An Afternoon with Joan Nathan

Ezra Kedem_Israel Aharoni_Joan Nathan_Mark Furstenberg

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a discussion at the annual Jerusalem International Book Fair entitled, The Changing Jewish Kitchen – Is Jewish food still Jewish food and what is it?. The panel consisted of cookbook author Joan Nathan, Israeli chef, TV personality and food writer Israel Aharoni, Israeli chef Ezra Kedem (Arcadia Restaurant in Jerusalem), and the moderator, baker, chef and restaurant consultant Mark Furstenberg.

I have been a fan of Joan Nathan’s since my mother gave me one of her cookbooks, Jewish Holiday Kitchen, almost 25 years ago. The first two recipes I made from that cookbook were for Passover: Seven-Fruit Haroset From Surinam and Larry Bain’s Bubie’s Haroset. They were a big hit at my family Passover dinner. Years later, when I moved to Israel and Mr. BT and I were hosting our first seder, I told him about a Venetian haroset recipe containing chestnuts that I had found in Joan Nathan’s cookbook and which I wanted to make. He said, let’s make it, and this was the basis for the now famous Nordell family haroset.

During the panel discussion, Ms. Nathan talked about when she visited Strasbourg, France to do research for her latest cookbook, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France: the people she interviewed there, she recounted, begged her to find some lost Alsatian Jewish recipes. She said that she is afraid that some of the traditional Ashkenazi recipes are being lost because people are shying away from making the more fattening recipes, like those containing chicken fat, duck fat and goose fat.

Israel Aharoni told an interesting story about Jewish fusion cooking he witnessed in someone’s home in Jerusalem. During the taping of his famous television program, Derech Ha’ochel (The Way of Food), with his friend and co-host, comedian Gavri Banai, they were invited to have Shabbat dinner with a family in the Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. The woman of the house started preparing gefilte fish, which she served with hilbeh, a traditional Yemenite condiment made with fenugreek, zhug, and coriander,  and tehina (sesame paste). Aharoni, whose parents were from Uzbekistan,  was quite shocked that a traditional Ashkenazi family would put Yemenite and Middle Eastern condiments on their table. But then he realized that this was a common occurrence for families who lived in the melting pot of Israel where you find Yemenites and Moroccans who eat gefilte fish and Ashkenazis who eat North African shakshouka and tagine.

The discussion moved on to topic of olive oil. Most people would assume that a country where you can find ancient olive oil presses would have a long and uninterrupted history of cooking with olive oil. But as Aharoni said, “Until 20 or 25 years ago, you couldn’t even get olive oil in Israel. You had to have a friend, who had a friend, who knew someone who lived in an Arab village.” However, he said when Italian food became popular here, the local supermarkets started stocking lower quality Italian and Spanish olive oil. Things have progressed, and you can now buy high quality local olive oil.

Ezra Kedem, who is half Kurdish and half German,  said that when he was a child in Jerusalem and came home hungry from school, he would be given dark bread with olive oil and za’atar. His eyes lit up when he talked about this childhood treat. He said that his parents bought their olive oil once a year from Arabs in Beit Jala, a town south of Jerusalem. The olive oil was put in two or three jerrycans that they would bring to the Arab family to fill up with the liquid gold, as Kedem described it.

After the discussion was over, I asked Ms. Nathan if she was going to be doing a book signing, to which she replied, “they didn’t arrange one, but come with me and I will be happy to sign a book for you.” She is very down-to-earth and easy to talk to. I really felt like I could have talked to her for hours, but she had a appointment to be interviewed by fellow Israeli blogger and Haaretz editor, Liz Steinberg, who wrote a lovely article about her in that newspaper.

What I love most about her cookbooks is the stories and history that she gathers for each recipe. She takes you on a wonderful trip to a country, a town, a home or a restaurant without leaving your home. She makes sure that you feel the love that goes into each family dish. I so wanted to talk to her about some of my own family treasures: the matza balls, the noodle and matza schalets, and the butter cookies. Alas, it will have to wait for another trip.

The first recipe that caught my eye in her new cookbook was a recipe called Soupe au Blé Verte, which is a spicy vegetarian version of the classic Tunisian soup called Shurbat Farik bi’l-Mukh, made with chickpeas and freekeh, and it is a perfect soup for a cold winter’s night. I made a few slight additions to the recipe: I added garlic, since as most of you know, having a half-Hungarian in the house means that you can’t make something without garlic unless you can prove that it is an absolutely forbidden ingredient in that particular dish.

Cavalo Nero

And, I also added our homegrown Cavalo Nero (Tuscan Kale) at the very end of the cooking process. It gave a nice crunchy texture to the soup.

Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous is a real treasure and I will be cooking more dishes from it in the coming weeks.

Soup au Ble Vert

Tunisian Vegetable Soup with Chickpeas and Freekeh

Serving Size: 6 to 8

(Soupe au Blé Verte) Slightly adapted from Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France by Joan Nathan

1 cup dried small chickpeas

1/4 cup olive oil 1 small onion, diced

1 stalk celery, finely chopped 1 carrot, peeled and diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon harissa, plus more for garnish

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

7-8 cups water

1 tablespoon tomato paste 1 cup freekeh, picked over for stones and chaff and rinsed

1 cup cavalo nero, chopped with the center rib removed

1 lemon, quartered

Place the chickpeas in a bowl, cover with water, and soak them overnight.

The next day, put the olive oil in a soup pot and saute the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic until the onion is transparent. Add the drained chickpeas to the pan with 1/4 cup of parsley, the bay leaf, harissa, cayenne pepper, salt, and black pepper. Stir in the tomato paste and a cup of water, and cook for about 5 minutes.

Add 6 cups of water and bring to the boil. Stir in the freekeh and lower the heat. Cover the soup, and simmer for 1-1/2 hours. You may have to add an additional cup of water. Add the cavalo nero and cook for an additional 30 minutes. Discard the bay leaf and serve with a sprinkling of parsley and a wedge of lemon.

Freekeh Friday at Shuk Ramle

Two Fridays ago Mr BT and I went on a lovely nature walk near Uriah (from the sordid tale of King David, Uriah the Hittite and his wife Bathsheva) with Sarah from Foodbridge and Mimi from Israeli Kitchen. I learned that you can stuff cyclamen leaves just like grape leaves. I saw wild asparagus, zaatar, fennel, borage, a mastic bush, which is used to make chewing gum and is also used in ice cream, and navel wort, which Mimi uses as an ingredient in the amazing moisturizer that she makes. We did not pick any of these plants because most of them are protected by law, but it was fun learning about them. I can’t wait to go on another walk with them.

After the walk, Mr BT, Mimi, and I went to the town of Ramle (derived from the Arabic word Raml, meaning Sand), founded around 716AD.

A geographer, el-Muqadasi (“the Jerusalemite”), describes Ramla at the peak of its prosperity: “It is a fine city, and well built; its water is good and plentiful; it fruits are abundant. It combines manifold advantages, situated as it is in the midst of beautiful villages and lordly towns, near to holy places and pleasant hamlets. Commerce here is prosperous, and the markets excellent…The bread is of the best and the whitest. The lands are well favoured above all others, and the fruits are the most luscious. This capital stands among fruitful fields, walled towns and serviceable hospices…”

Ramle is no longer at the peak of its prosperity, and in fact is now one of the poorer cities in Israel, but it should be proud of its ancient architecture, such as the Pool of Arches, pictured above, which is an underground water cistern, currently under restoration. Also known as St. Helen’s Pool and Bīr al-Anezīya, it was built during the reign of the caliph Haroun al-Rashid in 789 AD (the early Islamic period) to provide Ramle with a steady supply of water.

The shuk is rich and vibrant showing off our beautiful produce and the multi-cultural diversity of the city.

The stalls are full of interesting vegetables and greens that grace local kitchens. The purplish root vegetables, on the left in the picture above, are purple carrots. When carrots were originally brought to Europe from Central Asia, they were in fact purple and yellow, not the bright orange color we know nowadays, which was developed in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The green-eyed Arab woman selling them, who must have been a great beauty when she was younger, was so happy that we knew what they were. She also sold beautiful fresh peas that I have not seen since I moved here. I bought some and we savored every morsel.

Mimi and Sarah had told me about the Bukharan baker who sold traditional Uzbeki flatbread. I had seen a travelogue a couple of years ago about Uzbekistan, which showed a local baker making flatbread stamped with beautiful geometric designs. Apparently, women used to bring their loaves to the local baker and put their own unique design on the bread so that he would know who to give them back to.

The baker in Ramle puts lovely floral and Star of David designs on his bread. We bought a couple of steaming hot ones to take home.

They also make lovely round challot.

Ever since Mr BT and I ate at Ezba in Kfar Rama, I have wanted to make a dish with freekeh and I had the great fortune to find some at a Halal butcher shop in Ramle. The shop was very nice and sold all sorts of interesting items to cook with. I thought about recreating the dish we had at Ezba, but I decided instead to stuff a chicken with freekeh. To offset the smokiness of the wheat, I added dried sour apricots that I soaked for 20 minutes in hot water and also added toasted pumpkin seeds for a little added crunch. The dish was delicious and the dried apricots really went well with the freekeh. I will definitely make this again. You could use cornish hens instead of a chicken for a more elegant meal.

I served the chicken with the purple carrots that I tucked in under the chicken. The roasted carrots were sweet and delicious with more carrot flavour that their orange cousins. I thought the carrots were going to be solid purple, but when I cut into them, a beautiful yellow and orange sunburst revealed itself.

Roasted Chicken stuffed with Freekeh

Serving Size: 4 to 6

1 roasting chicken, 2kg (4lbs)

1-1/4 cups freekeh

1-1/2 cups finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup dried apricots, soaked in warm water

1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted

Soak the freekeh in a bowl of cold water for 20 minutes, skimming off any debris that floats to the surface. Change the water twice and drain well in a colander.

Cook the freekeh, uncovered, in a medium sized pot of salted boiling water, stirring and skimming occasionally, until tender, 12 to 15 minutes; drain well in a colander and transfer to a bowl.

While the freekeh is cooking, heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and add the onions, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent. Add the coriander, ginger, cinnamon, and pepper. Cook stirring for a minute more and add the onion, dried apricots, and pumpkin seeds to the freekeh. Set aside until the mixture has cooled completely.

Stuff the chicken cavity with as much stuffing as you can and tie the legs together with string. Sprinkle freshly ground pepper over the chicken. Place the remaining stuffing in the bottom of a small roasting pan and place the stuffed chicken on top. Brush the chicken with olive oil and bake 180C (350F) oven for 1 hour or until the chicken is completely cooked and is a nice golden brown.

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