On the Fire-How to Grill Like an Israeli
Cooking with live fire has been happening since the beginning of mankind as we know it. And for good reason-there’s something deeply satisfying about sticking a piece of meat on a hot grill and listening to it sizzle. It also tastes really freakin’ good. Now every culture has their own way of barbecuing, but it’s the Israelis who do it best. Instead of drowning their meats in sweet and spicy sauces, the idea is to let the flavor of the meat shine. Also, the choice of protein is unfamiliar because of kashrut (kosher eating laws). No pork or shellfish means no slow-cooked ribs or grilled shrimp. But before panicking, hear me out when I say that barbecue need not be a painstakingly slow activity.
Because Israel is such a young and turbulent country, the way that the locals grill is quick and dirty. Instead of having a big fancy gas grill in the backyard, it is common to utilize a quick disposable apparatus and set it up on the side of the road or in the forest during a hike. Since most people don’t want to spend three hours on the side of the road waiting for meat to tenderize, the cuts of beef, chicken, or lamb are much different. When electing to use chicken, the wings and hearts are king. Economical and easily adaptable, these are delicious options with which to feed a large family. Lamb is used from the head to the tail in the form of kofte, which is essentially an herbaceous slider. The ground lamb is gently tossed with onion, garlic, and a generous amount of cilantro, parsley, and mint, then shaped into thick patties. Beef is less commonly used since it is more costly and usually of poorer quality, but the most common and fanciest cut is entrecôte, a variation on a ribeye. It is a rarity to find other cuts of steak unless you run around fancy restaurants, where a t-bone might run you up to a hundred bucks.
Now I knew exactly none of these things when I came to Israel, and I learned to grill in this fashion in the most undignified ways. But enough undercooked chicken wings and dense kofte later and I became a perfectly respectable griller. That is, until my good friend Almog (who also makes the world’s best sourdough) invited my partner and I to dinner. We showed up with a bottle of wine, knowing that good times were to be had. As we walked in the door, we were met with the usual flurry of information from Almog’s partner, Efrat. Almog was outside setting up the grill, there was home-brewed beer in the fridge, did I want to smoke something…and so on so forth. My ears perked up at the thought of all these things. What a fabulous way to be welcomed into a home.
So my partner and I headed outside to see Almog hard at work. What we saw was mind boggling. He had a series of piles of meat waiting to be cooked off, but his grill was maybe eighteen inches long. The geometry just wasn’t working. But knowing that this man made the best sourdough east of San Francisco on just one tiny countertop, I knew he could be trusted to make miracles happen. So I watched while he shuffled around skewers of chicken hearts and strips of lamb fat, stacks of wings and shashlik with a local Goldstar beer in hand and three empty bottles on the grass.
I had previously sampled all of the meat cuts except the lamb fat and was curious-this product is generally unpleasantly greasy and creates a film around the lips that’s quite difficult to remove. But not this one. What Almog had prepared was essentially a crispy fat bomb. I could have eaten those all night. Still, there was so much more to come. While Efrat and I set up shop in the kitchen to prepare side dishes, the smoke from the grill was traveling through the window to our noses. This was unfortunately not great because our eyes started to tear up, making knife work more than slightly hazardous.
I went outside periodically to visit the guys who were hard at work playing caveman. The technique to keep all that meat piping hot was rudimentary-simply pile it in a large dutch oven and stick it on the corner of the already overloaded grill. But the visits also served to sample the gorgeous meal that was to come. I was handed chicken hearts and bits of wings, my favorite. Oftentimes chicken hearts are overcooked and dry, but these were lush and juicy and seasoned with just the right number of salt crystals.
An hour later and the dutch oven was ceremoniously brought to the dining table along with the sides that Efrat and I had worked to make. Though delicious, I was happy to agree with Almog that they didn’t compete with the gorgeous meat that we were about to devour. To be completely honest, I have a vague memory of green beans and Israeli salad, though a few other dishes must have been present. All of the meats were scrumptious, cooked perfectly and with a skill set that is hard to beat. Still, though I found the meal very enjoyable, especially with the generous pours of scotch that concluded it, the culinary highlight of the evening really was snacking on lamb fat bombs with my eyes tearing up from meat smoke.