pomegranate sumac shish kebab

shish kebab

It's a long weekend and everyone with a grill will be grilling. Burgers and hotdogs are all well and good, but if you're looking for something a little punchier, with a lot more color, you're going to want to try this recipe. Chunks of lamb are marinated in pomegranate molasses, and then glazed with more pomegranate molasses as they cook. The tangy caramelized sugars make this lamb completely irresistible. As if that wasn't enough, the veggie skewers are marinated in za'atar and sumac, and they blister, char, and soften to perfection on the grill. This shish kebab is fabulous for entertaining because the whole thing can be prepared ahead, left to marinate in the refrigerator, and once they go on the grill, they're done in a flash.

leg of lamb
red onion, tomato, bell pepper
red onion, tomato, bell pepper shish kebab
leg of lamb shish kebab

There's no magical reason why this recipe calls for tomato, onion, and bell pepper. It's the veggie mix my family always makes, it's always easy to find, and it goes great with grilled meats. The sumac flavor adds just the right zest to the mellow flavor of the charred and blistered veggies. But feel free to experiment with skewering other produce for grilling. Mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, radicchio, asparagus, or even stone fruit like peaches, all work great here. It doesn't matter what color cherry tomatoes, onions, or bell peppers you find—a more colorful variety will give this dish a brighter presentation, but red tomatoes with red bell pepper and red onions look chic in their own monochromatic way.

And speaking of good looks: while it would be even prettier to put the veggies on the same skewers as the lamb pieces, this is one time when you've got to sacrifice some style for substance. The vegetable skewers will be done cooking a couple minutes before the lamb, and it's important that you take them off the grill as soon as they're ready. You know the veggie skewers are done when the tomatoes are blistered, slightly softened, and just starting to shrivel. You don't want to cook them beyond this point or you will make a delicious tomato sauce, which will slough off the skewers and sink right through the grill grates.

shish kebab
shish kebab

pomegranate sumac shish kebab

yield: 4 servings
active time: 35 minutes
total time: 2 hours and 30 minutes *
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  • 2 pounds semi-boneless leg of lamb (if you are buying bone-in, buy 2 1/2 to 3 pounds)

  • About 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons salt (to taste)

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (for marinade)

  • 1 small red onion

  • 1 green bell pepper (can substitute another color bell pepper)

  • 1 pound cherry tomatoes

  • 1/2 teaspoon sumac

  • 1/2 teaspoon za'atar (optional, add 1/4 teaspoon more sumac instead)

  • About 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons salt (to taste) *

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (for grilling)

  1. Trim any large pieces of fat from the leg of lamb, and cut the lamb into chunks, discarding any bone or gristle.

  2. Place the lamb it in a ziplock bag (or another sealable container), add the salt and pomegranate molasses, mix it around by squeezing the bag, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day. **

  3. Chop the onion and bell pepper into large chunks. Mix together in a ziplock bag with the cherry tomatoes, sumac, za'atar, salt, and olive oil. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 1 day.

  4. Once they're ready, skewer the veggies and the lamb separately. ***

  5. Pre-heat the grill to medium-hot and brush one side of the lamb with 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses.

  6. Once the grill is hot, add the lamb, molasses-side-down, and brush the other side of the lamb with the other tablespoon of pomegranate molasses. Then add the veggie skewers.

  7. Regularly check to make sure nothing is burning, and turn everything once or twice to cook evenly.

  8. Remove the veggies once they are charred and slightly wilted. For medium-rare, the lamb should be internally 135° F, although they're also very tasty when cooked beyond medium rare.

* Use a little less salt if your za'atar is seasoned.
** If you're in a hurry, you can get away with marinating it for 30 minutes, but the flavor intensifies if you leave it a bit longer. If you marinade for a shorter period, glaze the lamb with a little extra molasses during the grilling.
*** If you're making everything ahead of time: Simply mix the veggies with the seasoning, skewer them immediately, and refrigerate for up to a day. Start the lamb off by marinating it in a ziplock bag for an hour, then skewer and refrigerate for up to a day.

shish kebab

za'atar flatbread | manakish za'atar | lakhm'it za'atar

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar

If you know me through my blog, you might not know that I'm also a full-time PhD student and teacher. Though I teach and write about fourteenth century English poetry, I don't like to get too academic when I write about food on my blog. But this week, I had a few quick thoughts on language that I wanted to share.

When you're running an English language Middle Eastern food blog, transliterating words (or translating them from one alphabet into another) into English is a challenge. There's technically no single right way to transliterate words from Arabic or Assyrian, which is frustrating since one of my goals is to make my website searchable and standardized.

So when I was working on the post on lahm bi ajeen (Middle Eastern meat flatbread), I was trying to figure out how to spell the name, so I asked my mom. She immigrated to the United States when she was a kid, so while she used to speak Arabic when she was little, she mostly grew up speaking English and Assyrian, a vernacular Aramaic language, and no longer speaks Arabic.

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar
manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar
manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar
manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar

She suggested spelling it "lakhma bi ajeen," because we assumed that the word lakhma must mean bread in Arabic, as it does in Assyrian. But when I did a quick search, I learned that, while lakhma means bread in Assyrian, lahm actually means meat in Arabic. So lakhma bi ajeen is like one of those funny portmanteaus that doesn't translate well from one language to another; in Assyrian, it essentially means "bread of the dough" instead of "meat of the dough."

But it turns out we weren't so far off base after all, since the two words are etymologically related. According to Stephan Guth, the word was originally used to generally refer to whatever food was the main substance of the meal, but the meaning of the word changed over time through semantic narrowing.

Narrowing is a linguistic phenomenon where words take on more specific meanings as time goes on. So in this case, the original word came to refer to two totally different foods in each language (meat in Arabic and bread in Assyrian). And so now whenever we Assyrians eat meat pies, we call them bread of the dough. Language is such a funny thing.

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar

But since it's lahm-less flatbread, lakhm'it za'atar in Assyrian, or manakish za'atar in Arabic (also known as manaeesh), doesn't get into quite as much linguistic trouble as lahm bi ajeen. This flatbread is a really lovely meatless alternative, and it's especially good if you make your own za'atar, which is a lot easier than it sounds. Adding cheese is totally optional, but it makes this more of a main-course, instead of a mezze or a snack. There are a lot of wonderful variations—my cousin, Sourma, recently posted some beautiful photos of a trip she took to Furn Saj Bakery in LA. Feel free to check out their menu for some man'oushpiration. If you're looking for a menu featuring this recipe, check out my Cook for Syria supper club menu.

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar
manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar

manakish za’atar

Yield: 4 small flatbreads
for more variations, check out my
manakish variations with Seven Spice Life

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sumac-heavy za'atar *
Salt, to taste (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 pound pizza dough **
Semolina or cornmeal, for sprinkling
optional: 1 cup loosely packed crumbled feta (for all 4 pizzas)
optional, for serving: 1 1/2 cup combination of olives, diced tomatoes, and diced cucumbers, plus minced mint or parsley

  • Place a pizza stone (or sheet pan) on the oven floor, move the oven racks up and out of the way, so you can easily access the pizza stone, and pre-heat the oven to 500° F.

  • Combine the olive oil and za'atar. Salt it to taste if you're using unseasoned za'atar.

  • Lightly flour a clean, food-safe work surface, use a knife or bench scraper to divide the dough into 4 equal pieces, and shape each chunk into a round ball.

  • Roll each dough ball into a circle, about 1/8 inch thick. To keep the round shape, rotate the disc about 90 degrees after each time you roll it out, and be sure to re-flour the surface every so often.

  • Sprinkle semolina or cornmeal on a pizza peel or thin cutting board. Place one dough disc on the cutting board. Top with about 1/4 of the za'atar mixture (about a heaping tablespoon) and spread it out using your fingers or the back of a spoon. Top with 1/4 cup of feta cheese, if using. Let it rest for about 5 to 10 minutes before it goes in the oven.

  • Once the oven has preheated, use a quick motion to move the pie from the pizza peel onto the pizza stone. Cook for about 5-8 minutes, until the edges start to brown and the bread is cooked through. The dough should be crispy and chewy, like really good brick oven pizza.

  • Repeat with the remaining 3 pies.

* If you didn't blend it yourself, taste it. If it's on the tangy side, it's sumac-heavy. If it's on the bitter side, it's thyme-heavy. If it's thyme-heavy, simply blend a tablespoon or two of sumac, or just cut back on the amount of za'atar you use if you don't have sumac around.
** If you're making your own dough, simply make this recipe for pizza dough. Divide it into 6 pieces, and you'll have 2 left over after using 4 for this recipe. Feel free to turn them into pita bread, or freeze them to make pizza another time.

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar