Recipe: Grilled lamb kefta kebabs

Lamb kefta kebab sandwich. Photo: Kate Williams

Summertime in my house means grilling season. There are plenty of foods that benefit from time spent over an open flame — everything from hot dogs to a big pile of roughly chopped veggies.

But there’s something about the slowly warming weather that makes me crave lamb in any form — as a burger, a skewer, a shawarma sandwich. This month, I’ve managed to combine all of my favorite forms of lamb into one simple dish: a kefta-style kebab seasoned a la shawarma.

I’ve taken my flavoring cues from a Yotam Ottolenghi shawarma recipe, scaled down to a reasonable volume for a family dinner and tweaked to work with easily procured ground lamb. (You can, of course, grind your own lamb shoulder meat here if you don’t mind a bit of extra work.) The grilling method is straight kefta-style, which means I’ve shaped the spiced ground lamb mixture into free-form sausages around a skewer. These kebabs cook quickly, and their slender shape fits well in a pita pocket. Or, if you don’t want to mess around with skewers, you can shape the mixture into burgers as well.

Finally, I dress the dish with an easy tahini-yogurt sauce, extra cilantro leaves and chopped cucumber. Feel free to modify the fillings as you’d like — chopped olives, sliced red onion, baby lettuce and feta cheese would all be tasty additions.


Grilled lamb kefta kebabs. Photo: Kate Willliams

Lamb Kefta Kebabs

Note: You can grind your own lamb shoulder meat to use in this recipe, if desired. You’ll need eight metal skewers to grill the lamb; if you only have wooden skewers, soak them in water for 30 minutes before using. You can serve the kebabs, as I have, in pita pockets as an entrée or as an appetizer, still on the skewers, with dipping sauce alongside. Toasting and grinding whole spices sounds tedious, but it adds a remarkable amount of flavor; don’t skip this step.

Serves 4 as an entrée; 8 as an appetizer

Kebabs
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/3 star anise pod
1 clove
Pinch fenugreek seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
Pinch ground cardamom
Pinch ground cinnamon
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro, stems and leaves included, plus more leaves, for serving
One 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried sumac
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb
1 teaspoon canola oil

Tahini-Yogurt Sauce
1/2 cup plain whole milk Greek yogurt
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup water, plus more as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil, for grilling
1/2 lemon, plus additional lemon wedges, for serving
Pita bread, for serving
Cucumber slices, for serving

Toasting spices for lamb kefta kebabs. Photo: Kate Williams

To make the kebabs: Combine the cumin seeds, peppercorns, fennel seeds, star anise, clove and fenugreek (if using) in a small skillet. Place over medium heat and toast until fragrant, about 90 seconds. Add the nutmeg, paprika, cardamom and cinnamon to the skillet and toast, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Immediately transfer to a spice grinder or a mortar and grind or pound to form a smooth powder. Transfer to a large bowl and wipe out the skillet.

Lamb kefta kebab seasoning ingredients. Photo: Kate Williams

Add the cilantro, ginger, garlic, salt and sumac. Mix well. Add the lamb and, using your hands, gently mix with the spices until uniform. Heat the canola oil in the now-clean skillet over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, add about a tablespoon of the lamb mixture. Cook until no longer pink in the center, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste the cooked lamb mixture and adjust seasonings if desired.

Cover the remaining lamb mixture with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 24 hours.

Meanwhile, make the tahini-yogurt sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together the yogurt, tahini, and water. Add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the sauce reaches your desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Shaped lamb kefta kebabs. Photo: Kate Williams

When you’re ready to grill, pull of the lamb mixture from the fridge and divide it into eight even portions. Shape each portion into sausages about 5 inches long. Stick one sausage onto each skewer and drizzle with a little olive oil.

Heat a gas or charcoal grill to about a medium-high heat. Clean and grease the cooking grates. Grill the kebabs until they reach about 130ºF in the center, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove the kebabs from the grill and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Squeeze the lemon half over the kebabs and remove the meat from the skewers.

Serve the kebabs in pita bread pockets with cilantro, cucumbers and the tahini-yogurt sauce, with additional lemon wedges on the side.

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