Saturday, May 31, 2008

Grill Time: Marinated Chicken Shish Kebabs

Summer feels here, at least in Atlanta, even if it doesn't start meteorologically until later in June. It's grilling season. And a good excuse for kebabs on skewers.

The shish (şiş in Turkish) in shish kebab literally means the metal sword-like skewer that meat or other things are speared on before grilling over -- or originally in front of -- a fire. Kebabs, chunks of meat cooked by fire, are from central Asia, and came west with the Turkik nomads of the Steppes. Lamb was the favorite meat, with little on it other than oil and a little salt. But kebabs can be from beef, chicken, ground meat, pork (as in the Greek souvlaki, though not by the Muslim Turks or Arabs), fish, shrimp, vegetables, or even cheese as in the Indian tandoori panir tikka. They can also be can be fried in oil, stuffed with cheese or dried fruit, and almost anything else. The only constant is that they should be served on top of rice, preferably an aromatic rice pilaf with fruits and nuts in it.

The savory kebabs described below are patterned after those I learned from my friend, Kazim Firat, the first owner of the Istanbul Café in Atlanta. They are made from boneless, skinless chicken thigh, the juiciest meat on the chicken, and are marinated overnight before skewering and grilling. After marinating, they can be skewered ahead of time and stored in the fridge until ready to grill, reducing last-minute preparation.

In addition to rice pilaf (two recipes are in my blog, on 1/5/07 and 3/30/08) particularly good accompaniments are whole grilled tomatoes (lightly moistened with olive oil and sprinkled with salt before grilling), wedges of lemon to squeeze on everything, plus a cold cucumber-yogurt sauce (tsadziki/cacik, in my blog on 4/25/08). The recipe serves six.

The fragrant grilled chicken and rice go well with a spicy red wine, such as one made of Grenache/Garnacha grapes from Southern France or Spain or, for a white, a dry Riesling or Chardonnay, or a dry rosé. The red wine can be served slightly chilled -- but not ice cold -- in hot weather, and a white or rosé should always be cold. Of course, cold beer, a malty golden lager type rather than a pale ale with a lot of hops would be my preference, also goes well with kebabs fresh off the grill.

Chicken Shish Kebabs, Kurdish/Turkish style (Tim/Kazim)

2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
1 large clove of garlic
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper
1 teaspoon tomato paste (2 teaspoons ketchup can be substituted)
4 tablespoons lemon juice (bottled is OK)
2 tablespoons olive oil

Vegetables for grilling (e.g., tomatoes, long sweet peppers, mushrooms, small onions)
Olive oil and salt for the vegetables

Lemon chunks for garnish
Sumac (available at Middle Eastern groceries), or fresh flat (‘Italian style’) parsley, for garnish

(Prepare and marinate the chicken well ahead of cooking time, even up to 2 days in advance, and store cold.) Trim away any tough parts and excess fat from the chicken (a little fat can be left, as it will cook away). Cut the meat into pieces about 1-1/2 inches long, an inch wide and 1/2-inch thick. Place in a bowl. Put the garlic through a garlic press or mince finely. Add it plus the other ingredients, except the vegetables and the garnishes, to the chicken and mix well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or transfer the chicken and marinade to a zip-lock plastic food bag. Mix the chicken from time to time for even seasoning, or squeeze the contents of the bag to mix.

Thread the chicken onto skewers, folding the chicken pieces in half. If flat, wide skewers are not used, stick a second skewer into each kebab, so the meat does not twist around. Make 12 kebabs, or six long ones.

Grill over charcoal or gas fire or under the oven broiler, turning several times until cooked and browning on the outside. Meanwhile coat the vegetables with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill them near the kabobs to sear the outsides.

Serve over a bed of rice pilaf on a large platter, pulling the skewers out from the meat (the meat is traditionally served OFF the skewers) and laying it on the rice. Surround with some grilled vegetables, and accompany with lemon chunks for squeezing onto the meat. Optionally, dust the kebabs with sumac or chopped flat parsley.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Flan: Crème Caramel: Caramel Custard

A number of places I've visited claim as their own baked custard with an upside-down caramelized sugar topping. The dish, common in the tropics, is called variously flan, crème caramel, and caramel custard. The French, Spanish, Latin Americans, and even Indians, say it's their specialty. It's surprisingly simple, needing only to be made in advance and chilled before serving.

The ingredients are readily available throughout the world -- canned sweetened condensed milk (which keeps without refrigeration), fresh eggs, sugar, and vanilla. If there is an oven available the dessert is easy to make. The version presented here is flavored with both vanilla and rum or coffee and is accompanied by sliced or diced tropical fruits. The traditional simple version does not include flavorings other than vanilla, and it's simply served cold inverted on the dish so the caramel is the topping.

Caramel is sugar heated until it turns golden brown, a sort of controlled burn. Sweetened condensed milk is available at supermarkets, but is by far cheapest at Asian or Latino groceries. Be sure to get the full cream variety, not the skim milk version, and especially not the "filled" milk variety with skim milk and vegetable oil in place of cream. If the custard is to be a large single one, the full complement of eggs is needed so it holds together. Slightly less egg is needed for small, individual custards. The recipe will make dessert for six people.

Crème Caramel (Caramel Custard/Flan) Tim

1/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 (14-ounce) can of sweetened condensed whole milk
2 cans water (minus 2 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons amber or dark rum (or strong freshly made coffee)

Fruit Salad
1 cup, total, of a mixture of diced tropical fruits, such as mango, pineapple, orange, kiwi fruit, etc, or use strawberries, raspberries and/or blueberries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon amber or dark rum

Set oven for 340 degrees. Have ready a nine-inch glass or ceramic pie dish or low-sided casserole plus a larger pan into which the dish will fit to make a hot-water bath (bain marie) for the baking. Have a kettle of simmering water ready for the water bath.

Two options for caramelizing: Heat the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan until melted and caramelizing to a dark tea color. Pour the mixture as evenly as you can over the bottom of the baking dish and tip the dish to distribute it around. (The dish can be warmed in a microwave to re-melt the hardened caramel so you can spread it more evenly, if desired.) The other option that sometimes works and is easier is to place the sugar evenly in the glass or ceramic dish and microwave it until it caramelizes. With either method, let the caramelized sugar cool before adding the custard mixture.

In a large bowl lightly beat the eggs with a whisk or large fork. Add the condensed milk, scraping the can out with a spatula. Mix the milk into the eggs. Add two cans worth of water, measuring out and discarding a total of 2 tablespoons of the water. Mix the water into the egg-milk mixture. Add and mix in the salt, vanilla and rum (or coffee).

Place the prepared custard dish in the larger pan, and pour the custard mixture through a strainer into the dish. Place the two pans on a middle or lower shelf in the oven and pour the simmering water into the outer pan to come up as much as half way on the custard dish. Bake for about 1-1/4 hours, or until the top seems set when gently wiggled and a knife point stuck into the custard half way from the edge to the center comes out clean without clinging milk. Remove the custard and its water bath from the oven and allow the custard to cool completely. Remove the custard dish from the water bath and cover the dish with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cold. The custard will keep for several days, and is better after chilling for a few hours to a day. To serve, run a sharp knife around the edge of the custard to free it from the dish. Place a serving platter upside down over the custard dish, then turn the whole thing over so the custard drops onto the platter, and the caramel sauce covers and surrounds it.

For the fruit salad, peel and dice (1/4-1/2 inch) the fruits selected. Mix in the sugar and rum and let marinate at least 10 minutes. When serving the custard, first spoon the caramel sauce back over the top, then put a spoonful of fruit onto the center of the custard and distribute the remainder of the fruit around the custard.