Real Entertaining

Real Entertaining: A Summertime Supper of Kebabs on the Grill

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

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.

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