I’m pretty sure I’m on a never-ending Mediterranean food kick, and my obsession is likely here to stay. I was always a fan, but my tastebuds were reawakened on my recent trip to Israel and Greece. It’s just so hard to beat the vibrant colors of fresh vegetables, the glossy sheen of olive oil coating the curves and edges of freshly cut produce and seafood delights, and the purity and authenticity of earthy treasures, whether from land and sea. While Mediterranean food in the States is tasty, the food along my travels is hard to forget or replicate. The hummus is just a little bit creamier, the fish tastes fresher, and even the cucumbers are crunchier. To prove that my obsession is an obsession, here’s a snapshot of my recent 6-ingredient homemade Mediterranean salads.I’ve added mango and sun dried tomatoes, when on-hand to vary it up. Freshly ground pepper is my new favorite salad ingredient – it just takes the flavors up a notch. I have been missing out – until Greece!
Back to my travels…This whole fresh fish was only one part of our unforgettable first meal of the trip at Benny HaDayag (Benny the Fisherman) in Tel Aviv, at a table al fresco on the shores of the Mediterranean sea with the sound of waves crashing against the boardwalk as we dined. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? It was a dream.
A couple days into the trip, our travel group got to choose a track among adventure, politics, tech, and food. While the decision between tech and food was a tricky one, I decided the food track would provide me with a more immersive cultural experience. I made the right decision. We started off at Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv, on a quiet week day morning, hopping from storefront to storefront in a neighborhood that doubled as a market. Each shop had its own specialty, including spices, dried fruits and nuts (like the starfruit below), Greek bakery treats, the official flavored soft drinks of Tel Aviv, and more. This was just the post-breakfast warm-up for a day and night of eating!
Along our trip, we also stopped at a produce farm, where beautifully bright Pomegranates were growing on trees. I’d grown up learning about the Jewish symbolism of the fruit that can have between 200 and 1400 seeds, and is known to have 613, also the number of commandments said to be written about in the Torah. I’ve always thought the peculiar fruit was a special one, since it can be quite the challenge to gather the seeds, the true tasty gems, from inside without making a mess. I love the vibrant cranberry color of the fruit with the green leaves against the almost periwinkle clear blue sky. Nature’s beauty.
At the market, we stopped in a Greek bakery, where we got to taste flaky pastries with fillings like potato and mushroom, topped with sesame seeds known as Böreks, or Burekas. This was a first for me and the mushroom was my favorite!
Our food tour guide stopped at this spice shop below and referred to the owner as “The Dr.”, assuring us that he had a solution for whatever ails his customers as spices and herbs have many healing properties. The scents were so aromatic and made our walk through the neighborhood come to life. I was especially a fan of the scent and flavor of Za’atar, which is a spice mix including oregano, thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and sometimes salt. We had tasted it spread on pita at lunch the day before and I had identified the fresh oregano. I then learned about the mixture at the market and that you can purchase it already made.
As you can see, tomatoes and bright fresh vegetables were central to all meals, but especially breakfast. I have to say, we were so lucky to have the most incredible breakfast spreads greeting us every early morning on the tour. The spread below is only a portion of the breakfast options and my daily start included tuna, tomatoes, fresh bread, lox, and goat cream cheese (I need to get my hands on this creamy delight in the States!)
Tomatoes, a key component of almost every meal, were also a highlight of the Ramat Hanegev farm, where the plants are watered with salty water, surprisingly producing sweeter fruit. The tour group I traveled with helps support this farm, and it was such a delight to taste the result.
Our second-to-last stop on our Food Track day was at the home of a Moroccan woman and should-be chef named Aliyah. She lived on a Moshav, which is a a community of farmers, more like a neighborhood. She is compensated for cooking for travelers that come to learn about local cuisine. Lunch in her home was like a Thanksgiving meal and of restaurant quality! The food did not stop coming – and it was so hard to stop tasting it! I loved the way she served many small dishes so we could taste so many flavors and textures of Moroccan cuisine. My favorite were the lamb meatballs that were sweet and comforting, with couscous and cashews. Her beat salad was fresh, her roasted carrots were smooth, yet hearty, and her roasted tomato salad was acidic and sweet.
We ended on a sweet note with Moroccan donuts – I had to taste the local flavor! They were dipped in a special honey glaze that I think also had vanilla in them. They were airy, chewy, and such a delight.
Aliyah was the sweetest woman, and her cooking is divine. I felt so lucky to learn about Moroccan cuisine from her and even purchased a cookbook with recipes from all of the chefs in the Moshav travel program! She even grows many of the herbs she cooks with in her garden and she made everything look so effortless, even though she said she was up most of the night preparing for our group of about 15 to dine in her home.
I’ll leave you with my favorite new Mediterranean delicacy that my fabulous travel buddy and I indulged in on our first night in Mykonos, Greece – grilled Octopus. Our waiter told us they pounded the octopus 100 times (no fewer) and let it dry for 24 hours in the sun before slicing it and grilling it. That’s the trick to tender octopus – who’s up for the challenge? I think I’m more likely to travel to Greece again before mastering this delicacy.
Ready to dive into Mediterranean cuisine with me? It’s in my kitchen to stay…