A culinary journey

What do the Templars have to do with gvina levana? What is the most closely-guarded secret of Jerusalem mixed grill? Who is the leading figure in the gourmet bread revolution? Where is the best place to get shakshuka? And what the heck are ptitim?

Up until the late 1980s, if you were on a visit to Israel searching for hearty meal, you had to stay at the house of relatives or a good friend whose mother happened to be an outstanding cook.

The culinary options for tourists who wanted to explore what the local cuisine had to offer were limited to good humous in the Old City of Jerusalem, an Israeli breakfast served at a mediocre hotel or the national street food – felafel, topped with juicy tehina sauce that, if they were lucky enough, didn’t stain their clothes for the rest of the tour.

The local style of dining out was found in eastern restaurants which served a basic selection of salads followed by grilled meat with a side order of French fries and a soggy chocolate mousse for dessert. Ethnic Jewish cooking was poorly represented. Ashkenazi eateries hardly existed, while the Sephardi cuisines were enjoyed mainly at home.

The culinary scene has greatly evolved since then, and both tourists and locals can now not only enjoy a fantastic meal at a sophisticated restaurant, but also sip a world-class local wine, nibble delectable goat cheese from a dairy farm in Galilee or sample authentic street food at an open-air market.

In her recently published book The Book of New Israeli Food, author Janna Gur takes the reader to a fabulous culinary and cultural journey in the land of milk and honey.

Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, Gur, who came here in 1974, is the founder and chief editor of Al Hashulhan (“On the Table”), a gastronomic monthly. Adorned with stunning color photos by Eilon Paz, the English-language book details the evolution of the new Israeli cuisine.

With six main sections divided by stories and anecdotes about the local food culture, the book offers some 150 recipes, each based on ingredients easily obtained here or abroad.

As food often played a main role in Jewish history, Gur opens her book with an introduction to the history of Jewish cuisine, from the red stew for which Esau sold his birthright to Jacob through the food that became known as Jewish cuisine during 2,000 years in the Diaspora, to the food that inspired the early Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 1930s.

THE SIGNIFICANT turning point of the new Israeli kitchen took place during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when dining out became more popular and society became more cosmopolitan and sophisticated in its tastes. A group of top chefs, including Haim Cohen, Eyal Shani, Erez Komarovski, Ezra Kedem, and a few others, took it upon themselves to influence and shape the new Israeli kitchen. Regardless of their ethnic origin, they’ve offered some kind of personal take on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines in their restaurants. Eggplant with tehina, grilled tomatoes, lamb kebabs with wild herbs and even halva dominated the menus at some of the ultra-premium restaurants. Patrons, skeptical at first, were quickly seduced, and traditional ethnic food became more pronounced. It simply felt right.

The revival of good food was to be noticed not only at restaurants. Attention to local ingredients has brought into production a range of fine olive oils, award-winning wines and quality cheese. The variety of quality fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs has dramatically changed home cooking, and amateur cooks of different ethnic groups are now dishing up a mixture of Israeli foods for their Shabbat dinner.

The Book of New Israeli Food covers everything the local cuisine has to offer, and a little bit more – from making a great Israeli salad to flame roasting eggplants, and from sofrito – a festive dish from Jerusalem Sephardi cuisine – to cholent, the traditional Ashkenazi casserole.

A whole section is dedicated to holiday foods, and the recipes, such as chrain (horseradish sauce for gefilte fish), Ashkenazi potato latkes or mina del Pessah (the matza pie of the Balkan Jews), are easy to follow, even for the novice cook.

Other chapters include recipes for tabuleh and an array of extra tasty salads, a basic recipe for felafel, how to perfectly grill stuffed Cornish hen and a recipe for a traditional chopped liver for Shabbat. In the last chapter one can learn about the country’s wine revolution and why Israel’s red wines, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignons, are truly world-class.

The book is more than just a cookbook; it captures the fascinating culinary story of a society made up of immigrants from more than 70 countries and how in less than 30 years it turned from Spartan austerity to a true gastronomic haven.

Beetroot and Pomegranate Salad – Ingredients (serves 6)
3-4 medium beetroots
2 tablespoons pomegranate concentrate
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2-3 dried chili peppers, crushed
Coarse sea salt
1/4 cup delicate olive oil
1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves
1 cup pomegranate seeds

1. Boil the beetroots in water until tender. Cool, peel and cut into very small dice.

2. Mix with the pomegranate concentrate, lemon juice, peppers and coarse sea salt. Set aside for about 15 minutes.

3. Mix the salad with the coriander leaves and pomegranate seeds, pour the olive oil on top and serve.

Hummus-style Bean Dip – Ingredients (serves 6)
1/2 kg (1 lb 2 oz) dry white beans, soaked in water overnight
1 cup raw tahini
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
The sauce:
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons pickled (Moroccan) lemons, chopped (p. 296)
10 fresh sage leaves, chopped
2 hot green peppers, roasted, peeled and chopped (see instructions on p. 54)
1/2 cup aromatic (Souri) olive oil
3-4 tablespoons garlic confit
To Serve:
1/2 cup roasted almonds

1. Drain the beans and cook in salted water for 3-4 hours, until completely soft.

2. Mash the beans in a wooden mortar and pestle (or in a food processor) with some of the cooking liquid. Add the tahini and lemon juice, season with salt and mix well.

3. Combine the sauce ingredients and adjust the seasoning.

4. Pour the sauce over the bean dip and top up with roasted almonds.

Sea Bass (Lavrak) Fillet in Raw Tahini Sauce – Aviv Moshe, Messa, Tel Aviv

Use the best quality tahini for this simple tasty dish.

Ingredients (serves 4)
8 fillets of sea bass or other portion-sized white flesh saltwater fish
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
4-5 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup raw tahini
4 teaspoons persimmon, cut into small dice
8 filleted orange segments (see instructions on p. 61)
Coarse sea salt

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy skillet and fry the fish fillets for 2 minutes on each side. Keep warm.

2. Heat the remaining olive oil in a saucepan for 2 minutes, add oregano and remove from the stove.

3. Arrange 2 fillets on each serving plate, pour over the raw tahini and hot olive oil with herbs. Sprinkle some lemon juice.

4. Garnish with persimmons and orange fillets, sprinkle sea salt and serve immediately.

Shakshuka _ Basic Recipe
This is the basic version found in most workers’ kitchens. See more elaborate versions below.

Ingredients (serves 4)
4 tablespoons oil, for frying
2 cloves garlic, crushed
5 large tomatoes, peeled and diced (or 11/2 cups canned tomatoes, crushed
1 tablespoon zhug (p. 298), filfel chuma (p. 296) or harissa (p. 298) or a mixture of crushed garlic, paprika and hot peppers
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
Pinch of ground caraway (optional)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
8 eggs

1. Heat the oil in a large deep skillet and lightly fry the garlic. Add the tomatoes and seasonings and cook for 15-20 minutes over low heat, partly covered.

2. Add the tomato paste, cover and simmer for a few more minutes. Adjust the seasoning _ the sauce should have a strong, piquant flavor.

3. Break the eggs one by one and slide onto the tomato sauce, arranging the yolks around the pan.

4. Turn heat to low and cook until the egg whites set (about 5-7 minutes). Partly cover the pan to prevent the sauce from spraying around the kitchen. Cover completely if you like your eggs “over hard”.

Shakshuka with Onions and Peppers Slice one onion and two sweet red peppers and fry lightly. Add the garlic and tomatoes and continue according to the basic recipe.

Shakshuka with Sausages Lightly fry sliced merguez sausages or small cocktail sausages, or grill the sausages first and then add them to the pan. Add the garlic and tomatoes and continue according to the basic recipe.

Israeli Army Shakshuka This version utilizes two canned staples usually found in army kitchens and combat rations: kernel corn and baked beans. Lightly fry diced onions, peppers, garlic and sausages. Add the drained kernel corn, the baked beans and the tomatoes and continue according to the basic recipe.

(Tags: Israel, Food, Books)


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