If there is one cooking tradition that Americans have really made a hash of, it’s the backyard kebab. Does anyone actually look forward to eating inane ruffles of red onions, undercooked-but-still-charred wedges of green pepper, and barely seasoned, rubbery hunks of meat? The kebab’s convenience almost never justifies its presence on the grill — not when you could have just had a burger.

“I’ve noticed that vegetables often tend to be burnt or limp when they are cooked on the skewers with meat,” says Vipul Bhasin of Veda Modern Indian restaurant in Center City. This is rarely a problem in Indian cuisine, in which skewered meats tend to stand alone.

Yet the culinary convention of proteins plus vegetables on a stick makes for a quick, healthy meal. Done right, it can also add up to more than the sum of its impaled parts.

The cooked chicken malai kebab hangs on their spit over the tandoor grill.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
The cooked chicken malai kebab hangs on their spit over the tandoor grill.

One way to ensure that the vegetables don’t lose out is to dispense with the idea of cooking them on the skewers altogether. At Suraya — and, indeed, many other restaurants preparing grilled food to scale — vegetables are grilled separately from the meat. Chef Nick Kennedy recommends putting soft veggies, like cherry tomatoes, in wire baskets, or sturdier ones, like string beans, directly on the coals for more efficient cooking and more surface-sear action.

“If you do them separately, it gives you more control,” Kennedy says.

He explains Suraya’s skewer strategy: “Generally with a kebab, we are trying to get as close to the coals as possible so you don’t give the fat and juices time or space to vaporize and turn into black smoke or ash … you want it to cook fast to keep that flavor and juice inside. So we start close, rotate it quickly, and then raise the food up off the heat. The same thing goes for the vegetables.”

Forget those speared, cloudy onion triangles of indeterminate rawness — Kennedy will grill an onion whole and unpeeled for 10 minutes (or until it’s about three-quarters of the way cooked through), then cut and skewer it for maximum caramelization. The same goes for an eggplant. It can sit right on the coals until it shrinks up.

Kebabs made with paneer cheese and vegetables avoid the technical challenges of grilling meat altogether.
Courtesy of Food52/Ten Speed Press
Kebabs made with paneer cheese and vegetables avoid the technical challenges of grilling meat altogether.

There’s no rule that says vegetables even have to be grilled. As with satay or yakitori, or even the ground-meat kofte kebabs of the Middle East, skewered meat can stand on its own. Serve a salad or a relish instead of mediocre pepper planks and your guests will thank you.

Or go strictly vegetarian and thread the vegetables with paneer or halloumi cheese cubes dressed in a spicy herb oil. Food 52’s meatless kebabs nicely solve the shish dilemma with an easy mashup of Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Kebabs’ other big bugaboos — lack of flavor and unwelcoming textures — can be addressed with better technique. In Indian cuisine, that might be a two-step marination process. Bhasin’s traditional murg malai chicken kebab recipe starts with a tenderizing bath of lemon juice, salt, ginger and garlic. The second soak — in cream, egg, cheddar cheese, hot pepper, and spices — ensures boneless skinless chicken breasts don’t taste anything-less.

Chef Vipul Bhasin places the spit with the chicken malai kebab into the circular tandoor grill in the kitchen at Veda.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Chef Vipul Bhasin places the spit with the chicken malai kebab into the circular tandoor grill in the kitchen at Veda.

Kennedy does something similar with his fish kebabs, made with either striped bass, swordfish, or halibut. He brines the fish first, then marinates it in spiced, garlicky yogurt flecked with citrus zest. Serve the chunks of grilled fish with reserved (but not used) marinade and grilled vegetables, so that the juices of the cooked fish and tomatoes run into the creamy yogurt, making a sauce best sopped up by bread or rice.

At Society Hill’s Isot, green peppers and tomatoes are intrinsic to the flavor of chef/owner Fatih Kekec’s chicken kebabs.

“Everything has to be the same size or it won’t cook evenly,” he says.

Kekec learned how to make kebabs from his grandfather, who hailed from the city of Gaziantep, known for shish kebab excellence. There’s much more that goes into skewered meats than most people know, he says. True shish kebab, as in the authentic Turkish article, is not something a home cook can whip up at a moment’s notice.

“You have to pick the right cut of meat,” he says. “You have to have the right marination. It usually takes one day. The right spices. Good olive oil. We use special grills and we turn the kebabs in special ways. And here, if you go to a kebab restaurant, they will serve it with white rice, and that changes everything. It’s supposed to be served with bulgur.”

“A lot of the kebabs I eat in America are not made the way we would do it in Turkey,” Kekec says. “If you do it the right way, it tastes delicious.”

Grilled Swordfish Kebabs with Grilled Vegetables

Serves 5


Marinade

½ cup full-fat Greek yogurt

1 large garlic clove, grated

Zest of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 lime

½ teaspoon cumin, toasted and ground

1 teaspoon coriander, toasted and ground

¼ teaspoon sweet paprika, smoked

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon water


Fish

4 cups water

¼ cup salt

3 tablespoons sugar

1 pound swordfish loin, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 lemon


Vegetables

Any combination, such as cherry tomatoes, spring onions, and string beans

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Chopped fresh thyme

Chopped fresh parsley


Prepare the marinade. Combine all the ingredients and let sit for one hour in refrigerator before using. Taste and adjust for salt.


Brine the fish. Combine the water, salt, and sugar and stir until dissolved. Place the fish in the brine and set in refrigerator for two hours. Remove from the brine and dry gently on paper towels. Coat the fish with half of the yogurt marinade, reserving the other half separately. Let marinate for at least four hours or up to overnight. Thread the fish onto soaked bamboo or metal skewers, leaving a small space between each.


Cook the vegetables. Heat a charcoal or gas grill until very hot. For cherry tomatoes: Cook in a basket over the coals until blackened. Season with salt and olive oil. For spring onions: Cook whole, directly over coals or high heat, until browned and softened, six to eight minutes. Cover with plastic wrap to steam lightly, five to 10 minutes. Remove outer layer, slice in half, and season with salt and pepper. Cook in a basket over coals or high heat until charred, and then season with olive oil and thyme. For string beans: Blanch quickly in boiling water, then drain and plunge into ice water. Drain and toss in olive oil, salt, and pepper, then cook directly over coals or high heat until charred. Combine all of the charred vegetables in a bowl and toss lightly. Taste for seasoning and adjust with more olive oil, salt, pepper, and parsley.


To finish: Cook the fish kebabs over charcoal, rotating every minute or so until lightly charred on the outside and medium on the inside, four to six minutes. Remove from fire and season with a squeeze of lemon and some good olive oil. Serve with the charred vegetables and the reserved yogurt marinade, and good pita or other bread to sop up the yogurt sauce.


— Courtesy of Nick Kennedy of Suraya

Chicken Murg Malai Kebab

Serves 4


1 teaspoon white pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus more for sprinkling

2 tablespoons finely minced garlic

2 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger

Salt

2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1½ inch cubes

½ cup grated cheddar cheese

4 teaspoons chopped jalapeño

1 egg

1 teaspoon corn flour

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground mace

3½ ounces cream

4 tablespoons chopped cilantro stems

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon garam masala


In a large bowl, combine the white pepper, lemon juice, garlic, and ginger. Season to taste with salt, then add the chicken, coating evenly. Cover and refrigerate for two to three hours.


Remove and set aside the chicken, saving the excess marinade. Using a potato masher or wooden spoon, mash the remaining marinade, cheese, and jalapeño until the mixture has a smooth, paste-like consistency. Add the egg, corn flour, cardamom, mace, and cream and combine. Add the chopped cilantro stems and adjust salt to taste. Return the chicken to the marinade, toss, and refrigerate for another two to three hours.


If grilling, heat a charcoal or gas grill to medium. If roasting, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Thread the chicken on soaked bamboo or metal skewers and cook until nearly opaque. Brush the chicken with butter and cook for a few minutes until the chicken is light golden and completely firm. Remove from heat, sprinkle with lemon juice, butter, and garam masala. Serve with mint and cilantro chutney.


— Courtesy of Vipul Bhasin of Veda

Paneer and Vegetable Kebabs with Spicy Cilantro Oil

Serves 4


1 bunch cilantro (leaves and tender stems)

1 serrano chili (stemmed and seeded)

1 clove garlic, crushed and sliced

½ teaspoon ground coriander

½ cup olive oil, plus more for brushing

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 to 10 ounces paneer cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 Japanese eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 small zucchini, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 cup yellow or red cherry tomatoes

Naan or pita

Lemon wedges


In a blender, puree the cilantro, serrano, garlic, coriander, and olive oil until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and briefly blend again. Place the paneer in a bowl and pour half of the cilantro oil over the cheese; stir to combine and then marinate in the fridge for one hour or up to one day. Set the remaining oil aside (or refrigerate for later use).


Thirty minutes before cooking, soak eight to 10 wooden skewers in water. Prepare a charcoal grill for two-zone cooking and build a medium-high fire, or heat a gas grill to high. Carefully wipe the preheated grill grates with a lightly oiled paper towel. Using a grill brush, scrape the grill grates clean, then carefully wipe with a lightly oiled towel again. Skewer the cheese, eggplant, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes and grill over direct heat until the vegetables char and the edges of the paneer become golden brown, four to five minutes on both sides, brushing with additional cilantro oil marinade. Season the kebabs with a sprinkle of salt. Brush each round of naan with olive oil and grill until charred and crisp, one to two minutes on each side.


Serve the kebabs with grilled naan, lemon wedges, and the reserved cilantro oil.


— Reprinted with permission from Food52 Any Night Grilling by Paula Disbrowe