Ofer Cohen is a documentary filmmaker originally from Israel who lives in Northport with his wife.
Who influenced your cooking?
My parents were born in Romania and came to Israel in the 1950s and brought with them a very rich tradition. Romania isn’t a typically Eastern European country — it’s closer to the Balkans from the cuisine point of view than to Poland.
The Romanian cuisine is very flavorful with spices. My mom was making incredible dishes while I was growing up. The smells and tastes around the house kind of marked me. She made the Romanian version of moussaka and stuffed grape leaves and all kinds of stews that are long-cooking and very flavorful.
What other foods were you exposed to?
I grew up in Haifa in a neighborhood that was all immigrants from all over the world. So my friends were Moroccan and Tunisian, Iraqi, Bulgarian and Greek, and we’d have dinner at each others’ houses. Israel has a very heavy influence from the local Arab cuisine. You grow up with dishes like hummus and the Arab grills — all these different tastes and smells and spices — they’re all blended into my cuisine DNA.
After the military, I went to school in Milan, Italy, and my roommate was a guy from Naples. He gave me all the basics of traditional Italian cooking.
And when you moved to the United States?
When my kids came along, I said there’s no way I’m letting them eat junk food. There wasn’t any Middle Eastern food available near Northport so I called my mom and asked for recipes. I started making hummus and all of my mom’s dishes. The kids were happy with that and started inviting their friends over for this little bit of the Mediterranean in Northport.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
My all-time favorite dish to cook is a Barcelona seafood paella. It’s an all-day kind of thing.
You teach Israeli cooking classes at local synagogues — what is your approach?
My classes are always around subjects. The last class was a Super Bowl one. I taught how to make pitas in za’atar [an herb blend] and zucchini egg salad, an alternative to guacamole with chips. Comes Hanukkah I teach them how to make my household version of latkes from scratch. I teach all the possible things you can do with tahini, such as adding parsley to make green tahini, which they do in the north of Israel, where herbs are really important and mixed into the cuisine.
Tell us about shakshuka.
Shakshuka is theoretically North African. The Moroccans have a claim on it, the Tunisians, the Algerians. Everyone has a little variation that they swear by. I make the Moroccan version with peppers, tomatoes, spices and garlic. Other versions would add onions, green peppers, pretty much any kind of vegetable you have in the house. Shakshuka is kind of a reflection of Israel. It’s a mix. You’ve got the red peppers and the tomatoes and everything is boiling together and you’ve got the eggs on top. It’s not a melting pot. You can still taste every single element of the shakshuka. There’s nothing better than a huge pot of shakshuka that you put in the middle of the table to share with family and friends.
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly chopped
2 large red pepper, cut in half (the long way) and sliced
3 large, ripe tomatoes, sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon crushed dried chili peppers (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumln
1 teaspoon paprika, smoked or sweet
1⁄3 cup chopped parsley
1. In a wide skillet, heat the oil on medium-low. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until translucent. Add the peppers and sauté for 5-7 minutes on medium. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste, 1⁄2 cup water and the salt, pepper, chili peppers and cumin, reduce heat to low and cook for 12 to 15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened but still has some fluid.
2. Crack the eggs (yolk can be removed for an egg-white version) and place on the sauce so that they are roughly equally separated from each other. Cover and cook on a slow simmer on medium-low for 5-8 minutes or until the eggs are cooked to your liking.
3. Garnish with paprika and parsley.
4. Serve with crusty bread or challah for scooping and absorbing sauce. Serves 4.