Maimonides, referred to as the Rambam, was a philosopher, codifier of Jewish law, and a renowned doctor in 12th-century Egypt. Israelis follow his startlingly modern-sounding health advice until this day. He wrote that the best breakfast is a big, leafy salad: it clears digestion and the kidneys and purifies the blood.
That’s not how I remember breakfast when I was growing up in the States. Half-asleep and in a rush to get out the door, my siblings and I would tip into a bowl some cold cereal extruded by machines into shapes designed to entertain kids. The artificially colored and flavored bits were loaded with different sugars. We’d pour plenty of milk straight from the fridge on top. Then we’d wait outside for the school bus, the cold milk inside us making us shiver, while the sugars made their way into our bloodstream and made us frantic. By the mid-morning, we were exhausted from the sugar crash.
Has it changed much? Judging from the packages on supermarket shelves, it doesn’t look like it. Cold cereals have made their way into Israeli supermarkets too, and busy families find them as convenient as mine did. Probably the kids experience the same sugar highs and lows, too.
But many Israelis still love salad for breakfast. Any “Israeli breakfast” in a cafe includes a choice of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, or a mixed leafy salad along with your omelet, roll and butter. Housewives pride themselves on offering a variety of salads before serving the main hot dish at Shabbat lunch.
The Rambam’s salad takes minutes to chop up, and it’s the kind of food that makes you feel like it’s going to be a good day. You’ll need plenty of green, leafy vegetables and a little fruit. The simple dressing consists of lemon juice, salt and olive oil, and one more important ingredient – sumac. Sumac trees bearing edible fruit grow wild in this part of the world. The wine-colored dried spice has a lemony flavor and lends an attractive deep color to any savory food.
I like to season chicken and fish with sumac, but hadn’t thought of it in salads until I learned the Rambam’s recipe.
2 large celery stalks, with leaves
1/4 medium cabbage
1 large cucumber, unpeeled if possible
2 handfuls fresh dill or cilantro
A small handful of fresh parsley
Several dollops of olive oil
Juice of 1 large lemon
Salt to taste
2 teaspoons powdered sumac
Dried or fresh, sliced fruit to taste.
Slice everything thinly into a large bowl. Douse it all with fresh lemon juice and olive oil, salt everything to taste and dust generously with sumac. Add something sweet at the last – not too much – for balance: sliced dried fruit, a handful of dried cranberries, some pomegranate seeds, half a thinly sliced apple or sections of a fine fresh orange. Don’t add so much fruit as to overwhelm the vegetables.
That’s it. You can prepare the fresh ingredients beforehand, stash them, covered tightly, in the fridge, and pour the lemon juice/olive oil over it just before serving. Remember to sprinkle sumac generously over all.