Living Lightly

handful of asparagusIt was probably the most beautiful day of the most beautiful season in the Galilee that I revisited my favorite wild asparagus stalking grounds. That March afternoon I was closing a chapter that extended over half my life, during which I was immersed in learning the timeless ways of this land, from the land itself and the people who know it so well.

There were so many asparagus, it took no time to fill my handful quota. I planned to prepare them my favorite way – roasted with olive oil and salt. But I ate several as is, just to savor the fresh bitterness and life-energy still in the stalks.

Unlike domesticated crops, beholden to humans for their propagation, as long as their environment is not disturbed, edible wild plants will generally appear in their season, year after year, whether someone comes along and snaps off their tips or not.  And as sad as I felt that day, this realization brought with it some solace.

I found myself identifying with countless generations of pastoral nomads who found sustenance in these Galilee hills, and then continued on their way. Now on my own nomadic journey, I felt the bittersweet unraveling of my desire to cling to this place and possess it.

If my travels bring me back to the Galilee in early spring, the wild asparagus will await me with gracious indifference. And I will know where to find them.

This Passover, I extend my best wishes for life lived lightly on this earth.

Abbie Rosner

 

 

Two Weeks into the Omer

farike making 1We are now almost two weeks into the Omer – the 49 plus one days that are counted between Passover and Shavuoth.  In a region that has basically two seasons – winter and summer, the Omer, which bridges between them, has always been a period of tremendous climatic uncertainty, with drastic implications for agriculture.

So far this has been a textbook Omer – Sweltering days followed by drastic drops in temperature. Thunderstorms, lightning and pounding rain, then dust storms that leave a yellow scrim over every surface.

Yesterday we joined Balkees and went to visit our friends who still practice traditional agriculture outside of Nazareth.  They had told her that, although they wouldn’t be out in the fields, we could go on our own and pick the peas that are now in season.  The matriarch of the family, Um S., whose domain is these fields, was home recovering from a torn cartilage, and her absence was obvious when we searched for the rows of peas.

dead peas

Dead peas in the pod

Amidst the undergrowth, all of the pea plants were dried up and dead, the result, Balkees explained, of the heat, followed by rain, followed by more heat – and of course, no greenhouse protection.  We salvaged a small pile of pods, but the peas inside of them, while still green, were bitter.

chickpeas

not yet mature chickpeas

ful

fava beans

Nearby, rows of chickpeas seemed to have withstood the climatic onslaught unscathed.   Heartiest were the thick-skinned fava beans (ful), and we each filled our bags with them.

Following a plume of smoke, we drove across the rutted dirt roads to the wheat field where a man and woman were in the midst of preparing farike.  As I understood it, they had leased the field from our friends and were making their way through the green wheat, harvesting, drying and roasting the green ears at their own pace.

farike making

roasting farike

charred wheat in field

green wheat field and charred wheat

What had all this late rain signified for them, I asked.  For the wheat that’s still in the ground, no problem, they answered.  But for what was cut and laying on the ground waiting to be roasted, getting wet meant disaster.  They had had to spend 1000 Shekels on plastic sheeting to cover the wheat, just to protect their investment.  “I knew the rain was coming.  I look at the 3-day forecast,” the man explained.

We left the farike-roasters and continued to where our friends keep their cattle and goats out on the rocky open hillside.  Abu S. was milking the goats, by hand, taking over for his wife who usually does this work.  I was struck with wonder at the primacy of this way of life, based on unmediated interaction between indigenous animals and foods and intensive human effort, with only the barest traces of technology.  It was absolutely clear to me that this symbiotic and fraught relationship between humans and the land, maintained for thousands of years on these same hillsides, will not endure much longer.

We followed Abu S. back to their family home, where we sat in the living room, Um S.’s foot wrapped in bandages.  Besides the damage to the peas, what did the rains signify for the rest of her crops, I asked.  They are good for the tomatoes, she told me.  This profound soaking of the earth, I could imagine, boded well for summer vegetables that would rely entirely on groundwater for their growth.

The First, First Fruits of Spring

20150403_114715Early on in Arabic class, we learned the names for the seasons of the year, and one of the topics for discussion was, “what is your favorite season?”   Visiting in Kufar Manda to practice my lessons, I took up this conversation with Abu Malek and Um Malek. I like winter best, I told them. The Arabic name for winter, “shitta“, is a synonym for rain, and I related how I wait all year long for the onset of winter rains that call up a plethora of edible wild plants.

Um Malek got a dreamy look in her eyes and said, “Spring”.  Since she is one of the most energetic wild plant foragers I know, I was interested to hear her choice, and asked her to explain.  Because of the zaatar, she said.

For those of us who associate winter with hibernation and spring with reawakening and new growth, these seasons have a very different significance here in the Galilee.  Winter, with its life-giving rainfall, is the time when local plants emerge, grow and mature. Zaatar has been evident on the hillsides all winter long, but now its soft, hairy leaves are large and suffused with potent essential oil, ready to be gathered, dried, crushed and mixed with sesame seeds and sumac to make dukka.

Other local foods, however, just reach an initial stage of maturity with the coming of spring.  In the market in Nazareth this past weekend, I saw soft green almonds on sale.  And on my walks in the fields, the wheat is tall and robust, loaded with fat, mature kernels of soft green grain.  Green almonds and wheat – as well as the new chick peas that will soon be appearing – are a delight to eat in their fresh, spring state, or in the case of wheat, ready to be harvested and roasted to produce farike, but their main harvest will only come later, when they are dry and more utilitarian.

By Passover, the wheat in the fields and the flowers on the fruit and olive trees give the traditional Galilee farmer an indication of harvests yet to come, assuming they can survive the upcoming, volatile 49 plus one days of the Omer, with their alternating thunderstorms and blistering hamsin (Arabic for “fifty”) winds.

In the meantime, as we retell yet again the Passover story of exile and liberation, we can also recall that this was once a harvest holiday, charged with promise and trepidation, and that first fruits can ripen in successive stages.

Extending my best Spring Holiday wishes!

Abbie

pre pesach wheat field

 

I could make ftayir myself

ftayer 1I have the recipe and all the ingredients. But preparing these little wild spinach filled pastries is one of those tasks that is more fun with a friend, and so I took the two bags of greens I’d gathered and went to visit one of my most esteemed culinary mentors, Um Malek, at her home in Kufar Manda.

In traditional local Arab cuisine, ftayir is the default application for wild spinach. The shapes and seasonings may vary, but the theme is same – a chopped spinach filling encased in savory dough. All of the cooks that I know here in the Lower Galilee prepare their ftayir in triangles. The coinciding of ftayir-making and Purim was too auspicious, and I was thrilled to have them as my three-cornered holiday treat.

I have never known anyone who is more connected to the land, the seasons and the local foods as Um Malek. For months now, she has been preparing meals for her and Abu Malek from the greens and mushrooms she gathers on her daily walks. And plenty of ftayir.

I hand over the spinach to Um Malek, which she expertly chops and seasons in one bowl; in another, she mixes the dough. Except for yeast and cumin, everything she uses – from the flour made of wheat grown and milled in Kufar Manda, to the sesame seeds, olive oil and zaatar – is locally sourced.

I could have made ftayir myself, but then I wouldn’t have sat opposite Um Malek, filling the circles of dough as she rolled them out, communicating more or less in my tentative Arabic, at peace in her company as she was in mine. It seems there is no currency to measure the value of the wild-spinach filled pastries I took home with me that evening, or the quality of grace that emanated from our hands.

chopping spinachmaking filling

Winter Does Not Apply

handful of asparagusFebruary is arguably the dreariest month of the year, and at this point my family and friends in the United States and Europe are paralyzed with winter fatigue.  While winters here in the Galilee are generally mild, this past month we’ve been treated to several snowstorms and in recent days I’ve even had to pull out an extra blanket.

But aside from the night chill, the usual associations with winter do not apply here.  For true locavores, this season actually represents the onset of a long and fertile spring.  Since December I have been gathering chicory, wild spinach, mallow and asparagus.  And when the cold sets in, I sip tea steeped with the zaatar and white savoury from my garden, which have come back to life after languishing all summer.

Yesterday, the first really warm and sunny day in weeks, I took a foraging walk and happily discovered that some of my favorite wild edibles have gotten a second wind.  Mallow and chicory grow freely all winter long, but the wild spinach that I’d gathered months ago has just now re-emerged tall and robust.  And the asparagus bushes that were thoroughly harvested by all the local foragers are putting out new stalks yet again.

After picking my one-handful of asparagus limit, I sat down to rest under a scotch broom bush, awash in the fragrance of its sunny flowers, and marveled at the generosity of this land that, from the era of prehistoric hunters and gatherers through to this exquisite winter day, has so graciously sustained the people who understand how to live on and off of it.

feb 26 2015

A Fresh Look at Some Local Foods

I was flipping through some photographs I’d taken recently, and found these three images, all which show interesting ways that indigenous local foods are processed in Galilee Palestinian society.

This is a photograph of luf (arum palaestinum), which was collected this winter during the season it grows wild in the area around Nazareth.

drying luf

I took the picture of the leaves spread out on a white sheet on the sofa of one of the living rooms in my friend Balkees’ mother’s house in Reine. Once they are completely dry – a process that could take at least a month, depending on how damp the winter is – they will be crumbled into a powder and put into capsules. This medication is being prepared for a family member who has colon cancer.

For more posts about luf, see here and here.

And here is a dish of habissa – a sort of pudding dessert made from carob syrup.

habissa

It was served after this exceptionally delicious meal I was fortunate to share with my friends Um and Abu Malek in Kufar Manda, where everything was fresh, locally grown and lovingly prepared.

meal in k manda

We had lubiya (fresh black-eyed peas), which Um Malek grew herself in the fields of the Batof (Bet Netufa Valley), and sautéed hubeisa (wild mallow), which she had collected on her daily early-morning walk. The pickles she had home-cured and the braised meat and leben (yoghurt) were also locally sourced.

Habissa, like another Kufar Manda specialty, malukhiya (jute), is an acquired taste. At this point, I am genuinely delighted to see either one of them set in front of me. The habissa that Um Malek served she had prepared using the carob syrup that she made a few months ago (see post). Habissa originates in a time that both Abu Malek and Um Malek can remember, when carob syrup was one of the few sweeteners available in a rural cuisine that depended almost entirely on locally grown products.

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.