Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wine and Cheese in the Desert

This past weekend I was in the Northern Negev visiting some food sites for the tour. Outside of the wine and cheese tasting great, one of the most impressive aspects to visiting these farms is the fact they are able to thrive in desert conditions. There are acres of grapes, pomegranates, olive trees, and more. It seems absurd that anyone would even think to grow anything, let alone large farms, in such hot and dry conditions.

However, for thousands of years not only has there been agriculture in the Negev region of what is now Israel, but agriculture has thrived. The Nabateans developed some very advanced techniques to adapt to the desert conditions, primarily finding ways to provide water to their crops. By creating sophisticated irrigation systems they were able to water an area much larger than the land that actually received rainwater or runoff from rivers and streams. At the height of the Nabatean period, around the 2nd century BCE, they were able to have successful agriculture in an area much larger than what is in use today. Today, farms in the area use many of the same techniques the Nabateans used. Carmei Avdat vineyard, for example, has its vineyards in a flash flood plain. A few times of a year when floods come through they are able to siphon off the water into reservoirs that provide the grapes enough water throughout the year when there is little if any rainwater. Their wine is very good too, by the way. If you're interested in learning more about ancient agricultural practices in the Israeli deserts visit this interesting and very thorough site.

One of the highlights of the weekend was Naot Farm, a goat cheese farm very close to Sde Boker. Started by the former owners of the famous Argentine steak restaurant chain El Gaucho, Naot Farm has around 250 goats, producing 750 liters of milk per day! They make 10+ varieties of goat cheeses and yogurts, ranging from Camembert to hard cheeses. There's a red wine cheese, a house specialty, one infused with thyme, all of which are very good. My favorite was the "kesem" or magic cheese, that is unique to their farm. The plain tzfatit was also very, very good. You can stop by any day of the week during daylight hours and have a free tasting and walk around the farm. The goats are milked twice a day, and groups can call ahead for a tour of the farm with the owner. There is also a very good meat restaurant (going back to the El Gaucho roots) that offers excellent steaks, although at slightly expensive prices. If you're in the region travelling or just driving through I highly recommend a stop at the farm.


Monday, October 26, 2009

The hummus controversy continues!

The regional fight over the national bragging rights to hummus has continued in force this week. The AP wrote an article about a bowl of hummus made in Lebanon that is apparently the largest ever made. The article was printed all over place and you can see it here, here, here, and here!

(Associated Press)

The driving factor behind the decision to make such a mammoth amount of hummus seems to be the Lebanese desire to claim hummus as their own, and to make it clear that it is most definitely not Israeli.

Why is it that the Lebanese feel so passionate about this issue? I have no doubt that the historical conflict with Israel is a large reason, but I think there's more to it. In Israel we have trademark rights protecting Jaffa oranges. The French are trying to have UNESCO recognize french cuisine as part of the world's cultural heritage. All over the world there are strong feelings over traditional dishes. Food is an important part of each person's cultural identity, and I think we're seeing this reflected in that enormous 2 ton bowl of hummus.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yafo, The New York Times, and more Hummus

The New York Times released a travel article today about the revitalization of Yafo, and listed a few places to eat. The only one I'm able to comment on is Abu Hassan, which they claim is considered by some to be the best in Israel. While its true that some people say this, I strongly disagree. More on my favorite hummus in a later post.

In any case, its nice to see Yafo gets its credit. Check out the article here.


Copyright infringment on hummus?

It appears that if the Lebanese get their way hummus will be legally a Lebanese national dish. This article in Britain's Telegraph newspaper details the legal appeal by an association of Lebanese industrialists to the European Union to afford hummus a protected status. They claim that hummus is of Lebanese origin and that Israeli companies have unfairly profited by selling the dish to the world claiming it to be a typical Israeli dish.

I know that Jaffa oranges have certain intellectual property rights as well as mangoes from certain regions and whole host of other foods. But hummus??!! Chickpeas/garbanzo beans have grown in a variety of countries for hundreds if not thousands of years. I don't think it belongs to any region or national cuisine. The variety of kinds of hummus is one of the things I like about it so much. Even within in Israel you have different flavors depending on the region. I find it difficult to believe this Lebanese group could prove that hummus is in fact native to Lebanon as well as satisfy the myriad of other legal hurdles required to obtain the special status on their hummus. We'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I'm pretty sure I know what I'll be having for lunch.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Georgia and Yemen in a Tel Aviv Weekend

I ate pretty well this weekend I must admit. Friday, for lunch, I went with my friend Jodie to a hole in the wall Yemenite restaurant near Shuk HaCarmel. Jodie calls the place Irit, because 1) there is no name or signs to the place to give it a proper name and 2) Irit is the warm, friendly owner who runs the place and makes the great food. Irit serves traditional Yemenite dishes such as Lahooch, Jahnoun, Malawach, as well as a great Shakshouka, a variety of soups, amongst others. The hot sauce, hummus, tahina, is all homemade and everything tastes delicious.

My favorite dish is the Lahooch, which is a doughy pancake that Irit folds in half over an egg that appears omelette-ey in its texture and consistency. She then lightly fries it until the outside of the Lahooch is slightly crispy. The Lahooch comes out moist, airy and when topped with her homemade tahina, spicy sauce, and grated tomato puree is really, really tasty. All of her dishes are accompanied by a nice Israeli salad. Irit also treats everyone to spicy Yemenite coffee to finish their meal.


Irit's is the kind of place where you always end up speaking with the other patrons (the entire place seats no more than 10-12 people) about how good the food is. Irit, never more than a few feet away engages everybody in conversation, and I feel that for taste and value, Irit's is one of the best places to eat in all of Israel.

Saturday evening I joined some friends for a farewell party at the classic Georgian establishment Nanushka. Nanushka is located on Lilenblum street in the heart of one of Tel Aviv's best restaurant and bar neighborhoods that centers around Rothschild, Lilenblum, Ahad Ha'am and the connecting streets. Georgian food is not well known worldwide, but it is a varied and flavorful cuisine. With a variety of different climates, all sorts of fruits and vegetables grow in Georgia, and the you'll find pomegranates, lamb, stews, dumplings, great beers, a variety of spices throughout traditional Georgian food. At Nanushka up-scale Georgian cuisine is served with dishes like: chicken marinated in tamarind and pomegranate sauces, dumplings, marinated lamb shank, stuffed vegetables, caviar, a variety of eggplant dishes, and much more.

I ordered Chaliya, which is chicken cooked with carmelized onions, tamarind and pomegranate syrups. It was pretty good, but slightly overcooked and a just a little too dry. The spicy, marinated lamb shank that a few of my friends ordered was amazing and the meat was as tender as could be. The starters plate full of different eggplant, beet, stuffed grape leaves was excellent. I could have eaten a variety of salads all night and have left very happy.

Nanushka serves excellent food, and while not cheap, their prices are reasonable. If I have to choose between Irit and Nanushka, though, Irit wins hands down. Irit serves excellent food, has a very unique warm, inviting atmosphere, and is the best value for money in the city. All in all, it was a great weekend for food, and ultimately, I have nothing but praise for the places I ate at.

Next weekend, Alon and I are heading to the Negev to check out some vineyards, goat cheese farms, and restaurants. I'll have a full report on the places we visited in a weeks time.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Chicken w/Oaxacan Mole

I was in the US/Paris for the past week and half, and upon returning my Savor Israel partner Alon and his wife Becca had me over for an amazing dinner. The two recently returned from their honeymoon, part of which took them to the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is known for beautiful beaches, mountains, colonial-style towns, and its incredible food. While in Oaxaca they took a cooking class where they learned how to make a kind of mole. A mole is a sauce that can have dozens of ingredients and is very difficult to make. The goal is that one tastes each ingredient that goes into the mole, and when done well you truly taste the complexity of the sauce.

Using ingredients they had brought back from Mexico they made an excellent mole, and one that you can make fairly easily at home. Moles containing chocolate are generally referred to as Mole Poblano, as they originally hail from the city of Puebla. However, because this recipe uses Oaxacan chocolate I'm taking the liberty of changing the name a little. Here are the pictures and the recipe.

04 Mole Ingrediants

All the ingredients that go into the mole

06 Mole Paste 07 Mole Paste

The mole before it reduces and after an hour on the stove

10 Mole Dinner

Chicken w/Oaxacan Mole Recipe

1 chicken – cut into pieces w/excess fat trimmed away
5 garlic cloves
1/2 onion
Salt and Pepper

6 pasilla chilies
4 guajillo chilies
½ cup raisins
½ cup almonds
½ cup pecans
2 tablespoons shelled pumpkin seeds
½ cup sesame seeds
1 sliced banana
2 medium tomatoes (10.6 oz/300 g)
4 garlic cloves
½ onion - roughly chopped
4 peppercorns
4 cloves
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon thyme
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups Oaxacan chocolate or any dark chocolate - broken into small parts

1. Heat a stockpot with a little oil under very hot. Sear the chicken pieces until slightly golden. Add the onion, garlic, salt and pepper and saute for a minute. Add enough water until all pieces are covered in at least two inches of water. Boil for an hour and a half or until the meat is tender. Remove the chicken pieces and save the broth.
2. Make a cut down the length of one side of the chile. Like a butterfly cut. De-vein and de-seed them. Remove the top/stems.
3. Heat up a frying pan and fry each chili individually on each side. Remove them once they blister, approximately 30 seconds, being careful not to burn them.
4. Saute the raisins until they plump, then put them in some water to avoid hardening. Saute the almonds, pecans, and pumpkin seeds until slightly golden and set aside. Separately, saute the sesame seeds until they start to brown and set aside. Saute the sliced plantains for a minute and set aside. Finally, saute the tomatoes, garlic and onion for a few minutes until the onions start to carmelize and set aside.
5. In a blender, grind the chilies first with as much water or chicken stock as is needed. Then grind all the other ingredients: the raisins, almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, tomatoes, garlic, onion and spices.
6. Pour the sauce into a pot and bring to a boil. Add the chocolate and any remaining chicken stock. Reduce to a simmer and stir consistently for over an hour until the mixture takes on a dark color and turns into a paste.
7. Place the chicken pieces in the sauce and let cook for a few minutes until warm. Serve over rice and enjoy!