When I started studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem (fourteen years ago!), I moved into a very large, railway-like building. My apartment had a spacious kitchen right out of the seventies. It had bright orange cupboards, a leaky and moist fridge, and an oven which sometimes worked and sometimes went on strike. In this land of wonders, I first taught myself how to cook.
Before leaving home, food would miraculously appear in the fridge and then on my plate; my mom, who was extremely busy working, didn't enjoy cooking, except when she had to, and I was never playing around the kitchen. But my newfound independence as a student had made shopping for food, and cooking it, a necessity. Fortunately, my new neighbor, Frida, was there to help me!
Frida was, at the time, in her early thirties, already married with three kids and one on the way. In addition, she ran a daycare center from her home, and excelled at it. At any given point you could walk into Frida's immaculately clean house and find her holding a child (hers or someone else's) in one arm, stirring something delicious on the stove with the other hand, and providing some excellent explanations to the kids' questions. She had huge amounts of patience. I admired her, and thought she should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for housekeeping (why don't they award those, actually?). Her household dwarfed my modest cleaning and cooking skills in comparison, and I felt like the rebellious, dysfunctional neighbor. Naturally, we immediately took to each other.
Frida was a fabulous cook, and I got to eat her concoctions every Wednesday at our "tea at 10am" meeting, and often on Friday nights, at their beautiful Shabbat meal, over which her husband, Moshe, presided with a fresh and shiny kippa on his head. Being of Bulgarian descent, Frida knew a lot about Balkan and Middle Eastern cooking, to which I was never exposed in my Ashkenazi family. One vegetable I had never seen before was fennel.
It looked strange, like some sort of a deformed hand with chubby, stick-like fingers, which smelled a bit like dill, only more fragrant. "What do you do with it?" I asked. amazed. Frida, not fearing the monstrous green hand, picked up her big kitchen knife and nonchalantly chopped it to pieces, reserving the feathery leaves. She then made two simple recipes which have become my favorites, and which I made again this week: Fennel salad and fennel yogurt soup. Here they are:
Frida's Fennel Salad
1/2 cup olive oil
juice from one lemon
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
fresh parsley and cilantro
Chop the fennels up - fear them not! They can be chopped any direction, though preferrably against the grain. Put in a large bowl. Mix all other ingredients and pour over fennel. Mix well. Now, keep in the fridge for at least four hours, so the flavors mix.
Bulgarian Fennel Yogurt Soup
1 quart good quality goat yogurt (unflavored)
3 nice cucumbers, very finely chopped (this is important, folks. It just doesn't taste right if the bits are too large).
about a cup of chopped fennel feathery leaves
5 garlic cloves (or more, or less, to taste)
a bit of black pepper
olive oil, lemon juice
optional: a few finely-chopped radishes
Mix well and refrigerate. That's all, folks. Super wonderful on a warm day.