Superfoods’ Chefs Challenge: Voltaggio power fueled by honey and pumpkin

This is the fifth of an occasional series in which Washington area chefs create simple dishes that incorporate nutritious ingredients.

Bryan Voltaggio commits with the force of a Vitamix cranked to 10, which is something to keep in mind when considering his entry in our Superfoods’ Chefs Challenge. That, and a nod to the Aristotelian maxim that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

No mere multitasker, he inhabits the universe of chefs who have Lots Going On. In his case, within the next few months, it’s running five restaurants plus opening three more; working on a cookbook; cooking for or appearing at five charity events; and judging a crab cake competition.

Uncharacteristically tan and fresh from a family vacation/wedding anniversary/renewal of vows, Voltaggio glanced through the Food section’s superfoods ingredient list and figured: Instead of the standard two, why not use as many of them as possible in developing the required four recipes? Besides his selected honey and pumpkin — explanation for the latter constitutes a subplot of its own — the chef worked in spinach, dried superfruits, fermented food, garlic, cinnamon, blueberries, pomegranate, tea and tomato.

That’s the guy we’ve come to know ever since he helped us with a turkey taste test in November 2006, when he was executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak downtown.

Although there might not be significant enough amounts of each superfood to lend its specific healthful benefit, no one who tasted the results could deny that Voltaggio and his crew achieved, overall, a quartet of feel-good dishes with creativity and lots of flavor.

“More is good, right?” he said with a grin.

The challenge comes on the heels of Voltaggio’s effort to lose weight before his trip. (The notion of men engaging in the same kinds of occasion-oriented efforts as women was a revelation to this reporter.) His willingness to discuss the matter was refreshing.

“I used to be able to eat anything and never gain a pound,” Voltaggio began, perched in a quiet spot at the sprawling Range in Chevy Chase on a recent afternoon. “Starting at 35, I noticed a considerable slowdown. At 38, I’m on the go, sure. But I’m not a line cook anymore” — referring to the restaurant’s ultimate sweat-equity job.

He had yo-yo’ed somewhat from his 2013 Fit for Hope routine, a 12-week weight-loss competition among 15 Washington area chefs. Late-night sandwiches became a habit. Worse, Voltaggio had quit going to the gym. “I was embarrassed to go back to the trainer,” he confessed. “I’m not even returning his phone calls.”

Inspired by a friend’s experience, the chef put himself on a 45-day vegan, gluten-free diet. “Cold turkey. It was supposed to be like a jump-start,” he says. “But, driving around as much as I do, I would be starving. I did more eating out of gas stations than I’ve done in my whole life,” mostly in the form of packaged nuts and puffed sugar snap peas.

Meal-wise, he ate plenty of roasted vegetables and quinoa. His wife, Jennifer, signed on for support and lasted three weeks before deciding she couldn’t go without cheese. Voltaggio broke the diet twice and, of course, cops to never having given up beer. “Couldn’t do that.” Another grin.

When the chef ate fresh fruits and vegetables, something interesting happened. “I started paying attention to every ingredient,” he said. “Like the interior of a carrot. Some in the same bunch would taste better than others. I found that I liked the underside crunch of baby spinach leaves.

“Sounds strange for a chef to discover, right? With every ingredient at our fingertips? Sometimes we as chefs use too many. It’s why sometimes our food tastes muddy.”

This was classic Voltaggio, talking his way through process, explaining how he was applying the newfound knowledge in the kitchen. “I am balancing flavors with lemon, and with spices. I’m looking for simple yet complex,” he said.

The Voltaggios became more aware of the food they were buying at home and of the amounts they were eating. “I have a better feel now for what I can and can’t eat,” the father of three said. “One night while we were away, I ate a steak that when I worked at Charlie Palmer, I wouldn’t have thought twice about polishing off. Man, did I feel it the next day.

“It got me thinking I want people to feel comfortable when they leave my restaurants.”

The family’s breakfast habits are responsible for the chef’s first challenge dish: yogurt-granola parfaits that can be assembled in to-go containers for a busy week ahead. With a few deft touches, Voltaggio nudges plain Greek yogurt closer to a creamy panna cotta by using coconut milk, gelatin sheets, honey and the scrapings of a vanilla bean; curry powder, dried blueberries and pumpkin seeds push the granola to great heights. The chef says the Madras curry “blooms as it bakes” and accents the dried fruit as well as the fresh berries added as a garnish.

Range bar manager Dane Nakamura developed a spicy syrup with honey, pomegranate juice, two kinds of tea leaves and lemon peel that goes just as nicely into his riff on an El Diablo cocktail as it does in club soda or sparkling water.

Then Voltaggio pulled out a propane torch. “Most people have a tough time cooking scallops,” he said. “So we cut them thin and hit them with the flame, just enough to create extra flavor. We found that it’s a more efficient way to go.”

It takes just seconds of direct heat, but before that happens, the scallops are cured in honey and a house-made spice blend that one-ups Old Bay Seasoning. Post-flame, the scallops stay moist in a shallow pool of umami-rich tomato water, white soy sauce (less earthy than brown soy sauce), fish sauce, and olive and pumpkin seed oils. A precious few baby spinach leaves cooked to shiny translucence, pickled leek rings and toasted pumpkin seeds round out the entree. The plate looks sophisticated but not fussed over. Simple yet complex.

With pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil already in play, Voltaggio made a quick leap to the orange flesh of butternut squash. That raised an eyebrow with a bead of June perspiration on it.

“I knew you’d ask about seasonality,” he started. Subsequent explanations were delivered with rimshot timing. “If you fly down to Argentina . . . squash is being harvested.”

“I’m here to tell you the long, dark days of winter are coming.”

“This was in anticipation of fall.”

“It’s advance planning for Thanksgiving.” A grin.

“Squash is pretty much year-round now,” he finished. That’s pretty much true, and Voltaggio’s diced saute draws vanilla and caramel notes from an unlikely source: cream soda.

Like other recipe-developing tales that afternoon, the squash flavor story had a multi-pronged provenance. This one involved a recipe in his and brother Michael Voltaggio’s 2011 cookbook, “Volt Ink,” a rare chestnut soda made by Pepsi and Bryan’s preference for sweet mixed with a savory salted brown butter. Glazed and graced by pumpkin seeds, the side dish tasted good enough to scarf down immediately, and just right for a few months down the road.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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