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Thursday, June 29, 2006 05:54 am

Summer on a stick

Try Vietnamese-style chicken thighs and never leave your Tiki hut

Modern-day calendar-keepers may tell us that summer begins with Memorial Day weekend, but if you’re an astronomical diehard you know it really didn’t kick off until June 21, when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. The day was long, the night was short, and some of earthlings acted crazy.

If you don’t believe me, talk to Mr. Shakespeare, whose A Midsummer Night’s Dream told the story of romantic entanglements, magical-flower love juice, human donkey-heads, fairies, and their moonlit forest, for starters.

There’s something about summer that brings out the otherworldliness in us so-called civilized folk. We let it all hang out, be it in a halter top or on a rooftop deck, double-fisting frosty cocktails. We play hooky, we sleep outside, and we eat as if we’re back in the Middle Ages.

More than any other time of the year, summer is when we eat stuff on a stick. From corn dogs to cotton candy, Fudgesicles to foot-long kielbasas, stick food is de rigueur eatin’ at classic summer venues, from the county fair to the amusement park. (Maybe, on a subconscious socioanthropological level, our love for stick food takes us back in time to when we ate dinner off our swords.)

When we eat dinner on a stick, there are no rules. There’s no need for knife, fork, napkins, or manners. It’s just the food and your teeth, ready for a wild evening — and that’s a beautiful thing.

The back yard is another fine stick-food venue, and if you try Vietnamese-style chicken thighs, you may never leave your tiki hut.

Chicken on a stick, Vietnamese-style
Adapted from the July 2006 issue of Gourmet magazine

This dish works as a party snack or as a light summer supper when paired with rice and cucumber.

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, skinned and trimmed of fat, cut into half-inch-wide strips
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots (about two)
Three garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dark brown or palm sugar
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or sake (vermouth would be OK, too)
1/4 teaspoon salt

About two dozen 6-inch-long wooden skewers, soaked in water for an hour

Combine all the ingredients in a sealable plastic bag. Squeeze as much air out of bag as possible and seal. Turn bag to coat chicken. Place bag in refrigerator and allow to marinate overnight, about 12 hours.

Remove chicken from bag and thread lengthwise onto skewers, keeping chicken as straight as possible. Discard remaining marinade. Prepare grill for cooking over medium-hot heat. Brush grate with oil to minimize sticking. Grill skewers, turning once, until chicken is cooked through, four to eight minutes.

For dinner, serve with rice, cucumbers, and nuoc cham dipping sauce (details below).

Nuoc cham dipping sauce
In a medium mixing bowl, combine 1/4 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon sugar, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add the following: 1/4 cup fish sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine, the juice of one lime, one minced garlic clove, and one thinly sliced chile pepper of choice. Stir to combine and cover. Chill for an hour (if possible), allowing flavors to marry.

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