Former chef-restaurateur David Hagedorn, a regular contributor to the Washington Post, shares how he approaches ingredients and develops his own recipes.
I have a friend who for years has been asking me to teach him how to cook. He has eaten at the restaurants I've owned, partaken of many meals in my home and reads my recipes, so his request is not illogical. It's just misdirected.
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. You'll get some idea as I explain the recipes accompanying this column.
When I hit the market, members of the allium family were abundant, 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.
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 recipes here, which in no way resembled my initial vague ponderings.
I saw a store display piled with fresh chickpea pods. 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. I added radishes, also cut into pea-size pieces, for their seasonality, texture and bright red color.
The chive 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.
Now, 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.
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.
But as I pictured those onions floating in cream, they didn't seem so springlike. Eyeing packages of gorgeous, unblemished shiitake mushrooms 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.
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.