Thursday, May 31, 2007

In the kitchen in Nahala'ot

Eight months ago, when we left the United States for a year-long trip around the world, we intended to use our humble blog not just to keep our friends and families up-to-date with our whereabouts and well-being, but also to share our experiences cooking and eating around the world. The truth is, however, that with a couple of glaring / glowing exceptions (grilled shrimp with artichokes at Chakra in Jerusalem, local steaks paired with vin de la terre in the Golan heights), our gastronomic experiences in Israeli restaurants have been somewhat underwhelming. Jerusalem is crammed with perfectly respectable falafel and shwarma joints and (slightly) more upscale "Italian" restaurants, but none truly stand out; and, as we all know, man can live on pita bread alone for only so long.

In our own kitchen in the Nahala'ot neighborhood of West Jerusalem, we've revelled in the fresh bread and produce from our local market, but our domestic culinary options are regrettably limited by our resources; a single pot, a small teflon skillet, a two-burner hotplate and a microwave. (Our own inventiveness in the face of these obstacles has admittedly been less than inspiring too, possibly owing in part to the fact that we don't have a proper eating surface and most often end up taking our meals at home lolling on the bed. This is not to complain; in fact, it's very comfortable.) We've enjoyed constructing simple, produce-based meals: sandwiches of grilled chicken, chunky guacamole and tomato and red onion salsa, various preparations of creamy farm-fresh eggs and bright, crunchy salads - but none of our preparations have seemed especially blog-worthy.

This is all to explain the recent dearth of food-themed entries on Chalk and Cheese. To atone for our disgraceful negligence on the culinary reporting front, we offer here a simple but perfect dish of pasta and cherry tomatoes that has been a staple at our Jerusalem dinner / bedside table. Of course, it helps to have wonderful tomatoes, but the real secret is the sequential additions of garlic.

Pasta with cherry tomatoes (a narrative recipe)

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add two servings of pasta. Heat some olive oil over medium heat and add 2 cloves coarsely chopped garlic and some crushed red pepper, to taste. Add 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes and cook for about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and add one clove of minced garlic and the juice of 1/2 lemon, and season with salt and pepper. When pasta is cooked to al dente, drain it and stir in 1 tablespoon of good olive oil and the tomato mixture. Season with salt and pepper and serve topped with grated Parmesan.


Monday, May 28, 2007

From sea to shining sea

We set off last Monday for a jaunt around the north of Israel, starting with the Sea of Galilee (known here, less biblically, as Lake Kinneret). As the bus descended into the vacation town of Tiberias, which is supposedly steamy, chaotic and jammed in the summer but whose trinket shops and tropical-themed bars were echoing hollowly at this time of year, we could see Jesus' old stomping grounds lapping at the shore. It's surprisingly small, and we decided that biking around the coast to the Jordan River was the perfect way to see it.

We rode a pair of clattering rental mountain bikes south, alongside roaring semis and giant tour buses with darkened windows, down to "Yardenit," the spot on the Jordan River where the Israel tourist board, with some help from an evangelical pastor in New Mexico, has decided that Jesus was baptised. (The Jordanian site of Bethany, which contains ancient ruins long associated with the settlement of John the Baptist and the prophet Elijah, is another contender and has been entered for World Heritage status.) This uncertainty, however, did not discourage the hordes of pilgrims from China, India, Nigeria and Kentucky who flocked down the steps to recreate the baptismal experience, some wearing rented oversize white gowns presumably meant to recall Jesus' cottony garb. On the way out, they were all shuffled through the gift shop where you can buy anything from a Budweiser Israel T-shirt to a plastic crown of thorns; the latter comes with a "certificate of authenticity."

On the way back, hot and sweaty (Tam says "glowing"), we stopped in for a little splashing of our own at one of the many water parks between the highway and the sea, and rewarded ourselves for our exertions with a dinner of the local specialty, grilled "St Peter's fish" - a romantic name, it turns out, for tilapia.

The next day, we rented a car and began a driving tour of the Golan Heights. The southeastern part is remarkably empty, with miles of dry brown hills fenced off by barbed wire and signs warning of land mines, and not another car to be seen. As we got further north, the hills got higher and greener and we could see Druze villages, vineyards and the peak of Mount Hermon. We chugged up the vertical passes to explore "Nimrod's Palace," a fortress built by the medieval Arabs but later associated with the Biblical giant (and descendant of Noah) Nimrod. The sprawling stone complex, built to protect the all-important trade route to Damascus, looks out on astonishing vistas in all directions. We picnicked on zaatar bread and fruit, and drove as far up Mount Hermon as we could before being turned back by scary signs warning of IDF training grounds and firing ranges.

We headed back down the mountain to Safed, a tiny town on the side of the mountain, which has served as a center for Kaballah and been a magnet for Jewish mystics and messianic believers for centuries. We arrived just in time to see the sun set behind the hills, casting a rosy glow on the eighteenth-century stone buildings and narrow alleys of the old Jewish quarter. Unfortunately, the sunset also marked the beginning of a Jewish holiday and meant that, here in the most religious town in Israel, absolutely everything was closed; people lined the streets on the way to synagogue, but all the falafel and juice stands were inexorably shut. We got back in the car and backed down the mountain to find a hamburger to sustain us until the next morning, when we jetted out of town as fast as possible in search of coffee and a muffin.

We split back east and hiked down to the famous hexagonal pool at the Yehudiyya Nature Reserve in the southern Golan, where geometric patterns of basalt rock form a dramatic little swimming hole and waterfall. After a final night by the sea of Galilee, featuring a dinner of local steak and a really very tasty bottle of sangiovese from a Golan winery, buses and trains shuttled us west to explore the crooked stone alleys and Crusader ruins of the somewhat ramshackle but charming coastal Arab town of Acre. We wandered around the eighteenth-century mosque of al-Jazzar, which incorporates elegant Roman columns into its flowery courtyard, and watched this guy fishing below the medieval city walls.

Then south to Israel's third major city, Haifa, a port town dramatically situated on the slopes of Mount Carmel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Haifa is generally quite devoid of tourist attractions, tending more towards industrial shipping equipment and very large cement-block buildings; but it does house the World Baha'i Center and the Baha'i Shrine, where the martyred prophet known as the Bab is buried. The shrine is surrounded by magnificent terraced gardens which extend down the mountain in the very center of the city. Tam, inspired both by the beauty of the gardens and by the progressive principles of the Bahu'llah, has decided that the solution to his career crisis is to convert to Baha'ism and reinvigorate the economy of northern Michigan with an international Baha'i retreat center. Now he just has to sell the idea to the zoning board of Leelanau County.

We ended our adventure with a beach day at Netanya, the Fort Lauderdale of Israel, where retirees from all over the world play excruciatingly slow games of bingo at all the sidewalk cafes, restaurants cater to the huge numbers of French and Russian tourists with menu offerings combining shwarma, schnitzel and foie gras, and laziness is taken to such an extreme that you can actually take a giant elevator down to the beach. Seriously.

More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here:

Thursday, May 17, 2007

We got a brand new camera; we love to take a photograph...

Well, our new camera arrived this week and you know what that means ... no more grainy pictures on cheap, aging disposable cameras! To test out our new toy, we spent the day touring the sites on the Mount of Olives - like the Church of the Pater Noster and the candlelit Tomb of the Prophets - and, of course, the all-important Temple Mount. (Did you know that technically Jews are not supposed to go to the Temple Mount, because of the risk of inadvertently stepping on the Holy of Holies which is never to be approached until the end of days? There's actually a warning to this effect at the entrance, signed by the chief rabbi of Israel.)

On the way home, we did a little shopping at the Mahaneh Yehuda market where we've been buying most of our food, braving the crowds and the brutal old ladies to partake in the glossy piles of olives and nuts, the sumptuous strawberries (shoveled into bags by a grinning kid using a dustpan) and the still-hot bread.

This was Jerusalem Week, a lengthy, parade-heavy, flag-waving celebration of the "unification" of Jerusalem in 1967 - an ironic turn of phrase to describe the most rigidly segregated city either of us has ever visited. The parades featured thousands of schoolchildren singing vaguely pitched nationalist songs, and tractors ... lots and lots of tractors. A reference to the kibbutz movement, perhaps?

More (sometimes grainy) pictures of our exciting adventure in Israel (so far) are available here:

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Hamesh de Mayo

Top five ways you know you're not in Jerusalem anymore:

1. There's nary a sideburn ringlet or bewigged head to be seen.
2. No old ladies are body-checking you to get to the front of the queue at the market.
3. When you go to a restaurant, nobody asks you if you have a gun.
4. No one will throw bleach on you if you walk down the street in a bikini.
5. You can eat as many cheeseburgers and as much shellfish as you want.

After another week of fighting the crowds of religious fanatics along the Via Dolorosa, we were ready for a break from the Holy City. On Friday morning, we elbowed our way onto the bus and fled like Jonah to Tel Aviv. A friend of the family who lives there generously offered to show us around; she met us at the bus station and took us on a little driving tour of the city, pointing out the Bauhaus architecture and the wide promenade which lines the beach from the southern port of Jaffa all the way to the northern marina - a distance of about 4 miles, crawling with bikini-clad beach bunnies and ancient crones alike enjoying the wide stretches of white sand and sparkling water.

The next morning, we set out early to walk the length of the promenade from Jaffa. Jaffa, once famous for the orange and olive groves surrounding its walls, is a contender for the oldest continuously operating port in the world, and was an important stop on the old incense trading routes from the Arabian peninsula to the western Mediterranean. It was conquered at various times by the ancient Egyptians, King David, the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, Napoleon, the Ottomans and the British. The city's Arab inhabitants were almost all driven out during the 1948 war and it sank into a state of destitution, housing only the very poorest of Israel's immigrant communities for a decade. In the 1960s, the Old Jaffa Development Company decided to transform the city by reimagining it as an artists' colony. Its old stone houses and crooked streets were renovated and rebuilt, gardens were planted in its center, and the port was reopened. (We watched a film on the history of Jaffa in the visitors' center, which skipped startlingly and unapologetically from the nineteenth-century use of Jaffa's port straight to its 1960s renovation.) Now, it's a beautiful little city in the shadow of the uber-modern skyscrapers of Tel Aviv.

We wandered north from Jaffa along the beach, picnicking along the way on some leftovers from dinner the night before: stuffed zucchini, kibbeh (spicy minced lamb inside a crust of deep-fried bulghur), tomatoes and fruit. After some very satisfying beach time, we toasted Cinco de Mayo with some Coronas (yes, this took some searching, but we're only getting savvier) and a dish advertised as nachos that turned out to be some Cool Ranch Doritos, served with a "salsa" that owed a considerable debt to Heinz ketchup. Ah well, we tried.

We abandoned the Mexican theme for dinner and took advantage of our distance from Jerusalem to gorge on shrimp in butter and some excellent local wine, though the grilled chicken, seasoned with harissa and pickled lemon and served on a bed of lentils, was the real highlight of our dinner by the sea.