Photos by JP Bevins
Chef Dan Strong is co-owner of one of New York City's most sought-after food stands. I've waited on many a long line for Chickpea & Olive's famed Phatty Beet Slider as earlier customers walk by groaning in pleasure. With his partner Danielle Ricciardi, the duo are one of the city's power couples reshaping the gastronomic landscape. In this third installment of LÄRABAR's Healthy Hero series, we spend an afternoon with Chef Strong as he shares an amazing mazemen recipe and features a cherry pie LÄRABAR crusted Zabaglione. We get to hear what inspires this butcher-turned-vegan chef, what frustrates and calls to him, and we even get some insight into what he soon plans to ferment.
Joshua Katcher: I've eaten your food and it's awesome. What is your creative process for developing new foods? Chef Dan Strong: Inspiration, procrastination, exasperation, coffee, serve the first draft, and keep adjusting until I have a recipe. Often Danielle and I will find a recipe for something we miss and then I will try to rebuild each piece. For thanksgiving I found a Bon Appetit recipe for cornbread stuffing with pears and banger sausage. So first step, find an authentic cornbread recipe and test it until I have a solid vegan version. Then I turn to the next piece. I imagine it's like any of the creative processes that I can't do: draw on inspiration, figure out how to make it authentic, and then adapt it to reflect a noble truth.
JK: Chickpea & Olive has a huge following. What is it like to maintain such a sought-after brand in New York City? DS: It's an honor. I go into work everyday and feel obligated to make each dish better than it was the day before. I don't know if I'm always successful, but I always try. Maybe it's a little salt on the bread, or the three layers of sauce on our phatty melt, or a little extra sear on the burger. I like to think that those little details get translated to our customers. They might not be able to put their finger on what made their sandwich "so good", but they have to go tell their friends about it.
JK: The mainstream culinary community seems to look down upon vegan cuisine, yet so many exciting things are happening with it. How do you account for this disconnect? DS: Change always starts when the artists pick it up. Next, Alinea, Picholine, Gramercy Tavern, Del Posto, Per Se.... Every one of them has a vegan tasting menu. Jean George Vongerichten is opening a plant based restaurant. I see that the food culture is moving in that direction, but I'm still frustrated every time someone looks at our menu and sneers. But hey, the way I see it, the 6th mass extinction is already underway. Why grumble?
JK: Tell us about the food you made today. DS: We have a buckwheat somen mazemen in miso-shiitake gravy, with pan roasted mushrooms, okra, bokchoy, snow peas, and grilled tempeh in a chili black bean marinade. For dessert we went Italian with a cashew zabaglione, and we used LÄRABAR for the crust.
Buckwheat Mazemen (family size)
- 8 quarts water
- 1 pound dry shiitake mushrooms or 2 pounds mushroom stems
- 1/2c Shiro miso
- 1/4c spicy black bean paste
- 1/4c stir fry sauce
- 2tbsp soy sauce
- 2tbsp peanut oil
- Okra, trimmed and split in half
- bokchoy, cleaned and cut in cross-sections
- snow peas
- oyster mushrooms, rough chopped
- shiittake mushrooms, rough chopped
- 1 shallot, diced
- 6 cloves garlic, diced
- 1 inch ginger, diced
2lb soba noodles
- Bring water to a simmer, and add the miso and the mushroom stems. Toast half of the chopped garlic, shallots, and ginger in a pan with a little oil until caramelized and add to the pot of water. Simmer for 1 hour.
- Cut tempeh into 1 inch cubes and marinate over night, or at least for a few hours. assemble on a lined sheet tray and bake at 425 for 20-25 minutes.
- Pan roast the mushrooms with oil in batches until golden brown, seasoning each batch with salt. Toast the remaining garlic, ginger, and shallots until caramelized and toss all of the mushrooms back into the pan. Stir until the mushrooms and aromatics are fully incorporated.
- Remove the mushrooms stems from the broth with a spider or strainer and bring the broth to a boil. Blanch the snow peas, the bokchoy and the okra in the broth in batches, removing each ingredient after and running under cold water. This step is especially important for the okra.
- Cook the noodles in the broth for 5-6 minutes and remove a portion to each serving bowl. Return the vegetables to the broth, add the mushrooms and let the pot return to a simmer, then ladle the broth over the noodles. Garnish with the baked tempeh.
JK:You used LÄRABAR to make a really good dessert. What about LÄRABAR do you like? Do you have a favorite flavor? DS: LÄRABARs are simple, delicious, and remind me of many of my favorite desserts. I ate the blueberry muffin today, it was excellent, but peanut butter cookie is my favorite.
Larabar-Crusted Cashew Zabaglione
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup cashews
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tbsp marsala
- 1 cherry larabar
- Combine everything but the larabar in a high speed blender and puree until creamy. transfer the mixture to a saucepan and bring to a boil. set aside.
- Place the larabar in between two sheets of parchment paper and roll it out with a rolling pin or a bottle of marsala wine until its about an 8th of an inch thick. line the inside of a ramekin with the larabar roll-up. press into the corners.
- Pour the cashew mixture into the ramekin and place in the refrigerator for 2 hours until the custard sets.
- Garnish with marsala wine reduction or sprinkle with caster sugar and brûlée with a torch.
JK: Where do you get most inspired when buying ingredients? DS: In my early days I used to wander the markets in Chinatown for inspiration. Nowadays I go mushroom foraging whenever I have a chance. When I don't have time for all of that I go to union square farmers market. Lani's farm has an amazing organic selection with all sorts of weird looking root vegetables, and sweet berry mountain farms has something in the order of 6 varieties of heirloom fingerling potatoes. The German butterballs are incredible.
JK: Have you discovered any new foods that you're excited about using? DS: Not so much "using" as making. We have started along hummus recently, and that project has gotten me interested in other packaged products. I want to start fermenting pickles and cheeses, and I found a tofu misozuke recipe that I'm excited about. LÄRABAR was fun to use as well. The ingredients like date, cherry and almond, are fantastic for chefs because they're simple and versatile. They're great on their own, but in this case it was a convenient way to make a tasty, gluten-free crust.
JK: Aside from gastronomy, what else do you spend time doing? DS: Binging on NPR, yoga, fantasy novels, and therapy.
JK: What must we all try? (Food or not) DS: If I had my chance to be a dictator? Everyone would have mandatory therapy. I also think everyone should try a plant based diet. I'm vegan because as I see it veganism is a form of protest. The plant based diet that comes with that protest has made me healthier than I've ever been.
JK: What does the future hold for Chickpea & Olive? DS: Fast casual restaurants, tinned and potted products, packaged dips and spreads. And then I want to diverge and try to do a trattoria, a bistro, and a noodle shop. Danielle wants a juice bar and a raw shop. Maybe also a saprophytic mushroom farm! And a creamery! And a cheese cellar! But I digress.