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Toucan-beaked finjanim (coffee pots) from the Ethnographic and Folklore Museum in Akko, Israel

Brass finjanim (coffee pots) and tin plates from the pioneer days in Israel. Exhibition at the Ethnographic and Folklore Museum, Akko, Israel

Can’t decide whether I’m more heartbroken or flattered–maybe just surprised?

The Wall Street Journal 

a) has a food section (who knew?)

b) which is currently featuring a 4-part series of recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi.  (I’m actually in favor, and hoping for his book Plenty for my birthday–my husband  floated the suggestion a few weeks ago and I was really flabbergasted that he’d even heard of Ottolenghi. Must have been listening to  something on NPR.) Why is Ottolenghi favoring the WSJ, though, of all food column venues?

c) Said series is calling itself “Slow Food Fast” — the goniffs; can I charge them for it? wouldn’t you? — but it probably shouldn’t.

I’m not just saying that for my own sake (though that’s a big part of it, don’t get me wrong. I’m–the heck with neutrality–too annoyed to be giving a link to this).

Ottolenghi’s recipes aren’t really either slow-slow (stews, beans from scratch, etc.) or incredibly fast (microwave)–a lot are lightly fried or grilled, with a sharp mix of flavors, a lot of herbs, middle Eastern sauces and a tossed salad of some kind on the side. Soft-boiled eggs in a salad, corn latkes with a salad, pan-grilled mackerel on a pita with pistachio pesto and Greek yogurt (bet he’d rather have labaneh but can’t find it in New York or London)–etc.

Which makes them good eating, Israeli and Arab style. But not really slow food done fast.

Most Israeli cooking that’s still Israeli (and not nouveau-Italian, complete with oversized bowls of pasta and seven different cappuccino/macchiato/etc. kinds of coffee drinks) falls into three categories.

The old-fashioned stuff is long-cooked roasts or stews for meats and poultry, maybe stuffed vegetables or an eggplant or spinach casserole or couscous or pilaf. Traditional Romanian, Hungarian, and Moroccan restaurants and some home chefs (usually older women) serve these sorts of long-cooked dishes, but there’s no real shortcut for them.

Israeli street food (not western, engineered “fast food” like McD’s) mostly appears at lunch counters and road stops that specialize, but again the ingredients are real. Felafel, shawarma (even though they’re mostly using a mixture of turkey and beef instead of lamb these days), lahmajoun (ground-meat pizzas). Or else burekas, trays and trays of puff-like flake pastry layered with cheese or eggplant or potato or mushroom filling, and you stop in for lunch and have a huge slab of one with maybe a bit of salad on the side and some tea. All of these take some preparation–the fast part is you walking up to the counter and getting takeout.

In between these extremes are cafés that serve individually-cooked dishes–more informal than casseroles and stews, less casual and more varied than street food. Grilled or fried vegetables (peppers, onions, eggplants, tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkin? potatoes?–more eggplant) and beans, grilled fish or chicken, hummus and baba ghanouj, assortments of cooked salads,with a fresh salad and dishes of olives, turnip and eggplant pickles. A lot of olive oil and garlic and lemon and cumin, yogurt, vegetables, and water-flour-yeast-salt kinds of flatbreads. Street food stand sauces like tehina, salat turqui, harissa, and hilbe (sour yellow fenugreek sauce, kind of mustardy) are still part of it, but so are vinaigrettes and more complex flavorings, and a lot of fresh herbs make an appearance.

This is Ottolenghi’s kind of cooking, and I love it, but it’s neither slow food nor slow food done faster. It’s rustic, village-style food, even though he’s dressed up his version for London diners. At its best you feel like you could walk into the restaurant and fit in fine whether dressed for a theater evening or still dusty from hiking with a water bottle still hanging off your backpack. As though if you walked to the back you wouldn’t be that surprised to see the chefs squatting down over a little pine fire in the courtyard, grilling the food Bedouin-style,  on the back of a broad, battered skillet or skewered on a long thin stick.

They’re not really doing that in Tel Aviv or Haifa, of course, but desert camp cooking is still a key part of the local food lore. People still grill things like chicken hearts and livers outside on little pine fires in their courtyards at home with great pride. Or char eggplants and peppers directly on the gas stove–sort of smelly but undeniably authentic. They point out  za’atar, hyssop and other forageable herbs on wilderness hikes; they know how to make a quick camper’s flatbread of flour and water and a few sprigs of foraged maluakh (a salty plant found in the Negev) over the back of a frying pan. And they know how to brew botz — Turkish coffee–with a flourish.

It’s a part of Israeli life I fervently hope won’t disappear with all the new software companies and car dealerships and cappuccino joints that have popped up over the last couple of decades.

As for the use of my blog’s name, I’m thinking I should take the attitude Monty Python did one time when Margaret Thatcher made free with their Dead Parrot Sketch in a political speech for the Eastbourne by-elections: they announced that given the results of the elections, they thought it not only served her right, but that she had suffered adequately and publicly from her folly that they could save themselves the barristers’ fees for a lawsuit.

Me? I’m waiting til Tuesday. Somewhere else in the WSJ online was an editorial actually praising John Boehner’s plan for the debt ceiling. Feh.

3 Responses

  1. Oy! Not the WSJ.

    I’ve been having take-out on Fridays: b’stilla, hummus, grape leaves. I live in a Mediterranean climate, so why not the food?

    • Hi Lurkertype–Good to hear from you. It’s all too terribly true, but I like your thinking! We haven’t gotten it together enough to do takeout in a while, but that sounds like the right kind to me–leave the hardest tasks to the restaurant, I say. Hummus I have too much of (made a vat last week and we’re still digging through it), grape leaves–I’ve got the econojar of 100 or so, plus a 5-lb. bag of Calrose rice, and my daughter is hocking me to teach her how to roll ’em (I said not till her bat mitzvah or until she cleans her room, whichever comes first). So I’ve got no excuse to buy either item as takeout at this point, even though I really would rather. B’stilla, though–I’ve still never eaten b’stilla and Paula Wolfert’s instructions scare me a little (or, ok, a lot) so I envy you. I’ll have to find a kosher Moroccan restaurant on the west side of LA, hope that they actually do b’stilla and don’t do bellydancing bar mitzvahs (you wouldn’t believe the degree of kitsch on that side of Rte. 110), and just brave the traffic.

      • I would never be able to even THINK of making it myself. So I’m glad to have found this place where it’s cheap and good. The combo of the chicken, pastry, and cinnamon is heavenly.

        I first had it in a kitschy belly-dancing-for-parties restaurant, so there’s hope!

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