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Real Entertaining: A Summertime Supper of Kebabs on the Grill

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 20, 2009; E01

Bad dream or recurring reality? Before the guests arrive, you barely have time to assemble the skewers, platter them up and rush them out to the deck. You load them onto the grill, wondering where the day has gone and insisting you don't need any help.

Moments later, tongs in one hand and beer in the other, you appear to be dancing the Watusi. As smoke and flare-ups threaten to overwhelm, you desperately attempt to maneuver the blackening brochettes in a way that will rescue dinner and save face. You fail on both accounts.

A cookout featuring assorted kebabs is a great way to entertain and inaugurate the grilling season, provided you recognize the pitfalls and go about things the right way.

Think about the process logically. Let's say you plan to offer your guests protein and vegetable options: chicken, swordfish, shrimp and lamb; zucchini and yellow squash, cremini mushrooms, red onion, assorted bell peppers and eggplant. You have to cut up ingredients, give them time to marinate, skewer them, prepare the grill and then cook 20 or more items so they can all be eaten at the same time.

And don't forget the side dishes and dessert.

Someone else, ideally, can be in charge of the party setup.

It should be clear by now that you need a game plan to get most of the grunt work taken care of, and that game plan should not include buying embalmed prefab kebabs at the meat counter.

So get the extras out of the way first. The condiments, which enhance the main course's vaguely Middle Eastern theme, can be made two days in advance. There's a spicy harissa puree, a quick sesame sauce made with store-bought hummus and a light, yogurt-based tarragon sauce. A pilaf of basmati rice with pine nuts, onions and mushrooms can be served hot or cold and made a day ahead. A dense, juice-soaked corn bread cake filled with fresh berries and topped with raspberry jam not only can but should be made the day before.

Marinades impart flavor to the main course. Using a single, all-purpose mixture would make life easier but less interesting. Here's a good compromise: Use two basic marinades, one with balsamic vinegar, the other with lemon. The former is for red meats and vegetables, which can hold up to more intense flavor; the latter is for the more delicate items, such as fish and chicken. Both marinades contain olive oil, garlic, thyme (a neutral herb) and a bit of sugar, which will aid in caramelizing during grilling. To expand the flavor profiles, add herbs that complement particular kebab ingredients, such as dill for swordfish, rosemary for lamb, tarragon for chicken, and basil and oregano for the vegetables.

Each protein must be marinated separately (preferably in resealable plastic food storage bags, for ease) because the amount of time they can endure the process before denaturing occurs is different. Have you ever marinated a chicken breast and noticed that the flesh had turned white? That's because the acid caused the meat to break down beyond tenderizing and, in essence, begin to cook (the same principle by which raw fish gets denatured, or "cooked," in ceviche). Then, once the chicken was cooked for real, the texture became mushy and unpleasant.

Which is why, when marinating chunks of protein, it is better to err on the side of underdoing it. I recommend 4 hours for beef, 2 for chicken and 30 minutes max for fish and seafood.

Vegetables are another story. If the human digestive system can't break down cellulose, an overnight marinade will not do damage. Squash needs all the help it can get.

The time differentials work out well for the actual skewering. The fish and seafood get done first, then the chicken, the meat and the vegetables. If anything is ready before you are, just remove it from the marinade. I usually do the proteins the day before and the vegetables the morning of the party.

Threading the kebabs is tedious, to be honest. It's not a bad idea to wear food-safe gloves, making sure to use a new pair for each bag of ingredients to avoid cross-contamination. I prefer to use flat, 12-inch-long bamboo skewers if I can find them; food twirls on round skewers, so some of the pieces turn and others don't during grilling, which is a real pain. (Soak wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes before use.)

Alternatively, you can use two parallel rounded skewers, but that might prove tricky when you're threading smaller items. Don't cram food onto the skewer; that would keep air and heat from circulating around the food and cooking it evenly. That is especially important for meats, which might be cooked through in the center but still raw at the junctures. A good way to preclude that is to separate each piece with a slice of seedless cucumber.

And I know this sounds ridiculous, but keep the palm of your hand out of the path of the skewer point.

I suggest keeping ingredients separate, with just one protein or vegetable per skewer. That gives the cook more control over the final product. Onions take longer to cook than zucchini.

Now for the grilling.

Barbecue guru Steven Raichlen wisely suggests using a three-zone method: a thick layer of coals for direct grilling, a thinner layer for indirect grilling and a safety zone with no coals where the grate is covered with foil. All of the kebabs will be started on the hottest part to get seared on all sides, then moved to indirect heat if they are getting too dark too fast, then to the safety zone if they are done or simply getting out of hand.

In grilling, lubrication is a good thing; it keeps food from sticking. Blot skewered items on paper towels and spray them liberally with cooking spray before putting them on the grate, which also gets oiled before each new skewer is placed on it.

Give yourself time: half an hour to prepare a charcoal fire and a generous 20 minutes per batch, each batch small enough for you to keep track of everything, turning skewers frequently and moving them about as you discover where the hotter and cooler parts of the fire are. Do not leave the grill unattended while food is on it; enlist a bystander to act as an assistant if you need one. That person can take finished items to the kitchen to be held, loosely covered with foil, in a 200-degree oven until everything else is cooked. Do the vegetables first; they hold up the best and are fine eaten at room temperature. Then the red meats and the chicken, which should then be left to rest (also loosely covered) at room temperature for 10 to 20 minutes, then the fish and seafood, which take the least amount of time and will still cook over a waning fire. (Raichlen, though, advises replenishing coals as you go to maintain the 600 degrees or so necessary for direct grilling.)

More than anything else, preparing kebabs successfully depends on proper planning. If it all seems like too much to do, curtail the menu. It's better to pare down than flame out.

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