Chef Chris Vergara and His Bradley Electric Smoker
On the smoker, and the myriad recipes you can use to cook with it.
Chef Chris Vergara, owner of Harpers in Dobbs Ferry, and, now, Saint George in Hastings-on-Hudson, is rumored to have hacked a fridge with a hydrostat and a cheap cigar humidifier in the basement of his first restaurant, Meritage in Scarsdale. Vergara’s goal? He wanted to create a moist, cave-like chamber for curing silken duck ham, pancetta, and guanciale. What can you do with a chef who says things like this: “If you get arrested for making bootleg charcuterie in Westchester, your career is made; you’ll be famous. Every foodie will be busting down your doors trying to get into your restaurant.” This is a chef who doesn’t take kindly to code. (Don’t tell the Health Department.)
Now Vergara has moved onto a Bradley electric smoker. “We’ve been using this particular smoker for about two years. Before that, we were using a series of makeshift smokers, rinky-dink stovetop stuff, or we’d have a smoker out back and I’d have to feed it fuel. I’d be running out to put charcoal into the smoker every 20 minutes. Finally, I just got fed up. I said to my partner, ‘What is this, the Stone Age? I’m tired of stoking this thing like a caveman. I need low maintenance.’” He echoes Ron Popeil, the perennial pitchman for Ronco’s Showtime Rotisserie: “With the smoker that I have now, I just set it and forget it.”
Like most chefs with a new gadget, Vergara threw away the recipe booklet that was included in the box. “We’ve pretty much tried to put everything into the smoker at one time or another. Everything that could conceivably fit onto the racks has gone into the smoker at least once.” Some of it worked, and some did not. “Smoke is a very interesting seasoning.”
“We do a lot of smoked corn and small-volume things. I’m running among three restaurants now, so I don’t have time to wait 14 hours to smoke a whole pork shoulder. But smaller things—smoked corn, smoked trout rillettes, smoked trout pâté, mackerel—are all perfect. We use a lot of smoke in the components of a dish, so our vegetables often have a smoked element.”
Does a smoker work for home cooks? “Definitely. People should get them. They’re perfect for large-batch cooking—parties and large gatherings. It’s a completely low-maintenance way to cook. You stick your pork shoulder in there and 12 to 14 hours later, you’re done.”
In some ways, it’s sacrilege to smoke food at Vergara’s newest venture, Saint George in Hastings-on-Hudson, which steps into the glittering, mirror-lined jewel box recently vacated by Buffet de la Gare (which had been in that spot since 1980). Saint George will serve French cuisine—which is usually not noted for its use of smokers.
Says Vergara, “My culinary career is coming full circle with Saint George. I worked at La Panetière for five years and I was the only cook in that kitchen who wasn’t French.” Even though there may be some smoked elements on the menu, “Saint George will have an unmistakable French aesthetic. It has the prettiest dining room in Westchester with an original turn-of-the-century bar. The pressed-tin ceiling that we have is also original and it runs right through the kitchen.” He laughs about the excellent condition in which Buffet de la Gare’s owners, Gwendal and Annie Goulet, left his new building. “It was amazing; this is the first time I opened a restaurant without having to replace all the kitchen equipment. The pilot lights on the stoves all still worked.”
Smoked Duck Terrine
MAKE THE PÂTÉ SPICE MIXTURE
1 Tbsp ground nutmeg
1 Tbsp ground clove
1 Tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground allspice
2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbsp ground white pepper
In a small bowl, whisk together the spices. Reserve.
MAKE THE TERRINE
20 oz cubed duck leg meat
7 oz cubed pork fat
9 oz skinless duck breast
5 oz duck liver, cleaned of sinew
2½ large shallots, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping Tbsp sugar
¾ cup white rum
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 Tbsp chopped parsley
2 Tbsp snipped chives
½ tsp sel rosé (optional)
2 tsp pâté spice (recipe above)
3 Tbsp salt
1 Tbsp ground black pepper
1 large egg
½ cup heavy cream
10 or so long slices of prosciutto. (Vergara says, “Whatever you don’t need you can eat. It’s delicious.”)
Place meat grinder parts in the freezer or a bowl of ice water to chill. Heat the smoker to 225°F. Place the cubed duck leg, pork fat, and liver in the freezer, uncovered. The meat should be partially frozen to facilitate grinding.
Season the duck breasts with one tablespoon of salt, cover, and refrigerate for one hour. After one hour, remove the duck and pat it dry with paper towels. Place the duck in the smoker and smoke it for about one hour. Don’t worry that the duck is not fully cooked at this point; this step is to infuse the duck with smoke flavor. After one hour, remove the duck and allow it to cool thoroughly.
Meanwhile, in a medium-sized sauté pan placed over medium heat, melt the butter and add the shallots. Sauté these until they are translucent, then season with salt. Stand back from the pan as you add the sugar and rum to the shallots (the rum will ignite). When the flames have subsided, transfer the shallot mixture to a platter and chill it thoroughly.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Attach the chilled grinder parts to the grinder and grind the chilled pork and duck into a large mixing bowl. Mix the meats thoroughly with your hands. Add parsley, chives, shallot mixture, pâté spice, salt, ground black pepper, and sel rosé (if using). In a small bowl, lightly whisk together the egg and cream. Add this to the meat mixture. Mix vigorously until the meat mixture becomes sticky and clings to your hands.
Line a terrine with plastic wrap, then line the plastic with slightly overlapping slices of prosciutto. The prosciutto should cover the base and sides of the mold with some overhang to wrap over the top.
Fill the terrine about halfway with the ground meat mixture. Lay the smoked duck breast on top of the ground meat. Cover with the rest of the meat mixture. Fold the prosciutto slices over the meat mixture and cover with plastic wrap.
Lay a cloth towel in an oven-proof baking dish that will accommodate your terrine. Transfer the terrine to the baking dish and fill the baking dish with enough water to come halfway up the side of the terrine. Bake the terrine until its internal temperature reaches 155°F. Remove it from the oven and allow to cool.
When the terrine is cool enough to handle, it needs to be pressed. Cut a piece of cardboard to fit over the terrine. Wrap it in aluminum foil and weigh it down with one-to-three-pound weights (a brick wrapped in foil works). Chill overnight. Serve with mustards and cornichons.
Cavatelli with Arugula Pesto and Smoked Tomato Compote
MAKE THE SMOKED TOMATO COMPOTE
5 lbs ripe beefsteak tomatoes
2 Tbsp kosher salt
1 small red onion diced
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves thinly sliced
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the smoker to 225°F. Core the tomatoes and slice into 1-inch discs. Toss these with kosher salt. Place the tomatoes in the smoker and smoke them for 2-3 hours with continuous smoke. The tomatoes should take on a subtle amber color and be soft but not dry. If they begin to look dry, remove the tomatoes and proceed with the recipe. Slide the skins from the tomatoes and discard them. At this point, the skins should slide right off.
Heat a saucepan over medium heat and add the oil and red onion. Sauté the onions until they’re translucent, then add the garlic. Cook the garlic with the onions until the garlic begins to brown. Add the smoked tomatoes and simmer on low heat until the oil separates from the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Reserve while you finish the dish.
MAKE THE ARUGULA PESTO
3-4 handfuls of arugula (about 8 oz)
6 Tbsp (2 oz) Pecorino cheese
3 Tbsp (1 oz) Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 Tbsp toasted pistachio nuts
2 garlic cloves
1 Tbsp salt
4 or 5 turns of a pepper mill
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Zest of one lemon
Pinch of chili flakes
Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until mixture reaches a coarse purée. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Reserve.
TOAST THE PANKO BREAD CRUMBS
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup panko bread crumbs
Heat a sauté pan over high heat and pour in the oil. Add the bread crumbs and toss constantly until the crumbs are golden brown. Season with salt and pepper and turn out on a plate lined with paper towels. Reserve.
MAKE THE CAVATELLI
1 lb fresh ricotta
4 cups flour
¼ cup milk
1 Tbsp kosher salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the ingredients until they form a dough. (You can also do this by hand.) Shape the cavatelli according to the directions of a cavatelli machine and reserve.
FINISH THE DISH
1 cup ricotta, or as needed, for garnish
Parmigiano-Reggiano, as needed, for garnish
Toasted panko bread crumbs, as needed, for garnish
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt until the water tastes like the ocean. Add the cavatelli and cook the pasta until it is done. If you’re using fresh cavatelli, it’s done when the pasta floats to the surface. Otherwise, cook the cavatelli until it is al dente or per package instructions.
While pasta is still hot, in a bowl, toss it with the arugula pesto until it is just coated. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, black pepper, or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Place the dressed cavatelli in serving bowls and dot with warmed smoked tomato compote and ricotta cheese. Sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs and grate fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve.
Julia Sexton is a New York-based food writer whose new book, Hudson River Valley Chef's Table, will be published this spring. When it comes to smoking food at home, she's still the kind of caveman who feeds chunks of wood into her Weber grill that has been hacked with a Polder temperature sensor (of this, she is not proud).