The heat of summer inspires meat lovers everywhere to cast aside their pots and pans for the sake of connecting more primitively with their food. Grills light up across the nation, and flames lick at burgers and tender cuts of rib eye steaks, sirloins, porterhouses, t-bones, and filet mignon, liberated from the tempering effects of a skillet or roasting pan. I share this national obsession, yet find myself craving more than simply a piece of fire-seared flesh. I want to chew, to exercise my canines on a piece of meat that has a little more muscle integrity, to feel it tear as the juices run down my chin, to experience the extra-intense beefy flavor that can only come from a piece of meat that requires mastication.
I’m not suggesting that all grassfed beef should be chewy. However, on every animal, there are cuts of meat that are known for their tenderness, such as the tenderloin; there are cuts known for having lots of marbling and connective tissue that become meltingly tender with braising, like the chuck roast. There is also a largely over-looked portion of the beef, rarely praised in cooking magazines, secretly spurned by meat writers for being difficult to work with: the top round and the sirloin tip, the two cuts used for beef kababs. These lean cuts of meat don’t share the same tenderness as sirloin steaks and filet mignon. They lack the connective tissue that enables them to hold up to braising. As a cookbook writer, I am forever facing the challenge of trying to develop methods for cooking them that will render them tender.* But making tenderness the only priority in a recipe can fail to showcase a cut of meat that has other, equally glorious attributes.
What makes for tasty meat? There are three factors that determine meat palatability: texture, juiciness, and flavor. Sadly, too many Americans have learned to focus on only the first factor, to the exclusion of the other two. Furthermore, most of us have interpreted “texture” to mean “tenderness,” and assume that is the only mark of quality for meat palatability. Our limited understanding of the scope of texture keeps us from enjoying organ meats, which have more exotic textures, and causes many folks to reject anything that requires cutting with a steak knife, unless it has been pre-masticated in a meat grinder.
I don’t always want tenderness from a piece of meat. I’m not saying that I get hankerings for shoe leather. But I tend to crave flavor and juiciness above all else in my meat, and I find those factors most present in a piece of meat that requires chewing, rather than gumming. And I like chewing, contrary to its apparent lack of national popularity.
The benefits of chewing: Chewing, breaking down food in our mouths and mixing it with our saliva, is critical to healthy digestion. If we aren’t in such a hurry to inhale our food, chewing longer greatly increases our enjoyment. It promotes gastro-intestinal health by prolonging the cephalic stage of digestion — the time when we see, smell and taste food, which stimulates the production of saliva in the mouth, and digestive enzymes in the stomach. Chewing is good for us. …Especially when the reward is full flavor, juicy beef.
And when it comes to lusty chewing and juicy flesh, I can think of no finer feast than meat on a stick. Grocery stores have been known to sell sirloin and filet mignon as kabab meat, but no self-respecting butcher would condone such a practice. The acids in marinades can break down super-tender cuts like tenderloin and sirloin and render them mushy. Also, the tender cuts often do not have enough concentrated meat flavor, and are easily overpowered by the marinade. A good kabab should be cut from the sirloin tip or top round, which have enough muscle integrity to allow it to stand up to a marinating process . As an added bonus, because there is a lot of top round and sirloin tip on a beef, kababs are often much less expensive than a piece of sirloin or tenderloin.
Don’t confuse kababs with stew meat. Just because both types of meat are cut into cubes does not make them interchangeable. Stew meat comes from the chuck, brisket, shanks and bottom round, all cuts that have connective tissue that will require moisture to break down. They are typically cut into 1-inch pieces, and they will taste like shoe leather if cooked on your grill. Good kababs come from the top round or sirloin tip, and they should be larger cubes, about 1 ½ inches.
Basic techniques: Kababs can be marinated for as little as two hours, or for as long as 24 hours. When you are ready to grill them, remove them from the marinade and take a few moments to blot them dry. The flavor of the marinade will have already penetrated the meat. You will want as little moisture on the outside as possible, because the meat will sear better. (Moist meat will not sear as well. The moisture will cause it to steam instead.) Once the meat has seared directly over a hot flame for about 2 minutes per side, remove the kababs and cook them indirectly for about five minutes. This indirect time will allow the sugars to caramelize over the surface of the meat, giving them that glistening fresh-from-the-grill flavor. It will also safeguard the juiciness and tenderness of the muscle fibers by preventing them from contracting too quickly (remember: the goal is “chewy,” not “shoe leather”), and it will leave your kababs delightfully medium rare. If you are seeking a little more inspiration and instruction, try using the recipe, below.
Dad’s Tamari-Basalmic Beef Kebobs
This recipe is taken from Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously.
Kababs, when marinated in advance, are a terrific way to create a fast, tasty meal. I find that the secret to enjoying them lies in appreciating the fact that they come from slightly chewier cuts of meat – Not so chewy as to warrant stewing, but just chewy enough to enjoy a lusty pull with your teeth as the rare meat releases juices on your tongue. If a few extra hungry souls show up at your table, expand the food available by skewering up and grilling some onions, peppers, tomatoes or summer squash to go with it.
Dad’s Tamari-Basalmic Marinade, see below
2 pounds beef kababs (alternatively, use a London broil, sirloin tip, or sirloin steak cut into 1 ½ inch cubes)
Metal skewers, or bamboo skewers soaked in water for 30 minutes
Pour the marinade into a large, stainless-steel, porcelain, glass or other non-reactive bowl. Add the kababs and mix well to coat. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or for a minimum of 2 hours. Stir them periodically to ensure all parts of the meat have an opportunity to absorb the marinade.
When you are ready to grill, remove the meat from the marinade, blot dry with a paper towel, place it on skewers, and allow it to come to room temperature while you prepare the grill.
Heat one side of the grill until the flame is medium-hot. You should be able to hold your hand five inches beyond the flame for no more than 4 seconds. Scrape the grate clean with a wire brush, then brush it lightly with oil.
Grill the meat directly over the flame, with the cover in place, for two minutes. Turn the skewers over, and grill them 2 minutes longer. Move them to the side of the grill opposite the flame, cover, and let them cook indirectly for 5 minutes longer for medium-rare meat. Serve immediately.
Dad’s Tamari Basalmic Marinade
This marinade works well with beef, pork, lamb or poultry
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup tamari
½ cup basalmic vinegar
2 cloves crushed garlic
2 tablespoons honey