This past summer saw me travel to both Greece and Turkey: neighbors, once foes, current rivals and friendly neighbors. Confused? There’s a lot of history between these two nations and to this day, ripples from the Ottoman Empire are felt in Greece (some good, some bad). Greece and Turkey also share some similarities when it comes to food and often, it’s one of the facets that improves Greek-Turkish relations. One might hear a Greek curse at the Turks for another “military flying exercise” through the Greek airspace in the Aegean yet in the same conversation also talk of the best pistachio Baklava they ever had…in Istanbul! Just one of the many paradoxes.
Another food that’s shared in both Greece and Turkey is the Kebab. The Kebab I’m talking about is the ground meat that’s skewered and then grilled over hot charcoal embers. The most famous version of the Kebab in Greece has to be Thanassi’s in the Monastiraki area of Athens. It is made of ground beef (or veal) and likely there is a percentage of ground pork in the mixture. This kebab is served with skewered ripe tomatoes that also placed over a charcoal pit and served with the kebab, sliced red onions and pita .
The Turkish Kebab has it’s origins in Adana, an ancient Greek city (even cited as Adana in Homer’s Iliad). Adana is located in the eastern Mediterranean (just inland from the coast that sits across from Cyprus) and it’s Turkey’s 4th largest city. The Adana Kebab (as known in Turkey) is extremely popular and can be found on menus throughout Turkey and restaurants around the world. The Adana Kebab is made of ground with about 20% of the mixture consisting of tail fat from a lamb. The lamb meat is seasoned with finely shopped onions, spices, red pepper paste (Biber Salcasi) and minced by hand with the use if a Mezzaluna. A handful of meat is then affixed on the long flat skewers and then squeezed along the metal skewer to form a long, slender kebab.
The Kebab (unlike usual grilling) is suspended over the charcoal pit – no direct contact with the grill and with gravity coming into play, the fear of your Kebabs falling off your skewers becomes very real. There are a few tips one must follow if you want to successfully grill Kebabs:
- You need the flat metal skewers that will better hold onto the ground meat mixture
- The ground meat mixture needs approx 20% fat in it so that your mixture will adhere to the skewers and not fall off
- Your meat mixture must not be overly wet or, again your meat will fall off the skewers. Finely chopped onions rather than grated grated onion work best
- adding some baking soda into the meat mixture will help bind and lighten the density of the minced mixture
The Turkish Kebab mixture is a little trickier to emulate as it’s difficult to find the lamb’s tail fat used in the ground lamb mixture. Your best bet is to use ground lamb shoulder in the mix or a combo of ground lamb shoulder and ground chuck beef (also containing some fat). Turkey is a predominantly Muslim nation and I ground pork wouldn’t be included in the mix.
To accompany the Kebab, some good pita bread is lightly grilled and then cut into pieces and placed on your serving platter. The Greeks will also serve a garnish of sliced red onions and the Turks often serve a salad of sliced onions and parsley tossed in sumac and salt. In both the Greek and Turkish versions, roasted tomatoes are served (plus mildly hot green peppers in Turkey). You’ll need ripe tomatoes and one can either skewer the tomatoes whole on a separate skewer or thick tomato segments and peppers at the end of your Kebab skewer.
Finally, in both the Greek & Turkish Kebab, the skewers are suspended over the charcoal pit. These pits were designed for grilling kebabs and the skewers rest over the glowing embers. You and I do not have such equipment but you can place some bricks on both ends of your gas or charcoal grill and allow the skewers to rest on them. Make a batch of rice pilaf, serve up some homemade pita bread and serve the Kebabs with the roast tomato and green pepper kebabs, the onion salad with sumac and place some beers in the fridge to get chillin’.
Grilled Kebab With Warm Pita Bread & Onion & Parsley Salad
1/2 lb. of regular ground beef + 1/4 lb. regular ground pork
1/2 ground lamb shoulder + 1/2 lb. ground chuck beef
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 large egg
2 slices of stale bread (soaked in water, squeezed dry then crumbled)
1 tsp. of ground cumin
1 tsp. of ground allspice
1 Tbsp. of red pepper paste (or 1 Tbsp. of tomato paste mixed with 1/2 tsp. of sweet paprika & pinch of cayenne)
1 Tbsp. dried Greek oregano
1/2 tsp. of baking soda
1/2 tsp. of ground pepper
1 1/2 tsp. of sea salt
grilled tomatoes and peppers
salt and pepper
Onion, Parsley and Sumac Salad
1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. of ground Sumac
salt to taste
- Add all the ingredients except the meat until well mixed into a paste. Empty into a bowl and add your ground meat and mix well with your hands. Take enough meat to make a small meatball and fry it off in a small pan. Taste and adjust accordingly with salt, pepper or with any of the other seasonings. Remove from the processor and place in a bowl and cover and place in your fridge for at least 4 hours (overnight is even better).
- To form the Kebabs, divide the meat into equal portions and form into a meatball. Now form the meatball around the middle part of your skewer and then squeeze the meat mixture along the skewer. You should be able to form a long, slender kebab that’s about 6-7 inches along. Now, using your index and thumb, gently squeeze around the meat in 1/2 inch increments to form the ridged pattern.
- If you have extra skewers, you may place whole ripe tomatoes alternating with segments of green (I like hot) peppers or skewer them at the top end of your meat Kebabs (it’s a good idea to measure how much grilling surface you have as the bricks placed on both sides of your grill will reduce the length available). Brush the tomatoes and peppers with olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Place a row of bricks on the top and bottom end of your gas or charcoal grill. Pre-heat your grill to a medium-high (approx. 375F). In the meantime, make your onion salad by thinly slicing it and ten placing it in a bowl with enough cold water to just cover it (skip this step if you like your onions zesty). Allow to stand for 5 minutes and then drain well and add to a bowl with the chopped fresh parsley, salt to taste and Sumac. Toss well and add some salt and pepper to taste, toss again and reserve.
- Your grill should be ready by now and you may place the skewers on the rows of brick that were placed on your gas or charcoal grill. Grill the kebabs, flipping them frequently so that the meat on both sides of the skewer cook evenly and at the same rate. Cook for about 15 minutes or until just golden-brown. If the tomatoes and peppers are on separate skewers, again cook on both sides, about 15 minutes total, rotating often.
- Remove the skewers from the grill and allow to rest five minutes. Brush the pita breads lightly with olive oil and grill for a minute a side. Cut the pita bread into pieces and place on your plate or platter. Remove the Kebabs from the skewers (careful the skewers may still be hot).
- Serve with the roasted tomatoes and peppers and divide and plate the Onion, parsley and Sumac salad. A side of rice pilaf is apt for the occasion and some cold beer along with your Kebabs.
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