Tastes of the New Israel

Is there such a thing as Israeli cuisine? After all, Israel is a nation of immigrants — they came from Eastern Europe, Russia, Yemen, Ethiopia … from all corners of the world. They arrived in Palestine with their own culinary customs and culture, with cooking pots slung over their shoulders and recipes carried in their memories.

But they soon found that familiar dishes did not fit in with the hot, arid climates of their new country. In those early days, food was plain and filling, based on local dairy ingredients and fresh produce, and little or no meat. Note that the now famous Israeli breakfast, originally eaten by pioneers, is a popular attraction in hotels. The sensational array of salads, fish, fruit, compotes, cheeses, yogurts, juices and grainy breads — washed down with tea scented with fresh mint — will set you up for a day of sightseeing.

These days, in a new century, Israeli cooking at home and in restaurants has evolved to become extraordinarily diverse. Brilliant young Israeli chefs, like Nir Zuk, who just turned 30, and Avi Biton, 25, are using their ingenuity and travel experience to create tantalizing dishes that combine global and Mideast spices and sensations.

According to author/journalist Ann Kleinberg, "a new culinary patriotism has emerged. Middle Eastern dishes are appearing in combinations with other foods and tastes from other cultures. It's a great thing to be a part of."

A typical example of this "flavor-melding" comes from Zuk, the owner of a three-eatery complex in Jaffa, where dishes like summer endive drizzled with yogurt sauce and toasted Chinese walnuts, cream of eggplant soup with powdered red-bell peppers, and wolf fish in Jerusalem artichoke salsa tease the palate.

Zuk exudes confidence, and to say he's laid back would be an understatement.

At 13, he started working in restaurants, doing whatever was needed. Later, he traveled France training with bakers in Paris, and then went on to San Francisco. Returning to Israel, he began his culinary career by cooking dinners in his small apartment.

Laughing, he remembers: "I closed my dog in the bedroom … after three hours, he started to bark to go out. That was the signal for the diners to finish dessert and leave."

You'll find Zuk's restaurants in an old renovated courtyard. Noa Bistro offers an impressive variety of Israeli wines, including a dry, fruity champagne from Castel, a boutique winery. Nearby is Jaffa Bar, a popular meeting place for young Israelis and tourists. At Cordelia, Zuk creates classic French dishes with Middle Eastern sensibilities. Each course is a blend — exotic, artistic, some delicate, others fiery. In a building that was once the residence of a Turkish sultan, guests dine by candlelight while savoring a seven-course tasting menu for 180 shekels (about $45).

On Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, you might pass by Adora without as much as a glance. But behind the unassuming storefront, young chef Biton works magic in the tiny kitchen.

"I never went to any restaurant school," he says, adding that he learned on the job. His menus reflect the contemporary, stylish decor, where well-heeled "yuppies" and sophisticates dine.

Local ingredients take center stage, but the clever combination of herbs, infused oils and global techniques create dishes such as creamy risotto with young asparagus and roasted walnuts, and sea fish ceviche — cubed fish seasoned with purple onions, coriander and peppers on a tomato-and-walnut-oil cream. Desserts include his adaptation of a Sacher torte: white-chocolate ganache mounded over a dark-chocolate pastry that melts on the tongue.

Before there was Erez Komerovski, Israelis munched brown and white bread — and, of course, pita. But in 1993, a tiny bakery in Herzliya started with artisan breads.

Komerovski, a chef and baker, had been working in San Francisco, and became addicted to the crunchy, hand-worked breads that used whole grains and natural flavors.

Returning to Israel, he was convinced that the locals were ready for the all-natural concoctions. He was right. Today, he supplies bread and cakes to franchised cafes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Eyal Taoz, the manager at Lehem Erez Bakery on Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, rattles off the 15 to 20 varieties of breads, and 10 to 12 different pastries. Items such as quinoa and whole-wheat sourdough provide the makings of appetizing sandwich combinations spiked with exciting flavors.

For some of the sandwiches, the bread is cut lengthwise to provide a long platter, set on a wooden board to hold the toppings. Sample a tandoori-chicken sandwich with curry aioli on French country bread or cheese-roasted tomatoes, baby spinach and fresh basil on quinoa.

The breads — which are all for sale — contain no preservatives; thus, the shelf life is, at most, two days. But, attests Taoz, "It gets eaten long before then."

Grape-Leaf Pesto


When Nir Zuk's father one day brought home three jars of pickled grape leaves, an enterprising son used them to make a pesto. Pickled grape leaves are available in specialty stores and some markets.

1 cup pickled grape leaves, packed
3 Tbsps. good olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. grated lemon rind
1/2 tsp. finely minced garlic
freshly ground pepper to taste

Rinse the grape leaves, and remove the moisture by patting with paper towels.

Place in a food processor with the olive oil, the lemon juice and rind, and the garlic. Process until grape leaves are finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl.

Season to taste with pepper.

Serve at room temperature with warm pita bread.

Makes about 3/4 cup.

Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 35; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 202 mg.


Chef Avi Biton's Cream of Garlic Soup With Root Vegetables


Celeriac is the root of a special celery cultivated specifically for its root. It's knobby and brown, with a taste that's a cross between celery and parsley. Two to three leafy celery stalks and a handful of parsley may be substituted.

25 cloves garlic, peeled, divided
1/2 cup extra-virgin oil, divided
1 large potato, peeled and cubed
1 medium carrot, scraped and cubed
2 medium onions, cubed
1 medium celeriac, peeled and cubed
1 small parsnip, peeled and cubed
3 quarts water
salt and black pepper to taste
1 1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 375°.

Place 20 cloves of garlic in a small baking pan. Pour 1/4 cup olive oil over top.

Cover loosely with foil. Bake in a preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until tender.

In a large pot, heat the remaining 1/4 cup oil over medium heat.

Add the vegetables and the remaining 5 garlic cloves. Sauté for 5 to 8 minutes.

Add the water, salt, pepper and thyme. Bring to a boil.

Cook over medium-low for 40 minutes.

Add the baked garlic with its oil to the soup. Cool slightly before puréeing in the food processor. Stir in the cream.

Reheat, but do not boil.

Adjust seasonings and serve.

Note: For a decorative presentation, top with puff-pastry "croutons."

Cut small squares of prepared puff pastry, brush with melted butter, and sprinkle with black sesame seeds or sesame seeds.

Bake in preheated 400° oven for 15 minutes, until golden.

Float in the soup.

Makes 8 servings.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 201; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 7 g; fat, 19 g; cholesterol, 20 mg; sodium, 30 mg.


Adora Garlic Confit


Rich and buttery, this simple recipe made with good Israeli ingredients is spread on warm pita bread or crackers.

1 cup garlic cloves
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsps. honey
salt and pepper to taste

Place the garlic, oil and honey in a small, heavy saucepan.

Cover, and cook over lowest heat for 2 hours, or until the garlic is golden and so soft that it can be mashed with a fork.

Stir often. Make sure the mixture does not boil!

Serve at room temperature. Refrigerate any leftovers.

Makes about 11/4 cups.

Approximate nutrients per tablespoon of confit: calories, 102; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 2 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 0 mg.


Duck Breasts in Apricot, Shallot and Pomegranate Sauce


From Pomegranates by Ann Kleinberg. This may look time-consuming, but once you have the ingredients together, it's easy and well worth the effort. Serve with a rice pilaf on the side. Pomegranate juice is available in supermarkets.

Sauce Ingredients:

2 Tbsps. olive oil
4 shallots, peeled
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsps. honey
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1/2 cup low-sodium kosher chicken stock
1/3 cup semi-dry kosher white wine (i.e., Reisling)
1/3 cup dried apricots, chopped 2 Tbsps. chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
4 boneless duck breasts
2 Tbsps. olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
pomegranate seeds for garnish

For the Sauce: Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and garlic.

Sauté for 2 minutes.

Stir in the honey, pomegranate juice, kosher chicken stock and wine.

Continue stirring while adding the apricots, parsley, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Simmer until the liquid is reduced and thickened, about 15 minutes.

Stir in the pomegranate seeds and remove from heat.

Prick the skin on the duck breasts in several places. Rub the skin with the oil.

Season with salt and pepper.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Place the duck, skin-side down, in the skillet.

Cook for 15 minutes, or until most of the fat has burned off and the meat is almost cooked through.

Turn the duck over and cook for about 3 minutes, or until the meat is medium-rare. It should appear brown around the edges and pink inside.

Transfer, skin-side down, to a cutting board. Let sit for 10 minutes, then cut on the diagonal into thin slices. Fan the slices onto four individual plates.

Drizzle the sauce over top.

Garnish with the pomegranate seeds.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 501; protein, 35 g; carbohydrates, 30 g; fat, 26 g; cholesterol, 185 mg; sodium, 129 mg.


Thyme-Scented Figs in Syrup


1 lb. fresh figs
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 Tbsps. sesame seeds
2 Tbsps. blanched almonds
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 sprig thyme or 1/4 tsp. dried thyme

Prick each fig 2 to 3 times with a fork. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, stir the sugar with the water. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Add the sesame seeds, almonds, lemon juice and thyme. Reduce to lowest heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the figs, partially cover, and simmer for one hour. Figs should be almost transparent.

Serve at room temperature.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 275; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 65 g; fat, 2 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 2 mg.

Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.



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