Chef Column: Kebab — skewered & grilled to perfection

JOHN MILLER PHOTO | skewered meats

“That evening, Alexi took me to a fancy nightclub. It reminded me of the Persian Room at New York’s Plaza Hotel. The head waiter, resplendent in black and gold brocade, led us to red plush seats around a gleaming brass table with a good view of the stage. His underlings, dressed like Sinbad, paraded in and out of the kitchen with skewers of flaming shish kebab, borne as if they were triumphal torches … ”

“Memories of Cairo” (1964)
by Diana Farr Louis

I have memories of going out to a fancy restaurant in 1964 and seeing “flaming shish kebab” on the menu. At the time it seemed exotic, as we were just learning that there was more to food than meatloaf, iceberg lettuce and Jell-O.

The notion of putting meat on a skewer and placing it over a fire goes back to antiquity, especially in ancient Persia and Armenia, where nomadic tribes rode camels, lived in tents and cooked over open fires. In modern America the tradition of skewered meat has lived on and prospered due to the backyard barbecue. Ancient cultures would marinate the meat to cover up some of the strong gamey flavor. We marinate the meat to tenderize and add pleasing flavors.

Skewering vegetables such as peppers, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms along with chunks of meat adds color and texture and reduces the need for large amounts of meat. When these skewered foods are placed on healthy grains, they make a complete meal that is simple, healthy and delicious. Here are a few examples:

Armenian Shish Kebab
Trim all the fat, skin and gristle from a boneless leg of lamb weighing about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds. Cut the meat into 2-inch chunks and place in a bowl. Combine 1/2 cup olive oil, the zest and juice of one lemon, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary, 2 bay leaves and 1 teaspoon each of coarse salt and pepper. Toss with the lamb chunks and refrigerate overnight. Soak wooden skewers in water overnight to prevent burning.
Cut one green pepper and one red pepper into 2-inch strips and cut the strips into squares. Cut one large red onion into quarters and separate into pieces. Trim one package of mushrooms by cutting off the stems. Remove the stems from 1/2 pound of cherry tomatoes. If desired, thaw out one package of frozen artichoke hearts. Place the meat on skewers, leaving a little room between each piece. Place the vegetables on skewers, keeping them separate by type (put all the mushrooms together, etc.).
As a base for the grilled kebabs, make a red wine barley risotto: Sauté 2 cups chopped onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in 2 cups quartered crimini mushrooms and continue to cook on high heat until mushrooms are brown and have released their juices. Stir in 1/2 cup pearl barley and continue to cook until barley begins to brown. Add 1 cup red wine and continue to stir until it almost evaporates. Add a sprig of fresh rosemary and ladle about 3 cups vegetable broth into the barley in batches, one ladle at a time. Let it cook, uncovered, between additions, allowing the liquid to evaporate. When barley becomes tender, but retaining a little bite to it, remove from the heat and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
Grill the skewered meat on a charcoal grill while the risotto is cooking. Brush the skewered vegetables with olive oil and season with sea salt. Grill them when the meat is finished, being careful not to overcook.
To serve, place the barley risotto on a large platter. Remove the meat from the skewers and place on the barley. Remove the vegetables from the skewers and place in separate piles around the meat. Garnish with rosemary, chopped parsley and lemon wedges.
Serves 4-6.

Russian Shashlik
Trim all fat, skin and gristle from 2 pounds of boneless pork loin (or pork tenderloin) and cut into 2-inch chunks. Prepare a marinade by combining 1 cup pomegranate juice, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1 cup chopped onion, 2 tablespoons minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Toss the marinade with the meat and refrigerate overnight. Soak wooden skewers overnight to prevent burning. The next day, skewer meat and vegetables as for the above Armenian shish kebab.
Before grilling meat and vegetables, prepare a kasha pilaf by beating one egg in a bowl and stirring in 1 cup buckwheat kasha. Add 2 cups chicken broth to a saucepan and bring to a boil. In a separate large sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter and add 1 cup chopped onion, 1 cup chopped carrot and 1 cup chopped celery. Cook until vegetables are soft and add the kasha/egg mixture. Continue to cook, breaking up the kasha so that it separates itself. Pour the boiling broth over the kasha and cook for one minute. Turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper and fluff it up before serving.
Grill the meat and vegetables and serve over the kasha on a large platter.
Serves 4-6.

Moroccan Beef Brochette
Trim all fat and gristle from 2 pounds of sirloin steak, cut into 2-inch chunks and set aside. Make a marinade by combining 1/2 cup red wine, 3 sliced scallions, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, the zest and juice of one lemon, 2 tablespoons curry powder, 1 tablespoon minced ginger, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon each sea salt and pepper. Toss the marinade with the steak and refrigerate 2 hours or up to 24 hours. Soak wooden skewers overnight. Skewer and grill meat and vegetables as for the Armenian shish kebab above.
Prepare whole-wheat couscous by boiling 1 cup lightly salted water and adding 1 1/4 cups couscous. Remove from the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Dice 1/2 cup red onion, slice 2 scallions, chop 1/4 cup cilantro, cut up 5 dried apricots, measure out 1/2 cup currants and zest one lemon and squeeze out the juice. Toss these ingredients with the couscous in a large bowl, fluffing up the couscous. Check for seasoning and serve on a large platter with the grilled meat and vegetables.
Serves 4-6.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].