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Update Your Kebabs (+ 8 Tips for Cooking them Right)

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Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: Kebabs have come a long way since their 1970s heyday. Tom shares a recipe to bring kebabs into the 21st century, plus 8 tips for getting them right. 

Inside the house a Frank Sinatra record blares loudly from the phonograph, a big stereophonic console meant to look like a fancy sideboard. The family room windows of the atomic ranch-style house are open wide. The music makes its way through the open windows to the patio, soft enough to be background music for the adults socializing on the small concrete patio.  

There are tall, slender glass pitchers of Tom Collins set on a picnic table bar next to a faux gold ice bucket, highball glasses, and an assortment of potluck appetizers. The parents sip cocktails and have lively chats. Their laughter can be heard four houses down at the babysitter's, where all the children are being housed for the evening. Tiki torches release black citronella smoke meant to keep mosquitoes at bay, and in the belly of the kettle-shaped grill the coals glow the color of the suburban sunset.  

To the side of the grill sits a platter of kebabs on a TV tray. Cubes of beef have been skewered with chunks of onion, green peppers, cherry tomatoes, and button mushrooms, everything integrated in an orderly fashion. Kebabs were created to help suburbanites feel comfortable with unknown foods.  

Along with burgers and hot dogs, this style of kebab, while not perfect, ushered in the patio lifestyle of backyard tiki bars and charcoal grills. Paired with a stubby-bottled Lambrusco, kebabs became the hipster food of the seventies. But like the patio parties of the time, this style of kebab was also better in theory than in practice. Either the chunks of beef were undercooked and the vegetables were perfect, or the meat was cooked perfectly and the vegetables were charred. A happy medium was hard to accomplish, especially to those unfamiliar with the grill.

As time has passed, kebabs have matured. Kebabs, much like today's suburban neighborhoods, have become multicultural, representative of many nationalities. Thought to originate in the Middle East, kebabs became a cultural export and were quickly adapted to cuisines worldwide in many incarnations and styles.

As with all new cooking ideas, kebabs have slowly evolved to be spectacular as cooks have worked with them and shared ideas. By now, I think it is safe to say meat on a stick has changed the culinary landscape for the better.

Surprisingly, American kebabs of old survive to this day. You can find them on display in the meat cases of suburban grocery stores right next to the tenderized jelly-rolled flank steak stuffed with cheddar cheese. But now, the skewers look like a display at the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum and not like haute cuisine hot off the seventies charcoal grill.

Tom's Kebab Cooking Tips & Guidelines

1. Keep ingredients separated by type. Fill a skewer with one type of ingredient and follow suit with all the other ingredients.

2. Try to keep the ingredients cut the same size (all zucchini, lamb, or cherry tomatoes, for example). This ensures all the pieces on the skewer cook in the same amount of time.  

3. The first two guidelines allow you to both remove a skewer of zucchini or another vegetable while continuing to cook chunks of lamb or another meat until medium rare.

4. If you use wood skewers, soak them in water for at least thirty minutes before putting them on the grill.

5. Unless I am using 1/2-inch wide bamboo skewers, I always use two skewers per kebab. This insures easy turning on the grill (and it keeps the meat from spinning).

6. Kebabs should be cooked over direct hot heat and they need to be watched and turned regularly. High heat insures a caramelized exterior and a juicy interior. If the heat isn't high enough, you will end up with skewered jerky.

7. If your kebabs are browning too fast and causing flare-ups, don't be afraid to finish cooking them in a moderate 375° F oven. It's an extra step, but it beats burnt-to-a-crisp food.

8. In addition to cooking the protein or vegetables properly, the sauce or marinade is every bit as important, and maybe even more so, as the meat and vegetables. Meat on a stick is meat on a stick -- it is the clothes you dress it in that make it stand out.

Burmese-Style Wings with Lime, Cilantro, and Shallot Salsa 

Serves 4

24 chicken wings
1 cup shallots, minced or chopped in a food processor
2 red Fresno chile or other hot chile
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
1/2 cup canola oil
Lime wedges for the table
Extra cilantro

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld 

Tags: Skewer, Grill/Barbecue, Tips & Techniques