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Israeli cuisine has arrived

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Bonnie Stern, right, with Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, founder of the A-Sham Arab Food Festival.

When food writer Bonnie Stern led her first culinary tour of Israeli in 2006, people laughed and told her that “nobody goes to Israel for the food.”

Twelve years and eight tours later, she has seen some remarkable progress. “Israeli food is exciting and delicious and irresistible,” she said.

Stern, an award-winning author of 12 cookbooks and a former food columnist for the National Post, gave a talk on Israeli food to a packed room of about 150 people at the Barbara Frum Library in Toronto on May 9.

Stern attributes the wide range of Israeli foods to the impact of immigration. Turkish, North African, Moroccan, Persian and Yemenite culinary traditions have been very influential in Israel, but more recently, there has been an infusion of Russian and French food, as well.

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She said it’s ironic that in modern-day Israel, it’s hard to find restaurants serving chicken soup, kishke and kugel, the traditional foods of the original Ashkenazic settlers who established the state (although Ashkenazic-style breads and cakes are still very popular).

Stern discussed some of the diverse dishes available in Israel. Borekas, Turkish pizza, lamb stew and Moroccan fish balls in tomato sauce are just a few of the many offerings.

She highlighted the extensive use of exotic Middle Eastern spice rubs, such as: za’atar, a herbal blend of sumac, thyme and sesame seeds; hawaij, a Yemenite blend of turmeric, cumin and black pepper; and baharat, a rub of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamon, cumin and coriander.

Stern said the flavour of some dishes is often enhanced with such condiments as z’houg, a spicy Yemenite pesto-like sauce made from tahini.

She  lauded the healthy orientation of Israeli food with its emphasis on fresh produce. Veganism has become very prevalent, she said, noting that Tel Aviv is now home to some 400 vegan restaurants.

The ambiance of many of the country’s restaurants seems to be uniquely Israeli. Stern described lively places offering tasty food with flair, in relaxed and casual settings.

Israeli-style restaurants have also become very popular outside of the country, Stern said. “Israelis are being recognized as some of the best chefs in the world.”

She pointed to Palomar, an Israeli-owned Middle Eastern establishment in London that was voted the best restaurant in the city.

Interest in Middle Eastern food in London is a trend that can be traced to the popularity of the world-famous, Jerusalem-born chef, Yotam Ottolenghi, one of “two chefs that put Israeli cooking on the map.”

She said he and Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian from east Jerusalem, are two ex-pats who met in London and  teamed up to co-author the best-selling cookbook, Jerusalem (2012). They have also collaborated on business ventures and other cookbooks.

Their relationship is not unique, as co-operation between Jewish and Palestinian chefs in Israel is “more common than people realize,” Stern said. “Food brings people together.”

Many Arab-Israelis and Jews work on an array of food projects together, including Leket Israel, the national food bank. Leket runs a fresh food recovery and redistribution program for needy Israelis of all ethnicities.

Stern cited Buza, a successful chain of ice cream parlours in northern Israel and Tel Aviv. This Jewish and Arab partnership has become a symbol of co-operation and peaceful coexistence.

The annual A-Sham Arab Food Festival in Haifa is an event that brings Israeli Jews and Arabs together, Stern said. “A hundred years of feuding is not going to stop Israelis from eating good food.” n

Bonnie Stern’s Fig Salad with Roasted Beets and Feta

ο 750 g (1½ lb) ruby beets, trimmed and cleaned (peeled, if necessary), cut into 1-2 cm (1/2-3/4”) dice

ο 15 ml (1 tbsp) honey or date honey

ο 1.25 ml (1/4 tsp) ground cumin

ο 5 ml (1 tsp) fresh lemon juice

ο 30 ml (2 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil

ο 2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) kosher salt

ο pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Dressing

ο 15 ml (1 tbsp) each, pomegranate molasses, good balsamic vinegar, maple syrup and pomegranate juice

ο 1 small clove garlic, grated or minced

ο 45 ml (3 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil

ο kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

ο 1.5 l (6 cups) arugula or mache

ο 3 fresh figs, cut into wedges

ο 75 ml (1/3 cup) pomegranate seeds

ο 100 g (4 oz) feta or goat cheese, broken up

Combine the diced beets with the honey, cumin, lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper. Spread the beets in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast them in a preheated 200 C (400 F) oven for 40-45 minutes, or until the beets are tender. Cool.

For the dressing, whisk the pomegranate molasses with balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, pomegranate juice, garlic, olive oil, 2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) salt and pinch of pepper. If the dressing is too thick, thin with additional pomegranate juice.

Place the greens in a shallow serving dish. Sprinkle with the beets, figs, pomegranate seeds and cheese. Drizzle with the dressing. Makes 4-6 servings.

Bonnie Stern’s Cauliflower Couscous Salad with Tahini

ο 1 medium cauliflower (about 750 g), trimmed, florets only, about 1 l (4 cups)

ο 30 ml (2 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil

ο 1 leek, trimmed, well washed and sliced

ο 1 clove garlic, finely chopped

ο kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Tahini sauce

ο 75 ml (1/3 cup) tahini paste

ο 45 ml (3 tbsp) lemon juice

ο 60 ml (1/4 cup) ice water, more if necessary

ο 1 small clove garlic, minced

ο pinch of ground cumin (optional)

ο z’houg (cilantro pesto):

ο 1 small clove garlic, peeled and cut into pieces

ο 1/2 jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed, cut into pieces

ο 250 ml (1 cup) packed cilantro leaves

ο 60 ml (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oil

ο 75 ml (1/3 cup) pomegranate seeds

ο 30 ml (2 tbsp) toasted pine nuts

Chop the cauliflower florets in a food processor in batches and pulse until the cauliflower is in small bits resembling couscous. (If you do not have a food processor, chop with a knife.) Reserve.

Heat 30 ml (2 tbsp) of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the leeks and cook gently for 3-4 minutes, until they soften. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the cauliflower and cook gently, stirring often, until it is hot, slightly cooked, but still a little crunchy. Cool the mixture.

Whisk or blend the tahini with lemon juice, ice water and garlic, until the mixture is smooth. Add enough additional cold water until the tahini mixture can be drizzled. Season it with salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of cumin.

For the z’houg, pulse the garlic, jalapeño, cilantro and 2 ml (1/2 tsp) kosher salt in a food processor or blender until the ingredients are chopped. Drizzle in the olive oil. Add more oil if necessary so you can drizzle the z’houg over the couscous. Season to taste.

Stir half the tahini into the cauliflower. Season to taste. Place the cauliflower mixture in a shallow serving bowl. Drizzle with the remaining tahini and as much z’houg as you wish. Sprinkle with the pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. Makes 4-6 servings.