Passing the Bar(becue)

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Israeli summers are not like American summers. First of all, they’re about six months long (if you go according to temperature), which I suppose is a good thing, as the official summer months, largely falling under the shadow of the fallen Beis Ha-Mikdash, just don’t promote the kind of light, ‘summer fun’ as they do across the Atlantic.
Don’t believe me? Try this experiment. Close your eyes and say ‘July’ and ‘August’ and notice where your mind takes you. Now do the same, substituting ‘Tamuz’ and ‘Av’. See what I mean?
But one thing summers do have in common wherever you are (except, of course in the southern hemisphere, where summer is winter) is outdoor cooking. There is just something undeniably geshmak about searing a piece of meat on an open flame. Maybe it stirs our ancient DNA memories of offering korbanos.
This is especially apt if you’ve ever experienced the uniquely Middle Eastern pleasure of being in a park when an extended clan arrives (generally of our brothers from the east) and proceeds to shecht, skin, and spit-roast a whole lamb for their picnicking pleasure.
I admit I’ve never done the ‘lamb roast’ thing myself (although I’d be open to it if I could somehow figure out a way to skip the first two stages of the process – maybe someday they’ll come out with a frozen, ‘ready-to-roast’ whole lamb), but I have been privy to the nearly as exotic experience of the classic Israeli ‘mangal’ (cookout, or barbeque).
Growing up in the suburban America, cookouts always meant my Dad coming home from work in the early evening, filling our big, circular free-standing grill (this was before the day of the gas grill) or, if we were in a hurry or not so hungry, the smaller cast-iron hibachi with ‘match-light’ lighter-fluid treated charcoal briquettes; throw on a match (or two, if was particularly windy), and exactly 20 minutes later, we’d be placing our steaks or whatever above the perfectly smooth and uniform layer of ash-grey coals.
The mangal, as I came to discover upon my Israeli cousin’s invitation soon after we moved here many years ago, is a much more ‘hands-on’ experience.
My first surprise was when he went to add the coals to the grill, and out from the familiar sewn-top paper sack flowed not briquettes, but real pieces of charcoal – as in burnt wood au naturel. The pieces, some of which still retained their original tree-branch form, looked more like residue of a forest fire than anything you would possibly cook with. My host then carefully stacked the pieces in the center of his diminutive cut-and-bent-aluminum grill (that made our old hibachi look like a Cadillac), assuring me that he’d spread them out later, once they’d properly caught.
His son then strategically inserted a number of oil saturated napkins (reminiscent of those placed under a tray of freshly fried latkes to absorb the excess grease) into the pile. They helped maintain the fire, he said.
Next my cousin hoisted a small bright-orange plastic squeeze bottle, which I had assumed was filled with some sort of Middle Eastern ketchup, and delicately shpritzed a few clear droplets of what had been revealed to be lighter fluid atop the pyramid, and then, a match or seven later set it aflame.
I hadn’t assumed for a moment that these rustic coals had come pre-fueled, so I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised, however, and somewhat impressed, by his fuel efficiency. Little did I realize that this was just the lighter-fluid ‘appetizer’.
A moment later I jumped back in shock as first he, and then his son, continued to periodically shpritz the fuel on the dancing flames themselves when they would wane, bringing up impressive – if imprudent – pyrotechnic flares.
The light show eventually ended, as the coals had presumably caught on to my hosts’ satisfaction (despite their remaining essentially black), and I dared approach again. “Here,” my cousin now said, handing me the torn-off top of a cardboard carton. Noticing my puzzlement, he said “Now you have to be l’hav’haev them.”
His accompanying pantomimed fanning motion told me he meant ‘stoke’, so like a slave waving ostrich feathers at the throne of an ancient oriental potentate, I dutifully flapped my cardboard fan, noticing how the coals glowed redder as I did (all the while keeping a watchful eye to make sure no one tried the ‘shpritz trick’ again while I wasn’t looking).
Having worked up quite an appetite by now, I was relieved when my cousin told me the coals were finally ready to cook on, and after spreading the more-or-less caught embers more-or-less evenly along the bottom of the grill (which was an adventure in itself, that will remain untold), he proceeded to place the chicken wings (of which this ‘jumbo’ grill could hold something like six) on the grate and slowly but surely grilled a few rounds to feed our hungry families, who had been patiently noshing waiting inside.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include tell of a certain ‘sideshow’ that occurred in the midst of all this fun.
Just as I’d somewhat calmed down and assured myself that my cousin’s flame-resistant all brick-and-iron-bar Israeli mirpesset (porch) would likely survive this somewhat cavalier grilling style, I was shocked when another high flame shot seemingly out of nowhere behind me. I wheeled around and traced its source to a small can that looked like one of those old roadside emergency flairs my father would keep in the trunk of his car decades ago.
“Tuna” my cousin’s son smiled into my panicked eyes. “You take a can of tuna in oil, stuff in a couple of napkins to soak up the oil (at least I now knew where he’d got his earlier oily napkins from) and light it. Once all the oil burns out you’re left with the most delicious freshly-smoked tuna,” he said. “And you can eat it right out of the can!”
I later deigned to try it (although only once transferred onto a plate) and it was actually pretty good.
Since then I’ve become a mangal expert, though I still wistfully gaze down from my porch at our American neighbor’s professional gas grill. So when my cousin, whose path I hadn’t crossed in many a moon since we’d moved to a different part of the country, recently convinced us to make a summer trek out to their place for old time’s sake, I was ready.
That evening as we set to barbeque from what looked a newer incarnation of the same rickety aluminum grill, I noticed there was no orange bottle in siight; no torn cardboard box. Oblivious to my puzzlement, my cousin swooped in with a colorful sewn-top sack. “You won’t believe what I found in the store, Nesanel,” he said smiling broadly. “Match-light instant charcoal! It’s sooo easy, you just won’t believe it!”
What will they think of next?

The Protocols of the Chefs of Waldorf – a Jewish Culinary Conspiracy

(The Kitchen of the Waldorf Hotel, mid-20th Century)

“Izzie, how was your Yomtiv?”

“Good, but too short. How ‘bout yours, Jake?”

“Ditto. And after eight days of Pesach cooking at home and my stomach bloated like a matzoh ball, the last thing I feel like is…more cooking.”

“Well, you’d better. There’s eight-hundred hungry customers out there and the boss said we gotta wow ‘em. That we gotta come up with an appetizer that’s never been served before.”

“You’re kidding! Izzie, I have no koach for this.  Well, I guess it’ll be a good break from Pesach, when we’d been eating stuff served since Yetzias Mitzrayim. I heard they made a big Seder here – lots of leftovers in the walk-in fridge. Too bad we couldn’t just serve ‘em some charoses and call it a day.”

Silence.

“Izzie, did you hear me? What’s that crazy look on your face?”

“Don’t you get it, Jake? We can.”

“You’re meshugana. We’ll get fired in a second. Even the boss knows what charoses is – just cut up apples and walnuts.”

“Who said just charoses? What other leftover are in there?”

Jake sticks his head into the fridge and sighs. “Not too much. Just a lot of Karpas – you know, celery.”

“Perfect!”

“Izzie, maybe you’re still shikker from the Arba Kosos. How we gonna give these fancy people charoses mixed with karpas? Most of ‘em aren’t even Jewish – they won’t even get the joke.”

“So we’ll make it not Jewish.”

“Huh?”

“What’s the most not-Jewish ingredient we got in this place?”

“I dunno, Izzie. Mayonnaise, I guess. I tried to put some on Selma’s cornbeef instead of mustard once and she accused me of converting.”

The door to the dining room opens. “Hey, you guys – we’re serving dinner in ten minutes. Have you come up with the new appetizer? And it better be good!”

“Sure, boss. Comin’ right out.” Jake turns to Izzie, whispers: “That’s it. Just mix it all together.”

“Charoses, Karpas, and…mayonnaise?”

“Yep.”

Jake takes a taste. “You know, it’s crazy, but it’s not bad!”

The boss comes is. The cooks point to the tub of Seder leftovers with confident smiles.

“Well, I must say, I’ve never seen anything like this before. What should we call it?”

Jake gives Izzie a little kick from behind the counter. “Well, boss, since we worked so hard on it, we named it after you and your wonderful hotel. It’s…Waldorf salad!”

Vegan Banana Ice Cream

Baruch (and his mom) were guests of ours over Passover. He liked my egg-free non-dairy banana ice cream and wanted the recipe to serve at his upcoming Bar Mitzvah.

It was embarrassingly simple, but okay.

What I did was:

Mash (I used an immersion blender) 6 ripe bananas together with a drop of lemon juice to prevent them from oxidizing/turning brown. Add a half cup of melted pure coconut oil (our newest Passover favorite), a pinch of salt and some sweetener of choice to taste. Blend to a smooth, even consistency.

Dish into serving cups and freeze.

See, embarrassing easy.

Enjoy, and Mazel Tov!

Passover Pantry Note

I appreciate all the great feedback on the ‘how to make lox’ video. But having gone through the process of making some this Passover, I had an epiphany, which is maybe just common sense.

Being in a rush, for the first time, I didn’t skin the salmon before rubbing it with the curing mixture. And lo and behold, I now realize why most recipes say not to. Leaving the skin on makes it SO much easier to slice. It holds the flesh of the fish securely from the bottom, which allows for the trademark thin, diagonal slicing that give the lox its look.

So, live and learn, I guess. I just thought I’d fess up and let us all become better cooks together.

Enjoy!

Marriage and Matzoh (or give me a break)

“Oh, you must have got that part of the matzah,” I tell my wife – or maybe she tells me. We laugh. It’s not even Pesach (or anywhere near), and there isn’t even any matzah in the house.

What’s going on?

You know how when you break the middle, Afikomen matzah at the Seder? How it virtually never breaks into two smooth and perfectly identical halves?

Usually it’s more like a jagged, craggy break. One piece jutting in where the other protrudes and vice versa.

A husband and wife are one soul divided between two identities. But that split isn’t usually smooth and even either.

He may have a lot of one trait – while she has hardly any. Another trait may play out just the opposite.

She’s outgoing, he’s introverted. He’s a spendthrift, she’s a tightwad. Couples who are so different might come to ask themselves: how did I ever end up with someone so not like me?

That’s because he/she is not like, or not not like me. He/she is me. Just the other half of me. The other half of the cosmic Afikomen split. The jagged, cragged, division of the perfect circular whole.

‘But some couples are more similar to each other’, you may claim. Not a problem. Their matzah-soul might have gotten one of those rare smooth, nearly identical breaks.

But if your marriage is not like that (and I’d venture most aren’t), don’t fret.  Get to know and revel in your one-of-a-kind Afikomen split. Get to know who got what ‘part of the matzah’. (Check this theory out – many couples have found the pattern to be true and harmonizing.) And most of all…

Learn to compliment your complement.  

Happy Pesach!