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Summertime... & the Grilling Is Easy
by Tina D. Wasserman

North­erners and Canadians call it "barbeque"; southerners call it "grilling." Whatever you call it, this summer tradition is the modern version of the oldest method of cooking, dating all the way back to the Stone Age, when humans gained mastery over fire for domestic use.

And yet, finding a traditional Jewish recipe that uses this technique is almost impossible. The preparation of meals in biblical times was centered on milk and bread. When meat was eaten, it was usually boiled and only occasionally roasted, as we know from 1 Samuel 2:15 (when the sons of Eli declared that they preferred their meat roasted rather than boiled) and from the roasting of the paschal lamb.

By the Hasmonean period (166–129 B.C.E.), the practice of roasting meat had become more common. The Israelites roasted meats for major Jewish festivals as well as Shabbat, wedding celebrations, and circumcisions.

Fast forward to the Crusades. Trade ships were now being sent from Europe to the Middle East, providing armies with needed food provisions. By the Crusades’ end in the 13th century, European products had redefined Middle Eastern cooking. Jews in the warmer, arid climates of the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East now fried their meats (and fish) in local olive oil, or stuffed bits of lamb or poultry into vegetables and stewed the mixture in a tomato-based sauce. Given the limited supply of wood for fuel, it was too costly to build a fire outdoors solely to roast meat. Baking, too, was relegated to an enclosed communal oven, which provided heat for many dishes simultaneously and necessitated only a small flame to keep the oil hot enough to fry food.

During the 20th century, Jews from around the world settled in Israel, continuing the exchange and melding of cooking techniques. Today, the most popular way to prepare meat in Israel is by skewering and grilling, and the most popular fast-food meat dish is schwarma (“grilled” in Turkish)—marinated lamb or turkey grilled vertically on a rotating skewer, served with pita. Home grilling is equally popular; it’s fast and easy, doesn’t heat up the house in the warmer months, and, best of all, gives food wonderful flavor and texture.

That is, of course, if the foods are cooked properly! The best piece of beef, lamb, or fish steeped in the world’s tastiest marinade cannot redeem an overcooked dish. Here’s a great rule of thumb for cooking fish that also holds true for beef and boneless chicken: cook your food 10 minutes per inch of meat thickness.

Your choice of marinade is also important. A good marinade serves as a tenderizer as well as a flavoring agent. While chicken and fish do not require tenderizing, certain cuts of beef, lamb, and veal do. To maintain your cut’s moisture while it’s exposed to the high heat of the grill, make sure your marinade includes four essentials:

  1. Spices and herbs. Spices come dried; with herbs go with fresh, as they’ll add a more distinct and natural flavor. If you are using dried herbs, make sure your marinade contains at least one cup of liquid so the herbs can rehydrate.
  2. An acid food. An acidic liquid (citrus juice, vinegar, wine, beer, coffee, tea, soy sauce, even cola) must be present for the meat to tenderize.
  3. Oil. A small amount of oil will keep your meat, especially lean cuts, from drying out.
  4. Sweeteners. Honey, brown and granulated sugar, maple syrup, and/or corn sweeteners add flavor and color to your meats as they caramelize from the heat of the grill. Be careful, however: sauces and marinades with high sugar content will burn when cooked for more than 15 minutes over high heat.

Enjoy your grill and leave the Burnt Offering to our ancestors!

Sate Manis (Indonesian Skewered Meat)
Sate is the schwarma of Indonesia. Skewers of marinated meat cubes are favorite street and snack foods in Jakarta. This delicious recipe fuses Near and Far East ingredients.

1-1/2 – 2 pounds rib eye
4 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2 teaspoons ground coriander seed
2 teaspoons garlic powder (preferred for this recipe) or 2 Tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
Pepper to taste

  1. Mix together all the ingredients, except the meat, in a glass bowl.
  2. Cut the meat into 1-1/2 inch cubes and add to the bowl. Marinate for at least 1 hour (overnight is best).
  3. Skewer the meat with your choice of vegetables (I recommend wedges of onion, green pepper, cherry tomatoes, and mushroom caps).
  4. Broil over hot coals for 10–15 minutes, turning the skewers every 3 or so minutes to grill all sides, until the meat is the desired color.
  5. Serve with the accompanying sauce. Serves 4–6.

Sauce Sate Katjang (Spiced Peanut Sauce)
1/2 cup water
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 Tablespoons peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt to taste

  1. Combine the water and lemon juice.
  2. Whisk the peanut butter in a small bowl and, slowly, add as much of the lemon-water mixture as you need to make a smooth sauce. Stir in the red pepper flakes and salt.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • If you are using kosher meat, choose rib eye (chuck and shoulder are too tough). If you do not observe kashrut, try sirloin or tenderloin.
  • Always use glass when marinating food. Metal will react with the marinade and poorly flavor your meat; plastic will absorb flavors.
  • When skewering meats and vegetables, always choose as “bookends” firm vegetables such as peppers. Never use cherry tomatoes; they’ll wind up in the bottom of your grill!
  • If you plan to use some of your marinade as a glaze, make sure you set aside a portion before adding the meat (marinades dilute when mixed with meats).

Grilled Fish with Spice Rub

To create a little excitement on your grill, add a spice rub that captures the tantalizing taste of the Near East.

1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon coriander seed
1 Tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1/3 cup salted pistachio nuts
3 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon finely chopped candied ginger
1 Tablespoon sweet paprika
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon wildflower honey
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1-1/2 pounds fillet of fish, such as swordfish, halibut, tuna, or salmon, 3/4-inch thick

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a small processor work bowl. Process for 20 seconds or until a coarse paste is formed. Set aside. Alternatively, place the first 5 ingredients in a bowl or plastic bag and press with the back of a spoon or rolling pin until the contents are coarsely crushed. Add the remaining ingredients and set aside.
  2. Rinse the fish and pat dry.
  3. Placing a spoonful of spice rub in your hand, rub about 1–2 teaspoons of the spice on each side of the fish, coating well. (Be sure your spoon does not touch your hand, or you will contaminate the rest of the rub on the next spoonful.)
  4. Allow the fish to sit for 20 minutes at room temperature to absorb the flavors of the rub.
  5. Grill the fish for 3 minutes per side, or until it is firm but springy to the touch. Your herbs will turn dark, but not burn. Serves 4.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Always choose a firm fish for grilling so it won’t fall apart.
  • Never place your brush or hand into the bowl of spice rub, then onto the meat, and back to the marinade. The mixture will be contaminated, and consuming leftovers could pose a serious health risk.
  • Never let fish sit in a marinade or rub for longer than 30 minutes; otherwise the acid in the mixture will “cook” the fish, and grilling will cook the same fish twice, making it tough.
  • To avoid the smell of fish in your kitchen, remove the paper wrapped around the fish and discard immediately. Most of the time it’s the paper that’s the culprit in bad odors.

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence.


Tina will be delighted to assist you in preparing these recipes and others.


Union for Reform Judaism.