Washington - Bryan Voltaggio commits with the force of a Vitamix cranked to 10, which is something to keep in mind when considering his entry in our Superfoods' Chefs Challenge. That, and a nod to the Aristotelian maxim that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
No mere multitasker, he inhabits the universe of chefs who have Lots Going On. In his case, within the next few months, it's running five restaurants plus opening three more; working on a cookbook; cooking for or appearing at five charity events; and judging a crab cake competition.
Uncharacteristically tan and fresh from a family vacation/wedding anniversary/renewal of vows, Voltaggio glanced through The Post Food section's superfoods ingredient list and figured: Instead of the standard two, why not use as many of them as possible in developing the required four recipes? Besides his selected honey and pumpkin — explanation for the latter constitutes a subplot of its own — the chef worked in spinach, dried superfruits, fermented food, garlic, cinnamon, blueberries, pomegranate, tea and tomato.
That's the guy we've come to know ever since he helped us with a turkey taste test in November 2006, when he was executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak in DC.
Although there might not be significant enough amounts of each superfood to lend its specific healthful benefit, no one who tasted the results could deny that Voltaggio and his crew achieved, overall, a quartet of feel-good dishes with creativity and lots of flavour.
“More is good, right?” he said with a grin.
The challenge comes on the heels of Voltaggio's effort to lose weight before his trip. (The notion of men engaging in the same kinds of occasion-oriented efforts as women was a revelation to this reporter.) His willingness to discuss the matter was refreshing.
“I used to be able to eat anything and never gain a pound,” Voltaggio began, perched in a quiet spot at the sprawling Range in DC. on a recent afternoon. “Starting at 35, I noticed a considerable slowdown. At 38, I'm on the go, sure. But I'm not a line cook anymore” — referring to the restaurant's ultimate sweat-equity job.
He had yo-yo'ed somewhat from his 2013 Fit for Hope routine, a 12-week weight-loss competition among 15 area chefs. Late-night sandwiches became a habit. Worse, Voltaggio had quit going to the gym. “I was embarrassed to go back to the trainer,” he confessed. “I'm not even returning his phone calls.”
Inspired by a friend's experience, the chef put himself on a 45-day vegan, gluten-free diet. “Cold turkey. It was supposed to be like a jump-start,” he says. “But, driving around as much as I do, I would be starving. I did more eating out of gas stations than I've done in my whole life,” mostly in the form of packaged nuts and puffed sugar snap peas.
Meal-wise, he ate plenty of roasted vegetables and quinoa. His wife, Jennifer, signed on for support and lasted three weeks before deciding she couldn't go without cheese. Voltaggio broke the diet twice and, of course, cops to never having given up beer. “Couldn't do that.” Another grin.
When the chef ate fresh fruits and vegetables, something interesting happened. “I started paying attention to every ingredient,” he said. “Like the interior of a carrot. Some in the same bunch would taste better than others. I found that I liked the underside crunch of baby spinach leaves.
“Sounds strange for a chef to discover, right? With every ingredient at our fingertips? Sometimes we as chefs use too many. It's why sometimes our food tastes muddy.”
This was classic Voltaggio, talking his way through process, explaining how he was applying the newfound knowledge in the kitchen. “I am balancing flavours with lemon, and with spices. I'm looking for simple yet complex,” he said.
The Voltaggios became more aware of the food they were buying at home and of the amounts they were eating. “I have a better feel now for what I can and can't eat,” the father of three said. “One night while we were away, I ate a steak that when I worked at Charlie Palmer, I wouldn't have thought twice about polishing off. Man, did I feel it the next day.
“It got me thinking I want people to feel comfortable when they leave my restaurants.”
The family's breakfast habits are responsible for the chef's first challenge dish: yogurt-granola parfaits that can be assembled in to-go containers for a busy week ahead. With a few deft touches, Voltaggio nudges plain Greek yogurt closer to a creamy panna cotta by using coconut milk, gelatin sheets, honey and the scrapings of a vanilla bean; curry powder, dried blueberries and pumpkin seeds push the granola to great heights. The chef says the Madras curry “blooms as it bakes” and accents the dried fruit as well as the fresh berries added as a garnish.
Range bar manager Dane Nakamura developed a spicy syrup with honey, pomegranate juice, two kinds of tea leaves and lemon peel that goes just as nicely into his riff on an El Diablo cocktail as it does in club soda or sparkling water.
Then Voltaggio pulled out a propane torch. “Most people have a tough time cooking scallops,” he said. “So we cut them thin and hit them with the flame, just enough to create extra flavour. We found that it's a more efficient way to go.”
It takes just seconds of direct heat, but before that happens, the scallops are cured in honey and a house-made spice blend that one-ups Old Bay Seasoning. Post-flame, the scallops stay moist in a shallow pool of umami-rich tomato water, white soy sauce (less earthy than brown soy sauce), fish sauce, and olive and pumpkin seed oils. A precious few baby spinach leaves cooked to shiny translucence, pickled leek rings and toasted pumpkin seeds round out the entree. The plate looks sophisticated but not fussed over. Simple yet complex.
With pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil already in play, Voltaggio made a quick leap to the orange flesh of butternut squash. That raised an eyebrow with a bead of perspiration on it.
“I knew you'd ask about seasonality,” he started. Subsequent explanations were delivered with rimshot timing. “If you fly down to Argentina squash is being harvested.”
“I'm here to tell you the long, dark days of winter are coming.”
“This was in anticipation of fall.”
“It's advance planning for Thanksgiving.” A grin.
“Squash is pretty much year-round now,” he finished. That's pretty much true, and Voltaggio's diced saute draws vanilla and caramel notes from an unlikely source: cream soda.
Like other recipe-developing tales that afternoon, the squash flavour story had a multi-pronged provenance. This one involved a recipe in his and brother Michael Voltaggio's 2011 cookbook, Volt Ink, a rare chestnut soda made by Pepsi and Bryan's preference for sweet mixed with a savory salted brown butter. Glazed and graced by pumpkin seeds, the side dish tasted good enough to scarf down immediately, and just right for a few months down the road.
Coconut Yogurt Parfaits With Blueberry-Madras Curry Granola
This is the on-the-go breakfast of the Bryan Voltaggio family: a subtly flavoured yogurt that has the texture of a panna cotta, topped with a honeyed granola intensified by that touch of curry powder. They will make a batch on the weekend in individual Weck canning jars so that on weekday mornings, they can grab one and top it with the granola.
Besides the honey, other superfoods in the mix are pumpkin seeds and dried blueberries (replacing the usual raisins in a granola).
MAKE AHEAD: The yogurt mixture needs to set overnight in the refrigerator. The granola can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Thin gelatin sheets (approximately 3 by 9 inches each) are available at La Cuisine in Alexandria, Va.; you can probably obtain them from your local bakery (for a small fee). They dissolve without grit and are preferable to powdered gelatin for this recipe. You'll need four 9.8-ounce Weck jars or volume-equivalent containers with lids.
For the yogurt
3 1/2 cups plain Greek-style yogurt (regular, low-fat or nonfat)
1 vanilla bean
13 1/2 ounces canned regular or low-fat coconut milk
Scant 1/2 cup honey
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
8 grams (2 small) gelatin sheets (see headnote)
For the granola and parfait
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon Madras curry powder
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 cups rolled oats (do not use quick-cooking)
1/2 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds
1/4 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup dried blueberries
Fresh blueberries, blackberries and/or raspberries, sliced, for garnish
For the yogurt: Place the yogurt in a mixing bowl; let it sit at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours.
Meanwhile, split the vanilla bean and scrape its paste into a medium saucepan. Add the scraped bean halves along with the coconut milk, honey and salt, and cook over medium heat, stirring to incorporate. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, turn off the heat. Strain into a liquid measuring cup, discarding the solids.
Place the gelatin sheets in a microwave-safe bowl; breaking them up is okay. Cover with an equal mix of ice and water (just enough to moisten the sheets); let sit until the gelatin blooms. Warm in the microwave on LOW just long enough for the gelatin to melt, then stir the liquefied gelatin into the coconut milk mixture. Add that combination to the yogurt and stir through until well incorporated. Divide evenly among the jars; they should be filled about halfway. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
For the granola and parfaits: Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Have 2 large rimmed baking sheets at hand.
Combine the brown sugar, salt, curry powder, maple syrup and honey in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring until well blended and just beginning to bubble at the edges. Remove from the heat to cool.
Combine the oats, flaked coconut, almonds and pumpkin seeds in a mixing bowl. Pour the brown sugar-honey mixture over the dry ingredients; use a spatula to distribute and coat evenly. Divide between the baking sheets. Bake on the upper and lower racks for 15 minutes, then rotate the pans top to bottom and front to back, using the spatula to move the granola on the outer edges into the centre of each baking sheet, and vice versa. Bake for 15 minutes, then repeat the rotation/spatula steps. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until evenly browned. Cool completely, then add the dried blueberries. The yield is about 4 3/4 cups.
Spoon about 1/3 cup of the granola on top of each portion of set yogurt; just before serving, garnish with fresh berries.
Nutrition Per serving (using nonfat yogurt and low-fat coconut milk): 470 calories, 25 g protein, 67 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fibre, 57 g sugar
Blowtorch Scallops With Spinach and Heirloom Tomato Water
Stunning yet simple, this entree is a foolproof way to give scallops a sear without overcooking them. Superfood components beyond the pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil and honey: tomato, olive oil.
MAKE AHEAD: The tomato water needs to ferment/rest for 24 hours. The scallops need to cure for 45 minutes. The pickled leek (a necessary garnish) can be used as soon as it's cooled, but tastes best when you allow 2 days' rest in the refrigerator.
A small culinary torch is the surprise cooking implement needed here, but a 14-ounce propane torch from the hardware store is less expensive and what lots of professional chefs use.
White soy sauce (shiro shoyu) has a less-earthy flavour and is lighter colour than regular soy sauce. It can be hard to find; light-coloured soy sauce may be substituted and is available at large Asian markets.
From Bryan Voltaggio, chef-owner and Jeffrey Stoneberger, sous-chef, at Range and Aggio in D.C.
For the tomato water
9 ounces heirloom tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 1/4 teaspoons white or light-coloured soy sauce, plus more for garnish (see headnote)
1/4 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon pumpkin seed oil, plus more for garnish
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
For the spinach
10 stem-on baby spinach leaves
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
For the scallops
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
8 dry-pack U-10 scallops, each cut in half horizontally
Pickled leek rings, for garnish (see NOTE)
Roasted, unsalted hulled pumpkin seeds, for garnish
For the tomato water: Line a fine-mesh strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth; suspend it over a bowl.
Combine the tomatoes, soy sauce, olive oil, the 1/4 teaspoon pumpkin seed oil and the fish sauce in a food processor. Pulse until liquefied; transfer to the strainer to drain (at room temperature) for 24 hours.
For the spinach: Pinch off any tough stem ends on the spinach.
Heat the oil in a medium saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook just until fragrant and warm, then add the spinach and sprinkle with the Old Bay. Cook just until the spinach is shiny and starts to become translucent; it should not be totally wilted. Remove from the heat.
For the scallops: Whisk together the honey and Old Bay until well blended; pour into a shallow dish large enough to hold the scallop halves in a single layer. Turn the scallops to coat all over. Cover and refrigerate for 45 minutes.
Place the marinated scallops in a metal baking pan or on a surface that won't be harmed by the flame of a torch; discard any remaining marinade. Use the torch to sear each scallop for 6 1/2 to 7 seconds; they will look charred but not cooked through. Turn them over and torch the second side for a second or two; the scallops will contract a bit but still will look mostly uncooked.
Line up individual plates. Arrange 4 scallop halves on each plate, first-torched side up. Spoon equal amounts of the tomato water on and around them. Drizzle a few drops of pumpkin seed oil around each plate. Place a few of the cooked spinach leaves on each plate, then scatter the pickled leek rings and pumpkin seeds over each portion. Serve right away.
NOTE: To pickle the leek (without added salt), combine a scant 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, a scant 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup sugar, a scant 1/2 cup water, 5 whole black peppercorns and 2 green cardamom pods in a small saucepan. Bring just to a boil over medium heat, then remove from the heat. Cut the white part of a young leek crosswise into very thin slices; add to the pickling liquid and stir to separate the slices into rings. Cool completely. Use right away, or, preferably, transfer with liquid to a container, cover and refrigerate for 2 days.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
Cream Soda Butternut Squash
6 to 8 servings
“In anticipation of fall” is just as good a reason as any to make this savory-sweet side dish now, says chef Bryan Voltaggio, with tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Superfoods at play: the squash (which he's reading as pumpkin), pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil, garlic, cinnamon.
Voltaggio's technique for making brown butter differs from the standard in that he incorporates the milk solids back into the melted butter.
Re the cream soda: The recipe was inspired by the chef's experiments over the past few years.
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus a pinch
6 pounds whole butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes (may substitute about 6 cups frozen/defrosted cubed butternut squash)
12 ounces cream soda (do not use diet)
1/2 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds, toasted (see NOTE)
Ground cayenne pepper
Pumpkin seed oil, for garnish
Fill a large pot halfway with cool water.
Combine the butter and the pinch of salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat until just browned, whisking constantly to evenly disperse the milk solids. Immediately transfer to the pot of cool water; seat the bottom of the saucepan in the water to stop the browned butter from cooking further.
Transfer the browned butter to a large saute pan, over medium heat. Add the squash and stir to coat. Once the butter is melted to translucence, add the cream soda, stirring to dislodge any browned bits and deglaze the pan. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 25 to 35 minutes, until the squash is fork-tender.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have a large rimmed baking sheet at hand.
Use a slotted spatula to transfer the squash to the baking sheet, spreading it in a single layer to cool. Pour the cooking juices/browned butter from the saute pan into a blender; add the remaining teaspoon of salt and puree on HIGH for 2 to 3 minutes, then pour evenly over the squash. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes, until glazed and thoroughly warmed through.
Season lightly with pepper. Transfer to a serving dish; drizzle with pumpkin seed oil and sprinkle with the toasted pumpkin seeds.
NOTE: Spread the pumpkin seeds in medium, dry skillet. Sprinkle lightly with cayenne and cinnamon. Toast over medium heat until they begin to pop and become fragrant and lightly browned. Cool before using.
Nutrition Per serving: 170 calories, 3 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 310 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fibre, 9 g sugar
The Devil You Knew
Honey and pomegranate in the syrup account for the “superfood” status we are generously affording this variation on a classic El Diablo cocktail.
Two ounces of the syrup can be added to 6 ounces of soda water for a nonalcoholic drink.
Make Ahead: The syrup can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.
From Dane Nakamura, bar manager at Range/Aggio in D.C.
For the syrup
1 cup pomegranate juice
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon dried oolong tea leaves
1 tablespoon dried green tea leaves
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Peel of 1 lemon, cut into strips (with little or no pith)
For the drink
5 slices fresh ginger root (unpeeled is okay)
1/2 ounce lime juice
1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila
1/2 ounce green Chartreuse
1/2 ounce mezcal
Twist of lemon, for garnish
For the syrup: Combine the pomegranate juice, honey, oolong and green tea leaves, pepper and lemon peel in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 15 minutes. Cool, then strain into a glass container, discarding the solids. The yield should be a generous 1 to 1 1/4 cups. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
For the drink: Muddle 4 of the ginger slices with the lime juice in a cocktail shaker. Add the tequila, green Chartreuse and 1 ounce of the syrup; shake vigorously, then pour into a Collins glass filled with crushed ice. Gently pour the mezcal to “float” it on top. Garnish with the remaining ginger slice and the lemon twist.
Nutrition Per serving: calories 230, fat 0 g, saturated fat 0 g, cholesterol 0 mg, sodium 0 mg, carbohydrates 20 g, dietary fibre 0 g, sugar 19 g, protein 0 g - Washington Post