Soul Food

The creative dishes served at Rama’s Kitchen in Nataf, outside Jerusalem, sustain the body as well as the spirit.

Separated lamb ribs. Sumac oil is used in the marinating process.Dan Peretz

Green mountainous slopes both expand a person’s view of the horizon and bring him closer to himself. Maybe that’s why the residents of the Ein Kfira ridge planted their huts on the sides of a mountain over 30 years ago. Or maybe it was because every step down from the peak in the direction of the sea marks the beginning of a journey. In any event, Uzi and Rama Ben Zvi also built their home there, in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem, and planted a green garden around it, full of indigenous greenery. In the middle of the garden they built a veranda, with a taboun oven and a kitchen in the center. On the surrounding tables, Rama serves her guests the fruits of the earth and the fruits of her labor.

Almost 20 years have passed since they built their veranda, and it’s as if Rama’s Kitchen has become one of the stones in the mountain. At first Rama would open her gates only on weekends, and only in the spring and summer months, and people would tell each other whether the restaurant was open and what was being prepared in the taboun.

Five years ago, a young musician and chef landed straight from drizzly England into Rama’s burning sunshine and marched into the kitchen. Tomer Niv placed his double bass at the side, prepared some of his dishes for Rama, and she and the mountain welcomed them into their kitchen.

Since then, the restaurant has been open three days a week, all year round. At the beginning of the week, Rama looks toward the horizon and on Tuesday Niv joins her, and before they open the door to the kitchen, they first go for a hike on the mountain ridge to gather acorns, nettles, wood sorrel, mustard leaves and radishes. Before landing in Rama’s Kitchen, Niv journeyed through the food laboratories of The Fat Duck (a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Berkshire, west of London), where he distilled and concocted the dishes of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.

In Rama’s Kitchen, there are no test tubes, and he distills the flavor of his dishes from cypress cones and needles, and from the roots he pulls out of the heavy mountain soil. Those sitting in the veranda and on the terraces surrounding it are served on ceramic plates wrapped in breezes from the windy mountain opposite, with meat and vegetables that still recall the taste of its clods of earth.

I have never tried to eat Niv’s dishes without gazing at the landscape framed there by Rama. I don’t know whether they would even exist without the pine branches and the piles of stones and the cyclamen there. That is the secret of really good food; if it isn’t a part of the place and time where it is eaten, it will end up being forgotten and do no more than sustain the body. On the Ein Kfira ridge, the food sustains the spirit as well.

Vegetables in smoked paprika oil

The seasonal abundance of vegetables in this restaurant could drive a chef crazy if he isn’t cautious. Everything is fresh, young, brought every morning from the garden to the kitchen; it could easily turn into a heap of salad or grayish soup in the hands of someone who doesn’t know when to stop. In the dish prepared for us by Tomer Niv, he makes sure to handle each vegetable separately and to treat it appropriately; that’s how he manages to place so many vegetables on a plate and you can still taste every one of them.

The sweet potatoes are baked in salt; the taste of the lentils is brought out thanks to a sourish spinach; the mushrooms are only seared; and all the flavors are combined in the sweetish and delicate oil. Anyone who prepares hummus at home occasionally should try this dish or even only parts of it, at the 10 o’clock break. It’s like an encyclopedia of vitamins.

For the paprika oil:

200 ml. grape-seed oil or fine olive oil

50 gm. sweet paprika

50 gm. smoked paprika

For the cream of sweet potato in salt:

2 kg. sweet potatoes

1 kg. coarsely ground salt

4 cloves of garlic confit in olive oil

fine sea salt

ground white pepper

For the red lentils and spinach:

2 cups red lentils

4 cups vegetable stock or water

2 onions

1/4 cup (60 ml.) olive oil

1/2 kg. Turkish spinach

sea salt

ground black pepper

For the mushroom dish:

1 small onion

1/4 cup (60 ml.) olive oil

6-8 large Portobello mushrooms

1/4 cup (25 gm.) roasted and shelled hazelnuts

juice from 1 lemon

Atlantic salt

ground black pepper

To prepare the paprika oil: Pour the oil into a bowl, add the spices and stir. Set aside for about an hour, stirring occasionally so that all the oil turns red. Strain and transfer to a closed glass jar.

To prepare the cream of sweet potato: Wash the sweet potatoes thoroughly and dry. Sprinkle a wide baking tin with the coarse salt; place the sweet potatoes on it and bake in an oven preheated to 250 degrees Celsius, for about an hour or somewhat longer, until the sweet potatoes soften and their skin dries and browns a little. Remove from the oven; cool until you can touch them.

Peel the sweet potatoes and transfer the orange flesh to the bowl of a food processor with a metal blade. Add the garlic with its olive oil. Process into a smooth puree, season with salt and white pepper, taste and adjust seasoning.

While the sweet potatoes are in the oven, prepare the lentils: Soak them in 6 cups of lukewarm water for about 20 minutes. They will lose their color if you soak them longer. Drain off water; transfer to a pot with the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil and cook covered over a low heat for about 20 minutes, until they soften. If necessary, add a little more stock.

Chop the onions and brown them in the olive oil in a heavy skillet. When the lentils are soft, add the caramelized onions to them with the oil remaining in the skillet. Remove from the heat; chop the spinach and add to the pot immediately. Stir and allow to “perspire” a little.

Transfer the thick mixture to the bowl of the food processor and process into a thick and smooth consistency. Add salt and pepper, taste and adjust seasoning.

To prepare the mushrooms with the hazelnuts: Chop the onion and steam it in a wide skillet with the olive oil over a medium flame. Cut the mushrooms into 1/2-cm. cubes, turn up the heat and add to the skillet. Stir-fry a little so that the mushrooms are seared but don’t become too soft. Break the hazelnuts up a little and add them too. Pour the lemon juice over, and season in salt and pepper. Remove from the stove.

Now the various flavors can be combined in a plate: Arrange 2 heaping tablespoonfuls of the creamed sweet potato in a plate, like hummus. Place the lentil and spinach mixture in the middle and create a depression. Place another, heaping tablespoonful of mushrooms in the middle and drizzle some of the smoked paprika oil over everything. Serve with hot pita and a glass of cold water.

Separated lamb ribs

When you prepare ribs, you usually eat only the main filleted part of the meat and get rid of the rest. But here, too, Niv prefers to use all the parts of the piece of meat, with proper treatment of the texture of each part, creating a dish that is rich in flavor – and is also characterized by a degree of modesty. The following is a guide to comprehensive treatment of lamb ribs.

250 ml. fine olive oil

125 gm. sumac

a nice set of ribs from the upper part of the lamb

6-7 wide, fresh beet or chard leaves

1 tsp. rosemary leaves

1 small, firm eggplant

2 tbsp. olive oil

juice from 1/2 lemon

Atlantic salt

ground black pepper

Begin by preparing seasoned sumac oil for marinating the ribs: Place the oil and the sumac in a bowl, set aside for about an hour and stir occasionally so that the colors and flavors penetrate the oil. Strain and transfer to a wide bowl that can hold the ribs. Add the ribs, cover tightly in cling wrap and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for 24-36 hours. Don’t skip this stage, because it softens the meat and lends it a profound juiciness.

Before cooking, wrap the ribs in the fresh chard leaves and place in a baking pan. The job of the leaves is to maintain the moistness of the meat during baking, and to prevent it from getting scorched. Roast in an oven preheated to 140 degrees Celsius, for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on the size and weight of the piece of meat. The roasting should bring the temperature in the center of the meat to about 58-60 degrees Celsius, the “medium” degree of cooking.

When the meat is ready, remove it from the oven and peel off the leaves. With a sharp knife, separate the fillet from the bones, cover it so it won’t dry out and set aside. Now peel off the layer of fat covering the ribs. Place it on a hot, heavy skillet on a high flame, scatter the rosemary leaves, salt and pepper over it, and place another heavy skillet on top to press down on the meat.

Roast the meat until it becomes crisp, turn it over and repeat the process so that you get a crisp, brown hunk of meat. With a small knife, scrape off the rest of the meat remaining among and around the bones and chop it up thoroughly.

Cut the eggplant into 1/2-cm. cubes and stir-fry them in 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a hot skillet, until they brown. Season with salt and pepper; pour the lemon juice over it. Mix with the lamb tartare, taste and adjust seasoning.

To serve, season the piece of fillet with a little salt and pepper, and cook briefly in the same skillet where the piece of fat was fried. Place the slice of crisp fat on a board or a plate, slice the fillet, place it on top, and add a tablespoon of the tartare on the side. Eat with a fork and a sharp knife, and perhaps a shot of yellow pastis alongside.

Rama’s Kitchen is open from Thursday through Saturday, from 9:30 A.M. to 9:00 P.M., 02-5700954