Yom Ha’atzmaut: A Gastronomic Celebration

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21 Apr 2009
Yom HaAtzmaut

Ronnie FeinJews in America, and the world over, celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (this year on Wednesday, April 29, 2009), which marks Israel’s birth as an independent, free nation. This year Israel will be 61 years old!

With the creation of the State of Israel we finally have a place we can call home, a bulwark that stands strong despite perpetual enemies. Its formation was a triumph against centuries of tyranny and persecution of Jews everywhere.

In my community there are several Jewish organizations and synagogues and all have special Yom Ha’atzmaut festivities on the calendar: speakers, classes, special prayers for those who have died protecting Israel, Israeli dance performances, choral singing, even cooking lessons.

Some of us will celebrate, gastronomically speaking that is, at home, with meals featuring Israeli food. Although Israeli food is always welcome, it is even better as the weather gets warmer because so much of it relies of fresh, seasonal produce.

I do wish that I had the means to make shawarma, the most delicious street food in the world. I have fond memories of my first taste of it on my first trip to Jerusalem many years ago. But shwarma, which requires hunks of meat and a spit larger than most kitchens, is out of the question. So is my other most favorite traditional Yom Ha’atzmaut dish: falafel. The women who run the kitchen at our local JCC make such good falafel (tucked inside a pita pocket and garnished with roasted eggplant and tahini) that I get my fill of the stuff there and won’t even try to compete.

At our house we’ll have a dairy dinner, a common theme in our family, all of us cheese-eaters and lovers of fish and wonderful salads. We appreciate Israeli food’s focus on fresh fruits and vegetables and good fish.

I’ll serve hummus, of course. Although there are countless brands of kosher hummus available, my family loves the spicy-lemony version I make. It’s very easy and I usually prepare it a day or so ahead. Although I serve it with the usual pita bread, I usually brush the pita with a small amount of olive oil and bake it for a few minutes because we like it crispy-toasty.

There will be an Israeli Salad too, but, as with most of my cooking, I have made some variations to the basic dish, which combines cucumbers and tomatoes in a lemony vinaigrette dressing. My family’s favorite recipe, which is included in my book, Hip Kosher, also contains cooked bulgur wheat and feta cheese; it’s kind of like a cross between Tabbouleh and Israeli Salad. Bulgur Wheat Salad with Feta Cheese and Dill Dressing is another dish I sometimes make ahead, not just because it saves time, but also because after a day the flavors meld and the ingredients taste even better.

To round out dinner I’ll serve cold baked salmon and egg salad, along with steamed asparagus (I’ll dress the spears with vinaigrette just before we eat).

Naturally we’ll have dessert. Something sweet and really fresh is in order. Sufganiyot! It is usually made with yeast dough, but my easy recipe, which is made with lemon-infused cream puff pastry, is both uncomplicated and quick. There is never any left, so I know they are well-loved.

I realize that Sufganiyot is a Hanukkah specialty but why wait? These little doughnuts are crispy and tender all at the same time, garnished with spicy sugar that’s crunches on your teeth and sends waves of satisfaction to your brain. They are meant for special occasions of all kinds. Like Yom Ha’atzmaut, a special day to celebrate in every way.

Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008).