Spring is a very short season in Israel, and it is happening now. If you can, don’t miss going to the Galilee now.
The mountains are covered with wild flowers and every shade of green, the trees are blossoming, and the sun is not too hot.
If you look closely, you’ll see locals picking wild herbs to take home to cook. In fact, Galilee cuisine – and that of Husam Abbas of Al Babor in particular – is known for its use of seasonal herbs that grow wild in the fields.
Abbas, who owns a few restaurants in the Galilee, remembers picking herbs as a child and bringing them home to his mother to cook for the family. To this day, he likes to use traditional cooking techniques he learned from her when cooking these greens. He says that traditional Galilee cuisine is characterized by dishes that are connected to the locale, the changing seasons and the locally grown produce.
In the spring, the edible herbs grow wild in people’s gardens and in the neighboring fields. Some can also be found in the farmers’ markets, such as the Ramle market, the Jaffa market and Hatikva market in Tel Aviv, as well as in Jerusalem and Haifa.
For example, leshon hapar (anchusa) is an herb that gets its name from the shape of the leaves, which look like a cow’s tongue, and are covered with thorns. The large, tough leaves need cooking before you can stuff them. They can be replaced with other leaves, but the flavor will be different.
The local wild chicory (olesh) is a bitter weed that is cooked with onions and can be incorporated in cold and warm salads.
Akub, a local thorn that takes ages to peel, is considered a delicacy and can only be found in some restaurants for a very short time.
The wild mustard that you can see growing at the roadside throughout the country adds sharpness and slight bitterness to salads.
And there is, of course, hubeza (mallow).
It grows wild in cities and villages in most parts of Israel and is used in many dishes in traditional Galilee cuisine.
Abbas gave us a few relatively easy dishes that anyone can make at home. If you can’t find the herbs in a market near you, choose a similar green instead. But the flavor, though good, will be different.
HUBEZA STEW Serves 4 ✔ 1 bunch fresh hubeza leaves ✔ 2 large onions, chopped ✔ 1 tsp. salt ✔ ¼ cup olive oil ✔ Juice of 1 lemon Cut the leaves into thin strips and place in a colander. Wash well under running water.
In a wide pan, heat oil and fry the onions until golden. Add the leaves and mix. Season with salt and cook until leaves wilt. Remove from heat and squeeze the lemon juice on top. Toss and serve as a hot or cold salad.
WILD ASPARAGUS WITH EGGS Serves 4 ✔ ½ kg. wild asparagus (or thin asparagus) ✔ 4 eggs ✔ 1 tomato, cubed ✔ 1 green chili, finely chopped (or green pepper if you don’t like spicy) ✔ Salt and black pepper ✔ Olive oil Remove tough ends of the asparagus and boil in salted water for a maximum of 15 minutes. Drain and cut into strips.
Heat a little oil in a wide pan, add the cooked drained asparagus, the tomato and pepper and sauté for 10 minutes, mixing occasionally.
Add the eggs one at a time and mix vigorously.
Season and cook for 5 minutes.
Serve with goat yogurt.
LAMB STEW WITH AKUB Serves 6 ✔ 1 kg. akub*, cleaned and sliced into strips ✔ 1 kg. fillet of lamb, cubed ✔ 4 large onions ✔ Salt and pepper ✔ Nutmeg ✔ Olive oil *Note: If you can’t find akub, use other greens such as chard or beet leaves.
In a deep pot, sear the lamb in olive oil.
Add about 1 liter of water and cook for 1 hour. Drain but reserve the broth.
In another pan, sauté the onions in olive oil until golden. Add the cooked drained meat cubes and about 2 cups of the cooking water. Add the greens, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook for 1 hour over low heat.
STUFFED LESHON HAPAR If you can’t find this herb, use other large succulent greens such as wild spinach or young vine leaves.
✔ 30 leshon hapar leaves Wash very thoroughly. Cut the stems and boil for 10 minutes or until soft enough to roll but not mushy.
For the stuffing ✔ ½ kg. rice ✔ 2 tsp. salt ✔ 1 tsp. black pepper ✔ Pinch ground nutmeg ✔ 3 Tbsp. olive oil ✔ Juice of ½ lemon In a bowl, mix all the stuffing ingredients.
Lay a leaf flat on a work surface, place 1 Tbsp. of the stuffing in the center of the leaf, fold the sides in and roll tightly.
In a pot with a little olive oil, place the rolled leaves, seam side down, in a few tight layers. Add enough water to cover, and bring to a boil. Immediately lower the heat to the minimum and cook covered for 1 hour.
Remove from heat and squeeze juice of ½ lemon.
Recipes and photos courtesy of Husam Abbas, chef and owner of three Galilee restaurants: Al Babor Umm el-Fahm, Ein Ibrahin crossing, Wadi Ara, (04) 611-4141; Al Babor Yokne’am, Kochav Yokne’am shopping center, (04) 989-1619; and Al Babor Sea, 16 Hahagana Street, Acre promenade, (04) 628-9115.