Move Over, Ottolenghi: The Jewish-Arab Couple Making Wonders in Their Restaurant Near Jerusalem

Hedai Offaim
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Hedai Offaim

This is how things could be in the new year. The population of the country, Jews and Arabs, will live in peace and tolerance, work the land together and sit and share meals in the shade of the grapevine and the fig tree. Men and women will fall in love and start families without being concerned about the boundaries of language and religion.

 In the kitchen, they will cook together, using the fruits of the orchard and the herbs that grow on the mountainside. They will drink the wine harvested in the vineyards and on weekends and holidays will open their homes and serve the produce of the good land to the visitors and vacationers who come en masse.

That’s how things can be. I know, because that’s what I already saw with my own eyes when I visited the Majda restaurant. It is situated in the village of Ein Rafa outside Jerusalem, where Michal Baranes and Yakub Barhum built their blue house up on the hill. It’s also where, four years ago, they opened a restaurant on the ground floor of the house, which is surrounded by an orchard.

Michal is Jewish, born in a Tripolitan home in Netanya; Yakub is Muslim, the youngest of 10 children of the Barhum family from Ein Rafa. Everything else about their story is exactly like that of any young couple who fall in love and decide to live together.

Well, almost everything. Yakub has unusually talented hands, with which he built their house, planted the orchard around it, created the furniture that decorates it, and gathered every wild plant and fruit and brought them to Michal, his beloved.

Michal also has talented hands, and she modestly creates food that moves those who taste it, because it reflects the couple’s vision of the simple life.

Eating is a time for thought and meditation here, and on the scattered tables in their restaurant are entire meals that sing the praises of the land and the season.

It’s impossible to conduct business meetings in Majda, or to stop by for a light meal in the middle of a hard day on the way to somewhere else. The restaurant is open only on weekends, when people have time to sit in the shade of the grapevine, as in many countries where free time is still sacred, and off-the-beaten track roads and villages become destinations for weekend outings and relaxation.

The ingredients are always fresh and the landlords always smile, in keeping with the vacation mood.

I know that here, things can be exactly as I imagine them. Yakub and Michal − despite their unique talents and their ability to make dreams come true − are simple people like you and I, with a simple love in their hearts for each other and for the things that make life pleasant: family, good friends, good food, attractive tableware, cold wine and time to enjoy all those things.

When you sit in their bower, everything becomes very clear and simple. And why not? After all, that’s exactly how it should be. Already, this year.

The following are all recipes from the Majda restaurant.

Focaccia with muscat grapes and mascarpone

It’s not exactly focaccia, and when you smell it as it emerges from the oven, its fragrance is reminiscent of a fresh jelly doughnut and beds of spices and a vineyard at harvest time. The fermentation of the sugar in the small, thick muscat grapes, the dough golden with olive oil, the fennel seeds and the lemongrass leaves, all turn this baked treat into the flavors of the perfect vacation.

This focaccia can easily become a traditional dish on the holiday table, and a food that will be consumed with thanks for all the blessings the land has given us.

For the dough:

1/2 kg. flour

1 tbsp. dry yeast

50 gm. sugar

350 ml. lukewarm water

50 ml. extra fine olive oil

1 level tsp. sea salt

For the topping:

A bunch of ripe muscat grapes

50 gm. sugar

50 ml. extra fine olive oil

1 tsp. fennel seeds

10 fresh lemongrass leaves

1 container of mascarpone for serving

To prepare the dough:

Place flour, yeast and sugar into the bowl of a mixer with a pastry hook, add the water and start mixing at low speed. When the ingredients form a relatively dry dough, begin to drip the olive oil in slowly, while mixing, and add the salt. First, the dough will fall apart, but as you continue kneading, it will again combine into a very soft dough.

Finish with manual kneading for about 2 to 3 minutes on a floured surface. Then return the dough to the mixer bowl, cover with cling wrap and set aside to rise for about 45 minutes, until the dough doubles in volume.

To prepare the focaccia:

Stick the fingers of an open hand into the risen dough to reduce its volume. Knead a bit and transfer to a greased round pan 30 centimeters in diameter. Flatten the springy dough with your fingers until it forms a uniform layer in the pan. Separate the grapes and scatter them generously over the dough with the sugar and olive oil. Set the focaccia aside for about 20 minutes, until it rises and swallows up the grapes.

Crush the fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle. If possible, use fresh seeds that were picked in a field, as Michal does. Scatter the crushed seeds over the focaccia along with the fragrant lemongrass leaves, and transfer to an oven preheated to 220 degrees Celsius for about 25 minutes, until the focaccia is golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool a little. Serve in slices with a heaping tablespoon of mascarpone on top, and cold white wine.

Fig salad with endive and tulum cheese

End-of-summer figs are always the sweetest. Michal doesn’t burden them with hot or salty seasoning and complements their flavor with rocket leaves and the relatively delicate tulum cheese. If you can’t find tulum cheese, you can replace it with delicate brinza cheese, as long as the olive oil is of high quality and the honey is pure.

Anyone who eats this salad for breakfast will be able to see Yakub coming down from the orchard with a wide bowl containing figs bursting with honey and full of juice.

It’s pleasant to start the year with end-of-summer figs. It reminds us that the fall, winter and spring that will bring growth and blossoming began with the dry seeds of summer and with fruits that hang heavy in the orchard.

1 bunch of fresh rocket leaves

1 head of endive

8 sweet, ripe late-summer figs

100 gm. Turkish tulum cheese or brinza cheese

1/4 cup extra fine olive oil

1 tbsp. nut oil (optional)

1 tbsp. honey

Atlantic salt

Scatter fresh rocket leaves on a flat serving platter. Separate the outer endive leaves, place them on the platter, and remove the bitter heart.

Tear the ripe figs with your fingers, open them and place on the platter face up. Crumble the cheese and scatter it, too.

Pour the olive oil, nut oil and honey generously over it, sprinkle some Atlantic salt and serve with a fork and a slice of bread to absorb the oil and honey.

Kebab with roast pumpkin and pomegranate jam

When preparing Majda’s kebab, you use a mixer with a pastry hook – which breaks up the fat and protein in the meat and contributes to a wonderful and unusual texture.

The relatively long preparation process is reflected in the results, as is the meticulous choice of the various kinds of meat, each of them with a different amount of fat and a rich meaty flavor.

Using roasted and caramelized pumpkin and thick pomegranate jam lends the kebab the flavors of the
orchard and the fields that surround the restaurant, making diners feel that the seasons of the year are also the seasons on the plate.

For the kebab:

1/2 kg. flank or neck of lamb

1/2 kg. flank or neck of beef

1/2 kg. beef chuck

1 tsp. coriander seeds

1 tsp. fennel seeds

1 level tsp. cumin seeds

1 onion

1 bunch of parsley

fine sea salt

200 gm. Gorgonzola cheese (optional)

For the roast pumpkin:

A field pumpkin (wide, flat and orange, as in the photo)

1/2 cup olive oil

Atlantic salt

For the pomegranate jam:

1 kg. of seeds from peeled pomegranates (about 5 pomegranates)

1/2 cup grenadine (pomegranate syrup)

1/2 kg. sugar

juice of 1 lemon

To prepare the kebab:

Grind the lamb and beef together using a blade with relatively large holes, and transfer the meat to a mixer bowl with a pastry hook.

Meanwhile, roast the coriander, fennel and cumin seeds on a clean skillet without oil, until they begin to exude a pleasant smell of spices. Transfer the seeds to a mortar, crush them with the pestle and add to the meat.

Knead the meat with the pastry hook for 10-15 minutes at low speed. The fat and the protein will become detached from the meat and color the mixture white.

Meanwhile, chop the onion and parsley thoroughly; add to the mixture when you’re finished kneading. Add the salt, mix with your hands and refrigerate for three or four hours.

When the meat mixture has consolidated and cooled, form elongated patties the size of fried kubbeh. At Majda, each kebab is filled with a piece of Gorgonzola cheese, which melts into the meat during roasting and lends it a very rich taste.

Alternatively, the cheese can be replaced by a tablespoon of raw tehina or liver pâté.

Grill the kebabs on a charcoal grill and serve immediately over a tablespoon of the roasted pumpkin. Top each with a teaspoon of pomegranate jam.

To roast the pumpkin:

Cut the pumpkin in half width-wise and remove the seeds. Drip a generous amount of olive oil over the halves and season with sea salt. Roast in an oven preheated to 250 degrees Celsius for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the flesh is full of golden sear marks. Remove from the oven and cool a little.

To prepare the jam:

Place the pomegranate seeds, syrup, sugar and lemon in a saucepan and cook over high heat, stirring until the mixture boils. Lower the flame and cook for about 40 minutes, letting it bubble gently until the jam thickens and becomes darker. Transfer the hot jam carefully to a jar, cover immediately and allow to cool. The jam can be kept for about three months in a cool, dark place.

A shady corner of the Majda restaurant.Credit: Dan Peretz
Focaccia with muscat grapes before baking.Credit: Dan Peretz; Styling by Nurit Kariv