Jordan Chickpeas

jordan chickpeasChristmas in mainstream Jewish Israel is a non-event, but in the Galilee, where 50% of the population is Arab, it’s another story.  In those Arab cities and towns where there is a Christian population, Christmas lights and decorations light up the evenings, and nighttime Christmas bazaars attract visitors, regardless of religion, over the weekend before the holiday.  This year thousands flocked to the Christmas market in Nazareth to see a performance by the winner of last year’s Arab Idol – a young Palestinian singer from Gaza.

We, on the other hand, were invited by our friend Akram to attend a more low-keyed Christmas market in his home town of Shefar’am.   A lesser known Arab city than Nazareth, Shefar’am has its own thousands of years of history, including settlement by Canaanite, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze communities.  The city still retains an ethnically mixed population, with many Muslims, fewer Christians, even fewer Druze, and no Jews.  At the Christmas market, crowds of Shefar’am’ites filled the narrow streets that lead to the historic center of town, which is shared by a mosque, church and defunct synagogue.

In front of the Orthodox Church, we passed two unorthodoxly thin and youthful Santas posing with children on their laps, then left the bustle and noise behind us. Inside, we reveled at the church’s exquisite beauty, somber eastern icons and a soaring performance by a choir from the neighboring Jewish anthroposophic community. There was a guest of honor in the audience, an archbishop from Lebanon in a tall black hat and black robes, who extended his hand to be kissed by a group of earnest young nuns.

From the stalls in the Christmas market, we collected black coffee and zaatar mixture give-aways. I bought a Palestinian needlework pillowcase and a bag of traditional anise-scented Christmas cakes, and we snacked on steamed lupine seeds and fava beans sprinkled with cumin.  Akram’s relatives greeted us with sips of Black Label cheer at an open-house in one of the historic buildings the family owns in the heart of the city.  While vendors of grilled meat were everywhere, in consideration of Muslim sensibilities, it was decided that the pig on the spit that was part of the previous year’s market menu would not be repeated.

Before we left, Akram gave us a bag of white and pink candies, freshly made for Christmas, to take home.  They had the same sugar-shellac coating like the Jordan Almonds which were once my movie theater candy of choice – but the shape was different – these were small, round and bumpy.  The surprise was what was inside – a roasted chick pea.  My kind of Christmas candy!

With my best wishes for a Happy 2015!

Spot the Spinach

find the spinachIf mallow is flamboyant, then wild spinach is coy.   Can you spot the shiny, diamond-shaped leaves in the crowd?

This has been a bumper year for wild spinach and I have been gathering it in large sacks.  In my kitchen, these tender, iron-rich leaves generally are used to make a filling for a filo-dough pastry.  But I’ve recently and happily expanded the repertoire with a recipe for baked spinach latkes that I believe are the perfect match for my local bounty.  Here it is – just in time for Hannukah – adapted from a recipe in Israel’s top food magazine, Al Hashulchan.

clean

Baked Spinach Latkes

1 large bunch of spinach (wild if you can gather it) – stems and leaves finely chopped to yield about 6 cups

1 chopped leek

1 grated zucchini

1 grated carrot

1/2 cup pine nuts – toasted for a few minutes in a frying pan

1/4 cup sesame seeds

1/2 cup bread crumbs

3 eggs

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Salt and pepper to taste (go light on the salt as spinach is sometimes – and feta is always – salty).

 

Mix everything together.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper and oil the paper.  Oil your hands and form the mixture into patty-shapes.  The mixture will not hold together so don’t worry about that.  Brush the patties with oil and bake in a hot oven (200 celsius) for about 10 minutes until they start to brown on the bottoms. Then turn them over and cook on the other side for another 10 minutes until they are browned and ready to eat.  I love them with goat’s milk yoghurt…  Happy Holidays!

Stand!

sea of hubeisaThere have been several books that have profoundly influenced the way I see the Galilee landscape. One is the Hebrew Bible, and the second is Jarred Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”.

Diamond explains how the confluence of topography, climate and indigenous fauna and flora in the Fertile Crescent gave rise to the transition of hunting and gathering societies to a lifestyle based on agriculture, and a cascade of other developments associated with the rise of Western civilization.

The domestication of wild grains by thousands of years of foragers was central to this process. Anyone who has looked at the kernels of wild wheat can appreciate how much effort must have gone into gathering sufficient grain for human sustenance. But Jarred Diamond points out that these wild grasses tended to grow in vast “stands”, where it was easy to simply wade in and harvest – like dipping a net into a school of fish.

These days, I’ve been thinking about this model of plenty as I walk in the winter countryside. In those few areas where humans haven’t intervened, entire seas of hubeisa (mallow) extend their soft, scalloped leaves up towards the winter sunlight. For the forager, this is the most extraordinarily generous gift from the newly awakened earth – an unending supply of intensely nutritious food.

It will be months before the kernels of grain are developed enough to harvest. But in the interim, thankfully, we are provided for.

My Name is Arum

fresh lufAfter my culinary memoir “Breaking Bread in Galilee” was published, I realized I had neglected to include the scientific names of the edible wild plants along with their colloquial ones.   If it is ever re-issued, I will remedy this oversight, and may even sketch each plant to fill out the picture, so to speak.

In the meantime, the seasonality of edible wild plants continues to be a consuming passion, and with the bountiful rain we have already had this autumn, it is thrilling to watch another cycle of new growth unfold in all its verdant splendor.  True to form, precocious luf, earliest of the forageable greens , is already sporting its shiny arrow-shaped leaves in lawns and thickets.  Because of its toxic load of oxalic acid, and the culinary mastery required to render it edible, I don’t generally prepare luf.  But I am happy to pick luf for friends who appreciate its gastronomic and health-inducing qualities, and yesterday was pleased to greet a Bedouin woman and her daughter who were gathering luf in the neighborhood.

The scientific name of luf is Arum Palaestinum.  A reader from Italy once wrote me to confirm that luf is indeed Arum, and that in Italy the local species of the plant is also consumed and considered to have medicinal properties.  The Oxford Companion to Food – an encyclopedic account of every consumable under the sun – relates arum to the more commonly known – and inedible- funeral lilly, and actually cites the “instructive account” of my book when describing how to prepare it.

With the unpleasant tingle of luf still fresh in my memory, I can only recommend expert forager Uri Mayer-Chissik‘s recipe for preparing luf – with the emphatic disclaimer to prepare it at your own risk…

Cooked Luf Salad – from “Wild Edible Plants”,  Uri Mayer-Chissik, 2010, Mapa Press (in Hebrew)

Chop 1 bunch of young, tender luf leaves, central spine removed first, then wash carefully.

Saute one large chopped onion in olive oil on low heat till browned.

Drain the washed luf leaves and add to the pot.

Add chopped wild sorrel leaves (about 1/4 of the amount of the luf) to the pot (optional).

Cook for about half an hour, stirring every few minutes.  Make sure that there is enough liquid, and add water if necessary.

Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and cook for another 30 minutes.

In order to ensure that the luf is ready, it is recommended to taste a bit to see that the leaves don’t cause a burning sensation.

Green Black-Eyed Peas – Post 101

fresh lubiyaAfter 100 posts on the original Galilee Seasonality blog, this post number 101 launches a new blog/website I created to bring together my writing in all its formats.  Hopefully the transition has been seamless for followers of my blog, and I apologize if there have been any duplicate postings…

Putting the finishing touches on the new site, I was reminded that this is, after all, a culinary notebook, and that it has been some time since I posted a recipe.   I am assuming that most readers are familiar with black-eyed peas in their dried form, but how many of you have ever had fresh black-eyed peas, or even seen them in their pods?

Known as “lubiya” in Arabic and Hebrew, black-eyed peas have a long and prolific growing season, and are eaten in Arab homes in the Galilee from spring through fall.   My friend and mentor, Um Malek, grows lubiya near her home, on a small plot of land in the Batof – Bet Netufa Valley.  On a recent visit, she gave me a bag of freshly picked lubiya to take home (since Um Malek never lets me leave empty handed, I came prepared with a jar of our new olives for her from this year’s harvest).  Here is a recipe for lubiya from my other culinary mentor, Balkees Abu Rabiya.

shelling lubiya

Balkees’ Lubiya

About 500 grams (1 pound) fresh lubiya

1 onion chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Clean the lubiya and shell.  The large, tough pods should be opened and only the peas inside collected.  The smaller, more tender pods are broken into small pieces the size of each pea.  Soak the shelled peas (and pods) in water for about 1/2 hour to soften.  Meantime, saute the onion in the olive oil till transparent.  Add the drained lubiya and cook, stirring, until they stop producing liquid.  Then add the tomatoes and a bit of water if the mixture is too dry.  Cook for about 20 minutes until everything is soft and stewy.  Season with salt and enjoy with fresh pita bread. lubiyacooked lubiya

 

 

A Hannukah Olive Oil Miracle

 

 

Balkees in the branches

As you may know, we made plenty of olives this year – green and black – from our beloved Suri olive tree.  But making oil was not on the agenda. Until Balkees pointed out that, to leave the massive amount of olives on our one other tree, of the Barnea variety, would be a shame.  On Tuesday she and her teenage son Fares came over and, for the next five hours we picked the olives off that huge tree.  During that time I had two realizations: 1) picking olives is extremely hard work; and 2) Balkees is happiest in the top branches of an olive tree. 

On Thursday, we loaded up our cardboard boxes full of olives into the car, picked up Balkees and Fares, and drove to the village of Arrabe, near Sakhnin, to the press.  We chose this press for two reasons – 1) because it is the end of the season, most of the presses are already closed, and those that are still working will only take massive quantities. Even though we only had the equivalent of about 2 sacks, the press in Arrabe agreed to take us.  2) This particular press, in addition to operating a modern, industrial style milling system, is one of the last in the Galilee that still has the old-style millstone and press set-up.  This was something I have long wanted to see.

When we got there, we had a number of surprises.  1) weighing our olives, we found that we’d picked 95 kilos! (our most extravagant estimate was 70);  2) They will only operate the stone press if you have at least 300 kilos.  But undaunted, we poured our olives in the hopper, watched as the twigs and leaves were washed away and the fruit was crushed into a purple slurry (particular to black Barnea olives), and then positioned our jerrycan at the spigot where the oil comes out. 

  

into the hopper

 
  weighing the olives
 

Feeling optimistic, Ron had brought an 18-liter jerrycan with us.  And as we watched in amazement, not only did the jerrycan fill up entirely, but the owner of the press had to bring us 3 empty 1.5 liter soda bottles to contain the rest.  We hadn’t dreamed that we’d get so much oil from our work on this single tree!

Of course, as we were watching this, on what happened to be the third night of Hannukah, the parallel was inescapable.  Here was oil that was miraculously extending beyond all expectations.  And in the joyful atmosphere at the press, this was the best holiday spirit that anyone could ask for!

18 liter jerrycan

fresh Hannukah oil

Bedouin Hospitality

Emna's fresh sheepsmilk yoghurt

Emna's fresh sheepsmilk yoghurt

Thank goodness some relief has come from the monotony of these long, hot summer days.  Ramadan begins today and a few days ago I paid a pre-holiday visit to my good friends Maryam and her sister Emna, in the neighboring Bedouin village of Basmat Tabun.  I haven’t seen them for some time – they used to walk across the nature reserve for exercise, but lately, they tell me, it’s been so hot and they are too busy – getting the children ready for the school year and preparing for the holiday.  Also, summer is wedding season and there had been several weddings in the family, each one involving days on end of celebration.  Emna brought out to show me the dresses she bought in Nazareth for the weddings – long elegant tunics worn over matching pants, decorated with beads and matched with contrasting head scarves.

The conversation inevitably turned to cooking, and the sisters told me that one of their favorite foods for breaking the daily Ramadan fast is a salad of finely chopped tomato and cucumber, mixed with the  fresh sheeps-milk yoghurt that Emna makes (she has a herd that she keeps, with the help of her teenage son, in a plot of land near the house), and sprinkled with garlic powder.  Both Emna and Maryam have daughters who are finishing high school, and we talked about their plans – they want to do some kind of national service – through the one-year program for post-high-schoolers,  and get their driver’s licenses.  When I left, Emna insisted on giving me a bucket of fresh yoghurt, and Maryam, a case of plum tomatoes her husband had just gleaned (he’s a truck driver who works in agriculture).  Yesterday Ron and I dunked them in boiling water, peeled, chopped, cooked and pureed them and made this lovely tomato sauce, destined for the freezer.  

Fruit of our labor

Fruit of our labor

The Wheat Harvest

Bucking tradition, I chose Spring to go into hibernation, focusing just about all my energies on my current project, which is researching and writing about wheat as one of the Galilee’s local foods.  And while I was buried in books and traipsing around from one fascinating encounter to another, the culinary landscape made its own dramatic shift.  In the local market in Basmat Tivon, the neighboring Bedouin village, where I purchase all my produce, the winter greens have been replaced by fresh green piles of grape leaves, miniature eggplants and zucchinis for stuffing, and tender baby okra. A pile of long-stemmed malukhiya stands on the counter, the leaves of which the Bedouin women use to make a kind of deep green, mucilaginous dish to dip pita bread in.

In the fields, we’ve enjoyed the ripening chick-pea crop – picking the green pods off the stalks and opening them to reveal perfectly formed blushing-green chick peas that are delicious to munch on.  The sunflowers and corn are pushing skyward at a breathtaking rate, and while I enjoy their vital beauty, they look like interlopers on the landscape…

wheat olives 1

But as I mentioned, it is wheat that consumes my attention this Spring – watching the grain in the fields transform from green to gold – both the cultivated and the wild varieties.  Studying the history of wheat in the Galilee, I’ve learned how fatefully central it was in the lives of the people who lived here since pre-history.  Stone-age men and women collected and ate wild grasses, setting into motion the millennia-long processes that led to their domestication – right here in this part of the Eastern world.  And once wheat could be systematically cultivated in one place, humans were free to shift from wandering gatherers to living  in a settled society.  And the rest is history….

I’ve been clocking countless hours and kilometers, visiting just about every corner of the Galilee to meet people whose lives are in some way connected to wheat.  I’ve been exhilarated by the exquisite beauty of the landscape in the late afternoon light – picking up the gold in the rust colored earth out of which a sea of silvery olive branches wave in the afternoon breeze; by the camel-colored wheat fields, so ripe that they hiss in the wind like rattlesnakes. 

wheat in handThe holiday of Shavuoth, which many people here are observing today, was originally a celebration of the wheat harvest.   My own harvest from this season has been notebooks filled with notes and one very rough draft.  Now I can only wish for the energy, time and inspiration that will leaven this lump of dough into a fine creation.

Culinary Tours of the Galilee Launched!

How pleased I am that Culinary Tours of the Galilee has been officially launched, and in such an auspicious way.  Over one week, I led two groups, both through the US Embassy, thanks to my wonderful new colleague and friend Bob, who is officially in charge of the general wellbeing of the embassy staff, but whose generous spirit extends far beyond that.  

Our first tour was a Bedouin Picnic – a day emphasizing the local edible wild plants which are so abundant in this rainy winter season.  We started at a spice farm where we sipped hot fruit tea and  learned about, tasted and smelled many different local spices and spice mixtures.  After that, we drove over to a nearby field where we met our picnic hosts – the Sabtan family, who are Bedouins from the neighboring village of Kaabiye.  Nadya Sabtan has been teaching me about gathering edible wild plants for many years now and she was happy to share her knowledge with our group. 

While her mother, Bahiya, tended the fire, Nadya let us on a walk in the fields and identified hubeiza (mallow), egeda (chicory), something Nadya called “camel’s neck”, which could be eaten after peeling the fibery outer stalk and which she said was good for the knees, and a few stalks of wild asparagus.  We also encountered a large and shiny brown snake (that fortunately had as little interest in making contact with us as we had with it), and saw the tops of ancient burial caves and grape presses carved into the limestone boulders. 

Nadya’s mother cooked the finely chopped hubeiza with plenty of chopped onion and olive oil over the fire and we had that, along with cooked chicory, Mejadra, a dish of bulgar and lentils that is a Galilee Arab staple, the rice and chicken dish known as Maklouba, tabouleh salad with plenty of fresh parsley, and fresh pita with zaatar which were cooked over the fire.   Fortunately, dining al fresco builds up an appetite because there was so much delicious food!  Between the beautiful weather, the gorgeous setting, the convivial group and the gracious hosts, as well as the bounteous spread, everyone had an excellent time.

 

bed-picnic1The Bedouin Picnic was my “Tour of the Month” for February – part of my plan to feature a different tour each month emphasizing a particular seasonal food or theme.  Now let’s see what I can come up with for March…