Ho ho ho! I hear ’tis the season to be jolly, and this is the partying month. I hope you folks have been trying out some of the party food ideas from the past few columns. This time, we’re continuing the theme with some advice on how to construct food on sticks and skewers.
When it comes to sheer convenience, food on a stick can’t be beaten. It eliminates messy fingers and makes picking up food so much easier. Skewers also help in dipping your finger food into any accompanying sauces or dips, so I’m a big fan of them. Another selling point for putting food on a stick is that it’s great for multiple components that need to be had together. You reduce the chances of things falling off and making a mess, which I’m sure you’d like to avoid.
My earliest memory of food on a stick is of the cheese and pineapple sticks served in dad’s armed forces club. Amul cheese cubes and pineapple on a toothpick—they were not very gourmet but still fun to eat. I’m sure your childhood too had those. I still make variants of that, even if I use more refined cheeses or add some herb at the end of it, with perhaps a slice of chilli for some heat. It’s not very hard to elevate basic food to something more interesting.
Right then, on to the cooking. There are two approaches to the ‘‘sticks and skewers” technique. One is that you make all the components separately, and simply thread them on to a stick, usually a wooden toothpick. This works especially well if you can delegate the threading business to slaves, err, willing friends and family members who have foolishly asked you, ‘‘Can I help with anything?”
The other approach is using longer skewers such as satay sticks (now available in most gourmet stores) and cooking the food on heat, usually in a large pan or oven/grill, after threading it. The second approach is less work because you will probably cut the food into larger pieces, which reduces your work, but I’m not very happy serving large chunks of food at parties. That’s why I prefer the first method; it’s more fun to eat.
What can you put on a stick? Any edible thing on the planet. For a chef, that sounds like a cop-out, and indeed, books have been written on just this one topic. So instead, I’ll give you a formula. A stick should be a single bite of heaven and have enough different flavours to make your palate go: ‘‘Whoa! Now that was interesting!” My preferred way (and you may differ) is to combine two-three disparate ingredients on one stick or skewer, each contributing a different flavour. As I keep saying, look for contrast in both texture and flavour. Here, check out some options (by no means exhaustive):
Meat: Chicken, bacon, ham, shrimp, fish, beef, duck, cold cuts (use any combination of spices and seasonings to cook these)
Vegetables: Cauliflower, eggplant, potato, beetroot, mushrooms, asparagus, babycorn, broccoli, carrot, cucumber, cherry tomato, onion, radish, celery, zucchini (again, cook them any way you want, or leave some raw)
Cheeses: Goat cheese, mozzarella, cheddar, scamorza, brie, feta, bocconcini, parmesan, gouda, haloumi, gorgonzola, cream cheese and loads more
Fruits: Pear, apple, pineapple, coconut, pomegranate, orange, grape, melon, grapefruit, fig, mango, papaya, guava, berries, chillies
Dried, cured and pickled foods: Olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeños, gherkins, dried fruits like fig
Herbs: Mint, coriander, basil, sage, parsley, thyme and many more
Now it’s simply a matter of picking any two or three sections and grabbing an ingredient from each, then putting them together on a stick. Just remember what they bring to the party. Fruits are usually sweet; some are crunchy and other soft. Cheeses are often creamy and mild, but some can be hard and sharp. Most cured and pickled foods tend to be sharp and salty. Herbs add the floral touch.
To prove this formula works most of the time, I’m going to take random ingredients from each list (scout’s honour, and yes, I used to be a Boy Scout in school) and see if I can create some interesting ideas. I did five combinations, and I got:
Bacon + figs + cheddar (nice, though salty cheeses won’t go with the salty bacon)
Grilled Thai green curry eggplant + grape + basil (excellent combination, I should make it some time)
Garlic-pepper shrimp with olive oil + sun-dried tomatoes + sage (oh yes, yummy stuff)
Mustard potatoes (Bengali-influenced) + guava + mint (sharp potatoes, nice fruit, and cooling herb)
Chicken tikka + cream cheese + jalapeños (I just imagined it in my head and it sounds amazing)
You’ll just have to take my word that I’ve never made any of these before, yet I know they will work well. Just cut those into small bite-size pieces, thread them on to a stick, and you’ve got all you need for some tasty party bites. And if you think you need a dip to go with it, look up last month’s issue for my column on it, won’t you?
Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer.