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Homemade pumpkin pie!

 Thanksgiving: my favorite holiday

In my invitation, this is how I described Thanksgiving to my Israeli friends:

For those not especially familiar, Thanksgiving is a secular American holiday celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November.  We take a moment out of our lives and give thanks for all we have – and eat massive amounts of American food (hope you like green bean casserole and pumpkin-marshmallow bake).  In theory, we mark the date of the “first Thanksgiving” the Pilgrims shared with the Indians in Massachusetts in 1621 after having survived the first difficult year in the New World.  For a good overview of the history of Thanksgiving see: http://history1900s.about.com/od/1930s/a/thanksgiving.htm.  It’s like Passover, but for everyone and anyone.  I think it should be an international holiday.

They don’t quite get it, but it’s still important for me to do.  As for the meal, I never cease to be amazed at how disgusted everyday Israelis are of pumpkin pie.  I basically made a quintuple recipe – two double-stuff pies (one pictured above) and 2 dozen pie-cupcakes.  Three-quarters of one pie got eaten, along with a small handful of mini-pies.  Half of our twenty or so guests were American, so you can see how little and unadventurous the palates were.  The apple pie went over a bit better – the prettiest apple pie I’ve ever made, actually – and most people don’t seem to know it’s easy to make.  Well, almost all pies are easy, depending on the filling.  Just mix up whatever you want to cook and pour into the crust.  Apple pie, being made entirely of apple, is usually just made up of apple slices, a bit of sugar, and cinnamon.  Pumpkin pie, so easy to make in the US with canned pumpkin, is infinitely more difficult when you have to go out and buy your own pumpkin, core it, cut off the rind, boil large chunks, and then press and blend the cooked meat – all before mixing in the actual pie ingredients.  I will use the word homemade here quite frequently, because it truly was – nothing canned.

Surprisingly enough, my homemade sweet potato marshmallow casserole was a big hit, although they did not understand why it wasn’t in the dessert category.  I suppose nobody can say no to a dish covered in marshmallows.  The child in us all simply jumps out of our skins.  My family’s recipe calls for the sweet potato mash to be mixed with a large can of pineapple chunks (syrup removed first) and sprinkled heavily with cinnamon, before being topped by our preservative-packed confection.

The turkey was divine!  Again, Israelis are stunned and impressed at the buying and cooking of a whole turkey.  Now, Israelis, you must understand, eat a lot of turkey.  More than most countries.  But the form it takes is almost exclusively in cold cuts and schwarma, if you can believe it.  Even huge cuts of meat for roasting are pretty rare.  I’ve never seen a roast in Israel.  The closest is goulash with big chunks of meat.  So you can imagine the oddity of a whole bird.  I brined mine for about 15 hours (it was about a 16-17 pound bird) in homemade brine I improvised around an Alton Brown recipe.  My brine-broth contained crystallized ginger among other exotic things.  If you’ve never brined a bird – DO – it makes a huge difference in the juiciness, tenderness, and intensity of flavor.  Of course butter helps enormously too, and herbs under the skin along with it.  The stuffing was as usual Martha Stewart’s chestnut stuffing, a recipe my sister and I have favored for years.  Lots of butter, sage, cups and cups of chopped chestnut, and high quality bread.  I’m still eating the leftovers quite happily.

In any case, in any case.  Thanksgiving was a hit at our home – my sister and I are very proud of 2011’s feast.


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I am sometimes privileged enough to get to participate in days and evenings that many people would die to experience, or have a hidden camera along with them.  As a writer, I don’t need one.  And believe me, I’d be a fool not to use my experiences as fodder for something extraordinary one day.  I won’t disclose direct details and names are omitted (don’t worry, nothing as sordid as you’d think).  The last 3 days of my life have simply been surreal – nothing short of it at all.  Billed as a combination “giving back and coming together,” the winery created a three-day program for every single worker – yes, we shut down for three days.  Included in this adventure:

  •  Community service – I spent most of the day breathing in ungodly amounts of sawdust and varnish fumes in an enclosed greenhouse for about 6 hours for the benefit of a community center for the mentally challenged – the folks came down to help us, and I ended up getting sprayed by said varnish for several minutes.  Ah well.  All for good.  I did get to commune with donkeys, ducks, and chickens that day in their petting zoo – always a plus in my book – and it was amazing to see what 6 hours’ hard work by 100+ people actually can accomplish.  It was great – although the sawdust ring and piles of sediment in the bathtub that night (I kid you not) were a cause of some concern to me.
  • A romantic tour of the old city of Jerusalem.  Great fun.  Churches, ramparts, architecture.  I’ve done it at least half a dozen times, and even led unofficial versions of it for friends.  But I loved it.  Towards the end I got tired, and when we got to the incredible Austrian Hospice, I simply disappeared into the cafe-garden with a lovely creamy Meinl cappuccino while the group went up to the roof for another half-hour of pointing-at-buildings.  It’s a rose garden, quiet, and two foreign gentlemen smoked cigars next to me.  At that moment I was happy.  I loved my employer, my colleagues, the retreat, the weather, the location.  It was a great day.
  • Ridiculous performances — I hate using ridiculous to describe performance art, as artists try hard and need to earn a living.  There just happens to be a lot I cannot tolerate, and I was subjected to some extremely…well…difficult work.  Folksy mediocre sort of stuff — the fact that many, perhaps not most, but not a few, of my work colleagues enjoyed some if not all of the two evenings’ entertainment, puzzled me.  But let me leave it at that. To each his own.  A fantastic exercise in anthropology, one could say.
  • A scavenger hunt.  A big fat three-hour frantic massive-list hunt, 21st-century-style (all evidence photographed, video’ed, and internet research often required).  We were broken up into groups and I knew almost nobody in mine.  Running all over Jerusalem, climbing the YMCA tower (450 steps up) to count carillon bells, taking photographs while sitting inside random people’s cars, teaching tourists to speak a sentence in Hebrew about our company, archery in the park, and on and on.  It was exhausting.  We didn’t win, but now I have 7 new friends at the winery, most of whom I never would have met, approached, or sat with at a meal.  The fact that I enjoyed this is a huge credit to the HR people at the winery.  They know their stuff.  It could have been cheesy-city, but almost every group participated with gusto.  It was great.
  • Raucous late-night adventures in the shuk — my favorite part of the trip — reminded me of my adventures in Bordeaux.  A small group (12 or so) of people from almost every walk of life (department) of the winery decided to head out for some post-cheesy-art living it up on the town.  We found ourselves at the Casino de Paris – a hip new bar-eatery in the middle of Machaneh Yehuda shuk (market).  Yes, hidden among the vegetable stalls is quite a chic place, bright, friendly, excellent booze, people spilling out the door on a Monday night.  We drank, ate, drank, told stories, drank, made merry, and drank under the stars beside the covered stalls outside the warm little bar.  Then we made our way to the famous Machaneh Yehuda restaurant a couple blocks away.  We drank, ate, drank, and made merry all over again, to a much higher and stranger degree.  With stranger foods (shellfish after midnight).  Stranger objects (wearing tea towels somehow became part of this segment of the evening). Stranger liquors (we started the evening with high-end Cognac and single malt Scotch, and somehow ended up finishing it off with cheap Arak).  So it goes.  Interesting taxi-back-to-hotel arrangements.  And lots and lots of ibuprofen.  I’m quite proud of myself, really.  I can really hold my liquor, or so it seems to me.  I didn’t tell any bad sex jokes, I didn’t vomit, I didn’t fall down, and I hardly cried at all.  I think it was a well-maintained buzz through and through.  In the course of 6 hours (with food) I think I consumed 3 glasses of wine, 2 whiskys, three sips of beer (one ale, two stout – a knowledgeable person told me to try stout with whisky and it was an excellent combination), one tiny sip of Arak, and a glass of bubbly.  It was a fantastic evening.  Had it occurred at the American Colony as I’d wanted, it would have been better.  It’ll have to wait for the next adventure.  But it was very good as it was.

It doesn’t often occur to people that they live interesting lives — but on this particular occasion, it occurred to me that I do.  I don’t make wine, but I get to work with people who do.  People who make world-class amazing wine.  And that counts for something.  It’s amazing when you know you’re working with and for good people, for a good cause.  Wine is a luxury product, I suppose, but it’s far more essential than a Lexus or foie gras or an Xbox, I think.  It’s a connection to land, to history, to religion, to people, to experience.  What’s a wedding without wine?  New Years?  Anniversaries?  Birthdays? Beuf Bourgignon? Coq au Vin?  I’m back to stressed out life — and even if it doesn’t seem charmed 99% of the time — it is a charmed existence in many ways.  There’s always that after-work glass of wine waiting.

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Due in part to my ever-tentative decision-making, in part to terrified inaction, and in part to my asking for help (a brave gesture, I might add – something I rarely do because it scares me to no end), I have reached a scary-exciting and potentially happy-happy place: I will be making the majority, if not all, of my income through wine and food!

I got a part-time job in an incredible wine bar: Alkalay, in the Basel Square area.  It’s small, casual, and yet it has hands-down the best selection of Bourgogne wines in all of Israel.  This review says it all.  I feel honored to be working here.  I’ve learned so much, and I also get to cook!  Minor yet lovely little things.  Gourmet cheese plates, smoked and salted fish, charcuterie, crudites, bruschettas, and steamed dim sum, mostly.  I really think I’ll be happy here, and I can only hope the management’s feeling is mutual.  With other wine-and-food-business ideas I’ve got brewing on a few different levels, as well as my continuing work with the incredible Golan Heights Winery, I may actually be able to work, and succeed, doing something I love.  It’s going to be physically taxing.  Hard, hard work.  But it’s not eons away.  It’s here.  And it’s hard to believe.

Here are some photos and links.  Reviews of spectacular wines are forthcoming.  Hurrah for wine!  Indeed life is too short to squander.  If only it was easier to convince ourselves.

Ten things that can impair wine-drinking pleasure: a very sensible article.  Take a look.

Wine in Two Words: Sweet or Savory? Interesting article from yesterday’s New York Times.

Alkalay Wine Bar and Store, as seen from above. Isn't it beautiful?

The Burgundy section. Not the best photo, but you get the gist. Some of the best domaines are represented. Some mind-blowing grand and premier crus.

 

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Review: Rak Basar (translation: “Only Meat” – restaurant); 223 (cocktail bar)

Tel Aviv certainly loves its gimmicks – restaurants and bars all over town try some interesting and often odd tricks to get people in door.  Some gimmicks are logical – a breakfast restaurant serves breakfast and not dinner.  A cafe serves coffee and not sirloin.  But, I’m not quite for fad gimmicks.  If it works, it works, great.  My experience at the deaf-blind center’s BlackOut restaurant was a real thrill.  My disappointment at 24-hour breakfast at Benedict’s was monumental.  But will these places (or their genres) stand the test of time?  Or does that even matter?  Here are two accounts of recent gimmicky places I had the pleasure of encountering.

Rak Basar

Gimmick #1: choose your cut and size of meat at a real butcher shop at the back of the restaurant – then have it served on a small tabletop grill – where you can choose to cook the meat further, or simply keep portions of it warm while you slowly work you way through the masses of it all.

At a restaurant called “Only Meat,” it really says something when the parts of the meal I loved most were the all-you-can drink wine jug (after all, you stop caring after the second glass that the wine is uber-cheap Shel Segal) and the appetizers (creative, finely chopped salads – one with cactus!; and an elegant small-portioned grilled beef tongue served atop a salad).

Although I ordered my NY strip steak rare, it came blue.  My dad’s sirloin (ordered medium rare) came in rare-to-blue, and my sister’s ostrich (ordered at the butcher’s recommendation of medium-to-medium rare) came in so blue it was cold in the middle.  And it being ostrich – a bird – I was worried at how safe it would be to actually eat it in that condition.

My first thought was that they honestly thought that the tabletop grill would keep cooking the meat steadily, so they undercooked.  But the grill wasn’t quite hot enough to do that.  My second thought was that most Israelis unfortunately like their meat well done. Perhaps the cooks just don’t know what rare really is and thought it better to undercook than overcook.

We sent a lot of it back to be re-fired — with varying levels of success.

The positives – the most attentive friendly wait staff I have encountered in Israel.  Our waiter was a tattooed oddly shaved gent named Shai.  He was a ball, and to be sure (despite our food), we left him a hefty tip.  The decor is authentic old-Israel-brick with vaulted ceilings & down-to-earth wooden furniture.  The bottomless wine glass is fun, and the appetizers are wonderful.

It was just a shame that the gimmick – the restaurant’s raison d’etre – was such a huge let down.  I won’t be going back too soon.

223


Gimmick #2: Classy yet friendly cocktail bar with creative, original recipes using local ingredients and liquors.

Sounds perfect! In a town where beer is king and most bars have usually never heard of a sidecar, 223 (named for its address – 223 Dizengoff) has a perfect recipe for success. Or so you’d think…

Atmosphere: 10; Service: 10; Cocktails: 3

Admittedly I’ve only been once.  But when you’re served the worst classic gin martini of your life at place that calls itself a state-of-the-art cocktail bar – you’ve got problems.

They have a ginger-lime-pineapple-lemon grass martini; Mediterranean caipirinhas; blood orange margaritas, and an awful lot more scrummy-sounding drinks.  And they are delicious.  Really delicious.  One drink even won an international award.

My issues:

  1. The glasses – if it’s a margarita, serve it in a margarita glass; if it’s a martini, serve it in a martini glass.  It makes a big difference.  People feel special drinking from these specially shaped large glasses.  The drinks go down better. There’s a reason they exist.  We were served in regular tall ridged glasses.  You couldn’t even call them highballs.
  2. Ice – cocktails should rarely be served with ice.  Our drinks came with lots of big ice cubes…and straws…(hello – where’s the salt for the rim of the margarita)…which leads me to suspect…
  3. Watered down drinks? I can’t prove it.  They might be super-strong.  I would hate to be slanderous here.  But the volume of the drink, the size of the glass, with all the different juices going in, and the ice (the ice!), just made it all feel fishy.  I guess, after all, you’re paying for the gimmick – not the booze.
  4. The WORST martini of my life! My sister told me I should have sent it back and assured me its common practice in Israel.  Call me a polite American.  I suffered the abomination.  I love classic cocktails.  Not that fruity-tooty isn’t great.  But I relished my few years in Chicago as a young professional, heading for swanky downtown hotel bars with other colleagues for dirty martinis or Manhattans or cosmopolitans.  And I love a classic martini.  Gin, never vodka.  Served pretty damned dry.  With a big ole olive or two.  Maybe even a dressed up blue cheese olive or two.  The drink I was served at 223 was not a martini.  I requested a real martini glass, if they had one, and the waitress insisted that they did.  Why my earlier order of a fruity martini didn’t come in one remains a mystery, but this supposed martini appeared in the correct glass.   That said, it was made of a substantially large percentage of vermouth.  I’m talking 35-50% vermouth.  Gin was the aftertaste.  It was really nasty.  It wasn’t served cold enough (no ice cubes could bail the bartender out using this glass), and the three olives were our tiny wrinkled Israeli variety (probably all they had).  They were, however, the best part of the drink.  And the laughable part?  They charged me 44 shekels for this drink – a full 5 shekels more than any other classy drink on their menu. A gin straight up may have cost me half the amount – and I would have gotten more.

I know.  I seem arrogant.  But when you order a chicken at a fried chicken stand and you get an egg, what can I say?  In this case, I will go back.  The bar is charming:  the decor is adorable, European, wallpapered, upholstered, cheery.  It’s right around the corner from my house.  The people are friendly. The service, prompt.  And it’s a smoke-free bar, if I remember correctly.

I will, however, be sticking with Scotch.

Here’s a fine article on how to order a martini.

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