August 2, 2012 § 32 Comments
Greece gets all of the oohs and ahs when I share my travels, and with good reason. Athens acted as the take off point where our Boston flight connected to our Tel-Aviv flight so my time there was a bit segmented.
Despite our time limit Shann and I were able to visit the Acropolis, a rocky hill on which the Parthenon is located. Like the astounding view from the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Theater of Dionysus, and the Erechtheion were beyond impressive.
Some time during our few hours in the city we visited the main market in Plaka, the city center of Athens. The market was relatively small but boasted the best (and least smelly) collection of pristine seafood I’ve ever seen. Red mullet, sardines, octopus, sea urchins, clams, mussels, squid and a cornucopia of other creatures were splayed on beds of ice mounted in front of prideful vendors. As if the Mediterranean seafood was not enough, the nuts, legumes, lentils and dried fruit proved why the Greek diet is considered one of the best in the world.
After some trekking we were ready to eat so we headed back to a tall staircase that was nestled between more taverns and cafes than anyone could imagine. There we ate at Sissifo’s Tavern and were not at all disappointed. To quiet our stomachs that were still sour from the thought of airplane food, we indulged in grilled octopus (a local specialty), eggplant stuffed with soft cheese and basil, vine leaves in a lemon sauce and boiled wild greens drenched in extra virgin olive oil topped off with crusty bread and a couple glasses of the house red.
Aside from the food, Athens did not strike me as memorable until I spent the night. With the mass amounts of tourists, the daylight hours felt a bit artificial. After dark the artificial Athens dissolved into the beauty we found roaming the back allies hoping to stumble upon a quality spot to get drinks and dinner with the locals. Quickly I found myself wishing we had more time in the city.
It was then, our only night in Athens, that I tried Moussaka, a Greek specialty with some serious competition behind it. Moussaka is a compilation of fried eggplant and ground meat topped with a fluffy Bechamel sauce. Each tavern claims they make the best Moussaka, and each time all you can do is smile, nod and tell them you’d like to judge for yourself. The Moussaka we had in Athens was the only Moussaka we ate, but I bet it was just as they said it was; easily the best in all of Athens.
July 16, 2012 § 2 Comments
We are in the heat of the summer and finally the zucchinis are sprouting their phallic protrusions like it’s going out of style, the cucumber vines are spotted with petite yellow flowers that morph into miniature cucs, the nasturtiums are going wild, broccoli crowns royally spring up after every cutting, snap peas line the twirling tendrils, green tomatoes sun bathe trying to turn their sick skin ruby red, the chard is plentiful, garlic scapes emit their pungent fragrance and the kale isn’t stopping any time soon.
Along with the boisterous produce, eggs with yolks that are as orange as the sky at sunset are coming rapidly. The four chicks are growing faster than the purslane at the feet of my brandywines and I’m excited to figure out their sex. I’m hoping for no more than one rooster, but that would be some ridiculously good luck.
Good food is always plentiful in the summer as meals are always straight from the garden. It takes a lot to grow the food so to not take advantage of each morsel that comes from the rich soil seems silly. With that being said, I’m sure you can image how much chard and kale I’ve been eating, no? After eating greens for breakfast, lunch and dinner I guess it’s not surprising that I would start doing “crazy” things. First I started using nut butter to dress the leaves of the salad, next I added some fruit and then I went wild, mixing cacao nibs into my plate of Russian Red kale. Oh so good.
I guess it may seem strange if you’re stuck on the black and white idea that cacao = chocolate and chocolate = cacao but if you step out of the narrow-mindedness of typical associations, cacao is no more than a dried seed that belongs nestled between the chlorophylly leaves of your kale salad. Plus, cacao + kale = super food extravaganza. Together (2 cups kale and just one ounce of cacao nibs) they deliver over 1300% of the recommended vitamin K and over 300% of the needed vitamin A. Plus calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, B vitamins, essential fatty acids, fiber and more flavonoids than almost any other super food (think blueberries, wine, green tea, etc).
If that is not enough, both kale and cacao contain a significant amount of the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin, found mainly in the gastrointestinal tract of humans and animals is known to promote feelings of happiness and well being (ever wonder why chocolate is magical?). Now maybe you can see why it’s a good idea to start your day with cacao and kale, never mind just consume the stuff in general. Edible optimism.
This is not really a recipe per se, but more of a suggestion. I’ve used raspberries, blue berries, or strawberries and if it’s really hot I substitute half of a frozen (organic/fair trade) banana. Depending on the fruit I use I interchange peanut butter with almond butter but anything works. Also, I’ve been breaking up pieces of homemade halva into the salad to give it more nuttiness – it’s a nice addition and adds some extra calcium if you like halva. Toasted coconut or buckwheat granola also work really well with the flavor of kale. Remember, kale is bitter so taste as you go to make sure you like the flavor combinations.
1 1/2-2 cups raw kale, chopped, 2 Tbsp nut butter, 1 1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup fruit, 1/8 cup organic, raw cacao nibs or beans
Chop kale, toss it in 1/2 tbsp olive oil. Mix remaining olive oil with 1 tbsp of nut butter and mix with a fork until it’s homogenous. Pour the oil and nut butter mixture over the kale and toss. Add nibs and toss until mixed. Add fruit. Top with the remaining nut butter and a sprinkling of nibs.
Share and enjoy!
June 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.
Rice is something I’ve always struggled with. I enjoy it when other people labor through the simmering and stirring for me, but every time I concoct a rice based dish I’m sorely disappointed. Repetitive disappointment in the rice department bruised my ego a bit. I mean over half of the world’s population probably eats rice every day, multiple times. If they can cook it so well what was I missing? The answer – the right type of rice. This recipe uses short grain rice, which is, in my opinion more palatable than long grain which tends to be a harder and more dry (in my very humble experience). This earthy combination is one not to miss out on. The recipe comes from a Middle Eastern cookbook, Artichoke to Za’atar by Greg and Lucy Malouf. Shann gave me for my birthday last summer and I must say I appreciate it exponentially more after experiencing the cuisine of Israel. However, it doesn’t take a trip to the Middle East to realize this rice is exceptional.
In the book, Greg and Lucy suggest stuffing a baby lamb with the Lebanese nut rice. I didn’t have that kind of time and am sure that finding someone to sell me an entire baby lamb would be a lengthy project within itself. That being said, I think this rice would be tasty stuffed in anything be it the cavity of a chicken or between the fleshy walls of a cored tomato (or any type of winter squash when they are in season). So instead of stuffing I did a bit of modifying through out the recipe. In place of the ground lamb, I substituted bones from the shoulder of a lamb I saved after making lamb confit. I preferred using the bones because they provide depth without adding ground meat, but I’m sure the meat would add a pleasant texture, especially if you decided to use this for stuffing. Also, I used about a cup of each of the nuts instead of 2/3 of a cup. This is not necessary but definitely added more flavor, texture and richness.
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1 large white onion, finely diced, 5 ounces of ground lamb*, 3 cups organic short grain brown rice, 1 quart vegetable stock**, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 tsp crushed black pepper, sea salt to taste
*Ground beef or lamb bones can be used instead of ground lamb. **Chicken stock or beef stock can be substituted depending on what meat or bones you use to flavor the rice. Also, you may need 2 quarts (8 cups or 1/2 gallon) depending on the rice you use.
2/3 cup pine nuts, 2/3 cup slivered almonds, 2/3 cup unsalted shelled pistachio nuts, 1/2 cup olive oil, 2 small garlic cloves, juice from 1 lemon, 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
Lebanese Nut Rice
In a large cast iron skillet or heavy bottom pan heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Saute the onion and ground lamb or lamb bones until the onion is soft and translucent and the meat is browned. Add the rice and the vegetable stock and bring to a boil within four minutes. When boiling add the cinnamon stick, reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook without stirring until the rice has soaked up a majority of the stock. If the rice is still hard add 2-4 more cups of stock and continue to simmer until the rice softens and becomes chewy.
Meanwhile, heat the 1/2 cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pine nuts, almonds and pistachios until fragrant and golden brown. With a slotted spoon remove the nuts and add them to the rice when it is finished cooking. Save the nut infused oil.
Chop and smash the garlic into a paste. Heat 3 tablespoons of the nut-infused olive oil with the garlic and lemon juice until boiling. Pour over the rice when ready to serve
Enjoy with a hearty serving of tzatziki and some sliced cucumber with a indulgent drizzling of olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Bon appetite.
June 18, 2012 § 2 Comments
Tel-Aviv is a Middle-Eastern city with European flare. The food is amazing and as in any city there is a whole spectrum of different cuisines, some traditional others more creative. Because of the many ethnicities, religions and the traditions that come with them, creativity thrives in the city’s food, in the culture and in the people.
Our time in Israel concluded with just a few days to explore the beaches, markets, cafes and cuisine of Tel-Aviv. Earlier in the trip we had been tipped off to Mizlala, a cutting edge restaurant at the heart of the city.
Mizlala was impressive from the start; taking the place of bread were puffy peanuts in their shells served with a helping of grainy flur de sal for dipping. The menu, broken up into four parts took careful deliberation before we finally choose what we would eat and drink. We chose a Rioja to pair with our adventurous dishes of Cubana (a brioche-like Cuban bread made with lard), Palestinian tartar (chopped rump steak, crude tehina, pine nuts, yogurt, broad beans and cumin), calf brain mafroum (wrapped in potato, hummus chickpeas & pepper harissa) and slow cooked veal plate (veal cheek) with ratte gnocchi, baladi spinach & forest mushrooms. After our meal we ordered the cacao and nuts ice cream sandwich served with toffee ice cream and chocolate whip. Dessert was perfect in taste, texture and temperature (imagine warm, crunchy cacao cookies with cold ice cream, nuts and cloud-lite chocolate cream). So delicious.
The food at Mizlala definetly reflected the necessary hybridizations present in Tel-Aviv between the various religions and cultures. Tel-Aviv is a city I’ll rush back to (in large part due to the aforementioned creative hybridizations). The streets are lined with cafes where people sip cappuccinos and Turkish coffee, the beaches are dotted with paddle ball players and guitarists and the market, Carmel Market, is a feast for the senses. The most intriguing thing about the city is that every Friday night on Shabbat, the beginning of the Jewish sabbath, all of this modern life comes to a halt for a day of rest. In fact, the best time to visit the central open-air market is of Friday afternoon before sundown when everyone is scrambling to buy the last of what they need before Saturday’s Shabbat when the market is closed.
At the market in Tel-Aviv (which was more chaotic than the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem), fragrant spices are guarded by vendors shouting prices in Hebrew. By showing just a bit of curiosity the vendors will pour some of their favorite spice mixtures into the palm of your hand for sampling. I happily left with 400 grams of sumac and 400 grams of za’atar, sesame seed halva, dark chocolate dip, tahina and a platter of baklava, kataifi and borma.
As if being in another country, Tel-Aviv serves as a haven for those looking to escape the religious and political heat that is present throughout the volatile regions of Israel. I found it to be a space for creating culture; art, music, food etc that I greatly recommend visiting (not just for the food).
June 1, 2012 § 3 Comments
Jaffa, a scanty port city abuting Tel-Aviv, is thought to be one of the oldest ports in the world. As the story has it Noah’s (Noah’s Ark Noah) son, Japheth, discovered it in the wake of the infamous flood.
Perched on Israel’s west coast overlooking the Mediterranean it was once a primary port for the country. However, with the explosive growth of Tel-Aviv and the convenience of Haifa, it was merged with Tel-Aviv creating what it referred to today as Tel-Aviv-Yafo.
Aside from the numerous years the port has seen, and the biblical characters it has harbored, Jaffa, a mainly Arab city has some damn good, classic Middle Eastern food. After wondering through uneven streets of the somewhat tattered city Shann and I were immediately seduced by the doughy aroma of a nameless hole in the wall bakery we later found out was called Said Abu Eiafia & Sons.
Supposedly, the bakery is legendary. According to our Lonely Planet guide book it was Jaffa’s first bakery, established in 1880. The accuracy of the previous statement is unknown, but I have to say the hot za’atar coated pita was nothing like I’ve ever had before. First off, pita in the US is a complete (how to say this relatively nicely) failure. Here the bread is thick yet it maintains a surprising fluffiness.
While chewing his hot pita Shann assured me that this was proper, fed me a bite and encouraged me to go for it. Well, let’s just say that Shann’s was the unadulterated version of what I ordered: a fragrant za’atar frosted pita covered with tangy labneh and ripe tomatoes. To savor every bite I had to sit down. As a side note, if you’ve never eaten or cooked with za’atar, wild thyme also known as hyssop, you really must try it (as a dip mixed with olive oil).
After I finished eating, we continued to explore Jaffa. We walked from the old port through unmarked allies to a market flung with huge carpets, costume jewelry, old televisions, used furniture and piles of trinkets and around ottoman inspired neighborhoods until we arrived at Jaffa’s new port.
After hours of wondering we watched the sun drop below the horizon and headed back to the old city for an Arab dinner full of colorful salads, tahina laced dips, intensely spiced kabobs, falafal and of course, pita.
This was my first time experiencing classic Israeli dinning. First, the server brings five to ten different salads, consisting of a variety of pickled vegetables, herb salads, brined vegetables, babah-ganoush (here it was made with smoked eggplant and mayonnaise), hommus, tahina, and Turkish salads (think Middle Eastern salsas) with pita for dipping. After the salads, the main course is served and then to conclude there is baklahva (baklawa in Arabic) with mint tea or Turkish coffee.
Let’s just say I’ve yet to leave anywhere hungry.
May 27, 2012 § 5 Comments
If my feet could talk, they would still be cursing me from the journey they endured pounding limestone streets during our stay in Jerusalem. Shann and I were lucky enough to snag two nights at his great aunt’s apartment in the German Colony, Emek Refa’im, a bit more than a mile south of the Old City.
Upon arrival we were fatigued and looking for something quick to eat. Wondering down the bustling streets of the secular city center we stumbled upon rows of vendors auctioning off their classic Middle Eastern street food. Pickled aubergine (eggplant), Israeli salad, red cabbage salad, hommus, tahina and hot pita filled my plate. Shann went for an ethnic dish piled high with couscous, curried chickpeas, onions, cauliflower and carrots served next to sumac, cumin and clove spiced ketzitzot (meatballs). Cheap and satisfying.
At the heart of Israeli cuisine is a secret reviled with experience alone – with heavy preparation (pickling, spicing, smoking, etc), flavorful vegetables are consumed in abundance. Maybe you knew this, but I didn’t completely realize it until being immersed in Israel’s food culture. After eating we were ready to go. With a smidgen less than two days in a city that couldn’t comprehensively be covered in a year, we worked hard to hit the sites that interested us the most.
Our first night we were able to glimpse at the Western Wall. The Western Wall, known to many as the Wailing Wall, is the Jewish holy site. The wall, built some 2000 years ago, is the last piece of a Solomon’s holy temple that is intact. After the temple was destroyed, only the Western Wall, which now borders the Muslim Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock, stood strong beckoning Jews from around the world to some pray at its stone base.
The sight is inspiring; men and women, separated by a lone fence, stand, hands on the Jerusalem stone, praying earnestly. People make pilgrimages here to stick their prayers, etched on tiny pieces of paper, in crevasses between the massive stones.
The sun began to set, so we stole a glimpse of the Dome of the Rock, wondered the narrow alleyways of the shouk (market) then headed to a small cafe for mint tea to plan for the next day.
The next morning Shann was craving borekas, the soft-cheese stuffed filo dough pastry, topped with sesame seeds, that his Circassian-Israeli grandmother used to whip up in her humble kitchen. Shann typically doesn’t get too excited about food, so when he says he wants something I know he means it. The hunt was on.
The “hunt” wasn’t much of a hunt; Shann’s great aunt tipped us off to a small bakery where we would be sure to find the best borekas around. After my first bite I understood; with its sweet airy dough and lightly salted cheese I’m surprised he had never mentioned them before. However, they did nothing to satiate us, so we stayed a bit longer…
As if borekas weren’t enough, we sampled rolled pastries stuffed to the brim with bitter chocolate, a leek and Gruyere omelet and the traditional Israeli shakshuka; eggs baked into savory concentrated tomatoes, chopped onions and an herb filled skillet.
Israelis really know how to serve a meal; not only do you get what you ordered, but what you ordered is accompanied by small plates, mezze. At breakfast, which at this bakery/cafe was more eastern European than Middle Eastern style we were given cheeses, pesto, tapanade, olives, “sours” (aka pickles or other pickled vegetables), and a loaf of dark fresh-baked bread. While sampling the meal accompaniments, I discovered Labneh, which I have had before but didn’t know exactly what it was. Labneh is a thick strained yogurt-derived cheese that has its roots in Lebanon. It’s flavor is sour and pungent, it’s texture is bodacious, it tastes good on everything (from eggs to chocolate pastries) and I know I’ll be attempting to churn it out when I come home.
Feeling ready to take on the densely packed city we headed to the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem’s city center. The market was by far my favorite market (including markets in Italy and in Mexico) that I have yet to wonder. Its sprawl occupied over two streets and every adjacent alleyway. Early morning to sunset before Shabbat, men stand behind their displays of brined olives, aromatic spice mixtures, honey saturated sweets, clean cut meat, iced fruit and coffee drinks, vine leaves, seasonal fruits and vegetables and their collections of yogurt, tahina and legume based dips and spreads making sales that quickly satisfy the schools diverse customers milling over the market’s plentiful offerings.
Halvah, a confection popular throughout the Middle East always seems to court me. Why? Well, it is a mixture of tahina, a sesame seed paste known as tahini in the states, sugar and nuts. Its crumbly texture makes it all the more inviting, but I have to take caution, it’s quite saccharine.
After the market we returned to the old city through the Jaffa gate, navigated through the shouk’s persistent vendors who sell everything from decorative rugs to jewel toned beads, then walked the Via Delarosa. The Via Delarosa is the path that Jesus walked to carry the cross to his Crucifixion. At nearly every corner along the path of Calvary there are stations marking a place of significance. Above is where (according to the Bible) Veronica, a women in the crowd used her shroud to wipe blood from the torn flesh on Jesus’s face. This was station six, my favorite station.
At the base of the seventh station an Arab woman sat selling vine leaves (top right), mint (top left), cilantro (beneath mint), squash (beneath cilantro), raw green unhulled chickpeas (right of squash), purslane (bottom left) and sage (bottom right) while mingling with familiar women who passed by.
After finishing up in the old city we made our way to the archeological excavations of the City of David to trek through Hezekiah’s tunnel, an underground waterway where water from Gihon Spring has continued to flow for the last 3000 years. Above is a small wadding pool that was mostly like used as a cistern to collect the water that flows through the tunnel. We capped off the day with a walk through the Israeli Museum to see the Jerusalem model and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Last, we indulged in a multi-course dinner at the best restaurant in the city, chef Moshe Basson’s (founder of Slow Food Israel), Eucalyptus.
Jerusalem is teeming with life, a fact that is reflected by it’s vivacious cuisine, color splashed alleyways and the deep tolerance knitted into the city’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants. It has only been a few days since we left the city and I already want to go back. Jerusalem is mystical, it exudes a magnetism that entices the religious, the spiritual and the secular alike. I know I will return, both to eat more and explore further.
May 14, 2012 § 2 Comments
Known all throughout the world, Mexico’s (especially Oaxaca’s) food culture is nothing short of vivacious, but what gives it the pure liveliness we know and love it for today?
The Mexican foodways are part of a dynamic culture rooted in resistance, but also in adaption. As we look at our diets now, in the modern era, it is imperative to consider who we are, who came before us and who came before them; as all these details determine the foodways in which we take part.
Mexico’s cuisine is defined by an intense preservation of indigenous foodways combine with those of the conquistador settlers. Many of the indigenous foodways have been preserved, many adapted and some eliminated. As food cultures evolve from cultural encounters, social and political hierarchies, socioeconomic castes, and the conjunction of surrounding life, Mexico is a prime example of how the richest food culture, those of the Aztecs, Miztecs, Zapotecs and Mayans, are those that have endured the test of time (even if they have had to adapt to do so).
Food, and how it is portrayed within a society often speaks volumes about that society’s culture, and in Oaxaca it’s clear that influences from all around the world play a pivotal role in the ever-evolving food culture. One trip to Oaxaca and it is quite obvious that influences from ancient, pre-Colombian Mayan and Aztec civilizations, from Spaniards during post-conquest period, from West Africa during the slave trade, and from Europe and America, also known as “Creole” have penetrated the Mesoamerican foodways yielding those of Mexico.
Oaxaca, known to many as the Land of the Seven Moles, has preserved the ways of the indigenous people, sticking to hyper-locally grown produce, spices and meat as well as traditional food preparations and gatherings.
What is so impressive about Oaxaca is that good, integral food is expected from and by everyone. Between the open-air markets and the sustenance farming, the women (and some men) of Oaxaca have fanned the flame of what it means to eat “slow food”.
The cuisine of Oaxaca is incredibly labor intensive (both in the kitchen and in the field) due to the from-scratch mentality, yet regardless of where you go, the women will only feed you the best of what they have. While in Oaxaca I tasted everything: mole, tamales, hand-pressed blue corn quesadillas, tlayudas, elotes, traditional guacamole, chapalinas (crickets), chocolateatole, mezcal, agua frescas, agua de chocolate, flan, stuffed squash blossoms, etc, etc.
Despite the fact that I’ve been back home, in the US, for a few months now, the spirit of the rich Oaxacan food culture still resonate with me. Each time I experience a new culture it becomes part of me. The spirit of the humble Oaxacan people serving their proud cuisine is now one of my favorites.
Now off to Israel and Greece!