Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige threads marinated pork onto a metal skewer. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Flat metal skewers are the perfect tool for helping green-minded cooks eat sustainably as the mercury rises in the height of summer. They cost about $1 each (compared to 7-10 cents for the disposable wooden or bamboo variety), but they are reusable, allow for quick, even cooking for any kind of local meat, seafood or vegetables threaded onto them, and hold said food in position while you’re turning them early and often during the grilling process. The metal conducts heat, helping to cook the center of whatever’s been skewered. And for those of us looking to curtail animal protein consumption, this presentation stretches a pound of meat to feed a family of four with no complaints about portions.

The origin of kebabs are debated, but multiple books and websites at least agree on these facts: Cooking meat on a metal rod dates to 17th century BCE on the Greek island of Crete. In 1200 AD, medieval Muslim explorer Ibn Baṭṭūṭah wrote in his travelogue about Indian royalty he’d observed eating meat cooked on skewers, a dish that was likely brought to that part of the world during the rise of the Mughal Empire there; soldiers were known to grill pieces of animal meats on their swords on open fires. The first written record of the word “kebab” can be found in a poem, Kyssa-i Yusuf (The Story of Joseph), by Tatar writer Kol Gali circa 1377.

I respect the history of the dish, for sure. But I am still going to talk about cooking kebabs in modern times because I like mine grilled just so – fully cooked, but still tender, juicy and flavorful. My husband is painfully aware of my kebab requirements. He’s generally charged with manning the grill, as well as catching heat if they don’t arrive at the table to my specifications.

I do try, though, to set him up for success as I prep the kebabs for cooking.

Rudalevige places a pork kebab on the grill. The meat was marinated in a mixture of miso, ginger, mirin and soy sauce. Arrange the vegetables on their own skewers because they cook faster than meat. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Firstly, I assemble single-ingredient kebabs. Even if they are cut to be the same size and shape, a piece of chicken is always going to take longer to cook than a wedge of onion. Meat and meatier fish like swordfish generally cook through in 10 to 12 minutes (less for beef, salmon or tuna if you like those on the rare side). Sturdy vegetables, like potatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini and eggplant, take 6 to 8 minutes. Shellfish, like scallop and shrimp, require only 5 to 6 minutes. And thinner vegetables, like asparagus, green beans or snap peas, as well as ones that get mushy fast, like cherry tomatoes or small mushrooms, require just 3 to 4 minutes.

Secondly, I marinate thin strips (never chunks as they take too long to cook) of raw meat in a mixture that includes a naturally tenderizing agent like beer, buttermilk, cola, coffee, ginger, miso, tea, vinegar or yogurt. I reserve a bit of the marinade in a separate bowl before adding the meat so that I can brush it over the fully cooked meat safely. The strips of meat will take up the flavors after an hour in the marinade, but the longer you leave them in it (up to 12 hours), the more tender the kebab will be. I thread the strips tightly onto a skewer to make a squarish formation, getting a half pound of meat on each skewer. This formation makes it easier for the cook to rotate the kebab while cooking them.

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Thirdly, I dress vegetables after they’ve been cooked. Warm vegetables pull in the flavors of a simple vinaigrette better than cold ones can. With zucchini, summer squash and eggplant, I take one extra step: First, I slice them very thinly lengthwise, sprinkle them with kosher salt, letting it pull the water out of the strips so they can easily be threaded onto a skewer.

Finally, I request that the kebabs be cooked slowly over medium heat on grates that have been both scrubbed clean and brushed with oil. Oiling the grates (rather than the kebabs) helps prevent flame flareups that burn the outside of the food while leaving the center undercooked. I advise my husband to let the kebabs sit untouched for two minutes before he starts turning them, about every two minutes thereafter to cook them evenly. Of course, I don’t stand there and watch over Andy to make sure he follows these rules. I leave him be with a local beer in one hand and tongs in the other. I set the table and wait for the perfectly cooked kebabs to arrive – as I trust they will.

Here are the recipes for three marinades that will suit most of the fish, meat and vegetable kebabs you throw on the grill this summer.

From left, beef marinated in coffee, chipotle, maple and lime; pork marinated in miso, ginger, mirin and soy sauce; chicken marinated in yogurt, curry, garlic and lemon; and sliced zucchini. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Coffee, Chipotle, Maple and Lime Marinade

This is enough marinade for 1 pound of beef, sliced very thinly.

1/4 cup cold coffee
2 tablespoons minced chipotle in adobo sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon grated garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Zest and juice of 1 lime

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Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Reserve 2 tablespoons of marinade. Place meat in the marinade for at least 1 but up to 12 hours before skewering and grilling it. Brush cooked kebabs with reserved marinade before serving warm.

Miso, Ginger, Mirin and Soy Marinade

This is enough marinade for 1 pound of pork, chicken or meaty fish.

3 tablespoons white (shiro) miso
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon grated garlic
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Reserve 2 tablespoons of marinade. Place meat, poultry or fish in the marinade for at least 1 but up to 12 hours before skewering and grilling it. Brush cooked kebabs with reserved marinade before serving warm.

Yogurt, Curry, Garlic and Lemon Marinade

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This is enough marinade for 1 pound of chicken, lamb or shrimp.

¼ cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 tablespoon grated garlic
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Zest and juice of 1 small lemon

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Reserve 2 tablespoons of marinade. Place meat in the marinade for at least 1 but up to 12 hours before skewering and grilling it. Brush cooked kebabs with reserved marinade before serving warm.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]


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