A group of 60 young American Jews arrived at a military base in southern Israel early this week with a mission: To cook dinner for the 450 soldiers on the base. And it wasn’t a simple task, as they’d soon found out.
The group was one of the many that Taglit-Birthright brings to Israel every year, with a mission of its own to introduce the country to young Jews who had never visited.
This particular Taglit trip had an interesting twist - it focused on the food and culinary treasures Israel has to offer. The participants of this group were all chefs, bakers, food writers or simply foodies. For all of them – as is the case with other Birthright groups - this was their first visit to Israel.
In order to make the dinner really special for the soldiers, the Birthright group brought a few special ingredients with them. Everything had to be inspected by the army base’s mashgiach, the person in charge of making sure all food on the base is kosher.
As the mashgiach opened the bag he was visibly startled:
“You brought milk to prepare a fleishig (meat) meal??”
They had to explain that what the masgiach was looking at was actually coconut milk - a product he has never seen before on an army base - and that it was perfectly kosher to cook the meat in it.
Together with group guide, Hananel Edri, the team of chef-participants (including Daniel Levin, the executive chef of Berlyn restaurant in Brooklyn, NY), came up with a menu that was a little different than the regular schnitzel and Israeli couscous the soldiers are so tired of.
Daniel Levin, executive chef at Berlyn Restaurant in Brooklyn, NY, puts out the chicken dish for the soldier. Photo by Lior Cohen
The Birthright participants' upgraded menu included chicken in coconut milk and ginger, a couscous salad and basboosa (semolina cake) for dessert.
For the coconut-ginger chicken the cooks combined the coconut milk with dried garlic, fresh ginger, yellow curry and slices of red pepper in one of the army’s huge pots. They cooked it for an hour until the sauce was thick, and then moved on to add the chicken breasts, only to discover that the meat had arrived completely frozen. The young chefs and aspiring cooks had no choice but to add the frozen chicken into the sauce, and sure enough, 40 minutes later the stew was ready and delicious.
Another dish the Birthright group prepared was couscous salad, infused with turmeric, cumin, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and later fresh chopped parsley, roasted walnut, chopped dates and lemon juice.
Soldiers being served chicken marinated in coconut milk, ginger and curry. Photo by Lior Cohen
“The plates came back so clean, that we could tell just how much the soldiers liked it,” Hananel told me over the phone.
For the rest of their 10 days in Israel the group visited the open-air Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem, took a wine tour in the Carmel, experienced Bedouin hospitality and picked their own vegetables in a greenhouse in the desert.
“People always say you should go to Provence to taste the best produce, but it is just as good in Israel. Maybe better," Daniel Levin concluded, following the trip.
Inspired by the stories of the army kitchen and my own culinary memories from my military service, I came up with two Israeli couscous dishes.
Although this small round pasta (Israeli couscous comprises starchy pearls, and has nothing to do with the real couscous) is very tasty when simply cooked with a little onion, the recipes I’m offering today have more nutritious benefits and taste wonderful.
The first is a one-pot meal of red cabbage, beef and Israeli couscous and the second is a vegetarian dish of cauliflower and Israeli couscous in turmeric and lemon that can also be served as a side dish.
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