Confessions of an ex-TV cook

Through a world-weary rebbetzin, media star Gil Hovav presents the simpler side of the country's cuisine.

Gil Hovav 521 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Gil Hovav 521
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Anyone who caught some morsel or other of Gil Hovav’s long berth as a TV cook would probably have been taken with the presenter’s amicable demeanor, as well as by the wide variety of dishes he conjured up for our aesthetic, and later gastronomic, enjoyment. Both those attributes come across loud and clear in his latest book, Confessions of a Kitchen Rebbetzin, which he recently put out in English through his own Toad Communications publishing company in association with Modan Publishing House.
It is a very visual and entertaining tome with, as the splash on the front cover states, “76 strictly kosher recipes.” Hovav takes on the utterly socially acceptable persona of a rabbi’s wife to proffer dishes from a multitude of cultural sources, all of which flow through the prism of contemporary Israel.
In fact, Hovav has had his agile fingers in quite a few professional pies for some time. He has a rich background in print journalism, as restaurant critic and editor, but is probably best known for his popular TV shows on Channel 1, Channel 2 and Channel 23, Pepper, Garlic and Olive Oil, Captain Cook which reviewed the world’s best restaurants, and Going to the Market. Hovav subsequently utilized his publishing outfit to turn each of the series into best-selling cookbooks.
The literary side of Hovav’s professional endeavor partly owes more than a little to genes. His great-grandfather was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man responsible for reviving Hebrew as a living contemporary language; and his grandfather, Itamar Ben-Avi, was one of the pioneers of Hebrew journalism in pre-state Palestine. His parents, Drora and Moshe Hovav, were among the founders of the Kol Yisrael radio station. Add to that a natural love of the art of gastronomy and a colorful family history, and you get a rich resource to be mined for our reading, viewing and eating pleasure.
Hovav actually had to overcome some stiff resistance to translate his interest in cooking into practical terms. “My family didn’t really cook at all,” explains 50-year-old Jerusalem born Hovav, who also has Moroccan and Yemenite roots. “We were quite well off, and we almost never ate at home – we always went out to restaurants.
That was the beginning of my education, which eventually led to my becoming a restaurant critic.”
However, there was the odd homespun dish, such as his Moroccan grandmother’s tomato soup. “She never allowed me into the kitchen,” Hovav recalls. “In Sephardi families, men don’t go into the kitchen. A man in the kitchen means bad luck or a mess, or both.”
That lack of access to his albeit limited familial cooking history meant that Hovav had to find his own way through the mysteries of preparing dishes. But it also acted as a catalyst for developing the skills that eventually made him a household name.
Despite his success in the media food business, Hovav was a reluctant star. “Food and cooking have never been my main area of interest,” he states. “I was a literary editor, and I have worked in all sorts of things that are connected with food.”
So what, then, drew him to the professional side of the kitchen? “For me, cooking is about memories,” Hovav declares. “I wrote two books – Mitbah Mishpaha (Family Kitchen) and Sukariot Mishamayim (Candy from Heaven) – with stories about my family and my childhood and what it was like to grow up in Jerusalem. At the end of each story there is a recipe for the food we ate when the incident took place. When I wrote the second book, I tried to recreate my grandmother’s recipe for tomato soup.”
Hovav’s antecedent died some years earlier without divulging the ingredients.
“My grandmother never gave me any recipes, so I had to experiment on my own,” he explains.
When he eventually arrived at the exact combination of ingredients, it was an emotive moment for him.
“I tried and I tried, but I never got it right. One day, I remembered she used to grate a couple of carrots into the soup, so I did that. As soon as I tasted it, I started crying. For me, that was a way of being with my grandmother, with my family, again. It brought her and her cooking back to life for me.”
Interestingly, the dish does not feature among the 76 recipes in Confessions of a Kitchen Rebbetzin, although there is an item called Butterfly Soup, which is tomatobased and includes grated carrots.
The book is divided into seven sections, each of which opens with a “confession” by the titular rabbi’s wife. In her chapter starters, the rebbetzin shares her life philosophy with the reader, much of which centers on her efforts to fulfill the traditional role of mother – to no fewer than seven children – and wife to a man she often calls a “tzadik” and “a true righteous soul.”
The book is shot through with humorous asides, with a nod and a wink of gossip about some relative or other who happens to be incarcerated in some state prison or other, naturally through no fault of his own, and only as a result of the inmate’s ardent intent to help the downtrodden. The fact that this assistance was achieved by breaking the law is, according to the rebbetzin, of no real consequence.
Ever the dutiful wife, in addition to keeping the other eight members of her immediate family washed, clothed and nourished, she finds time to prepare food for her husband’s jailbird brother. That also offers an opportunity for enlightening the reader about the long-lasting virtues of various pastries and other victuals which, we are told, will keep in prison for at least three days. A handy tip, indeed.
AS A child, Hovav recalls, on the infrequent occasion that a meal was prepared at home, it was not exactly the stuff of the Michelin Guide.
“We weren’t at all poor, but we ate meals of paupers at home,” he says.
“It was generally something like rice and okra, or bean soup which we had over two days. We never ate meat at home, and we had chicken once a week, on Shabbat, which sufficed for five people.”
That ties in neatly with the rebbetzin’s frugal advice on how to stretch a chicken, in various guises, across several meals – even for a family with seven children – and her confession that, horror of horrors!, she uses powdered chicken stock. Ever the practical housewife and mother, she simply states that you can either have “one tablespoon of chicken stock powder and a squeaky-clean house or a pot of homemade chicken stock accompanied by a week’s worth of laundry piled up in the bathroom.” There’s no arguing with that.
The recipes cover practically every ethnic cuisine available in the country.
There is Yemenite beef soup, Spain-spawned purple gazpacho, a nod to the Iraqi community with beetroot kubbeh soup, a definitively Polish something called Kugel Express, and pickled herring. The family felon also has a dish dedicated to him, in the form of Prison Bean Soup.
The dishes in the book are entertainingly and succinctly presented – many are accompanied by excellent photos.
But, despite their aesthetic appeal, there is nothing overly ambitious or too sumptuous in the 152 pages.
“I am not a great cook, and I am not a chef,” Hovav admits. “I like making and eating simple food. Yes, I did that TV series about the best restaurants in the world, and I like that too, but I will never prepare dishes like that at home. Simple food, for me, is direct and honest and sensory.”
In the final analysis, Hovav wants to use Confessions of a Kitchen Rebbetzin to set the record straight for Diaspora Jewry.
“I am constantly concerned that Jews who live abroad believe that we Israelis eat what they are told we eat,” he explains. “I worry that they think we eat the food they see in the El Al magazines and books that offer ‘a taste of Israel’ – you know, quinoa in three different colors, with basil sprouts. I wanted them to know that what we eat doesn’t come from Israeli cuisine because I don’t believe there is such a thing as yet, that the food we eat is a sort of local pastiche of all the cultures we have here.”
Hovav gets that message across in the seventh and last confession in the book. “The selection of cuisines we have in Israel are great and fun. I see that my visitors from abroad, when they eat at my house, or I take them out to eat, they enjoy the simple food we have here. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of food that you normally find in cookbooks. Keep it simple.”
One presumes that our frugal-minded rebbetzin would go along with that.