Paradox with a P

It seems like one of the paradoxes of adult life is how to interject variety into a healthy but potentially boring routine.  I was thinking about this just this morning as I prepared, yet again, the same breakfast I have been eating for years – yogurt, a few tablespoons of raw rolled oats, some chopped almonds and fresh fruit.  The first three ingredients are a constant, but the choice of fruit shifts with the seasons, preventing monotony from ever setting in.

Every season has its charms, but I particularly enjoy this segment of the year during which the summer peaches segue into late summer pomegranates, which are followed by burnt-orange persimmons.   Of course the “P” sequence doesn’t play out so neatly, and like now, when baskets of persimmons are filling the greengrocer’s shelves, there is a lovely overlap.

We have two pomegranate bushes in our yard – one variety that ripens early in the season, with intensely sweet, ruby red seeds, and a second, late bloomer, that yields pale pink fruit that is almost too tart.  When we built an addition onto our house over a decade ago, this bush was bulldozed flat, then miraculously came back to life, and I believe its fruit has special properties.   Now at the end of October, I’m sharing its yields with the insects who have already bored holes into its thick skin – cutting away the good parts and mixing the sour jewels with chunks of chopped persimmon for an exceptionally chewy, complex and sublime meal.

Hosting a group of Americans on a culinary tour last week, we had a chance to taste fresh pomegranates, which two of the six participants acknowledged that they’d never eaten before.  And I realized that having not one, but two pomegranate bushes in my own yard is anything but routine.

The Yoreh

While family and friends in North America are already in sweaters, here in the Galilee the temperatures are still in the 30’s (high 80’s F).  It’s not that we don’t sense the passing of season – the evenings are significantly cooler, and fat, billowy clouds have started to reappear in the sky after months of absence.  But summer still has us in its grip.

Wiping the sweat off my face yet again, I’m reminded of being 9 months pregnant.  Hot and waiting.   But now, it’s  the first rain of the season that spells relief.   After months of clear skies, there have been the briefest of drizzles over the past week – fat drops that evaporate before they can darken the pavement – but not the drenching downpour that marks the beginning of the rainy season.

This first rain of the year – called the “yoreh” in Hebrew – is mentioned in Deuteronomy 11:14.  To paraphrase God, he/she promises that, for those who agree to wholeheartedly serve him/her, he/she will: “grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.”  The “early rain” is the “yoreh”.

Back when those words were written, the importance of a timely yoreh was existential.  Farming in these unique topographic and climatic conditions was – and is – quite possible, but its success hangs in large part on the timing of the rains, from the yoreh on through the last rains of spring.

Our fates are no longer determined by the clouds, but life here today feels no less tenuous.

Defying Closure

Looking out my window at the full-grown green olives weighing down the branches of our tree, I am reminded that the Jewish New Year does not begin neatly at the end of one traditional agricultural year and the beginning of another.  These olives, last of the summer fruit to ripen, will only be harvested in another month or two, after the extended series of holiday celebrations are behind us. 

Perhaps in the earliest days of Jewish ritual, the final fall harvest did coincide with the new year, and it is  global warming that has knocked us out of whack.  In ancient times, rabbis examined the ripeness of the grain crop to decide whether an extra month should be added to ensure that Passover was observed in the month of Aviv.  Now we stick to our calendars, while holidays and harvests diverge into separate spheres.

Still, the change of seasons that marks the New Year is unmistakable, in the splitting pomegranates, the waning figs and the clouds piling up on the horizon.  Just the olives, firm and green, defy any sense of closure.

This is the time to extend my wishes for a new year full of gracious endings and fresh beginnings, all across the seasons, each in their time, whenever that may be.

Timeless

Living in the Galilee, I am occasionally gifted with transcendent moments of timelessness – where the landscape and the scene that unfolds within it have more to do with thousands of years of history, than the blink of an eye of the latest decades.

At least once a summer, together with Balkees and Muhammad, Ron and I visit friends at their agricultural field not far from Nazareth.  Their plot is small – just a few acres – planted with tomatoes, okra, fakus, zucchini and black eyed peas – a few rows of each.  We arrive at twilight, after the crushing summer heat – when the various family members are at work, trolling the rows with pails, gathering the ripe produce.

We always help with the work, and each of us sets off, pail in hand, guided by some internal compass to his or her own row.  Again, here is the soft orange light and the distant muted hills, the crumbling dirt and rustle of leaves nudged aside to unveil fakus, dark green and hairy – different and the same, every summer.

The produce in this field is grown “baal” – without any irrigation.  The varieties are adapted for this type of growth, and the owner of the field saves the seeds from season to season.  This is the way this land was farmed since the dawn of agriculture, and our friends are among the last of the local farmers who are still perpetuating it.

And as the sun slips behind the horizon, I wonder if we’ll meet again next year, to participate in this backbreaking labor that, by contemporary standards,  yields so little.  The tomatoes I bring home have flavor that sears the palate, and the fakus are crunchy cool delights.

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PeaceXPeace – an organization that promotes peacebuilding between women around the world, published a piece about my book and work.  If you’re curious, here’s the link:

Breaking Bread in Galilee – Food as a Bridge Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide

Pining for Fakus

Summertime – and fakus are in season.  Fakus are like a downy, zucchini-skinned cucumber but tangier, crunchier and more refreshing than your average cuke.  They are eaten raw, without peeling – their fuzz is as inoffensive as that of a peach.

 I first encountered fakus in the “baal” vegetable field of friends – who grow summer vegetables for small-scale commerce in the local Arab market – without watering.  The fakus were scattered here and there among the tomatoes, okra and zucchini – pale green and snaky.

On a recent visit to Kfar Manda, Um Malek gave me a bag of fakus from her “hakura” (vegetable garden).   With some of them, I made a cold yoghurt-fakus soup, and with the others I scooped out the seeds, mixed them with labaneh, crushed garlic, and chopped mint leaves – then spread the mixture into the emptied insides, like the peanut butter filled celery-stick boats I ate as a child.  This is actually a childhood recipe from Balkees, whose mother used to prepare fakus boats for her and her siblings.

Dr. Harry Paris, who is a scientist at Neve Yaar, our nearby agricultural research station, just published an article about fakus, where he asserts that they are, in fact, the squash that the Israelites so pined for during their desert wanderings.  He draws evidence from Egyptian illustrations, among others, and a description from Yehuda Hanassi, of the process of removing the little hairs from the squash – calling it “fikus”.   The eventual evolution to the Arabic “fakus” is not such a long shot.

The zucchini’s now on the market, he explained, are a variety imported from the Americas, and cucumbers do not have the stripey exterior depicted by the Egyptians.

Life as a “locavore” is always a challenge, but when “local” is the Galilee, there is a special  satisfaction of eating a local food with such a distinguished provenance.

Chicory Comes of Age

In a recent post, I wrote about my coming of age as a forager, marked by my ability to recognize wild chicory.  Now I thought it would be interesting to show what happens when chicory comes of age.

It’s late spring and the edible wild plants have pretty much closed up shop, shedding their tender leaves for the season.  And where all that tasty chicory was growing in my front yard, there is now this delightful display of purple-blue flowers.

I have seen these cheery blossoms a thousand times.  They sport their beauty in the early morning, but by mid-day, there’s not a trace of bloom – only their stiff, twisty stems.  In my growing consciousness, I now recognize that they are: a) not weeds, and b) the inevitable manifestation of a beloved plant as it moves along its life cycle.

What we see is one thing, but what we recognize can be another – particularly regarding outer appearances over time.  An intimate acquaintance with edible wild plants reminds me of that.

And if somehow, you hadn’t heard, my new book, Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land, is now available.  Be the first on your block to read it!

Breaking Bread in Galilee

I consider it very auspicious timing, that my new book – Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land – has entered the world during the height of spring.  These days, there is gold everywhere you look, in vast waves of wheat stalks rolling in the breeze, or shorn and flattened in orderly rows, waiting to be collected into bales.

The grain harvest signifies the end of one agricultural season and the opening of another.  Already, the summer fruits are sending out their emissaries – fuzzy green almonds that can be eaten whole, tender grape leaves for rolling and stuffing, luscious pomegranate flowers and fragrant olive blossoms that wreak havoc on those with allergies. 

Breaking Bread is the product of years of exploration, thought and discovery.  I explored the distant corners of the Galilee, navigating along back roads and through villages that I’d never imagined I’d find.  I read the Bible, for the first time, and found common and timeless elements that connect its imagery with my contemporary landscape.  I had innumerous conversations in kitchens, offices, fields and groves.  I met people who opened their homes and their hearts to me, as I came to them with the simple question of “what are you cooking? picking? growing?”   The experiences, insights and joys of this adventure fill the pages of my book. 

I am grateful that my inspiration to write this book coincided with the revolution in the publishing world that makes it so much easier to introduce a book into the world.  Even if agents and publishers may not consider it a profit-maker, I believe one-thousand-percent in the value of its message.  With great pride and joy, I invite you to partake of it. 

At this point, for readers in the US, the book is available either through amazon, or on my own “e-store”, accessible at: https://www.createspace.com/3847258

If you are in Israel or elsewhere, send me an email and I’ll send you a book – 50 NIS plus 10 NIS postage.  info@galileecuisine.co.il

A Culinary Tour of Nazareth for the iPhone

I am not the most technologically apt blogger out there, but when I was approached by the editor of Rama Tours to prepare a culinary tour for the iPhone, I took the opportunity to grab a foothold in the mobile world.

I decided to focus my tour on Nazareth – in terms of the quality and variety of eating experiences it offers, and the relatively compact and walk-able area around the old city – Nazareth lends itself perfectly to this medium. And now, after many months of development, the tour is available to guide visitors in Nazareth to some of my favorite eateries – with instructions how to get to them, photos and descriptions of what to order, and a phonetic explanation of how to order them in Arabic.

With GPS to guide them through the picturesque stone alleyways of the city, visitors are invited to taste musab’ha – that sublime, warm, creamy version of hummus, and katayef – delightful, aromatic pancakes filled with chopped nuts or mild white goat and sheep cheese, carefully prepared by gracious Abu Ashraf – among other local specialties.

As we sit back, dazzled by the whirl of these new technologies whizzing by us, there is a very important change that is taking place that it is important to recognize. I am about to publish my own book – a process made possible through the sea-change in the publishing world driven by innovations including virtual bookstores and print-on-demand technologies. Any tourist – or writer – or musician, or artist – is now able to mediate directly between themselves and the world, through their ingenuity, curiosity and their keyboard. Power to the people!

Download the Rama Tour on http://bit.ly/iTunesRama.

Hubs el Tabun

As I put the final touches on my soon-to-be-published book – Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land – bread seems to be looming large in my consciousness.   Yesterday, on a particularly enjoyable visit with the Murad family in Kfar Manda, I was lucky enough to watch Samakh baking hubs el tabun.   Hubs is Arabic for bread, and the tabun is the sheet-metal oven in the front yard upon which the hubs is baked. 

The beauty of Arab village life is not generally found in picturesque vistas, but in modest, authentic domestic scenes.  The rocks Samakh has scattered on the round baking surface, that keep the heavy dough from sticking to it, are a direct continuation of this most ancient baking tradition.  This bread is a product of wheat grown in the fields below their home and ground into flour in the mill down the street.   It is dense and chewy, lumpy and full of flavor.  Samakh bakes as she learned from her mother, with heat fueled by a wood fire.  Watching her work the dough, I want to etch this timeless scene into my memory.  

Samakh gave me two platter sized breads to take home and I think that there is nothing more valuable than this exquisite gift.

A Bitter Coming of Age

This winter has been the occasion of my foraging coming of age.  I’ve been gathering edible wild plants in the hills, fields and empty lots around my home for a number of years now.   At first, I could identify only the most distinctively shaped plants, and my gathering repertoire was limited to wild asparagus and hubeisa (mallow), whose frilly leaves are unmistakable. 

As time went on, I began to notice wild spinach leaves – everywhere I looked, their shiny, deep green triangular leaves seemed to pop out of the undergrowth, asking to be picked.  Then wild spinach – sautéed with onion or greening a quiche – came to dominate my foraging meals. 

But in the last few weeks, my eyes have acquired the focus needed to pick chicory (ellet in Arabic, olesh in Hebrew).   The chicory plant is relatively nondescript – the leaves are narrow, tall and papery thin.  Sometimes they are scalloped at the edges.  There are other plants that resemble chicory – clever imposters with unpleasant spikes on the underside of their leaves.  I saw them, and let them be.  My confidence grew.

In the market in Nazareth and the Bedouin produce store where I buy my vegetables, they sell cultivated chicory.  Chicory is a beloved feature of Arab cuisine which people do not want to give up on, even if they don’t feel like going out and picking it.  So local farmers are growing it for an eager clientele. 

I always resisted cooking chicory because the traditional way that I was taught requires boiling the leaves to remove the bitterness before sautéing them with onions in olive oil.  It just didn’t seem right to lose all those fresh vitamins.  But then I had chicory that Balkees prepared – boiled and sautéed – and it was so fine, I simply submitted. 

Chicory has now become my house green.   And I boil it, letting the purist in me take a day off.   It simply tastes so very good that way. 

The other day, I was crouching in a mound of wild growth, teasing out the chicory leaves, when a flock of parrots flew overhead.  These are parrots that once escaped from captivity and, after finding the Israeli climate to be most hospitable, have propagated enthusiastically.  As they flashed by in a  brilliant green streak, I saw the color of a chicory leaf held up to the sun.