A chef tames the wild at Eucalyptus
Unique ingredients combine for an unconventional touch in Israel’s fine heritage foods.
Walk around Jerusalem, appreciating the colorful movement and scents in the cobblestoned alleys and the beauty of its ancient walls. After awhile, you might start feeling hungry. And if the aromas of freshly baked breads and za’atar herb wafting from unpretentious bakeries stimulate your curiosity as well as your appetite, satisfy both at the Eucalyptus restaurant. It’s where chef Moshe Basson cooks delicious food from heritage ingredients.
As a child, Basson roamed the countryside around his home village south of Jerusalem. Local shepherds taught him the uses of all the herbs growing wild in the area, showing him which are good to eat. His family grew their own vegetables and kept chickens, and Basson’s father owned a bakery in the village. Basson grew up watching dough kneaded and loaves pulled out of wall ovens on huge baker’s peels. His family’s daily concern with growing and making their food suffused home life. Later, nostalgia for those free childhood days and foods became the basis of his chosen profession.
The bakery had a section where the villagers brought whole stuffed lamb legs to bake for feasts.
“The smells of that meat roasting slowly, with its spices and stuffing of native herbs, made me wild,” Basson told From The Grapevine. “I used to smell it cooking – I can still smell it now – and it made me so hungry! And the women baked pastries filled with locally picked herbs like za’atar and native garlic and spinach.”
Grown to maturity and steeped in local culinary traditions, Basson opened the Eucalyptus restaurant in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem. The restaurant was built around an enormous eucalyptus tree whose crown emerged from a skylight – a tree that Basson himself had planted at age 12. His vast knowledge of heritage foods, and the mouth-watering dishes he developed from them, began to draw attention in Israel. Eventually, the fame of the Eucalyptus spread abroad, too. Chefs expressed themselves through French, Italian and Chinese cuisines. Slowly, Basson’s influence changed how Israeli chefs view food, and if the authentic colors and flavors of Israel’s food heritages are in everyone’s mouths today, much is due to him.
A trip to taste the foods of Eucalyptus
With a friend, I visited Eucalyptus, now set in a picturesque artists’ colony. Evening was falling. We descended a short flight of steps to a stone courtyard. To the right is a glass door with blue ironwork. Above hangs a sign bearing the image of a eucalyptus tree. We walked in, and began to enjoy.
The restaurant itself is quite simple-looking. There’s an attractive bar with good-quality spirits. A friendly waitress comes forward to help seat you. A window facing the courtyard displays old-fashioned artifacts, setting the tone. Tables are set with tea candles in squat glass jars, making a cozy glow. I noticed, appreciatively, the ample napkins.
Basson came to greet us; indeed he visits every table, chatting with the diners and explaining a little about the food. We were seated, and the first dish of the tasting menu soon appeared. Basson calls it the “Goodbye to Winter” menu, as the dishes feature winter herbs that will soon fade away in the oncoming summer; herbs like mallows and nettles.
Nettles? Yes indeed. We tasted a dark green and creamy nettles soup, with tastings of lentil and Jerusalem artichoke soups as well. But first, we tore chunks out of the house flatbread and dipped them into little bowls of tomato, bell pepper and garlicky herb dips.
The attentive waitress next set down a grilled eggplant lashed with tahini, lemon juice and slightly sweet date honey, garnished with pomegranate seeds.
My friend and I were enjoying a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Petit Castel winery, but gave the wine a rest while eating the lemony eggplant dish. It was no penance: when the next tasting came, which was small filo pastries stuffed with shredded roast duck, we resumed sipping. The pastries are a modern take on a very old dish called B’stilla. Originally a pie filled with roast pigeon and the crust sprinkled with sugar, I never thought it sounded very attractive. But Basson’s light version with filo pastry, duck and powdered sugar was fantastic. In general, the food at Eucalyptus is full-flavored and a little unusual, with touches of sweetness successfully accenting savory ingredients.
Ever heard of Jerusalem sage? It’s a large, dark-green leaf, not related to the kitchen sage we’re familiar with, and it grows wild. Basson gets up early on spring mornings and forages it, bringing bags full back to the restaurant. He stuffs the leaves with meat and rice, rolling them up like vine leaves. He says that only a few customers notice that the leaves are different. They have a softer flavor than vine leaves’ lemony taste. Very delicious.
We were starting to feel … comfortable. Not quite full, not yet. When green gnocchis in tomato sauce were set down in front of us, we had room to put our forks in and taste. They were light, the way gnocchi should be, with a flavor we’d never tasted before; at best it can be described as green flavor, with a touch of garlic. Basson, joining us again for a few minutes, told us that the gnocchi were cooked with mallows, a wild plant related to marshmallow and which grows all over the country at this time of year. He said he forages the mallows and freezes them to have on hand later.
The final savory platter blew us away. Risotto of freekeh, which is smoked green wheat, cooked with mallows and craftily kept warm in a jar. Roasted portobello mushrooms stuffed with garlicky potato puree. Grilled root vegetables. We ate willingly, but begged the servers to give us some time before bringing dessert.
And dessert was spectacular. Tiny, creamy, hot chocolate soufflés; a fresh, cold, citrus sorbet; traditional semolina cake covered in tahini and date honey; pears cooked in red wine in almond cream, and almond pudding flavored with cinnamon and rosewater.
The tasting menus are varied and ample, but if you wish to order à la carte, there are other fascinating choices. Basson’s signature maqluba dish is one. It involves a fun ceremony where servers parade in, bearing the pot and beating a gong. The pot is turned upside down on a big platter and the customer or guest of honor pats it all over, then makes seven magic passes over it (all of which gives the rice time to detach from the bottom of the pot). After closing their eyes and making a wish, the guest and Basson gently lift the pot away, and a cake-shaped creation of chicken, rice and vegetables stands in majesty, smelling very appetizing. Everyone claps, and then digs in. Another great dish is neck of lamb slow-cooked in a clay dish, covered with a pita baked right on top of the dish. You break the pita open with a fork, like a pie crust, to find the aromatic meat and vegetables underneath.
Recipe for nettles soup from Moshe Basson’s Eucalyptus restaurant
“The beauty in this soup is its simplicity," Basson says. "It lets the main ingredient speak out loud and isn't loaded with ingredients that weigh it down.”
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Yield: About 2 quarts soup
Ingredients: 700 grams fresh nettles (carefully rinsed and free from dirt), 2 cups blanched almonds, salt and white pepper to taste, 1 quart water
In a pot, bring the water to a boil and add a pinch of salt. Blanch the nettles: Dip them in the boiling water for one minute, then remove with tongs and put into a bowl of ice water. Reserve all the hot water to use as stock.
Remove the fibrous stalks, taking care to preserve as many of the leaves as possible. Put the nettles in a stock pot and add enough hot water just to cover. Simmer for approximately 20 minutes until soft, then use a stick blender to blend until the soup is smooth.
In a heavy-duty blender, blend the almonds with enough of the remaining hot water to just cover them. Blend very well until a thick paste forms, and stir into soup. Bring to a boil while stirring and cook for a few more minutes, adding more of the reserved hot water to the desired consistency. (It’s fine if the water cooled down in the meantime; the main thing is that it has the flavor from the blanching process.)
Season well with salt and pepper. The salt tends to disappear in the flavor of the soup, so you may need to add more when you serve.
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