Yossi Arad is an excellent host. He likes taking care of people; making sure they are happy.
Tonight he is cooking at home for more than 20 friends. He loves cooking. But what he loves even more, is watching people eat; seeing them enjoy flavours and textures and combinations of ingredients.
From what I saw of the preparation, there will be a lot of enjoyment tonight. Yossi is going all out. It's a feast.
He starts by explaining one of the drinks he is going to serve. It's a Lebanese drink he heard about from, "a lovely Lebanese woman," from the Middle Eastern Bakery. The drink is made by soaking pine nuts in water, changing the water every half hour or so until the nuts are tender, and then finally filling a jug of water with the nuts and adding jallab, a fruit syrup made of carob, grape molasses and rose water.
Next he explains the okra and olive dish he is preparing. He has boiled green olives from a jar twice to get rid of the acidic flavour. He does this, he says, so that they olives will take on the new flavours from the dish, rather than overpower them with their pickled flavour. He then fries onion, garlic, chopped long green pepper, a green chilli, and three sliced, preserved lemons.
Yossi, of course, preserves his own lemons. It takes seven weeks to preserve them. "Preserved lemons are a strange animal," he says. "Some are stronger than others." He chooses juicy lemons with thin skin so that he can pack them down tightly when he is layering them with salt in the jar and so that they are juicy and full of flavour.
Once the onion mixture has softened, he adds chopped flat parsley and coriander. He doesn't mind the stalks, he says. They add to the flavour. He wouldn't garnish a dish with the stalks, but they do add an extra intensity to the ingredients. Once the herbs have been added, he covers this mixture with water, adds a tin of chopped tomatoes and then places the okra onto the surface, so that it is merely 'swimming'. Okra must be treated with care. If it disintegrates while it's cooking, it just looks like 'snot'. Hence the careful placement of them. Cover the pot and allow to simmer for about half an hour.
This is a recipe born from a conversation with his mother about childhood food memories. Most of his recipes are inspired by things his mother cooked at home in Tel Aviv. And now Yossi likes to add his own twist.
At the same time as the okra is doing its thing, there is a fava and tomato dish reducing on the back of the stove. This will be the topping for the hommus, Yossi explains. Fava beans, garlic, spices and tomato, with a little of the 'hommus stock' (the water the chickpeas are cooking in) added now and then to give thickness and richness. The idea is that this mix cooks down so much that the tomato is no longer acidic but just provides an abundance of flavour.
And the hommus, itself, well that has come from investigations into recipes from three different people; two chefs and a cousin. In the end, it was the cousin's recipe which was the best. Yossi's cousin is an amateur cook, but he makes great hommus. So much so, in fact, that his brother uses his recipe in his hommus joint in Israel. "So if it's good enough for him...!" says Yossi.
For Yossi, finding the right hommus recipe or adding okra to his mother's recipe is about experience; knowing food. Everyone has different tastes, and for hommus, apparently, everyone has a little secret that makes their hommus the best. And maybe it's a good thing that everyone is proud of their own recipe because that allows for variety.
Yossi's recipe "isn't anything fancy". The key is in cooking the chickpeas until they are ready; when they feel like butter when you press them between two fingers. The other vital step is cooling them completely before blending them with garlic, salt, lemon juice and tahini.
Yossi has also made a beetroot salad with diced beetroot cooked until it's al dente, and mixed with chopped flat parsley, 2 caps (caps, not cups!!) of white vinegar to give it that little zest, a couple of pinches of salt, a pinch of minced garlic and a generous splash of olive oil. It's better to add the other ingredients to the beetroot while it is still warm so that they cook a little and their flavours are released.
There will also be little pork sausages roasted with rosemary and salt; a very large roll of roasted pork with crackling and scalloped potatoes with mushrooms, aubergines and zucchini...to please the vegetarians.
I didn't get to see or taste the finished product, sadly, as I am going to "bunny night", a Christmas Eve tradition a French friend of mine has where he cooks rabbit several ways and we enjoy the fruits of his labours...but that is another story.