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Smoke sparks chefs’ creativity

Smoke sparks chefs’ creativity

When Eben Freeman says he’s smoking Coke, he’s not talking about recreational drug use. The beverage director of Tailor, an avant-garde restaurant in New York City, actually pours the soft-drink syrup into a shallow pan and places it in a smoker over smoldering cherry wood chips. He then uses that syrup as a signature soft drink—for which he can charge $5 instead of the more typical $3—and a cocktail mixer that goes particularly well with bourbon.

Smoke long has been an important part of the American culinary psyche. From barbecue, which is defined as slow-cooking with smoke, to smoked ham, to the cedar plank salmon of the Pacific Northwest, to that most beloved of breakfast meats and sandwich enhancements—bacon—smoke excites more passion than perhaps any other flavor.

“If I were to fry up pancetta [instead of American bacon] and serve it for breakfast, they would think something was missing,” says Pino Maffeo, Boston-based executive chef and co-owner of Boston Public. “That would be smoke.”

Maffeo, whose family comes from Candida in the southern Italian region of Campania, says Europeans from warmer climates, such as southern Italy, aren’t accustomed to smoke in their food. It’s only farther north that smoked fish and peaty scotches have appeal.

Albert Fuentes, executive chef of Macchiato Boutique Restaurant in South Miami, Fla., says smoky flavor appeals to people from his native Venezuela, too. So at his restaurant, where Italian and Latin flavors fuse, he adds smoked pork to the baby lentils that he serves with roasted marinated peppers.

But Fabio Trabocchi, the chef at Fiamma in New York City who comes from Italy’s Le Marche region, not that far north of Campania, says countryside markets there often have meats smoked over hay.

He does the same thing, but in an oven, with turbot. He puts smoldering hay in a Dutch oven and lays the turbot on that, covers it and leaves it for a few minutes, “just so it gives a hint of smoke to the turbot,” he says.

He also braises goat shoulder over hay.

“Especially with goat, it enhances the memory on the nose of pastoral flavors that you can only have outdoors,” he says. “As a diner, you can have a smell like you’re eating outdoors, in a completely different setting than you are.”

He gets the hay smoking by making a sort of nest of it in the Dutch oven and then putting it over low-medium heat. The bottom bit of hay starts to burn and smoke. “The trick is to turn down the heat once it starts smoking,” he says, and to change the hay—which he gets from the same farmers who sell him produce—frequently during service.

He serves the turbot with fingerling potatoes that also are smoked in hay. He says their water content will prevent the hay from catching on fire. He peels them, crushes them with the back of a fork and tosses them in olive oil.

He notes that those potatoes, since they were cooked without water, also can be made into very light gnocchi.

These days American chefs and drink makers are adding smoke to almost everything.

“I use a ton of smoke,” says Barton Seaver, executive chef of Hook in Washington, D.C.

He says the complexity that smoke adds to food results in the use of less cream, stock or butter.

“Smoke provides such a wonderful stage for flavors,” he says. “I don’t even make stock in my kitchen.”

He even smokes water.

He figured out how to do that while cold-smoking salmon. He would put the source of fire and smoke at the bottom of an oven, put a hotel pan of ice cubes over that, and salmon on a higher rack. The ice would cool the smoke, and in turn would take on a smoky flavor. He uses it as a soup base and to cook lentils, among other things, instead of adding a smoked pork product, making for a cheaper and more healthful dish, he says.

“Vegans are at first outraged that I snuck bacon into their food, and later totally delighted,” Seaver says.

The key to smoking water is to actually smoke ice cubes, which have more surface area and thus can take on the smoky flavor better, he says.

Indeed, back at Tailor, Freeman finds that his soda syrup needs to be smoked twice to pick up enough flavor. He says that wasn’t necessary when they used alder wood smoke, but calling out cherry wood on the menu gives the drink more appeal.

Seaver and other chefs advise not to use too much smoke, and many advocate using just one smoked component in a dish.

Michael Schwartz, chef-owner of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, uses smoked fleur de sel to finish anything that comes out of his wood-burning oven, from roasted red snapper to roasted tomatoes. It’s subtle enough that customers don’t recognize it as a smoky flavor, he says. “They just know it tastes good,” he says.

Several chefs smoke their own salt, including chef Jon Buchanan of Trevisio at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, and New York-based chef and restaurateur Laurent Tourondel.

Tourondel pokes holes in aluminum foil and places it over smoldering wood chips, usually hickory. He sprinkles Malden sea salt on top, covers it, and puts it in the oven for eight minutes. He does the same with black pepper, which he adds to vinaigrette. He smokes cinnamon, too, and infuses it in milk to make a smoked-cinnamon ice cream he serves with apple cake.

At Beacon, also in New York, executive chef-owner Waldy Malouf makes a smoked-vanilla ice cream, served with a chocolate chip soufflé, as part of a tasting menu at his “kitchen counter,” his version of a chef’s table.

Sean Beck, the sommelier of Hugo’s and Backstreet Café, both in Houston, uses smoked components in some of his mixed drinks.

“If you use smoke right, it’s a kind of luxuriousness, a complexity, especially if you’re going to use foods that are fresh or bright or sweet in nature,” he says.

Like many cocktail makers, Beck is using spirits that are naturally smoky, such as mescal.

He uses a single-village mescal from Mexico’s Oaxaca state for his Oaxacan Rita, which also has lime juice, a little simple syrup and orange liqueur.

He also smokes pineapple by placing it over a wood grill.

“You get this smoky, caramelized flavor that gives a whole other dimension,” he says.

He purées the pineapple and mixes it with tangerine juice. He lets that mixture sit for several hours, strains it, and then adds some blood orange. He adds that to Prosecco for a drink he calls The Red Sun Rising.

He also uses mescal, along with blueberry, lemon and simple syrup for his Pueblo Mora Azul Lemonade.

Eben Klemm, the director of cocktail development for New York-based B.R. Guest Restaurants, also uses smoky flavored alcohols in his creations. He experimented with a particularly peaty scotch infused with habanero chile and mixed with pineapple juice, which he called the Scotch Bonnet, and he’s considering smoking vermouth for an amaretto Manhattan he’s developing for Fiamma for the holidays.

“It will probably end up tasting like a Rob Roy,” he says.

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