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Alton's Past: Alton's Driveway

GUESTS: AB's Mom and Dad
              Uncle Rudy

MOM & DAD: [they run down the driveway, waving and blowing kisses, leaving AB]

    When I was a kid, my parents would occasionally run away for long, romantic weekends, just the two of them, and they'd leave my sister and I under the supervision of our Uncle Rudy.

UNCLE RUDY: [drives up in a van then proceeds to make shish kabobs]

    Now, as far as we knew, Rudy didn't have a home other than this conversion van he rode around in. He'd park and pop the top on some suds, and he would crank up this little hibachi, and he'd get it really really going, and he would just incinerate whatever chunks of cheap chuck he could find, you know, down at the "Cash 'n Carry". Oh, and he had these skewers that he said our great-grandfather took off some Turk during the Great War. Ahh, Rudy thought those kabobs were the height of cuisine. And the beer, too.

The Dining Room

    I probably don't have to tell you that those kabobs tasted hideous or that my sister and I adored them. You know, the entire "kabob" thing seemed so foreign, so exotic. And sometimes, Rudy let us sword-fight with the skewers when we were done eating. Hah! Which explains why my mother never liked that man.
    Anyway, like many American skewer-meisters, Uncle Rudy's kabobs served as a bold expression of his desire to have as little to do with cooking as possible. Which is a shame. Because with a little time, attention, know-how, and the right skewers, kabobs can be a true expression of ...

["Good Eats" theme plays]

Turkey: 900 AD

GUESTS: Four Marauding Ottomans

    Dateline: Turkey, 900 A.D. As the moon rises over the barren, desolate plains of Eurasia, bands of marauding Ottomans, tired and hungry from a long day of empire-building, settled down to their supper. Like my Uncle Rudy, these guys travel light and rarely eat at a table, much less, with a fork. And of course, they don't seem to have anything to sit on, even. But they are a civilized and inventive lot. So when one of them manages to kill a critter or two, they adapt and they use their swords and daggers as culinary tools. And thus the shish-kabob, or skewered roasted beef product, is born. Of course, you have to wonder, if the Ottomans were so inventive, why didn't they invent the ottoman?

The Kitchen

    Now let's say that, come supper time, you found yourself facing [puts a long knife on the cutting surface] one simple tool, a wee little bit of time [produces a clock], not much in the way of fuel [produces a chunk of coal], and one big ol' honkin piece of meat [shows one big ol' honkin' piece of meat], say, a yak or something like that. Now the amount of time and temperature, and, therefore, fuel required to cook a piece of meat is greatly a function of surface area. Now this piece of meat has an approximate surface area of [quickly does a rough measurement] 864 square inches of surface area, give or take a couple of inches. But, if we were to cut this into two-inch cubes ... [gets his steak knife, frowns; gets his electric knife, smiles and cuts up the meat] Now if I have counted correctly, we now have 216 two-inch cubes, possessing a total of—if I can use this [calculator] thing—five thousand ... yeah, 5175 inches, of ... square inches ... of surface area, give or take.
    Now all other things being equal, this meat would now cook almost, six [double checks] yeah, six times faster than before, and obviously with a lot less fuel. So clearly, kabobery is a very time and fuel-efficient way of cooking. Now, what does this mean to Americans like you and me who probably have plenty of fuel and food on hand? Well for one thing, properly prepared kabobs deliver unparalleled flavor at a very low price. And since we're even more pressed for time than medieval marauders, skewer-based cookery makes a lot of sense. Of course, we do have to have the right meat for the job. And although yak rump will work, I think there are probably better options at the mega-mart.

Harry's Farmers Market, Marietta, GA – 9:15 am

GUEST: Meat Monger

    Although many cuts from the round to the chuck, have kabob potential, I believe that the sirloin best delivers that perfect balance of beefy flavor and meaty texture that you expect from something as primal as a kabob. Now, sirloin is very easy to fabricate in the home kitchen environment. And at ... well ... under eight dollars a pound, it is a bargain.

AB: You know, I think I'll have that second one from the bottom. Yeah, that's the one.
MEAT MONGER: [takes it and wraps it up]

    By the way, if you've ever heard that story about King Henry VIII having knighted this piece of meat thus making it Sir Loin? that's crazy talk. The "sir" comes from the French "under". So sirloin actually means "under the loin".

The Kitchen

    [finished cutting up the meat into cubes] There.

1 1/2 Pounds Beef Sirloin,
    Cut into 1 1/2 - 1 /34
    Inch Cubes

    Now traditionally, kabobs and their kin receive at least a brief soak in a marinade. Why?

Turkish Marauder Animation

    Well, remember our Turkish marauders? When they managed to land a meaty morsel, it usually wasn't prime beef. It was a boar, or a bear, or some other strange critter that was probably gamey and dry and tough. To counteract these conditions, the raiders would soak their dinner in a richly spiced goo prior to cooking.

The Kitchen

    Want to infuse your kabobery with authentic Ottoman flavor? Fine, just hook up your faithful food processor and add three cloves of garlic, two teaspoons of paprika—smoked if you can get it—one half teaspoon of ground turmeric, one teaspoon of ground cumin—toasted would be nice—one teaspoon of kosher salt, half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, one-third of a cup of red wine vinegar. Then slap on the lid, turn on, and drizzle in one-half cup of olive oil.

3 Cloves Garlic Minced
2 tsp. Smoked Paprika
1/2 tsp. Ground Turmeric
1 tsp. Ground Cumin
1 tsp. Kosher Salt
1/2 tsp. Freshly Ground
    Black Pepper
1/3 Cup Red Wine Vinegar
1/2 Cup Olive Oil

    The oil will help to move fat-soluble flavors into the meat as well as lubricate any connective tissue that it can get to. The acid in the vinegar will bring flavor and moisture to the party as well as break down a little bit of connective tissue. But, despite popular mythology, the acid will not penetrate the meat deeply enough to tenderize it. There.
    Now, toss the marinade and kabob meat in a heavy zip-top bag with as much air squeezed out as possible. That will maximize meat-marinade contact. Toss this into something that will prevent any contamination, should leakage occur, and stash in the refrigerator for, let's say, two to four hours. That should give us just enough time to do a little hardware searching.

A kabob by any other name:
Anticuchos = Peru
Brochette = France
Yakatori = Japan

Cook's Warehouse: Atlanta, GA – 11:20 am

GUESTS: "W", Equipment Specialist
              Two girls

AB: Hi, W. You know, it's funny that ...
W: AB, I really don't have time to play. Just remember, you break it, you bought it.

    Well, I get the point, and so soon shall she.
    Once upon a time, choosing a skewer was as simple as drawing one's dagger or fixing one's bayonet. Today, there are dozens, if not hundreds of different designs, most of them really bad. For instance, take this curved model, which is meant to sit on the edge of one's plate. How you're supposed to ... I don't know. Other standouts, we've got baskets, we've got racks. This is like, I don't know, Dante's kabob pitchfork of death or something. And oh, check this out. Here's, here's a rack for the especially lazy. You put all the kabobs on there and turn one handle and they rotate over the fire.
    I don't know. I say that we avoid all such mechanical whimsy, and just get a straightforward skewer. But even there, things are a little bit tricky because we've got a lot of things to consider. Is it sharp enough? Is it durable enough? And is it not going to rust through years of use? The only thing that I can think to do, is to test them all.
    [holds up a voodoo doll that looks vaguely like "W", imitating "W"] Remember, AB, if you break it, you bought it! [AB voice] Heh, heh. First thing we have to do is check for tip sharpness. [shoves the tip of a skewer into the doll's back]

W: [helping a customer, reacts as if the customer behind her has pinched her] Oww. [turns around to look at him]

    Well, that took way too much force. Let's try another. Maybe something a little more slender. [shoves it into the doll's neck]

W: Well, if it wasn't you, then who ... oww. [receives a sharp pain in her neck, looks around and spies a young girl chewing on a straw] Ahh, so little missy wants to play Missile Command, does she? Okay.

    Now that's sharp. But you notice that the metal stalk is really kind of rounded. That means that food could slip around it too easily. And this little grip on the end, way too small to get hold of with either tongs or oven mitts. Hey, let's try a non-stick version; see if it penetrates thin pieces of meat any easier. [again, sticks it in the doll's feet]

W: [approaching the girls, she writhes in pain holding her legs] Oww, oww, oww.

    [shows a bent skewer] Wow. That's not the kind of thing you want to see happen. Well, I guess there's nothing to do but test them all. [tests all of the skewers on display]
    Well, after exhaustive testing [the doll is full of skewers now], I do believe we have a winner. Check it out. It's about 13 inches of skewer. It is heavy-duty nickel-plated steel. You'll notice that it is rectangular in cross-section. That'll keep food from flopping around. It's got a nice sharp point that can easily be filed to keep it that way. And on this end, a nice big loop for easy handling and storage. Yep, everybody that loves it, raise your hand and say, "Yaaaay". [sticks the skewer into the doll's hand]

W: [on a stretcher, her hand now obviously in pain] Oww, now it's my hand. It's in my hand now. Look, look ...
PARAMEDIC: Just try to relax, Ms. Wong. We'll have you to the hospital in no time. Thank you. Thank you. Be good.

In Turkey, kabob shops are as common as hot dog stands in New York.

The Living Room

    Although kabobery be a simple sport, I do find that by following a few basic guidelines, you can bolster your chances of success. You'll notice that I like to work with latex gloves. That's just because this can get a little bit messy and the marinade will stain if you're not careful. I'll also have to do less hand-washing this way.
    Now, note that even though all of the ingredients are going to be cooked through, I do keep the meat segregated away from the vegetables just to prevent any possibility of cross-contamination [the meat is on one tray, the veggies on another]. You'll also notice that I arrange the meat before I actually do any skewering. This way, I can kind of sort out sizes and numbers. I know that all these little pieces are obviously going to go on to a kabob that will cook faster, and these larger pieces here will cook a little slower. Now I've got good organization here. I know that I need four skewers. Now, when it comes to the actual skewering, you always want to aim for center mass. [he skewers the row of meat]
    Now we face the number one kabobing dilemma. Do we leave the meat packed in together or do we space it? Now, all packed together like this, we've got stability: the meat is a lot less likely to spin as we turn the kabob. But we don't have much in the way of surface area. By spreading out the meat, just putting a bare half inch in between each piece, we increase the surface area by a factor of, ah, I don't know, maybe ...

THING: [shows AB a calculator]

... Wow! Almost one and a half times, which means that these pieces are going to cook faster, and of course, there's going to be more char, and char equals flavor ... You can see where I'm going with this. Besides, one of the reasons that I think we can go with spacing here is that, by using sirloin and by skewering it across the grain, we're going to have a little more stability than we would with most other cuts. [he skewers the rest] There we go. Now if you're not going to cook those right away, definitely put them back into the refrigerator.
    In the meantime, we will consider vegetables. Now, when running through vegetables, there are still some guidelines beginning with the skewers in question. If you have some skewers with relatively flat blades, you want to use them for vegetables because they're a lot less likely to split things. And there are some other challenges. I mean, look. The vegetables have got a lot of different textures, different hardnesses, and different shapes.
    Now things with squishy centers, like zucchini, should always be cut in at least one-inch rounds, and then you should skewer through the side. Now when skewering, don't hold like this, okay? [he holds the veggie in his unprotected hand up in the air and points the skewer at the veggie] I've seen some horrible things happen. Aahhh. Right? So lay it down like this, flat, on a clean counter or work surface, put your hand on top, and run through, thusly. Nice and safe and even.
    Now moving on, we've got mushrooms. Now mushrooms are notorious skewer spinners, so always leave the stem on, and always run through the stem from the bottom forward. Like that, okay?
    Onions. Onions are very popular on kabobs, but cutting them into wedges and then trying to put them on, they always fall apart. So, I suggest going with either big hunks of leeks or large pearl onions. Leave them intact, just, you know, trim off a little bit from both ends, then when you run those through, go through the root end. If you find that there's too much resistance with something like an onion, hold the food with a rolled up kitchen towel so that if the skewer slips, it doesn't slip too far, if you get my drift. There you go.
    We've also got peppers: very, very popular. I like working in little rounds like this, because when you run those guys through, they stay nice and even, and you get some charring around the side. But if you prefer, you can always cut your peppers into strips and kind of lace them on. Unfortunately, you do have to do this up in the air like this. Sometimes they break, sometimes they don't. That way, you get more char on the sides.
    Last, but not least, do not leave out the hard vegetation. Things like sweet potatoes and rutabagas are great kabob fodder. Just be sure that you soak them in water for a while before you try skewering them. It'll keep them from splitting. And again, lay them down and use the towel to run them through.

Other vegetal skewer fodder; cherry tomatoes, yellow squash & potatoes.

The Patio

    [takes a sip of a beverage] Ahhh. Although you can certainly successfully cook your kabobs under the oven broiler, it is a tedious task at best. If you've got a grill, that's what you are going to want to use. And you've got a gas grill—and I happen to know that most of us in America do—you're going to have to observe a couple of extra rules. One, your grates are going to have to be very, very clean when you start. You're going to want to make sure that your heat is set to medium-high—at least in the beginning—so you get a good sear. You're going to want to flip your kabobs every couple of minutes until they are cooked through, and typically, I find it's about eight minutes for rare, and about 12 minutes for medium.
    Once they are done, and these look like they are, then move those off to aluminum foil, and just wrap them up so that they can rest for at least a couple of minutes before we take them off and serve.
    Now if you are in possession of a charcoal grill or a fire bowl, otherwise known as a brazier, you are in luck and so are your kabobs. Now if you were to look at cooking scenes portrayed in paintings from, say, 13th century India, 14th century Persia or Turkey, you'll see that the kabobs are always suspended over fire not put right down on grill grates. That's strictly a Western cooking kind of thing. So if you've got a charcoal grill, what you can do is remove the cooking grate, line some bricks around where the charcoal is, and then just lay the kabobs across the bricks. That will let you get them nice and close. I like to be about two inches off the charcoal. What that lets you do is to use a very small amount of charcoal, which of course, is in keeping with the whole economy of this method. And, of course, it creates a lot of flavor, but you are going to have to turn them frequently, which is a good thing. I usually turn them about every minute, until they are done to my liking. And I like them medium with this kind of meat.
    Now if you've got skewers with really big loops, odds are good you'll be able to use your fingers to flip these over. But you should still keep some of these [tongs] around. Now this is pretty close to authentic kabobery.

Back Yard

    But if you want to really be historically accurate and if you've got a little yard to spare, just find yourself a nice, level place [of ground] and remove any, you know, extraneous, unnecessary plant life. [pulls up a plant and tosses it] That can grow somewhere else. Carve yourself a shallow trench say, maybe four inches deep, 12 inches wide and, I don't know, five feet long. Line it with sand, encircle it with stones or bricks, and then just fill it up with hot charcoal.
    Above all, remember that kabobs are party food and it doesn't matter what the party is. You could be celebrating your new job, or, I don't know, maybe you laid siege to a fortified town. It doesn't matter; the more, the merrier. Now when going with the trench method, everyone can supervise their own cooking, and that takes the responsibility and pressure off you, the host. Now remember that in kabobery, frequent food fiddling is absolutely necessary. You've got to keep turning the food all the time and keep testing for doneness. Now since a thermometer isn't really practical in this form of cookery, you're going to have to use your hands. Just give the meat a squeeze. It should be firm, yet yielding, charred on the outside, but clearly juicy on the inside. Since you can test a piece at a time, beef kabobs are actually a really great training ground for teaching yourself meat doneness in general.
    As for vegetables, keep each to its own skewer for even cooking. Brush with a little oil, sprinkle with some salt and pepper, and always work in zones. That is, fast-cooking veggies like zucchini, mushrooms, small onions, go over hotter coals, while dense foods, like rutabagas, sweet potatoes, things like that, will go over slower fire. Sweet potatoes are really very, very good, by the way.
    So when it comes time to serve, you've got lots of options ...

OTTOMAN: [eats a piece of meat right off the skewer]

... and, uh, that's certainly one of them. But if you're not experienced, you might put an eye out. So might I suggest, for instance, couscous.

OTTOMANS: [push all of their kabob meats and veggies into a bowl of couscous]
AB: [tosses it with tongs] There you go. You guys eat up!

    Of course, what I like to do is just grab a piece of hot buttered pita and make myself an Istanbul hot dog. Now that's what I call good eats.
    Of course, there is dessert to be considered.

In chemistry, the term shish kebab is used metaphorically for a type of crystalline body that grows from a central rod.

The Kitchen

    Say the words "kabob" and "dessert" and I think fruit. And just as meat appreciates a little bit of a soak in a marinade before facing the fire, so does fruit appreciate a little syrup.

    Split one vanilla bean and scrape out the pulp, reserving both the pod and the pulp. 1 Vanilla Bean Split and
    Place a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Dump in one firmly-packed cup of brown sugar, half a cup of freshly-squeezed lime juice, a pinch of salt, and the remains of the bean. Whisk that over the heat until the sugar has thoroughly dissolved, then set it off to the side for two hours so the flavors can meld. And finally, remove the pod remains. 1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
    Firmly Packed
1/2 Cup Freshly Squeezed
    Lemon Juice
Pinch of Kosher Salt

    As soon as it cools, transport your syrup to the nearest squirt bottle; this is for easy application. Now in the refrigerator, this stuff will keep for, oh I don't know, next to forever. But it probably won't get a chance because it is so gosh darn useful. I put this on everything from angel food cake to pork loin. But we are talking about kabobs here and my favorite target is the pineapple. That's right, the kabobers best friend. Let's cut one up, shall we!

    Now I am a very, very big fan of serrated knives. Serrated bread knives are the best thing for this. So, start by taking the top off the pineapple, and then, logically, the bottom. Stand it up on end and split it into quarters. Lay down those quarters and carefully split those into eighths. Then stand up each piece, and just shave off the core. Then lay it down, and filet off the skin. Watch your fingers!

1 Whole Pineapple Peeled,
    Cored & Cut Into 8

The Back Yard

    The goal in cooking this kind of fruit is to create just a thin outer layer of sugar that will caramelize as the pineapple underneath softens. Now cooking is going to take about four minutes per side, and I've got three sides, so about 12 minutes. Be patient and feel free to reapply syrup once or twice during the process. There will be a little smoke, but don't worry about it.

AB: Hey, everybody got your ice cream ready?
OTTOMANS: [hold up their bowls of ice cream and grunt in assent]
AB: Excellent! Load up, and dig in!
OTTOMANS: [the de-skewer a pineapple on top of their ice cream]

The Kitchen

    Well, I hope your appetite is ready and willing to embrace some skewer-centric cuisine. Not only do shish kabobs link us to a more colorful, simpler time, they can help you make the most of your current time, not to mention your food budget. Like my Uncle Rudy used to say, "if you can't drive a stake through it, it ain't good eats."
    See you next time.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010