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Janna Gur explains the lure of Israeli foods

JannGur Israeli cookbook author food specialist during presentatiLe CordBleu College Culinary Arts 361 W. Chestnut Monday May 7 2012.

Janna Gur, Israeli cookbook author and food specialist during presentation at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, 361 W. Chestnut, Monday, May 7, 2012. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:00AM

On a trip to Israel this past winter I spent many hours indoors, watching the enormous array of theater and dance companies fostered by this small country. But in my free time I headed to my very favorite form of promenade theater — strolling through food markets.

In Tel Aviv there is the jam-packed Carmel Market (or “Shuk Ha’Carmel”), as well as the fascinating Levinsky Street market in the Florentine neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv — a bustling immigrant area with open storefronts piled high with dried fruit, nuts, spices, baked goods and every variety of specialty food. In Jerusalem there is the enormous Mahane Yehuda Market with about 250 covered stalls stocked with pomegranates the size of soccer balls, giant dates, countless varieties of olives, great purple eggplants, fabulous cheeses and breads, and every other possible edible.

So when Janna Gur, author of The Book of New Israeli Food (Schocken Books, $35), arrived in Chicago recently, I headed to her lecture, where I took a seat among 60 or so students of the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, all dressed in their traditional uniforms of white smocks and black-and-white checked pants.

“I am not a chef, and never was a chef,” said Gur, who was born in Riga, Latvia (in the former Soviet Union), and immigrated to Israel in 1974. “I am a food writer and editor who is in love with the uniqueness of Israeli food and culture. Israel is a country about the size of the state of New Jersey, but it is a long and narrow strip of land with many climates — cool and mountainous in the northern Galilee area, Mediterranean in the middle, and a scorching desert in the south. So we can grow many different things.”

One fruit tree prominent from biblical times to the present is the date palm. Gur explained that date honey (or molassses) was an important sweetener for wines in ancient times, and also can be an excellent substitute for honey in modern recipes.

She then went on to extol the virtues of “green wheat” or “freekeh” (which can be purchased online), a highly nutritional grain cultivated primarily by Arab farmers, and ideal for making “a very tasty and healthy pilaf.” About the increasingly popular side dish known as Israeli couscous, Gur said: “It is really a pasta, and was long thought of as a kindergarten dish like Italian pastina or orzo. But in recent years it has become very popular in the chicest restaurants.”

Gur playfully refused to talk about what is perhaps the most popular of all Israeli street foods — falafal — that deep-fried little mound of ground chickpeas served in a pita, often topped with salads or pickled vegetables, and doused with hot sauce or a tahini-based sauce. But she was happy to extol the virtues of homemade hummus (“not the stuff you buy in supermarkets”). And she is a great fan of tahini, the sesame seed paste — “a nutty spread that is very versatile, and can be the base of delicious dips.”

“Just mix it with water (which actually thickens it), lemon juice, salt and pepper and a bit of cumin, and spread it over everything from grilled vegetables to lamb meatballs,” said Gur. “Or, make an Asian dressing by adding a bit of soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil and pouring it over a slaw of cabbage and carrots.”

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