One of the fundamental laws of nature is that any web site with eclectic tastes and more than ten readers must have an occasional cooking piece. This, then, is that.
Today we’re going to learn to cook shashlyk, which is an overly-fancy Russian word for meat on skewers. You, dear reader, are interested because correctly-prepared shashlyk is insanely good and insanely easy to make. Do it right and you’ll be a goddamn cookout hero. Do it wrong and you’ll be exiled to Siberia. Let’s do it right. You’ll need a few food items, and a few grill items.
First, the food items:
- A couple of medium yellow onions
A word about the meat. You can Google shashlyk and find all sorts of advice about lamb, or beef, or chicken, or whatever. That’s all fine and dandy, and certainly makes for entertaining reading during the long winter evenings. You’ll be just fine, as long as you remember that the only correct meat is pork. Specifically, pork shoulder. So, cart your happy ass off to the store and buy some pork shoulder. You want to make sure that the pork shoulder has some fat, but not too much fat. If your pork shoulder is really lean, then you’re going to end up with pork jerky. If it’s really fat, then you’re going to end up with gristle. Embrace the Middle Way.
The pork is going to marinate in the refrigerator overnight, so prepare the meat the night before. Drag out a metal bowl, or a plastic container, or whatever suitable vessel you have. Most pork shoulders have a big slab of fat on one side - feel free to trim that off. Slice the pork shoulder and put the pieces into your container. The idea, when slicing, is to end up with cubes of meat anywhere from one to two inches square. Or if you want to be advanced, aim for longer and slightly thinner slices. I like pieces which are maybe three inches long and an inch-and-a-half thick, because they cook faster and have more of the delicious surface area. And, as I often tell Mrs. Feet, don’t obsess about size. Your pieces don’t have to be uniform, just approximately similar.
Once the sliced pork is in the container, then slice some number of yellow onions into thin rings and add them to the container. Typically I use one medium onion for every pound of meat. Now add salt and pepper. How much? Damned if I know; this is where cooking is more art than science. You might start with a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of pepper per pound of meat. Don’t worry, you’ll have a chance to adjust later.
Finally, add liquid. Mix five parts water and one part white vinegar separately. Then gradually add that to the meat/onion container, mixing by hand as you go. You want enough liquid to coat all of the meat, but not so much that it looks like soup. Cover the container, put it in the fridge, and go have a beer.
Now the grill items:
- A charcoal grill with a lid
- A shitload of lump charcoal
- Some aromatic wood (apple or cherry)
A lot of Russians cook their shashlyk over open coals. But in order to be a true hero, you really have to cook using a grill with a lid. Lump charcoal is best; briquettes will do if that’s what you have. If all you have is a gas grill, then make hamburgers.
As for aromatic wood, you need something which will produce good smoke without burning too hot or producing a disgusting flavor clash. Apple or cherry work best. Hickory and mesquite should be avoided. I use apple branches which were pruned from Mrs. Feet’s apple trees last year. You, on the other hand, can pop down to your local garden center and get a small bag of wood chips. PRO TIP: do not soak your wood chips in water. You’ll want them to be dry when it’s time to cook.
If you’re still nervous about salt and pepper, then a couple of hours before cooking take one or two pieces of meat and cook them in a frying pan with a little vegetable oil. Taste. Add salt and pepper if needed.
An hour or so before cooking, remove the meat from the fridge. You want it to be closer to room temperature before you put it on the grill.
Before starting the coals, put the meat onto skewers. Proper shashlyk skewers look like this. If you don’t have metal skewers, use ordinary bamboo sticks which can be had at any decent supermarket. Feel free to put some of those onion circles on the sticks, too. If you’ll be cooking over open coals, then reserve some of the marinade liquid for basting.
Fire up your charcoal in whatever manner you typically use. We like to use a chimney, but carry on with lighter fluid if that’s your thing. Once the coals are ready, spread them out and place a few pieces of wood or a few handfuls of wood chips on top of the coals towards the outside. Put the cooking grate in place. After a minute or two, your wood chips will start to burn and flame up. At that point, put the meat on the grill and close the lid. Make sure that the vents are closed.
If you’ve done it right, the lack of air will cause the flames to go out and what you’ll have under the lid is a really hot environment with wood smoke but little or no open flame. Give it a couple of minutes, open the lid, rotate the sticks for even cooking, and close the lid again. After not too much time, the meat will have seared nicely on the outside. Move the meat over to a less-hot part of the cooking area and close the lid. The idea here is to let it finish cooking without burning. If you’re cooking over open coals, then occasionally drizzle a little marinade liquid over the meat so that it doesn’t dry out while cooking.
The end result is sizzling, juicy, wonderful skewers of cooked pork. Server with boiled potatoes and/or sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs. Cold beer accompanies nicely, as does a halfway decent Grenache.