images of israel

I’m back home, but still dreaming.  Travel will do that. Linger relentlessly, populating your dreams, disturbing your sleep patterns. Syracuse is folding into spring rather reliably, but I am slow — crawling, not skipping, back into normal life.

Here are some of the things that stick. I know I owe you a recipe or two, but please, let me indulge for just one more post.

Pistachios rolled in light crispy nests that crumble between your teeth and have just the perfect amount of sweetness. I didn’t take the chance to ask their name, I was too busy digging in my pockets for more shekels. 

In North America it seems our sweets are always trapped behind glass, meticulously arrayed on delicate plates and boasting of extravagance. In many of the places I’ve visited — Africa, India, Israel, to name three — sweets play a different role. They’re part of everyday life, not an “sinful indulgence.” Vendors display them in the open air, as if making offerings to the gods. For less than a dollar you can buy just enough to satisfy, and on you go.  

Dried things and bins of mysterious staples. Everywhere food mingling with the everyday. Walking to work between buckets of olives, children playing beneath tables of butter-smooth dates, women stopping to stock up on wine and Challah bread for Shabbat.

Paradoxical strawberries: huge, but tasting of the tiny field berries of summer. Bananas sweeter and fresher than any others I’ve tasted. 

Rugelach and pastries decorate the night. Laughter spills out of cafes, and piles of poppyseed, cinnamon, cheese, and chocolate-filled pastries tempt. Sesame seeds stick to your lips as you walk back to your hotel.

Nuts and fruit of all colors, dried kiwi and pineapple and salty almonds, still in their shell. Crystallized figs and all manner of tea and spices tower like make-believe mountains. My bags bounce against my hip as I swerve to avoid a motorcycle zipping down an alley in the Old City. I stop to buy a piece of fresh, soft halwa, its texture like dense cotton candy. It dissolves instantly on my tongue — sensation becomes memory.

I’m back in the land of sprawling grocery stores and incredible variety. Mexican for lunch and Chinese for dinner? Why not. Lemongrass and peanut butter and whole grain bread, all within a few feet from each other.

A walk through a distant land has once again reminded me of all that I have, and of all that I take for granted. It’s good to be home, but sometimes I wish my streets were lined with such bounty. I guess back home we just have to look a bit harder for the things that delight.

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milk and honey

…so I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Exodus 3:8

I’ve been in Israel now for almost 5 days.  It seems strange to write about food when so much else is going on in my heart and mind.  I thought it important, however, to share what’s been on my plate.

Our first meal in Israel (spent at an Jewish/Arab intentional community kibbutz called Neve-Shalom/Wahat al-Salem —”Oasis of Peace”) was a sensory feast that seemed to set the stage for the coming trip. Baba Ghanoush so smoky and fresh, hummus as smooth as melting ice cream and drizzled with olive oil, fennel and pepper sliced thinly and dressed in lemon juice and parsely. Fall-off-the-bone chicken, Mejadarra, ground lamb in pine nut cream, green beans, and pita.

It’s very hard not to overindulge when everything is so new and somehow fleeting.

On the third day here I did a morning run with the Sea of Galilee as my backdrop. The air smelled like jasmine, and I returned to what’s become my usual breakfast: a boiled egg, tangy fresh yogurt, tomatoes, cucumbers and feta.

I’m always amazed, when traveling, at breakfasts across the world.

On the fourth day,  I had my first Israeli falafal in a small town outside of Nazareth. The corner shack was packed with people, and the the men moved in succession behind the counter, flipping fresh, cripsy falafal into the soft, chewy-sweet pitas I’ve never tasted anywhere but here. The bar behind them was a spread of purple cabbage and marinated eggplant, firery red tomatoes, and all manner of toppings. We stuffed those pitas until they were dripping with tahini, and ate them in the sun beside armed Israeli soldiers.

Sometimes a simple lunch, when eaten next to a complicated symbol, seems heavier than it really was. A piece of baklava, eaten an hour later on the bus as we passed by Jericho, dripping with honey.

Tomorrow we will visit the Garden of Gethsemane, where olive trees have been dated to the time of Jesus Christ. This land is dotted with them, and the streets overflow with buckets of their fruit. Like shiny black stones lining the cobblestone walkways, they fill the city air with their pungent aroma.

Everywhere I turn is something new. Some religious site crying out to be significant. A manger covered over with centuries of stone and conflict. The little town of Bethlehem (beth: “house” lehem: “bread”)—where people go hungry every day. My heart is full and my mind teeming, my plate full to overflowing.

I must say though, with all that I’m experiencing here with regard to food, Nescafe and I aren’t getting along so well.

happy belated birthday

One week ago fresh cracked pepper turned one. I meant to make a cake, but it didn’t happen. A blog doesn’t complain about the lack of cake like a person does.  I guess I could’ve made myself a cake, being the brains behind said birthday blog. Instead I went to a Superbowl party and took advantage of other people’s industriousness.

I stumbled upon a quote sometime ago that I’ve been saving up for an occasion such as this. It comes from our modern-day Brillant-Savarin, the venerable Michael Pollan. It distills what I try to do here in one sentence:

“It can be incredibly rewarding to move food closer to the center of your life.”

OK, so it’s not the most profound idea. Some of you might even find it humorous. But in its simplicity it got me thinking about a simpler time when our life cycles moved in closer concert with the soil’s, the sun’s, the rain’s. It got me thinking about worms and carrots and bulbous onions, and about the spring that’s fogging up my windows today, taunting with her almost-warm breath.

Since the day I started itfresh cracked pepper has done just that. It’s helped me see how food can mark the passage of time, define cultures, moments, people. It’s got me thinking about the various ways we experience the simple act of nourishing our bodies and our lives.

82 posts, 30 022 views, one link from a foodie celeb, one wikipedia link, and 274 comments later, I can’t wait for year two.

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green in the belly

I can’t believe I still haven’t posted on resolutions. January’s almost over, and the only insights I’ve offered into the hallowed New Year have been of the barley and lentil variety. I can do better than that, don’t you think? Don’t I owe you more than just these meagre attempts at undoing eight pounds of Christmas cookies?

Peering into other people’s resolutions is kind of thrilling. A keyhole glimpse into another person’s I’ll-do-it-betters can rejuvenate even the most tired of an old year’s routines. Resolutions actually make New Year’s one of my favorite times of the year. Why do I love this event full of pressure to HAVE SO MUCH FUN, you might ask. It’s simple: I’m addicted to newness.

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Newness doesn’t have to be sparkly or expensive. It’s simply the chance to see something differently: a morning, a plate of food, a friend, yourself. Newness rubs the spice into our stale lives, and livens up even the most jaded. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with each bout of new. Making lists and setting goals, bring it on.

Our 24-hour train ride home (plus the 8 hour delay in North Dakota, plus the layover in Chicago) delivered moments abundant with time for resolving. I nestled up with my journal against a snowy window frame, the American prairie unfurling its stark white coattails behind me. What did I see in the snowglobe months ahead?

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So not only did I etch out a scintillating list of things to do in the first week back, I cobbled together some realistic aims for the new semester, including: developing a better working vocabulary, putting away the recipes to nurture my spontanous cooking side, and making my kitchen— and my body—more environmentally friendly.

How serendipitous then, when I returned to my February Bon Appetit proclaiming 50 Ways to Eat Green (sorry Paul Simon). After unpacking, showering, and ceremoniously devouring the crumbs of our train-induced junk food binge, I dove in. I couldn’t wait to read all about how I could fight the Christmas-body blahs and save the planet all in one proverbial bite.

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I quickly discovered that I’m already doing something right. I am proud to say that 17 of their handy little tree-hugging tips are already habits of mine. All those crushing moments reading about the demise of agriculture and all those non-organic apples I’d purchased flitted away like the plume of a free-range chicken. I waited for Al Gore to come out in an angel costume and give me a USDA Organic stamped halo. (When he fell through, I resorted to good old self-congratulation.)

So in no particular order, here are the 17 food-related things I — and probably many of you — already do to save the earth. Following that list are five more I resolve to practice more diligently in the New Year.

What I do:

1. A full freezer uses less energy than an empty one

2. Cooking with bison actually helps save the species

3. Cooking at home avoids excess packaging and processing of foods

4. Roasting a whole chicken means less waste and yummy stock to boot

5. Hand chopping uses less electricity than fancy processors

6. Buying in bulk reduces wastefulness and packaging and encourages whole-food eating

7. Being your own barista reduces expenses and landfills

8. Reusing containers and bags is a given

9. Making your own soup stock reduces trash

10. Making your own cereal cuts out packaging and is good for your bod

11. Going mostly vegetarian frees up energy for others

12. Packing your lunch makes lunches greener and more fun

13. Eating more tofu conserves water in a way that meat does not (replacing one pound of beef with tofu each month saves 20,000 gallons a year!)

14. Reusable grocery bags are more fun to carry and better for the earth

15. Boxed wine generates half as many carbon dioxide emissions in transport as bottles (and there ARE good ones out there!)

16. Keeping and eating the greens from beets reduces waste

What I will do:

1. Eating Alaskan Salmon is more sustainable and higher in omega-3’s

2. Savor Sardines because they they aren’t in danger of being overfished and contain less mercury than tuna 

3. Join a CSA and support local agriculture  

4. Bike to the market when the weather gets nicer and I find a safe and scenic route  

5. Text the Blue Ocean Insitute’s FishPhone when I buy fish, and find out how good it is for me and the world

paraphrased from Bon Appetit magazine, January 2009

a yummier kind of blog

I worked in restaurants for just shy of a decade. From lakeside diners to mountain lodges and urban bistros, I don’t know if there’s another phrase I’ve uttered more often than this one, fresh cracked pepper?

Here it is, in abundance.

I’ve realized lately that my motivation to contribute to my original blog has waned. It seems that the only thing I have the motivation to write about frivolously and fancifully is, of course, food. I started that weblog, Room for Rambling when I was entering a very transitory period of my life. I started it to keep others in touch. It ended up keeping me anchored and giving me a place to experiment with ideas. It ended up becoming something that encouraged me to do what I love: write, when I had no place else to do it.

And so it came to be that I settled down a little. I found a person and a place (albeit temporary) to call home for awhile. In the heart of both of those is a deep love for good food. Whether or not it’s a good thing, my writers’ journal had to move over and share some space with my kitchen. Inspired by the thousands of scrumptious recipes simmering away on all those great food blogs out there, I decided that my culinary adventures needed a more permanent home as well.

I give you fresh cracked pepper, my very own record of discoveries, failures and victories in mi cochina–all of which I’d like to track and share. How many times have you said “I’ve got to make this recipe again!” and then lost track of it? Or what about the time you took a fabulous appetizer to a party and felt, for one glorious moment, more magnetic than Audrey Hepburn? Wouldn’t you like to be able to take that same dish to the potluck lunch meeting next Friday you’re a little nervous about?

Food is powerful, memorable, and fun. Here, I want to let these things play. It may not be gourmet or even pretty, but play it will. So tie your napkin ’round your neck …

The blog itself (this page) will serve as a running record of everything tasty. The other Pages (over there, to your right) are devoted to:

  • a search box
  • more about me
  • a list of pages on books, drinks, and products I love
  • a recipe index
  • recent comments
  • a convenient category list, and
  • links to other sites I endorse

Happy browsing!