It’s all in the marinade.
After last week’s adventures with the Revel, I took a fresh look at an old recipe for charcoal-grilled lamb kebabs. Chunks of lamb—from a boneless leg that’s been trimmed of its fat and membrane—are marinated in thick, tangy whole milk yoghurt whisked with garlic, ginger, cilantro and a few Indian spices. The yoghurt works miracles on the lamb, tenderizing it naturally and removing any hint of gamy flavor, while the sweet, hot, aromatic flavorings contrast beautifully with the savory meat.
For years, through sheer laziness, I never minced the garlic and ginger fine enough, and though the spices were crushed in a mortar and pestle, there always seemed to be hard fragments of coriander and fennel seed clinging to the meat. The kebabs are grilled just to medium rare, so there would be bits of partly cooked seasonings that detracted from the rich, unctuous flavor of the lamb.
The question: Would grinding the spices and the aromatics to a smooth paste give the kebabs a little more finesse?
The answer: A resounding yes!
The two changes I’ve made are so easy (and obvious) that I’m almost embarrassed to tell you about them: First, pureeing the garlic, ginger and fresh cilantro to a smooth paste which is then beaten into the yoghurt dramatically brightens the flavor of the marinade. Second, I decided to toast the dry spices to bring out their mellow side, then whirred them to a fine powder before combining them with the rest of the yoghurt mixture. That’s it—but now the flavors are more harmoniously balanced—and they haven’t lost their punch.
Naturally you can make this recipe without a wet grinder simply by grating the ginger and garlic with a microplane, or doing your best with a food processor or blender. The marinade won’t be quite as silky, but the flavors will be vibrant, and you’ll mostly avoid having those unpleasant bits of fibrous ginger and half raw garlic conflict with the deliciousness of the kebabs.
I like to grill the lamb on long metal skewers—part of B’s eclectic dowry—with hot though not incendiary chilies—usually red or green serranos or jalapenos from the 5 o’clock (a.k.a. the cocktail) garden. The hot peppers contrast wonderfully with the rich flavor of the tender lamb—usually we wind taking bites of one and then the other: the pleasure-pain principle in action.
To really cool your palate, serve the kebabs with a chilled cucumber-mint raita. Many varieties of raitas are eaten all over India—Laxmi Hiremath (The Dance of Spices) says they may have been invented to use up leftover yoghurt before it turned sour—but all have a base of plain yoghurt that is mixed with delectable combinations of vegetables, fruits, rice, herbs and spices. South Indian raitas are often spiked with green chiles, but since this dish is meant to quench the fire of the grilled chiles, I’ve kept it very plain, limiting the flavors to cucumber and fresh chopped mint with a pinch of toasted cumin.
Hot, then cool, and hot again. Could be this summer’s theme.
Charcoal Grilled Lamb Kebabs in Spiced Yoghurt with Hot Green Chilies and Cucumber-Mint Raita
To serve 6
3 pounds boneless leg of lamb
2 tablespoons ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon canola oil
½ cup cilantro, chopped
¾ teaspoon fennel seed, freshly roasted and ground (see note)
¾ teaspoon coriander seed, freshly roasted and ground (see note)
3/4 cup plain yoghurt
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
12 fresh chilies, serranos or jalapenos
Additional canola oil
1. Unroll the lamb and spread it flat on a cutting board, fat side up. Using a sharp knife, cut away the membrane and most of the fat. Cut the lamb into 1-1/2 inch chunks and place the meat in a shallow dish.
2. If using a wet grinder, food processor or blender, fill the container with the ginger, garlic and 1 tablespoon canola oil. Process in short bursts until the mixture is very smooth and creamy. Add the cilantro to the bowl and process again, until it has been completely incorporated and the paste is bright green.
Or, if using a grater, combine 1-1/2 tablespoons grated ginger with an equal amount of grated garlic. Stir in the canola oil. Mince the cilantro and stir into the mixture.
3. Stir the ground spices into the paste. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
4. Whisk the paste into the yoghurt, making sure that all the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Taste and correct seasonings. Pour the mixture over the lamb chunks. Turn the pieces in the marinade so that the meat is coated on all sides. Set aside to marinate for 4 hours at cool room temperature or for 8 hours in the refrigerator.
5. When ready to grill, remove the meat from the marinade. Lightly pat with a paper towel to remove any excess yoghurt, but do leave some of it clinging to the meat. Rub the lamb with canola oil on all sides. Rub the chili peppers with oil as well. Thread onto 6 long metal skewers, 2 chilies and 4 or 5 chunks of meat. Set aside.
6. Light a charcoal grill and let the coals burn down until they are red hot, covered with white ash and no longer flaming. Place the skewers over the coals and cover. Grill for 4 to 5 minutes, turn and grill for 4 to 5 minutes longer for medium rare.
7. Using kitchen towels or thick pot holders, remove the skewers from the grill—be careful, as the metal will be very hot—and set them on a platter. Cover with aluminum foil and let them rest for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and serve with cucumber-mint raita on the side.
Note: To roast the spices, place a small cast iron skillet over a medium flame. When the skillet is warm, add the spices and stir constantly until they release their aroma and have changed color. Then fennel will turn yellow and the coriander will darken, turning slightly brown. Do not let them burn or they will become bitter. Remove from the heat and pour into the bowl of a spice grinder. When the spices are completely cool, cover and grind to a fine powder.
Makes about 1-3/4 cups
1 cup plain, whole milk yoghurt
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into ¼-inch dice
1 small bunch fresh mint, leaves only, finely chopped
Pinch of roasted, freshly ground cumin (see note above)
Pinch of sea salt, or to taste
Combine the yoghurt, cucumber and mint. Stir in the cumin and sea salt. Make sure that all the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Chill before serving.