ANYBODY CAN TAKE a metal or bamboo skewer, cube some meat and vegetables and make a perfectly respectable kebab. But with summer's backyard barbecues behind us, it's time to move on.
More flavorful certainly than a shaft of metal and more sturdy than bamboo or a mere toothpick, sticks made from unconventional ingredients -- sugar cane, cinnamon sticks, lemon grass or rosemary -- fuse form and function.
Cutting back the rosemary in the back yard? Save the branches to carry an attractive appetizer. The Vietnamese have long patted shrimp paste around sugar cane and grilled it over charcoal. Martha Stewart slides balsamic-marinated shiitake mushroom caps onto rosemary. Grillmeister Steve Raichlen, author of several cookbooks, including the recent "How to Grill" (Workman, $19.95), impales peaches on cinnamon sticks. Michel Richard, chef-owner of Citronelle in Georgetown, once lollipopped scallops onto asparagus in "Michel Richard's Home Cooking With a French Accent" (William Morrow, 1993). And the duo of cookbook author Mark Bittman and chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten do a dressed-up satay of shrimp and lemon grass in "Simple to Spectacular" (Broadway, 2000).
Not to be taken too seriously, sticks are only marginally more hassle than a bamboo or metal skewer and the dish -- meat, seafood, vegetables or fruit -- need be only as foreign as your favorite marinade, glaze or spice rub.
But can and will a cook actually slide a delicate sea scallop or narrow shrimp over the contours of a rough sugar cane or rosemary stalk? It's not as difficult as it sounds. Many chefs recommend sharpening the end of the stalk to a point. Forget that. Instead, make a quick slit with a sharp knife in the food where you want the skewer to go. Then insert the skewer. Chefs and cookbook authors profess that sticks themselves impart flavor to the food. And they're (mostly) correct.
"It's kind of funky how it works," says Brian McBride, chef at Melrose Restaurant in downtown Washington. McBride serves sea scallops on sugar cane skewers with pineapple couscous at lunch. The entree, light in calories, has been on the menu since he introduced it five years ago. The sugar cane imparts all the flavor the dish needs, says McBride.
But the amount of flavor depends greatly on the food involved and the amount of time it is given on the skewer. Rosemary's heady perfume permeates many foods in short order. The cinnamon stick's power is a bit more subtle. But lemon grass is slowest to perform. And sugar cane should be used as a skewer only when the foods will be heated; it's the warmth that coaxes the sweet nectar from within the stalk.
If you are cooking with any of these sticks, it is wise to avoid the grill, since a flare-up can scorch a delicate stick beyond recognition (and make a host turn to boxed crackers for the first course). Keep it foolproof: A grill pan or regular skillet works best; a broiler can also suffice.
Or cook the food however it suits you, then quickly transfer it to sticks. You could even use the sticks as toothpicks for cold appetizers. Ginger root is rendered filmsy by heat though it adds a potent zing. So cook the food before you put it on matchstick-size pieces of peeled ginger: try spiced duck, seafood, beef or fruit. Jicama and daikon also wilt with heat but perform well with precooked or chilled appetizers.
Not just any stick will do. Thyme sprigs aren't sturdy enough, vanilla beans work, but, at $1.99 each, they are pricey. Ditto for lavender. And carrots and celery? They can carry the load but when it comes to looks they just don't have the same impact. Leave them in the relish tray.
SUGAR CANE STALKS have long been a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. The skewers release their sweet nectar when heated slightly. The sugar cane is extremely fibrous; do not try to eat it. Fresh and canned sugar cane may be found at Asian and Caribbean markets and some specialty stores (see note in recipe).
The following instructions are adapted from Steve Raichlen's "How to Grill" (Workman, $19.95):
The fibrous sugar cane is hard to slice crosswise but easy to slice lengthwise. To cut crosswise, position a sharp knife across the cane. Tap it with a pestle or hammer to help push the knife through.
Using a heavy, sharpened chef's knife, trim the ends of the sugar cane stalk and cut the stalk crosswise into 5-inch sections. Stand one of the cane sections on end. Working in a downward motion, carefully cut the tough skin off the cane in lengthwise strips. Again working with a downward motion, cut the cane into flat 1/4-inch-thick strips.
Place the cane strips flat on the cutting board. Cut each strip lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide skewers. It may be necessary to trim the sugar cane into narrower sections.
Fresh sugar cane dries out quickly when grilled or broiled. If possible, sear the skewers in a skillet.
What to skewer: Sugar cane is at its best with fruit, whether plain or macerated in a sweet wine or poaching liquid. Or skewer scallops or other seafood or make a satay of thinly sliced chicken or pork.
(Grilled Shrimp on Sugar Cane)
(24 appetizer or 4 main-dish servings)
If you prefer whole shrimp instead of shrimp paste, use 24 jumbo or extra-large shrimp and marinate them for about 30 minutes in the same ingredients that go into the paste, omitting the cornstarch and baking powder. From Mai Pham's "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table" (Harper Collins, $27.50).
2-ounce piece pork fat or 1 egg white
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, plus additional for molding
1/4 cup chopped yellow onion, patted dry
3 shallots, minced
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and patted very dry
2 scallions (white and tender green parts), chopped
12 to 24 pieces sugar cane skewers*
If using pork fat, bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the pork fat and cook just until the edges turn translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and drain the pork on paper towels. Coarsely chop the fat and set aside.
In a small saucepan, heat 2 teaspoons oil over moderate heat. Add the onion and shallots and saute until slightly wilted, about 1 minute. Drain the onion mixture, discarding any liquid and add the fish sauce, salt, sugar, garlic, white pepper, cornstarch, baking powder and reserved pork fat or egg white. Add the shrimp and toss well.
Transfer the shrimp mixture to a food processor and process until almost smooth but still lumpy. Transfer the paste to a bowl. Add the scallions and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate for about 30 minutes, until the mixture is slightly stiff.
Place about 1 tablespoon oil in a small dish. Wet your hands with the oil. Place 2 tablespoons of the shrimp paste in the middle of your palm. Place a piece of the sugar cane on top and mold the paste around it. (The paste should be about 1/4 inch thick and about 2 1/2 inches long.) Gently press the paste against the stick so that the edges are sealed. Set the shrimp stick aside on an oiled plate. Repeat with the remaining sugar cane and paste.
Oil a steamer basket or a colander set inside a stockpot. Add enough water to the pot to reach a depth of about 1/2 inch but not so much that it touches the base of the steamer. Place the sugar cane sticks in a single layer. (It may be necessary to steam in several batches.) Bring the water to a boil, cover and steam until the shrimp paste turns pink, 2 to 3 minutes. (May set aside to cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate.)
To finish, preheat a broiler or skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the shrimp sticks, turning as needed, until hot and slightly charred around the edges. Serve immediately.
* Note: Fresh sugar cane is sold in Asian markets and some specialty stores. Pre-cut, shelf-stable sugar cane is available in some specialty stores or by mail-order from Melissa's ($6.99 for about 36 sticks; call 800-588-0151 or see www.melissas.com) and Frieda's ($20.08 for about 48 sticks; call 800-241-1771 see www.friedas.com).
Per serving (based on 24, using egg white): 30 calories, 4 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 29 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 121 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
ROSEMARY readily imparts its fragrance to most anything thrust onto its fresh branches. Look for sturdy woody stems. Run your fingers along the branch to remove all but 1 to 2 inches of the needle-like leaves at the top of the stem, reserving the needles for another use. Grill or sear in a skillet over medium-high heat for seafood, medium heat for meat and poultry. Do not roast. Rosemary cannot withstand prolonged heat without turning a brittle brown.
What to skewer: Quick-cooking seafood, such as shrimp and scallops and chunks of firm-fleshed fish. Rosemary can dry out before slower-cooking lamb, chicken and beef are cooked through, but a brief dunk of the skewered stick in a marinade (olive oil, garlic and herb blend) helps to maintain the moisture.
Grilled Shiitake Mushrooms
on Rosemary Skewers
Cook this appetizer or side dish briefly but over high heat or the caps will retain too much moisture.
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves (from trimmed stems)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
48 shiitake mushrooms with flat caps about 2 inches in diameter, stems trimmed and discarded
24 rosemary branches
In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar and oil. Mix in the chopped rosemary leaves, salt and pepper. In a shallow nonreactive dish, arrange the mushroom caps, stem-sides down, in an even layer. Brush each mushroom cap with the marinade. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature about 20 minutes.
Trim the rosemary branches to about 5 inches in length and slide your fingers along the bottom portion of the stem to remove the needles, leaving 1 to 2 inches of needles at the top of the stem. Thread 1 rosemary branch, stem-end first, horizontally through the center of 2 of the mushroom caps and gently flatten the mushroom cap so it lies flat.
Heat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. Cook the skewered mushrooms, stem-sides up, until grill marks appear, about 3 minutes. Turn and cook until the desired degree of crispness, 1 to 3 minutes. Serve warm.
Per skewer: 24 calories, 1 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 13 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
LEMON GRASS is more subtle. To capture its flavor, skewer the food at least 30 minutes prior to cooking. Since lemon grass can be both flimsy and expensive, use it sparingly as a skewer, preferably for single-portion appetizers or entrees for small gatherings. Lemon grass is available in the produce aisles of most supermarkets and is found in abundance in many Asian markets.
Look for stalks with a slight bulbous portion at the bottom. Grasp the stalk and try to bend it; it should resist. Unfurl the outer layers; the center should be firm and preferably a shade of dark purple. Peel away and reserve the loose-fitting outer layers for soups or stocks. Trim the stalk into 4-inch lengths.
What to skewer: Sea scallops flavored with pepper and minced lemon zest or cubes of tropical fruits such as mango and papaya. Or pork or thinly pounded chicken breasts or thighs. If the stalk is particularly sturdy, try jumbo shrimp.
Lemon Grass Chicken
(About 8 appetizer servings)
Adapted from Corinne Trang's "Authentic Vietnamese Cooking" (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 stalks lemon grass, outer leaves and tough green tops trimmed, inner core finely minced
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 to 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Thai chili pepper, seeded and minced (optional)
About 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs and/or breasts, cut into thin strips and pounded to 1/4-inch thickness
12 to 24 lemon grass stalks, outer leaves removed, cut into 4-inch lengths
In a shallow bowl, combine the fish sauce and sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the oil, minced lemon grass, garlic, lemon juice and, if using, the chili pepper. Stir to combine. Add the chicken and turn to coat. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the marinade, discarding the liquid. Thread 1 piece onto each skewer, making sure the skewer passes through the chicken at least 3 times.
Grill, broil or sear in a skillet over medium-high heat, turning once, until cooked through. Transfer to a platter; serve warm.
Per serving, using white meat: 209 calories, 40 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, 99 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 458 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
CINNAMON STICKS impart a faint hint of spice to the food that is skewered on them. Though relatively brittle, cinnamon sticks may easily be halved lengthwise. Using a sharp knife, make a cut at one end, between the curled halves, and work down the stick. Cinnamon sticks are sturdy and may be grilled, broiled, seared in a skillet or roasted briefly.
What to skewer: Macerated figs wrapped with pork, a wedge of fresh plum, spiced duck, chicken, pork or Asian-style beef. Soft-fleshed fruits, particularly stone fruits such as peaches, plums and nectarines, take especially well to cinnamon.
Figs in a Blanket
(36 appetizer servings)
Serve this eye-catching appetizer alone or with a cheese plate, salted nuts and olives. If desired, omit the "blanket," or pork, and serve with vanilla ice cream.
Adapted from "Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook" (Clarkson Potter, 1999).
8 ounces dried Calimyrna figs (about 10 figs)
2 cups dry red wine
1 sprig fresh thyme, plus additional for garnish
3 whole black peppercorns
1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
About 20 2-inch cinnamon sticks, halved lengthwise
Kosher salt to taste
About 12 ounces pork tenderloin or loin pork chop, trimmed of any silverskin and excess fat
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a medium saucepan, combine the figs, wine, thyme, peppercorns and honey. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer gently until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the figs with a slotted spoon to a small bowl until cool enough to handle. Reserve the liquid in the pan. Slice the figs into quarters; set aside.
To the liquid in the pan, add 1/2 cup of the vinegar, the brown sugar, 2 halved cinnamon sticks and a pinch of salt. Return to a simmer and cook until thickened and syrupy, 15 to 20 minutes, being careful not to scorch the sauce. Remove the pan from the heat; add the remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar and stir to combine. Taste; adjust the seasoning and honey to taste. Strain, discarding the solids, and divide evenly between 2 small bowls; set aside.
Meanwhile, cut the pork crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Using the side of a chef's knife, flatten each slice into an oval about 1/8 inch thick. Slice each oval lengthwise into 2 strips. There should be about 40 strips. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place a fig quarter, cut-side down, on a strip of pork. Lift up each end of pork and overlap the 2 ends over the fig. (Make sure the fig sticks out at each end of the roll, trimming the pork if necessary.)
Skewer a halved cinnamon stick through the pork-wrapped fig to secure the pork. Transfer the skewer to a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Brush each fig bundle generously with 1 portion of the glaze, discarding any of this glaze that remains.
Preheat the broiler. Broil until cooked through, about 3 minutes. Brush or drizzle the rolls with the remaining portion of the glaze and transfer to a platter. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving: 37 calories, 2 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 6 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 14 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
For more tips on skewers,
see Stick Tricks box on Page F5.