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Archive for the ‘Food Review’ Category

Being a long-term expat gives a person a unique perspective, as you well may imagine – an outside eye with insider access – and in the case of these bloggers, the ability to be ambassadors to the world at large.  It’s been a while since I focused on food myself, and I want to highlight to whoever may be reading, a review of some incredible blogs – AND – their very special qualities.  I’ve chosen and linked some specific posts to shed a light on the diversity of boutique dairies and cheeses, markets, spices, comfort foods, and out-of-the-way corners/villages/eateries that guidebooks would never even know to mention.  Enjoy!

Milk, Dairies, and Cheese

Israelis love their cheeses, eaten (much to my chagrin, actually) very fresh.  For fresh cheeses, however, they’re extraordinary.  A huge variety of cow, goat, and sheep cheeses are produced by the largest and smallest boutique dairies all over the country.  Baroness Tapuzina told us about her visit to the Ein Kamonim goat far recently.  Sarah Melamed of Food Bridge posted about a comparison between camel, cow, goat, and buffalo milk, oh my!  To add my recommendations on Israeli cheese, I adore the Markovitch Dairy – run by a sweet couple, on their own, with their goats, near Petach Tikvah – they make a cheese very similar to Camembert, with a blue center – during events they cater, they stuff big majoul dates with a softer goat cheese – to die for.  A bigger better-known artisanal cheese-maker is the Jacobs Farm – they make a hard cheese with pimento and caraway seed that is so incredibly different – it took me a while to like it, but I adore it now.

Markets and Places

Pita with zatar

My friend Liz, of Cafe Liz fame, is truly a market connoisseur.  Actually, most of these bloggers probably are, but I as know Liz well and we hang out in Tel Aviv quite a bit – she has been my personal ambassador to some gems.  Here, she tells us about Ramle, an out-of-the-way melting pot of a little town near the airport with an incredible history.  Here, a foray into the Levinsky Street market, undoubtedly the best place to buy spices in Tel Aviv – a bizarre 2-3 blocks of storefront if you’ve ever seen one.  And in a post I highly recommend, Where to Buy Food in Tel AvivLiz compared the prices of several basic food items at the shuk (market), and several commercial and organic stores around town – with very interesting findings for the consumer.

Sarah has a whole page devoted to shuks (markets), that you should really check out.  She’s written about Nazareth on a couple of occasions, somewhere most of us urban-folk would never venture.  The food scene is incredible there, and the New York Times recently featured it in an article, “Nazareth as an Eating Destination.”  A great pictorial is Spice Up Your Life in Nazareth, and a more complete anecdote is Nazareth Shuk: A Kaleidoscope for the Senses.  Another great post is by Miriam Kresh, the veteran blogger of Israeli Kitchen, also littered with fabulous photographs.  Miriam’s knowledge of the natural foods around us and the making of such basic (yet to us, complex) processes such as wine-making, soap-making, lotion-making, olive-pickling, and much more is astounding.

Comfort Food Around Us

Stuffed peppers

The new Jerusalemite among us is Ariella, of Ari Cooks.  A trained pâtissière, I love reading through her recipes.  A recent post of hers focuses on soups, Soups for Thought, and it was so so so good. So apt for the winter, so cold this year, making up for last year’s heat wave.  She links to several other soup recipes, so it’s an excellent resource.  Miriam has a great post on pickling olives at home, a local staple, olives are.  Sarah is hands down the kubbeh expert among us, and if you don’t know what these lovely semolina dumplings stuffed with meat are, do click her link.  Here is also Sarah’s excellent, beautiful, and brief journey through Israeli foods, including the ubiquitous falafel, foreigners so know us by.

I have skipped so much and focused on too few blogs — the amount of recipes, the innovation of this cooking, this east-meets-west, foreign-domestic, old-new, always fresh outlook displayed by the food bloggers of Israel is inspiring.  If you live here, I hope you choose to eat well and eat interestingly.  If you don’t live here, when you visit, make food a priority.  It’s so special and vibrant and fresh here.

Have a great week, all!  Here’s to getting through the winter!

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Goodness gracious is it difficult to find a decent greasy breakfast in Israel.  As delicious and healthy as the standard Israeli breakfast fare is (eggs cooked any way, but usually as omelet or scrambled – accompanied by a large fresh salad, dips/sides – tahini, feta, cream cheese, tuna, fish roe in cream sauce, homemade jams – and fresh bread), I have been craving something more typically American or even British.  Something with animal fat, a mixture of creamy yolk, bloody juice, and spicy carbohydrates.  Oh, the agony!  My kingdom for a proper fry up!  And I’ve been coming up empty.

Not that Israelis don’t try.  But the couple times I have ordered the “Steak & Eggs,” slowly cropping up on trendier menus, I have been so sorely disappointed to the point where these eating establishments should be ashamed of themselves.   I won’t name names.  Just be wary.  I’m going to keep ordering it until I can create a more comprehensive picture.  Honestly, last week I was presented with three pitiful strips of “steak” that was as thin, tough, and stringy as boot leather (I refer to the classic Charlie Chaplin sketch below), topped with 2 overcooked “sunny side up” eggs (the yolks were almost solid), all over “hash browns” that embarrassingly consisted of what I can only describe as a giant lukewarm mound of ordinary fries cut up into smaller segments before being fried – with absolutely no seasoning.  Sadly, the best part of this dish was its name – “The Texas Hold’em.”  As you might imagine, I politely complained, and still insisted I pay for the entire meal.  I don’t believe in something for nothing.  It wasn’t the delightful waiter’s fault, after all.

Send me your recommendations for restaurants to try!

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The Golan Heights Winery Big Wigs (and the 7 wines we served) at our stand at Vinexpo, June 2011

I have been an international lady as of late. Blogging has suffered. The huge events that have dominated my life since my last post have been:

  • Vinexpo – Bordeaux, France – one of the largest (if not the largest) wine exhibition in the world. Kilometers long. Immense.  Exciting.  And the Golan Heights Winery (and its daughter winery, Galil Mountain), the only Israeli winery represented (and has been for over 20 years), invited me to come with them.  A brilliant week!  I spent my days speaking French with lots of wine professionals and led them through “une degustation,” a tasting, and teaching them about our wines.  I got to know the head winemakers and management well, which was so much fun – it honestly started to feel like a school trip….and the eating and drinking through the city like there was no tomorrow was certainly a perk.
  • Paris – I spent almost a week in Paris after the expo – two/three days of which was with my parents who happened to be in town, unplanned.  I spent time with family friends, too, walked all over the city, relaxed, and ate very very very well.
  • New Job! The winery hired me to manage, train, and recruit all of the wine stewards in Israel.  This is a huge honor, and it’s a job I’m loving.  It’s not easy, but it’s mainly logistics and some training.
  • New love – a beautiful, exciting, and ultimately sad story. I met a man that I’m crazy about. It has been one of the most emotionally satisfying, significant and devastating months of my life.  He is leaving to go abroad for a very long time (years) in two weeks (we will have had about 5 weeks together). I’m not sure how I’m dealing with it all.  With the new job I love and a career I’m trying to forge,  I finally accepted the fact that I’m staying here and putting a stake in this place.

ANYHOW: I will be putting together some incredible photos in the subsequent posts.  Stay posted for gorgeous food.  And I mean gorgeous food…

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The European oyster - the native Oyster of France - "Huître plate" or "Gravette"

I could not resist.  Many know that for the past year or so I’ve been a de facto vegetarian.  I do believe it’s OK to eat meat – I simply do not want to consume the hormones and antibiotics that swim in our meat pool.  I’m for healthy happy animals.  Regarding seafood, I’ve been on the fence.  Overfishing is a big issue, and lots of species (other than the ones being targeted) are being annihilated in the process.  As I’ve not quite made up my mind, I have simply abstained from eating all animals this year.  Until Friday.

One each of five different kinds of oysters flown in directly from France

A guy in my yoga class, someone I’ve seen once or twice a week for over a year but have never actually spoken to, mentioned to our teacher after class that there was an event at his restaurant the next day.  Turns out he’s a chef at one of my favorite wine-tapas-y-bars in town, Basta, and they were flying in crates of oysters direct from France.  Free-for-all true-blue French oysters, best in the world, from 8 am until they run out.  I knew I would be there.

So after an excruciatingly long wine tasting (hot, little business, new high heeled boots), I walked about 20 minutes until I reached the Carmel Market area, a strange yet fitting location for this bistro.  Friday is my favorite day in the shuk – I can get the best deals – everyone wants to get rid of their produce before the Sabbath starts – and I know where the best vendors are.  10 minutes later, laden with all the fruit and veg I’ll need for a month – and I’m at Basta – looking at this:

Basta's oyster spread

France and oysters go way, way back.  From Roman times when France was known for the best oysters, all the way to modernity when France became the first country in the world to start cultivating oysters on a large commercial scale – the French take their oysters and oyster culture seriously.  This fantastic website I discovered, devoted entirely to oysters, quotes the poet Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947): “I love oysters. It’s like kissing the sea on the lips.” So here I was, thrilled beyond belief to be sitting at this charming Tel Aviv bistro – meters from the raging-pre-Shabbat shuk, (the vendors now screaming and lowering their prices every few minutes), about to consume these gorgeous, rare gems – about to plant a slobbering wet kiss on the lips of the sea.

I think they're just as beautiful on the outside

To tell you the truth, that expression is bang-on.  I’ve always told my curious kosher-keeping friends that eating oysters is like eating a mouthful of the sea.  But kissing the sea – on the lips – oh my – that injects the sexy passion into the act of eating oysters.  It feels so natural,  feeling the cold, creamy, briny loveliness slide into your mouth.  It’s like French-kissing your food.  A food that is the embodiment of French-kissing.  But cold.  Ice cold.  Weird, I know.

And so, my friends, the time has come, to talk of cultural oyster references.  The first that comes to mind is, of course, Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” from Alice Through the Looking-Glass.  The most famous stanza:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

However, my most favorite oyster scene is from Tampopo.  Please excuse the inane “commentary” from the person who posted the video onto YouTube.  Just watch the movie.

Ahh! So damned good.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter, "You've had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?' But answer came there none-- And this was scarcely odd, because They'd eaten every one.

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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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UPDATE (23/12/2012): I wrote this a couple years ago, and my stats have proven it has been quite a popular and useful post. Please note, I believe the “Little Prince” has closed. Shame. It was quite a Tel Aviv staple.  A few other cafes I want to throw out there to make a more relevant list: Etnachta (Dizengoff just south of Arlozorov) – basic menu, very friendly staff leave you alone for hours, lots of electric plugs if you know where to look, good atmosphere.  Campanello (corner of Ben Yehuda and Nordau) is relatively a new place, and I hope it stays around – authentic Italian deli, incredible meat sandwiches, fresh and affordable pizzas, a cafe environment – again lots of electric outlets, good internet, friendly staff, and the food is far above average.  Finally Maker’s (Ben Yehuda 202) seems more like Tel Aviv’s best casual take out sandwich place at first glace, but at second glace, they have more electric outlets than any other cafe I’ve seen.  I’ve gone there for years for their incredible hot roast beef and goose subs with poached egg, and though I’d seen people working on laptops, I didn’t working there myself it until recently.  It seemed too casual (most of the seating is outside, but the enclosed glass structure around the sidewalk heats it adequately enough). I now think I can recommend it, and highly. Did I mention it’s also open 24/7 except Fridays?

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I’m at a favorite café right now, and I’ll be attempting productivity…right after my grilled cheese with tomato and cafe Americano with warm milk on the side appear.  The cafe lifestyle in Tel Aviv, and Israel in general, makes my existence more than tolerable.  It’s a real comfort.  At times a joy.  I’ve written some incredible articles, short stories, blog entries, and plowed through tons of work for clients on a binge when having procrastinated to the point of insanity.  I alternate between long macchiatos (incredible how you can drag out a long drink as opposed to a short), Americanos (best value for money), and occasional lattes (strong) made with soy milk (decadent and healthy).

As opposed to the US (and its prolific slew of Starbucks), internet is always free.  I thought it would be so stateside, but it’s not always so.  I’m out to lunch on the Starbucks phenomenon.  Their presence has been my savior many, many a time, but it’s awfully awkward to have to buy that gift card, use it, register it, and get a month of “free internet.”  I think there’s also a 2-hour time limit.  The busy blandness of SB is also uninspiring to the point of nausea, and don’t get me started on the prices and selection.

Without further ado, here are the Tel Aviv Cafés I work in and find to be at once affordable, inspiring, and possessing an understanding wait staff:

  1. Segafredo

    Segafredo, corner of Frishman and Dizengoff.  This is a bare-bones epitome of a cafe.  Their coffee is great, and in the true Italian tradition, they offer a nice selection of delicious yet simple sandwiches.  There is no “cooked” food.  The decor is almost nonexistent.  But the prices are lower than any other cafe I’ve encountered, mainly (I think) because of the lack of showy side salads and lunch specials.  Here, you order a sandwich, you get a sandwich, along with a small bowl of olives.  The take-away prices are cheaper yet.  The inside has a giant wall-length booth with electric outlets between almost every table.  When I discovered this cafe, it wasn’t for work that I chose it as a regular spot.  Right after I made aliyah, I found it pleasant to people-watch (it may very well be one of the best intersections in town) and write frilly letters and postcards to family and friends.  A bit later, I found it was within walking distance of my first therapist and right across the street of a Steimatsky bookstore.  The fact that they serve the closest thing to real American pies in Israel, and that these huge individual circles of either berry, cherry, apple, and caramel, on top of a layer of creamy white chocolate cost a whopping 19 shekels ($5), blew my mind.  When chocolate cake, tiramisu and tart tatin run between 33-40 shekels ($9-12) everywhere in town, and you can only get a lousy slice of dry carrot cake for 19 shekels anywhere else, there was no competition.  I would enjoy a leisurely walk after therapy, mulling the ideas, then stop at a bookstore and browse and/or buy, then head to Segafredo for a cherry pie and a creamy coffee which I slowly consumed while I read for an hour or two.  The waitresses are sweet, and they leave you alone.  It’s a prime spot for business meetings and independent workers by day, a neighborhood joint on weekends, and a pre- and post- theater must-stop for the Beit-Lessin Theater across the street.  All I can say is go.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  Give it a try.

  2. Cafe DIZI

    DIZI, Kikar Dizengoff across from the cinema and Kabbala Center.  This is cafe is the height of cool.  A cafe & laundromat (it works, believe me), in a prime, sunny location.  It’s vegetarian (with fish), relatively reasonably priced, colorful, young, with the BEST MUSIC (I listened to Dylan, Dire Straights, Petty, and the Beatles all day yesterday), and the most comfortable sofa I have ever had the pleasure on which to rest my derriere.  The food is creative and satisfying across the board.  Affordable and yummy things to order: the crunchy toasted croissant grilled cheese with spicy salsa on the side (I ask them to put the salsa inside the croissant before they toast it) for 19 shekels; the egg salad sandwich, a very nicely made lunch, served with tomato and pickle on a toasted sesame kaiser roll with a lovely side salad, all for 29 shekels; and finally, a personal favorite – the garden sandwich – the vegan’s delight – roasted pepper and eggplant, shredded carrot and radish and cucumber, shmeared with avocado – heaven – healthy – and you really feel that energy while you eat it, also served with a side salad, all for 32 shekels.  With a 9 shekel Americano, plentiful outlets, and a smiling tattooed staff ignoring you for hours on end, I feel like I’m hanging out as I work.  It’s where I finished my novel, so DIZI is quite dear to my heart.

  3. The Little Prince, Simta Plonit off of King George near Gan Meir.  A rustic used bookstore-cafe the likes of which you’d expect to see on a college campus.  It’s in a classically old building, with wood floors, flea market furniture, very quiet, and outlet-plentiful.  Your fellow customers are more likely to be learned, cultured types as opposed to businessmen or social-networking mavens or visiting American students.  My recommendations: “The Princely Breakfast” is the most bang for your buck at 35-ish shekels – two eggs any way, a loaf of fresh bread, a side salad, and a selection of spreads and dips (tehini, jam, cream cheese, tuna salad), and coffee or juice; the “wrap combo” – a half-order of one of their wraps (one of the only places in town I’ve seen them – I get the Iraqi one with eggplant and tehini), a side salad, and a beverage, all for 20+ ish shekels.  They really leave you alone here, and I’ve gotten so much work done.  Be careful not to confuse the Little Prince cafe for their other branch around the corner on King George; it’s the same bookstore/company, but the other place is only a bookstore, carrying the majority of their titles, while the cafe has a more limited selection.  In the summer they have really fun outdoor seating in their back garden.
  4. Fresh Natural Lemonade at Loveat

    Loveat (several locations – Dizengoff & Jabotinsy; Nahalat Binyamin just south of Allenby; and Barzilai 1 across from Yehuda HaLevi in the Gan HaChashmal area).  Organic coffee, clean & modern design.  Some locations are more apt for work, but they are all really fun.  The food is not cheap, but it’s all really really amazing for cafe fare.

    Loveat Nahalat Binyamin

    The best place to work is the Nahalat Binyamin branch, mainly because they have a large variety of seating areas, one of which – a loft gallery with velvety booths and outlets – is perfect to hide away.  This branch also has a back garden, a side garden, and lots of seating out front, a very perfect spot to see and be seen on market days.  The Jabotinsky branch is the smallest, but they do a great job with makeshift seating on the sidewalk with a glass box placed over it during winter months.  I worked at Barzilai once and found it tolerable.  What to order: to keep the cost down, it’s best to go not too hungry.  That said, their baked goods are wonderful.  Get the bran muffin.  As far as sandwiches, ordering off the menu is expensive.  They have a number of pre-packaged (yet very fresh) sandwiches much like a remember in Ireland and England – egg salad, tuna, mozarella & basil, roasted veg, etc.  They look small and flat, but they’re cheaper and quite good and filling.  The sides.  I have made a meal out of the sides.  You can get a small soup (fresh every day, the size of which seems like the serving I’d give myself at home) for pennies (under 20 shekels), and you can order a side of bread and butter (a whole mini baguette) for 8 shekels.  A fun thing to have is their flavored lemonades – fresh and homemade, they come in glass jars and are naturally flavored with things like a whole cinnamon stick inside.  Be sure to take one of the cards where they give you a stamp for every coffee – it takes a long while, but when you complete 3 cards (30 coffees) they give you a free bag of fresh organic coffee to take home, along with the three free coffees you’ll have had at the end of each 10 cups purchased, of course.

  5. Tazza D’Oro

    Tazza D’Oro, Ahad Ha’am 6 at the northern edge of Neve Tzedek.  I LOVE this place.  It’s so charming.  You feel like you’re in Europe.  I’ve only worked here once, but I know it’s possible.  I simply had to mention it because it’s just the perfect date location, the perfect Friday afternoon with friends, the perfect late-night dessert, and yet also a wonderful early-morning breakfast spot.  Fridays there is live jazz in the afternoon in their big outdoor garden (even in winter, it’s almost entirely under a awning and umbrellas, and there are heat lamps everywhere).  The coffee is simply the best.  The menu isn’t cheap, and they stopped serving beer in tap, but there are ways to get around this.  There is one affordable salad, and the breakfasts are worth the cost (but not served all day).  That said, if you’re there anytime later, the only real choice for me is the egg sandwich.  It’s the cheapest thing on the menu (perhaps 29 shekels), and it doesn’t come with anything else.  That said, it’s the best egg sandwich I’ve had in Israel.  The bread is hugely thick cut, and it’s a kind of doughy challah or brioche, plentiful yet fresh mayonnaise, the egg is a kind of omelet, tomato slices.  It’s just good.It makes me happy to eat that.  You know that at this kind of place, they really put effort into their food.  Even the simplest thing on the menu.  Get a coffee, too.  It would be a sin not to.  It is after all one of the few places you can get this real Italian roast.  It’s home is a few meters from the Pantheon in Rome, one of my favorite places in the world, so I satisfy a little nostalgic nagging when I go.   So – mornings for work; Friday afternoons for jazz and beer and wine; every evening for a good date; and all the time – excellent coffee.

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Last night I returned from a weekend retreat.  This was a meditation retreat like no other.  Half silent Vipassana meditation, half activities and discussions about activism in the world and approaching it from a Dharma perspective.  In other words, Engaged Dharma. This post’s a bit long – if it’s too long, skip to the last 2-3 paragraphs or so. Would love your thoughts.

Dharma (Sanskrit: धर्म) or Dhamma (Pāli: धम्म) in general terms refers to the teachings of the Buddha.  If I can encapsulate the entire message and purpose of Buddhism, it is this: there is suffering, it can be understood, and there is a way to end suffering.   This was the first and most important teaching of the Buddha (the four noble truths).

Taking Buddhism up and away from the meditation cushion isn’t necessarily easy.  Serious introspection is a personal process.  That said, we live in the real world.  Even monks have to get up, clean house, and eat food.  For people who are socially engaged, trying to better the world, whether it be battling poverty, cleaning the environment, empowering abused women, etc, and who come from the Buddhist world, this can be both an inspiring experience and also a more difficult one.

Activists can be very angry.  Anger gets people to take up arms and take action.  Buddhists come from a peaceful place.  I feel that it comes quite naturally that people who are learning about or who follow the teachings of the Buddha, which all center around ending suffering, would be people who want to extend this to the world.

When I returned from the first Vipassana retreat about 4 months ago, I vowed to myself that I would become engaged in the world again.  Volunteer, give back, participate in activities that matter.  It took some time, but this was my first step.  But I have to admit, it was quite daunting.  I feel that I’ve gained some firmer footing with my dhamma practice.  I wanted to go to this retreat in order to retreat.  It’s been stressful, and this weekend was in many ways a birthday gift from myself (financed by grandma’s annual birthday cash, “buy something nice for yourself, so thank you grandma).   But I felt that everyone there was already very engaged, if not somewhat engaged in activities and organizations who are doing important things.  The shame I’ve felt for a long time, not actively helping, bubbled to the surface.  As I think I’ve said on the blog, I never expected I’d become one of the majority, a member of the complacent couch potato society of the world.  I was so incredibly active in my youth: AIDS outreach, peer counseling, working with at-risk youth, running after-school drama clubs for under-served communities.  But perhaps this is the perfect example of traditional activism and volunteerism: burnout.

Helping the world is noble.  But it is painful.  It hurts.  The more you help, the more you realize how much more help is needed.  You may get to a place where the whole shebang feels hopeless.  Your anger, drive, hard work leaves you empty.  What good is what you’re doing?  Nothing seems to be changing.  Trees keep being chopped down.  People keep getting sick.  Children are still starving.

Sangha at Zen Peacemakers Conference

A Dharma community may be the answer in dealing with this problem.  Coming from a “happier” place, a peaceful place, a real supportive community where pain and suffering has a method to be dealt with, is a great refuge.  In fact, it may be the most important element within the Buddhist path.  There are three refuges:

Buddha (the enlightened one, the teacher, our spiritual potential), the Dhamma (the teaching, the path), and the Sangha (the community).  Buddha himself said that of the three, the Sangha is the most important.  In fact, “By taking refuge in the Sangha, we become the refuge. This is the path of the Buddhas.”

My Path: part of my trouble is making decisions.  There are so many options, in every aspect of life, I often freeze up.  Towards the end of the retreat, as interesting and inspiring as it was, I still wasn’t sure what my actions would be.  Would I join a group that deals with a sort of micro-banking for women?  Would I help poor families get on the economic ladder?  What was my passion?  Because here’s the thing: if you spread yourself too this, nothing much will be accomplished.  The story of my life.  You have to choose one thing, and give it your all.  My “eureka” moment came during a guided “stream of consciousness” exercise, talking about what we cared about, what our skill set was, what projects I could take on.  And it spilled out.

FOOD

I am interested, in fact passionate about food.  My problem having gone to culinary school, working at a winery, writing this vaguely food-esque blog, is that it’s about the food in front of us.  But as you’ve seen, in my posts about the “Anatomy of a muffin,” “How important is it, really, to buy local?,” “Edible Urban Greenery,” and “The Idea Human Diet,” I really go into the origins of the food we eat, the social implications, the historic precedent, the current conditions of the food around us, etc, etc, etc.  There are many more posts, in fact, dealing with organic food, world hunger, and socially-conscious restaurants.  How did I not realize that this is something very important to me??  Even my next novel is all about food and ecology.  The drastic future of food.

So, stay tuned.  There will be a project, big or small as it may be, that I will be spearheading.  Maybe it’s been done before.  Maybe I’ll find that out and start participating (no need to reinvent the wheel).  I want to find out where all of our food comes from, I want to know all about the new science of food, I want to know about who works to make our food, I want to advocate for better food standards, and I want to become involved in organic agriculture.  AND most importantly, I want to share this knowledge with the world. I want to teach.  This will involve a website and a lot more.  I’ve already met people who live on kibbutzes who’ve invited me down to see their massive chicken coops and dairies.  I have vegan friends who are already far more involved in some of these movements.  But I know I don’t want to alienate.  I will not be advocating vegetarianism.  I simply think it’s important to know.  And once we know, we can decide to either make better choices about what we put into our bodies, or help effect change in the bigger picture, or both.  This is my passion:

Agriculture – Ecology – Hunger – Human Rights

If you’d like to join me, learn more, provide insight, advice, intro to organizations, farms in Israel, etc, please contact me.

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I was starving after yoga this morning (Chandra Yoga Studio – amazing teachers & most affordable I’ve found in TA), and stopped at Loveat for a muffin and a free coffee (I had reached my ten!).  In  most religions there is some sort of prayer or thanks for the food, acknowledging some higher power, hard work, and sometimes the people that labored in order to make said food.  During my Vipassana retreat, we were told that each moment was supposed to be (at least an attempt) at meditation – as we were silent 24/7, mealtimes were interesting.  You contemplate every bite.  You think about where the foods come from (I do this a ton anyway, as you know), and more specifically, who had a part in creating them.  Of course, there are the cooks who put things together, the kitchen being a chemistry lab of sorts, to make the raw ingredients into something more delicious or often, actually edible (eggs must be cooked, flour cannot be digested without being worked, etc).

But where does everything come from?

Today, as I ate this delicious bran-pecan-cinnamon muffin, I thought about breaking the recipe of this one food item down, and seeing what it took to create this yummy pastry.

So here’s an ingredient list from a simple cinnamon-pecan muffin recipe I dug up online (courtesy of About.com):

  • 1-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans, lightly toasted
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Some words on agriculture

Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the world.  Some US statistics: In the USA, an average of 516 workers die every year.  It’s also one of the most hazardous industries for young workers.  What does this mean?  Agriculture deaths accounted for 42% of deaths of young workers (17 and under) between 1992-2000, and more than half of these were children under 15 years old.  Over 1 million young people work on farms, their risk 4 times greater than in other work industries, with an average 27,000 injuries sustained every year.

Amazing that this is how we rely on one of the most important resources key to our survival.  These are US statistics, alone.  Goodness knows what it’s like in other countries.

Flour

Wheat harvest

Flour is one of the most important food products in the world, and most is made from wheat. About 20 billion bushels are grown during a year, and Canada, China, France, India, Russia, and the United States grow the most wheat.  Here is a great website that tells you about wheat-growing in brief.  There are four main varieties, some better for bread, others for pastries, and one for pastas, etc.  Dry, mild climates are best.  There are two harvests per year, as there is winter wheat and summer wheat.

After harvesting (big tractors and the like, see picture), the grain goes through a threshing process to separate the cereal grain from the inedible chaff.  Then it is taken to (usually huge) gristmills, where the wheat (or other grain) is ground by use of steel or cast iron rollers.  I imagine there is an intricate packaging process, and then there is worldwide distribution.  I can’t imagine the millions of people involved in bringing us just the flour that we use to bake bread and other baked items we depend upon (that we, in turn, built factories to outsource the production of which).  Because most like white bread, flours are bleached using chemical oxidizing elements.

Sugar

Sugarcane

Sugar is made from either sugarcane (70% of worldwide sugar production) or sugar beets (30%).  Brazil is the largest producer of sugar today, although more than 110 countries in the world grow sugarcane, and the EU and Ukraine are the largest exporters of sugar beets.  The cane is indigenous to Southeast Asia, with India being the earliest producer of sugar.  There are two stages to process the cane – first the milling (a long process), shredding, crushing, and collecting the juice – then cooking to extract the actual sugar.  Sometimes some bleaching occurs here.  The second part is the refining, cleaning and clarifying of the raw sugar with various processes (some chemical using acids), and a further bleaching. (Packaging, shipping, etc, etc, bla bla bla)

Baking Powder

Baking powder is a chemical agent used in baking, obviously, to make cakes and such rise without the fermentation that yeast produces.  It’s made up of (usually) sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and an inert ingredient like cornstarch.  Sodium Bicarbonate is produced in a lab, although it also is naturally occurring and can be mined.  The most common way to produce it is through the Solvay process, which is the reaction of calcium carbonate, sodium chloride, ammonia, and carbon dioxide in water.  Hmm.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a small evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka, and is now cultivated commercially all over South and Southeast Asia, the West Indies, Brazil, and parts of Africa.  The plant is grown for 3-4 years, then undergoes coppicing which means it’s cut low to encourage lots of little shoots to grow out of it.  The shoots are harvested, stripped of bark to get to the inner bark, the strips of which curl, then are immediately processed and dried carefully.  Timing apparently is really of the essence in this process.

Salt

The salt we eat is refined NaCl – Sodium Chloride.  It’s produced by drying seawater or by mining.  These are huge operations.  Salt used to be more precious than gold.

Pecans

Unripe pecans on tree

Pecan is a species of hickory, the word itself meaning “nut requiring a stone to crack” in Algonquin.  The trees are native to North America, and are one of the most recently cultivated crops in the world.  Even in American colonial times, the wild pecan was eaten only as a delicacy.  The US produces between 80-95% of the world’s pecans.   A pecan tree can live and produce edible fruit for more than 300 years.

Eggs

Usually produced by chickens, most sold are unfertilized (no roosters around), and hence don’t harm potential life.  That said, most egg-producing chickens (there are two breeds almost exclusively these days, those for eggs (layers) and those for eating (roasters), all native breeds almost overtaken).  These chickens live in terrible conditions, the minimum amount of room allowed (they never move), their beaks often broken to prevent them from hurting each other and themselves, disease runs rampant, and I can go on and on.  Free range eggs aren’t much better, when you look into it.

Milk

In the western world, cow’s milk is produced entirely industrially.  Huge farms, automated milking, hormones, antibiotics, the works.  The largest producers of milk are India, the USA, Germany, and Pakistan.  I hope that my milk comes locally – Israelis have a huge dairy industry compared to other countries of the same size, I think.  Then again, so much dairy used in junk food is powdered (“milk solids”)…and that could have come from anywhere.

Vegetable Oil

Lipids extracted from plants – today done chemically. The crude oil produced is not edible, and it must go through other chemical processes in order to create a type of fat we can actually consume.

Conclusion:

To make a muffin, my ingredients are grown or mined or chemically created and brought to me from potentially over a hundred different countries around the world.  It’s at least a couple dozen.  Hundreds of industrial refining processes are used, not to mention all of the packaging and shipping worldwide, on airplanes, ships, trucks, and probably even animal drawn (or human drawn) vehicles.  Other factories may have been involved in my home country to further cook or refine some ingredients.  Then the baker or bakery or industrial bakery bought these goods, and combined and cooked them to specification.  The process of bringing these elements together could have taken years for some of the ingredients.  Millions of people were involved.  Many, many of which were in grave danger and received very low pay for their labor.

It really makes you think.  Every time you bite into anything.  Anything.  You’re biting into the labor of millions.  Even if it’s a raw fruit.  Someone had to plant it, work the fields, pick the fruit, package, ship it, sell it.  My goodness.  For good or bad.  How divorced have we become from our food?  We eat blindly.  Absolutely blindly.  I cannot even find out where my rice (or most any other product) was grown.  My grocer usually doesn’t know where the produce came from.  It’s scary.

All that work.  Blood, sweat, tears.  Injury and death.  All for my overpriced morning muffin.

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Eating in America (continued) — Budget Vegetarian Dining Adventures

New York cuisine proved to be far more interesting than Chicago’s, although I am certain this isn’t at all a rule.  This is probably because I saw more friends, ate less at my sister’s place, and was generally “on vacation.”  Here are the places, some exceptional, some pretty mediocre, that I patronized.

  • Popover Cafe

    Popover Café – typical yuppie breakfast place with a specialty in super-inflated-fluffy popover buns (if you can call them that).  We got in early-ish (before 10:30) and didn’t have to wait for a table.  Lots of interesting egg dishes.  Funny rule in NYC – no alcohol served before 12 noon on Sundays.  I really wanted my bloody mary or mimosa.  I really did.  Finally stateside in a proper decent breakfast place, and no booze to take the edge off the weekend.  Goodness.  I made up for it that night, though.

  • Landmarc.  Ick. Ick.  Overpriced ick.  Besides a salad or something, close to no veg options of interest on the menu.  There are daily pasta specials, and one was agreed to be made for me sans meet.  The waitress went on and on about how todays risotto was great.  And I love risotto.  Better than fetuccini  alfredo any day as a veg option.  And you know what I got?  Pretty much fettuccini Alfredo.  No risotto.  We were in a hurry and I was really hungry.  I didn’t say anything.  So I’m saying something now.  First of all, if you’re a tourist in NYC – don’t go to TriBeCa besides the World Trade Center site.  Seriously, there’s nothing to see.  I really don’t want to put people down, but only wealthy artists and yuppies live seem to live there.  It’s not too pretty either.  Second, if you live there or are visiting someone who lives there, I wouldn’t go to this restaurant, especially if you don’t eat meat.  There’s a perfectly charming bakery down the block on Duane.  They’re way famous and overpriced, too, but at least you can’t mess up a cupcake or croissant too badly, and their mint tea really hit the spot when I was stuck in a huge downpour.  Just don’t eat in TriBeCa unless you do your homework.  Ugh.  At least the wine was good, and they had plenty of half-bottles.  Getting pleasantly sloshed took some of the frustration off of the crappy pasta.
  • Better Being Underground – yes that’s the name – awesomeness in a paper bag.  Tzaziki egg salad sandwich.  Incredible gourmet soup with pears and I can’t remember what else.  Not cheap but not expensive, given the amazing ingredients and speed.  It’s one of those sit-down-break-open-a-bottle-of-bubbly-just-because kind of lunches except it’s in a tiny basement without any seating and you grab what you want or wait a couple minutes while they make it for you.  Yes.  At least al fresco dining was to be had at a sweet little park across the street.
  • Food Exchange Café – At least it might be.  It could be the Oxford Café.  I can’t remember the name, so I’ve googled the entire (59th and Lexington) area, and these two seemed the likeliest candidate.  The only two options on the block, and both sound like delis.  Honestly I was only there for a few minutes.  I’m writing about it because it seemed like a typical office-worker-lunch.  Very NYC.  A hurried lunch if I’ve ever seen one.  A counter.  All the diverse, delicious sandwiches already made.  You point, they grill or not, according to what you want.  You pay somewhere else.  It comes out to you.  You stand and eat.  Or you go to a tiny park facing some giant bridge and noisy intersection on 59th.  It’s all good.  My three-cheese caprese was just that.  I miss Italy.
  • Pomme Café Astoria – it’s nice that people realize that they’ll get more business if their décor is just right.  It helps if it’s all in the right neighborhood.  And Astoria seems to be just that.  Really hip.  Lots of cool looking restaurants.  If not for the lack of high buildings and slightly shabbier look, it could be the Upper East Side, not Queens.  The food was very pretty on the plate.  My mushroom truffle risotto was perhaps the best thing I ate in NYC all week, miniscule as it was (as it should be, say I).  Again, yes, maybe I should give them a break because it is a French place, but there was nothing veg on the menu besides that risotto (an appetizer), the onion soup, and two salads.  And it was a beautiful authentic upscale French bistro menu.  Great, great, creamy, crisp crème brulee.  Just as it needed to be.  This place I would recommend.  Great drinks list.  I had Talisker and Johnny Walker Green.
  • Brooklyn Label Cafe

    Brooklyn Label Cafe – Organic tofu and cheese and potato scrambler.  Oh yeah.  My friend always gets the scrambled eggs that come with a huge side of roasted beets.  It’s delicious.  Lots of creative veg.  Lots of creative non veg.  It’s a rocking joint.  A raving recommendation from me.  It’s such a hipster spot.  Really warm and welcoming.  The food is just interesting, flavorful, and comforting.  Yay for Greenpoint!

  • Café Grumpy – Awesome green tea.  Great to work at.  Quiet.  Funky.  Yes, yes, yes.  I wish we had cafes like this in Israel.  Hip and quiet and tasty and so internet friendly you’d think it was the Skokie Public Library.  Gotta love Brooklyn!

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Eating in America – Casual Budget Vegetarian Dining

It has never been this difficult to be a vegetarian in the United States.  Perhaps I take it for granted, living in Israel – everything is so salad-based, so kosher-themed (if not kosher itself) with meat and milk being eaten separately, that more than half the choices at any given time seem to be vegetarian.  Not so in the US.  Have times changed since I was last a vegetarian (1992-2000)?  Granted, I was a child (13-21) when I last abstained from eating animals and was less aware and ate out less as a rule.

For my own sake I decided to document where I ate over the course of my trip.  Usually I made choices according to budget, convenience, and menu, in that order, unfortunately or fortunately.  I think I gained a kilo or two while away.  Oh well.

I’ll go city by city, as there’s a lot of text.  Chicago is the least interesting because I got to eat and cook at home, which is far cheaper and far far more interesting fare than at most eateries I can think of.

Chicago

  • Panera Bread – Walking into an establishment that appears so healthy, fresh, and modern like Panera Bread – and be presented with only 1 meat-free sandwich – is quite frankly appalling.  Two vegetarian soups and three simple (dull – green, Greek, etc) vegetarian salads (out of 8) were also on the menu.  I ended up taking half a Mediterranean sandwich (very dry and exceptionally uninteresting, seeing as I live on the Mediterranean coast myself) and a tomato-based vegetable soup.  First time I saw that American eateries are wild about chicken.  Ugh.
  • IHOP – The comfort factor is quite high at a place like this.  In Israel we (I) miss the fast polite service, familiar (butter soaked) foods, and endless cups of crap coffee and half & half.  There is nothing even remotely similar.  IHOP is breakfast, slightly upscale fast food (you get to sit in comfy booths and get served), cheap, and oh so traditional.  Yes, it’s crap.  But it’s good crap.  Crap you miss.  Instead of a stack of chocolate packed pancakes, my parents and I all inadvertently ordered from the “healthy choices” menu, where we could see how many calories we were actually consuming, and this with the egg-substitute, grease-free, veggie-ful type omelets.  So much for overlapping crispy meat byproduct mingling with eggs and sausage swimming in pools of maple syrup.  At least the coffee is still…coffee.  And endlessly we drank.
  • Eduardo’s – Chicago is known worldwide for its unique deep dish pizzas.  They are oh so good, lovely rustic shells of crusts, bursting with thick layers of cheese and rich tomato sauce, one slice being more than a meal in and of itself.  Anywhere but at Eduardo’s so it seems.  The service was so bad, it’s simply not worth mentioning our level of suffering.  And the pizza was crap.  I was embarrassed to be eating it with out of towners.  Enough said.  Go to Pizzeria Uno or Due or Lou Malnatti’s or Giordano’s or whatever.  Eduardo’s was never my favorite.  And I will never be going back after this.
  • The Corner Bakery – this “Lettuce Entertain You” restaurant sure has changed.  It’s fast, slightly interesting Italian, order at the counter style.  But there used to be more choices.  They used to cook most everything in front of you while you waited anxiously.  There were rosemary encrusted loaves and pine nut spinach tarts and the best ceasar salads you can imagine.  Now, eh.  You order everything, and you don’t get to see it.  It does come to your table, though. But the assembly line has taken over.  I had a three-salad combo.  Not much to choose from, I got macaroni caprese, a bean salad, and a Greek salad (I think).  They were pretty unremarkable.  Healthy-ish, though.  Filling.  Decent portion for “fast food.”  A good choice at the mall, I guess.
  • The Celtic Knot – Evanston – Awesome. Irish pub, Irish-British cuisine. Comfort food with an upscale twist. 90% meat menu, but the veg options were brilliant.  My mother had a portabella sandwich with freshly fried potato chips (not fries, for those non-American readers).  I got a warm spinach salad with goat cheese, cranberries, and candied walnuts.  That was heaven.  Best meal in Chicago, by far, and on my last night in town.  We ate the meal accompanied by Cider (mother) and a Snake Eyes for me (half cider, half lager – a drink that’s illegal in many parts of the British Isles because it’s said to raise a person’s temper and make them mean and prone to fighting.  Don’t ask me why.  Someone once ordered one when I was bartending in London, and not knowing what it was, went to the asst. manager.  He told me what it was, said I was never to make one, and then he proceeded to pour one for the gentleman because “he knew him.”)

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