Saturday, June 16, 2007

"Kabob" De-Constructed

Like the two-headed snake, the "kabob" as conceived in the American food lexicon is a freak of nature, serving no evolutionary purpose except, perhaps, to convey a false sense of festiveness and culinary pizazz.

Everyone knows the "kabob" I'm talking about--the one overladen with huge chnunks of beef and a green grocer's assortment of vegetables, everything from bell peppers in all their varied colors--red, green, yellow, purple--to onions yellow and red; big, plump cherry tomatoes; giant white mushrooms. Even certain fruits make an appearance, thick wedges of pineapple or even peaches, perish the thought.

As a street food in the Middle East, Turkey or Souttheast Asa, the skewer serves a useful purpose, fitting a meal-sized portion of beef, lamb, pork or chicken on one device that can be moved around the grill top, set aside, re-warmed, then conveniently handed off to a customer, who can eat the meat directly off the skewer if he so chooses.

The problem arises when this simple concept of simple food simply prepared falls under the singularly American mantra of more and bigger and vastly over-abundant. Thus the skewer becomes the vehicle for a cornucopea of items that utterly foils an otherwise straightforward technique.

Anyone who has eaten one of these gargantuan American "kabobs" knows exactly what I mean. The laws of physics still apply. Most of the various items on the skewer cook at different rates--some take vastly longer to reach a state of doneness, onions being a prime example. Thus, if the cook is paying any attention to the meat and removing it from the heat at its peak, the onion next to it on the skewer will arrive on the plate virtually raw. The bell peppers may fare a little better, but not much. The mushrooms, depending on size, are anyone's guess.

Haven't we all at one time or another smiled politely through just such a "kabob" fest, when most of the vegetables were virtually inedible?

For the chef, the "kabob" is a nightmare, a real torture. Most vegetables do not work well on a skewer. When it comes time to turn the meat, the vegetables just turn around like crazy whirligigs in a stiff breeze. Some simply fall apart.

Being forced to perform this sad comedy on his outdoor grill--society simply demands it--the chef in addition to his frustrations over the non-performance of his "kabobs" finds himself completely cut off from the familiar surroundings of his kitchen--his tools, his counter tops, the range and fridge. He is a forlorn figuire indeed, and all because these "kabobs" are such a royal pain in the ass.

So when my hosts here on the island of Anguilla insisted I make "kabobs" for last night's dinner, I was having nightmare visions. It was all I could do to conceal my dread. I felt a bit of sympathy for the host, that she had so easily fallen victim to the "kabob's" erzatz allure. But mostly what I was feeling was dread.

The host produced 34 steel skewers and a bag of smaller, wooden ones. Thankfully, the party then left for a long boat ride, leaving me to consider my options.

In a flash of insight, my catering experience provided a solution. Imagining how I would present perfectly cooked "kabobs" at exactly the right moment for dinner, I had the good sense to dispel entirely with the idea of cooking these on the grill outside the back door. Instead, I would cook each component part of the "kabob" separately and to the desired doneness, then assemble the "kabobs" at my leisure, to be re-heated just before dinner.

Fortnately, our villa came equipped with a heavy, iron griddle-grill that sort of straddles two burners on the gas range. So there I spent a good portion of the day, cooking off pieces of bell peppers, wedges of red onion (with the root end left intact, to the onion doesn't fall apart), large mushrooms and finally a whole 12-pound slab of of beef ribeye purchased from the local restaurant supply, Merchant's Market, and broken down into large chunks. I marinated the beef with a bottle of teryaki sauce. It grilled perfectly fine.

Then to constructing a sample "kabob" and copying it, assembly-line fashion, 33 times. There was indeed enough meat and vegetables left over to make several smaller "kabobs" on the wooden skewers for the kids.

In addition, we had a potato salad from eight pounds of white potatoes with a mayo dressing seasoned with a tarragon mustard and terragon vinegar. I also salted and squeezed the liquid from three heads of cabbage, then dressed it with the vinegar-mustard preparation for the Southern cole slaw advocated by Scott Peacock.

Again, the meal went out to the buffet exactly on cue, and I'm not sure anyone suspected that the "kabobs" had not been sweated over and labored over on the outdoor grill. I even had time to make pina coladas with fresh pineapple and some of the coconuts that fall off the palm trees in the back yard...


Carol said...

Those kabobs sound absolutely wonderful. You should have a warning not to read your blog when one is hungry. Now I suddenly want some kabobs!

Ed Bruske said...

Carol, I'm ashamed to say that I now think I could make a party out of kabobs, simply by making them ahead and reheating them. I pitty the people who are standing over their grills this summer trying to get it right...