One of my main rules of cooking is that I never make anything that I don’t like. And I have never liked anything with an anise flavor. Never. I have even returned dishes in restaurants if they have too strong of a tarragon or anise basil seasoning.
A few years ago, I overheard my friend Naomi saying, “don’t yuck someone’s yum.” A pithy little phrase, but one that I sometimes have difficulty following. However, writing here has taken my cooking and exploration of food to a new level, and is an opportunity to check out things that I have not normally been particularly keen on.
So, when I went to a cooking demonstration at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts last week, I was thrilled to discover that of the dishes made, my favorite was a fennel and pistachio salad. Janna Gur, the Chief Editor of Al HaShulchan, Israel’s monthly foodie magazine, taught the course and took the participants on a gastronomic tour of Israel.
The two main written recipes that Gur shared with us were actually ones she received from chef/ restaurateur/ artisan bread baker Erez Komarovsky (owner of Lechem Erez/Erez Breads); they were tied together by what she called “the beauty of their monochromatic palettes.” First, there was my favorite, the fennel salad with its yellow sand greens, and then a beetroot and pomegranate salad that Gur described as “a tiny jewel box” with its ruby colors and whose flavors together “sing.”
Gur also demonstrated a technique for “burnt eggplant” roasted on a gas burner or in the oven (prick the skin if you’re making in the oven to prevent an explosion) until the skin is charred and flesh is soft. She then shared a few variations on how to serve:
- traditional eggplant salad with mayonnaise and lemon
- “baba deconstructed”: split burnt eggplant and flatten on plate; top with baba ingredients – tahina, lemon juice, tomato seeds, honey, fresh herbs, and then serve – eater scoops out the eggplant with its toppings
- Gur’s Romanian mother’s eggplant salad (she called it the “reds and the blues” – for the tomatoes and eggplants): scoop flesh out of the eggplant and chop; mix with grated tomatos (liquid reserved), chopped tomatoes, grated onions (so less sharp), chopped garlic, salt, pepper, and vegetable oil (not olive oil)
Woven throughout the demonstration were pictures and anecdotes of Israel’s progression from a literal culinary wasteland in the 1980s when Gur was an El Al flight attendant, carrying oranges from Florida and olives from Greece, to its current reclaiming of its historical title, “eretz chalav u’dvash” — the land flowing with milk and honey. Today you can find groves of pomegranates. A rich melting pot of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish, Arabic, Mediterranean, and North African flavors and influences. Wineries rivaling those in France. Classics reinvented like Turkish malabi, a pudding made with rose water, turned into a rosewater-topped cheesecake.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to devour the cookbook that Gur signed for me and, given the success of the fennel salad, I can’t wait to try more recipes.
Erez Komarovsky’s Monochromatic Fennel and Pistachio Salad
There must be some chemisty (magic?) involved in the technique of submerging the cut fennel in ice water and then mingling with lemon suprêmes (in Israel, apparently these are called “fillets”) before adding a honey-based dressing with a little kick from a hot pepper. Whatever it is, I was determined to recreate the recipe as soon as I could buy some fennel for the first time in my life! Coming from an anise “yucker” that’s saying a lot. Perhaps my taste buds are changing. [For example, recently I bought some Absenthe on a whim and found it not altogether distasteful. And I did not have more than a few sips, so I can't blame my judgment or lack thereof on la fée verte.] Or perhaps, Janna Gur and Erez Komarovsky are just that good. I’m betting on the latter.
If the acid in the lemon is too strong for you, try some Granny Smith apple, sliced into thin segments to provide tartness with less acidity and keeping with the color palette. Add a splash of lemon juice to prevent the apples from turning brown.
- 2 large of 3-4 small fennel bulbs
- 1/2 C lemon suprêmes (or, as Gur calls them, filleted lemon segments) – 3-4 lemons at least
- Coarse sea salt
- 1/4 C delicate olive oil
- 1 hot green pepper, chopped finely (I used a serrano pepper)
- 2 T honey
- 1/2 C pistachio nuts, roasted and crushed (I used unsalted ones)
Cut the fennel bulbs in half and then into thin longitudinal slices. Soak in ice water for about 30 minutes (I just stuck in a bowl of cold water and then in my freezer).
While soaking, roast pistachio nuts in 350ºF for about 10 minutes and allow to cool.
Drain and mix the fennel slices with the lemon segments (reserve juice for later). Sprinkle coarse sea salt on top and set aside to rest for 15 more minutes.
Mix fennel and lemon salad with olive oil, hot pepper, and honey. Add nuts immediately before serving.
I had a little bit of leftover salad and, after marinating for 2 more days, it was great thrown on baby mixed greens with a few more roasted pistachios.
** DOCTOR’S NOTE: Proceed with caution due to the recent salmonella scare and recall associated with pistachios. Roasting is supposed to kill the bacteria, and I always roast nuts myself. Do what makes you comfortable in this respect. The salad can obviously be made without pistachios. Try pinenuts instead.
Erez Komarovsky’s “Jewel Box” Beetroot and Pomegranate Salad
From Janna Gur’s The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey. I have not yet tried to make this salad at home, but it was also excellent (but I like beets!).
- 3-4 medium beets (if you want to cheat, you can probably use canned)
-2 T pomegranate concentrate (Pomi juice should work)
- 2-3 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2-3 dried chili peppers, crushed
- Coarse sea salt
- 1/4 C delicate olive oil
- 1/2 C fresh cilantro leaves
- 1 C pomegranate seeds – we used pre-packaged pomegranate seeds in the class; the trick to removing seeds from a pomegranate is to cut into quarters and then submerge in cold water – many of the seeds will rise to the surface; you can gently tease the remaining seeds from the white membranes with your fingers under water
Boil beets in water until tender. Cool, peel, and cut into a very small dice.
Mix with the pomegranate concentrate, lemon juice, peppers, and coarse sea salt. Set aside for ~15 minutes.
Mix the salad with the cilantro leaves and pomegranate seeds. Pour olive oil on top and serve.