In the Chicago area, the name Paul Virant is fairly synonymous with the style of local, seasonal cooking that he serves at Perennial Virant and which earned him a Michelin star at Vie. But eating local is often easier said than done in the frequently frigid climes of the Windy City. Things are fairly simple in Spring and Summer with verdant greens, snappy snowpeas, army-green ramps and asparagus, and titian-hued tomatoes. But even the most ardent root vegetable eater is likely to be tired of turnips by mid-winter. What does Virant serve during those more difficult days and months? Wintery root vegetables for sure, but the roots are frequently accented the very same ramps, green beans and tomatoes he serves all summer long. The difference? These off-season offerings have been pickled or preserved.
"When my family and I opened Vie in the fall of 2004" Virant writes in The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux
"I knew that was going to serve local produce year-round. This doesn't sound that radical now" he acknowledges, but Virant was at the forefront of the locavore movement and in 2004 there were not quite the crowds clamoring for kale that we experience now. "The whole project was enough of a gamble that I knew that I couldn't stay in business if I drafted a menu devoted solely to beets — one of the few local items available year-round — even if the menu tasted delicious" he explains. "I started preserving a few summer staples to extend the seasons... By the time winter blankets the neighborhood with snow, we have started dipping into our flavor arsenal, fortifying gravy with fiery cherry bomb peppers saved from July and dressing up cheese plates with sweet-sour grapes."
But before long, Virant realized that pickling and preserving did more than give him a more varied plate: "I grasped what my grandmothers always knew: vinegar draws out flavor." Not only does pickling and preserving extend the season for peak produce, it accents and alters the flavor profiles. And whatever you serve it with. The perfect pickle will have just enough acidity to balance a dish's richness, and just the right amount of sweetness and spiciness to complement it.
Virant began preserving, based on knowledge passed down from his canning grandmothers whose summer meals were "punctuated with a plate of tart dill-marinated tomatoes served straight from the refrigerator." He moved on from pickles to homemade sauerkraut and began devouring old American cookery books fir techniques and tricks. A turning point was when he met famed Alsatian jam maker Christine Ferber, "whom many in France call — no exaggeration — the fairy godmother of jams and jellies." (We are big fans of Christine Ferber as well and sell her amazing jams and jellies in our Market Square.
After taking a class with Ferber in Chicago, Virant became "hooked on the world of aigre-doux, a French sweet-sour condiment that seemed to go with everything, from cheese to roasted meat."
Jar star Virant shares his tips, trials and recipes for all things pickled, cured, jellied, fermented and cured in his first cookbook The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux
Geared toward professional chefs and ambitious home cooks, the book is divided into two sections. In the first he explains techniques — guidelines for safe canning practices, testing pH, pressure canning, water bath processing, and storing. — and gives recipes for creative preserves like lemon-pickled turnips, beer jam, butternut squash aigre-doux, and milk jam. And so as not to strand you with shelves of wine pickled beets and red currant mostarda, in part two of the book Virant shows you how to use these preserves as ingredients in seasonal menus. He pairs these preserves with everything from salads and cocktails to poached fish and braised meats. Pickled ramps grace a martini, milk jam sweetens coffee, brandied cherries get used in cherry clafoutis, or as a garnish for a beer-jam Manhattan, and fried chicken gets heat and summer spice from a cherry bomb pepper preserve swirled into the sausage gravy.
While explaining the science of canning, Virant never forgets that it is also an art. The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux
not only informs and instructs, it encourages and explores the endless possibilities of capturing the seasons in a jar.