A Day in the Park

Lag B'Omer is a carefree day that sits right between Passover and Shavuot. In Israel, it's a school holiday. Families and friends gather together for a bonfire, a picnic, a sports game. Grills are set up in parks, on the beach — even on apartment balconies — but by far, the largest celebration takes place in and around Miron, the town near Safed where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, are buried.

Their yahrzeit is joyfully celebrated, which may seem rather odd, but that was specifically requested by Rabbi bar Yochai of his students. My friend, Mila Raclaw, who frequently visits her grandchildren in Israel, reports that an estimated 250,000 people visit Miron, and that enormous bonfires can be seen from miles away.

Lag B'Omer takes place on the 33rd day after the second day of Passover, in the midst of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, the time counted off day by day. ("Lag" is the Hebrew numerical equivalent of 33).

There are many explanations and customs linked to the holiday. One, according to the Talmud, is that a plague that had struck down thousands of Rabbi Akiba's students ended on that day. Linked to this, religious families do not cut a boy's hair until he is 3 years old; because this idea is tied to Kabbalistic thought concerning hair, many put off the ceremony, called an upsherin, until Lag B'Omer.

Another custom is that because weddings are not held during the mourning period of the Omer, many people (as my husband and I did) choose to get married on Lag B'Omer.

Barbecuing in America has skyrocketed for year-round eating and entertaining. But in Israel, it goes far beyond tossing a naked steak or some foil-wrapped potatoes on the grill. There, much careful do-ahead preparation is in the works.

Meats like lamb are minced together with herbs and spices, or tiny pieces of meat are marinated in an aromatic mixture. Minced mixtures are shaped into patties and grilled or threaded onto skewers as kabobs, interspersed with tomatoes, onions and other vegetables.

This showcases the combined influences of neighboring countries, as well as the treasured flavors brought by immigrants to their adopted country, all melding comfortably with Israel's indigenous fresh ingredients.

Desserts are usually locally grown fruits eaten out of hand. On Lag B'Omer, peaches, apricots, oranges, apples, and fresh or dried figs and dates are even more delectable — spiked with wood smoke, the great outdoors and steadfast tradition.

So light the grill and celebrate the day. Choose one or all of the recipes from the selection below. Any one of them is guaranteed to become a family favorite!


Green Olive and Coriander Dip


Coriander is related to the parsley family. The seeds are mildly fragrant, and are used in pickling and for dips. The leaves, known as cilantro, have a completely different flavor. The intense pungency lends itself to highly seasoned foods, and should be used sparingly. Serve this with sesame crackers to eat while the kebobs or fish are cooking.

1 cup pitted green olives
1/4 tsp. bottled minced garlic
1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
2 tsps. cut up jalapeño pepper or to taste
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. olive oil
salt to taste

Place the olives, garlic, coriander, jalapeño pepper, lemon juice and the olive oil in the food processor. Process to a paste.

Season to taste with salt.

Spoon into a bowl, and serve with crackers or sliced cucumbers and carrot sticks.

Makes about 3/4 cup.

Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 20; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 2 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 110 mg.


Bulgarian Kebobs


1 large onion, peeled and cut in chunks
1 cup parsley sprigs, packed
2 Tbsps. mint leaves, packed or 11/2 tsps. dried
3 thick slices of soft brown bread
3/4 lb. lean ground beef
3/4 lb. ground lamb
2 eggs
1 tsp. paprika
2 tsps. cumin
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
12 cherry tomatoes

Place the onion, parsley, mint and bread in the food processor. Process until the onion is finely chopped.

Add the beef, lamb, eggs and seasonings. Process to mix ingredients thoroughly.

Shape into patties about 3/4-inch thick. Thread patties onto skewers, alternately with the tomatoes.

Grill over hot coals, 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until desired doneness.

Note: These may be wrapped in wax paper and refrigerated before transferring to a cooler and carried to picnic site.

Makes 4 kebabs.

Approximate nutrients per kebob: calories, 529; protein, 37 g; carbohydrates, 24 g; fat, 31 g; cholesterol, 199 mg; sodium, 440 mg.


Turkish Kebob Pockets


From Turkey, "cop sis" literally means "rubbish kabob," as it's made with tiny scraps of meat marinated in onion and cumin. Serve it in warm pita bread, and top with parsley, red onion and a squeeze of lemon juice. Lamb, beef or poultry may be used.

1 large onion, cut in chunks
3 cloves garlic, each split in half
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsps. oil
11/2 lbs. lamb shoulder, cut in small bite-size pieces
6 pita breads, warmed
bunch of flat-leaf parsley, coarsely snipped
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
juice of 2 medium lemons

Place the onion, garlic, salt, pepper and cinnamon in the food processor. Process until onion is finely chopped.

Transfer to a shallow dish. Stir in the oil.

Add the lamb chunks and toss with the onion mixture.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Thread the meat onto skewers. Cook over hot coals, turning frequently, 4 to 5 minutes or until desired doneness.

Split the pita breads. Carefully push the meat into the pockets. Top with the parsley and the onions.

Drizzle the lemon juice over top, close pockets and enjoy!

Serves 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 366; protein, 29 g; carbohydrates, 35 g; fat, 13 g; cholesterol, 70 mg; sodium, 591 mg.


Grilled Trout With Dates


1 large onion, cut in chunks
2 cloves garlic, split
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. dry barbecue rub of your choice
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
1 cup pitted dates, packed
2 Tbsps. olive oil
4 trout (each about 8 oz.), cleaned and heads removed

Place the onion and garlic in the food processor. Process until coarsely chopped.

Add the turmeric, barbecue rub and pepper. Process until onions are finely chopped. Rub this mixture around the inside of the trout. Set aside.

Place the dates and oil in the food processor. Process until almost smooth.

Rub all over the outside of the trout. Set aside for about 15 minutes.

Cook over medium-hot coals, about 5 minutes on each side.

Serve hot from grill with jeweled rice or warm pita bread.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 456; protein, 42 g; carbohydrates, 33 g; fat, 18 g; cholesterol, 117 mg; sodium, 71 mg.

Jeweled Rice


This may be served cold. One cup of regular basmati rice will yield 3 cups cooked.

3 cups cooked basmati rice
1/3 cup dried cherries or cranberries
1/3 cup diced dried apricots
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
2 Tbsps. grated orange peel
1 tsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsps. toasted sesame seeds

Place the cooked rice in a large bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients, except the sesame seeds. Stir to mix.

Sprinkle sesame seeds over top. Serve at room temperature.

To Toast the Sesame Seeds: Spread seeds on a small baking sheet (or in the tray of a toaster oven). Place under broiler and heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove when seeds are just beginning to turn golden. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Use as above.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 249; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 50 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 2 mg.


Baked Potato Salad With Spinach and Sprouts


Bake the potatoes at home or bake over hot coals with the rest of the food. Wrapped in foil, they will take about 1 hour to cook at the edge of hot coals. Cool before peeling.

4 large baked potatoes
2 cups shredded fresh spinach, packed
1 cup bean sprouts
2 green onions, thinly sliced


6 Tbsps. olive oil
6 Tbsps. seasoned rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard
3 Tbsps. finely snipped chives

Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch chunks. Place in a large bowl.

Add the spinach, bean sprouts and green onions.

To make the dressing, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, mustard and chives. Pour over the potato mixture. Toss gently.

Serve warm or cold.

Serves 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 271; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 3 g; fat, 14 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 433 mg.


Grilled Tahini Vegetables


Invest in an inexpensive grilling basket or container that prevents veggies from falling through the bars of conventional grills. Tahini is a thick paste made of sesame seeds, and is available in supermarkets. Stir well before using, as product tends to separate.

1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup vinaigrette salad dressing
2 Tbsps. tahini
11/2 tsps. dried thyme
16 baby carrots
2 zucchini, sliced about 3/4-inch thick
3 small red bell peppers, seeded and quartered

In a shallow dish, whisk together the oil, salad dressing, tahini and thyme. Pour into a large plastic bag.

Add the carrots, zucchini and peppers. Close bag and toss to coat vegetables with the tahini mixture.

Arrange the vegetables over hot coals or place inside a grilling basket or grilling container. Place over hot coals.

Cook for 10 minutes, or until vegetables are tender, turning often. Some vegetables will cook more quickly than others.

Remove with tongs and keep warm.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 177; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 6 g; fat, 17 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 89 mg.

Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.



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