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I am fortunate. I am fortunate because, once, I was poor.

You learn a lot from being poor. You get creative. Take food, for example.

During times when I struggled to make ends meet, I sometimes modified my diet, experimenting with less expensive substitutes (alternatives like textured vegetable protein) and more economical methods (yes, you can cook pasta with only a bowl and an electric tea kettle, but it takes a while). I learned where to find the best prices for food (including dumpsters behind grocery stores) and learned that when to shop is sometimes as important as where to shop.

When I was studying music in Jerusalem, I didn’t have much income. My scholarship covered my tuition and living quarters, but I still had to pay for food and clothing, books and supplies, transportation and postage and phone tokens. My parents usually sent a monthly stipend, but (adjusted for inflation) it was only about $150, which left me with a lot more month than money. I supplemented this by cleaning houses and playing gigs with the Jerusalem Symphony, but none of that was steady work.

It didn’t take long for me to find that the most economical place to shop for food was in the shuk. The shuk was like a farmer’s market, with aisles of open-air stalls selling fruit and veg and meats and spices, but it didn’t have the artisanal frippery and carnival vibe that permeate modern suburbia’s weekend analogues. No, the shuk was a place where working people shopped daily, filling a mesh bag with produce warm from the sun and bread warm from the ovens, taking it all home for the family meal. Vendors knew their regular customers, greeting them by name or honorific, chatting about current events or family woes, as together they searched for the ripest melon, the heftiest chicken, the most pungent cardamom, the sweetest halvah.

Prices were displayed, sometimes on a board above, but usually written with chalk on small slates propped up behind the stacked wares. As the day progressed, the desert heat intensified, creating a heady mélange of aromas, and the slates would become clouded by half-erasures and rewrites as prices were adjusted downward.

This was the time to shop: toward the end of the day, when vendors were especially eager to sell, sometimes at a loss, rather than cart what was left back into storage, and it was there, at just such a time, that I perfected my haggling technique (posted prices being merely a starting point, a suggestion as to where your journey would begin).

My girlfriend and I, low on funds, were looking for bargains, and the shuk, now in its last sun-drenched hour, was ready to supply them. Some stalls—the baker, the poulterer, the cheese-monger—had already shut down, their stock exhausted or the heat too punishing, but that was fine with us; we couldn’t afford chicken or cheese, anyway, and we could get simit—large sesame-topped loops of bread—from street vendors in the morning on the way to class. And there were plenty of vendors still open, willing to ride it out until closing in the hopes of a few last sales.

We bought a kilo of rice and some of that textured vegetable protein (aka TVP, aka kibble for people), then wandered past burlap sacks filled with nuts and seeds of all colors and sizes, until we came to a spot where the air was redolent with an almost indescribable mixture of warm wood, sweet hay, and a hint of something nearly but not quite citrus: tomatoes.

Two tomato vendors were set up across the pedestrian aisle from one another. One man was fanning himself with his newspaper and the other dabbed at his brow with a paisleyed kerchief. Before each one was a large display tray with a pyramid of deep red, glossy, perfectly ripe, and now fairly warm tomatoes. The prices were about two-thirds of what they had been that morning, but the first vendor had set his per-kilo price several agorot (subunits of shekels) below his across-the-aisle competitor’s.

So I ignored him and went to the second vendor.

We inspected his tomatoes. They were lovely, hand-filling Romas, perfect for a meatless ragout of TVP, to be served over rice, seasoned with wild herbs we’d pick along the road on our way home. I looked at the tomatoes, looked at the slate behind them, then looked at the vendor as I offered him half of his chalk-smudged price.

Naturally, he was wounded by such a paltry sum, but he did knock ten agorot off the price, bringing his price below that of his neighbor.

I shook my head, and walked two steps across the aisle.

The second vendor’s stock was just as good, just as ripe, just as inviting as the first. I offered him the price I offered the first vendor, but he, too, found it much too low. He had children at home, a family to feed. But—and there’s always a “but”—he liked the look of us, so he knocked ten agorot off of his price until he was the cheaper of the two.

I went back to the first vendor, raising my counter-offer, at which he rubbed at the slate and dropped his price again.

At this point, I didn’t have to go back to the second vendor. All I had to do was look over at him, gesture to the first vendor’s slate, and raise an eyebrow.

The second vendor scrubbed and wrote a lower price on his slate.

I looked back at the first vendor. Scrub. New price.

Second vendor, same.

Eventually, the second vendor got down nearly to my counter-offer, at which point the first vendor laughed, put down his slate, and conceded. We went to the winner, bought a kilo, and went home, snagging some wild saltbush and rosemary along the way.

As I said, though, being poor taught me many things beyond how to haggle for tomatoes. I learned how to live within my means, how to budget, and the importance of putting some funds by for the future. I also learned to be grateful for what I did have, rather than fuming over what I didn’t.

Most importantly, though, it taught me empathy for others in similar straits, as well as how easy it is to fall into a bad situation. One accident, one bad decision, and bam! you’re in trouble, trouble that may dog you for years. While I’ve never been completely destitute, I was close enough to see it from my seedy flat in the bad section of town, and I don’t wish that upon anyone.

I’ve tasted poverty; it’s bitter and dry and degrading, and I’ve worked hard to avoid it. But many others are not as lucky as I have been. For myriad reasons, and despite their best efforts, too many families struggle to survive, here in my country and around the world. At least here, where we have the wherewithal to help, we should help, and yet it is so hard to get agreement on this, a matter that to me is a very basic truth.

I wonder if those who complain about our efforts to help those less fortunate, who berate the government’s efforts to address a problem that half the nation seems eager to ignore, who ridicule those who demand a wage that provides them enough for food and shelter, I wonder if those people would benefit from a few months living on TVP and tomato sauce.

k

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Cherries are, without question, my favorite fruit, and now, in early summer, they are plentiful. However, as with my last recipe post about pickled asparagus, there just isn’t enough time to consume all the cherries before they go off, so I’ve been playing with various ways to preserve them.

Which led me to having bowls of leftover cherry-stones.

Which, in turn, led me to orgeat.

Orgeat (pronounced OR-zhat) is an almond-infused syrup used in flavored coffees, tiki cocktails, and Italian sodas. Not being a big drinker of any of these, I’d never heard of orgeat before, but I am now a big fan. A glass of ice, a shot of orgeat, and some lightly carbonated San Pellegrino water make the most refreshing post-gardening quaff I’ve ever had the pleasure to imbibe.

What does this have to do with cherries? Well, cherry-stones are an optional (to some, but essential to me) ingredient in making orgeat.

Traditionally, orgeat is made with bitter almonds, but they’re hard to find and way more expensive than makes sense to me. Sweet almonds are commonly used in homemade orgeat, but by including cherry stones, I  add back a touch of bitter to temper the syrup’s sweetness.

This recipe is also eminently modifiable. Try different types of nuts. Try different flower-waters. Try skins on/skins off. This recipe is a guide to whatever is in season, whatever is available, adaptable to your particular tastes. See the Notes section for ideas on variations and uses. (more…)

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Growing up, there were two foods I hated: liver and asparagus.

As an adult, I learned that the reason I hated those foods: my mom cooked the bejeezus out of them, turning the former into chew-toys and the latter into grey-green cylinders that were half vegetal mush and half indigestible cellulose. While liver never made it into my Top Ten, asparagus has become one of my favorite foods.

I roast my asparagus. I sauté it. I blanch it for salads and drop bias-cut slivers into soups. I add it to omelettes, quiches, crepes, pasta. I like it thick as a finger or thin as a cocktail straw. And now, I have a new way to enjoy it: pickled.

Don’t fear; this isn’t canning, with its attendant protocols and fears of botulism. No, this is easy. This is my kind of pickling: refrigerator pickling. It won’t keep on shelf through the nuclear winter, but it will last in the fridge for a month, no sweat.

The result is a spear that is tangy, savory, possibly with a bit of heat (your choice), but that’s still firm with a hint of crispness.

Great for snacks, salads, and the perfect accompaniment to charcuterie.

(more…)

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The glass still in hand, he knelt and shifted the harness so the fat lower section of the samovar swung around his hip.  Deftly, he crooked back an arm to open the spigot.

David expected either the syrupy, blazingly strong coffee of the Arabs and Turks, or the sweet minted tea that was sipped through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  Both were beverage staples for every Arab café and restaurant.  Instead, however, the man released from the spigot a stream of hot, thick, white liquid.  David immediately smelled a honeyed aroma that filled his mind with the image of pink and lavender flowers in a desert oasis.  It smelled absolutely luscious.

“What is that?” he asked bluntly.  The man looked up from his task, the thick stream still arcing into the glass.

“My friend has never tasted salep?  Ah, such a treat you are about to have.”  The glass was full, and the vendor closed the tap, catching the last drops in the glass with a move of long practice.  He shifted his position, the samovar swung back along the harness strap and settled once more into the middle of his back.  Still kneeling, he placed the glass of steaming liquid into a handled cradle of brass lacework and presented it to David as if it were a delicacy to a king.

David took the cup and ventured a sip.  Thick, hot, smooth, and milky, the concoction was a wonderful collection of taste and texture: a satiny sweetness unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Giambastiani, Dreams of the Desert Wind,
(Seattle, Fairwood Press, 2004), p24

When I lived in Jerusalem, on cool mornings I would go down to the shuk in the Old City where I’d buy two things: a semit and some salep. A semit (or simit) is a large bread ring topped with sesame and other seeds. Vendors would carry them stacked on a stick and I’d buy one, still warm from the oven. Salep (or sahlab) is a beverage made from wild orchid tubers dried and ground into a powder. The powder is a thickener, and when added to milk along with a bit of sugar, some flavorings, and topped with whatever your heart desires, it is a luscious treat. I loved this combo so much that it made its way into my novel, Dreams of the Desert Wind (excerpted above).

Finding true salep outside of the Levant is damned near impossible, and the only sources I’ve found for authentic salep powder run about $10 USD per 1oz/30g. Since it takes a tablespoon/15g of powder per cup of the beverage, that’s way too pricey for my taste, so for years I’ve been looking for an alternative. The mass-marketed “instant salep” powders cheat, using corn starch or potato flour as a thickener, and they are always too . . . something. Too bland, too thin, too insipid, too gummy.

But rice flour, specifically glutinous rice flour, this makes a thickened drink that is the closest approximation I have found. As a rule, I try to avoid posting recipes with uncommon ingredients (life’s hard enough), but in this case, glutinous rice flour and rose water are pretty easy to find, either in a higher-end grocery, a Mediterranean bodega, or online. They’re inexpensive, too, both costing less than an ounce of real salep powder.

Salep (or Sahlab)

Makes 1 serving

Hardware

  • A 1-quart saucier pan works best for this because of its rounded bottom, but any small pot or pan will work. Just get the whisk into the corners.

Ingredients

For the salep:

  • 1 tablespoon glutinous rice flour
  • 1 cup milk (whole is best)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon rose water

Optional toppings:

  • ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger
  • ground/chopped pistachios
  • raisins or sultanas
  • shredded coconut

Procedure

  • In a small pot, whisk the rice flour with a bit of the milk to dissolve, adding the rest of the milk when the flour is incorporated.
  • Put pot over a medium heat and warm the mixture, whisking frequently as it thickens.
  • When the salep starts to simmer, pull it from the heat. Stir in the sugar and rose water.
  • Pour into a mug or glass, and top with whatever strikes your fancy.

Notes

  • I devised this recipe is for a single serving, but it is easily scaled up for more.
  • You can replace the rice flour with corn starch or potato flour, but there’s a marked difference in consistency and umami. Not recommended.
  • Some recipes out there suggest using vanilla as well. I do not recommend this, as it cuts the flowery aroma of the rose water.

k

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Last week, the news of the day just got to me.

Scandals, graft, partisanship, falsehoods.
Wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes.
Cruelty, abuse.
Tariffs, taxes.
Chaos.

It was just too much. The siege breached my defenses and I fell into a major depression. Dark. Caged. Compressed. Inescapable.

Wait . . . did I say “inescapable?” Scratch that, for I did, indeed, find an escape.

(more…)

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It’s hot out there. Uncomfortably hot. Freaking hot. Evil hot.

Here’s something tasty. Something easy. Something cool.

With a few common (and one not-so-common) ingredients, you can use this easy-as-you-please recipe to create a luscious, sweet/tart/creamy/flowery treat to enjoy in the long, hot evenings.

No-Churn Lemon Ice Cream

Makes 3 cups (which is like one serving here, but you can stretch it out if you’re feeling generous).

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 tablespoon rosewater (see Notes)

Procedure

  • In a medium bowl, combine sugar, salt, lemon zest and juice. Stir to incorporate.
  • Add milk, cream, and rosewater and mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved (when you no longer hear a gritty sound as you stir).
  • Pour the mixture into a shallow nonreactive pan; I use an 8×8-inch CorningWare baking dish, but a metal pan will work just as well.
  • Cover with foil, and set in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. It should be crusty at the edges but still soft in the center. Stir to mix and break up the ice crystals.
  • Return to freezer for another hour and repeat until the mixture is frozen through.
  • Serve and enjoy.

Notes

  • A garnish of chopped almonds works very well with this.
  • The addition of rosewater is technically optional, but I strongly recommend using it here, as it adds a floral top note to the treat that makes a big difference.
  • Rosewater and orange blossom water are staples in my spice cupboard. They’re inexpensive, but versatile, adding a certain je ne sais quoi to dressings, cocktails, desserts, even dishes like steamed vegetable and mashed potatoes. Like lavender is to Provençal cooking, these subtle, fragrant decoctions are essential to traditional Levantine treats, like my baklava.

k

 

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Most everyone knows that I hate single-taskers in the kitchen . . . those items in your utensil drawer or the cupboard that only do one thing. If your kitchen is anything like mine (i.e., galley style layout), you know that I have limited storage space and even greater limits on counter space. So, if I’m going to allow a single-tasker into my kitchen, it has to do an amazing job and it has to take up minimal space. (Example: the Norpro bean slicer; small in size, but an absolute champ at slicing haricot vert lengthwise.)

With that in mind, many of my friends were surprised to hear that, for a holiday present, I had purchased a sous vide cooker. “Sous vide” (pronounced “soo veed,” meaning “under vacuum”) is a cooking technique, long used by professionals, that is now enjoying a resurgence among foodies. (more…)

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