Friday, March 22, 2013

QUICK BITE: Sachlav

The last few days of 2012, and the first few of the new year, were gorgeous in Israel. I was having leisurely lunches on the beach in flip-flops and a t-shirt. I swam in the Dead Sea and toured Massada in summer gear. It was all very mild Mediterranean. And then, suddenly, the weather changed. Storms blew throughout the country. It snowed in Jerusalem. I was caught in a hail storm in Haifa. And I experienced torrential downpour in Tel Aviv for days on end. Every Israeli assured me that the weather was never like this. It hadn't been this cold and rainy in 50 years, said everyone. Lucky me! But in a way...lucky me. I'd always been in Israel during the summertime or early autumn. I got to experience something different. Hot spots in Tel Aviv were a little less crowded, and the stormy weather drove everyone indoors: to museums, theaters, intimate bars and cute cafes where one could enjoy languid conversation and numerous glasses of superb Israeli wine.

And so it happened, after one of these rainy nights I stayed out too late and imbibed a little too much, I slept in the next morning, disinclined to arise from under the cozy covers, in my adorable apartment in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood. But my friend had promised to treat me to a wonderfully warming drink in Jaffa that morning, followed by brunch in a local cafe. And since it was just a 10-minute walk away to the oldest port in the Western world, I was soon inspired to dress and venture out. Jaffa is historically a very Arab part of Tel Aviv, and this drink my Israeli friend wanted to introduce me to has Arab roots, so we were headed to the right part of town. Ironically, the drink also proved to be an excellent hangover salve, warming us on that cold, gusty day. The drink? SACHLAV.

This thick milk-based drink was originally made with orchid tubers (called sahlab in Arabic). Its preparation varies a bit from country to country: some versions add rose water or orange blossom water, and some add coconut and cinnamon. Many are topped with nuts and dried fruit. In Turkey (possibly where it originated), its consistency is thick like pudding. In Israel, it's more of a drink, though often served with a spoon. It's warm. It's comforting. It was perfect on that cold morning in January. 
Sachlav, beyond its capacity to comfort, has always been considered an aphrodisiac. Maimonides even comments that one should drink it “to revive the spirits and to arouse sexual desire.” It's true that there is something wonderfully romantic about the drink's origins, the preciousness and exoticism of the orchid tubers that are the base of the drink in its original form. But in modern times, these orchids have become rare and prohibitively expensive, so they've mostly been replaced with thickening agents like corn or potato starch in today's versions. Less romantic, perhaps, but still really delicious.


Some claim that sachlav dates back to the Romans. Others argue that the orchid used to make the drink -- most likely indigenous to the tropics -- would not have arrived in the region until the Middle Ages. Regardless, the Medieval Arabs and Turks adopted the culinary tradition. The Germans and English got on board as well in the 17th century, replacing the milk with water and calling the beverage saloop. It even made an appearance in colonial America, but with the rising popularity of tea and coffee in the U.S. and Europe, the drink faded from the scene rather quickly. Their loss, our loss.
 
Sachlav Toppings
Sachlav is still a beloved drink in the Middle East, kind of what hot chocolate is to Europeans and Americans. It's often sold out of metal samovars at outdoor markets to warm shoppers, which is exactly how my friend and I enjoyed it in Jaffa. Various toppings are set out for you to choose from, including cinnamon, dried fruits, nuts, and coconut flakes. We enjoyed the sachlav as a precursor to brunch, though it could be considered a meal in itself. And as I drank the warm vanilla, coconut, and cinnamon-infused treat, those clouds hovering over Tel Aviv seemed to blow away for a few minutes, allowing us to stroll the streets of the ancient port village -- no longer under the cover of an umbrella, but out enjoying the animated street life that's colored this corner of the world for thousands of years.
 

Friday, March 8, 2013

ITALIAN CLASSICS + RECIPE: Cicoria

A little about one of my favorite vegetables in Italy, wild chicory, called cicoria in Italian: we are not talking about curly endive. We are not talking about the root of the plant that is grown, roasted, and ground as a coffee substitute in areas like Louisiana.  We're talking about the lovely leaves of the wild chicory plant, native to Europe, its bitter leafy stalks calling out to be tamed by caring cooks, particularly around Rome, in Liguria, and Puglia, where famous dishes like cicoria e fave (with fava beans) are staples. It's also popular in Catalonia, Turkey, and Greece, and is one of the first plants cited in literature: Horace mentions chicory as being a principal part of his diet. Egyptians used chicory to treat liver and gallbladder problems.The blue chicory flower is considered a romantic inspiration, and in European folklore was believed to have the power to open locked doors.

  Now, if you find the notion of a sauteed green eliciting pure joy in grown adults to be strange, then you haven't been to Italy during the cooler months of the year. It's more exciting than spinach, more delicate than various wild greens like dandelion or collard. As Gordon Gekko might proclaim: wild chicory, for lack of a better word, is GOOD.  
And in trattorie all over Rome, it's prepared ripassata in padella: once the greens are parboiled to remove some of the bitterness, they're tossed back in a hot pan with garlic, olive oil, and a healthy pinch of spicy peperoncino. This produces a side dish so simple in its awesomeness as to render most other green vegetables...unimportant. When restaurants run out of the dish before all of their customers have ordered, you will hear sighs and gasps coming from tables when they're told the bad news, "la cicoria e' terminata." Faces are long, hopes are lost. Nothing can replace it. At least until the following day, or until the springtime when artichokes are in season...




CICORIA RIPASSATA IN PADELLA 
(4 people)


2 large bunches of chicory
extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
hot pepper flakes
salt to taste
Water

-Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
-Cut stems off chicory and rinse the leaves. (Discard stems or slice and use for puntarelle). Add to pot and boil until soft and cooked through.
-Prepare a bowl of ice water. Remove chicory from boiling water and “shock” in ice water to stop cooking.
-Once cold, remove from ice water, drain, and pat dry.
-Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a skillet. Add peeled whole garlic cloves and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes. Remove garlic.
-Add chicory and toss to coat.
-Add red pepper flakes to desired “heat”, and salt to taste.
-Cook for about 3 minutes to heat through, and so chicory absorbs flavor of the garlic oil. Serve at once or at room temperature drizzled with red wine vinegar.