Jewish health food.
Maimonides, or Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also referred to as the Rambam, was a 12th-century philosopher and a famous doctor in Egypt, serving the ruler and the common people devotedly. He was buried in Tiberias, Israel. His way of looking at food and health left its mark throughout centuries. Israelis follow his startlingly modern-sounding advice until this day. He wrote that the best breakfast is a big, leafy salad: it clears digestion and the kidneys and purifies the blood.
That’s not how I remember breakfast when I was growing up. Half-asleep and in a rush to get out the door, my siblings and I would tip into a bowl some cold cereal extruded by machines into shapes designed to entertain kids. The artificially colored and flavored bits were loaded with sugars. We’d pour plenty of milk straight from the fridge on top. Then we’d wait outside for the school bus, the cold milk inside us making us shiver, while the sugars made their way into our bloodstream and made us frantic. By the mid-morning, we were exhausted from the sugar crash.
Has it changed much? Judging from the packages on supermarket shelves, it doesn’t look like it. Cold cereals have made their way into Israeli supermarkets too, and busy families find them as convenient as mine did. Probably the kids experience the same sugar highs and lows, too. But Israelis still love salad for breakfast. Any “Israeli breakfast” in a cafe includes a choice of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, or a mixed leafy salad along with your omelet, roll and butter. On Shabbat, housewives pride themselves on offering a variety of salads before serving the main hot dish.
On the bus, I once overheard a young man talking on his cellphone, complaining that he missed his mother’s Shabbat meals.
“Especially the salads,” he told his friend. “She puts twelve or more different salads on the table every Shabbat morning.”
I was impressed. I imagined that his mother has it down to a science, whizzing and chopping small, appetizing dishes of fresh carrots, lentils, beets, leafy greens, eggs, corn, cucumber, two kinds of eggplant salad, choumous, tahini, and who knows what else. Well, I don’t pretend to be so efficient on Fridays that I can serve twelve salads on Shabbat.
I grew up with the big salad bowl with vinaigrette at the bottom and the greens (sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and crisp lettuce) on top. It was part of the family legend. My mother, in the kitchen, stirring the vinaigrette, would invite anyone passing through to dip a lettuce leaf into the bowl. What do you think – more vinegar, more salt or garlic? Or just right? I, about six, tasted and gave my critique. It made me feel important; my opinion in the family mattered. At the same time, I was learning to pay attention to flavors and texture, developing a palate.
Mom would set the big wooden bowl in front of my father, and he’d take the wooden salad servers to gently lift and drop the salad, over and over until each sliced vegetable and torn leaf was slick with dressing. We watched and felt the rumblings of appetite.
Today, I make a little ceremony of the salad just as my parents did. I rinse the leaves – and today they can include aragula or mixed baby leaves, purslane or chickeweed – and recruit someone to pat them dry. Pat, don’t rub, I tell whoever it is (usually Rachel, who doesn’t like the job). Rubbing crushes the lettuce and makes it wilt. The reward for hard labor comes when I ask her opinion of the dressing. Then she’s happy to souse a tender lettuce leaf and taste. If I don’t watch it, she’ll eat half the salad that way, and I can’t blame her.
When I toss the salad at the table, the tempting odor of good vinegar, olive oil and garlic comes up. I like the moment; it’s such an attention grabber. Everyone settles down, eyes on the cascade of fragrant leaves and tomatoes, waiting for their serving. My grandchildren love the salad and drink the dressing, richer now with the vegetable juices, that remains in the bottom of the bowl.
The Rambam’s salad is simpler than my Mom’s subtly dressed one. It’s just lots of green, leafy vegetables and needs only plenty of lemon juice, salt and olive oil. And one more important ingredient – sumac. Sumac trees bearing edible, wine-colored fruit grow wild in this part of the world, although I don’t know if the dry, powdered product I buy is cultivated or harvested from the wild. It has a lemony flavor and lends an attractive deep color to any savory food. Some ethnic streams consider sumac an important part of everyday cooking; the Druze communities that I know of do especially.
Stopping for a falafel in town, you’ll often see onions seasoned with a little oil and sumac as one of the free relishes.
I like to season chicken and fish with sumac, but hadn’t thought of it in salads until I learned the Ramabam’s recipe.
It’s a free-hand recipe based on fresh leafy greens, with ingredients that vary by season and how many people will be eating. Slice everything, douse it all with fresh lemon juice and olive oil, salt to taste and dust generously with sumac. Add something sweet – not too much – for balance: sliced dried fruit, a handful of dried cranberries, some pomegranate seeds, half a thinly sliced apple or a fine fresh orange. Don’t add so much fruit as to overwhelm the main ingredients, which are the greens. You can see slices of a fresh nectarine in the top photo, which was taken over the summer.
That’s it. You can prepare the fresh ingredients beforehand, stash them, covered tightly, in the fridge, and pour the lemon juice/olive oil over it just before serving. Remember to sprinkle sumac generously over all.