Phyllis Glazer made aliyah from New York more than 40 years ago. Today she is one of Israel’s culinary stars as a journalist, television personality and spokesperson.
So when we were invited to her home in Tel Aviv for Shabbat dinner, I immediately accepted. Although Phyllis is a vegetarian, with respect to her meat-eating guests, I expected the traditional chicken dinner, redolent with the spices and produce that come to Israeli tables fresh from the moshav (small farms). The wines were sure to be exceptional. From Chardonnays to Syrahs, Israel’s fine wines continue to sweep up awards at international festivals. Gone are the days when Manischewitz grape was the only kosher wine in town.
I was wrong about the chicken.
As food professionals and friends, Phyllis and I share culinary tastes. As she handed me a wooden spoon and a package of yellow cornmeal, she stated simply: “You like polenta.” Then she instructed me to pour the cornmeal slowly into a big pot of simmering water. As I stirred the pot over a low heat, it thickened into a creamy yellow mixture. We seasoned it with salt and white pepper, and it was ready. As the side dish?
A friend who knows his way around Phyllis’s kitchen carried the heavy pot to the table and proceeded to spoon the polenta onto a huge wooden board, spreading it about three-quarters-inch thick. This served as the base for half a dozen sautéed and grilled vegetables.
Chunks of pumpkin had been cooked and sweetened, then crisp-tender, golden asparagus spears glistened with extra-virgin olive oil fresh from Israel. Mushroom earthiness was combined with young peppery arugula, chunks of fried red and green peppers, and discs of grilled baby eggplant all to make an appetizing, colorful palette, healthy and low-calorie. Dishes of fresh tomato salsa, shredded Parmesan cheese, diced Bulgarian cheese (similar to feta) and a lightly dressed salad of baby greens were all part of the main meal.
Each challah braid was sprinkled with different seeds and herbs: sunflower seeds, sesame, oregano, pine nuts, nigella (black caraway seeds) and cumin.
Everything on the table had been locally produced — fruits, vegetables, cheeses, the full-bodied olive oil and the wine. The produce went farm to table within hours. Picked at the peak of ripeness with maximum nutritional value, each item had its own distinctive taste, texture and appearance. This was fresh Israeli food at its very best.
Polenta should be made at the last minute, but all the vegetables can be prepared ahead of time and simply warmed in the microwave. You can use whatever vegetables are available and to your taste.
As Phyllis stood at the head of the table reciting the blessings over the bread and wine, we gave thanks for life, love and the abundance of quality food and drink grown in Israel’s pristine hills and valleys.
Polenta Shell (Dairy or Pareve)
Serves 6 to 8
Polenta is actually a cornmeal porridge. A famous dish with cultural roots in Romania, where it’s called Mămăligă. It can be prepared with milk or a mixture of water and milk. The method here is the simplest to prepare.
7 cups water
2-1/2 cups fine yellow cornmeal
3 Tbsp. butter or margarine
1 tsp. salt or to taste
White pepper to taste
Pour the water into a large heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to barely simmering over medium heat.
Stirring constantly, slowly add the cornmeal pouring in a steady stream. Continue stirring until thickened. Stir in the margarine or butter to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and cool slightly.
Spoon onto a board, about 20x15 inches, spreading about ¾-inch thick. Top with a selection of sautéed and grilled vegetables, arranged in sections. Serve hot.
Sweet Pumpkin Chunks (Pareve)
Serves 6 to 8
3 Tbsp. olive oil
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 lb. pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cubed into ¾-inch cubes
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
3/4 tsp. cardamom or cinnamon or to taste
In a heavy pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil and sugar until sugar just begins to barely turn brown (watch carefully). Reduce heat to low.
Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the pumpkin, lemon juice, cardamom or cinnamon, and about 3/4-cup water.
Cover and cook for about 30 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft but has not lost its shape. Stir occasionally. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Roasted Asparagus Spears (Pareve)
Serves 6 to 8
20 to 24 asparagus spears, trimmed
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
Liberally brush asparagus on all sides with olive oil. Arrange on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Cook in preheated oven for 5 minutes. Then turn on the broiler and finish off 4 to 5 minutes longer or until beginning to brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Grilled Eggplant Discs (Pareve)
Serves 6 to 8
3 baby eggplant
About 1/4 cup olive-oil vinaigrette dressing
Dried basil or chives
Freshly ground pepper
Preheat broiler. Spray a broiler pan with non-stick cooking spray.
Trim the ends of each eggplant and discard. Wipe eggplants with a damp towel and cut into discs about 1/4-inch thick. Brush liberally with vinaigrette dressing. Place on prepared broiler pan. Sprinkle with dried basil or chives and pepper.
Let stand for 10 minutes at room temperature.
Place under preheated broiler. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until beginning to brown. Flip over and cook on the other side until golden brown, about 5 minutes longer. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Mushrooms With Arugula (Pareve)
Serves 6 to 8
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. sliced white mushrooms
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 cup coarsely shredded baby arugula, packed
2 tsp. lemon or lime juice
Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat.
Add the mushrooms and cook until beginning to brown, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the garlic and turmeric. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes longer until the garlic is soft.
Remove from heat and stir in the arugula, and the lemon or lime juice.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
Balsamic-Lemon Vinaigrette (Pareve)
Makes about 3/4 cup
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. Dijon-style mustard
1/2 tsp. minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Whisk oil, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard and garlic together.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Use at room temperature.