This week’s question comes from reader Heather Shorter from Takoma Park, who wants to know the answer to the following:
I am a big fan of the lost art of canning and preserving, and my question is: Which chefs around town make their own pickles, preserves, etc., either from home use or for their restaurants?
Heather, helpful to the last sentence, even supplies me with a starting point: Chef John Wabeck, who recently left Firefly to return to New Heights in Woodley Park, where he first rose to executive chef in the late 1990s. Sure enough, Wabeck does pickling.
“I’m a big acid freak,” Wabeck says, then quickly clarifies, “with vinegar, not the stuff you put on your tongue. So basically [pickling is] always good, especially because you’re dealing with so many natural sugars in summer. Pickling just gives a nice balance.”
Wabeck isn’t the only one doing pickling at New Heights. Co-owner Kavita Singh is an expert at Indian-style pickling, which doesn’t rely on vinegar. As such, Wabeck says, at least half the dishes at the restaurant “have something that’s either preserved or pickled or cured or something like that,” including the Indian vegetarian thali, which always includes “some kind of pickles on there.”
“We were making mango pickles last week,” Wabeck says. “And mango pickles are great, raw green mangos. It’s like making sauerkraut. You add a bit of salt and then it just ferments and sours and pickles itself.”
You’ll also find pickled okra with the barbecue Berkshire pork tenderloin and preserved shiitakes with the Maple Leaf Farms duck breast, among other pickled items at New Heights.
Wabeck, as you might suspect, isn’t the only acid freak in the area. Morou Ouattara at Farrah Olivia, Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve, and Peter Smith at PS 7’s are among the local chefs who do their own pickling and canning.
Smith, for example, makes his own pickles for PS 7’s house-made mini-dogs, but he also pickles ramps and Muscat grapes, and he plans to do watermelon rinds. The grapes are used two different ways: as a garnish for his Roth-vodka-based drink called the Ritual, and as part of the salad for his DBJ, which is an acronym for Smith’s duck, peanut butter, and jelly appetizer. Later this summer, the chef plans to can strawberries and peaches from Westmoreland Berry Farm. For what use?
“Don’t know yet,” Smith says, “but I’ve got it in my mind that I want to do something with them. I figure the best way to do it is can ’em up and figure it out.”
At Farrah Olivia, Ouattara already has pickled watermelon rind on the menu. It’s part of the chef’s “shocked escolar” appetizer with wasabi pearls. “Basically, we serve escolar just like you would do a sashimi,” he says. “Then instead of the pickled ginger, we do pickled watermelon rind.” The lunch version of the dish substitutes pickled plums for the watermelon rind.
Ouattara also pickles rhubarb for a salmon entree, and does a form of “pickling” for the red table grapes that accompany his artisan cheese course. He brings red wine to a boil with sugar and adds some chopped up oranges and a cinnamon stick. He then pours the mixture over the grapes. “At the end of the day, it will suck much of the water out of the grape,” Ouattara says, while then infusing the grapes with the wine, orange and the other flavorings. “A lot of pickling and curing do the same [thing], in a way. The salt removes the water, and the sugar infuses the flavors, basically.”
Finally, Armstrong does so much pickling and canning at Restaurant Eve, it’s almost easier to talk about what ingredients he doesn’t preserve or pickle. The chef cans strawberries, figs, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, figs, and tomatoes. He and Todd Thrasher also pickle four to five different onions for PX or Eve, and Armstrong even buys “little tiny cucumbers” from the Eastern Shore which he turns into his own cornichons to accompany charcuterie plates.
Armstrong also pickles seeded habaneros with a boiling mixture of vinegar, water, sugar, garlic, and other spices. He lets the chilis sit for a couple of months, then purees the ingredients for a pepper sauce for Pacific coast oysters, which he finds sweeter than the Atlantic ones. The sauce is “without a doubt the spiciest sauce I’ve ever encountered, but it’s really, really tasty.”
Given all the canning and pickling going on at Eve, just where does Armstrong store all the jars?
“In the building upstairs from us,” the chef says, “there’s a three-bedroom apartment that we rent in addition to the restaurant space, so we use that for dry storage.”
To submit a question to Ask Tim, just e-mail me at email@example.com. The tougher the question, the better._