Recipes from Israel


American food is really hard to categorize. You know what I mean. A lot of the things we love to eat are borrowed from other cultures, modified to suit our uniquely-American tastes and then ingrained so deeply in our culture that they no longer belong to the cultures from whence they came. Case in point: Chinese food. Also pizza and pasta. Do we have anything uniquely American? Not apple pie, actually (see Ireland).

There may not be any other place in the world that has such a borrowed culinary tradition, though I think Israel may come close.

A friend of ours is Jewish and upon learning that I was about to cook Israel, asked me if I'd be making Matzah ball soup. I had no idea, though I do have to say that I'm fond of Matzah ball soup. But here's the thing: food in Israel isn't necessarily Jewish in origin, at least not in the Matzah ball soup and gefilte fish sense of the word. Yes they do eat traditional Jewish foods in Israel, but like America, their cuisine is as diverse as the people who live there--many of whom emigrated there from places all over the world.

Israel as a nation didn't exist until 1948, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you that its establishment wasn't met with enthusiasm by everyone. Israel has been in a pretty constant state of war with its neighbors ever since its birth. Before 1948, the whole region was called Palestine--the Israeli Declaration of Independence basically annexed a part of the former region of Palestine to become the state of Israel. The Arab population of Palestine has been mad about it ever since. Now, I won't get into details because the history of this conflict is so complex and convoluted that you just can't sum it up in a couple of paragraphs. I will say that Israel as it exists today is considered a homeland for the Jewish people, which means that anyone who has Jewish lineage has the right to obtain Israeli citizenship. So the population is extremely diverse, with about 73% of the population native-born Israeli Jews, 18% from Europe and the Americas and roughly 9% from Asia and Africa.

So you have Indian dishes, European dishes, American dishes (though I understand bagels are actually quite scarce) and dishes that are influenced by the middle-eastern countries that Israel shares borders with. Eclectic.

That makes research challenging, so I had to read up on Israeli cuisine as a whole before I could start to narrow down my selection to those dishes that are distinctly Israeli. And that didn't include Matzah ball soup, I'm afraid. Here's what it did include:

Chicken schnitzel. This is one of those dishes that was imported by Central European Jews, but adapted based on the simple fact that in those early years you just couldn't get veal in Israel. Chicken schnitzel (sometimes turkey) is still popular in Israel and seemed like a natural choice for this meal. Here's the recipe:

Chicken Schnitzel
(from The Shiksa in the Kitchen)
  • 2 lbs boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 cup flour for dredging
  • 2 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup matzah meal
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Oil for frying
  • Fresh lemon wedges
And a simple salad to go with it:

Israeli Salad
(Also from The Shiksa in the Kitchen)
  • 1 lb English cucumbers, diced
  • 1 lb fresh ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 1/3 cup minced onion (optional)
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • Salt to taste
Originally I did this as an appetizer, but ended up serving everything at the same time:

Israeli Hummus
(from MyJewishLearning)
  • 3 cups garbanzo beans
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice (or to taste)
  • 2 cloves garlics (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Freshly-ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts
  • 1/4 tsp sumac or paprika
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
And you can't have hummus without pita:

Pita Bread (Parve)
(from Kosher Food at About.com)
  • 4 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
Here's another dish that was supposed to be an appetizer, but just got eaten alongside everything else:

Potato cheese bourekas
(Also from The Shiksa in the Kitchen)
  • 2 sheets puff pastry
  • 1 large Russet potato, peeled, boiled and mashed
  • 1/4 cup feta cheese, crumble
  • 1/4 cup shredded kashkaval cheese (or substitute another 1/4 cup feta)
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tsp cold water
  • 1 tbsp sesame or poppy seeds (optional)
  • Nonstick cooking spray
And finally, because I figured I might as well spend the whole day in the kitchen:

Passover Apple cake
(from ReformJudaism.org)

For the batter:
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp potato starch
  • 2 cups matzah cake meal
  • pinch salt
For the filling:
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 5 large Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
For the topping:
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 to 2 tsp cinnamon
You may be wondering why I made such a giant feast. I'm still wondering that myself. I was literally in the kitchen for about seven hours, and by the end of it I was almost too tired to actually eat any of the food. Thank god it was all so good, or I might never try to make another meal on this scale.

If you must know, we had our friend come over to eat with us, so I guess I kind of wanted to impress.

Anyway before we start, I want to just mention the whole kosher thing. When it got to meal day, I started to worry that serving the bourekas with the chicken schnitzel wasn't the right thing to do, because according to kosher rules you can't mix meat with dairy. So I hemmed and hawed about whether to just not do the bourekas, but I'd had to send away to igourmet to get the kashkaval, so I kind of wanted to use it. So I did some research at Google University and learned that most Israelis don't keep kosher, in fact most restaurants in Israel aren't kosher, either. So I ended up doing my Israeli meal un-kosher, which if you want to get technical would have been the case anyway since to prepare a kosher meal you need a kosher kitchen, and my kitchen is definitely not one of those. Now if Google University told me an untruth, and you're mad at me for not at least going through the motions of making a kosher meal, let me know. I'd be happy to do this over, because Israeli food is yummy. But I'm still not going to have access to a kosher kitchen or anything.

So I started with the hummus. At 11am.

Now, this recipe's author swears by raw garbanzo beans, but I was already signing myself up for too much so I used canned. If you do use raw, you will need to soak them in cold water overnight.

In the morning, drain and rinse them, or just take them out of the can. The raw ones you will need to boil for about an hour, or until the skin starts to separate. When you drain them, reserve about 1 1/2 cups of the cooking water (I used the liquid from the cans).

Now set aside about a quarter cup of garbanzo beans and put the rest of them in a food processor with the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and spices and about 1/2 cup of the cooking water.


Your hummus should have a pasty consistency--if it doesn't, add more water. Spread the hummus out on a plate, making a slight depression in the middle.

Now toast the pine nuts on the stove in a little bit of olive oil. When they're golden, sprinkle them over the hummus. Drizzle some oil and scatter the reserved beans on top. Now dust with sumac and the parsley or cilantro.

Then I did the salad:

Toss the vegetables and parsley together in a large bowl. Whisk the lemon juice with the oil and salt and pour over. Toss to coat. Serve at room temperature or chill.

Then the pita bread:

Proof the yeast with the sugar and lukewarm water. Let stand until frothy.

Sift together the flour and salt and pour in the yeast. Mix well and knead for 10 minutes. Transfer to a lightly greased bowl and cover loosely with a damp towel. Let rise in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in bulk.

Punch down and knead some more. Or just forget everything I said and use your bread machine.

Divide into 20 small balls and transfer to a floured surface. Flatten thinly with a rolling pin.

Transfer the pitas to an ungreased cookie sheet and cover with a clean towel. Let rise in a warm place for another 30 minutes.

Meanwhile preheat your oven to 500 degrees. Place the pitas on the bottom rack and bake for five to seven minutes, or until they puff up and turn golden.

Now for the cake, which takes about an hour to bake:

OK so here's how I cleverly used my ingredients. The cake calls for matzah cake meal, which is really just matzah meal, but ground fine like a flour. So I could have ordered some on Amazon for $20 a box, but you know, $20. So instead I bought regular matzah meal and ground it (I had to sift it to get out the coarse stuff). When I had a fine meal, I mixed the coarser stuff back in with the rest of the matzah meal and used that for the chicken schnitzel.

Anyway, here's how you make the cake: preheat your oven to 350 degrees, grease a springform cake pan (9 inches) and line the bottom with waxed paper. Meanwhile, beat the eggs with the sugar, then add the oil. Sift the potato starch with the cake meal and salt, and add that, still mixing.

Mix the apples with the cinnamon, sugar and lemon juice. Toss to coat evenly.

Now pour half the batter into your prepared pan. Dump the apples in next, but leave any of the liquid that might be in the bottom of the bowl.

Now pour the rest of the batter over the apples. Mix the topping ingredients together and then sprinkle on top.

Bake for one hour. Yum!

On to the schnitzel. I'm getting tired just typing all of this.

First mix the matzah meal with the paprika, 1 tsp salt and the sesame seeds (if using, I didn't). Now place the chicken breast between plastic (I put mine in a gallon freezer bag) and pound with a meat mallet until about 1/4 inch thick. Dip each breast in the flour until completely coated, then in the egg, then in the matzah meal.

Fill a frying pan with a decent amount of oil. You don't need to submerge your chicken but there should be enough for frying (say a half inch). Heat the oil until bubbles rise around the non-stirring end of a wooden spoon, then drop in the schnitzels, two at a time. Fry on both sides until golden and the internal temperature is 165 degrees. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve with the lemon wedges.

And let's not forget those controversial bourekas:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Once your mashed potato has cooled, mix it with the cheese, egg and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well.

Now unroll one of your puff pastry sheets and roll it out to a 12x12 square. Cut into nine smaller squares of about 4x4. 

Take a heaping tablespoon of filling and drop it into the corner of one puff pastry square. Spread it out so it covers half the square at a diagonal.

Now pull the opposite corner down and line it up to make a triangle shape.

Pinch to seal and crimp with a fork.

Repeat until all the squares have been used up, then repeat with the second piece of puff pastry. You'll end up with 18 bourekas.

Spray two baking sheets with non-stick spray and transfer the bourekas to the sheets. Make sure you give them some room to expand while baking. Whisk the egg yolk together with the water and brush over the top of each boureka. Sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds.

Bake for 35 minutes or until golden. Serve warm.

So if you don't collapse from exhaustion, serve everything up and bask in the praise. This was a delicious meal. The schnitzel was crispy and tasty with a little lemon juice squeezed over (though I might put salt right in the matzah mix next time, rather than sprinkling over after frying). The hummus presented beautifully and was delicious with the fresh pita bread. The bourekas--yum. Simple but really delicious; I ate way too many of them. The salad was your basic, simple cucumber and tomato salad, which is not a bad thing. And I loved the apple cake. The matzah gave it a distinctly different flavor but it was very subtle. I would have really liked this cake with some caramel drizzled over that, why didn't I think of that before my family devoured it?

Our friend seemed to enjoy his meal so I felt like all that time in the kitchen was worth it, though I don't know how long it will be before I make another six-recipe feast for Travel by Stove. It was delicious, but I might have to sleep for a few days just to recover from all that work.

Next week, we're regressing: Campania, Italy. I'll explain later.


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