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Hedai Offaim’s Table Is Always Open — And Covered with the Bounty of Israel

Hedai Offaim’s Table Is Always Open — And Covered with the Bounty of Israel

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Recipe Roots: Ella Valley, Israel
Shared by Hedai Offaim

On a typical Saturday morning in the Ella Valley, nearly an hour outside of Jerusalem, Hedai Offaim’s table will be laid with plates like a glowing orange and tomato salad, fried eggplant slices prepared two ways, crispy corn latkes, a pan of white shakshuka made by cooking egg yolks in thick and tangy labneh, and a salad of torn bread and cold fish leftover from Shabbat dinner. “And if we have guests, we might even have more,” Hedai, a chef, farmer, writer, and entrepreneur says. He and his family have guests at their table several days a week. Located in the center of their home, the table seats 16 to 18 easily — 25 if they expand it. And, “our table is always open,” he adds.

Hedai’s cooking is an extension of his work as a farmer and an expression of his Zionism, each dish taking inspiration from what flourishes in Israel. Growing up in a working class family in Haifa, he spent his weekends on a kibbutz where his cousins lived. When his cousins would head deep into the orchards to reach the sweet tangerine grove, Hedai would fall off from the group by the grapefruit trees, which were closer to home and wait for them to return. As the time passed, he developed a love for the sometimes bitter fruit. “My cousins were sabras,” he explains using the term for a native-born Israeli. “They walked barefoot on the hot roads… and rode bikes with no hands. I was the city boy.” He longed to be more like them.

In his grade school classroom, there was a photo of an Israeli farmer. “Growing up, it was obvious to me that farmers are the heroes,” Hedai explains. And, that “Zionism can only be achieved if we work our own land and grow our own food.”

Hedai’s parents always told him to do what he wanted as long as he wasn’t a barber or a chef. He became an officer in an elite unit in the Israeli military and went on to study Jewish history.

“But, it was clear to me and to my older brother that if we want to fulfill our destiny, [we need] to become farmers,” he says. They started an organic farm in the Aravah in the south of Israel growing tomatoes that were shipped overseas and sold at stores like Whole Foods. Their dream of driving a tractor and snacking on watermelon on the front porch was replaced with hours spent with their accountant. Life “didn’t look like the dream we had in our homeland class,” Hedai adds.

That came into sharper light when a friend of Hedai’s brother was killed while completing his military reserve duty in Gaza. When their slain friend’s father offered a eulogy, he said his son’s legacy and memorial was the land he left behind, the land of Israel. As the brothers drove home, they knew the farm as it was was not what it was meant to be. Hedai traveled around the world learning about sustainability and came back to Israel and started a 10 year transition of their business into a sustainable farm.

Today, he and his brother operate a farm and a handful of cafes and shops selling their cheeses and produce. “We are not farm to table. We are seed to table,” Hedai says, and everything they produce is sold locally in Israel by them.

There’s no separation between Hedai’s life as a farmer and his life at home around his table. “I don’t finish my job and go home and do something else. This is my life, how I spend my time,” he says. “Hosting at home is what we do. Even in my restaurant, I feel like I’m hosting at home. Our food is based on the notion of hospitality.”

Hedai’s Summer Brunch Menu

This menu produces an elaborate and rich feast that will make any guest feel welcome. Pair it with egg with onion, a recipe from Hedai’s grandmother that we shared last week. Also, each of these dishes is strong enough to stand on its own, so don’t hesitate to borrow from the menu, adding a salad or fresh cheese to your favorite dishes.

Tomato and Citrus Salad

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Like a postcard from warm countries, this dish is sunshine on a plate, with golden apples (the old Hebrew name for oranges) and love apples (a Hebrew nickname for tomatoes) in a zesty olive oil and citrus vinaigrette.

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients
4 large ripe Roma tomatoes (about 1½ pounds), or a mixture of heirloom varieties
2 large oranges
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
12 pitted Kalamata olives, halved
¼ cup good quality olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon red chili flakes
1 teaspoon sweet paprika 
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Warm crusty bread, for serving

Preparation
1. Slice the tomatoes into ¼-inch-thick rounds. Set aside.

2. Zest the rind of 1 orange into an 8-ounce glass jar or measuring cup (about 1 tablespoon of zest). Set aside.

3. With a sharp knife, cut off the ends of both oranges and set them upright on one flat end on a cutting board. Starting at the top of the orange where the interior flesh meets the white pith of the peel, carefully make slices down along the side of each orange, following the lengthwise curve to remove the remaining peel and pith. Once all of the peel and pith have been removed, turn the oranges onto their sides and slice crosswise into ¼-inch-thick rounds.

4. Arrange the tomatoes, oranges, and onions in layers on a medium serving platter and dot with the olives.

5. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, chili flakes, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste to the jar or measuring cup with the orange zest. Seal with a lid and shake, or whisk well to combine. Spoon the dressing over the salad and serve immediately with warm bread.

White Shakshuka

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Makes: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 tablespoons coarsely chopped hyssop leaves (or you can substitute a mix of coarsely chopped fresh mint, oregano, sage, and/or thyme)
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound labneh cheese 
8 large eggs yolks
Warm pita, for serving

Preparation
1. Heat the oil in an 8-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the garlic and 3 tablespoons of the herbs and sauté 1 minute more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

2. Stir the labneh into the onion mixture and spread evenly in the pan. Cook until the labneh begins to steam and form bubbles at the edges, about 15 minutes. 

3. Meanwhile, separate the eggs: Crack each egg in half and carefully transfer the yolk back and forth between the two halves of the shell several times over a medium bowl, tipping the shell enough to allow the egg white to slide into the bowl beneath. Place the half of the shell containing the yolk interior-side up into an empty egg carton and repeat the process with the remaining eggs and yolks. Reserve the egg whites for another use.

4. Using the back of a spoon, create 8 depressions in the labneh mixture and gently nestle an egg yolk in each. Cook until the yolks begin to grow firm and opaque at the edges but remain soft in the centers, 3 to 5 minutes more. Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of the herbs, season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately in the pan with warm pita.

Two Eggplant Salads That Are Always Made Together

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When you get around to frying eggplants, you should prepare at least two different salads with them, and always leave a few warm freshly fried slices to eat in a pita with eggs, tahini, and vegetables.

Makes: 10 to 12 servings
Time: 45 minutes + 2 hours resting time

Ingredients
4 large, firm Italian eggplants, sliced lengthwise into ⅓-inch thick slices 
¼ cup fine sea salt
½ cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed

For the eggplant in paprika:
1½ teaspoon sweet paprika
1½ teaspoon hot paprika
8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

For the eggplant in vinegar:
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
3 large bay leaves
½ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup good quality vegetable or sunflower oil
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preparation
1. Prepare the eggplant: Arrange the eggplant slices on paper towels and salt generously on both sides. Let the eggplants rest for about an hour to expunge their excess liquid. Pat completely dry with more paper towels and set aside.

2. Fry the eggplant: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the eggplant slices and fry until deeply browned on both sides, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet and repeat with the remaining eggplant. Cover loosely with foil and set aside.

3. For the eggplant in paprika: Combine the sweet and hot paprikas in a small bowl. Sprinkle one-third of the paprika mixture over the bottom of an 11-inch by 7-inch baking pan. Top with half of the garlic slices. Arrange one-fourth of the warm fried eggplant in an even layer over top of the paprika and garlic. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the vinegar. Repeat the layering process and sprinkle the top of the eggplant with the final third of the paprika mixture. Let rest for about an hour at room temperature before serving in the baking dish.

4. For the eggplant in vinegar: Combine the remaining eggplant slices in a large bowl with the onion, garlic, allspice, and bay leaves. Whisk the vinegar and oil in a small measuring cup and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the vinaigrette over the eggplant mixture and toss gently to coat. Cover the surface directly with plastic wrap, pressing lightly to compress the ingredients. Let rest for about an hour at room temperature.

5. To serve: Using a slotted spoon or tongs, transfer the eggplant and onion slices to a rimmed serving dish. Drizzle with some of the vinaigrette and serve.

Hedai's Steak Salad

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This dish borrows from the idea of panzanella and incorporates some of the flavors of tabbouleh, allowing the herbs, blackberries, and steak play off of one another. 

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients
2 cups coarsely chopped parsley (1 bunch)
1½ cups coarsely chopped mint (leaves from approximately 12 large sprigs)
8 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 medium red onion, finely diced
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 thick slices of high-quality sourdough bread (about 1-inch thick)
2 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 aged boneless New York strip steaks, about 1-inch thick (1 pound total)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1½ cup chilled fresh blackberries (or raspberries)

Preparation
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F with a rack in the middle position.

2. Combine the parsley, mint, scallions, and onion in a large bowl and set aside.

3. Lightly brush both sides of each slice of bread with some of the olive oil and rub all over with the garlic cloves. Place the bread slices directly on the oven rack and toast until browned and crisped, 4 to 6 minutes. Let cool slightly, cut into 1-inch cubes and set aside.

4. Season both sides of each steak generously with salt and pepper. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and swirl to coat the skillet. Add the steaks and cook until seared on both sides and still pink in the middle, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the steaks to a plate and let rest 5 to 10 minutes. Thinly slice and loosely cover with foil.

5. Whisk the remaining olive oil with the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle the dressing over the herb mixture and gently toss to coat. Add the bread cubes, the sliced steak, and 1 cup of the blackberries. Toss gently to mix and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a large platter and top with the remaining berries. Serve immediately.

Corn Latkes

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Makes: 2 dozen latkes
Time: 30 minutes + 1 hour chilling

Ingredients
4 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
4 cups corn kernels (about 4 medium ears), cut from the cobs of fresh sweet corn
1½ cups dried bread crumbs
1 cup (about 3 ounces) grated kashkaval cheese or aged provolone
1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
½ cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed
Tzatziki with fresh mint, for serving
Sliced radishes, for serving

Preparation
1. Whisk the eggs and milk in a large bowl to combine. Fold in the corn, bread crumbs, cheese,  parsley, baking powder, 1 teaspoon of salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and pulse until there are no longer any whole corn kernels, 30 to 45 seconds (see chef’s note below). Return the mixture to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. 

2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, scoop ¼ cup of the batter at a time with a large serving spoon and carefully slide the batter into the skillet to form oval latkes approximately ¼-inch-thick. Fry until golden brown on both sides, flipping once, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined tray and repeat with the remaining latkes, adding more oil to the skillet as needed. Serve immediately, hot from the pan with tzatziki and radishes — or eat the leftovers as a snack at room temperature. 

*Chef’s Notes: Pulsing the mixture to break up the corn kernels is essential; otherwise the juices in the fresh kernels overheat and turn to steam, exploding in a shower of sizzling oil and molten corn pieces—not only dangerous, but very messy as well. 

Msayer (Pickled Vegetables)

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Makes: 6 to 8 cups
Time: 30 minutes + 30 minutes pickling time

Ingredients
½ small head of cauliflower, trimmed and cut into bite-sized florets
1 small bulb of fennel, trimmed and cored, cut into 2-inch-long by ¼-inch-wide petals
1 small turnip, peeled, halved, and cut into ½-inch-thick wedges
1 bunch medium radishes, trimmed and halved
4 stalks of celery, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
8 to 10 large cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
¼ cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
¼ cup olive oil

Preparation
Combine the vegetables in a large bowl with the garlic, lemon juice, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Toss to coat and let sit for 30 minutes to soften slightly. Toss with the olive oil and season to taste. Transfer to a large platter and serve immediately.

*Cook’s Notes: You can easily substitute any fresh, seasonal vegetables of your choice, such as kohlrabi, celeriac, or peppers. 

Shabbat Salad (The Salad of Bread and Fish)

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This fish makes the most of leftover fish. As Hedai explains, if it wasn’t for the olives, it could be Russian or Ukrainian and it would pair well with vodka. The olives return it to the Balkans, so a glass of Arak would suit the dish as well.

Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 1 hour + 2 hours chilling or overnight

Ingredients
For the fish:
2 pounds whole trout (2 to 3 small trout), or other flaky fleshed fish such as salmon or char, cleaned 
¼ cup olive oil
1 lemon, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the salad:
6 anchovy fillets in oil, drained and coarsely chopped
8 scallions, white and light green parts only, cut into ½-inch pieces
12 large green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup heavy cream or whole milk
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 thick slices of country bread (about 1-inch thick)
½ lemon
Chilled vodka, for serving
Bulgarian feta, for serving

Preparation
1. Prepare the fish: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place 2 to 3 large sheets of aluminum foil on your work surface. Drizzle a tablespoon of oil lengthwise along the center of each piece of foil. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the oil and place a fish lengthwise along the center of each piece of foil, spreading each fish open like a book. Season the inside of each fish with salt and pepper, and divide the lemon slices and garlic evenly between the fish. Close the fish over the lemon and garlic. Divide the remaining oil evenly between the fish and drizzle over the top of each. Season with salt and pepper. Tightly seal each fish in foil and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet.

2. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until the fish is just cooked through. Let the foil packets cool slightly and transfer them to the refrigerator to cool completely, at least 2 hours or overnight.

3. Prepare the salad: Unwrap the fish from the foil and gently separate the flesh from the bones and skin, keeping the fish in large pieces. Transfer to a large bowl and gently toss the fish with the anchovies, scallions, and olives. Set aside.

4. Prepare the bread: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Whisk the egg and cream in a medium baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Dip the bread slices into the egg mixture to coat on all sides and add to the skillet. Fry until golden brown on each side, flipping once, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and let rest slightly until cool enough to handle. Tear the fried bread into large bite-sized pieces and add to the salad bowl. 

5. Squeeze the lemon over the salad and season with salt and pepper. Gently toss the salad to meld the flavors and serve immediately with chilled vodka and a slice of salty feta.

Goat Cheese (Cherkessian Cheese)

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Makes: 2 ¼ cups
Time: 1 hour + 2 hours draining or overnight

Ingredients
1 gallon whole goat milk, not ultra-pasteurized 
2 cups plain goat yogurt
½ cup white vinegar
Kosher salt, to taste

Special equipment
A candy or instant-read thermometer
2 yards cheesecloth, folded into an 18-inch square 4 layers thick
2-cup wicker basket or plastic mold

Preparation
1. Heat the milk in a large Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring frequently so that the bottom doesn’t scald, until it reaches 160°F, 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Whisk in the yogurt and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the milk mixture reaches 190°F, 8 to 10 minutes more. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vinegar. Let the milk mixture sit undisturbed to let the proteins coagulate into curds, separate from the yellow watery whey and rise to the surface, 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, line a fine-mesh sieve with the cheesecloth and set it over a medium bowl. Gently skim the solid curds from the surface with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the sieve. Discard the whey or retain it for another purpose. Let the curds drain until cool enough to handle, about 20 minutes.

4. Season the cheese with salt to taste and serve warm. Alternately, transfer the cheesecloth with the cheese to a small wicker basket or plastic cheese mold. Fold the edges of the cloth over the cheese and refrigerate until set, at least 2 hours or overnight. Unwrap and invert the cheese onto a plate, removing the cheesecloth and mold before serving.

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