When the American Lamb Board invited TheArmenianKitchen.com to enter its annual grilling contest, we immediately started sharpening our "shishes."
Is there a grilled-lamb recipe anywhere in the world that can beat real Armenian shish kebab?
Hah! Of course not!
Our only question was: Which Armenian shish kebab recipe should we use?
Robyn and I have each eaten dozens of variations on shish kebab -- khorovatz, if you like -- over the years. The one common element (besides lamb) is onions. Otherwise, it just isn't Armenian.
After that, the arguments begin. Some kebab chefs insist on plenty of garlic. Others say never use garlic.
We both agree that coriander (keens as my mother called it) is essential because we're both at least part Dikranagertsi. But other Armenians never heard of the stuff and like their kebab just fine.
And what to marinate the meat in? I like to use a semi-sweet wine, but others insist on a dry red -- or no wine at all.
What do you think?
We settled on a simple mix of Armenian signature seasonings: onion, pepper and coriander with salt and olive oil reserved to be brushed on just before grilling.
Then, for killer ingredient guaranteed to make the judges swoon, we marinated the lamb in pomegranate juice.
Americans, who generally believe pomegranates were discovered about two years ago in California, are suddenly wild about pomegranate juice. You've seen the stories about its anti-oxidant properties and heart-healthy benefits.
I made the point for our video audience that we Armenians have been conducting our own experiments with pomegranate juice for at least 3,000 years -- and we're still around, so it must be good stuff.
I was feeling very confident at this point -- a little too confident for a guy who messed up in a big way.
We'd been waiting out a couple of weeks of rotten weather, pushing the entry deadline as our vacation also neared. Finally, when the rain took a day off, I rushed to the store for a fresh leg of lamb and set to butchering while we videoed the process.
I like to marinate the meat for 24 hours, so we carefully scanned the weather report for the next day: Sunny in the morning, rain in the afternoon. I got up early and started the fire while Robyn skewered the meat, sliced the veggies and put the bulgur pilaf on the stove.
As I dashed into the house to get the meat, I could feel the darkness suddenly closing in. Enormous, black clouds rolled in from nowhere. Thunder crashed.
I could hear the pounding rain before I had the heart to look out the window.
We sat and stared for the longest time. We stared at the beautiful chunks of raw lamb. We stared at the grill as the coals sizzled and fizzled in the downpour. We stared at each other, knowing our chance to win an American contest with an Armenian recipe had just floated away.
After an hour, when the rain showed no sign of letting up, Robyn carefully slid the meat off the skewers and emailed the American Lamb Council's representative. We were leaving town the next morning, so there would be no rain date for our kebab. We were forced to forfeit.
So that's why you'll never see the video: I never got a chance to finish it.
Our story does have a semi-happy ending, however. We did get to eat the kebab.
Despite the forecast, the rain let up later in the day. Although our coals were soaked, my brother-in-law Drew Dabbakian rolled out his gas grill and finished what I'd started.
It's a shame we'd already withdrawn from the contest. The kebab was fantastic!
By the way, don't worry that the pomegranate juice will make the lamb too sweet. The effect is subtle but distinctive.
Armenian Shish Kebab
1 whole leg of lamb, cubed
3 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons coriander
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
2 cups pomegranate juice
Place the lamb in a large mixing bowl.
Add onions, coriander and pepper and mix thoroughly
Pour in pomegranate juice and mix again
Cover tightly and refrigerate for 24 hours, mixing again at least once
Skewer the meat, then brush on enough olive oil to coat lightly
Add salt last to keep the meat from losing moisture
Cook over hot coals after flame has died down, rotating skewers evenly. Cooking time depends on how well-done you like your meat.