Welcome to Hey Chef, a series where we ask pros around the country for tips on how to use ingredients we love. Today, we're smoking things up.
Grilling outdoors is about more than taking advantage of the weather. It's a chance to drive the flavors of wood and smoke into whatever we cook.
Chefs love smoke. Chef Matt Greco of Wente Vineyards outside of San Francisco points out, "when it's subtle, it's another element in a dish—there's the sour/sweet/salty aspect of food, and then smoke adds another element to taste."
Now, most of us don't have smokers on our patios, in our garages, or nestled on our fire escapes. But that's no excuse not to infuse some smoke into secret-weapon ingredients to add to whatever we cook.
New Orleans-born John Russ worked with John Besh at the Ritz Carlton and now heads up Besh's Luke in San Antonio as executive chef.
Here in Texas, everything is smoked. At the end of barbecuing, when your embers are dying, take some blended olive or canola oil, put it a heat-proof container with as much surface area as possible (like a baking pan), put it in the dying embers, and within 10 to 15 minutes you'll have this incredible smoked oil. When you're making a tuna fish salad and want to make a nice mayo with it, the smoked oil is really awesome. For plain egg salad—a perfect egg salad sandwich is one of those awesome things in life—smoked oil is perfect. Try putting a lot of fresh thyme in there, since it warms up gently with the intense smoke that drops itself in, and you'll have coordinating fresh and hard flavors, which is really nice.
Close the vents and throw some whole heads of garlic in there, too, and by the time you're done eating whatever you've cooked you have perfectly roasted garlic without the oil required for roasting it in an oven. The garlic is easier to peel without oil and you get these little nuggets of happiness.
Alex Figura worked at Vetri Ristorante, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, El Cellar de can Roca, and Frasca Food & Wine before becoming chef/partner of Lower48, a Denver restaurant with "Best New Restaurant" accolades from 5280 magazine and Denver Westword.
We smoke everything—cheese, fruits, vegetables. We have a little hibachi, but I've done this in my apartment (which I only recommend if you have really good ventilation): soak wood chips, toast them on an open flame or in a cast iron pan on the stove, and get some good embers going. Put a chicken directly on that and put it in the oven, directly on the wood, so as it's cooking it smokes a little. You get a smoky flavor and you're roasting the chicken at the same time.
It's best to use a whole chicken with this so the flavor isn't too intense and you don't get ash over the whole thing. Make sure your vents are on in your kitchen, but don't expect a ton of smoke. And if you have a convection oven, keep the fan on low—too much fanning can cause the chips to catch fire.
"Meaty" Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette
Sarah McIntosh is the chef and owner of Epicerie in Austin, where her all-day menu tweaks classics like fried green tomatoes with a helping of smoked shrimp.
I smoke tomatoes with herbs for a vinaigrette. We take a case of San Marzano tomatoes, halve them, and smoke them in the smoker until they're completely dehydrated. If you don't have a smoker but have a grill at home, light a low fire with some kind of oak or a similar wood, and don't add a lot of air to it.
We add a little rice wine vinegar and then cook the tomatoes down low and slow for about 6 hours, until it's a paste or conserva. Then we make it into vinaigrette by adding a small amount of sour cream to the paste, then rice wine vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. We use it for salads—quinoa, lettuce, barley. It's great for vegetarians, because it tastes nice and meaty but doesn't have any meat.
Texas-born chef Matt Greco worked in New York's Café Boulud, A Voce, Café Grey, and Char No. 4 before moving west to The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, just outside of San Francisco.
When I headed up the kitchen at Char No. 4 in Brooklyn we smoked pistachios, then combined them with preserved lemons for a vinaigrette. You toss about 1 1/2 cups of chopped pistachios on a sheet tray in a smoker for 20 to 30 minutes (generally a good rule of thumb for any nuts). If you don't have a smoker, a simple alternative is to take a couple of wood chips, put them in the corner of your gas grill, let them burn, and close the lid for a quick smoker box.
Then mix the smoked pistachios with 1/2 cup of pickle brine (we use homemade ramp pickle brine; the closest thing would be green onions), 1/2 cup of chopped preserved lemon, 1/2 cup of olive oil, and salt to taste.
We put the smoked pistachios in a salmon dish. It had salmon (grilled, not smoked), braised black kale, onion purée, preserved lemon, and the pistachio dressing. We know we like smoke and salmon, and we like smoke and nuts, and we know pistachios and salmon go together, so we combined those ideas into one thing that's just awesome.
Smoked Ice Cream
At Proof on Main in the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, KY, executive chef Levon Wallace features a seasonally inspired menu that references the culinary traditions of the American South.
Ice cream! Not even smoking the sugar or the vanilla—I'm talking about smoking the cream or milk before you make your ice cream. It sounds tricky and complicated, but it's not, and if you have a little smoker where you do your ribs over the weekend, you can smoke the cream. Cold smoke the cream over as low a temperature as possible, and after 30 minutes to an hour you have this incredibly smoky cream. Then make ice cream the way you normally would, maybe diluting your smoked cream with regular cream if it's too intense.
I like smoked vanilla ice cream, or not even vanilla—just sweet cream ice cream. We've done it here with S'mores cookies, where we'll make chocolate chip cookies with marshmallows folded in the batter, then put them on top of some graham crackers and bake them, and when they come right out of the oven you put a piece of chocolate out on top for cuteness. Then we serve that with smoked vanilla ice cream, and you get that campfire feel and taste from that ice cream. It's perfect.
Smoked Tea Leaves and Flour
For smoked flour, toss the flour with an equal amount of regular flour, or go 100% dark. It's a matter of balance, though. Too many people go too far with the smoke flavor, and you don't want to kill someone with one bite.
For tea leaves, put the leaves in a hotel pan directly on a grill with a smoky, open flame, getting the smoke in there for five or six minutes, then grind them and put them onto a chocolate bark. Or mix the chocolate with coconut oil and sprinkle with smoked black earl gray tea leaves, to bring out the toastiness and nuttiness in the chocolate.