I'm simply amazed at the dynamic food scene every time I go to Israel, and this last visit was no exception. At a new restaurant in Tel Aviv, the waiter, carrying a chalk board listing the day's specials, introduced himself and then proceeded to describe each particular dish. He proudly listed prosciutto, pancetta, bacon and ham in just about all of them.
I had to pinch myself as a reminder that I was in the Jewish state, where not so long ago the "p" word was not even mentioned. (Pork, in fact, was called "steak levan," or white steak).
When it comes to food, Israelis seem to live a double culinary life. Regardless of their origin, they eat Jewish ethnic foods, like falafel and gefilte fish, which connect them to their cultural roots, but also indulge in sushi and foie gras to feel a part of the larger world.
So what is Israeli cuisine today? It's a fusion of street food eaten on the run and professionally trained chefs creating dishes that incorporate past and present with superb local ingredients, resulting in a varied and rich palette.
Although my allegiance will always be with Israel's "soul food" (fresh pita, hummus, salads, etc.), the new Israeli cuisine created by chefs like Eyal Shani, Moise Peer, Israeli Aharoni and others is quite cutting-edge, and is making its mark on the culinary map.
Avocado-Cucumber Salad With Mint
Israelis often use "lebaneh," a thick yogurt with a tangy flavor, instead of salad dressing. It's simply wonderful!
2 ripe avocados
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into small chunks
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
8 mint leaves, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 cup thick yogurt
2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 Tbsps. lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
Slice the avocado in half, and remove the pit and skin. Dice the avocado and place in a bowl with cucumber and tomatoes.
Add the chopped mint leaves, garlic, yogurt, oil and the lemon juice.
Toss gently, and taste for salt and pepper
Chickpea Soup With Parmesan Cheese
The original recipe from the Keren Restaurant actually contained squid! I substituted with portobello mushrooms, and got fine results.
4 large portobello mushroom caps
2 Tbsps. olive oil
salt and pepper
2 cans (15 oz.) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
5-6 cups vegetable stock or pareve "chicken" stock
8 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
1 whole pita bread, cut into bite-sized pieces
dried oregano or za'atar (a Middle Eastern spice available in specialty shops) for garnish
Cut mushroom caps into one-quarter-inch wide strips.
In a medium skillet, heat oil. Cook mushrooms until brown around the edges. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
In a food processor or blender, purée 3 cups of the chickpeas.
In a medium saucepan, combine purée with stock and add the cheese. Bring to a simmer and cook about 15 minutes. (Thin soup as desired with water).
Stir in remaining chickpeas.
To serve, put a few pieces of pita and some mushrooms into each of six soup bowls.
Pour soup over top and garnish with oregano or spices.
Stuffed Figs With Goose Liver
This luxurious combination is from Moise Peer of Mishkanot Sha'ananim. Chicken livers absolutely work in this recipe.
20 dried figs
1/2 lb. goose or chicken livers (kashered first), cut into small pieces
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon leaves
2 cups clear kosher chicken stock
2/3 cup Benedictine liqueur or brandy
Preheat oven to 350?.
With a sharp knife, make a slit in the stem end of the figs, prodding them open with a finger.
Sprinkle the livers with salt, pepper and tarragon leaves.
Stuff each fig carefully with a small amount of this mixture.
Place the figs stem-side up in one layer in an oven-proof dish. Pour the stock and liqueur over them, and cover with foil.
Bake for about 25 minutes, till sauce has reduced and thickened.
Serve as a first course over a bed of greens.
Chef Eyal Shani of Ocean in Jerusalem uses grouper or sea bass for this contemporary starter. The lemon juice actually "cooks" the thin slices of fish.
3/4 lb. grouper or sea bass fillets
1 tsp. kosher salt
juice of 1 or 2 lemons
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. wasabi paste (found in specialty-food shops and Asian stores)
2 tsps. sake wine
fresh fennel sprigs
With a very sharp knife, slice the fish as thinly as possible.
Arrange slices next to one another in a fairly shallow dish, and sprinkle with salt, lemon juice and olive oil.
Dilute a little wasabi with sake or water, and pour over the fish.
Sprinkle fennel over the fish before serving.
Louise Fiszer is a California cooking teacher and food writer. Among the six books she's co-authored is Jewish Holiday Feasts.