The Book of New Israeli Food
by Janna Gur
photographs by Eilon Patz
Published by Schocken
304 pages, 2008
Easy on the Pumpkin
Reviewed by Diane Leach
In discussing Jews and their food it is critical at the outset to distinguish Ashkenazim from Sephardics. Ashkenazim are of Eastern European extraction: Russians, Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians. Sephardic Jews are from the Mediterranean: Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Israel. There is a separate, tiny group of Spanish Jews who speak neither Yiddish nor Hebrew, but a dying language called Ladino.Our languages, foods, mannerisms, even the diseases lurking in our DNA are disparate. I am an American Ashkenazi, descended from Russian and Romanian stock. Thus the foods I call Jewish are what Americans recognize as classic deli food: chopped liver, gefilte fish, corned beef on rye, brisket, noodle kugel, chicken soup. A few of these foods appear in Janna Gur’s The Book Of New Israeli Food, but her real emphasis is on the foods of Israel’s diverse population -- largely the Sephardics, with their love of cumin, coriander, paprika and pomegranates, so heavily influenced by North African cuisine and the contested presence of their Arab neighbors.
If you are going to enjoy New Israeli Food, and I suggest you do, you may need to strenuously overlook Gur’s recipes for chicken soup and chopped liver (more on this later). You may need to overlook your feelings on Palestinian land rights. For Gur’s Israel is a fantasy, a gorgeous fairyland of orchards, olive oil producers, vintners, acquaculturists and cheesemakers, filling the eager bellies of a happily diverse people. Eilon Patz’s enchanting photographs only enhance this effect.
It may seem strange that I even mention politics in a cookbook review, but overlooking it here seemed to be ignoring the proverbial elephant on the couch. Then again, many are the cookbooks selling us a fantasy life -- how many of us can wander into our gardens for fresh vegetables, the way Alice Waters does? And how many of us possess Paula Wolfert’s enviable collection of kitchen equipment? How many French cookbooks mention the Vichy regime? (Madeleine Kamman does. But hey, she’s Madeleine Kamman. She can do whatever she wants.)
So overlook. In the process, you’ll learn a lot about Israel, a country I was totally ignorant about. My notion of Israel came straight from endless media shots of suicide bombers. When I thought Israel, I thought desert, dust, and rubble. I was wrong, and thank Gur for changing my perspective.
To her credit, Gur doesn’t attempt to delve deeply into the complex cuisines of this tiny country. (For the bible on Jewish cuisine, see Claudia Roden’s magnificent Book of Jewish Food.) Instead, she gives us tastes, with explanations all along the way. For example, I had no idea why the many Israelis I know are all salad freaks. I learned that every meal -- including breakfasts and snacks -- includes some kind of salad, most often chopped cucumber, tomato, onion and garlic. The variations on this “Israeli Salad” are endless. I also learned why the Israelis I know are indifferent to red meat: Israel is not cattle country. Instead, the nation thrives on chicken, turkey and lamb. And eggplant. It’s safe to say Israelis view eggplants the way Americans view potatoes: a foodstuff as essential as water.
I’ve documented struggles with eggplant in other reviews. I so want to like this lovely vegetable, which arrives in my summer CSA box with dismaying regularity. I have baked it, fried it, layered into moussakas and folded it into salads, all with minimal results. So when I happened on Gur’s eggplant carpaccio, I tucked an eggplant into the oven and got busy.
In this recipe, Gur treats eggplant the way we treat baked potatoes, serving the vegetable with a variety of toppings. In this case, Gur called for raw tahini, goat milk yogurt, tomatoes, silan (date honey) or honey, lemon juice, olive oil, fresh hyssop or oregano, garlic, a hot green pepper and salt and pepper to taste. I admit I had almost none of these toppings on hand. I baked the eggplant, mushed the flesh with goat cheese, garlic, lemon, and fresh tomato. It was amazingly good. Now, one can argue that summer tomatoes and goat cheese could make a linoleum tile taste good. One could also argue that a good cookbook is one that gets a cook thinking improvisationally.
I confess I improvised a fair amount in trying out Gur’s recipes, largely because I don’t normally use dried fruits, pomegranate, tahini, or fresh herbs like mint, parsley and cilantro in my cooking. I am an urban dweller with no place to grow herbs, and fresh ones are highly perishable. As for the currants and pistachios popular in North African cuisine, I confess to disliking fruit in my food. I have always hated sweet foods mixed in with savory dishes, and am not a nut eater. Further, my husband has never liked tahini or hummus, a food that takes me back to a thousand grad school parties. These personal prejudices that caused me to fiddle even more with Gur’s recipes. That said, they were successful.
The first recipe my sous chef and I test drove was the Israeli Salad. My sous chef, who is also my spouse, diced tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic into a bowl, adding the dash of cinnamon Gur called for, as well as salt, pepper and olive oil. We left out onion (he doesn’t like them), parsley (see above) and peppers (we didn’t have any). I thought the cinnamon was awful, but sous chef didn’t mind it a bit. With this he prepared Filfel Chuma, a spicy mix of garlic, dried hot peppers, paprika, caraway, cumin, olive oil, lemon and salt. We mixed this into silver-dollar-sized lamb patties and ate it with the salad and a side of laffa, or Iraqi pita bread. Gur gives a recipe, but mine was store purchased. I slathered on the goat yogurt, which sous chef will not touch (no white foods: mayonnaise, cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt. Oh, well. More for me.).
It was really, really good. If you’ve ever eaten lamb in a pita at some Mediterranean joint and wondered how they got that combination of tangy, meaty and spicy all together, well, meat, spice mix, olive oil, yogurt, flatbread. Yum.
But back to the chicken soup. A classic Jewish chicken soup is simple: a chicken, carrot, onion, a little bit of celery (too much and it takes over). Put everything in a pot with water to cover. Simmer on stove gently three to five hours, depending on your chicken. When it’s done, you can slice the meat from the bones and put it back in the soup. Some people add luckshen -- egg noodles. Others add mazto balls. Serve. Eat.
Gur’s recipe, which she calls classic and places in the Shabbat (Sabbath) section, calls for parsley, dill, and celery leaves. Coriander (!), thyme, and rosemary are optional. She suggests adding beef cuts like breasts or ribs to the soup for a “meatier” taste. As for vegetables:
No. No, no, no.
But I am nothing if not level-headed. I asked a Jewish woman I know about her chicken soup. “I need somebody objective,” I explained.
“I’m not objective,” she said. “Chicken, carrot, onion and maybe, maybe...”
“The tiniest bit of celery,” I finished for her.
“But not too much!”
Okay. But she’s American, like me. I e-mailed a man I know who was raised in Israel by an Ashkenazi mother. In addition to being a professor of Molecular and Cell Biology, he is a terrific cook. I felt his opinion was worthy.
He answered my e-mail immediately. “I have never heard of pumpkin! ...isn’t pumpkin new world?”
I asked what he thought of Gur’s notion of making chopped liver with goosefat or “oil.”
“Goosefat in everything is very Hungarian.”
Hmm. Okay. Goosefat here is basically unavailable without the goose, and the idea of oil (what kind is not specified) in chopped liver is, well, icky. If you are consumed with a ravening desire for chopped liver, before making your chicken soup, pull all the fat from the chicken and cook it down gently in a pan with a little water. You will then have schmaltz, which you can use in your chopped liver. As for health concerns, my grandfather slathered schmaltz on challah and chainsmoked for 40 years. He lived to be eighty.
But do not ever, ever put pumpkin (or fennel, or coriander, or celery root) into your soup and call it Jewish. My grandmother will rise from the grave, and woe unto you. And don’t mix beef with chicken. I don’t know of any Jewish dietary law forbidding this, only the law of grandmothers, which is you never put chicken and beef where they can even see each other.
So if you’re interested in making Ashkenazi food, Gur’s book isn’t for you. But shakshuka sounds like perfect hangover food: oil, garlic, tomatoes, zhug, filfel chuma, or harissa (fiery spice mixtures; recipes are given at the end of the book) salt, pepper, cumin, caraway, tomato paste and eggs. You make a base of everything but the eggs, cook it down, then crack however many eggs in. There are recipes for falafel, hummus, and a variety of flatbreads. There’s a devastating coffeecake made with halvah (sweetened tahini -- delicious, rich, and about a million calories a bite), and a variety of lamb dishes. Although some of the ingredients may be difficult to find here -- date honey and frozen kishke (stuffed cow intestine) come to mind -- the recipes are easily adapted and well worth the effort of chopping, grinding and stirring. And it would be unfair of me to overlook Gur’s inclusion of some Arab foods: mansaf, a dish eaten at weddings and the end of Ramadan, attayif, a rich, sweet pancake made during Ramadan, and makroud, date and sesame cookies made with mahlab, a spice extracted from a species of local cherry tree.
In all, a lovely book for your coffeetable or your kitchen.
As for the pumpkin, I say, save it for Halloween. | October 2008
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.