Saturday, September 23, 2006

Istanbul Foods

Not much cooking this week... we were not home. Locked up the door, gathered some clothes up in a suitcase and went off to beautiful Istanbul, once capital of the vast, corrupt, excessive Ottoman empire.

Istanbul is beautiful. That can be read in any tourist guide. The city showcases the magnificent architecture of Sinan, a genius employed by Suliman the Magnificent for planning gorgeous mosques with blue domes and sharp-pointed minarets. The insides of the mosques are also beautiful; in the absence of religious imagery, Muslim artists perfected calligraphy and did wonders with it.

Now, as to the food (that's what we're all here for, after all): we were warned that there would be no vegetarian options. And, we were warned that the food is not hygienic and we should exercise great care in eating. The first of these warnings is a myth and has been thoroughly debunked. We ate plenty of very good vegetarian food. Fresh salads are available everywhere; and so are various interesting dishes made with beans, rice, eggplant, and excellent yogurt. A good example is the wonderful kidney bean salad in the picture, which you can find in this Turkish recipe website. The second, however, should be remembered well. While travellers with iron-clad stomachs will probably feel okay even eating things in the street, folks with some sensitivity to food might experience diahorrea, nausea, or (as in my glorious case) a combination of the two.

What do you do when you get food poisoning or sensitivity on a trip?

My suggestion: eat nothing. The body needs some time to work things out and get well again. Drink plenty of clean good-quality water, supplementing it occasionally with something sweet, like some honey or a date or raisins (so you can keep your energy). The stomach needs some rest and it will eventually sort itself out. When you feel a bit better, often on the second day, the Mapa Guide for Natural Healing recommends eating some fruit, drinking some juice, and having some bio yogurt and/or mashed potatoes. Following these instructions, I recovered within two days, and though they weren't very pleasant, they taught me something about the body's ability to clean out agents that cause toxicity and bad sensations.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Olives: Part Three

Hiya, all!

This final post in the "olives" series is also my entry for my dear, dear pal Barbara's spice challenge ("going back to school" and learning about spices). Now that the olives are ready - and that bay leaves had such an important part in creating their beautiful flavor - let's learn a tad about them.

From the McCormick Spice Encyclopedia:

Bay Leaves or Laurel, are the dried leaves of the evergreen tree, Laurus nobilis. The elliptically shaped leaves are light green in color and brittle when dried. They have a distinctively strong, aromatic, spicy flavor. Bay Leaves is the approved term for this spice, but the name "laurel" is still seen frequently.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, bay leaves and branchlets were used as wreaths to crown their victors. Champions of the Olympic games wore garlands of bay leaves. Our word "baccalaureate" means "laurel berries" and signifies the successful completion of one's studies. It alludes to the bay wreaths worn by poets and scholars when they received academic honors in ancient Greece.

Whenever I make soup, pasta sauce or anything that needs to taste rich, I add a leaf or two. They somehow add that little extra punch, and it's hard to explain what, exactly, it is they do, but somehow they make any less-than-perfect soup, chowder or sauce, perfect.

Since bay leaves are quite strong in flavor, they are to be used in small quantities and discarded before eating. In the process of making olives, we added one or two leaves to each of the jars.

The picture really doesn't do the olives justice. They came out delicious, and I suspect if we give them a few more days they'll be even better. So, here's the now-tried-and-true way to do it:

1. Upon getting your olives off the tree, soak them in clean water, for three days. Change the water daily. Optional but really improves the olives: make a small cut in each of them with a knife, or pound them with a heavy object so they are cracked. They will be tastier and absorb the marinade better and faster.

2. On the fourth day, get nice, clean jars and the following ingredients per 1 kg of olives:
* 1 red hot pepper
* 1/2 lemon
* 1 tablespoon black pepper, unground
* 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
* 1 bay leaf
optional ingredients:
* 1-2 garlic cloves sliced in half
* 1 rosemary twig

3. Make a water-salt solution - 1 heaped tbsp salt to 1 cup water. You know it's salty enough when an egg placed in the solution floats up.

4. Place the olives and the spices in the jars:
* First, put a couple of red peppers and two lemon slices in the bottom.
* Cover with a thick layer of olives.
* Sprinkle some pepper and mustard on top.
* Cover with olives.
* Place bay leaf and additional stuff, if you want to.
* Cove with olives.
Repeat until jar is full.

5. Then, pour on top of the olives the salty solution, all the way to the top.

6. Seal with a layer of olive oil and/or wine vinegar.

7. Let stand in a cool, dark place, for about two weeks.

8. Find out when your friends' birthdays and anniversaries are, so you can give them olives. Don't have any olives? Let us know and we'll send them some!

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Dessert from the Past: Flan!

Seasoned readers of this blog have probably gathered that I don't eat a lot of dessert.

I try to stick to fresh fruit for my sweets, and it works out fine for me, especially as I really love fresh fruit. This week's fare has included juicy nectarines and cactus fruit (peel carefully! the thorns, which protect the cactus for predators, do exactly what they are supposed to - and it stings!). But there's one big exception to this rule - and that's when Chad makes Flan!

Flan, a lovely and creamy milk, egg and caramel custard, is a dessert we both grew up with as kids in Ecuador. There are commercial versions, which are not bad at all, and then there's the home-made variety, which is fabulous.

The trick with flan is to mix the milk and eggs really well and leave some bubbles in the mixture, though not for too long, because too much foam ruins the creamy texture. It can also be seasoned with various treats - I'll place some good recommendations below. The picture above is taken of an anime site, (of all places!), because ours was eaten too fast to be photographed. But it was equally delicious!


Deep baking dish (shallow dishes make for shallow flans).

For custard:
2 eggs + 2 yolks
2 cups of milk (for this dish, cow milk works better than goat milk)
1 tsp vanilla
optional: 1-2 tsps sugar (if the topping is sweet, you can do without)
optional seasonings: lemon peel; cardamon; cinnamon; nutmeg; or, for coffee flan, a teaspoon of good espresso powder

For caramel topping:
1 cup sugar
1/8 cup water

Heat up oven to about 180 degrees celsius.
Heat up milk with spices and let cool.
Meanwhile, caramelize the sugar: heat it with water, constantly mixing it, until it reaches syrup consistency. It doesn't have to become solid, but it's preferrable if it's solid enough to be sticky.
Whisk milk with eggs until there's little bubbles everywhere, but don't make too much fluff.
Coat baking dish with caramel, then pour milk and egg mixture on top.
Bake for about 30 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick or a knife goes in the flan and comes out clean and dry.
Wait till it cools, then slowly and carefully use a knife to separate sides of flan from the dish. When you've done this to the best of your ability (patient people do better at this stage), invert the flan onto a plate. Whoa! There's caramel on top! Have fun.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Whole Grains Chart: A Service to the Public

In her fabulous book Sunlight Cafe, Mollie Katzen devotes a special chapter to whole grains and their cooking methods. In her honor, and as a service to the public, I'm posting a modified version of her excellent grain cooking chart.

Grain Water (cups) to 1 cup grain Cooking Time Yields (cups)
Oat Groats 2.5 40-45 mins. 3
Brown Rice 1.5 35-45 mins. 3.5
Wild Rice 2.5 1 1/4 hours 4
Pearl Barley 3 1 1/2 hours 4
Quinoa 1.5 25-30 mins. 3
Millet 1.5 25-30 mins. 3
Buckwheat 1.5 10 mins. 3.5
Amaranth 1.75 25 mins. 2

Happy cooking!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Olives: Part Two

What we see here in the picture, folks, is our new "olive cellar", containing - yes - FIFTEEN jars of olives!

We used different recipes for the olives. About half of them are what we call here zeitim dfukim - olives that were broken so their pickling will be more thorough and take longer. The other half we left whole. The solution is salt water, and the spices include fresh lemons, spicy red peppers, black peppers, mustard seeds, and occasionally garlic and rosemary and red wine vinegar. We still don't know how they are going to come out, but we'll keep you posted.

What we see here is a jar with layers of olives, lemons, peppers etc. Here's the way we did it:

1. We let the olives sit in water for four days, changing the water every day.
2. We washed the jars well (some folks even boil them to sanitize)
3. We cut about one lemon per jar into eight pieces. We peeled some garlic cloves and made a small dent in them with a knife. We prepared bay leaves, black unground pepper, mustard seeds, and rosemary twigs next to the spicy red peppers, lemons and garlic.
4. We placed two or three lemon slices and a hot pepper at the bottom of the jar, then layered with olives.
5. Then, we placed one or two bay leaves (per jar) and some of the other spices, depending on what we wanted the jar to be like. Then put some more olives, and so on and so forth.
6. With some jars, we added about a third of a cup good quality wine vinegar.
7. We placed an egg inside a large pot and filled the pot with water (the egg sank to the bottom). We started adding salt - about 1 tablespoon per cup of water - and mixing it with the water. Whoa! The egg started floating! That meant the solution was ready.
8. We filled the jar with salt water, on top of the olives.
9. We "sealed" the olives with a thin layer of olive oil on top.
10. We closed and sealed the jar, and put it in a dark, cold place (poor olives).
Now we wait.
And here at the blog, it'll be back to our previously scheduled programs.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Olives: Part One

My gentle readers have probably noticed how useful olive oil is in our Tel Aviv kitchen; there's hardly a recipe without it. Olives, and olive oil, are an inseparable part of the Israeli landscape, and often become the symbolic subjects of political struggle over the land.

There is a large, ancient olive tree in my parent's house, which yields "Syrian olives" of the small and bitter variety - the very best, in my opinion. This year the tree was full of fruit, and we decided to pick it and pickle it. My grandpa tried to dissuade us of the plan. A few years back, he had harvested much of the tree, and ended up pickling twenty enormous jars of olives, thinking he would give them out later as gifts. Hah! After a few weeks, no one in their circle of family and friends could bear the sight of olives, not to mention eating them, and the consumption took, well, quite a while.

But we were not convinced, and early on Saturday we charged the tree and started picking fruit. We spread large sheets under the tree and used two methods. First, we beat the branches - vigorously, but not ferociously - with Chad's martial art bamboo swords. Much of the fruit fell to the ground while the branches remained intact. Then, we went over the branches and hand-picked what was left.

That took about three hours.

Then, we had to start sorting the olives; there is a certain fly who stings them and leaves a worm inside the pit. So, we looked for tiny imperfections to examine whether they were fly bites. That took four hours and we hadn't finished by the time the sun set. Gaaaaah! One really learns to appreciate olives after such hard work.

Then, at home, Chad took half the amount of olives and "broke" them. Syrian olives are wonderful when they are cracked; there are various methods to do it, and his enterprising engineer nature led him to use our citrus juicer.

Now, all our olives are happily soaking in water, and will be pickled tomorrow. This is what our bathroom looks like:

What you can't see in the picture is the large bucket of cracked olives, fermenting.
More updates in the following days!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Madison County in Tel Aviv

Stuffed peppers... not necessarily a romantic dish, isn't it? When we think of romantic dining, some delicate, nouvelle-cuisine thing in delicate china comes to mind. Preferably something that is eaten sensually (and optimally fed to the other person, by hand). Stuffed peppers don't exactly fall into that category. Or do they?

For me, they do. And the credit all goes to Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County. The book (for those of you who haven't read it, and there can't be too many who haven't heard about it) is an amazing, tear-jerking story of an Iowa housewife who meets a National Geographic photographer. The two fall in love - an unpredictable, all-consuming, impossible love. And one of the exotic features about the photographer - who is so different from the housewife's husband and all other men she knows - is his vegetarianism.

So, she makes him stuffed peppers. She stuffs them with wild rice and cheese. And it's a lovely, romantic, fabulous dinner.

Now here's why stuffed peppers are such a romantic food. First of all, they are extremely sexy. The contrast between their bold, colorful exterior and their comforting, nutritious interior is beautiful to see and fabulous to eat. Second, they are messy. Beautiful before touched, they require crossing a boundary when cutting into them and spilling their goodness on the plate. And third, they are soaked in good tomato sauce - the sexiest sauce of all, in my humble opinion.

The version photographed here (and eaten for lunch today by a hungry man studying for a university exam and his blogging girlfriend) is a bit unusual, and consists of cooked millet, leeks and dried tomatoes. You can be quite creative about the filling and many whole grains will do fine; the millet, however, tends to absorb flavors and liquids, sort of like couscous. Enjoy!

Stuffed Peppers with Millet, Leeks and Dried Tomatoes

4 large, nice, red peppers
2 leeks
1 1/2 cup cooked millet
3 garlic cloves
5-6 dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons rosemary, thyme, or (best) mixture of the two
2 1/2 cups good quality tomato sauce (or, if you're in a hurry, make a quick sauce by quickly mixing, without cooking, tomato paste, water, herbs and crushed garlic)

Cut the top of the peppers and remove as many of the seeds as you can.
Slice the leeks into little circles. Chop up the garlic cloves, and heat up the cloves and leeks in a pan with a little olive oil. Add cooked millet, chop in the dried tomatoes and herbs, and mix with a few tablespoons of the tomato sauce - until the millet's "thirst" is "quenched" and it's soft and moist.

Place the peppers in a baking pan so they stand firmly, and stuff each of them with the millet mixture. Pour the remaining sauce on top of the peppers (and make sure at least 1 cm of the baking pan is covered in liquid). Stick in a hot oven for about 35 minutes, or more if you want the peppers softer. If they get dry, add a bit of sauce and water on top.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Food is More than Chemistry

A few weeks ago I was stranded in an airport with a pal of mine on the way to a conference. We sat in a little coffee shop, having juice and tea, and talking about various interesting ways in which people relate to their bodies. She said: "Have you noticed how Americans always refer to eating and drinking in scientific terms?" She was right, of course. How many times have you heard someone say "I need my caffeine" rather than "I want to drink coffee"? How many times has someone ordered a smoothie not because they wanted one, but because they "need their vitamins"?

There are so many ways to relate to food. Some people numb their senses to health, binge on alcohol, sodas, sweets and fats, and contribute to the high rates of heart disease and obesity (both of which also have genetic componenets). Others become gourmet fanatics and impose highly-refined and expensive standards of wining and dining on themselves and on others. And some become body chemists rather than living, eating people; food loses its joys, smells, shapes and aromas, and becomes a set of particles required for maintaining the organism.

Why do people do that? Why would anyone eschew the pleasures of eating to regard it as merely good practical science? I have no idea; it could be, to some extent, related to the medicalization of diets. In a society obsessed with thinness, interest in calories, carbs, fats and proteins increases. We are bombarded daily with good and bad science about how what we eat contributes to how we function and to what we look like. I think the health obsession, maligned by the ones who are trying to label "orthorexia" an eating disorder, is a close sister to thinness obsession and often tries to mask it. We say "we're eating healthy" to mask the fact that we want to lose weight or maintain our diet achievements. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that our constant concerns with what we eat have turned into meta-science.

We are, of course, right to be concerned. Supermarkets and chains feed us sprayed, chemical-treated food devoid of nutrition. American food prices create strong incentives for purchasing boxes of mac 'n' cheese over a nice bag of tomatoes. I've seen it often at Safeway or Albertson's: a tired mother, standing in line in front of me, short on cash, and on a budget, trying to figure out how to feed her children for the week, and opting for the cheaper option - a humongous set of cardboard boxes of instant food ("just add water"). The dry and chemical-ridden food was, itself, exciting science at some point; isn't it ironic how now we regard other foods as such? It *is* upsetting that the machinations of food corporations has weakened us so much that health considerations have become a luxury. Here, in Israel, things are somewhat better, as vegetables and fruit are very affordable; and yet, whole grains and organic produce is still not easily available.

So, yes, there is cause for concern. And there's all the more reason to encourage healthy, organic, local food production, and to mind what we are putting into our bodies. But while we're at it, can we perhaps enjoy the food? Consider a nice fruit plate for breakfast. Yes, it offers sugar and vitamins and available energy. But that is not the (only) reason we eat fruit.

It begins with how they look. Their amazing array of colors, shapes and textures. It continues with their tropical intoxicating aroma. And it ends in their sweetness and tartness, and set of complex flavors. First and foremost - eating fruit is an enjoyable experience. The vitamins are important, but they are only part of the experience.

I'll be heading off now to eat a load of passion fruit and figs for breakfast; it'll likely make me smile, and give me an uplifting sensation that all is well. At the same time, yes, it'll introduce some vitamins and energy into the "system". Such is the magic of living things: we - and what we eat - are a web of complex science, and at the same time, so much more than that.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Okra, or Bamia, as we call it in Israel, is a much maligned vegetable. It stands, right next to cilantro and buckwheat, on the love-'em-or-hate'em shelf of foods in our collective consciousness.

When I came to the US, I discoverd, to my surprise, that breaded and fried okra was a Southern delicacy. I've also had it in Indian restaurants as Bhindi Masala - which is how my dear friend and heart-sister, Barbara, makes it.

Here, in the Middle East, we like our bamia in tomato sauce, over rice. It's an Egyptian recipe, apparently, and quite a favorite among those who like bamia. This week we were really fortunate to get a beautiful variety of bamia from Chubeza: it was dark burgundy, with a flourescent green stripe on the side. So, we set out to cook it.

Now, here's the tricky part: the folks who hate bamia, hate it because it produces a strange, mucuos-like substance. Ick, indeed. But the trick to eliminating that part of the experience is lightly frying the bamia before cooking it in the sauce.

Bamia in Tomato Sauce

3 cups of fresh bamia
2 garlic cloves
1 large onion
2 large tomatoes
1 container of tomato paste
juice from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon of spices: dried dill, dried parsley, caraway seeds... or anything else you like with your tomato sauce (no basil this time, sorry)

Take the bamias and chop off their stem. Do not mess with the rest of the vegetable! Put them in a hot pan with some olive oil, and lightly toss them around for three or four minutes. Then, add chopped onion and garlic. After a couple of minutes, chop in the tomatoes, add the tomato paste, lemon, and spices. Simmer for about half an hour; add water if it gets too dry. Spoon over rice and munch.

Eggplant and Squash!

It was a tad - just a tad - less hot the last few days. So, we rolled up our sleeves (absurd - who wears sleeves in this weather?) and set out to cook. In fact, Chad set out to cook. And made this wonderful stirfry.

The eggplant worked really, really well counterbalancing the orange ingredients of the stirfry, which include carrots as well as a special squash called "dalorit". Dalorit is a strange linguistic pun in Hebrew: it combines the words "dla'at" (squash), "dal" (less, not rich in-) and "calorie" (needless to explain). It's a funny little squash, like a ball that has a zucchini extend from it. It can be cooked just like squash and comes out delicious every time.


Eggplant, Carrot and Squash Stirfry

1 medium-sized eggplant
1/2 - 1 dallorit, or a cup of squash, cut into 1/4 inch thick chunks
3 carrots
5-6 champignon mushrooms (optional but really good)
1 large onion
3-4 garlic cloves
1 inch piece of ginger
1/4 cup good quality soy sauce
1 tablespoon caraway or cumin seeds (trust me on this)
1 tsp black pepper or chili flakes
1 tbsp fresh chopped parsley.

100 grams good quality brown rice vermicelli

Slice eggplants into 1/4 inch thick slices, salt and let stand for about twenty minutes. The eggplants will "sweat" out their bitterness. Afterwards, wash with waterr and pat dry with a towel. Slice into smaller pieces. Also, slice onions (quite thinly!) and carrots into rings. Chop ginger and garlic quite thinly.

Heat up some good canola or olive oil in a wok, and add garlic, onions and ginger. Let sautee a bit, until the kitchen starts smelling wonderful. Then add the carrots, squash and eggplant. The eggplant will tend to "drink" up all the oil, and you might have to add some. Now, add soy sauce, seeds and spices.

When vegetables begin softening, boil water and quickly cook and strain vermicelli. Add noodles to the wok with soft vegetables, and toss a bit, just until everything smells and tastes wonderful. Sprinkle fresh parsley and enjoy!