by Jackie Sayet
I’m a window seat flyer. I love the peace and quiet of a night flight, surrounded by tufts of cotton painted pink in the setting sun. What a sight to behold, gazing out into soft blue as all is hushed to darkness, then waking to that same glowing crimson ball as it rises, veiled in clouds, like a blazing black hole at the center of a tiny galaxy.
As we made our approach over Israel’s shoreline a little after noon, I peered to the left, ostrich-necked from the aisle of the middle row. Squinting into the window’s haze I could not really see much at all. A blinding swirl of browns and grays, greens and blues brought tears to my eyes.
It would take 34 years for me to step foot into my distant past but only a few hours to feel comfortable in its present, even its uncertainty. Not that there was time to contemplate at first. We hit the ground running, in our trusty orange coach with salty driver Adi at the wheel.
There was so much for these 19 journeymen to absorb, to learn, and the land of milk and honey burst over us like a dandelion in the breeze for the next nine days. The perfume of rose petals and paprika. The gentle brush of peach trees and the smell of volcanic earth and clay. The baking sun on our hike over the Sea of Galilee, beads of sweat falling and soaked shirts clinging tight as we juggled a selfie. The rocky descent uncovered bushes of caper berries and mountain dwellings, some with squatters of the bovine persuasion, and chocolate milk cold packs and enough Bissli to make bellies sick with happiness at the bottom.
We would marvel at the Jerusalem stone, its chiseled blocks, strong and uniform concealing the rippled, forgetful patterns of history and wink of the golden dome with its secrets. In cascades of falling water in the desert and the salt of the ocean in the surf, then the sea, we felt this land. It consumed us, and we, it. The experience as guide Avi Hai eloquently noted was “more than an ordinary journey but also a good energy that touched everyone’s soul a little bit.”
Culture through Music and Food
The music of santur, darbuka and pantam, ancient instruments that danced over us in the holy city of air, Tzfat. Professor Shai Seltzer of the Judean hills with his scrawny cat and mischievous herd and life-altering grape leaf-wrapped goat cheese. Israeli breakfast spreads. What to choose this morning? The moving, unforgettable meal that talented Mike Solomonov and his chef friends conjured to honor his brother David and Golani army unit at organic farm Mitzpeh Hayamim. Runs through the citrus grove. Sunflowers on fire in the late afternoon light of the hills.
And there was of course the food and the markets, each with new energy and life in people and stalls of spices and smoked fish, halva, mangoes and figs. The borekas do tell a souq’s story through filling, pastry, topping, and sauce. In Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market, enroute to watermelon fields in the desert to the south, we held specimens the size of beach balls, heavy with juice and the reddest, crispest flesh that you will ever eat. They became a breakfast staple, soaked in fresh cheese and curds speckled with nigella seed.
We could not live the experience fully without these things. They were everything. We left Israel on a night flight. Cloaked in black, Tel Aviv sparkled like fireflies, and I again burrowed into my middle row seat feeling incredibly thankful and knowing that next time, the view would be closer and more real from a window seat than ever before.
Bringing Israel Back to the States
Returning to the States I spent many early, jetlagged mornings trying to wind down. Like a hard stop between two meetings, getting my body to transition from my daily routine of one enriching activity to the next – and the absence of an entourage of IT-stricken explorers (what’s the hashtag again?) – became a proactive effort. First, there was a need to release the energy. I was up before dawn, riding my bike into the sunrise, if only to exhaust myself. Thankfully I succeeded after three days. Plans were also immediately made to cook. This is something I like to do and of course had been constantly thinking about as we traveled and ate. Sabich, with its fried eggplant and hard boiled egg, pickles and tehina in pita! Yemeni mixed grill! Bulgarian kebabs! And the scrolls of salatim, perfect hummus and laffa. I yearned for the pungency of these distinctive flavors and ethnic specialties. A dinner was assembled at my mother’s apartment a few blocks from mine in Coconut Grove, a waterfront village in Miami. The meal would not recreate but reimagine flavors and stories, with a necessary valve to equalize the pressure, unfurl this acute, sensory experience – a group of people who call Israel home in one way or another. Granny Smith apples to Golden Delicious. It was a bit of a celebration as all guests had cause - big moves and big trips. Israeli cuisine would be shared by all and enjoyed together in our common memory.
Any rhyme or reason would have been useless for a menu with the amount of wonderful dishes and ingredients I had tasted for the first time and wanted to bring into my home kitchen. So, as usually does the trick, the answer was sheer instinct with rosé to guide me. I focused on spices purchased at Tel Aviv's Carmel Market - za'atar, baharat and paprika – an essential trinity of Israeli cuisine. Vegetables we constantly encountered in the market and on the table were definitely on the list. First was cauliflower, which I’d roast hard and break up into florets to form the base of a salad with spicy green pepper tehina dressing inspired by schug, the Yemeni hot sauce condiment we couldn’t live without on the trip. I stuffed roasted whole roasted eggplants with ground lamb, served with a side dish of grains and Bulgarian cheese. No meal would be complete without pita and tehina to which mom’s friend Lily – who grew up in the Sabich neighborhood – added garlic and lemon juice. She also sprinkled some olive oil with her friend’s fresh za’atar. It was the best thing on the table.
Just like the dinner, the recipes below are not exact rather tell the story of how the dishes came together. Read them and take from them what you wish. Maybe your Israeli story can be woven inside, too.
Roasted Cauliflower Salad
cucumber, avocado, tehina-schug dressing
- Preheat oven to 500 F.
- Chop cauliflower into 3 large chunks of even thickness - not whole and not florets. This is to get a little more caramelization but not kill the firmness. Also cut one orange in quarters. Place all on a sheet tray and generously douse with extra virgin olive oil.
- Roast until browned on tips and slight tender, with oranges starting to char, about 25 minutes.
- While the cauliflower and oranges are roasting, make the dressing. In a bottle you can shake. Mince capers. Dice shallot. Chop green onion. Dice preserved lemon. Add a little red wine vinegar. Add pulverized lemon juice, diced jalapeno, cilantro, and sea salt. This is inspired by "Schug" a green chili pepper sauce commonly on the table at Yemeni places and topping falafel to make it spicy if you want it! Then add nice green Israeli olive oil and a touch of tehina. Shake. Sea salt to taste.
- Once the cauliflower and oranges are out of the oven allow to cool on the stove top on the sheet tray it was roasted in. Break apart endive into spears and place in a large bowl with chopped crunchy small cucumbers and cubed avocado. To a separate small bowl add sliced yellow grape tomatoes (did you know Israeli agriculture invented these?) length wise and toss with some squeezings of the roasted orange juice, more green onion, the good green israeli olive oil, sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and zesty paprika.
- Once cauliflower has cooled, cut into medium sized florets and add to the bowl of endive and cucumber. Lightly dress with the dressing. Using a slotted spoon, add the marinated tomatoes (you can reserve the juice for something else but don’t want the salad too wet.) Sprinkle with fresh za'atar and enjoy!
Roasted and Stuffed Eggplant and Zucchini
baharat-spiced ground lamb and pine nuts
- Preheat oven to 400 F.
- Place a few small-medium zucchini and eggplant whole on a sheet tray. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 30-35 minutes or until softened, wrinkly and deeply browned.
- While the vegetables are roasting, small chop a Spanish onion and dice shallot and garlic. In a pan over medium heat, sautee in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil until slightly more than a sweat but not caramelized or browned, about 5-7 minutes. Season with some salt and pepper.
- Turn heat to medium high and add ground lamb, baharat and pine nuts. Continuously stir with a wooden spoon for about 4-5 minutes or until meat it cooked through but not murdered and there is very little liquid in the pan. The mixture should just glisten and have a bounce to it. Remove from the heat and set aside until your veg are done!
- Let veg sit to room temp so you can handle them. Make a lengthwise incision and open them up. Scoop heaping spoonfuls of the lamb mixture on top and serve!
Lentils and Red Bulgar
charred leeks, crumbled Bulgarian cheese, and dried lime zest
- Preheat oven to 500F.
- Chop the ends off a whole head of garlic. Slice large leeks lengthwise and thoroughly clean out the sand and dirt, removing many of the tough outer leaves. Peel and chop one large Spanish onion in quarters. Spread out on a sheet tray, generously douse with olive oil, season well with salt and pepper and roast until tips are browned and veg is tender, about 25 minutes. This can be done with the cauliflower if you want to make both dishes at once.)
- While the vegetables are roasting, make and drain equal parts of your grains* according to the instructions on the packaging. Set aside in a bowl.
- Once cool from the oven, roughly chop the roasted leeks and onions, squeeze out the whole roasted garlic cloves and mix all with grains. Crumble the cheese (you can use a firm feta to substitute if you can’t find the Bulgarian cheese from your local ethnic market.) Toss to incorporate all thoroughly. To serve, at room temp, grate Persian dried lime!
*A NOTE ON GRAINS: Bob's Red Mill heritage grains are killer. Use for best results!
Jackie Sayet (35) is a writer and lover of food and travel based in Coconut Grove, Florida, a sunny village on Miami's Biscayne Bay waterfront. After time studying and working in Chicago, Florence, Italy, and New York City, she returned to her hometown to supervise brand/culture integration for advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky and cover restaurants and food for Miami New Times. http://www.giltravel.com/blog/culinary-experience-israel/Since 2009, she has led James Beard Award winning chef Michael Schwartz's marketing and public relations as Brand Director of The Genuine Hospitality Group. Follow her @jackiesayet on Instagram (#Manuchefwitz for group photo album), her favorite social medium, and Schwartz's restaurants on their blog thegenuinekitchen.com and @MGFD_MIA, @thecypressroom and @harryspizzeria.