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Grilling Paradox and Middle Eastern Kefta

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:52pm
Hi everyone,

I know it’s been a few days since I wrote anything more than guidelines and results of the giveaway. So sorry. But I just haven’t been cooking as much the past few days (looming deadline; I’m in the eeek!!! zone); I didn’t think you would appreciate a rhapsody on cold cereal and dirty dishes.

But last night I got back in the groove—the grilling groove, in particular—and it got me thinking about the (somewhat perplexing) popularity of grilling.

Here’s the thing: we live in an age of ever-increasing efficiency, when a five-minute wait at Starbucks is considered 4 and 1/2 minutes too long.

Yet come summer, the same soul who hits the 88 seconds on the microwave to warm a cup of instant soup (it takes less time to hit one button twice than to punch in two separate numbers) will gladly spend an entire Saturday unearthing a barbecue grill from the garage’s deep depths with the singular purpose of cooking a pack of bratwurst. According to recent statistics, 75 percent of the country will follow suit.

At face value, it makes little sense. Cumbersome equipment, lengthy preparations, high heat, messiness, and unpredictable results—grilling epitomizes every variety of cooking trips and travails increasingly eschewed by citizens young and old.

Simple seduction provides a partial explanation. The scent of smoke drifting through the neighborhood on a sultry afternoon is almost primal, and certainly lusty; one whiff cannot help but raise the aspirations and whet the appetites of even the most reluctant cook.

But the sociologist in me believes that symbolism far outweighs seduction. We grill for all it represents: freedom from rules, freedom from the mundane, and freedom from nine months of kitchen confines are but a few. There is something democratic about it, too. As we become a society segregated by the food we eat as much as by the neighborhoods we live in, the backyard or public park barbecue may be one of the last shared symbols of American culinary community.

Grilling snobs would like to squelch any such solidarity, trying to spoil the fun with lists of grilling dos, don’ts and nevers. Ignore them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to proclaim that filet mignon tastes better than ground chuck. Having savored more than one charred hot dog, a grilled pizza that was dropped on the ground no less than three times (omg, it was still so good), and countless hamburgers laced with a soupcon of gasoline pump, I feel confident asserting that the joy of grilling is as much a part of the of the process, if not more than, the final product.

For an almost no-fail, knock-your-socks-off alternative to burgers, try my kefta recipe. Kefta (also known as kofta, kufta, kafteh, keftes, cuftah, and kyuftah) are common street foods in the Middle East, made by grinding meat and mixing it with an assortment of spices. The resulting seasoned meat can be shaped into meatballs or cylinders of meat which can be cooked in a wide variety, including grilled or broiled on skewers.

The results are aromatically extravagant, just the thing for a warm summer night. And, (in line with a request from an anonymous poster yesterday), it is relatively cheap eats if you already have the spices in your pantry—an easy way to dress up reliable, reasonably-priced hamburger. Readers, start your fires!

Spiced Kefta Kebabs with Lemon-Herb Yogurt Sauce

2 pounds lean ground beef

2 medium onions, grated

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)

Lemon wedges

Optional accompaniments: yogurt sauce (see below), warm pita bread

In a large bowl mix the ground beef, onions, mint, cilantro, cumin, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, salt and (optional) cayenne. Combine vigorously until very smooth and pasty. Wet your hands and divide the meat into 16 egg-shaped mounds.

Press them firmly around 16 small, square-bladed metal skewers, one on each skewer, and form into thin sausage shapes.

Cook directly over medium-high grill (gas or charcoal) or under the broiler for 4-5 minutes, until done, turning over once. Be careful not to overcook, as the meat dries out quickly. Serve immediately with yogurt sauce, a squeeze of lemon, and (optional) warmed pita bread. Makes 8 servings (2 kebabs apiece).

Kefta recipe (not the yogurt sauce) adapted from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden

Lemon-Herb Yogurt Sauce

1 cup lowfat plain yogurt

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Mix all of the ingredients in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill until ready to use.

Nutrition per Serving:

Calories 268; Fat 10.1g (sat 3.9g, mono 4.4g, poly 0.9g); Protein 23.5g; Cholesterol 87mg; Sodium 600mg; Carbohydrate 19.7g.
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