Preserving creativity

Figure a million or so cookbooks have been written on home food preservation since self-sealing Mason jars debuted 150 years ago. Few contain recipes as creative as those packed into chef Paul Virant's new book, "The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking With Pickles, Preserves and Aigre-Doux" (Ten Speed Press, $29.99).

Few have recipes such as smoked apple butter and beer jam, pickled fennel and cherry-bomb peppers or sauerkraut made with Brussels sprouts or turnips. These are not your granny's preserves.

But those are just some of the recipes in Virant's book and part of the volume's first half, which is dedicated to preserving methods, from marmalades and salted produce to the sweet-sour French aigre-doux and the piquant condiment from Italy called mostarda.

In the book's second half, Virant shows how cooks can incorporate preserves into dishes and cocktails: Pickled and fresh fennel transform panzanella salad, beer jam subs for vermouth in a Manhattan. Such creativity shows up often on menus at Virant's Michelin-honored Chicago restaurants, Vie in Western Springs and Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park.

"When you look through the book and see recipes for the preserved items and the menus — I don't know another chef that incorporates these so much into their food," says Virant, during a chat at Vie, where the preserving is done and jars of jewel-toned preserves are stored.

"I think of this as a signature style of food that really embraces the Midwest and adds an element of surprise," he says.

And Virant is a fine coach for cooks accustomed to packing strawberry freezer jam into upping their game and inspiring those interested in keeping local flavors on their table year-round.

"It's almost a textbook for any professional cook or chef who maybe hasn't done any of this stuff," he says, of the book written with Kate Leahy. "It's also a good starting point for one who wants to get into canning."

Recipes may appear fanciful, but Virant and his book are serious about preservation methods, detailing water-bath processing, equipment and why it's important "not to play around with quantity or variety of vinegar, alcohol, or lemon juice" which could compromise a product's pH level (a measure of its acidity). He writes: "The combination of heat, acidity and an airtight seal is crucial to the safety of the contents in the jar."

You could trace Virant's preserving passion to Chesterfield, Mo., and his grandmothers, Rita and Mildred, who "did some canning and preserving. It's nothing like the kind of stuff that I do."

But he's quick to add that there were other influences, as well, from restaurants where he has worked: At the now-shuttered March Restaurant in New York, chef Wayne Nish introduced him to Asia's cuisines, "which all have an acidic component or some sort of fermented item or pickled item or relish that goes along with all the savory food."

There were Charlie Trotter, Ambria and Everest where, chef Jean Joho used mostardas on his menu. And Blackbird, where chef PauI Kahan's local sourcing efforts "kind of sealed the deal for me that I wanted to stay true to the Midwest as much as I could."

"A bunch of influences both indirectly and directly shape you as a person. So for me, why we ostensibly can at both restaurants and use that stuff like we do, is a combination of family, where I'm from."

With the season's onionlike ramps due soon (the chef fell in love with them at college in West Virginia and now pickles them to use in sauces and martinis), Virant and his team are gearing up for the pickling season.

But he had time for a few questions about his passion for preserving:

Question: So what's the best part about preserving?

Answer: Anyone who's ever gotten into making breads, making beer, making wine — crafts that take some time — all love the moment when they open up that first bottle of beer that they made. It's kind of the same thing. ... You've done all this asparagus, it's January, you have friends over, you're having bloody marys. This is something you made, you crafted. That's an accomplishment. It's rewarding.

Q: Things to remember?

A: Keep everything hot or everything warm. Have jars tempered (heated) so when you put them in the water bath it's not shattering. ... Have the right equipment. Make sure you have a big enough pot and canning tongs are key.

Q: Why do you use Champagne vinegar?

A: It's sharp enough, but not too sharp. It has kind of an inherent sweetness that works.

Q: Any pickling mistakes?

A: One spring, we got spring garlic and were still getting nice apples from Michigan. We did this green-garlic and apple aigre-doux. It just didn't work.

Q: Best part of the canning process?

A: When you hear the seal when it's coming out of the water — that little pop that it's sealed, the indentation pushes out with the pressure and vacuum — and everything is cleaned up and you're admiring your work.

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