ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Foraging Jerusalem restaurateur grasps the nettle, and the morel, to reopen after Oct. 7

Moshe Basson of Eucalyptus is ready to serve diners again for first time since war broke out, and his long-awaited book of recipes is out too

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Moshe Basson foraging in the Jerusalem hills for his restaurant, Eucalyptus (Courtesy Moshe Basson)
Moshe Basson foraging in the Jerusalem hills for his restaurant, Eucalyptus (Courtesy Moshe Basson)

It took chef Moshe Basson months to decide whether to reopen his Jerusalem restaurant, Eucalyptus, after closing October 7, when Hamas terrorists attacked Israel’s southern communities. But now it is set to start serving diners on Tuesday.

“I went back and forth and up and down. Every minute I had a different idea,” said Basson, 72. “But I want to be able to stand up and not just fall flat in despair.”

It was a bumper crop of foraged morel mushrooms that helped Basson decide to reopen. He is known as one of Jerusalem’s most learned foragers, gathering bundles of wild greens and fungi from local forests during the rainy season and featuring them in the Eucalyptus menu.

Right now, said Basson, “it’s a supermarket of mushrooms” from all the rain, and he dashed out to forage them, along with seasonal favorites such as nettles, mallow and wood sorrel. They will all show up on the Eucalyptus menu this week.

Foraging has always been part of Basson’s work as a chef, a skill he likes to say he learned from “a host of Jerusalem mothers, both Arab and Jewish,” along with how to use that local produce in his cuisine.

He also puts his knowledge to good use in his latest project, “The Eucalyptus Cookbook,” which had been set to launch in early October but was sidelined by the atrocities of October 7, when Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 people took 253 hostage to Gaza.

A compilation of Moshe Basson’s recipes from his Jerusalem Eucalyptus restaurant, published in September 2023 (Courtesy Levin Press)

The cookbook, with a foreword by Jewish British cookbook writer Claudia Roden, includes more than 100 recipes of Basson’s trademark dishes, written with his daughter Sharon. (Basson’s son, Ronny, is in the kitchen alongside him.)

It’s a labor of love in which Basson reflects on his past, his parents, what he has learned about wild herbs and plants and what he creates with them in his Eucalyptus kitchen.

At the restaurant, Basson leans into storytelling about his childhood in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, where his family was placed upon arrival in Israel from Iraq in 1951 when he was nine months old.

They were assigned to a refugee absorption camp, where their home was a shack with tin walls and a dirt floor. The family eventually moved to a stone house, and in the 1960s Basson planted a eucalyptus seedling in their vegetable garden.

Twenty-five years later, Basson’s brother Ya’acov built a restaurant around the tree, with a menu initially geared toward the classic Israeli workers’ lunch. Basson, who likes to say he trained by cooking during his army service for fellow soldiers in the Suez Canal, began incorporating wild edible roots and plants alongside seasonal produce.

Chef Moshe Basson outside his Eucalyptus Restaurant in Jerusalem. (Liron Almog/Flash 90)

Eucalyptus has moved several times since then, and with one hiatus has been in its current location under the Old City walls since 2015. There Basson reigns as chef and host of a unique farm-to-table experience.

“We’re the biblical kitchen, but we’re never absolute about anything. We work with what there is,” Basson said during a dinner and conversation at Eucalyptus, back in September.

In the cookbook, he reaches out to both the Arab kitchen and the Jewish Diaspora for such dishes as liver pate macarons, his famed chicken makloubeh and his mother’s tomato-mint soup. He also takes inspiration from the Bible, which he uses as a personal guide to local foods.

There are family influences as well, like Basson’s Hungarian mother-in-law’s meat-stuffed cabbage that is the inspiration for his profiteroles but with duck fat substituting for the traditional Hungarian cream, which wouldn’t be kosher in a meat restaurant.

Chef Moshe Basson uncovering his famed maklouba dish at his Eucalyptus Restaurant in Jerusalem (Courtesy)

Substitutions are common in the Eucalyptus menu, which now includes a decidedly non-biblical ceviche that was inspired by Basson’s son Danny’s travels in Peru, where he apprenticed with a chef in Lima.

“Now we do ceviche but with some fruits from my garden and we make things work that way,” said Basson.

The cookbook is very much an extended Eucalyptus menu, starting with vegetables and then moving into soups, grains and beans, with the longest chapter handling meat and chicken dishes. There’s also fish, of course, and a final few chapters on sweets, cocktails and condiments.

There are the recipes familiar to Eucalyptus diners, such as fire-charred eggplant in tahini and pomegranate syrup, the fresh flavors of the Eucalyptus salad, which often depends on what’s seasonal, and nettle soup.

What stands out here are Basson’s more unusual recipes, the ones made from foraged greens or seasonal produce, such as mallow gnocchi, purslane with tahini, za’atar salad and sorrel soup, along with the above-mentioned nettle soup, which is a deep, dark green.

If home cooks ever wondered what one can really do with raw, green almonds in season, try Basson’s lamb with green almonds, a tempting dish for springtime.

But for anyone who can’t get their hands on green almonds or purslane — that is, mostly everyone — Basson always offers more readily available greens as alternatives such as spinach or Swiss chard.

Back in September, Basson talked about his latest obsession, finding the foods that prolong one’s life, partially inspired by the recent Netflix show, “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.”

For example, he’s been using plant-based ingredients for a while, making his own almond milk and almond yogurt.

“I’m eating differently now,” said Basson.

Jerusalem restaurateur Moshe Basson’s nettle soup, featured in ‘The Eucalyptus Cookbook,’ published September 2023 (Courtesy)

Diners will eventually see those changes entering the Eucalyptus menu. Right now, as the hillsides are filled with winter’s green shoots, nettle soup and mallow will be stars.

Basson pointed out that fresh mallow has some 14 grams of iron in a 100-gram serving, far more than a similar serving of liver.

As for Basson, he’s feeling hopeful now that he’s decided to reopen Eucalyptus, even with some of his staff still on military reserve duty and some of his longtime local Arab employees somewhat fearful about how they’ll be received.

“I just have to convince them to come to help me get things ready,” said Basson. “We don’t know what will be, but it’s better than nothing. I’m optimistic.”

Nettle Soup
Serves 6

(If you can’t source nettles, the best replacement is spinach, adding an addition of 1/2 cup pecans to the blanched almonds, and processing the pecans and almonds together before they are added to the soup.)

1½ pounds of nettles
6 cups water
2 cups blanched almonds
1 cup water
½ tablespoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Rinse the nettles carefully with cold water.

Pour the water in a stockpot and bring to a boil. Add a pinch of salt.

Blanch the nettles: Place the nettles in the boiling water for one minute, then remove with tongs and place in a bowl of ice water.

Reserve the nettle water to use as stock.

Cut off the stringy part of the stalks and place the nettles in the stockpot with the boiled water. On medium heat, simmer for about 20 minutes until soft, then use a stick blender to blend until the soup is smooth.

Place the almonds in a food processor with one cup of water.

Process well until a thick paste forms and add to the soup. Bring to a boil while mixing in the almond paste, cook for a few more minutes.

Season well with salt and pepper.

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