The list of "must-see" destinations in Israel is endless. Fortunately, my husband and I have many relatives, friends and colleagues living there, all of whom do their best to take us to places off the beaten track.
A few weeks ago, we drove to Rosh Hanikra in the northwest corner of country. A quiet spot, the main attraction here is the grotto. You descend the sheer rock face by cable car and enter the space, which is about 70 yards long. Inside, the natural stone sculptures have been shaped by thousands of years of being battered by sea waves. It is eerily silent, mysterious and breathtakingly beautiful. (It's best to call ahead for operating times).
With my Israeli colleague, Phyllis Glazer, we visited Amirey Hagalil, a boutique spa nestled in a grove of trees on the slopes of the Galilee. In the stone arched lobby, a winding staircase led up to a wrap-around balcony. Under a canopy of lush greenery, guests were stretched out on cushioned lounges, sipping fruit or vegetable juices. Only the chirping of birds broke the silence.
From the wall of windows in the dining room, we looked down upon a spectacular view of the Golan and the Sea of Galilee. For our breakfast, the table was laden with baskets of warm, home-baked breads, pots of lemon-verbena and plum preserves, pistachio halvah from the nearby Arab village of Mrar and an unusual type of the egg dish shakshouka, in which the tomato sauce was a rich golden color achieved through the addition of eggplant and pumpkin.
All the ingredients, including vegetable salads and wild honey, were local or from somewhere else in Israel.
But the highlight of the visit for me was the special spa treatment called the "Olive-Tree Massage." Combining an energy massage with local olive oil, it left my skin feeling like silk. The masseuse was gentle, the music soft -- I never wanted to leave.
At the Druze village of Sajours, we dined at a kosher restaurant, where we sampled spicy meatballs fried in olive oil and -- the signature dish -- Bridegroom's Feast, said to be served on the wedding night ("to give him strength," said Morad, our host, with a smile).
Some olive trees in Israel are said to be 2,000 years old.
At the Habib family complex, olives are gathered from 1,500 to 2,000 cultivated trees.
A fruity extra-virgin olive oil is sold under the Habib label, and olive oil and goat's milk are turned into flower-shaped soaps, each tied beautifully in silver muslin. Other soaps are scented with luscious spices, such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.
If you're in the area, don't miss out on the Sorek Cave, about 19 miles east of Jerusalem. The amazing stalactite and stalagmites resemble everything from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It was all discovered as a result of an explosion in a nearby quarry; the blast opened a window into the cave that had been hidden for a few million years.
Below are some recipes picked up along the way during our most recent Israeli stay.
Yossi's Pomegranate Chicken
1 chicken (31/2-4 lbs.), cut in 8 pieces
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. chopped garlic, from a jar works fine
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Arrange the chicken in a shallow ovenproof dish. Prick the pieces all over with a fork. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the pomegranate juice, wine, olive oil, garlic, pepper and salt. Pour over top of chicken. Cover with plastic wrap.
Refrigerate overnight, turning the chicken over after about 4 hours.
Bake in a preheated 350° oven for 45 to 60 minutes, or until juices run clear when pierced with a knife.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 662; protein, 49 g; carbohydrates, 4 g; fat, 48 g; cholesterol, 238 mg; sodium, 343 mg.
Vermicelli is Italian for little worms. Don't be put off by the translation; it's just very thin strands of pasta.
5 Tbsps. olive oil, divided
3/4 lb. ground lamb or chicken
1 small onion, diced
1 Tbsp. curry powder or to taste
1 cup vermicelli noodles, lightly crushed
1 cup long-grain rice
3 cups vegetable or beef bouillon
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste
freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy pot over medium heat.
Add the ground lamb or chicken.
Cook, stirring often, until no pink remains. Stir in the onion. Cook 3 to 4 minutes longer until onion is softened. Season to taste with curry powder. Set aside.
Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a medium pot over medium heat.
Add the vermicelli. Stir until golden-brown.
Add the rice. Stir over heat for 5 minutes, then add the bouillon and salt.
Bring to boil and reduce heat to low. Cover and cook gently for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is "firm-tender."
Remove from heat. Leave covered for 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
To Assemble: Heat the meat mixture through. Spoon into a serving dish. Layer the rice mixture on top. Scatter toasted almonds over top and serve.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 512; protein, 37 g; carbohydrates, 37 g; fat, 32 g; cholesterol, 41 mg; sodium, 267 mg.
2 Tbsps. olive oil
11/2 lbs. carrots, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
2 tsps. chopped garlic
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. caraway seeds, crushed
2 Tbsps. white vinegar
1 Tbsp. honey
salt to taste
1 small hot pepper, thinly sliced
Pour the oil into a heavy saucepan.
Add the carrots and cook 10 minutes over medium-low heat. Stir frequently.
Add the remaining ingredients.
Pour just enough water over to barely cover the carrots. Cover and reduce to simmer. Cook until carrots are tender, about 15 minutes. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add a little more hot water, if needed. Serve hot.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 94; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 12 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 40 mg.
Shakshouka With Pumpkin
This is a good breakfast dish, or serve it anytime with warm, crisp breads and sweet butter.
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 large red or green bell pepper, seeded and cut in thin shreds
1 tsp. chopped garlic
3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 cup diced pumpkin or 1/2 cup canned pumpkin purée
1/2 cup tomato sauce
11/2 tsps. cumin
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pour the oil into a large skillet. Heat over medium heat.
Add the onion and bell pepper. Fry, stirring constantly, until softened. Do not brown.
Add the garlic, and sauté 2 to 3 minutes longer.
Add the tomatoes, pumpkin, tomato sauce and cumin. Cook gently until soft and mushy. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Break the eggs, one at a time, into a cup. Slide into the tomato mixture. Cook, covered partially, until the eggs are set.
Serve hot with crusty bread.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 170; protein, 8 g; carbohydrates, 9 g; fat, 12 g; cholesterol, 213 mg; sodium, 257 mg.
Often called the "poor man's caviar," this creamy eggplant spread is a favorite dish in restaurants and in homes. Make a day or so ahead for the flavors to mellow. Serve with toasted pita bread or matzah.
1 medium eggplant
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley, divided
2 Tbsps. tahini, stir well before using (you should be able to find this in most supermarkets, or in specialty stores
3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. (rounded) low-fat mayonnaise
11/2 tsps. chopped garlic
salt and pepper to taste
pomegranate seeds to sprinkle over dish (optional)
Prick the eggplant all over with a fork and wrap loosely in paper towels.
Microwave on high for 8 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft when pressed with fingers.
Cut eggplant in half lengthwise. Place in a colander to drain off excess liquids.
Scoop out the pulp and place in a food processor with half the parsley and all the remaining ingredients, except the pomegranate seeds. Process until almost smooth.
Spoon into a serving dish.
Garnish with the remaining parsley and the pomegranate seeds (optional).
Serve at room temperature.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 59; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 5 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 38 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. E-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .