Growing up in Dubai, Dad would sometimes surprise us with a feast of Lebanese food on Fridays (our day off).
I'd wait impatiently whilst he drove to the little place 10 minutes down the road from us, prepping the ONE soda that my parents allowed me per week (chilling the glass in the fridge, slicing a piece of lemon to top the whole thing off. Yup. I went through that kind of trouble over a diet Coke. At that age, I thought everyone did it. Telling, huh?)
Once the food had arrived, we'd pile our plates high with generous dollops of smooth hummus, pleasantly bumpy babaghanoush, fresh peppery greens, crunchy radishes, warm bread and of course, the piece de resistance, KEBABS!
Chicken, beef, lamb -- why are kebabs so much fun to eat?! Perhaps it's that inviting char, the pre-portioned pieces of meat, the promise of a crispy exterior and a tender interior. Perhaps though, it's something deeper: a pull only explained by our ancestry as cavemen? Man, woman, fire, meat? Heehee!
As if they weren't delicious enough, I fondly remember that one piece of pita bread that had been lying under the kebabs, soaking up all those exquisite juices; we'd fight over that piece of bread! Ooof!
My favourite kebab is the Lula kebab, or the Koobideh kebab, as the Persians put it. The Indians have their own version of this one too, called seekh kebab. Great minds must think alike: All of them consist of ground beef or lamb (or mutton), mixed together with some onions and spices, shaped into long logs, skewered and then cooked over a grill or in a tandoor oven. I find them so much more satisfying than other kebabs: tender, flavourful, and easy to digest.
But they are harder to make than you think. I literally made this recipe 3 or 4 times, hoping to get it to the right consistency. Finally, one late Wednesday night, when Bren was away at a rehearsal, I cracked it! And I had no one to shout to about it! Thank goodness I get to share it with you!
The secret lies in two parts: first, use a little baking soda to help the meat hold together (I can't tell you how disappointing it is when your skewer falls apart before you very eyes) and secondly, knead the heck out of it!
I know that second secret may strike some of you as blasphemy. I don't know how often I've been told not to overwork ground meat, whether it's for burgers or meatloaf, or else you run the risk of eating a tough, dry hockey puck. In this case though, if you don't knead it well, the meat doesn't turn sticky, and your kebabs turn out tough and oddly-textured.
So this is probably the only time you'll hear me say this: BLASPHEME AWAY! You'll thank me, I promise you!
I made them using lamb, because I love the way lamb stands up to the combination of shallot, ginger, garlic and mint. But you can use beef if you don't like lamb.
Oh, and I hope you'll allow me to gild the lily a little, by adding some pomegranate molasses to this recipe -- I made a glaze using lemon juice and pomegranate molasses that turns the ordinary lamb kebab into something extraordinary: sweet, tangy, sour, umami. Pardon me while I faint.
If you have trouble finding pomegranate molasses (Middle Eastern shops have it), you can make your own by boiling down some pomegranate juice (the pure stuff, not the kind mixed with blueberries or mangoes or whatever) with some sugar. Presto!
I hope you'll give these a go. They're a cheap way to work some meat into your menu (the whole thing, including a bottle of molasses probably cost me about $15 and it'll feed 4 quite comfortably), and your friends and family will think you're extraordinarily fancy, even though they are super easy and quick to pull together. Plus you can make the kebabs up to a day in advance, and grill them right before serving! Sheesh! Splendid!
Ground Lamb kebabs with Pomegranate glaze
2 medium shallots
2 cloves garlic
3 quarter-sized slices ginger
Handful of cilantro
4 sprigs mint
Zest of one lemon, and separately, its juice
3/4 tsp kosher salt
Lots of freshly ground pepper
1/4 tsp garam masala (optional)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1lb ground lamb
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses + 2 tbsp extra for glaze
Special equipment: Food processor if you have it, 8 bamboo skewers, stovetop griddle or big nonstick pan or outside grill
1) Bring lamb to room temperature. If you're going to cook your kebabs on the grill, soak 'em in water for at least 30 minutes, so they don't burn.
2) Grab your food processor. You can chop all this by hand too; just make sure to chop it all up very finely.
3) Throw shallots, garlic, ginger, lemon zest, cilantro, mint and salt into processor. Grind until very finely chopped.
4) Throw lamb into big bowl. Add the shallot mixture, pomegranate molasses, baking soda, garam masala and pepper to the meat. Using your hands, knead 2 to 5 minutes until meat lightens in colour, taking on the appearance of knitted fabric. It will also be very sticky. Perfect!
5) Divide the meat in half, then half again, and then half again, until you have 8 mounds.
6) Have a platter ready for your completed kebabs. Drizzle a little oil on the platter so the kebabs don't stick.
7) Have your bamboo skewers standing by. Take one ball of meat, and roll it into a short stump. Thread the skewer through it, then begin shaping the kebab with quick strokes, pulling the meat down. It should be a little over 1/4" thick. Roll the kebab between your hands to seal the meat. Repeat.
8) Heat griddle over medium heat, drizzling oil over it, so that when it starts to smoke, you'll know it's ready. Meanwhile, mix the juice of half the lemon with extra 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses in a small bowl.
9) When it's hot, place the skewers on the grill. Cook about 2 minutes, then turn a quarter of the way. Brush with lemon-molasses glaze, and cook another 2 minutes. Continue in this way until you've cooked the meat 8-10 minutes.
10) Serve, alongside cucumber-pomegranate raita (recipe tomorrow!).