively cancel travel visas and send tourists back to their home countries if they did not have a place to quarantine.  Incoming flights from Asia, Italy… incoming flights from Europe…incoming flights from the States: canceled. Hotels closing. We were the first country to put a halt to all non-essential travel. I spent the week canceling hotel reservations and tickets purchased. Netanyahu and crew made the announcement that any group over 1000 people, then 500 people would be barred. Sporting and cultural events were closed. Then came the announcement last week that all schools would be shuttered for the next five weeks until after Passover. Regional hospitals to able to handle the virus were assigned. Then the public service announcements: cinemas, malls, restaurants were the next too close. No meetings of more than ten people – and they had to keep a two meter distance from each other. That put an end to religious gatherings – in this Holy Land. If we feel that we have come down with the virus, call Mogen David Adom, the ambulance services. Hotlines are set up, and the appropriate crew will come to us.

I fully expected to see huge lines coming out of the grocery stores. No food or supplies on the shelves. No. Quite the contrary. There’s plenty. No need for panic. Buy what you need. No hoarding. Antiseptic wipes to clean the carts and hands in plentiful supply. Face-masked customers and clerks greeting one another with a “Khag Corona samayakh!” or “Happy Corona holiday!” A bit surreal. The stores are much less crowded than usual, but still cheerful. Before entrance to a store or clinic, the usual security guard is armed with a digital scanning thermometer. He swipes our foreheads and asks each person: Have you been outside the country? Have you had any contact with a sick person? Have you had a cough or fever in the past few weeks? Why are you here?  You may pass. So weird…. but I feel pretty safe.

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The restaurants have all closed. But the home-delivery business is thriving!!! Extra drivers are being hired for grocery, pharmacy, pet store, and food deliveries. For those that have been temporarily laid off, they can fill out a simple online form at the Bituakh Leumi (Social Security) office and be reimbursed by the government for the loss of income. Things are running smoothly here. They seem to be organized and thorough. Funds have been fully allocated to handle the emergency.

Each person that has tested positive for the coronavirus has been tracked as to their exact whereabouts and contacts over the past two weeks. There is actually an online interactive map for tracking how many cases have been reported and their location (in real time)! I don’t know if I love it, but you can click the pinpoints on the map and get a detailed rundown, ted by the Ministry of Health, of where each infected person has been hour by hour- what stores they frequented; what sporting events; what synagogue or church or mosque; what clinic they used. There is a plethora of testing kits and facilities ready to handle the onslaught.

Even though all schools have been cancelled, online counsellors are available to help parents. They recommend being honest with the children, telling them exactly what is happening; instructing them on proper distancing and hygiene; the importance of keeping up a regular schedule and set routines; the importance of letting the child ask as many questions as they want – and trying to give them age-appropriate answers. There are on-line classes set up by each teacher – WhatsApp classroom groups, where the children can continue with their work and interact with their classmates.

WhatsApp groups are a big thing here. It is THE MAIN way people communicate in Israel. Whether classroom, sports group, groups for immigrants, hobbyists or religious communities. Everyone seems to be a member of an infinite number of WhatsApp groups. Not only are there WhatsApp classrooms, but new Quarantine Friend Circles, and even Quarantine Dating Groups!!! (spend your 14 day quarantine with a fun-loving guy who loves Thai food, hiking and animals – no joke!!)

Last week we spent the holiday of Purim making and delivering several food baskets for our quarantined neighbors. We knew of people who had recently returned from South Africa and Europe. They had to go into a 14-day confinement period. So we made big baskets of an Italian dinner complete with tapenade, crackers, pasta, pasta sauce, salad, homemade croutons and Italian dressing, meringues and lemon curd, wedges of cheese and a bottle of wine (Usually these mishloakh manot gifts for Purim consist of sweets and treats). We left them at their front gates with a cheery note and our phone number if they need anything else. a great way to meet a couple of our neighbors.

Boredom in your new self-imposed confinement? I think not!!! I’m totally surprised at and delighted with the world museums which are offering virtual tours: no lines, no crowds, linger as long as you’d like. The Met Opera is offering free opera screenings all this week – the best of the best. There’s Netflix and HBO and DisneyPlus. Hulu is offering free screening. Check out Spotify!!!! There’s a myriad of new Coronavirus, CO-VID19 and Quarantine playlists.

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The global community has been coming together in a most extraordinary way (how did people survive before the internet????). Authors are offering story times for children. Artists, drawing and art classes, activities and contests. Instagram is rife with lovely activities for all ages. Free yoga and exercise classes. Crafting lessons. Gardening help.IMG_9069IMG_9065 2IMG_9068IMG_9067

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I’m not trying to make light of this situation by any means. My husband has been glued to the stock market as it continues to drop. But hopefully, this dire situation will pass soon. Hopefully, we’ll stay healthy and take all the proper precautions. Here, it is not a time for mass panic. It’s a time to catch up on all those projects we’ve been putting off. It’s a time to hunker down, count our blessings, hug our loved ones, reach out to those across the miles. We are waiting for the next week of drenching rains to arrive and planning a time of board games and movies. Soon enough, the warm weather will be here and the cases of illness will drop off. There will be time to celebrate our Aliyahversary in style another day. Be creative. Be gentle. Be thankful. Be safe. Be well- we can get through this stronger and better people. May G-d bless us all!!!!