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

 

 

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

 

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.

Sweet as Carob Syrup

carob cooking 1For years I’ve wanted to observe how carob syrup is made.  Like many of the highly labor-intensive, traditional Palestinian foodways, carob syrup production is barely practiced anymore.  But several weeks ago, on a visit to Abu Malek in Kufar Manda, I saw an enormous pile of carob pods on the front porch.  Fall is carob season and the leathery brown pods generally accumulate under the trees; even though they are delicious to chew, few people find any use for them.  Less than a life-span ago however, in Arab villages of the Galilee, sugar was expensive and scarce and it was bread dipped in carob syrup that made life sweet.

Um Malek was busy with her field of okra and black eyed peas, Abu Malek explained, but someone had brought her the carob and she was planning on making syrup when she had some free time.  Please call me when she starts, I almost implored.  Over the years I have known this family, Um Malek has prepared carob syrup at least once, but I always heard about it after the fact, when I was gifted a small bottle of the precious, nutritious brown liquid. Um Malek uses carob syrup to make a kind of gelatin-like dessert – I love its dark earthy flavor for sweetening my oatmeal.

I was delighted to finally get the morning phone call from Abu Malek– “today Um Malek is cooking the carob – you are welcome to come over”.  When I arrived, at least half a dozen tubs were resting on the porch, full of coarsely ground carob which had been processed the previous day at a local mill.  In the yard, two large pots were cooking over open fires.  The first was filled with the ground carob covered with water. Periodically, she would scoop out the carob and discard it, then strain the brown liquid through a piece of cloth.  This distilled carob juice was transferred to the second pot, where it would slowly reduce for at least 12 hours.

to the fire

Making carob syrup, with whole carobs on the porch

straining

Straining the cooked, crushed carob

cooking pot

Cooking down on the fire

In spite of the heavy, late summer heat, Um Malek moved slowly and tranquilly between the rusty piles of carob and tending the fires.  She laughed off my offers to help, and was even more amused when I insisted on lifting the heavy pots.  Ever since she heard that my husband and I do the housework together, she is convinced I am hopelessly spoiled.

So many things separate our worlds – language, culture, narrative – but the friendship and trust between us rests on the things we share in common – a deep connection with the foods of this land and basic, human decency.

A few times during this awful summer, when the destruction, hatred and lost lives seemed too heavy to bear, Abu Malek and I would speak on the phone, reaching out of our pain to confirm and draw comfort from our friendship. The call to make carob syrup signaled that happier times are upon us.

The first rains will soon soften the stone-hearted earth in preparation for the miracle of rebirth.  As we settle into our seats for another round of the seasons, I wish that the coming year will be, for all of us, as sweet as carob syrup.