Back in college, before the dawn of my professional cooking career, I had a much more devil-may-care approach to feeding myself. We can call it the "college freshman" technique: Find whatever meat is on sale (almost always ground beef), bring it back to the house, then peruse the communal pantry and pick out things that sound good. It was a hit-or-miss approach that resulted sometimes in great meals (the Salsa Bolognese of 1998 comes to mind), but more often in total duds (the neon-yellow Every-Spice-but-Cloves Chicken of 1999). "Recipes" weren't really within my sphere of reference, nor were seekh kebabs, the Pakistani dish of ground lamb seasoned with spices, garlic, ginger, cilantro, and onions, then formed around long metal skewers and grilled over a charcoal flame.
When a Pakistani friend of mine introduced me to the little packets of pre-blended seekh kebab spices at our local Indian market, it was something of a revelation. Oh, this is what a balanced spice blend tastes like.
Our recipe back then consisted of six simple steps: Walk to the Indian market in Central Square and pick up a pack of seasoning. Read instructions on back of package. Skip all steps that require fresh ingredients or knives. Throw out instructions. Combine seasoning packet with ground beef. Cook.
That blend had plenty of heat, a good mix of warm spices (I distinctly remember seeing "long pepper" on the ingredients list and wondering what the heck it was), and a hit of acidity in the form of powdered dried mango or papaya. But it wasn't particularly great so much as it was consistent and, more importantly, consistently better than anything else I was cooking at the time. These days, I think we can improve on it a little.
Right off the bat, I'm going to tell you that my personal experience with seekh kebabs has been limited to what my friends have described to me and what I've tasted in a few restaurants, so authenticity was really not my goal here. Instead, I set out to make a tasty, easy meal evocative of those versions we first cooked in college.
To start, I took a two-pronged approach, looking up traditional recipes and gathering a few different versions of the premixed spice blends from my local Indian/Pakistani market. Most contained a similar mix of dry spices, including paprika and red chili, cloves, cumin, black pepper or white pepper, long pepper, coriander, bay leaves, and either green-papaya powder or mango powder (amchur).
The only ingredients that really gave me pause were the long pepper and the amchur. Neither is widely available outside of specialty markets, though I do have a supply in my spice cabinet at home. After a few quick tests, I determined that the long pepper is not absolutely essential to getting good flavor (though its warm pepperiness is nice if you can find it), but amchur powder, with its distinct sourness, definitely is. Searching for an easy replacement, I found that citric acid powder, tamarind paste, or lime juice works reasonably well.
Next, the wet aromatics. Most recipes call for a combination of garlic, ginger, red onions, hot green chilies (I used Thai bird chilies, which are similar in heat and flavor to the chilies typically used in this dish), and cilantro. All easy enough.
I toasted and ground the spices and puréed the aromatics in a food processor, then turned my attention to the meat. Some more traditional-looking recipes I saw called for reducing the meat (typically mutton or lamb) to a near paste-like texture using a food processor, blending in the spices and aromatics along with some added fat in the form of oil or ghee.
I tried this method, forming the moist paste around the skewers before cooking them on the grill. It was an unmitigated disaster. What started out as a smooth, homogeneous paste quickly dried out and started falling apart over the flames.
The culprit here was heat. I'd completely forgotten the first rule of Sausage-Making 101: Keep everything cold. As the meat whirled around in the food processor, the friction caused it to heat up. This, in turn, broke the emulsion between the meat and the fat, and caused the fat to drip out of the meat as it cooked, grabbing flavor and juiciness on its way out the door.
I repeated the test, this time placing all the meat in the freezer for a spell before grinding it in order to ensure that it stayed cold. I also eliminated the added fat, since I was using fatty ground beef instead of leaner mutton. The results were much better, but the skewers still tended to fall apart a bit on the grill (and I wasn't convinced that a smooth purée was the texture I wanted).
If it wasn't a broken emulsion causing the skewers to fall apart, then what was it? Could it be that the moist aromatics were adding too much liquid, preventing the meat from binding properly?
I whipped up a new batch, this time squeezing out excess liquid from my moist aromatic purée through a double layer of paper towels. I ended up with a much drier, mulch-like paste that I could then work into the ground meat very easily with a few quick kneads.
The added advantage was that with the dry paste, it was also much easier to form that meat mixture around the skewers without making a mess or having to be overly delicate. I grilled up a few kebabs and tasted them. They had a great, balanced flavor, and they'd held up beautifully as they grilled.
The only slight issue I had was that the texture was a little too loose. Instead of being juicy and cohesive, they were a little drier and more crumbly. Then I remembered the second rule of Sausage-Making 101: Use salt wisely.
See, salt doesn't just flavor ground meat mixtures—it can also have a drastic effect on their texture. As meat and salt sit in contact with each other, salt gradually breaks down a protein called myosin. This "activated" myosin becomes very sticky and tacky. As you subsequently blend and cook the meat, the activated myosin forms a tight network of interconnected proteins, ultimately giving the mixture a bouncier texture and helping it hold on to water and fat, trapping juiciness and flavor within its structure like a net.
By letting the salted meat mixture rest for a few hours before forming it around the skewers (by the way, see our review of the best skewers here), I was able to greatly improve the texture of the finished dish.
The last remaining question was how to grill the kebabs. I've heard from a few reliable sources that a proper seekh kebab should be cooked gently to set the meat, without ever developing a blackened crust. I'm not sure if this is a universally accepted fact or whether there's room for personal preference in this arena, but after trying it both ways, I'm going to stick with letting them develop some color. I'm of the mind that when I fire up the grill, i'm doing it because I want those magical flavors that only a bit of open flame and singeing can produce.
I landed on a compromise. I cook my kebabs over a two-zone fire, starting with indirect heat on the cooler side of the grill until they're just about cooked through. You can take them off the grill and serve them color-free at this point, or do what I do: transfer them to the hot side a few moments earlier to color their exterior and add that extra dimension of flavor and texture.
To serve the skewers, I make a batch of my grilled naan, and, instead of the typical cabbage and onion accompaniments, I combine the two into a quick and easy Spicy Cabbage and Red Onion Slaw, flavored with lime, chilies, and a ton of mint and cilantro. The slaw is so tasty that it's going into my regular rotation, whether I'm cooking these skewers or not.
I can't say for sure that I'll never buy one of those seasoning packets again—sometimes you're just in the mood for blue-box mac and cheese instead of the real thing—but it sure is fun to think about College Freshman Me and how far I've come since then. I mean, I used to hang out with friends and have a good time cooking things that tasted pretty good. But just look at me now! I sit at home and cook things that are really good for work, and eat them with only my dogs and my memories to keep me company. Yay.
I know. I'll win all new friends by bribing them with seekh kebabs. HEY NEIGHBORS, WHO WANTS MEAT-ON-A-STICK, AND MAYBE CAN YOU TALK TO ME, PLEASE? PRETTY PLEASE?