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Israeli food has worldwide appeal

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Kale and quinoa salad (Flickr/Ali Eminov/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)

Shabbat Shalom and happy November! The days are getting shorter and the availability of fresh produce at farmers’ markets is getting scarcer, although I must say that this week I was still able to find some amazing tomatoes at my local farmers market.

One of the themes of this week’s blog post revolves around markets – Israeli markets or shuks. I was lucky enough to meet Janna Gur, an Israeli food writer and author. Her new book, Shuk: From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking, has some terrific recipes.

The book features stories about various Israeli markets across the country and makes you want to get on a plane to Israel to eat your way through the country.

On Oct. 24, I covered a terrific culinary evening at City Shul with Gur and food maven, Bonnie Stern. Gur offered a very compelling overview of the Israeli market/shuk scene. She described shuks like Carmel and Levinsky in Tel Aviv and Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem as “lively, loud and informal” centres where the atmosphere is as much of a draw as the gourmet and ethnic foods sold.

The 50 people in attendance at City Shul were treated to some lovely food – hummus, kabbouleh, babaganough and grilled vegetables, courtesy of By the Way Cafe.

When it opened back in 1978, the cafe was one of the few places in Toronto offering Israeli street food like hummus and falafel.

Stern has been leading culinary tours to Israel since 2006. She said people were bemused when she and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein first started these tours. “People laughed at us taking culinary groups to Israel back in 2006.”

“In those days, no one went to Israel for the food except for Bonnie,” Gur joked. “Now travel agencies are specializing in Israeli food and culinary tours.”

“Everyone wants an Israeli chef in their kitchen. I wonder when it will peak.”

Bonnie Stern, left, and Janna Gur. (Barbara Silverstein photo)

Gur has been a key player in the Israeli food scene since 1991 when she and her husband, Ilan Gur, launched Al Hashulchan, a popular food and wine magazine. It closed in 2017.

She has also served as the publisher and/or editor of more than 40 cookbooks. Shuk is the third book she has authored.

Stern said when Gur’s first book, The Book of New Israeli Food, was published in 2007, she was eager to meet the author. “We have been friends for a long time. Janna is my mentor for all things Israeli.”

Gur’s second book, Jewish Soul Food from Minsk to Marrakesh, was published in 2014.

She said she and her Shuk co-author, Einat Admony, struggled to find a theme for their book as there were already several new authoritative books on Israeli food. “We needed to find a different angle. With the shuk theme, we have the thing that will make our book relevant and unique.”

She said the shuks vary from city to city. “Each shuk is a reflection of the city it’s in and the city it serves.”

These markets have changed with the times, Gur said. “Shuks needed to reinvent themselves to survive.”

She called Mahane Yehuda “a culinary Disneyland” with its little restaurants, boutiques and bars.

However, she said Israelis still do a lot of shopping at supermarkets, where they have the convenience of credit cards and cheap parking.

She said Israeli food encompasses a range of Mediterranean, North African, Persian, Iraqi and Levantine or Palestinian cuisines.

When Stern asked her about Ashkenzi food, Gur said that when the original settlers came to Israel, they rejected the traditional European fare as part of an effort of breaking away from their Ashkenazi past. She pointed out that while Ashkenazi-style kugels and meat dishes are not widely consumed in Israel, Ashkenazi baked goods like babka and cheesecake are still very popular.

In an era of healthy eating awareness, the prominence of vegetables in Israeli cooking may explain the cuisine’s wide appeal, Gur said. “We know how to make vegetables sexy.” “We knew veggies were an important part of the book. The shuk theme ties everything together.”

I’ve included two recipes below from Shuk: Quinoa-Stuffed Beets with Lemon Sauce and Chopped Avocado, Cucumber and Kohlrabi Salad.

A third recipe, Kale and Quinoa Salad, is a recipe inspired by Kabbouleh, and it’s a tabbouleh-like dish made with kale instead of parsley. It was served at the City Shul event, courtesy of By the Way Cafe.

(Photo Credit: Quentin Bacon)

QUINOA-STUFFED BEETS WITH LEMON SAUCE (Einat Admony and Janna Gur)

8 small or 4 large equal-sized round beets, scrubbed clean

25 ml (5 tsp )kosher salt

250 ml (1 cup) quinoa, rinsed and drained

250 ml (1 cup) very finely chopped leeks (mostly the green parts)

15 ml (1 tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil

10 ml (2 tsp) harissa paste, plus more as needed

2 ml (¼ tsp) freshly ground black pepper, plus more

125 ml (½ cup) fresh lemon juice

30 ml (2 tbsp) silan (date syrup) or honey

Chilled yogurt, sour cream or tahini sauce, for serving

 

Put the beets in a medium pot and add 10 ml (2 tsp salt) and enough cold water to cover the beets. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a steady boil. Cook until the beets are partially tender, 15 to 20 minutes. When you poke them with a fork, you should feel some resistance. Drain and set them aside to cool for a few minutes.

If you don’t want your hands to be magenta for days, put on a pair of rubber gloves. When the beets are cool enough to handle, carefully peel them without removing any flesh – a paring knife works well for this. Using a melon baller or a paring knife, hollow the beets to create a symmetrical cavity – you want to leave about ½ inch of flesh on all sides. Trim a thin slice from the bottom of each beet so it will sit flat on your work surface, but take care not to slice through into the cavity. Save the beet scraps for adding to smoothies or your lunch salad.

Preheat the oven to 165°C (350°F). While the oven heats, make the stuffing. Stir together the quinoa, leeks, oil, harissa, 10 ml (2 tsp) salt and several twists of pepper in a medium bowl.

Fill each beet with the stuffing, leaving a little room at the top for the quinoa to swell when it cooks. Tap the beets gently on the counter to settle the stuffing. Arrange them side by side in a wide baking pan that can hold them all in a single layer. It’s important that the beets fit snugly in the pan or they might roll over. If there’s a gap left, squeeze in a whole peeled onion for support. As the beets cook, the onion will soften, drink up the cooking juices and be a delicious bonus.

Whisk together the lemon juice, silan, 375 ml (1½ cups) water, the remaining 5 ml (1 tsp) salt and 2 ml (¼ tsp) pepper in a small bowl. Reserve 125 ml (½ cup) of the liquid and set aside. Spoon some of the remaining liquid over the stuffing (the quinoa needs moisture to cook properly), and pour the rest around the beets. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid or wrap it tightly with aluminum foil.

Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven, but don’t turn the oven off. Spoon some of the reserved cooking liquid over the stuffing to keep it juicy.

Cover the baking dish again and bake until the quinoa is cooked through and looks swollen and the beets are completely soft, an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, with chilled yogurt, sour cream or tahini sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Make ahead: The beets can be boiled and hollowed, then refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days before stuffing and baking.

READ: UPDATING CLASSIC JEWISH DISHES

Chopped Avocado, Cucumber and Kohlrabi Salad

4 Persian or 2 large cucumbers, cut into 1½ cm (½ -inch) chunks

1 medium jicama or kohlrabi, peeled and cut into 1½ cm (½ -inch) chunks

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 jalapeno chili, cored, seeded and minced

125 ml (½ cup) chopped fresh cilantro

125 ml (¼ cup) fresh mint

125 ml (¼ cup) lemon juice

5 ml (1 tsp) kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 ripe but firm avocados cut in 1½ cm (½ inch) chunks

Lemon wedges for serving

 

Combine the cucumbers, kohlrabi, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, and mint in a large bowl. Add lemon juice salt and pepper. Toss, then add the avocados. Toss gently, taking care not to mash the avocados.

Taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve at once with lemon wedges for squeezing.

 

BY THE WAY ISRAELI CAFE: 40 YEARS AND COUNTING

By the Way Cafe, located at the busy downtown intersection of Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue, is the antithesis of Amir Benedikt’s first home on Ein Gev, a kibbutz in the rural Jordan Valley.

Benedikt, came to Toronto from Israel as a newlywed in 1980 to join his brother-in law and sister at the small cafe they had opened in 1978. His brother also resided in Toronto and worked at a bakery. His boss happened to own the building, where By the Way is located. The owner agreed to lease the place for the cafe on condition that the Lickin Chicken sign remained. Benedikt said while they complied, they also hung rubber chickens in the window with a tongue-in-cheek sign that read: “Sorry, we’re out of chicken.”

Their menu was mostly comprised of vegetarian dishes like falafel, babaganoush and hummus, Benedikt recounted.

The landlord also forced them to sell his cakes and pastries. When they updated their dessert menu, he did not renew the lease, Benedikt recalled. “For years we operated on a month-to month basis.”

The cafe attracted a lot of students. “In 1980 we brought in the (frozen) yogurt machines. We had line-ups around the corner.” The machines, which mixed frozen fruit with a plain frozen yogurt, were all the rage at the time.

The cafe then became known as By the Way Yogurt Cafe, however he said by the mid- ’80s, the yogurt fad had faded and the restaurant’s name changed to By the Way Cafe.

By 1986, Benedikt and his brother-in-law went in different directions. At that time there was more competition for student business – “we had to reinvent ourselves. We did a cosmetic renovation and I reinvented my menu.”

“I created a dining atmosphere like an Israeli – Mediterranean bistro. We introduced pasta. We tried many things. We were also one of the first places to have a patio.”

Benedikt said he has many regular customers. “We have a relationship with neighbourhood people.”

The place also attracts concert-goers and it’s extremely busy during the Hot Docs and Jewish film festivals.

“For the Jewish holidays, we have chicken soup and tzimmes, and matzah is served at Pesach.”

In 2014, the building was sold and the new landlord gave Benedikt a “very good” lease. “I put some money into the restaurant and I updated the menu. I’m going back to my Israeli roots. We specialize in fresh vegetables and Israeli grill.”

“It’s only in the last couple of years that Israeli food is making a buzz.”

He said chefs like Yottam Ottolenghi and Einat Admony have popularized the food.

As well, young Israelis chefs who have left the country have taken the cuisine to new markets.

He’s had the same day chef for 20 years and his night chef is an Israeli.

Amir Benedikt

“We put a lot of emphasis on vegan cuisine,” Benedikt said. “It’s an important part of our menu.”

Benedikt said he’s always introducing new items on the menu as daily specials. “I’m a foodie. I’m very picky about food. I’m always thinking outside of the box of what I can do for the cafe.”

 

KALE AND QUINOA SALAD

500 ml (2 cups) water

250 ml (1 cup )quinoa

10 leaves kale, cut into small pieces

45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil

30 ml (2 tbsp) lemon juice

5 ml (1 tsp) Dijon mustard

1 large garlic clove, minced

5 ml (1 tsp) fresh cracked black pepper

12 ml (2½ tsp) ground sea salt

250 ml (1 cup) pecans

240 ml (1 cup) currants

125 ml (½ cup) crumbled feta cheese

 

Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan. Stir quinoa into the boiling water, reduce heat to medium-low, place cover on the saucepan, and cook until water absorbs into the quinoa, about 12 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and let the quinoa rest covered for 5 minutes. Remove cover and allow quinoa to cool completely.

Put kale in a large mixing bowl.

Whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, garlic, pepper, and salt together in a bowl until the oil emulsifies into the mixture; drizzle over kale. Add cooled quinoa, pecans, currants, and feta cheese to the dressed kale and toss to incorporate.

 

COMMUNITY CALENDAR

NoshFest, Toronto’s Jewish food festival, presents Toronto’s Chanukah Market celebrating Jewish food and culture on Dec. 1 at the Artscape Wychwood Barns (601 Christie Street). This year’s event combines Jewish food vendors – including Primrose Bagel and Marty’s Pickles – with local artisans selling Chanukah gifts.

There will also be cooking demos from chefs Amy Rosen and Carolyn Cohen, and Rooks to Cooks.

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