Even for vegetarians (I know—I used to be one), there is nothing quite like the smell of meat roasting over wood coals to tantalize the salivary glands. All food ethics and justice aside, it’s truly a deeply programmed unconscious physical reaction—searing meat plus wood smoke equals food!
As American Jews, we have a whole menu of opportunities to savor that primal urge. With Passover and the onset of spring behind us, a slew of holidays dedicated to the outdoor grilling of meat herald the coming of the summer.
Just a little over a week ago, millions of Israelis set up their mangal grills on every possible patch of grass in the country and grilled up untold quantities of kababim (kabobs), shishlik (shish kabobs) and steakim (steaks) in honor of Israeli Independence Day.
Memorial Day in the States is really just an opportunity to sear chicken on the grill. And with foil-wrapped potatoes charring in the coals of your Lag b’Omer bonfire and burgers and dogs sizzling at the requisite Fourth of July barbecue, early summer means cooking outside.
While prepackaged burgers and dogs will undoubtedly play some role in your grilling season, this year consider trying some more exotic and exciting options.
Kabobs, kababs or kebabs, depending on your pronunciation, are an international human birthright informing culinary anthropology like almost no other food. From Greece and Egypt to India and Uzbekistan, from one side of the Silk Road to the other, people have been using sticks, swords and anything else they can think of to skewer and cook seasoned, spiced meats over coals since…well, since people started cooking their food.
And there are so many more interesting approaches to kabobs than simply chopping up a chicken breast and threading it onto a skewer!
Persian luleh kabab are made of ground beef and lamb with grated onion and then feature a hefty dose of sumac powder, which adds a sour, lemony note that offsets the sweetness of the grilling meat beautifully. The Moroccan version of a ground-beef kabob often includes fresh herbs, like parsley and cilantro, as well as garlic. The Pakistani version might feature garam masala and ginger, while an Uzbeki chef might use coriander, cumin and black pepper.
Consider mixing ground beef with ground lamb for a more tender and flavorful kabob, and let your imagination run wild when it comes to seasonings, shapes and sizes. Don’t forget to make some kababonim (bite-sized kabobs), too! Just use the same mix and instead of making them full-sized, make a plateful of little quarter-sized medallions, which cook in minutes. Your guests—especially the bite-sized ones—will be thrilled to eat them straight off the grill.
Also, if you have access to a big rosemary bush, try using green rosemary sticks as skewers, particularly for a lamb kabob.
Ground-meat kabobs go really well with shish kabob-style (whole pieces of meat) skewers, too. My recent favorite is the Persian jujeh kabab, made of chicken breast, onion and red pepper marinated in a mayonnaise, turmeric and lemon juice sauce, which keeps the chicken tender and succulent.
You can incorporate some exotic fruits into your grilling as well. Pineapple, chicken and onion skewers with a sprinkle of Jamaican jerk seasoning are a genuine treat.
And don’t forget the vegetarians! They suffer for their ideals enough as it is during grill season. Along with the requisite veggie burgers and eggplant slices, put together some interesting veggie kabobs—with pineapple, too!—to make sure they enjoy grill season as well.