Book Review: Israel Eats

I must begin with a confession. I adored/obsessed over this cookbook so much that I hesitated to write about it. You know that feeling when you encounter something or someone so great that you are left to fall silent? I felt a bit unworthy. Thankfully, I moved past my insecurities and decided that it was more important to introduce my readers to the brilliance of this book.

Equal parts revelatory memoir, insightful travel guide, expedient cookbook, and sumptuous coffee table book, Israel Eats is an eye-opening experience of Israel’s food culture today.

The book’s author, Steven Rothfeld, initially resisted the urge to travel to Israel, the country of his heritage. I found this quite intriguing. The author writes, “I had been so focused on the suffering of the Jews that the idea of the Israelis pursuing pleasure and eating great food never entered my mind. In the short time I spent wandering around this small country notorious for sorrow and conflict, I discovered joy, humour, celebration, endless holidays, and a vibrant cuisine.”

Mr. Rothfeld, a world-class photographer, spent several months traveling through Israel to explore the vibrant food scene, talking with Israeli farmers, cooks, chefs, and artisans. From north to south, Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the locals guided him from one great restaurant to another, and to growers and producers of fine foods as well.

The author details his walks through the local markets  “… finding fresh squeezed pomegranate juice flowing wherever I turned; mountains of marbled halvah flavoured with chocolate, cilantro coffee, and pesto; fresh dates from farms near the Dead Sea; steamy, flat, round and twisted breads; dazzling displays of freshly caught Mediterranean fish and entering stacks of cauliflower orbs.”

In an age of information overload and decreased attention spans, Israel Eats gives you a reason to linger. You will salivate over the book’s sumptuous photographs containing impressive views of the city and the people that inhabit it. The chapters make their way through the history, culture and cuisine of the various regions.

The book revels in the details and offers tips and suggested accompaniments and alternatives at every turn. Can’t find mallow, use wild spinach instead. Unable to locate fresh sardines? Use fresh mackerel. Fresh, torn herbs with a sprinkling of zhug (a middle eastern hot sauce) and za’atar (a condiment made from dried herbs) bring brightness to any dish.

Most of the ingredients in the book can be found at the local grocery store or farmers market, but you may need to stock up on some often used components, such as tahini, greek yogurt, bulgur, feta, pine nuts, fresh mint and ground cumin.

Mr. Rothfeld writes that “I encountered a world I had never imagined existed in Israel. People were experiencing the joy of eating well in small hummuserias, seaside restaurants, market stalls, and chic dining rooms in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and I was reminded of something I had once overheard an Italian mother say to her small child who was shoving a forkful of pasta into his mouth; Buona, eh? Che viola di mangier (Good, isn’t it? What a joy it is to eat).”

Israel Eats by Steven Rothfeld is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca


Orange Juice Cake

6 TO 8 SERVINGS

Ceramic artist Yaara Nir Kachlon invited me to her home and studio in Moshav Klachim to pick a selection of her dishes to use for my photographs. She offered me a slice of this simple cake and when I took a bite, I was transported back to the Southern Californian kitchen where I grew up eating Sara Lee pound cakes. When we styled it together for the photograph, we added a pool of homemade strawberry jam and melon from her husband Guy’s farm. Yaara used juice from the renowned local Jaffa orange, but any sweet variety will work.

 

Vegetable oil for pan

5 eggs, room temperature

1 cup (200 g) sugar

1 cup (240 ml) fresh orange juice

1/2 cup (120 ml) vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups (250 g) self-rising flour

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Oil a 10-inch (25 cm) round cake pan. Break the eggs into a large bowl and whisk well. Add the sugar, orange juice, oil, and vanilla and whisk well. Add the flour and blend well. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool completely, then cut into slices and serve.


Lebanese Fattoush Salad

4 SERVINGS

Many guests arrive from Tel Aviv by helicopter to taste Joseph Hanna’s refined Arab cuisine. The first time Dorit and I visited his restaurant, Magdalena, we arrived in my nondescript red rental car, but we probably enjoyed the same taste sensations as our more privileged dining companions when we ate this marvelous salad, seasoned with tangy sumac. I have since made this salad numerous times at home and it is always as pleasing as it was the first time I had it.

3 medium-size ripe tomatoes, cut into large chunks

3 medium cucumbers, cut into large chunks

4 large green onions, thinly sliced

3 medium radishes, thinly sliced

1⁄2 cup (20 g) flat-leaf parsley leaves

1⁄2 cup (20 g) mint leaves

1⁄4 cup (60 ml) fresh lemon juice

1⁄2 cup (120 ml) extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons ground sumac

Salt

2⁄3 cup (5.3 ounces; 150 g) whole milk ricotta cheese or buffalo mozzarella cheese, cut into chunks

2 pita breads, cut into pieces and toasted in oven

Place the tomatoes, cucumbers, green onions, and radishes in a large bowl. Sprinkle with the parsley and mint leaves. Pour the lemon juice over the salad. Drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle with the sumac. Toss, then season with salt to taste. Garnish with the cheese and toasted pita.

 

Photographs and text from Israel Eats by Steven Rothfeld, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

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