I've no doubt given the impression that when I get together with the Paisano all we do is cook, but that's not true, sometimes we let other people cook.
I was attending a conference in San Francisco back in 1993 and gave Paisano a call in case he was going to be in the area. He was in the area and invited me to a party. Microsoft happened to be having a party that same night for conference attendees, but I'd been to those parties before - free beer, wine, unbelievably bad pizza, and drunken geeks. It was an easy choice to make. The party was in Berkley but that and directions were all the old man would tell me.
I'd rented a car because I was planning a side trip down to Monterrey over the weekend so around 7:00 I headed over the bridge to Berkley and after a couple of wrong turns I found the place.
Aside from a couple of other Euro-types like Paisano and myself, the rest of the guests (and the hosts) were middle-eastern. My friend knew I'd lived in Egypt for a year and thought I'd fit right in and, in fact, I did. There were people there from Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and I don't know where else. They were all either students, grad students, or professors at UCB and the party was one in series that had been taking place every month or two for six years.
The food was awesome, but one particular chicken dish caught my attention with a flavor I simply couldn't place. So I started asking around and eventually found a young woman named FohzAn. It turned out the flavor was sumac, a deep red powder made from the sumac tree's berries. It's lemony in flavor, but instead of sour it seems slightly musty to me, which is what threw me. I also learned the chicken had been marinated in a mixture of yogurt, garlic, and sumac. I didn't get a recipe, though, and the dish eventually slipped my mind. Then I received a review copy of Zov: Recipes and Memories from the Heart by Zov Karamardian and flipping through it I found a recipe that took me back to that evening in Berkley. Zov's version is based on an Indian recipe, but it's close to what I remember, and note, I've tweaked the recipe a bit.
Sumac-Coated Chicken Kebab
(Adpated from Zov: Recipes and Memories from the Heart)
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into 1"x1" pieces
1/2 cup yogurt
1/4 cup finely-chopped mint
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. paprika
2 Tbsp. sumac
3 cloves crushed garlic
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
Thoroughly combine all ingredients in a zippered storage bag and marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours, turning and remixing 4 to 6 times while marinating.
Build a medium hot fire in your grill. Divide chicken pieces among 4 skewers. (Note: I can no longer use a grill, so I used my grill pan over medium-high heat.)
Grill kebabs for about 3 minutes per side over a fire or 5 minutes per side on a grill pan for a total of 12 or 20 minutes respectively. Serve garnished with mint chiffonade and lemon wedges. I served them on couscous with a salad on the side.
I'll be posting a review of Zov's book in the near future (after I've had time to check out a few more recipes), but I can tell you now that she has a passion for food and cooking that equals my own -- and her book is gorgeous.
InÂ an alternate life, the Paisano is KevinÂ Weeks: a Gather food correspondent, personal chef, cooking teacher, and writer in Knoxville, Tennessee who spends too many hours on his feet, cooking. "Paisano" the column focuses on peasant dishes from around the world, Paisano the character is fictional. To read more of Kevin's writings or connect to him click here.His blog,Seriously Good, is read by 100,000 cooks a month and in addition he writes a weekly column forÂ Spot-Onand is the Guide for Cooking for Two at About.com.