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If anyone can safely drag honey out of the shadows, where the viscous liquid has been cowering in our savory meals, it is Frank Morales, executive chef at Zola. The guy’s sweet tooth is buried deep in his jaw. Morales drinks no sodas and doesn’t jones for desserts. Truth be told, he often looks right past the sweetness of honey to its other qualities. “When I’m tasting honey,” he says, “I’m trying to find what else is in there. What other spices? What other flavors?”
Who better to beat the sugar out of honey?
Honey has always been the undocumented worker of the kitchen. Chefs like to use the reduced nectar in savory dishes—maybe hidden in a marinade or sandwiched between the acid and the base in a vinaigrette—but you’d be more likely to find O.J.’s confession on a menu than any mention of the sweet stuff.
OK, so that’s an exaggeration. But Morales would be the first to admit that showcasing honey in nondessert dishes carries a risk—particularly on his new menu, which raises the status of the golden liquid from an illegal alien discreetly smuggled onto plates to the proud, first-class citizen of seven different appetizers and entrees. Well, semiproud.
“I’m concerned. I don’t want [the dishes] to be perceived as just sweet,” says Morales. “That’s why sometimes I use [honey] in a preparation, but I don’t use it in the actual description on the menu.”
To chefs, honey can add depth, flavor, and “a totally different mouthfeel” to food, says Northern Virginia beekeeper and chef MaryEllen Kirkpatrick. To a diner, however, honey can exude all the sexiness of baby fat. “A lot of people,” Kirkpatrick says, “when they think of honey, they have in their head that it will be a clover honey that catches in the back of your throat.” They will, in other words, think of the cloying honey squeezed from a bottle shaped like a teddy bear.
Public perception is not the only battle chefs face. Honey does not always play well with others. It burns easily in high heat. It tends to lose its flavor during cooking, and its sweetness—a combination of fructose, glucose, and sucrose—is more powerful than sugar. Honey is “very dangerous,” Morales says. “I have to be very careful, because I do want to control the sweetness.”
Morales is a virtual control freak with one of his new dinner entrees, the toothsome clover-honey-glazed brick chicken served with pumpkin grits and browned Brussels sprouts. Morales uses a Colorado yellow-clover honey—100 percent clover honey, not a commercial brand that mixes in other varieties—three different ways in the dish.
The chicken is first cooked sous vide with low heat before being iced down and pan roasted. The succulent bird is then brushed with an eggy sabayon, which substitutes clover honey for sugar, and placed under a salamander to create the glaze. When plated, the chicken is paired with pumpkin grits—the gourd itself roasted with clover honey—and served with two sauces: the sabayon and a whole-grain-mustard-and-honey sauce. In every bite, the honey fights for supremacy with ingredients that can withstand, even mellow out, its sweetness, including bitter Brussels sprouts and fatty chicken skin.
Acids and fat are Morales’ preferred weapons in battling honey’s sugar content. He’s particularly fond of fat. “Fat’s the basis for really getting into honey, for seeing the subtleties of honey,” he says. “If you’re doing vinegars with honeys, then what you’re doing is you’re introducing [acid] and cutting [the honey]….But when you’re doing fat, it’s almost as if the entire mouth is coated and [the flavor] stays longer.”
Case in point: Morales’ lunch appetizer, a grilled Virginia ham and cheese, where honey plays an unbilled role. Morales takes golden raisins, macerates them with honey and a little vinegar, and purées the mixture. The sauce, accented with smoked paprika, is then drizzled around a phyllo-wrapped square of Camembert, itself topped with watercress, frisée, and strips of country ham. The flavors are precisely layered: sweetness playing off smokiness in the sauce, which plays off the buttery cheese and bitter greens. It may be the most complex appetizer you’ll taste, and it’s the brief flash of sweetness that makes it all come together.
When Morales does employ acids to undercut his honey, he’ll tend to favor citric juices, not vinegars. His “mosaic of beets,” a composed plate featuring thin slices of gold and red beets sprinkled with goat Parmesan and arugula, begins in a giant pan. That’s where Morales braises the root veggies in, among other ingredients, orange, lime, grapefruit, and honey. The reduced liquid ends up coating the beets in a sweet-sour glaze that not only dampens the honey’s impact but also softens the beets’ often overwhelming taste of dirt. A drizzle of walnut vinaigrette provides the final touch of fattiness that Morales loves.
Not all Morales’ honey-infused dishes are so inventive—or even successful. His otherwise delicious “pigs in a blanket”—a trio of sausages in puff pastry—merely showcases three different honey-mustard sauces, one for each piggy. More problematic, the dark bed of honey-and-soy-braised shiitake mushrooms, on which rest thick slices of roasted ahi tuna, caused me to stir the night after I ate them, my mouth parched from all the salt.
That was one occasion when Morales could have taken his foot off honey’s throat and let its sweetness sing out.—Tim Carman
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