Spiedini and Other Grilled Delicacies, Italian-Style
Italians love cooking outdoors just as much as anyone with a host of traditional recipes for the grigliata, or cookout. Spiedini, or skewers, make for the easy grilling of vegetables, meats and cheeses. For a sweet, smoky dessert, try throwing your favorite fruits on the flame. Often using lamb, sausage, pancetta, veal or seafood, Italy's version of grilled kebabs can make a savory meal in no time.
By Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti
Grilling over an open flame is one of the oldest methods of cooking in the world—and one of the healthiest. Most would agree that Americans are the world champions in this culinary art—well known for their affection and expertise in all things related to barbecues. But Italians, especially in the lush spring and summer months, are also known to enjoy scrumptious grilled meals outdoors; a summer grigliata (barbecue) among friends and family, have always been a tradition in rural Italy and for those lucky ones with vacation homes in the countryside. Some restaurants (or trattorie, as they’re called) outside of the cities have huge outdoor grills, which are renowned for turning out such specialties as grigliata mista (mixed grill), salsicce alla griglia (grilled sausages), abbacchio alla griglia (grilled lamb), or verdure grigliate (grilled vegetables). Some trattorie use the extremely hot area just in front of their indoor wood ovens to prepare grilled delicacies, which are extraordinarily tasty and satisfying in their simplicity. Italians are purists in terms of grilling—preferring simple, unadorned preparations that allow the robust flavors of their meats and vegetables to be fully enjoyed, enhanced simply by the inimitable aroma of charcoal cooking. Sometimes the meat or fish is first marinated in a simple mixture of extra virgin olive oil, herbs and garlic (which is eliminated before grilling). But really that’s it; elaborate, heavy sauces are not used. Often just a fresh sprig of rosemary, or some sage or bay leaves, will be placed under a grilled sausage or other type of meat; salt and pepper and lemon are usually the only final touches added.
So, if you’re looking for something a little different when planning your next cookout, you might want to try it Italian-style. Spiedini, which means “skewers”—are one of the many ways Italians enjoy grilled food. Basically, spiedini are the equivalent of “shish kebab.” The skewers can be made of metal or wood—though, sometimes, simply rosemary sprigs are used. (If using wooden skewers, first soak them in cold water for about 30 minutes to prevent them from burning.) The preparation for spiedini is simple: Small chunks of meat or fish are placed on skewers (each one an individual serving)—sometimes including vegetables—which are then cooked over a charcoal grill. In addition to being versatile—really any combination of meat, vegetable or fruit that can be cut and skewered may be used—spiedini are a great time saver. They may be served as an appetizer, accompaniment (contorno), entrée, or dessert. In fact, using the suggestions here, you can prepare an entire meal outside on the grill—from start to finish—without the need for any indoor cooking at all.
As appetizers, vegetable spiedini work well. First, brush the grill with vegetable oil and then just slightly grill long slices of eggplant and/or zucchini—cut the vegetables on a diagonal or longitudinally so the slices will be long enough. After you’ve grilled the vegetable slices just enough to make them tender, gently thread them (wavelike) onto the skewer—alternating them with raw mushroom caps, pepper slices, tomatoes, and/or onions. (Cut the onion in quarters, and use two or three layers at a time.) Then grill all the vegetables again, this time to the degree of softness you like. Before serving, drizzle the spiedini with olive oil and garnish with herbs, such as parsley and thyme, and chopped (or roasted) garlic.
A common appetizer that doesn’t require any grilling at all is Spiedini alla caprese, made with basil, fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. Cut the mozzarella in chunks—or, better yet, if available, use the small, bite-size mozzarella balls. Alternate these with the tomatoes and basil leaves, and then drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the entire skewer. If you like anchovies, another great antipasto idea is Spiedini di alici, pomodoro e olive—fried fresh anchovies (which are then rolled) and sliced zucchini, with raw tomato wedges and pitted black olives. These spiedini can be served on a bed of lettuce-heart leaves, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with basil.
As a main course, meat spiedini are the most popular in Italy. For these, it’s important to choose tender cuts of meat—such as chicken breast, lamb, pork, and sausages—evenly cut into approximately one-inch pieces. If you want to use beef, select tender cuts, but they don’t have to be particularly lean. To make Spiedini misti di carne (mixed meats), alternate onions, peppers slices, and cubes of various meats, and then grill. A leaf of fresh sage and/or a bay leaf between the pieces of meat will add a wonderful flavor. To enhance the taste, try marinating the meat—already cut and ready to be skewered—for a few hours prior to grilling, mixing now and then. To make the marinade, simply coat the pieces of meat with olive oil (not too much), and add rosemary leaves (finely chopped), sage, bay leaves, salt and pepper. If, instead, you choose to use only one type of meat, we suggest an Italian favorite: a spiedini specialty from the Abruzzo region called arrosticini, which is made using lamb or mutton (see recipe).
Another variety of spiedini, more common in the south of Italy, is made with thin slices of pounded beef or veal cutlets. The meat is cut in strips and threaded onto the skewer, alternating the meat with slices of pepper, zucchini or eggplants, and onions. To add more flavor to this spiedino (singular form), some like to include some kind of fatty meat, like pancetta or a thick slice of sausage, in between the other ingredients. There is a wonderful variation of pounded-meat spiedini, probably originating from an old Sicilian recipe: A thin veal scaloppina is rolled into an involtino, or “roulade,” which is stuffed with different cheeses, 42, currants, and fresh herbs; the involtini (plural form) are then rolled in bread crumbs, skewered and usually fried, not grilled.
Fish spiedini (spiedini di mare) are also popular in Italy. For these, the most commonly used seafood are shrimp, scallops, tuna, swordfish, cuttlefish or calamari. The fish is usually lightly marinated or else brushed before grilling with olive oil, herbs (parsley or thyme), sometimes garlic, and salt and pepper. Spiedini di mare are usually served with lemon and a fresh green salad. Fish spiedini provide a special flair to summer barbecues—and the taste of seafood is beautifully enhanced by the smoky charcoal flavor.
Surprising to some, fruit can also be grilled; they can provide a sweet, healthy finale to your outdoor feast. The grilling process caramelizes the fruits’ natural sugars (fructose) and concentrates the flavors. The warm, soft texture of grilled fruit is particularly gratifying, without being overly sweet or heavy. Peaches, pears, and apples—simply cut in half and pitted—are great for grilling. Adding just a little lemon juice will preserve the fruit’s color; a dash of zucchero di canna (sugar cane) and freshly grated cinnamon will enhance the natural flavors. Be sure to brush the grill with a little vegetable oil so the fruit doesn’t stick. You can then serve alone or with scoop of ice cream. It’s delicious with yogurt too. Or, try a fresh fruit spiedini using cubes of fresh pecorino and raw pears; or you can serve spiedini di frutta (mixed fresh fruits)—using slices of uncooked peaches, apples, pears, and whole strawberries. Squeeze lemon juice over the fruit to prevent it from oxidizing and turning brown.
Whether you call it a barbecue or a grigliata, outdoor grilling is synonymous with relaxation. Unhurried, leisurely meals under an open sky are one of summer’s most eagerly awaited pleasures. Just remember: Assisting the staunch soul taking the heat over the grill—plying him or her with choice appetizers along the way and keeping a steady stream of cool drinks flowing in their direction—is an important part of the grigliata ritual. Preparing things in advance—uncomplicated as they are—is a great way to make sure that everyone, including the cook, can enjoy the ease and fun of summertime barbecues.
GREAT GRILLING RECIPES: