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Stick it: Summer grills sizzle with kebabs, satays and skewers

Metal or wood? Metal skewers are perfect for making kebabs, but be aware that they heat quickly and take a long time to cool down. Ouch. Wood skewers may be a safer bet.

Metal or wood? Metal skewers are perfect for making kebabs, but be aware that they heat quickly and take a long time to cool down. Ouch. Wood skewers may be a safer bet.

One of the great myths of backyard grilling is that bamboo skewers should first soak in water before being threaded with meat, chicken, seafood, vegetables or fruits.

The long-held school of thought is that a long water bath — anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight — will prevent the wood from catching fire.

But, if the ends of saturated skewers still smolder and burn away, have you failed Food on a Stick 101? Is it time to put down the shish kebabs and call it a day?

Not at all. In fact, grilling expert John “Doc” Willoughby throws cold water on the drenching suggestions.

“Don’t soak the wooden skewers,” says the executive editor of Gourmet magazine during a recent phone interview from his New York office. “It’s just an extra step that doesn’t help much.”

Satays without the soak? Can it really be that simple?

“It just seems, no matter how you long you soak (the skewers), those tiny little pieces on the end are just going to burn anyway,” says Willoughby, a former editor of Cook’s Illustrated, the persnickety food magazine that takes a scientific approach to cooking.

This is the kind of practical and sensible advice about fire-kissed cuisine that Willoughby and his writing partner Chris Schlesinger share in nine cookbooks that include “Big Flavors of the Hot Sun” (William Morrow, 1994), “The Thrill of the Grill” (William Morrow, 2002) and “Let the Flames Begin” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005).

The pair’s latest cookbook, “Grill It!” (2008, DK Publishing, $25), gathers together 20 years of globe-trotting experience. They have sidled up to grills from Saigon to southern Portugal, breathed in smoke and absorbed international grill secrets. The advice is perfect to keep in mind for Father’s Day, when dads everywhere will be firing up the backyard.

Spices define stick food

Skewered food on sticks can be found in almost all cultures.

Take the side streets of Istanbul, widely considered a kebab lovers’ paradise. Speared foods there include tiny livers sprinkled with salt and pepper; spicy sausage and kasar cheese; and lamb — that’s either been ground and molded onto skewers for keftas or served on sticks in hearty chunks.

Often the lamb is dusted with sumac, a tart, lemony-flavored Middle Eastern spice that adds a distinct flavor.

Southeast Asia offers satays (known as sates in Indonesian cuisine) of chicken that are served with spicy peanut sauces or dressings punched up with lime, fish sauce, fresh mint and a confetti of chili peppers. In Japan’s yakitori houses, diners will find bamboo skewers of all kinds of chicken meat, including the entrails.

Grill guru Steven Raichlen, author of “The Barbecue! Bible” (2008, Workman, $19.95) cookbook, which has been updated for its 10th anniversary, says Russian shish kebabs are called shashlik, Peru’s national snack is anticuchos (skewered beef hearts) and Nigerian “stick meat” or fiery beef kebabs are suyas.

Food on a stick may be so popular because it’s simple and great for easy entertaining.

“We love skewers for lots reasons: Stringing them together seems like a game,” Schlesinger and Willoughby write in “Grill It!” “Most are as easy to grill as hot dogs; and (maybe most important) you can get away with eating them with your fingers.”

All-meat or a mix?

Some grill masters suggest spearing all the protein on one stick and the vegetables on another, since the cooking times for meat and fish can be different from vegetables.

“People do like to do that, and you can probably get everything perfectly done,” says Willoughby, but he prefers an intermingling of flavors.

He and Schlesinger thread skewers with ribbons of pork with apples — another favorite is chicken with fresh figs or apricots — because they believe the food tastes better when juices from the meats blend and flavor the fruits and vice versa.

“What we really like is the flavors bumping and pushing up against each other,” he says.

Like Willoughby and Schlesinger, Raichlen skips the pre-soaking. Instead, he piles the meat on one end of the skewer and leaves the rest of the stick exposed. He puts the meat on the grill and then slips a folded piece of aluminum foil, shiny side out, under the ends of the skewers. This creates “a shield” for the exposed wood and prevents the skewers from burning.

“It’s much more reliable” than soaking, Raichlen says.

When it comes to kebabs, metal skewers can be used instead of the wooden ones, which are easily found in most supermarkets. But the drawback to metal skewers is that they get — and stay — very hot.

Seasoned Skewers, www.seasonedskewers.com, now also produces a line of untreated Maine wood skewers that are steeped in natural oils and herbal extracts. The wooden sticks come in flavors ranging from citrus rosemary to honey bourbon to Thai coconut lime.

Willoughby hasn’t tried the seasoned skewers and doubts he ever would.

“I wouldn’t use anything that comes pre-flavored,” the grilling purist says. “I’m suspicious of it.”



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