Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Yesterday's Dinner, Today's Fabulous Lunch

The nice black-bean-sauce dish we served Ilan over the weekend served us well this morning. We had cooked something like three pounds of azuki black beans, and froze them for future use.

That future was this morning, when I took five minutes to prepare us a great lunch, that can be eaten cold and is extremely tasty. The dish is inspired by (but quite different from) the neat salads in Benny Seida's cool salad book.

Black Azuki Beans with Goat Cheese, Tomatoes and Basil
2 cups cooked black azuki beans
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
100 grams goat cheese, crumbled
10 basil leaves
5 sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in hot water for a minute or two and chopped
1 tsp pesto sauce

Mix all ingredients and enjoy.

Monday, May 29, 2006

They come in all colors!

As we got home yesterday, our Chubeza box was waiting for us in the parking lot. We couldn't wait to get into the house and see what was in it. And, indeed, among many other surprises, there was fresh spinach, and there were summer squashes in three colors!

Summer squash, and its different varieties (like zuccini, crookneck and straitneck squash, and pattypan squash) originates from South America, and despite its presence in year-round supermarkets, is really a summer vegetable. The winter ones are really much inferior to the creamy, rich summer ones, which, while eaten, make you feel as if the sun is warming up your belly from inside. Summer squash is kind of like a "decathlon nutrition source"; it doesn't excel in any nutrient category, but it provides many of them.

My grandmother used to make a dish called Givetch, which featured zuccini. Each family has its own version of givetch, which is a mixed vegetable dish; ours featured mostly zuccini and tomato. Yesterday, we had our own version, which contained the fresh spinach, as well as basil, and three colors of squash. Actually, it's sort of a renegade version - because, while in regular givetch, you cook everything for very long until it becomes soft, here you cook everything just barely, so you still feel yourself biting into the vegetables. What you see in the above picture is the beginning of the cooking process - aren't those colors fun?

Neo-Givetch with Summer Squash

3 large squashes, preferrably of different colors
2 large, ripe tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup fresh spinach leaves
20 basil leaves
dash of frsh ground chili pepper

Cut each squash to half, then slice to semicircles. Cube the tomatoes and chop the garlic cloves. Heat up oil in a deep pan or wok, add the garlic. Then, we go by order of hardness: in go the squashes; then, the tomatoes; and finally, the spinach leaves and half the basil. Each vegetable gets added about two minutes after the previous one's been added. We cook everything a little longer, until the spinach leaves wilt, the tomatoes become the sauce, and the squash is pleasant to eat. Eat happily on top of your favorite grain.

Fabulous Greens!

Over the weekend, we had an unexpected but very welcome guest for dinner: my dear old friend Ilan. Fortunately, he came on a day when Chad was energetic enough to cook a very special dish: kale, mushrooms and tofu in black bean sauce.

The little black beans were somewhat of a mystery: I had picked them up in the Asian market, and only days afterwards did I find out they were simply a black variety of azuki beans, which are extremely beneficial for the metabolism. We cooked two pounds of them in broth, freezing most of them to eat over the week, but left out something like three or four cups; the sauce is simply mashed black beans with soy, garlic and some chili pepper. Chad was the architect of this one, but I think I can reconstruct how he did it.

Kale, Mushrooms and Tofu in Black Bean Sauce

1 small package of extra-firm tofu
10 large forest mushrooms
10-15 leaves of kale (our variety had pretty, purple veins)
1/2 a head of a purple cabbage
5 sliced garlic cloves
4 cups of cooked black azuki beans
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tsp ground chili

Tear up kale leaves, slice mushrooms thickly, slice cabbage into ribbons, and cut tofu into cubes.

In a small saucer, heat up some oil (canola or olive). When hot, add about half of the garlic, then follow with soy sauce. Take about 1/2 cup of the black beans, add them to the saucer, and mash them with the back of a wooden spoon, while mixing them up with the other ingredients. They should puree quite easily, rendering an exquisite, black sauce.

Now, pick up your wok; heat up some oil and add the rest of the garlic. Place tofu cubes in bottom of wok and let brown for a while. Then, add mushrooms, and after a couple of minutes, add the kale, the cabbage ribbons, and a tablespoon of water or vegetable broth. When the kale wilts and is good to eat, pour black bean sauce over the vegetables and gently mix to coat them. When everything is thoroughly coated, serve over the remainder of the black beans, or over rice.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Appetite, Nutrition, Feminism

The picture you see in this post comes from the new fashion catalog of an Israeli designer store for women, Comme Il Faut. Comme Il Faut is a fashion store which adopts an interesting and controversial concept: selling expensive, well-tailored, chic clothing - but with a feminist edge. Their catalogues often feature a variety of Israeli women of all sizes, professions, ages and shapes; the glossy pages feature a variety of women in their seventies, lesbian couples, crossdressing men, large women, etc, who are mentioned by name, age and profession. On the store's shelves, in addition to shirts, dresses and pants, you'll find basic feminist literature (Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, Naomi Wolf) and newer books on women, violence, activism, body image, etc. The store and its image has been the focus of an animated feminist debate. Despite their commitment to fair trade, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, equal pay and fair treatment for women, the store caters to upper-class women, the only ones who can afford their high-priced clothing, and is therefore somewhat of an exclusive space, which makes their radical feminist messages somewhat problematic.

This is, however, a blog about food and nutrition, which is why I want to discuss the store's latest campaign, titled "Bon Appetit, Honey". The catalog and motto of the summer season is to encourage women to eat heartily, to indulge themselves in food, to avoid depriving themselves of anything, and to reflect on body image and on food choices they make as a feminist issues. As you can see above, the summer catalogue sports beautiful women of all ilks heartily and happily biting into meat, pasta, cake, ice cream, etc, etc.

The store's focus on food is not surprising. Next to their flag store at the Tel Aviv Harbor, in a special and pampering compound, they have a fabulous cafe, serving great meals made with wholesome, organic ingredients, blended fruit and vegetable juices, and excellent homey desserts. The connection between womanhood, body, fashion and food is therefore a very immediate one. To make things more obvious, the current campaign is accompanied by a brochure explaining how the confinement of women to dietetic, barely-survival food has been a technique for debilitating and weakening women, and for establishing their place in society as people who primarily nourish others while depriving themselves of the joys of food.

Now, I have a lot of sympathy for messages aimed at liberating women from confining social institutions, and, in particular, the institution of fad dieting and pleasure avoidance. So, notwithstanding my criticism of the campaign which will follow, I am happy to see these messages infiltrate our consciousness and take up space which, otherwise, would have been taken up by anorexic 15-year-olds. The store's guest book features an entry from a young woman with anorexia, who tells them that she hung the catalogue in the wing where she, and other anorexic girls, are hospitalized, and they get a lot of encouragement out of it. Can't say this, in itself, is a negative trend. Not only that, but some of my clothes, I confess, were purchased in Comme Il Faut, and these ladies are truly talented, so I can't really begrudge them too much. However. (of course there's a "however"; you should know me already).

Comme Il Faut is a fashion house. A fashion house, albeit an idealist, activist one, is all about selling clothes. Clothes are designed to make women look their best, and this "best" can't be entirely disconnected from social notions of what looks well and what doesn't. Moreover, Comme Il Faut is a fashion house that, shall we put it bluntly? sells clothes to upper- and middle-class women. Affluent women. Women who have enough social cache, resources and leisure to be concerned in many ways about their looks and grooming. It is very probable that many of the customers are those who engage in several delightful activities, like the botox injections we discussed earlier. It is naive to expect that this population will be genuinely moved, by the store's message, and order a large dish of ice-cream at the cafe. After all, wouldn't they want to look their best in their newly purchased gorgeous clothes? Yes, it's important that Comme Il Faut is talking the talk. But let's not be illusioned into thinking that their customers are likely to walk the walk.

What we have here, ladies, is excellent, politically-correct (and I say this in the most positive, irony-free sense of the word), healthy, empowering ideology, at the service of our old pal, capitalism. Indeed, by shopping at Comme Il Faut we are more likely to contribute to fair salaries of female workers who are treated like family, and to donations to various peace organizations. But primarily, we are contributing to the wealth of an extremely successful enterprise for profit. Let's not forget that (the same can be said about shopping at feel-good, organic, cruelty-free beauty shops: here's what my thoughtful new pal (hopefully), Carmit, has to say, in Hebrew, about the Body Shop). The empowering messages make this contribution more palatable, but they don't cancel out its existence. The more extreme radicals might say that, by having these messages supposedly broadcasted by the hegemony, we are numbing women from engaging in ideological battles (why go out to the streets in protest when we can purchase another gorgeous pair of pants and feel good about it?) - but I'm not sure the situation is made so much worse by this campaign. It just isn't made as better as we'd hope for.

And here's where I come to the actual issue - the food. The catalogue is encouraging women not to leave the steak, cake and ice cream to the men, and to engage in the world of sensual culinary pleasure. Yay! Yay? I'm not so sure. I'm not sure that feminism is well served by encouraging women to consume red meat, white bread, sugars and sweets. Indeed, dammit, it's annoying that food is such a gendered field. It's annoying that social conventions are regulating different food consumption regimes for women and men. The answer is not to clog our collective arteries in a gender blind fashion. Folks, if we want to conquer the world, what's going to help us do it? What is going to make us stronger and healthier so we have energy for social reform? A sugar crash from a chocolate cake, or a nice bowl of brown rice and beans with steamed vegetables? Depriving outselves of calories is never a good idea; but depriving ourselves of nutrients which make us competent and help our bodies help us isn't any better.

My argument here isn't abstract. The personal is political. So here it goes. My health comes from months of making a conscious effort to eat extremely healthy food. Yes, I've lost weight, but I also feel a lot better, phsicaly. Making the effort to eat wholesome and organic was one of the best things I ever did for myself and I refuse to be told that it was a weakening, unfeminist thing to do. How, exactly, would a message encouraging the consumption of ice cream be helpful or empowering for my life? And why does health need to be equated with deprivation? Isn't this message, in itself, unfeminist, by buying into the existing capitalist foodchain which makes sustainable, organic farming, so removed from the reality of working-class family nutrition? Is it only possible to enjoy life by consuming red meat? Is clogging our arteries the best method we can think about for subverting patriarchy?


If we want real feminist power, of course we must oppose any message that we should starve outselves to fit anyone's image of beauty. But we must equally oppose any half-baked message that tells us to give up our health and livelihood in the name of feminism. You hungry, girl? Spend the time to make yourself a nice bowl of grains and greens. Grab a nice plate of hummus, and wipe it off the plate with whole-grain pita. Eat a hearty vegetable stew, then lick the plate. Enjoy a refreshing drink of cultured yogurt. Support whoever works hard to grow and supply you with the ingredients for healthy, satisfying meals. Go for a nice walk, fill your lungs with fresh air, and think how lucky you are to live where healthy fresh food is readily available for you. The first step for causing postive change in the world is taking good care of ourselves, so that we have the most important resource - our health - at our hands when we do so. The next stage, is to make this health, through local, sustainable food, available to all. Now that's real power, and surely if we've done that, or at least done our share for ourselves and for others, we all (regardless of our income) deserve a nice, comfortable, well-tailored pair of pants.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Papaya vs. Botox

The other day I was saddened to read an article on Bananot, an Israeli girl magazine, about botox injections. The author tells of her experience going to get the injection, her sadness at her lost youth, and finally - despite all the shortcomings of the process - the coveted award: a stranger in the street guessed her age to be five years less than she actually is.

I don't know where to begin my arguments against this article; one has to applaud the author's bravery at coming out and saying she got the injection. However, I see the fact that people are feeling comfortable to openly admit they get them as an indicator that these procedures have become more acceptable than before, and it's quite possible that many women I see in Tel Aviv have gone through this. Which is why I'll add my non-relenting, sanctimonious voice to the choir, and say things most of you have already heard, or said yourselves, in numerous occasions.

My main argument against botox is quite obvious, and simply involves the nature of the procedure: you're basically injecting yourself with poison. You're consciously and deliberatly introducing a dangerous, muscle-paralyzing poison into your very own precious body, for the purpose of, well, being something that some would define "pretty". Have I already mentioned that botox is poison? The author seems to understand this, and nevertheless, the immediate effects on health somehow fail to register. She playfully tells us how one of her eyebrows "fell down" and was lower than the other, but this menacing occurrence does not trigger any deeper understanding about cause and effect. The fact that one might get sick if one drinks, say, ink, is easily acknowledged; why would introducing harmful substances through other means make you any better?

For some reason, this procedure scares me more than that old-timer pal, the facelift. Hideous as going under surgery to tuck in some face may seem, at least it's expensive, and surgical, and you expect folks to give it careful thought before doing it (though the numbers of women getting plastic surgery, including facelifts, are getting alarmingly big). The botox craze is worse in the sense that it's less expensive and the process itself is less lengthy. Of course, it is not cheap at all, and involves some readjustment of the face and some recovery, but all in all, the unbearable lightness of poisoning yourself makes everything seem so much more demonic somehow.

And why is that? the Weberian, Protestant-Ethos part of me is upset about the attitude that "easy fixes" are readily available for any inconvenience we encounter. Rather than thoroughly treating our wounds (or realizing they are not wounds at all) we stick cosmetic band-aids on them. Learning to be proud of our faces, which reflect the faces of your mothers, and grandmothers, and ancestors, is too much work. Yes, so much better for all involved if we just inject something. Observing how the corners of our eyes are lined from years of laughing with dear friends, and how our forehead is lined from years of thinking, and concentrating, and worrying about our loved ones, is too much work. Much better for us to erase our past and experiences. The idea that technology will be right next to us, lending us a helping hand whenever life becomes a tad more complicated, propels us to stop our inner search, to stick with the easy solution, to take the proverbial blue pill.

And what is this valuable asset that we wish to recreate by injecting poison into our face? Yes, of course, it's youth - that wonderful, carefree time, when we were completely helpless in any way that could shape our future. That time when we were cruel to each other, incommunicado with our parents, busy conducting world wars across the social food chain in school, and devoid of any resources for taking control of our lives. Is that the period we wish to relieve? Is this equation of women with teenagers meant at making them as helpless and lost as teenagers? Ladies, do think of your life in your thirties, forties, fifties, sixties; yes, it's more complex. You have jobs, and families, and dilemmas, and bills, and bureaucracy. But you can take matters into your own hands, and use your wisdom and experience (whose traces are on your wise, beautiful face) to solve your problems. With erasing the signs of your wisdom and experience comes a symbolic, and perhaps more than symbolic, negation of these very experiences and their value to your life. You once again relinquish control and place yourself in the hands of a dangerous chemical, which takes away your control over something which is extremely close to your personality: your facial expressions. You relinquish control of your face muscles, echoing the time when our faces were wrinkle-free and our control over our circumstances, relationships and future was nil.

The ultimate "award" for this dangerous and futile exercise in self-weakening is given in the form of a compliment from a stranger. If we are incomplete and unhappy until some man we don't know tells us we look thirty-five and not a day older, what does it say about us? What does that say about our relationship with ourselves and with the loved people who have walked all these erased years beside us? What does that tell us about the source and strength of our self esteem? Self esteem, self empowerment, pride in the self, does not come in a plastic container; "for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without".

What to do, then? The most important thing is to take pride in who you are, in your age, in your experiences. Easier said than done in an era of aggressive advertisements, but important. No one, apparently, will facilitate this for us - we must do it ourselves. When people ask you how old you are, for heavens' sake, tell them your right age. When you look at your lines in the mirror, acknowledge the joys and sorrows that shaped them, like small symbolic tattoos marking the stations of change and shift in your life.

This does not mean letting your body weaken. If we want to live and love on this planet, we must do whatever we can to be healthy and strong. The work needs to be done; the children need to be raised; the ideals need to be fought. To do that, you'll need a robust musclo-skeletal system, a strong digestive system, clean and healthy lungs. Eat whole, organic, fresh natural foods. Cook for yourself and your family. Take a walk, or a swim, or a class on a regular basis. Forge a strong relationship of cooperation between your mind and your body.

And finally, want to be pretty? Your food can give you a hand with that. There is a variety of great resources out there on natural, harmless substances that can heal and enrich your skin. Two of the better books I use are Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Healing for Women and Dina Falconi's Earthly Bodies and Heavenly Hair. This doesn't have to be a cumbersome regime; you can use some of the vegetables and fruit you cook with to get the benefits.

Two good examples are papaya and lemons, both good for a combination/oily skin complection. Making tchina, vegetable salad, or anything that needs lemon juice? Take a piece of the lemon and slather its pulp over your face. Rinse out in ten minutes. Papaya, which includes the wonderful enzyme Papain, is even better, but be sure to rinse it off in five minutes, as the active ingredients are quite strong. If your skin is sensitive, there's a variety of organic, hypo-allergenic products out there, and many of them do not experiment on animals (for a great list of cruelty-free products in Israel, see here). The lemon and papaya treatments are tried and true methods for mattifying the skin, cleaning the pores and absorbing excess oils. Naturally (no pun intended), they do not wipe off your laughter or worry lines. Assuming that as a live, vibrant woman, you occasionally worry, and sometimes laugh, we'll just have to accept you, and your beauty, and your experience - the way you are.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Food Festival Addendum

Yesterday, while talking to a student about the food festival, I finally managed to realize and verbalize what was so bizarre for me in the whole experience. There was stark contrast between the survivalist, let's-eat-'cause-tomorrow-there-ain't-gonna-be-any-food attitude of the folks and the luxurious, toy-like dishes served. It was, at the same time, a feeling of apocalypse and decadence which made the festival into a military operation of fast gorging of delicacies, rather than the sort-of-Roman-feast it was supposed to be.

Tel Aviv Food Festival

Hiya, all; not much cooking this week, yet, except for some organic mashed potatoes. The reasons for this absence from the kitchen are quite complex, but they certainly include our visit to the Tel Aviv food festival, Taste of the City.

The idea is quite fun: many of the city's wonderful restaurants open large booths, where they sell small portions of the best dishes in their menus for a relatively inexpensive price. For example, a set of four Dim Sum dumplings is sold for 20 NIS. The booths are located around Hayarkon park, and the very many visitors (more than three hundred thousand last year!) walk between them, making a meal out of various interesting entrees.

For the most part, folks behave in a civil manner and don't push each other on the way to the food, which is also facilitated by the large number of service people on each booth. It is, however, a strange feeling to be part of a large picnic where everyone, including you, is stuffing their faces and standing in line for more. I can see how this pastime can really turn off those of us with more delicate tastes. It also raises the question of garbage, as this festival is based on a huge amount of plastic and paper plates, and there is no recycling structure in sight.

As far as vegetarian options go, things looked quite good. Almost each restaurant had some sort of a vegetarian option. Sushi places offered vegetarian sushi and agedashi tofu; various rice and noodle dishes, with vegetables, as well as veg and tofu stir-frys, were offered at the Thai and Chinese places; pasta places had vegetarian pastas; and there was plenty of fresh squeezed juices and smoothies for those who preferred to pass on the many beer varieties. The best part was a small and modest booth, bearing the sign "sun soya" or "soya sun", which offered "meat" based on tofu and wheat gluten, with vegetables, silver noodles and brown rice. I think we're going to experiment more with fake meats at home. And, of course, the nice neighboring booth sold little boxes of raspberries, so we had our breakfast for the following morning in hand. All in all, quite an entertaining way to pass the evening. The one thing that spoiled some of the fun was the commercial megacorp booths, with noisy music, dancers, and incessant flier-handing. As we were heading off (by foot - you would not believe the traffic!), a lady handed us some sugar-free gum samples, to finish off the experience.

When we got home, we found our vegetable box awaiting us, with tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, carrots, beets, zuccini (in four different colors!), kale, parsley, cabbage and red peppers. It's vegetable salad day, today, for both of us; but we promise to be more creative over the weekend.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


My vegan friends will have to excuse me for this one entry, in which we shall discuss a delicious and nutritious member of the animal protein: eggs. Eggs contain concentrated, high quality protein, and despite being maligned for cholesterol content, in fact, contain beneficial cholesterol which is essential for our bodies. Good eggs are also an excellent source of omega-3 acids. Naturally, there are various substitutes for eggs, and our recipe for today can be made with any of them, but this is a good opportunity to reflect on the egg industry.

Industrial production of eggs takes place in chicken coops, which are horrible, inhumane places. The chickens are placed in tiny cages, one against the other, with no room to move; many of them get sick standing there, and as a consequence are fed dreadful antibiotics. They are also force-fed things that are extremely harmful for them; given this situation, I'm not too excited about eating eggs that come from this industry.

There are other options, which, while not perfect, are substantially better. Free range eggs allow the hens to walk freely in the yard and eat organic, plant-based food. However, as in the regular egg industry, hens are often debeaked, and male chicken killed and discarded at birth.

Choosing to eat eggs is a very personal decision. For those who have eggs once in a while, choosing organic and free range diminishes the problems with the industry, though it doesn't make them go away. Either way, you can have the following recipe with eggs or tofu, to suit your choices.

The recipe is for yet another Israeli staple, this time, originally, from Libya: Shakshuka. Shakshuka is an egg dish where the eggs are cooked in a hot skillet filled with spicy tomato-pepper sauce. It works really well as a breakfast; those of you who feel well combining starches and protein are welcome to wipe off the remaining sauce with some good bread.

Shakshouka (serves four)

3 red peppers
2 tomatoes
1 large onion
6 cloves garlic
1 can organic tomato paste
water or vegetable broth
fresh ground chili
8 organic, free-range eggs, or a block of firm, crumbled tofu
fresh parsley

You'll need a large skillet with a flat bottom, which you'll glaze with olive oil and heat up. Then, you chop the onion and garlic in and add chili. When the kitchen starts smelling like there's something good happening, you chop and add the peppers and tomatoes; when they start getting soft, you add tomato paste, water or vegetable broth, and more chili. The liquids need to be added to the point when the mixture is quite diluted and watery. On a low fire, keep the sauce simmering until it reaches a viscuous quality - can take up to half an hour or more (why not do your laundry in the meantime? and while you're at it, clean the kitchen!). When the sauce is nice and viscuous, you add the eggs or tofu. If you're doing tofu, simply place the crumbs on top of the sauce. If you're doing eggs, gently break them up and place them over the tomato mixture - DO NOT MIX (it's prettier with the eggs whole). Then, cover the skillet and cook until the tofu absorbs the tomato sauce, or the eggs get hard to your heart's desire. Serve in the skillet, or carefully slide onto plates.

Now that we're out of tomatoes and peppers, we have only the sauerkraut, and a few cucumber survivors and some lettuce, to keep us until the good people of Chubeza bring us our new vegetables on Monday. But we shall be back with the new bounty!

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Beans Hummus is Made of: Chickpeas

Looking for something nice to eat yesterday, I looked at the zuccini drawer, disappointed to see that there were not as many left as I thought. It's funny to think that we were concerned whether we'd be able to finish off our Chubeza vegetable box every week. Then, my gaze fell on a jar of chickpeas, just standing there on the shelf and asking to be used. The word "hummus" came to mind, immediately, but then I started to think.

Hummus is a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine, and has many local and excellent variations. Several regions in the country are well known for the quality of their hummus; those "in the know" can argue the merits and shortcomings of hummus for hours. Some of the best places to eat hummus in Israel are the village of Abu Ghosh, which also holds beautiful music festivals (one of them coming up soon); the city of Jaffa, sporting Ali Karavan's legendary hummus eatery; and several places in the Gallillee, including the old city of Akko (Acre). One of Israel's online portals, Ynet, even polled its readers to find out where the best ten places for hummus were located. Yes, Israelis are obsessed with hummus; the city of Tel Aviv even holds an annual Hummus Festival, featuring the best places from all over the country. This year, the city has announced the festival will take place on the 23rd and 24th of August (and will receive live coverage from yours truly).

Which is why, attempting to make hummus at home is no easy feat, competing with all those culinary giants making it at their restaurants. I tried once; the result was grainy, and decent enough to be called "chickpea dip", but certainly not hummus. In fact, what I'd made reminded me of the stuff they sell in the US, which is nothing like really good hummus at all, and includes such yuppified transgressions as 'roasted pepper hummus', and garlic-overdosed varieties. Hebrew readers, read all about hummus abroad, and try to maintain your calm. All ye American folks eating what you think passes as hummus, you've been wronged, and I suggest you come visit the Middle East and taste what hummus should really be like. My friend Holi, who lives in Leeds, in his anguish and despair, learned to make magnificent Hummus, so I know it can be produced outside the Middle East; but until I can get him to divulge the secret, my hummus remains an incomplete feat. If your curiosity can't be appeased, and you can read Hebrew, here's a recipe that looks promising, paying appropriate attention to the alchemy of hummus, too.

So, for now, what I made with my hummus was a nice little chickpea think with tomatoes, onions, chilis, and Biriyani Masala. I shudder to call it "chana Masala", particularly following my recent complaints about the transgressions of hummus' cultural transplants; nevertheless, it was good and nourishing. Chickpeas contain a generous amount of both starch and protein, and when cooked right, are extremely tasty.

Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Onions

5 cups of cooked chickpeas (to cook'em: place chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with water; discard after an hour. Add new water and let soak overnight. Then, discard water again, place in pot, add fresh water to cover, and cook for about an hour or so, occasionally lifting the strange white foam that keeps rising to the surface. Drain and keep the cooking liquid).
3 fresh, ripe tomatoes
1 medium-sized onion
1 tbsp ground chili pepper
1/4 cup Biriyani Masala spice mix
1 generous tablespoon organic tomato paste

Cover bottom of large wok with olive oil. When oil is hot, add chopped onion, chili, and Biriyani Masala. Cook until onions are golden and kitchen is fragrant and happy. Then, add the tomatoes and drained chickpeas. Mix up and cook for a while; then, add tomato paste and some water from the chickpeas. Let simmer about twenty minutes, then eat with great joy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hot and Cold Foods

It appears that Chad is not well yet, though he certainly feels much better; he'll try and go to the university today, and see how he feels. But he's still coughing and sneezing like there's no tomorrow. As is always the case, when Chad gets sick, we both take precautions - otherwise, I get sick, then he gets sick again, etcetera. My folks keep asking what pills Chad is taking for his illness; and are always surprised when we reply "ginger", or "curry", or "carrot soup". In fact, what you see above is the lunchbox Chad's taking to school today, with his vegetable curry and red rice.

The art of healing through food has been practiced for many ages in China, and it relies on a holistic type of diagnosis. Good Chinese medicine doctors do not just pay attention to the specific new symptoms the person tells them about - they "read the map" of the person's body to tell them about the overall situation, which is related to - but not encapsulated in - the present ailment. When you go to a Chinese medicine clinic, the doctor will usually look for a while at your face, finding your shen - the spark in your eyes - and letting her or him know how you are. He or she will then look at your tongue, which is a wonderful instrument for assessment, then take your pulses. That's right - in Chinese medicine, three pulses are measured on each hand, in different location; both shallow (on the skin) and deep (pressing in the hand) pulses are taken. Altogether, this produces twelve different bits of information, which help the doctor relate your ailment to the patterns of qi, blood and moisture in your body.

Your symptoms, general constitution and feelings, usually add up to a more general picture, telling the doctor whether your condition indicates deficiency or excess, yin or yang, cold or heat, moisture or dryness. There are many intricacies in these categories, some of which neatly map on Western medicine conditions and some don't. What we call a cold, or a flu, can be "cold" - making us feel cold, moist, inactive and weak - or "hot" - accompanied by fever, flush and unrest. The illness is traced to a certain energy path in the body, which indicates which points should be gently pressed, heated or punctured with a needle, and which plants and foods should be consumed to correct the imbalance.

One of the basic distinctions is between cold and heat. The logic of Chinese medicine requires that you consume cold, or cooling, foods when you are hot, and hot, or warming, foods when you are cold. The definition of "hot" and "cold" food does not refer merely to the food temperature, but to its energetic properties. It's important to look at the food and tell whether it is cooked or raw; what its color is; whether it's spicy or bland. In his wonderfully informative book, Healing with Whole Foods, Paul Pitchford lists several cooling and heating foods; here are a few examples from the list with some modifications from my studies at the Berkeley Acupressure Institute. You can look at the list and see if you get a feel for the foods' different energies:

Cooling Foods

citrus fruits
all leafy greens
broccoli and cauliflower
soy milk, tofu and other soy products
mung beans
lemon balm

Neutral Foods

large beans

Warming Foods

ginger root
all root vegetables
spicy leafy greens, like jale and mustard greens

We try to eat a diet that balances between warming and cooling foods, though we lean more toward the warming list, since we're both vegetarians and relateively thin. Folks who are larger, or eat a lot of meat, need more cooling, raw vegetables in their diet, though this is just a rule-of-thumb and can be modified to fit your own condition. So, these days, when we both feel a tad cold and weak, our diet includes more warming foods. Hence our carrot-ginger soup, and the following beautiful curry made by Chad yesterday.

Actually, the curry is a good example for how "cooling" vegetables can be matched with "warming" spices to get a generally balanced (a tad towards the warm) and satisfying meal. The types of vegetables and other ingredients can vary; you can add any root vegetables, eggplant, or tofu cubes if you so desire.

Vegetable Curry with Coconut Milk

4 garlic cloves
2 stalks of green onions
1/2 white onion
10 large forest mushrooms
vegetable oil (we're in the Middle East, so we use olive oil)
black pepper, powdered
red pepper, powdered
1 inch of ginger root
1 inch of galanga root
1 can coconut milk
5-10 inch long stalks of lemongrass
3-4 lemon leaves (we have a little lemon tree on our balcony)
4 tomatoes
5-6 large leaves of manguld, kale, collards, bok-choi, or any other leafy green vegetables

Start with a wok with some oil. In the oil, heat the ginger, garlic, and pepper. Be quite generous with the pepper. If you have a jar of curry paste, you can add a spoonful to the oil; if not, nevermind. When the spices are sizzling and aromatic, add the mushrooms and sautee a bit. Then, add about a teaspoon of coconut milk, and mix a bit so everything becomes nice and yellow. Then, add the rest of the coconut milk, and chop in the vegetables, the lemongrass, the galanga, and the lemon leaves. If curry seems too thick, add a bit of vegetable stock. Curry's ready when the vegetables are ready. Serve with brown or red rice.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Save the Internet

Whoa, two days in a row without writing about food... but this is important, folks. Apparently, large corporations have been putting pressure on the government to make the internet work for large businesses so that they have access to faster speed, and individuals with websites will have to pay them astronomical fees in order for their sites to load at a reasonable speed. This could mean the end of blogs, personal websites, and much of the personal communication and joy we get out of the internet.

Read all about this here, and let your friends know.

But while we still have the rights to use this wonderful democratic tool, the Internet, we'll still be talking about organic, healthy, delicious food. Tomorrow, we'll be back on our scheduled program; expect zuccini.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Some Angry Words about Basic Behavioral Rules

I was planning to post something today about zuccini. But this morning I encountered something that enraged me to no end, and just had to say something about it.

Well, I went on my morning walk by the Tel Aviv beach, and could not believe my eyes. The entire beach - all the way from Tel Aviv to Jaffa - was full of unbelievable amounts of trash. Food, disposable plates and cups, utensils, bags and wrappers. You could barely see the grass. Of course, this must be the aftermath of Lag Ba'Omer, the bonfire holiday. Folks went to the beach, had their bonfires, roasted meat and potatoes and onions, and simply went home, leaving all their crap behind and not even thinking of picking it up.

This kind of behavior drives me nuts.

You know, when we came back to Tel Aviv from Berkeley, it took us a while to realize there was no infrastructure for recycling, save for a few areas for plastic bottles. No easy way to compost in the city, either. We don't live well with that, and when we complain, we're seen as a couple of whinebags. But throwing away your trash, rather than putting it in a plastic bag and disposing of it using the garbage cans is a violation of the most basic rules of behavior each and every one of the beach partyers was taught in kindergarten. It's amazing to think of all these folks who bothered to shower, shave and put on some fragrant skin lotion before going to the party, then ate and drank and littered around like total pigs and couldn't even see the irony of what they were doing.

Some folks might make an argument along the multicultural lines; this is, after all, the Middle East. But I would think that not littering, and using a garbage can, is such a basic norm. I mean, if those folks were presented with an array of the stuff they threw around, they'd be disgusted. I know, because I spent half of my morning walk picking after them. Bottles and bottles of corporate soft drinks. Half eaten nasty looking sausages. Packets of cigarrettes (do smokers realize how vile these things look and smell? surely they don't, otherwise why would they do it?). And pools of vomit everywhere. Overdrinking and vomiting has to be one of the least classy forms of human self-expression. Nevertheless, folks overdrink and vomit. Everyone would agree that the aftermath of the bonfire craziness is hideous and gross. Nevertheless, it is us, humans, Tel Aviv residents, who created it. It is our waste that we now deem gross. Am I the only person who's reflecting on that this morning?

I expect that, if folks gave any thought at all to what they were doing, they thought that the city somehow "owes" them something, and that the garbage workers will zealously pick after them in the morning, whistling a cheerful tune. Well, newsflash, littering filthy people: I talked to the garbage people this morning, and they were not amused by all the crap you left around. Nor were they paid extra this morning for clearing your hideous mess. How nice that we can dehumanize folks working to keep our city clean and just assume that, like androids, they will shovel away, without feeling, all the disgusting crap we leave behind. Yes, the city employs people to clean it. It's great. It does not absolve any of us from the personal responsibilities of cleaning up after ourselves, same as we do in our homes.

The amazing thing was that the usual morning crowd - the folks walking and jogging on the beach - just went on as normal. Our city is defiled, our sea is filthy, but let that not stop our smug yuppie selves from working on our physique this morning. Does no one understand that, on a filthy planet, a neat trim body is completely meaningless?

Because, and here's where this is somehow related to food, everything is connected, folks. Not in the New Agey, cosmic sense of the word. In the most daily and obvious way. The gross plastic plates and bags you leave behind find their way to the shore, where they are eaten by fish, who get sick, and then you eat them, and get sick too. They are eaten by birds who fly above the shore. They emit a smell of decay which influences the animal population on the beach, as well as the air we breathe. You are directly influenced by everything you did last night to rape Mother Earth, and the small strip of Her flesh which we call our city's beach. Funny, tonight the city is planning to hold a giant fireworks event on the beach. We'll all be sitting there, soaking in yesterday's filth, and enjoying the lights on the giant skies, which will numb our brains and hearts and help us forget our disregard for the small piece of Earth we live on. Dammit, shame on us. Shame on us.

What should you do then?

1) If you walk on the Tel Aviv beach this morning, or anywhere, actually, any morning - for heaven's sake, pick up a plastic bag (the littering people left plenty of those lying around) and clean some. You don't have to leave the place sparkling clean. But help a bit. If everyone did that this morning, the beach would be clean in no time.

2) Write a letter to your city, or mine, about the salaries for garbage disposal folks. Their important services are not appreciated as much as they should be, and they don't get extra bonuses for days when the city is filthy. This is no excuse for the citizens' behavior, of course, but it's annoying and should be rectified.

3) If you see folks littering around, don't be afraid that someone will think you a sanctimonious fart if you say something. Speak up. It's your city they're raping and degrading. You have a right and an obligation to say something.

4) Organize some friends and go clean a trail, or a section of your city. You don't have to be a bleeding heart left-wing yuppie to do this. You just need to have a bit of care about where you live.

Mostly, though, you should think. You should let those neurons work and give the minimum amount of thought to where your stuff ends up and what happens to it. Of course, if we all did this, we'd have the infrastructure for recycling, and many well-paid city workers to help us do it efficiently. But even if not, in the very least, our beach would not be a huge junkyard, and we wouldn't put the beautiful words of Nathan Alterman, the "white city" poet, to shame.

Carrot Season

Apparently, it's carrot season at Chubeza. We get lots and lots of wonderful, intense orange carrots every week. They come with the leaves (and we already know what to do with those). I think all this carrot consumption may have actually affected my eyesight; my optometrist reports that my prescription has gone down. Whether it's due to the carrot or not, I have no idea; but the fact is that carrots pack an enormous amount of vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene, which is said to improve night vision. Carrots also contain a variety of anti-cancer agents, and are also useful for preventing and treating lung inflammation.

In Chinese medicine, carrots are associated with the earth element, and beneficial for the spleen - which means, in Western anatomy, that they assist digestion as well as muscular issues.

And what better way to cook lots of carrots than a day when one's loved one falls sick? Chad's immune system, alas, leaves much to be desired, and he really feels awful today. His throat hurts, his sinuses hurt, his nose is leaking - and he feels drowsy and says extremely funny things. I don't think he means to say them. They come out funny because of the fever.

Warming food is good for situations such as this, and the carrot pairs well with ginger to create an old favorite - carrot ginger soup. This version doesn't have any cream, which, in Chinese medicine, increases dampness in the body (and we have plenty of that here, thank you very much). It does, however, have browned onions and garlic, and some fun Middle Eastern spices. Naturally, it can be made with the addition of potatoes, yams, or squash, if you so desire; our decision to be carrot purists today stems from the dry fact that we already had potatoes today, and that yams were not in this week's box. I hope you enjoy the soup, and post your own versions of this favorite, if you like.

Middle Eastern Carrot Ginger Soup

10 nice organic carrots
a 3'' or 4'' chunk of ginger
1 very large onion
half a garlic bulb
1 tsp of the following: curcum, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon (yes, trust me on this).
2 quarts of water or vegetable broth (you could make the broth out of the carrot leaves, thus using the entire vegetable and not letting nice leaves go to waste).

We start the way my grandmother started many of her culinary marvels: we peel and slice each garlic clove (this can help with the peeling, and believe me, it really works), we slice the onion into rings, we splash the bottom of a large pot with good olive oil, and we fry the onions and garlic. No "sauteeing" here. The stuff needs to be brown and fragrant. When it is, and there's a lovely smell in the kitchen, we pour some broth or water into the pan and start deglazing. This may seem silly or unnecessary, but it improves the taste of the soup to no end. Scrape the brown stuff in the bottom of the pot, using a wooden spoon. It'll be very good with the broth.

When you're done scraping, add the rest of the liquid, and the carrots, and the ginger, and the spices, and let cook for about 30 minutes. Then, we do the following nifty thing: using a straining spoon, we go fishing. That's right. We fish out all the carrots and ginger, and stick them in the blender, with a bit of the broth. We puree the carrots and ginger, and return them to the pot, mixing the puree with the broth. Now, we just sprinkle a bit of parsley on top, and we're done. I hope Chad enjoys it and feels well!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

University Food Court: A Microcosm of the Restaurant Industry?

Most of our days are spent at the Tel Aviv University campus. Which means we eat there. Often, we bring our own lunches - after having organic vegetables at home, nothing else tastes quite the same - but sometimes we don't, and we're presented with quite a dazzling array of choices.

Campus food has developed quite a bit since when I was a student. I remember the law school cafeteria had cheese, egg and tuna sandwiches; the central restaurant had cheap homelike food (meat, various carb options, and some cooked vegetables). In my later days there, there were coffee carts everywhere in addition to the restaurants, and one of the restaurants, in the education department building, served antipasti and couscous. In Berkeley, we were surrounded by a lot of inexpensive restaurants, some of which were very healthy and very tasty.

Tel Aviv University offers quite a lot of different food stalls. The central food court is a microcosm of the food industry, and, accordingly, it ; McDonalds have a restaurant there which, regrettably, has become quite a favorite with the students. It's quick, and it offers something it calls "California salad" which is basically lifeless iceberg lettuce with some chicken on top. Next door to McDonalds is a local pseudo-Thai chain called Lemon Grass. Calling it Thai is almost a capital offense. It actually offers hideous sushi and other pan-Asian, fake, industrialized things.

Some chains are not that evil. The old Tel Aviv cafe, Alexander, started a new venture called Green Leaves, a salad bar on campus. Each person chooses which vegetables, whole grains, antipasti, cheeses and other fun ingredients go in the salad. Obviously, this option isn't perfect, either; the vegetables are pre-cut, and the plastic containers can't be recycled anywhere. But it's a viable option.

The cafeteria also offers the usual fare of fish, carbs and cooked vegetables, as well as fresh pasta. The students' metabolism never ceases to amaze me; having pasta with cream sauce day after day is something I can no longer deal with.

Coffee culture in Israel is pretty big, and each of the cafeterias will serve you a very decent cup of coffee, or a nice selection of herbal teas. Two places offer blended/squeezed juices, also a good breakfast option.

Finally, there is the price. A meal in the cafeteria costs an average of 20 to 30 NIS - between 5 and 7 dollars (equivalent to UC Berkeley prices, but with the salaries here so much lower, certainly something to consider). While we're happy to visit the salad man once in a while, this is certainly not something that a student household can deal with on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I don't see students with brown sandwich bags or containers from home; In a culture with such culinary savvy, it's surprising that students don't take time to relax from their books and cook for themselves.

Azuki Bean Soup

Beans. Now that's a touchy subject. Beans have been a bit maligned in the last decades' diet fads, particularly low-carb regimes; they defy the neat and tidy categorization of food that's "good for you" because it either has "just carbs" or, for folks who have more purist tendencies, "just protein". They don't allow you to neatly separate starch from protein; they deceive us. Why, cries the low-carb dieter, have we been told since childhood that beans are a good source of protein? They have so many carbs. More than protein. In fact, their composition is not all that different from whole grains. We can't have them. Let's bite into some more red meat.

No offense to the low-carb folks - and I know these regimes work really well for some folks - but beans are wonderful food. Yes, like many other foods, they contain a mixture of carbs and proteins. And also various vitamins, and minerals, and antioxidants. And they come in so many varieties, and are so versatile, and tasty.

The other common complaint against beans is their contribution to, well, the air quality in the room. Many folks suffer from flatulence after eating beans, particularly the larger varieties. Several pieces of advice have been offered for this solution; eating only fermented beans, soaking the beans well before cooking them (always a good idea as it shortens the cooking time), taking enzymes with the beans. I find that what works for me is, usually, eating beans on their own, or, if absolutely necessary, with just one type of whole grain. Combining beans with grains works better with the smaller types of beans, like lentils, mung beans and azuki beans; the larger ones I try to eat by themselves.

The following soup - all complete with this week's selection of chubeza vegetables - is a great showcase for a tiny red bean - the azuki bean. Used extensively in Asian cooking as sweet red bean paste, azuki is rich in protein, as well as in iron, calcium and potassium (good for foot cramps). This nontraditional way of serving it has a soothing, earthy flavor, and works on its own as a soup or a hearty stew.

Azuki Bean Soup

2 cups azuki beans, preferrably pre-soaked in water for about 2-3 hours
3 carrots
3 zuccinis
2 turnips
1 beet
2 quarts of water or vegetable broth
1 garlic bulb
2 bay leaves
optional: 2 tablespoons of miso soup

If beans have been soaked, discard the water. Slice all vegetables into large, rustic cubes. Place them in a big pot with the water or vegetable broth, garlic and bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Then, cover the pot and let simmer for about an hour. If you wish, mix in two heaping tablespoons of miso at the end of cooking. If not sensitive to food combinations or wheat, eat with thick slices of whole wheat bread, or on top of mashed potatoes.

Sweet and Savory Sesame

The other day, a few of us were having lunch at a Tel Aviv cafe. One of us was telling a story about her grandfather, originally from Russia, who can't stand a few local foods, such as Tchina. A great wave of sadness washed over the table. "Life without tchina", mumbled another friend. "Fancy that. How sad".

Yes, we Israelis love our sesame. We like it on our bread crust, we like it as sweet halvaof various flavors, we use it to coat our schnitzels (breaded chicken meat) - but most of all, we love it as that fabulous paste, out of which we make a dip, a sauce or a spread, according to taste. Americans call this divine paste "tahini", which has always made me giggle; the word tchina comes from the verb litchon, to grind. And, indeed, raw tchina is nothing more than ground sesame seeds.

I confess I'm not a big fan of halva, though Chad loves it very much and always keeps a box of a local, Jaffa-made variety, that looks like an old lady's hair. I've given up sweets, and I don't really miss them all that much. My fandom of sesame is almost entirely due to the fantastic tchina I eat everywhere.

There is, however, one exception; the wonderful and crumbly tchina cookies I tasted, for the first time, at YAFA - a little cafe/bookstore in central Jaffa, and our local peace oasis. YAFA is devoted to the understanding between Jews and Palestinians, offers a variety of interesting books about the Middle East, and hosts an impressive curriculum of classes in spoken and literary Arabic. They also serve fragrant herbal tea, accompanied by these little delicacies. After tasting them in the company of my dear pals Shachar and Amit, we all sought to recreate them; Amit, who is vegan, loves them and makes them often to our delight. The recipe I'm posting today, however, has a few small changes, which I think improve the cookie's rich texture and allows vegans to skip the use of margarine (yuck).

The following two recipes - one for stir-fried vegetables with tchina, the other for the cookies - are my entries for a fun event, organized by Barbara at Tigers and Strawberries, called The Spice is Right: Sweet or Savory? I guess sesame, as well as sesame paste, are spices but also ingredients, and that's how they're used in these recipes. Enjoy.

Stir-Fried Vegetables and Tofu with Tchina Sauce

1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
1 package extra-firm tofu
4 garlic cloves
3 carrots
3 zuccini
1 package forest mushrooms, or fresh shiitake, or dried, pre-soaked shiitake
5-6 large leaves of kale or chard
1 inch piece of peeled and chopped or grated ginger
4-5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons raw tchina

black pepper or chilli flakes to taste

Mix soy sauce and tchina; cut tofu into 1/2 inch cubes and soak in the mix. Chop all vegetables into 1-inch cubes, and tea the kale or chard to large but edible pieces.
While tofu is happily soaking, heat up the oil in a large wok. When the wok is very hot, add garlic cloves and ginger, and stir a bit until fragrant. Then, add the vegetables: first the carrots, then the soy-tchina sauce from the tofu (keep the tofu aside for a while). Let the carrots sit in the wok a bit until they start to soften, then add the zuccini, mushrooms, tofu, and finally the kale. Add black pepper or chili flakes to taste and enjoy.

Tchina Cookies with COconut Milk and Spices

1/2 cup raw tchina
1 1/2 cups whole wheat or whole rice flour (I used the latter)
5 tablespoons coconut milk
4 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon of each: cinnamon, ground clove, nutmeg
3 heaped tablespoons brown sugar (optional)

Heat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Knead to a dough. The dough comes out crumbly and a bit on the dry side, so do not be alarmed; if it's very dry, add some more coconut milk or tchina. Now, make small (less than 1 inch) cookies; due to the dough consistency, you can't exactly roll it, but rather squeeze it into a little ball. If you want to go fancy, one of these cookie presses might come in handy, will make your life easier, and your cookies prettier. Amit has one; yet another kitchen appliance which seems to be a refugee from the 1970s and works like a charm. Place on baking sheet and bake for about ten to fifteen minutes. Remove when cookies are slightly golden and no longer soft, but before they brown (they don't taste as good when very brown). Consume with herbal tea or fragrant Turkish coffee.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Yasai Soba

(pic on its way)

The noodle craving is still on, and I'm contemplating the possibility of reproducing a household favorite of us: Yasai Soba.

It appears that noodle soup is something everybody likes; every culture has some version of it. Soba, a noodle made out of buckwheat and wheat, is a particularly delightful and healthy way of consuming noodles. Slimmer and browner than its big sister, the Udon noodle, Soba pleasantly slips through your throat and makes you feel warm and happy.

In our favorite vegan Japanese restaurant in Berkeley, Cha Ya, you can get two types of fabulous Soba soup: sansai soba, comprised of wild mountain vegetables and seaweed, and yasai soba, based on cooked vegetables which seem to be a tad more mundane in the Western world. Both versions are comprised of hot vegetable broth with soy sauce; the nonvegan versions use fish broth. The noodles, and delicately sliced and steamed vegetables, are decoratively placed in the bowl, and the soup is eaten with both a spoon and chopsticks.

As you'll see from this recipe, the wheat-free, vegan adjustments are not difficult. As to the noodles, I've had good experience with soba from Eden Foods, but apparently other brands, like Clearspring carry it as well. Buckwheat, it turns out, is not a grain; it's a fruit seed and a distant relative of sorrel and rhubarb. It offers a wealth of benefits, including anticancerous nutrients and fiber.

As to the broth, as you'll see, this version of the soup uses shiitake mushrooms (which are anti-inflammatory and very good for your immune system), and the soaking water makes wonderful broth, particularly when mixed with Tamari soy sauce.

The vegetables, naturally, can change, depending on what's out there in the market. This version sports carrots, turnips, potatoes, wild beet leaves, shiitake mushrooms, and extra-firm tofu.

A package of soba noodles
10-15 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 carrots
3 turnips
4 large manguld (wild beet) leaves (chards also ok).
A few pieces of wakame seaweed
2 small potatoes
1 package of extra-firm tofu
1 cup Tamari soy sauce
4 cups water

We start by boiling the water and soaking the shiitake mushrooms in it. This needs to stand for, say 15 minutes at least, and the more it stands, the fluffier and softer your mushrooms and the richer your broth.
While this is going on, two things need to happen: the tofu needs to spend some time in the soy sauce, and the vegetables need to be steamed. Slice the tofu and place it in the tamari sauce for a while (you can dilute it in water, or in some tablespoons of the mushroom liquid). Also, slice the carrots, turnips and potatoes, and tear large pieces out of the manguld leaves. Place all these folks (except the wakame) in a steaming basket, and steam for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft, but still have personality.
When the mushrooms have softened to your liking, strain, keep the liquid, and carefully slice them in pretty, thick slices. Save the mushrooms and steamed vegetables.
Pour the shiitake liquid into a large pot, and add the tamari sauce (without the tofu). Add soba noodles and cook for ten minutes or so, or until the soba is soft and slurpable. Then, using a straining spoon, place some noodles at the bottom of large, fun bowls. Arrange the vegetables and tofu prettily on top of the vegetables, then pour the hot soup to cover everything. Serve with chopsticks and a spoon. Enjoy!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Book Review: You Are What You Eat, by Gillian McKeith

It's interesting to see the extent to which the food celebrity industry has captivated our lives. I suppose the best examples for our fascination with the combination of food and celebrities is The Food Network, featuring such figures as Rachael Ray, Alton Brown and others. We like celebrities, and we like food; many of these folks have websites, and magazines, and sell products. I've often asked myself how their literature would fare had they not enjoyed celebrity status, and recently, I had a chance to find out.

A few months ago, as part of my project of getting back on the holistic nutrition wagon, I bought myself Gillian McKeith's book You Are What You Eat. I had no idea she was a celebrity and had no interest in it. Only after reading a good part of the book did I find out that she's quite a controversial celebrity in England, with her very own TV show by the same name. Her website offers additional information about her various enterprises.

McKeith is Scottish in origin, lived in the States for a while, and is a holistic nutritionist. One of the more controversial features of her biography is her constant and irritating use of the title PhD, which she obtained from the unaccredited Clayton College. I must confess I'm bothered by this, but not for the same reasons that the medical orthodoxy is. Yes, I happen to know firsthand how much work goes into a PhD from an established academic institute, but the usage of the title in itself doesn't annoy me nearly as much as what this says about a society which does not listen to anyone UNLESS they have a PhD next to their name. It is disappointing that McKeith feels the need to buy into this sad state of affairs by calling herself "Dr. Gillian" and "Dr. McKeith" almost every single page - and it's particularly disappointing in light of the fact that she actually has many great things to say, and the book is really a very good and readable resource.

One of the book's great strengths is the wealth of information it manages to convey in a cool, hip, magazine-like format. The colorful pages and beautiful vegetable and fruit photography makes one enthusiastic about healthy food and helps the readers get through quite a lot of details, advice, and regimes. This is important, because nutrition books are not often this fun. And, if you manage to ignore the personality cult and celebrity hype - and it's possible - it makes for a very enjoyable read.

McKeith starts the book by providing several tools for self assessment. These are, to a great extent, based on tongue diagnosis principles from Traditional Chinese medicine. The book does not go into the difficult energetic terminology of Chinese medicine; none of the Zang Fu intricacies are mentioned, and the Five Elements are only hinted at. The book easily translates some of the diagnostics to Western anatomy, in an easy, down-to-earth manner. It's not as precise, of course, as getting a diagnosis from a Chinese Medicine person, but it certainly provides layfolk with a wealth of tools to figure out why they feel the way they feel.

The book is also helpful in rejecting fad diets and in emphasizing the importance of variety and moderation. Extreme low-carb regimes are not encouraged, but whole grains and complex carbs are emphasized, and so are food combinations (particularly for folks suffering from digestive issues). Extreme low-fat regimes are also rejected, and McKeith recommends eating healthy fats, like avocados and nuts, as well as using Omega-3 supplements. In general, the plan is built on a wealth of natural foods: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, seaweeds, goat dairy and yogurt (McKeith warns against too much consumption of cow dairy), occasional eggs, fish and chicken. She is an advocate of juices, but not at the expense of eating whole food with fiber. She also recommends a series of supplements: certain vitamins, good bacteria for colon health, green foods, and certain herbs for certain conditions. All this advice has to be balanced by mild exercise; she recommends picking something that would be fun, like walking, yoga, tai chi, pilates, trampoline hopping, or anything at all one would find enjoyable and not burdensome.

McKeith's advice is geared towards overall health; she has recommendations for PMS, menopause symptoms, digestive issues, stress, hair, skin and nails, and - as one would expect - weight loss. The book also contains a very gentle and mild cleansing regime, which I tried a couple of months ago. It's built on juices, salad and vegetable broth or miso soup, and truly works wonders. This cleanse is followed by an example of a seven-week plan. The recipes included in the book are, well, not fantastic; but with very little effort and some creativity, one can come up with delicious recipes containing the various natural foods featured in the book.

Some of the advice, I believe, is very specialized for a British readership. McKeith emphasizes the problems with overconsumption of alcohol and directs her criticism at pub culture. For an Israeli audience, I believe, that would be less of an issue (overeating would be a bigger problem). Also, she criticizes diets composed of mainly cooked foods and advocates a good balance between cooked and raw. In Israel, and in California, that would not be so much of a problem, though I imagine, in the British cold climate, folks tend to eat more warm and cooked foods.

The raw food recommendation, by the way, is a deviation from the traditional Chinese diet recommendations, which many holistic nutritionists like McKeith are modifying these days, arguing (quite plausibly) that the Chinese tendency to cook everything stemmed from the poor sanitation conditions in the times of the Yellow Emperor, when the seminal Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine was compiled.

All in all, the book makes a very good and lively read, and provides a lot of valuable advice both to beginners and to folks who want to refresh good nutrition principles. If you can get over the personality worship and the controversial PhD issue - and I'm sure you can - you'll find this a helpful and entertaining companion on your journey towards good eating and good health.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

What's the Deal About Wheat Intolerance?

(photo from here)

There is so much talk about wheat and gluten these days. Or perhaps I hear more of it because it's interesting to me. Various conflicting opinions are offered. Websites and information geared at food intolerant folks tend to emphasize how common the symptoms are - 15% of the population is estimated to be sensitive to either gluten or another component in wheat, and 33% to yeast, which composes most of the bread we eat. On the other hand, the British Nutrition Foundation reports that wheat intolerance is very uncommon. Naturally, none of these sites is unbiased, and as with other food issues, this one is highly political. Because wheat is a food staple and generates much income for the middlemen in the process of transferring it from the grower to the customer. For more info on these matters, do visit Parke Wilde's excellent blog, US Food Policy. But let's focus on wheat, for a minute.

There are a number of issues that could lead to bad symptoms when responding to bread, pasta and similar foods. It's important to distinguish them, though in real life it may not be that easy.

1. Wheat Allergy, like other food allergies, refers to immediate and drastic responses to the consumption of wheat, which could include anything from hives to vomiting to swelling to loss of consciousness. Read more about how to test for food allergies.

2. Wheat sensitivity, or intolerance, is apparently less drastic and much more common. The sensitivity could be an outcome of any of the following reasons:

(a) Gluten intolerance, with celiac being the most severe form. Celiac can be tested for, and apparently has been identified as a genetic problem and related to autoimmune diseases. Gluten is the protein which makes bread elastic and fluffy. Celiac, at its worst, can be extremely dangerous and lead to death.

(b) Yeast intolerance, which is sometimes confused with wheat intolerance, because the main way we consume wheat is through bread with yeast. Yeast infections of various kinds often involve the growth of unhealthy yeast in the colon, with candida being quite notorious in causing digestive problems, bloating, gas, fatigue and other symptoms. Candida problems, and other yeast related issues, are extremely difficult to diagnose, and conventional Western medicine will usually not be quick to detect and acknowledge them. One way nutritionists identify candida is using screening questionnaires, which can point them to a probability that the cause of suffering has to do with yeast. Here's one such questionnaire, from the informative website of Donna Gates, author of the well-researched and helpful book The Body Ecology Diet.

(c) Intolerance to other components of wheat. The wheat used all over the world nowadays is propagated by an extremely wealthy group of agribusinesses; and, as we now know, this was not always the case. In the attempt to modify wheat so that it can be easily grown in gargantual quantities, wheat was breeded and treated in certain ways which led it to become resilient and easily grown. Some folks may not respond well to these ways, and sometimes the intolerance emerges particularly from the fact that wheat has become so uniform and common as to make other forms of ancient wheat, like kamut and spelt, quite rare.

(d) Sometiems, the intolerance is not to wheat in itself, but to the various pesticides wheat is sprayed with. Obviously, this problem is not unique to wheat. The issue here is that the huge amounts in which wheat is grown probably involves economic considerations in choosing these pesticides. Again, in these issues it's difficult to find an unbiased opinion.

What's the deal, then? Are you sensitive to wheat or not? If one feels symptoms such as stomach ache, bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort, fatigue and extreme changes in weight, as well as cravings for sugar and starch, one should definitely seek the advice of both a doctor and a good holistic nutritionist. The latter will probably help you get on an elimination diet, which will help you learn more about the foods that agree and do not agree with you. Even if you are not sensitive to wheat, it's probably a good idea to vary your diet with various types of grain, as each of them offers different nutritional components.

Finally, to learn more about food intolerance, and digestive health in general, do read Elizabeth Lipsky's excellent book Digestive Wellness. It's a very good resource on various health issues and offers very helpful advice.

Brown Rice Pasta with Greens and Mushrooms

Sometime in the early nineties, Israel went through a culinary revolution; gone were the awful salty, processed restaurant dishes always covered by a blanket of cheap, fat cheese. All of a sudden, we all became gourmets. And then came a succession of trendy foods, headed by pasta. One day, everyone knew that we had been cooking our pasta, which we had wrongly called "macaroni", for too long, and it had to be al dente; fresh ingredients were added and eradicated the canned tomato paste regime.

But before we started counting our blessings and saying good riddance to the awful food we'd been eating, we took things to the other extreme; we became finicky, snobbish gourmets, establishing proper rules and regulations for even the simplest comfort foods. Now we're all experts; we know which ingredients are used in which area of Italy, and what wine to serve with our pasta. But - y'know - sometimes you just want to eat a fun bowl of fine noodles, and not obsess about it.

Which is how the following recipe came about. We're both exhausted from numerous work issues and social engagements which, while fun, took a toll on our sleeping and relaxing time. Today we felt like putting our house in order and cleaning it, and having a nice bowl of pasta. Fortunately, I had anticipated this craving and bought fabulous and healthful brown rice pasta.

Attention, all ye celiac folk, gluten-avoiding gents, wheat-intolerant ladies: there is excellent-tasting brown rice pasta out there. And the good people of Tinkyada make it for us. And it's not devastatingly expensive. Naturally, it's always best to actually have brown rice rather than pasta; but this stuff is big fun, and it allows me to enjoy an old favorite without suffering the repercussions (one of these days I'll post some more info about the strange world of sensitivity to wheat). You can make the following recipe with their product, or with any whole grain or white (insert health-freak-shudder here) pasta of your choice. It involves lots and lots of greens, organic crushed tomatoes, sliced champignon mushrooms, lots of herbs, and much garlic. Serves two tired, grumpy folks, and restores their good spirits.

1 package (340 grams, I think) of Tinkyada brown rice pasta - I like the vegetable fusilli
4 cups of coarsely chopped kale, beet greens or Swiss chards
1 cup of organic crushed tomatoes
10 champignon mushrooms, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves
3 hearty handfuls of chopped basil, parsley, or oregano

Boil about a liter of water in a large pot. While you wait for it to boil, heat up a large wok. When it almost smokes, add chopped garlic. After a minute or two, before the garlic becomes brown, add in the mushrooms. Cook a bit, then add the greens and stir around. Wait for them to slightly wilt, then put in the crushed tomatoes and about 1/2 a glass of water. Then add the herbs. Cook until sauce thickens and the greens' stalks are chewable but not hard.

By now, the water is probably boiling. Add a tablespoon of herb salt and the pasta, stirring often to avoid stickiness. Cook to desired consistency, then drain.

Now, since this is a homey recipe, with no pretensions of authenticity, add the drained pasta to the wok and stir with sauce until it coats the noodles. Put in deep bowls and eat to your heart's content.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Those Root Vegetable Leaves!

(photo from here)

Getting organic vegetables from a small farm is truly an educational experience. We get to see quite a few things we never see in the supermarket.

The best example is the stalks and leaves of root vegetables. In theory, of course, one knows that root vegetables grow underground, and that they have some sort of leaves overground. After all, like many other Israeli kids, I grew on the wonderful story Grandpa Eliezer and the Carrot, which involves a whole family pulling out a carrot by its leaves in an attempt to get it out. But, of course, then one goes, as a kid, with one's parents to the supermarket, where carrots are bald and leaves fear to tread.

Actually, the whole supermarket experience, if you'll allow me a short rant, divorces kids from the source of their food. When I lived in Jerusalem and visited Frida, my neighbor, I used to listen to her conversations with the kids she worked with. Once, a kid saw her cut potatoes for fries. Completely horrified, he said: "Why are you cutting those potatoes?" Frida replied: "For fries". The kid's eyes widened. "You make fries out of potatoes?" "Sure, out of what else?" asked Frida. The kid shrugged his shoulders. "Out of a bag". Similar exchanges demonstrated that kids were amazed that lemons grew on trees. All this stuff makes me thing that Barbara's previously mentioned rant about folks' ignorance regarding the source of their meat extends to other types of food, as well.

In any case, folks, root vegetables do have leaves. And when we get our weekly Chubeza box, we get to meet them. Beets and turnips (lefet) have large, spinach-like leaves. Carrots have thin leaves on long stalks, a bit reminscent of algae. This, of course, raises the question, what shall we do with them?

Here are a few ideas.

Beet leaves make wonderful leafy greens and can be used in any way chard, kale, or manguld are used. My next post, hopefully, will include a fun recipe for pasta with greens which uses beet leaves; pasta works extremely well with greens, and when cooked with beet leaves, it takes a fun and entertaining pink color.

Another usage for beet leaves is in omelettes, for the egg eaters. You start by sauteeing roughly chopped leaves in a bit of olive oil with garlic and your favorite fresh or dried herbs, then you spread your egg, or egg-and-yogurt, mix on top.

Many stir-fry dishes benefit from greens. As you can read in Barbara Fisher's Stir-Fry Technique guide, one adds the vegetables in the order that they get soft, which means the leafy greens go in last. They are ready as soon as they begin to wilt. One of our favorite dishes in California, which we ate often in Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and at Long Life Vegi House, was tofu, mushrooms and greens; these three work really well together.

Leafy greens, including beet leaves, make good fillings for crusts and play well with cheese, garlic, sauteed onions and (yum) pine nuts.

As to carrot greens, or any leafy greens you're not using, please, take them as soon as you get them, rinse them well, stick them (with or without their roots) in a giant pot with lots of fresh, clean water, and cook them for forty minutes. You get a wonderful pot of vegetable stock, which you can later use for the rest of the week. You can cook your grains and beans in it; you can add them to your sauces instead of water; they can be fabulous bases for any kind of soup; and, of course, you can drink them in the evening, instead of tea, as a nice, warm and healthy liquid treat.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sauerkraut Mystery Partially Solved

Our Chubeza delivery this week included more cabbage. We do like cabbage, honestly we do; my dad's family has Polish roots, and Chad comes from a Mennonite family. And cabbage rolls are a staple of Mennonite cooking. And we like cabbage with tomato sauce, and we like slaw. But there was just too much of it for one week. So, we decided on sauerkraut. But we had no clue how to do it. We turned to two dependable sources of information: my grandparents and the internet.

Now, apparently, this is not very easy, and Faith Petric's song describes the process in a deceivingly easy way. In her song, while cleaning the fridge, she comes across a strange substance:

Look at this, it's sauerkraut, now when did we have sauerkraut?
Whatever this stuff was, it sure is sauerkraut by now!

My grandparents, after a lengthy interrogation, confessed, that they don't do any fermentation at all. They just stick the cabbage in a pot of vinegar. Now that won't do. The internet resources, on the other hand, were less candid, and more vague and mysterious. "Large ceramic pots" in the garage were described, a process of removing some foam, daily, under a gauze, was mentioned, and the whole process was described very unappetizingly. Naaaah, we said, we won't go there.

Then, Shari Ansky's book came to the rescue, and we modified the recipe there to include more stuff we liked. And after five days of just standing in our porch, it came out delicious. And here is how we did it.

The one essential tool for this enterprise is a large glass jar that closes hermetically, with rubber, like the one you see above in the picture.

You'll need:
3 celery stalks
A nice head of green cabbage, cut into quarters or smaller pieces
4 red spicy chiles
4 bay leaves
black pepper, unground, to taste

Chop the celery stalks into pieces that fit on the bottom of the jar, and put them there. Then, pack the jar, very tightly, with cabbage pieces, chiles, bay leaves and pepper. Finally, pour into the jar salt water (1 tsp salt to 1 cup water) until the liquid covers the veg. Leave in a lit, sunny spot for five days. Voila.

The Veg Count Too: Rant and Recipe

Have you noticed how, for some meat eaters, the meal doesn't count unless it contains meat?

Fear not, gentle reader. I'm not about to launch into another one of those vegetarian-carnivore debates. I have no beef (ha!) with meat eaters; becoming vegetarian is a highly personal choice, and I've heard, countless times, all the arguments and counterarguments. What I do want to rant about, is the way some carnivores make meat into the focus of their culinary experience, completely ignoring the rest of the food.

Now, with homemade food, for many folks here, the idea is that there's an "entree" - namely, some sort of a dead animal - and then there are the "additions", the things that meat is "served with", which, in classy restaurants, are not even mentioned in the outset. You read that you'll be served a steak or a leg of lamb, and then, in small print, it'll say "with potatoes and asparagus". Sometimes they don't bother at all. This practice bothers me to no end, because it completely ignores the quality of ingredients, creativity and nutritional planning that goes into making a truly wonderful vegetarian dish. This tendency to ignore anything on your plate that isn't meat, by the way, is a common accompaniment to the unwillingness to understand that one's meat has come from animals - an absurdity on which my dear friend Barbara Fisher has written an award-winning post.

Why, you ask, have I launched into this rant? Well, Wednesday was Independence Day in Israel. While Americans tend to celebrate all their national dates of importance by, well, shopping, Israelis do so by eating. A lot. Of Meat.

All national parks, forests, patches of green, and often traffic circles, I kid you not, are invaded, since morning, by folks carrying dozens of kilograms of meat and a barbecue, or as it's called here, a mangal. Gender roles are very specific, and very reminscent of Jean Auel books: only the men are allowed to directly deal with the fire, while the women hunt-gather for pita bread and condiments, and the children mainly eat and make noise. This in itself is quite fine, though the lust for such huge amounts of meat certainly does not agree with everyone's arteries. In fact, Chad and I attended an event like this.

So, whaddwe do when we go to a barbecue? Do we sit and stare longingly at the meat, or stuff our face with meatless bread? Hell no. We bring Vegetable Skewers. We put them in a delicious, aromatic marinade. We include all sorts of exotic veg. And we eat with great pleasure. So this time, we brought in skewers with celery roots, beets, fennel, and other amazing organic veg. Oh, and we stuck on them the occasional cube of tofu. While our veg were top quality, the tofu, this time, was a tad mediocre, so we didn't put much of it on.

And when we took them out, folks looked at them and said "heh, tofu skewers".

Now that was really ridiculous. All these fabulous vegetables were there, but the folks around us zoomed in on the sole tofu cube, not even registering the rest of the skewer as "food". But of course, we're vegetarians, so given the fact that anything beyond meet is not considered "food", then we must eat tofu all day.

Wrong, folks. We love our veg. And we never go hungry. And while protein is very important, so are vitamins, and minerals, and carbs, and other nutrients. Vegetables are food.

And then, one person asked to try one. And another. And another. And eventually they all ate, and were happy, and said it was very good.

So here's the recipe, for your barbecuing pleasure:

Vegetable Skewers

3 carrots
3 beets
1 large fennel bulb
1 celery root, cleaned
4 tomatoes
10 forest mushrooms of any kind
1 large onion

4 cups vegetable stock
2-3 cups soy sauce
1 one-inch diameter ginger chunk, chopped or grated
6-7 garlic cloves
3 handfuls of fresh herbs: we like parsley and cilantro
1/2 tablespoon of cornstarch (optional but helps consistency).

This can be done with any vegetables. Really. It's just that the aboce combo worked so well. The trick is to skewer a variety of ingredients that work well together and take about the same time to cook. Alas, this is tricky; because the tomato cooks almost instantly, while, say, the carrots take a long time.

Which is why you steam the "hard" vegetables first.

"Peel" the celery root, that is, cut of its external rougher surface. Then, dice all the vegetables, so the pieces are about 1/2 inch wide and no more than 1 inch in other directions. It's best if they are about the same size. Now, take the carrot cubes, the beets, the celeries, and the fennels, and steam them for about 30 minutes or until they are firm but easily pierced with a skewer. We use a bamboo steamer (easily purchased for very, very cheap in your local Asian houseware store), but a collander over a large pot of water would work just as fine. Just let the water work its magic.

Then, mix all ingredients for the marinade in a very large bowl, and put all vegetable cubes, including tomatoes and mushrooms and onions, into the marinade, and let them sit there for at least three hours.

Then, grap a bunch of skewers and get creative. One of the best ways to do this, is to place a large bowl in your sink, hang a collander over it, and pour the contents of your marinade bowl into the collander. Thus, you get all the veg ready for skewering, and you save the marinade for future use. Yay! Another recommendation is to split the different kinds of veg between several bowls, so you see how many of each you've got, and you don't end up with a bunch of skewers that only have, say, carrots on them. In this, I beg to differ from Alton Brown: I understand the rationale behind skewering the same vegetables on the same skewer (uniform cooking time), but since folks will usually have no more than two of these, why not give them something that offers more fun and variety?

You can do whatever you want in terms of the order of skewering, but I really recommend having one of the firmer, tougher vegetables on each end. Also, a good idea is to stick bits of the onion and fennel between vegetable cubes, as they infuse their "neighbors" on the skewer with their magnificent aroma.

The best way we've found to carry the skewers to the barbecue is taking a very big plastic bag and putting a bowl inside it, with the skewers "standing" in the bowl. Also, be sure to carry a little container with marinade with you, so you can sprinkle it on the vegetables should they become dry.

Then, at the event itself, once you've fought off the meat eaters for some space on the barbecue, you simply place them out there,on the barbecue, and give them a little turn every couple of minutes. They'll be done in five or seven minutes, depending on the size of veg you've picked. They're very good with fresh tchina, or in a hummus sandwich. Enjoy!