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Passover's Modern Muse
Caterer Vered Guttman Brings Israel's Evolving, Composite Cuisine to Washington Tables

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In many ways, the dishes that Israeli-born Vered Guttman will make for Passover represent the essence of her country's most modern cuisine -- which is to say they are eclectic and evolutionary. Her carefully trimmed lamb shanks will simmer into tenderness amid root vegetables, fruit juices, wine and date molasses; a tangy tilapia and grapefruit seviche will stand in for old-school gefilte fish; side dishes will include a variety of crunchy, lightly dressed salads; and her simple desserts will meld European and Mediterranean tastes.

For the Jewish holiday that starts at sundown Saturday, Guttman and her family won't be hosting a Seder meal at their Chevy Chase D.C. home, because they have been invited to the home of good friends. But she will be cooking for dozens this weekend just the same as the sole force behind her catering business, Cardamom and Mint.

"My influences are representative of the Israeli melting pot," Guttman, 39, says with understatement. "My father is from Baghdad, my mother was born in Israel, my grandmother's Polish. And I like to cook regional foods from the Middle East that have bold flavors and fresh ingredients. That is what's happening in the Tel Aviv food scene, too."

To understand where Guttman's cuisine comes from, one can hardly do better than consult Israel Aharoni, one of Israel's most popular food personalities. The chef has educated a new generation of home cooks and broadened his countrymen's palates by opening modern Asian restaurants in Tel Aviv and by promoting a substance that, unbelievably, hardly any Israeli Jews had cooked with: high-quality olive oil.

"It's even mentioned in the Bible, but until 20 years ago, you couldn't get olive oil except in Arab villages," says the 54-year-old chef, who hosts two cooking shows on Israeli TV, has written 20 cookbooks and has filed a weekly food column in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper for 18 years. "People cooked with soy or peanut oil, in the restaurants and at home."

Israeli cookbook author Nira Russo, 59, a culinary hero of Guttman's, has written about food for almost three decades, first for the newspaper Haaretz and now for Yediot, where she often collaborates with Aharoni. Russo describes growing up as a Jew of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi) in a country where most of the olive producers were Arab, and "the olive oil they sold, albeit in small amounts,was not of very good quality," she says. There were problems with the processing, and what the public got was green, acidic and bitter.

Besides, Ashkenazi cooking didn't call for much olive oil. Russo recalls occasional family trips during which her father would stop to get a liter of olive oil in an Arab village; that was not a common occurrence for most Jewish families, she says. "I could not understand why we were getting it. I asked for my salads to be dressed with canola oil, or anything else!"

"Israel has come a long way since 1948," Aharoni says. "There were years of rationing and a trend of being modest, of not wanting to show off with gourmet food and Jewish cooking. That took some time to shake off."

When Israelis started to travel abroad in greater numbers and follow Michelin guides, they returned home and wanted the same food, Aharoni says. Olive oil became popular in his country "through the back door -- from Italy. Now, the olive oil scene in Israel is amazing. Boutique production and beautiful varieties, by Arabs and Jews," he says.

Russo agrees that her own travels to France and to the United States some 25 years ago helped open her eyes to how wonderful olive oil could be; that was about the time when Israeli Jews acquired olive groves, began experimenting with blends of olive oils and created a governmental council, the Israel Olive Board, that monitored quality and development. And it took some time for Israeli palates to become accustomed to olive oil with buttery and mild flavors.

Guttman's keen interest in cooking was whetted during the middle of Israel's olive-oil reawakening. "Now Israelis are experts at it," she says, pointing to her favorite shop in Tel Aviv: Olia, an olive oil boutique.

The desire for a wider array of local products grew organically, quite literally. Aharoni has watched with delight in the past 15 years as fresh broccoli, mushrooms and ginger cropped up as ingredients for the first time. Having interpreted modern European cuisine, Israeli chefs welcomed the ever-greater variety of produce, then incorporated ubiquitous local ingredients such as pomegranate molasses and tahini.

Restaurants "make green falafel with fresh herbs, red falafel with peppers, stuffed falafel with lamb," he says, referring to the fried balls of pureed chickpeas. "The fare is Jewish-Iranian-Iraqi-Moroccan-Lebanese, and everyone's eating it up."

While the food climate was improving, Guttman completed her required military service, studied art and computer science in college and then became a software developer, stockpiling Mediterranean cookbooks and becoming inspired to cook the new Israeli way. Not for the public, though. "Everyone was a 'chef' there. Food-crazy," she says. "I was, too. But I wouldn't have dared to do in Israel what I do now."

Fast-forward to 2005: Guttman has moved to Washington with Nathan, her journalist husband. They have three young sons. The state of the local plate prompted her to think about a culinary career, even with no formal training. "We were surprised at how people eat here. So much meat," she says, especially in comparison with her country's new cuisine, which features "so much more fruit and fresh vegetables."

She adapted her favorite recipes and went looking for ingredients such as silan (date molasses), sumac and the brand of tahini she liked best (see this article). With a warm and low-key manner, she made new friends, one of whom hosted a party to introduce Guttman's style of cooking.

It was an instant hit. Assignments to cater journalists' book parties provided a steady buzz about her menus, which featured simply prepared dishes and prices that were deemed reasonable.

"Her food looks very homey to me. There is something so simple about it," says Dalya Luttwak, a Chevy Chase artist and one of Guttman's satisfied customers. "She uses wonderful ingredients that are familiar to me, but she puts such a twist on things -- like chickpeas with feta, or her chopped beet and lemon salad. Or yellow fava beans with Swiss chard."

The Luttwaks hired Guttman to cook for their daughter's wedding, for which the new caterer made her now-famous blackened salmon with yogurt and citrus sauce. "There was nothing left over," Luttwak says. "I never got so many compliments." (For the salmon, Guttman pan-grills fillets that she first rubs with olive oil, salt and a dried spice mix of mint, oregano, cumin, paprika and rosemary. The sauce is made with a yogurt cheese called labneh and with lemon juice and zest.)

Even though Guttman limited the size of her jobs, she soon found herself looking for the commercial kitchen space she works in today, renting from Catering by Joyce in Gaithersburg. Working alongside that company's executive chef, Michael Abulhawa, has been an unexpected benefit.

Originally from Mount of Olives, an Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem, Abulhawa, 46, is classically trained and has the knife skills and savvy that come with 30 years' experience. He often lends Guttman a hand while he is cooking, making short work of the prep that she handles, admittedly, like a home cook.

Watching them work on a chilly March afternoon, one can appreciate the slight edge in banter that is good-natured yet competitive. Neither works with recipes at hand, although on this day Guttman has posted ingredient lists, written in Hebrew, over the work table for the benefit of a reporter.

With her curly, reddish-brown hair hidden beneath a cook's cap and a black apron over her T-shirt and drawstring pants, Guttman stops to smile and say, "Michael and I have already had arguments about who cooks better."

"She's good for 'mother' kind of cooking," the chef, in whites, responds without interrupting his task: scooping out peeled beets and potatoes for a dish Guttman is making. "Vered and I make many of the same things, but in a different way." And then the kitchen diplomacy gives way to Abulhawa's insistent cellphone.

Guttman hopes someday to run her own commercial kosher kitchen; not all of the food she prepares now is strictly kosher, as sometimes bacon is used to flavor a bean salad made with yogurt, for example. (But most of the recipes she shares in the Food section today can be kosher, following Jewish dietary laws of kashrut.) She uses very little butter or cream; the flavors of her food come mainly from vegetables, she says.

The dishes on Guttman's catering menu read like chart-topping hits of contemporary ethnic cuisine: an Iranian chicken casserole with thigh meat, rice, dates, apricots and cinnamon; "bitter-sweet" citrus-glazed beef with celeriac and carrots in a thick orange juice-wine sauce; roasted, herb-filled tomatoes with olive oil and mint; a panna cotta made with Middle Eastern milk, topped with pomegranate syrup and served in Moroccan teacups.

"I would like to grow eventually and cater bigger events," she says. For now, though, Guttman is happy to build a solid reputation and to be part of a cuisine that "is still in the making."

Vered Guttman can be reached through her Web site, at http://www.cardamomandmint.com.

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