Cooking up a storm

Food on Tu Bishvat doesn't have to be a matter of cold, chewy dried fruits.

food 88 (photo credit: )
food 88
(photo credit: )
'You don't really want to keep to the menu, right?" asks chef Shai Asahel as we walk into Ra'anana's Laga'at Be'ochel. We answer no and are suddenly filled with an anything-can-happen spirit. "Great," he says. "Because I think we should just improvise." This is how our cooking workshop begins. Asahel, hugely energetic and charming, is the chef behind this culinary school in Ra'anana that also boasts a huge gourmet shop stocking baking products and cooking equipment, dozens of loose teas, coffees, dried fruits, herbs, spices and chocolates. Behind the shop is a kitchen the size of an apartment and in it enough ovens, work surfaces, mixers and kitchen equipment - all of which is sponsored by Kenwood - to host a group of up to 25. Today we are only two, and Asahel will be walking us through a two-hour Tu Bishvat workshop. Caramelizing onions are already sizzling softly in a heavy-bottomed frying pan; a large eggplant is becoming black and droopy on the front burner. We start to cook. First up, Asahel puts my partner to work on the eggplant. Removed from the heat and cooled, she cuts away the skin and bowls the "meat." Following Asahel's instruction, she begins to whisk in olive oil to the eggplant, adding and adding until the eggplant, still warm, takes on a dreamy, light texture. To this is added lemon, garlic, atlantic salt and pepper. We are itching to eat it, but we have nothing to dip. Together with Asahel, I am about to solve the problem. "OK," he says. "Let's make some yeast dough." He has already shaken 500 grams of flour into the mixer. I am to add dried yeast, as much as I see fit, sugar, olive oil and water. Nothing is measured out here, which makes me feel a little anxious, but Asahel is confident. In the end, using our guts for guidance, about: YEAST DOUGH * 2 tsp. yeast goes in, * 30 gr. sugar ("even if you don't want sweet * dough," says Asahel, "the sugar gives the dough its golden color.") * 3⁄4 Tbsp. olive oil * 200 to 300 ml. water After about 20 minutes of resting the dough and allowing it to puff, Asahel is ready for us to take a little, add some pistachios, roll it out and bake it. The result, 10 minutes later, are flatbreads for our delicious eggplant-dip first course. EGGPLANT DIP * 1 eggplant, charred until black, droopy and totally soft - cooled, meat removed * Olive oil - more than you might imagine - perhaps 150 ml, whisked into the meat slowly * Lemon to taste * Fresh garlic, crushed (1 clove) * Atlantic salt and freshly ground pepper Fresh thyme leaf to serve There's no time to rest while we are waiting for the flatbreads. We start making the filling for what will be the next course - a meat and dried fruit pastry. It's up to me what goes in and in the end I settle on something like this: * 2 Tbsp. caramelized onions, cooled * 200 gr. raw beef (with lamb fat) * Half a handful of chopped dried figs * 2 Tbsp. all-natural haroset * Atlantic salt * Freshly ground pepper The filling was wrapped in the yeast dough; first in dumplings and then in a long roll when ball-making became too tedious. The result was brushed in egg and oven baked at 180ºC until brown. We sit down to eat the hot and fresh meat pastries with a salad of baby leaves that has a fabulous dressing Asahel has just whipped up. It consists of: TEHINDA + DATE DRESSING * Raw tehina paste * Balsamic vinegar * Natural silan (date honey) syrup * Olive oil * Salt and pepper There are no measurements here; it's a matter of taste and instinct. We are filling up but there's definitely more to come. Somewhere along the line my partner makes a raw zucchini salad with red grapefruit pieces, chopped fresh mint, toasted sesame seeds and olive oil, which looks fabulous and acts as a real palate cleanser. We follow with (among other dishes) slices of entrecote filled with nuts and caramelized onion. These have: ENTRECOTE FILLED WITH NUTS * Handful chopped pistachios * Handful chopped macadamias * Handful chopped walnuts * 3 Tbsp. or so caramelized onions * Approx. 8 slices of raw entrecote The slices are filled with the nuts and onions, carefully rolled and roasted in the oven at 200/220ºC for only 5 minutes. (You don't want the entrecote tough and the thinness of these slices means it's a matter of minutes between meat that's juicy and meat that's dry.) These are served on a bed of onions that have been browned with wine, sugar and ground pepper. Somewhere in between all of this, Asahel removes a plastic box from the fridge that contains kadaif noodles. He picks out a handful of these wispy strings, forms them into long, loose birds' nests and brushes them with olive oil. These are oven baked briefly until brown and removed to cool. "They'll wait until later," he says. "We'll see what we do with them." AFTER ANOTHER course of lamb chops which we really, really have no room for, a vegetable stir fry that is perfectly balanced ("Don't use Kikkoman," he advises, when I ask why my stir fries never come out this good. "It's great for sushi, but it's too watery for stir fry. Use something with a thicker viscosity that will hold on the vegetables") the birds' nests are put to good use. While we sit at the kitchen bar and chat, Asahel is up again, tireless, shaking and stirring over the fire. He is making a coulis of forest fruits for dessert. A can of coconut milk is opened, and a little milk is poured over the kadaif, followed by the forest fruit. "Hmm," he says as we tuck in, "Good, but not quite sweet enough." (I like it, though I think the whole dish is a little too wet.) What was meant to be a two-hour workshop has somehow stretched to over three hours. We are high from immense creativity, Asahel's sense of adventure, and a lot of great food and wine. We don't leave before sipping some settling tea on the shop's bar upfront and purchasing a whole stack of stuff including dried fruits and baking goods, among them a tin for tiny muffins. The staff are knowledgeable, warm and friendly, and we leave promising we will be back, bringing others in tow.n Laga'at Be'ochel is offering a Tu Bishvat workshop to the general public on January 22 with chef Shai Asahel with a focus on dried fruits. To register call (09) 749-4474. NIS 189 per person. All food is included. Both the workshops and shop are kosher and under supervision. Rehov Hasadna 4 (ACE complex), Ra'anana industrial zone.