ONCE A YEAR, Israelis get to feel what it’s like to live the life of a chutznik, experience a slice of Sunday heaven and enjoy a public holiday that is free from strictly defined religious obligation. There are those who argue that when it comes to food on Independence Day, it’s as close as we get to a religious decree, without involving any rabbis. The Israeli man might become ever-more intolerable, just for a day, as he will confidently stride across the charred remains of a given piece of open land to upbraid you for just not barbecuing properly – and then proceed to demonstrate to the assembled, how in his opinion, it is done.
The exodus of people to any patch of visible green is one of the most arresting sights in the natural world – comparable to the movement of Chinese around their new year, or perhaps even the awesome migration of wildebeest to the lush Serengeti.
There are predators too in the parks and open spaces of Israel as we vie for the most shaded area in which to assemble our blankets and belongings.
I have seen the police called to an altercation over who really possessed that prime patch of shaded green on a previous Independence Day. A country of extremes it seems is never truly at rest.
There is nothing quite like a homemade burger to bring home the true flavor of the holiday. It comprises very few ingredients, but this in no way detracts from its tastiness – and best of all, it’s surprisingly easy to make. The quality of the ground meat, usually beef, but you can use lamb or turkey, will affect the outcome the burger. There is no need to add breadcrumbs or egg as the weight of the meat should be sufficient to hold the burger together. I like to add very finely diced onion (either, purple or white), finely diced garlic or even garlic powder if you prefer, finely diced parsley, salt and pepper to taste. The more adventurous of you might like to add paprika, cumin, chili flakes, cinnamon, or even cardamom.
Not all of these need, or should be added, but each of them will deepen the flavor of the meat and provide an original taste sensation.
Another staple of Independence Day (and in fact everyday diet) is hummus. There are so many varieties that it’s hard to fathom that all the possible combinations have yet to be conceived of and tried. It’s surprisingly easy to make. One of the advantages of homemade hummus over storebought is that it lacks the chemicals and preservatives which enable an opened pot to be left refrigerated for several weeks without a significant deterioration in the flavor. I use pre-cooked canned chickpeas, but there are those who soak chickpeas overnight and soften them in boiling water.
I’m sure that at your Independence Day event there might even be the “odd” vegetarian and it would be useful to have an appropriate dish. I love to eat Portobello mushrooms and they make a magnificent dish for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike.
The secret to great tasting mushrooms is plenty of olive oil, coarse salt and balsamic vinegar. The last of these gives the mushroom an unexpectedly subtle kick, but every mouthful is truly a delight.
The writer is the chef at Beit Avichai in Jerusalem.
The Perfect Burger (per serving):
❖ 150 gr. ground meat
❖ 1 small onion, finely diced
❖ 1-2 cloves garlic, finely diced (according to taste)
❖ A dash of olive oil
❖ 100 gr. parsley, finely chopped
❖ A pinch of paprika
❖ A pinch of any of the following (ground) spices; cumin, chili flakes, cinnamon, cardamom
Mix all the ingredients in a glass bowl. Really work everything together with your hands, using your fingers to ensure that everything is completely mixed. Pack all the ingredients tightly together and shape into a ball.
Several of these balls can be placed on a plate and refrigerated, prior to cooking. Just remember to flatten the ball slightly with the palm of your hand to shape it.
When you’re ready to cook the burgers, they can be readied in the oven or on the barbecue for 10-15 minutes.
A variation of the burger is to make kebabs on cinnamon sticks. I would use half of the amount used for the individual burgers. Make the mixture into a ball and insert the cinnamon stick. Gently elongate the meat ball over the stick as though you were making kubeh. These kebabs are cooked in the same way as the burgers and also benefit from some refrigeration prior to cooking.