Spiedini: Traditional Italian Kebabs (Grigliata)

An Alternative to the Classic Grigliata

International Food
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Italian grilling is for the most part fairly simple: Top-quality meats, with, at the most, a light marinade, grilled over hardwood coals. Grill several kinds of meat, and you have a grigliata mista or mixed grilled meats. It's hard to beat and is why many Italians have a hearth in the cantinetta, the combination den and dining room where they entertain guests.

There is one major drawback to the grigliata mista, however: There can be a run on a particular kind of meat that leaves some licking their chops and others muttering as they pick over the platter -- I had this happen once when the chicken was especially good, and those who didn't snap it up were making faces about bistecca alla fiorentina and agnello scottadito.

One answer to this problem is to make spiedini, by sticking foods on short skewers (spiedo is spit, spiedini are little spits), grilling them, and giving each diner one or two spiedini.

"Sounds like a Kebab," I hear you say, and you're right; according to Antonio Piccinardi, author of the Dizionario della Gastronomia Italiana, spiedini are of middle Eastern origin, and as such may be one of the many things brought home by returning crusaders.

The concept behind spiedini, sticking foods on a skewer and setting them over the coals or into the oven, is obvious, easy, and almost infinitely variable. I found the spiedini pictured here in Florence's Mercato di San Lorenzo: They are made with sausage, chicken, beef, pork (loin, I think), and pork side (the cut used to make bacon), separated by pieces of bread. Proteins, carbohydrates, and -- if washed down with a good glass of wine -- a meal on a stick.

The one thing they are lacking is vegetables, but then again they were prepared by a butcher. If you make spiedini at home you can also add vegetables to them.

Indeed, spiedini offer an excellent alternative to the more traditional barbecue, and Saad Fayed, About's Guide to Middle Eastern cooking suggests that at your next cookout you set up a kebab bar with a variety of cubed meats, fish, and vegetables.

Excellent advice and he give detailed instructions for organizing a kebab bar, though you again run the risk of there being a run on a particular ingredient that leaves those at the end of the line muttering as they peer at what's left.

The solution to this problem is to prepare spiedini beforehand using meats, fish, vegetables, and even fruit, and keep them refrigerated until it comes time to cook them. Some ideas:

  • Spiedini di Capesante e Pancetta
    Sea Scallops are well suited to spiedini and are delightful when grilled with pancetta in this surf and turf combination.
  • Spiedini di Pesce alle Erbe
    The combination of salmon and monkfish works very well in these fish kebabs with herbs.
  • Spiedini di Pollo Piccanti
    These chicken spiedini are quite simple and pack a zesty punch that will make them a welcome addition to a platter of mixed spiedini. They will also be a pleasant, if slightly unusual (for Italy) antipasto.
  • Spiedini di Coniglio
    Rabbit is a dry meat and therefore requires help if it is to emerge from the grill without having become tough and chewy. And it does so very well in this kebab recipe from the Abruzzo.
  • Spiedini di Maiale e Peperone
    These spiedini are made with pork and bell peppers, a fine combination.
  • Spiedini allo Yogurt
    These beef and lamb spiedini gain a vaguely middle-Easter feel from the herbs used to season them, and are quite refreshing in summer, thanks to a cool yogurt sauce. As you might guess, the recipe is a modern Italian recipe.
  • Spiedini alla Salsiccia
    Sausages and onions go beautifully together, and I often thickly slice and grill several onions if I'm grilling sausages, setting the grilled onions in a pan and the sausages over them: The drippings from the sausages season the onions, and they're always a hit. Here we have sausage and onion spiedini, or kebabs. Very tasty!
  • Spiedini di Tacchino Con Pancetta
    Turkey is a dry meat and therefore requires a source of fat if it is to survive being grilled without becoming dry and stringy. Pancetta does an admirable job ob basting the turkey in these kebabs.
  • Spiedini Con Manzo e Gamberoni
    There's something lust about the combination of beef and shrimp, and these surf and turf kebabs will be perfect for a romantic occasion. Nice at other times too…
  • Spiedini di Manzo alle Prugne
    The combination of dried fruit and meat was much more common in the past than it is now in Italy. But this doesn't make it any less tasty, and the combination of prunes and beef is frankly libidinous.