- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MOSCOW — With the first sun of spring, out come the shashlik grills for Russian balconies andbackyards. Shashlik in Moscow is like pizza in New York — it’s everywhere, from street stands to high-end restaurants. In the children’s park, there’s even a mobile shashlik stove dressed up as a toy train.

Shashlik are kebabs, Russian style. They probably arrived from Georgia in the 19th century, and the name derives from shashka, meaning sword. My son Simon and I are lined up at the shashlik stand in the Izmailova craft market in the outskirts of Moscow. An hour or more of resisting the blandishments of tourist trinkets has made us hungry. A savory aroma wafts over the surrounding stalls. “Come on,” Simon says, “time to eat.”

The choice is simple. A long, smoking grill stretching at least 100 yards displays mighty 16-inch skewers hefting a half pound or more of meat. These are the Cadillacs of kebabs. The traditional meat is lamb, with beef a close second, followed by pork and, more recently, by chicken. Rich, meaty sturgeon is fast becoming a luxury because of overfishing, so salmon has become an everyday alternative.

The meat or fish has been marinating overnight in a simple mix of olive oil and red wine (white wine and lemon for salmon) and chopped onion. Some cooks add a sprinkling of chopped herbs such as bay leaf, thyme or dill, with warm spices such as dried coriander and cumin; paprika and cayenne are particularly good with fish.

To tenderize chicken breast or tough cuts of lamb, yogurt may be added. I note that the skewers contain only meat, no vegetables. “Russian-style shashlik are simple, just the meat itself,” Simon says. “You’ll occasionally see skewers of mixed vegetables, but it’s not classic.”

The smoke is agreeably perfumed with charcoal, the universal fuel in a land where barbecue briquettes are regarded as an inferior Western fad. So are barbecue sauces. At Izmailova, the kebabs are simply rotated over the heat as they cook, no basting needed after the lengthy marinade except an occasional douse of wine and water to put out the occasional flame. Ten minutes, and a shashlik is done - charcoal packs a powerful heat.

Accompaniments are equally simple. Simon and I pick up tubs of diced fresh cucumber and tomato (no dressing), and boiled potatoes. A couple of homemade sauces come on the side, one a tomato sauce reminiscent of ketchup but more fruity and the other an Uzbek-style sweet-tart syrup called nasharab, which is based on pomegranate juice. The bread is delicious, freshly baked flat rounds with a puffy, chewy finish echoing Indian naan.

At home, grilling shashlik is a man’s job. In subzero temperatures with snow on the ground, the fire often will be lit under a simple iron grill perched on a few bricks. The charcoal takes a good hour to heat, giving time to launch the festivities with beer or shots of vodka all around. Even more traditional is a glass of kvass, an ancient drink made from fermented bread. In the kitchen, the women of the house are responsible for marinating the meat and boiling the potatoes. And of course for cleaning up - from Moscow to Miami, some things stay the same.

Shashlik pomegranate sauce

Pomegranate juice is available in groceries and on the Internet. Serve pomegranate sauce with grilled lamb and chicken.

Makes about 1 cup sauce to serve 6.

1 quart unsweetened pomegranate juice

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Salt

Simmer pomegranate juice with garlic, chili powder and sugar in a medium saucepan until reduced to about 1 cup, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir in cilantro. Let cool, and season to taste with salt.

Piquant tomato sauce

Vinegar adds an edge to this fruity tomato sauce. Serve it like ketchup with grilled meats.

Makes 2 cups sauce to serve 6.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tablespoons ground coriander

2 teaspoon paprika

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes

2 tablespoons red wine

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the onion and garlic over medium heat until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the coriander and paprika and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Core the tomatoes and cut in chunks. Add the tomatoes, including seeds, to onion mixture with wine, vinegar, salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until the mixture is thick but still falls from the spoon, 30 to 40 minutes.

Let sauce cool slightly, then work it through a food mill or sieve, working to extract pulp as well as juice. If sauce is thin, return it to a saucepan and simmer, stirring often, until it is thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Piquant tomato sauce can be refrigerated for a week or frozen.

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