Dinner & Dessert Under the Stars of Israel: Two Vintage Recipes and A Modern Day Craft Project

Sea and sky. Blue and white. Stars and snow. Dinner and dessert. That’s the theme of our next stop on the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2021. Destination #24 in this multi-year series takes us to the holy land of Israel for a bit of holiday festivity, Hanukkah style!

I thought that Israel was going to be right up there at the very top of the list of the oldest countries in the world, but surprisingly there are some discrepancies when it comes to naming the oldest places around the globe, and then also the specific order in which they should appear. That’s because there are quite a few ways to calculate this information and it all differs. Based on records, archeological findings, the official forming of civilized governments, one list could say that China is the oldest country in the world while another list says that it’s Greece.

The pastel color palette of Israel acts as a timeless backdrop to the bold and dynamic culture of this storied country.

But particulars aside, there are a few countries that keep popping up on everyone’s top tier lists depending on which site you are consulting and for what reason. Japan, Iran, China, Greece, Egypt and India usually make the top ten agreed-upon selections. Israel, France, Italy and San Marino sometimes get included too, but not always.

This is a model replica of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus that is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Granted, the landscape of Israel is centuries old with ancient cities like Jerusalem and Jaffa always at the ready to offer historic context, but it wasn’t until 1948 that Israel declared its independence, becoming the first Jewish state in over 2000 years. 1948 is also the same year the Israeli flag, as we know it today, became official even though the design was first created in the late 1800s. That makes Israel both wonderfully ancient and modern all at once.

The first version of the Israeli flag was designed by a Lithuanian-American rabbi, Jakob Askowith and his son, Charles in 1891 for a temple in Boston, MA. They selected the blue and white colors which represented benevolence and purity, included the Star of David, and a Hebrew word for a specific warrior in Israeli history. Other versions designed by other people emerged in the 19th century too, including a flag that featured lions and stars, but it was the Askowith’s design that resonated with people most. Little tweaks here and there would be made to the flag and the Hebrew writing would be dropped from the original layout, but by the time, the Askowith’s flag was flown at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, it was a cherished icon recognized by the Jewish community worldwide.

View from the Tower of Electricity Building during the 1904 World’s Fair, St Louis, MO. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Since it’s Hannukah, I thought it would be fun to tie this food post in with a homemade craft project that celebrates one of Israel’s most iconic symbols of faith and flag – the Star of David – an instantly recognizable emblem deeply associated with Jewish culture.

The last time we combined a craft project with a recipe from the International Vintage Recipe Tour it was during Week 9 when we traveled to China via the kitchen in March of 2020. That was just when the Coronavirus was gaining steam, the country was going into lockdowns, and when a major tornado blew through my city streets and destroyed half the buildings in my neighborhood.

Chinese floating paper lanterns

In that turbulent post, we made floating lanterns based on an annual Chinese celebration, known as the Hungry Ghost Festival which honors the spirits of departed ancestors. As the world was losing loved ones to the virus and losing freedom to lockdowns, and my neighborhood was grieving the destruction of a broken-down landscape, I clung to the idea that memories of love and light could guide us through the dark in the form of an actual, physical light. The paper lantern may have been fragile in appearance but it was mighty in hope and sentiment.

This time, our craft project also centers around light and strength and spiritual guidance. It comes at a time when things in the world are still universally difficult due to the continuing pandemic, and it comes at a time when the Vintage Kitchen, is going through a big change as we relocate to a new space. I love how art from two very different cultures can become a beacon of comfort during chaotic times. Especially when tied in with cooking and creativity in the kitchen.

Today, we are making a Star of David wreath out of winter twigs, fresh greenery, and grosgrain ribbon. It’s a simple project that is suitable for all ages and skill levels and can be made in under 30 minutes. While it is ideally suited for the Hanukkah holiday, it also can be displayed all winter long both indoors and out as a reminder of faith, hope, community, and care. Make a big one for your door or a series of small ones as place settings on your table and you offer all who enter your home or relax at your table, a bit of love and (star)light this holiday season.

First recorded in the 3rd century in Italy, the Star of David was a universal symbol that was also referred to as the Shield of David. During the Middle Ages, the Star was believed to contain mystical and magical powers and by the 1600s was adopted into the Jewish community as a decorative mark of distinction.

Clockwise from top left: A gold pendant from Spain, antique Star of David shutters in Jericho, resurrection sculpture in Israel, star of david on a temple in Indiana, glass window in Germany, and ancient jug fragment with impressed Star of David

Even though it originally started out not being connected religiously to any one group or another, the Star of David, with its six points and two intertwined triangles, is now most commonly associated with Judaism, and the Jewish community as a whole. In the 20th century, it also became a powerful symbol of heroism in relation to the Holocaust when Jewish people were forced by the Nazis to wear the Star of David like a badge on their clothing. It takes courage to be an icon, to display an icon and to believe in an icon. The Star of David manages to be a reminder of the past and a symbol of the future all in one.

When it comes to making your own Star of David wreath, creativity reigns supreme especially if you wanted to incorporate this festive week of Hanukkah. But the two most important components to include are the colors blue and white. Since it is the holiday season, I added accents of juniper berries and star anise for scent and color. Once the initial framework is built, the sky is the limit when it comes to decorating.

To make this Star of David wreath, all you need is…

  • kitchen string
  • six straight twigs or tree branches all cut to the same length (this wreath was made using twigs that were 10″ inches in length)
  • a hot glue gun
  • fresh greenery, winter berries and/or fresh herbs/spices for decoration
  • grosgrain ribbon in shades of blue

Start by clipping your twigs to equal size.

Next, make two triangle shapes with the twigs…

Glue each end of each twig together to permanently form the shape and then place one triangle on top of the other in opposite directions and glue the triangles to each other wherever they touch.

Next, wrap each joined section (wherever you dabbed a bit of glue) with kitchen twine to cover the glue spots and add extra support to your star. Glue decorative greenery (or whatever embellishments you would like to add) to the bottom left corner of the star. Let the glue dry for a few minutes. Attach the ribbon at the top of the star and you are ready to hang up your wreath.

vintage

Simple, natural and easy to style both indoors and out, a Star of David wreath looks just as wonderful hanging from the knob of a kitchen cabinet as it does from a front door. Make a few stars and hang them on the wall in your kitchen or from the light over your dining table and you’ll have a starry scene to inspire this next part of the post… the cooking of two vintage Israeli recipes.

Israeli-inspired Meditteranean Fish circa 1970.

On the menu today, it is saucy Mediterranean Fish for dinner and a homemade lighter-than-air Walnut Torte for dessert.

Like the Star of David wreath, both recipes are simple to make. What is lovely about both foods, and most Mediterranean cooking, in general, is that each dish is light yet flavorful and can easily be shared with a crowd if you are entertaining friends and family for the holiday season.

The farmers market in Tel-Aviv, Israel

Throughout time, Israeli food has been inspired not only by staples gathered and grown in the local landscape but also by the millions of immigrants that have populated the country from Eastern Europe, Africa and its neighboring countries. Poverty in the middle half of the 20th century, and the scarcity of certain types of food during those decades (mainly meat products) encouraged more creative and colorful cooking using more accessible ingredients like grains, fruits and vegetables as a substitute for animal proteins.

This Mediterranean fish dish features the best of all those influences. It contains olives (one of the seven ancient agricultural products that still serve as a foundation for the traditional Israeli diet), local fish from the Mediterranean sea, the middle Eastern condiment tahini, and wine (ideally made from local Israeli grapes). The combination of all these unique flavors is light, creamy, and nuanced. Similar to crab dip, this Israeli-inspired fish dish is warm and saucy in composition, comfort and consistency, and is absolutely delicious when served with challah bread.

Mediterranean Fish

serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup finely chopped onion

1 green pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped

4 individual fish fillets such as salmon, flounder, or cod (I used cod)

2 tomatoes, cored, seeded, peeled, and chopped (if making this in the off-season use whole, canned tomatoes)

1/2 cup fish stock (if you can’t find fish stock substitute with vegetable stock and a few dashes of fish oil)

3 tablespoons tahini

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 egg yolks light beaten

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

8 stuffed olives

4 slices bread (I recommend challah bread)

Vegetable oil for frying

1 clove garlic

Heat half the oil in a large skillet and cook the onion and green pepper until wilted.

In another skillet heat the remaining oil and cook the fish until lightly browned on each side.

Transfer the fish into the skillet with the onion mixture. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste and half the lemon juice.

Spoon the tomatoes over the fish and add the fish stock. Cover with aluminum foil or parchment and cok over low heat for ten to fifteen minutes. Be careful not to overcook the fish.

Combine the tahini and remaining lemon juice in a small mixing bowl. Beating with a whisk, add the salt, and pepper to taste. Add the wine. Carefully pour the liquid over the cooked fish into the tahini mixture and beat well.

Beat in the egg yolks and parsley and spoon the mixture over the fish. Place the entire pan under the broiler until the mixture just begins to brown. Scatter the olives over the fish.

Quickly fry the bread in oil and rub lightly with garlic. Place a slice of bread on each plate and smother with fish. Serve immediately.

Satisfying in all the ways that a saucy smothered bread can be, this fish dish looks remarkably creamy yet contains no actual cream. I really loved it for the way each ingredient brought its own pizazz to the ensemble. The olives offer salt, the tomatoes – color and acidity, the parsley a bit of fresh green, the tahini – a roasted earthiness, and the wine brilliantly married all the flavors together. Festive with its red, white, and green color palette, this is a fun dish to share amongst friends and family during the holiday season, as well as a quick fix if you find yourself short on time.

Likewise, dessert promises to be just as effortless…

Oranges are a popular citrus fruit grown in many backyard gardens in Israel. As a result of being fruit lovers and home baking aficionados, many Israeli home cooks creatively incorporate ample amounts of local fruit into their culinary endeavors.

Similar in consistency and texture to zucchini bread, this walnut torte is light and delicate with a fluffy consistency. Not too sweet, and slightly tangy thanks to the citrus, *it contains matzoh meal which can be hard to find in typical grocery stores. If you have difficulty like I did, just purchase a box of plain matzoh crackers and grind them to a fine powder and use that as an equal substitute for the flour. It comes out perfectly either way.

Israeli Nut Torte

Serves 8

6 eggs, separated

1 cup granulated sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Juice and grated rind of 1/2 orange

1/2 cup matzoh meal (*see note above)

2 tablespoons cake flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup walnuts, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks, add sugar gradually, and beat until the mixture is light in color. Add the lemon juice, orange juice, and orange rind. Mix in the meal, flour, salt and walnuts.

Beat the egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Fold into the walnut mixture.

Bake in an ungreased pan, eight-inch springform pan for forty-five minutes or until the cake rebounds to the touch when pressed gently in the center.

Fruit is such a lovely addition to the holiday menu. Not only does it offer a break from the more rich flavors of cookies, pies and pastries but this cake, in particular, is especially enjoyable because it gives you a break from butter. Gathering its fat solely from the walnuts and the eggs, it is one of those desserts that adds just enough at the end of the meal to sweeten your night.

Because less is sometimes more, especially when bombarded with all things holiday at this time of year, I especially liked that this cake recipe did not call for a frosting or a glaze or a drizzle of anything on top. Of course, you could get creative and add your own extra flourish in the way of a sweet topper, but I opted to remain true to the vintage intentions of this recipe and just garnished the cake with fresh mint leaves on top and a few orange and lemon rind roses on the side.

If I made this next time, in the early fall for example, when walnuts are just coming into season, I might mix up a small bowl of confectioners sugar and orange juice and pour a thin drizzle over the top of the cake to glaze it. I might add a teaspoon of cinnamon or nutmeg to the batter to add some tantalizing aromatics to each bite, and perhaps I would add a ribbon of crushed walnuts around the side of the cake. But for the time being, at this moment in this holiday season, this cake recipe is just fine and lovely just as it is. Simple, easy, delicate. A classic star of the Jewish table. I hope you’ll love it just as much!

Cheers to the Askowiths for designing a flag that featured a star that continues to shine and inspire, to Israel for its light and lively food scene, and to all the Hanukkah celebrators out there. Chag Sameach!

Join us next time for Week 25 in the International Vintage Recipe Tour as we head to Italy in search of food, family and a good book!

Embrace Your Inner Bula: You’re On Fiji Time This Week!

For all the travelers out there who are feeling a little bit housebound these days and are missing your exotic ports of call, this post is for you. For anyone who finds themselves in a food rut, tired and bored by all the usual dinnertime choices, this post is for you too. And for anyone feeling especially grumpy, frustrated or lackluster when it comes to navigating this strange roller coaster of a turbulent world, this post is also for you.

That may sound like a lot of importance to place upon on the shoulders of one food related blog post but the salve for all these wayward troubles can pretty much be soothed in one word thanks to our featured destination of the week.

Tonight’s post takes us to the beautiful islands of Fiji, via the kitchen, to make a very quick, very easy  fish dish that tastes of coconuts and day dreams and relaxed coastal living. Welcome to Week 16 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour. Welcome to Fiji, dear kitcheners!

There is no doubt that Fiji is one of the most picturesque places in the world. But there is more to it than just sand and sun and beautiful beaches. Beyond all of the stunning panoromas, swaying palms and exotic flowers, there lives something even more beautiful. So beautiful in fact it can’t be translated via photograph.

It’s not a tangible item that you can hold in your hand or buy with your credit card or gift to a friend. It’s not a specific place you can visit, or a hotel you can check into, or a body of water you can bob around on. It’s not a rainbow, or a waterfall, or a sunset, or a mountaintop view or a brightly colored flower. It’s not a hike, nor a sunbathe, nor a visit to the spa.

Fiji’s exotic flowers.

It’s a feeling.

An inward attitude. A manifesto. An intrinsic, deeply rooted way of being. Something completely unique to the 22 islands that make up the country of Fiji.  It’s called bula.

Technically referred to as a greeting similar to saying hello, bula carries much more significance than a simple salutation. It resonates as a way of life for anyone lucky enough to visit or live on one of the islands. It also happens to be one of the most commonly talked about things that people miss most about Fiji once they leave the country.

First bula starts out as a pleasantry. A sincere wish for happiness, good health and a zesty energy for life. Then it subtly transforms from a word you are saying into a feeling you are emoting. It becomes an infectious enthusiasm of spirit. A radiation of joy. An exuberance of attitude. Regardless of current circumstances or situations, in spite of challenges and setbacks, embracing the bula spirit means expressing happiness, appreciation and friendliness. In other words… smiles and good nature for all. Whether they are strangers or loved ones, coworkers or customers, kids or adults, neighbors or newcomers, this extension of outward positivity has labeled Fijians the friendliest people in the world.

Practically a national language in and of itself, bula is a trademark of the island’s hospitality. It encourages warmth and welcome. Good cheer. Grateful attitudes. And a delight in the moment right in front of you. Besides their unique heritage and their idyllic landscape, it is the characteristic that Fijians are most proud of and what sets them apart as a community from everyone else in the world.

This type of jubilant reminder couldn’t have come at a better time. Especially for this week in regards to the Recipe Tour. As I’ve mentioned in a few posts over the last couple of months,  it’s been a bit of a challenge to keep the Tour on track since the tornado in March and then the pandemic right after. As you all know, it’s easy to get caught up in the global events unfolding each day and then to let that news cloud your mind, dampen your spirit, and affect your disposition. Sometimes writing about food while all this chaos is going on in the world seems trivial and I struggle with the desire and importance of wanting to share a good recipe while so much catastrophic stuff is going on.  But learning about Fiji’s bula spirit this week and then making one of their traditional island recipes really let in a breath of much-needed fresh air and perspective, both literally and figuratively.

If you saw the sneak peek video for this week’s recipe on Instagram, you may have noticed that it looked a little bit different than all the other videos from all the other weeks. That was due to a rainstorm that thundered its way through the preparation parts of this  week’s film shoot.

It was one of those storms that comes on quickly, toting dark grey clouds the size of whales and sucks up so much natural light, you have to turn on every single lamp in the room just so you can see what you are doing right in front of you. Rolling in just a few minutes into the cooking process, right as I began sauteing onions in a pan for the cream sauce, this storm turned the kitchen so dark and moody, the photo/video shoot had to immediately go on location (aka the balcony) so that I could grab as much natural light as possible. Otherwise the whole cooking process would have resulted in murky colors and grainy details. Fortunately for this purpose, there’s a small nook on the balcony between two potted herbs and some blooming flowers that is impervious to damp weather. It’s the one little dry spot that can accommodate an impromptu photoshoot without ruin to camera or food subjects.

In the video, you may have noticed what sounded like crashing waves roaring above the Fijian music playing in the background. That was actually the sound of the wind and the rain from the storm.   The heavy rain and the 60 mile an hour winds that eventually would come later that evening, kindly held off long enough so that the entire series of food photos were done from start to finish before I had to scurry around the balcony and bring everything inside.

It can be a little bit stressful cooking under the pressure of weather and good light, especially when preparing a dish that doesn’t offer any leeway for prolonged preparations. Generally, it takes anywhere from 3-6 hours to prep, photograph and video each week’s recipe for the Tour, depending on the level of difficulty and the cooking steps involved. Over the course of the last sixteen weeks, I’ve developed a nice little routine when it comes to making and photographing the recipes. But this week, the storm threw a wrench in the rhythm. This dish couldn’t sit around waiting on the weather to pass nor could it be made halfway and finished up the next day.

Instead of getting all flustered with the change in routine and getting caught up in some silly forced notion of perfectionism when it came to the photos, I thought about Fiji and how they might have handled this situation. I bet the first thing they would have done would be to smile and then say bula. Which is exactly what I did. Instead of fighting the weather, I appreciated the new way of thinking that the storm presented.  I didn’t fret over the lack of light and the frenzied pace of cooking. Even though there were mad dashes outside to photo and then mad dashes back inside to cook some more. I went with the flow  and managed a new rhythm. I poured sauce over fish while clouds poured rain over me. And I smiled about it. I embraced the bula spirit.

And you know what happened, dear kitcheners? Everything turned out just fine. Delicious in fact. Do you know what else happened? This was the first time in 16 weeks that a Tour recipe was prepped, prepared, photoed, cooked and on the table for presentation in under an hour. That’s a new first in the Kitchen! All because the rain storm scurried me along. Funny enough, this is the way of typical rain storms in Fiji as well – quick to arise, heavy in outpour, brief in stay. I love that Lady Nature decided to add her own little bit of Fijian authenticity to the cooking day.

Storm clouds over Pacific Harbour, Fiji

Like the islands themselves, this Baked Cod recipe is colorful, comforting and a breeze to make (rain or shine!). It’s really three recipes in one, each broken down into segments  – cream sauce, coconut milk, and cod, but since we’ve already made fresh coconut milk in Week 8’s trip to Ceylon, I substituted canned coconut milk for fresh, which shaves 45 minutes off the prep time. The cheddar cheese in the cream sauce can be yellow or white, depending on your own preference as it doesn’t affect the pearly color of the sauce either way. I also chopped up an extra  1/4 cup of the onions and green pepper for garnish at the end. That step added a nice fresh crunch to the finished dish. Had we not had the rain storm to contend with, this dish would have taken about 20 minutes to prepare. True to its island culture and the bula spirit,  it’s a joy to make.

We’ll start with the cream sauce, since you’ll want to make that first and just keep it warm on the stove while you assemble the cod in the baking dish. Again, please excuse the photos in this post, they don’t really capture beauty of the dish nor the process as I would have liked but you’ll get the idea. I loved this recipe so much I’ll happily make it again (on a sunny day!) so that I can take some new photos and enjoy a taste of the islands once again.

Fiji Cream Cream Sauce

1 tablespoon butter

3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion (plus 2 more tablespoons more for garnish)

3 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper (plus two more tablespoons for garnish)

1 1/2 cups coconut milk

salt to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Cook the onion and green pepper, stirring, until the onion is wilted (about 4-5 minutes). Add 1 1/4 cups of the coconut milk and bring to a boil.

Blend the remaining 1/4 cup coconut milk with the cornstarch  and stir it into the simmering sauce . Simmer for three minutes, stirring constantly.

Baked Cod in Cream Sauce

Serves 4

2 cups boneless cod filet, cut into 1″ inch cubes

1 1/2 cups Fiji Cream Sauce

1/2 cup freshly grated cheddar cheese

Arrange the cod pieces in one layer in a baking dish and pour the sauce overall.

Sprinkle the cheddar cheese over the top…

and bake 30-40 minutes or until the cheese is melted and lightly browned. Once ready, remove from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Because of Fiji’s geographic location, its local cuisine has been influenced by India, the Polynesian Islands, Asia and most importantly by what grows naturally well on the islands. Coconut, sweet potatoes, root vegetables and seafood are common staples. Since there were no serving suggestions when it came to this recipe, I paired this creamy fish  with black rice for both its dynamic color and its fragrant, slightly nutty taste. This turned out to be an ideal companion as the flavors blended together really well and the rice soaked up some of the sauce. A little sprinkle of freshly chopped purple onion and green pepper on top of the fish added a splash of color for garnish.

Even though the preparation for this dish was a little haphazard, by the time we were ready to try it, the bula spirit had fully presented itself.  Once the first bite was taken, it really did feel and taste like a rejuvenating dinner that had the power to soothe a number of situations. Placing a colorful flower on the plate lent an exotic island aesthetic, ideal for the wanderlust travelers feeling stuck at home. The creamy coconut milk, an alternative to a more common, basic white sauce or cheese sauce, added an out of the ordinary flavor component, offering fun inspiration for all the bored cooks out there.  And the green, purple and black hues of this dish added a delightful dose of color therapy (read more about the power of this in Week 10: Columbia) which couldn’t help but brighten up even the most lackluster soul. I found the comfort level of this meal to be a 10 (out of 10!) so for all you eaters feeling grumpy or out of sorts, this dish will hopefully raise your spirits in an equally comforting way as well. That’s the magic of food in Fiji for you! That’s the magic of the bula spirit inside you!

Cheers to Fiji for showing us how to embrace our inner bula by embracing and radiating warm affection and positivity, despite the challenges that face us. Next week, we’ll be heading off to the gourmand capital of the world, via the kitchen, as we celebrate Week 17 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour in France. See you soon!

Fiji Photo Credits: Timothy Ah Koy, Vijeshwar Datt, Ishan, Roberto Nickson, Prem Kurumpanai