Hay Day

The barnyard staple makes for peerless flavor

Most of us left eating grass to our ill-advised toddler days (when we also may have sampled sand and glue) and abandoned the pursuit upon entering kindergarten.

But grass–particularly its dried form, hay–has had a long-standing presence in the kitchen as a flavor-imparting tool for roasting meats. Lately, this lowly ingredient has achieved critical mass among chefs in two camps: rustic and elevated.

In the former category, Josh Smith, chef of Local Roots in Roanoke, Virginia, offers a lamb "porchetta," which he roasts over a bed of hay. At his San Francisco restaurant, Incanto, chef Chris Consentino serves a large-format meal built around "Ham in Hay"–a whole pork leg, covered in hay and roasted–which feeds a crowd. And this spring, New York's La Fonda Del Sol will offer Josh DeChellis's spring lamb cooked with clover hay for the third year running.

Other chefs are approaching hay from a loftier angle: Copenhagen's trendsetting chef René Redzepi uses hay to smoke quail eggs and even offers a hay-infused parfait for dessert. Stateside innovator Grant Achatz has also ended meals at Alinea with hay, in a brûléed custard. And in Washington, D.C., sweetbreads are smoked in hay before meeting a Jerusalem artichoke puree and black truffles at Bibiana.

And the grass-fed plot thickens.