My first encounter with kebabs was when I was 7. It was at a picnic where a group of Greek families were barbecuing. I remember a man with a huge curled mustache wearing a striped shirt, sleeves rolled, presiding over a park grill. He would turn the metal skewers threaded with bits of lamb, green peppers and onions every now and then, as smoke billowed and fragrant smells of meat and herbs wafted over the picnic grounds.
Never will I forget that aroma or the color and romance of the moment in the park. Never.
What contrast it all was to our family of picnickers who sat somberly on the grass munching on very good, but far less glamorous, fare. Why did we not barbecue, I had asked.
It was much later, as a young bride, that the idea of entertaining with kebabs suddenly struck. It was the only thing I could cook because it was so easy to do. Roasts were baffling, fish treacherous.
The wonderful thing about kebabs, I discovered, was the range of foods one can cook on a stick, the dazzling flavors that are possible, and the international roster of cuisines that, one way or another, lend inspiration.
Kebabs are not only connected to Greeks, although there is a direct historic link between the cooking done in the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor, where nomadic meat-eaters from Indo-European tribes settled and introduced methods of cooking meat on twigs and branches long enough to hold baby lambs and goats.
Ancient kebabs have traveled far and wide, wending their way into the cuisines around the globe with every wave of migration, trade route or invasion. The satay of Southeast Asia may be related to kebabs of Persia and India. And those kebabs found in Latin America may derive from Moors, who not only invaded Spain but brought their cooks to Spain before Spaniards turned to the New World for culinary conquests of their own. Kebabs (kushikatsu and yakitori) of Japan may also have European/Middle Eastern roots, thanks to Portuguese and other sailors who brought cooking ideas to its shores as well as trade.
We have devised several international kebabs using meat, fish, vegetables and fruit to suit the everyday cook whose barbecue spirit has been aroused--which, even in sunny Los Angeles where barbecue season never ceases, occurs around this time of year. That is not to say that a creative cook should not be tempted to invent combinations never heard of before.
A swordfish kebab with bay leaves between cubes of fish was inspired by the kebabs tasted in seafood restaurants along the Bosporus. Barbecued Chicken Wings have an Oriental flavor touched with chiles and soy sauce. Meatball Kebabs are influenced by herb blends, such as parsley and mint, often used in Mediterranean countries.
A Pork-Pineapple Kebab is reminiscent of the South Seas. Scallops wrapped in grape leaves is another idea derived from Middle Eastern cuisines, in which grape leaves often are used to wrap cooked foods. A Lamb Satay from Southeast Asia makes authentic use of Indonesian-style kecap, a sweetened soy sauce you can find at Oriental food stores. The accompanying Peanut Sauce is dark and rich. A ceviche-based shrimp kebab calls up Mexican flavors created by cilantro and chiles. A quick firing over hot flames cooks the shrimp to perfection.
Sausage kebabs were a direct copy of kebab appetizers cooked over a brazier by Moroccan cooks in Marrakesh. Cilantro with cumin and paprika imparts exciting flavor to a bland meat. Green or sweet red peppers also make a colorful kebab to serve as an accompaniment to meat. But any vegetable such as summer squash, small Italian (or Japanese) eggplant, onions, even radicchio or napa cabbage wedges, can be grilled. You might want to marinate the vegetables in a vinaigrette before barbecuing them.
For a whimsical touch, The Times' kitchen staff mounted fruit kebabs in a flowerpot to serve as a centerpiece. Fruit kebabs also may be grilled slightly to heat them up, if desired.
There are a few tips for handling and cooking kebabs that might help dispel any problems. Use metal skewers for heavy or large chunks of meat to prevent skewers from breaking. Small items, such as shrimp, fruit, bite-size pieces of meat or ribbons of meat do well on bamboo skewers. If using bamboo, the skewers should be soaked thoroughly in water before using to prevent them from scorching to a point where they fall apart.
A nice thing about kebabs is that you can prepare them for cooking well ahead of time. Some cooks prefer threading foods after they marinate, whereas others prefer marinating kebabs on the skewers, but that is a matter of preference. Make sure that any metal skewers are well cleaned before using.