February 14, 2018
Tarator. Photo from Wikipedia

January and February — I think I can speak for many of my fellow chefs when I say we don’t enjoy you very much. After the force-fed gluttony from September through December, I don’t think I’m the only cook who hears the words “detox” and “juice fast” a hundred times a day during these months. Like clockwork, each year I see dazed customers, men and women, confused by all the hype thrown at them from the multibillion-dollar diet industry that feeds on our insecurities about not being good enough if we aren’t a vegan marathon runner.

I watch our customers stare at our menu as if frozen, wondering what in the world they are going to eat for breakfast and lunch, trying to make sense of all the contradictory rules and regulations the USDA has thrown out in any given year: be a vegetarian, eat ­­­­­more grains, eat no grains, gluten free, meat free, egg free, nut free — it never ends.

After working in the food industry for more than 15 years, I can tell you that often these ridiculous starvation practices that include “all natural” powders and potions inevitably result in double helpings of doughnuts and chocolate cake.  As much as I love the profit margin on fruit smoothies, unless you enjoy being in the gym two-plus hours a day, spiking your blood sugar with pure fructose is probably counterproductive, to say the least, and is almost guaranteed to have you looking for another hit of sugar by 3 p.m.

I don’t want you to think I’m not a team player. I’ve chased some dogma down the street in my life, so far be it from me to be self-righteous about our ever-expanding diet culture and waistlines. But here’s the rub: Like clockwork, all the stress, anxiety and deprivation of this annual hysteria invariably make my sales of sweet indulgences increase markedly by Valentine’s Day. While my café in the American embassy may not be a controlled laboratory environment, my casual studies into human nature suggest that if you tell people they can’t eat something, often they start wanting it — more than anything.

My casual studies into human nature suggest that if you tell people they can’t eat something, often they start wanting it —  more than anything.

What should we do about this conundrum before mid-February strikes and all you dieters out there, nutrient deprived and sugar spiked from fruit and lack of protein, eat your weight in leftover Halloween candy from two years ago and those super chalky Valentine hearts? I’m no expert, but how about we take a word from our wise Jewish ancestors and just start eating real food again?

If I think back on my childhood, how my mother cooked, as well as my aunts and cousins, I see a definite pattern that almost without exception led to good health until old age. Until the advent of boxed convenience food, people cooked and ate unprocessed food with little to no additives. I’m still amazed by how energetic and youthful most of my family members in Israel are despite busy, frenetic lives and irregular exercise habits. Sure enough, sit-down meals are the norm in Mediterranean cultures. In Israel, most people still observe the Friday night meal with family as a fixed appointment on the calendar every Shabbat.

If you do have a New Year’s resolution to “get healthy” —  and by that, we all know you mean to lose weight — it is utterly imperative that you learn how to prepare a small rotation of quick dishes at home. People who eat real food enjoy many benefits beyond weight loss. Taking the time to nourish yourself, even if it’s 15 minutes, to sit down at a table and eat a healthy meal you prepared yourself, is not that much more taxing than going out to dinner. Consciously stopping to select what you want to eat, what your body is craving (and I don’t mean sugar), is a deliberate choice. Don’t tell me you are too busy — life today is more convenient than ever before. If I can prepare something after a 12-hour day cooking in Uganda, no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or even any other decent grocery store in sight, I know you can.

Maybe it’s time to stop getting food out of boxes and bags and take a break from the restaurants for a bit. Even if the only thing you can think of making for dinner is reservations, I promise that if you take a little time to rethink your food habits, you will discover new and exciting things to eat: food that will make you feel better and may give you greater mental clarity and more stable blood sugar — without having to struggle through an unsustainable diet or juice fast.

Here is my recipe for a revitalizing Bulgarian staple that most everyone in Israel makes on a regular basis. It’s usually thought of as a refreshing summer dish, but I eat it year-round as a starter or as a side dish with fish dishes such as tasty Sephardic salmon cakes, roasted zucchini and tahini (next week’s recipe) or even as a light supper with a side of scrambled eggs.

2 cups thick, plain yogurt, unflavored (Greek or Bulgarian)
2 cups Persian or English cucumber, or any firm cucumber, peeled and medium diced
2–3 cloves fresh minced garlic, or to taste
1/2 cup fresh herbs (dill, parsley, mint or a combination), finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
(optional or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Cold water
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts (optional)

Mix all ingredients (except walnuts) with a fork, and thin with cold water to desired consistency — for my preferred consistency, I add ¼ cup of cold water. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up till overnight. Serve in chilled bowls and garnish with chopped walnuts, if using.

If you would rather have a thicker, more dip-like consistency to eat on the side of a fish dish, leave out the water, or you can strain the mixture through a cheesecloth or coffee filter to make it thicker still. If you want to use this as a side dish for grilled chicken, beef or lamb kebabs, use unflavored coconut yogurt, which is a delicious alternative to dairy-based yogurt.

Makes 4 servings.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

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