Friday, April 22, 2011

The Season Of The Grill

I know some of you are still languishing in the cold, wet throes of winter's last breath, but here in the Blue Ridge Mountains it's time to transition out of the kitchen and onto the patio. The era of braising, stewing and roasting is over. The dawn of the grilling season is upon us.

If you eat wild meats like Sue and I do, you already know how tricky it can be to get the most out of them when you're cooking outdoors over an open flame. The meat is so lean, it's quite unforgiving on the grill. One second you've cooked your venison steak to perfection, the next second it's gone too far and turned leathery on you. This isn't the kind of grilling where you can go inside for another beer and leave the flame unattended. You need to have your cooler next to the grill and be there with tongs at the ready. The good news is, wild game cooks very quickly over high heat, so you probably won't need another beer before it's finished.

I love shish kebabs. As a kid growing up near Boston, I remember the lamb shish kebabs they serve at Santarpio's Pizza of East Boston. They are simple; cubed lamb skewered without distracting and unnecessary vegetables, held over glowing hardwood embers by a sweaty old guy named Gino (I made that name up, but he is sweaty and old). The intense heat puts a smoky, char on the edges, but the meat stays pink and moist in the center. It's wonderfully "lamby" with a satisfying undertone of onion essence, despite the fact there is no onion to be found on the skewer. They are the mark when it comes to shish kebab.

That mysterious onion flavor has confounded and haunted me until I opened up Soheila Kimberley's "Taste of the Middle East," published in 1996. There, I learned about the Persian method of marinating meat overnight in a simple blend of grated onion and saffron water. Kimberley uses lamb or beef fillet for her "kabab bahrg" whose origin is Iranian. I, of course, substitute a high quality venison roast or loin. Otherwise, I stick to the script, which goes like this...

  • 1 pound venison roast, cut into strips about 1/2-inch thick and 1-1/2-inches long
  • 2-3 saffron strands
  • 1 large onion, grated
  • 1 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 3 Tbsp sumac to garnish
  • cooked rice (or couscous) to serve
Take the meat out of the freezer a day ahead of time and thaw it in the fridge. Grate the onion (I used a box grater the first time, then I wised up and used the attachment on my Cuisinart). Pour a tablespoon of boiling water over the saffron strands and allow them to steep for a few minutes before adding them (with the infused water) to the bowl of grated onion. Add the venison to the bowl and mix it to coat. Cover it loosely with plastic wrap and marinate overnight in the fridge.

Holy onion juice! That's ruined, right?
When you're ready to grill, take out the venison and calm yourself. All that onion juice now drowning your beautiful venison roast has not ruined it - trust me. Thread the meat tightly onto your skewers. I know many kebab recipes call for making sure you leave space between the chunks of meat for even cooking, but this venison needs to be packed closely so it won't dry out on the grill. Now is the time to prepare separate, vegetable skewers if you're including them. Kimberley suggests tomato wedges here, but I have yet to make this during tomato season, so I haven't included them... yet.

Melt your butter and bring it out with a basting brush to paint the kebabs as they cook. Season the venison skewers with salt and pepper. I cook the kebabs over a high flame with the lid down for five or six minutes, then flip them over and finish the grilling for another five or six minutes. I know this sounds like a long time for such thinly sliced venison, but that's why you packed them so tightly on the skewer and baste them with the butter periodically until it's gone. The outside of the meat gets a perfect crust while the inside is pink and juicy.
A mediocre picture of a superb dish.
Now, sumac is an obscure spice, but if you happen to have it, use it here to finish the dish. It has a lemony/sweet paprika quality and it's traditional for this preparation. You could substitute some squeezed lemon juice and a sprinkle of paprika with great results as well.

What you end up with is a shish kebab even Gino would be proud of.


  1. Sumac? Is this the spice from the seeds of the plant I remember growing wild in the midwest? I will now be on the hunt!!! I didn't know it was edible. Cool! I just made some oven roasted ratatouille for the first time last night. Delicious. I love that you post your weekly menu...I am not that organized! ;)

  2. e.m.b. - yes, sumac! There are a few factors to consider when to harvest, like making sure it's not wet when you do, but I've never done it myself. I know if you goggle or youtube it, you'll find some good info. Good luck with it! The ratatouille was fantastic with broiled fish. I'm glad you like the menu idea. It was born when we lived far enough away from a grocery store that stepping out for a pound of sugar wasn't an option. It's on the blog thanks to the suggestion of a friend.

  3. That mediocre picture looks pretty damn awesome to me. I'd love to have that plate sitting in front of me right opposed to cafeteria food.

  4. "A mediocre picture of a superb dish" - love your lines. Would prefer the mediocre picture/superb dish than the other way around-)

  5. Jamie, I am going to make this again - this time with beef I think rather than the venison (although we were gifted a lot of deer meat recently when a hunter friend/co-worker decided to move to Alaska ... sweet!). What is the longest you've marinated? More than 24 hours? I'm wondering if one can over-marinate? Just curious ... thanks again for sharing this wonderful recipe!