Amir Barkan, 34, has always enjoyed cooking. As a child, when he organized a pajama party with friends, he would take them into the kitchen the next day to cook something from Ruth Sirkis’ legendary cookbook “Yeladim Mevashlim” (“Children Cooking,” Hebrew). Cooking became a real issue for him, as for many others, when he left home and started living on his own.
In the army he learned to cook in the field. Afterward he lived for a while in Amsterdam and found himself wandering from one immigrant grocery store to another to find the raw ingredients he knew from home. He continues the pursuit of authentic ingredients to this day and of course discovered foreign cuisines. They are his real motivation: In every country he visits he tries to get to know the classic local dishes, and afterward recreates them at home.
While studying for his bachelor’s degree, Barkan started waiting tables at Carmela Banahala in Tel Aviv. “I was really bad, and I was looking for a way to get into the kitchen,” he recalls. A chance opportunity helped fulfill this wish and proved to be a turning point. Later he moved on to Orna and Ella restaurant; the next stop was Tapas Bashuk in the Tel Aviv Port. Despite his great love for cooking, when Barkan reached the first stage of starting a family he gave up the demanding lifestyle of a cook. Today he is a product manager at the popular tapas bar, and cautiously declares that perhaps when he retires, he’d like to have a small restaurant of his own.
Meanwhile, since we met several years ago, I’ve been enjoying his food and cooking alongside him. I’ve had the privilege of learning to make such dishes as homemade Italian pasta, Romanian mamaliga and chili con carne, while at the same time conducting entire conversations about recipes or unique culinary experiences abroad. The column this week is a shared celebration: In honor of the vacation season, I went outdoors with him to cook a meal inspired by Spanish cuisine, which we ate accompanied by cold glasses of Sangria.
Shrimps stir-fried with garlic (Gambas al Ajillo)
A Spanish classic: shrimp stir-fried in a red-hot skillet with chilis and anchovies.
Ingredients (serves 2-4):
1/4 cup olive oil
2 pickled anchovy fillets, chopped
400 gr. shrimps, cleaned and peeled (preferably fresh, but frozen will also do the job)
5 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
pinch of salt
pinch of ground chili or shata pepper
1/4 bunch parsley, chopped
As soon as all the ingredients are prepared, this dish will be ready within 3-4 minutes (outdoors, the skillet can be placed on the grill or on a special stand over the campfire).
Pour the olive oil into the skillet and add the chopped anchovies. Place the skillet over a medium to high flame and heat it for about a minute to brown and dissolve the anchovies in the oil (careful, the oil may splash a little). Add the garlic, and as soon as it browns slightly add the shrimps, salt and chili. Mix and stir-fry. The dish is ready when the shrimps have shrunk slightly and turned pink. Remove from the flame, add the chopped parsley and serve.
Dates wrapped in lamb bacon
Fruit wrapped in pork, like melon wrapped in Serrano ham, are among the trademarks of Spanish cuisine. I decided to wrap dates in lamb “bacon,” a product that has recently become popular. Of course you can use real bacon or smoked goose breast. The result is very sweet and high in calories, which is why I decided to combine it with fried Padron peppers (another classic of Spanish tapas), which balance it with their delicate bitterness. Ideal with ice-cold beer.
Ingredients (serves 2-4):
1/2 cup walnuts
leaves from three tarragon branches
2-3 garlic gloves, peeled and crushed
15 medjool dates
15 slices of lamb bacon
1/3 cup canola oil
about 15 Padron peppers
For serving: a bit of Atlantic sea salt
Coarsely crush the walnuts (the simplest way is to put them into a bag, close it and beat them with a rolling pin or schnitzel hammer). Transfer to a bowl and mix with the garlic. Rinse tarragon leaves, chop coarsely and add to the mixture. Stir. Slit dates lengthwise on one side and remove pits. Fill dates with the nut mixture. Wrap each date in a slice of lamb bacon and skewer with a toothpick so they won’t come apart (insert toothpick into the closed fold of the bacon slice, and push it through to the other side of the date).
Heat a skillet on medium to high heat (outdoors you can place the skillet on a grill or a special stand over the campfire). Because the bacon slices are rich in fat, there is no need to grease the pan. When the skillet is very hot, place the wrapped and stuffed dates in it. Sear them well on all sides (about a minute or two on each side). Remove and transfer to a serving platter.
Leave the skillet on the fire and add the canola oil (this is optional, because there’s enough fat in the skillet from searing the wrapped dates, but originally the peppers are fried in deep oil). Sear peppers well on all sides until thoroughly browned. Remove from heat and transfer to a plate along with the wrapped dates. Sprinkle with a little Atlantic sea salt and serve.