‘Tis the season for counting. And, sad to say, mourning. Lag B’Omer, literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, is the one oasis of joy in the 49-day period of mourning between Passover and Shavu’ot, falling this year at sundown on May 17. Counting the Omer refers to counting the days between the barley offering at the Temple and the wheat offering on Shavu’ot. (Stay with me here. Culinary possibilities will ensue.) The counting reminds us that our redemption from slavery, commemorated on Passover, was not complete until we received the Torah, commemorated on Shavu’ot.
Although considered a “minor” holiday, Lag B’Omer is celebrated joyfully in Israel with bonfires and picnics, where grilled and roasted skewered meat and vegetables are popular. And when it comes to grilling, Steven Raichlen wrote the book – 28 books, really, including the international best sellers How to Grill, Barbecue Bible and Planet Barbecue. Translated into 15 languages, Raichlen’s books have won five James Beard Awards and three IACP-Julia Child Awards and have sold more than 4 million copies. Dubbed the “Gladiator of Grilling” by Oprah, Raichlen also hosts the PBS shows “Primal Grill” and “Barbecue University.”
“If something tastes good baked, fried, sautéed, steamed or even raw,” he says, “it probably tastes even better grilled.” Even our Jewish sacred cows. “We are probably the only Jewish family in Miami to barbecue its brisket instead of braising it in the oven with dried fruits,” he said. “We rub it with cumin, paprika, garlic, salt and pepper and smoke it for six hours. It’s amazing barbecue, the way God meant for you to eat it!”
Raichlen credits his mom, who was in charge of the grill when he was growing up, with lighting his passion for grilling. “Her approach to grilling was robust if not terrifying,” he recalled. “She’d light the grill in a Vesuvian whomp with gasoline – do not try this at home – and char slabs of steak until coal black on the outside and just shy of still mooing inside. She called this ‘Pittsburgh rare.’”
For Planet Barbecue alone, Raichlen traveled over six continents and 60 countries.
“The Middle East is one of the real hotbeds of grilling expertise,” he noted. “Barbecue is not part of the Ashkenazi tradition. I don’t ever remember watching my grandfather grill, for example. None of the great cooks of that generation knew anything from fire cooking, but in Israel it’s very much a part of their culture.”
When you think of grilling, you think meat – burgers, steak, even chicken – but don’t ignore the endless possibilities of veggies on the grill. Raichlen’s inspiration for his “Grilled Eggplant Salad with Jerusalem Flavors,” a delightful dairy dish, is the Eggplant Carpaccio served at Arcadia in Jerusalem. “You’ll recognize it as a deconstructed, reconstructed version of the grilled eggplant dips and salads prevalent throughout the region,” he writes, “[with] fire-charred eggplant counter-pointed by smoky tomato sauce, nutty tahini (sesame seed paste), creamy yogurt and crunchy walnuts. Think of it as the Middle East on a salad plate.”
For the lamb and marinade:
1 1⁄2 pounds boneless leg or shoulder of lamb, rinsed dried, cut into 1-inch cubes
1⁄2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 tablespoon warm water
1⁄4 cup lemon juice
2 strips lemon zest (1⁄2 by 1 inch each)
1 teaspoon coarse salt, plus more for seasoning the kebabs
1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for seasoning the kebabs
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves
For the vegetables:
1 large onion
1 large red bell pepper
1 large green bell pepper
FOR THE BASTING MIXTURE:
1⁄4 teaspoon saffron threads
1 tablespoon warm water
4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) non-dairy margarine, cut into 1⁄2 -inch slices
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 Don’t trim away too much fat — it will help keep kebabs moist while they grill.
2 Marinade: Crumble saffron into large non-reactive mixing bowl. Add water; let stand 5 minutes.
3 Add lemon juice and zest, 1 teaspoon salt, 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper, onion and garlic; stir until salt dissolves. Add oil, bay leaves and lamb cubes and toss to mix. Marinate lamb, covered, in refrigerator 4 hours to overnight — the longer you marinate, the richer the flavor. Stir every few hours to ensure even marinating.
4 Vegetables: Cut onion into 8 chunks. Break each chunk into individual layers. Core and cut bell peppers into 1-inch cubes.
5 Set up grill for direct grilling; preheat to high.
6 Basting mixture: Crumble saffron into small bowl. Add water and let stand 5 minutes. Place margarine and lemon juice in small non-reactive saucepan. Add saffron water; cook over medium-low heat until melted, about 3 minutes. Season with pepper to taste.
7 Thread one-fourth of lamb chunks onto each of the 4 skewers, placing pieces of onion and bell pepper between them. Place kebabs on hot grate and grill until cooked to taste, 2 to 3 minutes per side (8 to 12 minutes in all) for medium-rare. Generously season kebabs with salt and pepper as they grill; baste with the saffron-butter mixture.
8 Transfer kebabs to a platter. Never try to eat lamb and vegetables directly off skewer, or you might burn your lips. Rather, slide them off skewer onto your plate.
Source: Adapted from How to Grill (Workman) by Steven Raichlen
Grilled Eggplant Salad with Jerusalem Flavors
4 small eggplants (3 to 4 ounces each)
2 luscious, red ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1/2 cup plain thick Greek or Middle Eastern-style yogurt
1/4 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Pita bread, for serving
1 Set up grill for direct grilling; preheat to high.
2 Brush and oil grill grate. Arrange eggplants and tomatoes on hot grate; grill until skins are blackened; 3 to 4 minutes per side, 9 to 12 minutes in all for eggplants and about 2 minutes per side, 6 to 8 minutes in all for tomatoes. Cook eggplants completely, until easily pierced with skewer. Cook tomatoes until charred on outside but raw inside. Transfer grilled eggplants and tomatoes to aluminum foil pan to cool.
3 Using paring knife, scrape any really burned skin off tomatoes; a few black spots will add flavor. Puree tomatoes in food processor. Add olive oil and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste and more lemon juice as necessary; sauce should be highly seasoned. Set tomato sauce aside.
4 Place garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt in mixing bowl; mash to a paste with back of wooden spoon. Whisk in tahini. Whisk in 1/4 cup water (the sauce will thin), followed by 2 tablespoons lemon juice (sauce will thicken). Taste for seasoning, adding more lemon juice and/or salt as necessary.
5 Using paring knife, scrape any really burned skin off eggplants; cut flesh into 1/2-inch dice. Season eggplant with salt and pepper to taste.
6 To assemble, spoon pools of tomato sauce on 4 plates or a platter. Mound eggplant in center. Spoon circles (puddles) of tahini sauce on the tomato sauce around the eggplant. Spoon yogurt over eggplant and top with walnuts and parsley. Serve at once with pita bread.
Source: Planet Barbecue (Workman)
by Steven Raichlen