Whether it's the joy of being outdoors or the elemental pleasure of playing with fire, come summer we're ready to dust off the grill and fire up the charcoal.
Can so much fun be good for you?
Yes and no. No to the old-time 16-ounce steak -- per person. Yes to a summer's pleasure grilling your favorites -- meat, fish or fowl -- in moderation.
The new food pyramid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture drives home the point: A healthful diet should be heavy on grains and vegetables, light on meat.
Dietitian Patty Kirk recommends a 3- to 4-ounce portion of meat or fish as a healthful and guilt-free accompaniment to a meal that's heavy on grains and vegetables.
"Make meat, chicken or fish the accent to the meal rather than the focus," she suggests.
Kebabs threaded with cubes of meat and lots of vegetables are an elegant and satisfying grill option.
Kebabs also cook quickly and, with a tasty marinade, are succulent and flavorful.
You don't need to weigh everything. Eyeball it: An average chicken breast weighs 3 ounces; a 1-inch cube of meat weighs an ounce.
If you load the skewers with veggies and use short (6- to 8-inch) skewers, everyone can have several without overdoing the protein or fat.
The best way to banish any nostalgia for the meatier meals of yesterday is to make the grain portion of the meal equally interesting. Risotto, pilaf or your favorite pasta dish are perfect pairings for kebabs.
Risotto with chicken, tuna or salmon skewers
3/4 to 1 pound chicken (skinless, boneless breast) or fresh tuna or salmon (skin removed), cut in 3/4 - to 1-inch cubes
2 green peppers, cut in 1-inch pieces
3 tomatoes, cut into eighths, or 24 cherry tomatoes
2 small red onions, cut into eighths
2 yellow summer squash, cut in 1-inch chunks
marinade (recipe follows)
Soak 12 (8-inch) wooden skewers in water for 10 to 15 minutes while preparing meat and vegetables.
Prepare marinade in a shallow dish long enough to hold the skewers. Thread chicken or fish chunks and vegetables onto the skewers, alternating between the two. Place skewers in marinade for half-hour or more, refrigerated, turning several times.
Prepare the fire. The coals will be ready when a thin layer of gray ash covers the glowing embers, about 20 minutes. Oil the grill lightly. Place marinated skewers on the grill 3 or 4 inches above the fire and cook, turning once. Chicken will take about 5 minutes, fish less. Makes 4 servings.
Marinade: Combine the juice of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs (combine two or more: oregano, thyme, tarragon, chives, rosemary, basil, savory), 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste.
Spicy shish kebab
3/4 to 1 pound boneless leg of lamb or shoulder, or boneless sirloin steak, cubed
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup plain non-fat yogurt
3 cloves garlic, mashed
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup flat leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped
1/4 cup mint, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tomatoes, quartered
2 red onions, quartered
3 sweet red or green peppers, in 1 1/2 -inch chunks
4 jalapenos, deveined, seeded and halved (optional)
2 yellow crookneck squash, in 3/4 -inch slices
Soak 12 to 16 wooden skewers in water for 10 to 15 minutes. Trim fat from meat. Cut meat into 3/4 - to 1-inch cubes.
Combine onion, olive oil, yogurt and seasonings; pour over meat and marinate, refrigerated, overnight. Remove from refrigerator several hours before cooking to return to room temperature.
Brush the vegetables with a little olive oil. Alternate meat and vegetables on skewers. Prepare the fire; when the coals are ready, cook the kebabs 2 inches above the fire, turning on all sides about 8 or 10 minutes total. Makes 4 servings.
(Suzanne Kimbal is a Dallas free-lance writer and food stylist.)