One item is ubiquitous on every Israeli table: breakfast (arukhat boker), lunch (arukhat tzohorayim), and supper (arukhat erev). It is as reliable as the sunrise to find a big bowl of it being served up in every home, regardless of income level, social status, or occupation. It is a menu staple of the Israel Defence (not a misspelling) Forces (IDF or, simply ZAHAL).
I am paying homage to the humble “Israeli Cucumber and Tomato Salad”
When it comes to cooking, there is no simpler table-faire. It can be whipped up in minutes and it is immensely satisfying. On the dreariest winter days, it brings sunshine to the table. As a breakfast food, it wakes up the palate as its fresh flavors dance a hora on your tongue.
The daily breakfast and supper on any IDF base consists of: Israeli salad, two boiled eggs, and a small bowl of cottage cheese. An analysis of the foods in this menu shows it to be nearly perfect in its balance of protein, fats, and (few) carbohydrates. Such a meal is inexpensive, readily obtainable anywhere, and very satisfying. No massive culinary skills are used in its preparation…a tribute to military cooks from every country.
Set out the occasional bowl of kalamata olives (in moderation because they are about four calories each), substitute another (sliced) hard cheese, set out a bowl of fruit (oranges!), or substitute fish (kippers, sardines, or even canned tuna) for the eggs and you can achieve a pleasant variety for picky eaters. If you simply must have a carbohydrate for breakfast, try putting a bit of good feta cheese on a bagel chip or two. [Hint: I get my feta from Reichart’s Dairy-Aire when our local farmer’s market is in operation. Lois coaxes some award-winning cheese-making milk from her “girls” on her little goat farm. I buy in bulk, vacuum-seal it, and then freeze it for later use. Stored in this manner, I have a yearlong supply of my favorite feta. If you do not have access to an excellent goatherd (doesn’t everyone?), you can buy feta in bulk or in small quantities at most grocery stores (“okay”) or Greek/Mediterranean (“better”) markets.]
Here is the basis for the salad: Finely chop (not mince) several cucumbers and tomatoes, along with a quarter to a half of a sweet onion (minced). [Hint: Use “English” or hothouse cucumbers, instead of those seedy monstrosities used by American cooks. I frequently use “mini” cucumbers because they are much less expensive!] I prefer Roma tomatoes because they are less “seedy” and have less juice and make for a “meatier” salad.
Now, dress the salad. This is where the humble salad becomes Phyne Dyning.
Buy (fair), or make your own (best) “zaatar” (“zahtar” or “zatar”, depending on who is doing the spelling).
Penzey’s Spice Company, or my local friends at “allspice”, can provide pre-mixed zaatar, but taste in zaatar varies. So, experiment a bit with your own mixture. Some people prefer more thyme, sumac, or more toasted sesame seeds, etc. Experiment with the basic recipe I provide as a starter, the sky is the limit.
2 TBS sesame seeds, roasted (see narrative)
1-2 tsp dried thyme
1-2 tsp dried oregano
1-2 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp to 1 TBS dried sumac
salt to taste (I leave it out, and salt the salad modestly)
In a small, heavy skillet, toast the sesame seeds over high heat until they turn lightly golden. Do not burn the seeds, or they become quite bitter. Set seeds aside to cool thoroughly. Mix in the remaining ingredients when the seeds are cooled. Store in a tightly sealed jar in a cool place.
Dressing the salad is simple. Squeeze the juice from ½ of a lemon and remove the seeds. It is okay to leave the pulp! Pour the lemon juice over the salad. Next, pour one or two tablespoons of good quality olive oil (I get mine from “allspice”) over the salad. Finally, generously (according to taste) sprinkle your homemade zaatar over the salad and toss gently.
The sumac has a rather sour, or sharp, flavor which compliments the lemon juice nicely. Its purple colour lends a festive touch to the salad’s appearance as well.
The key to this salad is to finely chop (not mince) the cucumbers and tomatoes. Finely mince only the onion. Serve cold or (better) at room temperature. Figure on one to three cups (it is that good) per serving.
Option One: Sprinkle some finely chopped cilantro leaves over the salad for a wonderful variation.
Option Two: Use a Microplane grater to sprinkle some good Romano cheese on top of the salad just before tossing. Do not substitute the stuff from jars here. There is no comparison to fresh Romano in those “cardboardy” ersatz “Romano” or “Romano-blends” sold in grocery stores.
Menu Option: Remember how I suggested substituting fish (especially canned tuna) for the eggs in the basic menu? Drain a can of tuna (one per person), pour a bit of olive oil on top, and sprinkle with zaatar. Delicious!
Tov te-avon! (Bon apatite!)