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Food + Cooking

Behind the Recipe(s): Kebabs

How one of our cooks came up with six very different takes on the classic skewer.
steak kebabs

Putting together the June Seasonal Kitchen story on kebabs presented several challenges for me. Besides coming up with all these grilled recipes that would taste different, I wanted them to look different, too, and not look like, well, a bunch of meat on sticks.

Thinking about all the different cuisines that include kebabs took care of the diversity issue; I started playing around with the flavors of Asia, the Middle East, and India. I don’t know that I would call my kebabs authentically of these places, but I tried to get at the essence of these parts of the world. I did a pork kebab al pastor as a nod to Mexico, but my version is necessarily a bit different from its inspiration: In Mexico, at roadside stands, you see the pork on a rotisserie with white onion, pineapple, and chiles. I took these flavors and made a marinade for the pork; when the meat was done, I removed it from the skewers and served it with tortillas, more like tacos than just a typical kebab. I did another, more all-American kebab of steak, okra, and tomatoes. Mixing in small, whole vegetables adds punches of color and varying shapes, and takes away from the visual monotony of so many meat cubes. To this end, I paired other kebabs with vivid sides, like the mango chutney for the shrimp tikka and the zucchini and snow-pea salad for the miso-glazed tuna.

And now I’m a skewer pro. I can say, first of all, that the classic skewer of your memories—the one that mixes meat, vegetables, and fruit all together on one stick—usually doesn’t work too well: These things all have different cooking times, so you end up burning some items and undercooking others. Instead, why not just skewer like with like? These kebabs look lovely and cook perfectly, and people can take just as much as they want of each item. Another invaluable lesson I learned: You can’t thread the items too closely together on the skewer, because otherwise, when you take them apart, you’ll have raw bits. And for things that flip around and rotate on the stick, you might want to do a double-skewer.

I finally understand the draw of kebabs, the entertainer’s friend. It might entail a little more work ahead of time, but all you have to do when guests arrive is take out a platter full of skewers and slap everything on the grill. Just watch out, while you’re getting everything ready, not to give yourself splinters.

From exotic lamb köfte to traditional steak, take a look at all the kebab recipes in our feature, On Point.