Ten days separate the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana, which started on Sept. 12, and Yom Kippur, which is observed Friday and Saturday. This week-plus span, known as Teshuvah, is a time of soul-searching and making hopeful resolutions for the future. Because it includes alternate periods of fasting and feasting, some Jews use Teshuvah to reconsider past lapses in healthful eating and commit to a different diet ahead.
I was reminded of Teshuvah earlier this year, when I was shopping for produce at the open-air Carmel Market of Tel Aviv, Israel, with Gil Hovav, a food writer and celebrity chef in Israel. Hovav suggested that many Israelis are resolving to change their tastes -- shifting from hearty meat stews and calorie-laden desserts to lighter fare of the Mediterranean diet.
Hovav appears regularly on television shows in Israel to teach viewers which seasonal fruit and vegetables are available, and the most nutritious ways to cook them. It was Friday when we met -- Carmel's busiest day of the week by far, because everyone is off work and buying provisions for the Saturday Sabbath. Oblivious to the nearly frantic tumult around him, Hovav regarded the towering piles of produce with an almost worshipful gaze.
"Will you just look at this okra? See how delicate and tasty it is?" he said, and then insisted I pop one in my mouth. Even raw, the vegetable was astonishingly crisp and flavorful. A moment later, though, okra was over. Hovav now sang the praises of strawberries, watermelons, figs, dates and pomegranates. Then it was on to golden raisins the size of almonds.
In the Jewish culinary tradition, food preparation is an act of love for one's family and one's religion. But in Israel, I discovered, healthful eating also is becoming an act of patriotism. As Hovav made clear to me, the country is blessed in that none of Carmel's exemplary fruit or vegetables is imported, but all come from Israel's farms and kibbutzim.
"These tomatoes, for instance, are grown in the Negev Desert. They're a miracle, really," he said as he picked up a brilliant red orb and smiled at it rapturously. "In New York, these would be something like $5 a pound, but here they are the cheapest vegetable you can buy. They are sweet and great and I just can't tell you how proud I am of them! They are very Israeli!"
Back to nature
Israel is a small country, barely 300 miles long and less than 70 miles across at the widest point, making it roughly the same size as New Jersey. Though half the land is desert and what's arable has vast differences of soil and climate, Israel cultivates an incredible variety of produce. As people came to its shores from around the world, Israel also cultivated an incredible variety of immigrant recipes.
Ashkenazi Jews arriving from Eastern Europe arrived with a hankering for sweets like cheese-filled blinis and blintzes, as well as cholent -- a rich stew of meat, potatoes, beans and grain. Then, there are the calorie-dense snack foods beloved by Israelis, as well as other nations throughout the Middle East. I'm referring to falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls), kibbe (torpedo-shaped bites of ground meat, grilled or deep-fried) and shawarma, which is grilled meat, such as lamb or turkey, served in pita bread with a variety of piquant sauces.
To be sure, many Israelis still happily consume all of the above. However, during the two weeks I traveled throughout the country, whether I was wandering in groves of date palm trees near the Dead Sea, admiring grape vines in the Golan Heights or sampling grilled fish at a restaurant alongside the Sea of Galilee, I discovered what's currently "very Israeli" -- a rhyming phrase ubiquitous in people's speech here -- are dishes that use the nation's natural bounty in refreshingly simple ways.
"Israelis take tremendous pride in the fact that, for thousands of years, their country has been known as 'the land of milk and honey.' And, it's not just that these foods are found there, but that this is a land which produces these things in great, great abundance," said Leah Waks, a native of Tel Aviv who is director of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland's department of communication.
Appearing more than 40 times in the Bible, "a land flowing with milk and honey" is perhaps the best-known phrase used to describe the Holy Land. What's intriguing, however, is that Israel, both in ancient times and now, boasts many trees bearing fruit that, when squeezed, gush forth with nectar as sweet if not sweeter than what's found in a beehive. In fact, many biblical scholars and food historians believe the "honey" referred to in Exodus was actually made by macerating dates into a delicious, naturally sugared syrup known today as silan.
The modern appetite
Some of the biggest agricultural exports of Israel, such as grapefruits and oranges, are still a result of these sweet fruit trees, said Eli W. Schlossberg, a Baltimore-based consultant in the gourmet- and kosher-food businesses who travels there frequently. Schlossberg said the Israelis pioneered the idea of juice bars, which are located all over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, serving freshly squeezed peach, pear, mango or pineapple drinks.
What's new, too, is an appreciation for recipes brought to Israel by the Sephardim. Hailing from Mediterranean countries, Spain to Morocco, Sephardic Jews immigrated with their unique herbs, spices, flower essences and fruit.
Not only fruit, but vegetables and legumes also are having something of a national renaissance. Eggplant is served in a bewilderingly large number of ways throughout Israel, and there are Israeli restaurants solely devoted to different recipes for hummus (chickpea puree).
Hana Bor, associate professor of Jewish education at Baltimore Hebrew University, spent five weeks in Israel this summer and said she observed a generational difference in appetites. "Israeli food used to be more heavily European -- things like stuffed cabbage and cholent. But younger people are more into spices, and the more sophisticated flavors of Sephardic cuisine. Today, what's most popular in Israel is the Mediterranean diet, very healthy and fresh; not much meat, lots of seafood."
Nir Zook agrees. He is the chef at Noa Bistro and Cordelia, two of Tel Aviv's most inventive restaurants. One sultry afternoon, we chatted while I sampled a plate of succulent squid he had quickly grilled and sprinkled with a touch of curry.
"It's now very Israeli to use lots of herbs, olive oil and vegetables," Zook said. "Herbs and vegetables here are cheap and of excellent quality. ... Our cuisine is a mixture of immigrant influences -- Morocco, Italy, Poland and Russia. Basically, we mix everything with everything, just as long as the food is light. It is too hot here for heavy food."
It adds up
Seduced by this "mix everything" philosophy, I began to think healthful eating, Israeli-style, was a snap. I grew lax in taking notes while I dined, nearly discarding notions of measurement or proportion, and simply listing the sum of ingredients. As I read my jottings, they look less like recipes than mathematical equations.
Leeks + orange juice + balsamic vinegar
Grilled zucchini + lemon + mint
Roasted beets + raisins + caraway seeds
Sardines + pomegranate
Bare bones as these instructions are, by following them, I've created some wonderfully vibrant dishes. A few of my experiments fell flat, though, and I couldn't figure out what I'd done wrong.
When I mentioned this mystery to Bor of Baltimore Hebrew University, she laughed and told me how, for her daughter Shira's bat mitzvah held in August in Columbia, she'd arranged to have an Israeli food station as part of the catered celebration. There was falafel and hummus and fresh vegetable salads. To her surprise, these offerings were not a huge hit, and she didn't understand why until she brought some guests who'd come from Israel for the occasion to a U.S. grocery store.
"Israelis eat seasonally, so my friends were amazed, at first, at the variety of produce we have all year long in the United States. But then, they discovered our vegetables don't compare in flavor to what they have at home," Bor said. So if you resolve this Yom Kippur to eat more healthfully, to eat like an Israeli, it may require some extra effort to find the freshest, best vegetables. But maybe you shouldn't be surprised at this. Who said anything worth doing was easy?
Eat like an Israeli
A plate of hummus, served with crudites like peeled carrots and celery, or with toasted pita-bread triangles, makes a quick lunch or snack, or even a fresh type of hors d'oeuvres to have with a cocktail.
It grows wild in Israel, and Israelis use it with wild abandon. Chopped mint leaves can be added to everything from brewing tea, beer and lemonade to eggplant dishes, pasta or fruit salad.
Make a chopped Israeli salad with any combination of, or even all, the following ingredients: onions, pomegranate seeds, tomatoes, parsley, mint, green peppers, cucumbers, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Called "date honey," silan is not a bee's product, but date syrup that can be an interesting substitute for honey. Try drizzling some on toast in the morning, or over fruit and granola. It also adds an intriguing sweetness when used in salad dressings or marinades for poultry or meat.
Considered the herb of Israel; the name also is used to refer to a spice blend. In the same family as, and similar in taste to, oregano and marjoram, za'atar can be sprinkled in salads, used to season soups, sprinkled on goat cheese or immersed in olive oil as a dip for bread.
[Note: Za'atar, as well as other Israeli foods, can be found at Seven Mile Market, 4000 Seven Mile Lane in Pikesville, 410-653- 2000. Silan from Israel's Jordan Valley can be ordered online from israeliproducts.com.]
[ Stephen Henderson]
Makes about 2 cups
one 15-ounce can of cooked chickpeas or garbanzo beans
zest from 1/2 lemon
juice from 1 lemon
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons tahina sesame-seed paste (optional)
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped parsley or cilantro
Drain chickpeas and rinse in a colander under running water to wash off the can's packing fluid. Put rinsed chickpeas into container of electric blender or food processor. Add lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and tahina paste, if you include it. (Tahina adds a smoky aftertaste; try recipe both with and without, and see what you prefer.)
Turn on processor and gradually add olive oil, pouring in a steady stream, until the chickpeas are blended smoothly and hummus achieves the texture you like. Less olive oil will make hummus a bit stiffer, like a cake's icing; more oil will result in looser hummus, similar to the consistency of a dip. Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro.
Courtesy of Stephen G. Henderson
Per tablespoon: 32 calories, 1 gram protein, 2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 3 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 95 milligrams sodium
Garlicky, Peppery Fish (Hraymi)
Serves 6 to 8
fresh lemon juice from 1 or 2 lemons, depending on their juiciness (approximately 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup)
2 pounds fresh fish fillets, such as bass or halibut
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup olive oil
4 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
3 whole dried red chile peppers
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
4 to 5 tomatoes, thickly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
lemon wedges for garnish
Squeeze lemon juice over the fish and sprinkle with sea salt. Allow to stand for 10 minutes. Heat olive oil over a medium-high flame in large frying pan that can hold all the fish slices in one layer. Add garlic and peppers. As the garlic begins to bubble at its edges, add paprika. Stir gently and cook for a minute.
Remove spiced oil from pan and reserve. Do not rinse pan. Arrange sliced tomatoes in a single layer on bottom of pan, and drizzle with half of spiced oil and half of chopped cilantro. Place fish fillets on top of tomato slices, and drizzle remaining oil and sprinkle remaining cilantro on top of fish.
Cover pan, and let cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Lower heat, uncover and cook for another 7 to 10 minutes. Shake pan often to keep the fish basted with sauce. Serve with lemon wedges.
Note: Hraymi is a very spicy fish dish that became traditional among Sephardic Jews who came from North Africa and Libya.
From "The Food of Israel: Authentic Recipes From the Land of Milk and Honey," by Sherry Ansky
Per serving (based on 8 servings): 269 calories, 23 grams protein, 17 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 7grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 49 milligrams cholesterol, 383 milligrams sodium