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Pickles: Chefs’ versatile meal accessories |

Pickles: Chefs’ versatile meal accessories

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From left, Pickled Turnips, Bread ‘N’ Butta pickles and Asian Box Pickled Vegetables, photographed in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Wednesday, June 26, 2013. (Mark DuFrene/Bay Area News Group)

When Grace Nguyen was a kid, her family ate do chua with every meal. Mustard greens, cucumbers, carrots, bamboo and eggplant were dropped into her grandmother’s big pot, and they emerged as savory, refreshing complements to every dish.

It wasn’t until years later that Nguyen connected do chua, the Vietnamese word for sour, with its American translation: pickle.

Today, Nguyen, the executive chef at Asian Box in Palo Alto, Calif., is among the growing number of chefs who use house-made pickles and preserves to brighten their dishes and add texture, flavor contrast and even a touch of nostalgia. And, like generations of cooks before them, they’ve discovered that once you have pickled vegetables in the walk-in or preserves on the shelf, the possibilities are endless.

“They’re like jewelry,” says Amy Murray, executive chef at Revival Bar+Kitchen in Berkeley, Calif. “They give you a way to accessorize.”

She and her crew pay homage to life on the prairie with accessories, er, preserves, that add sparkle to the menu. Cubed and pickled rhubarb adds a zingy touch of acidity to the duck confit Murray serves on flatbread with roasted beets and pecorino cheese. Later in the summer, Murray will roast and can San Marzano tomatoes for pasta dishes and sugo, a stew made from leftover meat trimmings, onion, garlic and carrots.

And then there are Revival’s Bread ‘n’ Butta pickles. Sliced thin and served with the restaurant’s signature burger and appetizer platters of house-cured meats, Murray’s pickles are quick and easy; no canning equipment is needed. She keeps them in the walk-in refrigerator, and they go fast. Brown sugar and turmeric, mustard seed and celery seed make it a sweet pickle, but Murray ups the ante with toasted coriander, nigella seed and a surprising touch of whole allspice and clove.

Of course, just like jewelry, there’s no accounting for taste.

Nguyen used to make daikon and carrot quick pickles to serve with her boxes of rice, noodles, meats and an array of homemade sauces. But when some customers complained about the strong smell emanating from the daikon, Nguyen conceded and stopped making them.

“When daikon hits vinegar, it releases an odor,” Nguyen says. “Since we are such a small restaurant, people would walk through the door and say, ‘Hey, what’s that smell?’ “

Then other customers started crying foul: They wanted their daikon back, and even scolded counter staff, saying it was the best part of the meal. Continued…

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