Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas and Hanukkah on the Mediterranean

Having been born in Israel, I did not celebrate Christmas, but rather Hanukkah.  To be sure, Israel is the birthplace of three major world religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam, so I have been exposed to the celebratory rituals and foods of each.  

For example, Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for eight days in commemoration of the Maccabees who rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem around 160 BC. The Maccabees revolted against the attempt at assimilation of the Jews into the non-Jewish society. The story in a nutshell is that the Emperor Antiochus IV began massacring Jews, forbidding the practice of their religions, and imposing Hellenistic rule upon his empire.  The revolt of the Maccabees was against the oppression of the Seleucid Greek government of Antiochus.  According to the Talmud, there was very little oil after the rededication of the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks.  Oil was needed for the menorah of the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night; yet the menorah burned for eight nights, the time necessary to prepare a fresh supply of oil. For a deeper review of Hanukkah, please click here.

As for the foods of Hanukkah, I direct you to this site, where many recipes abound, from the traditional latkes to souvganiot (doughnuts).  Mmm, yum! 

It is mere coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas occur around the same time.  The two religions are not connected at all, except for the fact that Jesus was Jewish, and probably celebrated Hanukkah. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, supposedly in Bethlehem, in humble circumstances! If present-day gift-giving is meant to emulate the gifts from the Three Kings, I shudder to think how Jesus himself would view all this commercialism. 

The Mediterranean region is resplendent with the flavors and colors of many cultures, from the couscous of Morocco to the reshikas of Greece and the hummus with pita of the Bedouins.  The sunshine and arid mountains are perfect for agriculture, youth and vitality, during holidays and all through the year. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


The Mediterranean region is surrounded by many countries, each of which has contributed its own version of culinary delights, not the least of which is a staple on every table - bread.  Challah is the traditional Sabbath bread eaten not only in Israel, but around the Mediterranean, even on weekdays.

It is a slightly sweet bread that typically includes eggs, sometimes raisins, and often toasted sesame seeds.  I am preparing this brioche-style delight for our next party. 

Some of my readers may be interested in my recipe.  Easy enough ... This will make a 2-lb. loaf (or two 1-lb. loaves, to save one for a midnight snack when everyone is asleep!).

Pre-preparation: 7/8 c. milk and 3 eggs - bring to room temperature - about 2 hours out of the fridge. 

7/8 c. milk
3 eggs
3 tbs oil
2 tsp. salt
3 tbs. sugar (rounded, if you like the bread on the sweeter side)
4 c. bread flour
1 packet yeast

1/2 c. raisins
Toasted sesame seeds

Bread machine to dough setting (or, if you wish to work on your biceps ...)
In deep bowl, put all ingredients in, in the order presented.  Then begin to mix the ingredients until a dough forms, and start kneading - and I mean, kneading, with enthusiasm! You want the dough to be soft like a baby's thigh, pliable and fragrant.  Put an oiled (Saran) wrap over the dough, and let it rise, about half hour.  Remove the wrap, punch it down, and begin kneading again, this time with verve (look it up).  Again, you want the dough to be pliable and soft.  Add the raisins at this point if you are using them, and knead them well into the dough.  Again place an oiled wrap (Saran) over the dough and let it rise again, about half hour.

Transfer the risen dough onto a large working area that has been dusted with bread flour to prevent sticking.  Now flatten the dough to form an oblong shape about 3/4-inch in thickness.  With a large knife, slice it lengthwise into three sections.  Sprinkle cinnamon liberally over the three sections. Now braid the three sections into a single unit, pinch the ends together, and transfer to a flat container that has been oiled, and set in a draft-free place to rise once again (a cool oven with the door closed).  About an hour later, remove risen, braided bread from the oven.  

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 

Beat an extra egg in a small bowl (no need for room temperature at this stage).  With a pastry brush, brush the entire challah with the egg wash.  Sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds over top, as liberally as you like, and place into the preheated oven for about 20-30 minutes.  Please watch your bread, as oven temperatures tend to vary.  My oven is "fast," meaning I need only 20 minutes for the bread to be thoroughly baked.  The bread is ready when the crust is golden brown. 

If you made two loaves, immediately hide one of them to enjoy later! 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Menu for a Dinner Party

I have a hankering for some grilled skirt steak, marinated in garlic and lemon.  To that I would add a plate of roasted vegetables, eggplant, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and onions, along with lesser starches.  A huge salad will accompany the meal, dressed in lemon, olive oil, garlic and dill, and sprinkled with toasted almonds.  There would be side dishes of a collection of nibbles, pickles and olives and cruditees, and of course, fresh bread, perhaps my special challah with cinnamon, raisins and sesame.  I can taste it now.  Dessert? Ice cream is always nice.  There would be wine, of course, or beer, depending on taste, and after-dinner coffee or tea.  Simple, but tasty and satisfying.

This does not conform exactly to a Mediterranean menu, but no matter. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Mediterranean Feast for the Senses

With a sweep of her hand, she revealed a spread that would be the culmination of a year’s preparation.
All manner of cured olives, goat’s cheese, freshly baked sesame bread still steaming,

Mezze of grilled sardines with the aroma of lemon and garlic, the picked okra, the fresh herbs,

Mint tea and wine in equal measure,
Finger bowls and cutlery, the finest offerings.
A plate of spicy carrots sat alongside hummus and labne, refreshing both.
As the sun shone through the grapevine in dappled shapes that danced on the cloth,
The table was a collage of color, fragrance, and the soft sounds of diners mixed in with the sounds of nature. 
Another glance, and a roast suckling lamb appeared, surrounded by field vegetables and cured lemons, accompanied by an enormous plate of couscous with every seasonal root vegetable around. 
The diners drank and ate and talked, some slept, some sang, for it was truly the celebration they had been promised. 
After the repast had been consumed, enjoyed, reveled in,
A tray of sweets arrived, laden with baklavah, kadaifi, sharope and sweet cakes
Accompanied by a finjan of sweet, aromatic, black ground coffee that intoxicated the senses. 

The obligatory basket of fresh fruit arrived: tangerines, plums, persimmon, fresh figs and dates to sweeten the palate and nourish the soul.
This was a celebration of the food that mankind ate at the cradle of civilization, the days of the Bible, when sage men and philosophers roamed about, when God himself was closer to all of us.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Healthiest - and Quite Delicious - Food

Do you torture yourself and your family serving steamed vegetables?

Please stop.

The food police would have you think that the only way to benefit from vegetables is to eat them steamed, without oil, salt, or flavors.  This is ludicrous, especially since most people will not eat them! No wonder - steaming does NOTHING to coax flavor from a vegetable; indeed, it only serves to further alienate people from switching away from fast food to this healthier choice.

What's the alternative?

Roasting! Everything tastes better roasted, with the possible exception of ice cream.

Brussels sprouts are in the cabbage family, and have been shown to pack one heck of a punch in the fight against many cancers.  They are very low in calories, and absolutely delicious if prepared well.  The preparation is, in fact, extremely easy.  After washing and removing any old leaves, cut the little cabbages in half, and saute in olive oil with some salt and pepper and minced garlic until golden brown.  Drizzle a tad of balsamic vinegar or a spritz of lemon juice, and you have a feast that is not only healthy and delicious, but still low in calories, despite the addition of the olive oil.  The recipe can be adjusted to taste by adding bits of bacon, or grilled in the oven by brushing the baby cabbages with the olive oil instead.  Either way, you must try this magic vegetable!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Chicken Soup - Or is it Bean Soup?

I have made chicken soup many times in my life, but this time, I was craving some white beans, so I decided to combine them.

Making soup is perhaps one of the easiest tasks in the kitchen.  I usually don't bother with the fancy mincing and sauteing and deglazing techniques, as seen on the cooking shows, but simply put all ingredients in a pot and let them simmer together.  I did a version of that with this soup, as follows:

1 full chicken, cut in quarters, skin removed
1 or 2 large onions, sliced
6 cloves garlic, squashed to bring out flavor
1 large tomato, cut in pieces
1 or 2 large carrots, cleaned and sliced
1 rib celery, sliced (optional)
3-4 qts pure water, or chicken broth
Salt and pepper
1 pack fresh baby spinach
2 cans cannelloni beans
Green/red peppers, sliced (optional)
1 or 2 large potatoes (optional)

Salt and pepper chicken on both sides, then place the chicken, sliced onions, chopped or "smashed" garlic cloves, cut tomato in large pot with 3-4 quarts of pure water or chicken broth.  Bring to a boil, then lower heat, and simmer at least 1 hour, until chicken is cooked.  While continuing to cook, add the 2 cans of cannelloni beans, and the bag of baby spinach.  Continue to simmer for 15-20 minutes, and serve. 

This soup is many variations available, including adding potatoes (these wound be added at the beginning, to cook with the chicken), and any number of other vegetables, to taste.  Regardless, the flavor is absolutely delicious!

Monday, October 7, 2013

The American Dream Food - The Hamburger

I watched a program this morning on one of the food channels where the host visited a renouned restaurant in Los Angeles that served $26 hamburgers.  He proceeded to introduce the chef, and have the chef explain to him what was so special about his hamburgers that was worth $26.  The chef obliged by showing our host a few cuts of aged beef that he proceeds to grind fresh before preparing his enormous and costly hamburgers. 

Our host was practically drooling at the sight of what he called this "quality piece of beef," dry aged, and marbled to perfection.  Somehow, I cannot look at all this fat and associate a word like "quality" to it.

Our illustrious chef took several pieces of such "quality" beef and passed them through the grinder, to produce his famous hamburgers.  The host shut his eyes in ecstasy as he bit into the rare hamburger, with the juices running down his chin.

I am not vegetarian, but the sight of so much fat and pink, uncooked meat is not appetizing to me.  I don't care how much it costs.  What I do like are the caramelized onions and the buttered bun, but that's just me.