Thursday, January 3, 2013

I can cook in Israel, and I'm proud (but it wasn't easy!).

When we made aliyah over six years ago, I knew there would be a lot of things to get used to: the language, the culture, the geography.  Little did I know that one of the biggest hurdles would be the supermarket.  (Cue ominous music here...dun,dun, DUNNNNNH) Without a bit of exaggeration, my first supermarket trip left me in tears and a desire to run back to ShopRite.  It is worth mentioning that the particular store I went to was probably a mistake, though I was sent there with the best of intentions.  It is not a local store, and it is not a normal chain for the country.  While it has a great supply of American products, it otherwise offers all the worst that the country can boast - horrific parking, poor organization, crowded aisles, lousy customer service, cashiers who take a sandwich break in the middle of your check-out.  And did I mention that in this country, you need a five shekel coin to release a cart from the chain that attaches it to its compatriots?  Kind of wish someone had before we went to the store. That started things off with a bang. The rest of the shopping expedition was no better.

But now it's 2013, and the sorrows of 2006 are mostly gone, though not forgotten.  The supermarket situation has improved radically since our arrival.  Between all that I have learned and all that has changed, I feel good going to the store now.  I have been privileged of late to be able to contribute to Jamie Geller's Joy of Kosher website, and some of my articles have included tips on adjusting your baking and cooking to the new environment.  This month's article includes helpful substitutions for some absent ingredients, and two recipes - Magic Salt, which is a copycat Seasoned Salt recipe, but with less salt, and Old Fashioned Sweet and Sour Meatballs, which is a classic recipe that represents absolute comfort food to me, yet offered a challenge because the basic ingredient for my sauce, canned tomato sauce, was not available here.  I hope you enjoy both the article and the recipes, no matter where you live.

But an article can include only so much information, so I wanted to include a few of the things that I learned, some the hard way, when it comes to produce shopping in Israel.  I have also learned that what I am writing is generally true for the country, but specifically for my area.  There may be some variations if you live in a different zone.

1.  Produce is seasonal!  I cannot stress this one enough.  It is not a matter of being willing to pay for out of season fruits and vegetables.  They are just not available.  Make use of what is beautiful, and pay attention to the prices.  A low price can mean one of two things: the produce is beautiful and plentiful, or it is nasty and should be avoided, even though it is unusually well priced.  This happens a lot with peppers, but can also be true of other items.

2.  Israelis do not know what good fresh corn or green beans are.  I am sorry, I don't mean to generalize or be prejudiced, it's just a sad truth.  They have not been exposed to the deliciousness that these vegetables can be.  Corn on the cob here is not what we got back in the Garden State - sweet, juicy, delicious - but is starchy and blah.  Just skip it.  Frozen corn is somewhat better, and so is (egads!) canned, but the fresh will just make you sad.
Same with green beans.  Fresh are starchy and icky.  We have been much happier with frozen, though that too will occasionally disappoint.  They are delicious roasted, steamed, or sauteed, and are available frozen both cut and whole, and even haricot verts, called "adina" (delicate) or "dak meod" (very thin).

3. Parsnips - fuggedaboutit! Parsnips were a mainstay of my chicken soup back in the States, but no more.  They really don't exist here.  My soup has had a radical transformation since we moved.  We make a veggie heavy soup, which includes, in addition to the staples of carrot, onion, garlic, and zucchini, along with the fresh dill and parsley that we always used, chunks of kohlrabi and pumpkin, butternut squash and/or sweet potato. On occasion I will include a whole tomato, particularly if I am making a Teimani version, which is made delicious with hawaij l'marak, a spice mix for soup which includes seasonings like turmeric, cumin, black pepper, and cardamon. (Don't confuse this with hawaij l'cafe, a spice mix for your coffee!) 
Celery is one of those surprisingly seasonal items which we add in only when it is worth buying - it ranges from sturdy and lovely to thin and limp.  And the celery stalks you are used to, they are called Celery Amerikai (American Celery), so don't confuse that with Celery Root.

4. Avocados - different, but still good.  Also a seasonal item, we never get the Haas avocadoes that we were accustomed to in the States.  The variety available here can be pretty hit or miss, sometimes failing to ripen, sometimes going mushy before your eyes.  But when they're good, they're very good.

5. Even apples have their off-season.  Lately, the apples in have been mealy and not particularly tasty.  The price is low (as I mentioned before), so apple sauce, pie, or cobbler is not a bad idea. Also, apple varieties are available sporadically.  So if you love you some Pink Ladies, if you see them on the shelf, grab a giant bagful because they may not be there again for a while.  In fact, that is a pretty good piece of advice for pretty much anything you see in the stores here.  You can't bank on most things being there on your next trip, so learn to stock up on things you don't want to live without.

I may add to this list as additional items occur to me, so feel free to leave any comments or questions so this can be as helpful as possible!


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