Out of Israel: Chefs have a way with fresh vegetables

When Kameel Srouji remembers his mother’s cooking, his mind travels back in time, to the garden she kept outside their home in Nazareth, Israel.

As he tells me this, he stirs eggplant and tomatoes, all the while keeping an eye on customers queuing up for the fresh, vibrant, Mediterranean-style cooking that has made his Aviva by Kameel restaurants so popular with Atlantans.

“This is the recipe from my mama,” he says. “When I was a little boy, believe it or not, my mom grew her eggplant — and jalapenos and mint and parsley and lemons and apples. She would make jam with the apples.”

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Faik Usman, the chef-owner of Cafe Raik in Duluth, remembers his family raising tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, okra, peppers and herbs at their home in Galilee. His grandmother was a wedding caterer, famous for her stuffed cabbage and zucchini, her fried eggplant and fried cauliflower. Usman soaked up his love of delicious veggies from her.

From Tel Aviv to Atlanta, I’ve yet to encounter an Israeli chef who didn’t have an affinity for farm-fresh produce: tomatoes and cucumbers, cauliflower and cabbage, pomegranates and figs.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

During a 2019 trip to Israel, the bounty of agriculture was on view nearly everywhere I ventured, from the sprawling markets of Old Jerusalem to the elegant restaurants of modern Tel Aviv. In salads and meze, in pickles and preserves, in stews and kebabs, in this complicated melting-pot cuisine with Asian, African and European influences, you can taste the terroir of ancient soil.

Hummus and falafel are everything to me, and I can never turn down a kebab of ground lamb or beef, seasoned with herbs and spices, nor a fresh-caught Mediterranean fish grilled on a fire and seasoned with little more than salt and lemon. But the most astonishing discovery I made in Israel may have been the veggies.

As it turned out, my journey coincided with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, when most businesses, including restaurants, close shop for two days. Thank goodness for the complimentary holiday apple cake at my Tel Aviv hotel, and the neighborhood convenience store, where I stocked up on chips and snacks.

And, then, on the night I was to fly home, I wandered into Santa Katarina, a stylish restaurant situated in the Great Synagogue’s courtyard, just as the sun was going down to end the holiday.

What caught my eye on the menu? A platter of grilled vegetables: green beans, okra, cauliflower, onions, tomatoes and sweet potatoes, well charred, sweet-tasting, simple yet otherworldly. Once back home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the remarkable food and agriculture of Israel.

After Shay Lavi took over Nur Kitchen on Buford Highway this year, I began to notice his seductive Instagram posts of vegetables coming from the restaurant’s scorching-hot brick oven.

“I want to be able to sustain my restaurant upon farmers entirely,” the Israel native told me in June, “and actually make a relationship that will be so good that they can grow stuff for us, and collaborate with us.” Since then, Lavi has been making good on his vision, working with Atlanta Harvest and Local Lands farms to supply him with just-picked pattypans and zucchinis, cucumbers and tomatoes, “all sorts of herbs,” plus berries, peaches, figs and watermelons.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

When I stopped by Nur on a recent Sunday so Lavi could share some recipes for this story, he cooked okra in a sauce made with cherry tomatoes and made a bulgur pilaf with local purple hulls.

It was then that I had an a-ha moment. Though Lavi’s creations were made with Mediterranean flair, they reminded me of the vegetables I grew up eating all summer on my family’s South Georgia farm. We had more tomatoes, okra and field peas than we knew what to do with.

No wonder I feel such a powerful connection with the small-farm culture of Israel, and with vegetable dishes prepared by Israeli-born chefs in the city I call home.

RECIPES: Vegetables with an Israeli twist

With one small exception, these Israeli-inspired vegetable recipes by Atlanta-area chefs are vegan. (To make the bulgur pilaf vegan, omit the butter.) A couple of the recipes call for vegetable stock. For such a stock, Atlanta chef Kameel Srouji suggests chickpeas: Boil 2 cups of dried chickpeas in 3 quarts to 1 gallon of water at the lowest possible heat for five hours. (Be sure to watch the pot and replenish with water if necessary.) Strain broth and save chickpeas for another use, such as hummus. Chickpea broth may be substituted for veggie stock in Shay Lavi’s Roasted Okra and Pilaf of Bulgur and Peas.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Eggplant, Huda Style

Kameel Srouji, chef-owner of Aviva by Kameel, grew up in Nazareth and attributes this recipe to his Lebanese mother, Huda. The longer you cook this simple vegan stew of eggplant, tomatoes, garlic and basil, the better it tastes.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Chef Kameel’s Sauteed Chard

Chard, unlike collards or kale, is naturally tender, and thus cooks quickly, like spinach. Israeli-born chef Kameel Srouji sautes the greens quickly with nothing more than garlic, olive oil and jalapeno; finishes it with a squeeze of lemon; and serves it with rice. The colorful stems and veins of Swiss and rainbow chard will release a delicately colored, pinkish broth.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Shay Lavi’s Roasted Okra

At Nur Kitchen on Buford Highway, chef Shay Lavi loves to saute fresh whole pods of okra in tomato sauce, then place the skillet in the restaurant’s super-hot brick oven. You can get a similar effect at home by placing the okra under the broiler until it chars. Lavi pairs the okra with a pilaf of bulgur and Southern field peas.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Pilaf of Bulgur and Peas

Any kind of pea or bean will work here. Favas and chickpeas are classic. Chef Shay Lavi has taken a shine to Southern field peas and made this recipe with purple hulls.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Chef Faik Usman’s Salad of Cabbage, Mint and Walnuts

This recipe — from the chef-owner of Cafe Raik in Duluth — is simple but packs big flavor. It’s a delicious way to use fall cabbage and goes with almost anything.

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