A taste of Israel

When we asked the chef what characterizes Israeli cooking, he said that Israeli cooking is bold-flavored. “We Israeli chefs take our grandmothers’ dishes and upgrade them.”

Taste of Israel at The Majestic in Downtown Los Angeles (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Taste of Israel at The Majestic in Downtown Los Angeles
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
At the first Taste of Israel Festival, which was held about seven weeks ago in Los Angeles, we were curious to see what dishes the chefs selected to represent today’s Israeli cuisine.
We watched Chef Shaul Ben Aderet of Blue Rooster Restaurant in Tel Aviv making spinach “burik” (often spelled brik) – crisp fried pastry filled with seasoned cooked spinach and an egg that cooks inside the pastry as it fries.
When we asked the chef what characterizes Israeli cooking, he said that Israeli cooking is bold-flavored. “We Israeli chefs take our grandmothers’ dishes and upgrade them.”
Instead of flavoring his beet salad the traditional way with vinegar and sugar, he dressed it with a sauce of pomegranate molasses, silan (date molasses), and balsamic vinegar, and enhanced it with roasted almonds, pistachios, diced prunes and fresh herbs. (See recipe.)
Ben Aderet made a colorful rendition of hummus mesabaha, a popular dish in Israel that has the same components as hummus but is not pureed; it’s made of whole chickpeas in tehina sauce flavored with lemon juice and garlic and served warm. He topped the sauced chickpeas with sautéed asparagus, sugar snap peas and mushrooms. (See recipe.)
Hummus mesabaha was also featured at the booth of Hummus Bar, an Israeli restaurant in Los Angeles, where chef Ofir Arbel layered the chickpea and tehina mixture with smoky grilled eggplant, diced semi-hot red chili peppers and small cubes of cooked beef, and served the rich appetizer in glasses.
Israeli chef and cookbook author Tzahi Bukshester of the Black Restaurant chain, who is also known as a TV cooking show host, made a delicious spicy mejadra. It, too, was an updated interpretation of a time-honored dish.
In Israel, mejadra is most familiar as a dish of rice and lentils, but historically speaking, explained Bukshester, rice is fairly new to the Middle East. He told us that in his great-grandfather’s time, rice was not available in the area that is now Israel, and people made their mejadra with bulgur wheat. This is how Bukshester makes his mejadra today, seasoning the mixture of lentils and bulgur wheat with his own baharat spice blend, which contains allspice, cardamom and other spices. (See recipe.) For the Taste of Israel Festival, he served the mejadra topped with beef short ribs, carrots and fried sage leaves and sprinkled with chopped pistachios.
Bukshester also made a tasty hummus-like appetizer from white beans. For a fresh finishing touch, he garnished it with a pesto-like puree of fresh herbs. (See recipe.)
The creative use of tehina among the chefs at the festival was striking. The rice-stuffed vine leaves made by Aviva Ben David of Darna Mediterranean Cuisine were served warm and drizzled with tehina sauce. At Hummus Bar, lentils topped with roasted cauliflower were served with tehina sauce spiced with harissa (Moroccan hot pepper sauce). Tehina was made into a halva sauce that came with the restaurant’s Moroccan donuts.
There were old-fashioned favorites at the festival, like the kubbeh – semolina dumplings filled with beef – from Sharon On’s Bazilikum Signature Catering.
Some were served in beet sauce and some as kubbeh hamusta, in a lemony herb sauce. Chef Alain Cohen of the Got Kosher? restaurant, who is known for his Tunisian cuisine, served “boulettes de ma mere” – meatballs made by his mother’s recipe – on a bed of couscous, and Tunisian tuna fricassee sandwiches flavored with preserved lemon.
At the festival, the dominant style of the dishes was Sephardi, perhaps with the exception of the salmon pastrami from chefs Erez Levy and Richard Lauter of Savore Cuisine & Events and the halla pudding made by Cohen. 
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and of Feast from the Mideast.
Chef Shaul Ben Aderet gave me his recipe, which calls for garnishing the beet salad with toasted pine nuts. Another option is to embellish it with toasted sliced almonds and pistachios, as the chef did at the Taste of Israel Festival.
Ben Aderet recommends topping the salad with micro basil, but instead you can use additional fresh mint or fresh coriander. The beets are used raw. Choose fresh, young beets and cut them in very thin cubes.
Serves 4
■ 4 fresh beets
■ 4 pitted prunes
■ 4 Tbsp. pomegranate concentrate or pomegranate molasses
■ 1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
■ 2 Tbsp. silan (date molasses or date syrup)
■ 2 Tbsp. olive oil
■ Salt and pepper
■ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint
■ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
■ 50 gr. (1.8 oz.) toasted pine nuts
Peel beets and cut them in 1- x 1-cm. (about 1/3- by 1/3-in.) cubes. Cut prunes in tiny dice.
Prepare dressing by whisking together the pomegranate molasses, balsamic vinegar, silan, olive oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl.
To serve, mix the beets, prunes and dressing in a bowl. Add mint and fresh coriander and mix gently. Taste and adjust seasoning. Top with pine nuts.
This is Ben Aderet’s colorful take on chickpeas in tehina sauce. It’s served topped with sautéed mushrooms, asparagus and other green vegetables.
He uses three kinds of mushrooms, but you can use one kind and increase the amount.
Serves 4
For the chickpea and tehina mixture:
■ 2 cups thoroughly cooked chick peas (very soft) and hot
■ ½ cup pure tehina
■ 1 cup broth from cooking the chickpeas
■ 3 Tbsp. lemon juice
■ ½ Tbsp. sesame oil
■ ¼ tsp. salt
■ ¼ tsp. cumin
Sautéed vegetables:
■ 8 asparagus spears
■ 8 white mushrooms
■ 8 shimeji mushrooms
■ 2 small portobello or 8 crimini (small brown) mushrooms
■ 4 zucchini
■ 1 handful (about 100 gr. or 3½ to 4 oz.) snow peas, sugar snap peas or green beans
■ ½ cup shelled edamame (green soy beans) or peas
■ 2 Tbsp. olive oil, or more if needed for sautéing, plus a little more for drizzling
■ 2 garlic cloves, sliced
■ Salt and pepper
■ Toasted walnuts, for garnish (optional)
For the chickpea mixture:
Spoon tehina into a bowl. Stir in 1 cup chickpea cooking broth, then the lemon juice, sesame oil, salt and cumin. Add cooked chickpeas. Taste and adjust seasoning. Keep warm.
For the sautéed vegetables: Trim vegetables. Cut off tough bases from asparagus, and cut the spears in bite-size lengths. Slice mushrooms. Cut zucchini in sticks. Remove ends of snow peas or beans. Thaw edamame or peas if frozen.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and enough vegetables to form one layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and sauté about 3 minutes or until vegetables are just tender. Repeat with remaining vegetables.
To serve, spoon about 5 tablespoons chickpea tehina mixture onto each plate or shallow bowl and spoon about 5 tablespoons sautéed vegetables on top. Garnish with toasted walnuts and drizzle with olive oil.
For this dish, chef Tzahi Bukshester noted that it’s important to use coarse bulgur wheat. Adding a pinch of sugar is traditional, he said, but he prefers not to. “The dish gains its sweetness from the wonderful caramelized onions,” he said.
The chef recommends serving the mejadra topped with crunchy deep fried onions. The customary way to serve it is with diced vegetable salad and with yogurt as an accompaniment.
Alternatively, you can use the lentil- bulgur mejadra as a bed for a meat entrée, as Bukshester did at the Taste of Israel.
Serves 6, generously
■ 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
■ 1 Tbsp. canola oil or other vegetable oil
■ 2 large onions, cut in medium-size cubes
■ 1 tsp. baharat (Middle Eastern spice blend)
■ ½ tsp. sugar (optional)
■ 120 gr. (4.2 oz. or about 1 cup) black lentils
■ 600 ml. (2½ cups) water
■ 100 gr. (3.5 oz.) coarse bulgur
■ ½ tsp. salt
Heat olive oil and canola oil in a wide saucepan. Add onions and sauté them over medium-low heat, stirring often, until they are deep brown. Add baharat and sugar and continue cooking until sugar caramelizes.
Add lentils and water, stir and bring to a boil. Cover and cook until lentils begin to soften, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, rinse bulgur wheat well and drain. Add bulgur and salt to the softened lentils. Stir and cook, covered, about 10 more minutes or until lentils and bulgur are done to your taste. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes before uncovering. Mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning.
This recipe for fresh green salad from Ben Aderet can be adapted to your taste. At the festival he made it with parsley, fennel, basil and green onions, and garnished it with dried cranberries, olives and roasted almonds. Instead of drizzling it with tehina, he sweetened the olive oil and lemon juice dressing with honey and silan (date molasses) and flavored it with poppy seeds and ginger.
Be sure to dry the herbs well before chopping them, and use a dry knife and a dry board.
Serves 4
■ 1 cup chopped parsley
■ 1 cup chopped mint
■ 1 cup chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
■ 1 cup chopped arugula leaves
■ ¼ cup chopped red onion
■ Juice of 1 lemon
■ 4 Tbsp. olive oil
■ Salt and pepper
■ ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
■ 2 Tbsp. pure tehina
Mix herbs with onion. Add lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to a serving dish. Serve topped with pine nuts and drizzled with tehina.
Bukshester’s bean puree is garnished with a puree of herbs and with whole beans heated with sautéed onions, diced tomatoes and smoked paprika.
When making the herb puree, you can substitute flavorful vegetable stock for the chicken stock.
Serves 8 to 10 as small appetizers
■ 225 gr. (8 oz.) large white beans, such as lima or “bobess”
■ 1 small sprig of rosemary
■ 1 small sprig of thyme
■ 1 small sprig of oregano
■ 1 or 2 star anise
■ 1 white onion, peeled Bean puree:
■ 600 gr. (1.3 lb.) cooked white beans
■ 7 gr. (0.25 oz.) salt, or to taste
■ 45 ml. (about 3 Tbsp.) lemon juice, or to taste
■ 1 garlic clove (4 gr. or 0.15 oz.)
■ 55 gr. (2 oz. or about 3½ Tbsp.) olive oil (optional)
■ 45 gr. (about 1½ oz.) white bread, torn in pieces
Herb coulis:
■ ½ small bunch parsley
■ ½ small bunch green onions
■ ½ cup good quality chicken soup or stock, cold
■ ½ small bunch cilantro (fresh cori ander)
■ ½ small garlic clove
■ About ¾ tsp. green curry paste
■ ¼ cup olive oil
■ Salt
To Finish:
■ ¼ cup olive oil
■ 1 onion, chopped by hand into tiny cubes
■ ½ tsp. semi-hot coarsely ground smoked paprika
■ 1 ripe tomato, peeled and cut in attractive dice
Soak beans in water overnight; if possible change water once or twice.
In a large saucepan put rosemary, thyme, oregano, star anise and onion and top with beans. Add enough water to cover them by 10 cm. (4 in.). Bring to a boil. Skim off the foam. Cook beans until tender, about 35 minutes or longer, depending on freshness and type of beans.
Reserve a few white beans for garnish.
Weigh remaining beans to make puree.
Bean puree: Combine cooked beans, salt, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and bread in a food processor. Puree until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Refrigerate mixture.
Herb coulis: Plunge parsley and green onions into a saucepan of boiling water. Boil for one minute only. Immediately transfer herbs to a bowl of ice water to cool. Drain herbs well.
Pour chicken soup and olive oil into blender. Add boiled herbs, cilantro, garlic, curry paste and a pinch of salt. Blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning.
To finish: Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a skillet. Add chopped onion and sauté until golden. Add paprika, tomato cubes and reserved white beans and toss briefly over heat.
To serve, spoon a heaping spoonful of white bean puree onto each plate, drizzle it with herb coulis and garnish it with the white bean and tomato mixture.