A few weeks after I began working at Haaretz, I received an email early one morning. The writer asked me for a few recipes, and I made do with her first name, Nechama. And so, without an intermediary, simply and directly – which is also the secret of her charm – I got to know the president’s wife, Nechama Rivlin. Almost a year later, during a visit I initiated at the President’s Residence, I found out that she follows newspaper food columns religiously – but not just that.
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“I’ve read a lot of cookbooks of all kinds, sometimes I read them as if they were good literature,” she says. “I used to know according to the recipe what flavor it would have and whether they would like at home. I’m talking about dozens of cookbooks, in English too. Some have disappeared, maybe they’re hiding somewhere. But most of them I keep, with lots of love and memories.” Rivlin is one of those people who has a genuine passion for good food and doesn’t consider cooking a burden. On the contrary, she approaches this work with joy. “For years I’ve understood that food is part of home. There’s nothing like the smell of cooked food to make you feel good. It has warmth, and in my opinion it’s also a sign of love.” She recalls how when they were small, each of her children had a favorite food of their own, making the task of cooking complicated, “but I did everything with lots of love. Even today, when we’re in the President’s Residence and I have different conditions, it’s important to me to prepare the food they like. For example, spaghetti Bolognese, lasagna, goulash, moussaka, and the pièce de résistance, cholent.”
Although cooking is a homey pursuit, as a laboratory technician who worked in the life sciences institute at Jerusalem's Hebrew University for many years, Rivlin sees a connection between it and her work. “I always compared my work in the lab to work in the kitchen, especially baking, where everything has to be measured," she says.
This week, after a visit to the President’s Residence, during which we prepared a meal together, I have the pleasure of hosting Rivlin in this column. In honor of Sukkot's ritual of ushpizin (Aramaic for guests) and after all the heavy holiday fare, the dishes we prepared are vegan or vegetarian and suitable for hosting family and friends – in the sukkah or in general.
Vegan stuffed leeks
The rich stuffing, thanks to the squash, the herbs and the spicy sauce, is balanced by the sweet figs.
Ingredients (makes about 25 pieces)
5 medium-sized leeks
For the stuffing:
2 peeled shallots
3 peeled garlic cloves
1/4 bunch of cilantro, rinsed
1/4 sprig of parsley, rinsed
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup freekeh
1/2 cup short-grain rice
A pinch of saffron
A pinch of salt and ground black pepper
For the sauce:
2 peeled shallots
1 garlic clove
1/2 spicy green pepper
1/2 tbsp. garam masala
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 cup water
A pinch of salt and pepper
The stuffing: Finely chop the squash, shallots, cilantro, parsley and garlic, preferably in a food processor (if using a food processor, the texture should be a paste). Add the olive oil and mix well (if using a food processor, add it while it’s running). Transfer the chopped vegetables to a bowl and add the other stuffing ingredients (freekeh, round rice, saffron, salt and pepper). Mix well and set aside.
The sauce: Chop the vegetables (shallots, garlic, green pepper and tomato) very finely. Place a wide, shallow pot on low to medium heat. When it’s hot, add the garam masala. Cook it for about two minutes, until it’s fragrant. Add the olive oil and when it’s hot, add the chopped vegetables, stirring. After about two minutes, pour in the water and season with salt and pepper. Lower the heat.
You can now start stuffing the leeks: Cut off the top part of the leeks (at the point where the stem opens up into leaves). Cut each stalk into halves or thirds, depending on its size. The length of each piece should be about 8 cm., or just over 3 in. Stand each piece upright and with the tip of the knife only reaching midway through – not any further – carefully slice from the top of the stalk down. Separate the layers into tubes. Since the inside ones are too narrow to be stuffed, use the more exterior layers. Save the interior ones. Place a little more than 1/2 a tablespoon of stuffing into each leek tube, close it, then take another leek tube and cover the stuffed one with it on the side with the cut. Repeat until you run out of stuffing.
Cooking: Chop the interior layers of the leeks that weren’t stuffed and add to the sauce. Slice the figs into quarters. Place the stuffed leaks into the pot, scatter the figs over them and add water until it reaches 3/4 of the leeks’ height. Cover and cook for about 45 minutes or until the liquid evaporates. Before serving, brush the leeks with olive oil and place the entire pot for a light browning in an oven preheated to 200 degrees C (390 degrees F) for about 10 minutes.
Cold squash soup
One of Rivlin’s favorite soups, which she usually serves along with gazpacho soup, which adds wonderful color to the table.
Ingredients (for 6-8 small first courses):
1 white onion, chopped into small squares
4 tbsp. olive oil
50 gr. butter
5 stalks of dill
5 parsley sprigs
A pinch of salt and white pepper
About 10 stalks of chives, finely chopped
Peel the squashes and cut into large quarters. Place in a strainer and sprinkle with coarse salt to remove the bitterness. Leave for about 30 minutes. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large, wide pot on small to medium heat. Add the onion and fry it until it’s transparent. Wipe the liquid and salt from the squashes and add them to the pot. Steam them a little and pour in water so it covers them. Add the herbs (all whole, except for the chives). Continue to cook until the squashes soften. Remove the herbs and blend the soup with an immersion mixer. Season with salt and white pepper to taste. Set aside to cool.
To serve: Pour the soup into bowls and decorate with some chopped chives. If you want to serve the soup hot, we recommend serving it with croutons.
Lemon meringue pie
Rivlin really likes desserts. And what she likes most of all, as seen by her choice here, is lemon meringue pie.
Ingredients (for a 26-cm. pie plate)
For the short pastry:
2 cups flour
150 gr. cold butter, cut into small cubes
1 tbsp. sugar
Pinch of salt
3 tbsp. cold water
For the lemon cream:
2 cups water
Pinch of salt
5 tbsp. cornstarch
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
25 gr. butter
2 tbsp. lemon zest
3 egg yolks
For the meringue:
3 egg whites at room temperature
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar, to stabilize the egg whites
3 tbsp. sugar
The dough: Put the flour, butter, sugar and salt into a food processor. Add the egg and water after coarse crumbs form. Continue to process only until the dough is formed (avoid over-processing, which is liable to affect crispness).
Gather the dough into a ball. Place between two sheets of baking paper and roll out to a thickness of about 3 millimeters (0.1 inches). Grease the pie plate with a little cold butter. Put the rolled-out dough into the pan and make sure it’s attached to the sides, especially in the corners. Trim the dough that hangs over the edge, pierce the crust with a fork and put in the freezer for 10 minutes. In the meantime, you can prepare the lemon cream and the meringue.
The lemon cream: Bring the water to a boil in a small pot and add the cornstarch. Cook for about five minutes. Add the sugar, salt, lemon juice, butter and lemon zest. Continue to cook over a medium heat while stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and continue to stir while it cools (until you don’t see any steam). When cool, add the egg yolks and return to a low flame. Stir constantly until the mass thickens. Remove from heat.
The meringue: Beat the egg whites thoroughly with the cream of tartar. When it’s very thick, add the sugar and continue to beat until you get a very stable meringue.
Assembly and baking: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (355 degrees F). Remove the pie plate from the freezer. Place aluminum foil or parchment paper on the crust and weigh it down with a cup of dry white beans (or another legume that can serve as weight during baking). Place in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until the crust is slightly brown. Take it out of the oven and remove the paper and beans. Lower the heat to 140 degrees C (280 degrees F). Pour the lemon cream into the crust and spread the meringue over it freely. Place in the oven for about an hour, or until the meringue has browned nicely.
A vegetarian version of the famous quiche from the Lorraine region of France.
Ingredients (for a 28-cm. baking pan)
For the dough:
100 gr. butter, cold and cut into cubes
1 1/2 cups flour
Pinch of salt
4 tbsp. cold soda water
For the filling:
1 container (250 ml.) sweet cream
1/2 cup UHT cream for coffee (or UHT milk)
Pinch of salt and white pepper
25 gr. butter cut into cubes
For the topping:
About 100 gr. mixture of kashkaval and Tal Haemek (Swiss-style) yellow cheese, grated
The dough: Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (about 340 degrees F). Using a mixer or food processor, mix the butter, flour and salt until crumbs form. Add the soda water and process until the dough is formed. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten it directly into a baking pan greased with cold butter. Place aluminum foil or parchment paper on the crust and weigh it down with a cup of dry white beans (or another legume that can serve as weight during baking). Place in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the crust is slightly brown. Take it out from the oven and remove the paper and legumes. Leave the oven on.
The leeks: Rinse well and slice the white parts into 2-cm. rings. Boil a lot of water, add 1-2 tablespoons of salt and cook until the leeks soften slightly. Strain out the water well and place on the half-baked dough.
The filling: Thoroughly beat the eggs, cream, milk, salt and pepper by hand or with a mixer. Pour into the baking pan over the leeks. Scatter the cubes of butter on top.
Place the pan into the hot oven, and after about 10 minutes sprinkle the cheese mixture over it. Continue to bake for about another half hour, or until the quiche browns.