Setting a Common Table in Israel

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the midst of the turmoil currently gripping Israel, a well-known Israeli chef called to tell me something very hopeful: A group of his Jewish and Arab-Israeli colleagues were gathering to prepare a joint meal in one of the villages near Haifa where disturbances have occurred. "We have worked so often together that we have built strong human relationships with each other," he told me. "We can't go back."

I felt a sense of relief. It kept alive a dream I have had that Jews and Arabs can share the bounty of this land that they both claim.

I first went to Israel at the impressionable age of 26. There I worked as foreign press attache to the former mayor of the city of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. It was my enviable task to learn about the city, the conflicts that threatened to tear it apart and the common threads that make it a great city. It was also at that time that I learned about food as a bridge between cultures and as a link to our past.

To this day, whenever I go to Israel, I am constantly transporting myself, like a child playing make-believe, back to the gastronomic roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The first time this happened was during a wonderful week spent in the sand dunes of the Sinai 30 years ago, where Bedouins continue to live much as the nomadic Israelites did when they were wandering the desert. I couldn't help imagining myself as part of that ancient culture, sharing the stew that Sarah prepared for Abraham or the pottage of lentils that Jacob gave to his brothe1914717555 As I returned to Jerusalem after that week, layers of civilization and thousands of years unwound before me like a newsreel at each fork in the road. Through culinary haunts one can uncover the enormously exciting story of how these pioneers transformed a harsh land to one bursting with new produce and culture.

In the past five years, I have visited Jewish Israeli home cooks of Moroccan, Libyan and Iraqi backgrounds who may not be able to read and write but, using their hands to measure the heat near the stove, manage to turn out their crusty breads and delicious cookies. I have sat on the floor in Druze, Syrian Alawite and Kurdish kitchens, molding kibbeh : torpedo-shaped dumplings made of bulgur to be put either into soupy, lemony stews or deep-fried as finger food for weddings and other feasts. I have visited Palestinian villages where I have tasted sun-kissed figs plucked straight from the trees and Israeli-Arab villages where celebratory pancakes are baked in a tabun oven set into the earth and served stuffed with candied sesame seeds.

I have found falafel and hummus in tiny haunts throughout the country. And I have also tasted sophisticated modern dishes-- foie gras with tamarind sauce, even a luscious double-chocolate challah made at a New Age bakery with techniques learned abroad and brought back to Israel.

The food has changed tremendously in Israel in the past 10 to 15 years. Not only are there now serious innovative chefs trained in Paris and New York, but also ethnic food has reached a new popularity throughout the country in Jewish and Arab communities. People are becoming aware of the food of the land, making their own olive oil and goat cheese and producing marvelous wines.

Sadly, I could not have had those first experiences today. There is too much turmoil in the country that tears apart human relations. And so I feel especially privileged to have written my new book, "The Foods of Israel Today," at a time when I could visit Arab villages throughout the country. Early on in my career I learned from Kollek that breaking bread is a way of breaking down political barriers.

For the past five years or so, Israeli and Arab chefs have been learning from each other in Israel. Although the times are difficult today, I take heart in all the times I have broken bread with people from all kinds of Arab backgrounds. I take heart from the many people I have interviewed and from my Israeli chef friend who, despite the disturbances, is in constant contact with Arab chefs.

When there is peace at some time in the future, these friendships will recommence. On my last trip to Israel a few months ago, I sat at lunch at a fairly new kibbutz in an oasis in the Arava Desert, a few miles from the Jordanian border. At meals people sat next to whoever came in before them.

During the height of the disturbances, an Arab worker sat next to me at breakfast. We shared our salt and pepper, passed the very fresh vegetables back and forth, sprinkled za'atar on our food, smiled, and ate together in peace.

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Nathan is author of "The Foods of Israel Today" (Knopf, $40).

Bulgarian Eggplant Soup With Yogurt

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes * Vegetarian

In the 1970s, Melech Hachatzilim, a Bulgarian restaurant in Ramat Aviv just north of Tel Aviv, prided itself on being the "king of eggplants." Although the restaurant has been closed for years, I tracked down Arnold Beinisch, the owner. I especially liked this soup, in which, Bulgarian-style, he swirled cold yogurt into the hot eggplant.

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3 eggplants (about 3 pounds)

3 cloves garlic

3 to 3 1/2 cups vegetable broth

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup plain yogurt

Grill the eggplants over a flame or under the broiler, turning them with tongs until charred on all sides, about 15 minutes. While still hot, plunge them into a plastic bag, close tightly, and let them steam for about 15 minutes to loosen the skin.

Scrape the skin from the flesh and shake the pulp in a colander to remove excess liquid.

Puree the garlic with the eggplant pulp in a food processor. Add 3 cups of vegetable broth, process and then strain the contents into a saucepan. Reheat the soup gently over medium-low heat. If you want a thinner soup, adjust the consistency by adding more broth if necessary, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the vinegar and sugar.

Spoon a ladleful of hot soup into the bottom of serving bowls, cover with dollops of yogurt, and continue to layer in this manner.

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6 servings. Each serving: 137 calories; 480 mg sodium; 6 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 5.73 gram fiber.

Apricot Meringue Kuchen

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours plus 1 hour chilling

In the following recipe, you can substitute or combine the apricots with peaches, blueberries or Italian prunes.

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1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened and cut into 1-inch pieces

3/4 cup sugar, divided

Dash salt

2 eggs, separated

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 cup unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 cup apricot jam

1 1/2 pounds fresh apricots

Place the butter, 1/2 cup of the sugar, the salt, egg yolks, lemon zest and lemon juice in the bowl of a food processor. Blend until smooth.

Place the flour and baking powder in a small bowl and mix with your fingers. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the other mixture, pulsing each time, just until the ingredients are incorporated. Refrigerate the dough until firm, about an hour.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan or pie pan with a removable bottom.

Turn the dough, flouring your fingers if necessary, into the pan and press it into the bottom and sides. Flute the sides. Smear the top with the apricot jam.

Cut the apricots in half and remove the pits. Press the apricots skin side down into the dough.

Place the pan on a baking sheet and bake until the kuchen is golden, 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat the egg whites on high speed until frothy, then add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until the whites form stiff peaks, 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove the kuchen from the oven and spoon the egg white mixture evenly over the apricots, spreading with the back of the spoon. Lower the oven to 325 degrees and bake until the top of the cake is golden, another 15 to 20 minutes.

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8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings: 253 calories; 93 mg sodium; 66 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 2.20 grams fiber.

Palestinian Mousakhan

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Look for sumac at Middle Eastern stores.

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1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

5 large onions, coarsely chopped

Salt

3 pounds bone-in chicken breasts, about 4

2 1/2 pounds chicken legs and thighs, about 4 of each

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup ground sumac

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

8 small pita breads or 4 large pita breads, cut in half

Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the onions and cook until they're golden, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes. After 5 minutes, sprinkle on salt to taste.

Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, rubbing well into the skin.

Transfer the onions to 13x9-inch baking dish and place the chicken on top.

Bake, uncovered, 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake 15 minutes more.

Drizzle a tablespoon or so of the remaining olive oil into a skillet. Heat the oil, then add the pine nuts. Cook over a medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the pine nuts are browned, 10 minutes.

Mix together the sumac, allspice, cloves and pine nuts in a small bowl.

Remove the chicken from the oven and sprinkle on the sumac-pine nut mixture. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top and return the dish to the oven. Continue baking until the chicken is cooked, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven.

Heat the broiler. Transfer each chicken piece to a round of pita bread, or place all the chicken pieces over the large pita. Sprinkle the onions, with a small amount of the cooking liquid, on top and around the chicken. Broil the chicken 6 inches from the heat source until the skin is crispy, 5 minutes. Watch closely to prevent burning.

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8 servings. Each serving: 870 calories; 411 mg sodium; 242 mg cholesterol; 43 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 32 grams carbohydrates; 86 grams protein; 5.01 grams fiber.

Erez's Double Chocolate Braided Bread

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 15 minutes plus 3 hours rising

Lechem Erez, run by Erez Komarovsky, is one of the best of the upscale bakery/restaurants that have recently sprung up in Israel. This double chocolate braided bread is a knockout. Instead of using regular chocolate chips, something available only recently in Israel, Erez uses chopped bittersweet chocolate.

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2 (1/4-ounce) packages dry yeast

1/2 cup sugar, divided

2 cups lukewarm water

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg yolk

5 cups flour

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup bittersweet chocolate, cut into chunks

Dissolve the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar in the lukewarm water in the bowl of an electric mixer. Let the mixture sit a few minutes, then add the softened butter and egg yolk and stir with the paddle. Slowly add the flour, salt, remaining sugar and cocoa. Change to the dough hook and knead until the dough becomes uniform.

Turn the bread onto a floured board, knead the chocolate into the dough and form it into a smooth round. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let it rise until the dough doubles in bulk, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Punch the dough down, divide in 6 equal parts on a floured board. Let rest for 20 minutes.

Roll 3 pieces of dough into a sausage about 12 inches long and 2 inches wide. Line up the 3 pieces side by side and braid, then pinch the ends together. Repeat with the other three. Place the two loaves on a baking sheet sprinkled with flour. Cover with a moist towel and let rise for an hour, until the dough doubles again.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Fill a pan with hot water and place it on the lower shelf of the oven. Bake the breads on the upper shelf for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake until the bread sounds hollow when tapped, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.

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6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings: 487 calories; 891 mg sodium; 39 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 87 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 4.17 grams fiber.

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