Skewering Around with the Grahams

Memorial Weekend—the unofficial start of summer—and after that long, cold Spring, we were ready to party al fresco! And of course, what’s a summer holiday without a BBQ? Warm weather, check. Great food, check. Fabulous wine, check. Good friends, priceless!

And so the celebration began when the Grahams arrived. Enter Paula, Mike, his daughter Kelsey, and her fiancé Zach. Paula has this gorgeous Mexican-themed silver platter (I want one) that she explained was a gift from Mike’s sister on their wedding day. Always a conversation piece, her tasty appetizer of cucumber slices topped with sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, chives and a drizzle of balsamic reduction, was even more stunning arranged on the decorative plate.

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Paula, Zach, Kelsey and Mike sip some wine while Russ mans the grill on the other side of the patio. The kebabs didn’t take long, so he didn’t miss much…

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Late last summer during a picnic at the Graham’s house, we lived vicariously while Kelsey and Zach regaled us with details about their 4-month trip around the world, August through December of 2014. Still intrigued, I asked what her favorite place was, and Kelsey responded “Can I pick three?” Enthusiastically and without hesitation, she named Vietnam because it was so breathtakingly beautiful and serene. The other two? South Africa and New Zealand, much for the same reasons… I guess anybody who still loves each other after four months of roughing it in some pretty remote locations, can weather being married… and so they got engaged last Fall and will tie the knot this September. Congrats!! 

But what’s cooking you ask? A Trio of Kebabs that are perfectly charred on the outside and tender within, with bold flavor and texture before and after the skewers hit the grill: Cumin-Chile Lamb Kebabs with Garlic Yogurt; Soy-Basted Chicken Kebabs with Sesame-Citrus Sprinkle; and Barbecue Pork with Blistered Chile–Pumpkin Seed Salsa.

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From left, grilled lamb, chicken and pork skewers.

Along with my infamous homemade guacamole, a loaded garden salad, and the Graham’s hors d’oeuvres, we also feasted on Cauliflower Rice Tabbouleh (pictured below)—a modern take on the classic Middle Eastern bulgur and herb salad. It swaps grains for cauliflower “rice,” making it nutritious, low-carb and gluten-free.

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In keeping with the low-carb and gluten-free theme, Russ made Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Fresh Blueberry Sauce for dessert. The buttermilk base is not sweet at all, but the blueberry sauce is where you can increase the sweetness to your heart’s delight.

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Mike gets chummy as Russ enjoys his Panna Cotta.

Let’s talk kebabs. For starters, make sure to get the right cut of meat for the job. The key to a knockout skewer? Being choosy at the butcher counter. The ideal cuts are often (counterintuitively) boneless braising cuts. Full-flavored, well-marbled, and appealingly affordable, they welcome high heat and won’t dry out the way leaner cuts tend to.

All three of the following fabulous recipes are from Chris Morroco of Bon Appetit. Each type is cooked over direct heat for about 4 minutes until browned and beginning to char in spots. Then they are moved to the cooler side of your grill and cooked to desired doneness, about another 4-5 minutes—leaving you plenty of time to party with your guests.

And remember, it’s never too late to add more flavor! Periodically brushing tangy bastes—or just some extra marinade—onto your meat while grilling adds layer upon layer of glazey deliciousness.

Of the three, the unanimous favorite was the chicken kebabs, perfectly charred and succulent. Soy glaze added saltiness along with a deep color to these skewers; and the sesame-citrus sprinkle lent an impressive textured finish.

Russ and I concur that the next time, and there will definitely be a next time, we’ll double the size of the lamb cubes from 1″ that the recipe calls for to 2″—because in the end, they were a little too well done for our liking, although the taste was spot-on. A perfect cube is not essential, but try to get the lamb into roughly the same size pieces so they cook at the same rate.

And the pork kebabs, using the “stack” method of skewering, benefited from the intriguing blistered chile-pumpkin seed salsa, a personal favorite of mine! You can always ask your butcher to slice the pork shoulder on the electric slicer for you, which will ensure even pieces and save you time—a tip I should have heeded.

Even though chef-author Chris suggests using metal, we opted to use wooden skewers instead, which we soaked in water overnight (although the tips still burned in the end.) They are smaller in stature, take up less grill space, and were perfect for individual portions. Having plenty of chicken and pork, we doubled the recipes, resulting in some leftovers, but not many.

Yes, we were a bit ambitious in preparing all three different kebabs requiring separate approaches in preparation, but you can narrow it down to just one type for starters. So what are you waiting for, skewer up!

Bon Appetit’s advice:

Square hunks of meat do not always a good skewer make. Different cuts need to be handled distinctly to reach their fullest meaty potential—which means you should be slicing them yourself and skewering them properly. It requires a smidge more thought, but the payoff is huge. Here are three favorite techniques:

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The Accordion
Short rib shines when sliced against the grain into ribbons and threaded over and under onto skewers, creating folds that trap marinade—the way to go for bacon, too.

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The Stack
Long strips of chicken thigh and pork shoulder can become unruly, so we pile them onto skewers in as compact a stack as possible, creating a uniform shape that cooks evenly.

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The Cube
Turns out lamb shoulder is best cubed, but how you thread makes the difference. Leaving room between each nugget allows heat to circulate, rendering the fat and browning all sides.

Cumin-Chile Lamb Kebabs with Garlic Yogurt

Ingredients

Garlic Yogurt

  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • ½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper

Lamb and Assembly

  • 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns or 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons caraway seeds
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Vegetable oil (for grill)
  • pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch pieces (we suggest 2″ cubes)
  • Kosher salt, freshly cracked pepper
  • Finely grated lemon zest (for serving)

Directions

Garlic Yogurt

  • Stir garlic, lemon zest, and lemon juice into yogurt in a small bowl to combine; season with salt and pepper.
  • Do Ahead: Yogurt can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.

Lamb and Assembly

  1. Coarsely grind cumin seeds, peppercorns, caraway seeds, red pepper flakes, and sugar in spice mill or with mortar and pestle until only a few whole spices remain.
  2. Prepare a grill for medium-high, indirect heat (for a charcoal grill, bank coals on one side of grill; for a gas grill, leave one or two burners off). Oil grates.
  3. Thread lamb onto 6–8 skewers, leaving a small gap between each piece of meat. Season with salt, then sprinkle generously with spice blend, pressing it onto the meat with your hands to help it adhere if needed.
  4. Grill lamb over direct heat, turning every minute or so, until browned and beginning to char in spots, about 4 minutes. Move to cooler side of grill and continue to grill until lamb is cooked to desired doneness, about 4 minutes longer for medium-rare.
  5. Top garlic yogurt with cracked black pepper and a little lemon zest. Serve alongside lamb.

Do Ahead: Spice blend can be made 1 month ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

Soy-Basted Chicken Kebabs with Sesame-Citrus Sprinkle

Ingredients

Sesame-Citrus Sprinkle

  • 2 tablespoons toasted white and/or black sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon thinly sliced chives
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo-style pepper or other mild red pepper flakes
  • ½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • Kosher salt

Chicken and Assembly

  • cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • cup mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)
  • cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar
  • pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs
  • Vegetable oil (for grill)
  • Kosher salt

Directions

Sesame-Citrus Sprinkle

Mix sesame seeds, chives, Aleppo-style pepper, and lemon zest in a small bowl to combine; season with salt.

Chicken and Assembly

  1. Combine brown sugar, mirin, soy sauce, and vinegar in a small saucepan. Transfer ¼ cup mixture to a large resealable plastic bag. Working one at a time, slice chicken thighs in half lengthwise. Add to bag with marinade and massage marinade into chicken. Chill at least 2 hours or up to 12 hours.
  2. Meanwhile, bring remaining marinade to a simmer over medium-high heat and cook until reduced by half and slightly thickened (just shy of syrupy), 8–10 minutes. Remove glaze from heat.
  3. Prepare a grill for medium-high, indirect heat (for a charcoal grill, bank coals on one side of grill; for a gas grill, leave one or two burners off). Oil grates.
  4. Thread chicken onto 6–8 skewers, folding and piling onto itself to form a compact shape. Season lightly with salt and grill over direct heat, turning every minute or so, until browned and beginning to char in spots, about 4 minutes.
  5. Move to cooler side of grill and continue to grill, basting lightly with glaze and turning every 30 seconds or so, until cooked through and coated with glaze, about 5 minutes longer. Serve chicken topped with sesame-citrus sprinkle.

Do Ahead: Glaze can be made 12 hours ahead. Let cool; cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before using.

Ingredients

Salsa

  • ¼ large white onion
  • 2 jalapeños
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • ¼ cup finely chopped unsalted, roasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • Kosher salt

Pork and Assembly

  • pounds boneless pork shoulder (Boston butt)
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons mustard powder
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Vegetable oil (for grill)
  • Kosher salt

Directions

Salsa

  1. Cook onion and jalapeños over a gas burner, turning often, until charred and beginning to soften, about 4 minutes (alternatively, cook in a hot dry medium skillet, preferably cast iron). Let cool.
  2. Finely chop onion.
  3. Remove seeds from chiles and finely chop. Toss onion, chiles, cilantro, pumpkin seeds, oil, and lime juice in a small bowl. Season with salt.

Do Ahead: Salsa can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.

Pork and Assembly

  1. Freeze pork until very firm around the edges, 20–30 minutes. Slice ¼” thick, then cut crosswise into 1½”–2″ strips if needed. Cover and chill until ready to grill.
  2. Mix brown sugar, mustard powder, paprika, garlic powder, black pepper, and cayenne in a small bowl to combine.
  3. Prepare a grill for medium-high, indirect heat (for a charcoal grill, bank coals on one side of grill; for a gas grill, leave one or two burners off). Oil grates.
  4. Thread pork onto 6–8 skewers, folding and piling onto itself to form a compact shape. Season with salt, then sprinkle generously with brown sugar mixture in several passes, allowing a few minutes between each for rub to adhere.
  5. Grill over direct heat, turning every minute or so, until browned and beginning to char in spots, about 4 minutes.
  6. Move to cooler side of grill and continue to grill until cooked through, about 5 minutes longer. Serve pork topped with salsa.

Do Ahead: Dry rub can be made 1 month ahead; store airtight at room temperature.

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