Israeli Ambassador at Balaboosta
For our next culinary ambassador experience, we meet with host Naama at Balaboosta in Nolita. As usual it is an eclectic bunch of friends, acquaintances and strangers brought together by a shared passion for gastronomic discovery. Obviously food is the thing in these events, but I think that Jeff may have stumbled upon a great start up concept here - a social network based on meals. Much like certain pet owners get to know strangers through their dogs at the park, so too I overhear snippets of conversation like this one:
" Where do I know you from? Didn’t we meet at the Korean place ?"
"Oh yes, in the basement of a church."
"Was it a church?"
"Well, I remember it was in a basement."
Much laughter and reminiscing ensues.
And with that, on with the meal, which starts out as a luncheon and ends up as an almost 3 hour feast.
Naama, who was born on a kibbutz, and now works to promote Israeli food and culture, tells us that Israeli cuisine has many influences, drawing upon numerous nations and regions of the world as Jews returned from the Diaspora. Primarily, the influences are Medittaranean and Middle Eastern, but there are also hints of Middle and Eastern Europe and tastes from as far afield as India and the Far East.
The chef at Balaboosta is Einat Admony of Taim in the West Village, which I am told has the best Falafel in New York. Balaboosta itself is one of those delightful Yiddish words which has no direct English translation, but can mean “perfect housewife, wonderful mother, or gracious hostess” (or all of the above), or as Naama puts it “superwoman”. Ambassador and chef have put together a menu for our group which promises an afternoon of gourmand-like proportions.
We begin with red sangria which, on a wet and dreary New York afternoon, puts us in a warm and sunny mood for the rest of the day. A more common drink is Arak served with mint leaves or grapefruit juice, but Naama (wisely) thought it to strong for luncheon.
We begin with “Mortar and Pestle” hummus with roasted garlic, lemon and tahini. Hummus, Naama says, is like a religion in Israel, initiating obsessive searches for the freshest ingredients and inspiring arguments and philosophical discussions alike. The pita is fluffy and warm and sprinkled with za’atar (a blend of herbs, sesame and salt). It is meant to be torn apart by hand instead of cut with a knife, unlike its poor cousin sold by the half dozen, hard and flat and pre-serrated in a supermarket plastic bag.
Next up, the Mediterranean Sampler, with eggplant mousse, roasted red peppers and bulgur salad. I especially enjoy the tabbouleh (bulgur) with mint and dried cranberries and crispy fried onions.
Even those who do not normally enjoy olives like the fried olives with house made organic labne (strained yoghurt) and harissa oil. If food purveyors at state fairs are running out of things to deep fry, they could do worse than to try this dish.
After we are thoroughly gorged on appetizers and small dishes, things get more serious, starting with Moroccan fish cazuela, baked in spicy red pepper and paprika sauce, with preserved lemon, chickpeas and cilantro. Fish is normally served on a Friday (in Morocco), after the appetizers, but before the main meal.
The first entree is Chamusta, grass fed beef meatballs in a swiss chard, fava bean and lemon broth. This chamusta is unusual in two respects - it is normally served with dumplings and if those do contain meat, it is usually lamb. However, the beef is wonderfully moist and soft and the lemon adds a zesty tang on the palate.
The second entree is another traditional dish (originally from Tunisia) - Shakshouka . The very sound of it makes me want to find opportunities to use the word. The shot clock is winding down. Lin shoots,he scores -shakshouka! Anyway, you get the drift, I just like the sound of it. It is a a dish of poached eggs in a spicy tomato sauce with spinach and toasted sourdough bread.
Lunch has gone on well past the two and a half hour mark and diners with jobs are getting antsy, but the promise of dessert keeps them in their seats. It is worth the wait: Knafeh - a ricotta cheese based cake with kataif. Kataif is a version of phyllo pastry which is also used to make baclava. It is served with a dollop of pistachio ice cream and knafeh which is made by drizzling long strands of flour and water onto a turning hot plate to create a vermicelli like thread that looks like shredded wheat, but sweeter. The base is a syrup of saffron and rose water essence.
It is still drizzling outside, but we are warm on the inside, and full, and we welcome the walk home.
Thanks again, Jeff and Naama.
214 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10012
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