Sassafras has historically been considered a medicinal herb—used to treat fevers, inflammation, scurvy, dysentery, and sexually transmitted diseases, among other things—in addition to being used as a flavoring. Sassafras root was traditionally an ingredient in root beer, and in the 17th century, sassafras oil was used to mask the taste of opium in remedies given to children. In the 1960s, however, the FDA banned the oil in mass-produced food and drugs following studies showing that large doses of it caused liver damage and cancer in lab rats (sassafras oil, or safrole, is also an ingredient in ecstasy). Since then, artificial versions have been used in root beer.
Despite the FDA's warnings, Carl Shelton of Boka (challenged by Peter Coenen of the Gage) had little trouble sourcing sassafras: he called Dave Odd and Mike Murphy from Odd Produce, who found him not only sassafras root but also the plant's branches and leaves.
Shelton had used the plant before—last year he served a beef short rib braised with sassafras root at Boka. As a result, "I thought it was going to be easy," he said, "but then I wanted to use sassafras in as many ways as I could." He experimented with toasting some of the stems, cooking them down, and pureeing them. "It tasted like a root beer bark," he said. "It wasn't too appetizing. It was just wood." Then he tried shaving the stems and making them into a powder, but the wood didn't break down enough for that to work. "You just got the grittiness of wood in there. So that was an epic fail."
The more he tried to manipulate the ingredient, Shelton said, the harder things became. In the end he went back to what he knew how to do with sassafras, braising the legs of a rabbit—chosen because rabbits eat the leaves—with sassafras roots and stems. The rack of the rabbit he cold-smoked, also with the roots and stems; the loin he rolled in a sassafras leaf and steamed, a preparation inspired by tamales.
To go with the rabbit, "we roasted some carrots because I thought it was funny—rabbits, carrots—on top of a bed of sassafras roots and branches," Shelton said, "and right when I opened it up it made me think of a barnyard," He further described the smell as "umami, meaty," and said the roasted carrots tasted a little like root beer, but only at the very end.
Shelton served the dish with English peas (because peas and carrots go together, he said), morels, grilled and pickled ramps, oxalis, and a sauce made from the reduced braising liquid. He'd planned to remove the leaf from the rabbit loin before serving it but ended up leaving it on, which he concluded gave the dish more of a sassafras flavor and smell.
"At first it's kind of—not astringent, but almost medicinal. With the different parts being roasted, being braised, it adds more depth and at the end really comes through," he said of the dish. "I like the rabbit with it because with the gaminess and how lean this rabbit is, the woodsiness of the sassafras goes together and plays off it very well."
Andres Padilla of Topolobampo, working with cock's comb. "The texture is very unique," Shelton said. "It has a little bit of gamy funkiness to it, but it really just tastes like the liquid you're cooking with. It's just a fun ingredient. Who doesn't like to work with fun ingredients?"