One of the many tricks up the sleeve of Top Chef season-nine contestant Edward Lee traces back to his Korean grandmother.
“I grew up watching my grandmother make kimchi. It is cooking but it doesn’t involve standing over a stove,” says Lee, executive chef and partner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood in Louisville, Kentucky.
Carrying a throwback twist, but keeping in tune with modern cuisine, the practice of canning, fermenting, or pickling vegetables and fruits is a skill that’s recently made its way back into the kitchen, including reality-television cooking shows. “Every time I went to pickle, they (the judges) loved it,” says Lee.
Lee pickles rhubarb to extend its short season and his “chow chow” (pickled corn, cabbage, cauliflower, and celery) is locally famous. “It’s a great summer pickling relish that’s also great in a burger or any fatty, slow-braised meat,” says Lee. Each traditional pickling recipe touts a signature touch: For example, caraway is used instead of dill in pickled cucumbers.
Fortunately, the learning curve is not too steep, says Lee, author of Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, which published in May. “It’s a delicate process but it’s not very difficult,” says Lee, who has taught his employees how to pickle but has a dedicated staff person to oversee other preservation techniques. “I wouldn’t trust the entry-level person to do it. It’s not like peeling potatoes.”
Food preservation is also beneficial because buying at peak season and in bulk means a lower cost for restaurateurs. Translated to the menu, diners can expect a kernel of corn or a slice of tomato to taste ripe—even if it’s out of season—because that freshness is locked in.
At Vie, in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs, and Perennial Virant, in Chicago’s Hotel Lincoln, chef-owner Paul Virant is a fan of food-preserving techniques. This fall he added to the menu a fried-perch appetizer with pickled fennel. He’s constantly asking suppliers for any over-abundance in fruits and vegetables so they may be preserved. “We had such a late season with tomatoes and peppers that we preserved those, and packed in oil, served on goat cheese,” says Virant. “And (we) topped it with cipollini onions that we preserved in a sweetened-caramel brine.”
For a recent quail dish, he added smoked apple butter preserved a year ago using that season’s apples; and sweet-and-sour grapes were alongside a bass dish finished with butter. “It’s nice to have a preserved item from that particular time to launch the season,” says Virant, “but the underlying mission is to provide acidity to plates.”
At Shed, which opened in Healdsburg, California, last spring, seasonal kombucha, kefir water (a natural fruit soda), chutneys, pickles, and sauerkraut are each a result of fermentation. Pitching the product to customers along with a historical story is one solution that helps defy the notion of downscale cuisine.