Winner of the 2013 Gourmand Award: Best First Cookbook and Best Cookbook Photography, the beautiful "Cook in Israel: Home Cooking Inspiration" will lead you on a colorful journey through (kosher) Israeli cuisine. Packed with delicious, easy to follow recipes, "Cook in Israel" draws on the author's Jewish-Greek heritage and the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors of her Tel Aviv home. Orly has been offering popular cooking classes and culinary tours of Israel since 2009. "The culinary tours are a way to introduce tourists visiting Israel, who are excited by the freshness of the vegetables and fruits here and create a way to bring visitors closer to our food," Orly explains.
Filled with 100 (mostly vegetarian) recipes, many with step-by-step photos, cooking from "Cook in Isreal" is like taking a personal class with Orly. Most of the recipes take 30 minutes or less to prepare, making them perfect for weeknight dinners. Recipes for Jewish holidays are included. A former clinical nutritionist, Orly's recipes are healthy, flavorful and easy to prepare. The recipes in the book reflect the way Orly's family cooks and eats and are inspired by her mother and grandmother, the local shuk (market) and by all the cultures that have come to Israel.
Given Orly's Greek / Sephardic heritage, it's not surprising to see many dishes with eggplant featured prominently (baba ghanoush, eggplant baladi, Turkish-style eggplant, roasted eggplant, Greek-style eggplant salad, eggplant with Bulgarian cheese, eggplant siniye, etc.). I really appreciated the many creative (and tasty) ways to use this versatile fruit (eggplant is technically a large berry). I also loved the many refreshing salads (raw beet and apple, orange and fennel, cabbage and cranberry salad, carrot and pecan salad, parsley, nuts, and feta cheese salad) and the green shakshuka, which I had not seen before. The book's photography by Katherine Martinelli deserves special mention; all the photographs were shot in Orly's home.
I've made several of the recipes in "Cook in Israel" including several salads, a fish recipe, a sweet bread recipe and a cookie recipe. Each recipe is prefaced with a short history of a dish (or a food memory attached to it). Although I love salmon, I'd never tried preparing it at home. After making Orly's salmon baked with mustard and honey (only three ingredients - salmon, mustard and honey), I'm no longer intimidated by cooking fish at home and can't wait to try some of the other recipes like fish with green tahini sauce and the fish kebabs with yellow tahini yogurt sauce.
I also made the Bukharan chickpea pastry, and I loved her simple take on the Sephardic mainstay borekas using puff pastry dough (since these are already dairy, I prefer to use French puff pastry made with butter, such as Dufour, instead of Pepperidge Farm, which is pareve). I loved the dairy dishes like baked pasta for Shavuot.
I made the chocolate halvah babka and the date and walnut pinwheel cookies from the sweets chapter; the step-by-step photos were a huge help for figuring out how to cut and braid the babka (I'm used to making three-strand challahs, but trying to braid a two-strand rope was trickier!). The date and walnut cookies reminded me of ones my Iraqi students would bring to class; I loved the touch of rosewater and spices in the filling and dough.
Naturally, the biggest challenge (depending on your local supermarket) will be sourcing some of the ingredients such as date spread, date honey (silan), halvah, rosewater, etc. called for, but these are mostly found in the sweets chapter and can easily be located online. You can also make your own date spread at home by cooking pitted Medjool dates and a little water until it cooks down to a thick paste, which is what I did when I tried this recipe as I had a surplus of Medjool dates to use up!
One additional observation is that like some other Israeli cookbooks I've seen, the amount of a given ingredient may be up to the chef (a recipe will say "diced olives," or "chocolate spread" with no recommended amount), or there are no detailed instructions for a given step ("roast the eggplants under a broiler" with no recommended temp/ time), but most recipes include very simple instructions and uncomplicated ingredient lists that make these perfect for a quick weeknight dinner.
This is a wonderful introduction to vegetarian-friendly Sephardic and Israeli cuisine (the book is largely pescetarian / vegetarian with a couple of meat-based recipes); the recipes are appealing, full of fresh herbs and veggies, simple to put together, and there are plenty of tips and step-by-step photos that make "Cook in Israel" perfect for any level of chef. My next goal will be taking one of Orly's "Cook in Israel" cooking classes and tours in Israel!
You can find more info on Orly's culinary tours and cooking classes at http://www.cookinisrael.com/
(Review copy courtesy of the author)