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Delicious Living

From The Promised Land

From the Promised Land
Introduction by Laurel Kallenbach
Recipes by Moshe Basson

Fresh and exotic foods from one of Jerusalem's top chefs.

Arab men walkingEach morning starts out the same for chef Moshe Basson: a trip to the souk — the market — or out to the hills surrounding Jerusalem to hunt for wild herbs. If it weren't for the cell phone he carries with him as he forages, the Iraqi-born Basson might easily be mistaken for a cook 2,000 years ago. Basson is continuing the food traditions of his ancestors as the chef/owner of Jerusalem's Eucalyptus restaurant, which is devoted to serving meals that have their roots in the Bible.

Basson recreates recipes from ancient times, drawing from his Jewish heritage and the Mishna, an 1,800-year-old interpretation of ancient Jewish scriptures and laws. The Mishna outlines ancient guidelines pertaining to food preparation and agriculture, such as how crops should be sown and harvested for six years, then left fallow for the seventh.

Thanks to the Mishna, Jewish food-preparation techniques now are used around the globe. For example, Passover foods have religious significance: One dish must taste bitter to remind Jews of the bitterness of their days as slaves in Egypt. The Mishna suggests cooking with bitter foods, such as wild lettuce, endive or chicory, which were, and still are, plentiful in the Middle East.

On this day, Basson picks wild chicory and endive, as well as hyssop, sage, thyme, dandelion greens, mushrooms, chamomile and khubeiza (mallow).

"I got my lessons in herbs from old women in Galilee," he says. "They taught me where to pick them and when." As it happens, this is how Basson learned his trade as a chef — by participating in the oral food tradition passed from generation to generation. "I learned cooking in the school of my mother, of her mother," he says. But he blends other cultures into the mix, too. "My teachers are all women from this area, whether Jewish, Palestinian, Druze, Bedouin."

While at the market, Basson increases his culinary repertoire by chatting with the Arabic women who sell fruits and vegetables. If he laments that his recipe for a dish isn't good or that he doesn't know how to cook with a certain herb, the women usually impart a few secrets. "This is how I learn all their recipes, all the secrets from so many different families, so many different villages," he confesses. "I listen to them all, and then I improvise."

In this way, Basson revives age-old ways of cooking. And in the process of researching the oral and written traditions of Israeli food, he fulfills a spiritual quest. "I'm trying to find foods from the days of the Bible, from Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel," he says. "My style is more than just cooking for taste — there's a spiritual aspect to it." And though the meals he serves at Eucalyptus certainly are delicious, they're also infused with history and deeper meaning. For instance, if you order a dish containing khubeiza, Basson will tell you the story of how the tiny plant helped feed people amid the 1948 siege of Jerusalem, during the Israeli war for independence.

Using history as his base, then adding indigenous produce, a sprinkle of religious law and a zest for local wisdom, Basson is reinventing Israeli cuisine. The results are meals rich with meaning and good taste.

Baba GhanoujBaba Ghanouj
Eggplant Purée
Serves 6

This Middle Eastern eggplant dish is a favorite worldwide. Although the eggplant can be roasted in the oven, nothing creates its distinctive smoky flavor like a flame grill.

Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Cooking Time: 20 Minutes

2 large eggplants, whole
3-4 teaspoons tahini (sesame seed butter)
2 stalks celery, including leaves, chopped very fine
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil

1. Using a fork, prick holes in the skin of the eggplants. Then, on an open-fire grill, roast whole in their skins. Turn occasionally to expose all sides of eggplant to flame. They're done when they have shriveled to about half their size and are soft with blistered skin. Remove from grill, allow to cool until you can touch them, then peel eggplant and place in a bowl.

2. Using a wooden meat tenderizer, mash eggplant thoroughly until smooth.

3. After eggplant has cooled completely, mix in tahini, lemon juice, celery and salt.

4. Let sit a few hours so flavors blend. Serve at room temperature, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 102 Fat: 4 g % fat calories: 31 Cholesterol: 0 mg Carbohydrate: 17 g Protein: 3 g

Zucchini with Lemon and Mint
Serves 6

Light and tangy, this meza recipe is extremely easy to make and bursts with the flavor of its fresh ingredients.

Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Cooking Time: 10 Minutes

1 pound organic zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick disks
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 bunch fresh mint

1. Sauté zucchini in olive oil until golden. Place on paper towel to drain oil.

2. While zucchini is still hot, pour into a bowl and add lemon, salt and sugar. Mix together and adjust seasonings as needed.

3. Chop fresh mint while zucchini cools to preserve the mint's aromatic freshness. Add to mixture and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 55 Fat: 2 g % fat calories: 28 Cholesterol: 0 mg Carbohydrate: 10 g Protein: 1 g

Grilled Red Peppers & Tomato
Serves 6

Scoop up plenty of this appetizer with pita wedges. Basson also uses this recipe with a pinch of oregano as a pasta sauce.

Prep Time: 10 Minutes
Cooking Time: 20 Minutes

5 red bell peppers
5 ripe tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lemon
Sea salt to taste
2-3teaspoons olive oil

1. Grill or flame-roast peppers and tomatoes. If you don't have a grill available, roast the peppers and tomatoes in the oven. After removing from flame or heat source, place them in a paper bag and seal. After 5-10 minutes, the skins will peel off easily.

2. Peel and seed peppers and tomatoes. Slice and chop into small cubes.

3. Add garlic to vegetables and mix.

4. Squeeze lemon juice and drizzle oil over salad. Stir. Salt to taste.

5. Refrigerate. Serve salad cold.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 55 Fat: 2 g % fat calories: 28 Cholesterol: 0 mg Carbohydrate: 10 g Protein: 1 g

Arab Spinach Salad
Serves 6

Choose only the most tender spinach for this appetizer. Basson also uses this recipe as a sauce poured over mushrooms and rice or mixed with cooked chickpeas.

Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Cooking Time: 5 Minutes

4-5 medium garlic cloves, sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds fresh organic baby spinach, washed and chopped into 1/4-inch-long strips
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 lemon, quartered

1. In large, non-stick pan, sauté garlic in oil for 1 minute; do not let it brown.

2. Add spinach and continue sautéing over high heat for 3 more minutes. Beware: Spinach will lose its color and many of its nutrients if overcooked.

3. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve hot with pita bread, squeezing fresh lemon juice over the top.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 78 Fat: 5 g % fat calories: 51 Cholesterol: 0 mg Carbohydrate: 7 g Protein: 4 g

Serves 6

This upside-down chicken, vegetable and rice dish is a signature recipe for Basson, who served it last year in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center festival honoring Israel's 50th anniversary.

Prep Time: 20 Minutes
Cooking Time: 1 Hour

3 medium onions, sliced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 threads saffron
1 tablespoon turmeric
1/2teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Sea salt to taste
3medium potatoes, sliced
1 small head cauliflower, separated into florets
1 medium eggplant, quartered and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
6 skinless chicken breasts
Dash of paprika
2 1/2 cups brown basmati rice, uncooked

3-5 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1. In large sauté pan, cook onions in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat until golden. Add saffron, turmeric, thyme, nutmeg and pepper to taste. Set aside onion mixture.

2. Sauté potatoes in 1 tablespoon of oil in non-stick pan until lightly golden, but not cooked through. Set aside.

3. Sauté cauliflower in remaining oil. Set aside. In the same pan, sauté eggplant until lightly browned.

4. Brush chicken breasts with olive oil and sprinkle with turmeric and paprika.

5. In large Dutch oven pot, spread sautéed onion along the bottom and arrange chicken over onion layer. Place eggplant slices between chicken breasts. Distribute cauliflower over the top, then repeat with potato slices.

6. Spread uncooked rice over potatoes. Add broth to cover. Place pot, uncovered, over a medium flame and let liquid simmer 15 minutes. Then cover pot, reduce heat and cook on low for 30-45 minutes to cook rice. Add more liquid if needed to keep mixture moist, but be careful not to add so much that rice becomes sticky or risotto-like.

7. Test for doneness by removing the cover and sniffing; when it smells a little burned, it's ready.

8. Take a round metal tray and place on top of pot. Turn pot over onto tray, patting the top to release chicken. Remove pot or use a large spoon to transfer rice, vegetables and chicken to a platter.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 742 Fat: 14 g % fat calories: 16 Cholesterol: 94 mg Carbohydrate: 105 g Protein: 52 g

Laurel Kallenbach is a wellness and travel writer in Boulder, Colo.

Photography by: Jill Sorenson and Laurel Kallenbach