Nothing in life is better than sharing a meal with friends. And for us, some of the best meals are summer barbecues.
At midnight, we walked out of those sliding glass doors at Ben Gurion Airport. The lights were artificially bright. The hot, humid air was stultifying and filled with the acrid smell of cigarette smoke. The loud hum of people was accompanied by a cacophony of car horns and roaring engines. Welcome to Israel.
Our last visit to the Holy Land had been with our children for Sukkot in 2019. This time would be different. We were coming to meet our eldest daughter Gabriella, who had spent the past four weeks on an archeological dig with her favorite professor and friends from Yeshiva University. We were bringing our middle daughter Alexandra (and her three large suitcases) for a gap year of Torah studies at Midreshet TVA in Jerusalem. Our youngest daughter Shevy was along for the ride.
Alan was curious to visit the dig site, south of the Temple Mount in the City of David. Bright and early, Gabriella, Alan and I left our accommodations in green and leafy Katamon to venture into the center of Jerusalem. At the David Citadel Hotel, they left me to take the little Egged “Superbus” that negotiates the narrow and windy streets of the Old City.
Naively, I thought I would grab a coffee at Aroma in the Mamilla Mall, but all the stores were closed. So, I walked up the steep stone stairs to Jaffa Gate and through the deserted streets of the Arab souk. I took the time to explore the bougainvillea lined streets that branch off from the main souk. I watched the workers and vendors languidly prepare for the hot busy day ahead.
After passing through the security check to the Kotel, I stood at the top of the stairs and took in the expansive view. I contemplated the sheer grandeur of the Wall. I marveled at the huge, perfectly rectangular time-worn slabs of rock, in varied sizes and shades of white and gray and beige and beauty. I wondered at the hardy green shrubs that cling to the Wall, miraculously growing out of nothing. To me, they symbolize the way the Jews have clung to the Wall for spiritual sustenance.
After a contemplative prayer whispered into the cool rocks and a long heartfelt conversation with Alexandra’s fifth grade teacher who spotted me in the crowd, I walked back to Mamilla. I had not had a coffee since Friday morning in Los Angeles, so I sat at a table on the balcony of Aroma Espresso Bar. I blissfully sipped my “Haffuch” coffee, looking out onto a spectacular view of the Old City Ramparts with the southern valley of Jerusalem blending into the horizon.
A week later, we took to the road for a few days in Tel Aviv. There is nothing like that first glimpse of those many skyscrapers and that brilliant blue strip of sea punctuated by the ancient port of Jaffa. We are lucky enough to have incredible friends Udi and Michal (Alexandra and their daughter Roni have been friends since second grade) and it has become a tradition that they and their kids meet us at the beach and then come for a swim at our hotel pool. That Sunday, we sat in the glorious sun and ate delicious summer fruit—watermelon, melon, grapes, lychees and passionfruit. In Israel, it’s all about the simple pleasures.
The next day, Michal and Udi invited us to their home for “al ha esh,” which literally means on the fire. Udi grilled steaks and hamburgers and perfectly spiced chicken pargiyot (thighs) and beef Arayes. Michal made the most incredible assortment of side dishes. A bright leafy green salad dressed with a light vinaigrette. Sweet red, orange and yellow cherry tomatoes and red onion with a tiny sprinkle of Italian parsley, olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Roasted cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, sweet potatoes and Yukon gold potatoes. Afterwards, Roni served a delicious dessert with parve ice cream and more delicious fruits. We ate and drank and reminisced and laughed.
Nothing in life is better than sharing a meal with friends. And for us, some of the best meals are summer barbecues. Sharon and I thought this is the perfect time to share our recipes for chicken kebab skewers and ground beef Arayes, while we still have some lovely warm days on the calendar. Perhaps a little inspiration for your Labor Day barbecue.
These Middle-Eastern style grilled chicken kebabs are easy to make and perfect served over a bed of rice, along with your favorite fresh salad.
These Middle-Eastern style grilled chicken kebabs are easy to make and perfect served over a bed of rice. Marinating the chicken in a blend of mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, lemon and spices tenderizes the meat. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs work perfectly for this recipe. But if you want to skip the skewers, marinate chicken pieces with the skin left on.
Grilling over an open flame leaves this chicken moist, juicy and golden brown.
Let us introduce you to Arayes. While they’ve been around forever, these Middle Eastern treats have become very popular on modern menus. Imagine biting into warm, crispy pita stuffed with juicy spiced ground meat—arayes kafta are sandwiches stuffed with minced lamb meat, spices and herbs. My family is not fond of lamb, so I use ground beef.
Food historians aren’t exactly sure why the name Arayes, which means bride in Arabic, was given to these sandwiches. They are originally from Syria, where this street food was grilled, then wrapped in white paper and perhaps this led them to be compared to white bridal gowns. Others say the name derives from the “marriage” of meat and bread.
Whatever the reason for this name, it is a very clever and deliciously moist flavorful sandwich. Perfectly easy to make and eat with your hands.
1 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp paprika
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
Zest from one lemon
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
2½ to 3 pounds boneless skinless chicken
thighs or chicken pieces with skin on
Vegetable oil, for greasing the grill
In a medium bowl, combine the mayonnaise, olive oil, paprika, cumin, turmeric, red pepper flakes, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, pepper and garlic.
Trim the chicken of any excess fat, then cut the chicken into 1 1/2 inch pieces.
Thread the chicken pieces onto skewers. If using wooden skewers, soak them in water for 30 minutes to prevent charring.
Place the kebab skewers on a baking sheet lined with foil, then brush the marinade all over the chicken, coating well.
Cover and let the kebabs sit in the fridge for at least 4 hours.
Preheat the grill to medium-high heat. Or if using an oven, heat to 475°F.
Grill the chicken kebabs until golden brown and cooked through, turning the skewers occasionally, about 15 minutes. If roasting or grilling in the oven, be sure to turn over twice.
Transfer the kabobs to a platter and serve.
4 large pita breads, cut into quarters
1 ½ pounds ground beef
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 onion, finely chopped
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon salt
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp cumin (optional)
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
Olive oil (for brushing)
Preheat the grill or oven to 425°F.
Combine all the ingredients, except the tomatoes and the pita bread.
Add the tomatoes and mix well for a few minutes.
Fill a layer of the meat mixture into the pita bread, then brush with a generous amount of olive oil on each side.
Arrange the stuffed breads on the grill.
Allow the pita to grill for 3 to 5 minutes, then turn the pita over. Keep grilling until meat is thoroughly cooked and pita is golden.
If using the oven, bake at 425°F for 20 minutes, turning the pitas halfway through, so that the arayes are golden and crisp on both sides.
Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff have been friends since high school. The Sephardic Spice Girls project has grown from their collaboration on events for the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. Follow them
on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food