Not all pickles are made from cucumbers

November 19, 2010 (CHICAGO)

He says a lot of chefs are now preserving the bounty from previous seasons.

The Koreans have been doing it for centuries, of course. Their beloved kimchi is simply a fermented cabbage or radish. But, in America, we've only been exposed to the humble cucumber; and thus, the dill pickle.

But, a new wave of chefs is getting into pickling in a whole new way, using everything, it seems, except cukes.

When Michael McDonald longs for a taste of another season, he reaches for his stash of pickles. Not cucumbers, mind you, but rather, garlic, peppers, cabbage and chilies. It's ironic, because the restaurant he works in -- one sixtyblue -- is the site of a former pickle factory.

"We use different pickling recipes, but our basic one is one part vinegar, one part water, one part sugar, and then various spices," said Michael McDonald, chef of one sixtyblue.

They range from coriander and fennel seed, to cinnamon and cumin. This time of year, McDonald is pickling honey crisp apples. He first toasts the spices in a pan, releasing their natural oils; then equal amounts of apple cider vinegar, water and sugar are added, and the mixture is heated until just barely bubbling. In go the apples, and after they've boiled for about a minute, they're plunged into an ice water bath to cool.

After a few days in the refrigerator, McDonald's pickled apples join shards of sauteed cabbage, and are placed atop an earthy mound of pureed chestnut and parsley root. A pan-seared pheasant breast serves as a gamey reminder of the season.

"I needed something in the dish to lighten it up, and nothing better than pickled to add acidity and lightness and it wakes up the flavors of the dish; and fall is apples so it was a no-brainer," McDonald said.

In Old Town, naturally fermented vegetables show up all over the menu at Old Town Social.

"It's a great way to preserve what's in season, to have it when it's not in season. For example, local produce here in Illinois, there's pretty daunting nights in the middle of January for chefs, so we like to get it when it's in season and preserve it so we can have it when it's not in season," said Jared Van Camp, chef of Old Town Social.

In mid-November, Van Camp is preserving turnips, carrots and cauliflower by adding them to a large mason jar with aromatics such as bay, coriander, peppercorns and chile peppers, plus a 5 percent salt water solution.

Over weeks and months, natural bacteria feed on the starches in the veggies and ferment, producing lactic acid. Van Camp keeps them for at least a month, which explains why his charcuterie platter of thinly-sliced chorizo, pepperoni and finocchiona arrive with pickled ramps, baby corn and green tomatoes

"The meat, you know, you need that acid to cut through it and the pickles are the perfect accompaniment to that. As long as it's preserved the right way with the right amount of acid and salt and sugar, you can keep it for a whole year," Van Camp said.

And one other great source for pickled ingredients is in Western Springs, at Vie, where Chef Paul Virant has some type of pickled vegetable on his menu year-round.

Old Town Social
455 W. North Ave.

onesixty blue
1400 W. Randolph St.

Also mentioned:


4471 Lawn Ave., Western Springs

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