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Local chefs preserve summer memories with smoke

Thursday - 8/28/2014, 2:21am  ET

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Blue Duck Tavern's Executive Pastry Chef Naomi Gallego smokes yogurt for the restaurant's peaches and cream dessert. Local chefs are preserving the flavors and memories of summer with smoked foods. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON -- One flight down from Blue Duck Tavern's contemporary American- style dining room, executive pastry chef Naomi Gallego opens the steel door to one of the kitchen's many appliances. She wrinkles her face, shoos away some smoke and places a two-inch-deep hotel pan filled with yogurt into the smoker.

"I just need to set my timer for 15 minutes," says Gallego, who has been the pastry chef at the 24th and M Street Northwest restaurant for a year. After 15 minutes, Gallego checks on the yogurt and sees a yellowing on the skin -- that's how she knows it's working.

Gallego is smoking yogurt to make a smoked yogurt pudding for Blue Duck's peaches and cream dessert. Smoking desserts is not something Gallego does often; for her, it's seasonal.

"I associate it in my mind as a thing you do in the summer. When it's nicer out, you're going to be out smoking things; you're going to be grilling things. And you grill things that you normally wouldn't grill right now, like peaches," she says.

Pastry chef Naomi Gallego cold smokes yogurt for one of the restaurant's desserts. (WTOP/Rachel)

Labor Day marks the end of summer, but several local chefs are preserving the flavors of the season by taking diners' minds off premature pumpkin-spice lattes and keeping them on summer beach bonfires.

Gallego's smoked yogurt -- or as she likes to call it, "smogurt" -- is one way to keep her diners present in the last days of summer. She cold smokes it for 30 minutes over smoldering wood chips and ice to keep the dairy from curdling.

With delicate foods such as yogurt, one can't be too aggressive with the smoking. "You want it to be a nuance; you want it to enhance. You don't want it to taste like a cigarette."

The smoked yogurt gets cooked into a pudding, then paired with Valrhona Opalys white chocolate cream, a thin and flaky pastry, verbena peaches and peach peals. The hint of smoke in the pudding takes a common dessert, such as peaches and cream, to a whole new level, Gallego says.

"It just brings a new dimension. I think I like the element of surprise when you taste it -- it's very recognizable, that flavor, but you don't know where it's coming from, and it's unexpected. You don't expect that in a peaches and cream dessert -- something smoky."

The smoked sweetbreads at Oval Room in Northwest D.C. (Courtesy Greg Powers)

Gallego isn't the only D.C.-area chef using smoking techniques to highlight the tastes, smells and experiences of summer. Dwayne Motley, executive chef at Nage, on Rhode Island Avenue in Northwest, has a campfire sundae on his menu, complete with smoked vanilla ice cream, marshmallow ice cream, house-made graham crackers and brled marshmallows.

"My goal with this dish was to kind of invoke a memory you immediately draw back to summertime," Motley says. "It wants to make you think of your childhood."

Antonio Conte, executive chef at Oval Room, agrees that smoking calls forth memories of summer's hot days -- and hot grills.

"There's something that kind of brings you back to remembering something off the charcoal grill growing up," Conte says. "You remember that hamburger or that hot dog or what have you. Summer, the Fourth of July, always seem to come to mind. So I guess we like to revisit our childhood."

At his Connecticut Avenue restaurant, Conte says he almost always has something on his menu that's smoked -- whether it's meat or butter. RIght now, he has sweetbreads, served with a licorice, fennel and green mango salad.

Nage's Motley also plays around with savory smoked dishes, such as his smoked bourbon-braised brisket and crispy calamari, which is served with a smoked tomato sauce.

"Smoking definitely changes a product. It gives it body; it gives it a certain umami, if you will," he says.

Motley credits the rise of food TV to opening diners' minds to playful food preparation methods -- such as using a smoker to add new flavors to desserts and to even transform vegetarian dishes. (He recently made a smoked red beans and rice dish for a vegetarian customer that had "the background of a meaty kind of flavor, but in actuality, it was just a pure vegan dish.")

"I think people are more into what they're eating, into cooking methods and what the chefs are doing," says Motley, who says he likes to keep the taste of summer going all year long by smoking foods no matter the season.

"People want to do stuff that is different and interesting," he says. "I think, honestly, you could smoke a shoe and it would be delicious -- especially with barbecue sauce."

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