Summer may be drawing to a close here in the Northern Hemisphere, but there’s still time to get in some more grilling. In fact, grilling is a lot more pleasant in the cooler temperatures of the late summer and early fall than at the height of the summer—standing over a hot grill during those ‘dog days’ isn’t always a load of fun.
Italians love to grill all kinds of food, and we’ve already seen ways to grill steak, chicken, lamb, rabbit, pork, fish, shellfish, mollusks and vegetables not to mention the ne plus ultra of Italian grilling, the grigliata mista. But I can’t let the summer end without touching on the spiedino, or kebob, and its Abruzzese cousin, arrosticini.
Obviously, kebobs are not unique to Italian cooking, but I particularly like the combinations that include Mediterranean ingredients. In the usual Italian manner, the use of herbs is subtle and spices are few and far between, all the better to let the pure flavors of the ingredients, intensified by the heat of the fire, shine through.
The great advantage of the spiedino is that it gives you a variety of meats and vegetables in a single serving. Almost any sort of meat or vegetable lends itself to the task, but a few favorite combinations include:
- Chicken and sausage
- Chicken and pancetta
- Beef, sausage and bread
I much prefer dark chicken meat (bonless thighs) as they are much less prone to dry out during cooking. The sausage can be mild or spicy. And any of the above combinations can be interspersed with vegetables, my favorites being onion, bell pepper (red, green or yellow, or a combination) and medium-sized mushrooms, like in the kebobs pictured above. Cherry tomatoes and young zucchini also work well. For the adventurous, spiedini can also include (exclusively or in combination with other meats) organ meats like kidney, pork liver or coratella, translated into English as the ‘pluck’—lungs, heart and trachea.
To prepare a spiedino, cut your ingredients into bite-sized pieces and ‘thread’ them snuggly on a skewer, leaving room both at the bottom and at the tip. Onions and bell peppers need to be trimmed, the onion’s layers separated and the seeds and ribs of the pepper removed. It’s best to alternate lean and fat meats, so the fat meats can ‘baste’ the lean, and to alternate them with vegetables for extra flavor.
Once the kebobs are assembled, lay them flat on a large plate and season them with olive oil, salt and pepper. For a bit of spice, try some red pepper flakes as well.
Lay the spiedini on a moderate flame. You want the meat to brown nicely on the outside, but the flame should not be too high, or they will brown (or even burn) on the outside before the insides are properly cooked. Baste them (lightly) with olive oil as you go.
When the spiedini are done, transfer them (careful, they’re hot!) to a serving dish and season them again. To serve each diner, slip the pieces off a few at a time with a fork onto the plate.
Arrosticini are a type of lamb kebob unique to the Abruzzo region. You cut lamb (either leg or shoulder will do well) into small cubes, then thread them onto a smallish skewer. (Ideally, they should all line up to create a perfectly uniform lamb rectangle, but that’s beyond my capacity for patience and precision.) Season the lamb with olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary sprigs, which you can lay atop and below the skewers like so:
Leave the arrosticinito marinate for several hours. They are cooked over a moderate-high flame and, if you’ve cut your lamb into small enough pieces, will take no time at all, about 2 minutes per side. They should be nicely browned on the outside, but still juicy inside.
The skewers for kebobs come in two basic types: metal and bamboo. For larger spiedini, I like to use the metal variety, which should be flattened to help turn their contents—on a perfectly round skewer, the skewer might turn but gravity would hold the contents motionless. For arrosticini, however, bamboo skewers are de rigueur. In Abruzzo, arrosticiniare made on a a special canal-shaped grill just large enough to accomodate the skewers, which prevents them from burning up.
On a standard grill, you’ll need to take some precautions: Make sure to soak them in water for a good while before using them, and if you have the time and inclination, you can cover the ‘handle’ part of the skewer with aluminum foil.
One few tips for grilling spiedini and especially arrosticini: Most importantly, make sure that your pieces, whether they be meat or vegetable, are more or less the same size; this will let the various components cook at the same rate and makes the spiedino easier to handle. If you place them in a grilling basket, you can turn them all at once, saving yourself a fair amount of work.
The spiedino are not limited to meat and vegetables. Seafood—in particular scallops (capesante) make for a classic spiedino. Even fruit can be grilled this way; peaches are particularly good.