People may be travelling more locally these days, but you can still discover the magic of other cultures from the comfort of home.
With Israel Cookalong, a real-time cook-along over Zoom, you can taste the exuberant flavours of Israel, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Appetizers, salads, main courses and desserts all rotate through the Cookalong recipe list. You don’t need to be an expert cook to join if you have basic cooking skills.
While Israeli cuisine draws from many culinary traditions – including Arabic, European and Mediterranean – Israel Cookalong focuses on Mediterranean cooking. Much of Israel’s climate is the same as the climate in Greece and parts of Italy, France, Spain, Malta and Cypress. “These Mediterranean countries have a terroir coming from the climate and the soil,” says Israel-based freelance food and travel writer, Miriam Kresh, who established Israel Cookalong this past spring. “The recipes can be sophisticated, but not difficult.” For example, when Cookalong participants cooked up apricot tagine, “it wasn’t hard to make. It’s a sophisticated dish because of the layers of flavour you get – and we did it inside of an hour-and-a-half.”
Kresh writes for the Jerusalem Post and Green Prophet, an online publication covering sustainable news from the Middle East. Her former food blog, Israeli Kitchen, was acquired by Mother Nature News network and is now part of its publication From The Grapevine. She started the Israel Cookalong “as a means to connect with people because of the first lockdown when everybody was feeling so isolated and lonely.”
Over the summer, Cookalong participants made a great variety of salads – highly popular in Israel – such as Maimonedes salad, which has a base of cabbage and cucumber. “I love it, so I make it all the time now, and it’s so easy, so flavorful and cheap,” says Kresh’s sister, Dina O’Meara, who participates in the Israel Cookalong from her kitchen in Calgary. “My partner, Fred Bloom, really likes Sundays now, because he gets this really tasty food that he has probably never had before. He really looks forward to the culinary surprises that await him, because he knows they are going to be really tasty, and really different. And he hasn’t had to cook. Others cook his favourite food – he is a cook by trade, and now works in the food industry.
“There is no pressure. It’s not Martha Stewart. It’s in your kitchen, it’s home cooking – but it’s home cooking from the Mediterranean. It takes you away from your kitchen and your home cooking, which is probably just as delicious, but this is exotic, and there is that magic of seeing Miriam in her tiny kitchen in Israel. For me, that’s part of the thrill – how do other people cook in their kitchen, and not in this fancy restaurant or television studio. It’s fun to cook with other people – it feels so much easier.”
Israel Cookalong uses spices like sumac (a popular Middle Eastern spice), za’atar (a blend of sumac, oregano, thyme, sesame seeds and marjoram) as well as items you may already have in your own pantry, “like garlic – lots of garlic – and onions and oregano,” O’Meara notes. “And for me, the charm of the Cookalong is not just the food, but also knowing there are people from all over the world that are participating. And I just love how she’s always bringing in the backstory. She shares her mentors. She’ll show us cookbooks that she really enjoys, for us to look at as well.
“For families, this is a great way to get to know other cuisine. It’s something you can do with kids that’s fun – it’s a very welcoming environment. Kids can go in and out. It’s a great family activity – it’s almost like a culinary safari, because we’re cooking stuff from the Middle East, and Miriam is talking about where it comes from and the scents, the smells and the textures. And there’s no fancy equipment or things that are really expensive that you’ll only use once.”
Kresh always incorporates stories into the Israel Cookalong – everything from cultural education, to history. For example, while discussing the use of dates in a recipe, she recounted the story of a 2,000-year-old date pit that had recently sprouted, after being recovered from an archaeological site at the fortress of Masada, high above the Dead Sea, where the Jews had rebelled against the Romans. (Masada is now an Israeli national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Kresh always puts food into a cultural context. “Israel is such a small country, we are all exposed to each other all the time – and not just in terms of the virus,” she says. “Israelis love to talk to strangers. You go to the shuk (market) or sit on a bus, and it is perfectly normal to get out of the bus having had a whole conversation with someone you had never seen before. And especially in open-air markets. You might ask someone, ‘How do you cook these eggplants?’ and come away knowing more about each other, and about the food, than you did five minutes before.”
With the Israel Cookalong, “we are a whole bunch of people cooking the same thing together in real-time,” Kresh notes. “That is really different than standing alone in your kitchen watching a video. When I get off the session, I have that same feeling of exhilaration, satisfaction and fun as when you’ve been to a good party. Not only are we connecting, which is the main goal when I started the Cookalong, but you have something delicious to serve at the end of it. You can go to the table with something you cooked, and serve it to your family.”
Israel Cookalong is open to anyone (you don’t need to be Jewish to take part). It goes live Sundays at 9 a.m. Mountain Time. To participate, contact Kresh at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cost is USD 10 per session, payable to Kresh through Paypal.