Wild flowers are still in bloom, the fields have yet to turn from refreshing green to boring brown, and it's too windy for the flies to intrude. There's not better time to revive the picnic tradition than Spring. Especially if you happen to have four of Israel's best chefs and a devoted winemaker to help. After inviting some of the country's top chefs to create a Pessah friendly spread, we began to look for the perfect location for our picnic. Among the hundreds of sites offered to the public all around the country at the Jewish National Fund forests, our chefs chose a little piece of green meadow next to Aminadav Forest at the outskirts of Jerusalem. Overlooking the Sorek and Refaim riverbed where the train tracks to the capital pass, the qualities of this hidden location were ideal. But the chefs had much more in their baskets. Executive chefs Ezra Kedem of Arcadia, Jerusalem; Erez Komarovski of Lehem Erez, Herzliya; Noam Dekers of Barcarola, Kfar Saba, Daniel Zach of Carmela Bistro, Tel Aviv; and Doron Rav-Hon, chief winemaker of Ella winery, braved the heights of the Jerusalem Hills to assemble a diverse feast. Our picnic was originally a "pot luck" meal, in which each chef was asked to bring a different dish to the table. The idea was to come up with dishes that can be prepared ahead, and cooked in just a short time.
Plan the perfect picnic
From inventive sandwiches to fresh salads, and from tasty meat to fish soup, the chefs demonstrated just how simple it is to prepare "restaurant quality" dishes while dining outdoors.
For me, it was an exciting opportunity not only to enjoy the excellent food prepared by the talented cooks, but to watch their eyes sparkle while they were busy putting together each dish.
Kedem is the chef and owner of Arcadia restaurant in Jerusalem, where the menu is based on the melting pot known as Israeli cuisine. Kedem, a devotee of local ingredients, defines the Israeli kitchen with only foods that are grown here, such as seasonal vegetables and fruits, fish, meat and local spices. For the picnic he surprised us with an organic shakshuka. How surprising can the ordinary concoction of tomatoes and eggs be you ask? Well, that's where Kedem's skills came in handy. Try adding some sweet and spicy peppers (dried), a few pieces of fresh fish (salmon, seabass, trout...), sun-dried tomatoes and a dash of saffron to the mixture of sliced fresh tomatoes and organic eggs. It might sound complicated, but the results are delicious. If you're able to get your hands on some salicornia (sea asparagus), then it's the perfect ingredient to garnish this inventive shakshuka that is also Pessah friendly.
Chef Komarovski is known for starting the wonderful revolution of artisan breads in Israel in the early 1990s. At Lehem Erez, his restaurant in Herzliya, he weaves modern Israeli and Mediterranean styles into richly flavored dishes, highlighting the local seasonal ingredients.
Komarovski drove all the way up through the Judean Hills to Jerusalem with Moroccan tagines in his back seat. The tagine is a conical-shaped clay pot in which the base is both a cooking and serving dish and the cover is like a closed chimney (it is also the name of the dish). It is traditionally used by North Africans as a portable oven over charcoal, for making stews, usually containing meat. The low, indirect heat produces a rich, aromatic flavor as the food simmers for hours.
In one of the pots Komarovski prepared a tagine of Cornish hen with lemon grass, pickled lemons, coriander, artichoke hearts and fresh garlic. He cooked it for one hour beforehand with white wine and olive oil. The other tagine was pre-cooked for about two hours and consisted of veal thigh with lots of green fresh garlic heads, seasoned with hyssop, nutmeg and cardamom. It was marinated in red wine and a generous amount of olive oil. All he had to do at the picnic was place the pots on charcoals and let it cook for another 40 minutes.
Needless to say it was very colorful and tasted outstanding.
Dekers is a young talented chef who has an impressive knack for bringing out a refined combination of tastes in his dishes. His menu at Barcarola is influenced by Mediterranean and French cuisine, and is presented attractively without being too fancy.
For the picnic he chose to prepare tangy sandwiches of chicken confit with roasted peppers, aioli, mustard, basil and fennel. They were devoured so quickly I hardly had a chance to grab one. His other dish was a fresh version of Nicoise salad in which he carefully chose vegetable accompaniments that both match and enhance with slices of seared red tuna, thyme, beans, calamata olives, and artichokes.
The dishes of Chef Zach, whose restaurant is situated adjacent to the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, are comprised of locally farmed fresh ingredients.
"The fresh seasonal produce at the market inspires my dishes," he says. Zach arrived armed with a heavy cast iron Poyke pot. The Poyke pot is ideal for slow cooking over open fires and has been used for centuries to cook tough meat and in mystic rituals in Africa. In this weighty pot Zach cooked the most famous fish stew of the Mediterranean: "bouillabaisse." By the time I managed to pronounce its name - and it took me a good 20 minutes - the soup was already prepared. Lots of ingredients go in this soup: leeks, carrots, fennel, potatoes, onions and a variety of fresh fish chunks. They are all marinated in tomato paste, white wine, saffron, orange juice and Asian fish sauce. Put everything in the pot, cover it with water, bring to a boil and let it cook for 30 minutes. Serve some nachos, salsa sauce, pesto of water crest and garlic mayonnaise, and you'll have yet another excellent dish on the side. Zach had also prepared some baked potatoes in aluminum foil - something that the kids can always enjoy.
To make this outdoor event perfect we invited winemaker Rav-Hon. Food and wine have a great deal in common, and the possibilities of pairing them are endless. Rav-Hon's crafts wonderfully complimented the dishes: the Chardonnay 2005 tasted just right with the salads and sandwiches; the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah 2004 nicely harmonized with the tagine; and the Merlot 2003 went delightfully with the fish dishes.
And most importantly, a great time was shared by all.
The table setting was arranged by Ze'ela Sofer of Shkedim catering.