Scallops with grated sugarcane, dehydrated purple rice, and summer vegetables
Scallops with grated sugarcane, dehydrated purple rice, and summer vegetables Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Dirk Flanigan (Henri and the Gage)
The Challenger: Luke Creagan (Pops for Champagne)
The Ingredient: Sugarcane

When sugarcane stalks are cut for commercial use, it usually requires a machete or larger machine—both of which Dirk Flanigan lacked. He ended up using a handsaw to cut the five-foot stalks he had into more manageable pieces, and then used a sharp knife to trim off the tough exterior. Inside, the stalks are fibrous, with what Flanigan described as “a nice savory sweetness . . . it’s got an earthy quality to it.” He was afraid that cooking the sugarcane would make it lose its subtle flavors, so he tried to work with the raw juice as much as possible.

Getting the juice in the first place was something of a challenge. Flanigan first put the pieces of peeled cane through his industrial juicer. “That thing gets really loud whenever it’s not happy with you. And these things are so fibrous—carrots, you can put 100 pounds through before it starts acting up. This stuff was probably three pieces in [before it started making noise].” After the juicer, he tried the meat grinder, which didn’t work particularly well either: “At a certain point it stops pushing it out because it’s not sinewy like meat, it’s just fibrous.”

The painstaking process did yield a fair amount of juice, though, some of which Flanigan used to marinate sea scallops. “It’s very sweet, but not insanely sweet, which I was happy about. It pushed me right into this kind of Asian process, with chiles, cilantro, basil, and then I also have some basil buds and garlic chive flowers.” Those all went into the sugarcane-juice marinade. He vacuum-sealed the scallops to try to get as much of the juice as possible into them, then cooked them sous vide at a low temperature before searing them to caramelize the outsides. Flanigan also emulsified some of the marinade with oil and xantham gum to thicken it and turn it into a sauce—”to hold it on your tongue long enough for you to get the sweetness and the heat, and then it’ll dissipate.”

He cooked some of the sugarcane sous vide with chiles and cilantro at 180 degrees for about eight hours, hoping it would break down the fibers and make it easier to eat. It didn’t exactly turn it into something you’d want to snack on, but Flanigan was able to grate it over the top of the dish. Still, he was frustrated that so much of the plant went to waste. “You can’t do anything with the fibers. I mean, you could. You could make a hat.”

Chef Dirk Flanagan of Henri and the Gage
Chef Dirk Flanagan of Henri and the GageCredit: Julia Thiel

Flanigan decided to experiment with using the peelings from the outside of the stalks, drying them overnight and then using them to smoke the scallops in between the sous vide and searing, thinking that some of the sweetness might come through in the smoke. “I’m hoping it doesn’t smell like burning sugar,” he said, “because that’s not an appealing smoke. But I thought it was another way to utilize all of it.”

The smoke on the scallops turned out to be fairly mild, with no burning sugar smell at all. Flanigan served them with summer vegetables—cherry tomatoes, squash, and hen of the woods mushrooms—and crispy purple sticky rice, which he’d overcooked and then dehydrated. “We don’t have a lot of acid going into the dish, and I thought with all of these soft flavors, the acidity from the tomatoes would be kind of a cool little pop of acid,” he said. “The hen of the woods I picked because the flavor reminded me of the smell of the outside of the sugarcane stalk.”

Credit: Julia Thiel

Flanigan was pleased with the finished dish, saying he could taste the sugarcane in it. “Those little pockets of grated sugarcane add a nice texture. The rice obviously adds a nice texture. The chile comes through, very mild. I think it’s pretty good.”

Flanigan had one more application for the sugarcane up his sleeve. While cutting it up, he’d noticed red patches, which a sous chef who was from Jamaica (and had worked in a sugarcane field) told him was where the sugarcane was starting to ferment. Flanigan thought it tasted a little sweeter than the rest of the stalk, and cut out several red pieces that he dehydrated and ground into a fine powder, which became part of a cachaca-and-Malort shot. He mixed equal parts of cachaca (a rumlike Brazilian liquor made from sugarcane) and the infamously bitter wormwood schnapps Malort, coating a lime in the sugarcane powder as a chaser. “It’s a sneaker,” Flanigan said of the concoction after doing the shot and chaser. “It’s kind of like it never happened.”

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Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Who’s Next:

Kevin Hickey of the Four Seasons, working with mountain ash berries. Flanigan got some recently from local forager Dave Odd, and has been experimenting with them, mostly making jam. “We’ve cooked them with a little sugar just to tone them down a little,” he said. “Raw, there’s a nice flavor, but then it gets a chalky kind of astringency, kind of like an unripe persimmon.”