Kebobs: Stick to the sizzling skewered foods this holiday weekend

It goes without saying that foods on a stick are convenient at any cookout all the way around.

For the person behind the grill, skewered foods are quick and easy to make for a big crowd because meats, seafood and vegetables can be mixed and matched to accommodate the different diet preferences and palates, and cleanup is a godsend. The no-fuss attitude of these foods extends to the consumer, too, as they are easy to hold and walk around with, and don’t need the customary plates or utensils. 

Greg Tweardy, head chef and manager of the cafe at Pitaland in Brookline, says if skewered foods are trendy that’s because they are reflective of the times we live in with “people on the go constantly.”

His prowess in cooking began when he was about 12, making scrambled eggs and salami sandwiches for his older brothers. “I guess I was good at it for it seemed like it was my job,” Mr. Tweardy says, laughing. His passion for cooking only grew from there, and today he sees it as a way to express his creativity and gratitude to his family and friends.

In his previous life, the Bethel Park native was a financial adviser, and so didn’t get any formal education in cooking before joining his father-in-law’s cafe four years ago. “It has been a lot of hands-on experience,” he says. 

Mr. Tweardy says if sizzling foods on a stick seem simple, well, they are. Here are some of his tips to make that perfect skewered meat, shrimp and vegetable.

Q: What should you be mindful of when using wooden skewers?

A: Go for thicker skewers over thinner ones. Thinner ones will burn easily and break on you — you’ll have wood in the food. Look for flatter sticks as they will hold the meat and vegetables better. Also, the longer the skewer, the better.

Q: How do you prevent food from spinning around as it is being turned on the grill?

A: Thicker skewers have more surface area while thinner ones have less, and so are more prone to spinning on the grill. Also, flat ones are better than round sticks. A trick that works for me is to put two skewers through each vegetable or meat, and that will prevent the food from spinning.

Q: How much space should you leave between skewers?

A: Leave a half-inch of space between the skewers. You don’t want to overcrowd the grill with skewers as the food will drop the temperature of the grill and cool it, and you won’t get that beautiful sear mark that everybody likes.

Q: How about between the food on the same skewer?

A: You don’t want to leave much space between the meat cubes or vegetables on the same skewer. You want them to lightly touch each other as you don’t want the flame to reach the wood skewer and burn it.

Q: How do you prevent the exposed part of the skewer from getting burned?

A: To prevent the sticks from burning, you need to soak them in water for at least one hour. Also, spread out the vegetables and protein, taking them all the way to the end of the sticks.

Q: Is there a method to threading the food onto the skewer?

A: Vegetables and meats look pretty together on a skewer but cook them separately. And even among vegetables, grill hard ones such as onion and green peppers together and soft ones like cherry tomatoes and pineapple chunks together.

Q: How long should you skewer shrimp?

A: Shrimp cooks very quickly, and so grill it for 2 minutes on each side at 400 to 450 degrees. Salmon can be cooked for 4 to 5 minutes.

Q: And what about for lamb or beef?

A: Start with a hot, hot grill when it comes to beef or lamb as you want to sear the meat. The cooking time will depend on the preference for doneness. For medium-rare, cook each side for 3 minutes on a grill that is 450 to 500 degrees, and for more well-done, cook each side for 7 to 8 minutes.

Q: And chicken, especially if it is wrapped with bacon?

A: Have a meat thermometer on hand, even trained chefs have one handy. For a 2-inch cube, you need to cook it 18 to 22 minutes on medium heat, about 350 to 400 degrees.You don’t want to sear it right away in the first few minutes. You want to give the meat time to cook. So you want to hear a sizzle but not that it is so hot that it starts smoking. That will destroy the chicken and the skin. And when you wrap the chicken with bacon, you don’t want the bacon to be soggy. So for it to be crisp, finish it with higher heat for a couple of minutes.

Q: Should the meat be cut in cubes or strips? And what size should they be?

A: Most people are used to seeing the meat in cubes. Bigger pieces mean that it will take longer to cook, but they will be more tender. An ideal size is 1½-inch to 2-inch cube.

Q: What’s the best way to take meats and vegetables off the skewers?

A: The skewers will be hot, especially if they are made of metal, so hold them with an oven mitt. Point the skewer down to the plate, and with tongs, take the meat and vegetables off the skewer.

Q: Is there one best marinade for grilled vegetables?

A: The holy trinity is beautiful olive oil, fresh lemon juice and garlic. Lemon juice or even a splash of balsamic will brighten the flavor. Season the vegetables after removing them from skewers with good quality sea salt and freshly ground pepper. If you salt them earlier on, it will draw more water out of the vegetables.

Q: Any other last advice?

A: It is important to be cognizant of cooking proteins and vegetables at the proper temperature. Remember vegetables start firm and then become soft while meats start soft and become firm.

Arthi Subramaniam:, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @arthisub.

Cajun Shrimp Skewers

PG tested

The garlicky-tangy marinade gets a kick from the Cajun seasoning and brightens the flavor of the shrimp in this recipe contributed by fencer Keeth Smart, who won a silver medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

16 (6-inch) wooden skewers

3 bell peppers (yellow, red and orange)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning

2 pounds large shrimp, cleaned, deveined, and shells discarded

Soak wooden skewers in water for about 30 minutes. 

While skewers are soaking, deseed and cut bell peppers into 1-inch squares.

Combine garlic and salt in a medium bowl. Then add lemon juice, olive oil, Cajun seasoning and shrimp. Toss well to fully coat the shrimp.

Preheat grill to medium-high or broiler to high. Line baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Alternating between shrimp and bell pepper squares, stack skewers until they’re loaded up, roughly 3 to 4 shrimp and 5 to 6 peppers per skewer.

Place skewers on baking sheet. Pour remaining sauce on top of them.

Grill or broil the skewers for 3 minutes per side. Serve immediately.

Makes 16. 

— “The Hungry Fan’s Game Day Cookbook” by Daina Falk (Oxmoor House; Aug. 23, 2016; $22.95)

Bacon-Wrapped Chicken Skewers

Why settle for just skewered chicken when you can jazz the meat up by wrapping it with bacon?

PG tested

1¼ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1½ teaspoons onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

6 (9-inch) wooden skewers

2 whole jalapeno peppers, cut into thin rounds, seeds removed 

6 slices bacon, each cut into 3 pieces

Cut chicken into chunks, and place in a zip-top bag. Add soy sauce, oil, vinegar, onion powder, garlic salt and pepper. Seal the bag, and mix, making sure everything is well coated. Place in the refrigerator to marinate for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, soak wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes.

Preheat grill or a grill pan over medium-high.

To assemble chicken skewers, place a jalapeno slice on each side of a chicken chunk. Wrap them in a slice of bacon and secure with 2 chunks of chicken per skewer. Repeat with remaining jalapeno, chicken and bacon on 5 other skewers. 

Drizzle chicken skewers with remaining marinade, and grill for 25 to 30 minutes, until bacon is crisp and chicken is fully cooked, turning once. Serve warm.

Serves 6.

— Adapted from “The Hungry Fan’s Game Day Cookbook” by Daina Falk (Oxmoor House; Aug. 23, 2016; $22.95)

Pineapple-Pepper-Mushroom Skewers

Not only are the pineapple chunks, green pepper and white mushrooms on the skewer pretty to look at but they also are mighty tasty.

PG tested

6 (9-inch) wooden skewers

1 cup pineapple chunks, juice drained

1 green bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

10 white mushrooms, cut in half vertically

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Soak wooden skewers in water for about 30 minutes.

Preheat grill over medium-high. 

Place pineapple, green pepper and mushrooms in a zip-top bag. Add lemon juice, olive oil and red pepper flakes. Place in refrigerator and marinate for about 45 minutes. 

Thread skewers by alternating pineapple, peppers and mushrooms.

Cook until grill marks appear and mushrooms are tender, about 15 minutes, turning once.

Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

Serves 6. 

— Adapted from “The Hungry Fan’s Game Day Cookbook” by Daina Falk (Oxmoor House; Aug. 23, 2016; $22.95)


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