Lightly charred on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside, these cubes of lamb or beef will have you saying so long to regular kebabs forever.
I’m not a fan of shish kebabs (or kabobs or kebobs or kababs for that matter). I like red meat that is rare to medium rare inside. It is most tender and juicy when pink to red. I like meat crisp and dark on the outside when the Maillard effect has had a chance to work its magic and enhance its flavor (see my article on meat science).
Kebab meat is usually 1-inch or so square, and it is near impossible to get crisp and red/pink meat that small. The solution is to cut the meat in larger cubes, bigger than bite size, about 2-inches square so they don’t fall through the grates and so they can remain tender on the inside. The solution is spiedies.
Spiedies were probably created by Augustine LaCovelli, who, in 1929, immigrated from Civitella in Abruzzi, Italy, and settled near Binghamton, NY. A local specialty in Abruzzi is Arrosticini, lamb chunks grilled on a skewer and served on bread soaked in olive oil (for more on arrosticini, click here).
In Binghamton, LaCovelli opened a restaurant, named it Augies’, and introduced spiedini, which means, roughly, “little roasted things”. It is believed he marinated and heavily seasoned lamb chunks on wooden skewers and served them on Italian bread to hungry laborers. The locals called them spiedies (pronounced SPEE-dees). The sandwich became so popular that there is even an annual Spiedie Fest in Binghamton in August. It’s been around since 1984, draws more than 100,000, and even has a cookoff and hot air balloon rally.
Today, spiedies are cubes of meat, typically lamb, but they can also be beef, pork, chicken or venison cubes, or a mix of them. The meat is marinated for many hours, often overnight, usually in oil and vinegar with lots of garlic and green herbs. Spiedie marinade can be bought in bottles, even 1 gallon jugs, in groceries in Upstate NY. Some are skewered, and some are cooked on a perforated grill topper or cast iron griddle.
My spiedies are not cooked on skewers, but grilled over an open flame with onions and peppers. When grilled, the olive oil drips and flares a lot so the meat gets really crunchy on the outside. Served rare to medium, the marinade flavor is almost as strong as the meat flavor. In Binghamton and at the State Fair in Syracuse, they are served on soft crust Italian style bread or pita. Spiedies are popular backyard and tailgate food in Upstate, and for the life of me, I cannot understand why they have not spread beyond. If you like shish kebabs, you’ve gotta try spiedies.
Serve with: a big red wine like a Shiraz or Syrah.
- 3/4 cup My Wife's Italian Vinaigrette or any Italian dressing with lots of herbs (you can add more, especially oregano)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Mortons coarse kosher salt
- 4 garlic cloves
- 2 pounds leg of lamb or beef sirloin
- 2 large onions
- 2 bell peppers, any color
- 4 pieces of Italian bread, about 6 inches long
- Prep. Crush the garlic cloves.
- Cut the lamb or beef into 2-inch cubes.
- Combine 1/2 cup of the vinaigrette, the lemon juice, salt, garlic, and meat in a large zipper bag or a bowl and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate at least overnight, but 24 hours or more is better.
- Once the meat is done marinating, remove the ends from the onions, peel, and slice into 1/2-inch disks. Separated into rings.
- Remove the stem, core, and seeds from the bell peppers and cut into quarters.
- Put a colander or strainer in the sink and dump the meat and marinade into it. Let the meat drain for a few minutes so it will not drip marinade onto the fire when you cook the meat.
- Fire up. Pre-heat the grill for high heat cooking.
- Cook. Split the bread lengthwise and toast on the cut side with the lid open. Watch it carefully so it doesn't burn. If it does blacken a bit, scrape off the char and the bread will be fine. Set aside on a serving platter at room temp.
- Grill the peppers on both sides until they are softening but not limp. Set aside in a serving bowl at room temp.
- Put the onion rings into a bowl with the remaining vinaigrette and toss them together until the rings are well coated. Grill the rings with the lid open until they are slightly soft. I like them a bit crunchy, but if you don't, cook them longer. Set aside in a serving bowl at room temp.
- Place the meat on the grill and separate the chunks so they are not touching. Grill on one side with the lid up until brown and until there are dark grill marks. We don't want the lid down because then the meat will be in an oven and it is too easy to overcook the meat. Turn the meat over with tongs and grill some more until the exterior brown a bit. That should do it. That should get you crispy exteriors and rare to medium rare interiors. A thermometer won't be much help here if the cubes are small. Test by biting into one. Get some grease on your chin. There is nothing drier than an overcooked spiedie, so don't allow that to happen.