I’VE FINALLY ACCEPTED THAT IT’S NUT-GATHERING SEASON, so today, as previously threatened, we’re going to talk about pickles as a salad ingredient. And as you all know by now (because I told you two issues ago), the first person I think of when I imagine who has the world’s best-stocked pickle and preserves larder is the Chicago chef Paul Virant.
And as I mentioned when I was writing admiringly of Virant’s book, The Preservation Kitchen, I’ve been thinking about how much I yearn to become a true pickler and preserver. But I did not mention that my diabolical plan is to annex both pickles and roasted vegetables. That starts today. (Although I’m running around my backhand on the actual pickling, by adapting the recipe to produce easy refrigerator pickles. Sue me. And then thank me.)
Now back to Virant. He’s an extremely busy guy, but he brings it on himself. In addition to Vie, the Michelin-starred flagship restaurant that he opened in 2004 in Western Springs, and his steak-centric Vistro Prime in Hinsdale, Virant is also cursed with the success of his latest spot, Gaijin, Chicago’s first restaurant devoted to okonomiyaki (a savory Japanese pancake).
None of his obvious busyness stopped me from asking if I could horn in on his schedule, to get him to chat about pickles (and preserves) in salad (and other dishes). We talked by Zoom, from his car, while he kept an eye on whatever was going on outside Gaijin, whose creation was inspired, in part, by his wife’s love of okonomiyaki, cultivated while she was studying Japanese as a student near Osaka, which is where okonomiyaki originated. The name Gaijin means “outsider”—“it’s like “gringo,” Virant says— a reference to the fact that Virant is white and his partner Lance Richards is black. And that pancake? “You grate nagaimo, which is a mountain yam, into it, and there’s cabbage and some tempura flakes. That’s basically it. So it’s a bit like a latke, but with cabbage,” Virant said.
Gaijin opened right before the pandemic hit, and before so many of us began going nuts trying to become pilgrim-like in our approach to cooking—and hoarding. It all made me want to talk to Virant about his approach to preserving food. (He refers to sourdough as “preserved bread, basically.”) He walks a walk that a lot of us have started to think about just a little bit more.
The Department of Salad is a reader-supported exploration and celebration of salad in all its many forms, with recipes. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support the DOS and the boys in the lab is to take out a paid subscription.
But most people still don’t have what Virant has— which is a room full of preserved foods, something I discovered after I ate at Vie restaurant when he opened it back in 2004. I was struck back then by the unabashed presence of preserved food in his dishes. Since I was writing about food for the Chicago Tribune, I later invited myself into his pickle and preserves room, a small, mostly dark, but nonetheless glorious place filled with jars of many sizes, all reflecting the vivid hues and flavors of every growing season.
Virant apprenticed at New York’s great, much lauded, but now defunct March restaurant, under chef Wayne Nish, and then with Charlie Trotter in Chicago, but his Western-European-inspired seasonal food at Vie clearly reflected his homey Midwestern roots. He grew up in a farming area outside St. Louis, where he learned pickling and preserving from his mother’s mother.
It’s a delicious and thrifty practice, of course, but it’s also an art that has always struck Virant as an overlooked way of helping the environment, rather than mindlessly plowing through our food supplies.
“And it’s a great way if you’re a farmer too,” he added. “Because they say 30 to 40% of what farmers grow—they don’t sell. What do they do with it? Often it goes into the compost bin. There is an opportunity there for preservation, even if it’s freezing. To not have any waste. To sell everything you grow.”
Despite all this hands-on training, he traces his first real preservation inspiration to his early days after culinary school, when he lived in New York. “I got exposed to foods from Asia that I’d never had. I mean, I don’t think I had Chinese food until I was probably 15 or 16. But going to a Korean restaurant and having all of these different fermented foods and relishes—that’s when I fell in love with what acid does to food. That was a huge driving force behind all the preservation, all the preserving,” he said.
“And all of these things we’re talking about—not just pickles but jams, preserves, fermented things. They all provide acid,” he reminded me.
I got excited about all this acid. I was having an acid trip. I suggested Virant hand over an all-pickle salad recipe. (I really love pickles, but this is not a salad. It’s a pickle tray.)
I was met with silence.
And then he said, kindly: “Well, no. I love the idea of that. But I think you want to have something. . . . You want to have something with it. It’s easy to do—combine pickles with fall squashes and other fall vegetables. They’re not as bland as summer squashes. But they need something. They need caramelization, and some acid.”
Which might sound like a total no-brainer to many of you, but sometimes you just need to be reminded of such things very explicitly—that you can’t just throw a bunch of stuff you love together. Attention must be paid to the balancing act a cook needs to perform in order to produce delicious food.
Which is exactly what we’re going to do with the salad I’m sharing with you today, a combination of roasted winter vegetables, including carrot, with pickled carrot. And don’t worry: I’ve converted Virant’s delicious pickled carrots into a refrigerator pickle, which is really fun to make. Plus, they’re so delicious you’ll eat them immediately. Until I become a real pickler, refrigerator pickles will be my method.
So, in this salad, along with roasted parsnips and celery root and the like, you have carrots two ways—plus you use the juice from the pickles to make the dressing. I tell you it is just REVELATORY, and it opened my mind to all the other ways I can use sparky pickled foods to brighten up the roasted vegetables we all automatically begin to gorge on once the earth plunges us into dark cold weather.
And in a few days, for the midweek crowd, we’ll do a version of the salad Virant mentioned when I was letting him go, finally, to get back to his restaurants. It uses a pickled version of one of my favorite vegetables entirely in place of the fresh version, for a delicious winter-salady dish.
And with these dishes, please know that my annexation of both pickles and warm roasted vegetables as salad has officially begun.
*RECIPE: Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Pickled Carrots, Aged Cheddar, and Apples, adapted from Chicago chef Paul Virant
Serves 6 or so
3 tablespoons of a grapeseed oil (I used canola; chefs love grapeseed as their neutral oil)
1 celery root, peeled and diced into small cubes
2 parsnips, peeled and sliced into an oblique cut (half or quarter them first if they are enormous)
1 medium purple-top turnip, diced into small cubes, or 3 white salad turnips, quartered
1 carrot, peeled and sliced into an oblique cut
2 sprigs rosemary
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ sweet onion (such as candy or Vidalia), sliced
1 cup thinly sliced pickled carrots (recipe below)
½ cup pickling liquid from pickled carrots
1 apple (preferably Honeycrisp), cored and sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or parsley (I used dill and LOVED it)
1 block aged cheddar cheese, for shaving
Preheat oven to 400°F (204°C)
Place one large baking sheet in the oven. Pour the oil on the baking sheet and return to the oven for 1 minute or until the oil is very hot.
Carefully stir the celery root in the oil in the pan, return the baking sheet to the oven, and roast 3 minutes.
Stir in the parsnips, turnip, carrot, and rosemary; season with a few pinches of salt and pepper; roast for another five minutes.
Scatter the onions on top and continue to roast, stirring periodically until all the vegetables are cooked through and well browned, about 25 minutes.
Transfer the warm vegetables to a large serving bowl and remove the rosemary sprigs. Stir in the pickled carrots and ¼ cup of the pickling juice (I used a strainer to catch the seeds). Mix in the apples just to warm through, and then taste for seasoning, adjusting with more salt, pepper, or pickle juice, until the vegetables are well seasoned and mildly tangy. Mix in the dill. With a vegetable peeler, shave curls of cheddar all over before serving.
RECIPE: Chef Paul Virant’s Pickled Carrots, adapted for the fridge
NOTE: Virant’s recipe calls for 12 cups or 3 pounds of carrots; I made about a third of that, in one large jar. I had extra brine, which I’m going to re-use.
4 cups water
2 cups white vinegar (Virant uses champagne vinegar)
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Baby carrots (not the tiny type that are in the bag at the grocer; if you can’t find baby carrots use small ones and slice them lengthwise and/or quarter them to get a nice slender pickle about 4 inches long)
In a pot, bring the water, vinegar, sugar, and salt to a boil. Keep hot. In a dry sauté pan over medium heat, toast the coriander, fennel seeds, black peppercorns, and red pepper flakes.
In each clean jar (I only used one), place 2 teaspoons of the spices (Virant uses one per jar; I loved the way mine turned out; spicy!)
Meanwhile, in a pot of boiling salted water, blanch the carrots for two minutes. Drain and pack into the jar(s)
Transfer enough hot brine to the jars to cover the pickles. Let the jar cool completely on the counter. Cover and refrigerate. These will be good for over a month, but who are we kidding? They will disappear like potato chips.
THAT’S IT. WE’RE DONE HERE. Midweek, our paid subscribers will receive their usual salady prizes—including, I’m stunned to say, news of a bottled dressing we really like a LOT. If you feel like sharing the Department of Salad with friends or family who deserve it, you may do so by using the buttons below. Thanks for reading; see you soon.