Israeli food is changing. According to food writer and celebrity chef Gil Hovav, his native country’s food “used to be a melting pot. Now it’s a zoo.”
Hovav traveled from Tel Aviv to Boston last weekend to participate in the second annual Let’s Talk About Food festival in Copley Square. There, he teamed up with Area Four’s Michael Leviton to teach festival-goers how to prepare shakshuka, a traditional Israeli dish that is far from the hummus that most people consider when they think of the country’s cuisine. As Leviton cooked, Hovav regaled the crowd with stories about Israel’s often misunderstood cuisine. People outside of the country may not realize it, but Israeli cuisine is much more than hummus and pita. (And even that is misunderstood—Havov laughed as he informed the crowd that in Israel, hummus is predominantly eaten for breakfast.)
This can also be said for Jewish food in general. Like Israel’s culinary scene, which Hovav said draws inspiration from everywhere around the southern Mediterranean, Jewish cuisine is influenced by rich history, other countries, and a new generation. And two Bostonians have set out to show people just how diverse Jewish cuisine is by throwing pop-up dinners that put modern spins on traditional Jewish dishes. In short: You may have grown up on these dishes, but this isn’t your Bubbe’s dinner party.
Over the summer, Jeff Gabel and Josh Lewin launched Kitchen Kibitz, a pop-up dining experience that was born from a shared passion and respect for Jewish food. Gabel formulated the idea but needed someone with proven cooking chops to help him carry out his vision. That’s where Lewin came in. As the executive chef at Beacon Hill Bistro, he’s known for his creative dishes, commitment to sustainability, and epic Passover menus. In August, the duo threw their first sold-out dinner party at Kitchen Inc. in Somerville, where they served a meal inspired by their Jewish upbringings that pulled from countries all over the globe, including Iraq (chicken tbeet), India (Indian-spiced noodle kugel), Iran (lentil kibbeh), Tel Aviv (Israeli couscous salad, recipe below), and the United States (Texas-style brisket).
For Lewin, this new venture is a chance to pay homage to the member of his family who taught him his way around the kitchen. “[My family] usually got together for Passover,” he said. “Grandma would do all of the cooking. There was always an argument about proper matzoh ball technique and how much horseradish to eat. I learned about brisket, and why it’s important to take your time cooking it. Although she couldn’t attend the [first] pop up, I view it as a visible tribute to her influence on my cooking.”
The team is in the process of planning their next event, which they hope to hold within the next month. Each dinner party will revolve around a different theme, but they’ll all feature global interpretations of Jewish cuisine and opportunities to interact with the team behind the dinner. Lewin says part of Kitchen Kibitz’s mission is to infuse each dinner with education about the traditions and personal history that shaped the meal. “That discussion really puts our guests right in the middle of the experience,” he said.
And with the way Jewish cuisine keeps changing, there will always be more to talk about.
Israeli Couscous with Persian Flavors
From chef Josh Lewin: “This couscous is treated like risotto by first flavoring the base of onions, and then slowly simmering the pasta with repeated additions of broth until it is just finished. The dish celebrates traditional Persian flavors of sumac (sumaq), dried lime (limu omani), barberry (zereshk), and olive (zeitoun). It is served cold, tossed with your favorite vinaigrette for an easy meal accompaniment.”
You can find sumac, dried lime, and barberry at specialty spice stores, including Christina’s Spice and Specialty Foods in Cambridge.
Serves 6 to 8
2 cups Israeli (pearl) couscous
2 tablespoons ground sumac
2 dried limes, crushed
1 tablespoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 cup diced onion
4 cups vegetable broth, at a simmer
1 cup dried barberry
1 cup pitted, chopped olives
4 cups vegetable broth, at a simmer
½ cup vinaigrette
1. In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat, sweat (cook gently until soft, without browning) the onion, oil, salt, pepper, sumac, and dried lime. Cook for 5-7 minutes until the onion is completely soft, checking to make sure onions are not browning. If they are, slightly reduce heat.
2. Add couscous to the pot and cook gently over medium heat, stirring regularly for 3 minutes.
3. Add broth to just cover the pasta and bring to a simmer. Cook until the pot is nearly dry before adding another equal amount of broth. Continue this process of adding broth in increments until the pasta is nearly cooked.
4. With the final addition of broth, add the barberry and cook until pot is nearly dry.
5. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
6. When cool, toss the pasta with olives and vinaigrette, carefully rubbing each grain through your fingers to make sure it is not sticking. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
*Photos provided by Michele Martin