Cold Crunch — pickling isn’t what it used to be
BY ANTHONY TODD For Sun-Times Media September 18, 2013 11:33AM
Updated: September 18, 2013 11:50AM
Fennel? Ramps? Radishes? Carrots? None of these vegetables are strangers on restaurant menus, but for one little word: “Pickled.” Pickles, which for most people used to mean “pickled cucumbers,” have diversified. These pickles, mostly made in the refrigerator without the need for complicated recipes or pots of boiling water, are delicious, healthy and, best of all, easy to make at home.
Because canning (the kind that involves mason jars, boiling water and two-part lids) requires special certification, chefs have turned to “refrigerator pickles,” a more forgiving, less time-consuming method. To make refrigerator pickles, vegetables are combined with spices, vinegar, sugar and salt and left in the fridge for at least a week.
They don’t keep quite as long as canned pickles (letting them sit in the fridge for more than one month isn’t advisable) but you can eat them much sooner and they are incredibly simple. They also allow chefs to try lots of different pickles quickly and combine them into pickle plates, which are appearing on trendy appetizer menus everywhere.
“Our pickle plate has become a signature item” explains Chef Paul Fehribach of Big Jones. “We had some pickles in the kitchen and I thought ‘Let’s put them on a plate and sell them’ and they were so popular I ran out of pickles before fall. A year later, people were still asking for that plate of pickles.”
It’s unlikely Fehribach will run out any time soon, as he has now built an entire walk-in cooler to store all of his pickles. He’s got at least 15-20 different veggies, including ramps, green peaches and wax beans, in brine at any given time, and they rotate throughout the year depending on what’s in season. His favorite? An old-fashioned pickled watermelon rind that reminds him of his grandmother.
At Fountainhead, Chef Cleetus Friedman has about 300 pounds of pickles in his fridge, and sells up to 60 plates of pickles in a week. “At any given time, I’m taking up half of the cooler with my pickles,” he says with a laugh. Friedman looks at his pickle plate (called the “bowl of pickled things”) as a take on an old delicatessen tradition. “It’s meant to be a big Jewish nosh. In East Coast delis, they give away pickles, but they aren’t making them there.”
Friedman has tried to pickle just about everything, including exotic ingredients like hop shoots, grapes (“they’re like crack”) and green strawberries, as well as more pedestrian veggies like green beans, turnips and fennel. “I’m so stoked for Brussel sprouts,” Friedman says. “I’m going to pickle pounds of them.” Not everything he tries is a success — his attempt to pickle kale ended in mush — but just about everything else has turned out well. “They kind of makes sense here,” he explains. “They’re the perfect salty snack to go with our beer and whiskey.”
The pickle plate at Ada Street, which might include radishes and red onions, Chef Zoe Schor’s favorite veggies to pickle, is a hit seller, “especially in summer when people like to eat light,” says Schor. Pickling isn’t part of her family heritage, but she’s taken to it with a vengeance. “I don’t know if I ever encountered pickles that weren’t made from cucumbers (and didn’t come in a jar) before culinary school,” Schor explains. “When I started working in restaurants, I began to see all the different ways you can use pickling; to preserve, to enhance flavors, to create a beautiful and brightly contrasting garnish for a plate.”
Speaking of jars, don’t assume that you don’t like something pickled based on previous experience. Friedman gets a little passionate when talking about his pickled beets, a dish that many people avoid like the plague. “These aren’t grandma’s pickled beets, because those came out of a can and they were disgusting and it made you hate beets in the first place.” Now, he explains, his farm-fresh beets retain their flavor and texture with just an added bit of spice and tang.
Especially as the summer is ending, refrigerator pickles are a great way to extend the season of freshness for an extra month or so. Next time you head to the market, grab a few new vegetables and try tossing them with some vinegar. You might be surprised at the result.
Anthony Todd is a local free-lance writer.