- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

With the great interest in grilling equipment, Americans’ barbecue horizons have widened. A glance at the meat cases in supermarkets reveals that kebabs have become nearly as popular as burgers on our summer menus.

In the United States, beef is by far the meat of choice for kebabs. Select the finest and most tender cuts for best results. My top pick is the flavorful, well-marbled rib-eye, but the tenderloin also makes terrific kebabs.

Some credit the Turks with coming up with the kebab formula, while others claim they were an Armenian invention. Either way, these meat morsels grilled on skewers are ever-present throughout the Middle East.

The word kebab comes from Turkish, and indeed, Turkish grill masters have turned kebab making into a fine art, creating sumptuous entrees such as pistachio-studded lamb kebabs, which I enjoyed at Develi restaurant in Istanbul. Persians are equally proud of their kebabs, enhancing them with saffron-laced marinades and basting them with butter as they cook.

On Tel Aviv’s kebab street, one eatery after another features these skewered entrees.

Among the most seductive are the ones holding foie gras, rich goose or duck liver.

It takes special talent to grill it just right, without allowing the precious pieces of meat to melt and fall into the fire.

Kebab terminology can be confusing. When Americans talk of kebabs, we mean skewered meat in small chunks, but if you order Kubideh kebabs at an Iranian restaurant or kofta kebabs from a Turkish menu, don’t be surprised if your entree resembles skewered skinless sausages or meatballs. In the Middle East, kebab can refer to meat that is either ground or cut in pieces.

People say shishlik or shish kebab to specify cubes or strips of meat.

The ultimate kebab could be the Turkish doner kebab: a huge, cone-shaped piece of meat on a vertical skewer. Such large roasts are known as shawarma in most of the Middle East and gyros in Greece.

Actually, they are made not from a single hunk of meat, but from pressed, thick meat slices or from ground meat, including lamb, beef, chicken, turkey or veal. In the Middle East, these impressive, revolving megakebabs are popular as street foods and in restaurants. Their pungent perfume pulls passers-by toward them. When you order some, the vendor slices the savory meat straight into your pita bread.

Although shawarma grills are available by mail order, shish kebab is a much more practical choice for the home cook and is much more quickly prepared. In fact, it can be ready in minutes.

A marinade is traditional for kebabs of all sizes. For premium cuts, the marinade serves not to tenderize, but to flavor the meat. If you’re in a rush, marinate the meat just briefly while you’re firing up the barbecue.

In the Middle East, the components are similar to those in salad dressing: olive oil, salt, pepper, usually lemon juice and often garlic or onion.

Some marinades include herbs or spices, notably thyme, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or cayenne.

Brochettes, as the French call kebabs, can be beautiful when onions, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables are alternated on the skewers with the meat.

Yet many people in the Middle East grill vegetables separately because the cooking times are different. In Turkey, I often found a small, grilled semihot pepper, like a skinny relative of the Anaheim chili, on my kebab plate. The lively flavor was the perfect counterpoint to the rich meat.

Lamb shish kebabs with garlic marinade

These kebabs can be made with beef tenderloin or rib-eye steak instead of lamb. If using bamboo skewers, soak them in cold water for 30 minutes before grilling so they won’t burn, and cover the ends with foil.

Many cooks use flat skewers so the meat pieces don’t roll around when the kebabs are turned.

Serve as an appetizer on salad greens or as an entree in pita bread or with rice pilaf.

On the side, serve sliced onion, chopped cilantro and your favorite hot sauce and, if you like, lemon wedges or Middle Eastern sumac powder for a tart accent.

2 pounds boneless leg of lamb, well-trimmed

2 tablespoons strained, fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large garlic cloves, crushed

1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

teaspoon ground pepper, plus more for kebabs

Cayenne pepper

1 or 2 medium onions, cut in 1-inch squares, optional (see note)


2 green, red or yellow bell peppers cut in 1-inch squares, optional (see note)

8 to 12 small tomatoes, optional (see note)

Cut meat in 1-inch cubes. In a shallow dish large enough to hold the meat, combine lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, oregano, teaspoon ground pepper and cayenne pepper to taste.

Add meat cubes and mix well. Cover and marinate for 2 hours or overnight in refrigerator, or simply marinate while the grill is heating.

If adding vegetables, quarter onions and separate each quarter into layers. Remove meat from marinade; discard marinade. Sprinkle meat with salt and pepper to taste.

Thread meat on skewers. If adding vegetables, alternate meat cubes with bell pepper pieces, onions and tomatoes.

Heat barbecue or broiler with rack about 4 inches from heat source or heat-ridged stove-top grill. Grill or broil kebabs, turning them a few times, about 6 minutes for medium rare or until meat is cooked to your taste. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Instead of threading vegetables onto skewers, you can grill 2 to 4 whole Anaheim chilies for a few minutes to serve with the meat. Serve the chilies whole or cut into strips.

To grill Anaheim chilies, heat grill or broiler with rack 2 to 3 inches from heat source. Grill or broil chilies until skins are blistered and slightly charred but chilies are still firm, about 10 minutes, turning them every 3 minutes.

Put chilies in a plastic bag and close bag. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel peppers using paring knife.


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