If you know local food photographer Matt Armendariz's work, you already know that he has an incredible talent for making the simplest dish of bacon-wrapped grilled shrimp skewers look like something "Oh, wow!" deserving that you might receive at José Andrés' Bazaar or other such molecular gastronomy-inspired eateries. So it's no surprise that the photographs in Armendariz's just-released first cookbook, On a Stick!: 80 Party-Perfect Recipes, are stunning. If you can make a low-cal dish appear to be full of fat and flavor on the printed page, as Armendariz has done for Cooking Light and numerous other magazines, then by all means, bring on the photo-driven cookbook.
We just wish he had tossed in a few more offbeat versions of those bacon-wrapped shrimp skewers and chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches to reflect the funky, taste-forward vibe Armendariz gives off on his blog, MattBites. Then again, if you've ever sold a cookbook, you know that what the author has in mind doesn't always jive with the publisher's vision, so we'll give Armendariz a few fried mozzarella sticks (p. 67) and strawberry shortcake (p.174) free passes. Turn the page for more.
The book begins with a few "stick" selection tips (who knew there were so many to choose from?). Aside from the usual Popsicle stick and metal/bamboo skewer suspects, Armendariz offers up ideas for using spearing tools that double as flavor enhancers like rosemary sprigs and sugarcane strips. Up next, you'll find photos of dozens of potential food-on-a-stick sauces and dips. Even though their recipes are at the end of the book, here, that sporadic layout works. Like all of the chapters, we can only presume the skewer one is photo-driven so Armendariz's strength as a photographer stays front and center. A wise move. We also appreciate the democratic simplicity of this book with its basic "Savory" and "Sweet" chapter divisions. Nothing overly 10+ chapter complicated seems appropriate -- we are talking about the corn dog food realm here.
As for the recipes, there are several that we will be adding to our cocktail party fun-to-try list, like those ground lemongrass-ginger shrimp "dogs" grilled on sugarcane sticks, coconut shrimp with mango salsa, and the "frozen Elvis," a riff on the frozen chocolate-dipped bananas we've made dozens of times (only here with crushed peanut butter and crumbled bacon cleverly adhered to the chocolate).
Other recipes -- namely those along the lines of fried mozzarella sticks with a store-bought Italian seasoning bread crumb crust, a basic shrimp and veggie tempura and strawberry shortcake bites, or those chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches filled with vanilla ice cream -- lean a bit too much on the conservative side for our farmers market-inspired tastes. Instead of the ubiquitous mozzarella, how about fried goat cheese with a fresh thyme-parsley breadcrumb crust? Or miniature ginger spice cookies sandwiched with vanilla (or lemon, or green tea) ice cream, the edges rolled in finely diced candied ginger? But nothing too complicated, as we agree with Armendariz's approach in that food on a stick should be both simple to prepare, and simple to eat. A bit more inspired is all we're after.
Then again, we're talking about cocktail party fare on a stick, so perhaps a more traditional recipe approach was a wise move. As Armendariz says in his Introduction, "there's something about skewered food that brings a smile to people's faces." Indeed. It's more that for us, Food on a Stick! captures Armendariz's skill as a mesmerizing photographer (and his partner Adam Pearson's food styling prowess) better than that his skill as an attention-grabbing recipe developer. Feel free to get the "stick in the mud" name calling about us in the comments section going below.
But hey, after that Amazon discount this is all of an $11 cookbook, or about the price of a corn dog (p. 48) and deep fried candy bar (p. 142) at the State Fair. Still, gorgeous as those photos are, we're going to leave the fruit salad skewers and caprese salad sticks (exactly what they sound like) on their cocktail picks. Instead, we'll take a second helping of flavor with those molotes, the Oaxacan street food (here the fried masa balls are stuffed with a potato-chorizo filling and served with fresh tomato salsa), and a side of Armendariz's endearing charm in the hilarious spaghetti and meatballs on a stick (p. 100). And yes, we mean that as a compliment.