One October weekend, my husband went fishing in Maryland with his brother and brother-in-law. Sea bass were running that day, and each returned with three dozen fish. Most were medium-sized, and we ate sea bass every Monday until we turned blue in the face.
By May, only one remained – but it weighed 5 pounds. That fish was so long, it fit only by placing it diagonally across my freezer.
“What are we going to do with this monster?” I asked my husband.
“Shavuot’s coming,” he said. “Let’s barbecue it.”
“Give people grilled sea bass instead of bagels and lox?” I said. “They’ll rebel.”
“If I barbecue it, they will eat it,” he said. “You’ll see.”
Reluctantly, I decided to serve the sea bass, but only as an extra item on the menu. The day before Shavuot, I purchased smoked fish in abundance for the 20 people we had invited for brunch.
Much to my surprise, our guests relished the sea bass, leaving only the bones and the serving platter. Of course, they consumed hefty portions of bagels and lox, too, but they couldn’t stop raving about that barbecued fish.
While most American Jews celebrate Shavuot at brunch time, often serving blintzes, egg casseroles, and smoked fish, such fare is compatible with just about anything you can think of to grill.
With its link to dairy dishes, Shavuot has had a major impact on Jewish history. It began as an agricultural festival, celebrating the end of barley season and the beginning of wheat. However, by the third century, the holiday took on a more crucial meaning when it became known as the time God gave the Torah to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai.
It’s unclear why dairy foods are traditionally served at Shavuot. Over the centuries, several theories have been posited.
Some historians claim that when the Children of Israel returned to their campsite with the Torah, they were too tired and hungry to roast meat, which then was a time-consuming proposition. Other historians believe that the ancient Israelites, who had just received the laws of kashrut, needed time to kasher their utensils, and so a quick dairy meal had to suffice.
While the whiteness of milk traditionally has been compared to the purity of the Torah, it was almost inevitable, given the Jewish palate, for a dairy menu to arise, encompassing cheeses and smoked fish.
With Shavuot falling a little late this year, three days after Memorial Day, barbecue season will be in full swing. This would be the perfect year to introduce barbecued foods as a break from the holiday’s traditional menu or in addition to bagels and lox.
Although the words grilling and barbecuing have become synonymous, barbecuing technically entails slow cooking food in a pit lined with hot coals, whereas grilling is a faster method of cooking food performed on slats over a flame.
According to the History Channel Website, three out of four American households are equipped with a barbecue grill. While Jewish families have contributed to those statistics, you rarely read about Jews taking part in this great American summer ritual, especially on holidays.
During my childhood, when barbecuing was mentioned, it meant hamburgers or chicken coated with spicy red sauces. But today, due to the popularity of Mediterranean cuisine, anything and everything is grilled. Recipes abound for grilled sliced bread, tofu, fish, vegetables, and even fruit. All you need is imagination and a fire.
As Shavuot approaches, I picture the holiday falling on a spectacular sunny day with the temperature hovering around 70. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain. However, in case of inclement weather, anything that can be barbecued can be prepared inside.
With its agricultural past, Shavuot is a celebration of plants. For that reason, many Jews bring plants into their homes. But what better way to honor the spirit of the holiday than to transport people to the plants, to share a meal outdoors?
I suggest buying an azalea to use as a centerpiece. Afterward, plant it in your garden. Hopefully, it will bloom again next year, reminding you of this year’s al fresco brunch.
The day of Shavuot, cover your picnic table with a checkered tablecloth. On your terrace or deck, elect someone nimble with barbecue tongs to stand over the fire. As your guests arrive, the griller should be busy with bruschetta to serve as an hors d’oeuvre. As people nibble on the sliced bread, the next course of vegetables and fish should be placed on the grill.
The summer is long and in many parts of the country warm weather stretches past Labor Day. After Shavuot, you can continue barbecuing veggies and fish until Rosh HaShanah. By then, you’ll want to throw some meatier fare on the grill.
The recipes below were developed by Linda Morel.
Note: To avoid food from sticking, before lighting the grill, spray grid with no-stick spray.
Bruschetta (Grilled Bread)
2 to 3 jumbo-sized cloves of garlic
1 loaf of Tuscan bread, sourdough bread, or peasant bread, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil,
poured into a small bowl
Accompaniments: 1 lb. ricotta cheese, cherry tomatoes, and black olives, preferably not canned.
To start, peel garlic cloves and gently press down on them with the flat side of a chef’s knife. This will release the garlic’s flavor. With a brush, spread oil on both sides of bread slices. Rub a garlic clove on the top and bottom surface of every slice of bread.
Barbecue and indoor method: Place slices on a preheated outdoor grill or a ridged stovetop griddle on a medium flame. Grill for 2 to 5 minutes per side, or until grid marks appear on bread. Remove bread from heat and immediately rub both sides of each slice with garlic again. Cut large slices into 2 to 3 pieces. Serve immediately with accompaniments. Yield: 15 to 20 pieces of bread.
2 lbs. asparagus
Olive oil for drizzling
Kosher salt to taste
To start, place asparagus spears on a platter. Snap off fibrous ends and discard. Drizzle spears with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt.
Barbecue method: On a medium flame, place asparagus at right angles to grill top, so spears don’t fall into the fire. Barbecue spears for 5 minutes per side, about 10 minutes in all, until they’re crunchy brown. Serve immediately.
Oven method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Move asparagus to an ovenproof pan coated with no-stick spray. Roast asparagus, turning spears every few minutes, until spears are crunchy brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately. Yield: 6 servings.
4 wooden or metal skewers
16 small white mushrooms
(cut larger mushrooms in half)
1 yellow pepper, cut into
2 medium zucchini, cut into
slices 1/2-inch thick
1 red pepper, cut into 1-inch squares
1/2 cup olive oil, or more, if needed
Kosher salt to taste
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
No-stick spray, if using
To start, using skewers, pierce through the center of a mushroom, yellow pepper square, zucchini slice, and a red pepper square. Press them together tightly on skewer. Continue filling skewers in the same way, until vegetable pieces are gone. Leave an inch at each end of the skewer for handling. Place skewers on a platter. Drizzle vegetables with olive oil. Sprinkle evenly with kosher salt, garlic powder, and dried oregano.
Barbecue method: On a medium flame, place skewers at right angle to grill top so they don’t fall into the fire. After 5 minutes, turn skewers with flame retardant mitts, especially when handling metal skewers, which conduct heat. Grill for another 5 minutes or until vegetables brown. Peppers may blacken at edges. Serve immediately.
Oven method: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Coat a 10-by-15-inch ovenproof pan with no-stick spray. Arrange skewers in pan and place in oven. Use oven mitts to turn skewers after 20 minutes, and roast for another 20 minutes. Roast until vegetables brown on the outside. Peppers may blacken at edges. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 servings.
Grilled sea bass
2 lbs. sea bass
1 tbs. kosher salt
2 tbs. ground cumin
1 tbs. ground curry
2 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper
4 tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp. balsamic vinegar
To start, tell the fishmonger to clean the fish, keeping the head, tail, bones, and skin attached – you want a whole fish. At home, rinse the fish under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Place remaining ingredients (except no-stick spray) in a bowl, stirring to make a paste. Coat fish inside and out with the paste. Place fish in a plastic bag and refrigerate for 4 hours.
Barbecue method: Spray grill with no-stick spray before lighting fire. Place fish on preheated grill. Turn after 7 minutes and barbecue for another 7 minutes, or until fish skin browns and inside is cooked through. Test for doneness by inserting a knife between bones at the spine. If the fish flakes, it is ready.
Oven method: Preheat broiler. Coat broiler pan with no-stick spray. Place fish on prepared pan and move to the broiler. Every five minutes, remove fish from broiler and turn it using 2 non-metallic spatulas. Broil for a total of 20 minutes or until skin is crunchy brown and inside is cooked through. To test for doneness, remove fish from the boiler. Insert a knife between the bones at the spine. If the fish flakes, it is ready.