Hash is back

Any protein can work in hash; try succulent duck paired with corn kernels. (Chicago Tribune/Bill Hogan)

Hash doesn't really say "haute cuisine." But hash's bad rep is just a bum rap, and as more and more chefs are adding it to their menus, hash is making a comeback.

"Definitely there's a renewed interest in hash," said Patrick O'Connell, owner and executive chef at The Inn at Little Washington, which for three decades has been producing fine American cuisine about an hour outside the nation's capital.

Why you need to learn this

"The U.S. has always had an inferiority complex regarding food," O'Connell said. "But we've gotten past that, and we want to rediscover our roots and elevate them. And when you do it well, people are just bowled over, particularly when something so basic as hash can be so absolutely sublime.

"It's versatility itself, and it's a great way to extend meat by adding veggies."

For vegetarians, O'Connell suggested substituting root vegetables for meat. "It's a great idea that lends itself to whatever you have on hand."

The most important part of making a good hash is understanding the ingredients.

"Typically, hash includes a protein meat, a starch and a vegetable," said executive chef and partner Robert Price of the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, Calif. Some hashes also include a binder to hold them together. After that, there are various flavoring elements.

Ingredient proportions are standard but not strict. Protein and starch appear in roughly equal amounts, with the vegetable generally making up about a quarter to half of that total.

Protein: Muscle consists largely of protein, and restaurant professionals use this term to refer to all meat, poultry and seafood. Obviously, the most well-known hash protein is corned beef, but any cooked protein — pot roast, pork tenderloin, smoked salmon, sausage — will work.

Starch: Cooked white potatoes are the most common, but sweet potatoes or even corn can be substituted. As a general rule, red potatoes or Yukon gold work a little better than russets because they hold their shape better when they're cooked.

Vegetable: Sauteed onion is, if not an absolute necessity, certainly very popular. Second to onion would be bell peppers and garlic. After that, anything else from asparagus to zucchini can be added if you're just trying to clean out your fridge.

Binder (optional): The precooked ingredients in a hash, when formed into patties and sauteed in oil, will tend to be somewhat crumbly without a binder. That's not a value judgment, just the way it is. If you like the texture of crumbly hash, leave out the binder. If you prefer your hash to hold its shape, mix in some raw egg or custard (egg mixed with a dairy product, such as cream). Figure about one egg for every cup of protein. The more egg you add, the stiffer your final hash. Cream will soften the hash — the more the softer.

Flavorings: Season your hash with salt and pepper. Then you can add your favorite herbs or spices, hot sauce, mustard, Worcestershire, soy sauce or anything else you think will contribute.

The steps you take

Imagine we're using 2 cups each of meat and potatoes, 1/2 cup onion, 1 egg and a couple teaspoons of minced rosemary.

1. Gather the cooked ingredients and cut them into small or medium dice. (If one or more ingredients are not already cooked, such as potatoes, dice them and cook them in oil until they're done, about 15-20 minutes.)

2. Toss all cooked, diced ingredients with the optional binder and any flavoring ingredients. Season with salt and pepper.

3. To cook, simply form into a large or several small patties by hand and cook in butter or vegetable oil until crispy on one side. Flip and cook until crispy on the other side.