By Aarti Sequeira, Associated Press
With autumn winking at me from the horizon, Labor Day grilling takes on a whole new significance. I’ve either worked my rusty old charcoal grill to the bone over the summer and I’m looking for something a little different to wrap up the season, or I’m swimming in regret over not grilling enough and I’m looking for a quick, satisfying recipe that will make me feel like I’ve accomplished something this summer.
Enter the Middle East’s answer to a hamburger: the shish kebab. Ground meat, woven together with onions, parsley and a native spice mix, molded onto a metal skewer like a delicate sausage, then cooked over smoldering coals. The charred yet perfectly tender kebab is pulled off the skewer using a piece of qubbus, a soft pita bread, then smothered in fresh vegetables and sometimes a little tahini, and eaten right there and then.
It’s Arabic street food at its most practical (who needs plates?) and most delicious.
One of the keys to a great shish kebab is that spice mix, baharat, which in Arabic means nothing more than spices. Typical components include allspice, cumin, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, though it varies by region (for example, a Moroccan version includes dried mint and rose petals).
To me, baharat bears a striking resemblance to Indian garam masala, which is a fine substitute if you don’t have any baharat kicking around (though it’s a snap to make a batch yourself). Use the leftover spice mix to coat meat or fish, or sprinkle a teaspoon into your autumnal stews, especially anything with root vegetables. A pinch stirred into some yogurt also makes a fantastic dip.
Baharat usually is available in the spice section or international aisle of the supermarket. Alternatively, you can find it at Middle Eastern stores or online. In a pinch, substitute with garam masala or a mix of 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. For the meat, you want a fatty beef, such as 80 percent lean. A mix of ground lamb and ground beef also is good.
To make this meal really pop, season a bit of plain Greek yogurt with a generous pinch (or more) of extra baharat, then spoon that over the assembled sandwiches.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
1 medium white onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baharat seasoning
1 pound 80 percent lean ground beef
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
8 small (5 inch) whole-wheat pita rounds
Romaine lettuce or watercress
Sliced ripe tomatoes
Heat a grill to medium-high.
In a food processor, combine the parsley, onion, salt and baharat. Pulse just until finely chopped (don’t overdo it or you’ll end up with a watery paste!). Add the beef and baking soda. Pulse a few more times until the meat and onion-parsley mixture are evenly mixed together. Transfer to a bowl and knead a few times until the mixture looks like a piece of knitted fabric.
Divide the mixture into 8 portions, then roll each portion into a ball. Pierce each portion with a skewer and mold the mixture into a long, even sausage shape, 4 to 6 inches long, along the skewer.
Carefully place the kebabs on the grill, rotating every couple of minutes or so until they are cooked evenly and all the way through, about 8 minutes total. Warm the pita rounds on the grill, then use them to pull the meat off each skewer. Encourage your guests to add whatever vegetables they like to their sandwich.
Nutrition information per serving: 460 calories; 220 calories from fat (48 percent of total calories); 24 g fat (9 g saturated; 1.5 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 890 mg sodium; 37 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 26 g protein.