Stick Meat—The Ultimate Guide to Kebabs
Guest blogger Paula Marcoux—a former culinary historian at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts—recently published a fascinating book on live fire cooking around the world called Cooking with Fire. It’s certainly one of my top ten grill books of the year. I asked Paula to share her thoughts about one of the world’s most ancient and universal grilled dishes: kebabs.
One of the sweetest cooking tools I’ve ever seen is an earthenware kebab holder, really a pair of little pottery firedogs, made to support meat-bearing skewers over hot coals. From the ridges meant to hold the kebabs just so, to the holes perforating the sides to allow proper airflow to the embers, to the cute little animal head finials, this unit is ideally designed for its job. The potter even thoughtfully provided lug handles on the cool outer face of each support for easy maneuvering. Where can you get yours? Well, this one is in a museum case in Crete, after spending 3,700 years under volcanic ash at the ancient Minoan site of Akrotiri. That’s right—it’s 3,700 years old! And people have been enjoying kebabs a lot longer than that.
Akrotiri Terracotta Firedogs
It’s clear why kebabs are persistently popular—they’re delicious, versatile, and economical. By showing a lot of surface area to high heat, the kebab’s uniformly cut bits of meat, fish, or vegetables cook quickly and develop great seared flavor. All that exposed perimeter also makes for even seasoning and the transfer of complementary flavors between foods.
Historians peg Central Asia as the kebab’s homeland and today every region, every village, it seems, has a signature treatment, many stepping outside of stereotypical kebab boundaries. This vast range includes finely minced seasoned meat applied around a flat sword-like skewer, slices from a stack of lamb and lamb fat roasting on a spit, and even lamb and fixings sealed and ember-baked in a clay pot. I loved every kebab I ate in central Turkey, finding the variations in plating and garnishing mind-boggling and fiendishly delicious. The sizzling meat arrived at the table on large pebbly-textured flatbreads with contrasting sauces involving garlicky yogurt, simmered tomatoes, and butter infused with sumac or Aleppo pepper or dried mint.
Today, kebabs are truly global—from lemon and garlic marinated chicken hearts in Brazil, to shallot, chile, and soy inflected mutton satay in Indonesia. Whatever flavor-principle draws you, here are a few technical pointers to set you on the path to enjoying your own kebab tradition.
- Making kebabs is an opportunity to impose order on otherwise unruly pieces of meat and oddly shaped vegetables. The neatness is not for its own sake, but rather sets you up for the best results.
- Some Middle Eastern street vendors prep and assemble their ingredients into an almost perfectly smooth cylinder, all plumb and level, as if the kebab were a stacked sausage without a casing. I love and admire those.
- I set up my kebabs to facilitate the effects I most look for in grilled food—deeply browned crisp edges and a tender juicy interior. So I cut the meat into little pyramid-shaped pieces to create a lot of edges, trim paired vegetables to a similar size, and alternate them on skewers pretty evenly.
- Many street purveyors throughout the Middle East and Asia use a box-like metal brazier that functions pretty much exactly like the ancient ceramic model from Akrotiri, but you don’t have to follow the Minoan tradition to make perfect kebabs at home. Turns out that a comparatively recent invention—the iron grill—works just fine to hold them an advantageous distance from hardwood coals.
- Build a fire in a fire pit, kettle grill or hibachi; burn a pile of hardwood sticks or split wood down to coals, then spread them out. Place a grill grate over, about 2 inches or so from the hot coals. Allow it to get good and hot and give it a thorough going-over with a wire brush, then a quick wipe with a rag.
- Pop the skewers over the heat and crisp up on all sides. At this point they’re probably close to done, but peek inside one to check to see if it’s how you like it.
- You can of course just serve the kebabs on the skewers they came in on, but there are other options, here, too. If I look around and see that the population of the party has swelled, while the number of skewers has remained static, I make sure to have a grain salad or pilaf, then push the kebabs off the skewers onto that carbohydrate bed.
- Another trick is to grill some slices of rustic bread, rub it with garlic, and cut it into cubes. Toss with the de-skewered kebabs, along with a pile of chopped vegetables and herbs, a squeeze of citrus and a lashing of olive oil.
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