Food Matters: Put Up or Shut Up
3-2-1 Quick Pickles
Chefs at The Little Nell use this easy-to-remember method to turn any fresh produce into a pickled condiment in about 24 hours. Let vegetables sit after bringing to a boil.
3 parts water
2 parts vinegar
1 part sugar
Peaches from Paonia. Sweet peppers from Emma. Tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, ramps, mushrooms and strawberries, oh, my! Colorado produce is abundant on Aspen menus, even now, in the dead of winter. And it’s all thanks to pickling and preserving.
“There’s not much (fresh produce) we can get this time of year,” admits The Little Nell executive chef Matt Zubrod. So his staff turns to canning, pickling, fermenting and otherwise preserving ingredients in summer and fall — when area farms explode with harvest — to use on menus year-round.
Zubrod leads a tour from the element 47 dining room into the brightly lit, labyrinthine kitchen and heaves open the insulated door of a walk-in refrigerator. Inside the chilly compartment is a carefully stacked jigsaw of vacuum-sealed bags containing a rainbow of puréed and pickled fruits and vegetables.
“This is our stash!” says Zubrod, chuckling. “We make all our own jams in house. We bought about 500 pounds of peaches, 400 pounds of cherries. Right now we’re barely halfway through it, and we had a busy holiday. In March I might run out. Then I’ll make a spring (jam).”
He concedes that displaying these fruit preserves in polished glass jars in the restaurant would be “sexy … but it’s not practical; we don’t have that much space.” (He did, however, commission a company to bottle a limited run of Paonia peach jam in single-serve glass jars for use as client gifts. “I want to sell jams, our own hot sauce, onion soup mix,” he adds, “but we haven’t found the right outfit for that yet.”)
Here in the cold air, bags of pickled fare are stacked high, too: strawberries for a foie gras starter, cherries for a duck entrée, corn for king crab. “These are all green tomatoes (that go) on the chicken dish. Pickled fresnos with the miso (soup), pickled red onions on the wagyu sandwich. This is all stuff from the Little Nell farm in Emma.”
Zubrod and crew also whipped together tomatillo salsa for e47’s famed duck confit chilaquiles on the brunch menu; preserved ramps for use on strozzapretti (“priest-choker” pasta), which changes seasonally; and put away 400 pounds of pickling cucumbers, today served as a single spear alongside a wagyu or beet-barley burger. (Year-round, the Nell chefs use an easy method for quick pickling; see sidebar, opposite page.)
“We went to town because of the price,” Zubrod says, alluding to the lower cost of fresh, local produce at the tail end of the growing season, when specimens begin to wilt. Coincidentally, the slow autumn offseason is prime time for staff to put in work.
“You can buy large quantities of things when you have the bodies here to go through the processing,” says Nell chef de cuisine Patrick Dunn.
Zubrod concurs; there’s much chef downtime each fall. “We fermented potatoes and made the potato flatbread for our tartare for a while,” Zubrod says. “Currently there are fermented turnips on a dish. It’s a team effort.”
Such items also add texture. Beet ravioli get a tangy crunch thanks to pickled Asian pears; briny sweet peppers are scattered atop charred octopus. Thirty cases of local tomatoes were reduced down to savory confiture to accompany e47’s house-made burrata. The restaurant’s winter tasting menu — launched last Friday — will showcase preserved ingredients on a whim.
“It’s a challenge that we push further and further,” Dunn says. “Last year the goal was one dish. This year, it’s close to 40 percent of the menu.”
Concerning the current chicken dish, Dunn estimates that the majority of its supporting cast is pickled or preserved, charred local eggplant and pickled okra included.
“A bigger mission when you’re cooking is to showcase time and place, right?” he continues. “The unfortunate thing is that they have the most amount of produce available when no one’s here. And when people are here, there’s nothing. You can either fly stuff in from Mexico or take on the challenge on as a chef to spend months forecasting, pickling and preserving in the fall to support your local farming community.”
At 40-seat Bosq on the Mill Street mall, chef C. Barclay Dodge says it’s less about preserving fall harvest — his kitchen is comically small with scant pantry space —and more about enhancing dishes with that “fermentation flavor.”
He points to a shelf overhead. It’s lined with large Mason jars, each stuffed with wilting vegetables in pale green and yellow tones. Dodge recently purchased 20 pounds of celery root through Farm Runners (along with other winter produce still in limited production: sunchokes, parsnips, acorn squash). Currently this celery root is fermenting in salt for use in a dish of Ōra King salmon (formerly sturgeon) with winter roots and lettuce hearts tossed in buttermilk dressing. Fermented celery root also enhanced braised short-rib tacos with chile negro, kumquats, and buttermilk emulsion on black tortillas.
“For us it’s about new flavors, that funky depth yet still showing the flavor of the vegetable itself,” Dodge says. “We started in the fall. We’re having a hard time keeping up with it, which is why some of these are so young. We just put up the celery root on Dec. 5; radicchio on Jan. 8.”
Dodge rarely adds any ingredients aside from necessary salt (no garlic or spices), though he did sprinkle turmeric into one batch of radicchio “just to see what the color would be.”
He extracts a briny radicchio shard from one jar and hands it to me. It tastes like an intensified, extra-bitter version of itself. “It’s brand-new so it’s gonna change a lot,” Dodge says. “It’s kind of on the sauerkrauty side because of what it is.”
Bosq’s ever-changing menu, inspired by travels around the world, also showcases various vinegar-pickled accouterments: fresno peppers, Mexican escabeche red onion, shiitake mushrooms, cucumbers infused with Vietnamese nuances.
“We go through a lot of fresnos here,” Dodge says. “We don’t use the seeds, so we save them and made our own fermented chile sauce, like sambal.”
The only catch to this homespun chef hobby: fermented foods have a life of their own. Dodge pulls a jar of pickled crosnes — tiny beige tubers that grow on the roots of wild plants and look eerily similar to soil-burrowing bugs.
“This batch took a left turn on us,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Wanna taste this? It’s intense. It’s got this cheesy flavor going on. I don’t know what happened in the fermentation process, but it definitely changed. They’re interesting … but weird.”
Breaking down a fish nearby, sous chef Rachel Koppelman suggests that the crosnes were left to sit a tad too long.
Dodge, however, notes that the jar is labeled 12/8, just over a month ago. He shrugs, deciding to wait longer in case flavors improve. After all, it’s only January, and he’s got time.
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.