As I mentioned in my previous post, Myrim had three children. I’ve told you a bit about the youngest and now I’d like to share some about the eldest, Amatzia. Amatzia is in many ways a typical Israeli man- a little chauvinistic, very sure of himself and a bit arrogant. He is also quite atypical. He’s spent most of his adult life studying Saddam Hussein and his Iraq. So much so that he’s one of the world’s experts and when Iraq was big news, he was on television all the time. We’d turn it on and be all, “Hey, there’s our cousin!” Amatzia has trained our military and has spent time at the U. S. Institute of Peace in D.C.
The first time my husband met him, we were having breakfast in Boston at Amatzia’s hotel. He was here for a conference or some such. When my husband, my mother and I met him in the lobby, he was on the phone with NPR. Y’know, like one is. You see, moments before Saddam Hussein had been captured. Remember that? NPR immediately called Amatzia for an interview. During breakfast his phone didn’t stop ringing and we ended up cutting it short because a car from an NBC affiliate had come to pick him up so he could be on television. immediately. We got home, turned on the tv and saw him speaking. My husband called his parents, made them turn on the tv and said, “See that guy? I was having breakfast with him about a half hour ago.”
But aside from being a big old expert, Amatzia is still my cousin. He’s the one that drove us around Israel, proudly declaring, “This is Israel. We go where we like.”, whenever one of us was nervous about where he was taking us. And we had reason to be. My absolute favorite Amatzia story is this: my two cousins and I were visiting Israel after my junior (their sophomore) year of college. Amatzia brought us way, way up North on the border with Lebanon to see Rosh Hanikra. Which was beautiful, as it always is.
After our visit, he decided he wanted to show us this view that he remembered. So we begin driving. I was in front with him, my two cousins were in the back. One fell asleep. As we’re driving, I start to notice big, imposing, important signs written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. These signs say things like, “Military Only. Keep Out.” or “Border Crossing- Military Vehicles Only.” or, my favorite, “Entering Military Only Zone. Trespassers Will Be Shot.” As we’re passing these signs, there’s a barbed wire fence to our left and military watchtowers every ten feet or so. We drive through a few gates which are marked (of course) “Military Only.” My cousin and I start to get nervous (remember, the other one was asleep) and I say timidly, “Amatz, I think maybe we aren’t supposed to be driving here….?”
“Nonsense.” He replied confidently. “This is Israel. We go where we like.” He kept driving. We pass more scary signs and gates.
Suddenly, he pulls onto the shoulder of a road and makes a sound something between a “huh.” and a “hmmm.” My cousin and I (other one is still asleep) look around, realize that the barbed wire fence that had been on our left is now on our right, start to panic and say, “Amatz? Hmmm? Hmmm what?”
“I think….” he says with some authority, “….that we are in Lebanon.”
My cousin and I start to panic. I immediately start thinking about where my passport is (back on the kibbutz in my suitcase) and my cousin starts looking in her bag for some sort of weapon (she found a small pair of nail clippers). My other cousin continues to sleep. “LEBANON?” I say, trying to keep my voice calm, “How can we be in Lebanon??”
“Sometimes there are holes.” He said, shrugging. He then turned the car around and drove us back the way we’d come, my cousin clutching the nail clippers with white knuckles until it was clear that we were back on Israeli highway.
(My sleeping cousin, by the way, will tell you that she was awake for this. She would be lying. When we told her later what happened she was both disappointed and pleased that she’d missed it.)
I tell you these stories so that you get a sense of the kind of man my cousin is. He’s truly one of a kind. But, like all Israelis, he loves to eat. And he loves his salads. In Israel meals are accompanied by many, many salads and they are not salads the way that we think of them. The only way I can describe it is that you get to start your meal with an assortment of dips, fresh vegetables and soft, warm pita bread. Sometimes the salads are the whole meal, sometimes they’re just to start.
So, I give you two traditional Israeli salads, in honor of my Israeli cousin who goes where he likes.
Traditional Israeli Salad
The trick to this salad is good, fresh produce and the technique in cutting. Everything should be in small, somewhat uniform pieces. Don’t dress it until just before you serve it. Also, the leftovers make a great breakfast, especially when mixed with plain greek yogurt or cottage cheese (unusual for the U.S. but excellent in Israel).
1/2-1 red bell pepper, washed and seeded
1/2-1 cucumber, peeled
8-10 cherry tomatos or one medium tomato
Optional: parsley, chopped and one scallion, chopped
olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice
Start with the pepper (no reason, just the one I tend to start with). Slice it into long strips.Cut small chunks of these strips and dump into a bowl. Next, cut the cucumber in half lengthwise. Then cut each half in half again:
Cut into long, thin strips (like the peppers) and then into chunks (like the peppers- are you sensing a theme?).Dump those into the same bowl as the peppers. Then get your tomatos ready. I always use cherry because they’re my favorite (ok and grape but I used cherry this time). If you’re using a whole tomato, cut it like the cucumber- in half and then in half again, then strips and then chunks. If you’re using cherry, cut each one in half and then into quarters. Sometimes I cut the quarters in half as well, depending on how big the tomato is. Basically, you want things to be roughly the same size. Mix everything together in the bowl. If you’re using parsley and scallions, throw them in now and toss them, too. Set aside until you’re ready to serve. If it’s going to be a few hours, put some plastic wrap over it and put it in the fridge. Just before you serve it, dress it with a few teaspoons of olive oil (good olive oil is essential here- keep in mind this is a Middle Eastern dish and olive come from the Middle East), a few squirts of lemon juice and salt and pepper. This part really is to taste- some like the salad really tangy, others a bit more mellow. Toss it all around and serve.Eggplant Salad (a version of baba ghanoush)
This is just about the only way I like eggplant. It’s a version of baba ghanoush but I find it a bit milder than store versions. And lest you think that mayo is not used in Israeli, I will tell you that I made this salad every week when I worked in the kitchen on the kibbtuz. Industrial size container of mayo and all.
1 medium eggplant
Clean out your oven. Then set it between 450 to 500 degrees. Poke the eggplant with a fork in several places. This will allow steam to escape and will keep the eggplant from exploding in your clean oven. Place the eggplant on a rimmed baking sheet (I always cover mine in aluminum foil to help with clean up). Bake the eggplant for a long time- between 45 minutes to an hour. When it’s ready, it will be charred in some places and will have sort of collapsed in on itself. It will basically look like garbage. I apologize for not taking a picture of this but it will look so bad that if you leave it out like that, someone will throw it away, assuming you have burned your dinner (no lie, happened to me). It will look something like these:
Let the eggplant cool for a long time or else you will burn your fingers. Once it’s cool, scrape out the insides into a strainer. Place this over a bowl and let it drain. I usually leave it overnight but a few hours might do it. Discard the skin of the eggplant.
Once it’s drained you’ll get lots of oil in the bottom of the bowl. Discard this or else you’ll have a really oily dip/spread.
Chop up the eggplant pulp and put it into a bowl. Add enough mayonnaise to make it creamy- this is to taste as some like the mayo taste more than others. I’d say for one small to medium eggplant, start with one to two tablespoons and taste from there. Add salt and pepper to taste.
I like this best on warm pita bread. The eggplant has a sort of smokey, mellow taste which is offset nicely with the mayo. It’s really good.