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Relive One of the Highlights of Israel: Breakfast

November 6, 2008 By:
Ethel Hofman, JE Feature
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As I passed two husky young men in the dining room of the Dan Hotel, Tel Aviv, I overheard one of them say, "You'll never get this [breakfast] in Tennessee."

That's a fact. Only in Israel, in every hotel, is the signature breakfast unforgettable. Tables piled high with fresh figs, dates, peaches, and the plums and grapes that still have the bloom of being fresh-picked; a dozen salty and creamed cheeses; fish of all kinds; and salads and sauces of every imaginable combination -- and that's in addition to eggs, breads and rolls, cakes and cereals.

If you're trying to cut calories -- and you can, if you're disciplined enough to include healthy helpings of the fruits and veggies -- there's an enormous variety of low-fat cheeses, yogurts (including Activia), crisp breads and crackers.

Spread out temptingly on long tables, this is a meal to carry you through a day of sightseeing. Just carry plenty of water with you to prevent dehydration.

The quality of Israeli food is striking. Fresh produce is locally grown, which means that the time from farm to table may be only a few hours, or at most a day -- and you can taste it.

In response to demand, the variety of organically grown produce is skyrocketing. Each fruit has its own distinctive, natural flavor. Soft fruits are juicy and sweet -- you can taste the sunshine. Tomatoes taste like tomatoes should: firm flesh and a refreshing tart juice. Vegetables are crisp and bursting with flavor.

On my recent visit, I talked with David Bitton, 25, the sous chef, at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, the flagship of the Dan hotel chain. Bitton was in charge while executive chef, Michel Nabet, was on vacation. He's just one of the talented young chefs who are transforming Israeli dishes into a world-class cuisine. His training has been on the job in Michelin restaurants all over the world.

He says, "My passion with food began at 6 years old, when instead of kicking a ball outside, my father sent me into the kitchen of our family restaurant -- I was fascinated."

Bitton is the winner of a silver medal in the Luxembourg Culinary Olympics, and gold, silver and bronze medals in other esteemed culinary competitions.

"All my life, I live and breathe the kitchen," he says, though he still found time to get married "eight months ago."

David Bitton

Fresh produce at the King David is purchased from selected vendors. Bitton is adamant that absolutely no frozen or processed items of any description are to be used, and when possible, many of the items are organically grown.

"Everything is made from scratch, from the freshest meats, fishes, fruits, vegetables and spices." These ingredients are simply but cleverly combined, making for irresistible salads and desserts.

For a weekend breakfast at the King David Hotel, where royalty and heads of state are regular visitors, add good strong coffee to the recipes below. You'll have a "breakfast fit for a king," while sampling the best and newest Israeli cuisine right in your own home kitchen.

For best results, buy the freshest produce you can find, preferably in farmer's markets, and mix up a batch of za'atar (Arabic for hyssop, a biblical plant) for the easy Israeli-style thin focaccio.

 
Israeli Salad

(Pareve)

Israelis eat this healthy salad at least once a day. Vegetables vary, but the main ingredients are tomatoes and cucumbers, items grown by early pioneers on the kibbutzim. You can add carrots, shredded white or red cabbage, green onions and fresh herbs -- or whatever fresh veggies are on hand.

juice and grated peel from 1 large lemon
3 large firm tomatoes, cut in small chunks
1 cucumber, unpeeled, and cut in small chunks
1/2 red onion, diced
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/4 cup snipped fresh dill or parsley, packed
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 small hot pepper, seeded and chopped or 1/2 tsp. dried red-pepper flakes
pinch of cinnamon
3 Tbsps. extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the lemon juice and grated peel in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Do not chill; serve at room temperature.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 90; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 6 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 9 mg.

 
Biblical Green-Herb Salad

(Pareve)

Amounts may vary, but essentially the main ingredients are green herbs, such as parsley and dill, with baby arugula or baby spinach tossed in. I like to add a handful of dried cranberries, but that's optional.

1/2 bunch curly parsley
1/2 bunch Italian (flat leaf) parsley
1/2 bunch dill
2 cups shredded baby arugula or spinach, packed
1/4 cucumber, unpeeled and diced
1/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans or other nuts
2 Tbsps. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Make sure vegetables and herbs are thoroughly rinsed in cold water, and dried in a salad spinner or clean cloth. Shred the parsleys and dill with scissors, and place in a bowl. Add the arugula or spinach, cucumbers and pecans.

Pour the olive oil and lemon juice over, and toss to mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 96; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 3 g; fat, 9 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 36 mg.

 
Sweet Potato Salad

(Dairy)

Israelis use Bulgarian cheese, which is firm and salty. You can substitute mozzarella or feta. Feta will increase the sodium content. Julienne means foods that are cut in thin, matchstick lengths.

2 large, baked sweet potatoes, peeled and cut julienne
11/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
5-6 pitted black olives, thinly sliced
2 Tbsps. snipped fresh oregano
3 Tbsps. extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the sweet potatoes, cheese, olives and oregano in a bowl.

In a cup, whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Pour over the sweet potato mixture. Toss gently. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 190; protein, 9 g; carbohydrates, 12 g; fat, 12 g; cholesterol, 15 mg; sodium, 216 mg.

 
Cucumbers With Dried Fruits

(Dairy)

1 cucumber, unpeeled and cut in 1/4-inch pieces
5-6 dried figs, thinly sliced
8 dried apricots, quartered
1/2 cup plain, low-fat yogurt
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
2 tsps. honey, warmed
freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the cucumber, figs and apricots in a bowl. Set aside.

In a cup or small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice and honey. Pour over the cucumber and dried fruits. Toss gently. Season to taste with pepper.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 127; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 28 g; fat, 1 g; cholesterol, 1 mg; sodium, 18 mg.

 
Israeli Focaccio

(Pareve or Dairy)

Use frozen thawed bread dough or refrigerated biscuits for this quick, herbed tongue-shaped bread.

6-8 oz. frozen bread dough, thawed
extra virgin olive oil
za'atar seasoning (recipe below)
dried pepper flakes
kosher salt

Preheat oven to 500°. Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven for 10 minutes before placing the focaccio on it.

Divide the bread dough into 6 to 8 pieces. Press each piece into a "tongue" shape, about 4-inches long. (If using refrigerated biscuits shape similarly.)

Brush liberally with olive oil. Sprinkle with za'atar, a pinch of pepper flakes, and kosher salt, as desired.

Place on heated baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until browned at the edges. Serve warm.

Makes 6 to 8 pieces.

Approximate nutrients per piece: calories, 100; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 10 g; fat, 6 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 160 mg.

 
Za'atar Seasoning

(Pareve)

Za'atar (Arabic for hyssop, a Biblical herb) is hard to find in our markets, so make your own. May also be sprinkled on hummus, or fish and chicken, before cooking. Ground sumac has a pleasant fruity, slightly astringent flavor. It may be found in Middle Eastern stores.

1/3 cup dried, crumbled oregano
3 Tbsps. sesame seeds, toasted
11/2 Tbsps. sumac
2 tsps. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Mix all ingredients together. Store in a tightly lidded container in a cool, dry place.

Makes about 1/2 cup.

Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 15; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 1 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 106 mg.

Ethel G. Hofman, author of Mackerel at Midnight, is also a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

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