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The art of the kebab

Kebabs work well with a variety of meats,

Kebabs work well with a variety of meats, including chicken, shown. (April 5, 2010) Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney

Kebabs are among the most satisfying of grilled meals. Follow these five rules for skewered perfection.

1. Cook only one type of food per skewer. Despite the ubiquitous photos of skewers whose chunks of meat are prettily interspersed with onions, peppers and cherry tomatoes, the reality is that meats and vegetables cook at different rates — as does one vegetable from another. (Do feel free to punctuate your meat with a thin piece of something intended to flavor it: slices of lemon between chunks of fish; lengths of scallions between chunks of lamb, etc.)

2. Use flat skewers. The Turkish, Central Asian and Middle Eastern cooks who lead the world in kebab cuisine know that the only good skewer is a flat skewer, that is, a skewer that is not round in cross section but resembles a long, thin, metal file. If you have ever tried to turn a kebab over and have watched the food stay in the same position while you haplessly spun the skewer inside it, you will understand the benefits of a flat skewer. Any grocery or market that serves a Middle Eastern, Turkish or Central Asian community will stock flat skewers.

3. Choose sturdy food. Most red meats do fine on kebabs, as does pork. I find dark-meat chicken is a better bet than white: cut each boneless, skinless thigh into 4 to 6 large pieces then thread the skewer twice through each piece to keep the meat from flopping about. Flaky fish is a no-go, but salmon, tuna and especially swordfish are great on kebabs. As for vegetables, I think they are best grilled directly on the grate than on skewers.

4. Build a hot, even fire. You want to cook kebabs quickly, so build a serious fire. And take care that the entire surface of the grill is evenly heated. If the center is hotter than the perimeter, for example, the meat cooking directly over the center will cook faster than the meat at the ends of that very same skewer.

5. Cover the grill, and don't futz with the kebabs. Lay the kebabs on the grill, cover it, and walk away. Leave the kebabs alone for at least 3 minutes before gently lifting up one end with long-handled tongs to see what's going on the undersides. Futzing with food is the leading cause of sticking. When the meat has started to brown nicely, it will happily allow you to lift it off the grill and turn it.

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