A barnyard staple takes a surprising turn in the kitchen.
Hay is one of the most exciting and unexpected additions to my pantry in recent memory. It’s not a new idea, though: Hay has been used for centuries in French and Italian cooking, where large cuts of meat are buried in it and roasted either in the oven or in the dying embers of a fire.
In this country, hay has traditionally played a supporting role. The hay-box cooker has been used for more than 100 years, particularly during World War II as a way to conserve energy. The technology is simple: Bring a covered pot—preferably heavy metal or ceramic—full of food and liquid to a hard boil, then transfer it to a box packed with hay and cover it. The hay keeps the heat in the pot, so in four to eight hours, the stew will be cooked, sans fossil fuels.
From a practical standpoint, hay makes a great cooking medium, keeping heat in and diffusing temperature changes. But it’s the flavor that makes hay an extraordinary ingredient to work with. The taste is sweet and herbaceous, and the aroma is incredible, evocative of farms, pastures, and spaces vast and green and far removed from the city.
The idea came from a conversation with my sous-chef. We were trying to find a new way to cook carrots, and he recalled working in a restaurant in France where the chef cooked pork with consommé and hay for hours at a low temperature, until the meat was tender and the broth an elixir. It seemed like roasting carrots in hay would yield similarly delicious results, so the next weekend at the farmers’ market, I found myself shoving a gigantic bale of hay into the backseat of my car.
Back at the restaurant, we used the hay to made a stock. We burned some of the ends first, to give the stock deeper flavor, then covered the hay with water and let it simmer for about an hour. We tossed in young carrots with olive oil and salt, then combined them with hay and a little hay stock in a heavy enameled-iron pot and cooked them for about 30 minutes at 300°F, until they emerged tender and aromatic. It’s a simple process that can be done with any root vegetable.
Hay has made occasional appearances on American menus over the years. Chris Cosentino, the chef at Incanto, recalls a dish offered years ago at Red Sage, in Washington, D.C., where leg of goat was covered with a mixture of hay and clay, then baked—another traditional European technique. Cosentino, who was inspired to buy his own hay, first used it to cook a whole leg of pork. His menu currently features rabbit braised in hay that he serves with nettles and carrots. “People love the flavor,” Cosentino says, “and the aroma is amazing. Every time we pull one out of the oven, you can smell it across the dining room. It’s intoxicating.”
There’s not much to know about cooking with hay. The easiest way to use it is to throw a little into a stew as it simmers, then remove it before serving. If you roast with it, you should first soak the hay in water, then lay it down as a thick bed for the meat or vegetables. Burning the ends of the hay will give the dish subtle smokiness and depth. You can cover your main ingredient with the hay or not; adding a bit of liquid to the pot will ensure that it doesn’t burn. And if you’re considering eating the hay itself, I wouldn’t. The flavor is great, but unless you’re a farm animal, the texture leaves much to be desired.
Most farms and farm-supply stores carry hay, but because you’ll use it in direct contact with food, make sure it hasn’t been treated with chemical pesticides. And beware: Before you place your order, stake out some serious storage space. A bale of hay is enormous.
At Coi, we haven’t made much of a dent in our stash, which means that there will be hay on the menu for quite a while. So far, we’ve infused oil with hay and used it to confit suckling pig, reserving some of the oil to drizzle into the sauce. We’ve ground salt and hay together to make a crust for beets. We’ve infused it into onion soup, its presence magically transforming a standard flavor into something fascinating and delicious. Hay might not be the same workhorse in the kitchen that it is on the farm, but in my pantry, hay has found a comfortable second home.
Rabbit braised with hay
The chef at Incanto likes to poach baby carrots in the braising liquid to serve alongside the rabbit.
2 2½- to 3-lb. rabbits, each divided into six pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup flour
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
1 carrot, peeled and cut in half
1 head fennel, cut in half
1 head garlic, cut in half
½ cup white wine
1 fresh bay leaf
1 handful of hay
2 qt. chicken stock
1. Heat the oven to 250°F. Season rabbit pieces with salt and pepper, then dust lightly with flour.
2. In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Sear the rabbit pieces one or two at a time, taking care not to crowd the pan. When the pieces are golden brown, remove and set aside.
3. Add the vegetables and cook until they just begin to brown.
4. Add the wine, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook until it’s reduced to about 2 tablespoons, occasionally scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits.
5. Add the bay leaf and hay. Set the rabbit pieces on top of the hay, add the chicken stock, cover the pan, and braise in the oven until the rabbit is tender, about 1½ hours.
6. Transfer the rabbit pieces to a platter and serve warm.
Makes 6 servings
Daniel Patterson is the chef-owner of Coi and a partner at Cane Rosso.