Lag Baomer is a night devoted to bonfires throughout Israel in celebration of the mystic light of the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Of course, as Jews, we’ll use anything as an excuse to eat. In this case, the evening turns into a bonfire cookout for the family. While “hot dog on a stick” might suffice for the younger kids, a little creativity and planning can go a long way to making this celebration a culinary treat for the grown ups as well.
Bonfire cooking can be dangerous. It involves cooking over an open, uncontrolled fire. That being said, take the necessary precautions and no one will get hurt. Bring tongs, oven mitts, and water to the bonfire. Don’t try to cook in a bonfire five feet tall. Build a smaller cooking fire off to the side.
A bonfire has two cooking zones. The first is the flames, where hot dogs and marshmallows are usually found – no doubt being tortured at the end of a dubiously clean stick. The second is at the base of the bonfire. This zone can range in temperature from furnace to kiln. Potatoes are rolled into the bonfire to be retrieved some time later when they have suffered enough.
Skewers are made of wood or metal. The metal ones need no preparation, apart from a good cleaning. If you’re in the market for metal skewers, spend a little extra on the broad, flat ones; the skinny ones just let the food slide off.
For wooden skewers, you have to soak them first. Why? Because wood burns. Take a loaf pan and put the skewers in, then force them to be submerged with an overturned mug or heavy butter knife. Leave them overnight.
On A Stick
Skewering food is a fast and time-honored way of cooking food found in cuisines throughout the world. While the classic Western cuisines graduated to full-size spit-roasted hunks of meat versus the quicker, bite-sized versions of more Oriental cuisines, they’re rooted in the same cooking technique.
Chicken Satay – try this recipe for something a little more interesting.
Salmon Fennel Kabobs – Alternate cubes of salmon and fennel heart wedges.
Chalumi Cheese, Red Peppers, and Onions – Alternate skewers of cheese, peppers and onions. Season with sumac. Who says everything has to be meat?
Lemon Chicken and Avocado – Use a marinade of oil, salt and lemon juice to baste the skewers while they’re cooking.
Roasting Peppers – Skewer them from stem to point and roast until charred.
On A Grate/Grill
Obviously someone’s come prepared. Make sure the pyromaniacs are at the bigger bonfire. Support the grill over stable rocks, or better yet, cinder blocks. With a grill, you’re ready to cook pretty much anything. The best thing, of course, would be a metal pot full of coffee, especially for the adults who have to stay up watching the kids.
In The Fire
Aside from potatoes, you can wrap up and roll sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, eggplant and even beets into the fire. Poke holes in potatoes and eggplants so they don’t burst. Use tin foil to wrap them, and drizzle them with oil. You can season with salt, pepper, cumin, hot paprika, and fresh or dried herbs.
In A Pan
Put your whole meal into a disposable tin and wrap it tightly with foil. If you don’t cover it, you’ll be eating flecks of whatever the kids are throwing into the fire to make it burn. You might not get that much smoky flavor, but you won’t be eating who-knows-what either. Label it too, especially if you’re at a public bonfire, so you know which pan is yours.
Sausage with White Beans and Onions – Slice the raw sausage, use canned white beans, and cover with slivered onions.
Beer Braised Chicken with Mashed Potatoes – Cut chicken into smaller pieces, stir-fry style. Pour beer into pan, add chicken and mashed potatoes.
Salmon with black beans and corn – Use canned beans and corn, sprinkle everything with chili powder.
In A Pot
A stew pot hanging over a fire might be a little too Western for you, but there’s no coincidence that it works well over an open fire. The good news is that they sell cast iron pots called “poykes” (from the South African potjekos) in sizes large and small all over the place in Israel. All you need to do is fill it with vegetables, meat (#2, #8, and #9 work best), beer and spices, and let it sit in or over the fire “for a spell.”