Grilled eggplant with pomegranates – Cooking with Orly in Tel Aviv
I recently spent a couple of weeks in Israel and needless to say food was on my mind. Although I was there for a different reason, I managed to squeeze in as many food experiences as I could, and one of these experiences included a food tour and cooking class with Orly in Tel Aviv. I found Orly’s website Cook In Israel through an online search and checked the references on Trip Advisor. Her tour and cooking class came highly recommended and since she also published a cookbook about Israeli food Orly seemed qualified. I called her and booked a private tour and cooking class for two. I usually prefer to join a larger group for cooking classes and find it more interesting when there are other foodies involved, but I took what was available. Early Monday morning my stylish sister-in-law Tali and I boarded the train from Haifa to Tel Aviv to meet Orly at the edge of the Carmel Market (Shuk HaCarmel) in Tel Aviv. Orly warned us not to eat too much before we arrive as we were to have breakfast at the market.
We arrived a little early and strolled around the market for a while but it was early and the merchants were just setting up. I had to contain my foodie urge to buy everything as I was staying at a hotel and had no kitchen. Perhaps next time. Soon it was time to meet Orly and we made our way towards the flower shop in one of the corners of the market where she arranged to meet us. After meet and greet we begun to walk through the stalls and were greeted by the various vendors who obviously knew her and welcomed her group (in this case, just us).
Orly was pulling a market-cart as we were going to shop for ingredients and then cook them in her kitchen. When I registered in her class she asked for my food preference and I told her that I prefer vegetarian style cooking which, she said, was perfect for her as this is how she likes to eat. We begun walking around and Orly picked up eggplants and pomegranates, sweet potatoes, zucchini, yellow skinned potatoes, fragrant onions, parsley, mint, kale and eggs. This was promising to be a fabulous lunch. Yes, we were going to cook the meal in her kitchen and then sit down with her Israeli family to enjoy the fruits of our labour.
Our first stop was breakfast and Orly told us that this will be a progressive tasting throughout the market. We first settled at a small cafe situated on a side street in the Yemenite quarter. In Hebrew the quarter is called “Kerem HaTeimanim”, translated as “the Yemenite vineyard”. The reason for the “vineyard” was government provisions at the time requiring the area be used for agriculture and in order to keep the houses the residents were required to carry out agricultural endeavour. Vineyards seemed to take hold and hence the name Yemenite vineyard. This section of the market was truly fascinating. It is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv and has not changed much over the decades. It was established back in the 19th century as a Jewish suburb of Old Jaffa and later populated by Yemenite Jews in early 1900’s. You walk through narrow alleys with charming stone buildings on each side and narrow passageways connecting them. Today the quarter is gentrified and populated with Israelis and Europeans and offers fantastic hummus, kosher and middle eastern eateries. It’s known as the hummus destination in Tel Aviv.
For breakfast we stopped at Shlomo and Doron, a 4th generation hummus eatery that was opened in 1937 by Shlomo and now run by his great-grandson Doron. It is mainly a hummus eatery that opens in the morning and closes when the food is gone. Their hummus is out of this world delicious. One of their most successful dishes is hummus with shakshuka, a wonderfully flavoured dish with eggs cooked in tomato sauce buried in the hummus, the egg cooked longer than in the usual shakshuka. A second hummus plate was brought and this one was also a house specialty – hummus with ful (fava beans) which was so delicious I could hardly stop dipping the pita bread in it. Apparently some prefer to dip sliced onion into the hummus instead of pita but not this foodie, it’s definitely pita for me. The hummus came with two sauce, a green sauce called Zhug based on cilantro and chilli known as Yemnite chilli sauce, and a red pepper and lemon sauce. We dipped our pita into these sauces for added spicy notes. What can I say, such authentic rich and beautiful flavours. With breakfast we were served small glasses of dark black coffee flavoured with cardamom (aka hel in Hebrew), ginger and cinnamon, you have to try it to understand. So good and with a kick. If you plan a trip to the area here is Haaretz newspaper article about the best hummus in Tel Aviv. Shlomo and Doron definitely made the cut.
Next stop was at a Yemenite bakery, an old, small space on a side street with no sign on the door, producing fresh and incredibly delicious Yemenite style breads. We saw them make and tasted two types of breads: Lahoh, or Lachooch, pancake like bread with “bubble holes” on one side resembling a giant crumpet, and Saluf, flat pita style bread. Several skillets were lined up on the gas burners and filled with lachooch dough cooked over the flames before they were flipped over onto the counter to cool. The pans were cooled each time by dipping them in cold water, to ensure even cooking of the bottom of the lachooch. We tasted the breads as they came, fresh, warm, slightly chewy, sightly sweet and yeasty. The saluf was cooked on a griddle with a dome-like metal cover containing heating elements allowing the saluf to brown on top and keeping the moisture in. Saluf is somewhat reminiscent of the Indian naan bread cooked in a tandouri oven, and my understanding is that originally this bread was cooked on the side of a similar oven called taboun. The saluf contained crushed fenugreek seeds giving it a slightly sweet, nutty flavour.
Next stop was for Burika at the Shamai Brothers stand in the middle of the market. They are famous for their burika (they may be the only ones serving it), an egg cooked with potatoes in a thin pastry that is folded over and fried. Usually the egg is cooked soft but for Orly’s group he scrambles the egg and cooks it a little longer to make it easier to eat on the go. The origin of the dish is North African, Tripoli in particular, although other places claim it as their own. It is a rich, “slightly” oily delicacy served wrapped up in either a pita (yes) or for us in piece wax paper (thank you). You have to be hungry to finish it.
Next stop was at a market stand run by a Druze woman making gigantic, almost see-through thin Arabic pitas on a crepe like rounded pan but much much larger. She cooked the pita and then filled it with labneh cheese, za’atar and tabouleh salad. I asked and got permission to photograph the cook so take a look at the images below. This one was very tasty with a range of flavours from the savoury to salty to lemony and herbal.
This ended the progressive breakfast, and it was a good thing because I don’t think I could have eaten another bite (unless there was more pita and hummus, which I can never get enough of). As we toured the markets we stopped at several of the specialty shops that Orly frequents. The spice shop was remarkable with a large selection of herbs, spices, legumes and grains among other culinary treasures. There were several type of chickpeas to be used for hummus. Orly mixes two types of chickpeas for hers, one smaller than the other. There were several varieties of ful (dried fava beans) and burgul and what have you. My head was spinning and here is where I lost my self control and filled up Orly’s cart with bags and bags of spices, grains and legumes that I regret to say never made it back to Canada but were left for good use with my sister in law. I couldn’t put it in the suitcase or my clothes would have smelled like spices and I couldn’t ship it because of those annoying importing laws. I would have liked to bring back the Ba’harat, a spice mixture made of several spices and can be used in many ways in middle east cooking. I did bring back Persian dried lemons, small black and hard, used to add lemon flavour to cooked dishes. Oye.
The rest of the market was as you can imagine, full of gorgeous produce, amazing breads, olives, cheese and more. The eggplants were beautiful and shiny, peppers were large and fleshy, fragrant lemons and limes, elongated avocados that I have not seen before, fresh figs, grapes, pomegranates, A foodies’ heaven. Shuk Ha’Carmel is an outdoor open air market and if you expect it to be like the Boqueria in Barcelona it is not like that. Rather, this is a middle east casual market with a pleasant disorder and an authentic feel. Cultures mix and blend in harmony and shoppers touch and pick the produce themselves where in other European markets they may get their hand slapped. Not here. This is a truly an interactive experience.
Once Orly finished picking up her produce we piled in her car, shared a bottle of water (3 plastic cups) and she drove us to her apartment about 20 minutes away. I was surprised how small her kitchen seemed for such a big operation that includes a cookbook, cooking tours and cooking classes with dining at her house. If you are looking for an aesthetic and spacious kitchen this is not the one but it is cosy and authentic and clearly works for her as the reviews from prior participants were very good. Orly’s husband was at home and was recruited to help washing vegetables and dishes as the need arose. We worked on a wooden counter that Orly covered with a plastic sheet that she said is meant to protect the wood. We each were assigned to a plastic style cutting board and handed a knife and we started to cook.
The menu and recipes were printed in a booklet we each received and as she said it was entirely vegetarian to accommodate my preference:
Hummus (regular and green)
Vegetable stew for couscous
Date, figs and nut cookies.
It quickly became clear that Orly is not only knowledgeable but also very proficient in the kitchen. She was organized and the menu came together quickly and deliciously. Although I have had most of the dishes we prepared before, it was new and interesting to see how Orly prepared them and I learned some interesting and important things.
- For the hummus for example, she cooks two types of chickpeas, one larger, one smaller, and she mixes them together to make the hummus. I think it added complexity to the dish.
- Another thing was roasting the eggplant without a cover. If you roast the eggplants in the oven, leave the door ajar a little to let steam escape. If you grill them on the BBQ leave the cover off. This creates a roasted- smokiness that is very appealing in the dish.
- Another thing about eggplants that I did not do before but now do regularly is letting them drain after roasting. Orly made an X cut at the bottom of the roasted eggplant and sat it in a sieve to allow the liquids to drain. This removes any trace of bitterness from the dish, what a great tip.
- One major eye opener was making couscous from scratch. Not the couscous dish, I am talking about the actual couscous grains. I have never made it from scratch or to be honest even thought of it being made from scratch. It’s one of the things I tend to buy dried and cook. But not here, with Orly we made the couscous from semolina, water, oil and salt, passed it through a special semolina sieve (looks like a flat flour sifter) and it was delicious and worth the extra effort, trust me. I need to get that special sieve, I am sure I can find it online.
We eventually sat down to eat the foods we made and Orly’s family joined us at the table. Orly’s husband made and served Turkish style coffee and we had a lively discussion around the table about food, politics, parenting and travel. After dinner Orly’s husband drove us to the train station to go back to Haifa. It was a full day and we both enjoyed it. I hear my sister-in-law has already made the hummus from Orly’s recipe and I made the Eggplant Baladi as soon as I got back home (image at the top of the post).
Here is Orly’s recipe for roasted eggplant baladi. Enjoy.
2 medium size eggplants
Juice from 1 lemons (or more)
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
3 Tablespoons tahini mixed with some water to make it pourable (I ended up adding more)
3 teaspoon silan (date syrup) or pomegranate concentrate (you can also use agave syrup in a pinch)
Pomegranate seeds (in season)
Cook the eggplants over a flame or under a broiler until charred outside and softened inside.
Make a slit at the bottom of the eggplant and set in a sieve over a bowl to allow the liquids to drain.
Scrape the flesh of the eggplant into a dish, discarding the charred skin.
Mix the lemon juice, garlic and salt into the eggplant and place in a serving dish.
Drizzle with the tahini, silan or pomegranate syrup.
Sprinkle with parsley, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds.
Serve with fresh pita bread or another good bread.