Barbecue Bible!

Our textbook
Season 2

Show 207: Stuck on Skewers

Who knows why there's such a universal appeal to food cooked on skewers? Whatever the reasons, today's class offers ammo for the argument that skewered dishes just taste great. Steven demonstrates six recipes that use a variety of skewering techniques (toothpicks, double-skewers, sugarcanes) and talks about the wide array of skewers and kebabs available on the market today. Highlights include sweet and salty bacon grilled prunes, authentic shish kebab and an elegant recipe for grilled quail from Greece.

On the menu (page numbers indicate page in the Barbecue! Bible, unless otherwise noted):

  • Bacon Grilled Prunes (recipe follows, page 64)
  • Pancetta Grilled Figs (page 64)
  • Vietnamese Grilled Beef and Basil Rolls (page 42)
  • Shrimp Mousse on Sugar Cane (page 55)
  • Honey Sesame Shrimp on the Barbie (page 349)
  • The Real Turkish Shish Kebab (page 194)
  • Grilled Quail Santorini (page 275)

Stick Food

In many countries, the skewer isn't just a cooking implement: it's also an eating utensil. Singapore's sate vendors always leave the top half-inch of a sate skewer exposed. You use it to impale the diced onion and cucumber traditionally served with sate.

But my favorite skewers are those of the edible variety, like the strips of sugar cane on which shrimp mousse is grilled to make Vietnam's famous chao tom. When you eat chao tom, you chew on the skewer, which releases an unexpected burst of sweetness-the prefect foil for the briny mousse.

The Balinese take a similar approach when they grill kaffir lime-leaf scented fish mousse on fresh lemongrass stalks to make their legendary sate lilit. Nor is the idea limited to Asia: consider the rosemary branches used by Italians to make seafood and veal spedini. Contemporary American chefs are using everything from cinnamon sticks to vanilla beans to skewer grilled fruit and other desserts.

Skewer cooking may be universal, but it's not without its technical fine points. This truth will be apparent to anyone who has tried to cook shish kebab on a round metal skewer, only to have the meat cubes burn on one side or vegetables slip off into the coals. As any craftsman knows, the first step is to choose the right tool for the job.

Use bamboo skewers for bitesize pieces of chicken, seafood, and meat. Use slender metal skewers for firm cuts of meat, like lamb cubes, shrimp, or sausages in casings. Use wide flat skewers for grilling ground meats or soft vegetables, like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. The latter are available at Middle Eastern and Persian markets.

When buying metal skewers, choose flat ones or squared off edges. (Foods will slip or fall of round metal skewers.) Wooden handles are useful if you plan to serve the food on the skewer. (This enables guests to unskewer the meats without burning their fingers.) If serving on metal skewers without handles, in the style of Central Asia, it's best for the host to unskewer the meats.

In either case, never eat meat directly off a metal skewer. You risk burning your lips.

Bacon Grilled Prunes printer-ready version

Here's proof that some of the world's tastiest dishes are also the most simple. This recipe consists of only two ingredients--bacon and prunes--but the contrast of sweet and salty, meaty and fruity, crisp and chewy makes this an irresistable appetizer. For the best results, use an artisinal cob-smoked bacon.

Makes 16 pieces

  • 4 to 5 strips bacon
  • 16 pitted prunes

1. Preheat the grill to high. Cut each strip of bacon into 3 or 4 pieces. (Each piece should be just large enough to wrap up a prune). Wrap each prune in bacon and secure with small metal skewers or toothpicks. (The skewers or toothpicks should run through the center.)

2. Grill the prunes until thoroughly heated and the bacon is crisp, 1 to 3 minutes per side, turning with tongs. Transfer to a platter and serve at once. Remove the skewers or toothpicks before serving or at least warn your guests of their presence.

© 2006 Steven Raichlen | site design Benjamin Wilchfort