Sunday, August 06, 2006

Vegetables and Olive Oil and Peace

This post is my contribution to Barbara's "Fresh and Local Challenge" in Tigers and Strawberries; although all of what I cook comes right out of our Chubeza box, this one has summer vegetables in it, and is therefore very appropriate for this season.

The two dishes I have here feature a common ingredient which may not be exactly a spice, but is a very typical flavor in Middle Eastern cooking: fabulous olive oil from the Gallille. It's not easy being cheerful in Israel Aviv these days, as many of you probably can guess from following the news; but cooking with olive oil is a reminder of the ancient, bountiful olive trees all over the north of Israel, which produce our superb oil, and which are now under missile attacks. May these dishes remind all warring parties in the world of the goodness in the Earth, and how living off the richness it offers shouldn't be taken for granted. While many humans are hurt in our current conflict, there are also silent sufferers: plants and animals hit by rockets, forests that die in forest fires. When (if?) this is over, hopefully soon, humans will have to work not only on reconnecting with each other, but also on restoring some of the natural world that is so often harmed by humans fighting with each other. The vegetables, fresh from a field near Latroun, are a reminder of that world.

When you have good ingredients, there's no need to mess with them more than necessary. The fresh flavors speak for themselves. So, while the two dishes I have here are cooked, they're both cooked for a very short time and preserve the vegetables' essence very well. It's a double feature dish: Green Beans with Garlic and Roasted Peppers. The beans are sauteed in a small amount of light broth and, of coruse, garlic. The peppers are roasted on an old pot lid, then steamed in a plastic bag and served with a tiny bit of olive oil and, possibly, balsamic vinegar. This is proof that very simple things can make very festive dishes.

Green Beans with Garlic

4-5 handfuls of fresh green beans
3 large garlic cloves
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp good quality soy sauce
1/2 cup water or vegetable broth.
1/2 tsp chili flakes
1 inch ginger, thinly sliced
1-2 tsps sesame oil

Prepping green beans is a funny task, because no matter what shortcuts you try to take, you *will* have to chop off their corners. I've stopped bothering with lining them up - they are never the same size and it doesn't simplify things... so just chop their corners, will you? Then, slice the garlic cloves, heat the olive oil in a pan or wok, and add the garlic, the ginger and the chili flakes. When a nice garlicky smell fills the room, add the soy sauce and the beans. Stir gently to mix up , and when they're all heated, add some water or broth - just enough so nothing sticks to the pan. Then, cook for a few more minutes, stirring occasionally, until beans get as soft as you like them, but retain their character. Remove from pan, drizzle a bit of sesame oil, and voila.

Roasted Red Peppers

4 large red peppers
1 old lid of a large pan
1 plastic bag
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar (optional)

This works really well on my stove, which has open fire; folks with electric stoves are welcome to offer ideas on how to do this in other kitchens. Anyway, in my kitchen, I found the best method to do this in Shari Ansky's fabulous book Vegetables. I changed it a bit, but it's essentially the same.

Basicaly, what you do, is turn on the stove and place an old metal lid directly on it. Then, you cut the peppers into eight pieces each, lengthwise, and place the pepper slices on top of the lid. Move them around a bit, so they don't get too burned on one side. You'll start seeing black burns on the peel, which is absolutely fine.

When the peppers all get soft and burned (doesn't this sound a bit like an inquisition method?), you turn off the stove, remove the peppers from the lid (careful! they're hot!) and place them in a plastic bag. tie up the bag and let'em sweat for fifteen minutes (inquisition, indeed). Then, open up the bag: if you want to peel the peppers, this will be very easy now, but you don't have to. You can eat them as they are. Put the peppers in a bowl, and drizzle some olive oil and, if desired, some balsamic vinegar on top.

It'll be time to harvest olives soon, and my family will gather to pick them right off our olive tree in September. Then, we'll be making olives off my grandpa's secret recipe, and they will be good and bitter; a reminder of life in this region, which can be very good, but very bitter at times, and a reminder of the olive branches that bear this fruit, and a hope for peace.