Foods of Israel Today: Reflecting Israel's Past and Present through Its Many Cuisines

Foods of Israel Today: Reflecting Israel's Past and Present through Its Many Cuisines

by Joan Nathan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679451075
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/2001
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.35(d)

About the Author

Joan Nathan was born in Providence, Rhode Island. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a master's degree in French literature. For three years she lived in Israel, where she worked for Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem. She then went on to earn a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. In New York, where she worked for Mayors Lindsay and Beame, she founded the Ninth Avenue Food Festival. She lectures frequently around the country and contributes articles on international ethnic food and special holiday features to the New York Times, Food and Wine, Gourmet, and Hadassah Magazine. She is the author of six previous books, including Jewish Cooking in America, which won both the James Beard Award and the IACP/Julia Child Cookbook of the Year Award. She is the host of the nationally syndicated television series Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan, based on the book. Ms. Nathan lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Allan Gerson, and their three children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Breakfast and Brunch Fare

I remember so clearly my first breakfast when I was volunteering on a kibbutz in the 1970s. Before the sun was up we started working, and at 7:30-breakfast time-all of us volunteers ran to a pump, splashed water on our faces and hands, and sat down in a huge shed in the middle of a field, hungry for breakfast. There was something so satisfying about a bowl of figs or pears picked that morning, with the dew still on them, and a basket of kibbutz cucumbers, tomatoes, and green peppers. We could choose our own white cheese, or cottage cheese, yogurt, sour cream called shemenet, and kibbutz-baked rye bread or rolls, to craft our own meal. "I'll trade my tomato for your egg" was a typical barter between us hungry volunteers and kibbutzniks. We learned how to chop tomatoes and eggs in various ways to make the food seem different. The kibbutz breakfast was, and still is, a testament to what Israelis have done with the land.

According to Schmuel Federmann, one of the co-founders with his brother Yekutiel of Dan Hotels Corporation, the hotel dairy breakfast sprang from competition with small hotels in Safed and Tiberias, where three meals were included in a full pension. "Putting out a spread in the morning called the 'Israeli buffet breakfast,' which was included in the room price, made us able to compete with the small hotels," he said. "We started out with oranges, then apples, then pears, then prunes. We added more and more when we had more and more. Israel was, after all, the land of milk and honey."

The vast buffets were an instant hit. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the early guests at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, kept remarking about the breakfasts in Israel. "Although food didn't seem important when you were with Mrs. Roosevelt, she was amazed and pleased by the breakfasts we were served, the hard-boiled eggs, the herring, all kinds of breads, sliced and pickled cucumbers, since it was so unlike any breakfast we had ever seen," recalled her traveling companion, Trude Lash.

In the average Israeli home during the week, however, breakfast runs the gamut from a simple pita bread sprinkled with olive oil and za'atar, the ubiquitous Middle Eastern spice combination, to elaborate vegetable dips, milk and cheese products, and preserves spread over many kinds of bakery bread.

Although every kind of prepared cereal is available in supermarkets, Israel is not a major cereal-eating country. Some ethnic varieties like jerisheh, a cracked wheat turned into porridge, are often eaten in Arab villages. But Russian immigrants did not easily adapt to oatmeal and other hot cereals.

Sabbath breakfasts, however, are different. Iraqi Jews eat sabikh, a pita with fried eggplant, a hard-boiled egg, parsley, tahina, and mango pickle. Turkish Jews enjoy burekas (see page 28), those flaky finger pastries traditionally eaten on Shabbat after returning from the synagogue, or Yemenite mahlouach (see page 100). Central Europeans often make coffee cakes, or puffy pancakes like the Austrian kaiserschmarrn (see page 40) while Arabs, both Christian and Moslem, eat kataif (see page 38), pancakes filled with nuts or cream and bathed in a sugar syrup.

Today, Israelis buy most salads, milk products, and even ethnic breads ready-made in the supermarkets. Meals reflect the bounty of the land, with an amazing variety of yogurts, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and goat cheeses, as well as spreads with chunks of olives and more than a dozen versions of the fruit preserves which are the pride of Israel.

Although this chapter features breakfast or brunch items, they can be prepared, as in Israel, for dinner as well. I have included some of my favorites, such as the North African shakshuka, a marvelous egg dish with tomatoes; figs stuffed with cheese; and a panoply of preserves. Israel has great jams, pulpier and less sweet than they are in the United States: date, pumpkin, star fruit, eggplant, sweet potato, orange, apricot, onion, beet-you name it, and all are legacies of the many immigrations to this new country.

Shakshuka a la Doktor Shakshuka

In 1930, Simon Agranat, the chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, wrote to his aunt and uncle in Chicago: "I had my eighth successive egg meal during my three-day journey through the Emek (the valley)." Eggs have always been a main protein for people in Israel. When I lived in Jerusalem, I would make for my breakfast-or even for dinner-scrambled eggs with sauteed spring onions, fresh herbs, and dollops of cream cheese melted into the eggs as they were cooking. Probably the most popular egg dish in Israel is shakshuka, one of those onomatopoeic Hebrew and North African words, meaning "all mixed up." The most famous rendition of this tomato dish, which is sometimes mixed with meat but more often made in Israel with scrambled or poached eggs, is served at the Tripolitana Doktor Shakshuka Restaurant in old Jaffa.

Doktor Shakshuka, owned by a large Libyan family, is located near the antique market in an old stone-arched building with colorful Arab-tiled floors. "When I was a young girl at the age of ten I liked to cook," said Sarah Gambsor, the main cook of the restaurant and wife of one of the owners. "My mother told me that I should marry someone who has a restaurant." And she did just that.

Mrs. Gambsor, a large woman who clearly enjoys eating what she cooks, demonstrated that the dish starts with a heavy frying pan and tomato sauce. Then eggs are carefully broken in and left to set or, if the diner prefers, scrambled in as they cook. The shakshuka is then served in the frying pan at the table.

Yield: 6 servings

1. Place the tomatoes, garlic, salt, paprika, tomato paste, and vegetable oil in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, over low heat until thick, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Ladle the tomato sauce into a greased 12-inch frying pan. Bring to a simmer and break the eggs over the tomatoes. Gently break the yolks with a fork. Cover and continue to cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, until the eggs are set. Bring the frying pan directly to the table. Set it on a trivet and spoon out the shakshuka.

note Alternatively, you can make individual portions, as they do at Doktor Shakshuka, by ladling some of the sauce into a very small pan and poaching one egg in it.

Burekas- My Favorite Breakfast Pastries

I remember with pleasure the Turkish spinach burekas we ate every Friday morning when I worked in the Jerusalem municipality. The ritual was as follows: Simontov, the guard at the front door downstairs, would appear carrying a bronze tray with Turkish coffee and the heavenly, flaky pastries filled with spinach or cheese, called filikas in Ladino. It is rare today to have such delicious burekas in Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel. Most of the dough is commercially produced puff pastry, much thicker and less flaky than the homemade phyllo used to be. A few places, like Burekas Penzo in Tel Aviv (near Levinsky Street), which has been making the pastries by hand in the Turkish style for more than thirty years, produce a close second to those I remember from my days in Jerusalem. Various Ladino names like bulemas and boyos differentiate fillings and distinguish a Jewish bureka from a Turkish one. If you can find the thick phyllo dough, that works well. Otherwise, try this. My fifteen-year-old makes and sells them for fifty cents apiece. They are great!

Yield: about 60 bureka triangles

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Using a pastry brush, coat the bottom of a cookie sheet with some of the melted butter.

3. Take a sheet of phyllo and cut lengthwise in strips, 41\2 inches wide. Butter the strips, fold over lengthwise, butter again, and place a tablespoon of filling on the end. Then fold up right to left as you would a flag, so that the end result is a plump triangle, buttering the outside at the end. Repeat with the remaining filling and dough. Beat the egg, brush the burekas with it, and sprinkle sesame seeds over the tops.

4. Place on the cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until golden in color.

note You can also mold and freeze the burekas after forming. Defrost for 2 hours and then bake. You can fill any leftover phyllo with chocolate chips or Nutella and make triangular treats.

Three Ways to Fill a Bureka

Spinach Filling

Yield: about 2 cups, enough filling for about 20 burekas

1. Place the fresh spinach or Swiss chard leaves in a frying pan with only the water that clings to the leaves, and cook briefly until they wilt. (If using frozen spinach, simply defrost.) Drain very well, squeezing out as much of the water as possible. Cool and chop.

2. Mix together the eggs, feta and cheddar cheeses, parsley, dill, and scallions. Add the spinach and salt and pepper to taste; mix well.

3. Use about 1 tablespoon of filling for each bureka.

Eggplant Filling

Yield: about 2 cups, enough filling for about 20 burekas

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Prick the skin of the eggplants all over and roast on an oiled cookie sheet for 25 minutes, turning occasionally.

2. Remove the pulp from the skin, discarding the seeds and draining off any extra liquid. Cool slightly, then pat dry and coarsely chop. Combine the eggplant pulp, cheeses, and cilantro or parsley and mash well with a fork; add salt if needed.

3. Use about 1 tablespoon of filling for each bureka.

Cheese Filling

Yield: about 2 cups, enough filling for about 20 burekas

1. Beat the eggs in a small bowl. Add the cheddar and feta cheeses and pepper to taste. Mix well.

2. Use about 1 tablespoon of filling for each bureka.

Paula Ben-Gurion's Kutch Mutch

Beneath the olive, sabra, and pomegranate trees near Kibbutz Sde Boker is David and Paula Ben-Gurion's "hut," the home to which Israel's first prime minister moved when he retired briefly in 1953. On December 30th of that year, Ben-Gurion wrote his daughter Geula a letter about the kibbutz. "Mother, of course, bought canned goods and bottles of wine. For the time being the wine just sits and only an occasional can is opened. There is a communal kitchen, of course, but mother is not keen on it. She neither likes the cleanliness of the tables nor the quality of the food nor the cooking. She hardly eats either in the kitchen or at home. How she manages, I don't know. I get used to nearly all the dishes and eat far more than I used to in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv."

Everyone has a story about Ben-Gurion's American-born wife, Paula. "The most important thing for Paula was David Ben-Gurion," said their grandson Elon Ben-Gurion. "She protected him like a child. I remember one day in Sde Boker. I walked in the house and he was sitting inside talking with Zalman Shazar, then the president of Israel. Paula walked in and told Shazar to sit outside so that Ben-Gurion could eat. He waited like a little kid until David Ben-Gurion had finished eating."

Paula's quirkiness is apparent today in the sparsely equipped kitchen of the Ben-Gurion home on the kibbutz, now a museum. There stands a table with an Osterizer, a bottle of fruit squash, which was diluted with water to make juice, and a few pots on the tiny stove. On the wall is a listing of the pills Ben-Gurion was to take, and a recipe for Paula's healthy and hated invention of kutch mutch, which she made him promise to eat every day for breakfast. This much-joked-about concoction included yogurt, white cheese, semolina, strawberry syrup, milk, and raw eggs. "When Paula passed away, Ben-Gurion, for whom food was a means to live, not an experience, made a commitment that he would eat it every day in her memory," said their grandson. "In my grandmother's mind it was a very healthy dish. I think his commitment to her was fabulous."

I have eaten versions of this much more palatable and equally healthy kutch mutch throughout Israel. Here is my adaptation with pecans, which I was surprised to taste in this dish in Israel since the nuts seemed so American to me.

Yield: 4 servings

1. Put the yogurt in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the bran, grated apples, brown sugar, honey, and nuts over and mix well.

2. Serve as a breakfast dish, snack, or dessert.

note You can replace the apples with 2 cups of sliced fresh strawberries or other fruit of your choice.

Figs Stuffed with Cheese and Served on an Apricot-Mint Coulis with a Confit of Onions

With such a short season for fresh figs, Shiri sometimes substitutes poached dried figs or, in midsummer, fresh apricots. Shiri uses four kinds of cheese for this dish, including the famous variety from Safed (see page 242), and serves it over a confit of onions with fresh mint and her mom's apricot jam. This is a perfect brunch dish.

If you cannot find Safed cheese, use a Bulgarian feta. You can, of course, substitute store-bought apricot jam for the homemade variety, but chances are it will not have the same chunkiness or rich flavor.

Yield: 6 servings

1. Put the cheeses, garlic, thyme, and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a food processor equipped with a steel blade. Puree and then refrigerate for a few hours.

2. Heat a frying pan and add the remaining oil with the onions; reduce the heat to low. Cook, uncovered, very, very slowly, stirring occasionally, until the onions become a rich golden brown, adding a little water if necessary. This may take up to 30 minutes. The longer you cook them, the more flavor your onions will have. This is called a "confit."

3. Trim the stems from the figs and cut crosses in the tops of the fruit, slicing almost to the bottom so that the fig will open like a flower.

4. Take a heaping tablespoon of the cheese mixture and place it inside one of the figs. Repeat with the remaining cheese and figs. This can be done several hours before serving and refrigerated.

5. To serve, mix the onion confit with the apricot jam and a tablespoon of fresh mint. Spoon a dollop of this confit on a small plate. Top with the cheese-stuffed fig.

note You can substitute dried figs for fresh, or even, if you prefer, dried pears. Merely remove the stems, place fruit in enough water to cover, and simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes or until soft. Drain, wipe dry, and use as above.

What People are Saying About This

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

I have been waiting a long time for this book. The years Joan Nathan has taken to 'get it right' show on every page. No one has dealt with Israel with this combination of scholarship, good storytelling, and the pure joy of a gifted cook. This is one of those books that softens and opens the 'otherness' of a complex country. Thank you, Joan, for a masterful piece of work and for building a much-needed bridge. It goes on my short shelf of classics.

Daniel Boulud

Joan Nathan's cookbook is an intensely individual one, full of personal anecdotes and excerpts of relevant stories by various authors. I read this cookbook like a novel and really enjoyed learning more about the culture and cuisine of Israel. I also had the most incredible urge to try every recipe while I was reading the cookbook-a sure sign that a cookbook will be a hit.


Recipes from The Foods of Israel Today

Penguin Buffet's Classic Israeli Schnitzel
Yield: 6 servings

Almost every restaurant in Israel features turkey schnitzel on the menu. Most homemakers buy it breaded and frozen and serve it preceded by hummus, tahina, and other salads for a quick main meal. As I went from table to table throughout Israel, I found the dish to be more or less the same, prepared with spice combinations that vary depending on the ethnic background of the cook. Yemenite Jews, for example, add garlic, cumin, turmeric, cardamon, and hawayij. Polish cooks often use matzoh meal. A classic schnitzel includes both butter and oil, which has been changed to just oil in Israel. Even in remote corners of Latin America, restaurants try to woo Israeli travelers by putting up signs in Hebrew saying WE HAVE SCHNITZEL.

6 boneless, skinless turkey or chicken breasts, sliced thin (about 1-1/2 pounds)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
Vegetable or soybean oil for deep frying
2 lemons, sliced in wedges

1. Place one cutlet at a time inside a large plastic bag. With a meat mallet, pound the turkey or chicken slice as thin as possible and season well with salt and pepper.

2. Spread the flour on a flat plate. Break the eggs into a pie plate and beat well. Put the breadcrumbs on a third plate.

3. Pour the oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of 1 inch and heat over a medium flame until almost smoking.

4. Dip each turkey or chicken breast in flour, then in egg, and then in breadcrumbs.

5. Fry the schnitzels for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until golden brown.

6. Drain the schnitzels on a plate lined with paper towel. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.

Note: You can also bake the breaded schnitzels in a 350-degree oven for a few minutes ahead of time. Then just before serving, deep-fry quickly to crisp the outside.

Israeli Couscous with Seasonal Vegetables
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

I love the texture of the so-called "Israeli couscous." My favorite way to prepare it is with pecans and stir-fried winter vegetables like Brussels sprouts, yellow winter squash, cabbage, and Swiss chard. I also recommend serving it with asparagus, tiny pearl onions, and peas in the spring, diced yellow squash and zucchini in the summer, or beans and wild mushrooms in the fall. This is one of those wonderful pasta dishes with which you can use your own imagination. If you can't find Israeli couscous, which is available in Middle Eastern markets and many supermarkets, orzo pasta or arborio rice are nice substitutes.

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, diced
8 ounces Israeli couscous (about 2 cups)
3 cups water
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup red cabbage, shredded
1 cup shredded Brussels sprouts
1 cup diced Swiss chard
1 cup diced winter squash (like butternut, acorn, or Hubbard)
1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted

1. In a frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil and sauté the onions until soft. Remove half and set aside. Add the couscous to the onions in the frying pan and stir until browned.

2. Bring water to a boil in a saucepan with a cover. Add the couscous, salt, and pepper to taste, and parsley. Cover and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the skillet and add the reserved onions, the cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, squash, and pecans. Stir-fry until the vegetables are soft.

4. To serve, drain the couscous, place it in the center of a shallow bowl, and surround with the vegetables.

Jaffa Orange Delight
Yield: 6 servings

Oranges were probably brought to Palestine from Southeast Asia as early as the seventh or eighth century. From the 1850s onward, the citrus orchards slowly expanded; in 1948, when the Israeli state was established, citrus-growing had become the largest fruit industry in Israel; Jaffa's shamuti-type orange, with its thick, easily peeled skin and sweet flavor, was considered by many to be the best in the world. The orchards' scent was so strong that it was perceptible to approaching ships miles from land.

Kena Shoval, wife of the former ambassador of Israel to the United States, Zalman Shoval, sometimes served this orange dessert at her luncheons. You can use any type of flavorful orange in this recipe.

6 Jaffa, or other flavorful oranges
2-1/2 cups water
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup orange brandy liqueur (like the Israeli brand Hallelujah)
6 sprigs of fresh mint

1. With a sharp knife, remove the rind and pith of 4 oranges. Cut the peel into very narrow strips, about 1/8 inch wide. Put them in a saucepan of boiling water and boil for 2 minutes. Drain and wash with cold water, then drain again.

2. Peel the remaining 2 oranges and remove the pitch. Leave all 6 oranges whole.

3. Mix the water and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then slip in the 6 peeled oranges. Cover with a plate so they won't float, lower the heat, and simmer slowly for 1 hour.

4. Remove the pot of oranges from the heat and let cool. Fish the fruit out of the syrup and drain, then refrigerate. Add the strips of rind to the syrup, bring to a boil, and cook to reduce the syrup by half. Remove from the heat and add the orange liqueur.

5. When the oranges are completely cold, slice them in thin rounds. Serve with the syrup and strips of the peel on top. Decorate with fresh mint leaves.

Copyright © 2001 by Joan Nathan

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