My latest article about atareen, or herbalists, in Palestine:
After a six-month winter hiatus, my three chickens have started to produce some eggs. I love the large creamy yolks. And after trying these free-range chicken eggs, it’s difficult to go back to the factory eggs where chickens spend their lives in a teeny cage with a light bulb and are forced to extract egg after egg all year long. I could not bring myself to buy these eggs so I too took a six-month hiatus from eating eggs.
After I had my fill of scrambled, soft boiled, and sunny side up eggs, I was ready for eggs and potato. Eggs and potato fried for breakfast. Eggs and potato boiled and flavored for an awesome egg salad sandwich for lunch. I want me some eggs and potato, but they have to be baladi.
It is March in Palestine and baladi eggs and potatoes are in season. I walked through the main market, al hisbeh, in Al beirh in search of the soil covered potatoes. There were none. Only mesh bags of polished clean potatoes were on display. All Israeli. No baladi in the main vegetable market in town. How could this be? I thought there was a call out to boycott Israeli products. Did they forget to include the produce?
Later in the week, I decided to walk through the Masrara market in Jerusalem after Friday prayers. I love the energy on the streets. The Masrara market is open all week long, but it expands on Fridays. Vendors spread out their goodies on the streets and sidewalk. Fish. Grilled meats in case you are hungry. Boxes of produce. Lots of produce. Some with a sticker identifying the name of the Israeli company. I could not bring myself to buy anything with a sticker.
“How much is this?” a lady asked in Hebrew as she pointed to a tangerine that she was peeling. She started peeling it to feed her child before she even asked.
“No worries. It’s a gift”, responded the Palestinian shopkeeper. This is the story of our lives.
I continued to walk. The variety of produce was astounding. Citrus. Apples. Persimmons. Tomatoes and cucumbers. Even mini-peaches. Most of these products were not in season. Yes, there were large mesh bags of polished potatoes. I walked some more and finally found one box of soil-covered baladi potatoes and irregular shaped red carrots. I bought some of each. Finally.
“Where do these come from?” I asked the shopkeeper as I pointed to the baladi potatoes and baladi red carrots.
“Hebron”, he responded.
“But how did they enter Jerusalem?”
“Anything is possible with money”.
Fried baladi eggs and potatoes
Chop one medium potato and one medium red carrot and fry in a bit of olive oil. Keep the heat on low and stir occasionally until cooked. Sprinke with sea salt for taste. Mix two eggs with a bit of sea salt in a bowl. Pour eggs over potatoes and carrot and continue to cook on low. Stir. Once eggs are cooked, turn off the heat. Devour!
The red carrots are optional. Since I had a bunch of fresh rosemary from my garden, I chopped some rosemary and fried it with the potatoes and carrot.
Egg Potato Salad
Boil two medium potatoes. After 30 minutes, add four eggs to the pot and continue to boil for another 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the potatoes and eggs to continue to cook in the hot water. When cool, peel the potatoes and chop. Peel the eggs and chop. Place potatoes and eggs into a bowl. Season with sea salt for taste. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon mustard, and the juice of half a lemon. Mix. I also added some salted capers that I had preserved from last year’s caper harvest.
I finally found baladi batata (potato). After searching through the main market, al hisbeh, in Al-beirh, the vendors told me that there is no baladi Palestinian batata in the market. The Israeli potato, polished and packed in mesh bags, was the only potato in the market. The vendors claimed that the Palestinian harvest failed this year. Liars, I thought. We had a good rainy winter and this is the baladi batata harvest season. Something is wrong with the market.
I finally found the soil covered batata in Jerusalem at the Masrara market. The Masrara is a neighborhood cut in half in 1948 after Israel was established. The vendor told me that the batata came from Hebron. But how did it enter Jerusalem, I asked. After all, the Israelis unilaterally annexed Jerusalem and do not allow goods from the West Bank to enter. The vendor explained that anything is possible when money is involved.
I am so excited. I have been waiting to make egg salad with my free range chicken eggs and the baladi batata. More to come later this weekend with recipe and all.
The kale in my garden was struggling. I planted it last Spring, and nearly one year later, it has not seeded, nor have the leaves reproduced in any sort of fertile mode. But the swiss chard that was planted at the same time as the kale has seeded and expanded and continues to flourish in my perennial greens and herb garden. The parsley is looking healthy as well giving me enough leaves whenever I am in the mood for tabouleh. But I wanted the kale to succeed. It was the superfood, right? There is even a ‘development’ project in Palestine that is claiming that kale is baladi Palestinian produce.
But then a friend shared a link that listed ten greens that were healthier than kale. According to this link, parsley and swiss chard are healthier than kale. Even leaf lettuce, beet greens, and spinach (all growing in my humble garden) are healthier than kale.
I decided to enjoy my super healthy greens for dinner tonight. I cut some parsley leaves, swiss chard leaves, a bit of arugula as most of it already went to seed, and some wild mustard flowers and leaves. It’s Friday. It’s been a long week. I am tired. So I decided to go raw. Raw green salads from my garden to my table for dinner tonight. With the podcast, The Splendid Table, in the background.
A couple handfuls of raw pine nuts
Juice from one lemon
Chop parsley, arugula and pine nuts in the food processor. Mix in salt, olive oil and lemon juice to suit your taste. I love the spice of the arugula and the creaminess of the pine nuts in this parsley salad.
Swiss Chard Salad
Wild Mustard flowers – a handful
Wild Mustard leaves – a handful
Your favorite vinaigrette
Thinly slice the swiss chard, mustard flowers and mustard leaves. The swiss chard is bland, so a good vinaigrette is essential. The mustard provides a nice spicy bite to this salad.
We have an abundance of these ‘weeds’, aka mustard, in Palestine. I used to weed them out, but now I let them be. I nibble on them as I work in the yard. A perfect pre-lunch snack.
My favorite vinaigrette is made of olive oil, grape vinegar, a teaspoon of good mustard, and a bit of grape molasses/dibs.
The winter rains started in November this year. My mom keeps repeating that it is the November rains that make all the difference for the land and the trees. This is the first winter that I have experienced in Palestine with the frequent November rains. I planted my winter garden just in time to reap the benefits of this welcomed early winter rain. Everything was in the ground. Fava beans. Spring peas. Chick peas. Onions. Potatoes. Spinach. Arugula. Dill. The early rains in November gave these seeds a head start. But most important, the early rains gave life to the wild flora. Palestine has been noted to have one of the most diverse society of wild plants. Last weekend, I foraged for loof, picking only enough for my needs leaving much in the ground to reproduce in the next years. I found the loof under the sprawled out old fig trees. They seem to like warm, shady, and moist areas. Loof, as many of the wild plants, provides many health benefits.
This link to an article provides more information on the science and benefits of loof:
I had loof last year for the first time at sharaka’s underground seasonal restaurant, Majhoul. It was delicious. When eating loof, most folks experience a tingling and numbing sensation in their mouth and throat. But the loof at the Majhoul restaurant was prepared by seasoned executive chef, Amina. I had no discomfort. Only pure delight.
So I prepared the loof according to memory. I tried to remember Amina’s instructions from last winter’s Majhoul. Wash the leaves well, she explained. Rinse them and wash again. Rinse and wash again, and again, she repeated. I tore the leaves with my fingers and soaked them in tap water. I massaged the leaves in the tap water and rinsed them. I repeated; adding the tap water, massaging the leaves between my fingers and rinsing. I repeated three times. I sauteed the dark green leaves in olive oil with a sprinkle of sea salt. I stirred periodically. I added a sprinkle of whole wheat flour at the end, mixing it well into the sauteed greens.
It was my first time preparing loof and I was scared to eat it alone at home. What if I had some weird reaction like an overwhelming tingling sensation that caused my throat to close. I waited to have my first taste the next day at work. If something happened, at least there would be witnesses.
I shared my jar of loof with my two office mates. We all dug in enjoying the flavor. One colleague thought that I could have cooked the leaves for a bit more time. We chatted. And then suddenly, I felt the tingling sensation on the left side of my tongue. The side that I used to chew the loof. Then my throat began to tingle. I continued to feel this tingling for the next hour.
I must go back to Amina and find her secret to preparing loof.
How do you prepare your loof? Please tell me in the comments section of this blog.
Storm Huda hit Palestine and I have been in the house for four days. On day three, when most of the snow from the first downfall had melted, relatives called asking if I needed food. Did I want them to pick up any produce from the store? It was going to be a freezing night, they said. More snow is on the way.
Apparently, they don’t know me very well. I spend the Spring harvesting and drying the various herbs that grow in Palestine, and during the Summer, I preserve the beautiful bounty by drying, pickling, freezing, or making jams and preserves. My pantry was loaded with various dried herbs for tea making. I also had pickled turnips, grapes, and dried figs. Fig jam and za’rour jelly. Salted capers. Dried tomatoes. Tomato sauce. Frozen green beans. And I always have whole wheat flour, grains and dried beans, tea, coffee, cheese, and other dairy items in my pantry. So, did I need a food run? No! I can wait until we thaw. Was I hungry? Heck no!
On day one, I retrieved swiss chard and the carcass of a rabbit (from a previous meal) from my freezer, and used them as a base to make lentil-barley soup. To go with my soup, I made a dozen whole wheat and yogurt biscuits. The yogurt was expired but did not smell bad and provided a good dairy source for my biscuits. The soup lasted for two days. I am still going through the biscuits warming them up at breakfast and enjoying them with some cheese and dried figs.
On day three, I retrieve a half kilo of lamb kidneys from my freezer. I also pulled out frozen shredded zucchini that I saved from the summer. I combined these ingredients with a half jar of tomato sauce made from last summer’s tomatoes and cooked over medium heat for about forty-five minutes. I ate this combo with rice. In both the lentil-barley soup, as well as the kidney-zucchini saute, I used salt, turmeric, cinnamon, and cumin for flavor and warmth.
And tonight, on day four, I have the fixings to bake a granola. I will mix oatmeal, sunflower seeds, slivered almonds, a half jar of bitter orange marmalade, and a bit of sweet grape molasses in a large bowl. I will spread this cocktail onto a cookie sheet and bake at 170 celsius until browned. I will turn and mix the mixture throughout the baking to keep the granola pieces loose and separated. And so the next morning, before I head out to do the many errands that have been waiting patiently for my attention, I will have a hardy bowl of granola with my coffee.
I finally pressed my own olives. I’ve been harvesting our olives, all eleven trees, for the last three years; ever since I realized that we had our own olive trees. These trees were planted almost 100 years ago by my maternal grand parents after the vineyard contracted some bug that destroyed all the grapevines.
My olive picking skills have improved dramatically over the few years. This year, I managed to climb to the top of the tree to grab the bounty of olives nestled at the tip. I also learned to look over the tree from every angle. It may seem that you got all the olives, but then you look at a branch from another angle, and all of a sudden, you find a bunch more olives waiting to be picked.
All olives are picked by hand. Any other method, such as hitting the olives, will bruise the olive. When there is a bunch on one branch, I simply slide my fingers down the branch plucking off the olives.
Given only eleven trees, my harvest is modest. And the oil press in old Ramallah requires a minimum weight in order to press your olives. I have never had the required minimum weight. The owner always made me trade my olives for oil from someone else’s olives. Those are the rules. But this year was a good season for my eleven trees. I didn’t care if my harvest reached the minimum required weight. I wanted to press my own olives. To drink the olive oil produced from my soil. To enjoy my grandparents’ gift.
I visited the olive press Wednesday afternoon. It wasn’t packed with customers. It was still very early in the olive-harvesting season. And the big Eid Adha holiday was just ending. I had picked my olives early in the season taking advantage of my days off for the holiday. I approached the olive press owner explaining that I harvested my olives. I told him that I thought that I had two bags full, and I wanted to know if he would let me press them. I told him that he had been taking my olives for the last couple of years. But this year, I had a good harvest. And I wanted my own olive oil from my own olives from my soil, planted by my grandparents nearly 100 years ago. I looked him straight in the eye as I spoke. Less than 2 seconds after my diatribe, he agreed. He told me to bring my olives NOW for pressing.
I was ecstatic. I was going to press my own olives. And I think I learned the secret for future years. My lesson learned: Harvest early and press your olives before the masses. Olive press owner guy is much nicer when customers are few.
As I watched my olives press and convert to a fresh green oil, I felt gratitude for the blessing of the land of Palestine and my grandparents vision and gift for us who followed. I filled a cup with the freshly pressed oil as it poured. It was warm and earthy. It tasted like fresh green. There was a mild burn in the back of my throat.
I finally got to taste my own olive oil.