Culinary Dreams of Israel — Interrupted

I’m going to be honest with you. I signed up for Birthright mostly because I wanted to spend ten days eating Israeli food. When I found out I was chosen for a summer 2012 trip, my daydreams were filled with visions of pistachio-studded halvah, mounds of falafel, juicy shawarma, and creamy hummus. You could say I was going on the trip for all the wrong reasons, that gorging oneself on Israeli delicacies was not a moral reason to take advantage of a free 10-day trip to the Holy Land. Well sometimes karma bites you back.

I arrived in Jerusalem on a breezy July night, accompanied by my best friend and about 40 other college students, still strangers to me. Jet-lagged and exhausted from the 11-hour flight, we trudged into the hostel’s dining room. My eyes perked up at the sight of roasted chicken, hummus, and juicy watermelon. Yes, this is why I had traveled for nearly half a day. I happily ate my dinner and played the obligatory name games with the group.

Not even 12 hours after the meal, I was struck with a certain discomfort. I’d been sick from traveling before, and I assured myself this little stomach upset would pass. I sullenly skipped out on the next morning’s breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and Israeli salad.

The stomach ache and nausea continued throughout our trip to the Western Wall and all the way through the visit to the stand with the “best shawarma in Israel” that evening. This was not the trip I had fantasized about. On the morning of day two my symptoms had not subsided. I desperately asked our medic soldier for medicine. Anything, I begged, that would allow me to eat real food again.

There was no pill that could help combat the apparent food poisoning I had encountered. Instead I was stuck to a depressing diet of plain pita. Even more painful, I became known by my Birthright group as the girl constantly in need of a bathroom. (Remember the scene in the movie “Bridesmaids” when Maya Rudolph’s character has a churrasco-induced “accident” while dress shopping? Well, that was pretty much me, in the Old City….)

More desperate than my need to feel better, was my yearning to try all the food around me. To make matters worse, I learned about amazing new foods to crave. Hello, Max Brenner ice cream! And Tim Tams! Did my roommates really have to partake in what could only be the creamiest, most indulgent, chocolaty ritual every night!?!

Without the usual distraction of thinking about my next meal, I had a heightened appreciation of my tour through Israel. In Sfat I had the attention to learn the history of mysticism. Ironically, while floating in the Dead Sea, I felt more full of life than ever. Even on my sickest day, the Golan Heights were a magnificent view I was able to appreciate.

Back in the U.S., sick of pita but recovered, I decided I at least owed it to myself to try and recreate what I had missed out on in Israel. These recipes do not do the authentic Israeli versions justice, but they’re my interpretations of two classics. Yes, karma may have gotten the better of me, but I came back feeling more inspired to cook than ever.

Kitchen Sink Shakshuka

The only ingredients pertinent to this recipe are the tomatoes, oil and the eggs. The rest can be replaced by any vegetables or beans you have in the kitchen.

Serves 2

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
2 small cloves garlic, diced
½ large yellow onion, diced
1 loose cup kale, or spinach, chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
One 14-ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
Salt and pepper, for sprinkling
Chile powder, for sprinkling, optional
2 eggs
Paprika, for sprinkling, optional

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

1) Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add the kale and tomatoes and cook until the kale wilts, about 5 minutes. Add the beans, sprinkle with salt and pepper and a dash chile powder if using, and stir.

2) Make 2 wells in the ingredients and carefully crack the eggs in each well. Dust the eggs with paprika if using. Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the egg whites are no longer runny, about 8 minutes.

3) Serve the shakshuka straight from the skillet, being mindful of the hot handle.

Warm Garlic, Spinach, and White Bean Hummus

Chickpeas are replaced by cannellini beans and tahini isn’t even present in this warm version of hummus. Call it “White Bean Dip” if you must!

Makes 4 servings

1 small whole head garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 packed cup fresh spinach, or 1 loose cup frozen spinach, thawed
One 14-ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
Salt and pepper, for sprinkling
Pita bread, for serving, optional

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

1) Cut off 1/4-inch of the top of the garlic, barely exposing the raw cloves. Place the entire head of garlic, cloves still intact, on a sheet of aluminum foil. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the oil over the garlic and seal the foil into a pouch. Place the garlic in the oven and cook until the cloves are mushy to the touch and the outside is crispy and golden, about 30 minutes.

2) Meanwhile, if using fresh spinach, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the fresh spinach and cook until wilted. If using thawed spinach, omit this step.

3) Once the garlic is cool enough to handle, use the back of a spoon or your fist to smush all the garlic out of its peel. Discard the peels.

4) Add the roasted garlic, cooked or thawed spinach, and 3/4 of the beans to a blender. Blend until the ingredients are fully combined and a smooth texture is reached. Add 1/8 cup water at a time, if needed, to help smooth the consistency.

5) Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the remaining 1/4 whole beans. Add the blended bean mixture and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Combine the ingredients and cook until heated through. Serve warm with pita bread if desired.

Emma Rudolph writes, a food blog for healthy and simple college cooking on a budget, including original recipes, essays and cost-per-serving.

Culinary Dreams of Israel — Interrupted

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