The Lot's Alex Lira takes backyard kebabs to new extremes 

Five Courses, One Stick

Meet Pierress. A timeless beauty with a bewitching French Huguenot past, Pierress is wearing a hot-pink apron inspired by the signature shade on the cover of the Clash's seminal work London Calling. We first spotted her at a protest at the College of Charleston carrying a Glenn McConnell-inspired My Little Pony. Although Pierress is a fan of Vivian Leigh's performance in Gone with the Wind, she's never been a fan of antebellum ball gowns or men named Ashley, but she did have a hamster named Tara, who she wrote a children's book about when she was only five. It was called Teatime with Tara, and it made the bestseller's list in her kindergarten class despite being banned from the cafeteria by the First Amendment enemies in the principal's office. Pierress is the proud recipient of a S.C. Student Loan who looks forward to paying her debt for the next 30 years.

Anybody can flip a burger or turn a dog. When it comes to cooking out for July 4, we're not exactly a collectively creative country. So why not display our patriotism the true American way — by usurping some other culture's tradition and calling it our own. Our target, the kebab.

In order to give the standard Middle Eastern shish kebab a proper American makeover, we're not suggesting that you carve off a few slices of chicken breast and alternate them with cherry tomatoes, green peppers, and onions. To really stick it to the ayatollah, you'll need to go beyond the puny 12-inch skewers at your local Harris Wiggly.

With power and glory in mind, we called in a ringer: Chef Alex Lira of The Lot. Our first piece of homework? Head to the hardware store and pick up a dozen four-foot long, 1/4-inch diameter wooden dowels. Then we soaked them overnight so that the wood doesn't catch on fire when it meets Lira's massive tow-behind smoker; it's stocked with cherry wood chips and pecan shells harvested from the tree behind his restaurant. And we whittled the giant kebob sticks' points down to a sharp tip.

The Lot’s Chef Alex Lira gets ready to grill - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Lot’s Chef Alex Lira gets ready to grill

Lira took it from there, making magic on a balmy Monday night on Folly Beach. Local bluegrass pickers The Travelin' Kind provided aural ambiance while Lira threaded course after course onto the belly-high sharpened sticks. Once the courses were stacked and ready, they only required about 15 minutes on the grill.

For the layman without access to a hog-sized smoker, the concept can be spread across multiple skewers (five courses, five sticks) laid out on a run-of-the-mill backyard grill, although you'll sacrifice dramatic effect (and eliminate the chance of an epic sword fight breaking out after dinner).

If you're ready to trade ground beef and factory-injected hot dogs for Royal Red shrimp and local pork belly, here's the breakdown of our five courses, eaten in order on a single stick.

click to enlarge Time to drill the corn — for the skewers - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Time to drill the corn — for the skewers

Course One (Amuse/Salad) — Lira pickled whole beets from Ambrose Farm in ramp vinegar, conveying the earthy sweetness of both root vegetables into a single roasted bite that left our kebab sticks stained a pleasant purple hue. The beet was followed by a folded leaf of roasted hydroponic Bibb lettuce from Sweetbay Nursery, drenched in anchovy/lemon/garlic sauce, and, of course, a buttery crouton.

Course Two (Pork Belly and Corn) — An ear of sweet white corn from Ambrose Farm brushed with olive oil, salt, and pepper and joined by a healthy slab of Keegan-Filion Farm pork belly was next on the stick. After curing the belly for 24 hours and braising it in pork stock and a mirepoix of diced onions, carrots, and celery, the tender meat tended to melt off of the sticks, but it held up just enough. "This is not a guaranteed recipe," Lira laughed as we finger fed ourselves the stray fat off the grill. The takeaway? Go with smaller chunks of pork belly despite the temptation to chase the "wow" factor of a five-inch slab on a stick.

Course Three (Royal Red Shrimp) — Although these succulent little arthropods don't hail from South Carolina's waters, Abundant Seafood's Mark Marhefka sources them from friends in Florida for their unmistakably rich, sweet flavor. Lira liberally coated the shrimp with a broccoli rabe pesto; the plant's bitter greens combined with garlic, lemon, and olive oil added a perfect balance to each bite.

Course Four (Steak) — A red-blooded Fourth of July party wouldn't be complete without beef on the menu, and with grass-fed, grass-finished sirloin from MiBek Farms, it's hard to imagine a more sustainable red meat splurge. Lira loaded each skewer with two generous cuts, brushed with a chimichurri of herbs, olive oil, and lime juice (half of which he added just as the steaks came off the grill).

click to enlarge The kebabs get the two-sauce treatment - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The kebabs get the two-sauce treatment

Course Five (Dessert) — Challenged to find a sweet that would hold up to the impalement and work with the same sauces as the other courses (read on for that), Lira went with a standard pound cake, pre-baked at home. Four-inch cuts were gently threaded onto the skewer, and then (just before consumption) doused with a smoked vanilla ice cream. "No liquid smoke BS here," Lira clarified. If you're into homemade ice cream, you can create the flavor by placing a tub of ice cream base on a smoker, then continually whisk the film that forms back into the cream.

After about 15 minutes on the grill, we carefully moved the skewers to a piece of butcher paper, where Lira "Jackson Pollocked" them with two sauces he'd designed to work with each of the courses. A red sauce was simply a reduction of local plums (from Edisto's Geechie Boy Mill) with red wine vinegar and olive oil. For a green sauce, Lira blanched and pureed a "supernaturally sweet" batch of English peas with olive oil.

Once the sauces were splattered and pictures were taken, our small crowd eagerly reached in for a skewer to call their own. Comments like "biggest ever" and "kebab on steroids" flew in the Folly breeze, before one diner looked over at the river and remarked, "If you're still hungry, you can rig up a line to the stick and go fishing."

Lira best summed up the difference between our giant kebobs and their scanty cousins: "It's the fact that you're going through courses, as opposed to eating a pepper and 30 seconds later eating another pepper. You're going through a meal in a very rugged way, as opposed to fine dining."

Rugged, good food, eaten off of a stick that's bigger than yours — what's more American than that?

July 4th Events

Craft Brews Cruise
Fri. July 4, 8 p.m.
Carolina Queen
17 Lockwood Drive, Downtown
(843) 722-1112

Celebrate the Fourth of July while sailing the harbor. Enjoy $4 Lagunitas craft brews. Live music by Weigh Station and Roti Rolls will have delicious food available for purchase. Fireworks start at 9 p.m. $30

Fourth of July Blast
Fri. July 4, 6 p.m.
40 Patriots Point Road, Mt. Pleasant
(843) 884-2727, patriotspoint.org

The Flight Deck of the USS Yorktown will grant access to the deck starting at 6 p.m., with catered food and beverages available for purchase, along with live musical performances from The Explorers Club and The East Coast Party Band. Later in the evening guests will be able to enjoy the fireworks display shot from the Cooper River. $30/person, $10/for parking at the land-side celebration.

Fourth of July Celebration
Fri. July 4, 3-9 p.m.
Riverfront Park
1001 Everglades Drive, North Charleston
(843) 745-1087

Enjoy local live music from Plane Jane, The Blue Dogs, and many more as well as food and beverages for purchase to keep cool and stay full during the Independence Day celebration. There will also be a great firework display at the end of the evening. Free.

Independence Day Celebration
Fri. July 4, 6 p.m.
Circa 1886
149 Wentworth St., Downtown
(843) 853-7828

Join the Wentworth Mansion and Circa 1886 for an Independence Day celebration. Enjoy music, lawn games, hors d'oeuvres, and a cash bar from 6-7 p.m. Then at 7 p.m., the festivities will move inside with libations and a three-course dinner. After dark, guests head to the cupola with a glass of champagne to watch Charleston's fireworks. Reservations required. $70.

July 4th Cross Country 5K
Fri. July 4, 8 a.m.
3050 Marlin Road, Johns Island
(843) 853-9987, theextramileinc.com

Celebrate Independence Day by running the 5K cross-country course on Trophy Lakes organized by The Extra Mile Running Shop. Post-run will have refreshments and awards consisting of a variety of running gear and accessories. The money raised from the race will go to the Zucker Family Foundation to support brain cancer research; $20/before June 27 with shirt, $15/before June 27 just race, $25/after June 27 with shirt, $20/after June 27 without shirt.

Summerville's Red, White, and Blue on the Green
Fri. July 4, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Gahagan Sports Complex
515 W. Boundary St., Summerville
(843) 871-6000

Summerville's Red, White, and Blue on the Green event is free and will include a firework display, live entertainment, a kid's zone with games and prizes, beer garden, several food vendors, and a non-motorized parade. Outside coolers and dogs will not be permitted at the event. Free shuttle service to and from event.

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