Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Faye Levy

Feeling good about my decision to tackle Faye Levy's cookbook, I read the Acknowledgments section this morning. As I get older, I enjoy reading Acknowledgments sections more and more. More and more often, the name of someone I know pops up there. I didn't personally know anyone in Faye's list, but there were many connections confirming her clout and qualifications.
Turns out she worked for Ruth Sirkis for two years. Ruth Sirkis pretty much wrote the book (several books, actually) on Israeli cooking. Every Israeli household has at least one of her books. I thought about selecting her as my Julia but a)I might have to read her in Hebrew and b) though classic, many of her books are really dated and none too attractive looking. Still, she's an authority and it's nice to know I can get a taste of her so-to-speak through Faye.

Also Faye recieved inspiration from none other than - you guessed it - Julia Child who told her to write a "high-class book on Jewish cooking". So there you have it.

Pepper Salad

OK, so I started with that North African pepper salad. I was too frustrated and tired from traffic to make it Sunday night, but it was still on my mind when I woke early Monday morning so boom, I made it. Truth is I've made it before. Or some variation of it anyway, inspired by the version my host mother in France used to make. Basically you roast some peppers and tomatoes and garlic, peel 'em, slice into fleshy slivers and marinate in olive oil and lemon juice.
I decided to make it more interesting for myself I would really try to follow Faye's instructions, including the idea of putting the roasted peppers in plastic bags for 10 minutes before peeling. That way I'd learn something new, perhaps.

Well the cool thing was that I finally made the right selection on my oven for broiling. So the peppers got charred right quick. I wasn't so crazy about the plastic bag plan. It made me nervous thinking that poisonous somethings might be getting into my food, also they might stick. I learned a neater variation of this trick from my friend Jordan back when we lived in Paris one summer and cooked together a lot. He used paper bags. You trap them then shake the paper bags and the charred skins come right off. Mostly. Well we don't really get paper food bags here so it was just as well to try the plastic. I thought maybe it would keep them juicier, more flavorful. I'm not sure. What is true is that it still takes some struggling with fingernails and or knives to really get the last bit of cellophane like skins off. Days later I found bits of the red suckers under my nails, each time thinking I was bleeding.

Roasted pepper flesh is very nice, very fleshy, soft and rich. I was lazy and used frozen garlic bits, a concession I started making since I came back from bed rest. Roasted would have been better and I made a note to buy some real garlic again. The frozen stuff is fine in a soup or sautee. Anyway I added too much lemon juice because well, my lemon was a small, green, tough little sucker and once I'd gotten its juice out I didn't want to stop at 2.5 tablespoons. This made the lemon juice: olive oil ratio a bit off. It should have been 1:1. OK, so it was a bit extra lemmony. Anyway this salad is best after sitting for a while so I left it and moved on.


I didn't get to my next recipe until today. As Faye notes, pita bread is available "everywhere" but hey, why not make it at home? Couldn't be easier. A simple dough of flour, yeast, salt, and water. Zehu. That's it. Except that Faye had a funky idea to roll them in sesame seeds. O-kay. I've never seen that before. I've seen 'em with Za'atar and stuff, but not speckled on both sides with sesames but why not?
I had a sense of how the dough should look, example: sliky. What surprised me was Faye's instruction to smack the dough on the counter. I mean, as in whip it down with a vicious slap. A throw. I thought about mashing Hezbollah heads as I did so. Or about Hezbollah wives doing this at home. Maybe the agression they put in their bread got transfered to their men. Anyway it surprised me a bit.

Rising went well in this heat. Shaping them, rolling them out... pretty easy. Now the fun part: baking. I was very very curious to see if they would really puff out into pocketed breads. They did. Or at least the non-sesame ones did. How did they know how to do that? How is it that these same simple ingredients can make so many different kinds of bread? I was stunned to see them looking like, well, pitas.
Except for the sesame ones which didn't look like anything I'd ever seen.

They were all tasty when hot. But frankly I've always found pita a bit boring. So I think I won't be making these again. I prefer the more pillowy, more focaccia like Druze pitas slathered with zaatar and olive oil.

Oh and one more thing. What's with the pita triangle? It's NEVER done here. I mean, NEVER. Never in the history of the Middle East has anyone cut a pita into "triangles"?
OK, maybe I exaggerate. Maybe it has been done. I might have even seen my mother-in-law do it once at a party. ONCE. But don't be fooled, it is not natural. Even though Faye says to do it with your left over pitas, just say no.
What if you just want a little bit of pita? You rip it. With your fingers. The way civilized French people do in the comfort of their own homes with baguettes. You put the unused portion back on the communal plate.

Meanwhile, the pepper salad while still very lemonny has mellowed into something really nice.

For a quick dinner I made Faye's eggs with mushrooms and cayanne pepper. It was speedy except for washing the mushrooms which I always find to be so very annoying. Why can't they get those last bits of dirt off in the mushroom washing center? If you leave them on, it's nasty. But you don't want to abuse the poor mushrooms too much, braise their dainty skins or whatever.
I hacked the mushrooms into quarters. Or in some cases, less than quarters because some of them weren't that small. I sauteed them with olive oil and butter. Why not? Fay said either or, or both. One thing I've noticed since abandoning the self-starvation of the last two years in favor of pregnancy indulgences: butter is delicious. I added salt and pepper and a dash of red pepper flakes and oops, almost forgot it, some cumin. Then toss in the scrambled eggs and scramble some more till they set.

Not too pretty, really. The eggs get a bit brownish and really we're just looking at scrambled eggs with mushrooms but it tasted good and it fit the tall order of being ready in time for Adi to wolf down before rushing off to his Yiddish lesson with Bertha.

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