Editor’s note: Since former chef-restaurateur David Hagedorn first began writing for Food in 2005, he has helped readers entertain at home, connected them with expert help in the kitchen and introduced them to some of the area’s finest growers and producers. With this new column, he’ll share how he approaches ingredients and develops his own recipes — perhaps his best insider information to date for home cooks.
I have a friend who has been asking me to teach him how to cook for years. He has eaten at the restaurants I’ve owned, partaken of many meals in my home and reads my recipes each month, so his request is not illogical. It’s just misdirected.
His idea is for me to show up with some of my recipes and walk him through them, but I think he wants to arrive at the destination without taking the time to get there.
Cooking, like any worthy trip, is about the journey: Detours, wrong turns and unexpected discoveries are what make us understand and appreciate where we wind up.
The same holds true for seasoned cooks and chefs. I’ve written hundreds of recipes for publication and can attest to the fact that what winds up on the printed page is often not what I set out to accomplish. The process of creating them reveals more about cooking than the recipes themselves, but that is something seldom shown to readers.
You’ll get some idea as I explain the recipes accompanying the first installment of this column. A mild winter and a long bout of unseasonal good weather conspired this year to trigger early yearnings for asparagus, English peas and strawberries. But when I hit the market, it was clear that those items weren’t quite ready to cooperate. There were a few straggly specimens, but they were expensive and not very tasty.
Members of the allium family were abundant, however. Plenty of them were on display during a reconnaissance trip to the Super H Mart in Fairfax a few weeks ago, including scallions with fat white ends and bunches of garlic chives — some just the wide, grassy leaves, others reedier stalks with edible flower buds attached to them.
The buds intrigued me: visually appealing, out of the norm and bursting with bold flavor. A chef’s trifecta.
I began to formulate dishes in my mind as I walked around the market’s produce tables looking for inspiration. I went home and jotted down ideas and a grocery list for a return trip. I often buy a variety of raw materials in case I decide to change course. I might buy lemons as well as limes, for example, even if I don’t plan to use them right away.
After several days of experimenting, reworking and testing, plus a few fits and starts, I had written up the three recipes, none of which resembled my initial vague ponderings.
How I got from Point A to Point B speaks to the intangible ingredients never listed, the passion behind the dispassionate language of instruction. They include the heart that makes a dish pulsate; the ability to know which ingredients bring out the best in each other and how to unite and fine-tune them; a palate and frame of reference informed by a well-stocked pantry and an open mind; the intuition that announces the precise moment, say, to remove caramel from the stove so that it dances to the edge of burning but pulls back at the very last second.
Some of those things, of course, come with time and experience, which makes their acquisition all the sweeter. Truth is, I burned a lot of caramel before the day came when I just knew to turn the heat off.
Another truth: The mistakes keep happening. Only now I call them revelations.
That’s how asparagus, peas and strawberries turned into scallions, garlic chives and flower buds, plus fresh chickpeas still in their pods, an ingredient I had never seen or cooked.
My first thought for the chive buds was a crudo (that’s the trendy word that food folk like to use for seviche) of thinly sliced sea scallops strewn with the chive flower buds and garnished with chopped garlic chives. But once I saw a store display piled with fresh chickpea pods and tasted some, I scrapped the crudo idea. The peas tasted so springlike and delicate, I had to use them. The approach? Simple. A colorful, lightly dressed spring salad.
I cut carrots into pieces about the size of the peas. I liked the notion of peas and carrots, plus I suspected they would cook in the same amount of time. Testing a few of each separately and timing the outcome confirmed I was right. Being able to cook the two vegetables together saved a step; always a good thing. I added radishes, also cut into pea-size pieces, for their seasonality, texture and bright red color. The flower buds, with an inch of chive still attached, would add texture, a surprise element and bold onion flavor with garlic notes. Chunks of feta cheese for saltiness and volume, some good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, seasoned rice vinegar (it is light and has sugar in it) and a bit of thyme for an herbal quality made the salad perfect for a first course.
The other chives, with tender, grasslike leaves and a distinct garlic flavor (it makes sense; garlic is a member of the onion genus, allium), I intended to simply stir-fry as a side dish seasoned, perhaps, with a bit of sesame oil and chili paste. But I found the greens stringy, like ramps, and therefore unpleasant. Instead, I turned them into an assertively green chilled soup.
A shrewd cook seizes on happenstance. The idea of enhancing the flavor of those chives with an element of smoke came to mind only because I had on hand some smoked chicken stock, the bounty from a drip pan underneath a Whitmore Farm chicken cooked on a previous night. Why not, I figured. It was liquid gold with an extra flavor dimension.
The greens went into a pot with that stock, a bit of salt and some cream, taking only minutes to cook to maintain brightness. Then they went into a blender with some instant potato flakes. Chefs and cooks who look to eliminate dairy or gluten know that these dehydrated bits come in handy as a thickener; they don’t become gluey, and they offer control. Just add more if the soup is too thin.
Raw garlic cloves added to the puree proved too strong; the liquid wasn’t hot enough to cook the bitterness out of them. So on a second attempt, I added the garlic to the soup pot instead. (Even as I write this, I’m still not sure the garlic is necessary. I was going for intensity, like adding anise seed to fennel soup.) To preserve the soup’s richness and provide a point at which the soup could be frozen, I decided to add the cream after the straining step, because that kind of dairy doesn’t freeze well. It breaks.
The recipe calls for regular chicken stock and a dash of Liquid Smoke to replicate the smoked stock I used. But the next time you roast a chicken on the grill, fill the drip pan with chicken stock and herbs. Throw some wood chunks on the briquets. You’ll have smoked stock, too.
A word about the chicken stock you keep on hand: Make your own. The store-bought stuff has no flavor, comparatively speaking. If you must use it, bump it up with some bouillon cubes or add several dashes of Thai fish sauce for body; that’s a chef’s trick, but don’t go crazy with it. Fish sauce is very salty, and if you use too much, it can impart too much fishy flavor. Vegetarians can use lots of dried mushrooms and aromatic roasted vegetables instead. For a chilled garlic chive soup, the stock is a good place to use up reedy chive bud stalks, should you have any.
The inability to pass up a good bargain and a refusal to give up entirely on my original idea dictated how to use the scallions I had bought.
I love scallions and use them with abandon. They add a subtle yet unmistakable onion flavor and always look terrific. To get the terminology straight, I consulted Barbara Damrosch, who writes the Cook’s Garden column for The Post. She explained that scallions, also known as green onions, are a bulbless species: Allium fistulosum. Spring onions do have bulbs; they are immature bulb onions (Allium cepa) that have been harvested early.
At farmers markets, I’ve been seeing older scallions with thick white bottoms. Sometimes they’re so large they almost resemble leeks. Because they have a more profound onion flavor than the skinny specimens in grocery stores, I thought that creaming the white and light-green parts in the fashion of Thanksgiving’s ubiquitous pearl onions would make a nice spring side dish, especially if I infused the cream with the trimmed dark-green parts.
But as I pictured those onions floating in cream, they didn’t seem so springlike. Eyeing packages of gorgeous, unblemished shiitake mushrooms at the Super H Mart (at $3.99 per pound, compared with $6.99 per pound elsewhere) sent me in another direction.
Did scallion pancakes pop into my head because I was shopping in an Asian market? Whatever the reason, I looked up traditional recipes, all of which were made with water. I tried it that way but found the pancakes rubbery, so I swapped in milk to make more of a crepe batter and reduced the ratio of batter to vegetables. That way, the final product was less doughy.
The pancake batter took minutes to make. It was so flavor-packed (garlic, sesame oil, ginger, cilantro, Sriracha) that no sauce accompaniment is necessary, though I serve them with more of that hot chili sauce on the side because I’m a sucker for the stuff. A first attempt to make the pancakes without pre-cooking the vegetables failed, which was just as well. Quickly sauteeing the shiitakes and scallions in some butter and canola oil and then adding them to the batter imparted fat, which helped the pancakes release easily from the pan.
The batter cooks up just as well after a day’s refrigeration. Already-cooked pancakes reheat beautifully with a quick zap in the microwave. Those are both features that make this dish great for entertaining.
Mid-pancake, my friend called to invite me over for dinner. He told me he can now make a mean grilled salmon and a respectable roast chicken. He has assumed most of the cooking duties for his family even though he admits to a few clunkers thus far.
I’m glad to see he’s discovering what I’ve learned: Process makes perfect.
Questions or suggestions for The Process? Hagedorn joins today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.