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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Oil . A small amount of oil will keep your meat, especially lean cuts, from drying out.
- 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!