Grilled skewers make great Lag b’Omer fare. (photo from pixabay.com)
Lag b’Omer, which this year starts on the eve of April 29, is not mentioned in the Torah. The holiday isn’t mentioned anywhere, actually, until the 13th century, and no particular foods are associated with it.
The Torah does command us to begin counting the Omer on the second night of Passover. Omer, which means sheaf, was a measure of grain from the new barley harvest cutting, brought to the Temple on the 16th of Nissan. Fifty days later is Shavuot. Thus, the counting of the Omer provides a bridge between the Israelites being freed and receiving the laws. The seven-week period is a period of mourning, when observant Jews do not shave or get haircuts and when there are no marriages or public festivities.
The respite is Lag b’Omer. Lag is a combination of the Hebrew letters lamed, which stands for the number 30, and gimmel, which stands for the number three. The 33rd day of counting the Omer commemorates the time when students of the second century’s Rabbi Akiva, who supported Bar Kochba’s rebellion against the Romans, were struck with a plague. On this day, it stopped.
Most Jewish holidays feature different symbolic foods. In Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, Lag b’Omer barely gets a mention, as “a time for picnicking” – she suggests roast chicken, eggplant salad, German potato salad, Moroccan carrot salad, fresh fruit and cookies. Of all my many Jewish and Israeli cookbooks, the only one that devotes an entire chapter to Lag b’Omer food is A Taste of Tradition by Ruth Sirkis. She says the bonfires mark the beginning of the outdoor cooking season and recommends pickle dip, tehina, mini relish trays, mixed grill (kebab and shashlik), pita, baked potatoes, baked corn, fruit and lemonade.
Here are three tips for grilling on a skewer: flat or square skewers will keep the food from revolving; if you spray the grill before cooking, foods will not stick; and partially cook vegetables before threading on a skewer, so foods cook in the same amount of time.
And here are a few recipes.
MEAT AND POTATOES SHASHLIK
2 pounds cubed beef
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp cilantro or parsley
12 small red or white potatoes
2 small onions, quartered
- In a plastic bag, combine balsamic vinegar, oil, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and meat. Close and let marinate two hours or, if refrigerated, up to eight hours.
- Place potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook for 15 minutes. Drain and place in a bowl.
- Pour some marinade into the bowl of potatoes and toss.
- Thread six skewers, alternating meat cube, potato, meat cube, onion quarter, meat cube, potato, meat cube. Thread the remaining potatoes and onions on extra skewers.
- Grill skewers three inches from the heat for five minutes on each side (for medium rare), more for well-cooked, basting with marinade before turning.
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
3 pounds cubed lamb
2 red bell peppers
2 green peppers
2 quartered onions
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
- Place olive oil, vinegar, garlic, mustard and lamb in a plastic bag, close, shake and set aside.
- Core and seed peppers, cut into one-by-two-inch pieces. Add to marinade along with mushrooms. Place in refrigerator at least four hours.
- Place onion quarters on a plate and brush with some of the marinade. Thread meat on skewers, alternating with vegetables and allowing three pieces of lamb per skewer. Grill three inches from the heat for five minutes per side for medium rare, brushing with marinade when turning.
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp basil or oregano or Italian seasoning
2 quartered red onions
1 red (or yellow) pepper cut in 1.5-inch strips
1 green pepper cut in 1.5-inch strips
4 halved plum tomatoes or 8 cherry tomatoes
4 squash cut in half-inch pieces
1 eggplant cut in half-inch pieces
- In a plastic bag, combine olive oil, wine vinegar, garlic, mustard and spices. Add vegetables, close bag, toss and let marinate at least three hours.
- Using one skewer for each vegetable, thread onto skewers allowing half an inch between each. Grill three inches from the heat source for three to five minutes, carefully turning. Place marinade in a bowl. Slide vegetables off skewers into marinade and toss.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.