Meal 83: Israel

One way to look at cuisine is the interface between what foods are available and the cultures of the people who live there. We get a fascinating case study in the foods of Israel, a young country in an ancient land, with most of its population zero to two generations removed from some other place, whether near or very far. Israeli food is very much not what we think of in the U.S. as "Jewish food," for a few good reasons. I could get into ethnography and census counts, but this is a food blog, so just think to yourself whether matzo ball soup and brisket roasts sound good in a hot environment. Frankly, I don't blame Israelis, including those of Ashkenazi descent, for ditching the food of a poor people in a cold climate with short growing seasons, and instead preferring the abundance of the Mediterranean. There's a reason the Garden of Eden is placed somewhere around there!  (Incongruously, Israel has also developed a far less holy snack-food industry.)

Rather, much of the food in Israel comes from the Mizrahi, which essentially means Jews from places that aren't culturally European, including North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia — depending on who you ask this includes the Sephardim, those whose lineage goes back to Spain. It's unclear to me whether such staples of the Israeli table like hummus, falafel, and shawarma come from these immigrants or were borrowed (or appropriated, depending on your view) from the Palestinians; if anything, my guess is that both factors reinforced each other. That said, the Mizrahim brought other foods, like kibbe soup from Iraq, and the fish dish you'll see later. (Speaking of Palestine, as it's a permanent observing state of the UN, it'll get its own meal later on.) The last notable group is Ethiopian, though it doesn't seem like they have a huge impact on the standard Israeli table.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sarah, my buddy from high school, who now lives and works in Israel. She's an assiduous follower of the blog, and was a tremendous help in sorting through the menu, steering me in the right direction (turns out Israelis don't really make falafel at home!), and pointing out things I may never have come across because they're almost too obvious to anyone who knows the culture (minty lemonade!).

Our guests for the evening were Martyna, Russell, Jessica, Miriam, and Rob!

Limonana | Minty lemonade | Recipe

It's so goofy as to sound apocryphal: this most refreshing of drinks is not only an invention from within the past 25 years, but it came about as the invented subject of an ad campaign meant to prove the value of out-of-home ads (think sides of buses). Apparently enough people were enticed by the promise of a minty lemonade with a catchy name that they started asking for it at restaurants, who pretty quickly figured out how to make it.

Whenever and however it was invented, it's a shock this beverage isn't found anywhere in the world it gets hot. Tart lemon is refreshing, cooling mint is refreshing, and the addition of sugar and seltzer make them a delight to drink. In this version I made a simple syrup with mint, but you could just as easily muddle mint in the glass.

Sarah made it clear that to be a real Israeli summertime event, we ought to also mix arak, an anise liqueur similar to raki or ouzo, with grapefruit juice. As she had warned, we found it pretty vile.

Hummus | Chickpea dip | Recipe

While time-consuming, it's easy and cheap to make hummus from scratch. It takes an overnight soak and several hours of simmering, but the final step is a mere blitz in the food processor and you've got your own fluffy, creamy dip that's as garlicky, salty, tangy, or oily as you want it. For those of us who are, uh, sensitive to garbanzos, you may find that when you give the a long soak and a slow simmer, they're a lot more digestible than their commercially prepared counterpart.

Pita | Flatbread | Recipe

Respectable bakers say that when it comes to normal loaves of bread, bad bread should be eaten hot to mask the lack of flavor, and good bread should be allowed to sit for a bit. But I really like hot bread, so flatbreads allow me to indulge my taste and maintain my amateur-baker pride. Flatbreads are also generally pretty quick and easy to make, the only annoying part being frequently bending over and pulling things into and out of a hot oven. My trick is, whenever possible, to make flatbreads on a griddle on the barbecue, which makes access so much easier.

Unlike the thin and rather sparse pitas we most often see here, Israeli pitas are thicker and spongier. I found I got the right thickness by putting a ball of dough on a plate with slightly raised sides and using a rolling pin along the edges of the plate, making for about a half-inch-thick piece of dough. (I use a horizontally-grooved hand-carved chapati roller I bought for fifty cents at a Mumbai antique shop. You could also use a wine bottle.) Too much sauce soaks right through a normal pita, while this thicker variety is well-suited for sopping up all manner of dip and sauce, or for making your own little sandwich with. Yum.

Salat yerakot | Chopped salad

It's really nothing more than tomato and cucumber with sumac, lemon juice, and olive oil, the sort of thing that's eaten pretty much anywhere those ingredients grow. But what makes it Israeli is how incredibly finely chopped everything is. Apparently it's a point of honor of Israeli chefs. I found it made things really watery as you can see, as every stroke of the knife squishes more juice from the tomato — was I supposed to drain some of it?

Chraime | White fish in spicy tomato sauce | Recipe

We can thank the Sephardic Jews of North Africa, many of whom emigrated to Israel, for this easy, simple, yet really tasty dish. The flavors play off so well, the tang and spice of the sauce with the oily-sweet, fleshy fish. And it's so easy to throw together: throw together ingredients you probably have on hand (including that humblest of staples, tomato paste), pop in whatever firm fish you happen to find (the recipe calls for sea bass but I had an easier time coming by swordfish thanks to Trader Joe's), and you're done. Tasty dinner in 20 minutes.

Yerakot kluim im daloreet, krooveet, ve'batzal adom | Roasted vegetables with tahini sauce | Recipe  

Sarah made it clear that adding cauliflower to the meal would lend a real sense of authenticity, and that Israelis love their roasted veggies, so that's how I made the cauliflower, along with butternut squash and red onions. Instead of roasting in the oven, I threw everything in a basket on the grill. The veggies got moderately charred, but the crowd didn't seem to mind, it all got gobbled up.

Kebabim | Ground lamb with pine nuts and tahini sauce | Recipe

In Israel, kebab doesn't mean meat chunks on a skewer, or a big ol' spit (that's schwarma in Israel, of course), but rather spiced ground lamb patties. Pine nuts add a bit of crunch and the mint is a refreshing balance to the rich lamb. I grilled them like hamburgers, then we doused them in a tahini sauce. They also worked well as a sandwich inside the pita. I ended up with way too much of the meat, which I then froze raw for future meals.

Yerushalmi kugel | Peppery caramel casserole | Recipe

This is one of the few foods I found that can be called historically Israeli, as in, invented by a Jewish community living there before the creation of the state. It's a curious dish, a noodle casserole that blends an oily sweet caramel with fresh cracked pepper, and bound together with eggs. With a long, slow bake, the top and edges get good and crispy, and the inside stays moist. Is this a dessert, a snack, or a light meal? It could be any of that.

Rugelach | Chocolate-walnut-jam rolled cookies | Recipe

For years I've heard stories of my ancestor, Fannie Danab, who was such a good cook that she never taught anyone her techniques, since she didn't want anyone to be a slave to the kitchen like she was. All the same, my grandmother worked to replicate her recipe for rugelach, the crispy little rolled-up cookies that, along with schniztel, are one of the few Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish foods to have become firmly implanted in Israel. The recipe here is, according to my mom, pretty close to what my grandmother would make, so here you have it, third-hand.

The secret to the flaky dough is cream cheese and of course butter; I decided to keep this meal kosher, so it was Tofutti and margarine here. I rolled out rounds (it's thankfully a pretty forgiving dough), spread out a really tasty strawberry-raspberry jam, sprinkled with chocolate and walnuts (not hazlenuts, because I used what I had), sliced into wedges, and merrily rolled them up.

Week 9: Australia

While Australia is the furthest country in the world from most of the US, my research made it clear that the cuisine there is quite similar to our own — a Western European base with plenty of influences from immigrants around the world. So it took a little asking around to figure out what I could make that would be an only-in-Australia sort of thing. And this is how I learned about the mad genius of the Aussie burger, with a few other gems thrown in.

Tonight was a mini-reunion of Albania, with Snezan, Neely, Rudina, and Kirsty in attendance. We also had the pleasure of the company of Kirsty's mother (all the way from England) and elementary school teacher (all the way from Alabama), as well as Rudina's boyfriend Adam and my friend Mike. Thank goodness the threat of rain never materialized, because between the crowd and the need to grill, doing this one outside was a must.

Vegemite on toast

I'd heard plenty about this yeast extract spread that's apparently an immense cultural anchor and source of Australian pride and identity. Well, I found it at Fairway, and we spread it on toast. It was very salty and was like essence of meat in spreadable form. Check that off the foods bucket list.

Prawns in coriander-pepper sauce | Recipe


If an American has a thought about Australian food, it's probably "shrimp on the barbie," from a long-running and very successful tourism advertising campaign. It turns out, though, that in Australia they're called prawns, but that's where the inauthenticity ends — barbecuing them is definitely appropriate! I found this recipe, whose marinade is made from the entirely of the coriander (a.k.a. cilantro) plant, including the roots. I used the largest reasonably-priced prawns I could find, and I made sure to get them wild-caught because I've read some awfully nasty things about farmed shrimp/prawns. I had to peel and devein them myself, which wasn't a horrible hassle but probably worth paying a few extra points to avoid next time. Anyway, it was really yummy, a good nibble to pass the time while waiting for the main event.

Beef burger with the lot | "Aussie burger" | Recipes: burger, barbecue sauce


Imagine a hamburger, made with breadcrumbs and some stuff to make it extra juicy. Now imagine it slathered with homemade barbecue sauce, and then stacked with cheddar cheese, a grilled pineapple ring, pickled beets, bacon, and, I kid you not, a fried egg (the recipe above doesn't call for that but I saw several mentions elsewhere). Yes, this was difficult to eat. Yes, this was a bizarre combination of flavors. But gosh, it was good. As Adam observed, the Chinese say that a meal should feature the five major flavors, and, well, this featured them all and then some in one impossible sandwich.

Brussels sprouts with bacon and shallots | Recipe


Out of all that comprises "bush tucker," the umbrella term for fruits, vegetables, game and even grubs from the outback, the only native Australian plant-based food that seems to have spread this far is macadamia nut. I made do with a tip from Kirsty that Aussies like brussels sprouts, and I found this nice little recipe on an Australian site, so there we go. Turns out that Fairway has slab bacon that halfway replicates rashers, but I went a bit overboard and got the proportions wrong. This dish ended up a bit more like bacon with a smattering of sprouts. Oops! Well, nobody complained.

Anzac biscuits | Recipe below

Australia does lay claim to some distinctive desserts. I learned about the meringue-and-cream pavlova, but (sorry Aussies) my research leads me to conclude that it's originally from New Zealand so we'll want to do it then. The chocolate-dipped cake squares known as lamingtons seemed neat too. But Kirsty brought a recipe for Anzac biscuits from her ex's mother, so in the interest of keeping things in the family we went with that. These cookies are named after the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, the one that met an infamous fate at Gallipoli in World War I. Apparently they were made to last during a long shipment, and to make do during a shortage of eggs, and the oats and coconut hold up valiantly. These disappeared within five minutes of hitting the table, warm from the oven.

As Mike put it, we'd been expecting that this might be a boring meal, but it turned out to defy that expectation. And I'll definitely keep that prawn marinate recipe in mind for future cooking — I could see it going on other types of fish, or even chicken. Next week takes us to Austria, where they don't do shrimps on barbies. Laura's parents and sister will be our guests of honor!


Anzac Biscuits
1 cup of rolled oats
1 cup of plain flour
1 cup of sugar
¾ cup of coconut
2 tablespoons golden syrup (note! this is not corn syrup or molasses or anything else. You can find it British specialty aisles and the like.)
125g (4oz.) butter (one stick)
½ teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (aka baking soda)
1 tablespoon boiling water

Combine oats, sifted flour, sugar and coconut. Combine butter and golden syrup stir over a gentle heat until melted. Mix bicarb of soda with boiling water, add to melted butter mixture, stir into dry ingredients. If the mixture appears a little dry just add a little more butter or margarine. Place tablespoonfuls of mixture on lightly greased oven trays: allow room for spreading. Cook in slow oven for 20 minutes. Loosen while warm, then cool on trays.

Makes about 35

Week 3: Algeria

Another "A" country, another meal with lamb and eggplant. But Algerian food does have a distinguishing aspect: couscous. My obsession for the week was figuring out how to go about finding a couscousière, the specialized two-part pot: a voluptuous lower chamber for the stew, and a upper chamber with perforations on the bottom to allow steam through. Apparently, this is an extremely fuel-efficient method of cooking, since the same fire cooks both the stew and the starch. I ended up buying a couscousière, for far cheaper than what's on offer on Amazon, at a middle eastern supply store on Atlantic Avenue, and strapping it on the bike to take it home, filled with olives and couscous.

Thanks to Amine, an Algerian friend of a friend, I came upon Chef Zadi, who provided not only recipes but also plenty of background and even philosophy about Algerian cuisine.

I cooked a big one since I kind of turned it into a birthday party too! I overestimated, and now there's a ton of leftovers. Hopefully I'll get the hang of the quantity soon. Now, to the food, in the order in which I cooked it. I made the first two the night before.

Badhinjan Misharmla | Griddled eggplants with caraway and green peppercorns | Recipe

The recipe explicitly called to cook this on a flat griddle rather than the barbecue, and I dutifully salted, dried, marinated, and grilled close to fifteen little eggplants. I was also glad to have an excuse to finally use my caraway seeds, which I wouldn't have expected to see in North African food. I cooked the dish the night before as specified, and indeed the flavors were quite something after nearly a day of marinating. The raw garlic and caraway and green peppercorns combine for quite the pungent punch.

Mslalla | Marinated oil-cured black olives | Recipe

I am a big fan of Sahadi's on Atlantic Avenue, especially their abundant and shockingly cheap olive selection. Who'd ever imagine olives for $3 a pound? And they're good. Anyway, I marinated them with orange and lemon zest, orange juice, olive oil and some spices. Turns out I bought double the amount of olives called for and only made a single recipe of marinade, but it seems to me that it worked out quite flavorful enough. Sure have a lot of olives left!

Lemon sorbet

I couldn't find any recipes for frozen Algerian desserts, but I figured if they made anything there, there's a good chance it could include lemon. So I found this recipe from David Lebovitz's bible of frozen desserts, The Perfect Scoop. It's so simple: make a sugar-water with zest of two lemons, a half-cup of water and a cup of sugar, dissolve the sugar and then add two cups of water, cool it down, add a cup of lemon juice, and churn it. The recipe makes the audacious claim that it's better than most italian ices you can find in New York, and it's true.

Ghribia | Semolina cookies | Recipe

If you find sugar cookies wimpy, you might like these. The semolina imparts a deeper flavor and crumblier texture than plain flour. The dough was really heavy and sticky and kind of tough to work with, but led to a great result. (Also, this was my first time baking with Silpat sheets, which really did make for nice even browning on the bottom.)

Kaskasu bi'l-Lahm | Couscous with Lamb | Recipe

This is the dish for which I bought the big new piece of cooking equipment, along with five pounds of couscous and a whole lamb shoulder. It took about five hours to make, all in the interest of fluffy, not-clumpy little grains, starting with the tedious but really fun process of sprinkling the couscous with salted warm water and raking it to break up clumps. By the end of even the first step my hands felt smooth and exfoliated, which is kind of gross so don't think too hard about what that implies. Anyway, after several hours of stewing and steaming, with an amusing interlude of grating onions while wearing goggles, we had a ton. It was pretty good although I guess I was hoping it would have a little more zip or spice. Really wish I'd remembered to pick up harissa at Sahadi's! Anyway, now I have a couscousière for when we do Morocco and Tunisia in a few years.

Cooked carrot salad | Recipe

A nice, simpler dish that I will likely make again. Chilled, garlicky carrot spears with lemon juice and some spices made for a nice contrast to the rich lamb and pungent eggplant.

Merguez | Lamb sausage

I researched what it would take to make sausage myself, but it seems like it would be several hours, take specialized grinding and stuffing equipment (even the Kitchen-Aid attachment, which would have been convenient, got poor reviews), and apparently be pretty difficult. So, at least for now, I'll buy sausage. Los Paisanos on Smith Street sells merguez, which is probably Algeria's second best known culinary export after couscous, and it was surprisingly complex: not just spicy-hot, but also spicy-flavorful, with cinnamon and who knows what else. The darn thing made the grill go up in flames once I flipped it over, which was a bit scary but did end up making it succulently char-grilled.

Whole wheat khobz | Flatbread | Recipe

To go with the merguez, I asked Dan and Raven to whip up some unleavened flatbread. We used some half-white bread flour I picked up today at the farmers market, and it was great, definitely hearty enough for sopping up the juices of the various dishes running around the plate.

We enjoyed the main course outside, but it was too muggy and hot to linger, so we migrated inside to enjoy dessert and enjoy some Algerian music piped through Spotify.  We also enjoyed for the first time what's sure to become a tradition, when Laura marks the evening's country on our scrach-off map.

Taking a break for two weeks, due to travel on both weekends, but we'll be back atcha with Andorra, followed by Angola and Antigua & Barbuda. Any suggestions for any of those three would be most welcome!