Allison Kaplan Sommer took a foraging walk with Israeli Chef Moshe Basson. Check out what she learned here and read on for Passover recommendations and recipes from the chef.
When most of us think of bitter herbs on the seder table, we think of bottled beet colored or white horseradish bought at the grocery store or maybe a whole root, slivered, or ground. Families who can’t handle the horseradish burn, sometimes resort to romaine lettuce.
But as I walked in the hills of Jerusalem on a foraging expedition with Chef Moshe Basson, an expert in biblical Jewish plants, I learned that horse radish, in any form, doesn’t really represent traditional bitter herbs. Luckily, you can find those at your farmers market or even in your back yard.
On the top of the list: wild chicory, the plant that he says comes closest to the original maror, but any forageable, edible and bitter, green will do. One option that is certainly easy to obtain in North America: dandelion greens, which offer a more bitter bite than lettuce, but isn’t as tear-inducing as horseradish.
For Passover, Basson is also a fan of traditional Iraqi harosets, which uses date honey or date molasses, known in Israel as silan, for sweetness, instead of apples or wine. In Iraq, where Basson was born and lived as a young child, the countryside was full of groves of date trees, and the biblical fruit is included in numerous traditional Iraqi Jewish recipes, particularly desserts. Basson’s haroset recipe is simple: using food processor, chop walnuts briefly, or crush them by hand. Pour the silan into the nuts and mix until it forms a paste — nearly equal amounts of silan and nuts — and serve.
On the foraging trip, we culled both Jerusalem sage leaves and wild mallow — known in Israel by its Arabic name — hubeza, which are used in Basson’s signature dishes at his Jerusalem restaurant, Eucalyptus. His hubeza salad is Passover-friendly and the sage leaves stuffed with rice are delicious and great for those who follow the Sephardic tradition and eat kitniot.
Another way he suggests bringing a new twist onto the seder table, is to introduce za’atar, also called hyssop — the plant which Jews in Egypt used to mark their doorposts on the night of the tenth plague on the Egyptians, so that their houses would be ‘passed over’ by the Angel of Death.
The dried za’atar spice can be used on chicken, and at his Jerusalem restaurant, a delicious za’atar pesto spread, made with the leaves of the plant is served at the restaurant. Normally, it is served with bread, but, he urges “it actually tastes fabulous on matzo. Try it!”
Stuffed Jerusalem Sage Leaves
These bold green leaves can be gathered in the hills of Jerusalem and in northern Israel. They are sold in many Israeli open-air markets. The stuffing can be used with grape leaves or any other edible leaf. When Chef Moshe Basson is a guest chef in the United States, he uses beet leaves, which have an added bonus of being available in a variety of colors. Chard can also be used.
Approximately 100 Jerusalem sage or other leaves
2 cups round or short-grained rice, rinsed with water
2 finely chopped onions
3/4 cup each: fresh mint leaves, parsley, and celery leaves, all finely chopped by hand
1 teaspoon thyme
3/4 teaspoon each: black pepper, nutmeg, allspice
1 1/2 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups ground beef or (for vegetarian version) cubed mushrooms, sautéed in olive oil and black pepper
2 tomatoes, sliced
2 potatoes, sliced
17 unpeeled garlic cloves (optional)
8 lemon wedges per diner
1) Combine rice, onions and meat, herbs, spices, 1 tablespoon of the salt, and olive oil together in a bowl to create stuffing.
2) Remove stems of the leaves. Lay the leaves down with their inner sides facing up. Save the stems.
3) In batches of up to 10 leaves, soak leaves in boiling water for 1 minute to soften them and make them easy to work with.
4) Place approximately a teaspoon of stuffing in the center of each leaf. Fold the leaf like an envelope, then roll with filling in the middle, so it looks like a thin cigar. Leave room on the ends — do not overstuff.
5) On the bottom of a wide pot around 8-10 inches in diameter, create a layer of leaf stems plus leaves that were rejected because they were too small or asymmetrical to stuff. Add the potato slices and half of the tomato slices. Lay the stuffed leaves on top in a layer, with the”seam” of the cigar facing down. 3-4 tomato slices on each layer and some garlic. On top of this layer, place the remaining tomato slices and unpeeled garlic cloves.
6) Add another layer of stuffed leaves. Continue layering stuffed leaves and tomatoes and garlic until all of the stuffed leaves are in the pot. In Basson’s restaurant, up to 10 layers are placed in one pot.)
7) Into the pot, add 1/2 teaspoon of salt mixed with water until the water touches the top layer of leaves.
8) Bring to a boil. Continue to cook at a gentle boil, covered; over medium heat for about 25 minutes or until liquids evaporate. Check the doneness of the rice in one of the stuffed leaves to decide whether to remove or leave covered and heating for another 10 minutes.
Serve with lemon halves to squeeze on stuffed leaves. Basson arranges lemon wedges in a circle in the center of the plate with the stuffed leaves spread out like a flower around them.
Hubeza (Mallow) Salad
Wild mallow, which is plentiful in the wild in the Middle East, also grows in California all over US, where it can be foraged or found in farmer’s markets. An excellent substitute spinach — wild spinach if available, but any spinach will do.
5 sliced garlic cloves
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups hubeza (mallow) or spinach leaves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon thyme
¼ to 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered sumac (optional)
8 tablespoons prepared tehina
1 lemon sliced into quarters
1) Wash the leaves well. Dry them, then chop.
2) Fry garlic in the olive oil until golden. Immediately add the leaves.
3) Add the spices, mix with the leaves.
4) Continue mixing over a medium flame for 10 minutes. Pile the salad in the middle of a plate, with additional olive oil drizzled around it. Serve warm, with tehina on the side for drizzling on top as a dressing, and the lemon quarters available for squeezing.
Serves up to six people.
Za’atar Dip or Pesto
This dish is delicious served on fresh bread or spread on fish fillets before they go into the oven to broil.
3/4 cup fresh za’atar (hyssop) leaves. If za’atar is not available, oregano leaves can be substituted
5 garlic cloves (optional)
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted. Almonds can be used instead, if desired
1 teaspoon ground sumac
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1) Place all ingredients except for the za’atar leaves and lemon juice into a food chopper or food processor in the order that they are listed, starting with garlic on the bottom, then nuts, then seasoning, then oil. So they do not liquefy, put the za’atar leaves in last.
2) Grind in short pulses, gradually adding? lemon juice. Beware of over grinding the mixture, which should be grainy, not smooth.
3) Taste, balance amount of lemon and salt.