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Innovative chefs open to sesame

Innovative chefs open to sesame

Few ingredients enjoy enough popularity to make it in fast-food burger restaurants and yet still bring an air of the exotic to dishes at independent restaurants.

In fact, sesame seeds may be the only one.

A staple of Southern cooking, where they’re called “benne seeds,” and an ingredient in pantries from East Asia to the Middle East to Latin America, sesame seeds can add crunch, color or nuttiness to food. They also are used as a thickener.

“I love sesame seeds,” says Gavin Mills, chef of Carolina’s in Charleston, S.C., where benne seed wafers are a requirement at social gatherings.

“Benne seeds were brought over by the West African slaves and were introduced to the Carolina low country, just like peanuts,” says Jason Davidson, director of food operations for Crew Carolina, which owns three Boathouse restaurants as well as Carolina’s.

The wafers can be savory—made with butter, flour, egg and sesame seeds—or sweet, by adding sugar and vanilla extract. They’re rolled out until they are slightly thicker than paper and then are cut and baked.

At the Boathouse restaurants sesame seeds usually are used in desserts, such as sweet potato pie, which is served in a graham cracker-sesame crust.

“Graham cracker crust is great, but benne seeds add crispiness to it,” Davidson says.

Davidson also uses toasted sesame seeds in a more savory application, to garnish fried calamari. “It’s just a very simply fried calamari with a sweet-and-spicy chile sauce,” he says. “The toasted sesame seeds add texture.”

Mallory Buford, executive chef of Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, Md., uses the seeds to accent the Asian theme of his fried oyster dish. He crusts the oysters with panko bread crumbs mixed with both black and white sesame seeds, deep-fries them and serves them with Asian slaw and pickled ginger. He also grinds the seeds and uses the mixture to thicken the dressing for the slaw.

Sesame seeds also are used as thickening agents in the cookery of central and southern Mexico, explains Rick Bayless, chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants in Chicago. At the recent Worlds of Healthy Flavors conference at The Culinary Institute of America  in St. Helena, Calif., he and Iliana de la Vega, chef-owner of El Naranjo in Oaxaca, Mexico, used sesame seeds, along with almonds and peanuts, as the thickening agent in a variety of pipián sauces.

Those sauces generally start with chiles, tomatillos and garlic. They are puréed and heated in oil, thickened with ground nuts or seeds and then finished with herbs, Bayless says. He explains that although indigenous pumpkin seeds were probably the original thickening agent, sesame now is used frequently.

“Sesame’s a hot topic today at Sumile Sushi,” says Josh DeChellis, the New York restaurant’s chef. DeChellis is a particular fan of black sesame, which he buys in a paste for his signature “sesame dice” dish. He says black sesame tastes and smells different from white sesame. Toasted white sesame has more aroma than toasted black sesame, DeChellis says, but it’s a more generic toasty aroma than that of black sesame, which he says has more of the smell of pure sesame.

For the sesame dice he adds simple syrup to the paste and then gelatin. He pours the mixture onto a sheet, lets it gel and then cuts it into cubes. He dresses the cubes with muddled cherries, a little shiso and a white-sesame nougatine dusted with powdered sugar.

DeChellis says good black sesame reminds him of bitter chocolate, although it can also be reminiscent of peanut butter. “It’s like a really familiar flavor profile,” he says.

For a sauce on Arctic char, he mixes black-sesame paste with a little mirin, salt, grapeseed oil, a little soy sauce “and a hair of rice vinegar, to keep it from being too dense for its own aromatic good,” he says.

“If you were blindfolded, you’d be like, ‘Wow, did you thin that peanut butter with water?’” he says.

Innovative chefs increasingly are open to sesame seeds

He spreads that on top of misocured Arctic char, which he serves with rice wine vinegar, pickled celery root, celery leaves and apple.

“So you have the familiar flavor of peanut butter and celery,” he says.

Back at Carolina’s, Mills uses black sesame seeds in a crust for grouper. He purées “bunches and bunches of picked cilantro” with butter and cheddar cheese. Then he adds black sesame and bread crumbs and puts that on top of grouper before baking it.

“When you bake it, it just kind of melts and goes soft,” says Mills, who serves it with a crab-infused grits cake and bok choy.

“It’s sort of a Southern-Asian thing, and sesame fits into both nicely,” he says.

Mills uses a Middle Eastern item, tahini, which is made from ground sesame, in vinaigrettes.

“It adds creaminess to the vinaigrette and gives it a nice nut flavor,” he says.

Eric Estrella, pastry chef of InTent, a Mediterranean-theme restaurant in New York, uses tahini and another sesame product, halvah, to go with his caramelized banana tarte.

“Basically, it’s kind of like a tarte Tatin, but with bananas,” he says.

He also uses kadayif—shredded dough—as the crust instead of a French dough.

He lines a mold with caramel and sliced bananas and bakes that while mixing the kadayif with butter and honey. He bakes that, brushes it with honey and puts it on top of the unmolded, caramel-coated bananas.

He garnishes it with shredded halvah, which he describes as tasting “like sesame cotton candy,” and tops it with a quenelle of tahini ice cream and a piece of candied vanilla bean.

Jordan Kahn, pastry chef of Varietal, also in New York, agrees with DeChellis that black and white sesame taste different. He ascribes an earthier quality to the black seeds, and says it’s more subtle: “It’s not nearly as punch-you-in-the-face as white sesame.”

He also says the quality of black sesame varies greatly and he has had most success with suppliers of Japanese seeds.

DeChellis says he has given up on making his own black-sesame paste because of the inconsistency of the seeds, which are sometimes stored in the vicinity of other spices and thus take on their aromas.

Kahn makes a sesame purée by cooking the seeds in a pressure cooker for about an hour. He uses that to garnish a pre-dessert of “whipped absinthe” made by adding hydrolyzed soy protein to water, sugar and salt and then whipping it with an immersion blender. He garnishes the dish with tarragon puffs—made by adding a gum called methylcellulose to tarragon water, seasoning it with salt and sugar, piping it into the shape of a chocolate kiss and then dehydrating it. In addition, the dish has whipped ricotta and sablée spirals, which he makes by pulverizing sablée cookies, adding oil, spreading the mixture on parchment, refrigerating it to let it temper, cutting it into strips and then looping it around curled sheets of acetate.

Also on the dish is a black sesame nougatine. He makes that by adding the seeds to a mixture of fondant and glucose that he cooks to a “medium amber.” He lets that harden between sheets of parchment paper and then grinds it in a food processor until it is the texture of “coarse sand.” He sprinkles that on the plate.

Kahn also has made black-sesame oil by toasting the seeds until they give off an aroma, blending them with a neutral-tasting oil, letting the mixture sit for a few days and decanting it.

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