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The kebab that says it’s summer, according to Gastrono-me's Gemma Simmonite



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If there’s one food that says ‘summer’ in our house, it’s kebabs. I say summer, but what I really mean is, the very first time the sun shines for longer than two hours in around April/May. With that delicious first feel of warmth on our faces we whip out the skewers and start threading veggies and halloumi onto them and we get grilling.

Our vegetable kebabs have always been the signal that happy summer days are on their way, even if the first taste of them for the year is with blankets to keep us warm. We have lovely memories of creating them in our very first garden in Brighton more than 15 years ago, and all because we’d purchased a chiminea. Man did we think we were fancy! And then it just became a thing, and the thrill of making and eating them has never worn off. Our daughters used to love watching us cooking them slowly on the glowing embers and then being presented with charry softened sweet vegetables, and, of course, the inevitable vying for the skewer with the most halloumi on it!

What did we ever do in this country before we imported halloumi from Cyprus?! I can remember my very first taste of the ubiquitous salty, rubbery cheese. It was in the very early 1980s and given to me by my fellow Greek Cypriot school friend, Julie Francisco (I thought she had the coolest name and her mum was called Sandra, San for short!), and she brought slices in for her breaktime snack. The cheese was safely tucked up in silver foil to keep it moist, and as I peered in, I remember thinking how strange these white chunky slices smattered with mint and oregano looked. Not like the cheese I knew at all, but with one squeaky taste I was literally smitten.

Vegetable and halloumi kebabs (56292688)
Vegetable and halloumi kebabs (56292688)

Despite being of Greek Cypriot roots, I didn’t really get to taste it again for a long time, but boy when it did appear in the supermarkets it became a constant staple in our fridge. Cooking with it for the first time was a revelation – after all I’d only nibbled it cold in a playground many years before – so you can imagine the black and white to technicolour moment when I watched it sizzle in a pan. Seeing it start to soften yet not melt, and then turn sunkissed golden!

Halloumi is, of course, a familiar ingredient in the UK now, partly I’m sure to its versatility. We not only freshly batter it at Gastron-me and serve it as fries, but we also serve it ‘Baja style’ in tacos with a zingy salsa and, of course, as these delicious kebabs that I’m sharing with you in my recipe today. It gives such a great texture and flavour for vegetarians, and it doesn’t need marinating, as say Indian paneer cheese does.

In the UK, we are actually the biggest consumers in the world of this briny sheep’s cheese, with Sweden a close second, and we consume well over 12,000 tonnes of it in a year! Last year, I was delighted that Cyprus finally gained their PDO (protected designation of origin) status after years of lobbying – which means only halloumi made in Cyprus can actually be called halloumi – as with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Champagne or Jersey Royals.

And despite its shaky times during the pandemic, where we lumbered Cyprus with a massive overstock of a six million kilo halloumi mountain, its production sales continue to boom thanks to investment and secure supply systems. Which all means we can hopefully continue to enjoy this amazing cheese indefinitely.

These vegetable and halloumi skewers don’t require a lot of flavour as the grill cooking really brings the flavour out in the vegetables, but Mike created a delicious balsamic marinade that really helps make the flavour sing out even further. You can cut your vegetables the day before and store them in the marinade, then just thread them on the day you wish to grill. We sometimes simply eat them off the stick, but more often than not make more of a meal of it, as we do in the restaurant, serving them on hummus-smeared warmed flatbreads with kebab pickles and crunchy fresh salad leaves.

I really hope you enjoy your May bank holiday, and if we have the weather (or not) I urge you to try them.

Ready for cooking vegetable and halloumi kebabs (56292690)
Ready for cooking vegetable and halloumi kebabs (56292690)

VEGETABLE AND HALLOUMI KEBAB

Ingredients for the skewers:

1 small white onion, and 1 red onion, chopped into bitesize pieces

3 mixed colour peppers, chopped into bitesize pieces

250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered

1 small punnet of cherry tomatoes

1 block of halloumi

Mike’s marinade:

This makes quite a lot, but you can keep it in a jar in the fridge for up to a week as it makes a delicious salad dressing.

Ingredients:

150ml olive oil

50ml balsamic vinegar

2 cloves of crushed garlic

2 heaped teaspoons of English mustard

1½ teaspoons of tomato purée

1 tablespoon of lemon juice

1½ teaspoons of honey

2 drops of tabasco sauce

A pinch of chilli flakes

A good pinch of salt

A couple of grinds of black pepper

Method:

Whisk all the marinade ingredients together, and season to taste.

Put all the prepared vegetables and cheese into a large bowl, pour over the marinade until everything is coated. You can leave this overnight, but if in a rush an hour will do.

Heat your grill to white coal heat, then add the skewers. Let them cook on one side for about 6-8 minutes before turning, this will prevent tearing off any delicate halloumi. Keep gently turning the skewers until the vegetables are softened and lightly charred, you can baste with marinade for extra flavour.

Serve as they are or in warmed split pittas or flatbreads smeared with hummus or tzatziki.

Gemma is executive chef and co-creator of Gastrono-me, Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds

Call 01284 277980

Visit www.gastrono-me.co.uk