By Jude Waterston
I will not say I went to Israel under duress in the fall of 1984, but I admit to having dreamed of Paris or the Tuscan countryside as the site of my honeymoon, not a country riddled with conflict and greatly lacking in my idea of romanticism. But Uzi had not been home for a couple of years and yearned to see his family and friends; hear his language; and take in the landscape that he’d known since his parents made their way there from Eastern Europe in 1956, the year he was born.
Another, though understated, reason for heading to Uzi’s homeland was a craving to eat the foods he so missed. In the couple of years leading up to our marriage, Uzi had pretty much ridiculed the state of produce in Manhattan, particularly the almighty tomato, an exalted fruit in the agricultural state of Israel. Apparently, everything in Israel was better, tastier, more full of sun-kissed flavor, than our imported fruits and vegetables, picked and transported nowhere near their peak. The Union Square Greenmarket, started in 1976 and featuring the farm products of seven lone farmers, was still unknown to us, though we lived only ten blocks away.
On MacDougal Street, around the corner from our apartment, were a few tiny, funky Middle Eastern places, such as the wildly popular Mamoun’s, where Israeli and Arab expats could get falafel (deep-fried patties made from ground, spiced chickpeas) or shawarma (shaved lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, or a combination of them, placed on a spit and grilled on a rotisserie). Both were served stuffed into warm pita bread with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce and topped with tahini (a paste made from ground toasted sesame seeds) or hummus (a thick dip-like sauce made from cooked, mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic). According to Uzi, these versions were a pale comparison to those I’d encounter in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In the journal I kept on the trip I found this entry from September 14, 1984: “Today Uzi and I went into Tel Aviv to the café that is his favorite hang-out. We ate lunch there, and I loved the homemade food. I had okra cooked in a chunky tomato sauce; string beans; cucumber salad; a slaw of green and red cabbage; and turkey shawarma piled into pita bread. With the shawarma, we munched pale green pickled hot peppers, called pepperoncini, and crisp turnips, also pickled, and tinted bright fuchsia from the addition of beets to the pickling brine.” The next day I wrote: “We took the bus to Jerusalem. The view of the ancient, white city was phenomenal. We walked a long way through various neighborhoods until we reached the main part of town with stores and comfortable little restaurants. We ate the best, freshest hummus I’ve ever had, served warm and topped with cooked chickpeas, parsley, and a drizzle of the most fantastic olive oil. We scooped it up with thick, soft pita bread. The falafel was totally different than what I’m used to. The ground chickpeas are mixed with lots of chopped parsley and cilantro before being rolled into balls or patties and deepfried. Some places roll the falafel balls in sesame seeds too.”
Eventually, the pull of Israel became so strong that Uzi returned there and, for the most part, I forgot all about Middle Eastern food. Having finally discovered the farmer’s market, I now have access to scores of vendors with juicy heirloom tomatoes and myriad leafy greens that can certainly stand up to those anywhere. But what about that shawarma sandwich bursting with ultra-flavorful, slow-cooked spiced meat accompanied by a selection of sprightly pickled cabbages, carrots, cucumbers, and those wildly colored, crunchy turnips?
I hadn’t thought about any of that until recently when Janet and I drove a few miles from her apartment in Queens to an area populated predominantly by Jews, many of them originally from Israel. We came upon a corner restaurant called Grill Point (69-54 Main Street, corner of Jewel and Main, Flushing, NY 11367, 718-261-7077). In the window was a salad bar consisting of the most beautiful array of pickled vegetables (called hamutzim in Hebrew) and slaws. There were whole light green pepperoncini; both a red and a white cabbage slaw; chunks of pickled cabbage tinted bright yellow with turmeric; whole tiny, garlicky sour pickles; shards of carrot spiced with cumin and cayenne; mildly pickled cucumbers slices; a chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions; and the ubiquitous bright pink turnips. This amazing display was what drew me in, Janet in tow.
We took a table in back and were immediately brought three tiny bowls. One held spicy green olives; another, the slightly spicy, fluorescent yellow-orange pickled cabbage; and the third a thick red hot sauce. There was a choice of “baby chicken” or “lamb and turkey” schawarma in pita or laffa bread, the later a thickish foldable flatbread. We ordered one of each and they arrived filled to the brim with shredded meat and chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, drizzled with tahini sauce. As we made our way through the hefty sandwiches, we wedged bits of turnip into the crevices and stuffed our faces with the various pickles and slaws we’d brought back from a trip to the salad bar.
We found ourselves drawn back to Grill Point a week later and this time we worked out a plan to bring back to our table as many pickled vegetables as possible by dividing the chore. Janet took the cucs, red slaw, and turnips, while I piled my little salad plate with white cabbage slaw, spicy carrots, and the turmeric laced cabbage. After spying a nearby family devouring crispy thick-cut fries, we added those to our order and left happily stuffed. “I wonder if they have falafel?” I said to Janet as we left. I was so deeply involved in the shawarma, I hadn’t even bothered to check, but I had slipped a take-out menu into my pocketbook and reached for it when we arrived home. “They do!” I reported excitedly when I’d studied all the offerings, which also include chicken, beef, and lamb shish kabob. We’re due back for a repeat visit soon, for sure. Until then, I can only dream of picking a peck of pickled peppers (and turnips, too).
2 pounds small white turnips, peeled and cut into logs (like French fries)
1 beet, peeled and sliced into logs (like French fries)
A few celery leaves
2 garlic cloves
5 tablespoons kosher salt
¾ pint water
½ pint white wine vinegar
Pack the pieces of turnip in a clean glass jar with celery leaves and garlic cloves, placing pieces of beet between the layers at regular intervals. Bring the water, vinegar, and salt to a boil. As soon as it comes to a boil, remove from heat and pour over the vegetables in the jar. Seal the jar tightly and store in a warm place for 10 days. Then transfer the jar to the refrigerator. Serve with Middle Eastern food.
Middle Eastern Spicy Carrots
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ – ½ teaspoon (or to taste) chile pepper flakes or cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 teaspoon paprika
Juice of 1 lemon
Flat leaf parsley or cilantro, finely chopped, for garnish
Cut the carrots into thirds, then cut the thirds into long strips about ¼-inch wide. Bring water and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. When water is boiling, add carrots and cook for about 3 – 4 mintues, until they are just a bit softened. Drain and chill in an ice bath for 1 minutes. Drain very well and place in a bowl. Grind or crush the cumin in a mortar and pestle until almost a powder. Gently heat oil in a pan and toss in garlic, chile flakes and cumin. Stir over medium heat for about 1 mintutes, without allowing garlic to burn. Stir in paprika and lemon juice. Pour the warm mixture over the carrots, tossing them well so they are coated with the spices. Chill until ready to serve. Spoon onto a serving dish and garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro.
Falafel (adapted from a recipe by Joan Nathan)
Makes about 20 balls
You can use canned chickpeas, if you must, but keep in mind that dried chickpeas swell to three times their size, so you will need 1 ½ to 2 cans of canned chickpeas for this recipe.
1 cup dried chickpeas
½ medium-large onion, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
½ – 1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper or chile flakes
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 – 6 tablespoon flour
Vegetable or soybean oil for frying
Chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and romaine lettuce
Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover them by at least 2 inches. Let soak overnight, then drain. Place the drained, uncooked chickpeas and the onions in the bowl of a food processor. Add the parsley, cilantro, salt, hot pepper, garlic, and cumin. Process until blended but not pureed. Sprinkle in the baking powder and 4 tablespoons flour, and pulse. Add more flour if the mixture can be formed into small balls and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, several hours. Form the chickpea mixture into balls about the size of walnuts. Flatten them slightly, if you’d like, so they are more like patties.
Heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep pot or wok and fry 1 ball to test. If it falls apart, add a little more flour. Then fry about six balls at once for a few minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Stuff half a pita with falafel balls, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce. Top with tahini sauce.