What a difference a decade makes. In fall 1992, my husband and I visited Israel during what now seems such innocent times. Only once did our tour guide announce a change in itinerary when a particular site was deemed unsafe. We visited friends in Jerusalem and sat leisurely sipping cafe hafuch in front of a cafe on Ben Yehuda Street, which I later recognized on Fox News reduced to bloodied shards. We even rode a city bus into Jaffa one day, soaking up "local color," with nothing on our minds but shopping.
We could not have picked a better season to be there. Leaving Los Angeles the day after Yom Kippur, we found Jerusalem bustling with preparations for Sukkot. The terrace of every apartment sported a sukkah, and we ate breakfast each day under fruit-laden branches, our lavish Israeli buffet feast mirrored in the sukkah above. Truly we had reached the Promised Land at its most lush and bountiful season.
Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, is the harvest festival mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 23:34-39). Immediately following the fast of Yom Kippur, Jews the world over begin constructing sukkot in preparation for the joyous feast that begins four days later.
The sages of the Talmud prescribed the measurements and method of erecting the sukkah within which people would eat and sleep during the week of Sukkot. How our forefathers must have rejoiced to enjoy the fruits of their labors, closer to the heavens, as the growing season culminated in bushels of plenty.
Now is the season to consult the plethora of vegetable cookbooks in bookstores today, and no one is more knowledgeable on the subject than Clifford A. Wright, whose latest book, "Mediterranean Vegetables" (Harvard Common Press, $29.95) cries out to be purchased for Sukkot. Subtitled "A Cook's ABC of Vegetables and Their Preparation in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa, with More than 200 Authentic Recipes for the Home Cook," it is as much a valuable reference book for the food scholar and gardener as it is a cookbook.
"Mediterranean Vegetables" contains delicious recipes such as stuffed artichokes, eggplant, grape leaves, mushrooms, onions, chard and yellow peppers.
"I don't even mention Israeli cuisine, because I don't believe there is such a thing," Wright said. "Its origins in the Mediterranean are mostly in the Arab world. Jews who came from Arab countries -- Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and of course Spain, too -- brought with them their cuisine.
"There really is no difference between Jewish cuisine and the local cuisine in which it finds itself. What makes it different, is it is almost exclusively connected with holidays and the self-realization on the part of the Jewish community that these dishes are special to those holidays."
From the esoteric acanthus-leaved thistle to the more common zucchini, Wright lists each plant's characteristics and varieties, its botanical and etymological origin and instructions for growing, buying, storing and preparing them.
Most fascinating is the history of each vegetable through the ages. In Sicily, ingesting eggplant was once thought to lead to insanity, and it was called "mad apple." The ancient Romans used cabbage to prevent a hangover, while the Egyptian Copts placed cucumber leaves mixed with salt on women's breasts to promote milk production.
While you'd hardly know it from the diet of most Ashkenazic cultures (beets and cabbage being notable exceptions), Jewish cuisine, at least in the Mediterranean, from biblical times has had a long love affair with vegetables, and what better time to show them off than Sukkot.
Because the "dining room" of the sukkah is farther away from the area of food preparation, traditional dishes for this holiday are easily transportable, one-dish stews and casseroles like tsimmes, borscht, stuffed cabbage or kibbeh. Stuffed vegetables are a popular choice, particularly in Israel, where every Sephardic and Asian culture has a favorite recipe.
"Turkish cooks are masters of the stuffed vegetable," Wright said, "but you find stuffed vegetables very popular with Arabs, too."
Ten years after our Israeli Sukkot journey, a more desperate mood prevails. Yet, said Wright, who began his career in the field of international affairs and is a former executive director of the American Middle East Peace Research Institute, "to those who think the Arab-Israeli conflict is hopeless, remember, Arabs and Jews lived together for thousands of years, and this conflict actually began historically only recently. Look at the Spanish Jews who were expelled during the Inquisition. Although some went to Germany, the majority went to Muslim lands. Why in the world would they escape to Muslim lands if there were not welcoming hands to greet them? I see that history as a hope that there is a possibility for peace eventually."
in Olive Oil
(Zeytinagli Patlican Dolmasi)
3 large eggplants (about 3 1Â¼2 pounds)
3Â¼4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1Â¼2 cup uncooked medium-grain
rice, soaked in tepid water for
30 minutes and drained or rinsed well
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 3Â¼4 cups water, divided
1Â¼2 cup ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded
and chopped fine or canned
1 tablespoon dried currants
1Â¼2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1Â¼2 teaspoon freshly ground
1 tablespoon finely chopped
fresh mint leaves
1Â¼4 cup chopped fresh dill
1Â¼2 teaspoon sugar
1. Cut off the stem end of the eggplant and save this as a "lid." Hollow out the eggplant by removing the seeds and flesh, being careful not to puncture the skin. Reserve the eggplant pulp to make another dish such as eggplant fritters. Place the hollowed-out eggplants in a bowl or stew pot filled with salted water and let them leach their bitter juices for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry inside and out with paper towels.
2. Heat 1Â¼4 cup of the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook the onions with 1Â¼2 teaspoon of the salt, stirring, until the onions are translucent, about eight minutes. Add the drained rice and pine nuts and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice is well-coated with oil, about two minutes. Add 3Â¼4 cup of the water, the chopped tomato, currants, pepper, allspice, mint and dill. Stir, reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook until the rice has absorbed the liquid, but is still a little hard, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the sugar.
3. Stuff the eggplants with the rice, not too lightly, not too loosely. Replace the "lid" of the eggplant, and arrange the stuffed eggplants in a deep casserole, side by side. Divide the remaining 1 cup water, 1Â¼2 cup olive oil, and 1Â¼2 teaspoon salt among the three stuffed eggplants, cover, and cook until the eggplants are soft but still maintain their shape, about 1 1Â¼4 hours. Let the eggplants cool in the casserole.
Serve sliced at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.
Judy Bart Kancigor, the author of "Melting Pot Memories" (Jan Bart Publications, $19.95), can be found on the Web at www.cookingjewish.com.