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.
The proof is often in the plating. “I feel like that’s what makes our restaurants different than others, how we incorporate it. We’re not just opening a jar and putting it on a plate,” says Virant.
Nowhere is that more true at Shed than with shrubs—born out of house-made vinegar, carbonated water, fruit, and sugar—in cocktails. “People see it on our menu and are curious. I explain the history of the shrub, (that it was) used in colonial times and to quench the thirst of field workers,” says Jordan Lancer, head of Shed’s fermenting program. “Then I offer a sample. Almost always, people set aside their hesitation about drinking vinegar.” Shed’s breakfast menu also includes seasonal preserves alongside Belgian waffles.
To establish a serious food-preservation program, storage space (at basement or cellar temperature) is key and so is staff training. During peak seasons, enough peaches or tomatoes can come through the door that it could require pulling workers out of the kitchen. “You need hands on deck,” says Virant, who might get a call from a Michigan fruit orchard just hours before a delivery. “It’s being creative with shelving,” says Virant, who employs Hotel Lincoln’s basement. Multi-purpose storage, especially wine cellars, works well too. “Storing in refrigerators is often space-prohibitive unless a restaurant has extra walk-in cooler space, but the advantage is that it saves on costs for labor and jars. “You can just load it up with buckets. All of it, if done properly, would last for a few months,” says Virant.
Is there any fruit or vegetable not conducive to fermentation? Not really, says Larcher, adding that any produce item about to expire is a good bet. The only requirement is that you buy fruits or vegetables in bulk. At peak season that’s not an issue. “There’s just bushels and bushels of corn at the farmer’s market (each fall),” says Lee.
By Kristine Hansen
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