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Ann Cashion: Complete chef

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Entertainment,Alexandra Greeley

Chances are, those who have lived in the area for a while, they have eaten at Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan when Ann Cashion owned and cooked. Her restaurant still retains her name, but Cashion has since moved on to be executive chef at Johnny's Half Shell, a popular restaurant on Capitol Hill. Famous for its seafood creations, Johnny's is also a hangout for Hill types, who like their meals cooked and served with skill and panache.

Obviously no newcomer to the local restaurant scene, Cashion has a way with food that has earned her respect in a city rife with top-tier chefs competing for the limelight. That Cashion holds her own with such particular grace is a mark of distinction in a male-dominated profession.

A native of Mississippi, Cashion got her culinary inspiration from her family's involvement in the food world. "My grandmother was a legendary baker, and my mom is a great cook. But I am the only one who wanted to make a living having this much fun," she said, nodding toward the interior of Johnny's.

If you go
Johnny's Half Shell
When: 400 N. Capitol St. NW
Info: 202-737-0400
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday

In a twist of fate, Cashion was working on getting a Ph.D. in English literature from Stanford University, but she spent her free time exploring the food scene in San Francisco. She would then would host dinner parties based on what she learned. To further fuel her food passion, she spent a semester in Italy and managed to get an invitation to cook with D.C. chef Francesco Ricchi, who was working in Cercina, Italy. "What we did there was to cook and serve classic Tuscan repertoire derived from home cooking," she said. "It was the most formative experience, really idyllic, and a major influence."

That experience laid the groundwork for her return to Washington, where she worked as the executive chef for a local restaurant group. Her next step: opening Cashion's. "You could see it clearly," she said. "It was an American equivalent of a trattoria as you would find in Italy," she said. "I was sourcing around the area and buying whole animals. That required a firm commitment to cook in a certain way," she says. "That is what makes food great, and it is very important to me."

At Johnny's, the Italian influence has receded, replaced by an emphasis on Eastern Shore and Gulf Coast cooking. "It took me months to develop a crab cake recipe," she said. "It was so simple, but how to figure it out?" Cashion wants to retain the Tuscan model of preserving culinary traditions with a repertoire that people understand. "That is being true to what I am."

Q&A

What is your comfort food?

Greens are a big one, and I have a craving all the time. And all that food from Italy, like the meat sauce; it takes eight hours to make, but then it is quite stable. Anything with rabbit, and vegetables in general plus legumes.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I do get a lot from learning more and more about American regional cooking, especially in the South. Louisiana has a true indigenous cuisine.

Which is your favorite restaurant?

Palena, Obelisk and Kaz Sushi Bistro. These are my go-to places. And, of course, Cashion's.

What is in your fridge?

Greens, whole milk, Parmesan cheese, eggs and whatever I will need for veggies that week. Hot sauces, mustards, all kinds of pickles, relishes and Duke's Mayonnaise. I don't keep a lot.

Which is your favorite cookbook?

Marcella Hazan's and any authentic Mexican cookbook. And in French, Joel Robuchon's first book, "Joel Robuchon Cooking Through the Seasons."

Recipe

Sweet Potato Greens Spoon Bread

Serves 12

10 ounces by weight sweet potato leaves, trimmed from their stalks with 1 to 2 inches of stem retained (I had 1 1/2 pounds of greens to get this yield, but I don't know how your greens will be harvested or how big they will be.)

1/4 cup olive oil or other vegetable oil

1 cup thinly sliced red onion

3 cups milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 pound butter

4 eggs

2/3 cup white cornmeal (artisanal if possible)

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Dash of Tabasco or hot pepper sauce (optional)

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Blanch leaves briefly, just until water returns to a boil. Refresh in ice water. Drain, squeeze dry, and coarsely chop.

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and saute them until they are golden. Add the chopped greens and saute to heat through and distribute the onions. Season with salt and pepper while saut?ing. Set aside.

Prepare a 9-inch cake pan with 2-inch sides. Butter the pan, and line with parchment round across the bottom. Butter the parchment.

Preheat oven (preferably not convection ... if you have no choice, preheat to 350 instead) to 375 degrees. Set a roasting pan of water in the oven to heat as a water bath.

Heat milk and cream and add butter to melt. Whisk eggs in a separate bowl. Whisk in cornmeal, salt, baking powder and sugar. Temper the egg mixture with hot milk mixture. Return to saucepan and, stirring constantly over medium heat, cook until mixture thickens but DO NOT BOIL. Remove from heat.

Stir roughly 1/4 of the mixture into the greens, enough to loosen them up so that they can go smoothly into the bottom of the cake pan. Level them with a spoon or spatula. Pour the remaining cornmeal on top of the layer of greens. Place the cake pan in water bath in oven. Cook until set. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 to 10 minutes. While still warm, reverse pan onto cake round. Serve immediately, cut into 12 wedges. If not serving immediately, cut the wedges while cool. Then reheat gently in a slow oven until hot enough to serve.

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