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Key Ingredient: Asafetida

Its smell attracts wolves-and repels humans.

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Patrick Sheerin, executive chef at the Signature Room at the 95th, challenged Jason McLeod, executive chef at Ria and Balsan, to come up with a recipe using asafetida for this installment of our weekly feature.

Asafetida "doesn't quite taste as bad as it smells," Jason McLeod discovered while working with it. But that's not necessarily saying much. Its name comes in part from the Latin word foetida, which means "foul-smelling"; it's also referred to as "devil's dung" and "stinking gum." Made from the dried sap of the roots of the giant fennel plant, asafetida can be found in either resin or powder form (the latter is more common and somewhat less pungent). And as McLeod found doing research on the subject, it's believed to attract wolves.

Yet another name for asafetida, though, is "food of the gods," and it's used extensively in India. Once cooked it becomes much milder, though most sources still stress that it should be used in very small amounts. McLeod also discovered another reason for moderation: a dishwasher in the Ria/Balsan kitchen who's from India told him that if you eat a lot of it—"I don't know what a lot is," McLeod confesses—your teeth will fall out. (This could not be confirmed through the interwebz, though several sites claim that asafetida can help toothaches, tooth decay, and, strangely, bad breath.)

McLeod found two different versions of asafetida, both powdered. One, which his diswasher brought him from a store on Devon, combines the asafetida with turmeric and reminded him of a steak spice. The other, a purer version from the Spice House, reminded him of urine when he smelled it: "I just thought, whoa. I think that's when I read about the wolves." It's also very strong when uncooked, and "stays on your palate for a long time. I tasted this for the first time, and two hours later I was still tasting it. Not a horrible taste, but it was just there."

Once cooked, though, the taste "seems to really mellow, and becomes a bit deeper and richer than that up-front hit," McLeod says. "The bitterness kind of disappears, and it just rounds out quite nicely." He describes the flavor of cooked asafetida as oniony and garlicky, with a hint of fennel.

McLeod ended up using fennel in his dish in an espuma, or foam, with the asafetida. He admits that "foams were very popular maybe ten years ago" and have fallen out of favor, but he's still a fan of them because "they're so simple and easy to do, and can hold a lot of flavor." He decided on scallops because he says they go well with fennel, and also did braised potatoes with the turmeric-asafetida powder.

He discovered while making the potatoes that asafetida is "gummy, so if you add it too early it starts to seize everything up and stick to the bottom of the pan." Adding the powder right before the liquid solved the problem: "I would say I did this part about five times before I was smart enough to figure that out."

The turmeric didn't add as much color to the potatoes as McLeod expected, but he could taste it in the finished product. "The neat thing about this flavor is that the turmeric really came out a lot, and it balanced the asafetida quite a bit."

In the foam, though, the asafetida was very subtle for such a pungent ingredient. "I don't think there's really a distinctive flavor where I say, wow, that's it. It's more of an enhancement," McLeod said, noting that it rounded out and balanced the elements. "The first time I made the foam, I tasted it and was like, I don't get anything out of it. As I kept doing it, I kept learning what to look for and I can pick it out a little clearer."

McLeod was happy enough with the finished dish that he would "absolutely" put it on the menu, but said if he had to experiment more with the asafetida he'd go in the opposite direction, like an ice cream, to "see how far I could take this ingredient."

Who's Next:

Chris Pandel of the Bristol, working with jujube, a fruit also known as a Chinese date. "I've actuallly never tried it myself," McLeod cheerfully admitted. "I had as much fun finding that next ingredient as researching my own. I went on the Internet and punched in 'unusual ingredients,' 'mystery ingredient.'"

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Seared Sea Scallops With Fennel and Asafetida Espuma and Braised Potato

Fennel and Asafetida Espuma

2 T olive oil

Chopped fennel

Chopped onion

1 clove garlic, sliced

1 t ground asafetida

1 cup white wine

½ cup verjus blanc

3 cups chicken stock

2 cups heavy cream

2 T butter

1 t kosher salt

Heat oil in pan, add fennel, onion, garlic, salt, and saute for five minutes on medium heat, being careful not to brown the vegetables. Add asafetida and stir constantly (the spice will start to stick and will burn if not stirred). Add white wine and verjus and reduce until the liquid is evaporated. Add chicken stock and reduce by half. Add cream and reduce by half. Puree in a high-speed blender until smooth, add butter, and season to taste with salt. Blend again. Pass the mixture through a fine chinois, then put in an an iSi canister and add two cartridges of CO2, making sure to shake very well to distribute the gas.

Braised Potato

2 russet potatoes

2 cups chicken stock

3 sprigs thyme

1 clove garlic

2 T butter

1 t asafetida/turmeric blend

Salt

Slice potatoes a quarter of an inch thick and punch out 18 circles with a cutter of the desired size. Add all ingredients to a saute pan. The liquid should not cover the potatoes. Slowly cook for about three and a half minutes on medium heat. Taste the liquid and add more salt if needed. Poke each potato twice with a paring knife and then turn over (this will help the flavor penetrate to the center of the potato). Cook for another three and a half minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through.

Scallops

18 U-10 scallops (make sure scallops are dry)

1 T olive oil

2 T butter, very cold

4 sprigs thyme

2 cloves garlic

Sea salt

White pepper

Orange

Heat a saute pan on high, add oil. Sprinkle scallops with salt, then place gently in the pan and wiggle it slightly to ensure they're not sticking. After 30 seconds lower heat to medium. Cook for about two to three minutes; a golden brown crust should form. Flip scallops over and add butter, garlic, and thyme and baste scallops. The butter should start to brown (this creates a beautiful nutty flavor). After one minute squeeze orange juice on top and remove scallops from pan.

Other Ingredients

Fennel fronds

Orange zest

Hazelnuts

Plating

Place three scallops in a bowl and put three potato slices around scallops. From the iSi canister, squirt espuma in the center of the scallops. Garnish with fennel frond and hazelnuts; grate fresh orange zest on top. Serves six.

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