At a plant-based cooking class at Washington’s Sixth & I, local Israeli chef Vered Guttman is showing about 70 people how to make tahini, tabbouleh, pakora and moussaka.
After putting the finishing touches — dried cranberries and toasted walnuts — on the tabbouleh, she drizzles extra virgin olive oil from a large plastic jug over the salad. Looking at the crowd, she says, “Was that a lot?” They laugh. She’s been using lots of olive oil for her recipes, so it’s become a running joke.
Guttman is the chef at Sixth & I, and prepares their Shabbat and holiday meals. A few times a year she does cooking classes there. But before her stint at the synagogue, she catered parties and b’nai mitzvah. Catering wasn’t a business Guttman had studied, but simply multiplied her home cooking to fit the bill.
“My average client was a Jewish journalist … my first party that I catered was actually when The Washington Post bought Slate,” she says in an interview after the class. “I think it was for 80 people or 100 people. I think I cooked for 300 people. I had no idea what I was doing, I cooked so much.”
But her food was a hit, and eventually she learned the tricks of the trade, like how to cook rice in large quantities, and keep food as fresh as possible.
“You learn how to deal with reality … when you cook for 100 or 200 people you can’t do everything last minute as you would like to do, so you learn all these tricks of how to make it as fresh as possible without the flavor or texture suffering.”
She also writes food-related articles for Moment Magazine and Haaretz, though she started her writing at The Washington Post. She likes to tell stories with food, and display traditional recipes — though sometimes they’ll have a twist, like the vegan moussaka (usually a dish with layers of potato, eggplant, ground beef and béchamel).
“For my writing, when I come up with my recipe, there are one type of recipes that are just new contemporary Israeli-style recipes that I can just make up myself and I can make up anything I want,” Guttman, 51, says.
She says even though she makes all these “imaginative” recipes, when she thinks of her favorites, she always goes back to the classics: mafrum, shukshuka and cholent.
Her emphasis on Israeli-style food is important — she said 15 years ago, she couldn’t have called all this food Israeli. It has Turkish roots, Arab roots, Hungarian roots. But now, people’s understanding of what Israeli food is has evolved.
Growing up in Israel, Guttman’s family cooked an array of multicultural foods. Her father was born in Baghdad, and her mother has Polish roots.
“So my Polish grandmother used to make some of the Iraqi cuisine, but she definitely made Yemenite dishes,” Guttman says. “But you could see that in many families.”
Her Iraqi grandmother made kibbeh soups, stuffed onions and tomatoes, and most importantly, “fried eggplant, every Friday. With oil and some more oil. It was so good.”
When Guttman and her husband, Nathan, immigrated to Washington 18 years ago, she couldn’t get a work visa to do what she had studied — software engineering. So she spent time cooking at home, which she had always enjoyed.
She jokes that her husband is a vegetarian just to annoy her. But she’s gotten used to cooking vegan or vegetarian alternatives to her meals both at home and at Sixth & I to accommodate people with dietary restrictions.
“My cooking in general does not include a lot of butter, I use olive oil. I don’t use cream, anyway. It’s very easy to adjust and to adopt Middle Eastern cuisine to vegan cuisine,” Guttman says. Plus, in most countries, including Israel, meat is more expensive than vegetables, unlike in the United States.
Most of her time is spent cooking or writing about food, but Guttman also plays the piano. She likes to play and listen to Israeli music.
“The longer we’ve been here, I become more and more a classic Israeli immigrant,” Guttman says. “I miss everything all the time. I listen to Israeli music a lot. I watch Israeli television all the time.”
At the end of February, Guttman will head to Israel, which she visits at least once a year. She’s looking forward to eating some of her favorite foods — shwarma, burekas or falafel with the whole salad plate — that are difficult or time-consuming to make at home.
“I’m waiting to go back to Israel to eat those things.”