No better way to wish Israel happy birthday than with a multicultural menu

Backyard barbecues ablaze, fireworks and picnic tables laden with a variety of classic American food — hot dogs, corn on the cob, slaws and potato salads — mark our nation’s birthday. In addition, Israel’s 56th is coming up on Monday, April 26, and celebrations much like ours happen there, too. The menus, however, differ slightly to focus on the foods of Israel, which have a long and winding history.

In the early years of the state, Israeli food was extremely basic. Building the country took precedence over creating exotic, fancy and sensual dishes. Food was meant to keep you healthy and strong. Typical Israeli breakfasts — eggs, salad and cheese — have their roots in the early days of the kibbutz.

Immigration of Jews from all over the world brought with it an array of foods making the Israeli kitchen a true melting pot. The seven ancient foods — olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, wheat, barley and grapes — still play a crucial role in Israeli cuisine, and top-notch chefs incorporate the ingredients of what is known today as the New Israeli Cuisine.

It has been disputed for many years that Israel has no true cuisine of its own, only what centuries of worldwide settlers have contributed. Doesn’t that sound exactly like what is known as American cuisine?

Celebrating the rich tapestry of flavors, styles and ingredients from Israel’s ancient to present times, is a terrific way to say “Happy birthday, Israel.”

Eggplant Salad with Olives | Makes 2 cups

2 Tbs. olive oil
2 cloves garlic minced
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper chopped
4 small eggplants, baked until soft
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup Greek black olives,
pitted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
pinch cayenne

Heat oil in a medium skillet heat oil. Cook garlic, onion and pepper 5 minutes. Add vinegar and continue cooking until thick and syrupy. Cut eggplant into strips and add remaining ingredients. Cook another 3 minutes and taste for salt.

Sprinkle with basil and serve warm or at room temperature with pita bread.

Kabobs | Makes 8-10

2 lbs. ground lamb or beef
2 medium onions, sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 Tbs. chopped mint
salt and pepper
pinch of allspice
4 Tbs. toasted pine nuts

Heat grill until hot.

Combine all ingredients. Shape the mixture into long, fingerlike patties and roll around a long metal skewer. Grill the kabobs until they are well browned. Serve hot with tomato sauce or tahini.

Israeli Citrus Salad | Serves 4 to 6

4 navel oranges
2 pink grapefruits
2 1/2 cups fresh orange juice
3 Tbs. orange flower water
2 Tbs. honey
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise and seeds scraped
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
small mint leaves, for garnish

Using a sharp knife, peel the oranges and grapefruits, removing all of the bitter white pith. Cut in between the membranes to release the sections into a bowl. Squeeze the juice from the membranes into another bowl.

Add the orange juice, orange flower water, honey, vanilla bean seeds and cinnamon to the bowl of juice and whisk to mix. Strain the flavored juice over the fruit and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Spoon the fruit salad into glasses or bowls, garnish with mint leaves and serve.

Louise Fiszer is a Palo Alto cooking teacher, author and the co-author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” Her columns alternate with those of Rebecca Ets-Hokin. Questions and recipe ideas can be sent to j. or to [email protected].