Going around in Circles

A variety of Rotisserie implements (from the top) Rib basket Spit with forks Flat fish basket
We are clearly at the height of barbeque season. If anyone has any doubts, all it takes a walk down the streets of Lakewood which will most certainly feature the aroma of charcoal, in addition to other things. In previous columns, I have touched upon grilling, smoking, and certain variations of my favorite outdoor cooking pastime. There are so many possibilities it can positively make your head spin. While your head is spinning, why not take that as a sign and look into what can be accomplished when your meal is also spinning. I am, of course, talking about rotisserie.

Rotisserie cooking is a technique where meat is strung on a metal spear and slowly turned over indirect heat. It was an ancient form of cooking which most likely originated with early man. The word means simply to roast, from the Germanic verb “rostir.” The method is ideal for cooking large portions of meat, particularly whole animals. Whole hogs, steer, or wild game can be fastened onto a spit and slowly spun over a low fire for hours. Both the spinning motion and the extended cooking time are key; the rotation causes the meat to self-baste and the slow-cooking results in a particularly tender product. It was not uncommon for European manors and castles to have built-in rotisseries in the fireplaces of their great halls. These early rotisseries were manual: the chef would turn the meat a quarter turn, lock the spit into position, and repeat the process several times an hour until the meat was done. As technology advanced, this process was simplified by the clockwork motor, which would slowly turn the rotisserie continuously. Modern rotisseries are powered by electricity and use a low-gear ratio that allows for slow speed, yet provides enough power to turn the weight of a large roast. For those who require portable feasts, there are even battery-powered versions available. My friend and camping companion, Ken Burney, has even devised a portable, folding rotisserie stand. These innovations make it possible to enjoy a spit-roasted pork loin in the backwoods.

We have, of course, all seen rotisseries at work: every grocery store features rotisserie chickens. While we generally think of rotisseries as horizontal, there are certainly vertical examples, like the ever-popular gyros. Rounds of herbed lamb are strung on a vertical spit, with the heat source located behind the meat. This allows the chef to slice off servings from the cooked outside while the remainder continues to spin away. Anyone who wants to see this action firsthand can stop by La Pita Express and order up a Shwarma.

There are all manner of additional gadgets used to increase the versatility of a simple spit. First of all, there are many other foods which could benefit from the slow-cooking method. but are difficult to affix to a spit. To provide for those items, you can affix stainless steel baskets to the spit to cook fish steaks and fillets. Other attachments allow a carousel of hot dogs or a basket of ribs to cook on a rotisserie.

The key to rotisserie cooking is the use of indirect heat. There are a number of grill manufacturers, such a Ducane, which feature a vertical burner specifically for that purpose. Lacking a dedicated rotisserie burner, it is still possible to cook with indirect heat. In a three-burner gas grill, the center burner can be turned off to allow the heat to radiate from the outside burners. Likewise, if using a charcoal grill, the charcoal can be banked on the outside of the grill body. The aim is to allow the meat, while turning, to self-baste, while the indirect heat provides a much slower method of cooking than direct grill heat. Furthermore, due to the nature of the metal spear, the food cooks, to some degree, from the inside out as the heat from the fire is transmitted to the spit which, in turn, passes through the center of the meat.

As we enter the dog days of summer, cooking and the associated heat drives us out of the kitchen. But, even our outdoor grills, when fired up to sear a steak, can add a level of unwelcome heat. The use of a rotisserie requires less effort on behalf of the outdoor cook, less attention to the grill, and less heat. Indeed, a Zen-like relaxation can descend upon you as you are sitting in your lounge chair with a cold drink on a hot afternoon, listening to the whirring of the rotisserie motor as the smell of roasted meat wafts through the air. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Spit-roasted, Fennel-encrusted Eye of Round (Serves 6)
3 lb. Eye of Round roast
2 C. Coffee
1/4 C. Olive oil
1 T. Ground pepper
1 T. Coarse salt
3 T. Fennel seeds

In a loaf pan, mix the coffee, oil salt and pepper. Add the beef and marinate overnight, turning occasionally. Prepare fire or preheat grill. Allow meat to come to room temperature. Reserve the marinade. Pat meat dry, string on spit, and roll in fennel seeds, pressing them into the meat. Rotiss for an hour and a half, over indirect heat (for medium rare). Baste with the reserved marinade for the last 1/2-hour. Allow the meat to rest, off the spit, for 5-10 minutes before carving. Slice thinly; serve with roasted Vidalia onions, rice pilaf and a sliced tomato and basil salad, dressed with a sprinkle of balsamic. A light summer merlot is a perfect accompaniment.
Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 3, Issue 15, Posted 1:20 PM, 07.14.2007