Alton remembers a part of his childhood. Occasionally his parents would run away for a romantic weekend and leave his sister and him in the custody of his Uncle Rudy. Uncle Rudy owned a conversion van and as far as Alton ever knew, he called it home. When he’d watch the children he’d fire up a Hibachi grill and incinerate whatever cheap meat he could scare up at the local mega mart. That and some suds made his meal. It tasted hideous and needless to say, Alton and his sister loved it! Especially the skewer sword fights at the end of the meal! With time, attention, the right skewers kabobs can be... Good Eats!
In Turkey around 900AD, early Ottomans sat down for supper after a hard day of empire building. They traveled light so they had to use swords and daggers as culinary tools. They skewered their meat on these and cooked it over small fires made with minimal fuel. The word “shish-kabob” literally means “skewered cooked meat.”
Alton pulls out a large piece of meat and measures its surface area. Then he cuts the meat into cubes 2” on a side and recalculates, determining that the surface area has increased so much that the cubed meat will cook six times faster!
Americans don’t have to worry about the fuel issue but they do have to worry about cooking time and the cost of food. Properly prepared kabobs offer unparalleled flavor at a low price and can be cooked quickly.
Alton heads to the mega mart for options. Chuck and round are both okay for Alton believes sirloin delivers the best balance of beefy flavor and meaty texture. Those early raiders soaked their tough meat in spicy goo to soften it up. Alton has a recipe: he mixes garlic, paprika, tumeric, cumin, kosher salt, black pepper and a little red wine vinegar. He gives that a spin in the food processor and drizzles in some olive oil. The oil will extract fat soluble flavors from the spices and lubricate connective tissue. The acid in the vinegar brings flavor and moisture and might break down a little connective tissue but will not penetrate far enough into the meat to really tenderize it. When that’s mixed Alton puts the meat into a zip top bag and chases it with the marinade. Then he squeezes out the air and stashes that in the refrigerator for two to four hours – long enough to investigate skewers.
At the cooking store Alton briefly encounters W but she doesn’t have time for him today. She leaves him alone with the skewers. There are dozens of designs; Alton discards round skewers (the food will spin), basket skewers, a strange multi-skewer that looks like the devil’s pitchfork and even a device that rotates a batch of skewers with the turn of a single handle! Alton prefers simpler designs but even here there’s variety. Nothing to do, says he, but test them all. And he’s got just the thing for that purpose: a voodoo doll of W!
He spears the doll with the skewer. Elsewhere, W winces in pain. That skewer took too much force; Alton tries again, spearing the doll in its head with a non-stick skewer! Elsewhere, W clutches her head, then notices someone nearby and becomes convinced they shot her with a spitball! She goes charging to confront that person. At the skewers, Alton’s non-stick model actually bent from the force he needed! He pulls out another and stabs the doll’s foot. Charging along, W suddenly clutches her foot; Alton still hasn’t found a skewer he likes. He’ll just have to try them all!
Alton finally finds a skewer he likes. It’s a thirteen inch model with a very sharp point and made of heavy duty nickel plated steel. It’s rectangular cross section means the food won’t turn and the large loop makes it easy to handle. Meanwhile, two medics are carting away poor W, who aches everywhere...
Back at home Alton arranges his meat cubes on a tray before skewering even one. That way he can group them by size, which is important for ensuring all the meat on a skewer cooks evenly. When he spears the meat he aims for the center of mass; that discourages skewer spin. He also spaces his meat about a half inch apart, remembering that the goal is faster cooking and that requires more surface area. He also cautions cooks to stash the meat in the refrigerator if it won’t be cooked immediately.
Alton moves onto the vegetables. A flat blade skewers vegetables without splitting them. Alton describes techniques for each sort: for zucchini he goes through the rind instead of the core. The flat skewer blade and tough rind keep the vegetable from spinning. Mushrooms are notorious for spinning on the skewer. Alton’s answer is to leave the stems intact and skewer the mushroom through them and the cap. The symmetry and tougher structure of the stem both discourage spinning.
Alton continues with other vegetable suggestions. For onions he finds large pearl onions and cuts the top and bottom off each one, then skewers through the root end. Or he uses smaller leeks. Peppers can be cut unto rounds and skewered through the center of mass, or they can be cut into longish strips and “laced” onto the skewer.
Alton doesn’t neglect the harder vegetables either. He soaks sweet potatoes in water to discourage splitting. Rutabagas also cook nicely on skewers.
On his deck, Alton discusses how to cook these skewers. The broiler works but takes a long time. Alton prefers the grill. The grate must be very clean at the start (or sticking is certain) and the heat set to medium high for a good sear. Frequent turning is necessary – every couple of minutes – to ensure even doneness. Cooking on a grill will take about eight minutes for rare and twelve for medium. When the meat is done Alton removes it to a piece of foil to rest for a few minutes.
There’s another way to cook shish-kabobs – the way they used to be cooked, directly over a small fire. Alton gets a fire bowl and removes the grate. Then he puts some bricks in the bowl to form a square hollow that he fills with charcoal. The bricks hold the skewers slightly above the fire. This method promotes charring and flavor but requires careful supervision. The kabobs must be turned about every minute or they will burn.
And finally, Alton demonstrates the fire pit. He finds a level place and removes all the plants, then makes a trench four inches deep, twelve inches wide and about five feet long. He lines the trench with sand and borders it with bricks, then fills it with charcoal. This approach lets each diner supervise his own meal, as Alton demonstrates with a number of “Ottomans” who have gathered about his pit.
Frequent food fiddling is necessary with both these methods; the cook must learn to distinguish the doneness of meat with a simple squeeze. It should be firm but yielding to pressure, charred outside but still juicy. Alton recommends each type of vegetable cook on its own skewer as each requires a different cooking time. Work in zones, with fast cookers like zucchini and mushrooms over hotter fires and slower cookers like rutabaga over slower fire. That prevents the food from charring outside before it’s done inside.
One way to serve this food is the way one of Alton’s “Ottoman” guests helps himself: he slides the skewer through his teeth and pops the food off into his mouth. That can be dangerous for the inexperienced so Alton suggests a bed of couscous. Just slide the vegetables and meat into it and let folks take what they like. Alton also likes to wrap a warm pita around a skewer and slide the skewer out leaving the food in the pita. He calls this creation an Istanbul hotdog.
The skewering doesn’t stop after the main course. Alton prepares a glaze by splitting a vanilla bean and scraping out the pulp. He adds brown sugar, lime juice and a pinch of salt to a pan and heats this until it dissolves, then adds the vanilla bean and pulp and whisks it in. Before bottling he removes the pod remains and stores this syrup in a squirt bottle. It keeps “next to forever” but Alton tends to use it on food long before it could ever go bad. He give his a few hours for the flavors to melt.
Alton’s shish-kabob dessert is pineapple. Using a serrated knife he cuts the top and bottom from a pineapple, then quarters the fruit and cuts each quarter in half to make eighth sized pieces. He carefully trims the core (at the top of the piece) and then takes off the rind the same way he’d take the skin off a fish fillet.
Pineapples pieces go onto skewers and over the fire. Alton brings out the syrup and squirts the pieces. His goal is to create an outer layer of sugar that caramelizes as the pineapple softens. It will take about four minutes per side to cook and it has three sides – about twelve minutes total. Alton reapplies syrup from time to time and notes that there will be some smoke; this is normal. These pineapple pieces work great on ice cream!
So, Alton says, embrace “skewer-centric” cuisine! It helps make the most of current time and budget. Or, as Alton’s Uncle Rudy used to say, if you can’t drive a skewer through it, it ain’t Good Eats! Share this article with your friends