If early summer is asparagus season and midsummer is peak for tomatoes, then late summer is prime time for food-on-a-stick. State fairs are in full bloom, and that is where skewered cuisine is at its ripest.
Cosmopolitan fairgoers nibbled caprese salad on a stick at the Iowa State Fair. Exotica seekers can sample kangaroo on a stick at the ongoing New York State Fair. Barbecue lovers at the Kansas State Fair devoured “moink balls,” smoked and sauced bacon-wrapped meatballs. The Minnesota State Fair offered more than 75 varieties of stick food, including Key lime pie and something called Minnesota Music on a Stick, whatever that might be.
While state fair sticks are a fun diversion, for backyard cooks the most common form of impaled food remains the kebab.
And in my experience, people treat kebabs with benign neglect. They buy pre-cut meat, stick it on a metal or soaked wood skewer, put the whole shebang over a flame and a few minutes later, eat something that’s too often chewy and tough.
In the interest of building a better kebab, I called the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M, which explores every issue imaginable related to the butchering, preparation and cooking of meat. I talked to Jeff Savell, a meat science professor, who offered two primary bits of advice that all come down to numbers. One, buy high-quality meat. “Don’t skimp,” he said. “Buy the best you can afford.” Two, understand size matters. “If they’re too small, they’ll overcook and dry out,” he said. “If they’re too large, you don’t get the internal temperature right.”
It was that last part that got to me. What is the optimum kebab size? Savell said 2-inch cubes were a benchmark.
With those tips in mind, get started on your own perfect kebabs with our Grilled Antipasto on a Stick (left), Grilled Lamb Kebabs in Yogurt (center) and Scorched and Skewered Fruit Salad (right) on Page D2.
Grilled Antipasto on a Stick
At trattorias throughout Italy, one of the most beautiful and tempting sights is a display case of grilled vegetables in olive oil. This recipe puts it all together on skewers.
The eggplant and zucchini coins should lie flat on the grate. You will probably have parts of vegetables left over. Reserve them for another use.
Skewering the vegetables makes for an easy way to give each dinner guest her own antipasto. That said, mixing them together on a platter makes for a grand presentation for the table. Your choice.
You’ll need to soak six 12-inch bamboo skewers in water for at least 30 minutes.
For the dressing:
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley leaves
2 teaspoons chopped or torn basil
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
For the kebabs:
1 small eggplant (8 ounces), sliced into 3 rounds, each 1/2-inch thick, then quartered
1 medium zucchini (10 ounces), sliced into 6 rounds, each 1/2-inch thick, then cut in half
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 12 equal pieces
1 medium sweet onion, cut into 6 sections, small inner layers removed
12 cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
Freshly ground black pepper
Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees F.). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Just before cooking, use a little vegetable oil to grease the grate.
For the dressing: Whisk together the garlic, oregano, parsley, basil, oil, vinegar, salt, black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes in a bowl.
For the kebabs: Thread the eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, onion and cherry tomatoes onto the skewers. You will have one section of onion and two of every other vegetable on each skewer. Brush with the oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Arrange the kebabs on the grill. Cook, uncovered, over direct heat, until charred in spots, about 4 to 5 minutes, then use tongs to turn them; grill for 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to individual plates; drizzle a little of the dressing on them. Alternatively, you can either combine all the vegetables together or set them in individual groups on a platter and drizzle with the dressing. Serve.
Nutrition per serving: 120 calories, 2 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar.
Scorched and Skewered Fruit Salad
People don’t often associate fruit with the grill and even less often consider fruit on a stick. But grilling enhances fruit’s flavor by caramelizing it, and skewering it provides an easy way to cook and present it. For optimum control, you can individualize the kebabs – all cantaloupe on one, all pineapple on another, and so on. But columnist Jim Shahin prefers the colorful look of different fruits on the same skewer.
Serve the kebabs straight from the fire on individual plates, or slide them from the sticks into a bowl, dress and chill for a fruit salad.
You’ll need to soak six 12-inch bamboo skewers in water for at least 30 minutes.
For the dressing
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon hot Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
For the kebabs
6 strawberries, hulled
Six 1/2-inch cubes cantaloupe
Six 1/2-inch cubes honeydew
Six 1/2-inch cubes pineapple
Six 1/2-inch cubes mango
Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium (375 degrees F.). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 6 or 7 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Just before cooking, use a little vegetable oil to grease the grate.
For the dressing: Whisk together the lime juice, honey, sea salt, paprika and cilantro in a small bowl.
For the kebabs: Slide one piece of each fruit in whatever order you like onto the skewers; you will have 6 skewers of fruit.
Arrange the skewers on the grate. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes per side, turning as needed until the fruit is charred in spots. The total grilling time will be 8 to 12 minutes.
Transfer the kebabs to a platter and serve individually to each guest, with a bowl of sauce for drizzling. Or slide the fruit from the skewers into a bowl, dress with the sauce, and chill for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours. Serve.
Nutrition per serving: 25 calories, 0 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 95 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar.
Grilled Lamb Kebabs in Yogurt
6 to 8 servings
This recipe draws upon time-honored treatments from Turkey, the Middle East and India, using yogurt to tenderize and flavor the lamb.
The recipe calls for grilling the meat first on one side, then the other. But turning the skewers throughout the cooking process is fine. Unlike a lot of grilled meats, which are best left alone for a while, kebabs, with their uneven sides, don’t mind some fiddling. The kebabs come out medium-rare.
You’ll need 6 metal or 12-inch bamboo skewers. If using bamboo skewers, soak them in water for at least 30 minutes.
2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small onion, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest and 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 or 2 lemons)
2 heaping tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 pounds trimmed boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes (16 to 20 pieces)
Combine the yogurt, salt, pepper, onion, garlic, lemon zest and juice and the mint in a gallon-size zip-top bag. Add the lamb and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage to coat the meat. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.
Thread the lamb cubes on the skewers, using 4 or 5 pieces per skewer. Bring to room temperature before grilling. Discard any remaining marinade.
Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Just before cooking, use a little vegetable oil to grease the grate.
Arrange the skewers on the grill; cook, uncovered, for 5 to 7 minutes on one side, then use tongs to turn them over and cook for 4 to 6 minutes on the other side.
Carefully pull the grilled lamb from the skewers; arrange in rows on a platter or plates. Serve warm.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.