Read All About It: Israel's Emerging Food Scene

cookbooks2Now that Jerusalem has become one of the best selling cookbooks in recent years, it may be time to look at it in context. The recipes are wonderful, the photographs are mouthwatering, the narrative is compelling and democratic. Beyond food, the book has touched something deeper in all of us. Jerusalem, home to more than 60 religious and ethnic communities, is a lodestar for spirituality, sharing and healing, along with a full measure of continuing strife. So beyond the book's virtues of history combined with recipes, unusual ingredients and flavors, it allows us to hold in our hands a gastronomic overlay to the region's millennial conflicts, through a universal experience that connotes peace and above all, pleasure. I had the rare opportunity last year to interview authors Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the former is Israeli, the latter Palestinian, when they came to New York on a book tour. We three sat on the bima in a huge Park Slope synagogue, and gazed upon hundreds of fans who came to listen to their stories and then hungered for more. It was clear to all of us assembled there that their Jerusalem penetrated into a realm far deeper than cooking. The cuisine that the authors express speaks to ancient realities and present truths: The kitchen table knows no boundaries; and no wall, however high and long, can ever be so impermeable to prevent the vapors of the collective culinary consciousness waft through.

Just this weekend, I had pleasure of a parallel experience. This time, the talented and ebullient chef, Einat Admony, owner of New York City restaurants Balaboosta, Taim and Bar Bolonat, expressed the food of another diaspora. Vivid dishes -- cooked and served in her Brooklyn loft to a handful of journalists and friends - blended the recipes of her native Iran with Arabic verve, and Israeli cunning. Pomegranate mimosas, spicy Yemenite s'chug, brown-boiled eggs, delectable fried eggplant, osovo (an overnight peasant dish with myriad variations - ours included rice and marrow bones), kubaneh (a slow-cooked Yemenite bread), and malabi (a traditional milk custard) with red fruit conserve for dessert made an emphatically evocative case for "new Israeli cuisine." Best of all, the recipes are easily found in Ms. Admony's beautiful new book Balaboosta published this week by Artisan.

If asked who I'd have come to a last dinner, Yotam, Sami and Einat would certainly be among my guests. But so too would be the five journalists who graced the stage of the Museum of Jewish Heritage on October 6th for an event entitled "Frothed Milk and Truffled Honey." It was a nod to the ebullient creativity that's fermenting in the kitchens of Israel's best chefs. Janna Gur, food writer and publisher of Israel's most prestigious culinary magazine Al Hashulchan, said that the best word to describe the new Israeli cuisine is "fresh." Fresh referring to the abundance of Israel's technicolor produce, fresh referring to the culture's rampant innovation, and fresh also referring to the sassy ingenuity with which chefs there have absorbed culinary influences from the entire region and integrated them into a new, electrifying cuisine.

In 1996, I was one of four "Women Chefs for Peace" on a mission to Israel. Upon my return I wrote an article for the New York Times called "A Region's Taste Commingles in Israel." I predicted then that it was the trend to watch. And now, it's here.

A Balaboosta Brunch

In honor of the 100th year celebration of International Women's Day yesterday, the Consulate General of Israel in New York sponsored a wonderful brunch at Balaboosta on Mulberry Street. Owned by rock star mom and chef, Einat Admony, over fifty fabulous women came to listen to music, drink pomegranate mimosas, and celebrate women's achievements during the course of the last century.  We have certainly come a long way (and yet in some countries, Egypt for example, it is not so true.)  Yesterday was dear to my heart because it acknowledged the achievements of women in professional kitchens:  executive food editor Gabriella Gershonson of Saveur magazine, did an insightful job interviewing Einat "live" for Shalom TV.  Einat, very much her own woman, wearing chef's whites and, instead of a toque, sported two long youthful ponytails, had worked in several of New York's great restaurants, including Bolo and Tabla, when she decided to buck the system and become a mother and a chef -- and do them both well.

This, I know from personal experience, is not easy to achieve.  Many women chefs have consciously, or not so consciously, chosen to follow their professional calling, often at the expense of having a family.  Einat has wowed New York's young food passionistas (my word) with her restaurant Taim and more recently with Balaboosta, a word of soulful, joyful meaning.  It is a Yiddish notion that describes (in a respectful way) the proficiency of a woman as being a good wife and mother and 'captain' of the house.  It's an old-fashioned concept, yet there are young women today who certainly fit the description.  Two women I'm thinking of in particular, Robin Adelson and Helen Kimmel, who run amazing households, also have impressive professional lives as well.  It is this dual aspect of balaboosta-ness that is very today.  And I shall now add Chef Admony to this exclusive group.   The food itself was also dear to my heart as I was the one, in 1986 (as Chef-Director of Baum + Whiteman worldwide), who created New York's first pan-Mediterranean restaurant called Cafe Greco on the upper East Side. That was 25 years ago!  If you read the menu today, you would think it had just opened.  Bryan Miller, food critic of the New York Times, gave it a glowing 2-star review and said that "this was going to be the next great food trend."  I called the cuisine "Med-Rim" -- meaning a fusion of the "kitchens" of the Middle East and the countries whose borders hugged the Mediterranean coastline.

Balaboosta, along with Barbounia and Taboon, are restaurants in New York who do this kind of food well.  It is an exciting palate of flavors and colors, and much of the food is inherently very healthy.  I especially loved yesterday's labneh (thick slightly salty yogurt) with its puddle of excellent olive oil and za'atar.  Other dishes included crispy fried olives, shakshuka (baked eggs in tomato and herb sauce), homemade pita, hummus, and pistachio baklava.  That, with some virtuosic clarinet playing by Anat Cohen, and spirited conversation among some awesome women, made it feel especially empowering to be a balaboosta -- if only for a few hours.

In honor of the day, here is a recipe for my za'atar pesto.  It takes one minute to make!

My Za'atar Pesto Za'atar is a khaki-colored spice mixture that includes dried hyssop, sumac and sesame seeds.   Use this as a great dip for cherry tomatoes and pita chips.

1/2 cup za'atar (buy it from a Middle Eastern food store) 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil

Stir everything in a medium bowl.   Makes about 1 cup.