From Israel to your table: Salad, salad day and night

My husband and I recently returned from three weeks in Israel. This was not our first trip. I first went for a junior year abroad program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Joe went for a “gap year” living on a kibbutz near Nazareth before college. Years later, our children went on long-term programs in Israel during high school and college and so we had a good excuse to visit. Our eldest even planned to make Israel her home, but during her second year as an Israeli immigrant she met her future husband–who grew up around the corner from us in Michigan, but that’s another story. Though they lived in Washington, D.C. at the time they married, they wanted their wedding seven years ago to be in Israel, so that was our last trip before this one. We felt this year it was time to go back.

One thing I always appreciate about Israel is the plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables, many grown locally on kibbutzim  and moshavim. But it wasn’t love at first sight.

The view from the teachers' college in the Negev Desert where I attended a Hebrew language program in 1969.

The view from the teachers’ college in the Negev Desert where I attended a Hebrew language program in 1969.

On my first visit to Israel, in 1969, I was in a group of about 100 students, from colleges all over the U.S., who would be part of a much larger group studying at Hebrew University’s School for Overseas Students (now the Rothberg International School) for the year. Because our knowledge of Hebrew was minimal at best, our group would spend seven weeks in the summer doing an ulpan–an immersive language course–at a teachers’ college  in the Negev desert.

Salad for breakfast?

Talk about culture shock! The program organizers had prepared us for lots of things: Don’t do drugs or you’ll be deported, know that you’ll have your bags searched at building entrances, remember that you need to buy special tokens to use a pay phone. But they didn’t tell us that Israelis eat salad for breakfast.

If you’ve ever been to an Israeli hotel, you know that breakfast is a sumptuous buffet of gorgeous salads, fruits, cheeses, fish and pastries. That’s not what we got at the teachers’ college. I kept a journal that year. Here is my description of breakfast at the ulpan:

The dining hall is one huge rectangular room filled with long tables. I am with Joan and another roommate. A fat Israeli woman in a grease-stained white apron motions us to a table. There are only two places. Joan and I sit there and our friend goes to the next table. To do otherwise would be to bring a stream of angry Hebrew down on our heads from the chick in the greasy apron.

The table is piled high with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, hard-boiled eggs, bread and muddy coffee. Midway through the meal, the fat Israeli comes around with a big bowl filled with an Israeli concoction similar to yogurt. “Leben please?” she asks, and slops out a ladle-full to all who so desire. Every morning it is the same.

Our tablemates unfortunately include several of the sorority types [I was a pseudo-hippie snob in those days], still wearing gobs of makeup even out here in the middle of the desert.

“God,” one of them whines. “Salad again! I think I’m going to turn into a tomato!” She giggles at her joke. Another fingers the bread. “Stale!” she says in disgust, replacing the slice. “That’s not all,” answers the first. “Yesterday I found an ant in the bread basket!”

We eventually got used to it. At the end of our stay in the desert, we had a goodbye party where every ulpan class did a skit. My class set our skit in the dining hall. We sang a song, to the tune of, “Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon…” More than 40 years later, I still remember it:

“Salad, salad, day and night, vegetables from green to white, make your stomach die of fright, that salad, salad, salad.”

At the end, the class clown came in dressed like the leben lady, in a greasy apron and black wig. One of the other students took the bowl of yogurt and dumped the contents on his head. It brought the house down.

Israeli Salad

Israeli Salad

Salad anytime!

Now I have a much healthier opinion of fresh vegetables for breakfast, or any time of day for that matter.

We often make “Israeli salad,” a very simple mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. Here’s how you make it:

Take a couple of small, firm, ripe tomatoes and a small, edible-skinned cucumber (e.g., Persian or Armenian), and dice them all into small pieces; you want an equal amount of tomato and cuke. Dice half a small onion and mix all the vegetables together. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Optional: add chopped red or green pepper, chopped hard-boiled egg, kalamata olives, chopped white cheese (e.g. white cheddar or Muenster) or crumbled feta cheese.

Because that one is so simple–more a method than a recipe–I thought I’d give you another Israeli recipe as well, the kind of dish you might find at an Israeli hotel buffet. Once you peel the carrots, separate the parsley leaves from the stems and separate the pomegranate seeds from the pith, making this salad is a snap!

(Helpful hint: quarter the pomegranate—carefully, because the juice will stain everything it touches—and then put the pieces into a large bowl of water before breaking them apart. The seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the pith will float to the top. Skim off the pith, and then drain the seeds in a strainer or colander.)