Sunday, June 13, 2010

12 Days In Israel

Shalom from the Tasty Land, where some seriously good eating has happened over the past couple of weeks and which has contributed mightily to my steadily expanding waistline. The official reason for our trip to Israel was to visit family; brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents- we have practically every kind of family here in Israel. However, a hugely motivating factor for me behind this visit was the food- specifically the produce and dairy. Since I got pregnant I have been chasing after the perfect piece of fruit, pursuing an exemplary tomato, dreaming about a cup of yogurt that strikes the creamy balance between sweet and tangy, all the while maintaining the outstanding quality of freshness. Well Haverim (friends), I'm pleased to report, on the final day of my gustatory pilgrimmage, mission accomplished.

Day 1: After a lengthy journey from New York to Tel Aviv, which included a brief pause in Dusseldorf, we arrived at my bro/sis-in-law's (Darvid and Mish) beautiful new digs in Modi'in to a full scale barbecue that was worthy of the 4th of July. I've been off meat for a while now (and even more so after the eating events of day 2- TBC...), but the sliced tomatoes that accompanied the fresh grilled burgers, were everything I want from my tomatoes; ripe, firm, deep red in color, juicy, and delicious. It had been a while since I savored a tomato that didn't taste freeze dried and weak , and I knew that we were off to a great start!

Day 2: A quick visit to Jerusalem, where we met up with one of my brothers, stopped at the Western Wall, and explored the Old City for a while. Hub's shwarma was uninspiring, and we fed a good amount of it to the skinny semi-feral cats that prey on the tender pet-loving hearts of American tourists. My freshly squeezed orange juice on the other hand was gulped down greedily, and reinforcements were ordered for the kiddles.

After trying unsuccessfully to settle the kids in bed at night, and deciding to leave the dirty work to the babysitters, we left with Darvid and Mish for Tel Aviv to a swanky hotel restaurant on the beach. The bread basket set a promising tone for the evening's meal. The artichoke soup I started with was good enough- creamy, smooth with a pleasing tang. So far everything's fine- better than fine- sababa, maxim ("great" and "awesome" in the vernacular). But then, against my better judgement- ignoring all my pregnancy cues, I order the mullard as my second course. Mullard I am told is a cross between a duck and a goose. Duck, duck, goose...and your "it". "It" being an awful nausea and a generally debilitating grossness that visited upon me the next day, and had me lying flat on my back all day long at my sis-in-law's house up in the Galillee. I should've know when I had to peel off a half an inch of fat off the top of the medallions that this dish was not for me. I should have stuck with all things green. I should have surrendered to my gut's desire from the get go. I guess I needed to learn all this the hard way, but from here forward on our trip I was a vegetarian, veering on the militant (with one minor infraction- see day 8...).

Day 3: Due to my Mull-aise I had to sit out the quintessential Israeli breakfast that Hub, the kiddles, and in laws tore into before we set out for the Galilee. An Israeli breakfast consists of fresh salads, cheeses, flavorful sweet and savory spreads, fresh baked bread, and eggs- in other words: heaven. I huddled over my tea with na'na (fresh mint) and dry toast.

For the rest of the day and night I lay on the couch in Hub's sis' beautiful airy new house in the Galilee, and watched the action unfold around me, cursing the moment I met mullard. The kiddles and their Israeli counterparts were thick as thieves, my sis-in-law was busy in the kitchen preparing friday night dinner, the aromas were incredible! I had to forgo her specialty dish: Yemenite Soup, my biggest regret of the trip.

Day 4: I woke up feeling revived and headed straight to the fridge were I raided the produce drawer. Oh the apricots, the plums, the sweetest grapes that ever passed my lips. The watermelon.... The fresh mint that grows outside her kitchen window! For lunch she made a mexican fiesta, that I happily participated in. It was a beautiful carefree day in the North of the country, where the kids ran wild and barefoot, and I was just barefoot and pregnant.

Day 5: Determined to get my Israeli breakfast on, and propelled by memories from our last visit to the North, I insisted we visit Lotem, a kibbutz that hosts a restaurant with outdoor seating and a great view, as well as a menu full of delicious choices. After much deliberation I settled on a Fattoush salad and the bread basket with a variety of spreads. The breads were fresh baked and hearty, my favorite spread was the tzatziki, second was the raasted pepper. The Fattoush salad was crisp and full of middle eastern flavor. The piece de resistance was my latte at meals end which came with a plate of tiny scrumptious oatmeal-esque cookies. I was so content as I sipped my coffee and nibbled on my cookies, nothing- not even the kiddles unruliness and Munch's dirty diaper could yank me out of my state of bliss.

Day 6: Beach Day! Off the Tel Aviv Beach we went. The bunch of us bleached out Northerners were lathered up with SPF 55, but that still didn't save me from the tenacious Middle Eastern sun. Normally I shun all beach-like scenario's, I feel that the grit and the heat and the general discomfort are not worth the effort and the burn. Tel Aviv Beach is an exception- the water was a clear aqua and so warm, it kind of reminded me of Miami Beach in that way, which is the only other beach I've ever enjoyed. But who cares about me- the kids were having a grand old time, running in and out of the surf, collecting sea shells, sucking on arctics (Israelspeak for popsicles).

We had lunch at an airy beachfront cafe called "Frishman". My grilled halloumi salad was memorable- the sauce/dressing had strong spicy asian flavor which worked well with the non-descript halloumi cheese. For dessert I ordered watermelon and feta. The kiddles cheese toasts (grilled cheese sandwiches) were enormous so I had some of theirs too.

After the beach Hub took the kiddles back to Modi'in, as I settled in at my brother's Tel Aviv flat and anticipated the pain that would come over the next few days. I got sunburnt pretty bad- but it was totally worth it. Bro #3, Leonardo, allowed me to sit on his veranda and not do a damn thing as he and his lovely French fiancee prepared the feast we were to enjoy that night in honor of bro #2, Rabdul's, birthday. Dinner was delicious and festive, Debo made a wonderful curry and a tasty artichoke side dish. Dessert was suitably french-alicious; raspberry coulis and cream. YUM!

Day 7: Back to Jerusalem to visit my grandparents. My grandmother prepared lunch which included my favorite cole slaw and her miraculously light and fluffy sponge cake, so good I've never even attempted it. A word about my grandparents: my grandfather is in his 90's and is still sharp as a tack. My grandmother? Well, no one really knows her age, but whatever it is- she looks good! Which gives me hope. She is brisk and busy and doesn't slow down for a minute.
For dinner that night Mish made a really good mac 'n cheese for the kids, and a pasta of sweet potatoes, leeks and pine nuts for the adults. Thoroughly yum.

Day 8: Back to the beach.....sun, sand, surf, plenty of sunscreen. We had dinner with Debo and Leonardo at the burger joint around the corner from their flat "Magic Burger", and despite being a born-again vegetarian, these burgers were magically delicious. Juicy, substantial, with all the fixin's- pickles, grilled onions, sliced ripe tomatoes, mustard, special sauce, a nice fluffy bun. The fries were thin sliced and really really good.
Came home after our deluxe burger meal put the kiddles to bed- which was a snap after a long hot day at the beach.

Day 9: Field trip to an Israeli supermarket in order to stock up for the weekend up North. I love doing this kind of touring whenever I'm on new terrain. The supermarket is a great way to get a feel for a culture. As you'd expect the produce section was brimming with colorful abundance, only featuring what was seasonal and locally grown- but there was plenty. The cheese counter was also impressive, with a nice variety of soft, semi-soft, and hard cheeses. We chose a nice sampling; a bleu, a sheep's milk, a swiss, a gouda, and a camembert. My favorite was the bleu-pungent but not crazy aggressive. The bakery section was strong in the bread department, but not so dazzling with the cake/pastry. Their homemade pita was excellent as well as the fresh baked borekas that we purchased hot out of the oven. Next up the dairy case, where the selection of yogurts, puddings, and cottage cheeses was good enough for me. The major difference I noticed between American supermarkets and Israeli supermarkets, is the size and variety of products. Israel is a tiny country with a population of 7 million, so 25 different brands and varieties of potato chips are just not necessary- they make do with 6 or 7. In some ways it makes life easier, having less of a choice makes for less deliberation and confusion. I have a very clear memory of going to the supermarket in Seattle with my Mother when I was around 10, and a woman with a thick slavic accent turning to us and asking which butter she should get- there were just too many for her to contemplate. Speaking of butter, I picked up some amazing French butter at the supermarket in Israel that contributed greatly to a very fine lemon layer cake that I made in Mish's excellent kitchen in honor of Hub's birthday.

That night, after a few slices of the aforementioned cake, ice cream, candles and a round of Happy Birthday sung in Hebrew and English, Hub and I got dressed up and headed out to a wedding in Bet Shemesh. We didn't stay for the whole event as Rabdul was having a housewarming/birthday party at his apartment in Jerusalem and we weren't going to miss getting a slice of his life. The party made me feel simultaneously old and young. Young because I remembered going to and having that kind of party, where everyone hangs out with their friends in clusters, music is loud, beer and booze is cheap but totally functional and plenteous, smoke is thick, and the eats are no-frills (although I polished off the entire bowl of licorice and gummy snakes). Old because I am pregnant with my fourth kid and about a decade older than most of the kids there, and because when a popular 80's song started playing, some kid blurted out: turn this old timer shit off!

Day 10& 11: Began the day with another great Israeli breakfast. I ordered Shakshuka (eggs in a tomato sauce) and fell in love with the fig jam that came nestled in my basket of fresh breads. And then our little tribe began the journey northwards where we (Us, Hub's bro and sis and families) rented cabins for the weekend. We brought coolers full of food- I was in charge of breakfast (yogurt, fruit, sweet pastry, and borekas), snacks (chips, pudding, brownies), and cheese (see above). The North o Israel is literally a breath of fresh air- it's greener than the rest of the land as well as more spacious.

We were all instantly charmed by our individual deluxe wooden cabins, and to make a long travelogue a little shorter: the weekend was wonderful. The kids spent much time in the pool, we ate well, the days meandered lazily as a holiday in the country should. On a personal note- I felt like I had captured a little slice of heaven between the comfy airy canopy bed in our room, a good read, fresh fruit and veggies, temperate weather, happy kids and hub, an awesome porch swing, fresh air, and regular strains of the meuzzin echoing through the area.

Day 12: The end is here- we woke up and packed up the cabins and all met for breakfast at a vegetarian kibbutz in Amirim. We sat down and the food came out in waves. The fresh bread was wonderful, so was the eggplant in tahini. I also really enjoyed the herb omelette. Tea and cake served on the verandah was a final sweet touch. I wonder which part of the meal made Hub so sick? After we got back to Darvid and Mish's, Hub excused himself and then emerged drenched in sweat and sickly green in coloring. He lay still on the couch, trying not to distrurb his bilious stomach, as various relatives came to bid us farewell and enjoy an impromptu pizza party (as far as as I'm concerned, whenever there's pizza it's a party!).

Day 13: Hub's a bit better, but now Girlette is puking and lolling about- she vomits on the shuttle bus to the airport, a rather dramatic ending to our Israeli tour. I drag her through the airport like a rag doll, as we go through the 7 rings of security. We finally settle into our seats on the plane, but not before I take note of the uptight kid-hater in the row in front of us. Twelve Hours Later Girlette weakly sips ginger ale and sleeps most of the time. Kid 1 is enthralled with his personal TV screen and the fact that I'm not regulating how much TV he watches- I don't hear a word from him until we land. Munch is pretty good for an almost 3 year old and only cries and whines 25% of the time- which prompts the wicked witch in front of us to progress from dirty looks to declaring our kid to be "completely obnoxious".

Home sweet home! Travelling is wonderful and educational, but after a long trip away from home there's no sight I love better than my sweet and soft bed.

June 21: It's taken a week but I think we've all shrugged off the jet lag and re-entered our regular lives. Our trip to Israel has left me with an almost unsatiable need for fresh fruit and lots of it. I also have plans to recreate those breakfasts. But what I miss most about Israel is the people; family and friends- whose company made those meals truly fantastic.

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