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.

Kareh-ah: Another waterless wonder

For lack of a better name, I call these “bottle squash”.  Their name in Arabic is “kareh-ah”, where the last syllable is pronounced as if you just received a gentle blow to the stomach.  They are a summer vegetable that is commonly found in Arab produce markets here.  Until I started spending time in the Nazareth kitchen of Balkees, my friend and culinary guide, I was clueless about them.

Kareh-ah’s container-like shape makes them perfect for stuffing, which is how I generally have eaten them at Balkees’ house – filled with a mixture of rice and chopped meat.  After they are cooked, you cut them open in your bowl and pour some of the tomato sauce in which they were cooked over the filling.    

Yesterday Balkees offered me some of the “baal” bottle squash she’d brought from Um Salekh’s field (see last few blog entries for more about “baal ” vegetables).  I declined, explaining that I didn’t want to do the whole stuffing thing.  But there is more than one way to cook a bottle squash, and she promised to teach me, sending me home with two big specimens in a bag with a few tomatoes for good measure. 

First I was to peel them and cut then lengthwise in quarters.  Then I should cut away the seeds before chopping the squash into bite-sized pieces.  I was expecting the interior with the seeds to be woody and inedible but when I took a tentative taste, surprise surprise, it was delicate and lemony – like a soft and delicious cucumber. 

I had chopped and sautéed some onion in olive oil for a few minutes, then added the squash.  According to Balkees’ instructions, it was supposed to cook until all the liquid evaporated, but no liquid was coming out so I hoped I was doing things right.  Then I had to peel the tomatoes – yes, no shortcuts – before chopping them into pieces, saving all that flavorful juice.  When the squash was soft, I added the tomatoes and juice and cooked it all for another few minutes.   A perfect summer dish – soft and soothing, yet intense with summer flavors.

So now, if you run across those lovely, pale bottle squashes, you know an easy way to cook them.  And if you can pronounce them in Arabic, more power to you. 

 

A Tomato Education

More on the subject of “baal” tomatoes… For some weeks now, I’ve been trying to coordinate with Balkees a time that we could go together to visit our friends where they are growing their waterless summer produce. I’ve been enjoying these amazing vegetables, through her, but there is nothing like visiting the field and picking them yourself.  Balkees has been swamped with orders for her cookies (this is, after all, the height of the wedding season), but yesterday, we took advantage of a lull in the production line and headed out to the fields.

In the cool twilight, we joined the family members who were trolling the rows, pails in hand, gathering what had ripened since the previous day’s harvest. We joined in the work – and I felt almost ashamed of the joy I derive from what for them is tedious toil. There is no romance of heirloom growing, or local food magic here. Just hard work and precious little compensation.

We picked okra until my hands and arms itched from their little hairs, and then moved to the tomatoes. We picked until the sun went down on one side of the sky and a full moon rose on the opposite end. I took home a small bag of okra and two bags of tomatoes – green and red. The red, Balkees instructed, are for making tomato sauce and the green are for eating.

Today I cleaned and cut up the red tomatoes and put them in the food processor. Then I strained the tomato crush through a sieve, pushing out every bit of moisture as I’ve seen Balkees do. I washed and trimmed the okra, and the oversized ones that I once might have rejected as being too tough, I cut into pieces since Balkees said that those are her father-in-law’s favorites.

I sliced some garlic, sautéed it for a minute in olive oil, then added the okra – and after a few minutes of stirring, poured in the tomato juice, for a good long simmer.  The father-in-law was right…

Tomorrow we will have the green tomatoes for breakfast.