Kick off the grilling season with versatile kebabs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With the arrival of Memorial Day – the traditional kickoff of America's grilling season – we pessimists should take a moment to consider the inevitable onslaught of the barbecue. While cookouts are often an intimate family affair, a sudden influx of unexpected guests can present a range of personal preferences ranging from the haughtiest of haute cuisine to vegans. What to do?

Let the kebab skewer be your culinary light saber, O Jedi of the grill. Master the skewer you will, and multitudes will you feed.

The Methuselaic longevity of the kebab is a tribute to both its simplicity and its versatility. While chunks of marinated lamb or beef are old-time favorites, the contents of a given skewer can range from the exotic (chicken hearts are a Portuguese favorite) to the elegant (marinated sea scallops, for example) to the unconventional (fruit kebab appetizers, anyone?).

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"We should not be skeptical about them," says Sankarnarayan Giridhar, a kebab expert known to friends as Chef Giri. "It's only a matter of time before people get educated about kebabs. There are so many different flavors to play around with."

He should know; Chef Giri presides over a veritable kebab empire in Boston, where he shapes menus for five area restaurants and maintains a website about Indian cooking (www.kashmirspices.com). At the Kebab Factory, he offers a dizzying array of kebabs, including many that can't be found in any other Indian restaurants in the US.

"I still offer four or five common dishes so people don't get intimidated," says Mr. Giridhar.

The origins of the humble kebab are cloaked in mystery. While the word kebab comes from the Persian words "kab" (meaning to turn around) and "ab" (meaning water or retaining the juices of the meat), some contend that the kebab itself was spread through the "kebab crescent" (Mongolia to Spain) by the 13th-century Mongol warlord Genghis Khan.

Indians point to a therapeutic kebab recipe in the Sushruta Samhita – a compilation of mostly surgical knowledge published somewhere between 200 BC and AD 200 – as a definitive benchmark of the food's point of origin.

Since then, kebabs have entered folklore and common idiom. " 'Kebab mein haddi' is a popular saying," says Rafique Baghdadi, a food columnist for Business India. "If two lovers are sitting together having a good time, and you go and disturb their conversation and be a pest, you are a 'kebab mein haddi' – it translates to 'a bone in the kebab,' which is always unwanted."

When making your own (bone-free) kebabs, there are a few simple tips to keep in mind:

First, don't hesitate to mix a variety of meats and fresh vegetables. Cut your kebab ingredients into pieces of about equal size. If you're grilling a variety of vegetables, fill skewers completely with a single kind of vegetable to ensure even cooking. And to give all-vegetable skewers a tasty twist, add some halloumi cheese (available at many speciality shops). When the cheese turns golden brown, it's ready.

Turn your kebabs often while cooking them over high heat. Gadgets such as kebab baskets allow finicky cooks to turn individual skewers or a whole mess of kebabs at once.

Finally, the key to moist kebabs is a good marinade, preferably applied for a few hours before they hit the grill.

• Rohit Gupta contributed to this report from Bombay.

Chef Giri's Chicken Kebabs

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

1 teaspoon water

4 to 5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup sour cream

1 cup cream cheese

2 teaspoons black peppercorns

2 teaspoons cumin powder

2 teaspoons coriander powder

1 teaspoon mace powder

1 teaspoon nutmeg

Extra-virgin olive oil for basting

Cut chicken into bite-size pieces. (Or buy chicken already cut for kebabs.) Place chicken pieces in a bowl and toss them with the lemon juice and salt. Let sit for about an hour.

Meanwhile, make the marinade: First, in a blender, mix the ginger with 1/2 teaspoon of the water. Add garlic and another 1/2 teaspoon water. Blend. Add sour cream and cream cheese, and blend until the mixture is free of lumps. Set aside.

Roast peppercorns over medium heat in a small frying pan on stove for about 4 minutes, watching closely to keep them from burning. After the peppercorns are roasted, crush them into a coarse powder.

Add the roasted-peppercorn powder and remaining spices to the ingredients in the blender. Blend all together. Pour marinade over chicken in bowl and toss so that the chicken is evenly covered.

Thread chicken onto metal skewers and grill kebabs over high heat, turning often and basting frequently with olive oil. They are done when juices run clear, and chicken is cooked all the way through.

Serve on a bed of green salad with onions and chopped Serrano peppers, and garnish with lime. If desired, serve these kebabs with Naan bread, available in Indian markets.

Serves 4.

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