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Stick ’em up

Kebabs are the perfect food for late-summer grillers

Grilled Lamb Kebabs in Yogurt draws upon time-honored treatments from Turkey, the Middle East and India, using yogurt to tenderize and flavor the lamb. Illustrates BBQ (category d), by Jim Shahin, special to The Washington Post.  Moved Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.)

Grilled Lamb Kebabs in Yogurt draws upon time-honored treatments from Turkey, the Middle East and India, using yogurt to tenderize and flavor the lamb. Illustrates BBQ (category d), by Jim Shahin, special to The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.)

If early summer is asparagus season and midsummer is peak for tomatoes, then late summer is prime time for food-on-a-stick. State fairs are in full bloom, and that is where skewered cuisine is at its ripest.

Cosmopolitan fairgoers nibbled caprese salad on a stick at the just-concluded Iowa State Fair. Exotica seekers sampled kangaroo on a stick at the New York State Fair. Barbecue lovers at the upcoming Kansas State Fair will devour “moink balls,” smoked and sauced bacon-wrapped meatballs. The Minnesota State Fair offers more than 75 varieties of stick food, including Key lime pie and something called Minnesota Music on a Stick, whatever that might be.

While state fair sticks are a fun diversion, for backyard cooks the most common form of impaled food remains the kebab.

And in my experience, people treat kebabs with benign neglect. They buy pre-cut meat, stick it on a metal or soaked wood skewer, put the whole shebang over a flame and a few minutes later, eat something that’s too often chewy and tough.

In the interest of building a better kebab, I called the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M, which explores every issue imaginable related to the butchering, preparation and cooking of meat. I talked to Jeff Savell, a meat science professor, who offered two primary bits of advice. One, buy high-quality meat. “Don’t skimp,” he said. “Buy the best you can afford.” Two, understand that size matters. “If they’re too small, they’ll overcook and dry out,” he said. “If they’re too large, you don’t get the internal temperature right.”

It was that last part that got to me. What is the optimum kebab size? Savell mentioned 2-inch cubes as a benchmark, so the next day, I grabbed a tape measure and visited a couple of well-regarded kebab houses in Arlington, Va., to find out how theirs stack up.

At my first stop, the tiny, cash-only Ravi Kabob House .1, I strategically chose a table I hoped would shield me from prying eyes. There were only five customers in the place, but a person measuring his lamb kebabs is easily spotted – and pegged as a weirdo – so I tried to do it surreptitiously.

I carefully measured the length, height and width of each cube. Turns out, it’s not so easy to measure since the meat is irregularly shaped, but they basically amounted to 11/2-inch cubes. The meat was cooked to medium, and its texture was a little chewy.

I was less self-conscious at Kabob Palace. I whipped out the tape when my plate arrived, gave a quick nod to a guy in a booth checking me out, and found that the cubes were larger, closer to the 2 inches (although again irregularly shaped) that Savell had recommended. Sure enough, the meat was rosy inside and tender.

I began experimenting at home. Remembering Savell’s first recommendation, I ordered a gorgeous leg of lamb from my butcher, who cut the meat into (irregularly shaped) 2-inch and 11/2-inch cubes. I marinated the meat in yogurt and lemon and refrigerated the cubes in different sealed containers, keeping the two sizes separate.

The next day, I orchestrated a round-the-world stick-cuisine meal: Italian antipasto, an entree of Turkish kebabs and a dessert of Southwestern-flavored fruit.

Above a medium-hot fire, I laid skewers of our appetizer and dessert simultaneously, as the former takes well to being served at room temperature and the latter would chill. I slid the skewers of charred eggplant, zucchini, onion, cherry tomatoes and red bell pepper onto a platter and spooned a homemade Italian dressing over them. I mixed the scorched cantaloupe, honeydew, strawberry, mango and pineapple in a bowl with a lime, cilantro, honey and smoked-paprika concoction and popped it into the fridge.

I then set the meat-only skewers over the fire, one size on the right side of the grill, the other on the left, and grilled them until the kebabs had a nice char, about six minutes on one side and five on the other.

My wife, Jessica, and I sat down to the veggies. They were soft and grill-char sweet. After some nibbling, we dug into the lamb. We cut the kebabs in half to appraise their color, then tasted for flavor and tenderness.

“I think this one needs to go back on the fire,” Jessica said.

I checked out others from the same skewer. All of them needed another couple of minutes over the flame, and they were the 2-inchers. The 1 1/2-inch cubes were perfect – but leaving the larger cubes on longer, of course, achieved the desired result.

Next time, I’d not only leave the bigger cubes on longer, but also would probably turn them more often, the way I usually do. Unlike other cuts of meat, which are best left alone for a while, kebabs benefit from being moved around to achieve a nice char on their irregular parts and a tender medium-rare at the center. This time, so I could eat my antipasto and not hang around the fire constantly fussing with the meat, I had chosen not to.

My experimentation was a victim of its own inflexibility. I got caught up in the parameters of my procedure rather than in the reality of my kebabs. And ultimately, I proved what I should have known all along: Either size can work just fine, depending on the length of time the kebabs cook – and the technique used to cook them.

I’m glad I got all that settled just in time for food-on-a-stick season. Now I can start experimenting with caprese salad and moink balls. Wish me luck.

Grilled Antipasto on a Stick

For the dressing:

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano

1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley leaves

2 teaspoons chopped or torn basil

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

pinch crushed red pepper flakes

For the kebabs:

1 small eggplant (8 ounces), sliced into 3 rounds, each 1/2-inch thick, then quartered

1 medium zucchini (10 ounces), sliced into 6 rounds, each 1/2-inch thick, then cut in half

1 large red bell pepper, cut into 12 equal pieces

1 medium sweet onion, cut into 6 sections, small inner layers removed

12 cherry tomatoes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing

kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Just before cooking, use a little vegetable oil to grease the grate.

For the dressing: Whisk together the garlic, oregano, parsley, basil, oil, vinegar, salt, black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes in a bowl.

For the kebabs: Thread the eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, onion and cherry tomatoes onto the skewers. You will have one section of onion and two of every other vegetable on each skewer. Brush with the oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Arrange the kebabs on the grill. Cook, uncovered, over direct heat, until charred in spots, about 4 to 5 minutes, then use tongs to turn them; grill for 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to individual plates; drizzle a little of the dressing on them. Alternatively, you can either combine all the vegetables together or set them in individual groups on a platter and drizzle with the dressing. Serve.

Serves 6.

MAKE AHEAD: You’ll need to soak 6 12-inch bamboo skewers in water for at least 30 minutes. The vegetables can be grilled and dressed up to 6 hours before serving, kept covered with plastic wrap and served at room temperature.

Scorched and Skewered Fruit Salad

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon hot Spanish smoked paprika

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

For the kebabs:

6 strawberries, hulled

6 1/2-inch cubes cantaloupe

6 1/2-inch cubes honeydew

6 1/2-inch cubes pineapple

6 1/2-inch cubes mango

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium (375 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat.

For a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 6 or 7 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Just before cooking, use a little vegetable oil to grease the grate.

For the dressing: Whisk together the lime juice, honey, sea salt, paprika and cilantro in a small bowl.

For the kebabs: Slide one piece of each fruit in whatever order you like onto the skewers; you will have 6 skewers of fruit.

Arrange the skewers on the grate. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes per side, turning as needed until the fruit is charred in spots. The total grilling time will be 8 to 12 minutes.

Transfer the kebabs to a platter and serve individually to each guest, with a bowl of sauce for drizzling. Or slide the fruit from the skewers into a bowl, dress with the sauce, and chill for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours. Serve.

Serves 6.

MAKE AHEAD: You’ll need to soak 6 12-inch bamboo skewers in water for at least 30 minutes. The dressing can be made a day in advance and kept in a sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Grilled Lamb Kebabs in Yogurt

2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 small onion, chopped

5 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest and 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 or 2 lemons)

2 heaping tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

2 pounds trimmed boneless leg of lamb, cut into 11/2-inch cubes (16 to 20 pieces)

Combine the yogurt, salt, pepper, onion, garlic, lemon zest and juice and the mint in a gallon-size zip-top bag. Add the lamb and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage to coat the meat. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.

Thread the lamb cubes on the skewers, using 4 or 5 pieces per skewer. Bring to room temperature before grilling. Discard any remaining marinade.

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 4 or 5 seconds.

Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Just before cooking, use a little vegetable oil to grease the grate.

Arrange the skewers on the grill; cook, uncovered, for 5 to 7 minutes on one side, then use tongs to turn them over and cook for 4 to 6 minutes on the other side.

Carefully pull the grilled lamb from the skewers; arrange in rows on a platter or plates.

Serve warm.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

MAKE AHEAD: You’ll need 6 metal or 12-inch bamboo skewers.

If using bamboo skewers, soak them in water for at least 30 minutes. You can make the marinade up to a day before using. The meat needs to marinate for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.

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