My fascination with Israeli food started the first time I tasted a falafel laced with tahini at a little sidewalk cafe in Westwood, near UCLA. Inspired by this simple Israeli dish, I began developing a list of Middle Eastern recipes that grew with each trip to Israel.
When visiting the marketplace in Jerusalem, I love watching the pita bakers working at cavernous wood-fired ovens. Rounds of dough are flattened by hand, then tossed against the inside walls of the ovens, where they puff up as they bake.
When I have time, I make my own pita bread, which I smother with garlic-herb butter and bake until crisp. You can also cut pita into triangles and serve for dipping with baked eggplant or hummus.
I enjoy serving a buffet-style Israeli lunch or dinner for friends, and because of the variety of dishes available, it is the perfect food for a family get-together, bar or bat mitzvah, or wedding celebration.
Eggplant, a favorite on the buffet table, is a versatile vegetable used in many recipes throughout the Middle East. My favorite recipe using this beautiful, dark purple vegetable is to blend its delicate yet pungent flavor with tahini, garlic, olive oil and salt for a delicious dip, baba ganoush.
Another of my favorites to serve is tabouleh, a traditional Middle Eastern salad, a combination of cracked bulgur wheat, green onions, chopped parsley, mint and lots of tomatoes. I often improvise, adding sliced cucumber and chopped red bell pepper, and using cilantro instead of parsley.
Serve this Israeli menu indoors or out, depending on the season and the amount of space you have. Most of the food can be prepared in advance, and the salads will keep well in the refrigerator for a day or two, even improving in flavor.
Set up a sweet table, arrange baskets of fresh fruit and bowls of nuts and dried fruit, and include baklava, made with layers of filo dough and chopped walnuts. After baking, pour or drizzle a warm honey syrup over the baklava. Let cool before serving.
Also, many people love halvah, a sweet confection often made from sesame seeds, which can be made even more delicious by dipping it in melted semisweet chocolate. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
PITA GARLIC TOAST
1/2 cup (1/4 pound) unsalted butter or nondairy margarine
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons minced fresh chives, optional
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 to 8 pita rounds, split in half
In a food processor, blend together butter, lemon juice, garlic, parsley and chives. Add salt and pepper to taste. (If not using the spread immediately, mold it into a cube, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate or freeze; let it come to room temperature before continuing with your recipe.)
Preheat oven to 400 F. Spread the inside surfaces of the split pita rounds with the butter mixture. Cut each round into halves or quarters. Arrange the pitas in one layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. You can also place the pieces under a broiler and broil until crisp. Watch carefully to avoid burning.
Transfer to serving plate and serve immediately.
Makes 12 servings.
EGGPLANT WITH TAHINI
1 large eggplant
1 medium onion, finely chopped, juice squeezed out and discarded
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons water
Dash cayenne pepper
Parsley sprigs for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place it cut side down on a baking sheet lined with foil. Bake until its skin is charred and the inside is tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Let the eggplant cool; peel it and chop finely. Place it in a mixing bowl, add the onion and parsley, and blend well.
In a separate bowl, stir together the tahini, 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, garlic and water until well blended. Stir the tahini mixture into the eggplant mixture. Add salt to taste and cayenne pepper. Stir in additional lemon juice to taste. Garnish with parsley.
Makes about 2 1/2 to 3 cups.
1 cup fine cracked wheat (bulgur)
1/2 cup minced green onions
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint
4 medium tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
2 heads romaine lettuce, small center leaves only
1 lemon, thinly sliced for garnish
Soak the cracked wheat in enough cold water to cover until tender, 10 to 20 minutes. Drain it well and squeeze it as dry as possible by hand or in a kitchen towel or a double layer of cheesecloth.
Place the bulgur in a large bowl. Add the green onions, parsley, mint and tomatoes; toss well. Stir in the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Let the mixture stand for about 30 minutes, to allow the flavors to blend. Stir in the oil.
Pile the mixture on a large platter and surround it with the romaine leaves to use for scooping. Garnish with lemon slices.
Makes 8 servings.
1/2 cup fine cracked wheat (bulgur)
1 1/2 to 2 pita bread rounds or white bread slices, torn into chunks (makes about 1 1/2 cups)
1 can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans, drained
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Soak bulgur in enough cold water to cover for l5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Soak the bread chunks in enough cold water to cover, until soft and moist, about 5 minutes. Drain the bread, squeeze it dry, and set aside.
In a food processor or blender, put the garbanzos, lemon juice, garlic, cilantro, parsley, red pepper, cumin, salt and pepper. Process until smoothly pureed. Add the bulgur and bread and pulse until thoroughly combined. Moisten your hands with cold water. Shape the mixture into 1-inch balls.
Fill a large, heavy skillet with 3 inches of oil and heat to 375 F on a deep-frying thermometer. Fry the falafel in several batches, without overcrowding, until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per batch. With a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve hot.
Makes about 36 balls, 8 to 10 servings.
Clarified Butter (recipe follows)
1/2 cup oil
1 package (1 pound) filo pastry dough
4 cups very finely chopped walnuts
Sugar and Honey Syrup (recipe follows)
Brush the bottom and sides of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with the Clarified Butter. Trim the filo sheets to 12 by 9 inches. Place l sheet of filo on the bottom of the dish. Brush its entire surface lightly with clarified butter. Lay the second sheet on top and butter it lightly. Sprinkle it evenly with about 3 tablespoons of walnuts.
Repeat the procedure, using 2 sheets of buttered filo topped with 3 tablespoons of walnuts, until you’ve used all of the nuts and all but 2 sheets of filo. Place the 2 remaining sheets on top, brushing both with butter.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
With a small, sharp knife, score the top of the baklava lengthwise with parallel lines, 2 inches apart and 1/2 inch deep. Then score diagonally across them with parallel lines 2 inches apart to form diamond shapes.
Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 F and bake 45 minutes longer, or until the top is crisp and golden brown. Remove from the oven and pour the Sugar and Honey Syrup evenly over it. Let it cool to room temperature, then cut along the scoring lines into individual pieces.
Makes about 24 pieces.
1 pound unsalted butter
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat and cool about 30 minutes. Skim off the foam. Slowly pour the clear liquid into a clean container, stopping before the whey (the milky-white sediment) escapes. Discard the whey. The butter will shrink about 25 percent in volume, so be sure you have enough for your recipe. Or, if time permits, place the melted butter in the freezer for a few minutes; the butter will harden and the whey will remain liquid and can be poured off.
Makes about 2 cups.
SUGAR AND HONEY SYRUP
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
In a heavy saucepan, over medium heat, stir together the sugar, water and lemon juice, cooking until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil, without stirring, and continue boiling until the syrup reaches 220 F on a candy thermometer, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups.