Starring... chickpeas!

As grilling is such a popular Yom Ha'atzmaut tradition, I usually put some grilled foods in the salad.

chickpea salad 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chickpea salad 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For my first Yom Ha'atzmaut in Israel, I ate felafel in the park. From that time on, felafel was associated in my mind with Israel's Independence Day. This connection makes sense, not just because felafel remains the country's most famous dish, but also because its main component, chickpeas, has deep roots in the region. Originating in Southwest Asia, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) have long been an important staple. With a pleasing flavor and texture, these satisfying beans rival lentils as the Middle East's best-liked legume. But at a picnic in the park, deep-frying felafel (or anything else) is not my favorite activity. I prefer to use the traditional chickpeas in ways that are much easier to manage logistically. My top choice is a salad. In his book, Olive Trees and Honey, Rabbi/Chef Gil Marks wrote that chickpea salad is one of the easiest and most popular ways to utilize chickpeas in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. "The chickpea's nutty flavor is generally allowed to stand on its own, dressed with a little oil and lemon juice or vinegar." For Yom Ha'atzmaut, however, instead of serving them on their own, I make chickpeas the centerpiece of the alfresco feast. Chickpeas match beautifully with so many other foods, from fish to meat to rice to vegetables, and so I like to combine them with a mixture of tasty elements. Since grilling is such a popular Yom Ha'atzmaut tradition, I usually include some grilled foods in the salad. Whenever you combine the chickpeas with freshly grilled vegetables - eggplants, onions and peppers of different colors, you'll have a delicious, beautiful mix. If you enjoy cooking outdoors, cut the vegetables in advance and grill them at your convenience. The salad will also be fine if you grill or broil the vegetables at home, marinate them in the dressing if you wish, and bring them to the picnic. Toss the chickpeas with the grilled vegetables and a light dressing of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and fresh herbs, and you already have a tasty salad. To make it even more festive, wake it up with lively flavored Mediterranean condiments, such as olives, capers, s'hug or sun-dried tomato strips, or add chunks of goat cheese or feta cheese. To serve the salad, you might like to spoon it onto a bed of cut romaine or colorful baby lettuces, but bring the lettuce in a separate bag and keep it as cool as possible until you're ready to serve it. If you are grilling meat or chicken pieces or kebabs, the chickpea and grilled vegetable salad makes a colorful, tasty accompaniment. A simpler way to enjoy the salad - my top choice at a picnic - is to spoon it into the pocket of a fresh pita. Follow it with slices of cool, refreshing watermelon, and enjoy a relaxing, hassl-free Independence Day. ISRAELI CHICKPEA SALAD WITH GRILLED VEGETABLES This colorful medley is satisfying and easy to prepare. Serve it as an appetizer, an accompaniment, a sandwich filling or a light warm-weather main course. For extra flavor, you can add a small amount of diced thin slices of salami, kabanos or other spicy deli meats, or top the salad with small chunks of pungent cheese such as Bulgarian cheese or goat cheese. To save time, you can use grilled peppers from a jar. 1 small eggplant, about 225 gr., cut in slices 6 mm. thick 1 or 2 large onions, peeled and cut in rounds 6 mm. to 1 cm. thick 2 sweet red peppers 1 sweet yellow, orange or green pepper Two 400-gr. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed 2 to 4 small ripe firm tomatoes, diced (optional) 2 or 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 to 2 Tbsp. lemon juice 1⁄2 tsp. za'atar or dried oregano 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander or parsley or 3 to 4 Tbsp. shredded basil salt and freshly ground pepper s'hug, hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper to taste 1 Tbsp. capers, drained (optional) 12 to 16 Kalamata olives, pitted To grill vegetables: Brush eggplant slices lightly with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill over a medium fire or broil on a foil-lined broiler pan about 8 minutes. Turn over and grill or broil about 7 minutes or until tender. Transfer to a plate. Grill or broil onion slices about 3 minutes per side or until done to your taste. Remove onions with tongs. Add whole peppers to grill or broiler and grill about 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally, or until lightly charred; put peppers in a bag, let stand for about 5 minutes, and remove peel with aid of a small knife. Cut grilled peppers in thin strips, draining off any liquid inside and discarding seeds. Dice eggplant slices and onions. In a large bowl combine grilled vegetables with chickpeas and tomatoes. Add oil, lemon juice, za'atar, coriander, s'hug, salt and pepper and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with capers. Serve topped with olives. Makes 6 to 8 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.