BLOGGERS BONANZA (My Evening with Israeli Food Bloggers)
I occasionally discover new food bloggers when I get quoted and the Google alert appears. Some bloggers (obviously my favorites and I’m always appreciative) quote me on a regular basis, while others much less so. In any case, we all share a passion for food, which comes through in our work. Rarely, do I get a chance to actually meet people from the blogosphere in person and never before have I met with a large assemblage of them. But this past week, a group of twelve Israeli food bloggers and I had dinner and discussions at the Eucalyptus Restaurant in Jerusalem, all arranged by Shira Kallus Zwebner (i.e. kosherfoodie on Twitter).
More on the dinner and participants in a moment, but first let me regale you with tales of my harrowing adventures going and coming. I took a bus into the city, then hailed a cab on the street, who would not admit that he did not know where the restaurant’s new location was, but instead dropped me near the Montifiore Restaurant adjacent to the windmill. I wandered for a while and to make matters worse, I stopped to ask three different police officers for directions, and each pointed me in the wrong direction, until I ended up back at the windmill. Fortunately, I had a cell phone (thank you Israel for another great invention) and Shira’s cell number. I finally returned to the Montifiore Restaurant, where a waiter kindly called a cab, who actually did know where he was going and dropped me off in the right place. So I arrived nearly half an hour late, which was not a conspicuous way to begin an evening, as I am not the type that likes to be fashionably late.
Leaving also proved to be an adventure. I received a ride to my bus stop from Yael from Modiin, who was as unfamiliar with driving in the narrow streets of Jerusalem as I. As we tried to leave the parking lot, we discovered that the narrow dead-end street was illegally parked on both sides by drivers heading to the nearby Kotel. Yet cars were still attempting to move in both directions. Several small cars managed to squeak by in the other direction, but then facing us was a large Chrysler van and there was no way either of us could pass. Yael tried backing up a little, but behind us was a line of cars also trying to get out. Finally, the three or more cars heading in the opposite direction in front of us realized that it was they who had to move and retreated, including the massive van. We inched ahead passing the cars illegally parked on both sides and finally made it out, without giving or receiving a scratch. I got to the Tunnel Junction around midnight, well after the last bus to Alon Shvut had passed. Fortunately, the second car that drove by was a young guy heading to Alon Shvut, so I made it home by 12:30. Whew!
Anyway, back to the main event. It was a very diverse group of people from as far away as Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv: religious and non-religious, former Americans and native Israelis, those who are great cooks and others who remain less than adept in the kitchen. What we all shared was a love for food and, in particular, for Jewish food.
Here are my new friends, in no particular order other than their position around the table:
Shira Kallus Zwebner
Katherine Martinelli www.katherinemartinelli.com
Liz Steinberg cafeliz Israeli food blog food.lizsteinberg.com
Ariella Darsa Amshalem www.aricooks.wordpress.com
Michelle Kemp-Nordell and her husband David www.baronesstapuzina.com
Miriam Kresh www.israelikitchen.com
Sarah Melamed foodbridge www.sarahmelamed.com
Yael Ruder @ Hope It Will Rain www.yaelruder.blogspot.com
Hannah Katsman www.cookingmanager.com
Mirjam Weiss www.miriyummy.wordpress.com
(If I omitted anyone, please forgive me and let me know.)
For those of you unfamiliar with Eucalyptus Restaurant and its dynamic owner Moshe Basson, he is from an Iraqi family, and his parents opened a bakery in the village of Beit Safafa. Local Arab women (older housewives are always the best source to learn the foods and culinary traditions of any community) would come to use the bakery oven, as in Iraq, and he was exposed to both their dishes as well as the wild edible plants they used in them. Moshe is particularly passionate about indigenous plants and foods of the Levant. He even won the International Couscous Competition in Italy in 1999.
I have dined at Basson’s restaurants before, so I knew what to expect. He loves wild native plants and herbs, especially za’atar, sumac, Israeli sage, and hubeza, which star and sparkle in his dishes. Among his signature dishes are stuffed figs in tamarind sauce (recipe follows); a tasting of three soups, red lentil, Jerusalem artichoke, and his mother’s tomato soup (it was my favorite of the trio); charred eggplant in tahina and pomegranate sauce; kofta (veal meatballs); stuffed hubeza or grape leaves; and, of course, couscous with vegetable and chickpeas (the latter, when made with 7 symbolic elements is actually a traditional Moroccan Rosh Hashanah dish). The highlight of Basson’s meals is the makluba (a local upside down rice and chicken casserole originally derived from the Persian polo, also the source of the Western pilaf). Moshe prodded me to dress in apron and funny hat to unveil the evening’s makluba, and there are now pictures out there to prove it.
Besides those disturbing photos now out there on the internet, the evening’s only problem was that it was far too short. I do hope to be able to spend more time in the future with the group. All too frequently when I get started talking about food, people’s eyes start to glaze over, so it’s always refreshing to be around others who share my interest. And it’s always nice to hear how appreciated and used the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food and Olive Trees and Honey have become. I don’t become tired of hearing people admit how they use my books as a resource.
If I could encourage others to do anything, it would be to preserve copies of recipes of traditional family foods. All too frequently and tragically, these dishes don’t pass from one generation to the next. So get your grandmothers, aunts, and mother and wrangle these details from them while you can, even if it means catching their “pinch of this” or “handful of that” in a cup and measuring it. Then after securing these treasures, pass them around to your family and post them on the internet. These recipes are a part of Jewish history and should rightfully be preserved for all to enjoy and learn. They are a taste, literally and figuratively, of our past and hopefully future as well.
Moshe Basson’s Stuffed Figs
12 fresh or dried figs
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 chicken breast (about 1 pound), coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seed
salt to taste
½ cup strained tamarind paste or ¼ cup pomegranate molasses
½ cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
salt to taste
1. To make the filling: In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil, add the onion, and sauté until soft and light golden, about 10 minutes. Add the chicken and half the quantity of each spice. Stir until the chicken loses its raw color, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool. Do not wash the pan.
2. To make the sauce: Into the same skillet, put the tamarind paste, water, sugar, remaining spices, and salt. Stir well and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and stir until it is smooth, velvety. Set aside.
3. To prepare the figs: If using fresh figs, make an incision into the upper third of the fig, making sure you do not cut through so that the fig can be reassembled after stuffing. With a small spoon or melon baller, scoop out the fig flesh. Add half of it to the sauce and half to the chicken mixture. If using dried figs, use your fingers to create a cavity in the center of the fig.
4. To assemble: Stuff the cavity of the figs with the chicken mixture. Put the stuffed figs into the prepared sauce in the skillet, cover and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 15 minutes. Garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds.
For a vegetarian version, substitute a combination of button and oyster mushrooms for the chicken.
A more elaborate version is made with stuffed onions and stuffed small eggplants.