Over December, my partner Mark and I decided to forego the whole Christmas mishugas (beginning to sprout up all around by Halloween) and head to Israel for three weeks. He had lived in Jerusalem 38 years ago for a year’s study at Hebrew University, but this was my first trip and I was beyond excited — the place, the history, the food.
Besides being a food nut, I am a Biblical history nut, so I felt I was flying British Airways to paradise. And my dreams, of course, were realized. Here were uncountable historical sites, museums devoted to every imaginable historical find, miles of ruins, whole cities still being home to thousands of people after thousands of years — I was overwhelmed.
But the food! I could not get enough of the markets, the street vendors, the meetz (juice) stands (“May I have a pomegranate and papaya meetz, please?”), the cafés with five hotplates and some of the most delicious food in the world. We have a photo, out of dozens of market photos, of me standing in one of the main Jerusalem markets, grinning ear to ear, holding the biggest eggplant we had ever seen.
Of course, the breadth of that shining, purple beauty was far exceeded in the following weeks by others in other markets that were even closer to watermelon-sized!
I was truly not prepared for the bounty of Israel, but as happy as a chef can be in a land that seems devoted to vegetables, fruits, spices and all that goes into making some of the most fragrant, flavorful and beautiful food in the world.
A wonderful dining habit in Israel and all over the Middle East is the tradition of serving a dozen or more little appetizers before the main meal. These mezze are small, just a few succulent bites served with several others, each in its own little dish, but they are far from small in flavor or variety. When we had returned to the States and were looking back on the scents and styles of our favorite mezze, trying to recreate their recipes, we were struck with the sheer numbers of different types we had consumed: nearly 40 kinds in two-and-a-half weeks of traveling!
Some mezze are well-known and beloved around the world, like hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh, and Israeli salads of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers dressed with lemon, olive oil and salt. Others are simple, traditional and delicious, like cauliflower crisply fried in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and lemon juice and served hot; lightly cured, cool green Israeli olives tossed with marinated, roasted red peppers; simple shredded red cabbage cole slaw with spicy mayonnaise and pomegranate seeds; or just a crisp slice of fresh fennel to eat between richer bites.
Then there are the myriad eggplant dishes, showing off the skill of the cook or the beauty of a family recipe: creamy, slow-cooked slices, simmered in garlic oil with red peppers and tomatoes until all the textures become the simple carrier of a richness that closes your eyes and lets you feel as if you’ve never eaten anything quite so good.
Something that struck us immediately about eating hummus in Israel was that, although it was always much creamier, smoother and a little thinner than we have grown accustomed to here, each family or restaurant has developed its own particular flavor, so when you sit down to eat hummus you are treated to something that is ubiquitous — we almost never had mezze without being served a dish of hummus — but always showing its own character.
This becomes even more interesting when you learn that true Middle Eastern hummus, far from being loaded with red peppers or olives or pesto, is made with only four ingredients: well-cooked chick peas, tahina (ground sesame seed paste), water and salt. Olive oil and lemon juice are sprinkled on top, and the hummus is often swirled around a central offering of whole, unseasoned garbanzos, indicating that the hummus was made in-house. It is truly so delicious that it’s nearly impossible to grow tired of it, especially when served, as it always is, with small, hot pitas from the bakery down the street.
Oh, and another thing: hummus is almost always made fresh, every day. If it’s kept too long or refrigerated overnight it becomes hard and cannot be brought back to its original smooth creaminess. Here is an age-old devotion to freshness and quality, like that found in the fresh juice stands, which shows a different focus in cooking that’s difficult for us to afford in our northern climate and fast food, grab-and-go lives.
But if you have a little time, buy a pound of dried garbanzos, a half-pint of tahina, some good olive oil, a lemon or two and the freshest pita you can find and invite some friends over for a true Israeli treat. Making the hummus is very quick, but allow two overnight soaking periods for the beans, one before they’re cooked and one after.
It’s interesting. When reading Israeli recipes for hummus, you’re told, “Absolutely never use a food processor!” “Only use a food processor or a blender!” “Use a mortar and pestle!” This recipe is taken from one of the most prolific hummus makers in the entire region and he says, “We used to use a wooded pole [like a pestle] when I started, but now it’s a mixer with six steel blades.”
1 lb. dried garbanzo beans
12 oz. (about 1-1/2 cups) tahina paste
(or more or less to taste)
Kosher or sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil to taste (about 4–6 Tbs.)
One or two lemons
1 pita per person:
warmed in a damp towel in a low oven
and cut in triangles
Wash the garbanzo beans in warm water and drain, looking carefully for any little stones.
Soak overnight on your kitchen counter in salt water in a medium-sized pot that covers the beans by about three or four inches. Add two or three tablespoons of salt to the soaking water and mix well to dissolve.
The next day, drain off the soaking water, rinse the beans well, drain and cover again with water to three or four inches above the beans.
Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and cook at a good simmer for two to three hours or until very soft, adding water to keep it consistently two to three inches above the beans. When done, the garbanzos will easily crumble between you thumb and forefinger. If they don’t, cook a little longer.
Put in the refrigerator to soak again overnight.
Now, put half the beans with a little of their water in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade (save a few garbanzos for serving with the hummus). Process until very smooth, adding a little more water as needed to aid in the blending.
When the mixture is as smooth as thick sour cream — really, no skins, no lumps, just like thick sour cream — add the tahina and blend smooth. Add a little more if it suits your taste.
Then add water if needed to bring it to a regular, stirred sour cream texture — just a little thinner than before.
Add 1 tsp. of salt (don’t use iodized), taste and add more salt to taste. If you’re cooking for low-salt diets, add lemon juice now instead of more salt; reduce the salt to 1/2 tsp. or use potassium chloride.
The hummus should taste pretty wonderful now, but lacking something.
Put the hummus on a platter or plate, shaped in a circle with a little indentation in the center.
Place the reserved garbanzos in the center.
Squeeze the juice of one half to one lemon over the whole plate, then evenly spoon on the olive oil. Sprinkle very lightly with paprika.
Serve with the pita and lemon wedges so everyone can adjust the tartness of the hummus to his or her own liking.
Makes about 5 cups.