Itrek is an organization that brings graduate students from prestigious universities to Israel for week-long tours focused on their areas of study. I’ve been paid to give talks about politics and diplomacy to several of these groups, so when I heard itrek had a cookbook, my curiosity piqued. After all, I knew them for bringing law, business and STEM students to Israel.
Well, it turns out some of the best cookbooks can come from the most unexpected sources.
Before I even got to the food, the itrek book reminded me of a family story about when my aunt, who hated and still hates to cook, returned to the US from a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University. She bought my mom a coffee table book of beautiful photos of Israel without realizing – until my mother pointed it out – that it was, in fact, a cookbook. The itrek book is also a cookbook that you could easily mistake for a coffee table book of gorgeous pictures of Israel. I’m partial to the Tel Aviv beach views.
The more than 100 recipes in the book, edited by Nomi Abeliovich and Kristin Kovner, come from a broad variety of cultural, historic and geographic backgrounds, as fits any good book about Israeli cuisine.
I chose two kosher-for-Passover recipes from the book, from different geographic regions, for the last days of the holiday.
The first is garlic and artichoke soup, which has a taste of Carciofi alla giudìa, Jewish Roman deep-fried artichokes. This popular dish is served at restaurants in Rome’s Jewish ghetto.
The second, called maakouda, is a Moroccan version of potato kugel. Though, if you’re Moroccan, potato kugel is the Eastern European version of maakouda. Either way, it’s perfect for Passover. One variation listed below includes meat, which is somewhat reminiscent of yapchik, a hassidic dish of potato kugel stuffed with meat, which has become trendy in the Jewish cooking world in recent years.
No matter what version of maakouda you make, the herbs and the method of boiling, frying and baking make it unmistakably unique, if you’re used to the Ashkenazi version.
Garlic and Artichoke Soup
Artichokes have been part of the local cuisine for thousands of years and have a very brief season that has made them a bit of a luxury. Some cooks fill the hearts with meat and steam them, while others, such as Roman Jews, deep fry them whole. Their pronounced flavor makes artichokes an excellent ingredient for soup.
- 4 white onions, chopped
- 150 gr. butter (1 ¼ stick)
- 10 garlic cloves, sliced
- 12-15 artichoke hearts (fresh or frozen)
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Sea salt
- Lemon slices, to serve
- Place the onions and butter in a heavy pot. Sauté for a few minutes over a high heat until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and mix.
- Cut all but 3 artichoke hearts into slices and add to the pot. Mix well until all the artichokes are covered in the onions, butter and garlic. Season with salt and cover with water to about 2 cm. above the artichokes. Bring to a boil and cook over a low heat for 30 minutes, until the artichokes are very soft
- Meanwhile, slice the remaining artichoke hearts. Set a heavy pan over a high heat and add olive oil. Sear the artichoke slices on both sides and transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.
- When the artichokes in the soup are soft, use a stick blender or a food processor to blend until velvety smooth. If needed, add more butter or water. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your taste.
- To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, top with a few slices of fried artichoke and a slice of lemon on the side.
As the American-born potato only made it to North Africa a few hundred years ago, Maakouda isn’t one of the most ancient dishes in Moroccan cuisine, but it is certainly one of the most cherished ones, and is popular among both Muslims and Jews in Morocco. In the colorful market stalls of Marrakesh and Casablanca, maakouda fritters are sold in greasy paper bags with a slice of lemon to squeeze on top. Meanwhile, maakouda was served in Jewish homes as a festive baked dish on holidays and special occasions.
Maakouda is somewhat similar to the Eastern European kartoffel kugel, where grated potatoes are baked together with onions, black pepper and oil or duck fat, until brown and crisp. However, in Moroccan maakouda, the potatoes are boiled and fried before they are baked in the oven. Some recipes use turmeric and paprika to enhance the maakouda’s color, while others enrich the mixture with a variety of additions.
In the following recipe, fresh and dried herbs give the dish a vibrant green color.
- 5-6 large potatoes
- 15 parsley sprigs, finely chopped
- 12 celery stalks, finely chopped
- 2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 heaping Tbsp. dried mint
- 1 heaping Tbsp. dried cilantro
- 1 Tbsp. baking powder
- 8 eggs
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup sunflower or corn oil
- Cook the potatoes with the skin on, in salted water until they are fork tender but still firm. Drain the potatoes and let cool slightly before peeling (they should be easy to peel with your fingers). Transfer to a wide bowl.
- Add the chopped parsley, celery, onion and garlic, and mix well. Add the dried mint, cilantro, baking powder and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Using a potato masher, mash together into a loose, coarse puree and don’t worry if there are a few lumps.
- In a deep, oven-proof pot, heat the oil until very hot, but not smoking. Carefully ladle the potato mixture into the pot and press with a spatula or a wet wooden spoon to an even layer. The oil will cover the mixture on all sides, preventing it from sticking to the sides of the pot and giving the final dish its characteristic crispy brown outer layer. If there’s too much oil, you can pour some out.
- Fry the maakouda on a low heat until the edges turn gold, about 12-15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°C when ready, transfer the pot to the oven and bake until the surface of the maakouda is well-browned and slightly risen, about 20 minutes.
- Use a thin knife to carefully separate the maakouda from the side of the pot. Turn the pot upside down over a large tray and tap the bottom lightly to dislodge the maakouda.
- Serve at room temperature with harissa and sour cream on the side.
Maakouda with carrots and peas: Skip the herbs and add ¾ cup cooked peas with ¾ cooked diced carrots. Season with a teaspoon of turmeric and a ½ teaspoon of cumin.
Meat Maakouda: Sauté 300 gr. of ground beef with a chopped onion, salt and pepper in olive oil. Add to the maakouda mixture. You can also use crumbed roast beef or chicken leftovers. ■