Wild to Cultivated to Wild

What a great pleasure it is to have a hakura, or kitchen garden, next to the house – particularly when its yields peak in mid-winter. Yesterday I stripped the hakura of just about all of the swiss chard to make a crispy filo-layered pie.  Washing and trimming the fleshy leaves, I realized how viscerally I love fresh greens – wild or cultivated.  In fact, new sprouts of waxy luf leaves are unfolding all over the yard, beyond the orderly rows of the hakura.  And even if I haven’t mastered the technique of cooking them, I will soon harvest them and bring them to someone who has.  

The changing of the year has been a time of self-examination, and now, almost two years after my book came out, I’ve decided that I need to return to what I feel is my calling – to research and write about how the local foods are grown, processed and prepared in traditional ways in the Palestinian-Israeli and Bedouin communities of the Galilee.  This time, however, I want to do it in an academic context – to structure my work in an orderly fashion, and to join a community of like-minded people documenting traditional foodways around the world.

Looking for a potential home at the University of Haifa, I have spoken to several faculty members from different departments.  With Prof. Guy Bar-Oz in the Archaeology Department, who is a specialist in pre-historic and ancient foodways in this region, I had a particularly fascinating conversation.  When I told him my interest in foraging and the process of domestication of edible wild plants that I observe to be happening in our times, he countered with something that stopped me in my tracks.   How do you know that the wild mallow that you collect wasn’t once domesticated as a crop some time back in history, and just fell out of use over time and reverted back to a wild state?  How do I know indeed!  Clearly, there is so much to learn, and I am eager to dive in.

A few days ago, driving home from an exhausting day at a job that is more draining than I’d bargained for, I saw at the edge of the hills an older Bedouin man walking with three frisky little boys, presumably his grandchildren.  In his hands were two plastic bags full of freshly gathered luf.  My first urge was to pull over on the side of the road and follow him, to ask him about his foraging habits and what he had planned for that luf – his evening meal or perhaps to share with an ailing family member or friend.

But I drove on, more determined than ever that by foraging season next year, I’ll be able to ask those questions not just to satisfy my own curiosity, but to make their answers accessible to anyone who shares an interest in hearing them.  And I know that there are many, indeed.

stripped chard

Stripped Chard

 

jan luf

Wild Cousin Luf

Gone Gleaning

Leket (or the verb Likut) is the Biblical Hebrew word for gleaning.   Leket Israel is a non-profit  that collects produce and food that would otherwise go to waste from farms, restaurants, stores and caterers, and distributes it to those in need.

The organization contacted me recently in connection with a new project they have initiated– posting commentaries on each weekly Torah portion, written by food scholars and chefs, and supplemented with recipes.   As a longtime gleaner and food culture observer, they asked me if I would be willing to supply a recipe.

Looking at Leket’s website, I saw they were hosting a morning of gleaning in honor of World Food Day at a farm not far from where I live.   On the spur of the moment, I decided to forego my cherished leisurely Friday morning routine of yoga, errands, coffee and newspaper, to join the gleaners.

What would we be gleaning, I wondered, as I drove past the fields and towns of the Jezreel Valley.  Olives, of course!  What else is being harvested this time of year?  Arriving at the field, I was given a bucket, and joined about a hundred school-kids, families and other locals, picking turnips.

There is plenty of time for rumination when you pick turnips.  As it turned out, we were not technically gleaning, since the entire field was leased and planted by Leket and all of its contents were destined for its distribution.  What was the rationale, I wondered, behind the decision to grow turnips?  Beyond pickling and adding them to soup, what other qualities do they offer?

They are easy to harvest, for one thing.  Pulling them out of the earth requires remarkably little energy – the fat cream and magenta globes yield to the slightest tug – remarkably clean of mud.  For a team of non-professional harvesters, this was certainly an advantage.  And they are hearty and nutritious, and don’t require refrigeration or special handling.  The turnip greens themselves weren’t saved – and the remorse I felt in tossing them aside was lessened by the fact that they were so very raggedy.

But I was also happy to see plenty of mallow and the first wild spinach of the season – getting an opportunistic head start thanks to the field’s irrigation.  Interesting that these edible wild plants grow only on the outside borders of the harvested field – the traditional area sanctioned for gleaners.  And how gracious is the land here, that even these “weeds” that appear unbidden offer up such a generous supply of sustenance.

We picked and loaded our buckets, depositing their contents into large containers, as a forklift busily made the rounds, collecting and replacing them.   It was hard, physical work, crouching down to pick, then standing up to lift that heavy bucket, tromp across the muddy field littered with greens and hoist the bucket to the rim of the container.  I came home exhausted, aching, crusted in mud – and ready for the next Leket gleaning.

turnip2

* Because of a technical screwup, my turnip photos didn’t come out.  So thanks to Ann at piercewholenutrition.blogspot.com for her photo of  turnips.

 

Green Anew

How does one mark the arrival of spring when the entire winter is full of flowers?  With more flowers for one thing, and the late-night fragrance of citrus blossoms teasing into my bedroom window.  But there are other reminders that, over the thousands of years when survival for the people living in the Galilee was linked to agriculture, the advent of spring had more compelling developments.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond explains how the Mediterranean climate in the Fertile Crescent, in whose gracious curve the Galilee is set, created the conditions for the development of its indigenous plants.  Adapting for survival in the short, unreliably rainy winters and long, reliably hot, dry summers, these plants invested their energies into producing robust seeds encased in durable coverings that would protect them for as long as necessary until a sufficient rainfall called them into action.  The prehistoric hunters and gatherers of the area learned to pluck the nutritious kernels that were hidden in ears of grain, starting a millennia-long process of cultivation with ramifications far beyond this blog-scope.

Spring is the time when the seeds of many of these indigenous plants come into their own.  In the fields, the grains of wheat are fully developed, yet still green and soft – ready to be harvested to produce farike.  And the almond trees, whose blossoms settled like snowflakes just a few weeks ago, are showing their tender, fuzzy green seeds, which can be eaten whole, sour and refreshing.

In the months to come, the grains and the almonds will dry and harden, to re-enter the cycle in whatever form is their destiny.  But for now, we can savor their vibrant, green potential – encapsulating the miracle of rebirth in yet another spring.

Please accept my warmest wishes for a wonderful Passover, Easter and/or Spring.

green almonds

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. 

Wild Asparagus Yet Again

*This post was written a day before the Hannukah miracle occurred and usurped it’s posting.  So here it is, a little late but hopefully still fresh….

Once again, the wild asparagus season is here.  How many times have I written about this moment?  And why is it that year after year, I never tire of celebrating it? 

Because it is always the same and always wondrously fresh and surprising – the matchless way that each stalk presents itself to the world – its unique color, girth, curve –  solo or in a cluster –  endlessly varied.   And because of the exquisite beauty of their setting, in my favorite oak grove, at this early stage of winter – where I am torn between focusing on the complex pattern of the green carpet underfoot, and the undisturbed expanse of trees and boulders in this discreet and magical place. 

a stalk of wild asparagus

I wanted to see if we could find mandrakes, and we found dozens, at this point with their leaves grand and shiny, and at their heart, a burst of purple blossoms.  I saw my first cyclamen of the season.  We crossed paths with two rabbits. 

mandrake flowers

And no matter how many times I encounter those carvings in the limestone – steps leading down into a burial cave, a shallow, sloping grape press, or a simple 90 degree angle hewn into a stone by someone for some purpose we can never know – I am thrilled to stand on that same spot, just as they did perhaps two thousand years ago.  And to imagine that they enjoyed the wild asparagus of this season as much as we do. 

entrance to a burial cave

Elsaina

I wait all year for the months of January, February and March – the rainy days with their dramatic skies and the sunshine that can actually be enjoyed.  And of course, the green!   Every spare patch of earth is bursting with some kind of eager plant-life.  And so much of it is even edible.  That is my favorite part of all.

This year I’ve been discovering the pleasures of elsaina.  That is the name in Arabic for this big fuzzy leaf that grows wild in these parts – the translation of its Hebrew name is Jerusalem sage – and according to my edible wild plant teacher’s book, it is indeed a member of the sage family.  But the Arabic name in inspired by its look and feel – “tongue”. 

In local Arab cooking, elsaina is used in the same way as grape leaves.  In winter, when grape leaves were once not available (and today cost 30 NIS/kilo), elsaina was/is the leaf of choice for stuffing.   

Ron came home the other night with a bag full of about two dozen elsaina leaves – a gift from our dear friend Salim Saadi – another of my esteemed edible wild plant teachers.  He’d picked them in the avocado grove where he works as a watchman. Well into his 80s, Salim spends peaceful days in the shade of the avocados, gathering from the bounty growing around them. 

After a quick consultation call to my friend Balkees, the reliable expert on cooking with local foods, I poured boiling water over the leaves and after letting them sit for a few minutes, set each leaf out and cut away its tough stem and spine, leaving the top intact.  

        

I made a filling of bulgar, sautéed onions, tomato paste, pine nuts, cinnamon, cayenne and black pepper and put a tablespoon full at the tip of each leaf.  The beauty of the reddish-gold filling set against the deep green of the elsaina took my breath away. I rolled each one, then gave it a squeeze just like I’d seen Balkees do – then arranged them in a pot, on top of a layer of sliced onions.  When all the leaves were done, I poured enough broth over the top to cover everything and then some – submerged a plate on top of it all, and let it cook for about 40 minutes. 

Elsaina leaves are softer than grape leaves and not at all sour – they have a delicate woodsy flavor that I can’t get enough of.  Ron said they were the best stuffed leaves he’d ever had and I surely agree. 

 

The State of Foraging – Winter 2010

Iman with chibs

 This winter started off on the left foot – first there were an endless string of hot dry days that lingered through December. Then came the disastrous Carmel fire. And then while the embers were still smoldering, came the first real winter storm – 3 days of torrential rain. I couldn’t even begrudge the 26 hours without electricity just thinking of the thorough soaking the parched earth was receiving. 

wheat field fuzz

And now, after a good week of sunshine, the landscape is undergoing its magic transformation – sporting a tender growth of vibrant green.

Two Bedouin women appeared in my yard today looking for fresh leaves of luf, and I knew that the edible wild plant season has begun. 

Tender young luf

I set off this afternoon for a walk to see what I could find.  Where one of my favorite fields used to be is now a new residential neighborhood, and in one of the squares cut out of the sidewalk to support a tree, I found a lone, opportunistic wild spinach plant. 

Scraggly spinach

Down in the cauliflower field, some hubeisa (mallow) and purslane were mooching off the irrigation system, but the shower of pesticide that they shared made me keep my distance. 

In one of the few untouched groves, I ran into Faoud and Iman Sabtan, Bedouin neighbors from Kaabiye, out picking luf with their little girl.  Iman also picked some “chibs”, which is a plant that looks like celery and when you peel away its fibery outer layer, the inside is juicy and peppery like horseradish. 

Iman with chibs

She gave me a stalk to chew on and I continued on my way. 

 

 

 

 

I passed two of my old favorite picking spots – they, too, can now be crossed off the forager’s map.  As picking grounds diminish, herbicide use proliferates and old traditions lose their attraction, you have to be very determined to be a forager these days…

No more gathering here.

    

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