Old Friends – New Setting

To everything there is a season.  And now it is summer and I am in Washington, DC, with much to engage my forager’s eye – from the yards of beautiful homes whose considerate landscapers planted herbs as part of their design scheme, to the honeysuckle covering fences, there for the sipping.

Fortuitously, my sister Jocelyn invited me to dinner at the home of a friend whose house is surrounded by an expansive organic garden.  As our host walked us through the chaotic bazaar of summer bounty, I had several happy encounters with the East Coast relatives of some old friends.  A patch of purslane which had taken root in an old pot attested to life in a climate where water can be counted on to come from the sky. Back in the summer-parched Galilee, you would never find purslane that isn’t hugging a water spigot or irrigation pipe.

Knowing my interest in edible wild plants, our host showed me this plant and asked if I knew what it was.

duck's foot

Lamb quarters, he explained.  Also known as duck’s foot.

I don’t know what a lamb’s quarter looks like, but the duck’s foot is a dead giveaway. And there they were, the same webbed feet, just more lush and verdant than their Galilee cousin.  Even more delightful was to meet that ducks foot again at the dinner table, prepared as wild greens like best – sautéed in olive oil and seasoned with a little salt.

And these cheery blue chicory flowers I’d recognize anywhere – even mid-summer on busy Connecticut Avenue.

chicory

 

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

What You See

A few days ago, Balkees and I spent the day with a journalist from Israel’s top food magazine, as she prepared an article about the edible wild plants that are now in season.  We started the morning in the village that Balkees grew up in, tromping through the lush greenery in the vast field behind her uncle’s house.  The oats he’d planted were just starting to show up green, the space between rows of lemon trees was planted with fava beans, and thriving in peaceful coexistence with these cultivated crops was a profusion of edible wild plants – chicory, mallow, wild spinach, luf.  This is paradise, Balkees stated.

The generosity of this season always strikes me as something sacred – the earth puts forth such a bounty of what can sustain us – simply there for the taking.  No sweat off the brow.  In fact, in the phrase from Genesis that is usually translated as “your food shall be the grasses of the field”, the actual word in Hebrew “essev” – basically means not “grasses”, but weeds –simply what grows.

A few weeks ago, just at the end of the olive season, Ron and I joined our friend Tzvika to check out a neglected stretch of olive orchard to see if it was worth the effort of a last minute harvest.  Between the rows of trees grew the most healthy, huge-leaved mallow, spinach and chicory that I’d ever seen.  I was thrilled, planning my return the following day with my bag and kitchen knife.  Yet the next day, as Ron and Tzvika were picking their olives, the owner of the trees arrived with his herbicide sprayer and systematically decimated the “weeds”.   That’s how farmers keep their area clean, Ron explained to me.

I have a neighbor who is never home and I am grateful for the benign neglect he shows to his yard, where I happily forage.  The other day I was picking wild spinach and another neighbor walked by, bringing her little brother home from nursery school.  What are you doing, he asked me.  I’m picking wild spinach I told him.  I’ll take it home and cook it.  He pondered that for a minute.  That’s gross, he said, and walked off.

ewp 1

ewp 2

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!

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. 

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…

Why Can’t We Cook Together?

These past weeks I’ve been feeling too disheartened to write, but the outings I had yesterday and today, investigating places for my culinary tours, did much to lift my spirits.  I started Thursday morning at Lavona Grove, on an exceptionally beautiful slope overlooking the Sea of Galilee. That morning, missiles from Lebanon had hit sites in the north, and my heart sunk to my feet at the prospect of the war spreading to a northern front. But I decided to stick to my plan, and head north to the Sea of Galilee to a site I’d been wanting to investigate. Two brothers – farmers from a nearby moshav – converted a piece of land between their mango and olive orchards too rocky and steep to cultivate, into a grove of exotic fruit trees grown from seedlings which they collected around the world. The older brother, Shimon, believes the trees thrive there because of the salubrious climate and the fact that this land was never used for agriculture. In fact, there was an astonishing variety of trees and fruit and I could only marvel at the ingenuity and creativity of nature.

            Shimon leads tours of the grove, tasting whatever fruit happens to be in season. I sampled some small brown berries that reminded me of banana, something white and cottony that was very sweet, and other things which I don’t remember (negligently not taking notes…). At the end of his tours, some kind of snack or meal is served – Shimon is, from what I have gathered, a very talented chef and caterer.  He gave me a bottle of olive oil seasoned with Persian zaatar and one of vinegar infused with raspberries – both made by him from fruits of the grove.  The place is an oasis of beauty, tranquility and sensory delight and I can’t wait to bring guests there.

What did he call this fruit?

What did he call this fruit?

            A half hour drive took me to the Bedouin village of Husaniya where I met with Zahiya and Fawzia Suaid. They are young women in their late thirties – sisters-in-law and neighbors – who have started a business leading edible wild plant picking tours. They were written up in the weekend section of one of the newspapers and I wanted to meet them to see if I could work with them for my tours, and to talk to them about the growing interest among the Jewish Israeli public in this aspect of Arab home cooking.

            Zahiya is animated and dynamic and we talk about the challenges of starting a new business. I mention the unfortunate timing – just when there is such a deep economic crisis. “But that’s not a problem at all” Fawzia interjects. “When people don’t have money, then it’s the perfect time to go pick wild plants.”  Both Zahiya and Fawzia talk about how important it is to them to maintain the traditional foodways they were brought up with. Outside in the valley, now green after the winter rains, a shepherd herds his flock of sheep and I hope I can return to this pastoral setting to pick and cook with these lovely and modestly ambitious women.

            Today, Friday, a group of friends, Ron and I went to Acco – that beautiful, Crusader port town – for a cooking tour with a local guide named Abdu Matta.  Abdu is a 10th generation Acco resident – and a colorful, ebullient and very knowledgeable fellow. We met him first thing in the morning and he escorted us through the narrow stone streets to his parents’ home – a 400-year-old structure with an inner courtyard.

In the small kitchen, his step-mother – a warm, diminutive and energetic woman – prepared with us a typical Acco Arab meal – vegetarian this time. We chopped hubeisa (mallow) and ellet (chicory) – local wild greens – and sautéed them with plenty of onion and olive oil. Then we made soup with orange lentils and bulgur dish cooked in a tomato base. 

 

Cooking hubeisa

Cooking hubeisa

While the food was cooking Abdu took us out to the old market of Acco which is one of the most colorful and exciting markets in Israel. We bought spices and friki (roasted green wheat), wonderful hard biscuits with anise seed that I love with my tea, katayif pancakes, and fresh vegetables for Friday night dinner. Everyone greets Abdu and walking in the market with him, you almost feel like a local yourself.  He took us to an ancient-looking bakery where the old baker slid fresh pita slathered with zaatar and olive oil into an enormous wood-burning oven, then pulled them out and served them to us – indescribably delicious.

oven1

Back at the house, the table was set and we dug into the soup, scooping up the greens with pita.  We finished with tea and the special cake made of farina wheat soaked in syrup called harisa.  Afterwards, one of the group commented on how comfortable and at ease she felt with Abdu and his family, and I was reminded yet again how cooking together bridges gaps – age, culture, religion. How badly we need this kind of activity in these awful times.