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Israeli chefs add culinary panache to tours

From left are chefs Guy Marom and Nir Margalith. TOBY SALTZMAN PHOTO

When Canadian film producer Dale Burshtein, who had previously filmed in Israel for the Discovery Channel, returned to Israel for a culinary tour with Nir Margalith and Guy Marom – the foodie-travel-tour gurus behind Puzzle Israel tours – she came away inspired on many levels.

“Even though I knew the country, I found they generated an intimate, festive vibe with back door access that introduced facets of Israel like I’d never seen it before. I felt like I was a local in my own country.”

Engaged by the duo’s programs, Burshtein explains, “I met them as tour guides, now they are my Israeli brothers.”

When she heard they were planning to demonstrate their culinary skills at various charity events in the United States, she invited them to Toronto, where they presented a hands-on culinary experience for her friends.

Self-described “adventure junkies,” Margalith and Marom, both 32, grew up as school friends in the Galilee area. After serving in the army, they travelled individually, passing through India, Asia  and New Zealand, developing their palates along the way. After returning home and cooking their way around Israel as chefs, Margalith and Marom formed Puzzle Israel in 2010.

“The tourism scene was repetitive. We wanted to do something new, fresh, dynamic, to listen to clients and – like a jigsaw – put pieces together for a customized trip.”

Interestingly, to grow their business, they started by travelling to the United States, reaching out to students and teaching groups to make shakshuka dishes while encouraging them to visit Israel.

Over time, they cultivated clients – who now include families as well as cultural and business groups – who typically crave escapades beyond the “once-in-a-lifetime experience. They want to see Israel differently.” Their itineraries are flexible, tailored to include culinary encounters, hiking, biking or yoga, among other activities, and always include opportunities to engage with locals.

Burshtein’s gleaming white kitchen grew fragrant with exotic spices as the two chefs prepared the Bedouin-style dish of Mansaf chicken, rich with an Arabian concoction of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and cumin. This one-pot dish would cook slowly, for three hours while they prepped vegetables for the two starring dishes: the piquant tabbouleh salad and the tasty eggplant rolls filled with minced beef and dates.

Gluten-free colourful tabbouleh salad

o 1 head of cauliflower

o 2 cups cucumbers, peeled and diced

o 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

o 1 cup carrots, finely chopped

o 1 small red onion, finely chopped

o 1 bunch parsley, chopped

o 2 tbsp. mint leaves, chopped

o 2 lemons, juiced

o sea salt and black pepper to taste

o pomegranate seeds

In a food processor, finely chop the cauliflower. Add chopped cauliflower and remaining ingredients to a large mixing bowl. Toss in the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Chill for 10 minutes, garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve.

Eggplant rolls filled with minced meat and dates

o 1 lb. raw ground beef

o 5 Medjool dates, pitted, diced to small pieces

o 1/4 tsp. sea salt

o 1/4 tsp. black pepper

o fresh thyme

o 3 eggplants, sliced lengthwise to 1/4-inch strips

o 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

o 1 red onion, diced to small pieces

o 2 cloves garlic, minced.

Preheat oven to 450. Line a sheet pan with sliced eggplants. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 10-12 minutes until slightly golden brown.

Heat olive oil in a frying pan over high heat. Add onion and garlic, stirring constantly for 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook for another 15-20 minutes until caramelized.

In a mixing bowl, combine raw ground beef, sautéed onion and garlic, dates, salt and pepper and mix well.

Place a spoonful of the beef mixture onto each eggplant slice.

Roll the eggplant over the beef mixture. Secure the roll with a toothpick.

Place the rolls on a lined sheet pan and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes.

Remove from oven. Garnish with fresh thyme. Serve warm.