–by Ethel G. Hofman
As I passed two husky young men in the dining room of the Dan Hotel, Tel Aviv, I overheard ” You’ll never get this (breakfast) in Tennessee.”
And that’s a fact. Only in Israel, in every hotel, is the signature breakfast unique and unforgettable. Tables piled high with fresh figs, dates, peaches and the plums and grapes still with the bloom of the fresh picked, a dozen salty and cream cheeses, fishes, and salads and sauces of every imaginable combination – and that’s in addition to eggs, crisp bread and rolls, cakes, and cereals. If you’re trying to cut calories – and you can if you’re disciplined enough to include healthy helpings of the fruits and veggies – there’s an enormous variety of low fat cheeses, yogurts (including Activia), crisp breads and crackers. Spread out temptingly on long tables, this is a meal to carry you through a day of sightseeing. Just carry plenty water with you to prevent dehydration.
The quality of Israeli food is striking. Fresh produce is locally grown which means that the time from farm to table may be only a few hours or at most the next day – and you can taste the freshness. And in response to demand, the variety of organically grown produce is skyrocketing. Each fruit has its own distinctive, natural flavor. Soft fruits are juicy and sweet; you can taste the sunshine. Tomatoes taste like tomatoes should – firm flesh, and with a refreshing tart juice. Vegetables are crisp and bursting with natural flavors.
On a recent visit, I talked with David Bitton, 25, the Sous Chef at Jerusalem’s King David hotel, the flagship of the Dan hotel chain. David was in charge while Executive Chef Michel Nabet was on vacation. David is just one of the talented young chefs who are transforming Israeli dishes into a world-class cuisine. His training has been on the job in Michelin restaurants all over the world. He says “My passion with food began at six years old when instead of kicking a ball outside, my father sent me into the kitchen of our family restaurant – I was fascinated.” David is the winner of a silver medal in the Luxembourg Culinary Olympics and Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in other esteemed culinary competitions. ” All my life, I live and breathe the kitchen,” he says, but he still found the time to get married.
Fresh produce at the King David is purchased from selected vendors. David is adamant that absolutely no frozen items or processed items of any description are used and when possible, many of the items are organically grown. “Everything is made from scratch from the freshest meats, fishes, fruits, vegetables and spices.” Fruits and vegetables appear in simple but clever combinations resulting in irresistible salads and desserts.
For a weekend breakfast, as at the King David hotel where royalty and heads of state are regular visitors, add good strong coffee to the recipes below. You’ll have a “breakfast fit for a king” while sampling the best and newest Israeli cuisine right in your own home kitchen. For best results, buy the freshest produce you can find, preferably in farmer’s markets and mix up a batch of za’atar (Arabic for hyssop, a biblical plant) for the easy Israeli style thin focaccio.
Israeli Salad (Pareve)
serves 4 – 6
Israelis eat this healthy salad at least once a day. Vegetables vary but the main ingredients are tomatoes and cucumbers, items grown by early pioneers on the kibbutzim. You can add carrots, shredded white or red cabbage, green onions and fresh herbs or whatever fresh veggies are on hand.
juice and grated peel from 1 large lemon,
3 large firm tomatoes, cut in small chunks
1 cucumber, unpeeled, and cut in small chunks
1/2 red onion, diced
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/4 cup snipped fresh dill or parsley, packed
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 small hot pepper, seeded and chopped OR
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
pinch of cinnamon
about 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Place the lemon juice and grated peel in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Do not chill serve at room temperature.
Biblical Green Herb Salad (Pareve)
Amounts may vary but essentially the main ingredients are green herbs such as parsley, dill with baby arugula or baby spinach tossed in. I like to add a handful of dried cranberries (optional).
1/2 bunch curly parsley
1/2 bunch Italian (flat leaf) parsley
1/2 bunch dill
2 cups shredded baby arugula or spinach, packed
1/4 cucumber, unpeeled and diced
about 1/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans or other nuts
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Make sure vegetables and herbs are thoroughly rinsed in cold water and dried in a salad spinner or clean cloth. Shred the parsley and dill with scissors and place in a bowl. Add the arugula or spinach, cucumbers and pecans. Pour the olive oil and lemon juice over and toss to mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.
Sweet Potato Salad (Dairy)
Israelis use Bulgarian cheese which is firm and salty. We can substitute mozzarella or feta. Feta will increase the sodium content. Julienne is foods that are cut in thin, matchstick lengths.
2 large baked sweet potatoes, peeled and cut julienne
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
5-6 pitted black olives, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons snipped fresh oregano
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Place the sweet potatoes, cheese, olives and oregano in a bowl.
In a cup, whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Pour over the sweet potato mixture. Toss gently. Serve at room temperature.
Cucumbers with Dried Fruits (Dairy)
1 cucumber, unpeeled and cut in 1/4-inch pieces
5-6 dried figs, thinly sliced
8 dried apricots, quartered
1/2 cup plain low fat yogurt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons honey, warmed
fresh ground pepper to taste
Place the cucumber, figs and apricots in a bowl. Set aside.
In a cup or small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice and honey. Pour over the cucumber and dried fruits. Toss gently. Season to taste with pepper.
Israeli Focaccio (Pareve or Dairy)
Use frozen thawed bread dough or refrigerated biscuits for this quick, easy herbed tongue shaped bread.
6 – 8 ounces frozen bread dough, thawed
extra virgin olive oil
za’atar seasoning (recipe below)
dried pepper flakes
Preheat oven to 500F. Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven for 10 minutes before placing the focaccio on. Divide the bread dough into 6-8 pieces. Press each piece into a “tongue” shape about 4-inches long. (If using refrigerated biscuits shape as for the bread dough). Brush liberally with olive oil. Sprinkle with za’atar, a pinch of pepper flakes, and kosher salt as desired. Place on heated baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until browned at edges. Serve warm.
©Ethel G. Hofman 2011
Za’atar Seasoning (Pareve)
makes about 1/2 cup
Za’atar (Arabic for hyssop, a Biblical herb) is hard to find in our markets, so it’s better to make your own. It may also be sprinkled on hummus or fish and chicken before cooking. Ground sumac has a pleasant fruity, slightly astringent flavor. It may be found in Middle Eastern stores.
1/3 cup dried, crumbled oregano
3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
1 1/2 tablespoons sumac
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Mix all ingredients together. Store in a tight lidded container in a cool, dry place.