Alan Abrams
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Cooking in Israel: Bugs or features?

I can't have a strawberry whenever I want, and that breeds a certain kind of spiritual humility
Illustrative: Grapes in the Mahane Yehdua Market, October 13, 2017. (Times of Israel/Stuart Winer)
Illustrative: Grapes in the Mahane Yehdua Market, October 13, 2017. (Times of Israel/Stuart Winer)

There are some things they don’t tell you when you’re getting ready to make aliyah.

Like the fruit. You come here on a visit, and you have some. It tastes great. So fresh, so sweet, so much of it genuinely local. Who wouldn’t want to move to a place with fruit this good?

Well, try to get grapes out-of-season here. Unlike in the States, there are not huge shipfuls coming up from Chile and other south-of-the-equator sources to our supermarket shelves. Around here, we have to settle for what’s in season for the most part.

The question is whether this seasonality is a good thing or a bad thing. Or to use the IT (information technology) lingo, is it a “bug or a feature” of living here in Israel.

I like to think of it as a feature, as an advantage that keeps my soul just a little bit more in touch with the seasons and the Earth. Not being able to have a strawberry whenever I feel like it breeds a certain kind of spiritual humility; it reminds me that the Earth and its bounty belong to the Holy One, not me. It’s also just plain great that the fruit and vegetables are so fresh here; they don’t just look good (some of the pretty-looking produce you get in the States got that way with the help of dyes etc), they taste good. It encourages me to eat more vegetables.

I’ve adapted here to a freshness culture in other ways. I keep a lot of my vegetables on the counter (outside the fridge). True, most vegetables last longer if you refrigerate them, but the irony is that I have more vegetables go bad in the fridge than on the counter. In the fridge, it’s like they’re hiding from me. Out of sight, out of mind. And their being in the fridge kind of perpetuates the mindset that you can have whatever vegetable you want whenever you want.

But, on the counter, the red pepper that is reaching its ‘expiration date’ screams out at me, “Dude, do you see my skin starting to wrinkle just a little bit? What do you think, are you going to eat me, or am I heading for the compost heap, cuz here amid the freshness culture, it’s now or never.”

I’ve always been an ingredient-first kind of cook. I don’t start with recipes. I look around at what I have and wonder what I can make with them. It can be fun and lead to unexpected new variants on old favorites.

But I’m experimenting  with getting more structure in my cooking life. My wife and I have neither ever really been regular mealtimes people. But we have a toddler now and we have my in-laws staying nearby for a few months visiting us here (and helping, significantly, with child care for which we are very thankful!), so I’ve set dinner for 5:30 p.m. most every night.

I’m trying to come up with a system that allows me to maintain my traditional spontaneity in cooking and my ingredient focus amid this. I hate the very idea of going to meal plans with fixed recipes.

Here’s my idea: Start the week by front-loading with a ton of restaurant style prep cooking, especially making some stock (at least a vegetable one, which the pressure cooker makes easier, and maybe a chicken one, too). Also, get out the mandoline and the julienne slicer (we don’t own a food processor) and get a head start on things like slicing carrots and cabbage, so you have the makings of salads (no bags of lettuce in this house, please).

From there, let the ingredients you have on hand plus your general desires (“Wow, that eggplant recipe in the New York Times looked good; let me try some variant of that”) just take you there (although don’t forget to also serve any  leftovers from Shabbat!).

Is this really going to work long term? Am I going to really be able to stay out of the meal plans zone and maintain a freshness and spontaneity culture?

Time will tell!

And I hope for some good eating and fun cooking on the way.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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