Rustle up country taste? Hay, it's an inside job.

January 19, 2011

I am wandering around a pet store even though I don't own a cat or dog or goldfish. I am here because of a recipe.

"Got any hay?" I ask the cashier.

"Sure," he replies. "Upstairs. What have you got? A hamster? Gerbil?"

I pause before answering.

"Potatoes," I say.

The cashier screws up his face.

"All these chefs are cooking with hay," I explain. "I'm going to try it. Making hay-smoked mashed potatoes."

The cashier seems unfazed.

"Have you heard of this?" I ask.

"No," he says. "But I can see it. You put the hay in a pot? Let it smoke the food?"

"Exactly," I say. "How'd you know?"

"It's just like using apple wood chips on a backyard smoker, except with hay in a kitchen," he says. "Makes sense."

Reaching across the stove in the kitchen of the downtown Italian restaurant Bibiana Osteria, executive chef Nick Stefanelli lifts the lid on a large pot, releasing a heady aroma of smoke and wheat field. Several skin-on russet potatoes, darkened from 21/2 hours in a gentle smoke, sit atop a nest of spent hay.

"This," says the chef, "is how we hay-smoke the gnocchi. We use a combination of hays. Straight orchard grass tends to be too sweet."

Stefanelli knows his hay. He worked as sous-chef under James Beard Award-winning and Michelin-starred chef Fabio Trabocchi, who turned out a signature hay-smoked turbot dish at Maestro in McLean and later at Fiamma in New York (both now closed), where he earned three stars from the New York Times. Trabocchi grew up in central Italy's mountainous Marche region, where hay-smoking meat is common.

While working at Maestro, Stefanelli began experimenting. Hay smoking really sweetens the flavor, he says.

The chef leads me to a large plastic container in a far corner of the kitchen. It is filled with three types of hay. He pulls some strands and points out their differences: Alfalfa is thin and brownish. Timothy hay is more like straw. Orchard grass has a greenish hue.

"Fresh-cut hay in the fall is best," he says.

We walk back to the stove, where the chef grabs a pan and adds grapeseed oil to sear a thick hunk of veal sweetbreads that have been poached with carrots, celery, onion and seasonings. He continuously spoons room-temperature butter over the seared sweetbreads and adds rosemary, sage and thyme. When the sweetbreads are bronzed, Stefanelli places them in a hay-filled pot. He covers the pot with a pan containing walnuts, anchovies and chopped black truffle. The pan functions as a lid as the mixture it contains melts into a sauce.

"We do our own speck with hay rather than traditional apple wood," Stefanelli says, referring to Bibiana's cured, smoked prosciutto, as we wait the few minutes it takes for the sweetbreads to bathe in smoke.

Stefanelli removes the smoked sweetbreads and tosses them into the truffle-anchovy sauce in the pan, then sets them on a plate swirled with a low wall of rutabaga puree. He garnishes the dish with a few mint leaves.

I taste the sweetbreads, plus some gnocchi that were made from smoked potatoes. The smoky flavor is evident but not overwhelming; at once rustic and elegant, its earthy fragrance calls to mind a farm field in the autumn dusk.

Stefanelli's interest in hay-smoking is shared by other local chefs and, indeed, some of the top toques in the world.

Rene Redzepi at Copenhagen's Noma, which last year succeeded Spain's El Bulli as the world's best restaurant in a worldwide survey of food industry insiders, produces hay-smoked quail eggs that are served on a bed of smoking hay as well a dessert called Strawberries and Straw, in which the fruit is paired with a hay-infused parfait.

At Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago, patrons can end their dinners with a hay-infused creme brulee.

Back at home, Stefano Frigerio of Washington's Copper Pot Food Co. makes hay-smoked pheasant cappellacci. And Teddy Diggs, a Maestro alum like Stefanelli, turns out hay-smoked goat cappellacci and hay-smoked bluefish pate at Ripple in Cleveland Park. The latter has "a cold winter beach flavor," he says.

Like his chef colleagues, Diggs is particular about his dried grass.

"I didn't realize there were so many kinds of hay when we first started doing it," he says. "We try to get different kinds. Hay smoking is different from other types of smoking, because it's quick. And you need to understand how aggressive it can be."

Diggs has come to like the flavor so much, he makes the hay-smoked bluefish at home. But the cooking method comes with a special challenge for him: "I'm slightly allergic to hay."

My own experimentation with hay began the evening I returned from the pet store. I cooked two large russet potatoes over hay: one for an hour, the other for two hours. Both were still pretty firm when I took them from the pot, the heat not being high enough to actually cook them.

Then I peeled and boiled the potatoes, keeping the one-hour and two-hour batches separate. I mashed both sets, flavoring them with some of their smoky cooking water.

I tasted the lesser-smoked version and liked its faintly earthy flavor. The second, longer-smoked version packed more of a wallop. If the first conjured wheat fields at twilight, the second had me imagining firetrucks racing down country roads to put out a blazing grass fire.

Which is another way of saying I was crazy about the second version. But it wasn't the taste alone that captivated me; it was also the flavor's ability to transport the diner.

Which was good. Because that farm-field-at-dusk-in-autumn jazz? That smell would permeate our house for the next two days. The scent made me realize something I should have considered beforehand: I was smoking indoors. Next time, I instructed myself, keep the lid on throughout the process and, even though it's cold outside, crack a window.

There will be a next time.

Hay is fun to use and gives food a distinctive barnyard taste. I mean that in a good way.

It is probably too much to call hay the new balsamic vinegar. But to my list of specialty food shops - the little Italian place for olive oil, the high-end butcher's market for prime dry-aged beef - I'll now add one more: the pet store.

Shahin will join today's Free Range chat at noon; go to washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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