This recipe and story first appeared in the Oct. 22, 2012 edition of “From Tali’s Kitchen,” my biweekly cooking column in Binah magazine.
When I think back to all the tofu and brown rice that I ate as a kid, it’s a wonder I never tasted wheat berries until age 25. Wheat berries – those unprocessed kernels of wheat – are about as healthy a grain as you can find, and they would have meshed perfectly with the meal choices my parents encouraged.
Yet it wasn’t until I left the nest, flew 6,000 miles east, and started a home of my own that I tasted my first wheat berry.
I credit Mrs. Haller of Ramat Beit Shemesh for introducing me to this grain, but that certainly isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of her. I was 23 when I arrived in Israel for good, my heart light with excitement and gratitude at having achieved this dream. I also felt comfortable and secure from the moment I landed, largely because I knew I was going home to the Hallers. There probably isn’t a better way to begin life in a new country.
Mr. and Mrs. Haller are old friends of my parents, and I spent Shabbos with their family a few times during my seminary year. When I asked whether I could stay in their home until I got my bearings, I knew it was a hefty request but hoped they would say yes nonetheless. And they did – not just the two of them, but also their five children, Mrs. Haller’s mother (who was living with them at the time), and even their dog, Humous.
Each day in what turned out to be seven weeks together was a new “yes.” Every time I helped myself to a snack as easily as if it was my own kitchen, I felt the “yes.” Every time their teenage daughters eagerly sat down to shmooze with me instead of being annoyed at this long-term guest, I felt the “yes.” Each night that I went to sleep in the bedroom that their oldest daughter had quickly volunteered to share, I felt the “yes.”
Initially, I made a point of making Shabbos plans for myself in other cities. This was borne partially of a desire to get reacquainted with my new home country, and partially just to give the Hallers a break. Incredibly, they always seemed disappointed when I left on Friday afternoons. Eventually, I realized it was genuine and began spending some Shabboses with them, too.
Living with the Hallers meant that my basic needs were met: I had a comfortable bed, delicious meals, and space to begin my work as a freelance writer and editor. They also helped me map out bus routes, sifted through apartment listings with me, and offered to set me up on dates.
Their oldest daughter – who was not only my roommate, but also quickly became a dear friend – was also dating then. As it turned out, we met the men who would become our husbands within one week of each other, both during the time I lived with her family.
I marveled over this in particular: In any situation, it’s admirable to share your not-too-large bedroom with a guest for weeks on end. But to do it during a period in your life when privacy is most needed? And to do it without even a hint of frustration? Somehow, she made it seem effortless.
When she became engaged 40 days after meeting her chasan, I shared in the family’s joy wholeheartedly. I was there with her sisters to shriek when it became official, I ran all over town searching for the tiara that her chasan was hoping to have at the proposal, and I threw myself into the l’chaim and vort preparations with abundance.
All the while, my own story was being written (albeit at a slower pace). My husband and I became engaged about two months after I left the Hallers’ home – but we returned there for our vort, as well as for the Sheva Bracha seuda that they hosted for us.
At our wedding, Mr. Haller danced as if celebrating the marriage of one of his own children, and he and his son participated in a series of shtick skits alongside my own father and brothers. Some young couples are fortunate to live near their parents. But with our own families so far away (and my husband working in the Beit Shemesh area), it was only natural that we began our married life a few minutes’ walk from these people who had become my second family.
The yishuv where my husband and I now live is some two hours from Ramat Beit Shemesh, but we make it back for a “Haller Shabbos” every few months. Each time we’re there, I feel the same way: It’s like coming home again.
The welcome they gave me two years ago has been extended to my husband, and we both feel completely at ease there – although with so much love and laughter and Torah, how could we not? Mrs. Haller’s Shabbos fare includes my favorite vegetarian dishes as well as enough fleishigs to last my husband for weeks afterward. Ironically, though, it was the wheat berry side dish that he couldn’t get enough of during our most recent visit.
So I picked up a kilo on my next grocery trip and started playing around. Wheat berries are like barley in shape, like rice in versatility, and with a bit of a chewy texture. Mrs. Haller often adds sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, and garlic to her wheat berries, but I went in a different direction: slow-roasted beets and cherry tomatoes – so good, they’re like candy.
The roasting brings out the vegetables’ deep, natural sweetness, along with just a hint of smokiness in the beets. With the parsley’s contribution of flecks of green, this dish is not only wholesome and hearty, but also beautiful.
And don’t be surprised if it tastes like home.
One year ago: White chocolate craisin muffins
Yield: 6 servings
- 3 medium beets
- 1½ cups cherry tomatoes
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1½ cups wheat berries
- 4 cups water
- 1 Tbsp soup mix
- 1 lemon, juiced
- ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 F/200 C. Cover a large baking sheet with foil and spray with oil.
2. Slice the ends off the beets and discard. Peel the beets the rest of the way and cut into bite-sized pieces. Place them on the prepared sheet in a single layer and brush with about 1 Tbsp olive oil.
3. Wash and dry cherry tomatoes, then slice them in half and add in a single layer to the baking sheet. Brush lightly with about 1 Tbsp oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast vegetables for 1 hour, flipping the beets after 30 minutes. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
4. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 Tbsp oil in a large saucepan. Add cumin and stir constantly for 1 minute. Add wheat berries and stir constantly for 1 minute more. Add water and soup mix and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer (covered) for 35-40 minutes. Check the water level after 20 minutes and add more as needed – it should not be fully absorbed until 35-40 minutes. Let it cool to room temperature (or it will wilt the parsley).
5. Squeeze lemon juice into the wheat berries and stir, then mix in roasted vegetables and parsley. Season as needed with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.