One of my favorite things to do is visit the kitchens of Jewish friends so I can learn their favorite recipes firsthand. Observing the unique cooking traditions of different families allows me a greater insight into the heart of Jewish cuisine. On my recent trip to Israel, I was invited to have dinner with our friend Gila Ronel.
Me and Gila in her garden with her dog Bonnie – Jaffa, Israel
Gila lives in the old port city of Jaffa on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Professionally Gila keeps herself quite busy—she’s a doula (midwife) for expectant mothers, and she helps manage a center for family health in Israel. She’s also a vegetarian with a wealth of nutritional knowledge, particularly when it comes to holistic healing foods. When I arrived, I was ushered into her cozy kitchen. She proceeded to teach me several of her favorite original dishes—all vegetarian, healthy, and very tasty. On Gila’s menu:
Sprouted Chickpea Stew with Vegetables and Brown Rice
Eggplant Dip with Sun Dried Tomatoes
Vegetarian Chopped Liver
Stuffed Peppers with Goat Cheese
Mango Herb Puree
Blended Watermelon Beverage
A surprising amount of Jews today stick to a vegetarian, or nearly vegetarian, diet. For some, the decision is based on morality or health consciousness. Others find it makes keeping kosher easier. The laws of kashrut limit the ways you can prepare and serve kosher meat; becoming a vegetarian eliminates those concerns. There are also spiritual reasons for Jewish vegetarianism. Some major Judaic religious texts have references to limiting meat consumption. Citing Deuteronomy 12:20, the Talmud states:
The Torah teaches a lesson in moral conduct, that man shall not eat meat unless he has a special craving for it… and shall eat it only occasionally and sparingly.
Historically, legumes, grains and vegetables have been the staples of the Jewish diet. In Biblical times meat was considered a luxury for most people. It was too pricey to enjoy at every meal—as such, it was only served on special occasions and holidays.
In Gila’s kitchen, you don’t miss the meat. She approaches vegetarian cuisine with imagination and joy, creating dishes that are unique, nutritious and tasty. She takes a natural, holistic approach to cooking. Many of her ingredients are taken straight from the trees and plants growing just outside her kitchen. As we cooked, she periodically walked me into her garden to collect herbs that she used to season our meal.
One of the dishes Gila taught me to make is her Stuffed Peppers with Goat Cheese. It’s a tasty side dish that can be served as part of a dairy meal. The recipe appears at the end of this blog.
You might be unfamiliar with one of the ingredients in this dish—it’s called hyssop. Hyssop is a popular herb in Israel; it’s been used there since Biblical times. In fact, hyssop is mentioned several times within the Torah. In Leviticus, the priests of the Temple of Solomon use the herb for purification rituals. The popular Middle Eastern spice known as za’atar is primarily made of hyssop.
There are about 10 different kinds of hyssop. Middle Eastern hyssop herb has smaller, daintier leaves than certain varieties more commonly seen in the U.S. Here is what fresh hyssop looks like:
Unfortunately, hyssop is difficult to find here in the U.S., particularly the fresh kind. You can sometimes find it in Middle Eastern shops or farmer’s markets, but I’ve never seen it in my regular grocery store. It is pretty easy to grow in warmer climates, so if you have a garden you might want to consider adding this zesty, earthy herb to your collection. I highly recommend it, the flavor is wonderful– similar to a wild oregano, but more intense with a hint of mint.
If you can’t find fresh or dry hyssop, you can add and additional 1 tsp sage and 1 tsp minced fresh mint to the mixture. Feel free to adjust the herbs according to taste or what you have in your garden or spice cabinet. I’ve provided dry herb amounts here, but I do recommend you use fresh herbs if possible—they really enhance the natural flavors in this dish.
Note: Since first posting this dish, I have tried it with feta cheese instead of goat cheese– and I loved it! Both cheeses are yummy, but the saltiness of the feta really compliments this dish. Feel free to use either type of cheese.
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- 5 large red bell peppers
- 10 tbsp (about 8 oz.) soft goat cheese (or substitute feta)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 tsp allspice
- 2 tsp fresh minced hyssop (or ¾ tsp dry hyssop- see substitution note)
- 2 tsp fresh minced sage (or ¾ tsp dry sage)
- 1 1/2 tsp fresh minced oregano (or ½ tsp dry oregano)
- 1/2 tsp fresh minced thyme leaves (or a pinch of dry thyme)
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds
- Roast your bell peppers, then steam, seed, and peel them. For instructions, click here: How To Roast Bell Peppers
- Take a roasted bell pepper and place it on a cutting board. Slice the pepper vertically from top to bottom and spread it open. Cut the pepper flesh in half, slicing it from top to bottom so you have two equal-sized pieces of roasted pepper.
- Repeat this process for the remaining bell peppers. You will end up with 10 pieces of roasted pepper.
- Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F. Grease a small baking dish with extra virgin olive oil, then sprinkle the oiled surface with salt.
- Place one of the roasted half-peppers on a cutting board with the inner side facing up (the side that used to have skin on it should face downward). Form 1 tbsp of the cheese into an oblong oval shape. Press the cheese into the center of the pepper.
- Wrap the ends of the pepper up around the cheese and pull the sides across till it makes a little package. Turn the stuffed pepper over and place it into the bottom of your baking dish, seam side down. Repeat the process until all the pepper halves are stuffed with cheese.
- Sprinkle the tops of the stuffed peppers with allspice. Mix the fresh or dried herbs together in a small bowl till well combined. Sprinkle the herbs evenly over the top of the peppers.
- In a skillet, toast 1 tbsp sesame seeds over medium heat till lightly browned.
- Sprinkle the toasted seeds on top of the herbs. Alternatively, you can use pre-roasted sesame seeds or gomasio. Drizzle the tops of the peppers lightly with olive oil and sprinkle the entire surface with salt to taste.
- Place the dish in the oven and bake at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve hot.
- Substitution Note: If you can’t find fresh or dry hyssop, you can add and additional 1 tsp sage and 1 tsp minced fresh mint to the mixture. Feel free to adjust the herbs according to taste or what you have in your garden or spice cabinet. I’ve provided dry herb amounts here, but I do recommend you use fresh herbs if possible—they really enhance the natural flavors in this dish.