The first mention of Israeli cuisine brings to mind two basic ingredients–chickpeas and sesame seeds. Both figure prominently in Israel’s signature dish, the falafel sandwich: chickpeas appear in two forms–deep-fried (falafel balls) and pureed (hummus)–and sesame seed paste, called tahini, is drizzled on top.
What’s the history and significance of these two ingredients? Chickpeas have a number of Jewish associations. They are traditionally eaten on Purim, because of the legend recorded in the Talmud (Megillah 13a) that Esther was a vegetarian during her stay in the court of Ahasuerus. In order to maintain the standards of kashrut, her diet included many beans, nuts, and seeds, including chickpeas. On Rosh Hashanah, there is also a tradition of eating chickpeas and other round foods, to remind us of the cyclical nature of life. Originally grown in the Middle East, chickpeas are common in traditional Sephardic foods. For example, a typical Sephardic stew for Shabbat, called Schina, contains chickpeas, rice, potatoes, meat, and whole eggs.
Sesame seeds hold a long history in Middle Eastern, and in Jewish, cuisine. Used since ancient times in India, and later, through Turkey and Persia, sesame seeds are a traditional source of oil and protein. Symbolic in Jewish foods, sesame seeds are sprinkled on food as a reminder of the manna gathered in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt. They are sprinkled on a variety of foods in Israel, including pastries, breads, and candies.
In the salad recipe below, chickpeas receive a much lighter preparation than they do in fried falafel or long-cooking Shabbat stew. Here they are cooked briefly and tossed with spicy arugula greens and vegetables into a filling salad. Tahini is very versatile, and it is featured here as a creamy dressing, pumped up in flavor by the addition of roasted garlic.
I highly recommend using dried chickpeas, available in the bulk section of many supermarkets, or in Middle-Eastern or Indian markets. Their flavor and texture is far superior to the canned beans, and they are also more economical. Just remember to soak the dried beans the night before you want to make the salad. You can use canned beans if you are in a rush, but they will not have as much flavor.
1/2 cup dried chickpeas, soaked for 8 hours, (or one 15-oz can chickpeas)
4 cups water
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 bunches (approx. 3/4 lb.) arugula or one 5-oz bag baby arugula
1 bunch radishes (approx. 3/4 lb.)
1 small red onion (approx. 1/2 lb.)
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes
1 head roasted garlic (directions below)
1/4 cup lemon juice (juice of 1 lemon)
1 Tablespoon maple syrup
2 Tablespoons apple juice or water
1/2 cup tahini paste
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Roast garlic for dressing:
Preheat oven to 400.
Cut off the top 1/2 inch of the garlic head and sprinkle it with a pinch of salt and a Tablespoon of olive oil. Wrap the garlic head in aluminum foil and roast in oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until cloves are golden. Do not let it burn, or the garlic will become very bitter. Unwrap and set aside to cool. This can be made a day ahead if desired.
Squeeze the cooled roasted garlic out of its paper, and place in a blender. Add lemon juice, maple syrup, apple juice or water, tahini, and olive oil. Blend well. Add salt and pepper to taste. The dressing will keep up to one week in the refrigerator.
Prepare the salad:
Drain and rinse the soaked chickpeas and place them with the water, cumin, and salt in a small saucepan.
Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until beans are tender. Add additional water as needed so that the beans are constantly submerged. When beans are tender and cooked all the way through, remove from pot and drain.
While beans are still warm, toss with half the dressing and let come to room temperature. Save the remaining dressing for the greens and vegetables.
Clean radishes and thinly slice. Place them in a medium sized bowl of ice-cold water. This will make the radishes even more crisp.
Halve onion from stem to root. Remove peel and thinly slice. Add to the bowl of radishes in water. This will allow the onions to mellow and reduce their sharp flavor.
Rinse and halve the tomatoes.
Cut off the stems of the arugula (if using full-grown) and wash well. Dry thoroughly.
Right before serving, drain radishes and red onions. Place all vegetables in a salad bowl and add dressing to taste. Season with salt and pepper, if desired.