Creative Kabobing: More combinations than you can shake a stick at

Skewering is a fairly global cooking technique. Persians, Chinese, Greeks and Spaniards have all skewered dishes. Heck, you can find shish kabobs at fairs nearly as often as you see cotton candy. Some of us, however, aren't satisfied with the same oldbeef-bellpepper-mushroom-on-a-stick shtick.

Traditionally, kabob cookery has implied bite-sized pieces of meat, poultry, seafood and sometimes vegetables threaded onto a skewer and grilled on an open flame. But a few area chefs were kind enough to offer some guidance on how to break kabob cultural barriers and give a skewer some extra sizzle.

Hamish Bahrami, co-owner of Cafe Natasha's Kabob International on South Grand, isn't averse to putting a twist on the Persian way of doing things. The story behind Cafe Natasha's vegetarian koubideh kabob is really a story about Bahrami's daughter. "Natasha was 11 years old when she became a vegetarian," she said. "Before that, kabob was her favorite, so I came up with a veggie kabob so she could enjoy it."
Cafe Natasha's vegetarian koubideh is made of textured vegetable protein, which thickens when mixed with water, eggs and spices. The chef, under the watchful eyes of Bahrami, used a kabob mold to flatten the mixture and wrap it around a custom-cut 18-inch stainless steel ruler-like skewer. He placed it on a grill specially built with metal grating that enables the kabob to cook evenly without burning. As it finished cooking, he glazed both sides with the restaurant's secret sauce then gently removed the kabob by hand. The veggie koubideh is then plated atop basmati rice and served with a side of tomato-cucumber relish.
Downtown, in the heart of the Loft District, Lucas Park Grille's executive chef Kyle Patterson had a novel idea: Use a natural skewer. Patterson's culinary innovation, sugarcane shrimp lollipops, is a Thai-inspired minced seafood kabob on a sugarcane skewer drizzled with spicy mango sauce. "It's going in the direction of a trend toward street food," Patterson said. "The sugarcane is a lot easier to wrap the shrimp around, and the fish sauce is high in umami and adds some depth. And it's a fun, different handle option."

A couple of blocks east on Washington Avenue, Mosaic's executive chef Ben Lester had some other mod ideas for kabob making. The Moroccan tenderloin kabob currently on the fusion eatery's menu is beef tenderloin rubbed with a spicy harissa paste and threaded onto bamboo skewers along with a colorful lineup of corn on the cob disks, grape tomatoes, red onion, red bell peppers and baby bok choy served on a mound of mashed sweet potatoes seasoned with cumin, honey and butter. He serves it with a side of sauteed bok choy.

With a penchant for assertive flavor and bold presentation, Lester has experimented with a sophisticated Asian kabob that matched smoked ahi tuna with Maui onion and tropical fruits on a plantain skewer. The tuna is rolled in a peppery cilantro-chervil crust and quickly seared while the sweet onion is quartered and gently sauteed. Cubed mango and kiwi stack the kabob with flavor and color. "Everything can be done ahead of time. It's meant to be served cold," he said.

And the plantain as the skewer? "You can make long chips out of plantain," explained Lester, who recommended using a mandoline to cut the plantain into long, thin strips. "They get pretty hard once you fry them and let them cool." Lester proposed a sweet-spicy pear glaze "to stick with the fruit thing." His pear gastrique oozes with Asian flavors like spicy sambal chile sauce, ginger, star anise, rice wine vinegar and garlic.

Other natural skewers also lend themselves to some creative kabobs. Any raw foods can be skewered with fresh rosemary, and lemongrass makes a sleek skewer for seafood or scallops. The prep method for both is simple. Rosemary leaves get stripped from the woody base, which serves as the spear. The brownish leaves are removed from the top of a lemongrass stalk and a wedge shape is cut at the bottom. Like bamboo skewers, lemongrass and rosemary need to be soaked in water for about 15 minutes so that they don't burn on the grill.

Flat-bladed stainless steel, frou-frou fried plantain or sweet as sugarcane, the skewer has evolved from a rudimentary twig used for cooking raw meat into a stylish showcase for finger food hors d'oeuvres and unique entrees. Nor is it just the equipment that reveals the culinary frontiers we've reached. When you stack kiwi next to tuna and veal tenderloin alongside bok choy, you know your dining experience has truly reached global heights.