Sun-dried tomatoes

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We got a really good deal on cherry tomatoes, and as much as we love using them in salads and eating them as a snack, we didn’t manage to use them all up before they began to lose their freshness. Driven by a stroke of inspiration, I decided to make dried tomatoes.

Drying tomatoes is easy; I like to do it in the sun, because it saves energy and is done very quickly around here, but you can use your oven or dehydrator.

To dry in the sun, simply slice the tomatoes and place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet or tray. Cover with mesh to prevent birds and insects from getting in your food. Place in the sun.

Once the tomatoes are slightly springy and mostly dehydrated, they are done. Put them in a glass jar and cover with olive oil (you can add herbs such as rosemary, basil or oregano), and place in the fridge. Or put them in a vacuum pack and freeze. They are great in all sorts of dishes, or can be made into dried tomato spread. Enjoy!

Harvesting and Using Carob

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Although it isn’t quite carob season yet, I’m already gearing up for it, especially now that I have a nice new food processor which is going to make turning the pods into powder a breeze! Those dark brown pods are just loaded with nutrients, they are naturally sweet, which means that when using them in baking you can use less added sugar, and best of all, they can be picked for free!

Read more about harvesting and using carob in my latest Mother Earth News post:

“Carob trees grow all over Israel (and in similar climates), and the dark brown pods can be picked in the summer. They keep extremely well, so you can pick a big bunch and then process it at your convenience. Make sure the pods you pick are ripe. They are supposed to look and feel dry and to come off easily from the tree. Choose the biggest, shiniest, healthiest-looking pods.”

Image above: carob powder in the process of making.

The rewards of making bread

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Above: a fresh, hot out of the oven, deliciously smelling loaf of bread with onions, caraway seeds and poppy. It was made, in concession to my family’s preferences, with instant yeast and half whole wheat, half white flour. 

Bread is one of the most rewarding and cost-effective things you can make in your own kitchen – anything you bake yourself will save you money, too, vs. any store-bought bread of comparative quality. Far from being time-consuming, it simply requires some planning ahead. Here is the total time it takes to produce a beautiful loaf like the one I made yesterday afternoon:

  1. Mix dough – 15 minutes, more or less, including kneading.
  2. Wait for dough to rise: this varies according to weather, flour used, and yeast (instant or sourdough starter). Can be anything between 1 and 24 hours, but during this time you don’t need to babysit your bread – you just put the dough in a warm place to rise and go on doing other things.
  3. Punch dough down after it has risen – 1-2 minutes.
  4. Wait for dough to rise again: the second rise is usually shorter.
  5. Roll out/shape into loaf (or loaves): 5-10 minutes.
  6. Bake: 20-40 minutes, depending on size of loaves and heat of oven.
  7. Clean up: 10 minutes max.

Total work time: 30-40 minutes. This really isn’t so much at all, when taking into account the deliciousness of the bread and the fact that I know exactly what I put in it (olive oil, organic maple syrup and home-grown eggs, vs. cheap commercial oil, white sugar and I don’t know what else).

So roll up those sleeves, take out your rolling-pin and get to mixing, kneading and baking. You can read more of my posts about bread-baking here, here and here.

Green Tahini (Sesame Seed) Salad Dressing

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On Shabbat nights and mornings, we usually have a first course of bread and spreads/dips, and tahini salad dressing/spread/dip is always starring there. The basic recipe is just pure tahini mixed with water until desired consistency is reached, with a sprinkle of salt and a dash of lemon juice. It can be spiked up with crushed garlic and, if desired, a drop of honey.

Another favorite of ours is green tahini – whizzed up in the food processor with cilantro, parsley, dill, or a combination of any or all of the above. It has a beautiful color, an interesting flavor and tons of health benefits. See recipe in my latest Mother Earth News post:

“It’s possible to play with the sort and amount of greens and the amount of liquids, so you can get a thicker, spread-like consistency, or a thinner variation which is used as a salad dressing.

Contrary to what many health adherents advise, I recommend using tahini from hulled sesame seeds, for its sweeter taste and smoother texture. It’s true that the sesame seed hull contains large amounts of calcium, but it is bound in a way that makes it not readily absorbable.”

My first sourdough loaf

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I have wanted to try making sourdough bread for a long time, and last week I’ve finally taken the plunge. I used simple instructions for sourdough starter that called for nothing but flour and water, and was a little skeptical at first, leaping with joy when I saw the first foamy bubbles – hurray! It’s working! I’ve captured myself some real wild yeast.

By day five, my starter acquired a prominent yeasty smell and I decided it’s time to dive into baking. I used whole rye flour, opting for sticky dough that is stirred rather than kneaded. After proofing the bread for about 8 hours in a warm kitchen, I eased it into English cake tins and let it stand a couple hours more before popping it into the oven.

Unfortunately, I left rather too much room for rising, forgetting that rye bread, especially sourdough bread, does not rise that much. As a result I got flat and, let’s face it, sorry-looking loaves, but the taste was very satisfying – full, complex, a little sour, with a very pleasant chewy texture. It was delicious warm, covered with melting butter, and was definitely worth the effort and waiting.

I saved a bit of the dough for next time’s starter and froze it, because bread-making happens somewhat sporadically around here. I hope next time I get a loaf that is good-looking as well as great-tasting.

A friend of mine, who makes delicious sourdough bread in the way of a little kitchen business, tells me that her secret to great-tasting bread is in the flour: she buys whole rye and spelt in bulk, soaks and sprouts the grains, then oven-dries the grains and only then grounds them into flour which she uses for bread-making. For practical reasons (my oven is tiny) I can’t do the same, but I still think I did pretty well for a first-timer. I’m excited about this venture into the world of traditional slow-rising breads.

Fenugreek: A WonderHerb

Hilbe, a spread/dip made of Fenugreek seeds or leaves, is a staple of Yemenite Jewish cuisine, and is usually eaten at one or more of the Shabbat meals. It goes amazingly with pita bread. The recipes vary, and can include garlic, lemon juice, and various herbs and spices.

Fenugreek itself has some wonderful nutritional benefits, being rich in calcium and magnesium – and also some very special health properties. It has a beneficial effect on blood sugar regulation and is known as a milk-supply booster for nursing mothers. I had taken Fenugreek capsules in the past, when I reckoned I needed to build up my supply, and I reckon they helped a bit, but nothing very dramatic. However, after a Shabbat of enjoying homemade hilbe spread in very moderate amounts, I suddenly felt a very prominent increase in my milk supply, something I didn’t even think of or aim for (since my baby was almost one year old and I figured we have a pretty steady supply-demand thing going). I suppose this effect was due to pre-soaking the Fenugreek seeds for a couple of days, thus allowing the special plant components to activate.

I think that’s really worth noting, as capsules are so much more expensive – and, apparently, less effective – than the real thing. I’m not sure you can buy Fenugreek everywhere, though. In Israel, the seeds are available in health food stores, and the leaves can be found at certain markets in season.

Here is the recipe we used:

– about 1\3 cup dry Fenugreek seeds. Place in a bowl of water for 48 hours, changing the water every day. The seeds will swell considerably.
– a bunch of fresh coriander, about 3\4 cup shredded
– 2 big cloves of fresh garlic
– juice of one lemon

– salt and pepper to taste

Once the Fenugreek seeds are soaked and drained, place everything in your food processor. Blend thoroughly and add water as needed, to reach desired consistency (thicker/thinner, however you like it). Once finished, it should have a refreshing characteristic smell, and look bright green, sort of like this:
Image taken from here.

A word of warning: hilbe has a dominant smell; some like it, some don’t mind, some wish they could do without it. The smell can later come out in your sweat, or even in your baby’s diaper. The Fenugreek capsules don’t smell when you take them, but the smell comes out with a vengeance later through all your pores.

Recently I’ve decided to try growing some fenugreek from seed, to see if the fresh leaves are as good or better as the dried ones we use in various dishes. So far it’s proving very easy to grow – I just made a shallow trench in one of the garden beds, threw in some dry Fenugreek seeds from the store, and almost all of them sprouted. Once the leaves are big enough to use I’ll be sure to let you know how it has turned out.

Myrtle berry jam

Following my previous post on myrtle’s culinary uses, I have been experimenting with myrtle leaves and berries some more. I guess I’m just really tickled that there is a berry which grows well and prolifically in our area – and it’s free for picking!

I have tried to search online for myrtle berry jam recipes but couldn’t find anything definite, except that on one site I’ve read the berries are used in mixed fruit jam, generally along with apple. I cooked up a small experimental batch with about 1:1 ratio of myrtle berries and apples, sweetened to taste. After cooking, I ran it all through a food processor and got a beautifully colored, unique-tasting jam which I’m sure will be great as yogurt or granola topping, on toast, or even as roll or pie filling (if I make a larger batch).

The astringency of the berries is almost gone after cooking, and the only improvement suggestion I’d give myself for the future would be to strain the cooked berries and discard the seeds, which have a somewhat coarse texture and slightly bitter taste.

Left: myrtle berries; right: apple and myrtle berry jam.