Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back from Israel and ready for Shakshuka

Jet lag is still a problem, but culture-lag not so much.  Israel is a modern, hip country that happens to be set in an ancient hot-spot.  Where high tech, rock-'n-roll and skyscrapers converge, more complex and deeply-held insistences clash.  You can't compromise when you're convinced your way is God's.

Beneath the daily commute, the entrepreneural one-upmanship documented in George Gilder's The Israel Test, and Saul Singer/Dan Senor (who addressed our group)'s Start-Up Nation is justifiable caution.  I didn't see the machine-gun-toting guards perched at the entrances of restaurants, like I observed in my most recent several visits, but still, as cars entered parking structures, trunks were inspected and auto undersides perused. When your neighbors publicly insist you need to be "driven to the sea" while, at the same time, seeking to emulate you, there's heightened awareness carrying on the interchanges and embraces commerce commands.

That was the backdrop, the meme, but not my moment-to-moment experience, which mixed immediacy and miracles, wariness and wonder.

Each of the nine days of this visit had its highlights and surprises.  I hope to write more about them later, but first, the mundane:  Shakshuka.

I first saw it at breakfast, which in Israel is the granddaddy of meals, and our hotels offered lavish buffets.  Tables of smoked fish, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables; baskets of baked goods, made-to-order lattes and espresso, chefs creating omelettes.  Rows of chafing dishes not only offering porridge and quiches and pancakes but on this trip, always Shakshuka.

Saute onion, garlic, fresh tomatoes and their juice with herbs, a little sugar, sometimes peppers. Let it simmer down into a dense tomato melange in the frying pan.  Then, crack whole eggs into it, cover and cook until the eggs set, nestled into the sauce.  Easy and ubiquitous.  But I wasn't ready for its popularity.

Our family came from the graveside ceremony marking a year since my father-in-law's passing.  We gathered afterwards in the private room of a quaint restaurant.  The morning had been remarkable, walking in pelting rain at the cemetery to the newly-placed monument, a beautiful orange-red marbled stone that we could could not accept covered our beloved Dad and Zayde. As soon as we arrived, the deluge, which was so strong it flooded the streets and caused small rivers gushing down the ravines, let up. Not a drop fell as we said traditional prayers, offered recollections, read psalms. When we were finished, and placed small rocks on the newly-carved slab, we turned to go--and the heavens opened again, resuming their tears and torrents.

At the restaurant, we filled our stomachs and fed our conversations on Shakshuka.  There's something earthy and elemental about this simple combination.

Every breakfast in Israel included Shakshuka.  Then, when I came home, a supplement to our newspaper happened to have a feature on it.  I opened a cookbook that I've had on my shelf for a few years, The Foods of Israel Today, by Joan Nathan, and found this version. A sensual souvenir of this particular visit to Israel; an easy way to recapture intense feelings of many types.

Shakshuka a la Doktor Shakshuka (a restaurant in Old Jaffa that features the dish)

The Foods of Israel Today
by Joan Nathan

Yield: 6 servings
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, unpeeled and cut in quarters, or one 28-ounce can tomatoes
6 cloves garlic, roughly diced
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1/4 cup vegetable oil
6 large eggs
1. Place the tomatoes, garlic, salt, paprika, tomato paste, and vegetable oil in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, over low heat until thick, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Ladle the tomato sauce into a greased 12-inch frying pan. Bring to a simmer and break the eggs over the tomatoes. Gently break the yolks with a fork. Cover and continue to cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, until the eggs are set. Bring the frying pan directly to the table. Set it on a trivet and spoon out the shakshuka.

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