Are you into quinoa?
That’s sooo 2011! Let me introduce you to the hip grain of 2012 – the freekeh. This smoked green wheat that comes from the levant was lately on the shortlist of Bon Appétit magazine for pantry staples for a healthier eating and appeared suddenly on the shelves of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s across the country.
While freekeh is relatively new in the U.S., it is in fact an ancient grain that has been used throughout the Middle East. So ancient, in fact, it is mentioned in the bible in Leviticus, including even a description of how it is prepared. (Leviticus, chapter 2, v.14).
Israelis, masters of spotting culinary trends, saw the freekeh phenomenon spreading throughout the country a few years ago. It was around for centuries, but was introduced to the masses by celebrity chef Erez Komarovsky, who learned about the freekeh from the Arabs living in the Galilee. It wasn’t long before you could find freekeh in fashionable restaurants and grocery stores across Tel Aviv.
Traditionally, freekeh was prepared in the Middle East by picking the wheat stalks while still young and green, smoking the whole stalks over bonfire (many times still in the field), then grinding them. Because the grain is picked while still green, it has more minerals and vitamins than it would have if picked later, and 4 times the fiber than brown rice. When I tried the freekeh for the first time in Nazareth a couple of years ago, the smoky flavor was very evident and took over the stew. The freekeh that’s sold in the U.S. is usually roasted instead of smoked, and its flavor is more neutral.
Freekeh can be ground thick or thin, just like its sister, bulghur wheat, although I could only find the thick type in my area. Thick freekeh is more versatile and can be used for stew, salads, stuffed vegetable and meat, like the famous lamb neck stuffed with freekeh, which is popular among the Arabs in the Galilee. The thin freekeh is usually used to make soup. Most recipes simply call for cooking the freekeh in water or broth and spices. A wonderful and simple comfort food.
You can get freekeh at your local Middle Eastern store, Trader Joe’s and some Whole Foods.
Prepare the freekeh and winter root vegetable salad for shabbat dinner together with:
and winter fruit salad with pomegranate for dessert.
Israel on Thursday broke a national record of fitting the most amount of people in a mini-car, cramming 15 people into one mini in just four and a half minutes.
The record-breaking event took place in Rishon Lezion’s Zahav mall, which is currently giving away 70 Suzuki Alto cars as part of a raffle held in honor of the new mall’s grand opening.
The challenge was to set a new Israeli record by fitting as many people as possible into one mini at the same time, closing all doors and windows shut after them.
According to a press release, the accomplishment was recorded and will be sent to the Guinness World Book of Records with the aim of setting a world record.
A spectator at the event noted that these days, Israel is only on world news regarding the subjects of Iran, women’s exclusion and the social justice movement. “We could use a little national pride by setting a world record,” he said.
Nahalat Binyamin Street, which crosses lower Rothschild Boulevard — Tel Aviv’s chief axis of white Bauhaus beauties — is emerging as the microhood of the moment. By day this thin strip is all garment-district shuffle and cheeky graffiti art, but at night the street takes on a moody but electric air. You might find Bar Refaeli, or at least plenty of women who look like models, at the street’s hottest spot, Mizlala (No. 57). Here the city’s star chef, Meir Adoni, whips up dishes like fish kebabs, garlic-sage linguine with white asparagus and something called Palestinian tartar — ground beef, raw tahini paste, pine nuts, charred eggplant puree, cumin and parsley.
A less clublike energy prevails at the new 44, named not for the address (No. 29) but for the house libation, which involves 44 oranges, coffee beans and as many quarts of vodka (or something like that: none of the revelers here seem bothered with keeping count). The kitchen is captained by a talented graduate of Joz and Loz, Tel Aviv’s famously lesbian-owned eatery, who feeds the hipster brigade pomegranate seed salad, oxtail tortellini and a crushed sesame semifreddo that opens new doors of Levantine bliss.
High-ceilinged HaTraklin (No. 41) looks like a Paris bistro crossed with a Greenwich Village cafe, and has a staggering selection of Israeli wine. (Try some Asif, a fruity white made by two rabbis who tend a nonkosher vineyard in the Negev Desert.) You can also roast your meat on a piping hot rock at the bar, then rip off bits to dip in the chef Moshe Assaf’s date- and honey-infused roast garlic bulb. Yossi Ben-Odis, the sommelier and owner, organizes regular cinema-themed feasts in the back room.
Skip the garlic if you’re headed to Shpagat (No. 43), a mixed-but-mostly-gay bar whose name means “splits” (as in what those Batsheva dancers do so well). The modish duplex space, with unusual tiered seating, fills up fast with a smart but low-key crowd swilling and chilling over glasses of arak.
JN: What do you most admire about Israeli food?
PV: The celebrated Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi recently filmed a wonderful TV show called Jerusalem On A Plate, focusing on Israeli food. People in the UK are really starting to enjoy Lebanese, Israeli, Iranian and Iraqi food. The focus of my show is to basically find out about falafel and hummus. I know they are the stereotypical dishes which people associate with Israel, but it’s what people can relate to in the UK. I wanted to take that on board but find a different angle. It fitted all the criteria needed for the programme.
JN: Which areas of the country did you visit?
PV: I flew to Tel Aviv and spent two days there. We filmed some great scenes in the markets with young guys making falafel. Then we went to Jaffa for the day and went to a fantastic hummus bar where they served three different types. We relaxed, ate and talked hummus! They serve it warm there which surprised me. And they beat it with pure tahini as well, which makes it very creamy, then add warm cooked chickpeas and onions. It was completely different to anything in the UK. The hummus bar did one version with cooked broad beans and cumin. It was to die for! I’ve never eaten anything quite like it in my life. Then we went to the Judean Hills and cooked with a chef who worked for Heston Blumenthal in London. He uses purely local ingredients – primarily wild herbs from the Hills. He made a lamb dish that was just beautiful. Then we went to Jerusalem to the Yehuda market. The array of nuts and dried fruit there was fantastic. I said to the camera: “Look at these fabulous olives. What a great market.” As I said these words a lady walked past me and said: “This is the best market in the world!” I couldn’t disagree. We ate cakes, sheep’s cheese and a kind of baklava. From there we went towards the West Bank to the Mount of Olives. We went through the desert and met some Bedouins and went to the highest point of the desert where we could see the Dead Sea. From there we went down to the Dead Sea where I mad falafels by the side of the shore. I’d never made them before so I used tips from chefs I’d met. I think they tasted pretty good!
JN: Were the locals as warm as the food?
PV: Yes, they were so generous and kind. All a first-time visitor really knows is what’s been reported in the media. I thought the people would be distant and cold towards outsiders, but they were charming, funny, engaging, polite and so helpful.
JN: What are your lasting impressions of Israel?
I was expecting it to be more built up and modern. Jerusalem has fast roads outside the city and the Old City is beautifully preserved. In UK we tend to only hear the bad things – not just about Israel. Sri Lanka is another country I recently visited which is misrepresented in the news.
JN: Did you compare Jewish, Palestinian and Arabic cuisine?
PV: Yes. The This Morning show is only eight minutes long, so I would have loved to find out more. In the market the chefs indicated which foods came from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Israel. And, as Ottolenghi says, and a lot of our guides pointed out, after the Second World War a lot of Jews arrived from America and Eastern Europe and brought their influences with. So Israel has a mish-mash of cuisines which I wasn’t aware of before visiting. Some people in the UK think Israeli food is just chicken soup and chopped liver. I met lots of young chefs who worked in Europe and took their influences back to Israel. I noticed there were a lot of Italian and sushi restaurants. While it isn’t difficult to find Israeli food, you have to seek out the very best hummus and falafel bars.
JN: Where did you stay during Shabbat?
PV: Jerusalem on the Friday, where I couldn’t even buy a cup of coffee during Shabbat. I had a 15-course dinner at a Jerusalem restaurant called Eucalyptus which only serves biblical-style food.
JN: Will Israeli and Jewish techniques now influence your cooking style?
PV: I will certainly be looking at bread in a whole new way. As the bread gets so hot in Israel you don’t have to ‘prove’ it (allow the yeast time to work and raise the dough). It doesn’t work in such heat. I like this approach to bread and also their salad ingredients, especially including roast aubergines. The main technique I’ll adopt is making dishes simple. You don’t need to play around with food. And I love hummus (in the background, Phil’s daughter suddenly chimes: ‘We love hummus’ in agreement).
JN: Do you plan to return soon?
PV: One of my guides invited me back for dinner. Her father is Russian and her mother is Persian so she wants them to cook for me. My wife has always wanted to return to Israel so we’ll go back at some point and take my eldest daughter with us. I’ve been to Alaska, which has spectacular scenery, and recently returned from Vietnam, so I was concerned Israel wouldn’t live up to those places. But I think out of all the countries I’ve visited, Israel could be the most spectacular.
Phil Vickery travelled to Israel as a guest of the Israel Government Tourist Office. You can watch him in Israel on This Morning on ITV1 at 10:30am on Monday 23 January. For more on Israel’s unrivalled fresh produce and culinary innovations, read about Israel’s “Hidden Gems” at www.thinkisrael.com