Passover's Modern Muse

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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008; Page F01

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.

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