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Nice stems

A Chicago chef has a way with weeds

Author Rod O’Connor

Grace Restaurant’s Artichoke dish

Grace Restaurant’s Artichoke dish

What with top chefs from all over the world running around in their whites plucking mushrooms from the undersides of logs, a chef using an off-the-wall plant in a dish here and there is nothing new. But the herbs Chef Curtis Duffy sprinkles liberally across his nine-course tasting menu at Grace Restaurant in Chicago are a little more extreme than that. Unconstrained by the traditional definition of “food,” Duffy includes everything from dandelions to miners lettuce as featured ingredients.

There’s a practical reason for this: Duffy’s cooking style is clean and light, relying very little on fat. Come late summer, the sprawling overgrowth most of us lament becomes his secret weapon for culinary balance. He exploits the natural spiciness of yellow nasturtium blooms to add zing to caramelized sudachi (a Japanese citrus fruit) curd and steams whole black cod in sassafras-flavored hoja santa leaves. He even braises stems of purslane, a notoriously rampant ground-spreader, for a—well, he hasn’t quite figured out a dish for that one yet.

“How can we elegantly use something that most people throw away?” he says. “That’s always my thought.”

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