There's an artisanal version of most every ingredient these days, from olive oil to salt. Ash isn't on that list, but it could be soon: Chow and the Globe and Mail even declared it a food trend in early 2011 (though whether it's developing or has already run its course is hard to say).
John Anderes had never worked with ash before, though he'd had it in cheeses—goat cheese, for example, is commonly coated in ash to protect it, help it ripen, and mellow its acidity. Anderes created his own ash by burning pearwood and applewood, adding some Mediterranean dried lemons for a "fun, sour element." Aside from the lemon, though, he said he couldn't really taste a difference between the ashes from the two different woods. Nor did he think it was a trend in Chicago: "It does not seem like a popular thing at all," he said.
As far as the flavor of ash goes, Anderes said, "I found it to be more of a textural thing, or a vessel that carries flavor, than a flavor. It's fun to obsess over whether it's an ingredient or a feeling. Even a mood, I guess."
Anderes decided to make a spaetzle that incorporated both ash-coated goat cheese and pearwood ash, serving it with ash-rubbed grilled venison loin and artichokes cooked over coals. "We're trying to use every element of ash—before it turns into ash, and then obviously the ash." He thought of it as a seasonal fall dish, saying that if it were spring he probably would have done lamb with spring onions or onion ash.
Anderes panfried the cooked spaetzle (a German egg noodle) to caramelize it a bit, finishing it with fresh lemon juice and then adding a venison demi-glace. The roasted, slightly charred artichokes went into a salad with pear mostarda and a little olive oil, and he cooked the venison loin to medium rare. The acidic elements in the dish were important, he said: "I think adding the sour element with the lemon and the goat cheese is a nice vessel for that kind of ashtray flavor. You're almost canceling out whatever flavor ash would be. Because it's not a real palatable flavor."
Though he'd never tried making the dish before, Anderes was really pleased with it and said he was going to put it on the menu. "It's really smoky without being . . . smoke. You almost get a little bit of the—damn, nailed it!" he interrupted himself, taking another bite. "A little of the carbon. It's a little bit gritty, but it's OK because it plays well with the meat."
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
Erling Wu-Bower of the Publican, working with gold leaf. "I just thought it was along the same lines—you know, ashes, carbon," Anderes said. "This is like the least desirable mineral element, so I thought we'd go with the most desirable on the other end of the spectrum."
Ashes to Ashes
Take eight pounds of wood from your nearest fruit orchard. Burn the shit outta that wood until it turns to ash. Take a half cup of that ash and put in a coffee grinder with two dried lemons if you can find them. Grind together with four tablespoons of kosher salt.
Go out and kill a deer, take the loin out and cut it into like seven 16-ounce steaks. Rub that loin with the ash and let sit out for an hour. Cook to medium rare, then let rest for a several minutes.
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup milk
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 pinch freshly ground white pepper
½ teaspoon salt
1 gallon hot water
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
4 T ash
In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and ash. In another mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and milk together. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the egg-milk mixture. Gradually draw in the flour from the sides and combine well; the dough should be smooth and thick. Let the dough rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot, then reduce to a simmer. To form the spaetzle, hold a large-holed colander or slotted spoon over the simmering water and push the dough through the holes with a spatula or spoon. Do this in batches so you don't overcrowd the pot. Cook for three to four minutes or until the spaetzle floats to the surface, stirring gently to prevent sticking. Dump the spaetzle into a colander and give it a quick rinse with cool water.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the spaetzle, tossing to coat. Cook the spaetzle for 1 to 2 minutes to give the noodles some color, and then sprinkle with the chopped chives and season with salt and pepper before serving.
4 lbs pears
1 pint brown sugar
1 pint water
Winter spices like clove and cinnamon
Large dice the pears and place in a large pot with the sugar, water and spices. Bring up to a simmer, then turn off the heat and let cool overnight. Repeat three times. Strain and reserve for garnish .
3 pounds baby artichokes
4 T extra-virgin olive oil
Coat the artichokes in oil and cook in foil while your ashes are ablaze, then season with salt and pepper. Add a little pear mostarda and olive oil to make a salad.