Words by Rosie DeQuattro / Photographs by Kristin Teig
The craft food revival is not just happening in hipster Brooklyn. Boston’s got it going on, too, only ours is a little low-key—and without the attitude.
If you could pick a paragon of a popular provisions-preserving process, it would be the pickle. Added to a sandwich or charcuterie plate, the pickle adds value, and kicks-up flavor. The chefs and food artisans I spoke to love to pickle—it’s creative, easy, and, considering the ingredients, delivers a relatively high ROI. You wouldn’t believe what gets pickled in those tiny restaurant kitchens—and I’m not just talkin’ cucumbers.
Pickling Through Time
Well, OK, you could point to the fact that as far back as 1659 Dutch farmers were growing pickling cucumbers all over Brooklyn. But you could also say eating pickles and other pickled foods became popular way before that. Millennia ago, pickling was used as a way to preserve foods so they could survive long journeys, especially sea voyages. Pickling was still popular in Aristotle’s time—he is said to have praised the healing effects of “cured” cucumbers. Even Cleopatra ate pickles and attributed her good looks to a steady diet of them. Early in the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte, always in search of shelf-stable foods for his troops, deemed pickles a health asset. And in 2000, the brine-washed Philadelphia Eagles beat the favored Dallas Cowboys in Texas, in 109° heat, attributing their victory to a cocktail of water and pickle juice the players drank the day before and all during that game. Fit that in your skinny hemp jeans, Brooklyn!
See the Pickle on Your Plate
How many of those limp, yellow pickle discs have you found on the side of your plate at a restaurant, only to leave them to be tossed away? You won’t do that at Four Burgers. Owner and pickle maker, Michael Bissanti, experiments with pickle recipes in his tiny, busy Mass Ave. kitchen in Cambridge. I believe this intense, 40-something when he says, “If you’re gonna have a great burger you gotta have a great pickle to go along with it.” Bissanti tried commercial sources but couldn’t find one with the clean taste and crunch he was after. So like many creative chefs, he developed his own recipe, inspired by his Italian family who preserved foods as a regular practice when he was growing up. He experimented with recipes for a few days (“I made a lot of bad pickles”), and found it was not as hard as he thought. Four Burgers now has a first cousin called The Brine Lab, which isn’t a lab at all but rather Four Burgers’ standing-room-only kitchen where he and 28-year-old prep guy Derek McCluskey slice and dice veggies into a huge tub of vinegar, salt, and seasonings. After 24 hours you’ve got a Brine Lab pickle. The pickles are crisp, taste fresh and keep their color (try the carrots!). The cucumber pickles are green on the outside and white on the inside—like a, um, cucumber. The Brine Lab pickles are sold at Four Burgers and at retail outlets.
I walked into EVOO the other day for lunch. It was a glorious and breezy spring afternoon in Kendall Square. Customers were sitting outside at tables along Broad Canal Way off Third Street, just a short walk from the new Canal Park area along the Charles. The host seated me near the open kitchen and a gorgeous display of shiny quart jars of pickles—cucumbers, yes, but also crunchy white cauliflower, dangerously red jalapenos, and colorful mixed peppers. I asked the wait staff if the jars were for sale and he offered to find sous chef Randy Platt, who could answer my questions. Randy has been pickling at EVOO since 1998. He does it to preserve the local produce they buy in season. The pickled vegetables are used to add acidity to a dish, and interest to a plate. He pickles asparagus, green tomatoes, cauliflower, sweet and fiery hot peppers, and even cucumbers. He says he may top a parsnip soup with jalapenos, or accompany rabbit liver mousse with sweet pickles. The amount of product coming out of that kitchen is impressive. There must have been about 12 linear feet of double shelves, holding full quart jars of pickled vegetables, maybe 3 jars deep. Randy graciously let me try both the pickled cauliflower, a favorite vegetable of mine, and the sweet cucumber slices. Both were good enough to make a meal out of. Sweet and tart at the same time, crunchy, the seasonings stopped just short of overpowering the fresh vegetable flavors. His process is the simple salt/vinegar/water bath process, adding various spices (turmeric with the cauliflower) to complement the vegetable.
At The Gallows, in the South End, the title “House Made Pickles,” tops the dinner menu. General Manager Seth Yaffe says that pickles have peppered their line-up since the restaurant’s opening three years ago. The Gallows’ chef, Seth Morrison, a “pickling master,” some say “fanatic,” brought his passion for pickling from his former job at the East Coast Grill in Cambridge. Morrison, too, uses seasonal, fresh vegetables, most of which are locally sourced from Buckle Farm in Dighton, Massachusetts. In the spring Morrison may pickle fennel, ramps, sun chokes, or parsnips. Even more remarkable is that with each vegetable’s flavor profile in mind, he concocts a vegetable-specific brine. For example, he makes a ginger-seasoned brine for carrots, a Madras curry-seasoned brine for cauliflower. And he uses a variety of vinegars—white vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or even Champagne vinegar. When it’s in season, he pickles lamb’s tongue, and when he can get fresh herring, you guessed it, he pickles that, too.
“And in the Pickle Category, the winner is…. Central Bottle Wine + Provisions!” Woohoo! Central Bottle won the 2013 Good Food Award for its pickled garlic scapes. Accepting the award at the iconic Ferry Building in San Francisco is Stacey Daley, Chef/Manager of Central Bottle, creator of the winning product, and Maureen Rubino, Central Bottle’s owner. Extending congratulations and giant bear hugs to them is the doyenne of the food world, Alice Waters. Stacey is deservedly proud of the nationally-competitive award, a food prize which is given annually to outstanding food-artisans in multiple categories. She sources the garlic scapes from a variety of local farms, including Plato’s Harvest, Atlas, and Golden Rule. Stacey says she’s “a pretty simple pickler,” using what’s in season, herbs that have gone to seed, vinegar, salt, sugar. An organic farmer herself, Stacey appreciates good produce and good relationships with farmers. She has led the preserving program at Central Bottle for three years. The pickled products are served in the shop to accompany menu items, and are sold in jars.
“It’s kind of a hipster thing,” says Rembs Layman, Executive Chef at Tupelo in Cambridge. He’s talking about pickles, too. Tupelo’s menu is “comfort food with a Southern drawl.” Pickles are traditional in southern cooking which is popular now. You can find Rembs salting and icing and straining hot liquids over a variety of vegetables in the restaurant’s small kitchen. He serves the house pickle plate with main courses like ribs. “The flavor profiles are endless,” he says. “Pickling is a great way to experiment and add a lot of texture and visual appeal to a plate.” With the excess brine, he may cook collards or use it in his house-made aïoli or tartar sauce.
And at Drink in Boston, they like to say, “It’s a cocktail party every night!” Need a little something to go with that kombucha and blood orange martini with bacon infusion? How about an assortment of chef de cuisine Chris Henry’s, pickles. At various times of the year, he may have pickled carrots, fennel, grapes (red, green, and Muscat), Brussels sprouts, maybe even ramps or Cippollini onions.
But Don’t Ask for a Pickleback at Drink
“Beer before whiskey, very risky;” but what about whiskey before brine? Due diligence for this article had me in search of a Pickleback (it’s a gritty job but somebody’s got to do it). I had been hearing about this drink phenomenon, albeit mostly from tattooed 20-somethings, but, hey, if it’s good enough for a New York Times food columnist to write about (Got Your Pickleback, New York Times, 3/14/2010), it’s good enough for me. But Drink stopped serving Picklebacks. Henry says he wants to avoid serving shots: “You can get those everywhere.” He concentrates on serving cocktails. Fine, I’ll take my business somewhere else. I found a sympathetic young bartender in Ben Cogswell at Kitchen in Boston.
A Pickleback is a shot of whiskey, traditionally Irish, served with a pickle brine chaser. Slug the whiskey, slug the brine. The belief is that the brine neutralizes the sting of the alcohol—so you can drink more I suppose. It is said to have originated in a bar in (dare I say) Brooklyn. While the Pickleback’s peerage is polemical (some say long-haul truck drivers in Texas have always tippled salty pickle juice to mitigate booze’s frequent-rest-stop syndrome; some say it’s a tradition for Russians to grab a gherkin when drinking vodka!), its dive-bar reputation is intact.
At first Ben was a little uncertain of the steps—he had served a Pickleback before but judging by the lack of efficiency in his moves, I could see it had been a while. And I can’t help but think he was a little puzzled serving a Pickleback to a woman old enough to be his mother, at a relatively late hour, on a Tuesday. But with an air of the true professional that he is, Ben held out 2 bottles: Michael Collins Irish Whiskey and, of course, Jameson’s. I chose the Michael Collins. He poured me a shot. Down at the end of the bar was the pickle jar—cucumbers—made by chef de cuisine Eric LeBlanc. I thought I eyed a large jar of eggs floating in brine down there, too. So I asked Eric what else he pickles. Turns out he pickles a lot. “It’s a great preservation method.”
Last year when he got a supply of cherries in season, he pickled them to serve with foie gras. He pickles ramps and serves them in a morel mushroom pasta dish. Some of the fresh produce he pickles is from Siena Farms. And as a further testimony to the vitality of the local craft-food movement, he off-handedly admitted to making his own cheddar, Parmesan-type cheese, bread, and even ice cream—all in his kitchen at Kitchen. I asked Eric how he thought the Pickleback started and he joked that probably “some drunk guy figured it out.”
Meanwhile, at the bar, Ben was holding a large glass jar of cucumber pickles and pouring pickle brine through a strainer into a shot glass. He set it up in front of me. The whiskey shot looked fine, but the brine looked, well, like brine—a little murky, with some tiny, dark, foreign specs floating in it. I took a sip of the whiskey. Nice. I hesitated, not wanting to replace the flavor of the whiskey with this unattractive, primordial fluid. But I’m a vinegar geek, so I was game.
Contrary to what I was expecting, the brine shot was mild, only faintly vinegar-like. It tasted mostly of cucumber and dill. And it did exactly what it’s purported to do—erased the bite of the alcohol and left a pleasant, savory tang. It was good. I’ll be trying this again.
Rosie DeQuattro is a regular contributor to Edible Boston. When she’s not writing, she’s conducting field research for the perfect Pickleback.
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Adapted from the Boston Food Swap, by way of a recipe by David Lebovitz