Why I Burn Some Foods On Purpose
I am a self-taught cook. Not a chef. An at-home, basic, average, middle-of-the-road home cook—whose attention span is also very short. I also hate to follow directions. Have you ever tried to put together an Ikea bookshelf in a tiny New York City apartment? If the answer is yes, I'd love to hear from you if you’ve followed all ten thousand intricate steps. If not, you get the gist. There’s something liberating about breaking the rules and hammering in a nail.
And this is how I cook. Or better yet, this is why I don’t bake. I can barely train myself to properly feed my sourdough starter from La Farm Bakery and it is so easy. But that’s just me. My ex-husband used to get on my case about stalking the rice while it was cooking. “Just put it on the stove and leave it — don’t touch it, don’t even look at it,” he’d repeat. Or the complete opposite, doing too many things at once and unintentionally burning shit because of a phone call, chopping other vegetables or something of that nature.
It wasn’t until my ex-husband taught me how to make his salsa verde from scratch that I realized sometimes, it’s okay to burn shit. See, it required nearly catching tomatillos on fire in a skillet atop the stove, or on the grill. Post-divorce I made salsa verde unchaperoned. The smoke alarm went off inside my house. I chuckled. And then made the best damn green salsa I’ve ever made.
Fast forward to a beautiful meal at The Durham, an American restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing. Forrest Mason (a photographer and my eating partner in crime) and I ate everything that came out that evening—a phenomenal dry aged steak, the prettiest fermented vegetable tray, bbq oysters and so much more... We later agreed that Reusing’s charred scallion butter, slathered on warm ciabatta bread—what we called “moody” bread—was one of the most alluring bites of the meal. The black butter spread was slightly chalky, buttery, salty and texturally amazing. A butter I wanted to immediately mimic at home.
The point of my banter remains: there is a time and a place to burn the shit out of everything—intentionally—with the end results being absolutely delicious and edible. I called Reusing to get some tips on making charred scallion butter at home, and mostly to ask what else could be burned.
“The idea for the charred scallion butter came when I was feeling sad that my vegetarian husband couldn’t eat our dry aged steak at The Durham,” says Reusing. “I wanted to figure out a way to create that salty, smoky fatty chew without the meat,” she adds—noting when the chef’s grandfather made steak, he would light his charcoal grill in the early afternoon and when the coals were ready he put a cast iron pan on the grill with beef fat and sliced onions and enjoyed a martini while they charred. “That smell of burning sweet onions with beef fat is really indelible for me,” says Reusing.
The coolest thing about charred scallion butter is that basically anything goes—whatever alliums are in season. “When we started it in the early summer we had green garlic, garlic scapes, whole baby leeks, all kinds of little shallots and small sweet onions,” she says. I couldn’t find scallions at the grocery store when I decided to make this for a dinner party in Black Mountain, North Carolina, but scored a few nice looking leeks and onions. From there I chopped and charred the onions and leeks in a cast iron skillet until they were nice and toasty, tossed them in a blender (with butter, salt, pepper and a little squeeze of lime juice) and processed until the texture was just slightly gritty but smooth. That’s it. There’s really no right or wrong in this process and you can kind of tell by texture and taste when it’s ready.
Naturally, this had my brain wondering what else might be worth intentionally burning. “You can ember-roast almost anything by letting a fire die down and piling the cooling embers or coals up around whatever it is you’re cooking on the floor of the grill or your fireplace,” says Reusing. Think whole fish wrapped in fig leaves; whole peppers, kohlrabi, small cabbages, celery root, sweet corn in the husks and fennel bulbs; or a pork roast wrapped in banana leaves. “It’s all about the controlled burn,” she adds. “And of course the term embering is a little chaffy, for the last twenty thousands of years it was probably just called cooking.”
In the end, burning things is a form of cooking—but most of all, it’s a process to have fun with. And for those of you with a short attention span, it is a most liberating way to cook.