If you’re looking to punch up your plate, reach for a relish. We’re not talking limp bits of oversweet pickles from a jar, but rather the zippy, tangy, pungent and otherwise palate-rocking flavors of freshly made, bold, ethnic relishes such as Korean kimchee, Indian chutney and German sauerkraut.
By applying California flair to traditional recipes, Bay Area chefs like Preeti Mistry of Oakland’s Juhu Beach Club and food purveyors like Kathryn Lukas of Santa Cruz’s Farmhouse Culture are leading the charge in redefining time-honored traditions of pickling fruit and vegetables into bright side dishes, meat toppers and straight-from-the-jar snacks.
You don’t need a lab coat or a culinary degree to master these fermented goodies. Usually, all it takes is fresh produce, salt or sugar, vinegar – and time for the magical, good-for-you bacteria to do their thing.
San Francisco cookbook author and instructor Karen Solomon knows. The jam maker and canning expert has honed her pickle power through years of traveling to Asia and eating her way through San Francisco’s ethnic eateries, including Dennis Lee’s Namu Gaji, home of the kimchee taco and an early adopter of what has become a hipster restaurant must: the appetizer pickle plate.
Lee and Solomon both believe kimchee and all things pickled are gaining appreciation among Americans because fermented foods have been missing from our diets for so long. From a culinary perspective, Lee says that chefs are always seeking new flavors and techniques, so the pungency and lively flavors really appeal.
“Even though it’s the same product by name, it’s actually something very personal from chef to chef,” said Lee, who pickles everything from beef tongue to pork skins. “I like making dishes with items that people don’t normally try.”
To Solomon, the pickle is paramount for a good meal for many reasons. Not only are many pickled foods deceptively easy to make, but they are flavor and texture balancers. “They’re delicious,” she says. “There’s nothing not to like about bright, savory, deep, unctuous flavors that add salt and contrast richness, especially meat. And Americans love meat.”
In her new book, “Asian Pickles: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Cured and Fermented Preserves” (Ten Speed Press, $19.99, 200 pages), Solomon inspires readers to look beyond basic brines and kosher dills. The DIY guide includes 75 authentic recipes from five regions – Japan, Korea, China, India and Southeast Asia – along with foolproof techniques, resources for hard-to-find ingredients and ideas for using pickles in cooking.
In the Korea chapter, jampacked with kimchee and banchan, she pays homage to classic daikon kimchee with her own seasonal creation, Summer Radish Kimchi, which celebrates the season’s fiery pink salad variety, greens and roots attached. “That’s one of my favorite things about pickles,” she said. “Nothing is wasted.”
In the Southeast Asia section, she includes Atchara, the quintessential Philippines pickle made with green papaya, jalapeño chiles and white vinegar and adds a Thai Pickled Cabbage that cures in lime juice.
“Thailand doesn’t have its own signature cabbage pickle, but I personally love the flavor profile of fish sauce, garlic, ginger and chile, so I created this one,” she said.
In Korea, however, pickled Napa cabbage is a force. It is almost unheard of to eat a meal without kimchee’s crunch and the zestiness of spicy fermented chile paste. Lee makes kimchee based on his mother’s recipe but sources ingredients, including tomatoes and green onions, from the restaurant’s farm in Sunol. To ensure complexity, he adds a few steps in the hand-mixed, two-day process.
“We go through a laborious process of pressing and draining our cabbage to yield more lively flavor and crunch,” Lee said. A staffer is assigned to stir the kimchee every few days. “It is not common practice, but it helps us keep the fermentation and seasoning even.”
At Juhu Beach Club, chef-owner Mistry also is refining her favorite childhood chutneys with a bit of California playfulness, from sour rhubarb to Granny Smith apple riffs on the classic green mango pickle.
“Unripened mango pickle is salty, sour and bitter, but with the Granny Smith apple, you get just a little bit more residual sugar, so it’s balanced,” Mistry said. Equally balanced is Mistry’s sweet and sour Peach Chutney: Simply sizzle cumin and nigella seeds over medium heat before adding diced peaches and vinegar. It is ready in 10 minutes and delicious atop a grilled pork chop or alongside zucchini fritters.
This month, the “Top Chef” alum’s menu will add a pickle and papadum plate featuring pickled summer squash and yellow wax beans.
“Being able to use seasonal, local ingredients makes it so much more exciting,” Mistry said.
Farmhouse Culture founder Kathryn Lukas can relate. Every ingredient that goes into her line of raw organic sauerkraut, which is available at Whole Foods, comes from within 20 miles of the company’s Santa Cruz facility. Lukas fell in love with kraut in the late 1990s, while working as a chef in Stuttgart, Germany.
“When I tasted it fresh from a farmer’s barrel, it was tart, crunchy and also sweet – and unlike anything I’d ever tasted,” she said. “What’s so cool about sauerkraut is that the real stuff actually tastes better than the fake stuff that’s been sitting on the grocery shelves.”
Makes about 2 cups
1 tablespoon neutral oil, like rice bran oil
1 teaspoon onion seeds (or nigella)
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
½ teaspoon turmeric
4 to 6 peaches, peeled and diced (about 1 quart)
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon red chile powder
Salt to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons sugar (optional)
Heat oil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Once oil is hot, but not smoking, add onion seeds and cumin seeds. Fry for a minute. Do not let seeds burn.
Add minced ginger and turmeric; reduce heat to medium high. Cook, stirring continuously, for about 3 minutes.
Add peaches, vinegar and chile powder; use liquid to scrape any bits of ginger or spices that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and taste. All fruit has different sugar levels. If you need to bolster the sweetness, add sugar. Simmer about 10 minutes on low heat. Peaches should be slightly soft but hold their shape.
– Preeti Mistry, Juhu Beach Club
Onion and Cilantro Chutney
Makes about 2 cups
6 ounces red onion
½ cup cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
Bring a small pot of water to a boil while you slice the onion into ¼-inch thick strips.
Blanch the onion by boiling it for 20 seconds. Immediately drain and run under cold water, tossing with your hands to cool it down and stop the cooking. Drain thoroughly and transfer to a small bowl. Add the cilantro, salt and lime juice.
In a small skillet over medium heat, combine the oil with the cumin; cook, stirring constantly, until mixture turns medium brown and becomes fragrant, about 3 minutes. Let cool slightly, then scrape the oil and cumin into the bowl.
Toss completely and serve immediately. Cover and refrigerate any unused portion for up to 3 days.
– Karen Solomon, “Asian Pickles” (Ten Speed Press, $19.99, 208 pages)
Summer Radish Kimchee
Makes about 2 cups
2 large bunches of salad radishes, greens and roots attached
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup gochujang (a fermented red chile paste), homemade or store-bought
Wash the radishes well, particularly the greens. Slice each radish in half lengthwise, leaving some of the greens attached to each half. In a large bowl, toss the radishes with the salt, really rubbing it into the radish bulbs and the greens. Cover with a drop lid or a plate and place a 1½ -pound weight on top; let sit for 1 hour.
Rinse the radishes well under running water. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze the greens with all your might, getting out all of the moisture possible. Return the radishes to the bowl and, using your hands, massage in the garlic and gochujang evenly. Press down firmly on the radishes to make them compact. Place a layer of plastic wrap directly, but loosely, on top of the pickle, leaving room for air to come in along the sides. Replace the drop lid or plate and weight. Cover bowl loosely with a kitchen towel to allow air in, and keep out insects and debris. Let the pickle sit in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 days.
Toss the pickle to coat with the liquid. Pack it into a 1-pint jar. Your pickle is ready to eat. Refrigerated, it will keep for 3 months.
– Karen Solomon, “Asian Pickles”