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Sugar Cane

Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page F05

This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles:

Kids who live in tropical and subtropical lands -- from Havana to Maui to Rangoon -- love to chew on fibrous sugar cane for a taste of the flavorful syrup. A principal source of sucrose, sugar cane is a perennial grass that is believed to have originated in either Southeast Asia or the South Pacific. In the production of crystallized sugar, mature canes anywhere from four to 10 feet in length are field-cut and trucked to processing plants, where steam turbines squeeze the crop for its juice. In short, the extracted cane juice is further clarified, evaporated and crystallized. An important byproduct of the process is molasses.

But Asian supermarkets and specialty grocers around Washington are not stocking sugar cane for people who make their own sugar.

A swizzle stick made from sugar cane is the natural choice for rum-based cocktails such as the mojito and planter's punch or hot drinks like a Tia Maria- flavored coffee. Often called sugar cane batons, such sticks add panache to an otherwise plain and simple iced tea.

In Southeast Asia, cane skewers are commonly used to impart flavor to a grilled shrimp kebab. A famous dish in Vietnam is chao tom -- shrimp paste molded onto cane skewers. Seasoned ground pork or beef can be prepared the same way.

Further possibilities are impressive. Cane skewers can hold scallops, squid or chunks of chicken or rib-eye steak. Tuna and mango kebabs are popular with fusion chefs in Hawaii. One restaurant in Queensland, Australia, grills crocodile on sugar cane and serves it with a chili jam.

Closer to home, at the restaurant Butterfield 9 in downtown Washington, chef Arthur Rivaldo uses sugar cane for a spicy grilled lamb kebab seasoned with a blend of Indian spices. At Cafe Salsa in Alexandria, chef Mike Cordero recently added cane-skewered pork tenderloin glazed with tamarind and rum to the menu. And at Ceiba in downtown, whole canes are pressed in an extracting machine and the juice is used in cocktails in place of simple syrup.

HOW TO SELECT: In stores, sugar cane may be sold in one-foot sections or six-foot sections. Willie Robson Jr., produce manager for Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown, suggests the following: Choose light-green-fading -to- yellow- colored batons mottled with reddish-brown patches. Avoid white canes and those with cracks or blackened areas. Thin, heavy canes tend to be sweeter than thicker ones. Those with joints that are three to five inches in length are best for skewers and swizzle sticks and easier to eat out of hand. Ask the produce clerk to make a fresh cut on each end of the cane. The best cane has opaque, off-white, moist flesh. Canes are past their prime when the flesh is dry and brown or red.

HOW TO STORE: Cut lengths of cane can be stored in the bottom section of the refrigerator with the ends bound with plastic wrap, for up to two weeks. But for the sweetest flavor, it's best to use sugar cane soon after purchase.

HOW TO PREPARE: For dessert, use small sugar cane sticks to dip strawberries in chocolate. Grill kebabs of mango and pineapple and serve atop vanilla ice cream.

To make sugar cane swizzle sticks and skewers, wash the sugar cane stalk thoroughly with cold water. Using a chef's knife, carefully cut the stalk crosswise, at a joint, into sections that reflect the length of the skewer needed. Split at the center of the core lengthwise into quarters for four skewers. Don't remove the outer bark. It adds color and makes the skewer stronger. Hone the ends of each skewer to a sharp point.

Hint: Frozen skewers work best on fibrous meats and fish.

-- Walter Nicholls

© 2004 The Washington Post Company