Grilling food on sticks is one of the most primal and satisfying ways to cook dinner in the summer — frankly, any time you are willing to cook outside — and is a particular Fourth of July favorite.
We're talking here about kebabs, or as you might find them spelled, kebobs, kabobs or shish kebabs. And depending on where you are in the world, you might be talking about pinchos, sate or yakitori.
Kebabs can be made from many kinds of meat, seafood, fish, poultry or vegetables, or a combination thereof. Once everything is all skewered up, the cooking process is usually relatively fast. That's because the food you’re cooking has been cut into small pieces.
There is also a world of ground-meat kebabs out there, which might be called koftas, brochettes or seekh kebabs. These are ground meat molded onto skewers, and they are delicious.
The meat varies from culture to culture, as do the spices and seasonings. In all cases, make sure your grill is well oiled so they don’t stick.
Metal skewers are studier, reusable and flameproof. They do get quite hot on the grill though, so need to be handled with care. If you're using disposable wooden or bamboo skewers, buy ones that are at least 12 inches long, and soak them in water for at least 30 minutes to prevent them from catching on fire.
Either way, look for skewers that have slightly flat prongs (the stick or blade part), which makes it easier to turn them without the food spinning on the stick.
For meat, choose a cut that is tender and takes well to a fast sear. Don’t grab a package of stewing meat, such as chuck or brisket, because those need long, slow cooking to reach tenderness.
If you're using beef, filet or tenderloin offer the most tender kebabs. For pork, use cubed, thick pork chops or tenderloin meat, not shoulder, butt or any of the longer-cooking, tougher cuts. For lamb, look for shoulder or leg meat, and for chicken you can use either dark or white meat, with white needing a slightly shorter cooking time.
For seafood, make sure the pieces are big enough to get a bit of color on the outside without overcooking throughout. For instance, bay scallops are too small to easily skewer, and will cook so quickly they won’t take on much flavor from the grill. Larger sea scallops allow for a bit of browning while the inside remains creamy and tender. Same with shrimp – choose shrimp that are jumbo (16/20 per pound) or larger.
Some cooks like to alternate meat and vegetables on the same skewers. The biggest advantage of this is visual appeal. However, different types of vegetables cook at different rates, and definitely at different rates than various meats and seafood. So choose items that will be cooked to your liking at roughly the same time.
Keeping things separate means you can tailor the cooking time to the specific type of food on the skewer.
As for the size of your skewered foods, larger items will take longer to cook, but in general stay more tender inside. Smaller items will cook faster and have more browned surface area.
Most meat should be cut into pieces about 1 1/2-inches large; keep in mind the meat will shrink a bit as it cooks.
How tightly should you pack your skewers? Separating the items a bit allows them to cook faster and get more caramelization on more sides. However, pressing the foods up against each other will ensure more juiciness in your meats.
Turn your skewers frequently when cooking so that all sides get nice grill marks.
Often, kebab recipes include a marinade to deepen the flavor and keep the foods tender as they cook. You can marinate proteins like chicken and meat, as well as vegetables, for up to one day before kebabbing them. Fish and seafood should only marinate for a few hours, as they might start to turn mushy, especially if there is acid in the marinade. If time is a factor, just toss everything with the marinade before grilling.
Most kebabs are best cooked over direct medium-high or high heat. Make sure your grill grates are clean, hot, and brushed with oil before you start grilling.
And if outdoor grilling isn't in the cards, make your kebabs inside on a grill pan or in the broiler.
Recipe for Greek Lamb Kebabs
If you double the marinade, you could also marinate some chunks of red onion, zucchini and summer squash separately. Stick the onions on a couple of skewers, the squash on some more skewers, and cook those alongside the meat. The onions should take about 10 minutes on the grill, the squash 7 to 8. This makes for a pretty presentation, especially when served up with a Greek Orzo Salad.
¼ cup olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/8 teaspoon (big pinch) cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 pounds boneless lamb leg or shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
Garnish (optional): Fresh oregano sprigs, lemon wedges, chopped fresh parsley
To Serve: Tzatziki (store-bought or homemade)
Place the olive oil, onion, garlic, lemon juice, oregano, thyme, cayenne, and salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl and stir to combine, or place the ingredients in a food processor and blend to puree. Add the lamb cubes and toss to coat well. Cover and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours.
Soak 10 12-inch wooden skewers in water to cover for 30 minutes. If you're using metal skewers, they don't need soaking.
Thread the skewers with the lamb. Discard the remaining marinade.
Heat an outdoor grill to high, or heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill the kebabs 4 inches from the heat source, for about 8 minutes total for medium rare, turning them every few minutes to get nice grill marks on most sides of the meat. Or sear them for the same amount of time in the hot grill pan.
Transfer to a serving platter, and garnish with the oregano sprigs and lemon wedges, if desired.Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with the tzatziki.
Katie Workman writes regularly about food for The Associated Press. She has written two cookbooks focused on family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” She blogs at https://themom100.com/. She can be reached at Katie@themom100.com.
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Katie Workman, The Associated Press