Thursday, February 25, 2016

MARKETS: Jerusalem's Shuk Machane Yehuda

Jerusalem is in the heart of one of the world's most ancient crossroads of cultures, religions, history...time itself, really. Walking through the city's Machane Yehuda market, one feels a part of the timeless bustle.

Referred to as a shuk ("shook") in Hebrew, this marketplace was originally open-air, and is now partially covered. This neighborhood outside of the old city walls was established in 1887, founded by three business partners (including one German Protestant), named after the brother of one of the owners (Yehuda). A market was established at the end of the 19th century to serve the growing areas outside the Old City, where Arab vendors sold their goods. But under Ottoman rule, the market expanded rapidly and without real order, and sanitation conditions grew unsustainabe until the late 1920's, when British mandate authorities cleared everyone out and installed a permanent market structure known by its present-day name, the Mechane Yehuda Market.

As is common around historic market squares in cities the world over, the major streets on the perimeters of the market are bisected by smaller side streets that were once all named for items sold in the market -- in this case, fruits and nuts: Afarsek (peach) Street, Agas (pear) Street, Egoz (walnut) Street, Shaked (almond), Shezif (plum), Tapuach (apple), and Tut (berry) Streets. In 1931, a new section of the market was built by 20 traders who previously only had temporary wooden stalls in this area to the west of the main market. This arm of the market was dubbed the Iraqi Market, for its traders were largely Iraqi Jews. Today the Iraqi Market is located right off of Mechane Yehuda Street, and offers lots of exotic middle eastern spices, fruits, herbs, and various specialty items.

The Machane Yehuda market boasts more than 250 vendors of all varieties. Some sell fresh fruits and vegetables as in a greenmarket; others sell baked goods and breads; cured meats and cheeses; nuts, seeds, pastas, spices and spice blends; meat and fish; wines and liquors; and some sell non-edibles like clothing and shoes, textiles and tapestries, housewares, and Judaica. (No market in Israel is complete without some kind of Judaica shop contained within its walls!). You'll be overwhelmed by the gorgeous displays of fresh fruit and veggies, which clearly place you smack in the middle of the Middle East and Mediterranean! Pomegranates (thought to be the original "apple" in the Garden of Eden) abound, and figs and dates and eggplant and tomatoes and olives are everywhere.

Another classic in large markets? Plenty of stands and shops selling prepared foods to eat on the spot, or while walking the market lanes. There are a multitude of falafel, shawarma, kebab, shashlik, mixed grill, baklava, and halva stands, along with juice bars and fruit sellers with fruit cups and various preparations ready for easy consumption. All of this is within the classic market atmosphere of vendors yelling out prices to entice shoppers, and those exhibiting their goods to passersby. On Thurdays and particularly Friday afternoons, the market is packed with shoppers stocking up for shabbat, the sabbath, since the devout must prepare meals ahead of time so no work is done during the sabbath (until sundown Saturday evening). Friday afternoon in the marketplace hears the sounding of the bugle marking the closing of the market for shabbat. Everyone scurries to finish their shopping while there's still time.

In the aughts, a major overhaul took place in the Machane Yehuda Market. The infrastructure was updated, roads were repaved, and some open areas were covered. This is partly in response to the 1997 and 2002 terrorist attacks of the marketplace which killed 23 people. One change that the market's board put into place -- to bring back the tourists and the local shoppers alike -- was drawing in more cafes, boutiques, and bars (some featuring live music) to set up shop here. The thought was that these "hot spots" would lure more regular visitors to become frequent shoppers -- and frequent patrons of the cafes and restaurants. And it's worked. The shuk has become quite a nightlife hub in Jerusalem. In fact, the market has so enlivened the neighborhood that one of the top restaurants in Jerusalem -- and all of Israel, by most standards -- is located within the market: Machneyuda. Launched in 2009, this has been one of the hardest reservations to get in Israel (I know, I tried!). Notable Chef and slow food advocate Yossi Asaf paired with some local Iron Chef winners to create a market-driven, homey environment for both traditional Levant-area specialties and modern Mediterranean cuisine. The bi-level restaurant is always bustling, and the open kitchen allows diners to share in the high-energy, frenetic restaurant kitchen experience. Clearly the Machane Yehuda shuk and all of its winding alleyways and side streets, and its restaurants and bars contained within, have become a Jerusalem epicenter for culinary and cultural experiences. Don't miss it the next time you're in the Holy Land!

Official website in English:
Sun - Thurs, 8 am to 7 pm
Friday 8 am to 3 pm
Bars and restaurants that stay open later within the market generally must follow city rules, including a ban on loud music after 11 pm.

Machneyuda Restaurant
Beit Ya'akov St. 10
+972 2 533 3442

Thursday, February 18, 2016

RECIPE: Ethereal Mushroom Soup

It is winter in New York. And while this year has been a much milder winter season than in recent years, it's still February. It's still cold in spells and we're all still starved for sun, birds chirping, and the sun setting after 6 pm. Personally, I was really looking forward to a fantastic 2016...and then promptly got sick on January 1st. And again on January 31st. So, I've had a lot of "down time," as it were, to ponder life, and what to eat. I've had plenty of cozy hours indoors, as a sick couch potato and a binge-watcher and a reader and a daydreamer, and in all of this time, I've been making a lot of soups. This is nothing new for me for the early part of the year, and soups are a very healthy way to warm the bones and fill up with a great bowl of healthy tasty stuff. I've made some of the usuals in my repertoire: Tuscan white bean and kale soup, butternut squash puree, Asian beef broth with noodles and veggies, and of course Jewish penicillin a.k.a. matzo ball soup. But while I was between cold and flu, in mid-January, I had a partial Roman posse over for a dinner party -- they were my ladies who were in from Rome and Boston and Rhode Island and some from the NY metro area, and I of course wanted to feed them well. 

After appetizers and stuzzichini and prosecco in the living room, we started in on the meal with a creamy pureed mushroom soup. This was inspired by an amazing version my friend Jessica ordered in Santiago, Chile, at a very spiffy restaurant called Puerto Fuy (see It was the essence of mushroom earthiness, but it was also somehow light as air. I wanted to recreate that, not only because it was so delicious, but also because my friend Jessica was in attendance at my dinner party, and it had been pretty much exactly two years since we'd eaten that sublime soup. Also, Jessica declares that she is "over chewing" -- and as a result, she tends to puree everything she possibly can. She appreciated my efforts on behalf of her jaw! But really, I was incorporating two of the healthiest, anti-carcinogenic foods (mushrooms and onions) together in one dish. The recipe is simple because I wanted the soup to be a distilled essence. I wanted to taste the variety of mushrooms that went into the soup, and little else. So that's how I made it. I topped it off with fresh thyme and a gastrique of blackberries and balsamic, inspired by the Italian idea of "frutti del bosco" -- literally translated, it's "fruits of the forest," and that's what blackberries and mushrooms are. In Rome, the old lady in my local market square where I sourced porcini and funghi of all kinds sold only two things: mushrooms and berries, in theory, two items that could have been gathered in one trip to the forest. Frutti del bosco. Here they are, and here is my recipe. This is for you, Jess, and for our trip to Chile, and for the old mushroom lady in Campo de Fiori who is no more. Enjoy it on one of these cold winter nights.

Serves 6-8 

4 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 white onion, finely diced 
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
2 pints white mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 pints mixed Asian mushrooms (shitake, maitake, etc.)
2 pints hen of the woods or oyster mushrooms
4 large portobello mushroom caps
10 cups mushroom stock/vegetable broth (including the water from soaking the dried porcini)  
3/4 cup organic heavy cream  
sprigs of thyme and rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste

- Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, and pour over dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl to soak for at least 10 minutes.
- Wipe mushrooms clean with a damp cloth, cut off stems with dirt attached, and give them all a rough chop so they're all roughly the same size (1/4 - 1/2 inch pieces)
- In a large soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Toss in the onion and garlic and saute for 60 seconds to soften. Lower the heat slightly and sweat the onion and garlic for another 3 minutes.
- Add the mushrooms, bit by bit, just so there are enough to cover the bottom of the pan. When they cook down a bit, add another bunch to the pot. Continue this way until all of the mushrooms are cooking (and losing water) in the pot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Remove the soaking porcini from the water with your hands, and ring out the mushrooms so they have as little water content as possible (keep the water!). Chop these and add them to the cooking mushrooms in the pot.
- Strain the mushroom soaking liquid through a mesh strainer lined with a paper towel, to catch any sediment, into a bowl.
- Add the mushroom soaking liquid and mushroom or vegetable stock to the mushrooms in the pot. Allow this to come to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and allow to simmer for 30 minutes, so the flavors meld. You can add a touch of thyme and/or rosemary at this point (but sparingly -- otherwise the herbs tend to taste medicinal).
- Using an immersion blender, puree the mushrooms and stock until smooth. At this point, add the heavy cream and adjust for salt and pepper. Blend again. The soup can be thinned with additional stock if necessary.

Soup can be served with a fresh herb garnish and a blackberry gastrique: simply cook a pint or two of blackberries in a small saucepan with a pinch of salt, a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar. Puree in a blender or food processor when done, and strain through a mesh sieve into a squirt bottle. Simply squeeze a swirl of blackberry gastrique onto the top of the mushroom soup just before serving.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

QUICK BITE: Citrus, Fennel, and Olive Salad

In the dead of winter, when it's full-on season for soups and stews and slow-cooked meats, and root vegetables rule the local bistro menus...well, I enjoy indulging in languid winter cooking and eating rituals, but sometimes I could really use a little culinary levity. And I think if anyone understands this feeling, it's the Sicilians. They are blessed not only with a temperate island climate -- even mid-winter -- but also with an abundance of cheery citrus fruit throughout the winter, including the amazingly delicious and colorful blood oranges. 

Fennel is a vegetable that straddles root veg and refreshing stalk, an anise-perfumed crunchy salad base when raw, which is incidentally really the only way I like my fennel. Add to this pairing of fragrant crispness and sunny, sweet-tart citrus a bit of the local briny olive (Castelvetrano is my green Sicilian favorite), and you've got a trio made in heaven. I toss it all with a bit of extra virgin olive oil -- Sicilian if you can get your hands on it -- some sea salt (from Trapani would be ideal), and a little of the citrus juice that remains in the bowl over which you cut the blood oranges and grapefruit. It's sort of a naturally-occurring citronette, and it's all the dressing this salad needs. Finish it off with some of the fennel fronds as a bit of an herbal touch, and you're done. Unless, of course, you want to toss a few almonds or pine nuts onto the salad -- perfectly acceptable Sicilian nuts that work with the salad and add a little healthy fat and a little crunch into the mix. This salad is my antidote to the heavy midwinter food blues. And it's gorgeous on the plate! Buon appetito!