The joy of summer cooking
Gather up the family, head outside, and fire up the grill
The summer heat is relentless in south Louisiana. With its humid, subtropical climate, folks in these parts tend to slow down significantly in the summertime. It’s too hot to move fast. But slowing down is good for us anyway, right? It gives us a chance to savor more of life.
I don’t think I ever slowed down as a kid, no matter how hot it was outside. When I was a kid, you would rarely find me at home in the summertime. After a quick lunch — usually comprised of some sort of lunchmeat sandwich on white bread with chips, lovingly prepared by my mom — my younger sister and I would jump on our bikes and take off to meet our friends and play the afternoon away.
The only absolute rule we had to follow was to be home by dark. I can still remember those evenings — racing my sister home, which, mind you, was no easy task. I may have been two years older than she was, but she had the better bike. And she was tenacious. Both of us racing the falling sun, struggling to see and avoiding the potholes as the dark closed in — I remember that as the time I would become aware of how hungry I was.
As soon as we rounded the corner onto our street, that awareness would hit me as I drank in deep breaths filled with the smoky aroma of the steaks and smoked sausage my dad had just laid on the grill. It’s now almost 40 years later, but I can still smell those summer nights. They smell like happiness.
I’ve mentioned before in these pages the Sunday tradition that I grew up with — how my sister and I would go to Mass with our mom and dad midmorning and then join all our cousins, aunts, and uncles over at our paternal grandparents’ house for a big family lunch. We would do the same from time to time with my maternal grandparents. But since they lived out in the country, those gatherings were not as frequent.
Throughout the year Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw Young would prepare big meals to feed at least 12 adults and about the same number of kids. For most of the year, those meals were cooked in pots and pans on the stove and in the oven. Beef roasts, baked chickens, roasted turkeys, and hams were accompanied by tossed salads, vegetable casseroles, and homemade desserts. Most of the year.
But not in the summertime. It was too hot to run the oven in the summertime, so my grandparents would take the party outside. There was plenty of shade under the trees, and Paw-Paw Young would plug in a few electric box fans to help cool everyone off while he donned his apron and manned the grill. Pulled pork, ribs, and barbecue chicken were frequently on the summer menus, along with tossed salads, potato salads, and even grilled vegetables.
Grilling is a great American pastime. Cooking and eating outdoors gives us the precious opportunity to simply be in nature. It also helps to keep the house cool. There is something just good about being outside.
The summer recipe I want to share with you is one of our favorites: shish kebabs. This recipe comes from my wife’s side of the family, which is Lebanese, so the flavor profile might be new to you unless you are familiar with Greek and Lebanese cuisine. And, I admit, there is just a little (or maybe more!) south Louisiana influence on this recipe, too. The original recipe yielded enough to feed a small army. I pared it down for you, but be aware that it still leans toward “big-batch cooking,” which means you might have leftovers (which we love!), or you could invite friends and family to join you in savoring your summer Sundays.
You will notice below that the only veggies listed for the kebabs are sweet onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes. You are certainly not limited to only those veggies. Purple onions, zucchini, Japanese eggplant, yellow squash, and pineapple all make great additions to shish kebabs.
You could even do shrimp instead of beef, chicken, or lamb. Just keep in mind that shrimp cook very quickly on a hot grill. You don’t want to overcook them, as doing so will make them tough. When we do shrimp kebabs, I usually place the shrimp all together on their own skewers and cook them separately from the vegetables.
Assembling the skewers can be fun for the whole family. It’s a great way to get the kids involved in the cooking process. But no matter who does the skewering or how the skewers are assembled, let the joy of summer Sundays in the sun bless you and your family this year.
For the marinade:
1 cup freshly squeeze lemon juice
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper, or to taste
1½ to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
Handful of dried mint, crushed finely
10 cloves of garlic, minced
½ onion, finely chopped
1 to 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped
6 ounces of Worcestershire sauce
4 ounces Louisiana hot sauce (or something comparable)
For the shish kebab:
6 medium sweet yellow onions
5 bell peppers (we like to use a combination of green and red bell peppers)
Whole mushrooms (amount up to chef’s discretion, but we usually do about 1 pound)
Cherry tomatoes (again, the amount is up to the chef, but about 1 pound)
10 pounds of boneless beef sirloin, or leg of lamb, or chicken
Make the marinade:
Add the garlic, kosher salt, black pepper, and lemon juice to a food processor and pulse until well blended.
Add the olive oil, crushed red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and mint. Pulse lightly to incorporate.
Cut the meat into 1½ to 2-inch cubes.
Quarter the onions and cut the bell peppers into bite-sized pieces.
Place the meat in a large container or in one or more resealable plastic bags. In a separate container, place the quartered onions, bell peppers, and whole mushrooms.
Divide the marinade between the containers, seal them, and refrigerate overnight.
Cooking the shish kebab:
Preheat outdoor grill to medium-high heat.
Remove meat and vegetables from the refrigerator to prepare your skewers. Alternate meat and vegetables on the skewer without overcrowding it. Some people believe that there is only one way to do this, but I don’t think the pattern really matters, except that it is helpful to have a piece of meat go on the skewer first so it’s at the base. One of our cousins has a very specific pattern he follows, and every one of his skewers is topped with a tomato. But you can skewer them any way you like.
Brush each skewer with a little olive oil to prevent sticking and place them on the grill, being careful not to overcrowd the grilling surface. Cook until done, rotating at least once. Cooking time will depend on how hot the grill is and how done you want the meat.