Although the cuisines might seem totally different, one thing that Israeli and American cooks have in common is a shared love of barbecue. The Memorial Day holiday marks the official beginning of barbecue season stateside, but the Israeli climate allows for outdoor grilling pretty much all year long. And believe me, they do.
The first thing you may notice about an Israeli barbecue is that the grills look different than the typical backyard American rig. The narrow steel troughs are deep enough to hold smoldering coals and narrow enough to lay skewers of meat across the top, from front to back. And instead of the adjustable vents that control airflow to the coals, you will see the cook fanning the coals with a torn piece of cardboard or other improvised apparatus.
There is no comparison between grilling over coals versus gas. Charcoal allows for a high heat that few gas grills can match, and when it comes to grilling, it’s all about the char. In addition, when the fat melts away and sizzles onto the hot coals below, the smoke and concentrated vapors perfume the meat with an intoxicating aroma.
Fortunately, the grill at Zahav is not just for meat. Every year, we’re welcoming more vegetarian guests, and so we’re challenged to develop dishes that don’t rely on animal protein. One of the great advantages of cooking over coals is the extra dimension of flavor and, well, meatiness that the intense heat and smoke of the grill brings to a vegetable party.
• Use metal skewers instead of wood. Because you are working with high heat, the wood skewers (even if soaked in water) tend to burn. Also keep in mind that the metal skewers will heat up and to use mitts to protect yourself when removing them from the grill.
• Use charcoal instead of wood for vegetables. Using wood can create a strong smoky flavor, which works great for meats and chicken, but with vegetables you want the delicate flavors to shine through.
• If you are hungry, forgo the potato on the grill. A grilled potato can take up to an hour to cook properly. Instead try asparagus, zucchini or baby onions, which grill quickly and taste great.
• To give your grilled vegetables an Israeli flavor, season them with Za’atar — a blend of Middle Eastern herbs including oregano, thyme and savory.
Grilled Eggplant with Tahina and Pistachio
1⁄3 cup salt
4 cups water
4 large Chinese eggplants, peeled
2 Tbsps. smoked paprika
1 Tbsp. turmeric
Herb Tahina Ingredients:
1⁄2 cup picked parsley
1⁄2 cup picked cilantro
1 cup raw tahina
salt to taste
1 tsp. lemon
1 clove garlic, zested
2⁄3 cup water
1⁄2 cup chopped pistachio (garnish)
For the brine: Whisk salt into water until dissolved.
Peel eggplant and cut into 3- inch pieces. Place eggplant in brine for two hours.
Using a charcoal grill, heat for an hour until charcoal turns to embers and is very hot.
Remove eggplant from brine. Combine paprika and turmeric and sprinkle over eggplant pieces. Skewer each eggplant piece, lengthwise, onto a metal skewer.
Lightly oil your grill, so that the eggplant doesn’t stick. Place each skewer on the grill, cooking each side of the eggplant for about three minutes until lightly charred and tender. Remove from grill.
To make tahina: Combine raw tahina, lemon juice, water, garlic and salt in mixing bowl. Whisk until smooth. In a blender, combine parsley and cilantro with a little water. Once blended, add tahina mixture and season with salt.
To plate, remove eggplant pieces from the skewers, place on a plate and drizzle with tahina, then sprinkle with pistachios.
Grilled Royal Trumpet Mushrooms
1 lb. royal trumpet mushrooms, trimmed and split in half
1⁄2 onion, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 Tbsp. salt
1 tsp. ground allspice
1⁄3 cup canola oil
Place all ingredients into a blender and puree until smooth.
Toss mushrooms in marinade and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Using charcoal (not wood) in your grill, heat the charcoal for an hour, until it turns to embers and is very hot.
Place mushrooms on a metal skewer and grill mushrooms, turning once, until lightly charred — about 3 minutes.
Steven Cook, co-creator of Zahav and other local restaurants, writes a monthly column for the Exponent.