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 just-concluded Iowa State Fair. Exotica seekers can sample kangaroo on a stick at the ongoing New York State Fair. Barbecue lovers at the upcoming Kansas State Fair will devour “moink balls,” smoked and sauced bacon-wrapped meatballs. The Minnesota State Fair offers 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. One, buy high-quality meat. “Don’t skimp,” he said. “Buy the best you can afford.” Two, understand that 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 mentioned two-inch cubes as optimum, so the next day, I grabbed a tape measure and visited a couple of well-regarded kebab houses in Arlington to find out how theirs stack up.
At my first stop, the tiny, cash-only Ravi Kabob House #1, I strategically chose a table I hoped would shield me from prying eyes. There were only five customers in the place, but a person measuring his lamb kebabs is easily spotted — and pegged as a weirdo — so I tried to do it surreptitiously.
I carefully measured the length, height and width of each cube. Turns out, it’s not so easy to measure since the meat is irregularly shaped, but they basically amounted to 1 1 / 2-inch cubes. The meat was cooked to medium, and its texture was a little chewy.
I was less self-conscious at Kabob Palace. I whipped out the tape when my plate arrived, gave a quick nod to a guy in a booth checking me out, and found that the cubes were larger, closer to the two-inchers (although again irregularly shaped) that Savell had recommended. Sure enough, the meat was rosy inside and tender.
I began experimenting at home. Remembering Savell’s first recommendation, I ordered a gorgeous leg of lamb from my butcher, who cut the meat into (irregularly shaped) two-inch and 1 1 / 2-inch cubes. I marinated the meat in yogurt and lemon and refrigerated the cubes in different sealed containers, keeping the two sizes separate.
Above a medium-hot fire, I laid skewers of our appetizer and dessert simultaneously, as the former takes well to being served at room temperature and the latter would chill. I slid the skewers of charred eggplant, zucchini, onion, cherry tomatoes and red bell pepper onto a platter and spooned a homemade Italian dressing over them. I mixed the scorched cantaloupe, honeydew, strawberry, mango and pineapple in a bowl with a lime, cilantro, honey and smoked-paprika concoction and popped it into the fridge.
I then set the meat-only skewers over the fire, one size on the right side of the grill, the other on the left, and grilled them until the kebabs had a nice char, about six minutes on one side and five on the other.
My wife, Jessica, and I sat down to the veggies. They were soft and grill-char sweet. After some nibbling, we dug into the lamb. We cut the kebabs in half to appraise their color, then tasted for flavor and tenderness.
“I think this one needs to go back on the fire,” Jessica said.
I checked out others from the same skewer. All of them needed another couple of minutes over the flame, and they were the two-inchers. The 1 1 / 2-inch cubes were perfect — but leaving the larger cubes on longer, of course, achieved the desired result.
Next time, I’d not only leave the bigger cubes on longer, but also would probably turn them more often, the way I usually do. Unlike other cuts of meat, which are best left alone for a while, kebabs benefit from being moved around to achieve a nice char on their irregular parts and a tender medium-rare at the center. This time, so I could eat my antipasto and not hang around the fire constantly fussing with the meat, I had chosen not to.
My experimentation was a victim of its own inflexibility. I got caught up in the parameters of my procedure rather than in the reality of my kebabs. And ultimately, I proved what I should have known all along: Either size can work just fine, depending on the length of time the kebabs cook — and the technique used to cook them.
I’m glad I got all that settled just in time for food-on-a-stick season. Now I can start experimenting with caprese salad and moink balls. Wish me luck.