So when we were invited to her home in Tel Aviv for Shabbat dinner, I immediately accepted, certain that, although Phyllis is a vegetarian, she would respect her meat-eating guests, and there would be a traditional chicken dinner, redolent with the spices, fruits and vegetables that come to Israeli tables fresh from the moshavs (small farms).
The wines were sure to be exceptional. From Chardonnays to Syrahs, Israel's wines continue to sweep up awards at international wine festivals. In 2007, Robert Parker, the recognized wine expert, gave an outstanding "90" score to 14 Israeli wines. Gone are the days when Manischewitz was the only kosher wine in town.
I was all wrong about the chicken, though. As food professionals and friends, Phyllis and I share culinary tastes. She handed me a wooden spoon and a package of yellow cornmeal and said, "You like polenta," and instructed me to pour the cornmeal slowly into a big pot of simmering water. As I stirred the pot over a low heat, it thickened into a creamy yellow mixture. We seasoned it with salt and white pepper — and it was ready. As the side dish?
Meatless Main Event
Not so. Nissan Balaban, who knows his way around Phyllis's kitchen, carried the heavy pot to the table and proceeded to spoon the polenta onto a huge wooden board, spreading it about 3/4 of an inch thick. This served as the base for half a dozen sautéed and grilled vegetables.
Chunks of pumpkin had been cooked and sweetened, and tender, golden asparagus spears glistened with extra virgin olive oil from Israel. The earthiness of mushrooms was combined with young peppery arugula, and chunks of fried red and green peppers, and discs of grilled baby eggplant. All of it made an appetizing, colorful display, as well as being healthy and low in calories.
Dishes of fresh tomato salsa, shredded parmesan cheese, diced Bulgarian cheese (similar to feta) and a lightly dressed salad of baby greens were all part of the main meal.
Ida, Phyllis's mother, added her own touches to the shiny golden challah. Each braid was sprinkled with different seeds and herbs — sunflower seeds, sesame, oregano, pine nuts, nigella (black caraway seeds) and cumin.
Everything on the table had been locally produced. Picked at the peak of ripeness with maximum nutritional value, each item had its own distinctive taste, texture and appearance. This was fresh Israeli food at its very best.
Polenta should be made at the last minute, but all the vegetables can be prepared ahead of time and simply warmed up.
As Phyllis stood at the head of the festive dinner table reciting the blessings over the bread and wine, we gave thanks for life, love, and the abundance of quality food and exceptional wine grown in Israel's pristine hills and valleys.
(Pareve or Dairy)
Polenta is actually a cornmeal porridge. A famous dish with cultural roots in Romania, where it's called Mamaliga, it can be prepared with milk or a mixture of water and milk. The method here is the simplest to prepare.
7 cups water
21/2 cups fine yellow cornmeal
3 Tbsps. margarine or butter
1 tsp. salt or to taste
white pepper to taste
Pour the water into a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to barely simmering over medium heat. Stirring constantly, slowly add the cornmeal, pouring in a steady stream. Continue stirring until thickened.
Stir in the margarine or butter to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Remove from heat and cool slightly. Spoon onto a board, about 20-by-15-inches, spreading to about 3/4 -inch in thickness.
Top with a selection of sautéed and grilled vegetables, arranged in sections. Serve hot.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 196; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 34 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 342 mg.
Sweet Pumpkin Chunks
3 Tbsps. olive oil
3 Tbsps. sugar
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 lb. pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cubed in 3/4-inch cubes
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
3/4 tsp. cardamom or cinnamon or to taste
In a heavy pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil and sugar until sugar just begins to barely turn brown (watch carefully). Reduce heat to low. Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes.
Add the pumpkin, lemon juice cardamom or cinnamon and about 3/4 cup water. Cover and cook for about 30 minutes or until pumpkin is soft but has not lost its shape. Stir occasionally. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 77; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 8 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 1 mg.
Roasted Asparagus Spears
20-24 asparagus spears, trimmed
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 475°.
Liberally brush asparagus on all sides with olive oil. Arrange on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook in preheated oven for 5 minutes. Then turn on broiler and finish off 4 to 5 minutes longer or until beginning to brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 45; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 0 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 353 mg.
Grilled Eggplant Discs
3 baby eggplant
1/4 cup olive oil vinaigrette dressing
dried basil or chives
freshly ground pepper
Preheat broiler. Spray a broiler pan with nonstick cooking spray.
Trim the ends of each eggplant and discard. Wipe the eggplants with a damp towel and cut into discs about 1/4 -inch thick. Brush liberally with vinaigrette dressing. Place on prepared broiler pan. Sprinkle with dried basil or chives and pepper. Let stand 10 minutes at room temperature.
Place under preheated broiler. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until beginning to brown. Flip over and cook other side until golden brown, about 5 minutes longer. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 15; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 1 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 63 mg.
Mushrooms With Arugula
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 lb. sliced white mushrooms
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 cup coarsely shredded baby arugula, packed
2 tsps. lemon or lime juice
Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until beginning to brown, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the garlic and turmeric. Cook 1 to 2 minutes longer until garlic is soft.
Remove from heat, and stir in the arugula and lemon or lime juice. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 44; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 2 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 3 mg.
Balsamic Lemon Vinaigrette
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsps. balsamic vinegar
2 tsps. Dijon style mustard
1/2 tsp. minced garlic
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Whisk oil, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard and garlic together. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Use at room temperature.
Makes about 3/4 cup.
Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 56; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 0 g; fat, 6 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 22 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, author of the recent Mackerel at Midnight, is also a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.