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.

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.

 

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

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.

    

or here...

A Foraging Celebration

Hussein's daughter with zaatar

Yet another rainy day and we can’t believe our good fortune – this has been the wettest winter for years and the landscape is celebrating.  The hills are lush and bright with wild flowers.  And of course, for foragers, there is a bounty of edible wild plants to pick.  We started the wild asparagus season early and enjoyed several meals of them, including an excellent asparagus soup. 

With my culinary tours I brought a group to the Bedouin village of Kaabiye.  Our host, Hussein took us to see edible plants in two surroundings – forest and field.  In the forest we found luf, zaatar, asparagus and saina (large bumpy leaves of the sage family), and at the periphery of an agricultural field, we found hubeisa (mallow), selek (wild beet greens), humeida (sorrel) and a thorny plant that we peeled and ate the stalk of. 

Saina - the winter alternative for stuffed grape leaves

Afterwards, his wife Riba prepared a meal for us of ftayir, which are pastry turnovers filled with a mixture of wild beet greens, zaatar and hot pepper, saina leaves stuffed with rice, and the greens which we had learned about. 

Everyone enjoyed tromping around and learning about the different plants, and of course the meal. But one of the participants told me that the highlight was being a guest in a local Bedouin home, which makes me realize that my culinary tour idea focusing on home hospitality has serious potential.