Adeena Sussman, author of the hot new cookbook “Sababa” (Avery, $35) was nine years old when she first visited Israel. “At that time my idea of Israeli food was very basic,” she told attendees of the luncheon/cookbook launch held last month at the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine. “When you would come back from Israel people would say, ‘How was the food?’ and you would say, ‘The hummus was excellent.’ There was a lot of hummus, a lot of falafel, a lot of shawarma. That’s really where Israeli food stopped for a long time.”
Sussman’s appearance at the Orange County JCC was part of its chef series, which, as always, included a delicious catered lunch with recipes from the cookbook. (Call 949-435-3400 to get on the mailing list.) Her enthusiasm for the flavors of her adopted home, Israel, and particularly for the Shuk HaCarmel, mere steps away from her apartment, was as infectious in person as it is within the pages of her cookbook, which brings to life the amazing variety of irresistible fresh ingredients and diverse cultures that make up Israeli cuisine.
“When I moved to Israel, the shuk quickly became a place where I felt very much at home. I quickly became friends with a lot of vendors and began cooking every day. My husband, Jay, likes to joke that I came to Israel for love but I stayed for the shuk. He says the shuk is the third person in our relationship.”
“Sababa” is Hebrew slang (via Arabic) for “everything is awesome,” and Sussman’s boldly flavored recipes and warm, lively patter truly are awesome. Israeli cuisine has come a long way, she told us. “If you told me 10 years ago that you could get a shakshuka kit at Trader Joe’s, I wouldn’t believe you. To say that Israeli food is having a moment is an understatement. This food has become really a part of the way we love to cook.”
The transformation of Israeli food to the world-class cuisine it is today was gradual. “When I moved to Israel in the 1990s, I realized that Israelis cook seasonally, as we all do now, that produce is something you don’t get in the supermarket in a clamshell or a plastic bag. It’s something you touch and feel and talk to someone about. At that time the world was changing. Israel was becoming a wealthier country. People were traveling more and could explore every culture and every food. Israeli chefs were traveling all over the world and working in Michelin star restaurants in France and Germany and Italy. It used to be that the mark of a great Israeli chef was that he could cook a great French or Italian meal. But in California they were cooking seasonally – what grows together goes together. Israeli chefs said, ‘We live in this tiny place. We have the best produce in the world, incredible cheeses, incredible olive oil, great wine. I’m going back to Israel to my own culture, my own cuisine.’ That is how modern Israeli food developed.”
Starting out as a breakfast dish for laborers, “now there’s hardly a restaurant in Israel that doesn’t have shakshuka on the menu, or a home cook without a highly personalized version,” Sussman writes. “Shakshuka is a dish designed to make a cook look good. There’s a forgiving, hard-to-mess-up sauce and a single-skillet presentation that’s festive, yet overridingly casual. In our house, we often have a skillet of “shak“ sauce cooked and ready to rumble.”
Yerushalmi (Jerusalem) kugel is traditionally served for the Sabbath kiddush, a tradition that began when Hasidic Jews settled in Jerusalem in the 1800s, and therefore is prepared by the observant before sundown on Friday and cooked in a slow oven overnight. In Israel’s ultra-orthodox neighborhoods this towering, majestic kugel, what Sussman calls “sweet-and-spicy comfort food, a side dish that eats like dessert” is ubiquitous.
Zucchini, Dill, and Feta Shakshuka
Yield: 4 servings
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium zucchini, thinly sliced into rounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
6 medium very ripe fresh tomatoes, finally chopped by hand, or puréed in bowl of food processor if you like smoother shakshuka
1 can (14.5 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1 small, fresh, finely diced red jalapeño, plus more to taste and for serving
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
6 large eggs
1 cup (4 ounces) crumbled feta cheese
Pita or other bread, for serving
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in large oven-safe skillet over medium–high heat. Add zucchini, salt and black pepper, and cook, not stirring too much, until zucchini has released its water and is golden and slightly charred around edges, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.
2. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to skillet, then add onion and bell pepper, and cook, stirring, until onion is lightly golden and softened but not too dark, 9 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 more minute. Add tomato paste, cumin, paprika, coriander, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, until mixture is fragrant and tomato paste is slightly caramelized, 2 minutes. Add fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes and jalapeño. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until sauce has darkened and thickened slightly, 20 to 25 minutes; season with additional salt and black pepper to taste. During last five minutes of cooking set rack in top third of oven, and preheat broiler.
3. Stir in dill and return zucchini to pan, stirring gently. With a spoon, form 6 wells in sauce, then crack an egg into each well. Sprinkle feta around skillet and cook 3 minutes.
Transfer pan to oven; broil until top of sauce is slightly caramelized and whites of eggs are just opaque but yolks are still runny, 2 to 3 minutes. With oven mitt, remove from oven, top with fresh chopped dill and more jalapeño, and serve immediately, or cool to room temperature and serve, sandwich style, stuffed into pitas or piled on top of bread.
Yerushalmi (Jerusalem) Kugel
Yield: 12 servings
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Bring large pot of salted water to a boil over medium–high heat, reduce to medium-low, cover, and simmer while you make caramel.
3. Add sugar to a 4-quart oven-safe saucepan (make sure there’s 5 or 6 inches of headroom on top of sugar, since there will be some sputtering later). Sprinkle 2/3 cup cold water evenly over sugar so it’s completely saturated and consistency of wet sand, gently tilting pan (but not stirring) to saturate any dry spots. Melt sugar and water over medium heat until it reaches a uniform simmer, about 6 minutes, then raise heat to medium-high and boil liquid, not touching the caramel or swirling the pan, until it’s a beautiful deep, dark maple color, 8 to 9 minutes. (At this point the difference between minutes is important, so don’t move away from pot. It can make the difference between a sweet kugel and a burnt, smoky one; the darker the caramel the darker the kugel.) Turn off heat and remove caramel from flame.
4. Using a 1/3 cup measure, lift out 1/3 cup hot water from simmering pot and immediately add it to caramel; mixture will sputter and bubble wildly for a minute, then calm down and become a thick, dark golden liquid; swirl a couple of times, cover caramel, and set aside. While caramel is cooling, return pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and cook noodles until al dente (no need to wait for water to return to a boil), about 3 minutes.
5. Drain noodles, rinse well in warm water, and return noodles to pot you cooked them in. Using silicone spatula, scrape as much of the warm caramel as you can into warm noodles and stir to combine; it’s okay if there’s a little sticky caramel left in pot. Stir in vegetable oil, followed by pepper and salt. Cool noodle mixture until lukewarm, 10 to 15 minutes, then stir in eggs to combine (if you do this too soon you might cook eggs). Pour mixture back into pot you used to make caramel (any harden caramel will dissolve during baking).
6. Transfer to oven and bake until color deepens and top develops a crust, 1 hour and 40 minutes to 2 hours. Cool for 30 minutes, loosen edges of kugel with a knife, and invert onto a serving platter. Serve immediately, sliced into wedges, or allow to cool completely. If you wait, outer shell of kugel will be chewier.
Source: “Sababa” by Adeena Sussman
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at