Adapted from The Magic of Fire: Hearth Cooking: One Hundred Recipes for the Fireplace or Campfire by William Rubel (Ten Speed Press, 2002). Copyright 2002 by William Rubel.
Serves 4 to 6
Perhaps there is something atavistically pleasurable about kebabs, a deep memory of nomadic life that makes this meal the one that I find most quieting: skewered lamb, salt, flat bread. Grilling kebabs by the light of the fire, flat breads piled high, one could be nearly anywhere from North Africa through Arabia, or deep into Central Asia, now, or thousands of years ago. Few foods are simpler to make, and few give such pleasure for so little work.
Lamb is the kebab meat of choice; its fatty flesh lends itself to grilling in small pieces. The meat that can be separated from the fat and sinew of the cheaper cuts—lamb shank, lamb neck—makes the tastiest kebabs. This is partly because these cuts are inherently flavorful and also because by the time the meat has been prepared for the skewers, it is in small, irregular pieces—much smaller than bite-sized—and they readily pick up flavor from grilling. Premium cuts, such as leg of lamb or large loin lamb chips, can also be used and require far less trimming. When buying the meat, take the weight of the bones into account.
Flat breads are the traditional accompaniment, but any bread with character is appropriate. Part of me wants to say that kebabs have become a food of the world and that you should feel free to treat them as such and serve them with any sauce you like, but for this recipe I am looking to the source of lamb kebabs for inspiration. Serve them with only one condiment, a bowl of salt—preferably a salt still gray with impurities—bread, beer or red wine, and salad.
Basic Method: Hearthside grilling
Equipment: Metal or wooden skewers, grill or 2 common red bricks, shovel
Primary Venue: Hearth
Alternate Venues: Barbecue, campfire
The Fire: A mature fire with moderate to high flames to pull smoke up the chimney when grilling.
Cut the meat into pieces that are more or less the same size, ranging from 1/4 to 1/2 inch (6mm to 1 cm) on a side. As much as possible, work with the structure of the meat, discarding as much fat and sinew as you can. Thread the prepared meat onto skewers.
Place the clean grill on the hearth near the fire, or put 2 bricks parallel to each other and pointing toward the fire, each of them resting on its broadest face, and positioned so they can be spanned by the skewers. Shovel an even layer of embers underneath the grill or between the bricks to create moderate to high heat. Lay down the skewers. Turn the skewers as the meat cooks, adding the fresh herbs to the embers to create light smoke toward the end of the cooking time. The smallest pieces of meat will cook in 3 to 5 minutes, larger pieces in 8 to 10 minutes. Lamb is best when eaten rare. When done, transfer the kebabs to a platter and return the embers to the fireplace. Serve with a bowl of sea salt.
Harold McGee, the author of Keys to Good Cooking, is an expert on the chemistry behind food and cooking. McGee recently made his first trip to China, where he learned more about rice wine.