I'm kind of a sissy when it comes to grilling. Growing up in Germany, having a barbecue always seemed so utterly and entirely American. After all, the Americans did it best: juicy burgers with their toasty buns, spicy chicken slathered in barbecue sauce, gooey marshmallows falling off of scavenged twigs. My family in Italy would grill from time to time - a whole fish in a wire basket, perhaps, or a few slices of bread to be rubbed with garlic and drizzled with oil - the original and inimitable bruschetta - but that was about it. And even then, the grill was in the province of men. My imposing Sicilian uncle would take care of the fish, and our Milanese friend Giancarlo would stand over his grill and toss toasted bread back at the dinner table for us to dress.
In America, too, grilling and manhood seem inextricably bound - in fact, it often seems to be the only place where men feel truly comfortable when cooking. Get a group of people together for a summer barbecue and the men will always end up standing around the grill, giving each other terse "suggestions" for how to get the fire going. I let this behavior intimidate me over the years. I convinced myself that I didn't really care much for grilled food anyhow - a saute pan was good enough for me! But somewhere in the back of my brain, I suspected that if I could wrestle my way to the front of the grill and master that sucker, it might well be worth it.
For the past year, I've been lucky enough to live in a ground-floor apartment with a patio and hence a grill. It's a bit of a sad-looking grill, lopsided and with a tipsy-looking ash-collector (erm, that's what I call it. I may be mastering the grill, but that doesn't mean I know the lingo), but who cares about looks when it comes to grilling? I didn't need some fancy-pants grill selling at Williams-Sonoma for 500 dollars (for some reason, a Southern twang just crept into my interior monologue - let's ignore it and move on). What I did need was a grill brush to swipe off a year or two of heat-fused proteins and grit, and a recipe that sounded so mouth-watering it would propel from my safe place of non-grilling existence to the wild life on the other side.
I purchased the grill brush for little more than four dollars at the Chinese-run restaurant equipment store around the corner from my office, along with some fierce-looking skewers. I was in business. Last summer, Julia Moskin wrote about multi-cultural grilling and included several recipes for kebabs that sounded utterly delicious and not too difficult. The recipes included lovely little salads to be served alongside the kebabs, which totally charmed me. For a catch-up dinner with some girlfriends on Wednesday night, I chose to make a Syrian recipe for beef kebabs spiced with onions and cinnamon and allspice, to be stuffed along with a citrusy salad into a grill-warmed pita. Are you hungry already?
The recipe called for ground chuck to be mixed together by hand into a "paste" along with spices, chopped onions (I used shallots), tomato paste, lemon juice, and pine nuts. I was then to form the meat around flat skewers - but this didn't quite work. If I lifted the skewers, even carefully, the molded meat would just fall off. What worked better was forming the meat into sausage shapes with my hands, and then thrusting the skewer through each one. I chilled the raw kebabs for an hour, then went to work getting the grill to light.
Anticlimactically, the briquets we had lying around the house were the quick-start ones, soaked with lighter fluid. All I did was touch a match to a pile of them and they went up in flames. Thrilling! About 10 minutes later, the grill was ready, so I oiled the rack, laid the skewers down carefully over the hot coals and heard the meat sizzle. Turning the skewers and kebabs 7 minutes later proved a bit difficult since I was wielding a spatula and oven mitts (not to mention my nerves were getting in the way), but all I needed was a bit of practice. When the meat was cooked through but still juicy, I threw a few pitas on the grill and we sat down for dinner.
We split the pitas and filled them with the juicy meat - sweet with spice, flame-smoked - and lemon-and-oil slicked romaine and cucumbers. The sandwiches were delicious - alternately warm yet cooling, crusty and fresh. The lemony salad was the perfect foil for the hearty meat - in fact, I filled my pita mostly with salad, and had just a piece or two of meat stuck in. We ate with our fingers, always satisfying, and felt the night set in around us. I think I could get used to this outdoor-cooking thing.