How To Make Kebabs, Because You Like To Stab Things And Play With Fire

You dusted off your crummy charcoal grill way back in April, and by now, through all the contrived family gatherings that are really just flimsy pretexts for playing with fire, you've already run through your basic repertoire of grilled foods: chicken thighs and chicken breasts and steak and lobster and ribs and glorious, glorious cheeseburgers and so on. And now the Fourth of July is upon you; what will you whip out for your stupid family and stupid friends and stupid, stupid kids so that they won't go, "Ugh, didn't he make this for the last holiday? What a repetitive, unoriginal, bad-smelling doofus"—pheasant? Ibex? Friggin' monitor lizard? Your arm? That'll show those hard-to-impress jerks! He suffers for his art, like a genius or incompetent buffoon or something!

Nah. Screw that. Make kebabs. Everybody likes kebabs.

The great thing about kebabs—other than, y'know, that they taste good—is that they're fun to eat: varied in color and flavor and texture, vaguely handsy and interactive, and mounted on sticks, which is just kind of cool in a people-like-to-stab-things kind of way. Also, they're easy to make. Also, their variety of ingredients makes them a good thing to serve to a large group of people with diverse tastes. Also, at least in the following preparation, they're a haphazard enough mishmash of pan-Eastern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/subcontinental Asian flavors to infuriate virtually every persnickety weenie on earth who ever had an opinion about food. Which is always nice.

OK, there are lots of great things about kebabs. That's not really the point here. Look, let's just move on OK for chrissakes.

In fact, let's get started.


The first thing to do is prepare meat. Precisely how far ahead of everything else you'll need to complete this step depends hugely on what type of meat you want to cook. Let's talk about that.

You're of course free to use whatever meat you damn well please for your kebabs (within reason of course, ahem, Jeffrey Dahmer). For the purposes of keeping things simple and because there's only so much space on the internet what with all the annoying run-on sentences and shit, we'll cover three options for kebab meat, here: beef/lamb, chicken breast, and chicken thigh.

Chicken thigh is the easiest of the three meats to prepare: You buy a pack of boneless, skinless thighs (enough for each eater to have, say, four of 'em, since they're tiny—this'll run you approximately $0.01), you hack 'em into roughly large-bite-sized pieces, and you skewer 'em. Then you coat them generously with whatever flavorings you want to add (I'm recommending that you whisk some powdered turmeric, cumin, minced garlic, salt, black pepper, lemon juice, and a couple wee droplets of sriracha into a few tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl, and brush this stuff across the chicken on the skewers, but really, do what you like). There. Done. Go have some beers while we deal with everybody else.

Chicken breast is the next easiest. Buy some boneless, skinless breasts, cut them into hunks roughly the size of campfire marshmallows, and sprinkle them generously with your preferred spices (I'm recommending turmeric, cumin, black pepper, and cinnamon); each breast should yield eight to 10 of these, and you'll need enough for each eater to eat an entire breast's worth. This shouldn't cost you more than $900 or so, depending on your local sales tax. We covered this before, but you're going to brine your chicken. Dissolve three-quarters of a cup of sugar and two tablespoons of salt in a cup of boiling water, mix this with several more cups of cold water and some ice cubes (this will yield enough brine for 3-5 chicken breasts; adjust accordingly), then pour it over the hacked-up chicken in a big vessel of some sort. Toss in some diced onion, a few smashed cloves of garlic, and some fresh grated ginger. Let it sit for at least a half-hour. Skewer the chicken pieces, say, six to eight per skewer, just before they go on the grill.

(Note: If you have a vessel long enough, you can skewer the chicken pieces before brining them; this saves you a fair bit of pain-in-the-ass work down the line, when you'd otherwise have to fish the slimy chicken wads out of the tepid brine by hand and frantically stab them onto skewers before all the brine drains out of them. If you don't have a vessel suited to that, that's a tough break, buddy, but your chicken's still gonna taste good.)

Finally, lamb (Ooh, look at me, I'm Mister Fancy International Meats!) and beef (Ooh, look at me, I'm Mister Afraid-Of-Fancy-International-Meats!) require the earliest preparation. The night before you're gonna grill, stir some minced garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, turmeric, salt, and pepper into a bunch of plain yogurt (or Greek yogurt, if you're into razing all the life off of the earth for the sake of eating some gloopy shit that tastes like chalk); fully submerge your cubed meat into this stuff; cover it with plastic wrap; refrigerate it overnight. The next day, a few minutes before you intend to grill the meat, fish it out of the yogurt mixture and skewer it, taking no particular care to brush any excess yogurt marinade off of it, because life is too short for that nonsense.

(Note: Do not skewer your beef or lamb prior to marinating in yogurt. Yogurt-coated skewers are gross. I feel like I shouldn't even have to tell you that.)

Meat brining or marinating or slowly festering in the trunk of your car because you forgot to unload it after your last grocery trip 10 days ago? Nice. Now it's time to prepare vegetation. The basic idea is to take whatever veggies (or fungi or fruits or lichen or whatever) you're going to be cooking, peel (where necessary) and chop (where necessary) them into roughly equal-sized pieces, and skewer them in attractively colorful patterns. Decide for yourself which vegetables and so on you'd like to use; if you happen to be stricken with aboulia and are thus incapable of making your own decisions, call 911 immediately, but also go ahead and use red onion, zucchini, red and green bell peppers, brown mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes; chop the onion, zucchini, and peppers into pieces roughly the size of the mushrooms to keep things consistent. Skewer everything; sprinkle it with salt; maybe spritz it with a little bit of spray oil so it'll brown attractively on the grill.

It is now time to make a fire in your shitty charcoal grill. You know how to do this. Go ahead and do it. We'll wait.

[twiddles thumbs]

[whistles tunelessly]

[sticks finger in your jar of peanut butter]

So your fire's blazing away out there, working its way inside the charcoal. While it's doing that, whip up some quick cucumber sauce-type stuff, which you may call tzatziki if it particularly pleases you to do so. A couple of cups of plain yogurt, maybe half a cup of sour cream, one whole peeled and chopped cucumber, fresh dill, minced raw garlic, a splash of olive oil, black pepper, a wee drizzle of honey, and maybe a splash of vinegar if you feel like tarting it up. Mix all that stuff in a bowl. Taste. Do a slow-motion jumping fist-pump. Freeze in midair, as Stan Bush sings about ridin' alone or some shit. Done.

Your fire has now retreated inside the coals; your vegetation is skewered and ready to go; your cucumber sauce-type stuff is prepared. It's time to skewer the meat. With your disgusting, grubby, soot-blackened fingers (in this conception of things, you are an Elizabethan-era chimney-sweep), yank the meat from its brine or yogurt marinade (you chicken-thigh people are way ahead of the game; watch some baseball or something, willya? We're workin' here, by gum) and viciously impale it on skewers, imagining all the while that each wad of meat is one of Rick Perry's fingers, how do you like that you incoherent boob sonofabitch.

So your meat is now skewered and ready to go. Carry it directly to the grill and cook meat. No lid, no brushing on some extra marinade, just stand by and turn the skewers occasionally. The chicken thigh skewers will need maybe eight minutes on the grill to get them cooked through; the brined chicken breast gets, oh, maybe five total minutes of intense heat; turn the skewers every 90 seconds or so to prevent the chicken from blackening on any side. The red meat gets maybe 10 to 12 minutes, with two or three turns thrown in there. Don't worry that you're going to overcook your lamb or beef to chewiness; the lactic acid and cultures in the yogurt have tenderized that shit something fierce. (Note that the cook times will increase if, because you are a lazy corner-cutting bum like all the other decent people, you crammed way too much meat on each skewer; this will slow the heating of the insides of the meat.)

Don't stab your meat with some stupid digital thermometer like a dork; when it looks good and done—when it smells good and feels firm after you prod it with some tongs while none of your high-strung, food-scared weenie guests are looking—get the meat the hell off of there and onto a serving platter. It is now time to cook your vegetation. The very nice thing about this part is that, hey, vegetables and fruits and fungi and (figurative) shit are edible in their raw state, so all you're really aiming for is some nice exterior browning and maybe just a little bit of softening before you get to call this stuff done. You can use the lid of your grill for this part, to speed things to a softened state. As long as your fire is still reasonably hot, your plantlife skewers don't need more than maybe, oh, five or six minutes on the grill, with a turn or two thrown in there. After that, get the veggies off the grill and onto a separate platter.

And now, it's time to eat. All in all, that was pretty easy, wasn't it? Oh, shut the fuck up.


Serve your kebabs with your cucumber sauce-type stuff and some long-grain white rice—or, even better, some good pita bread or naan that you toasted for a few seconds on the still-warm grill, or both, or, hey, neither. Also, a small bowl of crumbled feta cheese for sprinkling over things, a tart salad with crunchy greens and a piquant dressing, and lots and lots of wine. Mix and match the various flavors and colors on your fork (or torn-off scrap of bread) as you eat; there's juicy meat, tart tomato, sweet peppers, the bright punchy taste of onion, the cool richness of the cucumber sauce, and everything held together by that wonderful, charred, carbon-y charcoal flavor and tasting like summer. Hell, it's enough to make you forget about the tray of cheeseburgers over—

What? Oh. OK. Yeah, that was going too far. But it tastes good anyway, dammit, and that's good enough.

Happy Independence Day.

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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at albertburneko@gmail.com. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Image by Jim Cooke.