Celebrating Israeli style

Serve up a plate of grilled kebabs and eggplant salad for a simple and fresh Independence Day.

A grilled kebab 370 (photo credit: MCT)
A grilled kebab 370
(photo credit: MCT)
Independence Day is a celebration of being Israeli. What better way to enjoy the holiday than feasting on Israeli food? But what is Israeli food? Although Jews came to Israel from around the world and brought their specialties to the Israeli table, there seems to be a consensus about the most popular dishes for the holiday. These are the Middle Eastern favorites like felafel, Israeli salad, humous, eggplant salad with tehina, and kebabs served with pocket pita. For eating outdoors, the obvious choice is grilled meats and vegetables. Whether you prefer to thread beef and chicken cubes on skewers to make kebabs or grill chicken pieces on the bone, the grilled meat comes out even tastier when you first marinate it for a few hours or overnight.
My marinades often include cumin, a spice native to the Eastern Mediterranean that is mentioned in the Bible. Cumin seems to have been created to enhance the flavor of meat but it also makes vegetables like eggplant and mushrooms taste delicious. I like to use cumin with garlic, olive oil and a bit of lemon juice as a marinade for chicken, or olive oil mixed with a little hawaij marak (soup spice) – a blend of cumin, turmeric and black pepper. Such oil-based marinades help prevent chicken or meat from becoming too dry when they are grilled and are especially important for lean chicken breasts.
I like to use grilled vegetables in my appetizer salads like eggplant salad or sweet peppers with olive oil and garlic. Adding the freshly grilled vegetables gives familiar salads a delicious, smoky flavor. You can prepare the dressing and any other salad components in advance and then add the grilled vegetables when they are ready. Of course, this is easier to do if you’re celebrating Independence Day on your patio or in your backyard than in the park.
A good way to enjoy the taste of freshly grilled eggplant is in a light and easy salad with diced tomatoes and cucumbers. Rina Valero, author of Delights of Jerusalem, calls it traditional eggplant salad.
After cooling the grilled eggplant enough to peel and mash it, she flavors it with olive oil, garlic, chopped parsley, salt and pepper and mixes in the diced vegetables.
Grilled vegetables are a tasty addition to other salads too. Mixing diced, freshly grilled peppers, zucchini, onions or eggplant into a rice salad, as in a yellow rice and red pepper salad, makes it especially flavorful. You can also serve grilled vegetables on a bed of fresh, crisp greens dressed with a little olive oil and lemon juice.
For Independence Day, perhaps the best guideline to follow is to keep the food simple.
A plate of grilled meat and grilled vegetables, a fresh salad or two, good pita, and perhaps some cool watermelon and other fruits for dessert, and everyone, including the host, can relax and enjoy the holiday.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Feast from the Mideast.
Grilled chicken breasts with cumin and garlic
Alongside the chicken you can grill sweet peppers, large mushrooms and small tomatoes to serve as accompaniments.
• 6 chicken breast halves (with skin and bone) (about 1.4 kg. or 3 pounds) • 1⁄4 cup olive oil • garlic cloves minced• 1 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice • 1 tsp. ground black pepper • 1 tsp. ground cumin • 1⁄2 tsp. salt
Put chicken on plate. Combine remaining ingredients in small bowl and pour evenly over both sides of chicken. Rub spice mixture into chicken. Let stand at room temperature while heating coals or refrigerate up to 2 hours.
Set chicken on an oiled rack about 13 to 15 cm. (5 to 6 inches) above glowing coals. Grill, covered, about 10 minutes per side, or until thickest part of meat near bone is no longer pink when cut. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 servings
Grilled eggplant and pepper salad with garlic and olive oil
This colorful dish is one of my favorite salads and is a pleasant change from the usual eggplant with tehina or eggplant with mayonnaise. It’s at its best when made with freshly grilled vegetables.
• 2 long, fairly slender eggplants (about 900 gr. or 2 pounds total) • 700 to 900 gr. (11⁄2 to 2 pounds) sweet red peppers• 2 hot peppers (optional) • 2 medium garlic cloves • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil • 1 Tbsp. vinegar (optional)
 Prick eggplants a few times with fork.
Grill eggplants above medium-hot coals about 40 minutes, turning often, until skin blackens and flesh is tender.
Grill sweet and hot peppers, turning them often, until their skins blister all over; sweet peppers will take about 15 minutes and hot peppers about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly; or put in a plastic bag and close bag. Let stand 10 minutes.
Peel peppers using paring knife and remove seeds. Dice peppers.
Leave eggplants until cool enough to handle. Remove eggplant skin and cut off caps. Halve eggplants and drain off any liquid inside.
Chop eggplant and peppers very fine.
Transfer to a bowl and add garlic, salt and pepper. Mix very well. Add oil and vinegar if you like. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Serve at room temperature.
Makes 6 servings
Yellow rice salad with grilled red peppers
The grilled peppers, along with olives and hot pepper relish, give this colorful salad of spiced rice pilaf plenty of flavor. The salad makes a tasty accompaniment for kebabs or it can be served with feta cheese or hard-boiled eggs.
• 3 to 4 Tbsp. olive oil • 1 large onion, halved lengthwise • 2 small zucchini or pale-green-skinned summer squash (225 grams or 1⁄2 pound) sliced thinly • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste • 1 1⁄4 cups long-grain white rice • 1 tsp. ground cumin • 1⁄4 tsp. turmeric • 21⁄2 cups hot water • 2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley • 1 to 2 Tbsp. tarragon vinegar • Rice vinegar or lemon juice • 2 to 3 tsp. s’hug (hot pepper garlic relish) or hot sauce, or to taste • 1⁄2 cup green olives, pitted and halved • 2 sweet red peppers
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large saute pan. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat for 7 minutes or until soft but not brown. Remove from pan.
Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat it. Add zucchini, sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute over medium heat for 3 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove from heat.
Return one third of the onions to pan and heat them. Add rice and saute over medium-low heat, stirring for 3 minutes or until grains turn white. Add cumin, turmeric, 3⁄4 teaspoon salt and scant 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper. Pour hot water over rice and stir once. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low, cover tightly and simmer for 14 minutes. Scatter remaining sauteed onions over the top. Cover and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until rice is tender.
With a fork, fluff rice lightly and transfer to a bowl. Lightly fold zucchini and parsley. Let cool completely. Fold in vinegar, hot pepper relish, olives and 1 tablespoon oil if you like. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Grill peppers on heated grill, turning them occasionally, until their skins are blistered and charred, about 10 to 15 minutes; do not let them burn. Transfer peppers to a bowl and cover bowl; or put them in a plastic bag and close bag. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel peppers using paring knife.
Halve peppers; be careful because they may have hot juice inside. Discard seeds and ribs, and pat dry. Do not rinse.
Dice peppers and stir them gently into rice. Serve at room temperature.
Makes 6 servings
Traditional eggplant salad
This recipe is from Delights of Jerusalem. Author Rina Valero calls for grilling the eggplant over a gas flame in the kitchen but it’s even better when grilled outdoors on the barbecue. She recommends peeling the tomato but I skip this step.
• 1 large seedless eggplant • 1 cucumber • 1 peeled tomato • 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil • 1 garlic clove • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Prick eggplant a few times with a fork. Grill eggplant above medium-hot coals about 40 minutes, turning often, until skin blackens and flesh is tender. Let eggplant cool enough to handle. Peel eggplant, drain well and mash or chop fine.
Transfer eggplant to a bowl. Add oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Finely dice the cucumber and tomato and stir into the eggplant.
Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve cool or at room temperature.
Makes 3 or 4 servings
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